My previous article on the England football team this week on the website showed that I’m never going to be the biggest fan in the country. But whatever you think of Gareth Southgate, he has united the players and also bonded the squad with the support. We now see a full committed, positive and happy bunch who you can’t help but like. And that is what sport is all about for me……connection…….
Every now and then I get on TalkSport’s ‘Drive’ show to have a natter with Messrs Durham and Gough. Many will now stop reading any further at the mention of Mr Durham, but those regular DUCK readers (hi, mum!) will have read the interview we did with the show’s main man a couple of years ago, and will hopefully have a clearer picture of his work, his thoughts, and his love of football. His Paul Ware answer alone was worthy of a huge doffing of our Stoke-supporting caps.
Now, think back a few years……It was the Monday before the World Cup Semi-Final: England v Croatia, 2018. Tea time. Not dinner time. This is Stoke. It’s tea time…..
Like the rest of the country, I was in a state of giddiness. As you probably know by now, the national team have often left me cold at best and usually totally ambivalent and un-arsed at worst. I want the team to win, of course, but it hardly ever affected me when they didn’t. I sometimes wonder why, but it’s just how it is. Club before country every single time, and I’d prefer us to win the League Cup than the national team to win the World Cup.
But that summer captured everyone’s imagination and hearts. I think it caught mine because of my youngest lad who is massively into football. Some people say don’t live your life through your children. I find that saying wrong to be honest – most of the joy in my life comes through having three kids and enjoying what they do means everything to me.
So, at the start of June it was freebie wallchart on his wall, stickers collected, and One Night In Turin watched with my nine year old by my side. It’s a cliché, but he sat wide-eyed at my tales of where I watched each game of Italia 90 and the tournament itself: Gazza; Cameroon being everyone’s second team until they played us; World in Motion; Toto Schillaci; and the heartache of the Semi-Final.
Football changed forever just two years later from Italy 90 – and not for the better. And it has taken (me) almost three decades to get some sort of connection again with an England team at the World Cup. In Turin, we had Gazza’s tears and the sight of the ultimate gentleman, Bobby Robson, grinning even in defeat – this after being vilely vilified by the national media. Fast forward 28 years, and we now have a manager and a set of lads who seem to get what it means for a football team to have a connection with those who support them.
Back to Talksport……..I called in at 6pm, thirty minutes before my lad’s cricket match where I was umpiring. I literally gushed like a kid about the new connection I felt with the national team. It wasn’t about winning games. It was about having an empathy with players who beforehand I couldn’t have given a toss about.
The trick is - any walk of life, any job, any industry, and sport - get folk to CARE about you, to really CARE about you, and they will cut you some slack. They’ll have your back when you fail. Because in football, the emotional bridge built between player, team and humble supporter is what the sport is all about. In the workplace, going that extra mile for an employee or employer makes a huge difference. Being nice to someone in the street makes a huge difference.
Life is about relationships and friendships – who you connect with in a positive way. It’s easy to be negative, dead easy – but if often takes a bit of effort to get along with someone. In the summer of 2018,we got along with our national football team.
I now actually want to take my lad to see an England game. Twelve words I wouldn’t have typed three months ago.
And then there was Edgbaston. August 2018. Another national team. England versus India in the first test match of five.
I was 50 back then – an ironic (cricketing) milestone for someone who has played the sport for all but the last few years of their life. Indeed, playing-wise, cricket is my first love. It always used to be football in the winter, cricket in the summer. Those were the rules. But the once-clear demarcation lines of when the two sports are to be played have now gone.
As part of my fiftieth, my better half got me two tickets for the test match. Whilst I was really looking forward to it, my lad was literally self-combusting with excitement as he’d be having the other ticket. Because for all his love of football, his one true sporting hero is Virat Kohli. He worships him, and if you don’t know him – he’s the best batsman in the world by a country mile, the Indian captain, and a sporting icon far, far bigger in his own country than someone like David Beckham was in ours.
Train tickets purchased, I knew that the two teams get to the ground to practice at around 9am (for an 11am start) and so we got the 7am train from Stoke station platform 1 to Brum, getting into New Street an hour later. We then got a stroke of luck – we managed to hitch a taxi ride with a Stoke-supporting mate we met on the train, as he worked right by Edgbaston. So, we managed to get there for 8.30am…..
My lad had one of those miniature cricket bats that he wanted to get a few autographs on, and had his Stoke trackie on. I told him that he’d be lucky to get near international sports stars on game day, and so what happened next was a massive surprise. As we walked to an almost deserted ground, the stewards were superb, pointing us, indeed, taking us to the spot where England players would be entering the stadium. None of that walking-behind-fences business so beloved of average Premier League players: they had driven in, in twos and threes, and between 8.40am and 9.10am all walked through the car park to the main entrance. Right past us.
No stewards or heavies guiding their way – just normal blokes being normal. In fairness, there weren’t too many folk around (tip – if your kids want their autographs, do as we did if you ever go a match there and get there early) but Archie ended up meeting every single England player bar one, who we met later on that day.
First up were Messrs Curran and Cook, and every few minutes or so a few more England players came along. To a man, they all stopped, signed, posed for pictures, and had a word or two with us. Indeed, Joe Root took the mickey out of Stoke going down, with a big grin on his face. To say my lad was in dreamland was an understatement. His bat was almost fully covered with the autographs of the team, and he also now had several ace photos to put on his wall.
And then we saw the Indian team bus pull up, just around the corner……
We sprinted over, and I was sure that I was going to get the Dad of the Year award if we could just get Mr Kohli to sign his bat...
