How Vale’s goal-den boy made history (and made his dad proud)

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie Mae.

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie-Mae.

There is an alleyway behind Buxton Street in Sneyd Green. This is where our story begins…

It’s where Tom Pope, his brother, and his mates would spend hours kicking a ball about like any young lads the length and breadth of the country.

By his own admission, there was nothing at that stage to indicate he would go on to become an icon at the club he has supported since he was a boy – one of only two Vale players since the war to score more than 30 goals in a season.

Tom, a former pupil of Sneyd Green Primary and Holden Lane High School, said: “If you’d have asked any young lads back then I guess loads of them would have wanted to become footballers.

“There’s not so many these days because they’ve got other distractions but all I honestly ever wanted to do was play football.”

Born into a Vale-supporting family, young Tom was taken to home games by his grandfather and stood in the Lorne Street.

“I’d have been about five when I first started going,” he said. “Dad wouldn’t let me go in The Paddock because he didn’t think it was for children so I spent my first few seasons kicking a can about in the Lorne Street.

“My dad went on the buses to every Vale away game for about 15 years I think and he only stopped to come and see me when I was playing for Crewe.

“My fondest memories as a Vale fan are of the early to mid-nineties and the team John Rudge put together – the likes of Martin Foyle, Neil Aspin, Dean Glover, Ian Bogie and Bernie Slaven etc.

“I guess players like Neil Aspin will always have a special place in the hearts of Vale fans. I used to love his mazy runs from the edge of his own penalty area which never amounted to anything. He would have run through walls for the Vale.

“Then there was Foyley. He wasn’t the biggest of strikers but he was good in the air, strong and such a great finisher. His record speaks for itself.”

Despite his love of the Vale it was Crewe Alexandra’s highly-acclaimed youth set up which nurtured young Tom’s skills between the ages of six and 13.

He wasn’t, however, offered a contract by the Alex and so turned his hand to window-fitting while playing for Biddulph Victoria.

It was his performances (and goals) in the Midland Football Alliance which finally persuaded Crewe boss Dario Gradi to sign him.

Tom turned pro in 2005 at the age of 19 after two unsuccessful trials with, you’ve guessed it… Port Vale.

He spent four years with the Alex and was the club’s top scorer with 10 goals from just 17 starts during the 2008/9 season.

That season, however, Crewe were relegated from League One and Tom signed for League Two rivals Rotherham for a then joint club record fee of £150,000.

His time in Yorkshire wasn’t a particularly happy one and goals were few and far between.

He missed out on a trip to Wembley because of a broken metatarsal and when he returned to fitness found himself behind Adam Le Fondre and Ryan Taylor in the pecking order.

By his second season with the Millers the then Rotherham boss Ronnie Moore was quite prepared to sell Tom to the highest bidder as he hadn’t been scoring regularly.

Several clubs expressed an interest but it was Jim Gannon who tempted Pope to Vale Park.

“It was about the only thing Gannon did right, wasn’t it?” I ask.

Tom smiles. “You could say that. I was grateful of the opportunity Ronnie Moore gave me to get out on loan, to be honest. I think he just wanted to get my confidence back up.”

In August 2011 Tom joined the Vale on a free transfer, having been released by Rotherham.

He said: “There were five or six clubs interested in me at that time and Vale’s offer was by far the lowest on the table, to be honest. I took a huge pay-cut. I’m not just talking a few hundred quid either. But there’s more to your career than just money.

“This is where I’m from and my family and friends are here. In the end it was an easy decision for me.”

He played 45 games last season but scored just five goals as Marc Richards went on to become Vale’s leading scorer for a fifth season running.

Tom said: “We were a different team last year. We didn’t really have any wide players to speak of. Lewis Haldane was out injured and Rob Taylor kept having little niggles.

“All our play came through the middle of the park and when you’re a bloke who likes to get on the end of crosses there wasn’t much in the way of service for me.

