An exclusive interview with Potters’ star THIBAUD VERLINDEN
We chat to ex-SKY Sports and Talksport broadcaster NATALIE SAWYER about her love for Brentford
Rich’s Pickings: Jamo looks at football and what he’s missing about football and The Potters
Every step along the way: Our diary of the season – March/April 2020
100%ers: We look Justin Whittle’s four years at Stoke
The joy of six: Dave Proudlove’s feature on Potters’ games where we have notched half a dozen goals
Hac to the future: A stunning look at how the Hacienda influenced the life of Stokie and house DJ-ing legend Tom Wainwright
12th Man Syndrome: Are us Stokies doing enough in the stands? Ronan McGovern wants us to bring the noise again.
Community Spirits: Stokie James Knowles has recently opened a pub. It’s a beaut.
Harry the hero: John Leonard’s poignant tribute to the late Harry Gregg.
No man’s land: A Stokie in the south west Midlands
Crafty: The Beerdman looks at how the current situation is affecting the world of ale
Bohemian Rhapsody: Stokie Jonathan Davies talks about being a professional football coach in Prague.
Martinmas: Penny Stanley looks at Stoke fixtures played on a certain date.
F.O.M.O: Or Fear Of Missing Out. Tim Gallimore on the Stoke games he wishes he’d been too and the ones he’s delighted he actually did go to.
Writers Block 19: Dave Gould looks at Stoke home games from his vantage point in the back right side of the Boothen
Trainer Spotter: We talk to the lovely folk at Walsh trainers.
A month in time: Orfy harks back to April 2003. One of the most important months in modern Stoke City history.
Cradle…..: Our featured Stokie is the lovely David Cowlishaw.
Plus loads more…….
It’s a grey Thursday in April, and I’m sat in the foyer of Holiday Inn, by junction 15 of the M6.
It’s late morning, and the hotel reception and café is full of business types running around: all contrasting-coloured pointed shoes and slicked back hair. They don’t stop to see they’re in the presence of true greatness. They don’t see that the greatest goalkeeper to ever walk this planet has just entered.
Gordon Banks OBE is a true great, a true legend. In an age where these terms are thrown around like confetti, where this man is concerned – believe the hype.
I count myself blessed to have spent around ninety minutes with the great man, who looked in great nick and was on great form……
Tell us a bit about yourself growing up Gordon. What kind of kid were you?
I didn’t like school. I wasn’t brilliant at school at all. I just looked forward to playtime and kicking a ball about to be honest. I left school at 15, and my first job was a local coal round. I was the youngest of four sons and we all had to get a job as soon we left school in those days.
The wagon would come to the sidings full of coal, and we’d be in a lorry and we’d shovel the coal into a bag on the wagon. The bags would be stacked on the lorry and we’d take them to houses and put the bags into house cellars. We got paid next to nothing but we had to bring money into our house.
So how did you got spotted?
I played for my school team and for the Sheffield boys team. My brother, David, got me a job on his building site as an apprentice bricklayer. I was digging ditches, mixing concrete…..crikey!!!!!!
Then, when I was about 17 – I work until Saturday lunchtime to get some overtime. I’d then run home, get washed and changed, and get the bus or tram into town. I’m a Sheffield lad, and used to go watch United and Wednesday when they were at home. It didn’t matter which one, I just loved the sound of the crowd, and all the sights, sounds and smells of a game.
This particular Saturday I missed the bus, and so went to watch my local team on the rec. I was leaning on the fence and one bloke came over to me and said to me “Didn’t you used to play in goal as our goalie has not turned up?”.
So, I rushed home, got my boots and stuff……after game they asked me to play regularly for them.
Walking off the pitch one game, a bloke came over to me and said he was from Chesterfield FC, and they likes me to play for their youth team until the end of season and assess me then. So I did that, and they signed me on as a semi-professional at the end of the season. I was still work on building sites but I trained Tuesday and Thursday nights. It was all so different in those days…….there were only two televisions in our street as folk couldn’t afford them, so kids were all out playing football as there was nothing else to do back then. You rarely see that nowadays.
Why were you a goalkeeper?
Well, when we played five a side no one wanted to be a goalkeeper. So, we took it in turns. I went in one day, and I’m diving about and making saves, and I’m thinking “This is quite exciting”, so I started playing in goal a little bit more.
Ever think you’d have the career you had when at Chesterfield?
Crikey, oh no, no. I played six games at Chesterfield, which I enjoyed, but I never thought I’d have the career I did. I did my national service when I was 18 and afterwards they signed me on as a professional.
You moved to Leicester and were superb for them – then you, you moved to us. Tell us about the transfer……
I’d been playing really well, and despite losing a few times at Wembley, I felt I was at the top of my game. A very young Peter Shilton was coming through the ranks and was highly rated, quite rightly, by them. There weren’t goalkeeping coacjhs back then and so I’d take quite a bit of the coaching duties. Peter looked a really good goalkeeper, no question about that, but stated he wanted first team football. At first, I took no notice, as he was only young and starting his career. But I was playing for England, as well as in a number of finals – including the World Cup Final, and it was a real jolt out the blue when Leicester’s manager at the time came over to me one day and said “Gordon, what would you think about leaving?”.
It was then that I knew – I had to leave. I said “if that’s all you think about me, then yes, I’ll go”.
You had plenty of interest from other clubs – why choose Stoke?
I couldn’t have picked a better club. I was delighted to come to Stoke. Waddo was so charismatic – he really sold the club to me. I knew the fans were great from playing in front of them, but everyone at the club was great, from directors, to fans, to the manager…….different class.
Waddo had a great knack of putting experienced players with younger players. He’d give kids a chance, but he also brought in some great experienced players, too. We had a great blend of youth and experience, and I could see it was a club going places.
What was it like having the (in)famous homegrown back four in front of you? Bloor, Smith, Pejic, Marsh: What a defence that was! They all did their jobs superbly. Hopefully, if you ask them, they will tell you I helped them to play well, too. Modern goalkeepers don’t seem to communicate with their back four. Jack Butland does it, but I’d always be shouting at the lads in front of me if players were unmarked or to make them more aware.
The social side of playing at Stoke……..you know have ex-players meeting on a weekly basis. It’s brilliant to see….
Yeah, you had the likes of my great mate George Eastham living in Sneyd Green (yes, behind The Sneyd Arms, near us – ed) no disrespect to the area, as I love it, but can you imagine Premier League players doing that now! I love the walks, lunches and meet ups that ex-Stoke players have every week. It kind of sums up the football club and the area – amazingly friendly, and loyal.
We loved socialising together. We played and trained hard, but we loved life. Is there another club in this country that does this? I don’t know, but I do know that our friendship and camaraderie is lovely. It would be nice to think the players of this age would be doing the same in twenty years’ time, but I doubt it.
Would you swap your memories for the money around in the Premier League as a player in 2017?
No, not a chance. Never. Absolutely no way. It’s a different game now anyway, and one I don’t like anywhere near as much as when I played.
And how about being a goalkeeper in 2017? No way, ha ha! Not with how much those balls swerve!
So, would you have made the save from Pele with a modern ball, Gordon? Oh, and the answer is ‘yes’ by the way……
Ha, ha. I’d do my best! You’ve seen Asmir Begovic score with those new footballs – crikey, I struggled to get those old heavy balls out of my own ar!
Who was your best mate at Stoke…..
George Eastham. Yeah, we’re big mates, still are…..he’s now living in Cape Town.
Your finest saves…….everyone knows about the save from Pele’s header. What are your choices?
Obviously, everyone talks about the Pele save, but there’s two that stick out. The first one is the save after Mickey Bernard’s backpass in the League Cup Final– as it helped us win the cup, that makes it a really special one. And then there’s the one from Geoff Hurst’s penalty in the semi final…….
Geoff says that my save from his penalty was better than the save off Pele. I just remember his run up……..it was massive. He rarely missed penalties, he was a great striker of a ball. He started from outside the area and when he started his run up, I knew he was going to put it to my right if anything as from his body position I knew he couldn’t rotate and put it to my left. He just absolutely walloped it, just right of centre. I looked up, and I’d pushed it over the bar. Then all I knew I was screaming at our players to stop jumping on me and start marking their players for the corner! I was pushing them off me!
Which leads us nicely to the club’s finest ever day: did it fly by or do you remember lots about it?
I remember most of it. I’d played at Wembley lots of times before and in cup finals. But I knew how important the day was – the chance to help Stoke City win their first ever trophy. So, I was having a joke on the bus and trying to get our players to relax.
It was a huge thrill and honour for me: walking down that tunnel with those players, and seeing and hearing those Stoke fans…..an unbelievable feeling. We were massively the underdogs, with Chelsea being the firm favourites. It was such a thrill. What a day it was!
What did you do after the game? I remember on the Thursday night before the final we went to see Trent and Hatch – the players had a few beers that night, too!
We had a ‘do’ at the hotel in London with our wives there after winning the cup. It was The Russell Hotel, I think. The menu had things like “Soup of Bloor” and the like on. All the courses were named after the players. At least we had a ‘do’ that night – the FA put nothing on for us after we won the World Cup! Can you believe that?
Talking about England – how big a thrill was it to play for your country? The ultimate accolade. Every
Everyone talks about 1966, but did we have a better team in 1970? Possibly, but history states we won it in 1966, so it’s hard to argue that wasn’t our greatest ever team. But we had two great teams back then. Superb players, and we played in some amazing matches. It’s often said by Brazilian players that the day they beat us 1-0 was the day they won the trophy, not the final.
And what about the heartbreak of the West Germany game?
It was amazing. We all ate the same food, drank the same drinks, at the same time, together, every day. And yet I was the one who was violently sick and had absolutely terrible diarrhoea. I couldn’t do anything – the sickness came straight out of me.
There was no way I could have played. No chance at all. I do wonder why it was just me who was that violently sick. I couldn’t believe we’d lost when I was told.
Going back to Stoke, and 1972 (as we love to hear tales about it), and the open top bus………
It was obvious just what winning a trophy meant to Stoke fans that day. Absolutely thousands upon thousands of them lined the streets. I pray we get to see something similar soon. We had a great team then, and we deserved to win more trophies. We were robbed in those FA Cup Semi Finals against Arsenal……
My dad never ever forgot those games, Gordon….
Same here. One thing always rankled me……We never ever played injury time in those games. Yet on that semi final day the huge Hillsborough clock was nearly at ten to! Whilst in the other semi final we had that infamous linesman confusing an ice cream seller for a Stoke player. Twenty yards offside, their lad was!
How come they sold ice cream at football matches?
Ha, ha. They did back then. Programmes, ice creams, the board with Golden Goals…….
It seems to me that your talent and knowledge as the best goalkeeper of all time has been criminally underused by professional clubs and others….
Well, that’s not for me to say. I wanted to stay in the game and help out as much as possible, but that’s probably a question for other people, not me? I did bits and bobs, but I couldn’t seem to find work in the game. I still do the Pools Panel, so I still get to say Stoke will win a game!
Like Stoke 15 Arsenal 0, then? Ha, ha – yes, I’d absolutely love that!
So, come on then, the Pele save, I’ve been dying to relive this with you….
He was a great player, a truly great player. It was the way he headed it, a punched header, so precise. I never stood on my line much, and I was three yards off the line. The pitch was like concrete. The ball bounced all over the place, and I think this is what made it a harder save than it possibly would have been on a lush, grassy pitch.
We played at midday, over 100 degrees…..it was sweltering. Balls travelled like missiles when they were hit or headed. When he headed it, it was going to bounce a yard or so inside the post which was going to be hard, and also I needed anticipate how high it would bounce off the pitch. As said before, balls were bouncing far higher than they would over here on our pitches.
(Gordon mimics the save now – unbelievable stuff. Goosebumps everywhere) So, I got the top of my hand to it, and I honestly thought it was a goal, I really did. By now, my body was hitting the hard ground, and the momentum saw my head turn and I glimpsed that the ball had gone over the crossbar and behind the goal. I won’t tell you what I called myself – it did have the word ‘lucky’ in though, ha ha! Bobby Moore then came over and with a big smile on his face said something like “Banksy, try to get a hold of those, for Christ’s sake!”, ha, ha!!
Brazil were the hot favourites that year, but we played just as well as they did that day, created just as many chances as they did, but they grabbed the one goal of the game.
What were your main strengths as a goalie? My positioning was a major one. I only dived when I needed to. I watch some goalkeepers nowadays and they seem to dive for the sake of it, for the cameras.
Your thoughts on Jack Butland, Gordon?
Cracking goalkeeper, and it’s lovely that he said he’s in awe of me even though he’s too young to have ever seen me play. He’s a lovely lad with a great attitude, and he’ll go all the way, make no mistake about that. He’s got it all.
And keepers you rate nowadays in the UK? Jack Butland, without a shadow of a doubt. And one I really like is Kasper Schmeichel. He earns his teams points and I’m amazed another club hasn’t come in for him.
I’ve spoken to Jack about goalkeeping, but it’s not about technical stuff – just talking about keep training hard and keep being positive. Jack will come back from the injury well, I’m sure of that. He does the right things, he has a great attitude, he’s a lovely lad. He’ll be fine!
You have never left this area, like so many of the players that played for us in those great Stoke teams. Why?
We love the people. We love the place. Everything we need is here. My grandkids and great grandkids are big Stokies, and it’s simply a great area to live in. I’m so honoured to be Club President – I have a real pride in Stoke, and have never seen any reason to leave.
Oh no. To have a career like I’ve had, and the experiences I’ve had – no, no regrets.
What makes Stoke City FC so special? It’s obviously not cups, trophies, glory, or awards. It’s the same as what makes our city great – the people. As the second oldest club in the country we have a trophy cabinet that is hardly the envy of many. But pick an All Time World XI, and we’d probably have numbers 1 and 7 sewn up. That’s some going for a club of our size.
One of those players is (obviously) Gordon Banks.
Banks is a son of Sheffield. But he’s also an honorary Stokie, one of us. To see him using salt cellars and the like to discuss zonal marking was one of the most beautifully surreal moments of my life, as was greeting him by a sign in the hotel saying ‘The Gordon Banks Suite’.
He’s also a man who played 37 games in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for Fort Lauderdale Strikers five years after losing the sight in one eye. That he then helped his team win the league and was named NASL Goalkeeper of the Year shows just what the man is all about.
Gordon Banks is a gentleman and a legend. As we all know, he’s not been particularly well recently, and I’m immensely grateful that he gave up his time to speak to DUCK.
Gordon is backing United Against Dementia campaign (www.alzheimers.org.uk) launched by the Alzheimer’s Society, with three of his World Cup winning team mates now living with the condition. DUCK will be making a donation to this superb charity.
COPYRIGHT: DO NOT USE SOME OR ALL OF THIS INTERVIEW WITHOUT GAINING PERMISSION FIRST!
As one of those condemned kids left on that rail at the front of the Boothen during the late 1980’s, I did see George Berry play. But only a few memories are lodged securely at the back of my mind: the haircut, obviously; his stand-out commitment on those muddy pitches; the physical presence bursting out of that Cristal Tiles top; those shortest of shorts.
But the real legacy is that affectionate chant emerging from many a manly mouth – ‘Oohh Georgie Berry, Oooh Georgie Berry!’ Those miserable sods around us cursing Mick Mills, Dave Bamber, or life in general, even forced smiles for that one.
Nearly 30 years later, George Berry is a dream to interview. When he’s not making you laugh, he’s making you think. At other times, he leaves you marvelling at his love of the game which has defined his life.
Before all of that though, I tread carefully. It is his Friday night, after all.
“How long have you got George?”
“How long do you need?”
“Even half an hour would be great…”
“Fair enough, let’s get cracking then.”
Two hours later I leave the hotel car park, absolutely buzzing.
His enthusiasm is warming and his grounded honesty is more than just a romantic throwback – the man knows no other way. Unlike many supporters, but like many ex-pros, his memory of games/goals/scores is hazy. What do survive though are the bonds and the memories.
It’s not often you meet a current or player or manager whose sees the world just like we do. There is a long list of those chosen to sport our red and white stripes, but of those, this man’s passion for football, for the city of Stoke-on-Trent and for Stoke City Football Club is possibly unrivalled. He even lives in lofty Penkhull – the perfect vantage point from which to cast a lovingly watchful eye on the place he’s called home since 1982.
His is quite a story.
He can talk for England. In theory, he could have played for them. He was also eligible for West Germany and Jamaica. He did play five times for Wales. More importantly, he appeared 237 times for us, until his 1990 departure. Many of his 27 Stoke goals came from the penalty spot, whenever he had the chance to take a break from all things centre-half.
Half-way through the interview, Berry’s son, Marcus, arrives. He’s clearly a big Stokie – his jacket displays the club badge and he is soon pestering his old man about tickets for the next day’s tussle with Aston Villa at the Brit. Senior Berry can’t make it and this irritates him, but duty calls – he’ll be at Accrington Stanley (working for the PFA), where he’ll be overseeing the award of League Two Player of the Month.
Marcus is a chip of the old block in the humour stakes. He has also clearly studied his father’s career closely – Wolves matches from the early 1980’s have been devoured via VHS video tapes. Within minutes, he recalls a favourite childhood memory, following his dad’s 1990 testimonial at the Victoria Ground, against Port Vale. “I was in the executive box, with my mum and other members of the family. We saw him get subbed before he decided to jump into the Boothen End. He was mobbed! It was like a swarm of flies homing in on him and we were really worried. After the game, he eventually came to find us. He turned up in his full kit, wearing a bowler hat and Stoke scarf, whilst holding a can of Bass! He didn’t even like Bass!”
Surely a future epigraph, that?
ou were born in Rostrup, West Germany – tell us a bit about those early days…
My Dad was stationed over there, serving in the British army. I remember as a 3 or 4 year old attending kindergarten – I spoke a bit of German but not much. I understand more when others are speaking it. And let’s face it I struggle speaking English, never mind German!
And then came the move to Wales…
We moved to Mountain Ash in south Wales – near a typical mining community. At school, the new language issue took some getting used to. My Welsh mother is from a huge family – 1 of 13 brothers/ sisters/cousins, so I was looked after down there. There was also a sizable black community in Cardiff, which was new to me and did help in terms of settling in and finding my feet. I felt more in tune there. My dad was a massive West Indies cricket fan and all of the Welsh folk down there were big into rugby, so my future football interest would disappointed them – I think they just thought ‘oh – the poor lad!’
My own 2 brothers were athletic as well – they played sports to a decent standard at university.
Was playing for Wales a proud experience then?
Mike Smith (who also managed Hull I think) called me up first then Mike England took over. It was unbelievable for me. I was still a baby at 20, playing for Wolves. I received the letter – I was the first black player to be called up by Wales. It was all over the press.
My debut was against West Germany at Wrexham’s Racecourse ground – there were 30,000 there. The place was full and we got beat 2 nil. They were a great team – Karl-Heinz Rummenigge played, amongst others. We would lose 5-1 in the reverse game over there. These were Euro qualifiers – for the 1980 Championships.
You moved to Blackpool aged 8… good memories?
Hard times hit for dad and he said he would never work down the pit. Honestly – dad opened an atlas one day, his finger roamed around for a bit and then landed on Blackpool……..bang! So that was that! He was a master cabinet maker and French polisher – what he touched turned to gold in his workshop. Also, I was the only black child again, but by then it did feel isolating. There was bullying and you had to stand up for yourself.
Dad would see me crying at home after taking some stick and he would just tell me to toughen up – so I did. He was keen on boxing and the discipline that comes with it. I became ‘cock’ of the school and dealt with it that way. I could be a handful at school – I was quite bright and I wasn’t a bad lad but I could be hard work. I was a bit lairy and boisterous – not in the classroom as much because Dad wouldn’t stand for that. But outside of school, on the streets with mates…….I could be a lad.
How did you got into football?
Blackpool had their equivalent of the ‘Ladsandads’ we have in Stoke. It was all organised by a local policeman called Roy Parker- his own lad played. I played for Bispham Juniors and the whole scheme grew gradually with more and more teams over the years. The brother-in-law of Alun Evans (who was playing for Liverpool at the time) ran one of the under 10 teams and I was playing for the under 12’s then.
Evans popped down for a visit one Sunday morning and he was asked to check me out. He spotted me and said ‘he can play.’ He recommended me to Richie Barker, manager of Wolves. I think recommending me to Liverpool would have been more of a risk to his reputation!
Wolves were your first professional club – were there other options?
Dad was impressed with the way Wolves approached it all – they were straight down the line. Other clubs were interested and tried to charm us with promises of a colour television! He told them to take a hike!
Wolves invited me down for a trial and wanted to sign me straight away – they were a top team in those days. I was fairly good at tennis and boxing, having represented Lancashire but I obviously chose football. Dad wanted me to do A-levels and go on to university but it wasn’t for me. He was distraught when it came down to it. Aged 16, I took my last O-level at school on the Friday and then played for the Wolves 4th team the next day.
How tough was it for you when you first went to Wolves as an apprentice?
Oh God it as tough. I came from playing for Blackpool schools, which obviously meant every one of the team was the best from their own school, so I was walking around like this (George does a good impression of a tough-man walk at this point – think Liam Gallagher giving it the big one). But the move to a professional football club was unreal – I went from being a big fish in a little pond to being surrounded by big fish, just like me!
It was hard – no longer are you head and shoulders above your peers. Competition was fierce. There were three other good centre halves in my age group. As apprentices, we cleaned up: changing-rooms, terraces, boots….the lot. It was strict and a good grounding. It was all about looking up to the first teamers. You had to knock on the door if you needed to speak to one of them. You’d be nervous, then. Unlike nowadays with academies, there were 4 teams: two youth, the reserves and the first team.
If you ever got the chance to even train with the second string, it was amazing. If you were good enough and you really wanted it, your journey was mapped out for you, but boy, did you have to earn it and take some knocks along the way. It was all about making progress and making the next step up the natural path.
You made your professional debut at 18 – a special day?
It was at an end of season game at Molineux against Chelsea, in the old Second Division. Both teams had recently been relegated and we were top of the table, with them just behind. If it ended a draw, we’d go up as Champions and they would join us in second place. It did finish that way, but honestly it was a proper, competitive game! I got man of the match.
The pinnacle of your time at Wolves must have been beating European champions Forest to win the League Cup in 1980…
It was a huge shock – Forest were the top team in the country then. They had won the previous two finals as well. I remember three things. The biggest memory was the noise and the long tunnel at Wembley (he’s up out of his chair again, demonstrating the scene). From deep inside, it was deathly quiet – almost eerie. Then, seriously I took 1 or 2 small steps and bang! Wow… it was absolutely deafening. The sound was horrific on the ears and the hairs on my neck shot up. There were nearly 100,000 there. (I inform him that Vinny Overson describes a similar memory before our Autoglass triumph in 1992 – George of course was there and remembers this well. Marcus then jumps in and tells how Wolves barely left their half in the second period and were absolutely battered but managed to hang on!)
Memory 2: I went into their dressing room after the match to swap shirts with their right-back Viv Anderson. I knocked on the door and who opens it……..Brian Clough! He said ‘Come in son, eh you lot (to his Forest team) – this was a centre half performance today. Well done son!’ He was great bearing in mind they’d just lost! It was a route one goal as well – Andy Gray beat Peter Shilton to grab the winner. I sprinted on to the huge cinder track to celebrate with him. The lactic acid in my body was agony. I should have just waited until he got back and shook his hand – I was shattered from that moment!
Memory 3 was personal to me. It’s a sad one. My dad died on the day of the game, aged 58. He’d been ill when I left a few days before to prepare for the final but he went into hospital the day before the game and this information was kept from me. I would have gone home and not played if I’d known.
I look back on it all with mixed feelings – I didn’t even find out until the following Monday, after the open top bus tour, that we’d lost him. I had a major problem with guilt. I should have been with him. I was angry with my family for a long time. It was horrible.
It wasn’t until years after that I’d embraced the enormity of what I’d achieved – I even got man of the match in that final.
You left 2 years later after Wolves went down. Why come to Stoke and what do you remember of the transfer?
Wolves had built a new stand and I think they were in financial trouble. But Ian Greaves was then manager and he had bought another centre half – his knees had gone but he was given a 3 year contract! I was told I could leave.
They had had been my only club – it was tough to take. I’d won Player of the Year and I’d settled in the area – I thought I’d never leave the place. He just pulled me in one day and said he had to cut the wage bill – but he would give me a free transfer as thanks for my service. I was speechless. I was the fall guy.
Within days, Richie Barker the Stoke boss was in touch. He called me and asked me to visit him – it was all arranged within a couple of weeks. It was only a short distance away but that didn’t matter to me – which ever club I played for, I would have moved to the area – that was important to me. You need to understand the people you are playing for.
But I had reservations: the pitch at the Old Vic was awful, the river Trent stank and the fans were horrible to the opposition. The crowd was close to the pitch and when they went for you, they went for you. They gave you a welcome and a half. At Wolves, when we knew we had Stoke away at the weekend, we’d all be moaning all week!!!!
I hated visiting the Vic until I was a Stokie – and then I loved it.
Scoring on your debut in a win against Arsenal isn’t a bad way to start?
Apparently, I missed out on scoring the fastest goal of the season by a few seconds. It was great. I blew kisses and the lot! I think the fans took to me from that moment on and I loved it. I felt I understood the mentality of Stoke-on-Trent people, having come from a similar background in South Wales. The people had to graft to earn an honest day’s pay.
Look at the Potteries back in the day – down the pit, in a pot bank or at a steelworks – there’s no easy option there is there? Therefore on the pitch, they would expect you to put in one hell of a shift. And if you did, they’d be on your side. Whether you played well or not, they’d have your back. But if you slacked, they’d kill you!
I always felt blessed – I knew damn well how lucky I was to be in that position. I made a point of explaining this to players who joined the club over the years. I would just say ‘Listen – I’ve had some terrible games here but they’ve always stuck by me because they know I will sweat blood for their club. Every single one of those fans would give an arm to play on that pitch so go out there and do your best for them. However badly you’re playing – it doesn’t stop you from running, tackling, closing down or wanting the ball.’
I knew the supporters would give anything to have the chance that I had.
It started well at Stoke but went a bit wrong when Richie Barker was sacked and Bill Asprey took over. Why did he make you train with the youth team?
I was captain at the time. I knew where I stood with Barker and that suited me. He told you as it was. Given my upbringing, that was fine for me. He’d tell you man to man what he wanted and what he thought about you. Some of the other players couldn’t handle that. Imagine in the pot bank answering back to the boss telling you to pull your weight – you have to take a rollocking.
There’s two ways to react to that – prove him wrong or walk away. He treated us all as grown men – none of the arm round the shoulder stuff. The press asked me what I thought about Barker’s sacking and as captain, the press asked for my view. I told them that the players had to take some responsibility but there are others who needed to take a look in the mirror as well. I think Bill Asprey might have taken this badly and sent me to the youth team for training.
