This is what I have been waiting for, the kick-off of the EPL season 20019/2010. Away with cricket, tennis, pre-season friendlies, THIS IS THE REAL DEAL ! I am in Stoke on Trent-the Five Towns, for Stoke City v Burnley at the Britannia Stadium, one of the two highest stadiums in the league and often very windswept. We drove down Sir Stanley Matthews Way, Gordon Banks Drive and past George Eastham Avenue.
For Burnley, the Clarets, it's their first match in the top tier for 33 years, due to the manager the fans call God- Owen Coyle, a Scotsman who played for Ireland. Burnley, a small town in East Lancashire used to be The Northern Academy of Football, alongside West Ham United, under the dictatorship of former Chairman Bob Lord. They were English champions in 1959/60 and the next season reached the quarter final of the European Cup. I went to The Moor in 1991 to see them beat Reims at home before losing to HSV Hamburg. The Potters are in their 2nd EPL season and under visionary Chairman Peter Coates are doing well, and have just broken ground on the new £5million Training Ground. One legendary player who played for both clubs is Adrian Heath. He now coaches the Austin Aztex in the USL League and the club play in the Stoke City strip and are owned by Stoke City Director Phil Rawlins.
It was a sunny afternoon and the Potters fans were in full voice, filling the 27.000 capacity stadium, apart from 2,000 Clarets fans. It's one of the noisest stadiums with the steep banks of fans echoing off the roofs. I arrived early with my old mate Derek Armstrong, who was former USA U19 national team coach along with Steve Heighway, and is boss of La Jolla Nomads. We were the first to arrive in the Gordon Banks Suite. In the foyer is a large statue of Gordon holding aloft the Jules Rimet World Cup trophy. Craig the barman, who is about to emigrate to Australia with his wife, and Claire who served me with 3 cups of tea and some sandwiches, entertained us. Lots of scouts, directors and even Sir Alex Ferguson were in attendance(his Man Utd team play at Burnley on Wednesday). I enjoyed the superb match day programme. Well done editors.
The match was played at a frantic pace and Stoke hardly ever lose at home. Not a pretty match, just well paid hard working professionals. Two set plays resulted in goals, one from a Stoke and one from a Burnley player. UNFORTUNATELY Burnley scored an own goal, so it finished 2-0 to the red and white stripes. Both goalkeepers were Danish, Brian 'the Beast' Jensen for the visitors and Thomas Sorensen for the Potters. www.potteries.co.uk about the region and www.stokecityfc.com about the club.
It was an afternoon of two halves and the second half MADE MY DAY. Jean Gough, daughter of Sir Stanley Matthews met us and took us post match to The Sir Stanley Matthews Lounge, lovingly decorated by momentoes-programmess, newspaper clippings, medals, awards and more, by her and the Sir Stanley Matthews Trust volunteers. www.ssmf.co.uk The foundation sells some merchandise on the website and also helps promising athletes. One such benefactor is Sheldon Connell, age 13, who has been training daily at the Stoke City Academy and attends St. Joseph's College. He was introduced to me by Jean and I also met his proud parents who help with the foundation and built the dozens of frames with souvenirs on the wall of the lounge. Maybe Sheldon will become the next 'Wizard of Dribble'.
Every February 1st there is a ceremony. It was the great man's birthday and also mine, so I used to send him birthday cards.(we both wore No.7 on our backs). He was born in 1915 and passed away in 2000. He played for Stoke City, was transferred to Blackpool and back to Stoke and played in the old first divison at the age of 50 !! and still played in retirement in Malta for the Maltese Post Office club in their league at 60 and in European competition for them. I also went to school with his son, Stanley Jr who won Junior Wimbledon 3 times and now runs a tennis academy in Connecticut.
Outside the Britannia is a huge triple statue on a large plinth of Stan in 3 stages of his career, as a youngster, as a seasoned pro and as an England player, ALL pointing in the direction of the old Victoria Ground where he started and finished his distinguished career. It's all in loving detail, even his hair styles, the footballs and the the string that used to hold up his baggy shorts. I used to collect autographs after matches outside the player's entrance at Blackpool's Bloomfield Road ground. Some players then got on the bus with me to go home. Only striker Stan Mortenson had a car way back then, while Stan walked home about a mile and a half with weights in his hands. How do you get home Wayne?