Malcolm Clarke* is the latest in a long line of amiable, forthcoming Stoke City supporters to grace these pages. He is realistic enough a supporter, as well as being a passionate representative of fans generally as chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation, to recognise the the odds are probably against his beloved Stoke winning the Premier League title any time soon. But he does believe they’ll survive this season, and – perhaps no surprise here – that Sunderland won’t. He also tells us about his association with Neil Baldwin, Stoke’s ‘marvellous’ (read on) but most implausible media star …
Salut! Sunderland: International breaks are usually an irritant if, as in most cases we come across in this feature, club comes first. Does Stoke’s present predicament make you relieved – as I am – there is no Premier League football this weekend?
Malcolm Clarke I think our unexpected point at Old Trafford has altered the psychology. There is now a feeling we might have turned a corner and have a run of winnable-looking games coming up so fans would now like to get on with it. A lot of fans regard international breaks as an irritant anyway. A game at the weekend is what it’s all about. Before that, I’ll be making do with an FA lunch followed by England taking on the mighty Malta at Wembley!
So explain what has gone wrong? You’ve spent a lot of money, Mark Hughes seemed on course to ensure another top 10 season and yet little has gone right.
Our spend wasn’t big compared with many in the PL. The loss of Butland has been huge. Shawcross is still getting back into it after his back injury and there is a worry that he might not again be the immense player he was, although at Old Trafford it looked a bit more like the old Ryan. We’ve had an unsettled back four which never helps. Johnson is another player we’ve greatly missed but he’s back now. The opening set of fixtures weren’t easy and we had a bit of bad luck.
Are the supporters turning against the manager?
There were just the beginnings of discontent, but Sunday’s result at OT has calmed things down a bit. I think supporters and the owner will now wait to see what return we get from the next six games which look quite good – at least on paper (and we all know how dangerous that can be)!!
Where are the obvious weaknesses and who will be key figures in leading City out of the bottom reaches?
Apart from the above, I’m not sure Hughes has sorted out his best “mix” and balance in the midfield/ No.10 areas. Also we have four candidates for centre forward, all of whom have strengths but also weaknesses. Bony has been a big disappointment so far, but maybe he hasn’t had the service he needs.
You wear a number of hats: you chair the Football Supporters’ Federation and sit on the FA Council as supporters’ representative. How important is this work to you – and to supporters generally?
Well it should be important to supporters, whose voice should be heard much more than it currently is in the running of the game. As for me, it keeps my brain active and gives me something to do in retirement. In life, I can tolerate arrogance and stupidity, but it’s the combination which gets to me, and there’s too much of that combination among those running our clubs. That’s what motivates me.
In what ways has the lot of the ordinary fan changed and what single measure would greatly improve the matchday experience?
In many ways it’s got worse, with much higher prices and fixtures messed around for TV. The biggest single change apart from lower prices would be the introduction of proper safe standing areas so that those who want to stand can do so without breaching ground regulations and those who want to sit can do so without having their view blocked by someone standing in front of them.
And tell us about your association with Neil Baldwin and what he means to Stoke City
Where to start ! I have known Neil for 50 years, with our first meeting being very much as shown in the film Marvellous. He is the person who is most content with his life who I have ever met, and also the person who has given me the most laughs. His period as kit man was a great time for him and us as fans. Following the film, he has become a local and national celebrity, and the film has done a lot for Stoke and Keele University, where we met. Neil and I have jointly authored his biography. Go out and get it – well worth a read, even though I say it myself ! He is a role model for what you can achieve if you don’t just accept the boundaries which society might try to put on you. For me, his life and the film are a celebration of diversity.
What have been your highlights of supporting Stoke?
Winning the League Cup in 1972, and our European tour in the Europa Cup a few seasons ago when the draw gave us a wonderful variety of cities to visit – Split; Thun; Istanbul; Tel Aviv; Valencia and – I almost forgot – Kiev.
And the low points?
Sinking down to the third tier. I particularly remember a 4-0 drubbing at Springfield Park, Wigan, before they had become a bigger club. Not to mention defeats at the hands of Port Vale – it doesn’t come much more depressing that that !
Who are the greatest player you have seen – or, as may be the case with Sir Stanley, wish you had seen in Stoke colours?
I confess to be old enough to have seen Sir Stan play, albeit at the end of his career. I always think it’s difficult to compare across generations, but I’d have to say Gordon Banks and Alan Hudson were the best I’ve seen in Stoke colours.
Which players have been serious disappointments?
The Sunderland Old Boys phenomenon has faded now. But from a long list – Sorensen, Whitehead, Bardsley, Higginbotham, Delap (SAFc fans often say they remember nothing about his throw-ins for us!), Kenwyne Jones, Kavanagh, Stephen Wright, Danny Collins and perhaps others (not forgetting Denis Smith) – who stands out and why?
As you say, a surprisingly long list. Rory is a local hero, not just as a player but as a true professional and supporter of local charities. I loved those throws being launched into terrified PL defences who just weren’t used to that tactic. I also liked Danny Higginbotham and thought Dean Whitehead was underrated by many Stoke fans. Sorro was a great keeper for us as for you. But overall it has to be Denis Smith – folk hero for us as a player and great success as your manager. He also of course had great success as manager of York City, my other allegiance. I occasionally sit with Denis on FA Commissions. He’s a true football man, and a lovely bloke.
Take a guess at this season’s likely bottom three, with finishing positions for our clubs if one or both gets out of trouble
I would guess at Hull, Swansea and yourselves – simply because you are making such a habit of this !! I think we probably won’t emulate our 3 successive 9th place finishes, so I’ll go for 12th/13th.
Less important, of course, but the top four in order?
Diving: a scourge that, along with other forms of cheating, is still worth fighting to eliminate – or so prevalent we may as well accept it as part of the modern game?
Definitely try to eliminate but not easy for referees unless you have video technology. You will get some miscarriages of justice of players punished when they were tripped, but probably a price worth paying. Few things annoy me more in the game than cheats who throw themselves into a dive.
Best ref, worst ref in your view?
No comment ! I sit on FA regulatory commissions and have to judge their decisions, so can’t afford to have public preconceived ideas about individual refs. Overall though I think they are better than we often give them credit for. If I criticise a ref, at the game, my daughter always says, if I criticise him, he must be bad !!
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
Yes I will. I think we should get our first win, but like most PL games it won’t easy. I’ll go 2-1.
Malcolm Clarke on himself: I was born in Enfield, north London, and my father was a Spurs fan. We moved to North Staffordshire when I was just two, and if I call anywhere ‘home’ it’s Stoke.
We moved again to the delightfully named Upper Poppleton near York when I was 10. I was desperately unhappy and lonely and my father took me to York City to try to cheer me up. I watched York City with my school mates throughout my teens, and even to this day, if Stoke aren’t playing and York are, I’m usually there.
I returned to North Staffordshire as an 18-year-old student at Keele University – my first day and my meeting with Neil Baldwin is accurately depicted in the film Marvellous. Two days later I was at the Victoria Ground. I remained at Keele for 12 years in total, during which time I became the mayor of Newcastle under Lyme at the age of 27. We had to relocate to Manchester when the university closed down the research unit where I worked – a rather drastic way of getting me to leave the place!!
We still live in Sale, south Manchester. I have, however, forgiven the university and was hugely proud when this summer they gave me an honorary degree for both public service in my career and for services to the football supporters movement. As far as I know, no one else has been given an honorary degree by a British university for services to supporters. Needless to say, Neil Baldwin beat me to it – Keele gave him an honorary degree two years previously!
Interview: Colin Randall