Fan. Player. Legend.

A tribute to a local lad who lived the dream

Football fans generally don’t wish for much more than to actually play themselves, let alone for your local and boyhood club, let alone in the top flight of English football and certainly let alone being one of the most familiar and loved faces during one of the club’s most successful periods. Only a handful of people go through this kind of experience, so it’s no surprise that the whole of Stoke-on-Trent and beyond were devastated when the news broke that the career of Andy Wilkinson had came to an unfairly abrupt end.

Wilko joined Stoke City’s youth in 1998, signed his first professional contract in 2001 and remained contracted for 15 years, making nearly 200 competitive appearances for the club through the English First Division, the Championship and Premier League; not forgetting an FA Cup final in 2011 and the UEFA Europa League. It might come as a huge surprise that he never scored a goal for the club despite coming agonisingly close on a few occasions: after a scintillating run against Portsmouth, being denied by David de Gea against Manchester United and almost burying Stoke’s fifth goal in a glorious cup semi-final against Bolton.

But to be honest, Andy won’t be remembered for his lack of goals, rather for his unrelenting determination to keep out goals at the other end of the field. With a fearless attitude and a body which took more than it’s fair share of punishment, he gained a reputation for a no-nonsense, tough tackling, “you’d better not think about attacking this wing” full-back. He epitomised the much publicised “Bear Pit” label that the club was branded with from the promotion push in the 07/08 season into consistent mid-table Premier League finishes, building a wonderful foundation into a new era of Stoke City. He has been tasked, over the years, with defending against some of the world’s finest footballers: the likes of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard have all been matched against him on the wing, and all of them probably still have a bruise or bump somewhere with Wilko written all over it.

Under Tony Pulis, Wilko was a consistent figure in the team. He made around 25 appearances per season after breaking into the first team in the 07/08 season and contributed massively to the incredible recent rise of the Potters. From the mid table slump in the Championship right up to the end of Pulis’ fantastically successful tenure, he finished this period with a completely different style and calibre of players to what he started with. Yet he remained, and was one of the few that did. Pulis was known to have his favourites in his squad and was a big believer in fighting spirit, a do-or-die mentality to defending and “‘aard work”. Since Andy more than typified this, he underwent a fantastic stint under Tony and described his manager as “the biggest influence” on his career. In an interview last year, Andy described how Pulis was adamant for his defender to play against Manchester City… Right after this wife, Emma, had given birth to his son, William: “I did have to tell her (the furious midwife) that it was my job. I arrived at the stadium two hours before kick off and went into the gaffer’s office for him to congratulate me and see if I was okay to play”.

Of course he was, and of course he played. Peter Crouch scored goal-of-the-season that day. It must have been one of the most best days of his life.

Under Mark Hughes, Andy was restricted in terms of first team opportunities, making only 8 appearances under his new manager, possibly due to the new style of play that was brought to the club. However Hughes was always quick to say that Wilko remained a very important member of the squad and rightly so. Not only was he a player that had spent a long time at the football club and understood all of its ins and outs but he was also a fan, possibly one of the biggest ever, and I bet you he was the first one to remind the rest of the team about the importance of playing for Stoke City and what it means to everyone connected with the club. That kind of experience must be so very valuable to a football club, particularly its undergoing a rapid and radical transition period with new faces and a new mentality, but also it’s very rare you’ll find a man so attached and influential to a team: Ryan Giggs to Manchester United, Steven Gerrard to Liverpool and Andy Wilkinson to Stoke City.

Sadly, during one of the few times that he was called upon under Hughes, Andy sustained a head injury during the 4-1 defeat to Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup; conversely to the Manchester City game mentioned earlier, this must have been one of the lowlights of his career. He was substituted on for Mame Diouf at the start of the second half in an attempt to get back into the game after being 2-1 down. However, in iconic Wilko-style he “took a volley straight to the temple” and continued to play the rest of the game despite suffering reduced peripheral vision and being “shook” by the interception. With longer term problems such as vertigo, lack of balance and lack of depth perception, Andy didn’t play again for Stoke that season and there were plans for the club to sever ties with the full-back. But in respect for his unique and incredible relationship with the club, Stoke offered Andy a short-term deal to help him recover from his injury and find a new club. Unfortunately for him, Stoke fans and for football in general, Wilkinson was forced to quit football at the age of 31.

In a tweet announcing his retirement from the game, he said:

“It is a difficult day. I did not expect my career to end so soon and had looked to many more years playing the game I love.

“I would sincerely like to thank everyone at Stoke City at all levels, including the fans and everyone who has supported me throughout my career and as a youngster.

“I have truly lived the dream and have been on an incredible journey.

“I’ve played for my team Stoke for 15 years, in the Premier League, Europe and in an FA Cup final. That’s enough to make anyone dizzy and blurry eyed!”

Well Andy, you’re undoubtedly one of the most hard-working, passionate and iconic players we’ve had at Stoke City Football Club. You deserve all the love you’ve received from every connected with the club and throughout football because you’ve been a hero. It was just typical that it was your ruthless defending that finally finished it all.

We never got to celebrate one of your goals on the pitch, but we’re all celebrating your career now.

Written by Ben Rowley

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