A rough guide to... Port Vale

Cod Almighty | Article

by Miles Moss

4 August 2017

Port Vale are the Mariners' white-and-black mirror image...

How are you?

If I had to choose a cliché to start off with, I'd go for always the bridesmaid.
Around since the late 19th century (I'm not being lazily vague – their own historians don't seem sure exactly when the club formed, not even agreeing on a year, never mind an exact date), Port Vale have always been there, in the background, without ever being at the front of the picture.

I always thought Rochdale were officially the least successful English club, but Port Vale apparently hold the record for the most seasons in the Football League (105 and counting) without ever reaching the top tier. They also reached the 1954 FA Cup semi-final, but not the final.

So never the bride. But hey, who wants to be the bride anyway? Playing football in a massive wedding dress is impractical. And besides, if being the bride means being in the fake-tanned, over-expensive and over-dressed Premiership, you can keep it, eh?

It all seems rather familiar. Losing FA Cup semi-finalists? Check. Rollercoastering the middle divisions? Check. Wembley winners of the Trophy competitions? Check. Struggling with finances and a tough catchment area? Check. Grimsby were once in the top division, you know... but then Vale have never been in the Conference, so that kind of balances out.

Hello Port Vale, our white-and-black mirror image.

GTFC first played PVFC on 14 January 1893; Town won 2-0. In the intervening 125 years, the teams have played each other 87 times (meeting in every decade apart from the 1940s), Grimsby having only a slight statistical edge, with 37 wins to 33. I can't tell you who scored in 1893, but the last two Town players to score against Port Vale (in 2009 and 2011) were Serge Makofo and Barry Fucking Conlon. If I were Russell Slade, I'd be thinking that Port Vale's achilles heel is playing against utterly useless tosspots. Make of that what you will.

What have you been up to?

If a Vale fan had a time machine, they'd probably go back to the 1950s. The decade started with the club moving to their new home of Vale Park, there was the aforementioned FA Cup semi against eventual winners West Brom, two division-topping seasons, and the highest attendances in the club's history – an average of over 20,000 in the 1954-55 season.

Manager Freddie Steele was behind much of this success, and his fantastic defensive tactics saw the Valiants concede only 21 goals in 46 games, with only five of these at home. His defence was nicknamed "the Iron Curtain". Not sure how he felt about that: "wrong metal, you bloody idiots!"

The trouble with having a purple patch, of course, is that afterwards everything can seem rather... mauve. Port Vale couldn't recreate the fabulous fifties, and even the masterstroke of installing local boy and national hero Stanley Matthews as manager in 1967 ended badly, with the club expelled from the League a year later due to apparent illegal payments to players.

On appeal, Vale were re-elected, but mauve turned to the dreadful brown of the 1970s, a decade which saw the club shedding players to keep afloat, missing out on promotions but not avoiding relegations, and culminating in the club's worst-ever finish of 20th in the fourth flight at the end of the 1979-80 season.

What since? Sixteen successful years under John Rudge, a highest-since-the-30s finish of eighth place in the second tier; some final-day escapes from relegation; former player Brian Horton as manager; two spells in administration; manager Jim Gannon pissing off fans, players, and staff alike in his shortest-ever 10-week stint as manager; a potential £8million cash injection which turned out to be somewhere between lies and bullshit; watch out for Port Vale in the next national soap opera awards.

There was no way the 2016-17 season could compete with that...

What kind of season did you have?

I know what would be a brilliant idea to re-ignite this proud old club's fortunes! Let's sack everybody, install some random foreign manager, and let him build an entirely new team of people we've never heard of from all over the world!
Yeah, that's exactly what happens when you play Football Manager after a mad night at the pub when tequila slammers were 2-for-1. Maybe that's what was behind the Port Vale board giving Portuguese footballer and snake oil salesman Bruno Miguel Fernandes Ribeiro the keys to the door and the combination to the safe.

Ribeiro released 16 players and replaced them with: a couple of Dutch centre-backs; two French midfielders; three players from Portugal, and then a Zimbabwean-born Norwegian second division player who'd previously played for Sweden at u17 level. I know, we've all done it.

Hey, there's an ex-Premier winger available! And someone else who used to be good at Blackburn! Snap 'em up! Who else? Strikers Martin Paterson and Alex Jones; OK, fair enough, I've heard of them for some reason. And on deadline day, Portuguese goalkeeper Miguel Santos and Swiss attacker Gezim Shalaj, signed from Enosis Neon Paralimni. Oh, come on, you're just making this shit up now.

It's boring, sometimes, waiting for those tweets to say your club has signed someone, isn't it? I think Port Vale fans must have gone through some sort of aversion therapy last season.

On the opening day of last season, nine players made their debut. I know Town have had some wholesale changes too of late, but that does seem a bit bonkers.
It seemed to start well, and Port Vale even flirted with the play-off places, but results worsened, the atmosphere turned sour, and somewhere from the crowd, a young Valiants fan was heard to shout that the Portuguese emperor was in the altogether.

Chairman Norman Smurthwaite was quoted as "feeling a little hoodwinked" by the manager and his supposed links to luminaries including Jose Mourinho. The game was up, and the game in question was a 1-0 defeat to Walsall on boxing day, leaving Vale in 17th place. Ribeiro packed his bags and was gone.

