Sunday 3 May 1998. The final day of the 1997/98 Football League First Division season and Stoke City’s first at the Britannia Stadium. The Potters hosted Manchester City on that last day, with both sides on the brink of relegation to the third tier. The game finished in a crushing 5-2 win for the visitors in front of a then-record attendance for the new place.
The win wasn’t enough to keep Manchester City up, and both clubs were relegated to the Second Division. It was a dreadful end to an appalling first campaign at our new home. I could hardly say I was a regular thanks to a combination of work and university, but I got to eight games at the Britannia Stadium, and we lost every single one. Dad wasn’t happy with his and our lot, and our relegation saw us dumped in the third tier for the second time in less than a decade.
If you count caretaker Alan Durban, the Potters got through three managers during the season, and so it was hoped that whoever came in during the summer of 1998 would provide some stability and rebuild. Chief Executive Jez Moxey warned that the club’s finances were dire following relegation, thus dampening any expectations supporters may have had, but chairman Keith Humphreys apologised for the “bloody awful football” of the previous season, appointing Brian Little as Stoke’s new manager.
Brian Little – seen as a coup
The appointment of Little was seen as something as a coup for the Potters. Little had built a reputation as a bright young manager with first Darlington and then Leicester City before taking the Aston Villa job, the club where he spent his entire playing career. Little did well with Villa. In his first full season, he took them to fourth place in the Premier League and the FA Cup semi-finals, while they lifted the League Cup, beating Leeds United 3-0 at Wembley. The 1996/97 season saw Villa finish fifth in the Premier League, but Little left Villa Park during February 1998 with the club in the bottom half of the table.
Dad and I were impressed with Little’s appointment and felt he would be able to lead us to promotion despite his hands being tied in the transfer market. Indeed, Little was restricted to free transfers such as David Oldfield, Phil Robinson, and Bryan Small.
And we started the season well. In fact, we started the season like a high-speed train, winning all of our opening six league games, including an incredible 4-3 win at Preston.
Dad was going to games on a regular basis and enjoying the fact that we were actually winning again. But my attendance became extremely limited. I was made redundant from my job during the summer but quickly landed a new one. The problem was my shift patterns, which included me working all day on Saturdays, and until 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening during the week. The first game I managed to get to was the Boxing Day game with Preston which saw us lose miserably, the 1-0 defeat meaning I’d seen us lose nine games out of nine since we’d moved to the Brit.
The Potters continued to fire on all cylinders until the end of November when we were still top of the table and looking like a decent bet for promotion. But the New Year saw us fall apart and turn in some dreadful performances, particularly at the Britannia Stadium.
The first of these was an alarming 3-1 mauling by Wrexham – I was there and received some huge stick from a university mate who was a big Wrexham fan – and this was followed by a 4-0 beating by Reading in the next home fixture. Defeats to Fulham and Notts County in the next two home games meant that the Potters had lost five consecutive home games, and by now, the club’s support was more than restless, with displays of open contempt displayed towards the board a regular feature at the Brit.
However, arguably Stoke’s worst performance came in a 2-0 defeat at Millwall, who managed it with just nine men. Little himself certainly agreed, describing the showing as “the worst result in my twelve years in management”.
Two more wallopings were dished out at the Brit before the season was out – both 4-1 defeats to Bristol Rovers and Burnley – while our second to last away game saw us lose 4-0 at Gillingham, where a certain Tony Pulis was in charge.
We saw the season out with a 2-0 win over Walsall, which saw us finish in eighth place following our spectacular collapse in the second half of the season. It was our second worst finish ever, and I’d not seen Stoke win a game since the last day at the Victoria Ground two years previously.
Shortly after the end of the season, Brian Little resigned, leaving us looking for yet another new manager. Dad was convinced that the Britannia Stadium was jinxed in some way, while I was longing for revolution. We both agreed that change was needed at Stoke, and change was coming; we just didn’t know where from.
