Earlier this year it dawned on me that this year marked the fortieth year that I’ve been a supporter of Stoke City Football Club. It’s not something that I’d paid much mind to before, and it came as a bit of a shock. Forty years is a long time. It’s a lifetime.
When I got over the jolt, I cast my mind back over those four decades, and despite the ups and (mainly) downs on the pitch and the many changes, I got to thinking that those years have been kind to me. I’ve seen some great teams, great players. Great games, great goals. We’ve had a few decent managers. We’ve moved from the Victoria Ground – one of English football’s great old arenas – to the Britannia/bet365 Stadium, where we’ve seen the mighty crumble.
But it’s been about more than just the football. It’s been about kinship, relationships, and a coming together of a people, based on a shared love and geographical experience. I may not have understood the meaning of ‘we are Stoke’ back in 1981, but I do now.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was part of not just my story, but part of a bigger story involving a cast of thousands, but that I could tell that story simply from my perspective. But although it is my take, it is one that many will absolutely recognise.
And with all stories, I will start at the beginning. The first time.
When I was a small child, I began to notice that on a Saturday afternoon, Dad would disappear for a few hours, leaving home around 1 pm, and returning at around 6 pm. Eventually, I asked Mum where he was off to, and she gave me a simple single word answer: “Stoke”.
Mum’s response held little meaning to me, and so the obvious next question was to ask dad what ‘Stoke’ was. I was four years old at the time, and although I was very young, I knew that Stoke was a place, but little more, and I couldn’t understand why Dad was going there on a Saturday. It turned out that he also used to go there on weekday evenings too, but I was normally getting ready for bed and so Dad leaving the house used to be pass me by. What was Stoke?
At the time, I was starting to develop an interest in football, though it was simply a matter of kicking a fly-away ball around with Dad on the village green, or the grass as we called it, or playing headers in the house much to Mum’s consternation. And so I was to get a pleasant surprise when I asked Dad what ‘Stoke’ was. Stoke was Stoke City Football Club and the Victoria Ground, the place where he went to watch football. Not the kickabouts that we enjoyed together, but proper football, the real thing that I’d only occasionally seen on the television.
Dad promised me that when I was big enough, he’d take me to Stoke with him. Dad always kept his promises, and so on 28th October 1981 – a school night – Dad and I attended our first Stoke City game together, the first of many. Manchester City were the visitors to the Victoria Ground for a League Cup Second Round Second Leg match. Stoke had lost 2-0 in the First Leg at Maine Road a couple of weeks earlier, and so Dad wasn’t particularly upbeat about our chances. I didn’t really care, as I was going to see what this Stoke was all about.
Dad didn’t have a car at the time, and so we travelled to Stoke via Hanley on old PMT buses, alighting on Church Street. We walked down Lonsdale Street with hundreds of other supporters, and I saw the distant glow of the Victoria Ground’s floodlights in the distance which gave me a real feeling of excitement. I was going to my first ever football match, this was real, it was actually happening.
We eventually joined Boothen Old Road which was swarming with Stoke City supporters – I’d never seen so many people gathered in one place before – before climbing the steps to the Boothen End turnstiles. The first thing that struck me was how friendly everyone was towards us. I was helped through the gate and onto one of the Boothen End’s red crush barriers from where I witnessed the Potters haul themselves back into the tie with two late goals, but ultimately go out after a mad penalty shootout, something I had no understanding of.
I add the details on the match garnered from Google because I remember very little from the game itself. But what I do remember is the atmosphere. The noise, the smells, the warmth, and the general vibe of being somewhere where people felt they belonged. It felt like home, albeit one shared with thousands of strangers with a common bond. It felt safe. These days, I tend to go to games with my young son. But when I do go on my own, I never feel alone. And I can trace that right back to that first game with Manchester City.
My most vivid memory of the night was the post-match exodus. Dad and I floated out of the ground with thousands of others, Dad firmly instructing me to keep hold of his hand. Boothen Old Road was a river of human beings as the Victoria Ground emptied, and we made our way out of Stoke.
Dad and I headed along Leek Road on our way to Hanley Bus Station to get the late Mow Cop bus home. It was during this walk to Hanley that Dad made me another promise: that one day he would take me to Wembley to see Stoke play. It was another promise that he kept; it’s just a shame it took a relegation to the Third Division for him to keep it.
I was feeling tired as we walked up Lichfield Street towards Hanley, but as we passed Meakin’s Eastwood Pottery, the warm air that drifted out of the old place made me feel better.
On the bus home, I talked football with Dad, and he told me about the 1970s glory days, which although were only a decade earlier, seemed like an age ago to me. I asked him who would play at the Victoria Ground if Stoke went down, and when I look back, Dad’s reply was quite surprising: Cambridge, Chelsea, Orient (as they were back then), Wrexham.
I eventually fell asleep, waking as the bus trundled along Turnhurst Road and into Packmoor. Home. It had been a long day and a long night. Stoke had beaten Manchester City but lost, something that I didn’t quite comprehend at the time. But the most important thing was that I’d been to my first ever football match, and I couldn’t wait for school the next day.
On a cold winter’s morning in December 1914, men climbed out of their trenches and walked towards each other....