Put our differences aside is the only thing that makes any sense

Norman Smurthwaite.

Norman Smurthwaite.

Just get it sorted. That seems to be the opinion of many level-headed Port Vale supporters as Norman Smurthwaite’s ban on The Sentinel continues.

Forget that respected football writers with a national profile have backed this newspaper.

Forget that the legend that is Robbie Earle thinks a football club banning its local paper is tantamount to self-harm.

I think a lot of Vale fans have taken the view that, whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute, ultimately it is in the interests of both parties that we seek a speedy resolution.

They are absolutely correct which is why, behind the scenes, that is exactly what The Sentinel has been trying to do since last Friday.

We hoped this row would be resolved days ago and drafted a joint statement – as requested – in an attempt to overcome the impasse.

It seems that statement isn’t acceptable but, rather than having another go at it, we now have to wait until next Tuesday for a meeting – at which presumably we’ll go over the same old ground we did during this Tuesday’s negotiations.

Personally, I can live without it.

After everything that’s gone on during the last three or four years it breaks my heart to see Vale and the newspaper I work for falling out.

Or rather, the Vale owner and this newspaper falling out.

I guess you have to have lived through it – like all Vale supporters did – to appreciate the upheaval, uncertainty, anger and embarrassment at the time.

I certainly never want to go through anything like that again.

For the Vale owner to now fall out with the media organisation which best supported the fans and club during those troubled times seems utterly nonsensical to me.

It’s about 12 months ago to the day since I was on the car park at Vale Park in the pouring rain giving an interview to BBC Radio Stoke’s Stuart George on the breakfast programme.

I was still on the Port Vale Supporters’ Club committee at the time.

Vale was about to come out of administration and I got into an argument with a council taxpayer called Peter, from Trentham, who told me the club wasn’t worth saving and would be bust again with a year.

I told him Vale was worth saving, that the club was an essential part of the city’s heritage and that the new owners wouldn’t let it go bust.

Consequently, Peter – if you’re reading this – you owe me breakfast.

On that morning it occurred to me that the new owners had an opportunity perhaps unlike any previous chairman or chief executive to take over at Vale Park.

The club had no debts, the fans were united, Micky Adams’s team was performing terrifically well on the pitch, and the relationship between Port Vale and this newspaper was stronger than it had been at anytime during the 15 years I have worked here.

Since then our sports team has worked hard to promote the club – providing season ticket publicity and telling our readers about events and the new club shops.

I was given a personal guided tour around Vale Park by the chairman in July and wrote a very positive article for our pre-season supplement which talked up the changes taking place at Vale Park and emphasising Norman Smurthwaite’s hard work and investment.

We’ve also talked several times about problems and potential problems facing the club and I’ve done my best to help him make the club stronger. Furthermore, I’ve personally invited Norman to all of The Sentinel’s flagship community events – the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards, The Sentinel Business Awards and the recent Our Heroes Awards.

Why? Because he is an important figure in the local community and we want Port Vale to be represented at these dos which provide excellent networking opportunities.

All of this is true and the chairman knows it.

Yet here we are with the team sitting pretty in League One and in a decent run of form and the chairman and this newspaper are at loggerheads.

Over what? A perfectly legitimate story about a delay in the arrival of 1,000 shirts. (Friday’s phone message to me said the ban related to us running ‘negative stories about his club’).

Or possibly because, as the Editor was told, The Sentinel doesn’t make a direct financial contribution to the club in order to be able to cover matches (no newspaper in the UK does).

Or possibly because of the way we handled a story back in May. (The Vale chairman approved the contents of this story before it went to print and it hasn’t been brought up for five months or more).

Having devoted so much time, effort and resources to helping supporters win their battle to save Port Vale why would The Sentinel or I publish anything which we knew would harm the club and damage our relationship with the owner and the fans?

The answer is: We wouldn’t and we haven’t.

Whether you believe me or not, it is an indisputable fact that both Port Vale and The Sentinel working together is good for both the club and the newspaper and for the benefit of the city, local communities and, of course, the club’s commercial partners.

