THE laws of probability dictate that if you stick an infinite number of English football journalists in a room for an infinite period of time, the conversation will turn to how many of the 92 league grounds they have visited within about half-an-hour.
Of course, there have to be ground rules laid while tallies are compared, and far-flung lower league venues missing from your list are trotted out. Generally, you can only count a club’s current ground (usually followed by murmurings of: “I’ve not done Colchester’s new place yet”), and you have to have seen a game there (usually followed by murmurings of: “I’ve been to a rugby league game at the Galpharm Stadium – does that count?”)
I tend to find in these conversations that, when totals are compared, I come off worst. The other journalists, having done a quick mental calculation, tend to decide they’ve done “about 70-odd – and I’m due to do Millwall in a couple of weeks”. I’ve done 54.
Now I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to The 92 Club, so I’ve not included Swansea, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury or Morecambe in my tally, as I’ve done their old grounds, but not their new ones. I have, however, included Crystal Palace, even though my only visit to Selhurst Park was for a Wimbledon home game in 2000. And I’ve also included Bradford, even though I’ve not seen a competitive match there – only a pre-season friendly.
Given that I’ve spent my entire career based in the North of England, it’s perhaps little surprise that most of the grounds I’ve not visited – recent new builds apart – are in the South. And while a life in journalism often throws up the unexpected (such as the time I went to review a production of Little Shop Of Horrors in New Mills and was the only person in the audience), I doubt that I’ll be ticking Portman Road, Fratton Park or Priestfield Stadium off the list any time soon.
I did, though, manage to get a few of the more distant grounds visited during my days covering Stockport, Macclesfield and a couple of other North West clubs for various local media. So I’ve done Norwich, I’ve done Southend, I’ve done Torquay and I’ve done Exeter. And I’ve actually been to the Vetch Field three times, which made it all the more annoying when Swansea moved to the Liberty Stadium. Bastards.
Over the last three years, my regular Saturday work reporting on games for a couple of national Sunday papers has ensured I’ve ticked off most of the Premier League and Championship grounds in the North and Midlands too (although I only got to Elland Road for the first time early this season).
Whenever I have the 92 Club conversation with any journalist, I always like to find out if there are any surprising omissions from their list. That’s because there’s a really odd one in mine.
Of the 20 current Premier League grounds, I’ve been to 16. I’m missing Chelsea, Arsenal and Sunderland – all a fair trek from my Manchester base, so not too much of a shock. But the other ground is only 40 minutes down the M6. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for me to come clean: I’ve attended top-flight football matches in Germany, in Canada and in Iceland – but I’ve never been to Stoke City.
MOTD’s final match: Aston Villa 1 Stoke 1
Commentator: John Roder
I’ve obviously got a blind spot when it comes to football in the Potteries, because I’ve never been to Port Vale either.
But Stoke are a strange one. They fit into a curious sub-category: Grounds I’ve driven past without ever going inside. (There are three: I once went past QPR’s ground en route to visiting a friend in West London, and – like just about everyone who has ever used the British motorway network – I’ve gone past Walsall’s home goodness knows how many times.)
My route to the East Midlands when covering Derby, Leicester or Nottingham Forest always takes me past the Britannia Stadium, which is beside the A50, a mile or two from junction 15 of the M6. It might not be an easy place to go, but it looks an easy place to get to. And yet I’ve not managed it.
Perhaps it’s fate. Perhaps Stoke and I are on different wavelengths. Perhaps we’re just not right for each other. Perhaps it’s not Stoke, it’s me…
One of the oddest job interviews I ever had was in Stoke. (And I’ve had some odd job interviews.) About 10 years ago, I wrote to the Stoke Sentinel asking if they had any vacancies for reporters. I was invited to their offices. When I got there, I was interviewed separately by three people – the editor and two senior newsroom staff.
Almost the first thing the editor said to me was that he didn’t have any jobs going. And yet the whole three-part interview ended up lasting about an hour; the highlight of which was the senior newsroom man who seemed to want to spend a significant part of our chat discussing the drinking habits of a mutual acquaintance. I suspect I’d have liked working there, but I never got the chance to find out. Not for the last time, Stoke had repelled me at its borders.
Villa Park is probably twice as far away from my home as the Britannia Stadium, and yet I’ve been there several times. And every time I go, I can’t help but think of Ken Bates’ dig at Doug Ellis in the mid 1990s.
When the Witton Lane Stand was rebuilt in 1993, it was decided to rename it The Doug Ellis Stand, after their chairman. When Villa Park underwent further refurbishment, Bates quipped: “They’re building another stand at Villa Park. They’re going to call it The Other Doug Ellis Stand.”
Villa Park witnessed an old Stoke favourite yesterday – a goal from a long throw. I liked the way that the BBC Sport website’s report referred to it as “a trademark Rory Delap long throw-in”. It suggests an image of some other team trying to score from a long throw, and Delap suing them for breach of copyright. (Oh listen, I know how hard it is to avoid clichés when you’ve got to file a match report at full-time – I’m as bad for that kind of stuff as anyone. You can probably tell that from these blog posts.)
Kenwyne Jones headed in the trademark throw, anyway, before Darren Bent equalised with a header that is presumably only at the patent pending stage. (Beware of cheap knock-offs.)
It was a good point for Stoke, who might have still had minds elsewhere after reaching their first FA Cup final. For Villa, the point came at the end of a difficult week, which saw the thoroughly decent Gerard Houllier admitted to hospital after falling ill. Houllier, I hope, will make a speedy recovery.
Both Villa and Stoke have been on the fringes of the biggest relegation battle ever, but both have moved towards the relative comfort of mid-table. It means that both may feature last on Match of the Day a few more times before the end of the season. That certainly seems more likely than me getting to the Britannia Stadium.
1. Fulham: 10 (2L: 5, 3L: 1)
2. Wigan: 10 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
3. Stoke: 6 (2L: 6, 3L: 8)
4. West Brom: 5 (2L: 7, 3L: 1)
5. Bolton: 5 (2L: 2, 3L: 5)
6. Everton: 4 (2L: 7, 3L: 4)
7. Blackburn: 4 (2L: 5, 3L: 8)
8. Birmingham: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 6)
9. Newcastle: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
10. West Ham: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 4)
11. Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
12. Sunderland: 2 (2L: 6, 3L: 2)
13. Tottenham: 2 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
14. Aston Villa: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
15. Chelsea: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
16. Blackpool: 1 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
17. Manchester City: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 2)
18=. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
18=. Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
18=. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
2L=On second last (Tottenham 2 West Brom 2)
3L=On third last (Liverpool 5 Birmingham 0)
(Teams are awarded one point every time they appear last on Match of the Day. Teams level on points are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. Teams still level at the end of the season will be separated by the drawing of lots at a glittering ceremony at Westminster Abbey, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Prince William, Kate Middleton and Tony Gubba, with music from The Proclaimers.)