The city’s football clubs need their fans now – for very different reasons

Vale owner Norman Smurthwaite celebrates the 7 - 1 home win over Burton Albion.

Vale owner Norman Smurthwaite celebrates the 7 – 1 home win over Burton Albion.

Turn the clock back 12 months and you would have been given very good odds on the current state of affairs at football clubs in The Sentinel’s patch.

Alternatively, you may have been sectioned for suggesting such things.

At the time Stoke City were heading for another comfortable, if unspectacular, mid-table finish in the Premier League.

The icing on the cake was that Potters fans had enjoyed a Europa League adventure courtesy of the previous season’s heroics in reaching the FA Cup Final.

The football may not have been pretty at times but pundits were describing Stoke as an established Premier League team.

Such was his relationship with owner Peter Coates, it seemed that only an unthinkable fall from grace would place Tony Pulis’s position as manager in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, over in the Mother Town, things were looking grim for the Potteries’ other professional club.

In administration for a second time in 13 years, players and staff at the club were going unpaid and Micky Adams’s team were set to miss out on promotion thanks to a 10-point deduction inflicted by the Football League.

To this day, very few people realise just how close Port Vale came to oblivion which makes the events of recent months such a blessed relief for me.

The renaissance began with the (second) takeover announcement which was followed quickly by the long-awaited unveiling of the statue to the club’s greatest servant – Roy Sproson – funded entirely by Vale fans.

Perhaps a little bit of Sproson magic has rubbed off on the current squad because what has happened since has been nothing short of incredible.

Nobody, including Tom Pope himself, would have dared suggest that a bloke from Sneyd Green, a life-long Vale fan at that, would become only the third player since the war to score more than 30 goals for one of the Potteries clubs.

No-one who followed the Vale, least of all me, would have predicted that a squad mainly comprising free transfers was capable of challenging for automatic promotion.

Of course, the season’s story isn’t yet complete and I, for one, won’t be counting any chickens until it is mathematically impossible for Vale to cock it up.

However, the Lazarus-like revival of the club in the north of the city will, I trust, give some hope to our cousins down the A500 as they face a daunting six games to stave off relegation.

I mean it most sincerely when I say that I hope Stoke City get the points they need to survive in the Premier League.

It’s good for the city’s profile that they’re up there and it’s good for my long-suffering Stoke fan mates who remember only too well third tier football and attendances of less than half what they get nowadays.

The truth is I’ve mellowed. Perhaps it is the events of recent years have changed my perspective on things.

Yes, If Vale were playing Stoke in the cup tomorrow It goes without saying that I’d want Vale to murder them.

But right now the two clubs are poles apart – so much so that Stoke City aren’t on the radar of most Vale fans and vice versa.

Yes, there are some supporters on both sides who would be only too happy to see the other club go out of business.

Honestly, there are.

But I’m not one of them. Apart from anything else, I thoroughly enjoyed the Vale/Stoke derbies and would love to see them return some day.

I genuinely believe there’s room in this city for two successful professional football clubs.

I appreciate the fact that last Friday night, when cheap admission prices swelled Vale’s attendance to almost 11,000 for the first time in years, there were a number of Stokies in that crowd.

I also recall during the dark days of last March, April and May how some Stoke City fans attended games and gave generously to the Save The Vale collection buckets.

Stoke’s current crisis – one win in 13 games and the serious risk of being dragged into a relegation scrap – is one of a footballing nature. One that two wins would sort out.

However, as we know, the financial implications of dropping out of the top flight are enormous and everyone connected with Stoke City – from the owners to the fans in the cheapest seats – are feeling the strain right about now.

Tony Pulis – the man who got them into the Premier League and took them to their first FA Cup Final – is being almost universally vilified by fans on forums and radio station phone-ins.

Supporters have hesitated to renew their season tickets and Fortress Britannia suddenly seems far from impregnable.

The next few games will sort the wheat from the chaff and perhaps sort the hard-core of fans from the band-wagon jumpers of the last five years.

Both clubs need their supporters right now – for very different reasons.

I hope some of the 5,000 extras who turned up at Vale Park on Friday night will return to help usher in a successful new chapter in the club’s history.

I also hope Stoke City’s infamous twelfth man is enough to drag them over the line to safety.

