When I was a cub reporter in the early 1990s I was regularly sent out to Greenbank Road in Tunstall – and various other places across the Potteries – where groups of teenage girls would gather, hoping for a glimpse of their idol.
He was never there, of course, but that didn’t stop disciples of a certain Robert Peter Williams from congregating.
They travelled from all over the UK, and some from even further afield, snapping up Port Vale home shirts to take to concerts around the country in the hope the cheeky chappie from Tunstall would spot them in the crowd.
Take That were at the height of their powers back then, and our Robbie was young, single and extremely eligible.
Fast forward 20 years and much has changed. Robbie, as his fans know him, broke a million hearts by leaving the boy band which made him famous.
He enjoyed his time with numerous celebrity girlfriends, faced down his personal demons, launched a hugely successful solo career, amassed an eye-popping personal fortune, raised millions of pounds for charity, fell in love, got married and became a dad. Oh, and he saved the Vale along the way.
Everything has changed in two decades – except the fact that Rob has some of the most loyal fans of any star on the planet and it seems that a fair few of them will be heading to the Potteries in the New Year.
To mark the singer’s 40th birthday on February 13, the RWFanFest is being staged here in Rob’s home city with the twin aims of acknowledging the man’s remarkable achievements while raising money for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice (DLCH) at Trentham Lakes – a charity close to his heart.
Organisers are planning guided bus tours around Rob’s old stomping ground, along with a charity concert and auction and a fans’ art exhibition which is being shipped over from Milan to the Burslem School of Art. (Rob’s fans on the continent – in Italy and Germany especially – are second to none. See the Diario Italiano di Robbie Williams website if you don’t believe me).
Pottery firm Wade has offered to produce souvenir ware and Port Vale staff will be holding collections for DLCH at the home game against Swindon.
Your truly will also be getting together next week with Pete Conway to plan another exhibition involving pictures and cuttings from The Sentinel’s archive along with personal mementoes and memorabilia which Rob’s dad has been collecting over the years.
It’s an exciting prospect and one which I believe affords us a great opportunity to honour one of Stoke-on-Trent’s most famous sons while raising the city’s profile.
You see, as I was listening to plans for the festival it occurred to me that we really are missing a trick.
I can’t help but think that if Rob had originated from Liverpool or Manchester or Birmingham they‘d already have a tourist trail in his name and a statue of him taking pride of place in the city centre.
I’m convinced they’d have plaques on the walls of every building he’d ever lived in and a permanent display of memorabilia at a museum somewhere.
But the sad truth is that, after 20 years of staggering success, there’s absolutely nothing here in Stoke-on-Trent to indicate to visitors that the man who is one of the UK’s biggest ever solo artists grew up here.
I think this is a crying shame and I find it somewhat baffling that our city has not yet honoured Rob in some way.
There will always, of course, be the nay-sayers. Those who don’t like the bloke or his music. Those who will point to the fact that he has lived in Los Angeles for a decade or more and who will argue that his links with the Potteries are tenuous at best. Others still will say that he’s ‘just a pop star’ and that his achievements don’t merit civic recognition. I guess it’s a bit like saying Sir Stanley Matthews CBE was ‘just a footballer’.
If you haven’t seen Robbie live I would simply say that, in my opinion, he’s one of the most charismatic and versatile entertainers this country has ever produced and the closest thing we now have to the late, great Freddie Mercury.
I think we should be incredibly proud of the fact that someone who has used his God-given talents to entertain tens of millions of people around the world hails from our neck of the woods.
If you don’t agree with me then perhaps simple statistics will persuade you.
Rob has thus far accumulated album sales of more than 70 million, had seven UK number one singles and collected 17 Brit Awards (the most of any artist). I don’t have enough room on this page to list his other awards and firsts, or his successes overseas.
Suffice to say people all over the world think he can sing a bit.
Let’s also not forget the day in 2006, two years after he was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, when Rob entered the Guinness Book of World records for selling 1.6 million tickets for his tour… in just one day.
Then there’s Rob’s charity work. His biannual Soccer Aid venture – for which another Potteries star, Rob’s mate Jonny Wilkes, should also receive enormous credit – has to date raised more than £6.5 million for children’s charity UNICEF.
Robbie’s own charity Give It Sum, overseen by his mum Jan, has distributed more than £5 million to worthy causes here in his native North Staffordshire.
Now tell me that Robbie Williams doesn’t deserve a little acknowledgement from his home city.
If it were up to me I’d be giving him the freedom of Stoke-on-Trent in February, asking permission to create a permanent exhibition about him at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and perhaps even putting up a statue or naming something or somewhere in his honour.
I’d certainly rather see that than some pointless piece of art.
I’d also be putting up plaques around the city, telling visitors that our Rob once lived/was taught/bought an oatcake here.
If none of this happens then I’d simply ask that on February 13 you raise a glass to our Rob.
By anyone’s estimations, the boy done good.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel