Here's my personal homage dedicated to a modern day Stoke City legend. Indeed, an all-time Stoke City legend. It was published in issue 66, a year ago. As the title says, forever our captain.....

The end of an era. The departure of a legend.

There’s no other way to adequately describe the departure of the only player to ever lead Stoke City out for an FA Cup Final. I’ve tried, but these 3000 words or so are nowhere near enough to say what Ryan Shawcross means to Stoke City Football Club and its supporters. As his plane leaves UK soil for the bright lights and subtropical climate of Miami, with it goes the last of the originals - the final player of that glorious team that got us promoted to the Premier league stop playing in ST4.

Everything good has to come to an end, but that’s not to say you can’t wish it had gone on just that little bit longer, and you definitely can’t say that it doesn’t make even the coldest heart a little bit sad. Ryan Shawcross wasn’t just a fantastic footballer for our club. But it isn’t about just what he did….it was how he did it, why he did it, and the way he did it.

Fans of a certain club might not like to hear this, but the is the truth - Ryan Shawcross is a bloody good bloke. What my dad would call a “proper professional footballer” and a “proper bloke”. A humble, gentle, softly spoken, family-loving giant who happens to have turned into a modern-day Denis Smith for this generation.

I interviewed Ryan a year ago, in the Harvester, across the road from the ground. Sat by the window, we could both see the brilliant statue of Gordon Banks across the road, as the sun went down behind the bet365 Stadium. Whilst I’m not comparing Ryan’s status in the same light as Banksy, it was a bit surreal chewing the fat with a modern day Stoke City legend, peering out at an icon. It was an interview I had so wanted to do for some time, but despite seeing Ryan on a very regular basis, I never really asked. Yes, I was bloody scared to, I was in awe of him. Even in my fifth decade on this planet, I held him in the highest of esteem. Yet, Ryan would probably say himself, there really was no need to….

Why? Because Ryan and his lovely family are - and this is a massive compliment - just so normal. I have been lucky enough to have watched my youngest lad play in the same team as their eldest lad for a few years now……and what has been so brilliant is that Ryan and Kath are just another mum and dad at the match, watching their kid play. On those days, he’s not Ryan Shawcross, Stoke City and England, he’s Ryan Shawcross. And I reckon he absolutely loves being just that.

Family is everything to Ryan, and it’s fair to say that he’ll miss this area and the people, too. We know we will miss him because he is apart of the very fabric of this club, community and area. What makes him the player and person he is? I reckon it’s the stability and love from his family…….as the man himself told me…..

“Yeah, massively. You know how much I think of my family and it’s that stability that has helped me so much as a player and a person throughout the years. Kath is always there doing the right things at the right times – when I’m down she knows when to pick me up, leave me alone, or even poke fun at me. She’s a local girl and understands the area and the people, and I’m so happy to be living where I do. She works incredibly hard, and I owe so much to her. I’ve got three great kids, and my family means the world to me.”

On a Sunday morning watching the lads, I have always been wary of brining the previous day’s Stoke game up in conversation. He’s not at work, so why should I talk about his work? But you’ll often get a sarcastic parent who supports another club saying “Well done for keeping the score down to 4 yesterday” or another quip to break the ice. Or Ryan will ask us what we thought of the performance and we’ll all chip in - but we are all far more fussed about how our kids going to do, as we cradle a coffee on another freezing day at Clayton Wood.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of “ooh look, Bunny thinks he’s mates with Ryan” article. It’s to show those non-believers just what kind of bloke he is.

On the pitch, well, what can you say?

Will any Stoke player ever beat Ryan’s tally of Premier League appearances? I very much doubt it! What really gets on my nerves is when some people talk about his injuries and missing games - to that I simply say, just look at the bloody games he did play, especially those he had no right to due to injury. Look at the time he played through personal heartache at Southampton, and the sight of him running off the pitch at the end of the FA Cup semi final to check on his child’s health…….

I shouldn’t have played that day. Our new-born daughter was very seriously ill in hospital, in fact in intensive care, and I didn’t think I could play or should play. It was my wife Kath who told me to go and play, and I eventually listened to her despite having massive doubts. At the end of the game, I was straight off the pitch to the changing room and to my phone to check my texts. You may not have noticed, but I missed around ten minutes of the celebrations after the final whistle?”

Ryan has put Stoke City first many, many times. Possibly every time. Captain. Leader. Legend. In every sense of the word. They come around once or twice, maybe three times in a supporting lifetime if you’re lucky, and I’m gutted writing this that my favourite Stoke player of my 47years watching The Potters has now left the club.

