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Doing the Rounds

1 January 2014

Russell Kempson goes on a trip down memory lane with former Stoke player Terry Conroy, ahead of the Potters' Capital One Cup meeting with Manchester United

It is Capital One Cup quarter-final time and, inevitably, the talk at Stoke City is all about 1972. It was the year in which they won the League Cup, their only major trophy, by upsetting long odds to overcome Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley. Older Stoke fans never tire of reminiscing about that great day.

Or about the players who attained legendary status in the Potteries, the likes of Gordon Banks, Mike Pejic, Denis Smith, Jimmy Greenhoff, Terry Conroy and George Eastham. Or the manager, Tony Waddington. Whenever the competition comes around again, all the fond memories come flooding back.

Tonight, Stoke take on Manchester United in their last-eight clash at a wild and windy Britannia Stadium. Just three matches away from a possible return to Wembley and a chance to emulate the class of '72, who defeated United en route to North London in an epic Fourth Round tie that needed two replays to resolve.

Conroy grins. United held no fears for Stoke that season and were also beaten by them in the FA Cup quarter-finals, Conroy scoring the winner in a replay in front of a crowd of almost 50,000 at the Victoria Ground, their former home.

"In those days, we were always able to look after United, home or away," Conroy said. "I lost only one game at Old Trafford in my whole career.

"In the League Cup semis, there were three London clubs in it [West Ham United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur] and us. Everyone assumed that we were just the interlopers from up North. The media in the South assumed that it would be an all-London final and, even after we'd got there, that Chelsea would win easily. They had 10 internationals in their side.

"But we'd been building since 1970, with the team as good as picking itself every week unless there was an injury. Banks, Marsh, Pejic, Smith and Bloor - that was the goalkeeper and back four. It was cast in stone - it rarely changed. Waddington had also introduced some younger players, myself included, and we were getting better and better.

"The progress was great and we were good to watch, too. A lot of it was off the cuff; Tony was not a big tactician. He'd just say, 'I know my players and I know they know what I expect of them'. It was never, 'you've got to do this, you've got to do that'. There were no complications, it was so simple."

Not so simple was Stoke's path to the final, which comprised 11 matches. It took a memorable four to see off West Ham in the semis - a long-running episode that eventually ended after the second replay. At the same stage, Chelsea disposed of Tottenham 5-4 on aggregate to set up the decider at Wembley.

Still, despite the huge occasion and Stoke's underdog status, Waddington did not change his pre-match manner. 

"The papers were full of the idea that we had no hope," Conroy said. "That Chelsea would have no problems whatsoever. Stuff like some of their players were more familiar with playing at Wembley than Stamford Bridge. It was a foregone conclusion.

"Even for the final, we didn't have a team talk. From our point of view, we couldn't wait to get out there. Tony just said, 'go out and enjoy it, go out and play. And if you play the way I know you can, you'll win'. That was it."

Stoke did win, Conroy nodding in the opener after just five minutes and, after Peter Osgood had equalised for Chelsea on the stroke of half-time, playing a part in Eastham's 67th-minute winner. 

"Every kid dreams of playing at Wembley and scoring the winner, perhaps I got it the wrong way round, by scoring the first, but it was still a very special day."

Kick-off against United is less than four hours away. The smart and spacious reception area at the Britannia is becoming busy as club officials scurry about their business. Sponsors and guests arrive and are directed upstairs to the array of corporate suites named after the club icons - Banks, Waddington, Sir Stanley Matthews.

Conroy, a wizard of a winger, played for Stoke from 1967 to 1979, amassing 333 appearances and scoring 67 goals despite lengthy absences due to five knee operations. 

"I probably lost about 150 games due to injuries," he reflected. "In those days, they didn't have keyhole surgery, so the recuperation took a lot longer.

"But I never resented that. My outlook was always very philosophical. If something happens, so what? You carry on. I always looked at the positives, not the negatives. I never think 'if only...' I never give it a second thought."

Conroy, 67, is now a matchday ambassador. He guides the match sponsor and guests on a half-hour tour of the stadium, which takes in the directors' box, home dressing room, media suite and dugouts. The groups, which average up to 40 people, also get to see a seven-minute DVD of Stoke's history down the ages.

Wearing his red-and-white 150th anniversary Stoke scarf, Conroy takes immense pride in his duties. 

