When I was nine and at primary school, my dad took me to my first football match at the Victoria Ground, Stoke. There were no boys in our family but dad and I were close and often went on expeditions, so it was natural for him to include me in his football excursions. Sometimes we went on the train from our home in Meir, sometimes on the bus, and sometimes we cycled. There were always armies of little boys in the streets off Lonsdale Street, who would take our bikes into their back yards and guard them during the game, for a small consideration of course. It was 1944 and some Stoke players were returning from their army service, though I was too young to know the details.
Of course the star of the team was Stanley Matthews, and the chant of the supporters was, “Give it to Stan, give it to Stan”. It was mesmerising to see him take off down the wing, leaving opposing defenders sprawling as he just bobbed past them with seeming ease. I read in his autobiography that he honed his skills as a youngster by dribbling a tennis ball along the pavement on the way to and from school. It was a dark day for Stoke when he was transferred to Blackpool. The manager at that time was Bob McGrory and he used to stand at the door of his office in his tweed jacket and homburg hat and glare. He never looked happy and the story I heard later was that his wife came down from Scotland with him, took one look at our fair city and caught the next train back North!
My best Christmas present was a ticket for the Butler Street stand on Boxing Day when Stan came back for the first time with his Blackpool team. Can’t remember the result though.
Our usual match place was the Boothen End, behind the goal. I used to go in the boy turnstile and meet dad inside. The Stoke End was considered rough and there was no protection from rain and snow there. One match I remember it was snowing hard and the ground staff were brushing the lines continually. At half time Stoke were 2-0 down against Chelsea, but we beat the soft Southerners 3-2.
Later, I joined with school friends and went to neighbouring away games, like Manchester and Derby. We proudly wore our Stoke rosettes, though I have to admit that we hid them after the game rather than invite the hostile reactions.
Footballers in those days earned an average working class wage with a small bonus for winning - a pound per point – so they lived among us. No plush Cheshire mansions for them, they were council house lads who, like most youngsters, started their married lives with in-laws while they waited for their own council house or saved up for a deposit on a modest home, in Meir, Dresden, Stoke, Shelton, Norton. These were the days of the “£10 team”; almost all were local and had cost no more than their £10 signing on fee.
They travelled to and from the ground by bus, so with a little judicious time management we could travel on the same bus and, if brave enough, engage in conversation with them. It was all very friendly and innocent and for many years after I would see John Malkin, a winger, in the street, at an event, once at the swimming baths, and it was always, “Hello duck how are you?”, he never knew my name! I got to know John McCue, a ferocious fullback, and a real gentleman. I would see him in church and later in the gathering of parents outside St Greggory’s school when we collected our respective offspring.
My hero in those days was Neil Franklin, probably the best centre half of his day. He was always calm, cool and collected, rarely ended up on the ground, his shorts were always clean. His Stoke and England career came to an end when he was tempted to go to Bogota with the promise of better pay. Sadly, it didn’t work out for him and he came back, but not to Stoke who refused to have anything to do with him and he went to Hull City. His wonderful career ended and he moved out of football into being a pub landlord, a job many ex-players seemed to do. I attended his funeral at St. Marks in Shelton and the church was packed with Stokies, old school friends and with famous faces, Billy Wright, Nat Lofthouse, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and many more.
My personal sporting prowess was limited to hockey, which I loved because its rules, positions and aims were the nearest to football I could get. No women’s football in those days. Dribbling down the wing I could feel like a Stan, defending I could be a Neil.
It all stopped once I left school as my job in the library service involved Saturday working, then when I met my future husband he was more interested in playing than watching. So my interest waned, but was awakened by the 1966 World Cup and now I am glued to Radio Stoke on Saturday afternoons, exchanging joyful or despairing texts with my oldest daughter who has inherited my dreams. At one point in her teenage years she did let down the side. She went out with a Port Vale supporter!
Last year I went to a reception at the Britannia Stadium and was delighted to see two great photos on the walls in Reception. One was, of course, Sir Stan and the other… yes it was my idol, Neil Franklin, and in one of the rooms was a wall devoted to his story. So the Potters forgave him and gave him the recognition he had earned.