Sir Stanley Matthews is religiously ingrained in the ancient histories of Stoke City and the FA Cup final. The regal statue of the former winger outside the Britannia Stadium is a permanent reminder of his unchallenged status as the club’s greatest-ever player, while his exhilarating exhibition in the 1953 decider is widely considered the best all-time performance in the iconic fixture.
Matthews nevertheless delivered that medal-winning tour de force in the colours of Blackpool, whom he represented between illustrious spells in Stoke’s red and white stripes. The Potters, in fact, have never appeared in the FA Cup final, despite an 1863 inception making them the second-oldest existing football club.
That statistic will be arrested on Saturday, though, when Stoke become the 55th team to run out in the conclusion of the world’s oldest club competition against comparative veterans: Manchester City have won half of the eight finals in which they have competed. And if those figures suggest a David-versus-Goliath duel ensues, so too do the financial ones. Indeed, while Sheikh Mansour’s seemingly infinite Emirati dirham have bankrolled the Eastlands outfit into one of the world’s principal seducers of mega-stars, the Staffordshire side have continued to bargain buy.
A few facts: centre-back Joleon Lescott (£22m) was worth three times as much as the four-man defence Stoke fielded in their last match; the midfield Tony Pulis is expected to send out at Wembley – namely Jermaine Pennant (£1.725m), Glenn Whelan (£500,000), Dean Whitehead (£3m) and Rory Delap (free transfer) – cost a combined £5.225m, while Roberto Mancini could field James Milner (£26m), Yaya Toure (£24m), Nigel de Jong (17m) and David Silva (£26m) in a quartet that was purchased for a cumulative £93m; and while £2.75m Jonathan Walters finished last season 15th in the English Championship with Ipswich Town, £24m Mario Balotelli ended it as a conqueror of Italy and Europe with Inter Milan.
Yes, on paper, this is a conclusive mis-match. But Stoke revel in the role of the underdog. In the 1972 League Cup final, in front of almost 98,000 at the scene of Saturday’s showpiece, Gordon Banks’s reflexes and a winner from 35-year-old George Eastham, who had just abandoned semi-retirement, inspired them to a consequential upset of a Chelsea side featuring Peter Bonetti, Ron Harris and Peter Osgood; pre-2010/11 Stoke were tipped as relegation candidates, yet a 3-1 upset of then-title-chasing Arsenal at the weekend elevated them to eighth in the Premier League; and, after appearing likely to fall at the FA Cup’s first hurdle following a 1-1 draw at home to Cardiff City in their curtain-raiser this season, an away win set them en route to a final ticket, which they achieved by beating favourites Bolton Wanderers in the last four. And the Potters didn’t just beat the Trotters, they overwhelmed them 5-0 to record the biggest semi-final victory since 1939, when Wolverhampton Wanderers trounced Grimsby Town by the same scoreline.
Pulis said: "If you had said to me at the beginning of the season we would be in [the final] I would be doing somersaults. You would not have dreamed of it a few years ago - Stoke in an FA Cup final, perhaps finishing in the top ten of the Premier League and being in Europe (they will play in the UEFA Europa League regardless of Saturday’s result, due to Manchester City qualifying for the UEFA Champions League at the weekend). It is a bit special. We will just make sure we enjoy it. You hope the Gods are with you.”
Jermaine Pennant, whose pace and trickery terrorised Bolton and who was substituted to a standing ovation against Arsenal, is also fully aware of the size of the task in hand: "We will be underdogs, there's no doubt about that, but we like it that way. We always seem to be the underdogs but that title suits us, it takes a bit of pressure off. In recent weeks we have proven that we can cut it against the top teams in this division. We held Chelsea to a draw and we beat a very good Arsenal side pretty comfortably, so we are in fine form at the moment.
“A lot of people asked questions as to whether the 5-0 win against Bolton would hinder our progress in the league, but I think we have answered that with our performances. People keep asking questions of us and we keep answering them. We will need to do that again on Saturday because it will be one of the toughest games of our lives."
It is absolutely the game of Stoke City’s 148-year life. The Potters faithful will be praying their present heroes can do what their symbolic demigod did in ’53: pen a fairytale script on a field of dreams.