Stoke City is a club that has become synonymous with long ball football, and cold Tuesday nights, all based in a grim city.
Doesn’t sound great, does it? Except for me, it’s completely different.
Stoke-on-Trent is my second home, or “wom” as it’s called in Stoke. Maybe I see it through red and white-tinted glasses but it isn’t half as bad as people say. In fact, Stoke has the potential to become a great place with the right investment to replace the coal and pottery industries that were decimated by cheap imports and the Thatcher government.
Like all cities and towns, Stoke has its problems. Less widely reported, are its virtues.
Stoke has an impressive industrial heritage that should be tapped.
There is the Trent and Mersey Canal system that was built by the pioneers of the day.
Josiah Wedgewood commissioned Leek-based engineer James Brindley to build a method of transporting china clay from Cornwall right to the front door of his factory.
The results made it possible for the pottery industry to grow and for many years, most of the cups, plates and dishes in the UK and beyond would have originated from a factory in Stoke.
The uniquely shaped bottle kilns from the pottery industry used to dominate the city skyline but sadly, most are now gone. There are some surviving examples, however. The best, probably, is at Middleport alongside the canal.
The other major industry in the city was coal mining. Vast, deep mines litter the Staffordshire area and employed thousands of its people.
We all know how that went!
Left behind from these two industry closures, was a city bereft of new investment and lots of people without work. Buildings covered in the soot and detritus of industries that no longer existed.
Like the industry they recollected, the mining museum is also a thing of the past. Chatterley Whitfield closed in 1993 and Gladstone was scheduled to be closed recently. I’m glad to say that at the time of writing, it is still open…
Of course, another deep effect these industries had on the area, was the accent. Workers came to the area from all over the country, bringing with them their Geordie and Brummie accents and phrases, melding them into what is now the Stokie accent.
An accent where home becomes wom, for instance.
Stoke is full of funny and friendly folk who are doing their best to survive in a city that has largely been left to its own devices by successive governments who don’t care.
It was time for me to go back wom and rediscover its merits.
This was a ground hop with a difference because we were visiting friends and family, too.
This meant we were down there for the weekend, travelling down on Friday and returning on Monday. The journey began with a bus trip to Durham at 09:46, a thirty-minute journey.
We always leave ourselves plenty of time when heading to Durham. Partially because of our penchant for picking up a Greggs breakfast but mainly because of the horrible climb up the east face of Mount Durham that is the only way to reach the train station.
Breathless and sweating, I gasped my way onto platform 1 and lay down to recover.
At 10:53, we boarded our train and set off on the long journey down to the Midlands. It was a mostly sunny day as we travelled, although we hit rain around the Sheffield/Chesterfield area.
I did manage to get a photo of the quirky and crooked spire of Chesterfield’s Church of St Mary and All Saints, as we passed by.
This is an architectural feature that always amuses Mrs Hopper and is the reason why Chesterfield FC are known as the Spireites.
After passing through the lovely Derbyshire countryside, we came to our connecting point, Derby Station.
Our connection was late by about eighteen minutes due to “Passengers causing a disturbance on an earlier train”.
The station guard was happily telling everyone that this was the train pulling into Platform 3A now, just as the public address system told us that we had a platform change and it would now be leaving from Platform 4.
A look of chagrin came over the guard’s face as we all made a beeline for the stairs that crossed the tracks. The Derby to Crewe train only ever comprises two carriages and is often standing room only.
I wonder what caused the passenger disturbance on an earlier train…
We managed to get on the train before all the seats were taken and arrived in my home town of Uttoxeter less than half an hour later.
The rest of Friday was spent with my mother and it was good to see her again, as it always is on these too infrequent visits. Working for yourself is great but it does limit the amount of time you have to do weekends away, unfortunately.
Stoke-on-Trent – Pre-Game
Saturday morning brought the smell of freshly made toast “Do you want marmalade on yours?” and matchday.
