Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Stoke City 5 Bolton 0

90 minutes in another man's shoes

Stoke City 5-0 Bolton Wanderers (17:04:11)

Watford fan Mike Parkin pottered along to Wembley last Sunday........

Unfortunately for my family, I’m addicted to sport. If the chance arises to go to a sporting fixture of pretty much any type, I’ll be there. Spare speedway tickets? Go on then. Your friend can’t make it to the ice hockey with you at the weekend? Sure thing, count me in. A day at the darts? Yes please. You get the picture. With this in mind, it was with some excitement that I took delivery of two tickets to Sunday’s FA Cup Semi Final between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, courtesy of a competition run by the excellent website Back Page Football.

My brother Andy is equally indiscriminate about the sporting events he attends (he went to Stevenage V Aldershot on Saturday!), so he was only too happy to join me on a slightly random jaunt to Wembley stadium. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to be the only neutrals there that day – a family of four were on the same train as us, proudly clutching Club Wembley passes. As a relatively new father, I have quickly adopted the famous Dad trait of talking to absolutely anyone and quickly engaged the Wembley bound family in a brief chat. I asked the kids who they thought they would win. ‘Dunno’ came the response, ‘Who’s playing?’

Andy and I don’t profess to be world authorities on football, but we did at least know which teams were taking part, and we were in agreement that the game would be a close and hard fought affair. ‘I fancy penalties’ Andy had said with a slightly macabre grin. Luckily he didn’t bet on it…

I’m a nightmare at Watford matches. I want them to win every game. Desperately. Let’s just say that when I’m engaged in watching Watford, I can get a little…intense. It was therefore nice to be able to look forward to a game of football that meant nothing to me, but meant the world to the other 80,000 odd people in attendance (The Club Wembley family the notable exceptions!). I was looking forward to watching the game with a bit of detached impartiality. I was looking forward to being able to soak up the pattern of play without worrying about how long was left and who was going to win. I was looking forward to sampling the atmosphere without feeling the need to help generate it.

We were to be Bolton Wanderers fans for the day. Firstly, the (excellent) tickets were in the Bolton section, and secondly, the legendary and slightly unhinged ex-Hornet Paul Robinson would be starting at left back for the Trotters. Despite having nailed our proverbial colours to the mast, it quickly became very apparent that we were at someone else’s party. As we waded through the discarded beer cans en route to the ground, the excitement was palpable. ‘Lucky sods’ Andy muttered as we passed group after group of bouncing, chanting fans. ‘I wish we were here with Watford’.

Inside the ground, Wembley looked magnificent in the April sun. Whatever the rights and wrongs are of playing Semi finals at Wembley, as the 4pm kick off approached I can guarantee that every person in that stadium was glad to be there and excited to be a part of it. Whilst Bolton had failed to sell their allocation (instantly banishing any lingering doubts that I was denying a Bolton fan a ticket), there wasn’t a seat to be found in the Stoke end of the ground and by crikey they didn’t half make a din. I’m sure I’m not alone in having mixed feelings towards Stoke fans, but give them their due, they generated an extraordinary atmosphere.

The teams strode out and in a bid to feel part of it, my brother and I struck up a chant of ‘Robbo! Robbo!’ I waved at him too. He didn’t wave back. ‘Good lad’ I thought; ‘he’s focussed’. The game got underway and there was no denying it, I was excited. FA Cup Semi Finals are big games in their own right, but even more so when the two participants are so infrequently involved in games of such magnitude. This was definitely going to be good.

And of course, if you support Stoke City, it was good. It was better than good. It was extraordinary. After half an hour the game was well and truly over, in truth, it was probably done and dusted after 17 minutes when Robert Huth was the unlikely man behind a 20 yard strike into the bottom right hand corner. As Stoke shot after Stoke shot resulted in Stoke goal after Stoke goal, the day took on a surreal feeling. As the red and white end of the ground partied, things quickly unravelled around us in amongst the Wanderers fans. Fights broke out amongst fellow supporters, the initial excitement quickly punctured by the reality that was unfolding in front of them – clearly too much to take for a small minority. Some fans had seen enough after half an hour and began their long journey home early. Others hurled abuse at their hapless team. The majority sat in stunned, disbelieving silence.

