Bevan looking skyward
On one of their walks this week Tina captured this shot of Bevan looking to the heavens. I like it very much and it is now my desktop wallpaper.

Bolton 3 Stoke 1 in C64 style

Well as I’d pretty much expected, Stoke City got a stark lesson today about how the Premiership poses a real step up in quality even when faced by fairly ordinary opposition. Many Stoke fans saw the trip to Bolton Wanderers as an ideal opportunity to pick up a point or even better, grab a win. Wanderers’ narrow escape from relegation last season and the physical style favoured by their manager Gary Megson was considered good reason for Stoke venturing to Lancashire with genuine optimism. But after the ninety minutes were up Stoke were given a clear sign of what a battle lies ahead of them if they are to avoid the drop back into the Championship.

Fellow Leeds Stokie Paddy and I set off today full of a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and in Paddy’s case, full of potent painkillers for a bad back. What might have been a journey full of rapid chatter was rather subdued, my travelling companion feeling rather queasy from the medication. Indeed his first act to mark arriving at our first Premiership away ground was to to unleash a “pavement pizza” into the shrubbery. Maybe it was a comment on my driving, or a portent of what was to come during the match. Parked up and feeling perkier we joined the throngs of supporters making their way to the impressive Reebok Stadium.

As the teams came out the first thing that annoyed me was our yellow away kit. There was no clash with Bolton’s kit so why not wear the famous red and white stripes to mark our return to the top flight? Plus as style guru Paddy correctly pointed out, the yellow shirt clashed horribly with striker Dave Kitson’s ginger hair. ;-) Injuries meant Stoke fielded a weakened side (well even weaker than the best weak side we’d have hoped to put out), key absentees being the creative force of striker Ricardo Fuller and midfielder Liam Lawrence who both started on the bench. It seemed an odd team selection playing Full Backs Andy Wilkinson and Andy Griffin on their opposite sides, but that’s Tony Pulis for you, the master of playing people out of position.

However Stoke City made a bright start even if the game did not. I felt in the first 20 minutes or so Stoke edged a physical contest that was far from pretty, too many aimless hoofs, up-and-unders, and bouts of head tennis from both sides. But Stoke didn’t seem overawed. The two banks of four of defence and midfield held up the home side and the Bolton fans around us were getting frustrated and a bit worried. Stoke might have taken the lead when a freekick by Glenn Whelan was met by the head of Leon Cort, but Jaaskelainen produced a fine stop from close range. However as the half wore on Bolton started to play more on the ground and that’s when Stoke looked a bit more stretched, and the two banks of four were less effective as the home team passed around them with increasing ease.

Any hope of taking something from the game evaporated in the last 15 minutes of the first half. Bolton’s first goal was spectacular but a fluke, when on 34 minutes Steinsson chested down a fine crossfield ball on the right of Stoke’s area. The right-back volleyed over a cross, which swerved on its way over a stranded Thomas Sorensen and into the far top corner of Stoke’s net.
My main moan is that he had time and space to whack it from out there. Our whole team at this point was dropping deeper and deeper with Kitson feeding off scraps. Stoke don’t tend to press much, they sit back and let opponents come to them. It might work and frustrate in the Championship but not at this level. Bolton’s second goal on 41 minutes was a combination of poor defending and some quality from Kevin Davies the striker, holding off Ryan Shawcross and Wilkinson and backflicking a header home from a looped freekick by Cahill. The Potters desperately needed half-time to regroup, but conceded again two minutes into injury time after giving away a free-kick on the left around 30 yards out. Joey O’Brien’s delivery was met by the unmarked new siginging Johan Elmander, who powered a header past the helpless Sorensen. It was just poor defending, I think Shawcross just let his man run in unmarked. It was also stark proof if anyone needed it that you get punished severely at this level for any mistakes.

HT Bolton Wanderers 3 Stoke City 0, and I managed to resist the half time potato, cheese and butter pie.