I haven’t been to a Stoke City home game since pre-Covid, so I was looking forward to this one!
We walked back down to the train station, popping into the coffee shop to say hello to my daughter-in-law on the way.
We caught the 11:10 train and were in Stoke-on-Trent by 11:36. The sun was shining and the birds were singing… Josiah Wedgewood faced us as we left the station and he solemnly promised me that Stoke were going to win today.
The Long Walk
Usually, Mrs Hopper by now gets out her phone and Google Maps and we find our way to where we are going. She got a day off from navigating today.
We made our way on the first leg of our 2.2-mile walk to the stadium. There is a quicker, shorter route but I wanted to go past the old Victoria Ground on the way.
We turned right out of the station and along Station Road. From there, right again and under the railway bridge, over the Trent & Mersey Canal and the adjacent A500 and down the hill towards the town centre.
Wait! Town centre? Isn’t Stoke a city?
It is and it isn’t. Stoke-on-Trent itself is a town but the city of Stoke is made up of six adjoining towns. Stoke, Fenton, Longton, Tunstall, Hanley, and Burslem are the towns. City rivals, Port Vale are based in Burslem to the north of the city.
Just down the hill and around the curve, we come across our first watering hole of the day, The Glebe.
In times gone by, this pub had a bit of notoriety, as it was populated by some of the more nefarious members of the Stoke City support. Visiting fans were sadly targeted on occasion from here as they made their way to the game.
These days, the atmosphere is very different and what a lovely pub it is, too!
From the outside, it looks decent enough but only once inside do you start to appreciate it more.
Stained glass windows and a carved wooden fireplace with a huge crest are on one side of the pub.
The other side of the pub has a ceramic tile floor (all Staffordshire-made, I have no doubt!) and the bar continues around and ends in a cheese and snacks glass case.
It looks magnificent and is a real throwback to those crazy days when things were made from quality materials, with care and attention thrown in…
We bought a pint of Blue Moon and a Joules Stone Ale IPA, which cost £9.00. Not cheap but they were very tasty and Joules is a local brewery that has recently been restarted. Originally based in Stone, Staffordshire, the brewery was closed down after becoming part of the Bass conglomerate. However, in 2010, it was reopened across the county border in Market Drayton, Shropshire.
A welcome return!
I would definitely recommend this place to anyone visiting who doesn’t mind the long walk.
Right next door to The Glebe, is the town hall, or Kings Hall, as it’s known.
As well as being a fantastic building, this is also where local hero and Stoke City fan, Nathan ‘The Hitman’ Heaney made his name in boxing. The now famous video of him coming out to the Stoke City anthem, ‘Delilah’ in front of his ardent supporters, is where I first heard of the local star.
Nowadays, he is walking out with the same song but in bigger venues and in front of a lot more of his passionate fans. That first video still remains one of my favourites, though.
I was hoping to get to say hello to him on our trip but unfortunately, he is currently down in Kent, preparing for his next fight.
Nathan was kind enough to do an interview with us a while back which you can read here.
The Victoria Ground
After walking past where the old police station used to be (yes, that’s gone too!) we rounded the corner and the old view wafted before my eyes…
A view that used to excite me every time I came around that corner. The huge floodlights, crowds of people in red and white and all the associated noise, police horses and the smell of fast food and… police horses.
Nowadays, it is just a new housing estate with cookie-cutter houses.
At least the roads are named after some of the players that graced the turf. These names are mostly only familiar to Stoke fans. The sadly departed Paul Ware, the club’s leading goal scorer John Ritchie, Bob McGrory and the club’s first Asian player Frankie Soo.
Stoke – Victoria Hotel
The Victoria Hotel stands opposite where the entrance to the club shop and the away end used to be and is a shell of its former matchday vibrancy. There was music coming out of one of the windows but it certainly isn’t a viable pub anymore and looked purely residential. Possibly converted to student flats or something.