You went out on loan to Doncaster – did that upset you?
We were in the First Division – I was on my way back from injury. Man City in the division below wanted me on loan but I wasn’t interested. After Bill Asprey got the job, he took the captaincy away from me and told me I wasn’t part of his plans. I said ok then, you’re the boss. I told him that I had 2 years left on my contract and that I bet I would be here longer than him! That didn’t endear me to him! The next day he called me in and said he wanted to send out on loan to Bury. I told him I wanted to stay at Stoke, so he said you can play with the kids.
My brother lived in Doncaster and in the end it was convenient to play a few games there.
At least you did end up missing some the horrific 1984-85 season though…
Yes, but not enough! It was horrible, believe me. The whole thing. We never left the house. I’d only ever go out if we’d won or drawn anyway. Why would I go out with my wife/family/mates if we’d lost – what was there to celebrate?
So for almost a whole year, we were housebound. My wife would be waiting to go out for a meal on a Saturday evening but I’d say no chance to that. What if fans paying good money to watch the team bumped into me- they’d be furious asking why they paid to watch that rubbish – and they’d be right.
Mick Mills came in and made you penalty taker and then Alan Ball followed – what are your memories?
I liked Millsy – he was quiet, but he was like a breath of fresh air. He was human and he made me captain again!
I made myself penalty taker actually – I just stepped up. When Bally came in, he was shocked and wondered why the hell I was on that duty! My Stoke career ended under him so the memories aren’t absolutely brilliant to be honest but we had some cracking times, too.
After Christmas he told me he’d soon be letting me go. He said if he used me, he used me – but just try and enjoy the rest of the season. I was gutted. A while later when I signed for Peterbrough, we bumped into the Stoke squad. Stoke had West Brom away and we were getting picked up by our team bus from the same hotel near the motorway in West Bromwich where Stoke were having their pre-match meal. I got talking to some of the old Stoke boys, and then Bally saw me as I was waiting for the coach. He said he regretted letting me go a year too soon!
Is it true the down-time for players was always fun under Bally?
Oh, let me tell you – Bally loved a trip to Jersey. We had pre-season AND post-season tours down there! One night, he kept us in this fisherman’s pub right near the sea. He wouldn’t let us leave, so we were there drinking all night. I’ll never forget this – we were drinking Calvados – trust me it’s a hot taste. We were hammered and shattered but we couldn’t escape – he virtually locked us in, ha ha!
Eventually, when it reached about 5am, we found out why. He made us wait until the last of the night fishermen returned home, packing up their gear after a long night at sea. Then he said ‘Right lads – look at them – look at what they are having to do to earn a living. Never, ever will you lot have to work as hard as they do. Just you remember that!’
So we waited all that time to watch them sort their boats out and for him to say that! He wanted us to remember how lucky we were. It worked to be fair. It was quality from Bally!
You and Steve Bould used to scare attackers a bit when you teamed up. Did you enjoy being able to put a reducer on an attacker early in a game and not get a yellow card?
It was just standard procedure for me! Bouldy was different initially – he went away on loan to Torquay as a kid to toughen up and let’s just say it worked. He came back two months later – he left a boy and returned as a man! A proper bloke, and what a good player. A proper Stokie, is Bouldy.
Was playing at Stoke the most enjoyable time in your career?
I had some great times at Wolves – Player of the Year, League Cup win, and I made my international debut whist at Molineux. I’m grateful for all that and will never forget the part that club played in my life. But looking back now…..I was just a baby then. Just a kid. I went there aged just 16. For those two weeks before I signed for Stoke, I was confused and worried about my future. But then Barker told me I would love it at the Vic – that I’d love the people.
The move made me grow up, to become a man. So from then on I appreciated every single day of my career. I enjoyed every aspect of my time at Stoke – the matches, training, having a beer in town, the community and charity work – all of it. When I look back at the clubs I played for after Stoke – I did the rounds – it was great and the fans were always good to me, but it was never the same elsewhere as that Boothen End.
Tell us about the red nose (against Sunderland, I think)……
It was Red Nose day. I played with it inside my shorts all game. I thought if we win or at least don’t lose, I’d put it on after the game for a laugh. As captain, if we’d just being beaten, imagine the scene with the skipper dancing away wearing a red nose – think about the reaction! We didn’t lose anyway!!!!!
Penalties: you were pretty good at them George….
Picture Jonny Wilkinson’s goal kicking technique – mine was similar! I knew where I was putting it every time before the run up. No keeper would save it if I hit it true. I practised and practiced with Peter Fox in training – I’d tell him which corner I was going for. He’d cheat and move a step or two towards that corner and he still wouldn’t save it. So I knew if I connected well, I’d always score.
Including one in that brilliant 3-1 win against Man City on Boxing Day?
I remember the inflatable pink panthers and bananas more. Where did they come from? Me and Chris Kamara had our picture taken holding those panthers by the fans. I don’t remember much about games and incidents – it’s all a blur. But I remember those pink panthers!
Why do you think you were a huge cult hero at Stoke?
I think they saw themselves in me.
Your song and your dance……great times?
Oohh Georgie Berry… shake the hips and jive a bit. That was that!
…and what do you remember of your Testimonial Game, especially coming into the Boothen?
We were playing against Port Vale and I really did not want to lose that game. I wanted to play the whole match but Bally dragged me off.
So I was off the pitch and there was only one place I wanted to be. On the Boothen. My god they’d always had my back – even when I was having a stinker. The beauty of it was… after the initial fuss – there was a surge and I was mobbed when I first went in – I just stood there and they virtually left me alone. I was just like one of them, watching the match. Bertie Biggins scored and I was on that huge terrace, watching.
I’d spent a lot of my life playing in front of those fans. I’d connected with them. It was emotional for me. I was singing the songs – I was one of the lads.
Could that still happen today?
I think Ryan Shawcross is another icon and the kids that watch him now will tell their kids about him. He personifies a Stokie on the pitch – do or die, through brick walls for the cause. Just like the generation before me spoke about Denis Smith.
Modern players can’t get as close to fans now though, unfortunately. Times have changed and I don’t blame the modern players for that. In my day, you noticed the terrace culture more. I remember one game against Grimsby – it was absolutely freezing. I went out and warmed up in a sheepskin coat, honestly. I remember laughing with the other lads about a feller stood in shorts and t-shirt ready to watch the game – hilarious! His forearms were bright red. I thought…”he’s hard!”
Tell us a bit about life after football and what you do now…
I went to university and studied for a business degree. I think I owed that one to my dad – that was for him to prove I could do it. I now work for the PFA and I absolutely love my job. Why wouldn’t I? How lucky am I to have spent a life in football? My title is Commercial Director. It’s always busy. I spend a lot of time with players still – so there is that element of dressing room banter. (Marcus confirms that spending time in the company of a bunch of ex-pros in their fifties is like watching a bunch of primary schoolchildren).
Do you have a message for Stoke fans?
Up the Potters. The mighty, mighty Potters.
They’re just great aren’t they? They say it about the club, but I say it about them. They can swing it either way. When they decide to have a grumble or they don’t like you – it has an impact. But when they love you, it’s as good as it gets.
Potteries people are honest people. They say it as it is to your face – I’ve been told I was awful a few times over the years! But believe me, as captain, you want to be kicking towards that Boothen End second half.
And there we left it. George Berry is a Stoke City legend. But a humble normality prevails.
Berry’s most used word tonight is easily ‘Potters,’ used mainly when referring to supporters. He grins and beams every time he uses it. When he is not within earshot, his son recalls how as a kid he would be ‘freaked out’ by strangers constantly asking for their hero’s autograph. But to him, he was just ‘dad’. He would be calmed by the words, “It’s no problem, son. They are just the people I work for.”
Later that night, I was left with only one regret. And it wasn’t the £60 parking fine I picked up either at the hotel, either. One unasked question: why has George Berry never done an autobiography?
Duck used its summer wisely, catching up with the man who showed us the light – the legend, Lou Macari.
He’s a hero in these parts, but he doesn’t act like it. He will be a guest-speaker at a black-tie dinner at the ground later tonight but for now he spends two hours in tracksuit bottoms and polo t-shirt, munching on a toasted teacake and voicing his absolute love of the game that has defined his life. He even buys my coffee, when really he should never have to buy his own drink in S-O-T (well, Burslem, perhaps). The little man with a big heart.
Not only was he a top player, inspirational manager and a crucial part of the BAFTA-winning ‘Marvellous,’ but Lou Macari is the owner of a great name. A name that lends itself to terrace anthems and ease of adulation.
We gladly reignited the Stretford End’s 1970’s ‘Skip to My Lou’ back in our Boothen End in the 90’s and the simplistically brilliant chants of ‘Macari’s! Red Army!’ thundered around the Victoria Ground, penetrating every nook, (Ian) crannie and eardrum of the old place. And then 2Unlimited received a rare tribute in the form of our cover version… at times under Lou it seemed there really was no limit for Stoke City.
In 1992, we believed again; in 1993, we finally emerged from the shadows; and in 1996 against even longer odds, we very nearly did the job we eventually completed in 2008.
For many, his 1997 departure added to the mixture of gloom and nostalgia around the club as we prepared to move to Trentham Lakes – but in some ways, the timing was fitting. Surely, no other manager’s name could have done the The Vic justice, had it survived any longer.
These days, Lou Macari still lives the football life and he likes to be busy: MUTV regular; Sentinel columnist; popular pundit on national TV and radio shows; speaker on a local journalism course; organiser of a Hanley homeless shelter; guest at functions at ST4 and Old Trafford. For the unenlightened, he was just a bloke who owned a chip shop near a football ground – but then along came the fairy-tale of Nello and his reputation rocketed; many of us will know a none-football fan whose heart was warmed by the bond between the world’s most popular kit-man and the boss who gave him a chance.
Given the standard and length of his career on the pitch and in the dugout, hundreds of questions came to mind but in two hours, a selective focus was a must. Besides, his autobiography ‘Football, My Life’ tells the whole story and there’s a recently-made documentary, ‘My Life on Film,’ which I implore you to unearth: it’s moving, remarkably insightful and thorough – he travels the length and breadth of the UK to reflect on an eventful 67 years of heart-breaking lows and impressive highs.
Lou Macari’s is quite a story.
And for many a Stokie, Lou Macari’s part in our story will remain the best time of our supporting lives.
Your life has revolved around football – what are your earliest memories?
I lived in London as a very young boy. I’d be at Hackney Marshes every weekend with my dad, watching his team. I would stand behind the goal and wait for the next shot to miss (which they did most of the time!) and just chase after it then give it back to the keeper. I loved it. Playing on the streets every night – that’s how kids grew up and most had good ball control because of it. There were no coaches for youngsters then, but it didn’t seem to hold teams back did it? England won the World Cup in 1966, the European Cup was won by Celtic in , and then Man United the following year. Street football culture explained a lot of that.
When Alf Ramsey was England manager , he didn’t coach – he managed, with just one assistant manager and a physio. Nowadays, like in the Euros, there are hundreds of staff milling raound and it doesn’t always seem to be working.
You were part of the famous ‘Quality Street Gang.’ Did you always know you’d ‘make it?’
No way! I wouldn’t have made at it all as a pro at all, unless it was for the manager I had – Jock Stein. I lacked height, strength and power. My weaknesses became obvious to me one night playing for Scotland against England under 18s at Southampton’s old ground, The Dell. Muddy pitch, heavy ball and awful conditions. Mick Mills, Mick Shannon and a few others in their team dominated me – like a boy against men. I had an absolute stinker.
The next day, I went back to Parkhead and admitted to the boss how badly I’d played and he said “right, you need to build up and get working on what you’re not good at”. Kenny Dalglish received the same treatment. Soon, I’d be playing up front on my own, long before this apparently new invention of that formation!
I had a great grounding because of the boss I had. Jock Stein ruled with an iron fist. His way, or you were gone. He had complete control. Just like Shankly, Busby and later, Ferguson. Tough and demanding men who knew exactly what they wanted. You were either on their wavelength or by the wayside.
It must have been tough telling him you wanted to leave the club then!
I’d had 6 great years at Celtic, two years as a first team regular (scoring 58 goals in 110 games) and I was on £50 a week when my contract was up for renewal. They offered an increase of a fiver a week which just wasn’t enough. I told him that I had to look after one parent because I’d lost the other – family circumstances were my priority.
So, it’s 1973 and I’m just 21 years old – no agent and no clue what to do to get a move elsewhere. The next ten days or so went by as normal and then one day after training, Jock called to tell me to be ready the next morning because a car would be there to pick me up and take me to England. That was all he said! The wife asked where I was going and I didn’t have an answer! You just didn’t ask questions – he was the boss and that was that – lots of respect and a bit of fear as well!
The next day, I’m travelling down through these new towns like Gretna and Carlisle before finally ending up in Southport. The cup of tea and sandwich in the Prince of Wales Hotel were nice enough, but I didn’t know which clubs were nearby and I didn’t fancy playing for Southport! The next thing I know, I’m walking through the gates at Anfield and Bill Shankly is there waiting to meet me. He said: ‘I’ve watched you since you joined Celtic and I like the way you play. You’ve got a big heart.’
There was a game on that night – Liverpool were playing Burney in a cup replay. I was told to sit in stand, watch the match, then sign forms afterwards. They were offering £200 a week and players then kept 5% of the fee, which was
£10k – worth half a house to me – massive money and a great opportunity. So, I’m sat in watching the game and the seat next to me was empty for a while until eventually, Paddy Crerrand turned up and sat down – he was a Celtic and Man United legend and assistant manager at Old Trafford by then.