“To be truthful I think there were quite a few Vale supporters who would have been glad to see the back of me during the summer. Thankfully, Micky Adams gave me a one-year deal and I’ll always be grateful for the faith he showed in me at that time.”

So what’s been the difference this season? Why is Tom Pope, at the age of 27, now breaking records and picking up awards?

He said: “Believe it or not this summer was my first pre-season in a while when I’ve been able to train properly.

“I would go running round Forest Park and up to Bradeley and I felt good.

“I remember we went to Ireland for the pre-season tour and I started scoring a few goals and the gaffer (Adams) took me to one side and said he’d never seen me looking so sharp. That really gave me a boost. I was ready to go.”

Of course, Vale started the season in administration and there were no guarantees there would even be a club in 2013.

It was a worrying time for fans but also for the club’s staff and players who – at one time – went unpaid.

Tom said: “It was extremely difficult for us all. We could see and hear what was going on and I think it was obvious that the club needed a new board and a change of direction.

“Of course, as employees, you can’t speak out. You’ve got a job to do and you just have to get on with it – no matter what you think.

“Thankfully, we had a great set of lads in the dressing room and in Micky Adams we had a strong leader to hold everyone together and I think he deserves enormous credit for that.

“Do I think the supporters were right to campaign for change? Yes I think they were. We’ve got a good set of fans and they usually know when something’s not right.

“The club is certainly in a better place now than it was 12 months ago. It’s a happy ship.”

This season’s heroics have seen Tom, nicknamed The Pontiff and The Sneyd Green Sniper by the Vale Park faithful, named League Two Player of the Year – among other accolades.

Barring a barren spell around March-time he’s been prolific all season and his goals are effectively Vale’s goal difference of plus 30-something.

He said: “It makes such a difference for a striker like myself having good, creative wide players in the side.

“Jeno (Jennison Myrie-Williams) and Ashley Vincent will always cause problems for defences because of their trickery and pace.

“I’ve tried to stay more central – rather than doing lots of chasing around – and I’ve had good crosses coming in. Fortunately I’ve been able to put quite a few of them away.”

Does he think players in the current squad could step up to the level required to survive and thrive in League One?

“Definitely,” he said. “We’ve got some very talented lads in the dressing room. You look at skilful players like Doddsy (Louis Dodds) and you think that actually playing at a higher level might suit them.”

Whats it like to be a Vale fan, though, playing for the club you love and scoring goals?

He said: “To be honest I try to keep my feet on the ground. I know I’m very lucky but I don’t tend to get carried away.

“Of course I can hear the supporters – I used to be one of them shouting for Foyley and the like – so I know what that’s all about.

“It’s hard to believe they are shouting for me, to be honest, and I try to block it out and concentrate on my game. I know it’s special for me but now isn’t the time to start thinking about records and awards and personal targets.

“I’m not someone who thrives on praise. If I score a hat-trick then the manager will shake my hand and that’ll do.

“My dad is very like Micky Adams in that respect. I’m sure he tells all his mates how proud of me he is but he wouldn’t tell me. If I score a hat-trick he’s more likely to pick me up over a mis-placed pass. Him and the gaffer know how I tick.”

What about the future, then, for a bloke who is enjoying the form of his life while juggling the responsibilities of being a dad?

“I’ve said before I’d like to see out my career here. I’ve probably got four or five good years left and I love the place.

“The new owners made me an offer which was respectful and it ties me to Vale for another two seasons. I’d love to think I could stay beyond that too and score a lot more goals.

“Let’s put it this way – it would take an offer of silly money to tempt me away at this stage and, if that were to happen, then I’d obviously have to think about my family and see what’s right for us.

“At this moment in time, however, I’m enjoying my football and I want to be able to look back in five, 10, 15 years’ time and have people say to me: ‘What a season that was. What a team we had back then’.”

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

It’s all systems go at a re-energised Vale Park


It’s been another extremely positive week for Port Vale fans and it genuinely feels like a huge black cloud has been lifted.