I’m sure many of the businesses around the place suffered once the club was rehoused, but such is progress.
A little further along is where the social club used to be located. It is now NS Scooters… this was directly opposite the old Main Stand.
A little further along is where the road forks into two directions. In the middle of the fork is where the old programme shop used to be. I had many enjoyable times inside, rooting through old programmes!
It was completely irrational how sad I felt walking past new houses and remembering the great (and some not-so-great) times I’d had there. A particular source of pain was walking past where the steps used to be up to the Boothen End.
I hope at least some of the people living there have some idea of the history of the site they dwell on and what it still means to some of us.
It reminded me of the trip we made to Goodison Park a couple of weeks ago and the pain Everton fans have still in front of them when their second home becomes a Barratts housing estate.
Still, there is no point in dwelling on the past. What’s done is done and the club had little choice in the matter if they wished to remain relevant as a club in the upper echelons of football’s top divisions.
With my trip down memory lane completed, we walked on to our second watering hole, the Gardeners Retreat.
Stoke – Gardeners Retreat
With a large row of allotments not too far up the road, the aptly named Gardener’s Retreat beer garden is a peaceful place to have a drink.
Inside, it is a shrine to Stoke City. Old replica shirts decorate the ceiling, while other memorabilia adorn the walls and bar.
You just know you are in good company here as a Stoke fan.
We bought an Old Moult cider and a Moretti for £9.70 (why are drinks so expensive in Stoke nowadays?) and moved into the beer garden.
We shared a table with three other Stoke fans and had a nice chat about the old ground and how Stoke were faring this season. All done under the shade of an old willow tree that was probably around when the Victoria Ground was built.
With plenty still to do before the game, we headed off at 13:45 to walk the rest of the way to the Bet365.
The Rest of the Way
Another abandoned old pub that was still active last time I came this way, was the Plough Motel, opposite the end of the road where the Gardeners is.
This used to be more of an away fans pub and it’s sad to see another one bite the dust.
A walk past the Michelin factory, up and over the A500 Queensway and past the tall chimney of the incinerator that dominates the skyline, brought us back to the canal.
It is on the canal here that two of Stoke City’s finest matchday establishments are located – the marvellously punny Boatcake and Barge-Inn Booze.
These are two canal boats that have been transformed to serve up ale and the North Staffordshire delicacy of oatcakes. (Think savoury pancakes.)
If you’ve never tried oatcakes, there is no better place to start than here.
Once over the canal bridge, you are finally within touching distance of the ground.
One final footbridge that crosses the train line and a short path up the hill brings you into a car park with the stadium in full view up ahead.
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Exterior (Part One)
Immediately in front of us is the main stand, or the Franklyn Stand as it is currently known.
This is the main administrative area of the club which houses the reception, offices, dressing rooms etc. It also houses the ticket office, the media and TV areas and in the right-hand corner, the club shop.
That was where we headed first.
After looking around at the items on sale, we joined the queue to get a programme, although, in hindsight, it would have been quicker to get one from a seller outside the ground.
The club shop is well stocked with all the usual items you’d expect at a pretty big club, though nothing stands out as being different.
It would be nice to see the club selling some Staffordshire pottery items to help out the local companies that are still treading water. Ceramic tiles, mugs (there are some), figurines… there is an endless list of things they have a unique opportunity to harness.
At £3.00 for 48 glossy pages of club information, interviews, stories and news, the programme represents decent value in today’s climate.
From here, we walked around the back of the ‘away end’ in the South Stand (currently known as the Caldwell Construction Stand). This involves more walking due to the segregated area and the coach parking area behind this stand for away fans.
With time moving on and still so much to see, we decided to do the same thing we had done at Everton a couple of weeks ago and split up the exterior tour into two parts on either side of the match.
Our seats for today’s game were in the Tile Mountain Stand on the opposite side of the Main Stand.
We bought them online via the Stoke City ticketing website (after much cursing at the system not working very well and taking me on a continuous cycle). They came at a cost of £27.00 each.
