Somebody recently asked me to name the 5 boroughs of New York. Off the top of my head I only managed 4, mistakenly citing New Jersey as one instead of Queens. I later discovered that NJ is sometimes known as the 6th borough, so that was all right.
This evening, for the 3rd time of asking, the Blues face a team from somewhere almost as romantic, edgy, vibrant and intoxicating as the Big Apple - Stoke City. A team whose history easily rivals our own, especially when it comes to mismanagement and under-achievement. They did have to endure Alan Ball (did I ever mention that he - as a young boy - once kicked my grandmother when she was cleaning at the pub where his family lived? I have never forgiven him for that, nor for what he did to City, and I'm beginning to wonder if I will ever achieve closure) but were never cursed with Malcolm Allison.
Aside from the granny kicking, I do have other ties with the '5 Towns'. I used to have a great Aunt who lived in Hanley, and it was not uncommon for us to go and visit her for a weekend. I realise that I'm talking about Stoke, but it used to give me quite a feeling of excitement (we would always arrive at night) as we came over the hill to see the lights laid out in a carpet below, this being the nearest thing to a metropolis my Oswestry eyes had clapped themselves on. The excitement was fairly short-lived, as I would be forced to endure bingo night at Hanley Workingmen's Club, complete with the choking fumes of a thousand Senior Service, sustained only by a packet of cheese 'n' onion and a blackcurrant cordial with no ice. The next day my Auntie Annie (who I remember as smoking roll-ups made with liquorice paper) would send me to the shop for a pint of milk, her thick Potteries accent made even thicker by the countless Old Holborn, issuing dark warnings about some of the kids in the area. It wasn't a pleasant place by day, with the spell of the street lights taken away.
One of my oldest friends is a Stoke fan, and I have endured more than my fair share of watching them play. The pinnacle (though I prefer nadir as a description) being a New Year's Day match at Griffin Park (a terrible ground to get to and from) in horizontal rain. It ended, I believe, 1-0 to Stoke, though I made my excuses and left before the goal, not having been adequately fortified by my half-time snack of a giant Mars bar, and conscious of the 30 minute walk and 40 minute tube ride back home.
Sadly, I don't hold out much hope for us tonight. The Britannia Stadium is a hateful place to play football, and we hardly passed them off the park at Eastlands the other day. My prediction: a draw if we're lucky, but more likely they will beat us.