The double-edged sword of nostalgia

Memories and nostalgia are the lifeblood of a football fan. It tends to manifest during periods of hardship where immediate on-field footballing gratification is lacking and fans look for a reason to persist with their club. Just this season alone, we’ve witnessed the most successful English football club of all time, Manchester United, host a 20-year commemoration of its treble success of 1999. They released a kit commemorating the achievement and even appointed a player from that side as manager. Yet, this all jars strikingly with what has largely been considered Manchester United’s worst flat-out failure of a season for decades and the mood around the club is desperate. So, if a club as successful and as large of Manchester United can be subject to acute bouts of nostalgia, it comes as absolutely no surprise that the phenomenon is rampant at present around Stoke City.

There’s no doubt, after a depressing 3-4 years of gradually worsening football fans have been clamouring for a return to “Stoke DNA” and getting the “right characters” in the dressing room. Such terms are based upon the happy memories of the grit and nails that Stoke were promoted with at the conclusion of the 2007/2008 season and the spirit shown to survive in the big league for a decade after. But to simply distil those seasons down to those terms is a classic example of how memories can trivialise and cloud what was good and what was bad about those seasons, it belies the fact each one of those seasons had noticeable periods of failure and struggle.

For some fans, the decline has been enough for them to stop attending games, which is prerogative of all football fans but in some instances, there is a weaponisation of nostalgia used a stick to beat these “deserters” with, which is unacceptable and unhelpful in so many ways.

At its best, nostalgia is a tool that brings fans of all ages together around a single focused point in time resulting in shared joy, at its worst it’s something you can get lost in that can leave you longing for something that can never be replicated or indeed in the worst cases never existed in the first place.

As a disclaimer, this is not an article intended to belittle or besmirch the achievements of most Stoke City players over the last 10 years, it is simply an observation of how longing for these times again (or indeed wanting some players to return) is actively playing a negative role in the Stoke City supporter psyche and how we must as a club, move on from that era for the benefit of all.

“Do you remember when….?” Nostalgia done right

The first thing I should state is that I’m a complete sucker for Stoke related nostalgia, even for events I wasn’t even alive to witness. Yet the feelings I get from watching the excellent Macari’s Red & White Army or reading Stoke and I: The Nineties is absolutely undeniable whether you were there or not. The 92/93 season is one crystalised in the greater Stoke City consciousness and it’s fair to say nearly every Stoke fan under 30 has grown up with stories of that fabled season. When you hear that it was a third-tier promotion season, it doesn’t diminish it in any way because it lifted a club that had been in terminal decline for seven years, and sadly would be on a similar trajectory again within four years, incidentally where my own personal Stoke City story begins.  It is the latter fact that provides the context for these memories, the 92/93 season was a shining light in what was undoubtedly a terrible decade for Stoke City with disappointment far outweighing success. This is something that is wonderfully chronicled in Stoke and I, a comprehensive record of the decade, misery and all, whilst Macari’s Red & White Army beautifully contextualises the culture and feeling of being in and around Stoke-On-Trent during that period.
There are countless moments all the way through Stoke’s modern history that still resonate profoundly with fans. Paul Richardson’s stooping header at Meadow Lane in 1979, Mark Chamberlain roasting Kenny Sansom in 1982, Stein’s winner at Wembley, Oulare’s Arse, Hoekstra’s hat-trick and a shirtless Liam Lawrence at Coventry. These are all tangible events that one can recall and relay to those who weren’t there or didn’t experience in the same way and they are all bound within the context of when they occurred. Lawrence’s goal for instance, wasn’t a wonder-strike and it didn’t even seal promotion but it became for many, the enduring image of the promotion year. These events are part of the fable of a football club and a city and are rightfully remembered as such.

Where nostalgia becomes a curious and less tangible phenomenon is when it is applied to periods of time rather than individual events. Barring seasons of almost unmitigated positivity and attacking success like 92/93, which was full of these “crystalised” moments, nostalgia can paint a wildly inaccurate or wistful view of how a particular year has gone. It is this application of nostalgia, where problems can occur with how they are applied to Stoke’s current plight.

Rose-tinting the Past

One of the worst live games of football I’ve ever watched was Stoke City 0-0 Barnsley, there were just over 13,000 people in attendance as a toothless and heavy legged Stoke side were booed off at halftime and lumbered to a 3rd draw in 4 games. Strange then, when one considers that this game was the 6th of our promotion season in 2007/08. It’s easy to forget now, languishing 16th in the same division but that season was a long and hard bloody slog which for large periods looked as though it would have no eventual payoff. But it’s not remembered for the bore draws like Barnsley or Burnley away, it’s remembered for the aforementioned Lawrence moment, Mama’s brace against Bristol City and Fuller’s hat-trick against West Brom. It’s difficult to be objective about a season that gets you into the top flight for the first time in 23 years, but in truth, it was a season permeated with long periods of boredom, frustrations over lack of signings and low attendances. We only hit 20k in February after we had hit the top of the league and averaged 16k across the whole year.