He said ‘What the hell are you doing here? Don’t sign for them! We had no idea you were available – we want you to sign for us!’ Stein and Shankly were mates and probably kept it quiet, away from the papers. I thought bloody hell – that means telling Bill Shankly I’m not signing for him anymore! So, the move to United was a total coincidence.
I wanted to play for them because of the club’s history with the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton. They were in poor form at the time but I knew that was the team for me – I went with my heart not my head and I’ve always been one for following my hunches. I bottled telling Shankly and just said I’d have to think about it. I wanted to get far away from him quickly! Soon after, in the press, Shankly said he only wanted me for Liverpool reserves! That was fair enough, and it made me chuckle!
One of your career highlights was scoring in the FA Cup final against arch-rivals Liverpool but Duts wants to know exactly where that ball would have ended up, if your shot hadn’t hit Jimmy Greenhoff’s arse!
Ha, ha! Wembley Stadium tube station behind the goal probably! It came off his shoulder actually! Jimmy turned away because I shouted for him to leave it, so it worked! Finals are just about winning, not how you do it. We’d lost two other finals around that time – to an off-side goal against Southampton and then the 5 minute cup final against Arsenal.
That’s football, so when a bit of luck comes your way, you take it and enjoy the winning feeling.
You went straight into management after your playing days – Jock Stein must have been a big influence on your approach…
I started my managerial career at Swindon and on day one I’m thinking ‘Where do I begin? What the f*****g hell do I do here then?!’
We were bottom of the old 4th Division, so in my mind I went right back to my beginnings for inspiration. We are talking about a man who won a European Cup with a team a team of local Scots assembled for £30k. So that was surely the secret – follow people like him because the record books don’t lie – if a no nonsense work ethic helped my career, why couldn’t it help any player after me?
Before managing Stoke, what were your memories of the club from your time as a player?
My memories of visiting Stoke as an opposition player were important to my decision to return as a manager 20 odd years later.
In the nicest sense, the Victoria Ground was a horrible, nasty place for visiting clubs. Walking down the tunnel was tough enough – it felt like you had to beat the home crowd as well as the team. It was a much tougher place to visit than most other clubs. In that tunnel, they could get to you – touch you and vocally let you know what they thought of you! It was hostile and unwelcoming – how it should be!
I thought I could use that to work for me when I was manager. Actually, I was dead against moving to the Brit, years later – we had players with a good attitude but the huge advantage was the home ground. Wet Ham might suffer in a similar way this season – that Chicken Run was worth a goal they used to say. Upton Park and The Vic were similar – the crowd dead against you and almost on top of you.
I know Stoke struggled when they first moved up the road – that 7 nil defeat against Birmingham can’t have been nice!!?? Obviously, things have changed and they’re not doing badly now are they?! But it took Tony Pulis and that siege mentality we had at the Vic to do it, after so many other managers had fallen short before he came along.
How did the move to Stoke come about in 1991? Your early impressions?
I was in charge of Birmingham when I got a call from Peter Coates. He’s since told me he’d already agreed to give the job to someone else but for some reason he thought I could do a better job and he had to go back on his word.
Things were not going well. There had to be a reason I was wanted – there normally is when a new man is appointed. Usually, someone else has failed and finding the reason is key. I think that good players were allowed to do what they wanted – that doesn’t work – there needs to be only one boss. The only thing that counts to a new man is the team – nothing else matters – so I looked at what was going wrong. There was too much slack and freedom around the place.
From my time at Celtic and United, I learned that allowing a drinking culture in and around club was a bad idea. People change after too much alcohol and allowing a bit leads to a lot. So I was dead against players getting sloshed anywhere near the football club and ground. Before I arrived, it was common for them to drink a lot on the coach after matches all around the country. It was not my style – I’d never touched a drop in my life but to be fair, what they did in their own homes was their business and they knew that. Most of them did as they were told anyway!
You made some key early signings from bargain basement – what was the secret?
The job was so different then. I had to go out, watch game after game and find good players. Money in the bank was limited: at first there’d just be 20 or 30k available and then a year later, perhaps 80k for the odd buy. A tight budget but I knew what to expect when I took it on. So the key was to work with a good scout and watch lots of football.
I had Bernard and we formed a good relationship, having a laugh and a joke along the way. We’d often meet in London for a chat then go off and watch different games. Peter Coates let me get on with all football matters. I’d also pick players I knew already as well – good characters like Vinny Overson, Nigel Gleghorn and Stevie Foley.
Other times you just get lucky. Mark Stein was a good example. I went to see my pal Ashley Grimes play for Luton at Oxford one night and Steiny happened to be playing for Luton as well. It was a really heavy pitch and he looked overweight and lacking in confidence but I thought there was something there – an eye for goal.
We bought him – got him much fitter quickly and got to know him as a lad. He was a lovely fella who would always listen and was willing to learn. He was not a natural trainer but he responded to what we asked of him. He even lived with me for a bit on Campbell Road – the club owned a house there. I would stay there – much better than a hotel and cheaper for the club. Kevin Russell and Steve Foley were there for a bit as well. Many of the lads dropped in – I keep an eye on them that way! I often cooked their meals!
Steiny had talent – he just needed discipline and belief. He went on to get his rewards with the big move to Chelsea. In those days no Stoke player earned more than £275 a week so a move to a top flight club was life changing. If anyone says money for players wasn’t important, they are so wrong. At that level, money was an important incentive for players to get into the team, win a match and score a goal. A win bonus could add 50% to a player’s weekly wage. It would be a talking point in dressing room after game and their families might need the extra cash.
Were there any players who went the other way – those that you didn’t get through to?
Lee Sandford was a good example – I was tough on him. He liked a beer and I didn’t! I always felt if I could get him to come round to my way of thinking, he’d play for England. I told him that wouldn’t happen – not unless you’re at your peak physically by training as well as you should. He was a challenge. I saw him at a funeral actually, last year. He came up to me and thanked me for what I did for him at Stoke.
The only one that I felt really get away from me was Carl Beeston. I couldn’t get him on the pitch regularly enough. Injuries cursed him and was so frustrating. Whatever the reasons, we missed out on seeing the best of such a talented player there. A real shame.
We did well in your first season but at the end we experienced contrasting fortunes…
That’s football. We lost to Stockport in the Play Off semi final, but I didn’t read too much into that. I knew we had a good team so little sleep was lost. We had a sending off and things just didn’t go our way. We had some good battles with Stockport. There was that trouble between Stein and Jim Gannon of course, some time after. They were a solid, difficult team and Edgeley Park was a tough place to go.
We had some good battles. It’s crazy where that club are at now. So the Autoglass Final at Wembley was like round 2… here we go! It was good getting there, but in a final – you have to win. I fancied us – on that big pitch with our stamina, I just thought we’d need a touch of luck to do it. Having won it the year before with Birmingham (John Gayle scored two goals that day he’d never score again!), I knew the impact it would have: belief, tickets, merchandise sales……the whole place was buzzing.
At Swindon years earlier, we had good cup wins against bigger teams and that kind of thing sparks a club – it was the same at Stoke after Steiny’s winner. That season summed football up, really. The same team lost at Telford in the cup and then went to Anfield and got a draw. You can’t over-analyse everything. You just keep doing the right things and see where it takes you. The Wembley win felt like mission accomplished. It would then hopefully lead to a winning habit the following year.
The 1992/ 93 season – were you confident we’d seal promotion?
You never know what will happen and you’re not daft enough to sit in your office, thinking we are definitely gonna do it. Only after, can you look back and explain what it takes. The main ingredient in our success was that the team gave their all every week, even in defeat. Look at Leicester City last season – what got them there? Desire and Commitment. Those qualities were mentioned last year for the first time in a while. That’s what we had and like Leicester, a sprinkling of good players.
Players liking me as their manager is irrelevant – l was never bothered what they thought of me. Some will like you, others will think you’re too tough on them. My job is to get best out of them and guide them to best of my ability – and them not sitting in a pub, getting p****d every night any more was a part of it!
Those games against West Brom were always fun…
They were the opposite to us in many ways – apparently talented individuals who other players relied on. We were more of a team and – the record says it all – we loved playing against them. We never took the fixture for granted, but we always felt comfortable coming up against them.
You were on record as never enjoying the Vale games – but those 5 Potteries derbies were important to the fans…
They were always fiercely contested – don’t think for one minute it’s not as competitive as the Manchester or Glasgow derbies. The Pride of the Potteries means just as much. The crowd are desperate to get one over their rivals. We all knew what it meant to win for the fans. Unlike these days, Vale were a good team. Rudgey always did his homework – what they achieved in results and selling players was brilliant – bygone days never to happen again. Like us, they did well to get in real bargains. The clubs are miles apart in terms of status now, of course. They’ve stumbled from disaster to disaster and can’t deem to make any progress. In those days, you wouldn’t have seen the gap between the clubs ever being so wide again.
That night against Plymouth, when we clinched the title…a nervy finish?
Nights like that are so special to so many people. You reflect on it all after we’d won the league. When I joined the club I never thought we would make such progress so quickly. It was great to have complete control of the football side of things. The players knew where they stood with me and they got their rewards that night. Some managers these days are like puppets on a string.
But in the squad, we had leaders too. Real men with opinions. There was no tactics board in the dressing room, believe me. I kept it simple, because if you fill their heads with too much rubbish, they’d forget it anyway. When that whistle blows, you are in a different zone. The players would argue and I would listen, stepping in when I had to remind them who the boss was. At times, I’d be sat in the office hearing them ball and shout at one another and I’d see that as a really good sign.
Was the win over Man United the following season your best night at the club?
Absolutely, what a night. A cup tie against my old club. The Vic was heaving. Both clubs had just won league titles and were on highs. The best football manger in the world was sat in the next dugout to me. When I saw the teamsheet, I doubted our chances. Schmeical the great Dane in goals, Bruce and Pallister at the back, Ince in midfield, Hughes up front……a tough team, and I knew it would be a battle but we did it and the place was rocking.
I remember it got to about 88 minutes and we were 2-1 up, nearly there. I was thinking we are gonna do this now, just blow the bloody whistle ref, please! But at the same time, I was mindful about Nello in the dugout behind me. As the world now knows, Neil Baldwin loves introducing himself to a celebrity and Fergie was a big one, so I was concerned that after the final whistle, he would jump all over Fergie, who would not be in the mood for it after a defeat – that man hated losing.
You have to think ahead as a manger, so I was planning to keep my eye on him. But the whistle went and we were all celebrating, hugging. I went to shake Fergie’s hand and forgot about Nello. A minute later, to my horror, I saw him all over Fergie! Later on, I invited him into my office for a cup of tea and a sandwich. He burst in and asked ‘Who the f*****g hell was that big fella giving me grief on the track out there?’ Apparently Nello had grabbed him and shouted ‘Welcome to Stoke, Alex!’. I explained Neil’s story and he begged me not to tell the press or word would get out that a circus clown had defeated him!
He thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but he was laughing he even more when I told him that Nello had given the team talk before the game! He told me to “f*** off”, with a smile on his face! It was true – Nello said to the lads ‘Just go out there and win.’ And it worked. Fergie was dreading the headlines, had it all got out!
A while back I bumped into Sir Alex in the States. We were watching a United friendly. He saw me at one end of the restaurant I was in. He was heading for me at a good pace – and normally when Fergie targets you like that it means you are in big trouble, hide or get ready for the hairdryer! He ran over and just said “Bloody brilliant, Lou! My wife made me watch it and I did – I’ve never seen a better football film in my life!” I soon told Nello what he’d said and it was the best compliment he’d ever received.
You left for Celtic, but 11 months later, you returned from Parkhead……had things changed at Stoke?
I’ve spoken to Joe Jordan about it since. He said that when he took over, he couldn’t believe how fit the squad was. Joe is a good pal, but we have different styles. I’m off the cuff, more explosive and unpredictable, wheras Joe is super organised and much more serious.
Money was still really tight but we worked hard at getting good lads in to the club. We bought two players out of the army for 500 quid that season! One was a chef, and I don’t know what the other one did! Justin Whittle and Gary Holt. They came into a squad that was already fit and worked hard, but those two soldiers blew them away on training ground. We signed Larus Sigurdsson from a team in Iceland for next to nothing and he was the same – a beast in training. After his first day, some of the coaches told me that he was shockingly bad but that Iceland win over in the England in the Euros was no shock to me – I found them to be polite, professional, honest and fit lads – their attitude was better, too.
Anyway, I was in the office after Larus’ first session and some of my coaches said that he didn’t understand the game and that his positioning was poor. The next day I was out there watching and I asked them: ‘Do you not think there’s something there already without your coaching? He’s as strong as an ox, has electric pace and he will recover from his mistakes, no bother.’
Getting into the playoffs the season after was just as good an achievement as winning the league in 1993 – maybe better. The Leicester games though – oh my God! In some ways, the first leg draw was more heartbreaking because we played well in that early kick-off at Filbert Street. Graham Potter misses that chance, which would have put us in the driving street, but it still was a good result and we had a good chance to do the business at home. Things went wrong for us on the night. We conceded a good goal at a bad time, but Martin O’Neil’s team were no mugs – they had good players. There had to be a loser and it unfortunately was us.
The SAS of Sturridge and Sheron did the business that year – how were you able to turn water into wine again?
I remembered Sheron from his time as a young lad at Man City. He was at Norwich and I knew for starters he was miles away from his North West home, which might give us a sniff. We went to watch another player there one night but I saw his name on the teamsheet and remembered how prolific he was at Maine Road as a kid. I wondered if he was just fed up living so far away.
