Monday, 28 March 2011

Stoke City and I

My first memories of Stoke City encompass the bizarre and the disgusting. I will get the second point out of the way first. The earliest recollection of the Victoria Ground was collecting cigarette butts for a relative who had a Rizla machine to roll fags. I would be child labour and about 5. The butts were the means of obtaining the tobacco supply. It did not do this particular relative harm as they lived to a great age. The curious memory is of sheep grazing on the Victoria Ground in the 60s to keep the grass closely cropped. There might be a picture somewhere in the Sentinel archive. I am sure that I am not making this up. I went to school at St Peters next to the ground and the club were kind enough to let the school hold their sports day there. I was in a relay team that won the sprint. My first and only ever sporting achievement on any Stoke City pitch

But back to football
My first Stoke match was in March 1962 when I was just short of my 7th birthday. We played Swansea Town and it ended as a 0-0 draw. It’s strange how memory plays tricks as I thought that there were goals. We lived in Lytton St and in the promotion season of 1962-3 the roar of the 40,000 plus crowd could be clearly heard where we lived the other side of Stoke. An early opportunity to make a bit of money was offering to look after supporter’s cars. It was done innocently and not in the modern day way of " looking after cars" as practised around Anfield or Eastlands.

I missed the centenary game against Real Madrid in 63 although my father went and bought back the programme. Years later a woman living in Hartshill showed me a Real Madrid medal she was given by some of the players who she met wandering around Shelton.

However I did go to the Matthews testimonial match in April 65 and, unlike Tony Blair, saw "Wor" Jackie Milburn play in the veterans game before the International XI v Matthews XI main feature. Milburn patted his expanded midriff when he was unable to reach a ball much to the amusement of the crowd.

When the "galloping major" Puskas died a few years ago the sports writer for the Guardian named him as the 5 greatest footballers in the last 50 years along with Pele, Best, Cruyff and Maradona. I saw 3 of the five at the Victoria Ground.

In the 60s I went to the Victoria Ground regularly and my 1969 diary mentions seeing games against Spurs, Burnley and Manchester City. Again its strange how memory plays tricks and the clearest memory I have of a game was a 1-1 draw against Spurs when half the Stoke team was laid low with illness. The Spurs team was riding high in the League and the draw was considered miraculous.
By this time we were living in Abbey Hulton and the games were a highlight of the weekend. We took the bus from Leek Rd into Stoke although money was tight and only allowed for a programme and travel. On one occasion I tries to smuggle one of my brothers under my coat to try to get in for nothing. My nerve failed and we paid up enduring the long walk back to the Abbey.

I saw some iconic games in the 70s as well including the 73 match against Leeds and a 75 2-0 win against Liverpool. The 70s was of course Stokes heyday and the exciting football of the time gave Stoke something of a swashbuckling image.

The first of only a few away matches was an early 70s cup replay against Huddersfield at Old Trafford. Dennis Smith scored and I mentioned the game when he spoke at a dinner that I went to at Baddeley Green Working Men’s club. He said that he had pain killing injections to get him through the match. I recall the atmosphere of the match and above all the excellent fish and chips in a shop somewhere close to Warwick Rd.

My youngest brother and I went to Goodison in January 1977 to see Stoke well beaten by an Everton side that included Duncan McKenzie who gave perhaps the greatest performance I have ever seen by a player against Stoke. My brother was fully decked out in the red and white stripes. We were the only Stoke fans on the bus back from Stanley Park. It was a sea of blue and an uncomfortable journey.

I saw some great Stoke players such as Hudson and Mickey Thomas who always gave a 100%. For some curious reason I liked a player called Kelly who they got from Wigan who could pass brilliantly, although from his bulk he probably liked the sauce.

I also played with one or two Stoke players. Alan A’Court used to run the sports centre at Staffs University. As a teenager of the Abbey I used to have a kick around with Garth Crooks- we always knew that he had great ability- and I turned out for a CND team for a five a side competition at Bucknall Park in the early 80s. Griffiths who Stoke got from a non-league team from Devon turned out for one of the other teams

I also saw some terrible games. I was there at Wigan in February 1991 when an abject performance by the team saw Alan Ball sacked and another wretched performance in the cup against non-league Telford. I made the mistake of mocking a friend at University who was a Leicester City supporter who that year- 1978- were knocked out by Walsall. He returned the mockery in spades when Stoke were knocked out by non-league Blyth Spartans. Nemesis always follows hubris.

I also went to most of the games in the season we went down from the old First division in the " holocaust season". The Boxing Day victory against United was a rare victory. As a Stoke Councillor in 1985 I played in a friendly organised against Liverpool Council before a match against Everton. I scored a goal that was disallowed a header although I climbed over the militant member Tony Mulherne in order to get at the ball. He lay on the ground and cried "foul"- O irony. "Deggsy" Hatton also turned out in brand new Everton kit and broke down after a few minutes. Everton went on to win the real match later that day. I think they won the league that season

On the subject of the Vale. I used to go to the occasional match in the 70s when Stoke were playing away and I was in Stoke with University mates from York. It was quite common for people to alternate between the Vale and Stoke. We used to go up to Burslem for a pint beforehand at the time Burslem had a few really good pubs like the "Foaming Quart" which has since closed. It helped that one of my brothers Tim was an apprentice at the Vale in the late 70s. I also worked in the Education Department with Albert Leake, a true gent, who played in the 54 Semi Final team. From 07-9 I worked on an oral history project called Port Vale Tales. It involved interviewing the older supporters and players who had played with the team in the 50s to the 80s. It was really enjoyable talking to the old players such as Graham Barnett, Hancock and Harry Poole. (I used to the newspaper deliverer for Poole when he ran a newsagent on the Abbey in the 60s). He told what it was like to play against the Roker Roar.

I don’t make many matches working at weekends works and I only made a couple of games since they returned to the Premiership. A disappointing game draw against Fulham and the draw against Wigan last season.

Before I went to the Fulham game in December 2008 I called in to the "Staff of Life" and had a pint to toast the memory of John McCready. He was a Fenton Councillor and we used to go to the "Staff of Life" in the doomed 84-5 season. I hope he is smiling down from wherever he is.