Have you ever seen the film 'Inglourious Basterds?' There's a scene which sticks in my mind, no matter how hard I try to suppress it. After being captured by The Basterds, a group of German soldiers are presented with an ultimatum: give up the location of their fellow soldiers, or face the 'Bear Jew.' Eventually, the baseball-wielding maniac is called upon. The camera pans to a dark cave-like tunnel. It's pitch black, but we can hear the attacker approaching. Clink. Clink. Clink. He scrapes his bat across the walls, and the soldier knows his fate is sealed. Eventually he appears, towering over the solider, bat in hand and- well you can picture the rest. 'What has this got to do with football?' I hear you ask.
I'm sure we have all imagined what it's like to be a professional footballer at some point in our lives. Stepping out onto the luscious green turf at The Bernabeu, lifting The World Cup at Wembley Stadium in front of one hundred thousand supporters, standing shoulder to shoulder with your teammates at the San Siro, as The Champions League music rings in your ears. But have you imagined what it's like to play at The Britannia Stadium?
Your team bus pulls up outside the old incinerator, billows of smoke filing your lungs as you step off into the arctic temperatures of Staffordshire. The wind whips and lashes your face, as you hurry into the stadium and make your way to the dressing room. It's cold, freezing cold. You sit, trying to keep warm, ignoring the barbaric noises coming from the home dressing room across the hall. Like a prisoner in his cell, you watch the clock, until a loud buzzer sounds and suddenly you're being dragged to a tunnel, standing in line, shivering.
In 2011, Stoke finished a respectable 13th position in The Premier League, and reached the FA Cup final for the first time in their history. It was a team which terrified even the best sides in the division, notably centre backs Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth who provided the brick wall in front of Bosnian shot-stopper Asmir Begovic. At right back, Stoke-On-Trent born and bred Andy Wilkinson terrorized left wingers, and strikers Jonathon Walters and Kenwyne Jones left centre backs all over England having nightmares of flying elbows and aerial bombardments. It was not only a side consisting of blood and thunder, however. Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington patrolled the flanks, providing the ammo for the front two to wreak havoc. It was a throwback to The Crazy Gang of Wimbledon, with a touch of guile and creativity.
Not many teams acquire their own adage, let alone one which casts doubt over the ability of football's greatest player. "Yeah, Messi has scored 50 goals a season on 6 separate occasions, but can he do it on a cold, wet windy night in Stoke?" This proverb may have lost its sustenance in recent years, but it existed for a reason.
Now imagine once again that you're a professional footballer. It's a Tuesday night and you're playing at The Britannia Stadium. Which team are you playing for?... Thought so.