He didn’t score that night but he took up good positions and hit some strikes. I told Bernard we’ll get him. Like Steiny, he was out of condition, but if we could get him fit and feeling good about himself, he’d be worth a punt.
The season after, 1996/97 was all about saying goodbyes to the Victoria Ground for the fans……what do you remember?
Andy Griffin was a bonus. He was in the youth team – I’d always go and see them to keep an eye on the young lads. Griff was a warrior – no nonsense, willing to steam into people and was hard but fair. His enthusiasm boosted the team – he was a mature young man trying to make his way in the game.
The last game at the Vic against West Brom – of course it meant a lot. I’d spent nearly 7 years as boss at Swindon and it was 5 or 6 years (with a break) at Stoke – it became my place. We had some special nights at other grounds like Anfield and Old Trafford, but home is home. I was also saying goodbye to our fans for good too, as well as the ground. The support was always brilliant. Unlike at some modern grounds, where you can hear a pin drop. At the Vic, even with a small crowd, you could hear the crowd noise and it made a real difference.
Jez Moxey joined as Chief Exec……
I had no problem with it. It would be his job to run the club and my job to run the team. So, I met Jez Moxey – and let’s just say he wasn’t really for me. That’s the best way of putting it! I was massively against moving grounds, but, time moves on and in that documentary I did recently, I went to the Brit before a match against Liverpool and it’s clear to see now that it was the right decision for the club, long term. It just felt wrong to me at the time.
You played for your country a fair few times and you had a good team but Scottish football isn’t what it was – why?
The difference between now and then is amazing. In 1978, I played in the game at Anfield against Wales, which we won – the famous Joe Jordan hand ball goal got us to the World Cup that night – but I wasn’t even sure I’d be in the final squad. Ally McLeod was manager then – believe it or not, he selected 80 players in the original squad! Imagine that now! The midfield names were quality – Willie Carson, Willie Johnson, Grahame Souness, Bruce Rioch, Asa Hartfort and others so I was unsure of my place on the plane. He then narrowed down to 40 and it was a relief to still be in it. D-day came and when the final 24-man squad was announced to go to Argentina, I was in. It was a real achievement. There were 300 Scottish players playing in top leagues then.
Things have changed so much now. The carrots I got at Celtic just aren’t there and it doesn’t seem to mean as much: I played for Celtic vs. Rangers in a reserve cup match and before the game, we were told that if we won, we’d each receive £10!!! We nearly collapsed – that would mean doubling our weekly wage! We went out like men possessed and we won. Not having to graft is the biggest disservice to the younger generation. No players are ground staff now – they’re not even allowed to clean boots before earning their trade.
You’ve had a wonderful career in football but ‘Marvellous’ and the BAFTAS…you couldn’t have seen that coming?!
It has changed my life in some ways – all my career achievements as a manger and player, are out of the window, now. When I’m with Neil Baldwin, I am number 2 to him! I got a call from him last year one night. I was working late at Old Trafford. He asked ‘When are you home and are you passing my house?’ I wasn’t planning to but it’s hard to say no to Nello. Then he asked “Can you please bring me cod and chips and a can of diet coke please?!’ I’m not the boss anymore – the boot is on the other foot now!
Do you miss managing?
In some ways, but I’d be foolish to think in the modern game my methods would work as well.
Too much talk and nonsense around these days. I used to joke with the Stoke players in training on a Monday after a defeat – shall we watch the tape back to see how crap we were on Saturday or shall we go out and train? They all wanted a rest and to watch the tape and I’d say no chance, we all know where we’re going – get out there! No point sitting there, feet up, doing no work.
Things are over complicated nowadays. I saw Jock Stein once take a player off for doing things they were not capable of doing. If you’re a runner, get about the pitch. Tricky winger? Beat your man……a simple recipe. Look at England struggling in the Euros. I was at Trentham with Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greenhoff and Denis Smith the other day – we were talking about England and I asked Gordon, a World Cup winner: “Has anyone ever rang you and asked how you won it?’”.The answer was no. They even asked Stuart Lancaster, a rugby man but they haven’t rung Gordon Banks!
But I blame the game overall, not just the players. Contracts with release clauses for example – who invented that one?! If I had said to Tommy Docherty at United I want a £300k clause in my deal in case someone else wanted me, he’d have said “off you go pal, you can go now – there’s no point in you staying here!” Football is a simple game – choose the right manger and let him have full control.
And finally……..How’s the chip shop going well and what’s your favourite meal?
I still own it and originally bought it for my mum. The plan was for her to move from Glasgow to Manchester and run it. I rent it out to a firm now and it’s going welI, I think! Chicken and chips is my choice – but it has to be the breast. Salt and vinegar. and a buttered bap!
It’s 2pm on a Thursday, and I’m down at Clayton Wood, Stoke’s training ground. I’ve just driven through the autograph hunters who look, ahem, ‘slightly’ disappointed when I turned the corner and my 09-plate Kia crawled apologetically past them and through the security gates……
I’m armed with any number of things, ranging from bobble hats to dictaphones, and from framed prints (of THAT cover) to a sheet or two of questions. The telly is on, and Mark Hughes and his trusty lieutenants walk past.
We exchange ‘Good afternoons’, and they are off to do a press conference or something a bit more important than nod their heads and say hello to some giddy, mid-40’s bloke from a magazine.
“He’s about, he’ll be here in a minute”.
I was early. Very early. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?
It wasn’t really akin to being at the end of the aisle waiting for your partner to show up on your wedding day – it’s far worse. This is Bojan Krkić Pérez , El Petit Geni, or just simply BOJAN, we’re talking about!
As we take a seat and start talking, one thing becomes absolutely clear: Bojan takes his football unbelievably seriously. And why wouldn’t you when you have his God-given talent? For the entire interview he never moves his gaze away from me when he’s talking. Bojan is supremely well-mannered and polite, down-to-earth, and very serious…..and we’re there to talk football, family, friends, Spain…..and Stoke.
Tell us about the young Bojan…..
I grew up in Linyola. It’s got a small population and my family are from that town. My mother’s from there and it’s my best place, my favourite place. My family still live there, although I don’t have any brothers or sisters. It’s about an hour from Barcelona. I love it there.
I was a quiet boy. It’s great to go back. I really started getting into football when I was about four years old and I eventually signed for Barcelona when I was nine. My father was a professional footballer – I watched a few games, but not many. He played in my position; he was a number 10.
I heard you were a good musician when you were younger?
(laughs) Yes, I enjoyed playing the violin when I was young, and I love music. I would like to get back to playing music one day.
How were you spotted?
I was playing in a tournament in France. It’s an international tournament and there were lots of scouts there. They (Barcelona) saw me and liked me. A lot of teams had scouts there, but I signed for Barcelona, the team I loved. It was a dream.
So I went to La Masia (La Masia de Can Planes, usually shortened to La Masia) the Barcelona training ground at the age of 9. For the first three years I was travelling from home, but when I was 12 I moved there to live there with my grandparents where we lived in a flat. In the morning I’d take a bus to school and spend all morning there.
What’s different about La Masia compared to other academies and training camps?
Well, everyone has different ways of coaching kids and what they believe in. I think that Barcelona’s is the best academy because they put your schooling first and after that its football. I like the idea of that. School is very important as it’s everything when you are a youngster growing up.
Barcelona like to have that education philosophy and mentality in their football. But when we trained it was almost always with a ball.
So do you have any plans to coach in the future?
Yes, in the future I would like that, but that’s a long way away. But yes, I think I would like to coach in the future.
You made your first team debut at Barcelona when you were just 17 – breaking Messi’s record. Were you starstruck?
Yes, of course, because before I played for Barcelona I was always a fan. I was in the stadium to watch the games, and then suddenly I was playing for them! It was a fantastic feeling; a dream come true to play for Barcelona and with such great players. I had an amazing time there.
Who were your best friends at the club?
I wouldn’t like to single out just one player. There are a lot of players there and they all helped me, but special players like Henry, Pique, Iniesta, Puyol….they all really helped me to develop.
There was a lot of pressure as a 17 year old, but you don’t really notice it at the time. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I’m very, very proud to have played for the club I supported, such a big club, and I tried to do my best at all times. It’s hard when you’re 17 as you think as a 17 year old thinks, but when you are playing for such a great football club you must expect pressure. That’s why having such a good schooling is important. I loved my time at Barca.
Roma, AC Milan, Ajax……fans of those clubs liked you. Why weren’t you signed?
Yes, after Barcelona I played in some great cities and for some great clubs: Rome, Milan, Amsterdam…. great cities. I had a big contract at Barcelona and it’s hard when you’re on loan. But when the loan ended at Ajax I said to my family that it was now the time to settle down, sign a contact somewhere, and play regularly.
What did you know of us Stoke before you signed for us?
I knew Stoke were a Premier League club and had played many years in that league. I knew Stoke City has a lot of history, too. I knew of the reputation they had before I came and some people said to me ‘look at their reputation’ – but I knew Mark Hughes was the manager and I replied to them that if Mark Hughes wanted me then I know he wants to play in a certain style.
Mark Hughes was hugely important in getting me to Stoke. He’s the gaffer and he knew I wanted to play games. He gave me confidence and it was a really good move and I feel really comfortable here.
What changes did you need to make for playing in the Premier League?
Most important I think was to add more muscle to my body. I can quite easily get used to the pace of the game and wasn’t worried by that when I first came, but when I first came here I wanted to add more muscle as the game is more physical here. I am now far stronger.
That run of games last season from Spurs away to Rochdale: was it the best form of your career so far?
That’s difficult to say. I think I played consistently in that period. I’ve played really well at all the clubs I’ve been at, but the gaffer here knows that when I came to Stoke it was really important for me to play regularly and to be happy and feel wanted. That is how I feel. I was happy with how I played last season.
I feel a lot of love at Stoke but I also felt a lot of love at Barca and also at Roma, too. I am happy.
That night against Rochdale – did you know immediately it was serious?
Yes. I knew that something strange had happened straight away and that it wasn’t nice. I was running and my studs stuck in the turf, it was just a complete accident. Things can happen like that as we play football. It was a complete accident. I now feel strong and good.
Did you ever have any doubts that you’d be back playing?
I felt a lot of emotions at that time. You always have doubts, but for me the key is to think if you have a doubt then you have ten positive thoughts to make up for it on the same day. I looked at the injury as though your leg is just a small part of your body, and I was very positive. Recovery is about your body and mind. It’s hard when you have an injury but that’s football and that’s life. I am a positive person.
So to your recovery and recuperation. You went back to Catalonia?
Yes, it was very nice and important for me to go back home to recover. It was hard to move away from the team and the club, but I had to as I felt that it’s so important to get your mind totally right and focussed, without distractions. For that, you have to be around family and friends. The sun also makes a difference too, ha, ha!
Thousands monitored your recovery work on social media? Was this your idea?
Yes, it was my idea to put videos of my recovery on social media as we as footballers are important to our fans. But not only when it’s going well and you are in a good way – it’s easy then – but more so when it’s hard. I worked really long hours to get back to good health and get my leg strong, and I even wrote a daily diary, but it was worth it!
I wanted to show my fans that ‘ok, this hard, but I am going to come back stronger and I am doing my very best to do so’. I feel they have the right to see how I am doing and they liked doing so. I’m not at 100% yet but I am working hard towards that goal. It’s was a long time that I was out of football, but I am working so hard to be at my very best. I need games to get that fitness, plus training of course – but I am very happy with how it’s going.
What are the things you miss about home?
My town, my food, my family, my friends, the views……..I don’t need to be surrounded by a lot of special possessions, I just like the normal things in life to make me happy.
My family came over last Christmas and they are doing so again this Christmas. That means a lot to me – it’s a very special time of the year where I come from. In Spain you don’t play at that time of the year, so that’s a big difference, but it’s a very special part of the year.
You have won one cap for Spain – ambitious for more?
Of course, I’d love to play for my country again. It’s very difficult to play for Spain as they have great players and it’s so hard to break into the team, but I know that I first have to play a lot of games, be 100%, and play a lot of good games at Stoke City. Then, it’s up to others.
What’s your message for Stoke fans?
Yes, thank you for your support it means a lot to me and the guys. We are a team, a group, always together. The season is a long season and we didn’t start that well, but we try every game to do the very best things, and it’s now getting a lot better as the season goes on.
Keep supporting us, whatever the result, no matter if we play well or not – we love your support! Oh, and Happy Christmas!
…..and that was that, apart from Bojan then taking the time to sign prints that had been auctioned off for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice. Bojan was really keen and happy that the print was so popular and had raised £600 for the Donna Louise, and asked questions about the organisation.
Not only is Bojan an outstanding footballer, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a lovely bloke too, an absolute gentleman. It’s great that such a well-known, world famous ‘name’ player can fit so easily into the Stoke dressing room DNA of being a decent human being and having time for the fans.
We shook hands, I thanked him for his time, gave him a Bon Nadal bobble hat and a framed print, and I walked back to my car. As the security gates slowly opened, I could see the autograph hunters were walking away from the training ground. I would the window down…..
“Bojan’s still in there, and is on his way out soon”.
They all turned round and jogged back to the gates. Just as I would have done. THAT, is the Bojan effect!
There are few Stoke City players in my lifetime who have received the absolute love and devotion that Earl Mark Sean Stein rightly got – and still gets. His name still resonates amongst the Potters’ faithful as an absolute Stoke City legend: a player who scored unforgettable winners at Wembley, and against Manchester United and Port Vale amongst his 54 goals for The Potters.
