14 May ~ When Manchester City played Tottenham Hotspur last Tuesday it had massive significance to Stoke City. First, City’s win means that we are going to compete in Europe next season for the first time for a generation whatever happens at Wembley against them today. Second – on a purely personal level – the game took place between the two teams that contested the first FA Cup final I remember watching, in 1981 as a five-year-old, when my late mother let me stay up to watch the replay on the condition that I “didn’t tell anyone at school”. So began my life-long dream to watch Stoke play in the FA Cup final.
Even at that age, when I still believed in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, I could never suspend belief enough to think that we might win the League, but maybe, just maybe, we might get to go to Wembley.
If that seems overly romantic (although all true) it does just about sum up the feelings of not just me but every other Stoke fan. It’s hard not to get dewy-eyed. Did any of us really believe really believe deep down, in all those seasons where a win against York was a good result for us, when we lost 5-1 to Oxford at the Manor Ground to more or less confirm relegation from the old Division One (when my aforementioned Mum decided to console her two sons upon their return home with the words “never mind, think of all the new grounds you can go to”), or even as recently as five years ago when the clueless, rotund Dutchman Johan Boskamp led us to 11 home defeats in a season, that this could happen?
The answer is no, but no matter, here we are. A club formed in 1863 – founder members of the League – making its way to the final for the first time, or to put it another way, local lad Andy Wilkinson is going to do what the Potteries’ most famous son, Stan Matthews, never did in a Stoke shirt. And we deserve it too. All the nonsense about the way we play was surely ended by our dismantling of Bolton in last month’s semi-final, and while of course we are underdogs that might just suit us.
Our record at Wembley is pretty impressive. Four appearances, four wins. Do you reckon Man City are scared? Actually, knowing their penchant for messing up their big chance, maybe they are. And with our recent form, they should be.
Its not 1981 anymore, I am 30 years older now, more realistic and infinitely more cynical. I’ve been to both Wembleys (the old one was horrible, the new one is pretty impressive although for £1 billion it should be), saw Stoke win the Auto Windscreens there, seen a few great gigs. However, come 3pm today I will be sat behind the goal and will turn into that five-year-old boy again, spouting all the cliches about the magic of the cup. And to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Andy Thorley