Aston Villa, Home
The first game proper back in top flight. Villa had beaten Manchester City 4-2 the week before and came stocked with stars and England players, including Gareth Barry, whose protracted attempts to get away from the club and play for Liverpool provoked one contributor to the subsequent national radio phone-in to state that he regarded the player’s evident lack of interest in doing his job properly as ‘a personal affront.’ In the broadest Brummie accent, and after providing a testimonial regarding his own curriculum vitae (tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan) the caller eloquently put the case that so many followers of football feel: these individuals earn more a week than others do in six years of putting their life on the line for their country, or in tending the wards of our hospitals. As if that isn’t enough of ‘an affront,’ they agitate to move elsewhere, for even more money, without a backward glance, and actively sulk on duty when they should be spilling blood on behalf of their tribe. Where fans have a lifelong loyalty to their clubs, all too frequently it seems that players have a loyalty only to their bank balances. The week before the season started Chelsea flagged a ‘press exclusive’ on ‘Chelsea TV’ (in 1985, the last time Stoke played a top flight match, there were a total of four television stations) to announce the news that Frank Lampard had signed a new contract worth 150 grand a week. It is this scale of hubris, together with the obscene figures involved, that creates an atmosphere whereby football players are so easily and so quickly reviled. Gareth Barry was booed by his own fans during the pre-season frendlies, and by our supporters during this game because, for all the thousands he finds in his pay packet, he had still managed to put in a half-hearted performance for England in the midweek before this game.
Part of the conversation I had with the publishers in talking about a contract for this book involved a discussion that went along the lines that if it weren’t the case that I was already addicted to football, then I’d find the idea of it – of the Premiership, in particular – repulsive, peopled as it is by Frank Lampards, the Pokomons who are owned and traded by Russian oligarchs and shifty Thai politicians. A local hero, one of your own on the pitch, is a rareity now. The paradox, of course, is that once the match kicks off, all this is left behind, it’s simply redundant cerebral activity, useful only for occupying the long days while the team aren’t actually playing.
Less than one hour after the final whistle Old Stokie and I were kneeling on the dirt in the car park rocking to touch the ground with our palms like pilgrims to Mecca in the direction of the car radio where Pulis was giving his post-match interview.
Less than two hours after the final whistle I had arrived at the conclusion that it had been the best game I had ever seen at Stoke. The return to the top flight could only have been improved if we had beaten Manchester United, and even that would be a judgement call. I had never felt an atmosphere like it: this is what twenty-three years of being irritated and frustrated to fuck feels like, then, when it’s let go. The team could have played any way they liked; that we were not facing Crystal Palace or Rotherham or Swindon was enough in itself. As it turned out they performed like veterans of the division, and this only a week after Bolton. Ninety minutes earlier I would have thought this inconceivable.
We walked away on air, and Pulis walked on water.
Match report from Andy P here: What a day