Steino and that team of 92-93 gave me some of the best times of my life. Indeed, I would choose that period over even our Premier League adventure as the time I enjoyed the most supporting Stoke City. It was a time when the city was alight with Stoke-Vale rivalry, the clubbing and nightlife scene in S-O-T was amazing, and workplaces, pubs and bars resonated with the constant chat about Potteries football.
And although Lou Macari was the King, Mark Stein was our Golden One. He didn’t even play a century of games for us, but such was Steino’s huge impact on our football club that many would put him in their all-time Stoke City XI. We know we would.
Tell us a bit about the early part of your career at Luton Town
My time at Luton was really enjoyable. In my time there we got to 2 FA Cup semi-finals and won the Littlewoods Cup. Being at Luton gave me a great education and great grounding which meant I could have such a long career.
We had a great manager in David Pleat and great players. If it wasn’t for David Pleat I don’t think I would have had a career in professional football, as he gave me the time to develop. They instilled a great work ethic, to be a winner, to be disciplined and how to be a good, honest human being.
This reminds me so much of my time at Stoke City: great manager and good people throughout the club.
What was it like to be at Kenilworth Road with your brother?
Having my brother at Luton was both an advantage and disadvantage. Brian was really hard on me, but he was like that with himself and everyone around him. He didn’t want anybody to be complacent. To be honest, on reflection this is the best thing that happened to me. He just wanted to show that it takes hard work to get into any first team, but maintaining it was even harder.
How did you come to join Stoke?
I originally joined on a month’s loan from Oxford, which I really enjoyed. I fitted in straight away with the Stoke lads and also hit it off with Bertie Biggins. What I remember was in my first game I had a great chance: John Butler (Butts) put a great cross in and I put my header wide when it was easier to score.
I returned the compliment to Butts when I crossed it later and he scored. I think that was the only goal he ever scored in my time there!
I reckon your partnership with Wayne Biggins is as good as Stoke have had in my 40 years of watching The Potters. What we he like to play with, and also what was he like off the pitch? Plus, any comments on other strikers you played with…..
Bertie Biggins was a top drawer striker. He had loads of great attributes; Great touch, good appreciation of other players around him, a great header of the ball, an eye for goal.
We hit it off straight away and we just gelled. Obviously we had different attributes, but it worked. The best part about it was his unselfishness he wouldn’t think twice about passing if I was in a better position to score and vice-versa. Off the pitch he was the life and soul of the changing room which was ideal. He wasn’t the only one; Stigger (Steve Foley), John Butler (Butts), Cleggy (Nigel Cleghorn), Vince Overson…… I was one of the quieter ones. Great changing room though, great banter!!!!!
As for other strike partners – they all brought something different to the table. Dave Regis wasbig and strong, Graham Shaw a really good footballer and a hometown lad, Paul Barnes a goal scorer and was very unlucky as he scored near enough all the time when he came into the team.
Rotherham away sticks in my mind as one of my favourite awaydays watching Stoke. What are your highlights from our promotion season?
My highlight of that season was of course was beating Port Vale at Vale Park 2-0. A great night with and a bonus for me was scoring. The support that night was unbelievable and I think that sealed our promotion – and doing it at Vale Park! Beating Stockport for obvious reasons, as there was no love lost from previous encounters.
That penalty winner in the 2-1 win at home to the Vale – what do you remember of it?
How could I forget?!?!? It was my first ever derby match and what an atmosphere.
Getting to the ground before the match, the anticipation was unbelievable. Getting the winner from the penalty spot…..I remember Peter Swann asking me how my bottle was when putting the ball on the spot. Answer: STEINO shoots bottom right corner to make it 2-1, and three quarters of the Victoria ground go nuts enough said!!!!!!
And the penalty you missed as we went out of The Autoglass?
I don’t like to dwell on the negative things. Put it this way, I was gutted, but you have to take the rough with the smooth.
What was the social side like when you were at Stoke?
Yeah, really good. Maxims on Wednesday nights was rocking and Hanley on some weekends, too.
What do you remember of Nello? Any good stories?
Nello was a great asset to the club. Thinking about it, he actually had a relaxing effect on the players and helped release some of the nerves before games. Yeah, I never got over getting substituted for him at that testimonial game at Villa Park, ha ha! The rest of the stories stay in the changing room!
Give me your thoughts on the following 3 games:
The 2-1 win against Manchester United was the best night at the Victoria Ground by far. The atmosphere that night was electric. To score two goals and win the game against a strong Manchester United team was testament to all the lads that night that we didn’t get overawed by the occasion and the team.
The 2-0 at Vale Park was really important as it did put us 10 points clear and for me we made a massive statement that night that we weren’t going to make the same mistake as the previous season. It was also really satisfying to do it at Vale Park with the bonus of scoring.
Funnily I went to Port Vale’s most famous supporter – Robbie Williams’ – concert, and met him before the show. It was a great show and that’s the closest I will get to complimenting that side of Stoke-on-Trent, ha, ha.
Winning at Wembley was the least we could have done after the disappointment of losing in the Play-Offs to Stockport. What a great day, having forty thousand Stokies at the home of football – we couldn’t fail. On the day we were far superior to them. Scoring the winning goal at Wembley was really humbling as I followed my big brother’s footsteps him scoring the winning goal against Arsenal in the Littlewoods Cup Final.
Most of all it was for the supporters who had travelled the length and breadth of the country to support us.
After we won promotion we had a great start to life in The Championship with you in great form. Did you know other clubs ie. Chelsea, were interested then?
Obviously, getting into the Championship was a great achievement. Life in that league was another hurdle to overcome and all the lads looked forward to it. We started really well and never felt out of place in the higher division.
I was lucky enough to continue to score goals and there was rumours that Premier League teams were watching. They were only rumours . The important thing for me was that it didn’t distract me, otherwise the lads would have let me know and so would have the gaffer.
Despite Stoke’s Premier League years, many Stokies remember the Macari era as the best time ever – why do you think that’s the case?
The reason why people remember that era was because everyone was together. There were no superstars, everyone mucked in together. The players socialised with the supporters. There were great people working at the club – Winnie (laundry lady); Lace (youth team coach); Bernard (chief scout); Diane (office); Pottsy (secretary; Lizzie (reception).
And we had a great. Lou wouldn’t complicate the game and would give us a rollocking if we needed geeing up. We were a better team than we got credit for. We had great players Butts (right back) Beest were so underrated; Stigger was a cracking scoring midfield player; Cranny was the bravest man in the world; Cleggy had a wand of a left foot; Warey was our midfield enforcer; Bertie was quality – sorry to anyone else I have left out. And of course, the supporters were a massive part of it!
You scored many goals in the top flight after many years in the lower leagues – what do you think makes the difference between top players and those who don’t quite get to the Premier League standard?
I think the difference between Premier League strikers and lower league ones is being clinical. At the highest level chances are scarce.
What is your favourite memory of Stoke fans – was there one match with an electric atmosphere that stands out for you?
My favourite match at Stoke was the Man United game. As I said before, the atmosphere, the way we played and not being overawed……I wanted to play in the Premier League to test myself against the best players week in week out. I would have loved to try and be a part of trying to get Stoke into the Premier League. That wasn’t to be unfortunately.
At Chelsea, you played in a cup final and broke a Premier League goalscoring record – good times?
Having gone to Chelsea and not scoring straight away, I was always confident I could score goals at the highest level.
I kept working hard and it’s a fine line between success and failure. Breaking the Premier League record was a great achievement/honour for me and holding it for 10 years – eventually being beaten by Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
It was fitting that you featured in our last ever season at the Victoria Ground. Tell us about your return to Stoke…..
Returning to Stoke and the Victoria Ground where I had so many great memories was hard. The fact the club were relocating seemed to me an end of era. I returned to Stoke on loan and really enjoyed it, but with different players it seemed weird. The only thing that was the same were the great supporters, and of course Lou.
11 clubs: 486 matches: 205 goals. You must be proud of that record?
I am very proud of my goal scoring record – something I can speak to my boys about. If any of them play football I will challenge them to beat it. No pressure there, ha ha!
How did you become a physio?
As my career was coming to an end I was always interested in injuries, what with having a few myself and being treated by some really good physios. So I went back to get myself educated at college then at the University of London.
It was the hardest thing I did but I’m glad I did it as it gave me a different skills set of which I am proud of. Since qualifying, I have had 3 physio jobs in football. Starting at Barnet then moving to Crawley and Rotherham.
Tell us a bit about your life now – where do you live, family, interests etc
Presently, I am living in London and work in a secondary school helping special educational needs students to be healthier and also have an awareness of their well-being. I also have two young boys who keep me really busy.
What does the future hold for Mark Stein?
Hopefully keep making a difference in children’s lives, making it better in any way I can. At present I am trying to raise £800 pounds for four Special Educational Needs children to go on a school trip to Wales. Their parents cannot afford it, and they have a tough time, so I thought it would be a good idea to try and give them an experience which hopefully they will not forget.
I also want to attend more Stoke matches with my two sons in the future to get my boys to have first-hand experience of the buzz of the Stoke City supporters roar!
I have never known one Stoke player to be so adored by our support. You were, and are, worshipped. How do you feel about that and have you got a message to the thousands of Stokies who were honoured to watch you play for us?
I am really humbled and honoured to be part of Stoke City’s great history. What makes the club so great is the supporters. I would like to thank them for their support then and how they appreciated and supported me: that’s what makes them SPECIAL!
You’ve been involved in football forever! Was Kevin Keen ever going to go in other directions?
No! As a kid in High Wycombe, I was football mad. I never knew another world. My dad Mike was in the game and I was brought up loving football. I was born 2 weeks before he captained QPR to their League Cup final win at Wembley in 1967… and that set the tone, I think.
If I ever did an autobiography, it would have to be called ‘The Football Life.’ I just followed Dad around every Saturday during his playing days at Watford then when he became manager at Wycombe. I was into the nuts and bolts of men’s football from an early age. I was actually a Man City fan, which in these parts is strange. My hero was Colin Bell – I loved him so, that was the only reason I followed them.
You were part of the team that lifted the English Schools Trophy 1981.
That was a massive thing to people around High Wycombe. Absolutely huge, believe me. We had a group of boys who’d come through together from under 11 year olds up until we were 15/ 16. I wasn’t even the best player. Our main man was Mark West, the year above me – he was some player. He was with me as a youth prospect at West Ham for a while but didn’t make it. He went on to become a Wycombe legend and is now managing Thame United in Oxfordshire. Keith Dublin was in the team and he ended up playing for Chelsea and Watford. Graham Bressington was another – he went on to play at Southend. We just clicked and kept our nerve all the way through.
Then you went on to play for England Schoolboys – good memories?
We had some top players who went on to have good careers in the game – Darren Beckford, Steve Potts, John Beresford. Lots of us made it from that squad. Charles Hughes was our manager after he had just written that infamous coaching book, promoting the POMO approach (position of maximum opportunity). Imagine the contrast for us West Ham lads, who had been brought up playing the pass and move style. Two more contradictory principles of play you couldn’t wish for!
He made us play 4-2-4 with me and John in centre midfield. If we had the ball, we were ordered to kick it immediately into the channels for forwards to chase after. Training was all about shooting sessions with everyone running in for rebounds off the keeper. To be fair, it did work once, later in my career when I scored a tap-in for Stoke when I followed up a shot.
You made your Wycombe debut at an early age…
I was 15 and very slight as you’d imagine. We were in non-league then, in the Isthmian League – I was just a boy in a man’s world. I only played 3 games there before I left school and joined West Ham. I weighed just 9 stone 3 but I was quick over the ground and had a clever football brain. Non-league was brutal – rough tackles and tough men. I’m still Wycombe’s youngest ever player. Jordan Ibe (now at Bournemouth) might tell you he is – but only in league football, so the record is still mine!
You had a lengthy and eventful West Ham career – what were the highs and lows?
That’s easy. We had 2 promotions to the top division. 1992/93 was my best season – I scored 9 goals from midfield and came runner up in the Player of the Season awards. In contrast, we also got relegated twice to the second tier, which is never nice.
Looking back, one of my regrets was leaving West Ham after promotion. I’d been there 9 years and loved the place but they were in financial trouble and I was disappointed with the contract they offered. When Wolves came in for me, my head was turned. They made a good offer and came across as ambitious, wanting promotion themselves. Molineux was looking good by then as well, so the place seemed to be on the up but I was naive and I should have been more patient. The move to the Midlands was a big decision for the family, especially because my son was only a baby then. We lived in Lichfield and we loved it there. In fact, we still own a grade 2 listed flat after all this time. We rent it out but we often visit the town to this day. It also came in handy when joining Stoke later on, obviously.
How did the move to Stoke come about?
I was never quite settled at Wolves to be honest. Molineux felt big and open – it didn’t suit me and I never felt the kind of vibe there you need to produce your best. Graham Taylor was manger and we didn’t exactly see eye to eye either, which didn’t help. I’d worked with Lou before at West Ham – he was the first manager to play me from the start every week. My memories of Lou from then were positive, even though for him it was a disastrous time in charge. Stoke is obviously a nice distance from Lichfield as well – close enough, but far enough away. Not many Stokies live around there, so there was privacy without feeling a million miles away either. Any of my ex-teammates would tell you I’m not exactly one for the social side of things – I’m a family man who kept myself to myself.
