A Sunderland farewell to Stoke City’s Man of Letters

From Stephen Foster's Guardian profile

No, we are not playing Stoke City this weekend. So Salut! Sunderland‘s questions and Stephen Foster‘s replies might seem out of time. They appear, however, as a tribute to a Stephen, a successful author who loved City with a passion that remained undiminished after life took him to London and then East Anglia. He died last week – read more here – robbing friends and family of a much-loved figure in their own lives, and Salut! Sunderland of a willing volunteer in future Who Are You? features; he had promised to participate each year – as long as we both stayed up. RIP Stephen …

Back in November last year, just after that mauling at St James’ Park, Sunderland had a must-win game coming up: lose to Stoke City after the 5-1 trouncing at Newcastle and alarm bells would not merely be sounding but exploding into a million fragments. And we were proud to have found Stephen Foster to handle the Who Are You? questionnaire ahead of the game at the Stadium of Light that we won 2-0 thanks to a pair of Gyan goals and some illegal but unspotted goal-line derring-do from Lee Cattermole. I’d told Stephen Stoke City was, for reasons I could not pinpoint, the toughest club from which to find willing candidates for the series. “I can’t understand your previous difficulties,” he told me, “most Stokies are proper gobs****s.”

See how his death has prompted a wonderful stream of condolences and tributes by visiting the Stoke fansite Oatcake, to which he occasionally contributed as “Winger”. This is how the Q&A with Salut! Sunderland ran, starting with the original introduction …

Time to move on. There’s another important game looming: SAFC v Stoke City on Saturday. Stephen Foster*, the author of two classics among “my club” football books (buy them at the best prices by clicking here), is another great capture for the Who Are You? series. Stoke through and through, he writes with the passion and wit that appeals to fans of other teams: look at the acclaim he won for She Stood There Laughing and the follow-up, on City’s first year back in the top flight, … And She Laughed No More. Welcome to Salut! Sunderland, Stephen (or Steve as he was for the first of those books thanks to a publisher’s error) …

Salut! Sunderland: you wrote our first question for us, Stephen: “What’s it like having half a side made out of Sunderland cast-offs representing Stoke City?” Apart from – or even including – Tommy and Kenwyne, is that how you see them?

No, not really, once you’ve got players they become yours, don’t they (unless you actively loathe them). But sometimes getting on for half our starting eleven have migrated from one set of red and white stripes to another which is a bit much: Tommy, Collins/Higginbotham, Deano, Rory, Kenwyne. The greatest contribution has come from Delap, no question, he was the key unit of the Pulis Method in the first Premier League season, at the outset of which, to be fair, everyone was predicting we’d ‘do a Derby’. The full backs are fine, the ‘keeper is solid, Whitehead is one of those players I just can’t see the point of. I think of Kenwyne a bit more as “one of ours” anyway since we had him on loan (from Southampton) for a couple of months in the Championship. He was the archetypal Bambi on Ice then; living up on Wearside certainly put some beef on him. He’s started off brilliantly, scoring in four consecutive games with his head, though he did have a muted and subdued match against Man United. We’ve been warned about that tendency from both your fans and your manager and I have to say he didn’t look up for it when he was confronted by the best centre back pairing he’s encountered so far in Ferdinand and Vidic. Vidic knocked him about which he didn’t seem to like. I wonder if he’ll do the curse of the ex against you…

At time of writing, three points separate Premier clubs 12 places apart. Is that a sign of a welcome “evening out”, or just evidence that nothing much below top 1, 2 or 3 has been decided yet?

It looks a more than usually competitive division this year once you rule out the money elite; there are six points between the Europa League place and the final relegation slot after the weekend and the promoted sides are holding their own pretty well as things stand; there are also plenty of unexpected results about which we all enjoy, Wolves beating Man City, Sunderland beating Man City, etc.

Tony Pulis: Stoke saviour bringing mid-table stability with the hope of more to come – or a manager justly accused by Danny Murphy of encouraging cloggers? What is your view now of the Shawcross/Ramsey incident?

I loathed Pulis’s brand of hoofball when it achieved nothing other than boring you to death in the Championship. It was excruciating to watch, classic “better on Ceefax nogger” (Stoke dialect for football). However, once it got us into and then became effective in the Premier League and provided the Britannia with its best ever moments (beating Arsenal with a pair of goals chucked in by Delap and bounced onwards by the heads and arses of our strikers, for instance) my view modified quite radically. Pulis’s version of the game can still be gruesome on the eye but we do play a lot more now than we used to, at least sometimes: the gaffer is still quite capable of going away with the intention of leaving with the point we arrived with. I don’t think any set of fans much look forward to the arrival of Stoke City. The Danny Murphy comments are just plain wrong. We’re big and physical but there isn’t a nasty player on our team (Robert Huth, maybe, is a bit sly, but then he is German) and there’s absolutely no way Pulis sends them out to do damage. Shawcross had never been sent off before the Ramsey incident and he left the pitch in tears – it was a very badly timed challenge but I’ve watched him for three seasons now and I would confidently say there isn’t a bit of malice in him.

How did writing those books about following Stoke City change your life?

Even though they both briefly showed up in the sports book charts, let’s put it this way: they certainly didn’t buy me a Ferrari.

But why the “soft spot” for Spurs? In a glory-seeking environment, how hard has it been as a father to maintain family loyalty towards your own club?