There is certainly a compelling argument for selective memories of that season bleeding through and influencing expectations regarding the playing style ahead the 18/19 season. Certainly, the investment in recruitment was a greater factor but there was a genuine sense of Stoke “just visiting” the Championship and an opportunity to go and visit some grounds of yore before our eventual coronation and return to the Premier League after making 46 games worth of lasting memories. In reality, football isn’t like that and will never make accommodation for your nostalgia in the present. Stoke were dreadful this year, but the disparity between what was expected and what was produced was certainly influenced by previous experiences.

This “bleeding” effect can also be applied to various stages of Stoke’s Premier League lifespan. We often hear about how Stoke always gave 100% under Pulis and that it was the loss of this integral “DNA” that eventually resulted in the deterioration observed from 2016 onwards. Whilst there are certain elements of truth to this, it belies the fact Stoke invariably succumbed on the road under TP, winning just 14 of a possible 95 (equalled by Hughes in two fewer seasons) and producing some incredibly meek performances which were attributed to certain matches being “bonus games”. By the end of his tenure, these meek performances were starting to appear in home fixtures with alarming regularity. If you choose to watch the 2012/2013 season review, or indeed any of the Pulis era, barring 08/09, there are multiple times where you realise “god it could be pretty bad at times”.

Another line commonly wheeled out is that selling Robert Huth was a catastrophic blunder that was never adequately rectified. The pure facts don’t back that up, Stoke finished higher without Huth 3 times than with him, and their best ever defensive season in the Premier League was 2014/2015. That doesn’t diminish in anyway Huth’s contribution to Stoke, it simply means that the answers behind what has gone wrong in the past few years are deeper than players coming and going. It’s this latter reason that makes nostalgia dangerous because it can cover up fundamental problems at a football club, by allowing a more simple explanation to serve as a sticking plaster for what is actually a far more complicated issue.

There are pungent whiffs of nostalgia behind some of the decisions taken by the club in the past few years too. The delayed sacking of Mark Hughes after 18 months of awful regression was by the board’s own admission due to a misplaced sense of loyalty to previous achievements and a belief that this would turn around, reality slapped this notion firmly in the face. Various contract extensions given to long-serving players in spite of the fact they had little to no play time were based on previous achievements and a nostalgic hope they may reach these heights again. The club was stuck in limbo between clinging to what made it great and what was necessary to “push it on”.

This is a noticeable trend around many clubs that historically failed to meet their expectations, the aforementioned Manchester United appointing Solskjaer despite the true issue being not letting go of the Alex Ferguson model, Liverpool appointing Dalglish in 2011 and anyone of Newcastle’s “messiah” signings or appointments. Nostalgia should be for the fans, as history proves time and time again that using it as a basis for strategic football decisions is only a basis for abject failure.

“It’s Nothing Compared to 1985 though…”

Whilst I firmly believe that nostalgia in most cases is a great thing, there are times where fans can apply it in a way to unfairly score points. I was born in 1994, I wasn’t on the mud bank at Springfield Park in 1991, I didn’t see us go 17 games without a win in 1985 and I didn’t invade the pitch when we lost 7-0 at home to Birmingham in 1997. In fact, the lowest points I can remember are the being at Bolton away last season (when it finally hit me we could be here for a very, very long time), losing 8-0 to Liverpool and vague memories of losing the play-off semi-finals to Gillingham and Walsall in consecutive years. These are all incredibly low points in Stoke’s history and I appreciate that things rarely get as bad as that and long-standing/older fans have had to put up with all sorts. What those events do not do, however, is diminish or absolve the club from any criticism in the present nor trivialise the feelings of the younger generation of fans who haven’t really been subject to the worst that Stoke City can offer.

The generation of fans who started coming to the club post-2008 or the “Johnny come lately’s” as they are termed by some, helped transform this club and were part of all those good times we enjoyed for the last 10 years. They helped to turn the Britannia Stadium from a soulless, austere, half empty arena into “the bearpit” and they are as entitled to these memories as fans who have been going for 50 years.

Likewise, when the club begins to suffer it’s no surprise young fans can’t relate to the experiences of the 80s and 90s. But this doesn’t invalidate their complaints nor dissatisfaction with the direction of the club. The nostalgia surrounding the “little old Stoke” narrative is one that limits our progression as a club and is one that’s used all too often as a weapon to cudgel younger fans with. The club isn’t “little old Stoke” anymore, it’s a professional organisation with superb facilities and great financial backing. Fans shouldn’t have to subject to a gauntlet of negativity to have the right to make valid complaints about results, recruitment, or how it’s the worst season they’ve experienced because you can only go on what you know and awareness of the past doesn’t mean you can always relate to it effectively.

Supporting a football club is a perpetual cycle of glory, bitter disappointment, boredom, success, failure, joy, excitement and pain. Just because you stepped on the wheel on a glorious spoke doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to feel pain the same way as someone who’s been around the cycle several times, it just means they have more stories to tell about the rich tapestry that is Stoke City Football Club, and because those stories are the beating heart of a footballing city, it should only be a good thing. Albeit sometimes, both fans and football clubs let nostalgia govern our expectations and feelings over hard logic, which is why  nostalgia can be the sharpest of double-edged swords.

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