Why a little friendly football rivalry is good for Stoke-on-Trent

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

As much as some people would like to hype things up, if you’re from Stoke-on-Trent you know there’s only ever been one football derby worth talking about in these parts – and it doesn’t involve Crewe Alexandra, Shrewsbury Town or another Midlands club.

If you were there on that famous FA Cup night at Vale Park in November 1992 when Stoke striker Dave Regis’s shot got stuck in a puddle a yard or so away from the empty Vale net then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the derbies in which the likes of Stein, Gleghorn and Sheron made headlines for the Potters and Cummins, van der Laan and Bogie became heroes for the Valiants.

How great it was last Sunday that the Potteries derby was resurrected at Vale Park – complete with legends from both clubs and a smattering of celebrities.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor and his friend, local businessman Kevin Jones, organised the Legends game at pretty short notice and, in all honesty, I don’t think many people thought they could make it happen.

But on a rare sunny weekend almost 4,000 Vale and Stoke fans turned out to watch former players roll back the years in aid of charity.

The Vale team, featuring the likes of Ray Walker and Neil Aspin lined up against a Stoke team including the aforementioned Dave Regis and Micky Pejic while famous names like Jonathan Wilkes, Paddy McGuinness and darts maestro Adrian Lewis added to the mix.

Potteries football icons John Rudge and Denis Smith were there in a managerial capacity, for Vale and Stoke respectively, while top flight referee Phil Dowd volunteered to officiate.

Many Vale employees, including stewards, worked for free in the knowledge that local organisation Approach, which helps older people with dementia or mental health needs, would benefit.

The charity was chosen because Tony Naylor’s father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and he wanted to do something which raises awareness of dementia.

While we await the final figure for how much money has been raised, it’s safe to assume that more than £20,000 will be going into Approach’s coffers as a result of last Sunday’s game.

But perhaps more important than that, the event shone a light on dementia – something which affects more than 800,000 people across the UK. I think Vale and Stoke fans can also be immensely proud of how they pulled together for this worthy cause.

Yes, there was banter – with Stoke fans reminding home supporters of the gulf between the clubs these days and Vale fans enjoying ‘normal service being resumed’ as their team put eight past the visitors without reply.

In the end, however, the result was of secondary importance. The charity was the real winner and Stoke City and Port Vale fans proved they can sit side-by-side in friendly rivalry.

Barring a random cup draw, there’s no guarantee that the proper Potteries derby will happen again in my lifetime.

As a Vale supporter, I live in hope, of course.

But if it doesn’t happen then I’d settle for an annual ‘legends game’ – perhaps alternating between the Brit and Vale Park – in aid of different local charities.

Given more time to organise the game for next summer, and with the involvement of both clubs and perhaps the city council, this could become a brilliant off-season celebration – particularly as Stoke-on-Trent bids to become a ‘football city’, as championed by out-going MP Joan Walley.

Events such as this are relatively inexpensive to organise and they generate enormous goodwill.

It’s another easy way to tap into our city’s heritage and help cement football as a sport fit for a family day out.

Fingers crossed for next year and many congratulations to Tony, Kevin, Stoke City fan Angela Smith and all the volunteers for their efforts on Sunday.

They did us all proud – which ever half of the city you come from.

Did you go to the legends game? Would you like to see this become an annual event?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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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.

This goes beyond tribal loyalties. Come and be Vale with us tonight

In years to come people will remember where they were and what they did in the coming days and weeks.
An old friend of mine is in trouble, you see. Deep trouble.
One of Stoke-on-Trent’s grandest institutions is on its knees and the prognosis is bleak.
The situation is so desperate and so unfair that it has caused many of us months and months of sleepless nights.
Emotions are running high. None of us can rest easy until we know for sure that our friend is going to pull through.
But I am keeping the faith. We all are.
As a result, something momentous is happening: Something at once inspirational and humbling which makes me extremely proud of my home city.
Port Vale Football Club is being resuscitated.
The community club with a 136-year history that has had its name dragged through the mud and been left for dead, is slowly but surely being revived.
Not by outside investors, your understand. There isn’t an oligarch or a sheikh to be seen around Boslem.
No, this rebirth is being driven by the people of the Potteries who are demonstrating that the city council is right to bail the club out by underwriting the costs of the administration process.
They are the same people who dipped into their pockets less than a decade ago when Port Vale went into administration the first time around.
They are the same people who chucked coins in buckets or used their hard-earned savings to buy shares. Often both.
They are the same people who bought bricks for the plinth on which a statue of Port Vale’s greatest player will one day sit.
They are the perennially disappointed and downtrodden – the let down and the misled.
But they are steadfastly loyal and they care so much about the financial basket case that is Port Vale that I defy anyone to ever write the club off.
They’re making donations, planning fund-raisers and working their socks off.
What’s more, this time around the ordinary fans – the lifeblood of the club – are not alone.
What has happened at Vale Park in recent months has touched a chord with many people, some of whom never even attend football matches.
Even die-heard Stoke City supporters living the Premier League dream and dining out on European adventures are shaking their heads at the catastrophe that has befallen their poor cousins down the A500.
This goes beyond tribal loyalties. You don’t have to be a Port Vale fan to realise that some things are just plain wrong. Like telling supporters £8 million is being invested into their football club when it isn’t.
Like issuing shares that haven’t been paid for to people who then use them to vote themselves on to the club’s board of directors.
Like remortgaging Vale Park from under the noses of its fans and the club’s shareholders – thus breaching the terms of its loan agreement with the city council.
The list of misdemeanours goes on and on – so much so that, if I wrote them all down and submitted the story on spec to ITV as an idea for a drama based around a struggling northern League Two football club, the producers would undoubtedly reject my pitch on the grounds that it was too far-fetched.
As a result of months of poor stewardship and a complete disregard for the club’s fanbase by the board of directors, Port Vale is on the brink of extinction.
Ordinary, hard-working employees at Port Vale have been left in limbo – not knowing where their next pay packet is coming from.
Manager Micky Adams was only able to take four substitutes to Saturday’s game because there was no money to cover the fifth player’s travel expenses from Sheffield.
I kid you not.
The players, who are unbeaten in six matches, are performing for free. Respect is due.
This is why tonight I’m hoping we’re going to have the largest home attendance at Vale Park this season.
In its hour of need, I’m hoping lapsed Vale fans and those who have deliberately boycotted the club will return and be joined by a few of their mates who normally make all the noise down at the Brit.
I’ll be there in the Bycars End rattling a collection bucket.
I’ll be accompanied by a Manchester United season ticket holder and a lapsed Vale who hasn’t been regularly since He Of The Flat Cap was in charge.
More used to the Theatre Of Dreams, my Man Utd fan mate was at Sunday’s emotional Supporters’ Club meeting at Baddeley Green Workingmen’s Club and was swept up in the emotion of the occasion.
Tonight, he’ll be in the presence of the ghosts of Aveyard and Sproson, Rudge and Earle, Foyle and Ainsworth at a ground echoing with memories of FA Cup giant-killings and glorious, heart-stopping promotion campaigns.
Tonight he’ll be Vale and he’ll be very welcome. Please join him.

