GROUNDS FOR CHANGE : Last days of Sir Stan's spiritual home

Some of English football's most famous grounds will disappear under the bulldozer this summer. In the first of an occasional series, Phil Shaw meets Stoke City's favourite son who recalls the great days of the Victoria Ground
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Sir Stanley Matthews strolls along the grass which overlaps the touchline at the Victoria Ground. "We're on the pitch, Derek!" he shouts, like a naughty schoolboy. The groundsman's head pops round a door to deliver an equally playful riposte: "You could never play even when you were on it."

Matthews, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on Saturday, laughs and moves on, only slightly more gingerly than when he dribbled defenders to distraction on the other side of that white line. One of the most famous men on the planet is never more at ease than when he is here, among the apprentices and tea-ladies of Stoke City.

In August, when Stoke begin a fresh era in the new Britannia Stadium, Matthews will be present in his role as club president and ardent fan. The road leading to the site is to be called Stanley Matthews Way (he requested that his title be left off, preferring people to remember him as a footballer). But he fears as much may be lost as is gained when their home of 119 years is bulldozed away.

"It won't be the same for me," he said. "Stoke have to move because they need more modern facilities for the 21st century, yet when I go to see them at the new ground it'll be like watching them play away."

Although his name runs through Stoke's history like a crack in porcelain, it was not there that Matthews became besotted with the game he graced for three decades as the master winger. In the parochial Potteries, the Old Recreation Ground, then home to Port Vale (now a car park), was a Hanley boy's theatre of dreams.

Stoke, two miles away, might as well have been in a different world, though he had been taken there as early as 1920. "My father brought me down to run in a junior handicap sprint when I was five," he recalled. "I was too shy and I cried, so we went home.

"He brought me back when I was six to run in a 100-yard handicap race. I had a 40-yard start and won easily. I won it three years in a row."

Matthews did not go back before the day in 1930 when his father informed him he would be joining Stoke. "I was a Vale supporter," he said, tickled by the notion, "but in those days if your dad told you to jump in a river, you had to."

His arrival as an apprentice coincided with the appearance of a roof on that other enduring symbol of Stoke's spirit, the Boothen End. According to Matthews, the red and white stripes always tried to ensure they were attacking it in the second half as they do to this day.

Now it is Britain's largest surviving terrace, in terms of capacity, with room for nearly 10,000 partisans. Three years ago it had its most distinguished visitor. "I wanted to see how the crowd reacted during a game, and I tell you, the noise was fantastic," Matthews said, lifting his hands to cover his ears. "I must do it again before the end of the season."

Opposite where the "Delilah" singers gather is the Stoke End, or Town End, which remained open to the elements until 1979. When he ran out for his home debut, 47 years earlier, Matthews remembers that clouds of smoke from the potbanks and factories blackened the skyline above it.

The main stand was erected in 1922 and replaced in 1960, when the players could moonlight for a shilling an hour laying the concrete steps. Facing it, the Butler Street stand opened in 1935, enabling Stoke to squeeze in a club-record crowd of 51,380 for Arsenal's visit two years later.

"It was Easter Monday and we drew 0-0. `Boy' Bastin and Alex James played for them and people were sitting round the track on benches," Matthews said. "So many wonderful memories are bound up in this place."

Among his most vivid are the day Stoke crushed Leeds 8-1 in 1934 ("I scored four - I was a goalscorer in those days!") and his homecoming against Huddersfield in 1961 after a 14-year sojourn with Blackpool. The 46-year- old gave England's Ray Wilson the runaround before a crowd of 36,000, six times the average.

Two years later came the win over Luton which sealed the Second Division title, including a by-now rare Matthews goal. "Jimmy McIlroy put me through to beat the offside trap," he said, as though it were yesterday. "The pitch was very muddy because we used to water it to suit all our old players."

When he finally bowed out of active service, helping Stoke defeat Fulham five days after he turned 50 and a month after becoming football's first knight, the affair between national treasure and local landmark appeared to be over. After an ill-fated spell as manager of Port Vale, he moved abroad and did not return to North Staffordshire until seven years ago.

A record released locally once imagined "Stan Matthews on the wing for Stoke at the age of 84". It proved quite prescient: his honorary position means he can walk the flanks of what he calls "my spiritual home" to his heart's content (Derek the groundsman permitting) before the last match, against West Brom, on 4 May.

"It's going to be an emotional occasion. Stoke-on-Trent people are very sentimental, and they'll be buying the seats, the barriers, even chunks of turf. One of the waitresses here said to me: `See that sign for Block C on the Boothen End - do you think you can get it for me?' Her husband's been meeting friends under it for years and wants it as a souvenir."

Sir Stan himself will settle for the memories, for thoughts of comrades and opponents, many long gone. Tears will not embarrass him the way they did as a child. Afterwards, as befits a positive man who actually prefers looking forward to dwelling on the past, he will drive away. There will be no nostalgic returns.

He may, however, be excused a last, lingering glance as he reaches his other home. "If I step on to the road outside my house, I can see Stoke's floodlights," he explained. Did he move there because of its proximity to the Victoria Ground? "No, it was the place my wife liked," he said with a chuckle, "but it was pretty handy all the same."

BRITANNIA RULES NEW WAVE BREAKING OVER POTTERIES

What is currently a building site on wasteland in the Potteries could be a World Cup venue within 10 years, according to the chairman of the company set up to run Stoke City's new 28,000-seat stadium.

Ted Smith, who is also leader of Stoke-on-Trent's Labour council, intends to apply to bring group matches to the city if the FA beats off Germany's bid to stage the finals in 2006. "It has everything going for it in terms of capacity and transport links," he said.

The short-term priority is to have the pounds 14.7m arena - which will be known as The Britannia Stadium following a pounds 1.3m sponsorship deal with the building society of that name - ready for the start of next season. Work began in October in an area called Sideway (pronounced Sidderway) and, despite scare stories to the contrary, the developers have assured Smith and the club that they will meet the deadline.

Stoke supporters appear divided between those who approve of the name, and its grandiose connotations, and those who argue that the club have sold their heritage for less than the cost of an average Premiership player.

The complex will also house indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a health club, restaurant, conference suite and business centre. Substantial funding has been received from the council and the Football Trust.

Phil Shaw

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