I don’t want our end of season special (hopefully a promotion special) to be canned because we have no photographs taken at home games. I’d like that Vale souvenir to put with all the others we do.

Neither do I want blank spaces or filler images in our match reports. I’d rather see a picture of a fellow Sneyd Greener celebrating his goals, thank you very much.

Neither do I want a nice bloke and a terrific sports writer like Michael Baggaley prevented from doing what he does best.

I can’t say it any clearer than this: We are ready to resolve this dispute for the good of all concerned but it really does take two to tango.

Let’s talk, put differences aside, and get back to the mutually beneficial relationship Vale and The Sentinel have been enjoying since Norman Smurthwaite took over the club.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Magic moment for Pope echoes Eighties Vale legend

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Believe it or not 30-goal strikers are a rare breed in these parts.

That is why the achievement yesterday of Sneyd Green’s finest – Tom Pope – is worthy of such high praise.

As I write this the Pontiff, as he is affectionately known, has scored thirty goals and – with six games remaining – has every chance of setting a new post-war record.

Since 1980 only two players – one for Port Vale and one for Stoke City – have reached the heady heights of 30-plus goals.

Before that you have to delve deep into the history books for names like Wilf Kirkham (three times for Vale between 1924 and 1927) and, for Stoke, Charlie Wilson (1927/28) or the great Freddie Steele (1936/37 and 1946/47).

Since 1980 the only Stoke City player to score more than 30 goals in a season (in all competitions) was Mark Stein.

The pint-sized marksman hit 33 goals, including 26 in the league, to fire the Potters to promotion during the 1992/93 season.

I was a cub reporter at the time and was covering all Stoke and Vale home games and even I, as a Vale fan, had to acknowledge I was witnessing something special at the Victoria Ground.

Stoke went on a 25-game unbeaten run that season and Stein’s partnership with Wayne ‘Bertie’ Biggins was prolific.

At Vale Park it was a unheralded Welshman who was to set a new post-war goal-scoring record in the mid-Eighties.

Andy Jones joined the Vale from non-league Rhyl in May 1985 – manager John Rudge having paid the princely sum of £3,000 for the man who had failed to make an impact at Wrexham.

He was only at Vale Park for two and a bit seasons but his impact during that time was astonishing.

He was Vale’s top scorer in his first season with 18 goals and his strike partnership with Robbie Earle, which fired Vale to promotion from the old Third Division, was unforgettable.

But it was the following season when Jones really hit the heights. He scored 37 goals and 27 of those came in the league – making him the top striker outside the top flight.

As Vale’s penalty-taker, he scored 12 of his goals from the spot.

But he also scored twice in eight games, scored a hat-trick against Fulham at Craven Cottage, and managed to score five against Newport County.

Andy Jones had scored six goals in eight games at the start of the 1987/88 season when he was transferred to First Division Charlton Athletic.

Ironically, his time with the club wasn’t a success and he probably looks back ruefully at the fact that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson just missed out on signing him.

Tom Pope may not be on Sir Alex’s radar just yet. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t taking Vale’s penalties at the moment.

However, having just been named the League Two Player of the Year, the lad who was born just a few months after Andy Jones signed for the Vale and grew up supporting the Valiants has emulated a club legend made in the Eighties.

Whatever happens between now and April 27, our Popey has had a terrific season and deserves all the plaudits he’s received thus far.

But I am sure all football fans can see the romance in him scoring a few more goals this season and firing his boyhood club to promotion after the most turbulent of periods.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Phil so proud of keeping Vale in the family

It has taken 11 years, an awful lot of time, effort and fund-raising, and there have been numerous headaches and hurdles along the way.

But next Saturday, at 1.45pm up at Vale Park, supporters will finally have their chance to gaze upon a permanent memorial to a unique Potteries footballing family.

The Sproson statue, orchestrated and funded by Vale fans, will be unveiled to supporters, the media and a gathering of VIPs including Roy Sproson’s widow Joyce and Gordon Taylor OBE from the Professional Footballers’ Association.