Whether or not that will be enough to save the manager’s job remains to be seen.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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Just look at what COULD happen in our neck of the woods in 2013

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

Port Vale striker Tom Pope is set for a big year in 2013.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and a New Year to boot.
As we shrug off the hangovers and stare balefully into the slate grey skies I, for one, am determined to be positive.
You know, I think 2013 might be alright if my crystal ball is anything to go by.
Here’s what COULD happen in the next 12 months…

*Stoke City qualify for the Europa League two months before the end of the season on account of not having lost a game at the Brit since 2003.
Sir Alex Ferguson gives Tony Pulis ‘the hairdryer’ for not having the decency to sell England defender Ryan Shawcross back to him – muttering something like: “He forgets all the favours I’ve done him” and mentions Stoke being “just a wee club in the Midlands”.
Potters striker Michael Owen then wins the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. Like his three predecessors – Tony McCoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – Owen takes the crown after spending his entire sporting year sitting down. (Joke © The Sentinel’s Sportsdesk)
*Sir Alex Ferguson is left tearing what’s left of his hair out as Tom Pope turns down a multi-million pound move to Old Trafford as a like-for-like replacement for Wayne Rooney.
Explaining his decision to The Sentinel, the Pontiff – whose 40 goals fire Port Vale to automatic promotion – said: “What’s Salford Quays got that I conna get in Sneyd Green, youth?”
Port Vale Supporters’ Club begins fund-raising for a statue of Pope, scheduled to be completed to coincide with the 27-year-old’s 40th birthday celebrations.
Meanwhile, in honour of the Burslem club’s success, the city council lifts the ban on Vale players urinating in the bushes at Hanley Forest Park.
*In a bid to save money Stoke-on-Trent City Council ditches plans to relocate its Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley in favour of a move to neighbouring Newcastle.
Explaining the decision, council leader Mohammed Pervez said most people considered Newcastle to be in the Potteries anyway, even it was “a bit posher”.
However, councillors in the Loyal and Ancient Borough start a petition against the proposals – barricading themselves into the Guildhall until those riff-raff have gone away.
*In an attempt to improve Stoke-on-Trent’s image in the wake of the disastrous BBC documentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank, council leader Mohammed Pervez agrees to star in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
After successfully completing several Bushtucker trials councillor Pervez is narrowly beaten into third place by the pretend opera singer off the Go Compare telly adverts and a kangaroo named Dave.
Mr Pervez, however, remains upbeat – claiming he has “put the city on the map” and reveals he has persuaded Ant and Dec to appear in The Regent Theatre’s pantomime.
*Buoyed by his appearance on ITV1, city council leader Mr Pervez unveils the authority’s latest cost-cutting initiatives.
These include only four out of five council workmen being allowed to loaf about for two hours at lunchtime.
*Staff at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are put in celebratory mood once more following the discovery of a further 700 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard in a field near Lichfield.
After farmer Fred Johnson ploughs the earth deeper than a Rory Delap throw-in, he churns up Excalibur, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail as well as the missing tail fin from the city’s Spitfire RW388.
The museum’s Principal Collections Officer Deb Klemperer tells The Sentinel that experts hope to have worked out what the new finds actually are before she retires in 2050.
*Staffordshire’s new Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis unveils his radical new idea to solve the force’s acute staffing shortage.
After appointing his sixth deputy, Mr Ellis tells the media he will be handing out police uniforms to anyone who wants one, adding: “This is the Big Society in action. The genius of the idea is that the crims won’t know who’s a real copper and who isn’t.”
The Sentinel’s crime reporter thinks he’s joking until he hands her a canister of CS spray some flashing blue lights for her motor.
*Local radio stations run another story claiming The Sentinel is closing down.
The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief responds by publishing a 148-page supplement to mark the paper’s 148th anniversary – including all the stories the paper has beaten the radio stations to during the previous week.
*Developers of the new multi-million City Sentral retail complex on the site of the former Hanley Bus Station announce they have attracted another big name store to the development.
Poundland confirms it will be employing up to six part-time staff at its new superstore.
A spokesman for the shopping complex reveals the name is also to be changed after a huge public outcry because City Sentral is “clearly a bit daft”.
Expect the new Jonny Wilkes Centre to be open in
time for Christmas.
What are your hopes for 2013?

Celebrities saddle up for mammoth bike ride in aid of Donna Louise Children’s Hospice

If my Sentinel colleague Martin Spinks’ masterplan is to pull a hamstring at Fort William in the hope that I will be his substitute then he is sadly mistaken.

The last time yours truly sat on a bike it was 1984 and that bike was a Raleigh Grifter.

