It was a dire and clueless first half of football from Stoke City. We were 2-0 down and we were poor value for that – it could have been much worse. As a contributor to the Oatcake messageboard later put it, ‘We were woeful, embarrassing, and at times looked no better than a decent semi-pro non-league side.’
The away fans’ section at St James’ Park is up ten flights of stairs. It offers a fabulous view of the city of Newcastle, though the goal at the far end has been calculated as being a quarter of a mile away. It was very cold. I had my thirteen year-old nephew with me. He was feeling a bit off-colour, so I sat him on a window ledge at the back of the bar and purchased him a hot chocolate. The bar has a low suspended ceiling, with synthetic tiles. I was leaning back against the window ledge looking at these tiles and considering the merits of traveling to see Stoke play away, more than five hours of driving through filthy weather, multiple roadworks, abnormal loads, and filthy traffic, followed by an hour on the train after picking up the nephew. At this moment there appeared to be no worth in it whatsoever and I was considering abandoning the practise altogether. You can write a book without having to do this: you can write about something else. To my right there was a gang of ‘lads.’ The nearest one to me was an overweight, though rather good looking, young man in his early twenties. He was staring contemplatively into his pint when he began to sing: Oh when the reds, go marching in, oh when the reds go marching in. He had a deep bass voice, well suited to the funeral gospel hymn from which that song derives, and he sang it slowly, respectfully, and mournfully. He repeated the first line, and then added the next: I wanna be in that number, oh when the reds go marching in. No one else contributed. He swilled the beer round his plastic glass and began again. By the time he was half way through, the lad to his right had stirred himself to join his mate. On the second I wanna be in that number, oh when the reds go marching in I added a third voice. Suddenly, the whole bar, which was packed full of miserable people, was in chorus. A full rendition of Delilah followed. The low ceiling provided an acoustic setting that being half a mile up in the sky outside could not emulate. The coppers in the bar stopped being coppers and stood watching, as though they had not seen anything quite like this before. Four fans dressed as Santa made their way to the toilets to smoke four festive fags. An impromptu ‘Santa is a Stokie’ broke out which was followed by a bigger, better, louder reprise of The Saints, one that rattled those ceiling tiles. I no longer felt cold, and I had changed my mind about the worth of being there. It was civilised, it was dignified, it was tribal, and it was beautiful; you could neither experience nor buy this anywhere else in the world. The ‘lads’ downed their pints and made their ways back to the terrace to provide vocal backing for the team for whole of the second half; meanwhile the forty-five thousand souls of the famous ‘Toon Army’ put in an adequate impression of being at librarian’s convention.
Our winner, to make it 2-2, came in the 93rd minute.