It’s quite callow and childish – when I was a kid I liked their all-white strip. For some reason I thought that the most glamorous fixture on the fixture list was Man United vs Spurs and I still do; I must say, Tottenham do get some absolute stinking decisions when they play at United these days: Nani and the Dive, the handball, the playing to the whistle and the dirty cheating goal (technically legal, they say, but that’s hardly the point, is it?).
There’s no difficulty whatsoever for us to maintain loyalty to our club: that’s a straightforward contract-for-life with no divorce clause and the same applies to Jack. He was a teenage boy when he first latched on (we live in Norwich, the local team were in the higher division at the time too) and he’s never changed.

What were your minimum and maximum expectations at the start of the season and have these changed?

Minimum and maximum are the same – Premier League survival. It’s the only place to be, and I hate to admit it but I don’t keep my eye on the lower divisions in the way that I used to when we were in them. You never expect a Cup run out of Pulis because he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body; his pragmatic disposition serves him well though, because I never thought he’d get us to the top tier, much less keep us there.

Is it time to abandon high-minded principles about cheating – diving, feigning injury, haranguing refs to get opponents booked or sent off – and accept it as part of the modern game? If not, how do we stamp it out?

Refs get so much wrong it ought to be laughable, but it’s not. In our last two matches we should have been playing ten men for the second forty-five minutes vs Manchester United for Gary Neville’s outrageous two-footed lunge on Etherington (his second on the same player, he’d already been booked but it wasn’t even a second yellow, it was a straight red); then last week against Everton Tuncay Sanli had a perfectly good goal ruled out for a non-existent push on Leighton Baines who at least had the decency to look a little sheepish as he got up from his “little crumble to the deck” (it wasn’t quite a dive). But you know, I’m 48 now and they used to sing “Who’s the bastard in the black?” as long ago as I can remember. Football is a much, much faster and more athletic sport than it was when I first started watching it – reffing is a horrible, unforgiving job and it’ll never change. There was one angle on that Clattenburg/Nani debacle – from behind the ref, looking down at the goal from his perspective – which showed he never saw the handball, his view was totally obscured, but MOTD only used that once and made nothing of it.

We’ve already talked about the hatful of ex-Sunderland players at your place. Who else would you take from us and who should we want to take from you?

After Sunday’s display at St James’ and the absolutely dire goalless draw I watched on Sky between you and Blackburn a few Mondays back I’d say none of them! But Welbeck, probably, and I like Gyan. We wouldn’t countenance Bent since his tweet saying he wanted to go to a proper club not some rubbish like us or Wigan. In common with many, I don’t rate him. Jermain Pennant, who’s on loan to us until January from Real Zaragoza, has been great, he’s a proper winger. I hope we make it a permanent deal: hands off!

The Stoke roar and the Delap long throw: which brings most results?

It’s the roar in combination with the throw that does the most damage; it’s teamwork.

The World Cup. Already forgotten, thank you, or you cannot wait for the next one?

I enjoyed it, our contribution aside. I thought the media got rolling with a dominant position that said “this tournament is rubbish, isn’t it,” and many seemed to want to go along with it. From where I was sitting there were loads of great games, Uruguay were fantastic, Suarez’s reaction to the consequence of his cheating was a brilliant disgrace (cheating is different when it doesn’t affect your life, I think) and I thought the final was superb: who could have expected the Dutch to come out as an 11-man war machine? I don’t know why pundits expect the World Cup Final to be a decent game; it seldom, if ever, is – there’s just too much at stake and the players have absolutely had it by then. They’re most often memorable for all the wrong reasons, as it were, and this one conformed to type.

Name this season’s top four in order. And the bottom three.

1 Chelsea
2 Arsenal
3 Man United
4 Man City

18 Blackpool
19 Wigan
20 West Ham

If neither Stoke nor Sunderland were in either list, where will each club finish?

Eleventh and 12th respectively (yawns).

Will you be at our game? How will you keep tabs if not and what will be the score?

Can’t make it: I’ll be using a combination of a computer, Gillette Soccer Special, Five Live, and texts from mates at the match. That should cover me.

Our mauling at St James’ Park must give you real confidence for Saturday? Or will we bounce back?

You never know which way it’ll go after one of those: we got done 6-0 at Forest in Pulis’s early days; the next match was a goalless draw. I don’t go in for score betting but if I did that’d be my punt for the day. I notice that everybody at Sunderland has been issuing public apologies, which can’t be how you really want to be preparing for any fixture. I guess Bramble will be suspended which I regard as a definite negative; I know he has good games, but his clangers are much more legendary. Good luck anyway (*crosses fingers behind back*).

Stephen Foster – read his blog here – on Stephen Foster: Lifelong Stoke fan generally regarded as a class traitor by mates for moving down south, writing books, and swilling Sancerre as if it were cheap lager. You can read about this in my memoir, From Working Class Hero to Absolute Disgrace. As well as chronicling Stoke City twice in print I have written a collection of short stories, two moody literary novels that no one ever bought and the Sunday Times bestsellers Walking Ollie and Along Came Dylan. The former is about a rescue lurcher called Ollie that came along to semi-destroy my life, the latter is its follow-up (the photo shows all three of us at Winterton-on-Sea, Norfolk). I am currently working on a third moody, literary novel which is titled The Final Days of Marvin Gaye.

** See the comments attracted by Stephen’s contribution by visiting this link. They included the usual rough-and-ready banter, with some negative remarks about Danny Welbeck that ought to have embarrassed those who made them when he later hit a great run of form.

Interview: Colin Randall

Next Post