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Port Vale’s continental revolution – A successful gamble for promotion?

Martyn Cooke

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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.

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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.

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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.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Port Vale

Three reasons for Port Vale supporters to be optimistic for the New Year

Martyn Cooke

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Port Vale

The last decade has been a turbulent time for Port Vale supporters with the club going into administration, securing promotion to League One and suffering relegation back to the fourth tier of English football.

The club made a poor start to the new campaign under the stewardship of Michael Brown and it was little surprise to see the former Sheffield United midfield dismissed in late-September with the Valiants sitting 22nd in the table and facing the very real prospect of dropping out of the Football League.

However, with a new manager in place and results steadily improving there is now hope that Port Vale’s worst days are behind them and that the club can begin building for the future.

Here The Boot Room identifies three reasons why Port Vale supporters should be optimistic for the New Year.

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The Neil Aspin effect

When Neil Aspin walked into Vale Park for his first day as manager on October 4th 2017 he would have found a club that was in turmoil, spiralling towards a second successive relegation and had a fan base that had become completely dismayed and frustrated by what they were seeing both on and off the pitch. However, the arrival of the 52-year-old, already recognised as a Port Vale legend having made over 300 appearances for the Valiants between 1989 and 1999, has stimulated a dramatic upturn in the club’s fortunes.

Aspin has helped to unify the supporters and galvanise the current group of players, guiding the team from 22nd place in League Two up to 19th. He has gone back to basics and suddenly Port Vale are no longer so easy to beat with results and performances drastically improving. A return of 16 points from a possible 27 accurately demonstrates the progress that the team has made under Aspin’s management.

There is still plenty of work to do, with the Valiants only one point clear of the relegation zone, but Aspin’s arrival has stimulated a revival at Vale Park that has supporters looking forward to the future.

 

The January transfer window

The dramatic upturn in results at Vale Park following the arrival of Neil Aspin is even more remarkable considering the squad that he inherited.

There has been an astonishing turnover of players at Port Vale over the previous two seasons following Bruno Ribiero’s failed ‘foreign revolution’ transfer policy and Michael Brown’s amateurish attempt to correct the mistakes of his predecessor.

Aspin inherited a squad of 33 players that was unbalanced, heavily reliant on loan transfers and characterised by a lack of quality throughout. The fact that he has facilitated a revival at the club is tantamount to his managerial expertise.

However, the January transfer window will provide Aspin with the perfect opportunity to begin to mould the current Port Vale squad into what he wants it to be. Expect the 52-year-old to trim down the size of the squad, remove any deadwood and begin to bring in the players that will genuinely provide supporters with some hope for the future.

The club’s transfer policy in recent years has been a scatter-gun approach with little thinking or long-term planning behind decisions, but under Aspin there is a sense of trust that he will take a much more thoughtful and purposeful approach to the January window.

The major positive for supporters is that League Two does not consist of teams that are blessed with an abundance of top-quality talent. A handful of good signings in January and a little bit of momentum on the pitch could easily provide the stimulus for the club to climb into the relative safety of mid-table and, maybe, even higher.

The return of The Pope

One of the few meaningful pieces of transfer business that Michael Brown agreed in the summer was negotiating the return of striker Tom Pope to Vale Park. The 32-year-old striker had been a key part of The Valiant’s promotion campaign in 2013, where he scored 33 goals and was named as the League Two Player of the Year, and his departure in the summer of 2015 arguably marked the beginning of the club’s gradual decline.

Pope’s homecoming failed to spark an immediate revival in Port Vale’s fortunes. Under Brown, the team looked disjointed, defensively fragile and impotent in front of goal, to such an extent that the striker scored just one goal between the start of the season and the late-September. However, the arrival of Neil Aspin has galvanised the club and Pope has quickly rediscovered his prolific instinct in front of goal following the managerial change.

