It's more than 20 years since either side was in the top flight, but now both are threatening an unlikely promotion, writes Pete Green

When you see a 65-year-old man at the football wearing face paint, and you’re not even at Wembley, you know it’s not an ordinary day. On an ordinary day, the city of Stoke-on-Trent translates its motto Vis Unita Fortior as “united strength is stronger”. Today, however, Stoke City are closing in on promotion to the Premier League and it translates as half an hour on hold phoning up for a ticket, 20-minute queues at the bar, a pre-match MC bawling even more dementedly than usual, and a giddy sexagenarian with red-and-white stripes daubed on to his wrinkled cheeks.

Stoke City seem to have had one of those feverish weeks in the local spotlight: the paper has issued rallying cries and lapsed fans have flocked back to the fold. An eccentric radio phone-in regular called Pottermouth has recorded a poetic exhortation to the team, his thick Potteries accent urging the players to “do it for Josiah Wedgwood”, Nick Hancock, “Sir Stan”, Royal Doulton and “the blokes who call each other duck”. Even with a cheesy and inappropriate backing track (I Vow to Thee, My Country), and played at ear-splitting volume in the official club bar, it sounds sweet and stirring. ­Sixteen-stone grippers clutch their pints and nod meaningfully. At the precise moment that it ends, the TV reveals that Stoke’s promotion rivals Hull have conceded a second goal and Watford are losing at home to Palace. An almighty cheer goes up. Anything at all is possible.

That’s a theme for the division this season. Anyone can beat anyone, say the managers. Granted, they say that every season, everywhere but the stitched-up Premier League. Last weekend, though, the Guardian published a table of results to prove it – look, West Brom lost at Colchester in October! – and today, with only three games left, 13th‑placed Burnley can still be promoted, while QPR, one place below, could go down. On paper, any of the top seven might yet win the title; effectively it’s between the top five – three of whom haven’t played in the top division for 20 or 30 years (Stoke and ­Bristol City) or ever (Hull).

Again as the managers might say, then, these two teams have it all to play for. Or at least and likeliest – and here’s the elephant in the room – 20th place in next season’s Premier League. Amid all the promotion talk, nobody wants to think about a year of Derby-like despair at the foot of the table, pocketing a jackpot purse for being whupped like a bum by the prize fighters every week.

But the rallying cries have worked. Not even a fortnight ago, fewer than 16,000 were here for Stoke’s last home game; today the gate is nearly 24,500 – the biggest in five years – and the stadium is creaking. The toilet has just one door in and out, as if the ground capacity were just a gesture and the club never thought it would be needed. Part-­timers squint from their tickets to the unfamiliar seat numbers and gawp at the gates like hillbillies at an airport.

This is still a new ground; overlooking empty space, and with the Stanley Matthews statue shunted to the edge of a car park, it belies the Potters’ history. You remember easily that Aston Villa, Notts County and Preston were founder members of the League; less so that Stoke were there, too. Kick-off nears with many home fans still shunning the luxury of belief, but an atavistic sense of entitlement lingers in the bones of these grand old clubs. To the 1,500 or so Bristol City fans here for an evening kick-off, too new to the second flight, really, to sense promotion in their guts, the Premier League feels as relevant as summer, as a freezing wind sweeps through the stands.

The top flight’s proximity is underlined by the refereeing of Mike Riley, whose whistle for the kick-off seems to echo throughout the first half. Mamady Sidibe takes the ball and the man with a sliding tackle: free-kick, and incredulity in the stands. A sympathetic observer would say Riley is officiating with a meticulousness that is all too rare below the top flight. A Stoke fan says: “Come on Riley, you wanker!” By midway through the first half, Bristol City will have been awarded seven soft free-kicks.

In the meantime, the pattern of the game is being set: Stoke work the ball out to Liam Lawrence on the right wing, who advances more or less unchallenged and crosses from the corner of the penalty area, then ­Bristol City counterattack through the middle, passing the ball twice and shinning it miles over from 20 yards out. Tony Pulis retains his reputation for long-ball football, but on today’s evidence neither side would have the subtlety to survive in the Premier League. It’s not ugly: it’s just direct and predictable, in exactly the way that narrowly did for Sheffield United last season.

