“Could this be….the most beautiful place in the world” After only two cans on the train, Tom and I departed the train and adapted Prince’s hit song about the most beautiful girl in the world to fit our surroundings. The joke of singing this song lasted for the whole day and the song was especially triggered by any run down or derelict building we encountered (I think this running joke was a ‘had to be there joke’ but it kept us entertained throughout our afternoon in Stoke). On our first visit to Stoke we opted to attempt the walk to the Britannia from the town centre, but having got halfway there we encountered a group of young Swansea fans being spoken to by the police. When I approached the police asked “Where you heading?” I replied we were heading to the ground or to a pub. “We know a good pub for you. We’ll escort you there.” Thus ensued one of the most surreal moments of my away day travels. The police drove slowly by the side of us for the duration of the 30 minute walk back towards the city centre we had just come from; apparently this was necessary as we might get ‘picked off’ by Stoke fans. This was Stoke.
I was already frustrated by the police forcing us back towards the city centre to a quiet, yet admittedly nice bar, where me and Tom were the only Swansea fans present. Fortunately, the police’s notion of Stoke fans being notorious and primitive proved to be very much wrong and they were all very talkative and friendly. Stoke had just come back from an away trip in Valencia on the Thursday night and many of the Stoke fans regaled us with their tales of their adventures on Spain’s Southern coast. Some were still in bad shape on this Sunday afternoon after their mini getaway to Spain.
That Sunday was not a kind Sunday. The game was a disaster for Swansea. Word had got around before the game that our imperious keeper Michel Vorm was ill and that backup goalie Gerhard Tremmel was to adorn the Swansea goalkeeping gloves. Throw in the fact that Ashley Williams was also missing and I already feared the worst. Stoke secured a convincing 2-0 victory with goals from Matt Upson and Peter Crouch, with Tremmel making a hash of both efforts. Despite a double decker bus wishing me to ‘Have a Nice Day’, I did not. In fact, I could not wait to get out of the place. With this day out in Stoke in mind, when I saw this season’s fixture away to Stoke getting closer, I initially decided I was going to keep the money and stay at home – Swansea were obviously going to lose. But then a thought: they could win. Come the Tuesday night before the game at the Britannia the idea had already been planted in my head and before I even knew what I was doing I had purchased a ticket for Stoke v Swansea at the Britannia Stadium on the upcoming Saturday. In all fairness the ticket was only £25, a bargain by Premier League standards, and a return train ticket to Stoke from Manchester was only £10.
Like all away days these days, my journey began at Manchester Piccadilly station where I was supposed to meet my Swansea supporting mate Johan (his Dad amazingly named him after Johan Cruyff), who also lives in Manchester, but with his phone knocked off and no sign of him, I made the 33 minute train journey to Stoke solo.
After last season’s traipsing around Stoke, I opted to go straight to stadium to pick up my ticket which was waiting for me at the Britannia’s ticket office. There were no taxis outside the station so I decided to join two Swansea fans I had spotted on their short walk into the city centre, thinking I’d definitely see a taxi en route. When my two companions left me to go buy some food in Greggs I carried on my quest for a taxi – I was now alone in Stoke city centre in Swansea shirt and scarf getting looks of disgust from the locals. Despite seeing many taxis, they were all reluctant to pick me up – perhaps the Swansea shirt wasn’t helping. Eventually, I just phoned one of the local taxi companies to pick me up from outside Sainsburys (I felt safe by Sainsburys – no notorious football hooligan would shop at Sainsburys). Soon I was on my way to the stadium but not after an interesting conversation with my friendly Asian taxi driver. On explaining to him that I was a Swansea City fan and that I had travelled from Manchester to the game, my driver exclaimed “Swansea is in Manchester?! I didn’t know that”. Having explained the fact that I merely lived in Manchester and after giving my driver a brief lesson in geography, he replied with “So Swansea is in Wales? But I thought they were good? And how come you’re allowed to play in England?” I decided to move away from the topic of football and geography and decided to talk about my previous experience in Stoke instead.
