Saturday 18th February 2017, League One
As winter began turning into spring and sunlight was creeping back into our meagre existences, it was time for Rovers to hit the road once again in search of our first league away win since October. Returning once again to the promised land of Stoke-on-Trent and château Daz to watch Rovers take on Burslem's finest Port Vale.
Vale are a team that have always sort of fascinated me. For one thing their name doesn't relate to any particular local area and is instead a reference to the many canals that run through Stoke from the Trent and Mersey rivers. Another is that for my whole three years of living in Stoke, I never encountered a single Port Vale fan. One of my friends lived with a guy who owned a pair of Port Vale shorts but when I questioned him on this he said he was really more of a fan of "football in general", in a very my family is Port Vale but I'm slightly ashamed please don't bring this up with me ever again kind of way. In fairness to the Valiants, Burslem wasn't really a part of Stoke that I ventured into all that much. Never straying too far from financial ruination, Vale have always felt to me like a "here's what you could have been" club, had Rovers not sorted their shit out over the last two years and City had pushed on. When I was there if a pub had football insignia it was Stoke City, if there were some rowdy lads on the train on a Saturday they were wearing red and if I spoke to a local about football it wouldn't be about Robbie Williams' Small Club of Good Boys.
On the other side of this assessment, Port Vale haven't been without their successes in the face of all this adversity. As well as their three stints in the second division of English football (the most recent being 1994 to 2000), they have also won two league titles, two Football League Trophies and bizarrely were runners up in the 1995/96 Anglo-Italian Cup. They also beat Rovers over two legs in the 1989 Third Division play-off final, with local boy Robbie Earle scoring goals in both games. Survival under adversity is a massive part of Rovers' history too and this only strengthened my fascination with the club and their ambitious stadium, initially envisioned to be the "Wembley of the North" is one I've been anxious to get to all season. At time of writing, Vale haven't won in 7 games and sit in 20th place, one above the drop zone.
I picked Jack up in Redland at about 10:30 and we made good time at got to Daz's place a little after 1:30, thanks in part no doubt to Jack's impressive collection of indigenous Canadian medicine chants and mid-00's club bangers. After a swift can of some bizarre Polish larger with a bull on the label, it was time to pile into the lovely Sophie's car and set off for the mystical land of Burslem. We decided to dive into The Bulls Head which happily was the pub that most of the Rovers contingent had gone for. I grabbed a couple of steins(!) of beer and a copy of the excellently named Port Vale fanzine Derek, I'm Gutted and headed out to the beer garden. The place was lively, with a barbecue in full flow and Gas flags adorning the walls, Rovers and Port Vale fans alike enjoyed the bright late winter afternoon in an atmosphere of friendly tranquillity. This was not to last.
What would prove to be a feisty afternoon to say the least kicked off for our little party right after leaving the pub. I'd gone on ahead with Jack and the other Rovers fans as we were more bothered about making it before kick-off. Daz and Will meanwhile stayed back to finish their drinks at a more comfortable pace, receiving a spontaneous mass chant of "Yorkshire Gas, you're having a laugh" from the gleeful Gas stragglers upon discovering their strange and exotic accents. This levity didn't last and on their way to the ground Daz found himself being hacked to the ground by a 40 year old Burslem meathead, seemingly uninterested in the fact that he was a neutral. By the time he joined us he was sporting a bandaged leg and probably couldn't be considered a neutral anymore.
Things didn't get much better inside the stadium as Vale's stewards decided to throw their weight around. Despite Rovers selling out their allocation of tickets and Vale offering pay on the door, only about one third of the away stand was open. Much has been argued about between fans as to what lead to things kicking off at about 30 minutes and I have no wish to spark off another round of it. Just look at the video and judge for yourself. Whilst Daz, Will and I were having some drinks (gone-off bottles of Carlsberg that Vale were hawking for £2 each) during half time, a squad of about six stewards went stomping down the concourse, all the while being berated by a women who claimed that they had headbutted her friend.