He has scored nine goals in thirteen appearances for the Valiants since Aspin’s appointment and appears to be full of confidence, energy and enthusiasm. In League Two, Pope possesses all of the attributes to be one of the most dangerous strikers in the division and his return to goal scoring form will bode well for the club’s immediate future. Goals are the most valuable commodity in football, something that the 32-year-old will provide Port Vale as long as he receives the right kind of service.

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Port Vale round-up: Postponement hands advantage to relegation rivals; new signing confirmed; Smurthwaite speaks out.

Martyn Cooke

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Port Vale dropped further into the League One relegation zone after seeing their mid-week fixture against Rochdale postponed.

The Valiants would have been hopeful of securing a result at Spotland with their hosts on a seven-game winless run but were forced to sit out the fixture after the match officials called the game off due to a water-logged pitch. This gave their relegation rivals the opportunity to gain an advantage with Swindon Town, Bury and Oldham Athletic all capatalising by securing victories in their mid-week contests to leave Michael Brown’s side five points from safety.

However, Port Vale do have three games in hand on many of the teams in the bottom half of the table, although supporters would much prefer to have the points on the board.

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Port Vale have announced the signing of 24-year-old goalkeeper Deniz Mehmet on a short term deal via the official club website.

The former Turkish youth international has been without a club since January after leaving Scottish second-tier side Falkirk by mutual consent due to a lack of game time. The 6ft 3in goalkeeper made only five appearances for The Bairns in twelve months at the club, the last of which was in October 2016.

Mehmet was born in Kent and but has spent time at various clubs as a youth team player in both England and Turkey whilst he has also represented the Turkish under-19 team twice. He becomes the second goalkeeper to sign for Port Vale since the departure of first-choice ‘keeper Jak Alnwick, who moved to Glasgow Rangers for £250,000 in January, and will be competing with Glasgow Celtic loanee Leo Fasan for a place in The Valiants’ starting eleven.

Port Vale coach Mick Ede believes that some of the current first team squad should be performing much better if they want to break into Michael Brown’s first team.

Ede was speaking after The Valiants’ fielded a strong team in their mid-week reserve team fixture against Bradford City but produced a poor performance in a two-goal defeat. First team players Scott Tanser, Paulo Tavares, Axel Prohouly, Seb Amoros, Sam Kelly, Dan Turner and Olomide Shodipo were all selected in the starting line-up whilst Quentin Pereira and Gezim Shalaj came off the bench during the second half. However, it is unlikely that many of the senior players involved in the contest will be knocking on the manager’s door demanding to be selected in the first team after a poor showing.

Ede told the Stoke Sentinel that the overall performance levels were simply not good enough at a time when players should be trying to force their way into Michael Brown’s plans.

“We fielded a team there which we thought should have gone on and won the game. We weren’t good enough. The last words we said before the game were “with how it is in the first team, you have to be looking to try and force your way in”. But after that performance I don’t think that many of them can be knocking on the gaffer’s door and saying “I should be playing on Saturday”. We looked a poor outfit.”

Deniz Mehmet featured in the reserve team fixture on the same day that he signed a contract with The Valiants whilst former Coventry midfielder Ivor Lawton, who is currently without a club, also made an appearance.

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Port Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite has told supporters that he remains committed to “leaving the club in a better place than when he started” and insists that he will only sell if the right buyer comes forward.

Smurthwaite took the unorthodox approach of communicating via the unofficial Port Vale supporters’ website onevalefan and posted a variety of replies on an open forum thread discussing the club’s finances.

The chairman defended his tenure at Vale Park but did admit that he had made mistakes. He insisted that he was determined to correct any errors that he had made, would now take a backseat from the day to day running of the club and revealed that he would only sell if a buyer with genuine financial backing came forward. Joint club secretary / chief executive Colin Garlick is handling the club’s affairs and Smurthwaite reiterated his belief that “with a fair wind and lady luck things will improve”.

