Valiant Hope: Supporting Port Vale

WORDS: TOM BOURNE

Wearing his Port Vale tracksuit into school the morning after a 6-0 defeat showed the world that Tom Bourne was truly in love with his club and, while the glory days of John Rudge may have been followed by a dismal descent, he remains smitten with the club his Dad first introduced him to in 1987…

Roy Sproson, the one-club man who has been immortalised with a statue

I have often been asked what it was like growing up as a Vale fan in South Birmingham. I lie. I have never actually been asked that. However, it led me to think how I define my relationship with my club.

My older brother, Peter, describes his long love affair with Italian club Torino as akin to that of his mistress. I suppose Vale in some ways felt like my dirty little secret in those early years. Born and raised among a sea of Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion supporters, I was often met with howls of derision when telling my classmates of my football team. If not quite at Accrington Stanley levels of ‘Who are dey?’, it would be fair to say that there weren’t any other Vale supporters, or indeed many lower league supporters throughout my school years. But then again, supporting the Vale has also been about more than following a football team. It’s beena way of life. Supporting what it is generally perceived to be an ‘unfashionable’ club certainly hardens you to life’s travails. I compare many of the themes from my favourite film, On The Waterfront, with supporting the Vale. Love. Loyalty. Trust. Faith. Hope. Also, the concept that power corrupts is something that Vale supporters can readily identify with, after the club was taken to the brink of extinction over the last couple of years through chronic mismanagement.

The programme from Tom Bourne's first Port Vale gameI suppose every fan says they didn’t choose their club; it chose them. That was not entirely true in my case. During my first Vale game in 1987, a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Mansfield Town in the old Fourth Division, my father turned to me and informed me that I could either support the Vale or support no one at all. Whether it was the noise of the crowd, the intoxicating smell of tobacco or simply that the cold had led me temporarily to lose my ability to reason, I didn’t need to be asked. My father also informed me that not every game would be as exciting as my first. He is nothing if not honest my father. In fact, I didn’t see the Vale lose for what seemed an eternity – an FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester City in January 1991. A defeat I still haven’t forgiven Vale’s mercurial midfielder Ray Walker for, after his glaring miss in front of the Bycars End. So began my love affair with the Pride of the Potteries, one that would be tested to the limits by events, both on and off the pitch, over the subsequent 25 years.

Following the crowd has never been of importance to me. Even as a young boy, supporting a club that at times it felt like no one else in the world did, was an exciting, exclusive club.  Wearing my Port Vale tracksuit to infant school the Monday following Vale’s 6-0 FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa was a typical example. Pride in defeat was just something I’d have to get used to. Supporting the Vale always felt more of an adventure growing up. Perhaps as every match was effectively an away game for us. Thoughts of Vale’s impending home clash with Derby County would usually enter my mind around lunchtime on Friday, something I credit for my lack of success in Science. Double Biology would be spent with more thought as to whether Martin Foyle would overcome that troublesome calf strain. Travelling via British Rail was a novelty at first, though soon led to weariness with news of the customary cancelled 18.06 from Stoke to Birmingham.

My two early heroes were Darren Beckford and Robbie Earle. The departure of the pair in 1991 for a combined fee of nearly £2 million came as a bitter blow. I naively assumed that, like me, they would be with the Vale forever. This would be my first real lesson that footballers weren’t like supporters, their motives and desires being polar opposites. With the exception of the great Roy Sproson, a true one club man, hanging on to a successful player for Vale or any lower league club proves nigh on impossible.

Little did I know, but for much of my childhood I would enjoy the most successful period in Vale’s history. The problem with experiencing this as a child is that you never think it will end. The Glory Years that couldn’t last. Promotions, the club’s first Wembley visits and a side expertly managed by John Rudge took Vale to the brink of the Championship play-offs in 1997, being just a few of the many highlights. From the moment of Vale’s famous FA Cup victory over then holders, the mighty Tottenham Hotspur, managed by Terry Venables, the club’s fortunes really took off. I still smile while remembering Jimmy Greaves’ quote that “the only trouble Spurs will have is finding the place”.

As Saint and Greavsie was a staple of my weekends, this was something I was prepared to forgive.Incidentally, that was a game I was deemed too young to go to, so I had to make do with watching the scores come in on Grandstand from my grandparents’ house in Lincoln Road, Burslem. That and the subsequent commentary from the ubiquitous Tony Gubba on Match of the Day are memories that stay with me for life. Being unable to attend midweek home games whilst at school, this would become a familiar feeling – being out of range of BBC Radio Stoke’s coverage, impatiently waiting for the pages of Ceefax to tick over.

Under the astute management of the legendary Rudge, promotion was secured the following year after a two-legged play-off victory over Bristol Rovers. Memories fade as you age. However, my father buying me my very first Vale kit in the aftermath of the game and then buying fish and chips from Waterloo Road as the Rovers kit man ordered enough for a disconsolate squad sat on the coach outside will never fade. The haunted look on the faces of the Rovers players was my first real introduction into just how emotionally draining football could be. It would become a feeling I would share many times over the coming years.