The Victoria Ground was the other big attraction. Honestly, one of the main reasons I signed was that ground. I loved it. The feel of it was perfect. The Vic was old fashioned like Upton Park – a really working-class, atmospheric old place with the punters right on top of you out there on the pitch. I strongly remember playing there for West Ham on the opening day of one season, years before my move to Stoke. It was the first game of season and I scored at the Boothen End. It was the day Frank McAvennie broke his leg. But I do remember the buzz of playing at another tight ground with good noise levels. Proper grounds, in my eyes.
Even with low crowds, there could still be an undercurrent of passion from the terraces. I remember scoring a header for Stoke (I only scored 4 with my head in over 600 games, so I was never going to forget it) – it was the winner against Millwall at the Vic – their fans would have loved me as well, being an ex Hammer! We’d lost to Port Vale the week before so the crowd was low and it was quieter than normal but even then, the place went mad at times like that, with a winner at the death.
What was it like playing in those Potteries derbies?
Funnily enough, I’m quite proud of my record in derby games in general.
I scored for West Ham vs. Millwall, for Wolves vs. West Brom and for Stoke against Vale. I’m not sure there are too many who can say that! The Potteries derby felt different if I’m being honest because Vale don’t have that crowd pull or that history that all the other teams mentioned do. I loved scoring though because I knew what it meant to Stoke fans.
Wolves and West Brom are similar sized clubs so those games always felt well matched and on the edge. Games against Millwall were pure evil if you wore a claret shirt! Once, at Cold Blow Lane, we got kept in for 2 hours after the final whistle so their mob couldn’t get to us. That stays with you. During the match, the abuse coming at you from those terraces was on another level. With Stoke and Vale going in opposite directions, that rivalry gets lost I suppose, which is a shame in many ways. Football can feel tame at times without that edge to matches.
Was it you or the wind that scored that goal at Vale Park?!
Ha, ha – that was the most ridiculous goal ever scored! For me to even score a diving header was amazing. The way it blew up from the cross and then I just chucked myself at it and somehow it swirled its way into the net – that was crazy! It was a good feeling though. I’d come off the bench I think and it was right in from of the Stokies in that away end – one of those special moments. You knew not losing was the big thing for the fans so it was satisfying. I look totally shocked during the celebration after that one!
There was a spell when Lou seemed to sub you every week – was that frustrating?
Big time! When I scored once, I took my shirt off to make a subtle point to Lou, which was out of character for me but I was a bit fed up. I whipped my top off after scoring and tried to hold it up like a fourth official holding up the board for a substitution! To be fair to Lou, I was cursed with injuries for a while so perhaps he thought he was protecting me.
A few weeks after, you scored what surely must have been one of the best goals the Victoria Ground crowd had ever witnessed…
Yes, the Derby County volley has to be right up there in terms of my career goals. My Marco Van Basten moment! It was live on TV as well which was nice. And it had to be in front of the Boothen – it wouldn’t have has the same magic at the other end would it?
People often ask me if we’d worked on it on the training ground but we didn’t – it was an off the cuff, spur of the moment thing with me and Nigel Gleghorn. I always got on well with Nige – we are similar characters and were similar players too in some ways, in terms of our love for getting the ball down and playing the ball to feet. We both got the odd rollocking from Lou for overplaying in midfield, that’s for sure! He had such a lovely, cultured left foot and could really play – he made us tick.
As he stood over the free-kick, we had a quick chat and decided to try something different. I peeled away and he found me perfectly on the right corner of the box. It was a controlled whack, but I was only hoping to hit the target. When it smashed into the net, that feeling… well, that’s why you play the game as a kid, isn’t? It should have been the winner but they scored a late equaliser – that was a shame as it took the shine away a little.
The lads on the bench had me in stitches in the changing room after. They said that as soon as Lou saw what we were up to over that free-kick, he was saying “No, no, no!” getting louder and moving further towards the pitch to scream at us with every additional “No!” as they sat chucking behind him. He obviously wanted us to put it into the box for the centre-halves to latch onto. We gambled for once and it paid off. A special moment. I teased the fans by almost taking my shirt off again but I thought I’d better save them from that again. It’s weird really – the shirt off celebration went with a scruffy goal – it would have suited the Derby volley far better.
Stoke fans remember the 1995/96 fondly, with the SAS up front and the play-off charge against the odds… was it an enjoyable season?
I got injured late on so I missed the business end – I was absolutely gutted about that. We had a small squad and regular line up which helped in some ways although it probably held us back right at the end against Leicester. The midfield four complemented each other so well – me and Graham Potter on the wings – he got up and down the line and I buzzed around. Ray Wallace grafted and covered for us while Gleghorn dictated the play. Goalscorers are always the key though and Mike Sheron was the cherry on top. I got injured at Luton – that midweek game when we scored twice in the last minute to win.
Missing out on the Play Off games was tough to take – I remember watching the first leg at Filbert Street from the stands – I didn’t enjoy that one bit. We were unlucky but they had more quality overall. Garry Parker could play, couldn’t he? I played against him as a young boy, funnily enough – he had some talent.
We fell short of the standard required but we did well throughout the campaign. My favourite game was Wolves away – we battered them 4-1 and it all came together that day. We battled hard as a team and on that day had plenty of quality to go with it. I enjoyed that day very much.
The 1996/97 season was the last at the Vic and you were hit by injuries throughout. Were the squad on a hangover after the play-off defeat?
Possibly. I don’t remember thinking there was a huge change in the dressing-room dynamic or anything like that.
Lou had his way of doing things – he never did much work on the tactics side of things and he was a hard man to play for in some ways. Especially, the way I liked to play. But I try to see the positives in people – I felt his biggest strength was recruitment – signing players with a point to prove and making them gel into a unit. We’d sold Peschisolido the season before, so we were short on strength in depth. Perhaps, he wasn’t able to galvanise the squad with new signings – like the bargains he normally found.
Lou rescued careers for many of us – Sheron, most of allHe believed in players and let us get on with it, as long as we were super fit. He went mad at me once – another goal everyone remembers but for the wrong reasons this time – that back-pass at Huddersfield. It was down as my own goal of course, but Mark Prudhoe completely missed it with an air shot! Lou felt I should have cleared it down the line but I tried to retain possession. I’ve seen Prudhoe since and we’ve laughed about it. I’m sure you lot weren’t laughing behind that goal though! Mark was a good keeper, actually. He’s a keeper coach now, at Hull and I see him from time to time – a lovely bloke and a brilliant character in any dressing room. He should have cleared that bloody ball though!
Then came the move to The Britannia Stadium and the relegation season – did you see it coming?
Hard to say. Lou leaving was huge because he was a strong figure – a leader who set the tone for the whole place. He wasn’t a man for heart to hearts or groundbreaking stuff on the training ground but you knew where you stood with him so his departure created uncertainty.
But the ground move was a huge factor in my opinion. It’s easy to underestimate what uprooting like that does to a club – look at West Ham now. The grounds are so different to the old ones, it becomes a real challenge to your identity as a club. Open, windswept, modern grounds don’t help with creating that fortress feel you look for. Long-term, the ground move has worked out well of course but the teething problems meant we suffered for quite a while. Our home form certainly suffered. Then again, having 3 mangers in a season doesn’t help either.
We weren’t managed with a clear direction. It was Chic Bates, Kris Kamara then Alan Durban. That period under Kamara was horrible. I hated it. Him not picking me very often didn’t help either, funnily enough! There was the 0-7 defeat to Birmingham. All I’ll say is that the whole season was not good and I have very bad memories.
The last game at home to Man City topped it all off – both sets of fans were singing about seeing each other at Macclesfield. I went out for dinner that night with Steven Tweed and his partner – our wives got on well. We sat in a restaurant in Stone and hardly spoke. We felt sick and it was one huge nightmare. We shouldn’t have gone down with the players we had – Kavanagh, Thorney etc, but that’s what instability and too much chopping and changing does to a team. The dressing room had changed.
It was far different than The Vic…….I bumped into Carl Beeston a few years ago when I was coach at West Ham. He could play, by the way – with modern sports physiotherapy he’d have played at the top level. Anyway, I was on the train and tube to get to the ground and I hear someone shouting “Keeno!” at the top of his voice. It was Beest – he was on a day out with his mates watching Stoke at Highbury! It was good to see him – he was exactly the kind of down to earth bloke I associate with playing for Stoke at that time. Unfortunately, things at the Brit were very different in those early days.
Brian Little came in and gave the fans a big lift before the season fizzled out…
His style really suited me personally. For the first 8 games, I played centre midfield in a 3-5-2, which took me off the wing, saving me from a clattering from full-backs! We were winning every week and then there was that night we lost at Fulham, and things changed.
Chris Short was flying for us at right wing back – great player, super lad and so, so quick. He gave us good balance and someone I could feed the ball to. He collapsed on the pitch and in the end, after all the talk of heart scares, I think they diagnosed a problem with the lining of his stomach or something like that. I see him still – he’s working as a fitness coach for a league club. He could run like the wind. From my own point of view, Brian Little was the best Stoke manager I played under and one of the best I’d worked with in my whole career.
Why did we not even make the play-offs then?
(He laughs, pauses then offers a wry smile and takes a deep breath). Losing Chris Short was a massive blow. We missed him and I think in that league, he was too good for opponents, so we missed him. I was shifted out wide and we just didn’t gel as well after that. Little’s management was second to none. He treated me with such respect. Training was always very good and professional under Tony McAndrew and Alun Evans.
I got Player of the Year – the trophy is safely at home, next to my Goal of the Season trophy from years earlier. Selfishly, I enjoyed that season a lot. It fell away towards the end and we finished about 8th I think, which was disappointing. I thought we were nailed on to make the top 3 or 4. Towards the end, Little called me in for a chat and told me he was planning to let me go. He soon left though…..
So, you’d technically left the club at that point?
Yes! Then Gary Megson came in and offered me a contract. I’d been training with Chesterfield and they’d made me an offer. I think it was Graham Kavanagh who’d spoken to Megson – he told him to keep me, and not to lose a good player for no reason. I then received a call from John Rudge and before you know it, I’ve signed and it looks to everyone else that I’d never actually left!
Megson was a very hard – an old school, strong figure. I do have a lot of respect for what he did in his short time at Stoke, but he wasn’t my favourite manager, he was very authoritarian. But he got the club back on track – we were moving in the right direction again, battling for the crowd and the shirt. Now, I’ve been a manger and coach and I understand the challenges he faced, you have to respect the impact he had.
The Icelanders then came in with their own man…
I played in Gudjon Thordarsson’s first game – just down the road against my home club Wycombe. That was a huge night for me, bringing it all back to where it started. We won 4-0 and I played well – it was a good start. But it didn’t last for me.
Gudjon didn’t like me. I can’t say I was too keen on him either, but I definitely thought he didn’t rate me. To make things worse, in training one day, I shattered my wrist after Gavin Ward landed on me. I ended up missing out on the Wembley Final in the Auto Windscreen’s. That wasn’t nice. I was a good inured pro and I always did my rehab well. I returned very late on that season but it was too late to really have an impact.
Your Favourite Stoke memories?
You always think of the goals first, obviously. Scoring on my home debut against Wolves at the Vic was sweet – I’ll never forget that. Apart from the Derby County volley, the one I like best, in terms of technique, was a chip I scored against Oldham at the Britannia. Their keeper wasn’t that far off the line but I made perfect contact and it sailed in beautifully.
I enjoyed my time at Stoke – I always enjoyed a good relationship with the supporters. They knew I always tried my best, first and foremost. I’d like to think I could play for them a bit as well. That bond I had with Stoke fans – the working-class work ethic and emphasis on respect for 100% effort reminded me of my early days as a pro at West Ham so it was a really good fit. Just running out of the tunnel into the Vic, hearing the locals right on your side – that was the feeling that I remember above anything else.
From humble beginnings……
So it came to pass that we interviewed Mamady Sidibé and Ricardo Fuller on 4th May earlier this year. Eight years to the day since we sealed promotion to the Premier League; a day when a drunken man in a rabbit outfit led that premature but legendary pitch invasion, and things changed just a little bit in ST4.
The two-and-a-bit-hour interview is more of a casual conversation on their part and a shameless love-in on ours. They are both relaxed in each others’ company, comfortable in their Trentham surroundings and more than happy to open up. We, on the other hand, are like giggly schoolgirls given an audience with 1D.
Things do get personal, and both men have remarkable, individual stories to tell – but it’s that sense of collective, so important under TP that shines brightest. Both were at their career peaks when they played their parts in Stoke City folklore, and it is clear that the club/ area mean as much to them as they do to us.
Typing that last sentence feels great.
Mama’s eyes widen when talk reaches the drama of the promotion season, whilst Ricardo’s expert recollections of the specific details are as surprising as they are impressive.
Obviously giddy, we arrive early and our predictions are justified: Mama does of course arrive on time. The grin is wide and the welcome is warm: he almost seems embarrassed to be the object of our affections. Equally as impressive, is Ricardo’s fashionably late arrival – anything else would have been a disappointment, to be honest. Maverick he might be, but with the strut comes the apology and his high spirits are infectious. Unlike defenders with the challenge of taming his talismanic talents, off the pitch he puts those around him at ease. He also brings his own drink with him to the café – and we guffaw and titter as the waitress brings him an empty glass!
Opposites attract and the pair get on really well. Complimentary on the pitch; compliments off it. Mama is polite, deferential and beyond humble; he isn’t comfortable with self-indulgence but he does know he played his part in a memorable era. Ricardo is animated and driven, oozing self-belief. In the ring, Mama would smile you into a sweet submission and there’s no doubt whatsoever about Fuller’s inner steel – he’d fight you to the death, and he says as much.
