There has always been a bit of a theme with Stoke City and Piers Morgan.
Back in August 2012 the Arsenal fan and TV host told his legion of Twitter followers: “There’s something about Stoke City away that always fills me with extreme, irrational anxiety.”
We’ve also had…
“Just watched the two teams shaking hands – Stoke look like our older, bigger, nastier brothers,” in February 2013.
“Getting out-played by the cloggers… embarrassing,” in March 2014, before adding at full-time: “Hopeless. Stoke fought harder than us, wanted it more, deserved the win.”
In December 2014 it was: “‘There were lots of positives’ – Wenger just said that. After we lost to Stoke. UNBELIEVABLE.”
And: “Getting stuffed by Stoke City. I’m done. DONE. #WengerOut”
You get the idea.
But then suddenly this week, an epiphany. All it has taken is to out-class plenty of football clubs with very deep pockets and react with humanity and generosity to the biggest crisis of our generation.
“Stoke City – you wouldn’t think of them as being one of the big players of football,” he said.
“They’ve got wealthy owners and the owners have not only committed to do five months, I believe, of full pay for all staff but they have also donated £10m to the local NHS which is an amazing gesture.
“I think it’s the Coates family. They are very wealthy, but you know what? A lot of wealthy people are stepping up and a lot of wealthy people are not stepping up.”
He’s right and it was well said.
But this week’s actions do not come as any surprise to anyone familiar with the Coates family, who own Stoke City and employ more than 4,000 people at bet365 – and there is more going on than is probably appreciated outside our city.
They have strong principles and, thankfully, the money to back them up.
Players including Tom Edwards,Danny Batth and James McClean have echoed their generosity by making substantial private donations to their local hospitals – and McClean and Joe Allen to the Donna Louise Trust, too.
All have been done without seeking publicity, but it’s difficult to move around in secret.
Stoke players, staff, coaches and heroes – from cup winners and chief executive to first teamers and ticket office workers – have been calling vulnerable supporters during the lockdown.
You can almost hear the appreciation when a Stoke fan says: “Jack Butland rang my mum! He chatted with her for a while and asked if there was anything she needed he would get it for her.”
Yes, there have been players who have tested these principles over the last couple of years – and you get the feeling that the owners have wanted to throttle them as much as supporters.
But those who know Stoke City know that Stoke City means something special.
When those who know Stoke City talk about Stoke City DNA it means something special; hard but fair and committed.
Oatcake Fanzine editor Martin Smith wrote in a passionate column this week: “I have said in recent times, and it’s something to which I have stuck doggedly, that Stoke City became the sort of club I had always dreamed of supporting, and it’s a position from which I cannot be shifted. Sure, I’ve had my battles in the past and I feel I have been both right and wrong in some of past arguments.
“The sign however, that things were changing was the famous Rory Delap incident. We had him on loan, said we were going to sign him permanently and then went through with that pledge even after he suffered a terrible broken leg. That one incident displayed to so many of us how things were going to be at Stoke City and it’s no surprise that such an amazing decade quickly followed.”
Let’s just take a closer look.
The Coates family, enriched by bet365’s stunning success story, inherited a mess when they bought Stoke City back 14 years ago.
Chairman Peter Coates said at the time: “There is a great deal of work to be done to create a football club that all of its supporters and all of the people of Stoke-on-Trent can be proud of. I am putting together a team of people who I believe can deliver success, while at the same time making economically viable long-term.
“I have not invested a significant amount of money in Stoke City for the good of my health. I have done it because I am a passionate supporter of this football club and I want Stoke City to be a successful club both on and off the pitch.
“This will not be done overnight but the process has already begun.”
That process has been a wild ride to get to where we are now – and, on the pitch, it feels like they have found another good ‘un in Michael O’Neill to take the team in the right direction. Football isn’t as controllable as we would all like.
Off the pitch with the things Stoke can control, there has been incredible investment in the Academy to help the city’s young footballers find their potential and the Community Trust, to help the city’s projects most in need.
There have been initiatives like the City 7s, with tens of thousands of seven year olds given shirts and match tickets for them and a parent.
Season ticket prices have been frozen since 2008 – and discounts will be honoured again when things return to normality.
We could go on.
No football club will get things right all the time – and recruitment can be a miserable business when it goes wrong – but the past couple of weeks has shown what a difference it can make to get the big things right as a club at the heart of a community.
But for all that, let’s hope, sooner rather than later, life is back to normal – and Piers Morgan is back moaning about losing to us cloggers.