It is a magnificent sculpture showing Roy – the club’s greatest servant – in a pose he would typically have adopted during his record 837 appearances for the Burslem club.

But the granite plinth on which the statue sits, also pays homage to Roy’s elder brother Jess and his nephew Phil who both pulled on the white shirt and added their names to Vale folklore.

Sadly, neither Roy nor Jess are around to witness what will be a very special day for the Sproson family who clocked up an amazing 1,370 appearances for the Valiants.

However, Phil will be there with his auntie Joyce to represent this extraordinary footballing dynasty.

The 53-year-old, now a players’ agent, said: “I know the whole family will be incredibly proud. I hope it will give Vale fans tremendous pride too and hopefully spur on current and future players.

“They can walk down the steps, look up at this great man who did so much for Port Vale and perhaps try to emulate him in some way.

“Maybe they could touch his boot for luck before games and if a tiny bit of uncle Roy’s spirit rubs off on them then they’ll do alright.”

Phil, now aged 53, followed in his father and uncle’s footsteps by signing for Vale as a professional at the end of 1977 having graduated through the club’s youth ranks.

He went on to play for the Vale 495 times and enjoyed three promotion campaigns before a training ground injury in January 1989 ended his time at Vale Park.

Phil is third in the all-time appearances list at Vale – behind his uncle Roy (837) and Harry Poole (498).

He said: “I always loved pulling on the shirt. It gave me an enormous sense of pride. I remember when I was made captain by John Rudge. He asked me: ‘Do you want it? (the captain’s armband)’ I said: ‘Yes’. Rudgie said: ‘It’s yours. Nobody deserves it more.’ I could have exploded I was so happy.”

Phil, who lives in Church Lawton, says there was no real added pressure in being related to the man who was Mr Port Vale.

He said: “To me he was just loveable uncle Roy who lived over the road from us. It wasn’t I think until I had got a full season of 30 or 40 games under my belt that I started to think: ‘Eight hundred games!’ How the hell did anyone play so many?’

“Then I realised just how special Roy was and why so many Vale supporters held him in such high regard.

“In fact, the best compliment ever paid to me was by my uncle Roy. It was after we had beaten Spurs in the cup.

“He came over to me, cupped my chin and said: ‘You’ll do for me. You’d have made it into any side I ever played in.’ That, to me, was so important.”

Phil rates the contribution of Vale managers John McGrath and John Rudge to his own career as ‘massive’.

He said: “John McGrath made me the player I was. He took me to one side one day and asked me how much I wanted the shirt. Then he told me we had work to do and put me in the gym to build me up, sharpen me up, and make me a better player.

“In contrast Rudgie was a thinker. He wasn’t as bullish but when Rudgie spoke people listened. He certainly knew how to get the best out of people.”

Phil played in an emerging Vale side alongside the likes of Ray Walker, Robbie Earle and Darren Beckford.

He said: “If I was to pick out a couple of players who were really special from that era I’d have to go for Mark Chamberlain and Robbie.

“Mark was just a flash of brilliance. Robbie had such a great work ethic. He just loved to win.”

And what does Phil think of the current crop of Vale players riding high in League Two despite the constraints of a period during which the club has been in administration.

Phil said: “The way they have started the season is testament to Micky Adams and the coaching skills of Rob Page and Mark Grew.

“The only problem I can see is injuries and suspensions. It’s not rocket science: The squad has very little depth but if they are able to strengthen it then they’ve got a good chance of promotion.”

He added: “As for Tom Pope (17 goals already this season), he’s a throwback to my era – he really is. Popey’s a local lad, a Vale fan, who is in the form of his life and loving the game – scoring goals for the team he supported as a lad. You can see it all over his face and it’s wonderful to watch.”

Phil’s 23-year-old son Warren is currently serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) out in Afghanistan and so will miss next Saturday’s celebration.

His dad said: “He will certainly be with us in spirit. He’s taken a Vale shirt out there. We’re all exceptionally proud of him and thinking of him.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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.