Adventures in Football #16: Vale Park (Port Vale)
August 10, 2021
PORT VALE vs. SUNDERLAND
Port Vale is starting off life for me here as a tick box exercise. If I want to do the 92, I have to go there. My urge to visit the Potteries is not based on friends living there or any kind of personal connection. Port Vale are not the most successful club in the area and their only real claim to fame is reaching the FA Cup semi-final in 1954 where they lost to West Brom at Villa Park. While they had a good side in 1954, they were still in division three north and some 40 places in the league separated them and Albion.
Recently Port Vale have struggled and have been yo-yoing between the bottom two football league divisions the 90s. Back in the 1990s they had a decent run and weren’t that far off the top flight. Probably peaking with a final appearance in the Anglo-Italian Cup against Genoa. It’s been all downhill since. They have a spot of previous with Sunderland. Back in 2018 Sunderland won 2-1 here in the FA Cup first round. The last cup win over Sunderland came in 1961-62.
On the other side of the pitch is Sunderland. A team who played in the Premier League just five years ago. It feels like an eternity. A subsequent relegation to the third tier of English football made them a laughingstock and the subject of a Netflix documentary. After two promising but ultimately shambolic years with Netflix the club has decided to step out of that particular spotlight for the time being. It’s probably for the best as they lost in the play offs yet again last year.
Maria is driving today, thus sparing me a lengthy walk from Stoke train station because I’m not taking a bus in Stoke without danger money. Over the years I knew Stoke and Vale were rivals but I never realised how close together they really are. Only three miles separates Stoke and Burslem and there’s really no green in between. It’s basically the same conurbation. The plan was to drive up to Stoke, get something to eat and then head over to the ground. However, when we got to Stoke all the car parks were “coins only”. What? Not even “cash only”. Nope, just a coin slot and presumably a “made in 1994” sticker somewhere.
Having failed to get anywhere we headed to the ground and parked in the away end by mistake. Surely, I’ve not been mistaken for a Mackem here? While I’m parked in an area where I have to walk past the away end to get into the ground this is all Vale territory. As evidenced by a fellow motorist saying “there’s a Sunderland fan in our car park” on spotting a group of Wear Siders hopping out of a Ford next to us. The parking is £5 and they rustled up change for a twenty as I had nothing else in my wallet. I don’t remember the last time I paid cash for anything, to be honest. It must at least four years. Outside the ground we strolled around to take in the sights and spotted the statue of Roy Sproson out front. Sproson was a one club man playing an astonishing 842 times for Port Vale between 1949 and 1972. He went on to manage Vale a few years later. He’s got a street named after him too and he’s in the Stoke-on-Trent hall of fame alongside Gordon Banks.
While we’re admiring the statue, and indeed the training pitch next door that’s also named after Sproson, the Sunderland players arrived. I’ve never seen a club coach turn up before. It pulled up right next to the front door and the players were ushered in with minimal fuss. Our entry into the ground doesn’t run quite so smoothly. During the lockdown Vale Park has had a fresh coat of paint but some stupid bastard has painted over the gate numbers so none of the stewards knew where we were supposed to go! Plus the tickets were printed without the stand name on so that caused yet more confusion.
Eventually the head steward, a guy with glasses and a map, pointed out where we needed to go and we’d made it into Vale Park. I got a pat down, my first of the season, while Maria coasted in without anyone checking her bag. As we’ve headed north of Birmingham the accents have changed and Maria is suitably flummoxed by the different noises. We’re creeping towards the north here and there’s a subtle difference already. “Hiya Shug” greets me at the bar. That’s another first! I’ve never been called Shug before. I spent the entire next day at work calling everyone “Shug”. Having failed to eat in Stoke in grab myself a meat and potato pie. It’s £2.50 and perfectly serviceable. The pies seem popular and I see a lot of people noshing on them during the game. £3 for a can of Carling seems a bit extreme but it’s beer and it’ll do.
We head out into Vale Park and as soon as we’ve sat down Boomer the club’s mascot strolls past. Part of me wants to see a bunch of these mascots put against each other in athletic competition. Like an Olympics for mascots. I would 100% buy tickets for it. The leg room is just about ok. Luckily no one is sat in front of me as the plastic seats cave in a bit with a body in them.
The first half is an interesting one. Port Vale are absolutely dreadful, hoofing it long at every opportunity and I don’t know what their possession stats are but I imagine they’re low. Sunderland are 1-0 up at half time and it could easily have been more. Vale wasting their best chance right before half time. The first half is uneventful and greeted by a subdued crowd, only occasionally rising from their seats to give the lino grief for calling Vale players offside. One of the few exciting moments comes from a drunk pitch invader who manages to mess around in the penalty area for a few minutes before one of the defenders walks him over to the stewards who, it has to be said, were useless. Not a single one of them set foot on the pitch. Vigorous re-training is needed here. That said, the guy wasn’t a threat and at least the crowd got a few laughs out of it.
Into the second half business picked up. First of all because Sunderland scored a penalty for 2-0. Vale were dead and buried and Maria asked if we could leave early to beat the rush if Sunderland were up 4-0 or so. However, that’s when the match completely changed. Sunderland decided to sit on 2-0 and brought on the likes of Aiden McGeady and Will Grigg. The overpaid, overindulged megastars of the club and they started to get out-worked. Will Grigg was not on fire. Aiden McGeady barely resembles a footballer now. All his FM stats are under 5 bar “mouthing off”, which is around 17.
After grumbling for much of the game the fans really came to life at this point. The wing play of Port Vale started clicking and the chances started coming. Even despite a setback where the game was delayed by a floodlight going out. Although this did allow the fans to try and light the one corner with their phones. You can’t see it in a picture I took sadly but it was a funny visual. “We’ll play in the dark” chant the Vale faithful and play they did. In a dramatic conclusion Vale pulled one back, courtesy of some tasty wide play from David “Wozza” Worral. With Worral and substitute David Amoo pulling the strings it looked like Vale might grab a late equaliser.
Sadly it wasn’t to be in spite of Vale playing the last five minutes in the Sunderland penalty area. The last two minutes with their goalkeeper up there too. I found myself really legitimately routing for Vale to pull it out of the bag. There was something about Vale Park. Despite it being my first visit the welcome and the feeling around me was that I’d been there for my entire life. The characters I was near in the stand were clearly defined after this game. The big bloke with the Vale scarf trying to wave to his friend in the opposite stand is someone I felt like I knew. The group of guys in front of me, heading to the bar to buy up all the leftover pies. The family off to my right of a mom and her two kids. The family in front of me with the little girl and her colouring book. The family in front across the aisle with the twin sisters. I’d been there for 90 minutes but every single one of them felt like they’d been sat in the same seats forever.
A football club is the heart of the community. When it’s run right it brings families and friends together. Carol Shanahan is doing a sensational job with Port Vale and honestly, I wish them every success. It’s a community club that means so much to the people of Burslem and after my visit there, it’s no longer a tick box on a spreadsheet. It’s a living, breathing entity and I kinda love it. Stoke might feel like you’re going backwards in time but that’s comforting and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at ease at a football game.