This was the away game everyone wanted to go to, obviously, it was made all ticket, and in those days, other than the few season ticket holders and the handful of shareholders we had back then, it was very much a free for all, first come, first served. Had it not been made all ticket, double the 6,500 that were able to attend, would’ve made their way to the Potteries. Coming away from the St Andrews ticket office, I looked at my new purchase, much as I loved Christmas at the time, this was the thing I wanted the most. I put the ticket in my wallet, got it back out and had another look at it on the train back home, checked to make sure I’d still got it, on the walk home from the station. Once in the house, I went upstairs and placed it within eyesight on my bedside table. If you’re curious as to why this game was so important, the ticket so valuable and you haven’t been following this drivel, then I’ll enlighten you. The short answer, Lou Macari. The long answer, as a fan base, we felt aggrieved. We had taken the little Scotsman (I’ll refrain from peppering this post with expletives) very much to our hearts. Not only had he taken us to Wembley for the first time in 35 years, but had won us the trophy. Looking back now, he was only looking after his self interest like anyone his position would have, but loyalty was still a dearly held value in 1991. Stoke had ambitions, saw what he’d done at Blues, had got close enough to find out that he was working without a contract, and thus, offered him one. Hindsight isn’t particularly useful, but the Blues board at the time, had been naive. They hadn’t been quick enough. We saw Macari as a ‘Judas’ and Stoke as the Devil. The first thing that Judas did, was poach our club captain, the bloke that on 26th of May, had lifted up that trophy. An evil trinity had been created. Overson being Overson, wasn’t averse to a bit of controversy with his opinions, and he jumped at the opportunity to fan the flames when he signed on the dotted line. Stoke sat like the cat that had got the cream. The Stoke mob, The Naughty Forty, had been shouting their mouths off too. Our own mob, The Zulus, were intent on putting them in their place. In hooligan terms, Stoke are in the top 10 of the country, which actually isn’t shabby but in hooligan terms, Blues are in the top 10 in Europe. If you believe I’m glorifying football violence, I’m not, I’m only painting as true a picture as I can. Every morning I’d woken up, the first thing I’d attempted to focus on, was the ticket. The morning of the game arrived, and I was so wired, I was bouncing. I met up with Chrissy Weaver, a lad that lived by me, although a couple of years younger, had attended the same school as me, and had graduated onto the Wellington pub scene. At the start of the season, he’d been going to Shrewsbury games, after yet another conversation on football, (I really never used to talk about anything else in those days) he’d been intrigued enough to attend a game with me. He’d been instantly hooked. Pleasantries exchanged, it was “have you got your ticket?” I checked mine again. We changed trains at Wolverhampton, research had been done, Thursday phone calls made, we met up with Pughey, Walshy, Bucky, Tin Man, Martin and Sean, on the prearranged service to Stoke. Again, once the pleasantries had been exchanged, it was “Have you got your tickets?” Again, I checked to make sure I’d still got mine. I was more bothered about still having the match ticket, than I was the train ticket. The idea had been to get there early, incognito, no colours, evade the attention of the Old Bill, find a pub. Sean hadn’t read the memo, he’d worn his away shirt. As we exited the station, he was pulled over, we slowed, but carried on, we needed to keep up the appearance of not being Blues. His age and his Irish accent, worked in his favour, concocting a story pertaining to naivety he was able to wriggle out. He caught up with us. We veered left at the crossroads, walking down a back street, found a pub that had just opened. Tin Man, Bucky, Sean and Martin, were all in their last year at school, all but Martin were able to pass for 18. Martin was lucky if he could pass for 12. Unfortunately for little Martin, the pub had a ‘No children’ rule. He wouldn’t even be able to sit in the corner with a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps. The eldest of us pulled rank, we weren’t moving. He was on his own. Reluctantly, he went off with Tin Man and Bucky. A short while, they came back without him. They’d found an off licence and a park, he was happy. I checked my ticket again. To say I’d become gripped with the anxiety of losing it, was an understatement, I’d become obsessed. The pub filled up with Blues, most were Zulus. The alcohol flowed, Bucky accidentally knocked his pint over Walshy’s leg. He was more