"I do it every home game and thoroughly enjoy it," he said. "But it's the first time for most people so you can't just go through the motions. You have to make it as authentic and genuine as possible. You have to make it special, which I do. That's important to me.

"Also, most of the younger generation will not have heard of Sir Stanley before. You tell them that he was famous before mobile phones, proper TVs and modern technology, all of which we now take for granted. That wasn't available in the 1940s. So how did his fame spread throughout the world? It just did, everywhere he went. It was name association - Stoke-on-Trent is Stanley Matthews, Stanley Matthews is Stoke-on-Trent."

Conroy keeps busy elsewhere, too. He is chairman of the Stoke City Old Boys' Association and arranges for former players to speak at the Britannia on matchdays. At away games, he works as a summariser for BBC Radio Stoke.

"I love doing that. I always try to inject a bit of humour into it. Seeing some of the players I used to play against is great also. It's like meeting long lost brothers."

It is time for Conroy to don his ambassadorial cap. Just time, though, for my own personal tour of the Matthews Suite, a shrine to the great man. Glass cabinets are full of Matthews memorabilia, from his 1953 FA Cup winner's medal - when he memorably helped Blackpool beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3 - to his 1956 European player-of-the-year trophy to his England caps.

It is a fascinating glimpse into the past, a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

"The older you get, the more you appreciate what the club means to so many people. When you're younger, you've no ideas or thoughts about the background of the club or what it means. It's a maturity thing; when you begin to realise, especially when you go to other clubs, what the history of Stoke City is. Some clubs just don't have that.

"Now we're back where we rightfully belong, in the top tier. For many years, we were in the doldrums. It was a bleak time to be involved with the club. You never felt that we would get back to where we are now. I just couldn't envisage that we'd return to the top flight and be holding our own. But here we are."

Conroy hurries off for his tour of duty. The media suite is packed, a large corps of Manchester journalists having travelled down for the match. Large portions of steak pie, with chips, peas and lashings of gravy, are devoured, warming the soul ahead of the trip out into the Arctic conditions of the press box.

A freezing wind howls into the Britannia through the three open corners of the stadium. Litter tumbles across the pitch, a ballboy's seat is blown over. The conditions are atrocious and, just when it appeared it couldn't get any worse, it did. After 29 minutes, a raging hailstorm forces referee Mark Clattenburg to halt the game. He could barely see the players.

Ten minutes later, the tempest has subsided and the teams re-emerge from the dressing rooms. Stoke keep it at 0-0 until half-time but eventually succumbed to excellent second-half strikes from Ashley Young and Patrice Evra. The latter scoring with his right foot and later joked: "I only usually use that to get on the bus."

No joke for the Stoke fans as they troop off home. There will be no repeat of 1972, no more dreaming.

"We did OK up to a point and the conditions were very difficult in the first half," Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager and former United player, said. "We didn't allow United many opportunities and looked nice and solid. In the end, though, United had a little bit more power and pace. They deserved to win."

United are drawn to play Sunderland in the semi-finals and Manchester City will take on West Ham United. In the Waddington Suite, there seems little interest in the last-four pairings; the Christmas decorations appear to be hanging limply, sorrows are drowned and Conroy accepts the thanks from several satisfied supporters.

Another job well done by the affable Irishman. "The tour went well," Terry said. "The numbers were down to about 12 people - it's midweek and a lot can't get off work early - but they all seemed to enjoy it. And they had their pictures taken with the match officials and captains in the centre circle. It's a nice memento for them, a nice perk.

"It all went smoothly, until the game started I suppose. I bet you've never seen conditions like that. I've played in hail and snow but never as bad as that. That's the worst I've ever seen. It was horrendous. The referee was totally right to take the players off. The conditions were dangerous and you have to put safety before everything else.

"It was a disappointing result. There was nothing in it for an hour and the first goal was always going to be crucial. United got it and you could see the way their players were lifted by it. We didn't have any answer to that and we just didn't play to our potential."

And the yearning to emulate the class of '72 goes on. "I've got to wait another year before it could happen," Conroy said, "and I've got another year of being constantly reminded about it. But I suppose it's not too heavy a burden to carry. We'd love the present squad to put a trophy on the sideboard. Then we could say, 'that's it we've done it - lovely'.

"At last, we could put it all to bed. There you go, we live in hope."

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