We walked down to the southeast corner on the other side of the coach park and all the way along the eastern side of the ground to the northeast corner. There were plenty of snack vans dotted along the back of the stand for hungry folks.
We had our tickets scanned at the gate and entered the stadium.
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Exterior Gallery (Part One)
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Interior
The concourses at Stoke are very typical of modern-built stadiums. Stark breeze blocks and metal are the order of the day. They are quite roomy, yet still manage to be crowded before the game and at half-time.
Again, there are plenty of snack bars and drinks on offer and the toilet facilities are good.
After making use of these facilities, we made our way to our seats.
We were in the northeast corner, where the Tile Mountain Stand curves into the Boothen End at the northern section of the stadium.
The Boothen End
The Boothen End is named after the large home fans’ terrace at the Victoria Ground and is the end nearest to the old stadium.
At the time that the Victoria Ground was closed down, the Boothen End was the largest terrace left in England.
The new incarnation of the Boothen End is, like the rest of the stadium, all-seated. It has a capacity of 6,006 and is traditionally the end where the more vociferous Potters’ fans congregate.
There are spaces for disabled spectators in each of the stands in the stadium.
The Tile Mountain Stand
To our left, the largest capacity stand in the ground stretches the length of the pitch and joins up with the South Stand in a mirror image of our corner.
The Tile Mountain Stand is a single-tier, all-seated, covered stand with a capacity of 10,720 and provides great views of the action.
My only small complaint would be the lack of legroom between the rows of seats and I’m not a tall person.
The Caldwell Construction Stand
Or South Stand as it’s more commonly known, is a mirror image of the Boothen End. It even has the exact same technical capacity of 6,006.
This is rarely the case, however, as segregation requirements mean that seats are left empty between home and away supporters at this end.
Away supporters are housed on the right-hand side of the stand, next to where the teams enter the pitch, a long-standing bugbear of mine…
The police oversee CCTV operations from here, in a box behind the away support.
The Franklyn Stand
The main stand at Stoke is the only one that is different from the layout of the other three stands. It is taller and comprises two tiers.
It has a capacity of 7,357 and is where all the day-to-day club operations are run. The club’s corporate facilities and press boxes are also located in this stand.
The technical dugouts are placed on either side of the halfway line in front of this stand.
Stoke City Tidbits
The Bet365 Stadium was built in 1997 and had one of its corner gaps filled in and seated during the 2017 season. It was opened for use the following season. This increased the capacity to its current level of 30,089.
There are two electronic screens on the ground. One is in the southeast corner and the other is between the Boothen End and Franklyn Stand in the northwest corner.
The floodlights are built into the roofs of the stands and the pitch is of a hybrid turf.
It is impossible to talk about Stoke City without mentioning the owners.
Peter Coates and his son and daughter, John and Denise are a successful local business family. Peter and John especially, are huge fans of the club and when their business boomed on the back of internet betting, they re-bought the club back from the Icelandic consortium they had sold it to years earlier.
Since then, they have invested a considerable amount of money into the club and gave us a ten-year spell in the Premier League. They have done things that not all supporters have agreed with in the way they operate the club but they have always acted in what they felt were the best interests of Stoke City.
Season ticket prices have remained unchanged since Stoke gained promotion to the Premier League. That is sixteen consecutive years with ticket prices frozen!
On top of that, free coach travel has been laid on for supporters to away games for ten years!
How many clubs have owners like that these days?
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Gallery
Stoke City – Pre-Game View of the Bet365 Stadium
Stoke City v Watford – The Game
Coming into the game, Stoke had been doing relatively well with their new squad of players.
A less successful trip to Ipswich Town delivered the first defeat of the season but blips are to be expected with so many new players and lots of teams will lose at Ipswich this season, I feel.
A dour 0-0 draw at Plymouth preceded today’s game at Stoke City.
