In my three years in Parliament, I have seen some strange sights at Westminster.
But few of those beat watching Peter Crouch and Michael Owen taking in a tour of the House of Commons Central Lobby.
Yet last week there they were – along with the rest of the Stoke City team – gazing down at the Minton floor tiles and then looking up at the gold-leafed ceiling. However, I could not help thinking that their minds might have been elsewhere.
For the Stoke City players had come to Parliament, along with Chairman Peter Coates and Manager Tony Pulis, for an official celebration of the club’s 150th Anniversary hosted by Labour Party peer and Britannia Stadium fixture Lord Grocott.
And they did so knowing that the club was in the fight of its life. Whilst there is much celebrating in Burslem at the wonderful revival in Port Vale’s fortunes, there remains nervousness at the Britannia about the future.
For the prospect of relegation was never meant to be part of this year’s anniversary script. Four trouble-free seasons have been hard won in which Tony Pulis has consolidated the club’s status in the Premier League, taken the club to an F.A Cup Final at Wembley, and represented England upon the far-flung fields of Istanbul and Tel-Aviv in the Europa League.
Old Stoke City hands tell me that this is arguably the club’s most successful era since the glory days of Tony Waddington in the early 70’s or Stanley Matthews in the 1940’s.
Yet after a difficult run stretching back to February, the Potters now find themselves in a dog-fight to stay up. This week-end’s much needed away win against QPR has certainly eased the pressure, but we are not out of the woods yet.
In this nail-biting Premier League finale, there is more than just football at stake. Research has repeatedly shown that success on the field is good for productivity on the shop-floor. When the Social Issues Research Centre investigated the issue before the 2006 World Cup, they found that 47% of women and 40% of men said that sporting success lifts their mood and makes them more productive in their jobs.
There is a real cash benefit too – a University of Cardiff report found that Swansea City’s elevation to the Premier League was worth £58m to the local economy, generating 340 jobs in Swansea alone. In difficult times, these are economic incentives we can ill afford to lose.
Yet for places like Stoke-on-Trent the impact of top flight football cannot be measured purely in pounds and pence: there is also the question of local identity and civic pride.
In Westminster last week, Peter Coates spoke with real passion of the place of Stoke City in the life of The Potteries. It was not just the charitable work, the youth football clubs in communities like Bentilee, or the money put back into the local economy – it is also the sense of community and belonging which football inspires. As such, it speaks to the very foundations of the club.
Because whilst the modern game of football (like rugby and cricket) might have emerged out of the public schools system as a way of training up young men for service in the army and duty in the empire, it was soon take over by industrial, working-class communities.
The first rules were drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848 and the earliest winners of the F.A Cup included such names as the Old Etonians, the Royal Engineers and Oxford University. But the game did not last long as the preserve of the privileged: when the first football league was founded in 1888 all 12 teams, including Stoke, came from the industrial heartlands of the Midlands, or the mill towns of Lancashire.
Indeed, the story of Stoke City’s first antecedent is typical. Two former Charterhouse school pupils, Henry John Almond and William Macdonald Matthews, came to the Stoke Locomotive works in 1863 and discovered the local railway workers had an informal team called ‘Stoke Ramblers’. Out of this Almond and Matthews went on to found the club.
Since then Stoke City together with Port Vale have become essential components of the city’s identity. And we need both of them to succeed for the city’s prosperity and pride.
Last week Tony Pulis issued a ‘call of arms to everyone in Stoke’ to pull together for the rest of the season. To ensure that 150 years of the city’s tradition and identity are given a fitting celebration, it is a call we all need to answer.