Stoke City Legends: Mark Stein

 

Association football is lovingly referred to around the world as the ‘beautiful game’ and it has been a constant source of iconic sporting images throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There are certain photographs which are instantly recognisable to football supporters, either because they showcase a special moment in time or encompass the emotions of a period in the sport’s history.

Bobby Moore being carried aloft on the shoulders of his England teammates, Jules Rimet trophy in hand, following the 1966 World Cup Final. Vinnie Jones standing with a certain part of Paul Gascoigne’s anatomy in hand when the two players crossed paths during a match in 1988. Sergio Aguero reeling away after his last-gasp goal had won Manchester City the Premier League title on the last day of the season in 2012. These are iconic images that are easily identifiable and bring memories flooding back regardless of your footballing persuasion.

From a Stoke City perspective, there is perhaps one photograph from the early 1990s that resonates above all others. The sight of Mark Stein unleashing a rasping shot into the Manchester United net in front of a packed Victoria Ground during a League Cup tie in 1993 will resound strongly with a generation of supporters. It captures not only the moment that The Potters boasted one of, if not the, best striker outside the top-flight at the time, but also a period in the club’s history that was characterised by hope, optimism and elation – the Macari years.

Stein became an immediate crowd favourite at the Victoria Ground and his prowess in front of goal brought him unreserved adulation from the supporters. He scored a total of 72 goals in 131 appearances for The Potters during two spells and he helped to fire the club to a triumph in the Auto-Glass Trophy at Wembley in 1992 and the Second Division title (then the third tier of English Football) in the 1992/93 season.

The ‘Golden One’, as he became titled by supporters, certainly made his mark.

Stein 1

‘I wasn’t really seen as a regular goal scorer’.

Mark Stein was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in January 1966 and his family emigrated to Britain during the 1970s, taking up residence in London. A love for football was clearly embedded within the Stein household with both of his brothers also going on to carve successful playing careers for themselves – Brian Stein made just under 400 appearances for Luton Town whilst Eddie Stein played over 500 times for Barnet.

Stein began his own football career at Kenilworth Road, initially joining Luton Town in 1983 before signing his first professional contract one year later. Under the management of David Pleat and, later, Mick Harford, the young striker underwent an extensive football education that would form the foundation on which his successful professional career would be built. Ironically, Stein was not initially renowned for being an out-and-out goal scorer and later admitted that:

“I wasn’t really seen as a regular goal scorer. The way I was brought up, if someone was in a better position you pass it. That was the education I had at Luton, to be unselfish. David Pleat had that message of being all for the team.” [1]

During the 1987/88 season Stein was part of the Luton Town side that won the League Cup, the club’s only major trophy to date, with The Hatters securing a surprise 3-2 victory against Arsenal. The young striker made an appearance as a substitute during the final, but he was sold to Queens Park Rangers just a matter of months later. Within twelve months he had transferred to Oxford United and, despite a promising start to his career at the Manor Ground in which he initially cemented his position in the starting line-up, by the start of the 1991/92 campaign he had fallen out of favour. [2]

Stein was 25 years old and although he possessed a wealth of First Division experience his goal scoring record was somewhat unremarkable – 41 goals in just over 160 appearances. [3] The striker was stranded in Oxford United’s reserves and he later admitted that his career was in danger of stagnating.

However, a somewhat unlikely transfer to a Second Division side was about to change everything.

Stein 2

‘Having forty thousand Stokies at the home of football – we couldn’t fail’.

In June 1991, Lou Macari was appointed as the new manager of Stoke City and walked into a club that was lacking direction, finances and belief.

The Potters had been relegated to the third tier of English football two seasons earlier and the team had finished 14th in the preceding campaign, the clubs’ lowest ever league position. Macari’s remit was simply to build a Stoke City side that was competitive, had an appetite to win and would produce performances that the supporters could take some pride in. However, the Victoria Ground was not overflowing with optimism and neither did the accounts suggest that there would be much money available for the new manager to embark on the task of rebuilding the squad. [4]

On the 16th September 1991, Stoke City announced the signing of Mark Stein from Oxford United on a one-month loan. Discussing the new arrival, Macari told the Staffordshire Sentinel that “I think he has something to offer us. He has pace, plays down the middle and gets into scoring positions”. [5]

Stein was immediately thrown into the starting line-up two days later for the match against Hartlepool United and was partnered up front with Wayne Biggins. [6] Stein later remarked that “I looked around at Bertie [Wayne Biggins], Buts [Johnny Butler] and Beast [Carl Beaston] and thought we had some team – and I’d dropped [down] a division!”. [7]

The new strike duo of Stein and Biggins immediately sparked into life and the pair became one of the most lethal forward partnerships in the county over the following twelve months. However, the two players could not have been more different in terms of appearance and style of play. Biggins was an intimidating physical presence who possessed a wonderful first touch and aerial ability whilst Stein, standing at 5 foot 5 inches tall, provided pace, finesse and intelligent movement. [8] The pair were complete opposites and yet complemented each other perfectly.

