At around 2.15pm last Saturday afternoon, as Patrick van Aanholt swept Crystal Palace’s second goal past Jack Butland, our greatest fears became a reality.
I looked into the eyes of those around us: Simon and Alan in the row in front, Colin and Keith behind, my Dad to my right. No one said anything; there was no need. We all just knew.
One of the joys of having a season ticket is the camaraderie that you build up with those who sit around you every fortnight. We’ve experienced a lot together – many ups, just as many downs – but this was the lowest ebb.
As the away end partied and thousands of fellow Stoke fans headed for the exits, reality finally dawned: it was over. Relegation. The dreaded “R” word.
It’s been coming for a while, and it is fully deserved after what has been a woeful season. It is not an injustice and certainly not unexpected, but until that moment on Saturday there was hope. Tenuous, flimsy hope perhaps, but hope nevertheless. Not after van Aanholt scored. That was it. Ten years of watching our team in the top flight, dealt a fatal blow.
As it happened, I had to dash immediately after the final whistle to catch a lift. It was only because of this that I didn’t have time to wallow in pity or to stare out into space contemplating the end of the ten-year journey we’d enjoyed so much. Consequently, I didn’t feel like crying. There wasn’t the time. But as I looked back over my shoulder at my seat and those in the adjacent ones, I could see grown men fighting back tears, and that isn’t a sight I’ll ever forget.
Football is a very simple game. Two teams of eleven, each trying to kick a ball into the other’s net. It’s not particularly nuanced, not particularly complex. You could argue that there’s far more intrigue involved in the framework and intricacies of golf, or tennis, or cricket. But as much as I love those games, they will never mean as much as to me, or to the wider population, as football.
Football is very special because of the emotions it inspires. There isn’t an emotion I haven’t experienced in relation to or in response to football. Joy, check. Sadness, check. Anger, check. Anxiety, by the bucket load. I could go on and on.
But amid all the gnashing and wailing of teeth from certain sections of our support – and I do not, by the way, begrudge them that at all – the emotion I was most consumed by was nostalgia. Nostalgia tinged with pride.
Stoke may have been the club that gave the world Stanley Matthews, as well as the club Gordon Banks came to call home – but success and glory aren’t part of our DNA. Failure is. Abject, sometimes comical failure. The second oldest professional club in the world and, in all those 155 years of existence, the one thing we’ve done better than anything else is being absolutely rubbish. That’s what we do; what we’re about. Stokies feel most
comfortable when we’re rubbish; that’s the comfort zone, the norm.
And that, ultimately, is why the last ten years have been such a ball. Because for a decade, on the whole, we haven’t been rubbish. It’s been refreshing beyond belief, and fantastic fun. So as I sat in the car back to Oxford mulling things over, I couldn’t help but smile.
Even for a supporter who has lived through a relative golden age, the last ten years have been remarkable. I’ve seen us beat every team in the league at one point or another, seen us win at White Hart Lane, Villa Park, and many more. Walking through Stanley Park in falling snow after winning at Everton on Boxing Day 2014 to the sound of Delilah ringing out for seemingly miles around was unbelievable. We’ve ruffled Arsenal’s feathers, beaten Liverpool 6-1, won 5-0 in a cup semi-final at Wembley and taken 6000 fans to Valencia in a European knockout round.
We’ve been dubbed “Stokealona”, pioneered a long throw renaissance; we’ve even played with a false nine for crying out loud. Stoke, playing a false nine. Just let that sink in. It’s been hilarious, inspiring, and beyond our wildest dreams.
The last time Stoke got relegated from the top flight, it took us 23 years to return. Who knows how long it will take this time. I’m not optimistic, and fear we could be in for a real shock when the reality of Championship football sinks in. Half-empty grounds, big, ugly target men, taking a few hundred away to Ipswich on a Tuesday night. Success is by no means guaranteed.
Whatever happens though, I will look back and smile: I will smile knowing how lucky we’ve been since 2008 and I will cherish some incredible memories. As Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”.