Note: This post is from 2014 and hasn’t been updated much.
The thing about traveling around watching soccer games in England is that every game, and every city, brings surprises.
Take my trip to Stoke to see them play Leicester City. Most English people I told about this looked at me with real confusion, as if choosing to go to Stoke made as much sense as checking oneself into prison. I half expected a gloomy day in an awful city with a terrible stadium and boring game.
But nobody told me about the Indian wedding, or the Wedgwood Museum, or the Finland fan club, or the rowdy Leicester fans, or the hot lady cop, or the simply amazing experience it is to watch Peter Crouch walk onto the pitch.
So, follow along as we attend the September Premier League game at the Britannia, where newly-promoted Leicester got their first Premier League win at the expense of a frustrated bunch of Potters.
Arrival in Stoke
I started my day in Birmingham, about a 45-minute train ride away, and as you approach town that way, you can see the stadium on the right. The Britannia was built in 1997 to replace The Victoria Ground, and near as I can tell the usual English Stadium Rule applies: Ask somebody about the new place versus the old place, and they will tell you that the new place has much less atmosphere, they really miss the old place, but it had to happen … and also, the old place was a dump.
My first surprise came at the station:
Apparently Stoke Street Pianos are part of a worldwide art project that puts pianos into public spaces, labeled “Play Me, I’m Yours.” Here’s more on the Stoke piano. It’s already a more cultured place than anybody told me! Outside the station there were probably three dozen police officers, all milling around and mostly giving directions to people. It must be burned into the English mind that “bad shit can happen at a football match,” because there are always cops everywhere. For a big derby I can dig it, but Stoke-Leicester?
The English Cop Rule also applied: maybe it’s because I miss my sweetie so much when I’m traveling, or I just like women in uniform, but whenever there’s a crowd of English police around, one of them will be good looking. Somebody else was talking to her, so I asked a dude cop for a place to hang out before the game, and he recommended The Glebe, on the way into town.
It’s a short walk from the station into the town centre, which on its own isn’t much of a centre. It looks like one of those small American towns where Walmart opened up on the edge of town, and the old downtown died off, leaving a few pubs and cheap stores like this wonderfully-named one:
For you English readers, “booty” in the states can also mean “tail” or “ass” or however you want to say it. I will probably add this to my list of such photos, including the T&A Supply Store in Seattle and the S&M Family Restaurant in Spencer, Tennessee.
As I came into the town centre, I heard drumming and caught some colors off to the side – turned out to be an Indian (or, sorry, somewhere in Asia) wedding, with some of the most impressive costumes and cars I’ve ever seen.
I checked out a couple of the downtown pubs, which were starting to fill with Stoke fans – and were being kept free of “away colours” by security men.
Being a non-drinker, I always skip the pubs unless I’m with somebody, and anyway, I have a pre-game fish and chips tradition to look after. The only place I saw, Hills, had also won some “best in town” awards. I suppose because it’s the only one?
The fish was pretty good, actually. And yet there was one more piece of weirdness. I guess this is supposed to remind us of Independence Day or something?
Getting to the Ground
The Britannia isn’t really a walk, so they have a three-pound bus service from the centre. I was informed that starting about an hour before the game the line would be “heaving,” so I jumped on early, and found yet more surprises on the way.
Apparently Stoke was a national center of pottery starting in the 17th Century, and yes, Wedgwood was formed and based there. (Read more of the town’s history here.) The Wedgwood Museum is still there. In fact, they made an announcement at halftime about raising money for it, or “250 years of history could be lost.” And they saved it!
On the bus, I overheard two men talking about Stoke and the old days. And I mean old: Stoke claims a history back to 1863! The older guy was born in Stoke and nearly teared up at the memory of a 1970s win “at the death” at Old Trafford. (Another rule of English Football: Smaller Clubs Always Talk About Their Win at Old Trafford).
The other guy had an accent I couldn’t make out, and he turned out to be Finnish. Not only that, but he is the president of the Stoke Supporters Club of Finland! Who knew? He said he and some friends saw Stoke play Leeds on TV back in 1974, and fell for them. (I forgot to ask, but I bet it was the time when Stoke ended Leeds’ 29-game unbeaten run. Here’s the winning goal from that game.) He said there are now about 15 people in the club, adding “We lost some of the younger ones when Stoke went down a few years ago.”