I wasn’t expecting many goals from today’s game but I was expecting it to be a tough encounter for Stoke. I was going for a 1-1 draw, with a last-minute equaliser for Watford.
A beaten-down dog knows its role.
Strike that, this actually is a completely different team!
With eleven new players already signed and more expected (Stoke signed Mehdi Leris and Nikola Jojic three days after the game), the expectation is unknown this season. How long will the players take to gel? Are the unknown players any good?
The new transfer team have certainly put their stamp on Stoke City and it remains to be seen if it’s for the better or not. Early signs suggest we have uncovered a diamond in Andre Vidigal but the season is still young.
It was two of the old guard that impressed me through much of today’s game, though.
Both Josh Thompson and Ben Wilmott had good games in midfield and defence respectively, with Thompson being unlucky not to be given the man of the match award.
It was an industrious first half from both teams, but little in the way of creativity. Chances were at a premium, in keeping with my pre-match expectations.
Halftime – Stoke City 0 Watford 0
The second half was a more entertaining affair with both teams continuing to work hard.
I felt like Stoke were the slightly better team overall on the day and got their just reward with a moment of magic from the man of the moment, Andre Vidigal.
I even managed to capture the goal on video (below).
Things are definitely changing in ST4! No late equaliser from Watford!
Long may this revolution continue under Alex Neil and his new transfer team.
So far, so good!
Full-time – Stoke City 1 Watford 0
Attendance – 21,183
Entrance Fee – £27.00
Programme – £3.00
Stoke City v Watford – Match Highlights
Next up for the Potters is a tricky away game at Millwall on August 26th. Alex Neil’s team will be doing battle at the Den with ex-manager, Gary Rowett.
This is followed by a midweek League Cup home game against Rotherham United. A team they have already defeated 4-1 in the League opener.
The following Saturday sees a return to the Bet365 Stadium for the visit of Preston North End.
Watford, meanwhile, will be facing Blackburn Rovers for a Sunday lunchtime kick-off at Vicarage Road on August 27th.
Following their early exit in the League Cup after a surprising loss to Stevenage, their next game will be on September 2nd at Coventry City.
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Exterior (Part Two)
Following the game, we held back to get some more pictures as the stadium emptied.
East Midland Railways runs an hourly train service back to Uttoxeter but for some strange reason, there is no 18:30 train. We had the choice of leaving the game early and catching the 17:30 or taking our time and catching the 19:30.
We opted for the latter.
Once the photographs were taken we went back outside and headed up the hill to Stanley Matthews Way.
From here, there are buses laid on for supporters that go to many different stopping points around the city, including the train station.
We weren’t here for those, though. We had a special person to find.
On the hill, at the southeast corner of the ground is a statue of World Cup-winning Stoke City legend, Gordon Banks.
A man who embraced Stoke City and was a real gentleman around the club, where he served as life President following his predecessor, Sir Stanley Matthews.
Gordon sadly passed away in February 2019 but he will never be forgotten in ST4.
The statue was unveiled in 2015 and was the scene of supporters’ tributes following his sad passing.
I’m not entirely sure why Gordon is located to one side of the plinth, rather than centrally. Maybe someone who knows can drop a comment below.
From here, we went back down the hill and headed towards the northern side of the stadium.
On the northeast corner of the Bet365 is the newly renovated Delilah’s Bar.
Along with the renovation came its new name, Ricardo’s.
Named after one of the modern legends of the club – Ricardo Fuller – who helped with the opening of the new bar.
Just behind the brick exterior of Ricardo’s and almost hidden from sight is a small bust of the club’s top goalscorer, John Ritchie.
I’m not sure why this bust doesn’t have a more prominent position if I’m being honest.
Ritchie had two spells at the club between 1962/66 and 1969/75, scoring 176 goals in 351 games.
Maybe the club feels he belongs near the Boothen End and I get that, but I still feel it could be better placed.
