FIFA, the World Cup 2014 paradox, and 48 years of hurt…

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia '90.

A tearful Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90.

And so it begins. The office sweepstakes have been organised, the wall charts are up, the sticker albums are almost complete and a solid month of football lies ahead.

Despite the fact the game’s world governing body, FIFA, has about as much credibility as the elections in Syria, that didn’t matter last night when hosts Brazil kicked off the World Cup against Croatia.

The suits were out in force, amid all the pomp and ceremony, as the first match provided a welcome distraction for the embattled charisma vacuum that is Sepp Blatter.

The internal strife of the South American nation has been forgotten. The furore surrounding FIFA’s dubious decision to award the 2022 tournament to a country which is hotter than the sun has been conveniently parked.

As much as the World Cup is an inspirational event, we must accept that it’s also the poster boy for corporate largesse and hyperbole.

Here in England, the Spirit of ‘66 lives on – well at least it does in supermarkets up and down the country where you can buy flags of St George and T-shirts showing the late, great Bobby Moore OBE which will be worn by people of all ages – many of whom have no idea who he was.

England play their first game on Saturday night in a brand new stadium in Manaus – a place more suited to a location shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark than top flight football.

The pitch is of a standard that many pub teams would baulk at and the stadium itself will only be used for four World Cup games because no major team in Brazil wants to base themselves in, well… the jungle.

But the lunacy that accompanies the tournament will be overlooked by fans of England and Italy because all that matters on Saturday night is the result.

I suppose it’s easy to understand why your average fan isn’t too bothered by what happens off the field or the domestic problems of the host nation.

The World Cup is one of those rare events – a sporting occasion which brings nations together, united in hope for an improbable dream.

Club allegiances are set aside (we’re all England now) and the only debates take place over matters such as whether Wellbeck or Sterling should start a game and the fitness or otherwise of Wayne Rooney.

For the millions of supporters of lower league clubs, like myself, the World Cup gives us – albeit briefly – a seat at the top table.

Whether you’re Port Vale or Rotherham, Crewe Alex or Yeovil, the multi-million pound Premier League superstars are now yours to support.

Even if it’s only for the group stages.

I was born in 1972 – by which time the glow of England’s only World Cup triumph was already fading.

Even so, I dare say few people who were around to see Geoff Hurst’s heroics would have thought that almost 50 years later the Three Lions would still be waiting to appear in another World Cup Final.

For as long as I’ve been watching England, they’ve been hugely disappointing.

Glorious and not-so-glorious failures are all I can remember.

We cling on to Bryan Robson’s lightning-quick goal, Lineker’s Golden Boot, David Platt’s sublime volley and Gazza’s tears.

We have recurring nightmares about penalty shoot-outs and still feel aggrieved that the greatest footballer of his generation used his hand to knock us out of the tournament.

We’ve seen a so-called ‘golden generation’ under-achieve hugely and been left questioning whether or not Champions League football perhaps matters more to overpaid Premier League stars than representing their country.

If I sound cynical I am. But it doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the World Cup.

The one saving grace this time is that I can’t find anyone who thinks England are a force to be reckoned with.

Like Germany in 2010, we have an interesting mix of experience and youngsters with potential. We have no superstars. None.

No-one expects us to tear up any trees and that may just be Roy Hodgson’s greatest weapon.

I don’t expect miracles. I don’t expect beautiful football. But I do expect the national anthem to be sung with gusto and for the players representing our country to give their all. To show some passion.

Come on England. Do us proud.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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.

Let’s be positive and keep faith with a team forged out of adversity

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It would be the easiest thing in the world right now to be negative; To condemn the manager and the players for the recent poor run of form.

But, for me, the glass is still half full and I don’t see any value at this juncture in laying in to a team that still sits second in the table with a goal difference of plus 29.

As anyone who follows Vale knows we never do things the easy way and I suspect supporters will have to grit their teeth and cross their fingers until the final game of the season.

Love hurts, as Roy Orbison was oft heard to say, but Vale fans will doubtless keep the faith with this team forged out of adversity.

I never thought we’d win the league but I do think we will still secure automatic promotion with five wins and a couple of draws from the remaining games.

Tuesday night’s goalless draw against Bradford – a team that are no slouches, by the way (as their cup runs proved) – at least stopped the rot.

On another day the Pontiff would have had a hat-trick and I expect normal service to be resumed soon and a visiting team to Vale Park to be on the end of a good hiding.

Remember that the teams in the chasing pack can’t win every game and have to play each other in the coming weeks.

The players need to forget all about the Cheltenhams, Rotherhams, Burtons and Exeters, stop looking over their shoulders and concentrate on what they did so well earlier in the season.

Even without skipper Doug Loft, whose tackle on Tuesday night was no less rash than the one which earned Sam Morsy a red card earlier in the season, we are hardly short of options in midfield.

For me, both Morsy and Ryan Burge warrant a starting place in order to help us win the crucial midfield battles – as does the excellent Louis Dodds who, in my opinion, is the best man to play off Tom Pope.

If the gaffer doesn’t believe Ashley Vincent is doing the business then can I be cheeky and suggest he gives Ben Williamson a start in his place?

Williamson’s goals return compared to that of, say, Calvin Andrew is far superior and his pace always causes teams problems.

I guess my point is that the manager has choices – thanks to the support of the new owners in the transfer market.

Now he just has to make the right ones.

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.

Happy New Year to all Vale fans. We’ve earned it

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I will admit to spending the last 10 minutes of the Rotherham game pacing up and down fearing that we were going to let another two points slip.

But when the final whistle blew it really was the perfect Christmas present from an honest set of lads to Vale fans everywhere.

