Football: Rebellion rouses the Stoke faithful

As the once-proud Potteries club languish in the Second Division, one long-suffering supporter is leading a campaign for change.
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The Independent Online
STOKE CITY fans are revolting. What's more, the man spearheading the rank-and-file rebellion against the Second Division club's ruling elite is an afficionado of heavy metal.

Lester Hughes runs a steel fabrication works little more than a hefty clearance from the Britannia Stadium. At least, he did, until he launched a supporters' consortium aimed at buying out Stoke's majority shareholders. Since then, he admits, the day job has been neglected and he is up until 2am answering letters, faxes and e-mails promising money.

Before tonight's visit of Manchester City - themselves no strangers to restless-native syndrome - Hughes will again be handing out pledge forms. With the campaign in its third week, the running total is on the way to pounds 200,000, a 10th of the target he set to demonstrate the depth of feeling for Stoke and against the board he holds responsible for "13 years of serious decline".

The response, according to Hughes, has been "overwhelming". At last Saturday's game with Colchester United, he did not have to press his leaflets on anybody, so eagerly were they being seized. Stoke's 300-strong Scandinavian supporters' club expect to generate pounds 60,000. One delivery of post this week brought a pounds 1,000 pledge from a Dutch "Stokie". Another exile, from Somerset, could offer only pounds 5, yet Hughes views both as declarations of the same devotion that drives him on.

Sitting in the shrine to the red and white stripes that doubles as his office, the 52-year-old former welder explained why he is sparking a challenge to Keith Humphreys and Peter Coates, the Stoke chairman and his predecessor respectively: "The club were in the top division a couple of years before Coates took over. We're now in our second spell in the third grade of English football.

"We've got a Premiership manager [Brian Little] working on a Conference budget. The club don't own the new ground, which was developed by others. They had to borrow to fund their 49 per cent of its cost, and to pay off the debts they've asset-stripped the team. Every decent player has been sold, and only a tiny percentage of the revenue reinvested in the team."

The word Hughes is keen to impress upon possible purchasers - and he has corresponded with Richard Branson, among others - is potential. Having followed the Potters for 40 years, he remembers the second coming of Stanley Matthews, gates of 40,000 under Tony Waddington's genial managership, and the team including Alan Hudson which challenged for the League title in the 1970s. Now the "greatness", as he puts it, is gone.

"For the past six years I've tried to put together a consortium of businessmen to buy this pair out. I'm trying again because I'm desperate for the club to succeed. I can't understand why the likes of Fulham, Reading and even Rushden & Diamonds can attract multi-millionaires. Why can't Stoke, with far greater potential?"

Working on the basis that there is a bedrock of 10,000 diehards (which he maintains could be the tip of the iceberg), Hughes set about trying to raise a minimum of pounds 200 from each. The figure of pounds 2m, less than a tenth of what Mark Goldberg paid for Crystal Palace, is largely symbolic, intended to show would-be buyers what a viable concern Stoke could be.

He is under no illusions that if, the target were achieved, season-ticket holders would storm the boardroom like so many replica-shirted Bolsheviks. A realistic role model is the alliance of supporters and the business community which rescued Bournemouth from receivership.

"We need enough not only to buy the shares but to take the club forward after Humphreys and Coates have gone," he said. "To buy the club, invest in the team and pay off the debts, we could be looking at a minimum of pounds 10m.

"I've always said that the business people who come in will be the ones who run the club, though I'd want supporter representation on the board. But first we've got to show these two their time's up. Humphreys went on the radio in response to me, saying they would talk to anyone who wanted to invest in Stoke. We don't want that: we want people to purchase their shares so they can put money in when they've gone."

In the meantime, Hughes will keep putting his heart and cash into the struggle for Stoke's soul. "I know I'm being unfair to my family and my shareholders. But my passion for this club is so great that I get carried away. I'd pay any price to put Stoke back on the road to success.

"A few people reckon I'm just on an ego trip. It's sad that they're so negative. This is positive," Hughes added, "and Brian Little will tell you it's not hurting the football. It's got nothing to do with my wanting to be chairman, or even a director. I've got enough on my plate without that!

"I just want to appeal to anyone out there to let me show them the massive potential of Stoke City. All it needs is investment.

"We might fail, but if we didn't try it would be defeatism - and we've had years of that already."

Stoke City Supporters Consortium can be contacted in four different ways. By phone: 01782 393557; by fax: 01782 746009; by post: S&H Ltd, Unit 15, Hyde Park, City Road, Stoke on Trent ST4 1DR; or by e-mail: lhu7751207@aol.com

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