Thursday 31 July ~

Some of the Stoke fans preparing to watch their first top flight season in 23 years will be old enough to remember a legendary central defensive partnership, saluted by Peter Bloor in WSC 23 (January 1989)

In the first place, simply having the same surname as Alan Bloor was sufficient reason for me to adopt him as a favourite. His footballing abilities didn’t come into it, for it was his mere presence in the Stoke City team of the late 1960s that enabled me to tell what the sociologists now call my primary school peer group that I was related to A Footballer. My story had as much truth in it as an Eric Gates penalty appeal but happily, Alan Bloor was to prove there were better reasons to take to him than a shared difficulty in getting people to correctly spell our surname.

In 1969, Bill Shankly declared that “Alan Bloor is good enough to represent England in the World Cup”, while a newspaper report from the previous year told of how “Bloor charged round the midfield, launched several threatening solos against the quaking defence and unleashed a shot of Cape Kennedy power”. Forget Martin Peters being ten years ahead of his time, here was the original Ronald Koeman thundering out of the Potteries mist, years before anybody realised that Leeds United weren't the only link between the words “football” and “clog”. It is quite probable that Shanky, rarely a man to shrink from hyperbole, was guilty of some exaggeration in his claim, but this did not concern the Stoke fans, who appreciated the contribution “Bluto” made, particularly during the club’s most successful period in the first half of the 1970s.

It is sometimes felt that the teams Tony Waddington assembled were a midlands version of West Ham, with players such as Dobing, Hudson and Greenhoff confirming, and even creating, that impression. What does tend to be overlooked is the fact that behind these players was a defence which made sure nobody kicked sand in Stoke City’s face, even when the likes of Hudson and Greenhoff were performing the football equivalent of sharing a beach towel with the opposition’s girlfriends. At the heart was Alan Bloor, usually alongside Denis Smith, who had originally come into the team because of an injury to his future partner, but who was to become one of the all-time Victoria Ground favourites, as much because he so obviously cared as for any great football ability.

Here was a player who was also a fan, who played for the reserves on his wedding day and who was to sustain numerous fractures and gashes in the cause of Stoke City, but nonetheless played whenever possible because he loved the club. For instance, at the end of the 1978-79 season, and with promotion to the First Division apparently slipping away, he turned out at Wrexham with a burst blood-vessel, a gashed shin and a back strain, displaying an attitude carried to the very end of his Stoke career in 1982.

Having played until the end of November 1981, only to be made available on free transfer, Smith did not reappear in the first team until April, by which time the half-witted management of Ritchie Barker had put the club in dire danger of relegation. In a rare moment of clear thinking, Barker brought Denis back with seven games left, not because he was necessarily any better than those who had been playing but because he personified the attitude and spirit needed at that moment.

The first and final games of the five he played sum up his career at Stoke. In the first, against Wolves (making their then seasonal trip between the top two divisions), Stoke battled back from conceding the traditional Kenny Hibbitt goal to win 2-1. Denis had a quiet game, finishing it needing just three stitches in a cut eye. In the last match, with Stoke only needing a draw against West Brom to send Leeds down, but winning 3-0 with ten minutes to go, he put in a tackle that sent the ball bulleting for a corner.

Acknowledging the resulting cheer with a wave as he hit the ground, Denis had shown us that with just minutes of his 13-year Stoke career left, he was still determined that nothing was going to get past him. This fact was appreciated by the fans, who chanted his name unceasingly until the final whistle and stayed, demanding a lap of honour so that we coulc thank the man who represented us on the field.

In contrast, Alan Bloor's departure was much more muted, in keeping with the character of the man himself. After 12 seasons of regular service he was released by Alan Durban in summer 1978 and decided not to stay in football, a plan he put into action by first joining Port Vale and then by entering the furniture business. Altogether less demonstrative than Smith, but no less committed, he was the Charles Bronson of the Potteries, rarely if ever being seen to smile. Even on the photograph of the 1972 League Cup winning team, his efforts to win a part in a Death Wish film are in marked contrast to the smirks, grins and outright beams of his colleagues.

No matter, the opposites of Smith and Bloor made for a formidable partnership, which was instrumental in making Stoke one of the best teams in the country for a time. Together they put in many afternoons of stern red-and-white striped defending, none more glorious than in the League Cup final of 1972, when their success in subduing Osgood and Garland contributed in no small measure to their team's victory.

Both were local men, both cared for the local club, the only one they ever wanted to play for. It showed, and the fans reacted accordingly. The super leaguers and the “If it moves sign it”/“If it pays, move” (Adrian Heath, Paul Stewart) fraternity won't understand that, which is their loss (in all ways bar financial, unfortunately). So it is Stoke City's loss that the present management seemingly does not appreciate the club’s tradition of having local players in the team. Parochial it may be, but it establishes a sense of identity, even community, otherwise lost when committed young locals like Graham Shaw and Chris Hemming are shabbily treated in favour of couldn't-care-less signings like Simon Stainrod. That, though, is another story, albeit one which will hopefully be rewritten come the glorious day of Denis Smith's return as manager.

For now, it is the attitude of him and Alan Bloor which remind us of an ideal, which may now be unattainable in an age of new values, of whizz-kid chairmen and executive boxes, of share flotations and shady TV deals. Our thanks are due to both Smith and Bloor for showing us how it can be, and what we have lost.

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