During the second half Bolton let their foot off the gas but still had chances to extend their lead, a mistake from Wilkinson slipping up and letting the Wanderers man dance clear was nearly punished by Elmander on 49 minutes. It took a goal line clearance too by Kitson to prevent a fourth Bolton goal on 75 minutes. Stoke looked at lot better when Lawrence and Fuller came on as subsitutes, more threatening, and you’d expect the duo to be in the usual starting side, which might have made a difference to the result of the game if they had started. Indeed Fuller got himself on the scoresheet and into the record books when he grabbed a goal four minutes into injury time. Substitute Carl Dickinson looked up on the left before swinging over a fine cross which picked out Fuller’s run, allowing the Jamaican to plant a powerful header past Jaaskelainen from 12 yards.

FT Bolton Wanderers 3 Stoke City 1, and wish I’d had that pie at half time.

Positives: the last gasp goal meant the players go off remembering that rather than a 3-nil defeat which will give them a boost and raise their spirits. It’s something to take into the next game, and it was a good goal too. For large parts of the game Stoke matched Bolton in the physical stakes, and looked threatening from set pieces. The Stoke fans were magnificent as well. I thought Kitson worked hard with meagre support, and even got back to clear off the line to prevent a Bolton fourth. It’s the opening game and we will learn with experience. It might wake people up about the task in hand and be more realistic about Stoke’s actual quality.

Negatives: a side like Bolton, who we targeted as a realistic hope of getting a result against, were fairly ordinary but still had too much quality for Stoke making them pay for errors. The defence is a big worry and the Full Back selection was a mystery. Stoke lack pace and creativity. Stoke’s banks of four could be left chasing shadows too easily after the initial 20 minutes, not the quelling force they could be in the Championship. The football wasn’t very pretty, and sadly ultimately not effective either. Stoke need a left-sided midfielder too as Cresswell is not that man.

I’m no fan of Stoke manager Tony Pulis and his adopted style of football, and it will win few plaudits in this division. Nor am I keen on his persona or dress sense! (I’ve never understood why he turns up in a flash suit then changes into a cap, tracksuit and his trademark bright white trainers for the game. He looks more like a twocker than a Premiership manager). But I’m a pragmatist and I have some sympathy when he says it is hard to bring in players to improve the squad. Today he could not pick the best 11 due to injuries too. My concern is that we do need strengthening throughout the side and whatever the reasons if we don’t bring in some quality we will struggle badly. Let us see what some new faces do to the team, but I think it might be a long hard season if today’s match is anything to go by. I dread to think what will happen when we encounter a team with pace and skill throughout the side.

Just before we headed off for the M61 motorway we met up with Norwich-based Stokie Stephen Foster and his son to “compare notes” on the match. He advised us of an astonishing Guardian newspaper article where Pulis advocates the return of National Service for Britain’s youth, a view that makes me like him even less, if that is indeed possible. One final tale of the unexpected was being collared by an Evening Sentinel journalist for our opinions of the match. He filmed a brief interview with us that might make it on to the paper’s website. We were unable to muster much enthusiasm, though at least I managed to refrain from uttering my frank and profane view on Pulis until off camera! ;-)

To complete a miserable day, Farsley Celtic lost 2-3 at home, and FCV Dender lost 1-3 at home to Standard Liege. Seems like it’s a day for threes.

The original plan to spend Saturday night in Tallahassee was axed mainly because it seemed a long way to go and a lot to pay just to attempt the Leon Sinks Trail walk we abandoned last April due to thunderstorms. Instead we decided the better option would be a day in Jacksonville with one of Tina’s kids, followed by a day trip to the Suwannee Valley for a walk on the Sunday.

I woke later than usual after the night on the beers with Jim, and found Tina watching her youngest lad playing video games in the spare room. It was fascinating to see how much the graphics and content had evolved since my days with the plucky Sinclair ZX Spectrum. One game’s hero had a belting 70s drooping moustache and curly perm, delivering wise cracks in a voice reminiscent of Shaft. While the lad and I seemed to enjoy this kung-fu “kick em up” affair in equal measure, Tina disapproved of the violence and at her insistence it was reluctantly swapped for something apparently involving the adventures of a felonious raccoon. Yes really.

Once I was washed, fed and watered, the three of us set off for a more healthy bike ride through the neighbourhood. It was already hot by this time and the distance was a bit much for the 8 year old so we turned back after about twenty blocks. Saturday afternoon in - Photo by L.CWe managed a trip to a few stores to get lunch and search for “Connect Four” and “Checkers” just before the sky turned dark and delivered an almighty thunderstorm. Feasting on spinach pizza and playing The Simpsons “Everyone’s a loser” board game we were unaffected by the inclement conditions. Having won the board game, the lad turned his attentions back to the computer while Tina gave me a good thrashing at Checkers, and like every good Englishman in defeat I sulked.

With the lad safely back with his father, Tina and I escaped the apartment to join Calvin (aka Dallas Cowboy) and Margaret downtown in historic Riverside for a few drinks and fine conversation. Having received a tour of their magnificent house (which like every true Stokie Calvin found things to moan about ;-) ), we ventured down to the Five Points region and waffled our way through a couple of drinks at an outside table before the Mexican restaurant owners made the unsubtle hint of switching the lights out and going home. Once again the ladies got on well, no doubt comparing notes about awkward British men, while Calvin and I put the world to rights for a final time.

The following day was my last full one in Florida, so what could be a better send off than a wander down the beautiful Suwannee River? We set off early, but behind schedule, and it was about 20 minutes in that Tina realised she’d left her Walgreen’s plastic poncho behind. This is a sore point. A previous April drenching in Tallahassee caused us to rush into Walgreen’s to get Tina a cheap raincoat. Having paid seven dollars for a piece of plastic Tina was not amused. Imagine then her chagrin when finding she’d forgotten to pack said poncho for the Road Trip, Tina had to buy another Walgreen’s special at Crystal River to counter the threat of distant rumbling thunder. Typically we missed the storms and it went unused. Now the owner of two overpriced plastic garments, naturally I was blamed for not reminding Tina to pack either one of them, and she was adamant that a third would not be acquired en route. A decision that would come back to haunt me later on.

Our destination was White Springs, or more precisely the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. Phew what a mouthful. Unsurprisingly the park was named after the American composer Stephen Foster, who wrote “Old Folks at Home,” the song that made the Suwannee River famous, and not a certain lesser known Stoke City supporting novelist in Norwich. Stephen Foster Center - Photo by T.CAlthough after his recent book launch in the US, it might only be a matter of time. As we approached the town, which in the main was pretty with Victorian architecture, we sped past a homestead set back from the road with a car for sale outside on the grass. I’d have loved to have got close enough to see the asking price because it looked about ready for F.McGuinness & Sons never mind a new owner. I suppose I should explain to those not of Stoke-on-Trent origins, McGuinness’ was once and probably still is Staffordshire’s largest scrap yard, a place I spent some of my youth liberating badges from doomed wrecks, breathing in the heady perfume of old oil, woodbines and Summertime sweat. Anyway I digress. The vehicle in question was somewhat aged, half eaten by rust and had a large suspiciously tree shaped indentation in the front end. A definite “McGuinness’ job” as the Owd Mon would say.

We had a bit of drama at the front gate of the State Park as the ranger hadn’t heard of the trail we wished to do. “Maybe you want the Stephen Foster State Park in Georgia”, he suggested. Oh great there’s two of them. But no it turned out that the Carter Trail I had found online was at this park and it was my mix of Stoke-Leeds accent that baffled him. Adopting my best BBC voice fared a little better. “Oh y’all want the Caaarrrrrrderrr Trail” he drawled pointing it out on the free map. There was more drama as we parked up. A ranger in a truck and a police car pulled up to ask if we’d seen a confused old woman in a floppy hat wandering around with a pile of books in her arms. Apparently she’d escaped from somewhere and needed her medication. We had not seen anyone at all let alone a confused woman in a hat, although I think happily she was apprehended as we started the walk.