Proud To Be Vale Thanks To ‘He Of The Flat Cap’

It is sad but true to say that there is a generation of Port Vale supporters who have grown up without experiencing any real success.
It’s 11 long years since the club’s day in the sun at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the LDV Vans Trophy Final win over Brentford.
Before that you have to go back to the mid-Nineties when the team was managed by ‘He Of The Flat Cap’ – otherwise known as ‘The Bald Eagle’ or plain old ‘J.R’.
John Rudge may hail from Wolverhampton but he is a genuine Potteries legend and, unless you come from these parts, it is difficult to appreciate just how much a part of local footballing folklore he is.
He is one of only a handful of men who have crossed the great divide between Port Vale and Stoke City and somehow managed to retain the respect and admiration of both sets of fans.
As comfortable as a public speaker at a fund-raising dinner in aid of Vale’s youth team as he is talking tactics with Tony Pulis at the Britannia Stadium, Rudgie is a special bloke.
To fully appreciate the reverence with which he is held by Vale fans like myself, you have to journey back to December 1983 when he took over the reins after manager John McGrath was sacked.
Under McGrath, Vale had lost 13 of the opening 17 games that season and J.R. was unable to prevent relegation to the old Division Four.
What followed was a season of consolidation during which Vale finished twelfth before Rudgie took fans on a dream journey which included promotions, a number of genuinely jaw-dropping giant-killings, several trips to Wembley and some cherished silverware.
J.R formed an unlikely alliance colourful former chairman Bill Bell and together they oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history.
As marriages go, it was a fiery affair.
One afternoon, as a cub reporter, I was camped outside the old main entrance awaiting confirmation that Rudgie had signed an extension to his contract.
He swept past me, refusing to speak, jumped in his car and sped away from the ground – only to return a few minutes later.
“What’s going on, gaffer?” I asked.
He told me that the chairman had annoyed him so much by quibbling over money that he had decided not to sign a new deal.
However, as he drove away from Vale Park, Rudgie had spotted a small group of fans at the gates holding up a banner pleading for him to stay. Thankfully, that persuaded him to turn his car around and sign on the dotted line for another eight years.
Rudgie was manager at Vale for 16 years and during that time generated almost £10 million in transfer income for the club.
He nurtured the likes of Robbie Earle and Mark Bright and had a wonderful eye for talent – bringing a raft of quality players to the club whose names trip off the tongue of any Vale fan worth his or her salt.
These included Andy Jones, Mark Grew, Ray Walker, Bob Hazell, Darren Beckford, Simon Mills, Neil Aspin, Dean Glover, Martin Foyle, Gareth Ainsworth, John Jeffers, Robin van der Laan, Ian Taylor, Nicky Cross, Keith Houchen, Andy Porter, Paul Musselwhite, Steve Guppy, Jon McCarthy, Bernie Slaven and Marcus Bent, among others.
They were Vale’s golden generation – delivering FA Cup victories over Spurs (1988), our neighbours down the A500 (1994) and cup holders Everton (1996).
I was in the Press Box for the Stoke and Everton games and I am ashamed to say I was as un-impartial as you can get.
I remember the action from the Everton game like it was yesterday and recall beforehand having every confidence that our wingers would cause havoc for the top-flight team. Which they did.
Damn we had a good side. I reckon we’d have beaten anyone that night.
Rudgie was the mastermind behind it all and led us to Autoglass Trophy Final victory in 1993, the Anglo-Italian Cup Final against Genoa in 1996 and no less than three promotions to the dizzy heights of the old Division Two (now The Championship).
The only shame is that when J.R. did leave Vale Park after 19 years and 834 games in charge, it was after being sacked by Bill Bell.
Cue an outpouring of grief among Vale fans which included noisy demonstrations and the infamous ‘flat cap’ protest march.
You see, we knew what we had lost – even if the chairman didn’t quite appreciate J.R. who went on to take the club to an industrial tribunal and win a £300,000 pay-out.
I’ve heard the odd Vale fan label Rudgie a traitor for joining Stoke City.
It’s nonsense, of course. The truth is most of us just wish he was still ours.
Following his dismissal in 1999, no-less than Sir Alex Ferguson is reported to have said: “Every Port Vale supporter should get down on their knees and thank The Lord for John Rudge.”
To be honest, I think many of us were too busy praying he’d come back.