Gary Megson – frozen out
We didn’t know it at the time, but Stoke City were about to spend another three seasons in the third tier following Brian Little’s ultimately disastrous tenure. The board had run out of steam and ideas – and most importantly resources – and the club was crying out for change. And once again, we went into the summer looking for another new manager.
The board got their act together and brought in former Stockport County manager Gary Megson, who – despite helping the Hatters punch above their weight in the First Division (Championship) – was out of work. It was a decent appointment but given that he had no real budget and the Stockport connections, many supporters were severely underwhelmed.
However, that didn’t concern Megson. The Potters started the 1999/00 season slowly but by October, he’d got them on the fringes of the play-off places and got the support onside. But towards the end of the month, rumours began to circulate of a possible takeover of the club, and bizarrely, it was an Icelandic consortium led by businessman Gunnar Gislason that was leading it.
They completed their takeover on 15th November 1999, Gislason serenading the gathered press with a chorus of “why, why, why Icelanders”, and their first major decision was to part company Gary Megson who had become quite popular with the players and support, replacing him with the former manager of the Icelandic national team, Gudjón Thordarsón, and handing him a sizeable transfer budget.
My first game under the new regime saw my Britannia Stadium jinx continue as I witnessed a tortuous 0-0 draw with Oldham Athletic. But I didn’t have to wait too long to see a rare – for me at the time – Potters win: a couple of weeks later I was there to see us beat Preston 2-1 thanks to a late James O’Connor winner. It was the first time I’d seen Stoke win a competitive game since the last day at the Victoria Ground two-and-a-half years previous.
Thordarsón began his tenure well, leading Stoke to Wembley in the Auto Windscreens Shield, where they lifted the trophy, beating Bristol City 2-1 in front of over 75,000 fans. And in the league, he led his side into the playoffs after a barnstorming end to the season where Peter Thorne seemed to score at least two every game. The Potters faced Gillingham over two legs, winning the first at the Britannia Stadium 3-2 in front of over 22,000, before losing 3-0 in the second leg after being reduced to nine men by referee Rob Styles following two horrific decisions. I returned home from work to the news and was crushed. I was convinced that the momentum generated by our great end-of-season form would take us to a second Wembley appearance. When I spoke to dad the next day, he was still fuming and launched into an anti-Rob Styles tirade which would be unprintable in a respectable publication such as Football Bloody Hell.
Thordy brings in ten
Given Stoke’s decent showing the previous season, they began the 2000/01 campaign as favourites for promotion, and both dad and I were taken in by the hype too. The Icelandic owners backed their man Thordarsón in the transfer market making ten new signings, the majority from Iceland and Scandinavia. But despite the favourites tag, they opened the season with a dull 0-0 draw at home to Wycombe Wanderers which bored me to tears, and our early season form could best be described as steady rather than spectacular. However, it looked as if the wheels were coming off during a horrible little spell towards the end of November, when in the space of a couple of weeks, the Potters were dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Nuneaton Borough, were hammered 8-0 at home to Liverpool in the League Cup – it got so bad the scoreboard operator lost count and had us losing 9-0 – and then lost 3-1 at home to Luton Town in the league.
But the Potters recovered, and despite another wobble towards the end of the season, clinched fifth place and another shot at the play-offs after winning all of their final three league games, including a 3-1 win over Wrexham which helped me over the trauma of the beating they gave us under Brian Little.
Once again, the playoffs were a disaster for the Potters, but this time, much of the damage was self-inflicted. Walsall were the opponents, with the first leg at the Britannia Stadium finishing 0-0. For the second leg at the Bescot Stadium, Thordarsón shocked everyone by benching leading goalscorer Peter Thorne. Stoke took the lead through Graham Kavanagh, but a mixture of goalkeeping and defensive howlers saw Stoke collapse during the second half, as Walsall coasted into a 4-1 lead. Peter Thorne eventually came on and scored his nineteenth goal of the season late on as the game finished 4-2.