Their histories are similar: tough upbringings, where proving yourself was as necessary as it was difficult. Temptations had to be avoided. However, exactly how their pasts have inspired their careers is strikingly different. Out of Africa, Mama’s version of Mali and me is slightly more edgy. He feels blessed to have had the career and the life he’s had – his former strike partner later sums it up perfectly: ‘Mama Sidibe has won just by being here.’ The title of Mama’s autobiography says it all: ‘The Luckiest Man In Football.’
At the other end of the scale, Fuller is an absolute force of nature. Presented with obstacles boy and man, he’s swaggered and smashed his way straight through them. There’s an ego there, but it’s charming and given what he reveals later, is clearly a survival tool.
The signature Mama moment was of course the winner in that game against Villa at the Brit – history made and belief achieved. Less iconic, but just as crucial though, was that winner at Norwich in the promotion season: we were on the back on three awful results, the midweek trek attracted just a few hundred Stokies, we played poorly and it was the only win in eight games between late February and early April. That goal was a necessity. But another, less memorable night captured the Sidibe selflessness best: Pride Park, Derby, 2006. The promotion-bound hosts faced a Stoke side with him as the only fit striker and defying all expectations, we battled our way to a two-nil win. Higginbotham and Matteo were on the scoresheet that night but their towering team-mate was the difference: he occupied two or three defenders throughout, led the line alone, with confidence and new-found energy levels emerged, as he thrived on the increased responsibility on his shoulders. He was two men that night. Maybe three.
From Fuller’s fifty goals in a Stoke shirt, you would feel confident in submitting at least twenty of them for any worthy compilation. Again, that Villa game provides the most famous: for sheer skill, imagination and originality, it takes some beating. Our Jamaican genius often selected teams from the West Midlands for severe punishment, usually in spectacular fashion – if you were at Molineux for the solo effort in that tumultuous 4-2 victory, you’ll do well to ever forget it. But the lasting image of our number 10’s portfolio is surely that irrepressible trademark move: receive the ball wide right, back to goal, 50 yards from glory before bewitching and out-muscling his many markers and delivering where and when it matters. Imagine that Fuller in the current Stoke team!
We put it to hundreds of Stoke fans – what questions should we ask? Most responses were of a similar theme… don’t ask them anything, just say thank you for the good times. We did.
So, here goes…….
Tell us about the early days… your childhood and early interest in football…
MS: I was born in Mali, but we didn’t have much money so Dad left us with Mum very early on to go to France, where he could find work. Soon after, we joined him – I was just two years old. Dad was working and we became more comfortable, living in an apartment in a town on the outskirts of Paris. Dad wasn’t into football – he was interested in Martial Arts, which I tried for six months but it wasn’t for me.
The only way to fall in love with football was out there on the streets – hundreds of us would play every night and there were many kids with real talent. I was never part of an academy. I learned so much on the streets about both life and football. I’m not sure lads at academies these days have those experiences – my lad is a good example (he’s at Stoke City). If he’s not at training, he’s on the settee playing on his phone or computer games. That way, you don’t learn to have unique skills and play your own way as much.
I was outside as much as possible. There would be lads aged from 14 to 20 battling for the ball and you did well to get a touch. I knew some tough boys and I suppose I could have got in with the wrong crowd but Dad was a huge influence on me – if it wasn’t for his discipline, I’d have never had a career in football. I think living in a really tough place with little money makes you hungry to do well – if you are struggling it can give you the strong mentality to do well. There is a strong desire to prove yourself and escape.
RF: I was Jamaican born and bred, in a place called Tivoli Gardens in Kingston. It was a tough place, man! It’s well known for violence and poverty – it’s been in the news for the wrong reasons a few times. During one incident, when the government tried to arrest a druglord, and the army went in to get him, my Grandmother’s house was burnt down during the chaos. Lots of people died.
Like Mama, I was always out playing on the streets. Many of us kids didn’t even have proper shoes and we couldn’t play football on grass – it was this asphalt stuff. For a ball, we’d often have to squash a box and stuff it with paper. Seriously. We’d use two huge rocks for goal posts! On the side of a 5-a-side pitch, there would be 20 or 30 players steaming in. If you ever got hold of the ball, you had to do everything in your power to keep it or you might not see it again for a while!
My dad played for the Tivoli Gardens team in the country’s top league and he even represented Jamaica once. I played for the Tivoli men’s team when I was just 14. He was a defender but I was always a striker, and my game was always about goals. In school leagues, I scored 18 three seasons running. Although I was always late for school, despite living just 5 minutes away from the front gates!
Of course, track and field is big back home and most people think my scholarship was in football, but it was actually in athletics! I was coached by a guy who worked with Usain Bolt and I specialised in 100m and 200m but for evening training sessions, I often couldn’t be bothered to turn up. When he got to my name on the register there would be a silence! I didn’t fancy all that running at football training either. I would often hide when it was time to run up the steps! They wanted us to do every single step in the stadium – no way! Austria pre-season under Tony Pulis at Stoke was tough then, obviously, ha ha! But that was different and what had to be done, had to be done – I am a professional.
MS: Well, it started in Wales for me actually, at Swansea City. I’d spent time at Red Star 93, the second biggest club in Paris behind PSG. We won the reserve league when I was 18 and they were good times, even though I was playing at the back. I couldn’t play for the first team though because of my status without the correct passport. It’s not like London for football, where there are lots of big teams. PSG dominate far too much these days and that’s not great. I went there from a non league club in Paris.
It was at that time that I changed position. I’d always played full-back or centre-back, with no real hopes of making it as a professional, so one day I just asked to play as a striker, just for fun. It was my best season, scoring 14 goals in 20 games and things were going really well. Little did I know, one of my team mates, our left back was an agent.
At the end of the season, I was supposed to go on trial in Italy. Most of the top players were going to Serie A then, not always to England. But this agent knew people over in the UK and I couldn’t move to Italy anyway because of passport issues. So I went to Swansea…..I felt very homesick, living on my own in an apartment there. It was a lovely place but I missed my friends and family – I come from a large extended family. I couldn’t even enjoy the television because of the language barrier.
I scored 7 goals in 31 games at the Vetch Field but I injured my ankle and needed surgery so the club were making me wait for a new contract, giving me a letter which told me to go away on holiday and think about things. I thought I’d end up back in Paris but Ian Holloway invited me to training at QPR. That move never came off – he said they didn’t have enough money to sign me. Then out of nowhere, an agent contacted me about Gillingham. I was put up in a hotel nearby and it was organised for me to meet manager Andy Hessenthaler for a chat at the ground. There was a game on and he asked where my kit was – I didn’t even have a bag with me!
In the changing room, a striker warned me off, telling me there were too many strikers at the club already (RF interrupts – “he was threatened by you Mama, scared for his place, ha ha!”). I came on in the second half and played well. I was asked to spend the following week there. In the next game, at Dover, I scored a hat-trick and soon I was offered a 3 year contract.
RF: When I moved to the UK, I felt a little homesick but it was easier for me, with English as my own language and there are plenty of Jamaican communities already over here. I’d also done a fair bit of travelling playing for the national youth teams – I’d been to Scandinavia and Brazil for weeks on end. I played well for the Jamaica under 20 World Cup squad in 1998 – I scored 14 goals in 14 games at that level. Then, I joined the under 23 team for the 1999 Commonwealth Games in Canada; we finished 4th and me and another player were interesting teams from England.
My manager knew an agent in the UK and a trial at Charlton Athletic was soon arranged. I stayed in the Marriott Hotel in Bexley Heath throughout the two week trial. I have fond memories of the place and still stay there whenever I visit London. The first trial match was against Southampton with Matt Le Tissier playing – he was chubby, but what a player – a legend. I scored the winner, playing alongside the likes of Scott Parker and Kevin Lisbie. It was old-school reserve team football with some solid professionals and a good standard. Jonathan Fortune was also playing. Years later, he would join me at Stoke and I was the middle man in that move. Jonathan was asking me about Pulis and the gaffer was asking me about him. I said that both guys were cool, let’s get the move on!
Anyway, the next trial game was against Leicester and I score again in a 2-1 win. That left one final game against Watford but on the day, it was absolutely freezing. The weather was awful and the pitch was rock hard so it was postponed. I was going mad in that hotel room that time, just doing sit-ups and press-ups to keep myself fit. My agent advised me not to go into the city and meet up with friends, so I could stay focused. The only time I left the building was to watch movies – there was a cinema across the road and I went there every single night! Oh, and there was a lovely Chinese takeaway across the road – that helped!
So within a few days, I was back home in Jamaica out driving one day and we had a road accident. My friend got bad whiplash and it turned out later I must have had some delayed back problems, too. A couple weeks after, I’m back in London for the Watford match – with a slipped disc, I scored a hat-trick in our 5-2 win! Apparently Spurs, Liverpool and Hearts were interested in me by this point but Charlton had first option and they agreed a £1.25 million fee with Tivoli. Then came the medical – it was crazy, lasting 6 hours. I wasn’t expecting that, not appreciating the seriousness of the professional game.
I signed my forms but it was delayed because the chairman wouldn’t sign until he saw the medical report. It eventually came back and the MRI machine showed up the back problem. The move was officially off but they offered to look after me for a year whilst I had the operation. It was in Wellington Hospital, opposite the Lords cricket ground, with a surgeon called Dr Tucker. He put a titanium cage in my back and I owed him everything. I should still buy him flowers! I gave him my jersey from my professional debut.
Ric – you spent time at a number of clubs in those early days… how did your career take off in the end?
I was saying up in the old infirmary in Shooter’s Hill in South East London. My rehab took 13 months. I had to wear a corset for 3 months! When I finally got back on the pitch, I was struggling big time. I was at Crystal Palace by this point. I’d played 8 games and I knew the manager Allan Smith liked me but if I played a 9th, it would cost them money.
On the pitch, I just couldn’t twist and swerve like I used to. I’d never felt so tired – I’d be blowing out of my backside. I couldn’t find my feet and was worried about the future but I never give up if I really want something. Show no fear, that’s me! If I have to keep smashing into a wall until it falls, I will.
I went back to Jamaica and played for the national team which helped me to build my fitness back up a bit. Soon, I was in Scotland on loan at Hearts but I couldn’t get fit enough to find my best form. After 3 games, the fans were unimpressed and it wasn’t looking good but then in one moment, everything changed. In the 4th game, I beat two players and let loose with a screamer – it flew into the net and from that moment I never looked back. I ended up scoring 9 goals in 12 games and once got the player of the month award. There were some good players up there at the time – Henrik Larsson at Celtic and Barry Ferguson at Rangers, so it was a good achievement.
Then Craig Brown came in for me and took me to Preston a 3 year contract – I had a great time at Deepdale. My first chance in the Premier League came at Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp. Although I didn’t score loads, I played well and created 9 penalties in 1 season, which Yakubu put away. Harry went to Southampton, the local rivals and he took me and Nigel Quashie with him – imagine that with the fans!
Southampton had been relegated and were struggling, then unbelievably, Harry made up with the Portsmouth chairman and returned to Fratton Park! He left us two there, taking stick off the fans who were not happy, ha ha! We got called ‘Skates,’ (a traditional insult for local sailors) as ex-Portsmouth players in the same way Southampton fans got called ‘Scummers.’
My knee was always giving me grief so the goals were not flying in and things were tough down there. I was sent out on loan to Ipswich and had just 5 games there – it was lovely though – I managed to score 3 goals and get sent-off twice! One of the bookings was for a naughty gesture towards Preston fans – they’d given me loads of stick – all that Judas stuff for leaving. Fans love you, then they hate you! George Burley didn’t take to me so that was the end of that.
How did your moves to Stoke came about?
MS: It’s true that Tony Pulis signed me just before he was sacked. I felt good about the move but two weeks later the manager who wanted me was gone! I was worried about my future so I asked John Rudge where I was stood. Johan Boskamp came in and I expected him to get rid of me but he said he’s give me a chance. He was a crazy man but we played some really good football, keeping it on the floor, especially away from home and finished mid-table.
Sammy Bangoura was there then and everything was great at first but he arrived late for pre-season once Tony Pulis had returned and that’s where his trouble started. Sammy was laid back and he didn’t meet the gaffer’s standards. I hit it off with Ric when he arrived – it was easy and we knew each other from games against each other in the past.
RF: I remember playing for Preston at the Britannia in a night game and how cold it was, ha ha! I felt really ill before the game but the manager Billy Davies persuaded me to give it a go.
When we arrived, I couldn’t believe it – I never seen wind like it! Just what I needed! I was shaking on the pitch, honestly. We drew I think and I scored. Some of the Preston lads, Marlon Broomes and Richard Creswell later joined me to play at the coldest ground on earth!
So it was back to Southampton after the Ipswich loan and things went much better – a run of games and goals at last for me down there. Danny Higginbotham was in the team at the time but he soon left for Stoke and when he arrived, Tony Pulis asked him about me. Apparently, he said “you have to sign Ric!”, so the gaffer rang me and said he wanted to do a deal.
I admitted that I was unlikely to pass the medical – I never passed any medical ever! It got to the stage where I was embarrassed by it – I’d be at one club, then off to another for a medical and then back having betrayed them in the eyes of the fans. That affected the contract as Stoke – I took a huge pay cut and the club was different then – there were portacabins for changing rooms, man!
(Mama interrupts: “Ric, I remember when we didn’t even have them to change in. When Salif Diao arrived on loan, I gave him a lift from the Brit down to the training ground – he got in my car and made the seats filthy with his muddy training gear – I told him never get in my car again!”)
But I signed, the move to Stoke felt right and as they say, the rest is history…….