Come with me on a trip back in time to the 1980's. Only it is actually 2012
STOKE away. Hardly a trip to set the pulses racing is it? But after four years back in the Premier League I decided it was about time I finally visited the Britannia.
My last visit to Stoke was for a League Cup tie in 1996. Arsene Wenger had only just arrived as manager and a late Ian Wright goal gave us a 1-1 draw at their old Victoria Ground. It was knocked down soon after but I'm pretty sure it would not have taken much to demolish it. It was pretty much falling apart that night as I recall.
Despite the new stadium, and Stoke's return to the top flight in 2008, I had always managed to resist the temptation to go back. Maybe it was the football, or lack of football, on offer. Maybe it was Tony Pulis.
Ah Tony Pulis. If Stoke are the football equivalent of the Anti-Christ then Pulis is Satan himself. The man is stuck in a 1980's time warp. From his Wimbledon 'Crazy Gang' long ball tactics to his shell-suit and baseball cap, last seen worn by Harry Enfield in his 'Scousers' sketch from 1988. Calm down, calm down.
Pulis, right, mixes with some of the Stoke fans
Pele once described football as the beautiful game and if that is true then Stoke are clearly the ugly sister. Yet the club, its manager and the neanderthals who fill the stadium, seem well suited to each other.
Some of these guys clearly do not get out much. The look on their faces as they performed their ridiculous 'Wenger' routine told you all you needed to know. The lights are on but no one is home.
The radio on the drive up informed us that the Britannia is the loudest stadium in the country. Yet the only time they made any noise was when they sang Delilah. Once. Just after kick off.
Ah Delilah. I know there is a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why they sing a song about a man who kills his unfaithful wife made famous by Tom Jones in the 1960's (a Stoke fan once explained it to me), but I really don't care. It is just wrong on so many levels.
As it happens this trip very nearly did not happen for me at all. Having actually made the plunge to buy tickets for Emerson and me, mainly as it was the first away game of the season, I tore my ankle ligaments playing football the day before.
By Saturday night I could not walk let alone drive. The chances of me getting to Stoke and then standing for the entire 90 minutes were virtually zero.
I awoke on Sunday morning still in pain but Emerson convinced me we should go.
"You'll only be sitting in the car and then you can always sit down in the ground if it's too sore," he said.
Of course the fact that we were meeting his two older brothers, Rees and Ryan, at the station meant I was under even more pressure to go so I decided to strap the ankle up and bite the bullet.
As it turned out the drive up was pretty stress-free and did not cause too much pain so we arrived in the village of the damned at 12.30pm, an hour before kick off.
The plan was to park at Stoke station, meet Rees and Ryan and get the bus to the ground. However, by the time I had parked the car and hobbled over the road to the station they had already been herded onto the bus by the local constabulary. Perhaps someone should tell them it is not actually still the 1980's and football fans do not have to be treated like animals anymore. But then this is Stoke. Safety first and all that.
Anyway, as the buses would not be back for 25 minutes and would then take another 15 to get to the ground, we were advised to get a cab. A bargain at £7.80. Cheers, Guv'nor.
We arrived at the away end at 1.15pm and the atmosphere was building nicely. I had warned Emerson that there would be songs about Robin van Persie but he wasn't worried.
"I hate him now," he said. "He is just a dimming logger."
Just to clarify, that is Emerson's phrase for a someone he dislikes. Adebayor is a dimming logger, as is Samir Nasri and anyone who plays for Chelsea and Man. United.
As it turned out the songs were not as bad as I was expecting. A few about his rape allegations, one about Lukas Podolski replacing him, and that was about it.
More exciting for me was the chance to see our three new signings, although I was disappointed that Gervinho had been selected over Theo. Gervinho should never be selected over Theo. Never.
Despite our poor record at the Britannia I was convinced we would win. Emerson went for a 2-0, but swiftly changed it to 2-1 when he saw Vito Mannone was in goal.
"He's not very good is he?" he said.
I went for a rather more optimistic 4-2. The team appeared to have good shape and I felt Arteta and Cazorla would be too much for them in midfield, but I was convinced we would concede. We always do here. And Mannone was in goal.
Emerson looking happy before kick off.
As expected the neanderthal home fans to our left gave Wenger a 'friendly' reception while we tried our best to boo Pulis. At least I did. Very loudly.
So far so good then. My ankle was holding up well and the pain killers had kicked it. The sun was out, we were wearing our lovely new purple away kit and Emerson was happily singing all the songs.
But then the game started. The thing that shocked me most was Stoke's lack of ambition. I have rarely seen a home team waste so much time, and do so little to actually win the game. It was a blessing that their early 'goal' was rightly disallowed for offside as them going 1-0 up would have killed the game then and there.
I was, however, impressed with the way the back four all stood in a line with their arms in the air appealing for offside. Good to see the Bould influence already having a positive effect. Or perhaps they had they just watched Fever Pitch on the bus journey up?
The rest of the first half saw us dominate possession but create very little. Cazorla and Arteta were both amazing and I was particularly impressed with the work rate of Giroud up front. He chased everything and constantly put their defence under pressure.
The clearest chance fell to L-Pod (as I now call him) when Wilkinson slipped inside the area but he recovered to block the German's effort with his head. It was not until I saw TV replays later that I realised it had actually hit his arm, but you are not going to get a penalty for something like that away from home. Unless you are Man. United.
The second half was even worse, if that's possible. Begovic in the Stoke goal was taking longer and longer over each goal kick and it got to the point where the away fans behind the goal were counting the number of seconds he was taking. Around 25 was about average, and as they had somewhere in the region of 10 goal kicks that would be around four minutes to be added on at the end. Wouldn't it ironic of we scored the winner in that added period, I thought.
But I had the feeling we were not going to score even if we played until Christmas. We finally looked more threatening after Theo and The Ox replaced L-Pod and Gervinho (far too late in my opinion), but we still created very little. Giroud volleyed over from a pre-planned corner routine, while Diaby and Arteta both shot wide from good positions. It led to the inevitable chants of 'Robin van Persie, he would have scored that,' from the Day Releases to our left.
We almost nicked it at the death when Giroud shot just over from 30 yards with Begovic off his line, but while I doubt van Persie would have score that, he may well have spotted Aaron Ramsey unmarked in the centre.
The only thing to look forward now was to see the amount of stoppage time to be added. Don't forget the four minutes just on goal kicks, and with six substitutions it had to be at least five. But no. Just three. Three! You can bet your life had Man. United been 0-0 here there would have been six or seven, but we get just three. Not even enough to cover the goal kicks. Well done referee. Well done Stoke.
On this very weekend last year we were given our money back after the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, but at least that was entertaining. This was just awful and I would rather have got a refund for this one. From Pulis. In person.
Okay, so the positives. Cazorla is a quality footballer and will prove to be a great addition to the squad. A midfield with him, Arteta and Wilshere fills me with excitement.
Podolski showed good touches and will score goals, while I was impressed with Giroud's work rate. And of course the defence was immense against a side that always causes us problems.
We finally met up with Rees and Ryan in the car park behind the away end. Rees had been on night shift and had come straight here without any sleep. Quite how he managed to stay awake for the entire match was beyond me. I was falling asleep in the second half and I had had a full night's kip.
After our usual post-match McDonalds we decided this could be a great season after all. The new guys look good, there is the prospect of others to follow, and we haven't looked this solid at the back since the days of the 'Famous Five.'
I'm sure that if by May we have lifted a trophy this match will be long forgotten, but for now the memory is far too fresh.
Stoke away? Never again.