Sections of the support were starting to lose patience with Thordarsón and the Icelandic project, and there were signs of tension between the manager and the board, with Thordarsón keen to revamp the squad, and the board quibbling about money. In the end, the club’s two biggest assets – Graham Kavanagh and Peter Thorne – were sold to cash-rich Cardiff City, though some very good signings were made to compensate, including Peter Handyside who was made captain, and the Belarusian beast Sergei Shtanyuk. But arguably the most impressive signing was that of former Dutch international winger Peter Hoekstra from Ajax.
The Potters began the season inconsistently, with two wins, a draw, and two defeats from the opening five games, the last of which was Peter Thorne’s last game for the club before his move to South Wales. Fittingly, he scored with his last kick, a last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw at home to Huddersfield Town.
Following a defeat at eventual champions Brighton and Hove Albion in mid-September, the Potters went on a run which saw them lose just once in nineteen games, albeit this was a 6-1 hiding at Wigan Athletic.
During this run, it was announced that a replacement for Peter Thorne had been identified and would be arriving at the club in January. Souleymane Oularé had been compared to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and his time at Stoke was as bizarre as anything you’re likely to come across. On arrival, he made his debut as a substitute on a freezing cold January afternoon as Stoke stumbled to a 1-1 draw at Northampton, before falling seriously ill and almost succumbing to a blood clot on his lung. Yet he was to play a pivotal role on his very brief return.
Stoke’s form was once again inconsistent during the final three months of the season, but an excellent run of form at home – winning all of their final six fixtures at the Britannia Stadium – meant that they did enough to secure fifth place and a third successive play-off campaign.
And the Potters were pitched against Cardiff City, and former stars Graham Kavanagh and Peter Thorne, with the first leg at the Britannia Stadium. It wasn’t the best of showings from Stoke, and Cardiff moved into a 2-0 lead which seemed to have ended any hopes the Potters had of promotion. However, on-loan Deon Burton provided a glimmer of hope, pulling a goal back three minutes from time. But that was nothing compared to what was to come in the second leg.
Expectations weren’t particularly high among the travelling support when Stoke arrived at Ninian Park, and as the game approached its conclusion and the score still goalless on the night, it seemed that Cardiff had done enough to make the play-off final, so much so that their stadium announcer asked for the home fans to stay off the pitch to allow their players to make a lap of honour. But the Potters put paid to that in dramatic fashion, when in the third minute of stoppage time, James O’Connor fired home to put Stoke in front on the night, level things on aggregate, and take the game into extra time.
O’Connor’s strike lifted the Potters and deflated the home side, and you got the feeling that only one side was going to win. And that was to be the case, but you could not have written how the game was to be settled. With five minutes left, James O’Connor tried his luck once again, this time from a free-kick. But this time his shot cannoned off the arse of substitute Souleymane Oularé and into the back of the Cardiff net to make it 2-0 to Stoke on the night, sending them to the play-off final after a 3-2 aggregate win. Despite his near-death experience, Oularé became a legendary figure in the Potteries despite making only two substitute appearances for the Potters, all thanks to his backside. I wasn’t there, but I’ll never forget a late-night phone call from dad who was going seriously mental down in South Wales.
Ten days later, the Potters were back in Cardiff for the final at the Millennium Stadium where they faced Brentford, and the game was not nearly half as dramatic with a Deon Burton strike and an own goal in the first half killing the game dead, leaving the Potters to coast to a comfortable 2-0 win, and thus promotion.
It’d taken two-and-a-half seasons, but Gudjón Thordarsón had got the Potters up, and the Icelanders had delivered on the first part of their pledge to get the club to the Premier League.
But Thordarsón didn’t have long to celebrate. His contract expired in the June, and within days of clinching that long-sought promotion, he was informed by his fellow countrymen that his contract would not be renewed, and he swiftly departed the Potteries. To say I was shocked would be a very serious understatement.