For someone to beat Ryan’s Premier League appearance for Stoke will take some doing. I doubt it will ever be broken in my lifetime due to the way football is nowadays. 14 years at one club, a decade as captain, at the level that he has played, is a remarkable achievement.

Leadership comes in many forms. Some see Ryan as quiet. Off the pitch, away from football, yes, but ask any of the other players who is the undoubted leader of the football club on and off the pitch. Ask them who trains as well as any other player has in his time at the club. Ask them who goes above and beyond to do their ‘bit’ for the club and community. They will all say Ryan. Even when injured, Ryan is the captain, the leader. And when other players from the club are injured - such as academy players - guess who is often the one who goes for a quiet, positive word with them?

Far, far better with the ball than many give him credit for, and far, far quicker than many give him credit for - Ryan Shawcross was one of the standout England defenders for several years. That he only won one cap is an absolute crime, and one that I won’t forgive those who were responsible. That he was slated by the press and even the manager for a substitute appearance against at the time, the best out and out striker in world football, was a disgrace. And we also have seen the complete demonisation and vilification of a young player for a decade or so, for a complete accident in a Premier League game. Still goes on to the day I’m typing this. It’s an utter joke. But through all that, Ryan emerged. His performances and demeanour throughout the above at such an early stage in his career was simply stunning. Others would have crumbled. Not Ryan.

Luckily, Ryan was at the right football club. We look after our own here, and we did. We closed ranks, we stood by our man. And we always will when it comes to Ryan Shawcross. But it takes a special kind of man and footballer to come through the twice-yearly vitriol and vilification and to keep his standards so high. There have been many, far too many, words written and spoken about that game at The Brit - we won’t add any more now, apart from thank you to the England players who welcomed Ryan into the training camp later that week.

Highlights? Wow, we only have 50 pages or so to fill, and we already did a homage issue to him last year!

Ryan’s whole Stoke career has been one brilliant highlight……starting as that shaven-headed raw teenager stepping out into the heat of Ninian Park in August 2008, to the Premier League, England, the armband, Wembley twice, Europe(and a few bad bits in recent years, too!)……the stats are amazing, but don’t do the man justice…..

453 appearances

159 wins

126 clean sheets

25 goals

1 legend.

You could always tell that Ryan had been well schooled, growing up going through the academy ranks at Manchester United. He was part of the Youth Cup team beaten by Stoke and then all hauled in to see Sir Alex the next day for the ultimate hairdryer - as Ryan said in our interview…..

“Have I been on the end of one of his hairdryer moments? Of course, a number of times. I remember losing to Stoke in the Youth Cup at Hyde. We had a cracking team - I was in the back three with Gerard Pique and Jonny Evans, and we had the likes of Darren Gibson, Lee Martin, Guiseppe Rossi, Danny Simpson, and Frazier Campbell in the squad. We lost, and the next day we were all called into Sir Alex’s office…...

We stood outside like naughty schoolboys outside the headteacher’s office at first, until he called us in. To say he had a massive go at us would be an understatement, and this wasn’t the last time I was in his office having a telling off either, especially when I went in to see him about getting first team football elsewhere and over joining Norwich or Stoke. He’s an unbelievably charismatic man, but yes, he’s absolutely fearsome. But he has huge standards….”

And it’s those standards that Ryan has carried with him throughout his professional career. Never one to seek or be in the headlines for the wrong reasons, never really seeking to be in the media at all, just wanting to do his job - but always a brilliant ambassador for our football club. That’s why we Stokies will always stick up for him.

Almost three years ago, I was sat in Caligari airport, waiting with the family to fly back from our holiday in Sardinia. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I’m on my phone……it’s mid-afternoon UK-time, and the video of Ryan’s injury against Leicester is all over social media. Cue a certain set of supporters rejoicing. Our flight was delayed by 12 hours, and I spent most of that time batting clowns away on Twitter. Ryan’s loyalty deserves loyalty in return. He’s one of us. One of the finest of us.

We were lucky to get Ryan Shawcross at Stoke City. Norwich City had all but done the deal, but TP ended up getting the big man to sign by locking him in a room! And from that moment, possibly the best value signing in the club’s modern history became a reality. One of the best things about Ryan’s time at Stoke as that we’ve all been with him every step along the way (as the song goes). The great times, the good times, and the hard times. We’ve watched him grow from youth to man; from a gangly centre half with tons of promise to the real deal, one of the nation’s finest. So many Stokies will have been on the same journey as Ryan, and whilst born on the English/Welsh border(something some parents at the academy rib him about when the two nations are playing) he’s an adopted Stokie. One of us. Because he plays just like we would if we were good enough to do so.