The Nineties also saw Vale’s fierce and passionate rivalry with neighbours Stoke City rekindled. Indeed, the Vale enjoyed the better of many of the encounters during this period. However, the two clubs’ fortunes have headed in rather different directions since. It may have stemmed from my father regaling tales of Vale’s run to the FA Cup semi-final of 1954 and the subsequent injustice of Ronnie Allen’s winning penalty that denied Freddie Steele’s side a shot at history or maybe I’m simply a product of my environment, but West Bromwich Albion has always felt in some ways a more significant fixture to me. Whether it be watching Vale’s 3-2 win at the Hawthorns in an executive box courtesy of family friends (the only time I’ve sampled life among the prawn sandwich brigade) to Ian Taylor’s winner at Ossie Ardiles’ table topping side, the victory and orange ball in the snow at Vale Park, to the heart-breaking Play-Off Final defeat of 1993, the Baggies have played a significant role in my football life. Whilst not everything was milk and honey under Rudgie, it was a fantastic period to support the club. Average gates rose from a dispiriting 3 to 4,000 in the 1980s to just under 9,000 by the mid-nineties.

The club’s first Wembley visits (twice in a week) were memorable events for rather differing reasons. The first, taking over 25,000 for our victory over Stockport County in the Autoglass Trophy being a particular childhood highlight. The Play-Off semi-final defeat to those pesky Baggies a week later, despite finishing the season with 89 points – at that time a record without gaining automatic promotion – reminded me just how those Bristol Rovers players felt that afternoon. A rather sobering statistic is that eleven of the sides in the Second Division that season have gone on to play in the Premier League, including four out of the top six in the table. Only Vale and Stockport County have failed to join that elect group. Even clubs such as Hull City, Blackpool and Wigan Athletic, all lumbering around the bottom of the table in decrepit old stadiums, have tasted the big time since. Nevertheless, promotion followed the season after, and although much of the subsequent time in the Championship was spent flirting with relegation, Vale competed on a level playing field and often got the better of teams like Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester City and Albion. Monday mornings at school were a particular favourite after the Vale had seen off another of the local ‘giants’.

While many would identify their favourite game as either their first, a cup final or a big win over their closest rivals, mine would be a rather different one. During the 1996/97 season, for a fleeting moment, Vale looked as if they might achieve the unthinkable – promotion to the Premier League. As laughable as that sounds now, a 2-0 win on a gloriously sunny afternoon at Oxford United over the Easter period left Vale in fifth place with only a handful of games to go.  For just one moment I dared to dream. Alas, a defeat away at Stoke City all but ended Vale’s hopes. The side’s tired finish to the season was a foretaste of things to come. Despite another Valiant cup performance against the eventual double winners, Arsenal, in 1998, the end was nigh.

A difficult chapter is currently being added to the proud history of Port ValeWhile the club’s success during my early years very much reflected the innocence of childhood, Vale’s recent off-the-field woes sharply mirrored a downturn in my own health.  The departure of Rudge in 1999 heralded the end of an era. The collapse of ITV Digital and the introduction of the Bosman ruling had already made the task harder for smaller clubs to compete. Administration and relegation at the turn of the new millennium marked a sharp decline in the club’s fortunes. Hopes that the fan ownership of V2001 would signal a return to better days promised much but delivered little. Other than an LDV Vans Trophy win in 2001 under Brian Horton, the intervening years saw possibly some of the most depressing performances on the pitch under the hapless management of Lee Sinnott and then Dean Glover. Not only was the football abject, but the club was also taken to the brink of extinction through pig headedness, incompetence and mismanagement on a colossal scale.

An irrevocable breakdown in trust between the fan-led board and supporters, a failure to secure much needed investment, spiraling debts and ultimately administration marked the nadir in the club’s recent fortunes. However, those same themes of faith, hope, love, loyalty and truth were demonstrated en masse. The Supporters’ club, local media and protest groups combined to uncover some of the more Machiavellian developments. The recent exit from administration and the finalisation of the club’s takeover will hopefully see the wheel turn full circle and signal a return to better times. After all of that, how do I feel about the Vale now? Older. Wiser. Slightly more cynical, but not less passionate. What started as a dirty little secret has become something more translucent and more visceral. One Love. My Love.

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4 thoughts on “Valiant Hope: Supporting Port Vale

  1. Mark Stuart says:

    Great article, Tom. I went to my first Vale game in ’88 and have supported the club through the same time and gone through the same emotional rollercoaster as you have. It’s great to see the Vale finally being run well and in with a fantastic chance of promotion back to League 1 this season.

  2. Tony Bliss says:

    Hi Tom, As a “well seasoned” Fulham fan I endured 30 plus years of peaks and troughs in the lower leagues and tasted the bitter pill of administration, only to be rescued by Mr AF, our sugar daddy, a man much maligned outside of SW6, but a cult hero dare I say at Craven Cottage. Nothing lasts for ever and I recognise the inevitability that sooner or later our fortunes will dip. Here’s hoping that you and Vale enjoy a taste of the big time in the not too distant future. Tony B – FFC

  3. Well written, Tom. You are a credit to your father’s disciplined upbringing. Quite right of him to say that you can support the Vale or nobody.

  4. Mark says:

    Great article – although your first game was the third division match with Mansfield. I was there as we came back from 2 down to win 3-2, the only time I’ve ever seen Vale do that (although they came darn close to winning from being 3 down at Reading in 1995).

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