Unlike most soccer fans, I can’t really remember my first Stoke game. My first clear memory of watching Stoke was against Middlesbrough at Vale Park, and then having a season ticket in 1977 in the Butler Street Stand. Relegation, inevitably, soon followed.
So, basically, I was introduced to the Potters after a visit to our strange, unfriendly rivals and then being forced to sit in probably the only roofless stand in Britain at that time, and watch us get relegated. But I am grateful that my old man grasped my eight-year old hand all those years ago and walked me to those turnstiles.
Dads are the drummers of families. They do lots of unseen work that needs doing; they rarely get the adoration they deserve; more often than not they’re at the back and unnoticed, often steering the ship in the right direction. They have a quiet, unassuming style all of their own, and rarely let anyone down. And the worst haircut of the group. Probably.
My father was Peter William Bunn. For eighteen months or so now I have had the stomach-churning task of writing or talking about him in a different tense.
That’s because sadly my dad passed away on November 24, 2012, just an hour after watching the club he worshiped, Stoke City, beat Fulham 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium. That he did so at exactly 5.59pm, just as Radio Stoke’s Praise and Grumble was finishing, isn’t just ironic. It’s fate. Talking about Stoke City was one of life’s joys for dad and he loved wobbling his head at, and listening to, the post-match radio phone-in. Because that’s what blokes do best. We are excellent at talking about putting the world right. That obviously includes going five in midfield when you’re one-down or picking a nice, safe away pub when taking your little lad with you to the game.
It’s also fate, not irony, that dad was aged 72 when he died. It simply couldn’t be any other number for a Stokie, could it? The year (19)72 was the one when we won our only trophy in over 151 years of trying.
Add onto the fact that he went quickly, and relatively painlessly, to sleep on the shoulder of his very best mate, Terry (my uncle, who was driving), and that they were in the car within a Greenhoff volley or Sir Stan mazy dribble of the Victoria Ground, simply makes me smile. Perhaps I’m looking for fate when there’s simply none there? But whilst soccer is never “more than life or death,” it gives me huge comfort that he passed away on such a seamlessly brilliant Stoke City Saturday afternoon.
The analogy with Nigel Gleghorn was given careful thought. Gleghorn played in the early-mid 90’s at Stoke, and was a player my father admired – a flashback to players who loved their soccer. He had a wand of a left foot, and always seemed grateful to be playing the working man’s ballet and to be playing for our club. He also scored a most memorable goal in front of me and my father – no, not our second at Vale Park that sealed a vital derby win or against Plymouth at the Victoria Ground to seal the deal on promotion in 1993.
It involved another Victoria – this time it was Victoria Park, the home of Hartlepool United. It’s one of my favorite away-days of all time and dad can be vividly, easily seen on the telly on Central Sport a day or two later – to the right of the goal, jumping up and down as the 90th minute corner came in, not in anticipation of Gleghorn’s late winner, but because his bladder was about to explode thanks to his pre-match refreshments, after an unbelievable Usain Bolt-like sprint from coach to public house at 2.25pm!
It had to be in that 92/93 season, didn’t it? So many great memories for Stokies, so many days when me, dad, Terry, Brad, Owen, Andy, Tim and a few others who my still grief-addled mind can’t remember right now, would descend on soccer grounds the country over, watching Lou Macari’s team.
That day, for some reason, it was just me and dad. December 20, 1992… a dad and his son celebrating their team’s last minute winner, together, on the road to promotion, stood on an open terrace. Heaven.
No-one was prouder of Stoke City or Stoke-on-Trent than Peter William Bunn. When on holiday, he’d nearly always be spotted in a Stoke sweatshirt or T-shirt. It was like a privilege, a badge of honor. He saw it as almost ‘representing’ his city and club in foreign climes. An unofficial Cultural Attache for Sneyd Green.
We had so many wonderful times. I vividly remember Wembley in 2000, and after beating Bristol City 2-1, we giddily went back to Harrow-on-the-Hill where our buses were parked.
We went into a huge pub, full of Arsenal fans watching their team’s live game at Leeds. As we flooded into the pub, high on winning a trophy, no matter how small, we were given the usual small-club-northern-idiots jibes from the deluded, self-admiring, self-loving Gunners, looking right down their noses as we entered.
Half an hour later, as the coaches were due to leave on the journey back to The Potteries. Dad had had enough.
“Sorry, but I’m not letting them run Stoke down. Back me up, lads,” he announced.
Then, as the assembled Stokies prepared to depart, and at the tender age of 60, he stood, arms outstretched on a chair, and shushed the pub before leading a huge, proud ‘Delilah’ that finally shut those of an Arsenal persuasion firmly up.
Although his Ashes will be scattered at the Britannia Stadium – and by the way, the club were absolutely brilliant with the logistics of this and his now redundant season ticket – his heart and soul will forever remain with his family, and at the Victoria Ground.
Dad never really took to the Britannia Stadium.
