Tales From The Wheatsheaf, The Greyhound And The Black Bear

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2011.

Damn these international breaks; our game with Manchester City seemed ages ago. We only had four games in March and I was very impatient for this Stoke City away game to eventually come around.

I left home at 7.45am and soon collected Parky and Kris.

The weather was mild, but overcast. Grey skies accompanied us on our drive up to North Staffordshire.

As we drove past Stafford, my thoughts centred on Burger and Julie. I was really dismayed that they were unable to obtain tickets for our game at the Britannia Stadium. Although other reasons were responsible for their massive decision to leave Canada and set up a new life in England, I know full well that Chelsea played a large part in the decision-making process. Their new home in Stafford is but twenty miles from Stoke, yet they had not been able to get match tickets. It is with deep irony that if they had still been living in Canada, tickets – via CIA – would have been a certainty.

Sigh.

I will not dwell too long on this most familiar of routes; this journey up the M5 and M6 would be my eighth already this season. Lots of familiar sights, tons of memories.

This would be my fourth visit to Stoke City’s new stadium. I fully remember the first of these; an F.A. Cup tie during the 2002-03 season. This was memorable as being the coldest game I have ever seen. Stoke’s stadium is atop a ridge of land at Sideway and is very exposed. There is no shelter at all. I can fully remember walking up to the stadium from the car park with my mate Alan, with arctic winds freezing us both to the bone. It was truly bitter. Never have I been happier to get inside a ground early.

As we pulled off the M6 at 11am, I sped down to Trent Vale and onto the A500, the white stands of the Britannia Stadium could easily be seen up on the right. It welcomed me once again to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, my home from September 1984 to July 1987. My old college town. My old stomping ground. This was one of those days when I wished that the pre-match could last for around ten hours as I had lots of ideas flowing through my brain about potential options. I wanted to pay due respect to my old haunts, yet I knew there wouldn’t be enough time to pack it all in.

We had already taken a quick detour off the M5 for a quick McBreakfast, so there was no need to try and find a café. I drove straight into the town of Stoke. Remember that the city of Stoke-on-Trent is really the amalgamation of six separate towns – Stoke itself, Hanley, Fenton, Longton, Burslem and Tunstall. Stoke-on-Trent only received its city status in 1925. So, the area of Stoke itself, the most southerly of the six, is a bit of an enigma. It houses the city’s major football team (Port Vale is further north in Burslem) and gives the city its name, but its commercial centre is very small. Frome has more shops than Stoke. The commercial centre of the city is actually in Hanley at the top of a gradual incline.

After heading through Stoke – I used to live right next to Stoke’s old home, the Victoria Ground – I headed over to the adjacent town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a separate borough which abuts Stoke’s western edge. I had promised myself a quick dip into a famous menswear shop, now called “Pockets” (formerly “Review” back in the ‘eighties) to cast a glance at their wares. Back in 1986 and 1987, I bought two items from “Review” – a Best Company T-shirt and an EA sweatshirt. It was always a great shop. There was “Matinique” in Hanley too – I bought some Robe di Kappa gear there – and I once bumped into Adrian Heath, the former Stoke City midfielder who was playing for Everton at the time, in that second shop. In those days, the local Stoke lads used to look to the fashions which had evolved on the terraces of Anfield and Old Trafford rather than the more upmarket designer threads on show at Chelsea. I once bought a “Stolen From Ivor” sweatshirt from a shop in Hanley – I had seen Mancs wearing them at Euston in 1985 – and I was probably the only Chelsea fan with that particular brand on show at the time.

So, a Chelsea fan stranded in The Potteries – sartorially confused!

We only spent about fifteen minutes in “Pockets” and there was nothing there which tempted me to be honest. The usual suspects – EA, Boss, Ralph Lauren, CP, SI, Paul & Shark, Paul Smith – but no sale.

Not this time.

From Newcastle, we headed – in that most famous Stokie phrase of all – “Up ‘Anley, duck” to meet Cathy and Dog at a pub just to the south of the city centre. We stayed at The Wheatsheaf for about an hour and I was able to chat with Cathy about our individual plans for the summer tour of Asia. The Wheatsheaf was a rather down at heel pub and reminded me of the Flat Iron outside Anfield. There were a few Chelsea old school from days gone by and a few local lads. No hint of trouble, though. As the West Ham United vs. Manchester United game began in the other bar, we decided to move on. I had other plans.

