I’m approaching my 48th year of watching Stoke City. It’s fair to say that in that time I have had some brilliant highs and a lot of lows following The Potters. But that’s what football supporting is all about. If it wasn’t, then 80 clubs or so wouldn’t get anybody through their turnstiles.
I’ve always said that you don’t choose your club, your club chooses you – and in most cases, I still believe that to be the case. Family ties; the bond between you and your place of birth; where you live; historical connections…..these are just some of the many reasons why folk support a football club. “I saw them on telly winning a cup/the league”, doesn’t quite cut it with me, but there are no hard and fast rules for whom you support, although I just wish a few would simply own up to being gloryhunters.
I may be your (stereo)typical football fan: born and raised in ST1, slightly closer to Vale Park than the Victoria Ground if truth be told, but dad was a Stoke City fan, and his parents were Stoke City fans. So, I was a Stoke City fan. If I had been raised as one of the black and white tenths of the city then that would have been fine – you don’t argue about or question your allegiance, it’s often just nurtured. Thankfully, dad was red and white, and so we discovered the joys of top flight football and soap.
Anyway, this isn’t about being a better or worse fan than anyone else. I know there are thousands of Stokies who I see as more ‘hardcore’ and loyal than me, but I feel it important for the context of this piece to bear my supporting soul and CV out in public: I reckon I’ve watched well over 1200 Stoke matches, done 74 league grounds, seen us play in a few European countries……..as I said, plenty have done plenty more than me. But no matter what league we were in, I’ve always enjoyed going. No matter how poorly we were playing, I’ve always enjoyed going. After all, the result is often the cherry of the cake when you’re a football fan. The day, mates, family, the craic, the clothes, the journey etc etc….are all factors that supporters love in varying measures. But for many fans, especially those whose clubs don’t win much/anything, the ninety minutes may be the focal point of a matchday, but it’s not the whole reason for going to the match.
I’ll always love Stoke City Football Club. That’s just how it is. But when many see football as a religion, I’m losing mine a little bit when it comes to matches in ST4. And as I said above – it’s not about results. I mean, we are 8th in the second tier, that’s probably about our natural position in the great footballing scheme of things……
My dad never took to the Britannia Stadium. I think many didn’t, and some still don’t. Whilst the Victoria Ground was often nothing like the packed, passionate cauldron that red and white tinted specs can often make out it was, it was a living, breathing football ground. That’s the difference – I see our new ground as a stadium, not a football ground. I consider most new stadia the same. I want grounds to be stood in the hub of the communities from which they draw their support. And grounds like The Emirates may be close to where their former homes lay, but they just don’t have the same feel, do they? That may be a history thing– after all, football culture and matchday experiences are coloured by history and heritage, and those can be made over time, not manufactured. But we’ve been a tour new ground for 25 years, and it still doesn’t feel like home to me.
Yes, we have had some unbelievable times there. 2008/09 is the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in all the years I’ve been going to Stoke. It was beautifully vile, no matter whether you were Arsenal or Blackburn. So, it’s not all negativity and doom and gloom when it comes to our new ground. But a quarter of a century since we lost that opening league game against Swindon, the routine of the matchday is very similar as it was before. And that’s a huge reason that I don’t rate our ground– indeed, for an away fan, is there a worse awayday than us? Apart from the guaranteed three points, obviously!
Football supporting is often about routine. We don’t do change too well at times, do we? My routine at The Vic was vastly different to what it has been since 1997. Yes, you have to factor in I’m now much older and have kids to take…..so the routine will have changed anyway. But matchdays at Stoke often turn into a question of logistics rather than simple enjoyment. Parking and accessibility have always been poor at our new ground. The choice is often between a decent, soulless walk to the stadium and a quicker getaway afterwards, or parking near the ground and a slower, often dreadful getaway. The infrastructure around the stadium, and getting in and out of that area, hasn’t changed that dramatically in the last 25 years.
I always think back to when the ground was planned - did we ever consider a small drop-off rail link to Stoke station? Maybe even water taxis? Or have we ever made enough of the land in and around the stadium to entice folk to get there early and stay late?
I know that these questions are often a matter of feasibility and economics, but compared to other clubs we have never been the most proactive or creative, have we? I feel that there is very little to entice anyone to the bet365 Stadium too much before kick off – so, why not have a programme shop or a museum? And the days of fanzones being the domain of facepaint and dreadful beer has been put to bed by the likes of Tranmere Rovers who get superb numbers into a good venue that hosts local and international beers and food.
Yes, the football always determines moods after 4.50pm, and I’ve had plenty of miserable walks back to the car from The Vic. But the build up to the game itself always had some joy in it and didn’t have to be planned with military precision. We even sang before the game rather than being led to sing when we got in the ground.
A successful, winning team always will make a difference. Like I said before, our first season up in 08 was amazing – but it’s been a pretty flat atmosphere for several years now, if we are being truthful. Did the novelty of playing the big boys in the Premier League wear off or did we simply get accustomed to seasons without winning a trophy nor the threat of relegation? Only certain matches or refereeing decisions have got us going in recent seasons, and against Derby last week I’ve never seen us so flat on or off the pitch in a long, long time. There was zero belief in that ground at 7.45pm.