For him, the lack of a proper matchday routine has never really been replaced, even after 15 years at our new stadium. Dad’s routine was drinking in the Gardeners Retreat or Michelin Club, both close to Campbell Road, and a five minute brisk stroll at 2.40pm to the ground: Campbell Road – Nicholls Street – Lime Street. He loved holding court with tales of Sir Stanley Matthews leaving the ball by the corner flag and his marker also leaving the ball and simply following him, or the time he kept a pub from rioting at closing time as the assembled Stokies wanted to see the FA Cup semi final goals on the telly on their way back from Hillsborough.
I hope the tales he told were true, but if they weren’t, we loved listening to them anyway: How he came back from Ajax, days late, and simply went straight to Stoke’s next game; or how he moved his wedding day to a Sunday to avoid a cricket match; and how he got a lift home on the team bus (and drank ale with the players) after his transport broke down on the way home from Spurs in the 70’s (all of those are definitely true!). He told his tales time and again, but it didn’t matter. Our group loved nursing a pint of ‘Peddy’ and watching the glint in his eye as he told them.
Proper Werther’s Original stuff.
But strangely, what makes him unique is that he’s just like any one of us.
Sounds daft that, yeah, but does anyone who doesn’t follow their soccer club truly know what it means to belong to something so special? How can they ever replace taking their kid to watch their city’s soccer club? How do they ever feel what we feel? Can their bond with their father ever be as emotionally watertight as ours is with our fathers who support the stripes?
I don’t really know.
All I do know is that my brother and I probably only now realize what we had and what we’ve lost, and that it would be a dream to be even half the dad he was, to our own kids. The hundreds of Stoke games we watched together and the hundreds of times he watched us, his lads, play soccer and cricket seem to have decreased in number as advancing years and grey hairs dim the memory. But deep down, we know he was always there, and now we somehow have to get used to the idea that he no longer is.
But isn’t life also about what you leave behind? If so, this proud man that my brother and I were honored to call ‘dad’ has left something of more value than any lump sum of money ever could. He left us with the same standards as he had, a love of sport and the friendships this brings, and he left us to truly cherish our families. He did so in a beautifully understated manner, too. He never moaned or shouted. Good men don’t have to, do they? He was a true man of the Potteries: a proud Potteries man.
For me, my soccer club is part of my family. It’s such an integral part of who I am, and it was to dad, too. That’s why, at 12.01am November 25th, – I wanted it to be the day after his death – I posted about my father’s passing on a Stoke forum.
I still don’t know truly why, to be honest, it’s just that dad’s family always seemed to include every single Stoke fan. The 14,000+ views and hundreds of messages meant more than anything to me and my family. Blokes who had been at the games with dad in the 50’s onwards contacted us; strangers who knew of dad and had funny stories emailed me; even Port Vale fans set up a thread on their own message board, which was a fantastic gesture.
What it means, and this is so clichéd I know, is that those who watch soccer really are one family. We feel what everyone else feels, we drink from the same pint pot, no matter the strip we wear. Whilst staunchly parochial, we all have a respect and give a knowing doff of the cap to those who go through the good and dreadful times following a soccer club.
Fenton Bowling Club – watching Stoke win alongside his best mate – three generations of the Bunn’s there at The Brit – going to sleep on his best mate – and 72, that beautiful, beautiful number, 72: It was scripted by the soccer gods, dad, wasn’t it?
Whilst it turns my stomach to know he’s no longer here, it swells my heart to know that he went on his own terms and how many of us would want to go like that? I can’t believe I won’t see him in his SCFC manager’s coat again, but he’ll always be there, walking with us to the ground come sun, rain, snow, wind or whatever the weather throws at us. A truly wonderful Stokie.
That my dad got to walk down, well, shuffled down as he wasn’t brilliant on his feet for some time, Wembley Way with his family on May 14, 2011 now means everything to me. That we didn’t win hurts, but it would have hurt more if we’d have won and he wasn’t there!
Because even if we win the FA Cup one glorious day, it will never really mean the same without dad being present: standing still, huge beaming smile, and holding his arms high in the air when we scored, as he always did as utter carnage reigned around him.
Mere memories aren’t enough, they never are. But they have to suffice as he’s not here now. I pray he knew how much he was loved, but being a bloke I rarely said it enough when it was needed and necessary. I hope he could hear me as I stood by him, stroking his hair as he lay motionless, looking serenely at peace with the world, on that dreadful Saturday night at the hospital. “We won dad, we won,” I kept muttering. He knew.
Why am I writing this now? Well, in the space of the last three years, we’ve also lost all family possessions in a house fire (also, whilst I was at a Stoke game!) and had other pretty bad times too. Only now, have I really felt true loss as only now have I had the time to reflect and dwell on my life. It’s also the start of a new soccer season in a two weeks time: a time when you either think everything is better than it actually is, fear the worst, or in my case, think about those who introduced you to your soccer team and years of heartache punctured by occasional shards of real beauty and genuine love.
The final words?
They have to be from the most poignant, beautiful and apt soccer song ever written, don’t they? A song dad actually sung on, back in 1972, our League Cup Final song…
“We’ll be with you every step along the way. We’ll be with you, by your side we’ll always stay.”
Love you, dad. God bless.