All the while Andy and I were trying to convince each other there was a way back for our adopted side. ‘If they can nick one before half time, they’ll be back in it’ we suggested. We were desperate for the tight, competitive game we had forecast to come to fruition. Having seen these sorts of games before though, we both knew that there was only ever going to be one winner.

If I’m honest, disappointment was the only emotion I could muster. I wanted to feel sorry for the Bolton fans,  and to a degree I did, but really I just felt sorry for myself. The game we’d seen wasn’t the one that we’d expected – I felt like hitting rewind and start the game again. Once more from the top Bolton, this time with feeling… I’ll come clean to experiencing a flicker of sympathy when the disconsolate fan next to me broke his 2nd half silence. Two words were all he could muster. ‘I’m ashamed’.

It was an interesting experience and if offered the same ticket tomorrow, I’d take it again, but it brought something into sharp focus for me. A realisation that has provided me with some empathy for those around me who struggle to understand my lifelong obsession with watching Watford home and away. Neutrals want to be entertained. Supporters just want to win.

The mood on the packed trains away from Wembley mirrored that of inside the stadium. Stoke fans jubilant, Bolton supporters tired, drained and numb. It was on the train that I finally made some sort of personal connection with the days events. A few seats in front of me sat a Stoke fan. He was alone, and in his sixties. He said nothing, contendedly staring out of the window, no doubt gleefully recounting each of Stoke’s five goals. Then his phone rang. He took the call and listened. It was obviously a friend or family member calling to offer their congratulations and as he recounted his version of events, there was a quiver in his voice. He was so excited, so proud, so happy about what he had just seen that he was close to tears. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I recognised the feelings he was experiencing. The feelings that only sport can provide. The feelings that only those with an emotional and physical investment in their team will ever enjoy. The feelings of a true football fan.

This man was happy and that was all it took. I was happy too.

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Like this? You might like our Stoke City v Brighton report

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- Feel free to comment below - 


Alec said...

I really enjoyed reading that. I'm glad you ultimately enjoyed your day at Wembley and hopefully you enjoyed the way we (Stoke obviously) went about the game and some of the football we produced - several of the goals were undeniably of very high quality and our overall performance hopefully showed you as a neutral that we have to an extent moved on from the ruggedness we showed in the earliest years of our time in the Premier League.

All the best for Watford in the near future, and if you enjoyed the noise created by the Stoke fans, if you ever get the chance to go to a Premier League match at the Brit, take it.

Anonymous said...

A very good read. The whole day was amazing for me. The butterflies in the tummy on the way down, the atmosphere in the Green Man pub, the game itself, a totally unexpected miracle. We too thought this would be a very close game, far too close for me to even considering placing a bet (perhaps a little superstition in that too).

After leaving the ground, I looked at my mate, waiting for one of us to start the customary breakdown and analysis of the game, the usual debate of which one of our gladiators played the best and which the worst. There were no words forthcoming from either of us. We were literally speechless.

I'd like to know your thoughts on Stoke's performance. I don't know whether you've watched many of our games since we reached the Premiership, but it's fair to say that we have gained a certain reputation for the way we play. Did the game alter any of your pre-game expectations of the way we would play? Did it dispel any of the myths that media have carefully constructed about our players/tactics? Did any of our players stand out to you?

It's worth pointing out that 3 of our goals game from outside the 18 yard box, none of which were from set pieces. Also, it might be worth pointing out that we received no yellow cards and committed less fouls than the opposition.

Last question, how do you rate our chances against Man City? Mancini's Man City haven't beaten us since January '09, but of course, come the 14th May that will mean nothing at all.

Thanks for the article.

Winger said...

Very nice piece. I like this slanted view on a subject & nb it's only to be expected for other fans to have mixed views on Stoke because, while we are specialists at unpleasantness and aggression, on the other hand and let's face it, we can turn in a second and are an unbeatable joyful lot when it comes to supporting our team and singing songs very very loudly indeed : )

kris said...

