Bould moves from neck end of the Six Towns to Arsenal's inner sanctum

FA Cup Countdown Ahead of their tie on Sunday, Phil Shaw meets a stalwart of both Stoke and Arsenal
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The Independent Football

Steve Bould grew up loving Stoke City and loathing Arsenal. When he was eight, never imagining that he would one day be part of a Double-winning side at Highbury, the London club broke his heart by depriving his heroes of a place in the FA Cup final.

Even now, 34 years on, "depriving" is too soft a word for many Stoke supporters. "Robbing" is more like it. Deep in stoppage time of the semi-final at Hillsborough, their team led 2-1. Arsenal were then awarded a corner which, in Potteries eyes, should have been a goal-kick. An illegal hand kept out a goal-bound header, Peter Storey's penalty beat Gordon Banks and Arsenal won the replay en route to their first Double. And it still rankles with Bould's father.

"As a kid I couldn't stand Arsenal," the 42-year-old former England defender recalls. "To this day, my dad won't really entertain them. He went to the game at Sheffield while me and my mum listened on the radio. I still remember everyone feeling that Stoke were cheated."

Bould smiles at the irony of what he is saying, for he is speaking from the inner sanctum of the Arsenal "family". After a decade as a member of their fabled back four, during which he won three championship medals, he is again wearing the cannon crest as manager of the Under-18 Academy team. However, he served Stoke for a similar period and admits there will be mixed emotions when another exodus from Stoke-on-Trent hits Highbury in the FA Cup's third round on Sunday.

"My dad won't be coming because he doesn't travel too well nowadays, but I've still had to find lots of tickets and I'll have friends and family there," explains Bould. "The atmosphere should be fantastic, though I'll be sitting in the staff paddock, keeping schtum."

One of his defensive partners with both clubs, Lee Dixon, was working as a TV pundit when they were paired and noted "a home draw for my old club". Bould, born and bred in the "neck end" of the Six Towns, Stoke's heartland, would never have said such a thing. "I started going to the old Victoria Ground with my dad when I was five or six. It makes me sad today when I see the land where it stood, derelict and undeveloped.

"I was there when we beat Arsenal 5-0 in their first Double season. Terry Conroy (now Stoke's commercial executive) scored an amazing goal and I was behind the goal where his shot flew past Bob Wilson. My first role models were the home-grown back four - Jackie Marsh, Denis Smith, Alan Bloor and Mike Pejic - though my great idol was, and still is, Alan Hudson. We should have won the league in his first full season."

As a promising 14-year-old, Bould was attached to Nottingham Forest, yet Brian Clough and Peter Taylor did not sign him and he soon fulfilled his childhood ambition. "I joined Stoke as a midfielder, then had a year in the reserves as a centre-forward. When I made my debut in 1981 as centre-half, I was actually playing out of position.

"Once I became a regular, I had three years at right-back. For the first 18 months I was booed every week. The tannoy man used to announce: 'No 1, Peter Fox' and the crowd went 'Hurray!'; 'No 2, Steve Bould' - 'Boo!' With the dressing-room windows open you could hear everything. I used to shake when I heard that. The manager appealed in the local paper for them to lay off me, and one of my uncles refused to watch Stoke because of it. That's where my barnet went! But it was character-building."

As was Stoke's last top-flight season, 1984-85. "I think we broke five records. The worst was taking only 17 points from 42 games, and that was with three points for a win. We were effectively down by February. We won just three matches. The funny thing is that two were against Manchester United and Arsenal."

George Graham had spotted Bould's potential, though, and in 1988 he moved to Arsenal for £390,000. "I spoke to Everton's manager, Colin Harvey, and Adrian Heath, who I'd been with at Stoke, urged me to sign. But as soon as I came to Highbury, I knew I couldn't turn down Arsenal. Alan Hudson had played here and he told me that when I stepped inside the marble halls, I'd be smitten. He was right."

The upturn in Bould's fortunes was dramatic. One May he bowed out at Stoke before 7,500 fans against Shrewsbury. The next he shared in Arsenal's last-gasp title triumph against Liverpool at a heaving, disbelieving Anfield. As a fixture alongside Tony Adams, he became a cult figure in Arsenal's transformation into a Premiership superpower.

Bruce Rioch began it, asserts Bould, by capturing Dennis Bergkamp. "He was a world-class player with wages to match, which the club had refused to pay until then. Then David Platt came. Those signings changed the mindset around Arsenal. Arsène Wenger took it on to another level, although some of the senior players had reservations when he first arrived.

"He was quietly spoken and hardly introduced himself. We all wondered what was going on and went to see Pat Rice [assistant manager then and now] to say we weren't getting fit enough. We weren't running up and down hills any more. Pat talked to the manager, who told him not to worry. He quickly won us over. I've got lots of people to thank for what I achieved as a player, not least George Graham, but I do wish I'd met him [Wenger] three years earlier when I was at my physical peak."

Arsenal and Stoke move in different spheres these days, and while Bould played against his first love, he expects it to feel "strange" watching the pair lock horns like he did as a boy. "I still have feelings for Stoke, and mates who go to all the games and keep me posted. My dad rang as soon as the draw was made. Arsenal were in a bit of dip while Stoke were winning a few, so he reckoned Arsenal were second favourites."

While his spine may tingle when the visiting hordes bid farewell to Highbury with a raucous "Delilah", his professional loyalty lies proudly and firmly with Arsenal. But what if the Championship's 12th-placed team spring one of the great FA Cup shocks by doing what their predecessors have failed to do in the clubs' six previous ties? Bould grins and says tactfully: "I'll be thinking: 'Well, at least it was Stoke'."