It is regularly said by fans , pundits, players, managers and anyone to do with football in general, how the Britannia is always a tough place to visit for the opposition team and fans. The ground itself does even have a fortress-like appearance to it as it sits on top of a hill, staring down on the city of Stoke below. Many fans have also cited the intimidating atmosphere Stoke’s fans create at the Britannia and they were famously the loudest fans in the league during their first year in the Premier League. On my visit to the ground last season, I was hugely disappointed by the lack of atmosphere created by Stoke fans, but I put this down to the game being on a Sunday afternoon and the fact that many of the home fans were still nursing hangovers from their Europa League partying in Spain. I was actually hoping that the famous Stoke atmosphere would come out during today’s game just to experience it.
Like most new stadiums, the Britannia came to fruition thanks to the 1990 Taylor Report with the club’s 119-year old Victoria Park seen as not being up to the appropriate standard. The Britannia Stadium was officially opened in August 1997 by the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews, whose ashes were buried beneath the ground following his death in 2000. The ground is a couple of minutes outside of the city itself and similar to most new-build stadiums, the ground is located on a retail park which has your usual mix of car show rooms, warehouses and of course, a Harvester pub. A unique feature for the Britannia is the fact that there are three gaps between the four stands, something I found unusual because most new grounds usually have all the corners ‘filled in’. The gaps in stadium maybe even adds to Stoke’s home’s sinister, reputation as on a cold day you can feel the wind whipping into the dome of the stadium through the spaces between the stands.
I headed straight for the ticket office to collect my pre-booked ticket, but unfortunately the Swansea convoy had not arrived yet so my ticket was not even there! Instead of waiting around, I headed straight for the Powerleague football building about 2 minutes away from the ground. My visit to Powerleague was not to try to squeeze in a game of 5-a-side before our kick-off, but this was where I would be meeting some fellow Jacks for prematch beverages. On the way to Stoke’s Powerleague, I had a text off Johan confirming he was alive, but slightly hungover after a big night hence the lateness. Powerleague had a decent bar actually and there was a nice mix of home and away fans with big screens scattered around the room showing the early kick off between Arsenal and Chelsea. I had arranged to meet Medwyn and his son Iestyn here (apparently they’d met John Barnes on the train to Stoke, who had informed them to put on their ‘tin hats’ for the Stoke aerial attack), but it was also great to meet so many other jacks. #Twitterjacks has been a Twitter hashtag for Swansea fans for a couple of years now and it was strange to sit at a table with Swansea fans I’d never met before, but seemed to know me. It soon transpired that they all followed me on Twitter and I also followed all of them. It was nice to put names to faces for Russ (@JacsyGogledd), Rhiannon (@Rhiscfc) and Gareth (@eddieedwards40) and it was good to share drinks with them before the game. Eventually, Johan turned up to join us as did Lynsey who had joined me on my past trips to Aston Villa and QPR. The final person to join our little party was Gary, a Stoke supporting PE teacher from my school – I can only apologise if I have insulted your hometown in anyway already. After a few drinks and now with the time past two o’clock, I thought I’d better head over to the ground again and obtain my ticket. It really was a day for meeting my Twitter family, as on exiting the building I heard someone shout to me. It turned out to be Matt, another Jack who I’d never met before but that I knew through Twitter (@M_J_Wallace) and who informed me he is a fan of this very blog. Also nice to meet you. Despite some ridiculously crap serving of drinks at the bar at times (I was actually worried I turned invisible at one point) I very much enjoyed my time in Powerleague bar and I must add once again how friendly all the Stoke fans were – no ‘picking off’ to be seen.
On the walk to the ticket office, my thoughts turned to the game which was now about half an hour away and the optimism I was expecting to kick in by now still hadn’t turned up. Swansea were going to lose, I just knew it. It was too late now anyway and with ticket in hand we entered the away end. The concourse was a tight affair to say the least and the toilets were not too much better, as the men’s toilets began to resemble a large scrum. Anyway, I’m not too much of a diva so I got by alright. I decided I needed once last drink before Stoke opened fire on us. Stoke sell Carlsberg on tap and serve it in plastic pint cups for just over the £3 mark – it’s not great, but I certainly prefer the plastic pint cup to the usual plastic bottles you get at most stadia. We were also joined by my friend Nia, who I met during my Uni years, and her Dad Jeff, who I always seem to bump into on my away days. With pint drunk, it was time to find my spot in the away end and brace myself for what I anticipated to be a tough 90 minutes.