I took my traditional walk around the stadium after picking up my ticket. It’s all distribution and warehouses out by the stadium, so I was glad I ate in town.
I started a new tradition by buying a Stoke City FC pin. (Now I need to catch up on 14 other places I’ve already been to). I passed on a copy of the fanzine, which Stoke calls the Oatcake after a local flatbread, the North Staffordshire Oatcake. I wish I had known this ahead of time, as I would have grabbed one.
I also enjoyed some of the shirts outside, including “The North Will Rise Again” and “It’s Football, Not Soccer.” I always love the latter and want to remind English people that (A) they made up the damn word and (B) they used it themselves until not that long ago.
I always head in about a half-hour before the game, and in this case that let me catch the last of the Arsenal-City game on the telly …
… and admire the various health food options …
… before taking my seat, for which I paid 61 quid, or about 100 dollars. Crazy.
The Leicester fans, playing well in the role of visitors, filled their section early and were singing along well before the game.
They did “We’re Singing Alone” and “Your Support is Shit” and “Is This a Library.” Whenever the Stoke fans started to sing, they responded with “We Forgot You Were Here.” This reminds me of my English Seating Rules, A and B. A is “Don’t sit with the away fans unless you’re one of them” and B is “Try to sit where you can have a good look and listen to the away fans.”
Both teams sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Leicester singing “Blues” and Stoke singing “Reds.” Stoke also do the standard thing to Stars and Stripes Forever, singing “We’re Stoke.”
The teams came out – and just look how freaking tall Peter Crouch is! I mean, we know this – and Liverpool fans had a great song about him, “He’s big, he’s red, his feet stick out the bed” – but it’s really something you have to see in person.
Stoke’s pre-game anthem is called “We’ll Be With You,” as is this banner that got passed around before the game.
But I’m not sure the Stoke fans are that much into it.
Anyway, we finally had ourselves a kickoff!
Here’s a panorama video of the stadium; see if you can make out what the Leicester fans have to say about the Stoke keeper.
And here are the Leicester fans celebrating the only goal, which came in the 72 minute right in front of them. Notice how the cheering morphs first into a taunt – “Who are ya?” – and then into a bouncy song they did about 143 times during the game.
You’ll notice I just skipped over 71 minutes of the game? Yep. Not much going on, really. Even the lone American on either club, Geoff Cameron of Stoke, was injured. I remember both keepers having issues, especially Leicester’s backup, who put at least three goal kicks right into the stands.
I also remember the Leicester people getting all over the linesman after he gave Stoke a corner right in front of them. It’s fantastic how close the fans are to the action, so when they started waving their arms, cursing, and all yelling “Wanker” in unison, it was kind of awesome.
Stoke had their own frustrations, singing “We always get shit refs.” They were really frustrated when the game ended 1-0 for Leicester, prompting Leicester fans to serenade the early departure with “Cheerio” and then change out “Leicester” at the end of their favorite song for simply “Fuck off!”
And We’re Outta Here
The bus back to town stopped at the station, where I figured out what all the cops were for. They had pretty much herded all the Leicester fans onto their own bus, which rolled up the station as a singing, arm-waving, window-banging party, then spilled onto the platform, still singing and arm-waving, then onto the train towards Derby. The only problem was people wanting to smoke on the platform. Then all the cops looked at each other, shrugged, and disbursed.
As for me, I spilled a perfectly good cup of tea just as my Birmingham train was rolling in. It was really the only annoying thing that happened all day. I do worry about my attendance at these games. I have now seen 15 games at 14 grounds in England, and of those possible 45 points, I’ve seen the home team take 13 of them – seven from Fulham, who I have yet to see win in three ties.
That, as they say, is relegation form – literally, in Fulham’s case. I hope the nice people of England will keep letting me attend their home matches. I’m gearing up for an October trip now, with tickets in hand for matches at Fulham, Sunderland, Burnley, and QPR. It’s all about the experience, though, and I recommend Stoke for a fun, casual, family-friendly day and game of footy.