horrified with the embarrassment of knocking it over Walshy than he had with losing his lager. The pub was rammed with Blues. Chrissy needed to relieve himself, he came back to announce that the toilet was blocked. By that, he meant that the fruit machine was the thing that was blocking the cubicle. In unison, our heads shot round to where it had been. Sure enough, it wasn’t there anymore. None of us had seen or heard anything. Obviously it had been broken into, and robbed. A similar story had occurred with the pool table, which had now been turned round so you couldn’t see the mechanism that you fed your money in. That too, had been robbed. These things are not light. It takes some effort and organisation to manually move them. Like I said none of us had seen or heard a thing. Buckey and Tin Man had been taking it in turns to check on Martin’s wellbeing. It was approaching the time to go so they went and fetched him back. We were on the move. The atmosphere on the way to the ground was ‘moody’. There was an anxious anticipation, an eerie silence, a hint of violence bubbling underneath. You couldn’t just cut it with a knife, you could dig at it with a spade. We turned up at the away end, I took my wallet out to extract my ticket from it. I couldn’t find it, I was in a panic. I had kept looking at it, kept checking it, from the time I’d bought it, to right this minute, too much to be healthy if I’m being honest. And now, I’d lost it. I thought my heart was going to explode I was panicking so much. I couldn’t believe I’d lost the thing, I’d been so careful with it. As the rest of my mates surrounded me, Pughey heard someone trying to sell a spare. He shouted to the bloke, I needed one. I could’ve cried with relief, would’ve parted with 5 times what the ticket was worth. He just wanted ‘face value’ for it. I couldn’t believe my luck. From total despair to complete ecstasy.
“Just a little piece of paper”
We were in. The game that had meant so much, a show of force for the upstarts of Stoke to see.
We were still in second, but our form had dropped, we’d picked up too many injuries. Sounds like I’m making excuses already. There may have been 21 other clubs in the league with us, but it really was only about us, Albion and Stoke. That obviously sounds extremely conceited, but I wasn’t a member of a media that was pandering to common opinion. Blues, West Brom and Stoke were by far the biggest clubs in the division, the attendances bore that out. The fixtures between the 3 clubs were the stand outs. Fixtures that easily could’ve belonged to a higher division. This wasn’t Peterborough v Exeter or Stockport v Darlington. There was over 19,000 in the Victoria ground for this. It wasn’t just pride and loyalty but the hope of a good game between big clubs in front of a big crowd. It’s why pubs up and down the country (or at least they used to be) are packed with drinkers congregating round the TV whenever Manchester United play Liverpool. Truth is, high profile games are usually always a disappointment. It’s why when one does actually live up to its media fueled hype, fulfilling its potential, it’s replayed to death and talked about until your ears start to bleed. This wasn’t a classic, it wasn’t even standard stuff. It was akin to queuing for fish and chips when you’re ravenous to find out that when you go to tuck in, they’re cold and under cooked. The first half came and went without incident. We were winning 0:0. Second half at least had some life in it. 5 minutes into it, and we went ballistic. I mentioned in my last post that Cooper had been trying to find a cheap stop gap goal scorer, one of those had put Blues 1:0 up on his debut. Could we have found the solution? It turned out no, we hadn’t. Jason Beckford moved like he was running through setting concrete with a rucksack full of house bricks. His debut goal was to be the highlight. The lead was to be short lived too, Stoke wiped it out before we had had chance to enjoy it. We hadn’t even been able to gloat about it. Stoke stifled us, out muscled us. They used all the underhand tactics to keep on top. Paul Mardon, one of Coopers more successful discoveries, the colossus that had replaced ‘The Snake’ in the middle of our defence, went down injured and couldn’t continue, it took the wind out of us, the home side smelt blood. Whilst Blues were still trying to regroup, Stoke scored the winner.
We left the ground, headed back to the station. There’d been no sign of their ‘Naughty Forty’. We were still in second place after yet another away defeat, but looking at the vanishing gap between us and the chasing pack was becoming more and more disconcerting.
FOOTNOTE:- It had also been 3rd round cup day.
“Spot anything interesting? I’ll blow it up for you”
“None of this ‘resting’ players either, this was Arsenals first choice team”