Stoke City Abroad: The Massive Highs And Crushing Lows Of Following Stoke In Europe

Stoke City's European adventure was one of both dreams and heartache. A Stoke fan gives a personal account of the massive ups and downs of following the Potters in Europe...
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Stoke City's European adventure was one of both dreams and heartache. A Stoke fan gives a personal account of the massive ups and downs of following the Potters in Europe...

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Stoke City Abroad: The Massive Highs And Crushing Lows Of Following Stoke In Europe

“EASYJET AND RYANAIR, OR ANYONE WHO’LL TAKE US THERE, EASYJET AND RYANAIR, OR ANYONE WHO’LL TAKE US THERE....WE’RE ALL GOING ON A EUROPEAN TOUR...............”

So sang the thousand-strong Stoke following in the Bernese Oberland on Thursday August 18th last year. Thun away was to be my only foray into Europe, unless you count a few days away in North Wales. It’s been that kind of year.

So, how did Europe feel this season?

Absolutely bloody brilliant. An oasis of laddish escapism set beautifully amongst a life spent slogging your guts out at work and chores at home.

A dad’s sole job description is to get their lad into football. Once that is done, anything else is a bonus. I always listened in wide-eyed wonder at my father’s tales of watching The Potters.

“And then Stan dribbled it to the corner flag. The left back had been detailed to man-mark him and go wherever Stan went and so when Stan left the ball by the flag and ran back without it, the full back followed him to the halfway line!”.

Whether it actually happened or not doesn’t really matter. This was a dad, my dad, holding court pre-match in the late 70’s, in the Michelin Athletic Club. A place where Michelin Tyre employees spent their hard-earned at lunchtime and before Stoke games, it being less than half a mile from the Victoria Ground.

So when we entered Europe by the back door thanks to getting to the cup final last may I had to go wherever, whenever. Because Stoke don’t ‘do’ Europe. We hadn’t for thirty seven years.

But his best tales were from Stoke’s two UEFA awaydays in the 70’s, to Kaiserslautern (1972) and Ajax (1974). The first saw him attending to his mate in hospital in Germany whom everyone thought had suffered a heart attack, yet was simply royally hammered and had blown into some Teutonic trumpet at the ground! The Amsterdam trip saw Bunny Snr arrive back to the UK almost three days later than expected, and then go straight to the Victoria Ground for our game with Sheffield United on the Saturday!

So when we entered Europe by the back door thanks to getting to the cup final last may I had to go wherever, whenever. Because Stoke don’t ‘do’ Europe. We hadn’t for thirty seven years.

15th July 2011

Me, Lee and Pete are huddled around a computer at work. We’re all teachers. Don’t worry, I’m PE, which a) doesn’t really count as ‘proper’ teaching, but b) the students actually smile when they’ve got my subject next!

It’s lunchtime. It’s not just a huddle we’re in. It’s a proper huddle, like in the old days when you’d congregate around a radio before the FA Cup 3rd round draw. A huddle that matters. Today’s youth have no idea of huddling or its importance, have they?

Because the draw for a cup competition your team is in, when done properly, is almost as good as the match itself and the huddle exemplifies this. The journeys often better than the arrival, yeah?

“HAJDUK SPLITTTTTTTT!!!!!”

“Christ, we’re out in the first round”

“Moody as hell is Split. Not a place for the fainthearted”

“er, where’s Split?”

“Have you just had a bite of my Rice Krispie cake, you plum?”

Hundreds of questions; dozens of answers; hopes; fears; frantic calls to mates; straight onto budget airline websites; estimates of how many we’d take and what sort of following they’d bring; do we need Euros or summat else?; how do I break it to the missus who wants a new car?; How wonderful that the second syllable of Hajduk is a term of endearment in The Potteries: Will Lee really go in bloody K-Swiss and embarrass us all?.

Just a few of what filled our next half hour before the routine of heading back to do what we are paid to do.

Me and Lee were going. No question about that.

Not unexpectedly it was the toughest first round draw we could possibly have had. When you call somewhere a hotbed it rarely lives up to reputation – <looks in direction of The Kop at Anfield and at The Brit several times this year> – but Hajduk are different gravy when it comes to getting behind your team.

It’s more than football to the Torcida – the oldest Ultra group in Europe - more than religion and when you read up on Hajduk, more than life itself. Hajduk Split is simply all-encompassing to anyone who supports them. And we’d drawn them. It was an honour to, to be honest.

The plan was soon set...

