Tales From Sunny Stoke

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 12 September 2009.

What is it with last minute winners versus Stoke?

I left my Somerset home at 7.15am and, on leaving the village, almost ploughed into twenty docile pheasants idling across the road. Such are the hazards of country life. Could they not tell I had a match to go to? There were clear skies overhead as I picked up Lord Parky soon after. It was a pretty uneventful trip up past Birmingham to Stoke. I was in contact with Kev ( Gromit ) who is over for a week or so from his home in Detroit. We agreed to meet up at his motel in Stoke…it turned out that he was staying in a converted pub called “The Plough,” one which I used to occasionally frequent during my spell at Stoke during my college years.

I briskly drove past the site of the old Stoke ground, the old Victoria Ground – a lovely old stadium, a shame it had to go – and it was a sad sight indeed…the pitch was over-run with weeds and the stands and terraces were no more. Hard to believe that I had seen quite a few Stoke games there, including two against Chelsea.

My spell in Stoke lasted from September 1984 to July 1987 and it was a perfect location for me…Chelsea was just two hours away on the train, but Stoke was right in the heart of a smattering of away venues that were no more than 90 minutes away. In those three years away from home, I saw us play in Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Leicester, Nottingham and Liverpool. My first sight of Stoke was on a Sunday in late September 1984 when my parents dropped me off at the student residence, no more than half a mile away from the Stoke ground. In 1984-85, Stoke were in the top division, but were a very poor team. I saw them play five times at home that season, but the highlight was Chelsea’s last away game of the season…at Stoke, a mere ten minute walk away. We won 1-0 with a header from David Speedie and we were full of thoughts of Europe for the first time since 1971. Shamefully, Heysel put paid to all that.

I spoke to Kev and Parky about how surreal it was for me to be able to walk home from a Chelsea game. It seemed to end that whole season in a perfect way for me…I made it to over twenty games in that first season back in the top flight and I was grateful of my ideal location, right in the middle of “football country.” I still have a slight soft-spot for Stoke.

I parked up and we had a pre-match breakfast in a cheap-and-cheerful café. Both Parky and myself noted a baseball-cap wearing local who was sat nearby. We got the impression that he was out “spotting” but Kev was blissfully unaware. Cathy and Dog were already in a nearby pub and so we made plans to meet up. But first, I shot over the road to buy some local delicacies – five meat and potato Wrights Pies, manna from the Gods while I was a poor student. I half-expected to see Parky and Kev in a bloody heap on the floor on my return, set upon my Stoke’s notorious “Naughty Forty,” but all was well.

We spent a couple of hours in two working class pubs – no frills, very old school. It was great chatting to Kev again after last seeing him in Texas. We had a few laughs and I think we share a similar sense of humour, despite Kev’s over-reliance on quoting “Monty Python.” I put this down to Kev now living in America – nobody quotes Python sketches to me in England, but as soon as I set foot in America, I get some Yank talking to me about “dead parrots” and comments like “he’s not a messiah – he’s a very naughty boy.”

We parked up at the stadium and we were soon inside. The immediate area inside was full of Chelsea fans doing The Bouncy. Plastic beer bottles were being thrown everywhere, some with beer in, some empty. I left them to it and made my way up to my seat in row 25 alongside Alan and Gary. As luck would have it, Kev was two rows in front. I had warned him about wearing colours ( as we were drinking in Stoke pubs ) and he had changed into his Chelsea shirt as soon as we had parked up.

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon – very similar to our game at the Brittania a shade under a year ago in fact. How time flies.

The first thing to say is that for a crowd of only 24,000 home fans, the Stoke lot certainly made a racket. Their version of “Oh when the reds go marching in” was very impressive…top marks. They also sung their trademark “Delilah” with gusto, too.

This was the stereotypical “game of two halves” really. Stoke’s over-physical approach was difficult for us to handle and Gary commented –

“They’ve rattled us.”

I had to agree. There was the strange instance of Kalou getting booked for the block of Delap’s throw, but Alan reckoned it was for ungentlemanly conduct…a cover-all phrase if ever there was. Mike Dean soon became public enemy number one. Our approach play was laboured and we were struggling. Stoke sensed danger and their supporters rubbed our noses in it –

“You’re not signing anymore.”

A cross from the Stoke right down below me dropped into the area. I spotted Cech advance and I sensed danger –

“He’s coming, he’s coming!”

Indeed he did – and Stoke went ahead. The stadium erupted and it was a sickening sight.

“Delilah” echoed around the trim stands. Injuries to two Stoke players resulted in a massive eight minutes of injury time. Thankfully, we made use of those minutes when a superb pass from Frank, perfectly weighted, found Drogba who smashed the ball over ( it may have been through ) the Stoke ‘keeper.

Get in!

The first-half had been poor, but with hardly any chances for either side. I noted Frank, Drogba and JT encouraging the away support to get behind the team as they walked off at the break.

“Come on!”

The second half was different – a constant barrage of pressure. Mikel got better as the game continued and Ashley was up and down the wing as if his life depended on it. Chance after chance came our way, but the clock kept ticking. How many awful corners did Frank drop into the Stoke box? We have been saying for years that his corners are rubbish, but nobody listens. Shots high, shots wide, shots not very handsome…Stoke were defending with great conviction and I was beginning to think we would be leaving with just a point.

Not good enough.

Corner after corner came and went. The Chelsea support – though not at its best – kept roaring. A Londoner behind me was very loud and was obviously keen to get his hands on the prize for “the most over-use of the C word in 90 minutes.” He was relentless and I was happy I didn’t have a child with me. The PA announced five more minutes extra time and a few early leavers came back to their seats…where there is hope!

Well, on 94 minutes, a quick interplay between Anelka and Malouda and – bang! We saw the net ripple, but could hardly believe it!

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

I lost myself, but briefly focussed back on the pitch and saw the players steaming over to the bench…

Big John and me screamed at each other. I was given a bear hug by a complete stranger ( OK mate, that hurts now, put me down ! ) and we had the best ever Bouncy.

Fantastic stuff. The whistle went and my head was spinning. The Chelsea players, dressed in all blue, trotted towards us and the away stand was a forest of arms, gesticulating and clapping – a perfect picture, a perfect moment.

Them and us – players and fans – as one.

Kev was obviously ecstatic and I was so pleased for him. We met up with Parky and trotted back to the car, bumping into Mark Coden as we waited for the police to clear a rowdy group of Stokies. It took an hour to leave the car park – time for a Wrights pie and we listened to the scores.

It was a lovely trip south with the sun setting over the Malvern Hills. We bumped into a bemused Manchester City fan at the services and he could hardly believe what he had seen at Eastlands. He was dazed, but overjoyed. We wished him well.

We stopped for a quiet pint in Tewkesbury at an old pub overlooking the River Severn. It clearly hadn’t been a vintage Chelsea performance, but who cares.

“Top of the league – Spurs next – life is good.”

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