Assistant Michael Brown was given the wheel, but the ship carried on sinking, and losing top scorer Jones, first-choice goalie Alnwick, and star player Anthony Grant didn't help matters. What next? Sign a goalie from Celtic. And promote another goalie from the youth team. A serious knee injury to an important midfielder? Agh! Quick, sign another goalie – former Turkey youth international Deniz Mehmet. That's how many goalies we've signed this season…? Eight? Eight!?

All those goalkeepers didn't help; four points from their last eight matches including a nil-nil draw on the last day of the season saw Vale slip beneath the waves and plunge to the icy depths of Division Four. Clearly feeling responsible, and having had an argument with the local newspaper, Smurthwaite resigned as chairman, and is now just the owner of the club. Or majority shareholder or something. Hmmm...

How are you feeling?

New season, new manager – Michael Brown, previously assistant and caretaker, is now simply 'manager'. And after that mad last season, it can't get any worse, can it? You learn from the mistakes of your predecessor, don't you? Um...

So: Brown has so far released 17 players (including Sam Kelly, now at Blundell Park, of course) and has so far signed 10 replacements, including two more goalies (come on, you can never have enough goalies) and a defender called Gavin Gunning. Perhaps chief scout Darren Wrack is on a commission.

A relatively inexperienced manager, a bizarre previous season with a relegation as the punchline, another churn of playing staff, a small budget and a chairman who's now just an owner and who seems a bit unhinged. Who can predict what might happen next? Mike Holden reckons a bottom-half finish from a team who "won't be very nice to play against".

At the club fans' forum, meanwhile, the management team have revealed that promotion is the aim. Well, they would say that. The fans themselves read as being pretty stoic about it all; I've seen neither wild optimism nor purple-faced teeth-gnashing online. Maybe I just got lucky and managed to avoid the websites where the certifiables lurk. If I was given a tenner to put on Port Vale's finishing position, I'd swerve the bookie's and spend it on ale instead. But if pushed, I'm predicting they'll end up somewhere between 1st and 24th.

Where are you from?

Pottery. There, I've said it. I mean, I was going to try and avoid the subject entirely in this guide, but Burslem and pottery are intrinsically linked, running further through its history than you may think – there is evidence of a pottery industry going back nearly 900 years. And why wouldn't it. As the saying goes: when life gives you shitloads of good-quality clay on your doorstep, make pottery. The industry pottered along for a few hundred years, but it was the last quarter of the 18th century, with better transport afforded by the Trent and Mersey Canal, when the area went really potty, and the kilns were on fire.

Of the six towns that make up the Stoke-on-Trent area, Burslem was known as "the Mother Town". I don't know whether this stands today. Do residents of other Stoke areas dream of living in the Mother Town? I mean, it's not Chelsea or Hale Barns, but it's not the dreadful hole that sneering victim-humour websites like ILiveHere would have you believe. There are reportedly loads of good pubs and places to eat, plenty of green spaces, the Titanic brewery (have you tried their Plum Porter? Oh!) and, yeah, the pottery stuff.

Like many great old industries across the country, the pottery industry ain't what it once was, and there are a good many old buildings which "used to be" something; but I tell you what, there's life in Burslem, with Middleport, Moorcroft, and Burslem potteries still firing, and many more smaller freelance creatives keeping the area's industrial history alive.

The Mother Town's history is reflected in the club badge too: two Wedgewood vases, the scythe and silver cross from two local family crests, and the Stafford knot at the top. Lovely stuff. What have that lot up the road got? A couple of red stripes and "THE POTTERS" at the bottom. Rubbish. A two-year-old could have drawn that badge. Give me a bit of history any day.

You must be so... proud?

I've worked in and around Burslem quite regularly over the past few years. Just a day here, a day there, and I've always found it unremarkable. But now I've read up on the area, next time I shall go with fresh eyes. Burslem residents should be rightly proud of their heritage, the centuries-old pottery industry and its luminaries, not least of all Josiah Wedgwood.

Vale fans could take pride in other Burslem creatives: novelist Arnold Bennett, a couple of notable 19th-century painters in James Holland and James Astbury Hammersley, and a couple of famous musicians. I didn't want to get all Alan Partridge ("Manchester… cotton and guns!") but when people think of Port Vale, the word association bit of their brains does pop up with "pottery and Robbie Williams!"

Love him or loathe him, you can't deny that the passion for his hometown club is genuine, not just because of the £240,000 of shares he bought in 2006, or setting up a football club in Los Angeles which he named after Port Vale. I'm thinking more of the hundreds of pictures I've seen of him wearing a Port Vale shirt. This isn't some famous person pathetically trying to earn some kudos by claiming to support Chelsea or Man Utd. And how about this: he agreed to write a song for use in EA Sports' classic FIFA 2000, but one of the contract stipulations was that Port Vale were included in the Playstation game. And sure enough, there in the Rest of the World section among the big-spending top-division clubs, is a little-known then-third division club from Stoke.

Robbie Williams isn't the only notable musician from Burslem, as Ian Kilmister, better known as Lemmy out of Hawkwind and Motorhead, was also born there. As was, funnily enough, Phil Taylor. But not the "Philthy Phil" one who was also in Motorhead, but the soon-to-be-retired greatest darts player of all time.

Send us your feedback about this article