Over the weekend we’d see how many like-minded mates wanted to go and then I’d book it on the Monday. Couldn’t wait. But annus horriblus isn’t just something you could level at most of my ex-girlfiends’ figures - it’s simply what me and my family have been through in the last nine months. It started that day and hopefully ended with our house fire of late-March 2012.

But back almost a year ago.....

I was driving home from work the Friday night we’d drawn Split and the brakes went on the car;  I then arrived home to a flooded kitchen and the knowledge we’d need a new washing machine; And then the coup de grace, the boiler broke down the next day (my fault, I criticised the tea she’d made me, arf).

Savings had vanished by Sunday night and so had any hope of me spending some time on the Dalmation Coast watching my beloved team. In truth, my better half urged me to go. “Get a loan, stick it on a credit card etc”, was her plaintive plea. But I couldn’t, how could I? Family comes first and it had to back in mid-July.

So there was no real Split decision (geddit?) to be made. I cursed those fortunate enough to be going, grudgingly wished my mates well and did what all blokes do when the going gets tough – sulked and got hammered.

At least I had the consolation of seeing the first leg at The Britannia. A unique night.

I was selling my fanzine (last ever issue) outside the club shop when a Stokie came rushing down telling all and sundry “you want to see Split’s support. I’ve seen nowt like it in decades”. There followed 500 proud Hajduk supporters. Their whole away following had met at a local bar and walked down to the ground in a show of strength.

Flares were held aloft, a sea of virtually all blokes dressed in tight vest, jeans and baseball caps. Not one had an ounce of fat on them. They walked behind a banner. It was mint and simply had the year of the Torcida’s conception (1950) around the cartoon face of an ultra. They didn’t sing songs, football songs. They literally spat out their football club’s manifesto from 7-10pm. It was awesome.

Second half, and winning 1-0, me and my 8 year old simply watched the away  end. If this was Europe, I wanted more of it whilst at the same time had severe doubts any travelling support would ever be as good as Hajduk’s again.

Thursday 4th August

As a way of saying sorry to the family for sulking for a fortnight after the Europa draw, I took us for a couple of days away to Morfa Nefyn on the Lleyn Peninsular. Not unlike Split, as it’s, er, on a peninsular.

I had to get away, I had a face on me. I was getting chucked out of pubs if it was happy hour. Thing is, there was nowhere within several dozen postcodes showing the match and so we settled down to a steak in the St Tudwals pub in Abersoch.

8.50pm....Me: “Shotton, get iiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Wife: “You’ve bloody ruined our meal you have. All you’ve done is go on your phone all night. IS football really more important to you than a family meal?”

As rhetorical questions go, it was about as 100mph, nailed-on rhetorical as you could possibly get. But I was the best dad and husband on earth for the next 36 hours we were on our mini-holiday. Because Stoke City winning makes my heart, soul, body and mind skip with sheer blissful glee. Something a non-football lover will never experience or understand. I was contented. We would play in Europe again. I would be there.

I cursed those fortunate enough to be going, grudgingly wished my mates well and did what all blokes do when the going gets tough – sulked and got hammered.

Friday 5th August

The Ty Coch pub at Morfa Nefyn . Is there a pub setting better than this in the UK? Google it, book a holiday and thank me later. It was fitting that I was at my favourite place on earth as the draw was made.

<answers phone, it’s Jamo, a mate>

“Ay up Bunny lad, we’ve got Thun in Switzerland. First leg is away in just under 3 week’s time”.

I had to go. Fair play, my wife Vicki knew I had to go. The kids knew I had to go. And within a few minutes the whole beach knew I had to go.

The sun was beaming down from a North Walian sky; I was cradling a pint of Brains SA; the kids were building sandcastles on the glorious sandy cove we were sat upon and we had just been involved in a European draw. Again.

Stoke, in a European draw. Pfft.

But money was still scarce. So financially impotent were we that I was even contemplating mugging a Port Vale bucket-jangler at their next home game. We travelled back that night and one thing, and one thing only, occupied my thoughts as I drove the family Kia down the A55: How do I do Thun on the cheap, and who with?

Mates who had been Split had had an unbelievably brilliant time, but they too were now skint, some absolutely still in glorified shock at the result, the beauty of the city, and the many beatings and knifings they’d narrowly escaped. Split was the ultimate Euro away we all thought at the time.

It soon became clear that my European adventure would be a solo mission. I couldn’t afford the plane option so it was soon evident that all that was left with the tight-arse option. The coach, a Thompsons Tours one for less than a ton-and-a-half.