Swansea started OK, playing some nice football, but not really getting anywhere. It only took a few seconds for the Swansea fans to start their shouting of “Hoof!”as Stoke repeatedly shot the ball up towards Peter Crouch. Stoke began to apply more pressure on Swansea and it was clear that they were targeting Swansea’s young left back, Ben Davies. I’ve been singing Davies’ praises for the past few weeks, but today was not the best day at the office for him as Stoke regularly found their way past him. Stoke eventually took the lead, predictably from a corner; Swansea’s defending was absolutely shocking as Peter Crouch was left to wander, unmarked into the box and header the ball into the far corner without even jumping. Swansea looked nervous for the rest of the first half and it was no surprise to see a ball into the box land at Crouch feet, who after having a shot saved by Vorm, tapped in the rebound from Vorm’s save. 2-0 and Swansea looked dead and buried.
Despite there being several signs around the concourse informing the away support that ‘There will be no alcohol served at half-time’ there was alcohol being served and it was very much needed. Whilst discussing the game with my companions, I bumped into Matty Jacob, another ‘Twitter friend’ (@OriginalMattyJ) who I’d also never met outside of the world of Tweeting. Matty writes the excellent Swansea blog, East Stand Voice and he has chipped in on the other site I am editor for, A Great Advert for the Game (some nice plugging there). Safe to say, I was not expecting miracles for the second half.
Swansea came out of the traps quickly and asserted their passing game on Stoke and gave them little time to think. There was a huge improvement in the Swans performance, but they were still creating very few clear chances. Eventually Ki Sung-Yeung played a defence-splitting through ball to Ben Davies inside the box and the next thing we knew, Davies was sent flying into the air. PENALTY! The whistle blew and the Swans fans celebrated earning their penalty. However, the penalty celebrations were short-lived as it soon dawned on the fans that the ref had blown for a dive! Like many others, I lost it and launched a tirade of abuse at ref, not something I do very often. I was actually pretty embarrassed with myself when I watched Match of the Day later in the night to find out that Davies had actually dived and that the referee was spot on. Apologies to Mr. Moss and well spotted.
And that was it really, apart from Peter Crouch hitting the bar with a header which barred him entry to my exclusive ‘hatrick club’ (featuring Guillaum Bauza, Robert Earnshaw and Andy Morrell amongst others), not much else of note happened and Swansea sunk to their third straight defeat and their third game without a goal. The only positive I really took from the game was the performance of Ki-Sung Yeung. Ki was superb for the whole 90 minutes and he seemed to be everywhere. One moment he was helping out Williams and Chico at the back, the next he was on the edge of the box trying to score. I thought it was between him and Crouchy for the MOTM award.
We exited the stadium and hopped on the double decker bus that was waiting for us in the fenced off away area. We found Jeff and Nia sitting behind us on the bus and we shared our dismays about the game, but we were all in agreement that Ki was brilliant. After a long wait the bus began to pull away from the Britannia car park and the Stoke fans had even waited behind to wave goodbye to us off – well, it was sort of waving to us.
I have to say, Stoke is one of my least favourite away day destinations, mainly because the city is almost considered out of bounds to away fans, unless you want to keep your mouth shut or apparently get your head kicked in. Saying that, all the Stoke fans I met were very friendly and chatty – the idiotic minority ruining it I guess. Another big disappointment for me was the fact that once again Stoke fans were very quiet and there was very little atmosphere at all, despite them being 2-0 up; obviously our fans didn’t help either as there was very little for us to sing about. The stadium is fairly decent but it is hard to get too excited about any of the new builds built on soulless retail parks (that includes the Liberty). It wasn’t quite as bad a day as last season’s visit and it was great to meet so many #Twitterjacks – hopefully see some of you soon. I’m hoping this isn’t the start of another long chain of Swansea away day defeats for me.
Highlights: Stoke fans were friendly, Powerleague bar was quite good, cheap tickets, meeting several #Twitterjacks
Low Points: Another dull new build on a retail park, the prospect of getting ‘picked off’ by Stoke fans, not many pubs close to the ground, small concourses, the atmosphere was a bit crap.