For now, though, it does the job. Ironic applause greets Stoke’s first free-kick and a well timed dive wins another out on the right. Lawrence puts the ball in the right place and Sidibe heads in well at the far post. Around the ground the early goal spells loud relief. This corner of the West Stand seems an oasis of detachment, though, populated by an odd mix of indie kids, youth-team players with their MySpace friends, and twice-a-year dads with lads. “Who’s your favourite player?” a little boy asks a parent. “Have you got one?” In the executive boxes behind, directors of burglar-alarm companies stare out listlessly in shirt sleeves and self-­satisfaction while their wives swill white wine and admire the curtains. A verse of Delilah kicks in and a distant group of fans stand up and face right, stretching out both arms to bellow the anthem menacingly at the away end. For some reason the visiting supporters find the Tom Jones cabaret classic strangely unintimidating.

But Stoke are spurred on by the force of their fans’ will, while the visitors’ belief is visibly draining. Bristol City rush two attempted through balls much too early. In their goal Adriano Basso misjudges a corner, attempting to punch a low ball he could easily catch and swiping at thin air, as if miming a man cutting down a tree. Pulis acts up to the occasion, leaping off his bench and flinging his arms wide to appeal Riley’s decisions, instinctively keeping his feet within his tiny technical area with the precision of a nightclub podium dancer. There’s one thing he has never been called before.

Just as you suspect that both sides would settle for 1-0 at half-time, Stoke stretch their lead. With the visitors heavily committed forwards, Sidibe heads a clearance down to Ricardo Fuller in the centre circle and blazes a path between the last two defenders to pick up the return pass. The finish, from 12 yards, is close to Basso but the keeper is too slow to get down. The home fans can’t believe how easy it looks, and Bristol City’s Marvin Elliott shanks a desperate 25-yarder nowhere near the goal.

“Premiership? You’re having a laugh,” sing a few Stoke fans as the interval approaches. The chant peters out nervously. It’s not often AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is used as half-time PA music, but then it’s not every day two teams are battling for the right to become next season’s Premier League cannon fodder.

Gary Johnson has a lot to do. The only Bristol City player who has shown any enterprise is their industrious left-winger Michael McIndoe, and Johnson chucks on two subs for the second half. When McIndoe is forced to clear off the line soon after the resumption, there’s little sign that the game’s balance of power might shift.

But the Robins tap a deep reservoir of mettle and begin to create openings down their left. Stoke abruptly look hesitant, stunned. The visiting fans find their voice for the first time. Spirit is still not matched by skill, as Bristol City’s Louis Carey, bringing the ball out, eschews a team-mate open in midfield, and threateningly placed, in favour of a crap long ball and hands possession back to the home team, who look well capable of a third goal on the counter. But the match seems suddenly up for grabs and the next few minutes, you feel, will be decisive.

The visitors’ goal, when it comes, is strikingly similar to Stoke’s opener. Bristol City win their first corner on 66 minutes and McIndoe loops it to the edge of the six-yard box, where Dele Adebola’s strength and timing have earned him the chance to place a header well beyond a flat-footed Carlo Nash. Within two or three minutes Lee Trundle is allowed to turn in the area and lift a cross in; when the header is cleared off the line Trundle is still unmarked and shoots. Stoke are clinging on. The dads with lads start to sneak out, more concerned with congestion than promotion.

But in the home defence Ryan Shawcross, perhaps stung by the way Adebola swept through, has summoned the stomach to see out the game, buffeting Bristol City back from Stoke’s box almost single-handed. All around him continue to lose their heads. Sidibe fluffs a great chance on the break to make it 3-1, failing to beat a defender who’s lying on the ground, and goes down injured. A terrified-looking Nash mistimes a punch and Shola Ameobi, on as a late substitute for Sidibe, misses lamentably from 12 yards. “I can do that! Put me on!” protests a supporter. Shawcross carries his side over the line. The whistle blows. Relief breaks like a wave and the exits flood gleefully.

Outside is the inevitable chaos of a large crowd leaving a stadium built to punish pedestrians. Hundreds cluster around bus stops and the car parks heave. A scrum of lads pile into a tiny bus, chanting and pounding the windows wildly as the driver is berated by a boss for letting them board (“How is the club going to improve getting away from the ground when the match has ended?” asks a Potters Trust flyer given out before the match). Even the icy blasts of wind can’t match the macho bluster of the home fans who are letting themselves believe in promotion at last, waving their fists into the night, grinning, gloating, cheering, chanting, and trying not to look east towards Derby.

From WSC 256 June 2008

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