The Carter Trail actually looked uninspiring, merely linking a camp site, and it was well away from the famous river. So we set off along a small part of the 1400 miles long Florida Trail that runs alongside the Suwannee. The scenery was as stunning as we’d seen all trip. Suwannee River coloursThe path rose and dipped along the banks of the river, weaving between trees, ferns and bushes. Between the gaps in the forest we caught glimpses of the river, patches of red and orange (mineral deposits?) shimmering through the darker water. Small trails had been created by those diverting from the main path, allowing a steep but short descent to sandy shores and clear photo opportunities. Every so often a more obvious clearing would appear giving a better view down the river. Best of all we had this to ourselves apart from the couple who bravely (or foolishly) abandoned their canoe for a dip around Catfish Hole. After about three miles we reached a spot that gave a good view of the river and was a junction with a trail we could take back through the forest. Suwannee RiverWe sat on the shore eating our lunch enjoying the peaceful location but growing more concerned about the thunder in the distance. I was always advised to “let my dinner go down” as a youth but this was one occasion where getting back on the track as soon as possible was highly recommended despite the risk of indigestion. Shame really as I’d have liked to linger at that beauty spot for much longer.

The paths on the return leg were flat forest roads which on another day might have made a lovely stroll but in this case helped pick up the pace as the thunder got louder. The occasional flash of lightening helped quicken our steps. I suppose it was envitable that we would not escape, and about 20 minutes from the car the heavens opened. Poncholess Tina was offered my gore-tex jacket which she accepted while I took a drenching for the cause. The worst sensation was my boots filling up with water and sloshing my feet around inside them while sloshing hurriedly along the path for the last half mile. Finally we arrived at shelter but with no sign of a break in the storm I scurried barefoot to the car and squatting on a plastic bag made a rescue bid for Tina. Back at the park gatehouse in the steamed up car, I risked a potential indecent exposure charge and made an unglamorous change out of my sopping shorts and undies into the pair of waterproof over-trousers I should have put on in the first place. The wringing wet walking vest had to remain on and Tina kindly proclaimed I looked like a Redneck. She wasn’t wrong. Either that or Tony Pulis. Great, or should that be “triffic”.

Thanks to the bad weather we didn’t stop to take in the pretty White Springs township, other than to discover that neither filling station sold coffee just when a warming drink was most needed. A little past the McGuinness Job (now too wet to see the asking price) and just before Interstate Ten we did manage to find a caffeine source before the two hour uncomfortable journey back to Jacksonville. It turned out to be a decent evening back there, and scrubbed up we went out for our now traditional Last Night Curry. If you are ever in the vicinity check out India’s Restaurant on Baymeadows Road, run by a friendly Sikh family and providers of excellent authentic dishes. So ended the last full day in Jacksonville for another time. If you’d like to see more Suwannee River photos have a look at the Gallery.

No doubt sensing the nervous tension in the air, Orlando Cat chose the morning of my departure to the USA to do a runner. Her usual tour of the backyard takes about 20 minutes before wanting to come back in for food and ablutions. However she’d been gone for around one hour and I was just getting to the point of frantic panic looking down the back alley under cars, in neighbours’ yards, when she turned up at my front door. She never ever turns up there. I’m surprised she knew it was my house. So it appears that the trademan’s entrance around the back is no longer good enough for her Ladyship.

This unscheduled part of yesterday morning unsettled the strictly planned regime and I missed my intended bus and subsequently the airport train. Despite fearing the worst and filling my head with potentially woeful scenarios, it proved not too much of a problem as I got the next train saving me from an extra half hour hanging around Manchester Airport’s Departure Lounge. It also meant I checked in at the same time as the footballer Paulo Wanchope who was on my flight to New York and in front of me in the queue. The full extent of Orlando’s disruption became apparent when Security emptied my hand luggage and I realised that in the kerfuffle I’d left my reading glasses on the dining table. I had at least packed my prescription sunglasses. An initial period of cursing and calling myself all sorts of names for my stupidity was replaced with the resolve to live with it as there was nothing I could do, just forget it and move on. In the great scheme of things in the concept of what is going on around the world, it was no great disaster.