The board cotton on to Cotterill
After a few years of stability under the Icelandic regime, chaos had returned to the Britannia Stadium. Supporters were stunned. Although it was no secret that there had been tensions between Gudjón Thordarsón and his fellow countrymen, he’d delivered promotion, the first part of their plan to get Stoke back to the top-flight, and most would’ve thought that he’d be fireproof.
But Gunnar Gislason and his Board flexed their muscles and displayed their ruthless streak – and it wouldn’t be the last time – in dispensing with the services of a manager who won exactly half of his games in charge of the club, had won a trophy – two, if you count the play-off final win – and secured the promotion they craved.
After appointing Stoke’s first foreign manager, the Icelanders this time turned to a young English manager, Steve Cotterill, who’d taken Cheltenham Town into the Football League for the first time in their history.
Cotterill wasn’t particularly experienced and wasn’t handed much in the way of a transfer budget, with his key signing seemingly highly-rated young striker Chris Greenacre on a free from Mansfield Town where he’d bagged a hatful. And Cotterill was also forced to blood a number of youngsters from Stoke’s youth system, most notably Kris Commons.
After graduating from university the previous year, I’d landed my first post-grad job, meaning that Saturdays and evenings were now free and so I’d be able to get to a few more games, though renovating a house would interrupt the first three months of the season. My first game of the new season saw us beat Ipswich Town 2-1 thanks to a late goal from Andy Cooke, but I wasn’t impressed with what I saw.
Stoke began the new campaign slowly but steadily, but after thirteen games littered with draws and just three wins, Cotterill stunned the club and its support by resigning to become assistant manager to Howard Wilkinson at Premier League Sunderland following a 2-0 home defeat to Wolves. After telling the Stoke support he wasn’t a quitter, he did just that.
Cotterill’s assistant Dave Kevan took charge while the club began the search for yet another new manager. Kevan oversaw a run of three straight defeats, the last of those being a 2-1 defeat to Watford at the Britannia Stadium which was watched by prospective new manager George Burley. Burley’s proposed appointment seemed a bit of a coup. He’d recently done well in the Premier League with Ipswich Town and delivered them European football following a fifth-place finish. But Burley must’ve been startled by what he’d witnessed at the Britannia Stadium as he did an about-turn, leaving Stoke high and dry.
Pompey’s Pulis pops up
The club quickly turned to former managerial target Tony Pulis, who was out of work having left Portsmouth, and he was installed in time for the following game away at Walsall. But Stoke didn’t benefit from the new manager bounce, losing 4-2 at the Bescot Stadium on a miserable afternoon.
Stoke’s losing streak – which had stretched to eight – eventually ended when they secured a point in a 1-1 draw away to Pulis’ former club Gillingham. This didn’t end the poor form though, and it wasn’t until a Christmas fixture at home to Sheffield Wednesday that Pulis recorded his first win – in his tenth game, thanks to a stoppage-time winner; dad and I went nuts – by which time the Potters had gone more than three months without a win.
Stoke won again on New Year’s Day, beating Preston North End at the Britannia Stadium, but they quickly reverted to type, going five league games without a win, the last of which was a 6-0 pummelling at Nottingham Forest.
But Pulis wasn’t panicking and brought in a number of experienced heads including Paul Warhurst and most crucially goalkeeper Mark Crossley, and Ade Akinbiyi.
Pulis made Stoke very hard to beat, losing only three of the next thirteen games, a run which saw them concede more than one goal just once, and eight clean sheets. As a result, they went into the final game of the season at home to Reading knowing that a win would keep them up, a feat they managed thanks to a goal from Akinbiyi.
Having kept Stoke up in dramatic fashion, Pulis then set about establishing them in the First Division, bringing in more experience. We started the 2003/04 season well, but a run of just three wins in seventeen games saw us dragged into matters at the wrong end of the table, but an inspirational signing was to give Stoke the kick up the backside they needed.
