One Of Us Speaks – Stoking Our Fires
When it comes to football, like many supporters I’m two fans rolled into one.
First there’s the rabid Arsenal supporter who’ll bore to death anyone I talk to on matters of club football; lamenting injustices against Arsenal, standing up for perceived weaker players and overdoing it a bit with praise for the better ones.
During the week I’m the vulnerable prey of tabloid journalists and radio phone-ins – the classic shrill Arsenal fan who is so easy to wind up. Stir up some controversy about Arsenal and give your website hits or join your listenership for a couple of hours.
Then there’s the other fan: The football enthusiast. I love the game and get a real kick out of a good football match. And for me, the best football teams – the ones that stand out in their era – have always been the most stylish, regardless of trophies. If they can get success and play the way I like, then even better. I’ll get behind any side that tries to keep the ball on the ground, plays from the back and takes the attacking initiative. Well, almost any.
So, even though I’m not old enough to remember far back beyond the early-90s, these two football fans didn’t always live together very easily. But when it comes to Arsenal, such is the fervour of the former that the latter would overlook the long-balls and complete lack of any creativity in central midfield during the mid-90s, and point to the flair players as reasons why we were never as dull as everyone says. Even when our football was derided at this time, we had Paul Merson, Anders Limpar and, of course, Ian Wright, with his exciting unpredictability.
The last 15 years have seen my odd couple living in harmony. It’s just one of the many reasons that I can’t get my head round the idea of having any other manager in charge. I don’t like Arsenal more now, but I remember when the team changed before everyone’s eyes in 96-97, and watching familiar players trap, pass and move like never before, I was thinking, “Yeah, I could get used to this!”
In this time both the partisan and enthusiast have been annoyed by some of the cruder teams in the league – firstly because they made life tough for Arsenal, and also because they weren’t much fun to watch.
Off the top of my head, that goes for Sam Allardyce’s Bolton and Mark Hughes’ Blackburn. But although these teams were ugly and pushed the boundaries of fair-play, they did have stylish players, like Nakata, Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Tugay.
So really, none of these teams prepared me for the unabashed hideousness of Stoke City, with their lack of any concession to style. Pulis seems wary of any player who wants to express himself. What’s also amazing is that the rules and pitches in this country have never been more conducive to technical, passing football as now, which is why it’s probably no coincidence that Swansea have come up and stayed here.
But Stoke are now coming to the end of their fourth season in the league, and they are still rock bottom when it comes to passes completed. At 6475 they’re a more than 1,500 behind the next club, Blackburn. At this stage Tony Pulis probably doesn’t feel like changing a system that clearly works – rather he’ll be on the hunt this summer for players who can do more of the same, but are even taller, even stronger and even harder-working.
I’ve got some half-formed ideas for why it works for Stoke fans, and why the club can exist as it does at a time when there’s a lot of money to be made for clubs that can catch the eye of fans around the world.
I’m not much of a historian, but like you I know that Stoke used to be world famous for its ceramics. It was an industrial conurbation that took pride in its workmanship, but like many places in this country, Europe and North America, they were victims of globalisation.
Whether or not what they made was better, it turned out that newly industrialised countries could do what Stoke did cheaper, and that’s what counted. One of the big firms from bygone days, Wedgwood, is still there, but only in name. The real production takes place in Southeast Asia. Now there isn’t much work to be had, and the few bottle kilns still visible on the skyline are a sad reminder of better times.
This isn’t something to hold against them – it’s a story repeated across the country and cause for sympathy. But it’s one of the reasons why the club must be such a source of pride to its fans.
Here’s a team that defiantly shuns global appeal. It plays football for a small but passionate audience, and doesn’t expect or want anyone else to understand. It’s heavy-duty, mechanical football for a city drained of its industry and lifeblood
And in many ways you have to admire the planning that allows footballers to serve as gears in such a giant machine – the way in which their roles are broken down to remove individuality, and how every facet of the game is turned in the team’s favour. When Arsenal shows up this weekend, the turf will be long and spongy, the pitch will be as narrow as legally possible to make long-throws more effective. Stoke will try to eat up the minutes with every stoppage and set piece.
Stoke will use centre-backs across the defence, who will all take 30 seconds or so to trot up the other end for free-kicks or throw-ins. Once again they will try to intimidate us physically, and, if he plays, Aaron Ramsey will be booed from every corner of the ground.
But it’s fitting that in our quest for redemption this season, Arsenal must go to a place that’s the polar opposite of Highbury. Everything we do at home to make lives easier for ourselves, they’ll try to counter at the Britannia. As an enthusiast I dislike them intensely, but as an Arsenal supporter I accept that they are worthy opponents, and a match against them will be a great way to gauge how badly we want third place this season.