I then drove south back towards Stoke and up to the very pleasant area of Penkhull. I parked outside The Greyhound pub and we spent a lovely time in the saloon bar. Back in my college days, we would often head up the hill to Penkhull and enjoy a few sherbets in The Greyhound. I remember one night in 1985 when we celebrated my mate Huw’s 21st birthday and a good time was had by all. Before that 2003 F.A. Cup game, Alan and I dropped into this pub during a hectic Sunday lunchtime and when I asked if we could be served, a barmaid curtly replied

“No. We’re busy.”

Maybe it was my Southern accent!

This time, it was lovely though. The saloon bar was a picture; wooden panelling, Rennie-McIntosh style tables and chairs and a row of daffodils in vases on the mantelshelf over the fire. I read a tablet on the wall, next to the dartboard, which said that the room that we were in dated from 1540. While Parky dabbled with a few tunes on the jukebox, I played pool with Kris and chatted to a couple of Stokies who were off to the game. We then heard that West Ham were two-up against United.

Well, this is lovely. What a great time.

On the jukebox, “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc gave way to “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk.

Outside, the sun was breaking through. Good times.

At about 2.15pm, we left The Greyhound and I drove down the hill towards Stoke and immediately spotted four red double-decker busses up on the horizon heading towards the Britannia Stadium. These, no doubt, would be ferrying Chelsea fans from the train station to the ground. It’s always a battle for the London lads coming up by train to avoid the police escort. Fans in the know come up early and splinter off, away from the train station. It’s no fun being treated like cattle. I then drove past the Commercial Inn – where we had the September 2009 pre-match – and over to the stadium (this drive is featured in the weblink below – Penkhull 0:07, The Commercial Inn 0:18, Stoke town centre 0:29, my old house on Selwyn Street 0:51, The Britannia 1:13)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqxKHv-eyJ8

There were plenty of car-parking places outside the stadium, but many fans parked on the grass verges of the roads which approach the stadium. This was my choice too – ideal for a quick getaway. We then slowly walked the ten minutes up to the stadium, past a few hot dog and ice-cream vans and chaps selling Stoke / Wembley souvenirs. As we crossed a footbridge over one of the canals which were key to The Potteries’ industrial heyday, a barge passed by (featured in one of my five photographs from the day) and a Stokie was selling a copy of the fanzine “The Oatcake.”

By the time we had reached the away turnstiles, the weather had turned warmer, but we had received some grave news from Upton Park. Manchester United had turned things around and had recovered to beat West Ham 4:2. The lovely buzz of The Greyhound (United losing, their confidence low, Chelsea players listening in, spirits soaring, just right for this afternoon and then on to Wednesday…) seemed ages ago.

Into the stadium – the Chelsea bar area at Stoke is always notoriously loud and boisterous – and a few handshakes with Alan, Gary, Andy, Ajax and Woody. The mood was of sudden gloom.

“Hey, we’ll do well to win this today.”

It reminded me of the day last season when United won at City and we struggled at Tottenham. Inside the ground, a large home banner was wending its way from the north stand to the east stand –

“The 12th Man – Loud & Proud.”

Just before the kick-off, Whitey appeared holding a large plastic cup of coke.

“Smell it” he said to Alan.

“Whisky.”

The news was that Fernando Torres was on the bench. I had predicted that his first Chelsea goals would come against Manchester United on Wednesday. So, Drogba and Anelka upfront, with Malouda and Ramires wide in a midfield four. Let’s forget about United for ninety minutes, let’s just defeat Stoke.

At kick-off, the sun was out and the sky was a lovely blue-and-white mixture.

We were in great voice and it is doubly ironic that we were in the middle of the David Luis song when he lost concentration and allowed Walters to break from just inside his own half.

“Oh David Luiz, you light up my life” – Stop!

He advanced and darted towards our box. Michael Essien (not sure where Bosingwa was…) raced over to cover, but he jumped in, allowing Walters to double-back and send Essien packing. A firm strike avoided John Terry’s lunge and the ball crashed into the net past Petr Cech.

The 3,000 Chelsea were silent. The Stokies went ballistic.

We responded with – “You Never Won F All.”

I had a wry smile…and said “well, the only thing they have won was the 1972 League Cup Final when they beat us!”

Then Stoke responded –

“Ashley Cole – He Shoots Little Kids” (though, with their accents, it sounded like “keds.”)

We replied –

“Ashley Cole – He Shoots Who He wants.”

After this awful start, we dominated possession and carved out quite a few chances.

A diving header from Ashley Cole was touched around the post, Florent Malouda hit over, a Frank Lampard volley straight at the ‘keeper, a nice ball from Anelka to Drogba and a volley over. After Luiz’ aberration, John Terry similarly lost Kenwyne Jones, but just about recovered in time to nick the ball before Jones could take aim at our goal.

