Stoke City: Premier Potters helped Britannia Stadium discover its soul
The Britannia Stadium, Stoke’s home since August 1997, will host the club’s 400th fixture when they play Reading tomorrow. To mark the occasion, Martin Spinks, who has reported on Stoke’s last 349 matches there, pays tribute to the chilly house on the hill.
THE Britannia Stadium waives all the rules.
It's cold in winter. It's design faults are legion. It's cold in spring. It's hard to get to and from on match days. It's cold in autumn. It accommodated failure for years and, oh yes, it's even cold in the summer too.
But somewhere along the way, despite its many failings, we've grown to love the place.
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Built at a cost of little more than £14m in 1997 – a feat in economics, if not design – the new stadium was erected high on one of the coldest and windiest spots in the entire city.
Plonked barely a mile from the old Victoria Ground, and described by one cynic as coming straight out of an MFI showroom, for many years the new arena was a lonely, soul-less shell surrounded by the lunar landscape of neighbouring land re-claimed from industries long since deceased.
Cutting corners on cost meant leaving two corners open, delivering us a delightful gale-force blast from late August to early May.
The players' tunnel was situated not in the centre of the main stand, but in one of those exposed corners, forcing Stoke's finest to trot out and run the gauntlet of visiting fans a short insult away.
Outside the stadium, meanwhile, car parking was tight and access even tighter, as fans descended towards an inevitable bottle neck before and after matches.
And with many still against quitting the Victoria Ground – and everyone still pining for the old place – it was hardly love at first sight when Stoke fans began rattling around a half-full Britannia.
It was a creation tainted with mediocrity from the moment its grand opening was marked with a visit from Rochdale for a midweek League Cup tie.
And it was a stadium tarnished with failure during a first season littered with managerial upheaval as Chic Bates, Chris Kamara and Alan Durban all tried and failed to arrest a depressing decline into the third tier of English football.
A 7-0 hammering by Birmingham that season would unleash the full fury of a home crowd invading the main stand to seek retribution against a club bogged down in miserable crisis and housed in a stadium with no heart.
The Britannia Stadium, built at the expense of new signings, was an unavoidable symbol of Stoke City's imploding fortunes in the late 1990s.
What a painful contrast to the success which new arenas elsewhere were inspiring at that time for the likes of Sunderland, Bolton, Middlesbrough and Derby County.
It would take many years for the house to become a home, and many more for the home to become a fortress.
The club would re-arrange the curtains here and there to make it more homely – the North Stand was re-named the Boothen End in homage to the old ground for instance – and Tony Pulis has repeatedly implored fans to voice their support like days of old.
But only sustained success on the pitch could lend the place any semblance of genuine warmth and atmosphere among its frustrated patrons.
Cue promotion to the Premier League and then survival in the top flight more than a decade after its doors were first flung open.
And if there is one single moment which can claim to define the Britannia's coming of age, it must surely be that instant when Rory Delap's long throw was nodded home by Mama Sidibe for a 94th-minute winner at the end of the Britannia's very first Premier League fixture in August 2008.
The crescendo of noise that pursued the ball in to the Aston Villa net rocked the foundations, rattled the joints and wobbled the roof.
An atmosphere was truly born, one hostile to the opposition, but no longer to Stoke City.
The volume and the humour was never better than when Arsene Wenger tip-toed into town with an Arsenal side invariably un-nerved by the high ball and the high jinks.
Who needs the 'Poznan' when you have the 'Wenger?'
Four-and-a-half seasons into their Premier League existence, however, and that atmosphere is now threatened by the greater expectation spawned from previous successes.
The underdog spirit remains for the Uniteds and the Citys – and especially the Arsenals – but not for the majority of Stoke's Premier League rivals.
Stoke are rightly trying to evolve their style of play to graft a more patient and sophisticated successor to the gung-ho approach which once excited the passions.
But it's a change in tempo that now threatens to draw more applause than noise as the atmosphere undergoes another transformation from within an audience developing more refined tastes.
So farewell to the Bearpit and welcome to the amphitheatre, perhaps, as the Brit heads for 500.
Britannia Stadium highs
1) v Aston Villa (Aug 2008): THIS one still takes some beating. It was the day the Stoke crowd really came of age as a Premier League force. The Britannia Stadium's top-flight debut climaxed with Mama Sidibe's injury-time winner, an achievement fit to rank forever as one of the ground's truly golden moments.
2) v Leicester (May 2008): THE friendly pitch invasion at the end of the game – the singing and dancing, the hugging of strangers – announced the dawning of a new age for Stoke after winning top-flight promotion.
3) v West Ham (Mar 2011): AN FA Cup quarter-final victory this time – do you remember that Danny Higginbotham free-kick goal? – which catapulted Stoke to the new Wembley for the first time. And half-an-hour later, when the semi-final draw pitched them against Bolton, not Manchester City or United, you were dreaming of a first-ever FA Cup final.
4) v Arsenal (Nov 2008): MORE sustained noise than ever before (and arguably since) as supporters gloried in the physical intimidation of Arsene Wenger's weak-willed players. Not so much men versus boys as men versus choirboys.
5) v Rochdale (Mar 2000): A 1-0 HOME win over Rochdale wouldn't normally be up there in lights, but this one clinched a trip to the old Wembley (shortly before its demolition) for the AutoWindscreen final. A crowd of nearly 17,000 saw Stoke home this night at the Britannia... heady days indeed.
and the Britannia Stadium lows...
1) v Birmingham (Feb 1998): NEVER has the split between owners and supporters been as wide as when a 7-0 humiliation tipped hundreds of fans over the edge... and on to the pitch.
2) v Man City (May 1998): THE Britannia's first season ends in violence and relegation in a wail of two Citys, both falling into the third division on a day when fans showed rather more fight than the players.
3) v Liverpool (Nov 2000): AN 8-0 home defeat in the League Cup – Stoke's heaviest loss ever at their new HQ – and all after Peter Thorne had missed an open goal at 0-0.
4) v Cardiff City (April 2000): SURELY the worst scenes ever involving visiting fans inside the stadium after several hundred Welshmen, arriving at half-time, began ripping out seats and threatening to spill en masse on to the pitch. It triggered a long-standing enmity between the two sets of fans.
5) v Scarborough (Dec 2000): AN LDV Vans Trophy first-round tie in front of a record low for the Britannia of just 2,336, but at least everyone left on first-name terms. Stoke won 3-1, but why did we bother?
Britannia Stadium's landmark goals
100th: Michael Jackson (Preston) 1998.
200th: Bjarni Gudjonsson (Stoke) 2000.
300th: Andy Cooke (Stoke) 2001.
400th: Pawel Abbott (Preston) 2003.
500th: Chris Greenacre (Stoke) 2004.
600th: Lee Hendrie (Stoke) 2006.
700th: Tom Soares (C. Palace) 2008.
800th: Ryan Shawcross (Stoke) 2010.
900th: Jon Walters (Stoke) 2011.
Britannia Stadium's landmark games
1st game: Stoke 1, R'chdale 1 (Aug 1997).
100th: Stoke 1, N'thampton 1 (Feb 2001).
200th: Stoke 1, Crewe 0 (Nov 2004).
300th: Stoke 0, Fulham 0 (Dec 2008).
400th: Stoke v Reading (Feb 2012).