Dreaming of Valencia

Posted by James Whittaker

James WhittakerStoke's Europa League adventure from two seasons ago took them to Valencia's Mestalla Stadium.

It's been two years, almost to the day, that Stoke fans descended on the poor unsuspecting locals of Valencia, painting the city red and white in a rare foray into Europe following qualification courtesy of a cup final appearance.

It's a memory that quite simply will last forever. The two Wembley trips that preceded it were special of course, none more so than the 5-0 thrashing of Bolton, who never really recovered, but the game in Spain was a different kettle of pescado altogether. Europe was a huge bonus of a reward for such an excellent cup run the season before and having been paired against all manner of opponents in the group stages, Stoke fans had little hope of a draw that would really whet the appetite and give the opportunity of a mass Stoke invasion to one of Europe's big boys.

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That opportunity arrived courtesy of a professional job seeing off the air mile heavy group the Potters found themselves in. Stoke fans around the world tuned in to the live draw, which took an absolute age to get going, and once the name Valencia was read out, prayers were answered, phones were picked up and air fares duly increased for the week of the game. It was an opportunity not to be missed, perhaps the only chance of seeing my side take on one of Europe’s giants (despite seeing them play a Gabriel Batistuta-inspired Fiorentina in the Anglo-Italian cup as a lad)

Tony Pulis appeared to share that enthusiasm, encouraging Stokies worldwide to do their best to attend such a historic fixture:

"Everybody's feeling the squeeze at the moment, Christmas is coming, but after that they've got eight or nine weeks to save up... Let's take as many as we can and show them what a proper English club is like when their supporters travel."

Sadly, not too long after saying this, the club confirmed that the allocation available to Stoke fans would be a mere 2,300 and as such, the other 3,000 or so fans were left with no option other than to try and procure a ticket in the home ends having already forked out for flights and accommodation. Luckily, this was a relatively straightforward process and with the forums and social media in full flight Stoke fans managed to initiate a hostile takeover of the sky high Gol Xicotet section of the Mestalla Stadium.

Disappointingly though, despite Pulis' call to arms, he rested nine first team players and only filled four of the seven spots on the bench, including an 18-year-old yet to make his debut. It was a disappointing selection, one that defied his own words and one that for many was the final straw in respect of their support for the former manager. But the fans would not be disheartened and sang their hearts out throughout, from the walkways of the airports to Cathedral Square in the city and then for the entirety of their experience of the impressive Mestalla (despite the thousands of steps to get to the stand). That the game itself was only lost by a single goal only rubbed salt into the wounds of what might have been. But despite the anger at the manager, it was down to him that the opportunity to watch my side on such an occasion was even possible and for that I will always thank him.

It's those heady days that the fans continue to dream of and while I tell myself that it's something unlikely to be experienced again in my lifetime, I remain quietly hopeful that won't be the case, such is the joy of being a football fan who dares to dream. Ironically, Stoke's next match is against Man City, the team they lost to 1-0 in the final to set up that European adventure.

While the blues may be suffering a mini drought in front of goal, I doubt that even the most optimistic of Stoke fans are expecting anything from the trip to the Etihad. With the continued absence of Robert Huth and the news that Oussama Assaidi has suffered knee ligament damage, I think most fans would not be too disheartened by the same 1-0 loss, but then again with a positive manager at the helm and the knowledge he will pick his strongest side, we dare to dream of more.

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