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’.”
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