I commented to Alan that we were obsessed with laying the ball out to Cole, Malouda, Ramires and Bosingwa when the better option might have been to take a run deep at the heart of their defence and take a shot. Just as I had finished speaking, Anelka spotted a superb run by Drogba and lofted a sublime ball into the box. Drogba dived full length and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

Now it was our turn to sing.

We had pleasing possession for the rest of the half and Ramires was playing well again, staying out wide and giving team mates options. He wasn’t drifting inside and was keeping our shape. Top marks. There was a continued tussle between JT and Jones, one of many sub-plots in the game. Just on half-time, ex-Chelsea defender Robert Huth had a prolonged run deep into our box, but Didier Drogba stayed with him the whole way and poked a toe out to rob the ball. That’s more like it Didier. He was rightly cheered.

As the teams left the pitch at the break, the Chelsea thousands warmly applauded the boys. At the break, down in the dark area below the seats, Andy from Trowbridge was up to his eyes in a Wrights Pie and the gents’ toilets were so full of cigarette smoke that I had to turn my fog-lights on.

In the second-half, Stoke continued to give us a good game and I would suggest they had the better goal-scoring chances. Nico shimmied and hit wide, but then Jermaine Pennant forced a fine block from Petr Cech. Then, chances coming thick and fast, Ramires slipped the ball to Drogba with a delightful ball, but the resulting shot scraped the far post.

As the hour approached, Gary glanced over to our left and spotted Fernando Torres and Salomon Kalou jogging up and down the touchline.

“There’s £51 million of talent warming up there.”

I had to laugh; “More like 49, Gal.”

Of course, Torres and Kalou came on for Anelka and Kalou, but – despite an early run and cross by Torres – our shape was disrupted and we struggled for 15 minutes. I didn’t think Ramires should have been subbed. The other three midfielders were hardly shining.

Then two good chances from Stoke. A bullet of a free-kick from Wilson was nimbly touched onto his bar by Cech and then that man Huth crashed a header against our bar from the ensuing corner.

Stoke were now back in it and the game opened-up further. Luis was not so perfect against this physical team; shades of Frank Leboeuf versus Wimbledon in 1996.

In the away end, I had heard several local Stoke accents mingled amongst the Chelsea support. For a connoisseur of accents like me, it’s an easy spot. I soon realised that the chap to my left was a Chelsea fan from Stoke, especially since he overly used the word “hellfire.” It’s a word that always crops up when my college mates and I drop a Stoke accent into our conversations.

It brought a smile to my face when he said “hellfire, Chelsea, we can beat Stoke!”

Kenwyne Jones headed over from a trademark Delap throw. Everyone around me was decidedly anxious. On 80 minutes, with Chelsea back in the game, Drogba swivelled and volleyed against the bar. Frank shot wide from a quickly-taken free-kick. Luis played the ball of the game to substitute Ivanovic, but Drogba shot meekly wide. I had memories of that late late goal from Florent Malouda which one us the game last season and was hoping for a similar ending. Frank had a late chance.

Six minutes of extra time.

“Come on!”

On 92 minutes, Stoke substitute Fuller then headed over from close range and we heaved a massive sigh of relief. A few frantic crosses and corners, a few half-chances.

No last minute winner. Not this time. Our last lingering hope of the championship was surely taken away from us at Stoke.

We soon got back to the waiting car and – quickest getaway ever – I was on the M6 within just two minutes.

Parky summed it up well – “It was a game we should have won, but could have lost.”

At about 6pm, I pulled into Frankley Services, just south of Birmingham. Who should pull up alongside me in a blue Mercedes, but Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck? As we walked towards the front of the building, I had a few words, but he looked decidedly pee’d-off. I sensed that he didn’t fancy a chat and so I quickly wished him a safe drive back to London.

To break the journey up a little, we spent an hour in a lovely old pub – The Black Bear – in Tewkesbury. The Arsenal vs. Blackburn game was on TV and we took a little solace in the 0:0 draw that was being played out before us. Arsenal were out of sorts and the stadium was deathly quiet. At the final whistle, it brought a smile to my face to hear the loud round of boos which greeted the Arsenal team as they traipsed off the pitch.

On a day like this, any victory, no matter how small, is warmly greeted.

We’ll need to regroup on Wednesday; United will be looking for revenge for our 2:1 victory last month. Of course, we ourselves have that little matter of Moscow to resolve.

Hellfire!

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