Bandages covered in blood; Bruises; Broken bones; Back in absolute bits…, it’s not the line up for a heavy metal concert, it’s a prerequisite for being a centre half in my book. The ability to defend, wanting to defend. Doing everything you can to stop the other team scoring. There is as much beauty in brilliant defending and seeing players put it all on the line for your club as there is in Barca-type football. That’s Ryan - first port of call is stopping the other team from scoring. Physically imposing on the pitch, I always think he’s surprisingly skinny in his civilians - but as soon as the likes of him, Abdoulaye, Huthy etc put that shirt on, they suddenly became colossuses, man mountains.

You can tell Huthy loves him, as when we interviewed him, he continually took the mick out of Ryan. You know when that happens there’s massive respect and admiration from that person going on. Me made fun of Ryan’s jeans, drinking ability….everything.  And the amount of strikers who have told me that the Huth/Ryan axis was as tough an afternoon as they have ever had - just ask Jay Rodriguez. I did. He said it was so bad they went to stand by Dicko or Wilko for a rest!!!!!!

But my favourite story is one I’ve kept quiet about, until now……

Three Christmas’ ago, quite a few of the mums and dads from the Stoke academy team went for a night out in Chester. Most stayed over and were there from mid-afternoon, but Ryan was playing that day (Bolton away, 0-0,awful game under Rowett) and so he and Kath drove over after the game. A model professional, Ryan was driving home that night, but we all had a cracking night out - especially as one of the dad’s is an award-winning magician! It was a belting night. We ended up going to a club and in there, us blokes stood one side of the bar whilst the wives were having a bop on the dancefloor. One of the dad’s is a great lad called Jamie Mullan. Jamie was at Man United with Ryan and has played professionally all his life and is now at TNS in the League Of Wales. He’s a great lad, is Jamie.

Anyway, a bloke came over to our group, obviously he was well the worst for wear. He eyed us all up, and I though “bloody hell, here we go!” He lastly looked at Ryan, looked him up and down, and slurred “I know who you are mate”……We all froze a bit, before the bloke then turned away from Ryan and said “You’re Jamie bloody Mullan, you play for TNS!” and held his hand out to shake.

We all absolutely wet ourselves. Cracked up. I think Ryan thought it was a set-up, but we assured him it wasn’t, and he laughed more than anyone. He got so much grief over that for a few weeks from us though - an international, Premier League footballer not recognised, but a lad who you might have caught a glimpse of if you watch Sgorio on S4C, was!

So, what does the future hold for RS17?

Well, a bit more sun than The Potteries no doubt, but where will Kath get her oatcakes from? And hopefully, the big man can enjoy a pink gin on one of the many beaches! The coaching road is one that Ryan is already well on the way down, and I have no doubt that he’ll be a manager one day. Hopefully at Stoke City. I’ve already seen at close quarters Ryan in action with the coaches’ jacket on. He has taken some academy sessions and matches that my own lad and his have been involved in. Kids were hanging off his every word - I mean, how many first team captains coach the academy kids? What an honour for those lads. He will make a brilliant coach or manager, I’m convinced of that, because the bloke just oozes leadership and commands respect. The very best leaders don’t ask for respect - they just get it.

It goes without saying that we wish Ryan, Kath and the kids all the very best on their Miami adventure. A brilliant, brilliant family. Lovely, salt-of-the-earth folk. It also goes without saying we want to see Ryan back at Stoke City in some capacity one day, too. There’s unfinished business, Ryan. We want a trophy. And we want to see that trophy in your hands!

In 1976, I was sat in my nans living room in Cobridge when it came on the radio that Jimmy Greenhoff had left Stoke City. It’s been 45years since that day, one that I can picture clearly in my mind’s eye, even now. A whole club’s support was sick to the stomach back then. I haven’t feltlike that until now over the departure of a player. Steino came close, but Ryan Shawcross is far more than just a Stoke City footballer to me.

The last word obviously goes to our captain, the only man to lead us out in an FA Cup Final. I asked Ryan if he had any regrets….

“Not really no. I love what I do, and I’ve always thought that my contracts were fair and my relationship with those in charge is really good. I’m not a greedy person, or one who looks at others and thinks I should begetting more. I’m immensely proud of the career I’ve had so far, what we’ve done, and captaining this football club.”

Ryan James Shawcross. Number seventeen. Forever our captain.