Ahead of a trip to high-flying West Ham United, Pulis brought in experienced Gerry Taggart – initially on loan – from Leicester City, and Taggart played a key role in helping Stoke to a surprise 1-0 win. And that win at Upton Park kicked off a run in which Stoke lost just once in fifteen games – a spectacular 6-3 defeat at Crystal Palace.
But four defeats in their last ten games meant that the Potters finished the season in eleventh place, but only seven points away from play-off places, and there was a feeling amongst the Stoke support that Pulis was building a team capable of challenging for promotion to the Premier League. However, behind the scenes, tensions were building between the manager and the Board, who were growing frustrated at his refusal to consider signing the players that they wanted him to from the foreign market. Pulis’ argument was that the players weren’t good enough, and if he was expected to be judged on his results then they should back his judgement in terms of signings. And this seemed to have a big influence on the negotiations of a new contract for Pulis, which was eventually agreed in November ahead of a local derby with Crewe Alexandra.
There was no sign of such problems on the pitch when the new season started. Indeed, it seemed like those pre-season expectations had some foundations as Stoke began the 2004/05 season looking like a promotion contender, losing just once in their first eight games, and by mid-September, they were top following a 3-2 win over Ipswich Town. This was to be as good as it got and Stoke soon fell down the table on the back of a seven-game winless streak.
At the end of October, Stoke began the infamous ‘binary run’, a run of seventeen games which either finished 0-0, 1-0 to Stoke, or 1-0 to the opposition, saw Stoke score just seven goals and included a run of six consecutive 1-0 defeats.
The binary run ended with a five-goal thriller at home to Leicester City which I watched in shock from the Family Stand as Stoke won 3-2, and that was about as good as it got for the rest of the season, aside from a 2-0 win at Crewe Alexandra, completing a league double over our South Cheshire neighbours.
Again, Stoke finished the season in mid-table in twelfth place, but the lack of entertainment and goals left the support frustrated, and goodwill towards Tony Pulis had evaporated. So when the Board took the decision to dismiss Pulis for failure to consider the foreign transfer market ahead of the 2005/06 season, there was little in the way of dissent. Pulis was swiftly replaced by former Dutch international Johan Boskamp, who had taken Belgian giants Anderlecht into the Champions League. Boskamp certainly had no truck in going foreign, raiding the Belgian league for five signings – including Sambégou Bangoura for a club-record £950,000 – supplementing these with five signings from the domestic market. It was seen by many as the Icelandic consortium’s last throw of the dice.
The rotund Boskamp became popular with the Stoke support for his big character, eccentricity, and his pledge to play attacking football. When asked at his unveiling whether Stoke were going to play ‘sexy football’, Boskamp responded, “I know about sex, and I know about football. But I don’t know about sexy football”.
Although Boskamp stuck behind his footballing principles, and Stoke’s football was more pleasing on the eye, it was no more successful than the Tony Pulis way as the Potters once again finished mid-table in thirteenth place. Dad was struggling health-wise and so he didn’t get to many games, while I thought my Britannia jinx had returned: I saw us win just once all season, the 3-0 win over Brighton on Bonfire Night.
Aside from a good spell between November and December – which ironically started with an almighty row, which almost saw Boskamp quit and led to Director of Football John Rudge placed on gardening leave – Stoke’s form overall was inconsistent, with their home form horrific. That good run coincided with a purple patch from record signing Bangoura, who scored seven goals in six successive games. But his form tailed away after Christmas, and when he failed to return from international duty by a date agreed with the club, Boskamp branded him a “shit guy”. Bangoura was to score just one more goal in a Stoke City shirt.
Stoke ended the season with a 5-1 win at Brighton and Hove Albion, a young Adam Rooney marking his Potters debut with a hat-trick. It was Boskamp’s last game at Stoke, and it also proved to be the Icelandic consortium’s last game at Stoke too. The summer of 2006 proved to be the most pivotal in the club’s recent history: the Icelanders sold the club to the bet365-monied Coates family who were to achieve the Premier League promotion that their predecessors had craved.