Sitting on a bike these days is an alien concept to me. Riding 960 miles is clearly madness.

But that’s what a bunch of celebrities and media types have volunteered to do in aid of our very own Donna Louise Children’s Hospice at Trentham Lakes.

They’re an odd bunch – and I mean that in a nice way – who have been thrown together for a mighty challenge to ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

We’ve got stalwart Donna Louise supporters Nick Hancock and Tony Pulis, Tony’s daughter Steph, fashion guru Jeff Banks, actor Dean Andrews, BBC Radio Five Live’s Mark ‘Chappers’ Chapman, BBC Midlands Today’s Dan Pallett and, of course, our Spinksy.

You learn a lot about someone when you are stuck in a confined space for several days.

So what have I learned so far in between sleeping on tiny bunks on our tour bus which is following the riders as they take turns, in pairs, to ride four to six hour shifts?

Well, I’ve learned that Tony Pulis likes Green Tea and hates Twitter.

I’ve learned that it’s best not to be around Dean Andrews when he’s had curry, baked beans or energy supplements.

I’ve found out that Jeff Banks smokes big Cuban cigars and has a penchant for embellishing the truth.

I’ve also learned that there are two types of celebrity. The ones who talk and the ones who do.

There’s been no moaning from any of the riders despite a nine-hour unscheduled stop at Lancaster services on the M6 when our tyre blew out.

There’s been no belly-aching about the lack of sleep, the cramped conditions and the camp-style food being served on trestle tables as we inch slowly south.

They’ve all given up their time for a brilliant local charity which is close to the hearts of so many people in North Staffordshire.

Over the next few days they will eat carbohydrates until they come out of their ears, be woken in the dead of night and be riding in all weathers for hours on end.

Give them you’re support please. They’re a great bunch and they’re earning it – and massive respect.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation should log on to: http://www.onyerbike2012.org and click on Sponsor The Riders

Arsene Wenger may be a whinger, but he’s got a point about abuse in football

It is, of course, in the interests of Stoke City manager Tony Pulis to stick up for the club’s fans.
It was certainly no surprise to hear him insisting that the abuse hurled at his counterpart Arsene Wenger at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday was nothing out of the ordinary.
The Potters boss is right when he says all managers put up with what we colloquially term ‘stick’ – along with every player who pulls on a shirt and all of the match officials.
I suppose the real question is: At what point does the barracking at football grounds cross the line and become unacceptable?
For example, even the most one-eyed Gooner would have to admit that the sight of massed ranks of Stoke City fans standing behind Wenger and mimicking the Arsenal boss’s frenetic arm-waving and fits of pique was hilarious.
However, you are into far muddier waters when certain sections of the media begin to suggest that some of the chanting was racist because it included references to the Arsenal manager’s nationality.
The problem is that football is the modern-day equivalent of a gladiatorial arena and, when swept along by the emotion of the occasion, ordinary people occasionally say the daftest and most offensive things – things they would never normally dare utter in their everyday lives.
Policing these verbal assaults is a tricky business and, although great strides have been made in recent years to stamp racism out of national game, you still hear some appalling things on the terraces.
I sit in the Bycars End at Vale Park, occasionally with my young children, and frankly I’m appalled at some of the industrial language and the abuse – because that’s what it is – that we have to listen to.
Yes, it goes without saying that the referee and the linesmen are rubbish (aren’t they all when a decision goes against your team?) but that doesn’t prompt me to question their parentage.
Then there are those fans who believe that shouting abuse at their own team’s players is some sort of genius reverse-psychology which will make them perform better.
All I can say is it wouldn’t make me want to work any harder.
At this juncture I should point out that I don’t believe Port Vale or Stoke City supporters to be any worse than fans of any other football team in England when it comes to the abuse they dish out to visiting teams, managers or officials.
Arsene Wenger may hold a special place in the hearts of some Potters fans but I would suggest that is more because he has made a habit of belittling a Potters team whose style of play has become a real thorn in the side of his high-flying Gunners.
Let’s not forget, he also didn’t endear himself to the red and white half of our city with his over-the-top rant against Ryan Shawcross for the tackle which broke the leg of Welsh international Aaron Ramsay.
The Frenchman certainly has a penchant for melodrama and hyperbole – which, of course, makes him perfect for the role of a Premier League manager.
When I spoke about terrace chanting previously, one bloke told me that, as it’s a football match, I have to accept that abuse of players, managers and officials goes with the territory.
Pardon me, but I don’t think children should have to be excluded because certain people need to wash their mouths out. Or is football no longer a sport which families can attend together?
Strangely, I never hear any of this sort of thing when sitting in a packed crowd at Lord’s, Trent Bridge or Edgbaston watching England’s cricketers.
The players may indulge in a little light ‘sledging’ of the opposition batsmen but you simply don’t hear the sort of abuse prevalent at football grounds from cricket followers.
Football, it seems, has its own low standards which I believe have as much to do with the game’s governing bodies, so-called celebrities and national media hype as they do with the fact that it is still regarded as the game of the ‘working classes’.
After all, this is a sport where some of the game’s leading lights excuse racist and bigoted comments by blaming ‘cultural differences’ and fail to challenge the most cynical actions of high-profile players.
It is a game where those top players continue to earn vast sums of money and are still allowed to represent their country after getting away with the kind of behaviour which would see them in clink if they did it in front of a copper up ’Anley on a Friday night.
It is a game where some fans think it is OK to boo an opposition player for having suffered an horrific injury or think it is acceptable to abuse people on account of their sexuality or brand them a ‘gypo’ because they have long hair.
Arsene Wenger may indeed be a whingeing Frenchman but he also may have a point when he says that one day soon football will have to get its house in order.