I lived for 54 hours in a pair of shorts, old skool AC Milan trackie top and Gazelles. I went from hypothermia at night to sunstroke in the day. ‘A Season with Verona’ didn’t get read. But at least the bloke I sat with was sound which is always half the battle on an away trip, eh?

When you pay virtually no ding then you expect little back apart from DVT, crap sleep, countless bloody re-runs of BBC’s My ‘bloody’ Family, pointless toilet stops, and a plethora of inane comments about how “Switzerland isn’t a patch on Stoke-on-Trent”.  And it was a ‘dry’ bus. Christ.

Only the whole first series of Fawlty Towers and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ on my lad’s Ipod Touch, and a few ales on the ferry at midnight kept me sane/contented.

Go on a coach to Europe again? I’d prefer to rub a cheesegrater over various bodily parts, thanks.

I’ve already seen us abroad, but Austria pre-season doesn’t count. But now I’d done it despite Thun being almost identical in twee-ness to Salzburg, this game mattered.  I’d seen Stoke City play a competitive match in Europe. A massive new entry on my Stoke City supporting CV, and something I really didn’t think I’d ever experience.  I probably won’t again unless we get as easy an FA Cup draw as we received in 2010/11.

I wish I’d had at least a night in Thun. I always think it’s quite rude when you go to nice places and don’t stay a bit longer than you need to. It’s a beautiful, fairytale small town, set on a lake, with rivers running through it and numerous picturesque bridges straddling them. Oh, and the Eiger is a backdrop. It’s a bit like the Bescot Stadium, I suppose.

The game? We won 1-0 and Danny Pugh scored. Read that again...Danny Pugh scored the winner in a European away tie for Stoke City. Strong stuff those Swiss cans.

Seven quid for a pint and nineteen sheets for spag-bol saw me and a few mates I’d met up with, head down to the local supermarket.  Cans for a Euro purchased and we headed back to where the vast majority of Stoke fans were stood, by the main bridge. Ten minutes beforehand, as we left for our supplies, the only sign of danger in the air was the plethora of red-shouldered Stokies who were threatening their own lives by jumping into the fast flowing river for some reason. Probably because its ker-aaazy stunts like this that the English seemingly have to do abroad for some inane reason, I suppose.

But the previous air of mirth and merriment was now gone as we walked back to the riverside.

Some utter bulb had taken a local’s bike and lobbed it into the river while he was in a shop. Police who were sound all day were now understandably twitchy and in different, threatening, dark clothing with various sized sticks. We shrugged our shoulders and left the riverside to the remaining few who choose to spend their time insulting local shoppers and those leaving work.

The game? We won 1-0 and Danny Pugh scored. Read that again...Danny Pugh scored the winner in a European away tie for Stoke City. Strong stuff those Swiss cans.

The match was almost pre-season like, with only the royally trolleyed away support doing anything other than making it a game against your local non-league neighbours. Songs about budget airlines and leaving the ST4 postcode were followed by the  almost legendary started-in-the-concourse-spread-to-the-away-end Potteries version of “Doe a deer....”, and then  with a homage to our 3p-in-the-pound Burslem neighbours set to the backdrop of the Inspiral Carpets’ ‘This is how it feels’. Ace.

The journey back on the bus was akin to being stuck in a lift with James Corden, Davina McCall and Philip ‘Phil’ Schofield. I wanted to self-harm by the time we got to Calais. At least by the time we inexplicably stopped at Stafford services on the M6 – a dozen miles from home - after an 18 (eighteen – copyright vidiprinter) hour journey, we were at last given the line of the trip from a Potteries passenger at the top of his voice that, “the driver will now be passing his hat round for a collection for the passengers”.

Wednesday 14th December 2011

We lay top of a group featuring Besiktas, Dynamo Kiev and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Three long, but beautifully different Euro aways. Indeed, a mate who went to all three would have hand-picked those himself, such was the diversity of the city’s visited and footballing passions in all three. No mither in any of them either, and strong friendships were forged, with shirts swapped instead of punches. Apart from one clueless plum in Switzerland, Stoke were brilliant wherever they went in Europe with many invited back in a few weeks time to Kiev to meet up with lads they met last year.

I couldn’t go to any of them, but the endless yarns from guys I know who went to the games was other-worldly to a supporter of a team who have been in the shadows for most its 150 year existence.

7.20pm.....“Thanks a lot Upson, you utter bloody whopper!!!”

