What All the Fuss is About
Indulge with me as I tell you the tale of my most miserable afternoon as a Stoke City fan to date.
It’s matchday. I’ve driven back from Loughborough in the ice after moving out of my university accommodation for the Christmas break and I’ve arrived back in Stoke ready to brace the elements to go and watch my team play. I knew it was a big game today, with both teams threatened with relegation and an ex-Potters hero coming back to his old hunting ground. It’s been difficult to get excited about Stoke City in recent weeks, this time though I was pumped. Little did I know that this game was to be one of the most emotionally demanding I’d ever attended.
It wasn’t a great start to the afternoon, me and my dad had left home and arrived in Fenton without the tickets. We were worried that we’d miss the start of the game, with that and the fact that travelling to the stadium was being slowed down by the icy walkways. It turns out the delay to our adventure wasn’t going to cost us: a power surge at the bet365 Stadium meant that kick off was delayed until by an hour and we’d be locked outside the stadium in the freezing cold. It’s fair to say the fans were even more fired up, if nothing else.
But in the build-up to kick off, none of that mattered. Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ belted through the loudspeakers and the fans roared in anticipation of the match. The players strode out into freshly lit stadium, steam billowing from their bodies in the frosty air and ready for the tough battle that laid ahead. The now-traditional chorus of Delilah was laced with abuse for Marko Arnautovic, unaware that he’d go onto play just more than pantomime villain in this crucial fixture.
The lads kicked off. Things looked quite promising as it was clear that the lads knew the significance of the consequences of this match. Amid suggestions that their manager’s future was in doubt, the players were still behind him. They ran as hard as they’d ever ran, there were no lost-causes in their minds. It was a positive start. The effort wasn’t exactly reaping much rewards, as the opening minutes didn’t live long in the memory, especially in the grand scheme of things.
Then, disaster. Manuel Lanzini broke away from a Stoke set piece, bursting away from stumbling City defenders and made it all the way to the opposing penalty area where he won a penalty for his side. Noble scored from it, and it wasn’t just the familiar feeling of conceding that Stoke fans were incensed with. The Argentinian had taken a theatrical dive in order to con the referee into making an incorrect decision; that’s without considering that Shaqiri was fouled at the other end of the field before Lanzini fled away. It gave Stoke a very steep hill to climb. For me personally, I was sad, the saddest I’ve felt at the bet365 Stadium.
The Stoke players continued their fight, yet still no breakthrough. Whilst bring cautious not to be caught on the break once again, those in red and white were becoming more and more desperate in their attempts to readdress the balance. The long balls to the strikers became more frequent, the long shots more erratic and the patience beginning to thin. The patience of the manager faltered too: not used to making early substitutions, Hughes made all three changes in one go. Amongst those coming onto the field was Saido Berahino: a man who hadn’t scored for his new club thus far. The fans were pleading to the footballing gods for his duck to break, especially today. There was hope, for the first time in a while, I felt hope.
The substitutions made little difference, in truth. Still the direct football ensued and the minutes were trickling by. It’s not as if Stoke didn’t have chances to equalise. It was odd that there was no tactical change, West Ham were doing well to deal with the aerial bombardment. The biggest of those fell to Ryan Shawcross: he had a glorious opportunity to smash a header into Adrian’s net a restore parity. The resulting shot blazed over to crossbar and away from danger. The hope morphed into hopelessness, I found it difficult to contain my pessimism as I grunted with every Stoke error. It simply wasn’t meant to be.
And then, the inevitable. Arnautovic was sent through clear on goal against Jack Butland after some abhorrent Stoke City defending and he doubled his new side’s lead. It’s not as if it hadn’t been coming: he’d had a shot saved by Butland in the first half, saw a golden opportunity soar over the woodwork, had two more smack the crossbar and came close on a number of other occasions too. When he finally had his goal, his frustration oozed and his revenge was sweet. A flamboyant knee-slide preceded a series of slaps on the West Ham crest as he paraded proudly in front of his old fans. It’s not unfair that he did this, when you take into account the abuse he’d been subject to all afternoon – including chants of “what a waste of money” and “there’s only one greedy so-and-so”. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel the rage course through my veins, it was a truly unprofessional showing against the hand that used to feed him. I was furious, as were the 27,000 other Stoke fans (or at least those that chose to remain in their seats).
Those that did remain turned their attentions to the bigger picture. Stoke were losing against a team that was about to overtake them in the Premier League. Quite an achievement, considering that there aren’t many of those left. The boos rang around the stadium, the “Hughes Out” chants were audible for the first time in Stoke-on-Trent, the patience had ran out. The toxic atmosphere heightened once more as the third goal of the game also fell the way of the Hammers. Home fans flooded out of the stadium; those that didn’t weren’t there to support any more, they were there to protest, to demonstrate, to make their discontent clear.
The final whistle blew and rage turned into realisation and acceptance. It meant that a loss in Stoke’s next game against West Brom would result in Stoke plummeting into the relegation zone. The fact is though is this: all of that emotion and hostility and pain wouldn’t have existed should this had been a one off. This game was the amalgamation of all the hurt that Stoke fans has felt over the last two years. Enough is enough, the loyal fans of this wonderful Football Club do not deserve to be subject to this any longer. Change is required, and quickly, or there’s going to be unthinkable consequences.
That, Mr Coates, is “what all the fuss is about”.
Written by Ben Rowley
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