I’m incredibly proud to have been born-and-bred in the North East of England.
So how come I have a season ticket to Stoke City? And recently found myself hugging the chap next to me (to the point where I feel like we might now actually be engaged) when Stoke came from behind to beat Newcastle 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium?
Age is one reason. Circumstances another. And sense of identity a third. Let me explain…
I’m now sixty-something (I know, you just wouldn’t guess, would you?). Which means I left Life In A Northern Town more than 40 years ago; failed to make myself understood in a room full of fellow students the next day; and started to adjust my thick Durham accent a few minutes after that. A passionate Toon fan, I’d nevertheless go along to watch Stoke play at the old Victoria Ground, and gain some degree of pleasure from watching Tony Waddington’s team – which in those days included the likes of Gordon Banks, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greenhoff, Denis Smith and Alan Hudson.
But I missed Newcastle. No. I mean I REALLY missed Newcastle. And when they came to play at Stoke, I’d head to the “away” end and sing my heart out for The Magpies.
For years, I’d make a pilgrimage or two each season to the blessed St James’ Park. Even when the club hit troubled times, and before Kevin Keegan rescued them from the brink of the old Third Division, I barely wavered in my support.
And so it went on. In the Keegan era Frenchman David Ginola was a Geordie, along with Londoner Les Ferdinand and (one of my all time favourites) the Belgian “Prince” Philippe Albert. Alan Sheerer returned to his native North East, as did Sir Bobby Robson. As, so did I, most years.
But then, after all those years, along came a series of unrelated circumstances. Newcastle United were bought-out by a London-based consortium. Players and managers came and left, and so too did most of the Geordies. Sitting 200 miles away, 35 years after leaving the North East, the old connections were gradually being eroded.
At around the same time, Stoke City were promoted to the Premier League. Coincidentally, I‘d ended up at a loose-end most weekends. So there was no real harm in popping along to watch the odd match, was there? Only it wasn’t just the odd match, was it? It was every home game – with a group of friends and 25,000 other Stokies who had developed the habit of turning The Britannia Stadium into an unwelcoming, noisy, intimidating bear-pit-cum-fortress. Points were fought for and won one by one, and much to the amazement of most pundits, and my own delight, Stoke stayed up.
So there wouldn’t be any harm in buying a season ticket now, would there? I’d sat on my hands on the day Newcastle came and collected a draw that first season. Slowly but surely, however, the clapping turned to cheers; the rites of passage turned into a ritual; the following turned into genuine support; the faces around me turned into people with a common cause; survival turned into winning; and a new sense of identity turned into passion.
Apart from that, it’s hard to explain how it happened, really!
It certainly wasn’t an overnight thing. And believe me, with Stoke, it wasn’t about becoming a fair weather supporter. They are arguably the most unfashionable, as well as generally (OK, let’s face it, universally) disliked clubs in the English Premier League.
But that’s where the fun lies. That’s where the passion comes from. And its those moments – when Peter Crouch scores a wonder goal against Man City and the Stoke fans do the Poznan, when Johnny Walters runs from the half way line to score against Chelsea, when they reach an FA Cup Final with a 5-0 drubbing of Bolton, and (yes) when they come from behind against Newcastle to win 2-1 on a cold Wednesday evening in Stoke – that’s when I realise I am (if not a ‘true’ Stokie) then at least an Adopted Stokie.
And what makes it even better for me is that I’m promoting the city I support.
Visit Stoke? “C’mon Stoke”!