Rough guide to
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Rough guide to...Port Vale
20 June 2003
Relationship with Division Two
Vale spent much of the 1990s in a stormy adulterous liaison with the first division, before a gracious Division Two accepted them back home in 2000. An idle glance at the history books reveals that PVFC have spent 35 seasons in the third tier of English football against 41 in the second; but this raw statistic doesn't reflect the last few decades, as they slipped out of 'the old second' when Harold Macmillan was prime minister and never had it so good again until 1989.
The club's best season was probably 1953-54, when they laid waste to Division Three (North), losing only three times all season, and reached an FA Cup semi into the bargain. Best league finish was fifth in the second, way back in 1931. Vale supporters yet to receive a telegram from the Queen will probably go for the obligatory Autoglass/windscreens/LDV win; theirs were in 2001 and 1993, when they knocked out the holders Stoke en route to taking 25,000 fans down Wembley way. As you do.
"Let's get this straight – Stoke are the ONLY rivals we have," one supporter tells me, before going on to detail the rivalry between Vale and Crewe. The two sets of fans appear to have contrived a mutual dislike on the flimsiest of geo-footballing pretexts; nothing unusual about that, you might think, but they are all in denial, with both sides seeming to portray the rivalry as existing only in the other's imagination. "They're not really our rivals," they will say, "they just think they are, this rivalry thing is all down to them, we'd never even heard of them before they started it," and so on. And on. None of which stops them all enjoying it as much as people enjoy any other pointless factional hatred, in football and in life.
It's funny, this thing with Crewe fans. They had something going on with Walsall the other year as well. I used to think everyone had a soft spot for Crewe but every Nationwide fan west of the Trent seems to have crossed them well and truly off their Christmas card lists.
Good news for the Mariners' back four is that Vale lack the sort of big, fast, strong bugger up front who Town always help on his way to scoring 20 a season (and who Rushden seem to have about four of). That said, the forward line features the Vale player you're most likely to have heard of in the ancient figure of Adrian Littlejohn, lately of Sheffield United, Bury, Oldham and Plymouth; but the burden of goalscoring has recently fallen to former Derby midfielder Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, who had an unsuccessful trial at Blundell Park before joining the Valiants in 2000 and notching up a not unhealthy 29 goals in 104 appearances.
At the other end of Vale Park – or is it the other side? – the splendidly named Mark Goodlad has been carving out a reputation as one of the more promising young keepers outside the Prem. The reception given to new signing Andreas Lipa, meanwhile – a 32-year-old Austrian international – shows Vale fans to be every bit as irrationally excitable as their Grimbarian counterparts when it comes to obscure foreigners. In midfield the combative Neil Brisco has overcome various broken limbs, a near-death experience while surfing and a free transfer from Man City to make the number 7 shirt his own; while the young 'un to watch is free-scoring winger/forward Ian Armstrong, straight outta Anfield. Oh, and there's a former Scunny boy at the back in Michael Walsh, should you wish to indulge in some pointless factional hatred.
Your favourite patron of pastry Mr Lee Ashcroft stopped off briefly on this side of Stoke last season, on his way down into non-league, without making any kind of impression. Tommy Widdrington seems to have been less unpopular at Vale Park than Blundell but didn't really tear up any trees in the Staffordshire chapter of his descent into madness. He might have knocked a few down before he got nicked for drink driving though.
You know those brief moments of objectivity you get sometimes when the utter, utter absurdity of what you're doing at the time suddenly slams into your head like Livvo's elbow? I had one in 1993, while recording a demo on my mate's 4-track: warbling too-serious lyrics about LSD, transatlantic relationships and the imperfection of language into a cheap microphone in a bathroom on Roberts Street, with the bath full of water to improve the acoustics.
I had another one at Vale Park in September 1999. Alan Buckley's teams were like the little girl with the little curl: when they were good – which they usually were – they were very, very good; but when they were bad they were horrid. And on this day they were horrid. Two-nil down at half time, with a not-much-better Vale side having crashed through Gallimore, Livingstone and Butterfield in Town's defence like a pneumatic drill through a crème brûlée.
At moments like these my bruised and fragile psyche lies at the mercy of the 'refreshments' counter. As a veggie I depend entirely on the liberal beneficence of catering managers to provide calming carbohydrates in convenient cheese and onion pasty form; and so I was delighted to see an A4 printed sheet at the back of the kiosk thing advertising precisely this delicacy.
Now if they'd just said they'd sold out, I'd have understood. Or even explained that they'd forgotten to order some in. I could have coped. But no. They had to look at me like I was some kind of maniac. For entertaining even the suspicion that the sign saying "cheese and onion pasties" meant they might sell cheese and onion pasties. Maybe it was actually some kind of avant-garde beat poetry or conceptual art installation. Maybe it said "we haven't got any" at the top in really small letters. I don't know. All I do know is that this was the moment I realised how ridiculous it was to be getting out of bed before noon of a weekend, carrying hangovers the length and breadth of England and spending a king's ransom in the process, to watch 11 men kick a bag of air around a field, and not even get a cheese and onion pasty at half time.
It had taken me until 2003 to recover fully from the trauma of this experience, so you can imagine my feelings when, in researching this piece, I read in the entry for Port Vale in the Internet Football Grounds Guide that: "the pasties on offer within the ground are some of the best that I have ever come across at any football ground, so much so, that I found myself going back for a second."
Some good nuggets about the ground, which, when Vale first moved there in 1950, was described as "the Wembley of the North", such were its size and the scale of developments planned. The roof of the Caudwell Stand used to be the roof of the main stand at Chester's old Sealand Road ground, and was signed for £300,000 in 1992. Vale Park is also the second highest league ground in England, though it is not known whether you can see it from the Hawthorns on a clear day. "I bet ours is the only ground that's had a half-built stand for the longest too," adds another fan, with a dark humour that wouldn't sound out of place in North East Lincs.
And Ian McShane out of Lovejoy, his dad used to play in goal for them. I like ones like that.
How will they do?
The Vale faithful, though not keen on Brian Horton and probably still getting over the sacking of John Rudge, have mustered a bit of optimism since the club's takeover by fans' group Valiant 2001 and reckon next season could see some sort of progress on the pitch. Another relegation struggle would be surprising but regime change in the dugout may be a prerequisite to any kind of serious push for the play-offs. I'm gonna say 14th – but if they've stocked up on cheese and onion pasties by 17 January then I'll hope they prove me wrong.
If the dodgy writing on some Rivals sites has obscured the boundary between editorial content and messageboard postings, then Port Vale Online deliberately takes it further by posting news items as forum entries, making little presentational distinction between contributions by site editors and those from general users. Which sounds too idealistic to make for good reading, but the standard of discussion is pretty decent – not to mention eclectic (current topics include sexy accents and the Sinclair C5). The excellently written Onevalefan, meanwhile, is one of the best fan sites I've seen anywhere, with club history, player interviews and a collection of absorbing feature material. Paul Futcher's brother Ron makes it into the 'Cult Heroes' section, which warns us not to mistake him for "be-mulletted soul 'crooner' Michael Bolton". Noted.