A terrific, hard-fought win away at Aldershot has maintained the distance between us and the chasing pack and closed the gap on league leaders Gillingham to just two points.

Heading in to the festive period Vale are perfectly placed to maintain a promotion push.

What’s more, Micky Adams now has options in midfield and upfront – with Ryan Burge, Kingsley James and Ben Williamson emerging as the latest players to shine in a squad that plays for each other.

The addition of Liam Chilvers and then Calvin Andrew to the squad weren’t perhaps what some supporters were hoping for.

However, it is clear from the names being bandied about and the ambition being shown that we are now a club which has the financial clout to bring in new faces.

We are no longer, as Norman Smurthwaite has said several times, in a ‘distressed state’. In other words, we don’t need to flog our best players to pay next month’s wage bill.

As well as new players we now have a chief scout in the experienced George Foster which make Vale something of a rarity at League Two level.

This is a significant development in that it will give us better knowledge of opposition teams and help Micky Adams and his team identify potential recruits.

Off the park things are happening quickly too: Those awful toilets in the Railway Paddock will soon be sorted; the catering situation is being reviewed and fans will be able to buy mini season tickets valid from January.

Interestingly, the new regime is also starting to right a few wrongs – such as ensuring those Vale fans who paid for bricks with names on for the Lorne Street’s ‘wall of fame’ are finally getting what they paid for.

This is all about making Port Vale the customer-focused business it has to be to attract more bums on seats.

There is, of course, still much work to be done but it seems everyone is pulling in the same direction now – the staff, the supporters and the new owners.

Having ‘Papa Smurf’, as he has affectionately become known, at Vale Park five days a week can only be a good thing.

He’s not come out of retirement to waste money and I know supporters will be pleasantly surprised by some of the announcements which will be coming out of a re-energised Vale Park in the coming weeks.

Read my Port Vale articles every Friday during the season in The Sentinel

Club is at a crossroads… will we all take the same path?


This is the first week in a long time that I’ve sat down and not felt obliged to moan about the boardroom situation.
That doesn’t mean the problems have gone away or that a degree of suspicion doesn’t remain – far from it.
Talking to other supporters, many are desperate to put the civil war behind them, look forward to bigger home gates and simply get behind Micky’s team.
But there’s also a sense of “close but no cigar” about the way in which the campaign for change concluded.
I think this springs from the fact there was no dramatic coup d’état – as many had hoped for.
Instead we’ve seen the removal of the old guard, or most of them, and witnessed the death of the dream of a supporter-run club.
In many ways we are into uncharted territory and have to hope that the £8 million Blue Sky investment deal is all its cracked up to be.
So I guess the question is how and when will Vale supporters judge the ‘new’ regime?
Of course, promotion – or any sort of success on the field – goes a long way to papering over the cracks or masking any misgivings fans may have about the way in which their club is being run.
This is something we all want and, if it comes via the manager being given a few hundred thousand pounds to strengthen his squad, then it will certainly be a big tick for the powers-that-be.
For me, however, the ‘new’ board should be judged on two things.
Firstly, the investment of £5 million over the next 11 months or so is an easy one to measure.
This will include completion of the Lorne Street stand and the Robbie Williams’ suite.
Rob has now given his blessing to this – via his dad who visited him in LA last week – and so there is no reason why we shouldn’t see some swift progress on this development.
What the rest of the £5 million will be spent on we shall have to wait and see.
The second way in which I will judge the new regime is on its ability to deliver on the promise of a supporter-elected representative to the board.
Thanks to Robbie Williams’ proxy, the Supporters Club actually has some clout now and will be fighting tooth and nail to ensure fans have a voice.
This will be done through regular polls of fans on important issues relating to the club, and by ensuring that any new fan representative on the board has the same rights as any other director.
In many ways we are at a crossroads and hopefully, if those that run the club are true to their words, we can all start to take the same path together.