There was hardly anyone else around: a few stragglers here or there, but we were the only ones looking to get an autograph. Being captain, Kohli was the first player off the bus, and was around ten yards away from us. True sporting genius - only a short distance away. He looked over to us and as he did my lad asked in his best, most polite, please-don’t-let-me-down voice, “Mr Kohli, please can you sign my bat?”.
Kohli walked on, without emotion or recognition, as did the rest of his team.
I know that the Indian cricket team has god-like status for their cricketing public, and if there had a been a scrum of people there I’d not have batted an eyelid in them simply going into the ground. But to turn down a solitary young lad’s plea showed me three things: Firstly, they were probably under orders not to sign anything. Secondly, whilst understandable in many cases - it shows ignorance, and thirdly and most importantly, just how easy it is to lose connection between sports star and the humble supporter.
Archie was gutted, but soon got his mojo back as we walked around the ground, proudly holding his bat. Loads made really nice comments to him about the bat (not the choice of trackie, though!) and when we got to the outdoor nets he was now twenty yards away from his hero again. Virat Kohli was having a ‘net’ as he was going to bat later in the day. Archie and me marvelled at his technique and also his attitude towards practice. Here was the very best in the world in action, and we had a ringside seat. After the net, Kohli walked with security right past us. We didn’t ask again – he was now ‘at work’. And sometimes, you just know when the connection isn’t there any more anyway, yeah?
In the next net was the then England assistant-manager Paul Farbrace, who was putting a few players through their paces. As he finished, he came over to us to sign the bat, and stopped for five minutes or so for a chat. We told him that we were only missing Keaton Jennings’ signature from the England team and he replied us that he’d sort it. He also spoke about football - he’s a Chelsea fan - and the upcoming season – and posed with Archie and wished him a great day’s cricket.
And that’s exactly what we got. Unfortunately (not for Archie),karma wasn’t on my side, as Kohli managed to score a century that was touched with greatness. Whilst it was a true joy to see a master at work, I wanted him to fail for not taking five seconds from his day to make a lad’s day. But he ended the day with all the England signatures – after Farbrace came over to where we were sitting during the warm up and took Archie’s bat and pen on to the outfield for Jennings to sing. He brought it back and then told us to wait by the main entrance at the end of the day’s play.
We met Keaton Jennings at the end – along with Paul Farbrace again, who talked to us about the day’s play. It was a stunning day of sport and one that me and my lad won’ ever forget. Mainly for events off the pitch. Because as we keep saying in this magazine, what happens on the pitch is only a small part of the sports we love.
We walked back to New Street. Well, I did, Archie floated. He’d had the perfect day, and I’d had a close-up view of what makes sport so brilliant. It’s about dreams; it’s about having heroes; and above all it’s about connection. A sense of belonging. Without that connection, sport is still ace, but it loses a large slice of its very soul.
Sorry to go off Stoke City tangent, but hopefully the principles of connection and just why we love our beloved football club should never be clouded or lost.
An overwhelming majority of football supporters know that they’ll very rarely get to see silverware being lifted or possibly even a morsel of success for their team. And that’s fine. It’s part of the unofficial, unequivocal contract we sign as soon as we step foot inside our football ground for the first time. As a Stokie, I feel blessed. Over 45 years of supporting us with little success to show for it really: but every single oasis of success has been made so much sweeter by trawling through the desert of failure, sorrow or mediocrity that surrounds it. That’s what made the FA Cup, Autoglass wins, 1992/93, beating one of the Big Boys in the Premier League, last minute away winner etc etc…even more bloody brilliant.
Connection with your club is hard, possibly impossible, to fully lose. Even if you don’t go to watch anymore, there will always still be love. Deep down, you will always love your football club - but you can fall out of routine, and you can definitely fall out of connection.
“The club’s changed”, “the players don’t care about us”, “have you heard what that lad put on Instagram?”, “I’ve heard he’s been booted out of training” etc, etc……we’ve heard some or all of them from fans of other clubs and from our own, too. Stoke City represent us on the pitch, and they also represent our city. As do Port Vale their fans, and their nineteenth of the city (sorry, couldn’t resist!). The connection has to remain strong.
And that responsibility of connection with the supporters should never, ever be taken lightly. Take the England football and cricket team: because they have a connection with supporters they are allowed to make mistakes.
Think back to World Cups past, and the demonisation in the press and public of players making mistakes. Why? Because they de-humanised and de-personalised what should be a very personal and human thing: us supporting them. Why should we really care about them when they don’t reciprocate? And whilst modern footballers may never really be ‘one of us’, they’re not far off. And they’re trying. That’ll do, and is enough for slack to be cut. That’s why Stoke fans sang Muniesa and Bojan’s songs more than any other players in recent years.
So, Stoke City: keep putting on stuff like the Open Training Day at the ground; keep making kid’s days by signing stuff and not pretending you’re on the phone (like you did at Brentford pre-season a few years back that massively disappointed the dozen or so Stoke kids who had travelled down with their parents to greet the team coach); keep using social media positively; keep putting a shift in on the pitch; and keep taking the time to communicate with fans off it and understanding the connection we feel for what is a huge part of our lives.
The Championship already seems like a breath of fresh air in many respects: a far more, human (league) division than it’s greedy, vacuous superior. When I sing the words “by your side I’ll always stay….”, I bloody mean it. The division we are in means next to nothing to me. All I ever want is a Stoke City team that puts a shift in, plays on the front foot….and one that gets the connection with the rank and file. Anything else is a bonus.
Win or lose, Gareth Southgate has made me more bothered about the national team, and despite any criticism I may give him or them on social media, he has me caring a lot more than I once did. He has me connected.