How important is football in life?
As a season ticket holder who attends every home game and most away games, I would have always said it was part of my life and if people didn’t like that then that was their hard luck. On a Saturday I would be at the match end of, even my first child arriving didn’t stop that, I would still go every week.
In August 2016 however something happened to me that will forever change my life. I was just short of my 37th Birthday, we had not long returned from a brilliant family holiday in America for my father’s 60th Birthday, when I was admitted to hospital due to serious abdominal pains.
I was diagnosed with Kidney Cancer, a cancer I had never heard of, at this point my wife was 14 weeks pregnant and we had a two-year-old so. I was advised the tumour was 8.5cm and had probably been in me for around 10 years. It came as more of a shock than an opposing team missing a penalty against us would be. I was absolutely devastated and feared for my wife and the future.
I came out of hospital with a plan to have my Kidney surgically removed within a few weeks on a Friday. I had tickets for Everton Away the day after with my Dad. I asked him if he would mind not going as I just couldn’t face a load of ale and probably more misery. To be honest I just didn’t want to go. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care one jot about 11 blokes running around a football field.
We took my son to CBeebies Land instead (Everton away would have been cheaper). The weather wasn’t great if I remember so we came away mid-afternoon, automatically though we switched on the car radio, just as we did Phil Bardsley pulled Ashley Williams shirt in the box, Leighton Baines penalty hit the post, hit Shay Given on the head and went in. Just about summed everything up for me and we turned the radio off for the rest of the journey.
I went to the next game, home to Spurs to try and get some normality back and we had some new signings to watch, Mainly Wilfred Bony (Oh the benefit of hindsight). We got spanked 4-0 and to say I was falling into a state of depression is a slight understatement. I had decided not to do away games for a while and has it happened, my operation fell the day before our next away game, I had my operation on a Saturday afternoon. As I woke up on the ward, by wife and parents had come to visit, the first thing I saw was my dad holding a stoke shirt up over me, with the words “best wishes, Ryan Shawcross.” That meant a lot to me and restored some of my faith in Football. On the Sunday we were away at Crystal Palace and I had decided to cheer myself up by listening to it on the radio in my hospital bed. I should have learnt really shouldn’t i? We went down 4-1 and were firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.
I couldn’t go for a while and to be honest, I didn’t miss it. However then came Man Utd away and no matter how bad things are, Man Utd away on TV gets your interest. I was fighting to get back to health and for the first time in ages I saw a Stoke team fighting with everything they had and thanks to a brilliant Lee Grant performance we snatched a late equaliser through Joe Allen.
Being fit for the next game suddenly spurred me on, it’s amazing how your teams result can lift you from the depths of despair, or quickly drop you into the same depths.
I made the next game at Home to Sunderland and my love for football quickly regained focus as my life got back on track.
On 15th January 2018, Stoke appointed Paul Lambert as our new Manager, to say I was unimpressed would be an understatement. However, within a couple of hours of this news I was recalled to the hospital following a routine check-up scan and I was told my Kidney Cancer had returned and was now in my stomach Lymph nodes. Suddenly Football & Paul Lambert was right back into a distant part of my mind. I was informed there was no Government funded cure for secondary Kidney Cancer and if the life extending drugs didn’t work, I was maybe looking at around 4 years to live.
The next match saw Lambert sat in the stands as we surrendered at Old Trafford and I was as low as we could go. I had been told I could only have a few years to live, but I think I was more depressed with the fact my football team were on their way out of the premier league.
I went to the next match, Lamberts first at home to Huddersfield, and came away feeling pumped up and thought just maybe all isn’t lost as we beat a really poor side 2-0.
Suddenly I had an interest, something to take my mind off things so I talked my mate into joining me to our next away game at Bournemouth, Badou Ndiaye’s first game, it was just what I needed, I drove there and we chatted all the way there about football away days in years gone by. Stoke played ok and went 1-0 up (Shaqiri header if I remember right), then in true Stoke style we fell apart and lost 2-1. The journey home was not so much just what I needed.
The next game was Brighton at Home, the chance to get back to winning ways, but oh no the “Charlie Adam Penalty fiasco” in the last minute meant a 1-1 draw. I was getting nothing back from football, just more and more misery.
I continued going, without my heart being in it really as it was routine and it was a distraction from what was really going on.
I was accepted onto a treatment at the Christie, funded by their charity, it was rough, and I was advised just how rough. I was even given the opportunity of not having it as it can be that toxic. I was told however there was a 24% chance of long-term remission. It was a no brainer I was rolling my sleeves up and doing it. I owed it to my wife and children.
I was to be in hospital for 5 days of intense treatment, home for a week or so and back in for 5 days, then 8-week rest. During my first 5 days, I often drifted in and out of awareness of what was actually going on around me during the treatment, but I do remember looking occasionally at my phone as we lost again at home to spurs.
I watched us concede a last-minute equaliser at West Ham on TV and managed to make the 1-1 home draw to Burnley. Again, I was watching but my heart wasn’t really there. I was trying to pre-occupy myself. Obviously, the Palace Home game was confirmation we were down.
My treatment carried on throughout the summer and the world cup was ongoing. I had lost all interest in actively being over interested in England games under Sven and Capello, but this gave me something to occupy myself and we all know how close England came. After the capitulation from Stoke, it gave me a lift and reminded me football can be good for you and not just misery.
Before the start of our first championship season in 10 years I was given the news that the treatment had worked. It really was tough and at times I almost gave up, but for now it was over, scans every three months for the next three years in Manchester is much more bearable than the alternative. I was back at the football for our first home game, I took my eldest son for the first time at the age of 4 and he fell asleep, I would normally have gone to the first game at Leeds, but after the last few years I know how up and down football can be and I refused to spend nearly £50 on a ticket and chose to watch on TV and spend the time with my family.
Now having watched us put in what has to be our worst performance for many years (seem to keep saying that) at Wigan a couple of nights ago, I am looking forward to the Barnsley game with dread.
Over the years football has meant everything to me. I have missed many important things to watch Stoke play, Wednesday night away at Halifax in the Autoglass Trophy (we’ve won it two times you know), Friday night at Brighton at the Withdean and many, many other horrific journeys.
What does football mean to me now? Well its not as high on the priority list, but would I rather do anything else on a Saturday afternoon, absolutely not. My eldest has a season ticket and is absolutely besotted with SCFC, he eats, sleeps and drinks football. Football means more to me now than 90 minutes on the pitch, it’s the day out, it’s the time spent with my Son (youngest about 18 months away from coming, my dad, my brother and mates.
No matter what happens in life, football will still be there when you get over it, it will still play a big part in our lives, but maybe not quite as much. Will I be at the first game back after the pandemic. Absolutely!
Up the Potters. Delilah forever!
This article was published in Duck, the Stoke City Fanzine in July 2020.