Unbelievably harsh and in no way fair, but at that exact time my dream of possibly ever seeing Stoke away in Europe again died as our ex-England centre half dived in on the edge of our box in Istanbul. Penalty. Besiktas were back in it at 1-1 and went on to banjo us.

We needed a point. We didn’t get it. I was at home. Disconsolate.

It meant we finished the toughest of this year’s Europa League groups as runners up. This was key as the first leg of our last 32 game would now be at home meaning the away leg was in skool time.

You teachers get loads of holidays, shut up moaning”.

Yes, and I would give up every single minute of every single day of every single future holiday to have been able to go to the Mestalla several weeks later.

16th December 2011

I just knew we would draw a plum tie out. But Valencia?!??!!?

I knew we’d been all over Europe in our quest for continental, er, domination, and I knew we deserved, and would get, the dream Med-on-the-ale tie that we eventually ended up with.

But I was gutted, truly gutted. The pit of my stomach packed its bags and left my body as soon as we drew Valencia, as it knew that it would be experiencing extreme repetitive stress syndrome in the coming weeks.

The worst thing?

I now had two whole crappy months of listening to every Tom, Dick and ‘Ecker making plans to go to Valencia. Benidorm, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, Alicante. You name it, massive numbers were heading to anywhere that would have them in Espana. The pain in Spain, eh?

I had to listen, see and read about thousands planning the awayday of a lifetime, and I felt anger, hatred, jealousy and extreme bitterness as I couldn’t join them.

I’ll own up here, I shed plenty of tears. I hit walls. How dare those who had suddenly jumped on the Potters’ bandwagon in recent times get to have a week-long jolly in Valencia, whilst I’d been to any number of First and Second Division dumps and had 3,000 locals laughing and pointing at me as I had dragged my rain-sodden, losing carcass away from their ‘stadium’.

“Why can’t it be ME sleeping in my own sick down a Benidorm alleyway”, I thought.

I knew of any number of blokes who weren’t even Stoke fans going for the craic. Despondent doesn’t come into it. I was totally inconsolable, a shell of a man.

I didn’t even begin to put a brave face on things. Why should I? No one would see it if I kept my chin up. I’m a bloke and we are mint at sulking. I yearned for sympathy, I wanted to make others feel uncomfortable in my presence.

Those at work saw my pain. Those fellow teachers who loved SCFC were feeling it too. The Oatcake messageboard was unbearable, akin to finding out you’d won a night with one of the Corrs and finding out it’s the brother, as minute-by-minute Stokies were posting about how they’d got a return to Malaga for under fifty quid; how cheap a hire car from Alicante was and how they were looking forward to sleeping in their own sick down a Benidorm alleyway.

“Why can’t it be ME sleeping in my own sick down a Benidorm alleyway”, I thought.

I walked around in a soulless stupor at home and at work. When I think about it now I still feel incomplete, I really do. Others were there, I wasn’t. Nothing seemed to matter but Valencia. Nothing ever will. No matter how twee and melodramatic this sounds, life simply stagnated for several weeks. Because some things matter so much it hurts, eh?

Those (conservative estimates of) several thousand Stokies in Valencia won’t probably ever have to tune into Radio Stoke on the day of an away game at the Mestalla or the like again and hear Viva Espana played every five sodding minutes! They won’t ever again get to see lads you know being interviewed on Sky Sports News in Cathedral Square of that fantastic Spanish city.

“Stoke is a sh**hole, I wanna stay here”, sang the 7,000 Stoke fans throughout the week, culminating in the wonderful and surreal sight of our 2,800 official allocation and the whole of that sheer three-tiered stand behind the goal as well, rocking to Potteries voices. Oh, plus any number of groups of lads who had easily got tickets all around the ground.

Valencia was our Spike Island. I was stuck on this bloody island.

Stoke City were making history this season and I wasn’t there. And that will haunt me until either my dying day or, please God, we ever qualify for Europe again.

The very supporting legacy and fabric of Stoke City Football Club was woven before my very eyes - whilst I watched the game in a house in Biddulph! Bloody Biddulph!

2011/12 was a tedious season, with only Europe being the proverbial oasis in a desert of defensive-minded mediocrity. And the one shining light I missed due to work. I did Thun, my dad did Ajax. He’s still winning. He still has better tales, better yarns. But at least I’ve seen my football club play a competitive match in Europe and it almost took me as long to get back!

The result in Valencia was an utter sideshow to me not being there. Because sometimes, just sometimes, watching your football club really IS about more than the result of a football match.

Now, where’s that cheesegrater?

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