‘I don’t mind what they pay councillors… if they’re good enough’

There is understandable anger at proposals to give a pay rise to city councillors who are overseeing sweeping cutbacks and hundreds of redundancies.

Indeed, the idea is so barking mad I did half wonder whether or not it had been floated by a quick-thinking Stoke City employee to divert attention away from Tony Pulis escaping a driving ban with the most ludicrous of defences.

Talk about trying to defend the indefensible…

It certainly seems to be plain daft that anyone would advocate increasing the allowances for members during a public sector pay freeze.

The fact the pay rise has been recommended by an independent panel comprising three local taxpayers won’t cut any ice in the Potteries.

If everyone is else is being forced to tighten their belts and other local authorities such as Staffordshire County Council are freezing their expenses, then it seems absurd for city councillors to be treated any differently.

I’m sure, when it meets this week to discuss the proposals, the ruling Labour group will also be mindful of the fact that their basic allowance is already higher than the average paid by 15 other similar councils while their leader’s is substantially more.

The suggestion to increase allowances seems tactless and ill thought-out given the current climate but, to be honest, I’m not that fussed about what city councillors are paid.

Why not? Well, in the grand scheme of things, the budget for members’ allowances is chicken feed.

What concerns me more, and always has done, is the calibre of the individuals who put themselves forward for public office and the guidance they receive when they are elected.

Not so long ago I had a very enlightening chat with a city councillor who told me in no uncertain terms what they (I won’t say he or she) thought was wrong with their colleagues.

Basically, this councillor felt it boiled down to the fact that ordinary people are thrust into positions of power and influence and have no idea how to handle it.

“Out of their depth” and “poorly trained” were the phrases used.

You see, councillors may be wonderful spouses, parents, carers, business people and employees but very few of them will ever have worked in an environment quite like the one down at the Civic Centre in Stoke.

It’s the equivalent of you or I being elected to the board of a multi-national firm and being asked to help shape company policy and decide how multi-million pound budgets are spent.

I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t know where to start: I sometimes struggle with our Asda shopping list.

What’s more, local government is an environment which is: a) notoriously bureaucratic;

b) unionised to within an inch of its life; and c) one in which certain individuals (senior officers) wield extraordinary power and tend to run rings around everyone else.

I admire anyone who is prepared to jump into the viper’s nest that is local politics – even more so in Stoke-on-Trent which is the local government equivalent of a poisoned chalice.

However, there is a world of difference between wanting to do good work in your community and having the intelligence, the strength of character and the communication skills to mix it with a handful of career politicians and all-powerful council officers.

On the one hand it is wonderful for democracy that ordinary people from all walks of life can enter politics at this level and seek to make a contribution to local life.

But I do wonder how many of these are simply pawns of the party machine or cannon fodder for experienced council officers.

How many times have you heard an elected member give a public speech or listened to them on the radio and winced with embarrassment?

This may seem like a hatchet job but it truly isn’t.

I’d like to see councillors empowered through better training so that we can have faith that they will stand up to the unelected officers who really run the show and have the nous to properly scrutinise decisions.

Indeed, I’d be happy to pay them twice what they get now if I thought they were doing a fantastic job. Wouldn’t we all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel