hAfter another dull summer week for Stoke, I was rather stuck for ideas for a subject on which to write this week’s fan’s view column. This being the case, I’ve decided to do something slightly different, and count down what I see as the best five moments at the Britannia Stadium to date.
5. 4/5/2003 ~ Akinbiyi seals survival
The 2002/03 season was our first back in the Championship, the called Division One, having been promoted via the playoffs the season before. Under the guidance of first Steve “The Quitter” Cotterill and then Tony Pulis, in the first season of his first spell at the club, we had struggled, at one point losing eight straight matches. A late season resurgence saw us claw our way towards survival though, with a win needed on the final day of the season at home to Reading to confirm this. More than 20,000 turned out to watch the game, which was decided by an Ade Akinbiyi header 50 minutes in. Akinbiyi then provided one of the iconic images of Stoke’s recent history, tearing off his shirt to reveal muscles to make any amateur body-builder give up hope. The relief at the final whistle that day was immense.
4. 13/12/2003 ~ Hoekstra’s hat-trick
Peter Hoekstra, whose skill and ability were a joy to behold for any Stoke fan, was a truly fantastic player. Officially voted as the best since the move to the Britannia Stadium, and likely to be up there in polls of all-time Stoke City greats, it’s only right that he should make it onto this list. Though superb in almost all his games for Stoke, he always seemed to save his best for games against Reading, and the one from December 2003 was no exception, as he single-handedly tore the Royals apart, netting a stunning hat-trick, which remains one of my favourite youtube videos. His three strikes showcased everything great about him. His first, a run and finish demonstrated his pace, his second, a thunderous strike showed his ability to produce the amazing, while his third, a beautifully audacious chipped penalty, showed off his cool and eagerness to entertain. Anyone who was there that day knew they had seen a masterclass.
3. 1/5/2002 ~ The Cardiff beam-back
Though not strictly a game held at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke’s play-off semi final second leg away at Cardiff in May 2002 still provided one of the ground’s finest nights. The game beamed back to the expectant Stokies and showed on a big screen, we trailed by two goals to one from the first encounter, and were minutes away from being condemned to the drudgery of another season in the third tier, when James O’Connor struck in injury time to level the tie, sparking jubilation amongst the gathered Stoke support. Cardiff were clearly deflated, which was a wonderful sight for a Stoke fan to see, particularly as their side included Peter Thorne and Graham Kavanagh, who had acrimoniously moved west from Stoke to “further their careers”. Mid-way through extra time came the sweetest moment, courtesy of the pert backside of Guinean forward Souleymayne Oulare, who unwittingly diverted the ball past Cardiff ‘keeper Neil Alexander. Having previously done nothing for Stoke, and destined never to do anything again, he had scored just about the biggest goal in the recent history of the club, sparking near pandemonium at the Brit. The manner of the goal just made it even more special.
4. 23/8/2008 ~ Aston Villa, five goal thriller, Delap with the throw and Sidibe with the killer.
The scene, Stoke’s first ever Premier League home game, deep into four minutes of injury time. The scoreline, 2-2 after a thrilling game. Having twice been pegged back by Villa with just seconds remaining, many Stoke fans, me included, were baying for us to run down the clock and record a vital first Premier League point. The players had other ideas. Rory Delap took a trademark long throw. The ball, struck Mamady Sidibe on the back of the head, and bounced perfectly towards goal, nestling in the corner of the Villa net past the helpless Brad Friedel. The stadium erupted, hundreds of media-members prepared to wax lyrical over Delap’s missile, and one of the defining moments in the history of this football club was upon us. That first win gave us the footing necessary to go on and produce eleven more on the way to survival, so Sidibe’s goal holds even more significance than just as the truly wondrous moment it was.
1. 4/5/2008 ~ Promotion, need I say more?
Exactly five years after Akinbiyi had secured our place in the Championship, the next group of Stoke players, still under the rule of Pulis, were making promotion from the it a reality, with a goalless draw against Leicester on the final day of the season enough to seal second place, and the right to call ourselves a top flight club for the first time in 23 years. Promotion secured, the party could start, 15,000 Stoke fans flooded the Britannia Stadium pitch at the final whistle, while 10,000 more applauded from the stands. The lasting image for me is of Carl Dickinson, one of the heroes of the season, simply standing in the middle of the pitch, arms wide open, waiting for the onrushing human torrent to arrive. The collective outpouring of joy and relief made for a scene that few other football grounds will ever see the like of, and means that this moment rightly tops this list.