The easier of the three games over the festive period – Wimbledon at home – was a washout.

But Micky Adams’ charges battled hard for a point at rivals Cheltenham and then went and completed the double over the Millers at their place on Boxing Day.

The win leaves us in a great position – just two points off the top spot and with a game in hand over the teams lying third and fourth.

The restoration of Louis Dodds to the starting line-up alongside the Pontiff, a combination which served us so well at the start of the season, is certainly paying dividends.

Both strikers scored and it was great to learn that the Doug Loft had been reinstated to the midfield which is clearly where he is most influential.

That we are in such a superb position going into the New Year is testament to the players and coaching staff who weren’t given much of a prayer by the bookies in April.

This time last year things were so very different.

Fans were still reeling from revelations about nil paid shares and the remortgaging of Vale Park from under their noses.

A vast majority of supporters felt completely disenfranchised by the self-serving individual running the club.

The future looked bleak. Vale were struggling to pay bills and administration seemed an inevitability.

Those who campaigned for change may indeed have taken a gamble with Port Vale’s future.

But, for me, it was far less a gamble than leaving the club in the hands of those who quite clearly didn’t have Vale’s best interests at heart.

The Port Vale of 2013 will live or die by decisions made by businessmen like Norman Smurthwaite who genuinely believe they can make the club profitable and therefore successful.

The club’s debt has been cleared, we paid the 10-point penalty for going bump, and the Vale is now in a far healthier position than it has been for many years.

This is a time of hope and optimism where we can devote our time to discussing the merits of players and formations rather than discredited directors.

A Happy New Year to all Port Vale fans and employees. We’ve earned it.

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

Pope finally steps out of the shadows to become Vale’s main man

Well that’s put the cat among the pigeons. There’s nowt like a 6 – 2 demolition of the bookies’ favourites to make the rest of the division sit up and take notice.

The dismantling of Rotherham just days after we dumped League One leaders Tranmere out of the Johnstone Paints Trophy sent out a clear message that this Vale side are genuine contenders for promotion.

There were so many positives – such as the movement, the creativity and the commitment from every player.

But what was most pleasing for me was the fact that Tom Pope stepped out of the shadow of other Vale strikers and became our main man.

Last season’s much-maligned workhorse finally got his rewards for all the endeavour, all the flick-ons, and all the holding up of the ball he’s done in the last 18 months.

With one bravura performance Popey joined a rather exclusive club of Vale players who have scored four goals in one game.

There were some fans who doubted local lad Pope who, to be fair, came to the club he has supported all his life with a fair amount of baggage.

I’m sure some felt that Micky Adams had another Gary Roberts on his hands and thought perhaps that it was only a matter of time before he went off the rails.

Pope was labelled a ‘thug’ and much worse by a minority on fans’ forums and castigated for simply not scoring enough goals – which is, after all, the raison d’être of any striker.

This is why I am so pleased that Sneyd Green’s finest has come good.

I put some of his success this season down to the fact that Vale are no longer playing to and through Marc Richards and some of it down to our new-look midfield.

But let’s be fair: Popey looks sharper and fitter than he’s ever been as a Vale player and if he stays injury and trouble free I honestly think we could have a 25 goal plus striker on our hands.

Yes, it is very early days, but put Tom Pope and our goal-scoring midfielders (a special mention here for Louis Dodds who is finally playing in his best position) together with the first decent ’keeper we’ve had since Goodlad and a defence that looks solid and this could well be our year.

Until the club is sold, of course, then keeping our relatively small squad injury-free and avoiding suspensions will be key to us maintaining a promotion push.

Right now Vale are a pleasure to watch and the team and the coaching staff are restoring much-needed pride in our club.

Long may this continue.

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

Is this the start of something special for entertaining Vale?

There’s a tremendous buzz around Vale Park at the moment – a feeling that maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of something special.
Burslem natives know better than to count their chickens but we’ve made a hugely impressive and encouraging start to the season.
This time last week many of us felt that the next two games would give an indication of just how good this team is.
Well, in my opinion, Tuesday’s win over League One table-toppers Tranmere was this Vale team laying down a marker: There’s no-one they can’t beat at this level.
It remains to be seen whether or not we have the firepower to make a genuine charge for promotion.
But what seems beyond question is that this Micky Adams Vale side is more creative, more positive and more exiting to watch than previous incarnations.
Rather than turning up on match days not knowing what to expect, Vale fans are now going through the turnstiles expecting to be entertained.
At the risk of placing a hex on them, I’ve actually got faith in the goalkeeper and the back four – something which I haven’t had since Goodlad was between the sticks.
A special mention here for last season’s Player of the Year Doug Loft who is once again proving the dictionary definition of versatile.
Going forward it feels to me like any of the midfield or forwards (Shuker, Morsy, Dodds, Vincent and Myrie-Williams) are capable of scoring – which takes some of the pressure off Tom Pope.
Crowds may not yet have reached the 5,000 mark which the administrators indicated were needed for the club to break even but to be fair that’s been, in part, due to the poor following of recent opponents and people being away for the summer holidays.
The average attendance should look much healthier after the Rotherham game and what’s certain is that the crowds are only going to get bigger if we keep on winning.
Micky Adams and his team deserve huge credit for the summer additions to the squad and for fostering what appears to be a decent team spirit in difficult circumstances.
No Vale fans are ignoring the elephant in the room (administration) and it is only right that we keep a watching brief on the bidding process.
The takeover of our club, the police investigation, possible civil action against former directors of the Vale are all still very much on my radar.
But, for now at least, it’s nice to be able to concentrate on the football and to marvel at how strength is sometimes born of adversity.