Monday, May 4

Short throws… we only take short throws…

Stoke City 0 West Ham 1
Never travel to football on a Bank Holiday weekend. My early morning arrival at Euston is futile — due to engineering works the train is going from St Pancras. So it’s on to the 9.25am St Pancras to Derby train, full of Exeter City fans trying to get to Rotherham. At Derby, Matt and Lisa, part of the team that meet in caffs, are staying in a “boutique hotel”. Presumably they’ll travel to the game in George Best-style wide-collared flowery shirts.

Only the Derby to Crewe train is just one carriage. Clearly the rail staff have been taken by surprise — it would all run perfectly if it weren’t for passengers turning up and demanding trains and generally acting like they own the railways, which they once did.

That one carriage is absolutely jammed and hundreds of football fans and people going to Uttoxeter races jostle hopelessly on platform five. Then the driver refuses to move, saying the train’s overcrowded and this is a safety issue. “Kibosh!” mutters the Stoke fan in front of me.

Replacement buses are laid on for the race-goers but still the train doesn’t move. After a half-hour impasse the required 12 passengers detrain and Mr Jobsworh finally drives his solitary carriage out of the station. A text arrives from Gavin. He’s also gone to Euston by mistake and is now marooned on a slow-moving train to Nuneaton.

“Don’t worry, the next train will have three carriages,” announces a man from East Midlands trains, indicating they’ve really pulled out all the stops. Matt, Lisa and myself squeeze on early doors (we still have to stand) and engage some lager and Strongbow-drinkers in WHU chat. One geezer uses West Ham’s ex-physio and thinks Deano is in serious trouble.

At Uttoxeter we look out for Mattie Etherington, but he seems to have left early. Finally we amble in to Stoke-on-Trent station at 1.20pm. As my mum came from Stoke I was hoping to visit the house where she was brought up, but now there’s no time for genealogy.

There are none of the promised buses in Glebe Street, so we take to canal towpath to the Britannia. It’s all very Morrissey, lots of iron bridges, disused pottery kilns and a warehouse offering “Same Day Beer” (“as opposed to ordering a pint and it coming the next day” suggests Matt). But there’s peaceful stretches of water, grass, chugging narrow boats, old clay-pit lakes and an air of post-industrial calm. Oh, and the big draw in these parts, the incinerator plant.

The Britannia Stadium is unusual, as it’s set among fields, or at least reclaimed gravel pits and mines. Bizarrely there are no oatcakes on sale, so lunch has to be a cheese and onion pie. We take our place in the away end and discover that Dyer hasn’t even made the bench (“swine flu maybe, he’s unlucky enough”) and Kovac is in midfield.

We note that the much-feted “noisiest crowd in the Premiership” have to be pumped up with loud music. The West Ham fans regard this as a challenge and give a noisy rendition of Bubbles and "Where's your famous atmosphere?". One rotund Stoke fan is subjected to protracted choruses of "Big fat Frankie Lampard!"

Big Joe has been here for two hours while Jo and Mike have also arrived making it a healthy turnout. Gavin is here ten minutes before kick-off rather miffed that his cabbie has charged a tenner simply because he detoured to view the Beehive pub that’s in the Camra guide.

Matt Etherington gets a good cheer from the Hammers fans. It does get pretty noisy when they all sing Delilah with their arms in the air, but we survive that and an early disallowed goal from one of Delap’s long throw-ins. Fuller has pushed down on Green with his arm and thankfully the ref saw it.

Kovac gets in a strong tackle, Stanislas looks confident and we start to play a bit. Luis Boa Morte crosses, Tristan chests it down and Di Michele controls to put it in the net. No goal. The referee has spotted a dubious handball.

There’s some sort of ruckus going on to our right as stewards, police and fans get involved in some argy-bargy.

Neill is having a great game and plays the ball in towards Di Michele. Faye fouls him and it’s a free kick on the edge of their box. “We’ll never score from this,” declares Mystic Matt. Diego Tristan dutifully curls a beautiful free kick into the top corner. One-nil to the cockney boys. He might not have pace anymore, but he’s still got class. We ask Matt to be pessimistic more often.

A few minutes later Stanislas plays the ball to Tristan whose backheel plays in Di Michele who blazes just over. You wonder if that miss will prove costly.

Boa Morte slides the ball into the touch with a rousing, ball-thumping tackle and suddenly the West Ham fans are hollering “Luis Boa Morte, whoah-ho-ho!” to the old Nigel Reo-Coker tune. “What were the odds on us singing that ten weeks ago?” we wonder. But if you show commitment the West Ham fans will always love you.

The fired-up Boa then goes in late on Delap, who while on the ground retaliates with a kick. Both players are booked, but it shows we’re up for the physical stuff. Lawrence is booked for trying to con the ref into giving a penalty and we go in at the break 1-0 up.

After the break the Potters come at us with a barrage of long throws. Etherington's ability to fire in a cross that deflects off the first defender for a throw suits City perfectly. The atmosphere is upped too, with some rousing choruses of When the Reds Go Marching In and Delilah from the Potters fans. Clearly Tom Jones is still cutting edge in these parts. We ponder perhaps singing something by Englebert Humperdink.

Delap has a ball boy with a black towel ready to dry the ball before catapulting in his incendiary throws. We cope well though. The players have been told by Clarke and Zola not to crowd the box and Green catches several of Delap’s missiles with ease.

But Stoke force a series of corners, send up their army of giants and Faye has a heard cleared off the line by Noble. Throughout the second half the back four are immense. Tomkins has a flawless game and now looks a real quality centre half. Under the influence of Clarke, Neill looks a different player, committed in the tackle and racing forward to start attacks. Lucas winds up home crowd by insisting on a towel too whenever he takes a short throw in.

Kovac still gives the ball away too much, but unlike end of season games under Curbishley, we’re looking like we really want that European place. More good news is that Jack Collison makes a welcome return from his dislocated injury, coming on for Luis. The Irons contingent breaks into another song celebrating new cult hero the Boa.

On 90 minutes Tristan turns past Delap and, blimey, appears to outpace him. He’s one-on-one with the keeper but chips the ball wide of the post. There are five minutes of added time, enough for another long throw, this time from Sonko. In the scramble Fuller pokes the ball over our bar.

The final whistle blows. We rule Britannia. We’ve beaten Stoke with our reserve forward line and midfield.

We’re kettled after the game as police charge at loitering Stokies, but eventually we’re allowed to detour on to the canal path, hoping that the ICF hasn’t arranged a ruck there. Luckily they haven’t and we’re soon on the train back to Derby where we stop for refreshment.

Gav has his Camra guide and in the Brunswick Inn, close to the station, we find real ale nirvana — Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, Everard’s Beacon, plus the Brunswick brewery’s Father Mike’s’Dark Rich Ruby Ale, Triple Hop, White Feather, Triple Gold and Station Approach.

We leave the pub’s hoppy hour satiated men, taking the 9pm train to Leicester and then on to St Pancras, arriving home at 11.30pm. We can only imagine the scenes in the boozers of Stoke, the City fans muttering into their pints: “That West Ham, they’re all short throw-ins… it’s the only tactic they’ve got.”


matt said...

Devious bunch in Stoke - you ask a taxi driver to take you to the ground via a pub, and he takes you to the ground via a pub. And has the cheek to charge you for it.

Pete May said...

And ten quid can buy you a house in Stoke...