Thursday, May 12, 2011

Stoke City FC

When I was a child, the radio was always on in my house. It was the first thing I heard in the morning, it greeted me when I came home for lunch, and it was the soundtrack to our oft-warring family dinners.

Despite its ubiquity, I don’t remember much of the content that spilled out of the AM dial with one exception: on weekend evenings, CFRB had an elderly English woman read the results of the Football League First Division matches.

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Watford 1

Tottenham Hotspur nil Crystal Palace nil.

Nottingham Forest 3 Ipswich 2.

For a kid who cheered for teams called the Cardinals, Giants and Leafs, these team names seemed otherworldly. I took great delight in this, not so much as a football fan, but as a kid who was slowly becoming attuned to the absurd. (What the hell is a Wednesday or a Hotspur? What sort of team would name itself Crystal Palace? Surely Nottingham Forest should be the Archers or the Merry Men?)

I have very fond memories of sitting around the dinner table with my parents, listening to that Mona Washbourne sound-alike reading results from fantastical sounding teams in faraway places. For a long time, the results read aloud by a fading octogenarian comprised my entire knowledge of the world of professional soccer.

* * *

A few years ago, my kids were finally old enough that constant supervision wasn’t required. Saturday mornings were no longer spent chasing crawling children, scanning the room for choking hazards, or hooking up jolly jumpers. And what did I do with this new found freedom? Usually chores.

Saturday mornings were spent looking at cookbooks, making up meal plans and grocery lists or folding yet more laundry (kids are like perpetual dirty laundry machines). I have no idea how or why this happened, but the 10AM soccer match from the UK became a new constant. One ear on the kids, one eye on the game and the day’s chores slowly completed.

For the first year or so, I didn’t have a team. I didn’t even pay much attention to the game or the scores. I did tend to like the underdogs. Just like the American League East, there’s something satisfying about a team with the payroll the size of a developing nation’s GDP getting done in.

* * *

I wasn’t always oblivious to soccer.

In my childhood I played for Clairlea Westview and later Maple Leaf. I was also on my grade school teams and played indoor soccer in high school.

I often drove my wife crazy on our trips to Europe. At home, I wouldn’t even pause during soccer highlights while flipping channels yet, there I was, suddenly absorbed in Champions League replays, fascinated as telestrators explained set plays. I once spent a Sunday afternoon in Troyes sitting in a Lebanese joint watching the A-Team in German on one TV and a Ligue2 game on the other (I think it was Metz v. Nantes).

I devoured John King’s football factory books and loved Bill Buford’s among the Thugs.

Living in Toronto, the World Cup often seemed bigger than the Olympics. I remember street parties when Italy beat the Germans in 1982. In 1986, McDonalds tray liners were printed with brackets for the World Cup. My friends and I filled-in dozens of them, trying to pick the perfect bracket. I was in a restaurant in Parry Sound coming home from cottage country during the 1994 World Cup Final. The whole joint oohing and aahing as the match was decided on penalty kicks.

Trips to my Sicilian barber often meant a battered TV playing a Juventus game while old Italian men randomly yelled "Carto giallo!"

When Greece won the Euro over Portugal in 2004, my Greek neighbours filled my little street in East York and we could hear the horns on the Danforth honking for hours.

Soccer has always been there. It just didn’t seem to matter all that much.

* * *

About two years ago, I was folding laundry and watching Stoke City play Chelsea. Stoke put up a good fight, it was an entertaining match, but they lost 2-1. I was gutted. How could that be? Why did I care so much about this result?

I have no idea how I became a Stoke fan. How I became vested in a team six time zones and 6,000 kilometers away. A team I have no history with or rational reason for supporting. A team that plays in a town I will likely never visit (although my wife did happily point out that the Wedgwood museum is in Stoke-on-Trent if we ever do want to plan a trip).

Sure, I had watched a handful of Stoke games with increasing interest that season. I remember being quite entertained by a 2-1 win over Arsenal, but I was not prepared for a sudden irrational, emotional investment. And it got worse. I found myself reading up on relegation (a notion very foreign to North American sports).

In hindsight, it is easy for me to say that as a hockey fan I liked Stoke’s size and toughness. I liked that they rarely went after the refs hollering for the other club to get a red or yellow card. They didn’t seem to be a club that dove at the first hint of contact and they certainly didn't lay on the pitch like salted slugs slowly melting into the turf. As much as this makes me a football philistine, I liked that they didn’t try to pass the ball into the net. I had no problem with long balls, the air game and set plays. I still don't understand the critics who do.

I could say all that, but I’m not sure that it’s completely true.

I have no idea how or why I became a Stoke fan. It just happened one Saturday morning in January in 2009.

I suppose it’s a bit like falling in love. Sometimes you flirt and it goes nowhere, other times - the sparks catch.

* * *

This past Christmas there was a Stoke toque in the bottom of my stocking. I wore it all winter despite the “There’s Waldo!” jeers from my beer league hockey team.

Thanks to twitter accounts like @ESPN_Stoke, FWP Stoke City, and even Stoke goalie Asmir Begovic (along with grey-market feeds from I’ve been able to track each game, each injury and each supposed turning point in the season – from early season fears of relegation to the shocking elation of seeing this team qualify for the FA Cup final.

I was in Chicago with my wife on the day Stoke played Bolton in the FA Cup Semis. Part of me wanted to find a pub where I might be able to watch the game, but weekends away without kids are a rarity. Instead, my wife and I took in an architectural tour while @ArticleOne1979 sent me updates on my phone. As the score climbed 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 I thought he was having me on. I thought for sure it was some sort of prank. But it wasn’t. I was elated. Thrilled. A thesaurus entry for joy couldn’t do it justice.

Stoke were going to play for the FA Cup.

Earlier this week I was dealing with some nerves. I was anxious, a little uptight. I presumed it was work related. I had to do a presentation before the board of an NGO. I have a large policy paper due at the end of the month. But then it hit me. I was anxious about the FA Cup final. It actually put a smile on my face when I figured it out.

How many times does the team you support get to play such a meaningful game? All the teams I cheer for, in my life-time, have had just eight shots at winning it all. There's only been two chances in the past 20 years. The Toronto Maple Leafs, my one true love, have had none.

* * *

On Saturday morning, I will be in Kingston visiting my parents. I’ve made plans to slip away to a local pub that's opening at 9:45AM to show the game. For nearly two hours I will sit alone among strangers, pacing, nervous, anxious, fully engaged in a sporting event half a world away.

On Saturday night, I will once again sit around the dinner table with my parents, like those long-ago weekends. This time, there will be no radio, but there will be a soccer score. The team names will not be fantastical nor absurd and the score will have a meaning - an importance - that just 18 months ago I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend.


  1. Enjoyed that :)

    I'll spare a thought and roar a little louder for you when the lads run out onto the pitch come Saturday.

    Gooaarrnnn Stoke

  2. Beautiful piece, Mike. Loved it. And yes - I remember quite fondly too the announcing of those scores. It really was all we had then. And it did seem like a world of exotic football teams and places. Love the piece but I've got to admit that I've spent the last couple of years hating Stoke. Sorry : ) That's football I guess. I have this theory that there isn't one football world but rather, two. That there is a duality and a dialectic, darkness and light, ying and yang. We should catch a game some time, grab a pint, discuss my crazy theories and examine why I start to rant at my TV when Rory Delap finds himself at the Britannia Stadium touch line with an apparently wet ball in one hand and a blue towel in the other, preparing to hurl his team to victory : ) Having said that - after having spent the last number of years hating Stoke (the complete opposite of you) I will admit that yesterday they looked very, very good. They were fast, sharp, organized and they actually built up the play from time to time with crisp passes of the ball. Their fans were great and really relished the occasion at Wembley. In the end, Stoke came very close to beating a very good Man City side. Yesterday, I could accept and understand why something I hated, could be loved. And your wonderful piece helps me with that acceptance and understanding as well. Peace. John V.

  3. hebsie992:08 a.m.

    so who won? (now I care?!)

  4. Anonymous11:26 p.m.

    Nice post. I've got a similar story (grew up in toronto, followed it more and more until I had a son and became an everton fan). I don't remember the CFRB lady but do remember the old soccer saturday on tsn (rauter and the guy who went on and on about scotland?) and reading the standings in the paper.

  5. Anonymous9:22 p.m.

    My choice of favourite soccer team happened in a similar way. A couple years ago, Everton got through both Liverpool and Man United and were in the finals against Chelsea. I thought, wouldn't it be neat if Everton got through all 3 of those giants of English soccer to win the FA Cup? I watched the game and was excited when they scored like 10 seconds in but was crushed when they went on to lose, much to my surprise. That's how I became an Everton fan. GO YOU BLUES!!