Ironically, Stein did not score during his initial one month on loan at the Victoria Ground, but his overall contribution to the team was so significant that Macari convinced the Stoke City board of directors to find £100,000 to make the transfer permanent. [9] The striker may not have found the back of the net, but the consensus was that he had done everything but score and it was noted that Biggins had scored six goals in three appearances alongside his new striker partner. [10]

Following his permanent transfer, Stein told the press “I wouldn’t have joined Stoke unless I was sure they were a club going places … the biggest decision was moving away from London” and that “I have never classed myself as a regular goal scorer … the ideal balance is to create plenty for others and weigh in with a decent ratio yourself”. [11] The striker opened his account for The Potters seven days later, scoring twice against Torquay United, and from that point on the goals flowed with remarkable regularity. [12]

Stein’s arrival sparked Stoke City’s season into life and by mid-February The Potters had climbed to the top of the Second Division. The striker found the net in 10 of the 14 appearances he made following his £100,000 transfer and the partnership with Biggins flourished. [13] By the start of April, the duo had a combined tally of 42 goals whilst Stein had scored in every round of the Football League Trophy prior to the semi-final stage. [14]

Ultimately, the season would end in a mixture of disappointment and elation for Stoke City supporters. The Potters were unable to maintain their place at the top of the division and had to settle for a place in the play-offs, which ultimately culminated in defeat against Stockport County over two legs. However, Macari’s team were able to secure a place in the final of the Football League Trophy (then operating under the title of Auto-Glass Trophy) at Wembley where they faced Stockport County once again. [15]

On a glorious, sunny afternoon at Wembley in mid-April 1992, a solitary strike by Stein in the 65th minute proved to be decisive. The striker “celebrated on his knees and then lying flat on his back, arms stretched out in triumph as teammates raced over to congratulate him” with the goal being described as “opportunism at its best … more than just a brilliant flash of skill. It was also a statement of Stoke’s extra edge”. [16]

Stein later remarked “winning at Wembley was the least we could have done after the disappointment of losing in the play-offs … having forty thousand Stokies at the home of football – we couldn’t fail”. [17]

Stein 3

‘Probably more popular than Madonna’

The 1992/93 season may be one of the most remarkable and memorable Stoke City campaigns in living memory. There was no sign of a play-off hangover from the previous year for Lou Macari and his team as they were crowned champions of the Second Division, securing a return to the second tier of English football for the first time in half a decade.

The strike partnership of Wayne Biggins and Mark Stein, which had performed so well in the previous season, was not to last. Whilst Macari was able to shake off interest from Newcastle United for Stein, with Kevin Kegan willing to pay more than £500,000 for the forward, Biggins departed the Victoria Ground, somewhat controversially, for Barnsley just two months into the new season. [18]

The most prominent thought in the mind of Stoke City supporters was who would fill the goal-scoring shoes of Biggins? He had been The Potters’ leading marksman for the previous two seasons and his departure was viewed as being a significant blow to the club’s promotion ambitions.

Ultimately, any reservations were soon found to be misplaced. Stein flourished despite the departure of his strike partner and produced the most astonishing goal scoring campaign of any Stoke City player in the modern era. He ended the season with 33 goals, becoming the first player in three decades to find the net more than 30 times in a single campaign, and he was crowned as both the Players and Supporters Player of the Year. [19] He emerged as the leading marksmen outside the top-flight and his run of form in front of goal generated interest from various clubs.

His pace and movement were a constant source of concern for opposition defences whilst he possessed an accurate, powerful shot that was combined with a useful knack of being in the right place at the right time. [20] He later revealed that his manager’s advice to facilitate his goal scoring form had been simple: “Lou [Macari] said to me ‘you’ve got a good shot, hit the ball with pace. Stay in the box’. Something small like that is massive. Nobody had really told me that”. [21]

Whilst promotion was secured, The Potters were unable to retain the Football League Trophy after they were knocked out in a replay against local rivals Port Vale in May 1993. Stein missed a penalty that day, but just four weeks later he scored the decisive strike at Vale Park as Stoke City secured local bragging rights in a league fixture. [22]

 

‘I want to play in the Premier League’

Mark Stein was adored by the Stoke City supporters, who gave him the title of the ‘Golden One’, and the contemporary press were equally as complimentary. He was described as “the undisputed king of marksmen”, a man who “can’t stop scoring” and, amusingly, as being “probably more popular than Madonna”. [23]

The striker began the 1993/94 season in fine goalscoring form, finding the net 13 times in the opening three months of the campaign, and was leading the First Division goalscoring charts by the end of September. [24] In the same month, he scored both goals in Stoke City’s historic victory against Manchester United, at that point the best team in the country having won the inaugural Premier League by ten clear points the previous season, in the League Cup third round tie at the Victoria Ground.