The key barometer for me is my youngest lad. He’s been gong since he was three, and so he’s seen more success in a short space of time than many fans from other clubs. Okay, he’s had a few years of Championship football recently, but he also saw us finish ninth three seasons running in the Premier League and in the semi final of the League Cup. I look at him now, and he’s often bored silly. And that’s a kid who lives and breathes sport and plays football for over ten hours a week. I actually feel like I’m forcing him to go to some games, and I can’t ever remember that feeling when I was his age.
Our Saturday 3pm kick off routine is:
· 8.15-11.30: He trains, I watch
· Midday: Home, oatcakes for lunch
· 1.40pm: drive and try to find a space to park as near as we can to the 'Mich' (often nowhere near)
· 2.20pm: walk to ground
· 4.55pm leave ground
· 5.10pm get back to car
· 5.40pm get home
Perhaps we need to go to the pub before or change the routine, but time constraints often mean that the above is set in stone. Maybe I’m just getting old and miserable, but I want Saturdays at the match to be fun for me and my lad. I just don’t see it, but I do on some Saturdays…..
We live quite close to Leek and around 6 or 7 times a season, head up to Harrison Park. I’ve never not had a good afternoon or evening there. Same can be said for those who go to Hanley Town, Kidsgrove Athletic, Newcastle Town etc etc I’m sure. It’s just a bloody good day out, and my lad loves going. As do I. Why?
There are a few reasons, I suppose. Firstly, the football is a decent standard – obviously the players aren’t as good as professionals (in most cases), but that doesn’t mean the games are worse. Indeed, the ones I’ve seen this season have been far more competitive and enjoyable than many of our home games. There are one or two players who could definitely play at a far higher level, too. Gone are the days when non-league was seen as just as an excuse to leave your foot in. Most teams play decent stuff.
Then there is also the accessibility. For a bloke of 53 like me, this is quite a big factor. If I wanted to, I could leave home at 2.30pm and be back at 5.05pm. We don’t, as laddo loves watching the warm up and going and fetching any stray shots, and then he loves his tray of chips and gravy (and drinking the leftover gravy, the little clown!) There are no queues, no car parks rammed, and there’s plenty of parking in and around the ground. It makes a massive difference – on matchdays at Stoke, I’m in the car or walking for about 60% of the afternoon, compared to less than 15% at Leek – that’s a massive difference - I spend enough time in the car in the week already!
Whilst at Harrison Park, there are hardly any queues for refreshments which are a fraction of the price you’d pay at a professional game – and then there is also the question of ticket prices. A family can go to watch a non-league game, and all have a drink and some food for far less than an adult ticket to Birmingham City away. You do the maths. It’s also great to stand at matches, too. Again, I much prefer to be stood up rather sat on a freezing cold seat – I feel much more part of the game.
All the above might just be me being a miserable (old) sod. I know. But it’s also how I feel. Like everyone, my weekends are precious. I work hard in the week, often work at weekends as I’m semi self-employed, and spend a shedload of time watching Archie play and train – I often feel a big chunk of the four hours at a home match is wasted time, and that’s a dreadful thing to say. I just don’t enjoy it like I once did, and some games it’s hard to drag myself to a game in ST4. Same for the lad.
In 2022, football clubs really have a few tough decisions to make. They have been hit hard by Covid-19 and need to recoup lost revenue, and I’d never want folk to stop going Stoke, nor will I stop doing so. But the pandemic has shown many people that there are plenty of other things to do, too – many of which are free. Almost a year ago, we were only allowed out to exercise or walk once a day, and that saw the roads empty and the streets and pathways full. Many loved the outdoor life, and we have so many amazing places to walk in and around the city of Stoke-on-Trent. The passion for getting out and about in the open air is evident today. Life has changed. Routines have changed. And no matter what the result, I believe that matchday needs to, as well.
How? Well, I’ve given some ideas above – I feel that clubs need to think about getting fans to the ground early and keeping them there after the final whistle has blown. I feel that whilst the result is the most important thing in professional sport and always will be, a bit of entertainment and joy need to be bedfellows, especially in grim times. At the very least, we need the team on the front foot in home matches. Defeat I can handle, but Derby was the third home game on the trot that we hardly troubled the opposition keeper or gave it a good go.
The reason for this article? Football matters. Stoke City matter. Yesterday, we saw a heartbreakingly poignant video tribute to those no longer with us as we enter 2022. It's genuinely one of the best things that the club do, and I think it reminds me that football is one of the few things in life that unites us and takes us on a journey that stops at all the emotions. I just want that to continue, and I may be wrong, but sometimes we could sometimes look back to move forward. Can we replicate how it used to be? Do we need to?
It's really strange, because I've seen far worse Stoke teams, players, and managers over the years. It's not that. That's not the reason why it all feels a bit bland and beige. It's almost as if our stadium has finally got the better of me. The truth is I'm like my old man where the bet365 Stadium is concerned - I just don't like it, and never have. Even under the likes of Ball and Jordan, I enjoyed matchdays far more despite some of the godawful stuff on view.
Whilst I’ll still go to my church, I’ll admit, I am losing my religion a little bit. That’s fine, I can handle that, and it's happened once or twice before. But what I really want is for my lad to be a true believer for life and for him to keep making fortnightly pilgrimages to ST4 - not out of routine, but because he loves it.