From here we walked across the car park behind the Boothen End to the best statue in football (I may be biased but prove me wrong!)
Sir Stanley Matthews
The greatest player to ever play for the club is commemorated in style at the Bet365 Stadium.
The statue features three bronze castings of Matthews in action.
It was unveiled in October 2001, a year after the death of the legend, aged 85.
Then England manager, Kevin Keegan, along with Matthews’ daughter unveiled the statue before a crowd that included myself.
With the car park slowly emptying, we made our way back towards the main stand.
The facade isn’t overly exciting but at least some attempt has been made to make it interesting and I quite like it.
It also brought us back to where we started and we headed back on the long walk to the train station.
Stoke City – Bet365 Stadium Exterior Gallery (Part Two)
I’d love to see Stoke City embrace the heritage of the Potteries and stock some locally made pottery ware in the club shop. Personally, I think figurines of club greats would be a huge seller and a much-needed boost for local companies.
Ceramic tiles or mug mats featuring ex and current Stoke heroes are another one that could be very popular.
In the same vein, local oatcakes could be sold at the ground with a variety of fillings. A great chance for visiting supporters to get a taste of Stoke and a sure-fire winner with locals, too.
I’d love to see visiting supporters moved away from the players’ tunnel area. The Bet365 Stadium can be an intimidating place for away players to play, but hearing their own supporters as soon as they enter the pitch negates this a little.
I understand that the logistics of the segregation would have to be changed but surely every advantage should be sought in your own stadium.
I’d also like to see murals and artwork on the drab breeze-block walls of the concourses. Local college students and artists would probably jump at the chance to have some of their artwork on permanent display at a football stadium.
Also, find a more prominent place for John Ritchie’s bust please, Stoke.
Stoke – After the Game
We retraced our earlier walk back across the footbridges over the train track and canal, before crossing over the Queensway and back along Campbell Road.
That old saying about doing it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke was a distant memory in today’s glorious sunshine. However, memories of the cold days in Stoke are easy to recall and the coldest I have ever been there came on a day back in our last season in the Premier League against Everton.
Mrs Hopper retired to the concourse for a while to try and warm herself up that day.
That’s me in the black coat and hat, doing a good impression of Frosty the Snowman.
We filled time with a pint at The Terrace pub on the A52 before catching the train back to Uttoxeter at 19:30. Two pints of cider cost us £8.20 here.
The train back to Uttoxeter was packed as usual and another family from Broken Britain were onboard.
I think I will keep that little tale to myself…
We got back to my mum’s house by about 20:30, clutching a large bag of chips to go with the ham sandwiches she had made for us.
The weekend was completed with more family stuff. A visit from an uncle I haven’t seen for a few years was nice.
Sunday evening got a bit messy down at our old local pub, the Old Star.
One of my son’s friends had his birthday that day and I saw a lot more of him than I wished to see during the karaoke night. Let’s just say, he joined in wholeheartedly with the Tom Jones song “You Can Leave Your Hat On”.
Spoiler alert – he didn’t even have a hat.
It didn’t get any better when I was coerced into singing a horrendous version of “Delilah” by my son.
The journey back to Durham on Monday went okay. However, we did miss our connecting train due to the 11:57 Derby train being twenty minutes late.
Despite having no reserved seats on the next train, we were lucky enough to find two on a crowded train.
After an hour’s wait at Derby, we were headed back north and home, arriving in Durham at 16:18.
We took the water slide back down Mount Durham and waited for our bus to Hetton.
This duly arrived at 16:40 and after a pitstop at Tesco Express for milk, we were back through our front door by 17:30.
Next Up for Hoppers Guide
Next up for us, is another venture into the Northeast non-league scene and a trip to Consett AFC.
Consett will be facing the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC in a Northern Premier League Division One East encounter.
This is a place that I feel may be a good one to tick off before winter sets in… those Northern Pennines can become pretty bleak in the dead of winter!
Looking forward to it!
Onto the next!