After the match, Lou Macari told the press: “two years ago we were struggling to beat teams like Wigan. Now we have beaten Manchester United!”. [25] Stein later remarked that victory “was the best night at the Victoria Ground by far … the atmosphere that night was electric”. [26]

However, the joy of Stoke City supporters was not to last.

In late September 1993, The Potters accepted a bid of £1.65 million for Stein from Premier League side Chelsea. Macari had turned down a £1 million offer from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer but the striker had announced that he would not sign a new contract two months into the season, stating that he was homesick and wanted to play in the top-flight. Stein explained:

“I am starting to feel homesick. My family and friends still live there [in London] and I go back there as often as I can. … I want to play in the Premier League, and if I don’t do it soon I could miss out”. [27]

The departure of the ‘Golden One’ was exacerbated by the announcement that Lou Macari would be leaving the Victoria Ground to take up the managerial hot-seat at Celtic. [28] In the space of three days Stoke City supporters lost both their revered manager and leading marksman.

Stein, at that point 27 years of age, was initially a hit at Chelsea and scored in seven successive Premier League games between December 1993 and February 1993 before the sequence was broken by a groin injury. [29] It was a Premier League record that stood until 2002 when it was broken by Ruud van Nistelrooy. However, the striker was frozen out at Stamford Bridge following the appointment of Ruud Gullit in the summer of 1996, who did not assign him a squad number. [30]

This resulted in a temporary return to the Victoria Ground when he joined The Potters on a two-month loan in November 1996. Stein had clearly lost none of his goalscoring prowess and netted four goals in eleven games, but the two clubs could not agree a fee for a potential permanent transfer whilst Chelsea had little interest in extending the loan. [31]

Stein continued to score goals after he departed Chelsea in the summer of 1998. The twilight of his career included spells with Luton Town, Dagenham and Redbridge (where he scored 45 goals in two seasons and finished the 2001/02 campaign as the joint top goal scorer in the Conference) and Waltham Forest. He ended his playing career having scored over 200 goals in just under five hundred appearances. [32]

The ‘Golden One’

It is debatable whether a player has made such a significant impact among Stoke City supporters in such a short period of time as Mark Stein did between 1991 and 1993.

The striker scored a total of 72 goals in 131 appearances for The Potters and, alongside Lou Macari, provided the fanbase with a sense of hope, optimism and elation that had been sorely lacking in the preceding years. He remains one of just five Stoke City players to have scored at the original Wembley Stadium whilst his goals helped the club to secure the Football League Trophy and the Second Division Title.

Mark Stein. The ‘Golden One’. Stoke City legend.

 

References

[1] Smith, P. (2018) ‘Mark Stein on Stoke City’. Stoke Sentinel [Online] [Accessed February 2020]

[2] Lowe, S. (2001) 101 Stoke City Greats. Essex: Desert Island Books.

[3] ‘Macari Snaps up Oxford Striker’, Staffordshire Sentinel, September 16, 1991, 36.

[4] Lowe, S. (2003) Stoke City: The Modern Ear, 1984-2003. Essex: Desert Island Books.

[5] ‘Macari Snaps up Oxford Striker’, Staffordshire Sentinel, September 16, 1991, 36.

[6] ‘Pool Fightback Not Enough’, Newcastle Journal, September 18, 1991, 13.

[7] Smith, P. (2018) ‘Mark Stein on Stoke City’. Stoke Sentinel [Online] [Accessed February 2020]

[8] Lowe, S. (2011) Stoke City: A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club. Yeovil: Hayes Publishing; Lowe, S. (2003) Stoke City: The Modern Ear, 1984-2003. Essex: Desert Island Books.

[9] ‘Mark Stein Accepts New Terms’, Staffordshire Sentinel, November 7, 1991, 64.

[10] ‘Stein Loan Could Become Permanent’, Staffordshire Sentinel, October 1, 1991, 32.

[11] ‘Get Me Out of Here Quickly Demands Stein’, Staffordshire Sentinel, November 16, 1991, 7.

[12] ‘Mark hits Double Top’, Staffordshire Sentinel, November 21, 1991, 1.

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