The most frustrating thing about Stoke on Saturday is that we started so sluggishly. We were up against a team of genuine quality, but allowing them to totally dominate us proved suicidal. We did however score two brilliant goals. Hopefully Jonesy’s blast will bolster his confidence and lead him and us to a bright finish to the season. Despite having spent most of the first half frantically trying (and usually failing) to clear the ball, at half time we were only 2-3 down and alive in the game. For large spells of the second half we matched our opponents. We imposed ourselves on the game and kept the ball well in their half. We couldn’t quite force an equaliser and our spirited resurgence proved fruitless. The truly costly aspect of the game was the lethargic start. For most of the first half we were dreadful, and for that reason it’s hard to feel that we really deserved anything from the game.
Sadly, Friday April 15th marks the 22nd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Policing at football grounds has, for many years, been a sore point amongst supporters. It was former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police John Stalker in the 80s who said he was aware that many police knew that football matches were one time they were “Let off the leash”. On the 31st January1989 we had an FA Cup replay at Barnsley. Thousands of Stoke supporters arrived late due to traffic congestion. Outside the ground a crush developed and people were getting hurt. Initial action was to send a police horse running in to the crowd which only added to the chaos. To ease the congestion the police opened one of the huge exit gates which allowed the crowd to get into the game for free. This was the response the same force used two months later at Hillsborough. Had there been more Stoke supporters on the away terrace that night we could have suffered that awful disaster. Same situation, same police force, same reaction. We, like all football supporters, were actually riding our luck, not just on that night, but for years before. There was very little consideration for the issue of crowd safety over crowd control. It could have been any of us with the loss of life….. and the same scandalous tabloid allegations. RIP the 96.
Paul Gascoigne and Jimmy Greaves will soon be touring the UK with a roadshow. This will consist of them both telling stories from their playing careers and discussing openly their well publicised alcohol problems. The end of the shows will consist of no-holds-barred question and answer sessions. Showing admirable resilience Greaves has been tee total since 1978. Paul Gasciogne’s story however has been a much more painful one. Living out his traumas in the full glare of the media couldn’t have helped him. I can’t be the only one to fear the worst when seeing his name in a headline. It is however pleasing to learn that he’s been dry since Christmas. Hopefully Gazza’s found himself a new focus that can help maintain his sobriety and prevent his life from unravelling again.
We now look forward to Sunday April 17th and what could prove to be a very special day in our lives. There are reasons to dislike the semi finals being played at Wembley but this isn’t the time for that debate. The important thing is that we have reached a stage in the FA Cup that we haven’t reached for 39 long barren years. In 148 years of history we have only reached three FA Cup Semi Finals. 39 years ago our dreams were brutally shattered. The game was delicately poised at 1-1 when Arsenal’s John Radford was put clean through on goal but clearly offside. Inexplicably, the linesman kept his flag down and Radford gleefully scored to bury our hopes of reaching the final for another 39 years. Following much confusion over Radford’s goal it transpired that on the far side of the pitch from the useless lino, there was a man in a white coat selling programmes to the crowd. Stoke wore white that night and the flag carrying cretin thought the seller was a Stoke player. This allowed Radford to put us out of the cup and generations of Stoke City fans to carry a chip on our shoulder the size of Heathrow Airport! Surely on Sunday we can’t suffer such a deep injustice? By the way, I have never ever seen Radford’s horrible goal and I’m not sure it was even televised at all. But if anyone has a copy and can upload it to You Tube it’d be fantastic to see. I must be a masochist!
By the time our game against Bolton kicks off the first finalist will be decided. It’s fair to say that if Manchester City are as poor as they were at Anfield their loathed red neighbours will effectively receive a bye to the final. Why did Mancini start without Silva or De Jong? Their sole consolation is that they can’t play so badly in two consecutive matches.
Our game against Bolton will be an intense tight affair. Two evenly matched teams playing with a huge prize at stake. Ties like this are often decided by a moment of inspiration. We’ll be hoping It’ll be a Fuller or Etherington making the difference as much as the Bolton fans will be hoping it comes from an Elmander or Davies! It is great that one grand old club will be in the final. Stan and Nat will be watching proudly from above. Stan with a glass of fruit juice and Nat with a pint of brown ale! I’ll be in the Pig n Whistle pub in the centre of Brisbane, anxiously watching the clock and begging our players to take the sacred step 148 years of predecessors have failed to take.
Hearing Abide With Me has always brought a lump to my throat. From childhood, 2.45 on FA Cup Final day symbolised a huge slice of football heritage. The huge noisy crowd gathered doffs it’s cap in reverence. When The song starts the mood isn’t just about the game on the day. We reflect on, and celebrate, the glorious history of the competition. Cardiff’s shock win over Arsenal in 1927. It’s George Mutch’s late dramatic winner in 1938. Stan’s final in 1953. Nat Lofthouse’s controversial goalkeeper charge in the 1958 final and Bob Stokoe’s ecstatic dash across the lush green turf to embrace Jim Montgomery after his Sunderland team embarrassed Don Revie’s Leeds. If we win at Wembley we will have the chance to carve our name in history. The memories Sunday may bring could live with us all forever. In years to come we could cry tears of joy and reflect fondly on that day in April 2011 when we finally, after so long, reached an FA Cup Final. Players might find this hard to believe but that means more than money… much much more. Come on Stoke. Our time is now.