I myself had a bit of a berate as we left the stadium and came across a man who had been handcuffed on the ground with a fairly nasty head wound. Despite the fact that he was clearly injured and detained he had a policeman kneeling on his head, I questioned the necessity of this but the officer wasn't interested. Granted there were people there who were waiting for a chance to have a pop at the Vale fans but it was also the only way out and it's easy to see how the older chap who was injured by the police could have been caught in the fray by accident but it seemed a heavy-handed affair all round.
When Vale were forced from the Old Recreation Ground, Hanley in 1950 due to financial difficulties their original plan was to build an 80,000 capacity "Wembley of the North". The finished product was a still impressive 40,000 capacity ground that was eventually made all-seater in 1998. Well, almost made all-seater, about half of the Lorne Street stand is still unfinished due to, you guessed it, financial difficulties. Since it doesn't look like the club are going to hit the Championship anytime soon it would make sense to me to convert this area into a terrace and inject some atmosphere into the place but as it stands it's just a glaringly empty set of concrete steps.
Should the Stand ever be completed it will be quite an impressive centrepiece. With a planned capacity of 5000, it has two levels of bright orange seating underneath two levels of balconied hospitality boxes. Opened in 1999, the stand is the most modern looking in the stadium but is afforded a dash of the classic by retaining the old clock from the original 1950s stand in the centre. On the opposite side to this is the Railway Stand, originally an uncovered terrace it was turned into a covered stand with seating on the back row but terracing was retained on the lower portion which became known as the Railway Paddock. The remainder was filled with seats in the 90s in order to conform with the Taylor report but it still retains something of a two-tier effect with both levels separated by a low wall and pillars.
Behind the home goal is the Bycars Road End which is basically the same as the Railway Stand and on the other end is the Hamil Road End which is reserved for away fans and probably has about half the capacity of it's opposite. The most eye-catching stand in the stadium is the little Family Stand nestled in the corner between the Railway and Bycars Road stands. In an amazing feat of cost-saving Vale actually removed and re-erected the Swan Passage stand from the Old Recreation Ground and when this was replaced by the Bycars End, a small section of the roofing was recycled once again to cover the new family stand. This means that this particular part of the ground is well over 100 years old.
Vale Park is a very impressive ground that wouldn't look out of place in the Championship. It's a good mixture of the old and the new and is one of the more unique all-seater stadiums I've seen so far. The only things that let it down are the unfinished Lorne Street stand and the fact that it was so bloody empty. Discounting the 765 away fans, today's attendance was 3695 and Vale have the 5th lowest average in League One. Daz was chatting to a steward after getting patched up in the medical room and he expressed doubt that the club could survive another relegation with crowds as they were. The weird thing is Vale clearly have a thriving fan culture, the zines on sale in local pubs and the excellent One Vale Fan website are testament to that but the sparse crowds in those massive stand cut a gloomy figure on this chilly potteries afternoon.
The match wasn't a great one and Rovers looked set to continue their away win drought pretty much from the word go. It wasn't that Port Vale were any good, both teams struggled to string three passes together and chances were rarer than a panda brothel. After only seven minutes we lost Partington to injury. He was replaced by Montaño which forced Sinclair to play as a makeshift right back with mixed degrees of success. We were looking a bit better when we came out for the second half but a cruel twist of fate allowed Harris to clear the ball in to the top of his own net in the 54th. Possibly too eager to please on his debut, Whispering Bob came forward to clear a cross that, while close to our goal, had no Vale players nearby to make anything of it and looked like it was going to be scooped up by Lumley anyway. He used the side of his foot for some reason which shot the ball high over Lumley's stunned bonce. I went out for another beer at this point.
With the Gas still having some issues in the scoring department it wasn't clear how we were going to claw our way back from this. However Billy Bodin had other ideas and when Montaño gave him the ball in the Vale half of the pitch he trotted up the edge off the box, decided he didn't fancy taking on the three defenders between him and the opposition goal and struck from where he was, sending the ball past the keeper who'd come too far to one post. I celebrated so hard I ended up on the floor on top of Jack. I love undeserved points.
Bad advert for League One and marred by the actions of a handful of dickheads though it was, I was still happy to have satisfied my long-standing curiosity about Port Vale. Vale Park is certainly an interesting and historical ground and I always enjoy a trip to the Potteries. For now though it was time to seek beer and pizza and look forward to tomorrow and some FA Vase shenanigans.