My flight was uneventful, I managed to catch a bit of sleep to add to the previous night’s five hours, and I saw nothing more of Mr Wanchope until Immigration as I assume he was enjoying the comforts of First or Business Class and not in with me and the rest of the proles. I wasn’t looking forward to five hours at Newark Liberty Airport having done it to death on my last trip, but this time I got the mild excitement of going on the monorail between two terminals. Having bought USA Today to read the latest on the Obama v McCain tussle, I settled down to kill some time with simply the largest veggieburger I’ve ever seen bought from the rare mirage of an airport wholefood cafe. I wasn’t sure whether to eat the burger or thrust a flag into the top and claim it as some remote British outpost. It was too tall to actually get into the mouth without breaking a jaw so I set about it with a knife and fork, although I might have been better equipped with an oxyacetylene blowlamp.

Now replete with carbs and feeling alive again I spent the time until my Jacksonville flight reading the paper, listening to Northern Soul on the iPod, and chuckling at “It cracks like breaking skin” a series of short stories set in Stoke-on-Trent written by fellow Stokie, the novellist and manbag carrying Stephen Foster. It was a godsend and helped the time to pass quickly. The chapter called “Bubblegum” was a particular masterpiece which had me laughing out loud resulting in quizzical glances from the person sat next to me.

Finally we boarded and thankfully the flight was actually early arriving in Jacksonville and Tina was there for an emotional meeting. Bags squeezed into her two seater sports car we headed back through the humid night to Jacksonville Beach. At 10pm it was still around a sticky 80′F something I’m going to have to get used to but will struggle with I’m sure. As I sit and type this it’s just around 9am on Sunday, and it’s already quite oppressive in here. Tina has gone to work and I might head out soon to get some “groceries” before it gets really hot. I’m cat-sitting as I can’t escape mad felines, Tina has just taken in a 5 week old kitten abandoned at a friend’s vets. Hadley the kitten is very cute, and has taken a shine to my feet, biting them mid-typing. How anyone could dump an animal beats me especially one as cute as Hadley. I’ll leave you with a photo from this morning, me bleary eyed and Hadley full of beans doing her impression of a parrot. See y’all later.

This has been a relaxed yet productive weekend. Much of it has been spent catching up on the chores neglected during the previous whirlwind weeks of gallivanting around the world. My house is now tidy again, my hedge is trim, the car is clean and the large mountain of clothes are put away. While I sat in the sun today with Orlando the cat uncharacteristically curled up nearby, I finally produced an updated CV on the laptop. I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks as it’s all part of a cunning plan, but I’ve lacked the time and inclination to do it thanks to more entertaining diversions. This was the first weekend at home for ages and I think justifies my staying in and doing nothing special. After all recent past weekends have seen me:

* walking in Scotland and discovering my football club was now Premier League!
* drinking, watching football, and meeting a former Dutch Stoke City manager in Brussels
* having a stay in Coniston in the Lake District
* in Florida for 17 days with the beloved
* having my parents to visit and making trips to York and Richmond

This weekend is a calm before the storm. I’m away again in Coniston next weekend, spending the Bank Holiday weekend staying in Exeter with my friend Jen walking somewhere in Devon, then after that I’m away across the Pond enjoying the company of “mar lady” as they say in Stoke. Hopefully this blog will help chronicle the adventures and save me the trouble of writing it up in the old fashioned way, something I attempted in Florida previously but ground to a sorry halt after starting gamely.

Thankfully I also got my hair chopped off this weekend, the mini-heatwave we’ve been enjoying recently has had me sweating bricks and the removal of the thick mop has helped considerably. I look respectable again and hopefully will not incur suspicious glances from the US Immigration Control when I return in June. I’ve spend a fair amount of the weekend faffing around with this website and blog settings, struggling to install the Gallery2 program which has seen me up into the early hours cursing and scratching my head. Simple installation my arse. It’s riddled with errors and meaningless messages. It better be worth it when I finally get the swine working. I found a nice simple gallery program that works beautifully but will not allow the functionality I need if I’m to advertise my wares as is the plan. Well one of the plans, but not the cunning plan. More of that another time.

Finally this weekend saw the arrival in the post of “It cracks like breaking skin”, a collection of short stories set in Stoke-on-Trent written and sent to me by fellow Stoke City fan and member of the Brussels Nine, Stephen Foster. Another book to add to the growing backlog of reading but a welcome addition, I’d been after it for some time. Nice then to get a signed copy. Worthy of online thanks and a link to Stephen’s blog