On the surface, Port Vale are entirely reflective of the trials, tribulations and struggles that many lower league football clubs and their supporters must endure, survive and rise above on an annual basis.
Based in Burslem, a small town in Staffordshire, the club were founding members of the Second Division in 1892 but have never experienced top-flight football nor won a major, national cup competition. Their glory days are seen as a period in the 1950’s that saw the club reach an FA Cup semi-final and their most recent substantial achievements are limited to promotion to League One in 2013 and, further back, two Football League (now the Check-a-Trade) Trophy final victories in 1993 and 2001. Behind the scenes, the club has often lurched from one chaotic drama to the next, including administration (twice since 2003) and legal action against a previous ownership group. Even now, under the stewardship of Norman Smurthwaite, The Valiants supporters have experienced a relatively bumpy ride with the club being put up for sale as recently as last season.
Port Vale also face the added problem of having to compete against a thriving Premier League club which sits less than six miles down the road. Whilst Burslem outfit have been limited to the lower echelons of English football, their local neighbors Stoke City have been on an upward trajectory for the last decade. The result is that young supporters are drawn to the attraction of the Premier League provided by The Potters whilst Port Vale must be content, for now at least, to remain in their neighbors shadow.
However, things may be about to change.
Last season Port Vale finished in 12th position in League One and this summer has seen a radical overhaul of both the management team and playing squad. Former manager Rob Page departed for Northampton Town and he was followed by a vast array of experienced, long-serving players who filtered away from Burslem to ply their trade in other areas of the country. It left the club without a manager and with a depleted group of players, many of which were yet to sign new contracts.
It could have been a nightmare scenario, yet instead it was the catalyst for change that so many fans were looking for. Norman Smurthwaite appointed the little-known Portuguese coach Bruno Riberio into the Port Vale hot seat and the new manager wasted little time before instigating a continental revolution. Seventeen new players have arrived at Vale Park over the summer months including a vast array of foreign imports that originate from Holland, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal. The result has been a new-look squad that has reinvigorated the interest and enthusiasm of Valiants supporters across the region.
Let us make no mistake here. The decision by Norman Smurthwaite to invest in a complete overhaul of management and players was a gamble of unimaginable proportions. In effect, the chairman placed all of his trust in a little-known Portuguese manager building a new-look playing squad based around imported European players with no previous experience in English football. Would the new manager be able to hit the ground running? How long would it take for a new squad consisting of seventeen new arrivals to gel? Would those players from outside the British Isles be able to adapt to English football? Such an overhaul had, and still has, no guarantee of success and yet the early signs have been extremely promising for this new-look club.
So far this season Port Vale have won four and drawn one of their opening seven fixtures, resulting in a rise up to 4th position in League One. In addition to this, they are unbeaten at home and have conceded just two goals in their first five league fixtures, cementing the team as one of the strongest defensive units in the Football League. However, they did receive a somewhat unceremonious grounding on Saturday when they suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Bury, but the Valiants will be expecting it to be nothing more than a blip. It may still be early days, but Smurthwaite, Riberio and Valiants supporters will have been left nothing but excited and enthused by what they have seen so far from their newly assembled foreign legion.
And who knows, if Port Vale can maintain their early season form, then they could very much be in contention for promotion when the season concludes.