Rest In Peace Dad, Following Stoke Will Never Be The Same Without You

My father passed away this November just an hour after watching the club he worshipped beat Fulham 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium. It was perfectly scripted by the footballing Gods...
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My father passed away this November just an hour after watching the club he worshipped beat Fulham 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium. It was perfectly scripted by the footballing Gods...

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Last year, in The Oatcake fanzine, I wrote a piece about loving and appreciating the man who first took me to watch Stoke City.

“Unlike most football fans, I can’t really remember my first Stoke game. My first clear memories of watching us were against Middlesbrough at Vale Park and then having a season ticket in 1977 in the Butler Street Stand. Relegation, inevitably, soon followed.

So, basically, I was introduced to the Potters after a visit to the Piggery and then being forced to sit in probably the only roofless stand in Britain at that time, and watch us go down..........But am I grateful that my old man grasped my 8 year old hand all those years ago and walked me to those turnstiles? What a daft, rhetorical question"

I urged Stokies to make sure that they paid homage in thought and deed to their fathers, as fathers are all too often the Nigel Gleghorn of families – they do lots of unseen work that always needs doing; they rarely get the adoration they deserve; often steering the ship in the right direction; they have a quiet, unassuming style all of their own, and rarely let anyone down.

Twelve months down the line, I now have the stomach-churning task of writing about my father in a different tense.

Because my dad, Peter Bunn, sadly passed away on 24th November 2012, just an hour after watching the club he worshipped beat Fulham 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium. That he did so at exactly 5.59pm, just as Radio Stoke’s Praise and Grumble show was finishing, isn’t just ironic, it’s fate. Talking about Stoke City was one of life’s joys for dad. He also loved listening to the post-match show.

It’s also fate, not irony, that he was aged 72 when he died. It simply couldn’t be any other number, could it? We won our only cup of worth in 1972. It’s the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail and the perfect oatcake with sausage, cheese and brown sauce, of Potteries numbers.

Add onto the fact that he went quickly, and relatively painlessly, to sleep on the shoulder of his very best mate, Terry (my uncle, who was driving at the time), and that they were within a Jimmy Greenhoff volley or Sir Stan mazy dribble of his second home, the Victoria Ground, our old home, and it simply makes me smile and actually think that if Carlsberg did ways to pass away......

Perhaps I’m looking for fate when there’s simply none there? But while football is never and never can be “more than life or death”, it gives me huge comfort that dad passed away on such a seamlessly brilliant Stoke City Saturday afternoon.

3pm kick off – a beer with mates before the game – Stoke win – peacefully and painlessly on the brother he never had. It was all perfectly scripted by the footballing Gods, dad, wasn’t it?

The analogy with Nigel Gleghorn was given careful thought. He was a player my father admired – a flashback to players who loved their football, with a wand of a left foot, and one who always seemed grateful to be playing the working man’s ballet and to be playing for Stoke City. He also scored a most memorable goal in front of me and my father – no, not our second at Vale Park or against Plymouth at the Victoria Ground in our promotion season of 1992/1993.

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It involved another Victoria – this time it was Victoria Park, the home of Hartlepool United. It’s one of my favourite awaydays of all time and dad can be vividly, easily seen on the telly on Central Sport a day or two later– to the right of the goal, jumping up and down as the 90th minute corner came in, not in anticipation of Gleghorn’s late winner, but because his bladder was about to explode thanks to his pre-match refreshments, after an unbelievable Usain Bolt-like sprint from coach to public house at 2.25pm. Dad adored chatting about Stoke over a pre-match beer – it was all he wanted as reward for a hard week’s toil.

It had to be in that 92/93 season, didn’t it? So many great memories for Stokies, so many days when me, dad, Terry, Brad, Owen, Andy, Tim, Bryn and a few others who my grief-addled mind can’t remember right now, would descend on football grounds the country over, watching Lou Macari’s all-conquering team.

That day, for some reason, it was just me and dad. The 20th December 1992, almost twenty years to the day you’re reading this....a dad and his son celebrating their team’s last minute winner, together, on the road to promotion, stood on an open terrace. Heaven.

No-one was prouder of Stoke City or Stoke-on-Trent than Peter William Bunn.

When on holiday, either in Europe or in his beloved Lleyn Peninsular in Wales, he’d nearly always be spotted in a Stoke sweatshirt or t-shirt (never in a replica shirt, though), it was like a privilege, a badge of honour. He saw it as almost ‘representing’ his city and club in foreign climes. He was The Cultural Attache for Sneyd Green.

I vividly remember Wembley, The Windscreen Wipers Cup, or summat,  in 2000, and after beating Bristol City 2-1, we giddily went back to Harrow-on-the-Hill where our buses were parked.

We went into a huge pub, full of Arsenal fans watching their team’s live game at Leeds. As we flooded into the pub, high on winning a trophy, no matter how small, we were given the usual “small-club, northern idiots” jibes from the assembled deluded, self-admiring, self-loving Gunners, looking right down their noses as we entered.

Half an hour later, as the coaches were due to leave on the journey back to The Potteries. Dad had had enough.

“Sorry, but I’m not letting them run Stoke down. Back me up, lads”, he announced.

Then, as the assembled Stokies prepared to depart, and at the tender age of 60, he stood, arms outstretched on a chair, and shushed the pub before leading a huge, proud ‘Delilah’ that finally shut those of an Arsenal persuasion firmly up.

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Although his Ashes will be scattered at the Britannia Stadium – and by the way, the club have been absolutely brilliant with the logistics of this and his now redundant season ticket – his heart and soul will forever remain with his family, and at the Victoria Ground.

Dad never really took to the Britannia Stadium.

For him, the lack of a proper matchday routine has never really been replaced, even after 15 years at our new stadium. Dad’s routine was drinking in the Gardeners Retreat or Michelin Club, both close to Campbell Road, and a five minute brisk stroll at 2.40pm to the ground: Campbell Road – Nicholls Street – Lime Street. He loved holding court with tales of Sir Stan leaving the ball by the corner flag and his marker also leaving the ball and simply following him, or the time he kept a pub from rioting at closing time as the assembled Stokies wanted to see the FA Cup semi final goals on the telly on their way back from Hillsborough.

I hope the tales he told were true, but if they weren’t, we loved listening to them anyway: how he came back from Ajax, days late, and simply went straight to Stoke’s next game before home; or how he moved his wedding day to a Sunday to avoid a cricket match; and how he got a lift home on the team bus, and drank ale with the players, after his transport conked out on the way home from Spurs in the 70’s – all of those are definitely true. He told his tales time and again, but it didn’t matter. Our group loved nursing a pint of ‘Pedigree’ and watching the glint in his eye as he told them.

Proper Werther’s Original stuff.

But strangely, what makes him unique is that he’s just like any one of those reading this who love following their club.

Sounds daft that, yeah, but does anyone who doesn’t follow their football club truly know what it means to belong to something so special? How can they ever replace taking their kid to watch their city’s football club? How do they ever feel what we feel? Can their bond with their father ever be as emotionally watertight as ours is with our fathers who support the stripes?

I don’t really know.

All I do know is that me and my brother probably only now realise what we had and what we’ve lost, and that it would be a dream to be even half the dad he was, to our own kids. The hundreds of Stoke games we watched together and the hundreds of times he watched us, his lads, play football and cricket seem to have decreased in number as advancing years and grey hairs dim the memory. But deep down, we know he was always there, and now we somehow have to get used to the idea that he no longer is.

Dad got so much pleasure from sport, both football and cricket. Through this, he gave us, his children, the most underrated and undervalued gift of all. Possibly the greatest gift a parent can ever give to their children – time. He did so in a beautifully understated manner, too. He never moaned or shouted. Good men don’t have to, do they? He was a true man of the Potteries, a proud Potteries man. I rarely heard him say a bad word about the team we share our city with, either. A different, better generation, Dad was from.

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For me, my football club is part of my family - it’s such an integral part of who I am, and it was to dad, too. That’s why, at 12.01am November 25th, – I wanted it to be the day after his death – I posted about my father’s passing on The Oatcake Messageboard.

I still don’t know truly why, to be honest, it’s just that dad’s family always seemed to include every single Stoke fan. The quite startling responses, both in number and content, meant more than anything to me and my family. Blokes who had been the game with dad in the 50’s onwards contacted us; strangers who knew of dad and had funny stories emailed me; even Port Vale fans set up a thread on their own messageboard, which was a fantastic gesture.

What it means, and this is so clichéd I know, is that those who watch football really are one family. We feel what everyone else feels, we drink from the same pint pot, no matter the strip we wear. While staunchly parochial, we all have a respect and give a knowing doff of the cap to those who go through the good and dreadful times following a football club.

While it turns my stomach to know he’s no longer here, it swells my heart to know that he went on his own terms and how many of us would want to go like that? I can’t believe I won’t see him in his SCFC manager’s coat again, but he’ll always be there, walking with us to the ground come sun, rain, snow, wind or whatever the weather throws at us – a truly wonderful Stokie. Like all proper men, he liked nothing more than on a dreadful winter’s day, putting on a big coat and going to watch his team.

That my dad got to walk down, well, shuffled down as he wasn’t brilliant on his feet for some time, Wembley Way with his family on May 14th, 2011 now means everything to me. That we didn’t win the FA Cup hurts, but it would have hurt more if we’d have won and he wasn’t there.

Because even if we win the FA Cup one glorious day, it will never really mean the same without dad being present: standing still, huge beaming smile, and holding his arms high in the air whenever we scored, as he always did as utter carnage reigned around him.

Mere memories aren’t enough, they never are. But they have to suffice as he’s not here now. I pray he knew how much he was loved, but being a bloke I rarely said it enough when it was needed and necessary. I hope he could hear me as I stood by him, stroking his hair as he lay motionless, looking serenely at peace with the world, on that dreadful Saturday night at the hospital. “We won dad, we won”, I kept muttering. He knew.

Dad was unforgettable. A man who taught us right from wrong, to truly love his family and friends, put others first, enjoy life, blindly adore your football club and, really importantly, that in Wales, the sea is never too cold to swim in. He was a cracking swimmer, dad.

The final words?

They have to be from the most poignant, beautiful and apt football song ever written, don’t they? A song he actually sung on, back in 72, and one that simply sums up it all up:

“We’ll be with you every step along the way. We’ll be with you, by your side we’ll always stay.”

Love you, dad. God bless.