Football should be fun, and a lot of people seem to forget that. From those berating your team’s best player at the game, to the maddening cyber-twats of Twitter and the forums, I wonder what a lot of people actually get out of football other than higher blood pressure. Of course, I regularly join in with getting angry at my team, and my team being Stoke City has meant that in the past two seasons I’ve had very little fun at the football. In general though, I like to think I’m a bit of an optimist when it comes to the beautiful game.
An enjoyable World Cup helped re-affirm my love for it. As sad as the ending was for England, the journey provided me with moments I’ll never forget. I don’t like to moan about ‘the state of the game’ too much, I’m not Against Modern Football – how could I be when it’s all I’ve ever known? I recognise its problems, and I’ll join the collective eye-roll when I find out how much a 17-year-old is earning, but football is still – I think – fundamentally good. I’m hopeful about football, and I’m hopeful about Stoke City. This is a problem.
For the first time I can remember, Stoke City start the season as favourites to win their division. I see a very good squad for this level, a manager with great potential, and a chairman who is one of the best in England in terms of resources and commitment. It’s been a good summer to be a Stoke fan. There’s the anticipation of the coming awaydays, the buzz around our new signings, and the boiled piss of fans of the other Championship clubs. So why is this a problem? It’s because I’m not used to it. I’m not used to this much being expected of Stoke City, and that could make it more difficult to take should we fail to return to The Premier League.
It’s been a while since we had a positive vibe coming from the club, and while I’m getting used to that again, I’m naturally uneasy with the certainty with which many are predicting our immediate return. It’s kind of like the uneasiness many people felt with ‘It’s Coming Home’ being sung as England progressed through the World Cup, but at least that chant came from a place of irony and self-mockery. For Stoke, it’s not about dreaming of glory, it’s now expecting it. I don’t want to expect us to win the league or even get promoted, I don’t want to expect at all. Hopes and dreams are fine, demands? Demands are dangerous things in football. There’s 46 games to play against some very good sides who we haven’t played in a long while. Some of whom have even won European Cups even though they don’t go on about it.
Of course, you may read this as Stoke fan and think that you don’t expect the title, or even promotion, at all. I doff my cap to you, but the newspaper and magazine predictions will be out next week, and they’ll pretty much all have Stoke down as finishing top of The Championship. We’re bookies favourites, and with every reason to be. That is essentially, I think, our biggest obstacle this season. Managing expectations.
Rowett may be young but he’s been in The Championship long enough to know that you can’t underestimate this league. It’s an absolute sod of a league, a gruelling journey that’s a whole 8 games longer than a Premier League season. The volume of midweek games provides so many banana skins for a squad who may not be used to such a hectic schedule. Squad depth will be vital, determination and character will be vital, as will having the quality to see off the likes of Rotherham, Millwall and Bolton, no matter how scrappily we do it.
We need cover at centre half, and we really could do with another striker. Jack Butland’s future is still undecided and I don’t know what the plans are for Bojan – who I’m hoping (not expecting) can make a heroic return to life as a Stoke player. There’s dead weight to be shifted as well, our ‘Shock Jock’ radio star being chief among these. So everything isn’t perfect, but I tell you what, these last two paragraphs were a lot easier for me to write than anything about why we should win the league. If I tweet about us getting 138 points, please know that it is a defence mechanism.
I want to go into the season with a sense of fun and adventure, and have the burden of expectation lifted from our shoulders. Yet I know all too well if we go and smash Leeds 4-0, the burden will be heavier. It will be brilliant if we do that of course, but there’ll still be 45 more games to get nervous about. Ah football, you lovely bastard. There’s nothing quite like it.
With one week to go before we start the season, perhaps I’ll learn to ‘expect’ stuff from Stoke, but until then it’s about hoping and dreaming. It’s coming home, lads.