Our columnist Martin Smith has his say as he looks forward to the eventual return of football……
“Stoke City’s social media department and The Sentinel’s intrepid band of reporters have done a grand job in keeping Stoke supporters entertained during the current lockdown.
“I’ve so far enjoyed watching the full reruns of both the 4-2 win at Barnsley this season and the unforgettable 4-3 victory at Everton a few short years ago. On top of that there have been countless short articles concerning the club which have ramped up the nostalgia levels and left me a little teary-eyed on a couple of occasions.
“There’s no doubt about it; in the absence of any replacement sports of any kind, I’m ready for some football right now. It might be that we don’t have to wait for this for as long as we might fear. There have been some media reports of the Football League and the Premier League enquiring about the possibility of getting special dispensation, during the summer, to finish off the current season in games played behind closed doors, perhaps including only those players who’ve been tested and are clear to participate.
“Can you imagine what the viewing figures would be for games such as those, assuming that the Premier League and Championship games at the very least would be available to be watched live?
“The viewing figures would be through the roof for such a thing and without wishing to make the case that football should in any way be allowed to circumvent or flout the current lockdown restrictions, you’d have to think that such a thing during the summer would provide a massive injection of morale for the country!
“I’d certainly love a fix of fresh football right now but thinking about this juicy prospect also made me realise that the footie isn’t all that I go to the football for. It’s the people. It’s my fellow Stokies and footie fans.
“In the past my friends and I have often joked that if going to football was only about the 90 minutes of football then we probably wouldn’t go to as many games as we have.
“As a Stoke City supporter there have been too many seasons where the football alone has not been enough to persuade people to invest their time and effort towards traipsing around the country. The disappointment would have been too overwhelming. I suspect it’s one of the main reasons why people do fall away at times and it’s also why I and my own circle of friends very rarely use the generous and excellent free coach travel to away games.
“For us, the day, especially an away day, may be built around the 90 minutes of action on the pitch, but it’s also about meeting friends and family. It’s about catching up, it’s about enjoying a drink together, telling stories old and new and it’s just about being Stoke fans.
“For home games these days we usually meet up at the excellent Hem Heath Cricket Club before the game and the after the game as we plan our assault on the drinking establishments of Stoke. Before the Cricket Club it was the Power League and for the first 10 years at the bet365 Stadium we used the ‘Legends’ (now Delilah’s) club on the corner of the Boothen End.
“In the days since finishing the Oatcake fanzine, with a little more freedom and less things to coordinate, we have taken to giving ourselves a monthly treat and either hitting the best pubs of Hanley or Newcastle before the game, before grabbing a last minute taxi to the ground.
“Home games are enjoyable but the full joy of being a Stoke fan, for us at least, comes from our away travels. For about 90% or more of away games we travel on the train. It costs a lot more but it gives you so much more freedom to your day. You’re not locked into just a journey straight to and from the stadium and it’s not all about the result.
“And we’ve taken to going at ridiculously early hours, often to take advantage of some very tempting cheap rail fares. There have been Saturday afternoon away games where we’ve been on the platform of Stoke Station before 7am, and checked into Facebook to see that other fellow supporters had started their journey an hour earlier!
“Last season we were heading off to a game at nearby West Brom at a ridiculously early hour and there were some Everton fans (if I remember correctly?) also on the train, heading off to a much further away match. As the ‘Evertonians’ clocked that we were Stoke fans heading to an away game, we saw them looking at their watches before we heard one of them incorrectly come to the conclusion that “they must be the lunchtime kick-off game then”. Er, no, I’m afraid not! We still often treat ourselves to a good laugh when we think about that incident.
“The away games give us the chance to visit different towns and cities, find some nice off-the-beaten-track pubs, meet up with friends, bump into other groups of travelling Stokies and just have a really good day out. There are days when you shake hands and say “Ay up” or “How do” to fellow fans so many times that you lose count. Not building the whole day around just the 90 minutes on the pitch helps to insulate you against the vagaries of fortune and the disappointments of bad results and poor performances.
“To us, and so many others, it’s what being a Stoke fan is all about. Following The Potters has allowed me to visit well over a hundred different places in this country alone; many of them places I would probably otherwise had no reason to ever go to. It’s taken me around Europe and for other Stokies has meant trips around the world! It’s provided me with memories and moments I will never forget.
“And so, while I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that there is some way to get some football, and other sports, played again in the not too distant future what I’m really yearning for is the day when a return to normality means that we can start meeting up again before and after games, can plan our travels to away games (although making a pre-9am start to Rotherham away, when the game didn’t kick-off until 5.30pm is probably not going to happen again) and experience the joy of being a football fan again, and in particular a Stoke City supporter.
“Stay at home, stay safe, stay strong and keep your eyes focused on the prize at the end of all of this. It’s going to be worth it when we get there!”