Great article excellent read. Just wish the Dailey rags could write with such grace

Anonymous said...

Good write up that.

you are cordially invited to be a Stokie for the day on cup final day.
We will be lubricating our larynx in JJMoons Kingsbury if your not to busy pop along and join us.

Anonymous said...

A very good read, and how ridiculously different your experience would have been if your prize tickets had been situated on the other side of the halfway line.

Those days don't come around often (or ever) for supporters of teams such as ours. Sunday was the first time I've had to fight back tears in a football ground - and that was before the game kicked off. I think we all (fans, players, staff) wanted it so badly that nothing would stand in our way that day.

RookeryMike said...

Alec, glad you enjoyed it.

With hindsight I regret not putting in a section about how well Stoke played. As you rightly point out, there was very little of the graceless football that the media suggest is your stock trade.

As a Watford fan you have my every sympathy - our football in the 80's was wrongly derided for being long ball, when in actuality people just didn't like a relatively new kid on the block upsetting the apple cart.

Stoke were a joy to watch and were as incisive and impressive as Bolton were lethargic and flat.

I can't help but feel Pennant and to a lesser degree Etherington don't hit those heights on an entirely regular basis, but there really is no denying it Stoke were as entertaining as they come.

Thanks for your kind words re: Watford - our fincances remain the primary cause for concern, so it's currently a case of fingers crossed at WD18.

Cheers and good luck in the Final!

Unknown said...

It is rare that a sports article moved me in quite the way that your's did.

Having supported the Potters since the mid sixties I was delighted to be one of the faithful at the other end of the stadium.

When the final whistle was blown I turned to my neighbour and said what was truly in my mind

"I can die now"

Anonymous said...

A cracking summary from a neutral - thank you. It was very surreal and at half time most of us stood around stunned because we are so used to being the twelfth man to drag us back into a game. This time the tables were turned and the team gave us the display and result of our footballing lives. I so hope we can perform as well on the 14th of May.

deliasmith said...

I thought I was the only Stoke fan called Alec!

Anyway, I wish to dissociate myself from the remarks of Alec @ 1 - "we have to an extent moved on from the ruggedness we showed in the earliest years of our time in the Premier League" - by saying that a) we were never rugged, it's all a lie put about by people from Islington; b) so what if we were rugged? It's a rugged town. and c)We're Stoke and we'll play like we want!

Alec 2

Anonymous said...

As a Watford fan you'll have already had your own fun against Bolton at Wembley in the not too distant past! ;)

I was there, also in the Bolton end, a Wanderers supporter all my life.
Each and every one of us is struggling to come to terms with what we saw - especially after a season where we have played with such promise and energy and no little skill. We were an empty shell of a side and were abysmal - spoiling what had been a fantastic day until then for us.

Stoke were excellent and could have won by more - and aside from your chances in the Final - enjoy your European tour next season it'll create some unforgettable memories for your supporters as our UEFA Cup runs did for us.

Marc, Manchester

Dan said...

Just to add some contrast to my fellow readers - Sunday was one of the worst days of my life!

Interesting is the defensiveness of the Stoke fans though about their style of play. They sing "We'll play how we want," but then spend a lot of time writing about how they play better stuff than people give them credit for, while Tuncay was a fans favourite.

For what it's worth I agree that sometimes they do get a raw deal from the press, but then at the same time Stoke are still a team which went about 2 months without scoring a goal from open play before the Newcastle game. Their use of the wingers seems to be more a direct running game than pretty foot-on-the-ball stuff from centre midfield - obviously it's working quite well!

Vinskax said...

What an awesome read mate.

I for one was surprised to see such a rout by Stoke as I was expecting Bolton to run away with the win.

There is still beauty in the FA cup, I for one hope that Stoke don't win the FA Cup so Liverpool get to be in Europe next year, but at the same time if we don't get in it could only mean good things with a fresher squad etc.

I'm 50-50 on this because as much as I hate City I am not really keen for us to miss out on the extra revenue of the Europa.

Sort of hard one for me