However, he faced significant criticism from many supporters with some insisting that he should step down or sell the club at the nearest possible opportunity. Smurthwaite was accused of alienating fans, wasting money on players and for the club not taking a more active role in the local community. There were also concerns aired that the club had been separated from the ground and that £3,700,000 was owed to the chairman through the money he had invested via director’s loans.

Smurthwaite purchased Port Vale in November 2012 and has overseen promotion from League Two and four consecutive seasons in League One. However, the club currently sit in the relegation zone and have not won a game since the turn of the year.

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Vale Park is set to host international football later this year when England Women continue their preparations for the UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 finals.

The Lionesses will travel to The Potteries and use the home of Port Vale when they face Italy on Friday 7th April 2017.

Full details are available via The FA official website.

Featured Image: All Rights Reserved Ben Stanley-Clarke (Ben Stanley-Clarke)

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Port Vale round-up: Eagles overcomes personal tragedy; Kiko confident of survival; former striker not set to feature

Martyn Cooke

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Chris Eagles has revealed that he is happy to back playing football again after overcoming a personal tragedy and is confident that Port Vale have the quality within the current squad to climb out of the relegation zone.

The 31-year-old began his career at Manchester United and has previously played in the Premier League with Burnley and Bolton Wanderers. However, after he and his partner lost his son during childbirth in 2015 the midfielder elected to take some time out of the game. He told the Stoke Sentinel:

“I lost my son and we had stillbirth. It was a difficult time. I wanted time out”.

Last season Eagles joined Bury but failed to cement his place in the starting eleven and proceeded to play for Accrington Stanley earlier this campaign before joining Port Vale in January. Michael Brown handed the experienced wide-man his first start last weekend and Eagles explained to the Stoke Sentinel that he was happy to be back playing again.

“This year I believe I am happy. The fans have been brilliant and the club so far, from what I have seen, has been really good. Having a manager that believes in you … there is nothing better. If you have a boss that has faith and confidence in you then you are going to be happy. That is how I feel.”

Vale secured a point against Bristol Rovers at the weekend but dropped into the relegation zone for the first time this campaign, but Eagles believes that The Valiants have enough quality to secure safety.

“I am very confident that there is no chance we will go down. That is just my opinion. It has not even crossed my mind to be honest. The players that are here, they have played at a higher level – Danny [Pugh] has played higher and JT [Jerome Thomas] has.”

The experienced midfielder admitted that the rough-and-tumble nature of lower league football had taken some time to get used to, but that he was enjoying his football once again.

“The higher up you go, you can get on the ball, turn, run with it and create. But here it is very physical. People are right up your back as soon as you get the ball. It is just something that I have to learn, but I am loving every minute of it here.”

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Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has revealed that former Port Vale striker Alex Jones will not feature against his old club when the two sides clash on Saturday.

The 22-year-old scored 10 goals in 21 appearances for The Valiants earlier in the season after joining on loan from Championship strugglers Birmingham City in the summer. However, when his initial loan deal expired in January Jones opted to sign for Bradford City rather than remain in North Staffordshire leaving Vale without a prolific goalscorer in their ranks – the striker is still technically their top scorer this season.

Jones has struggled with injuries since joining The Bantams, making just four appearances, and McCall told the Bradford Telegraph that the 22-year-old will not feature in this weekend’s fixture.

“Saturday will be too soon for Alex. Doing a bit of running with the physio is very different to joining with the rest – but the signs look promising at the moment. Hopefully Alex is on the med and will be available again before too long.”

Vale supporters will breathe a sigh of relief that their former star striker will not have the opportunity to come back and haunt them this weekend.

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Portuguese defender Kiko insists that the current Port Vale squad need to “work hard” and play a “passing game” if they are to haul themselves away from the relegation zone.

The left-back was recalled to starting line-up at the weekend and played a pivotal role in The Valiants taking the lead after his cross was turned unwittingly into the back of the Bristol Rovers net by Bob Harris for an own goal. However, the visitors responded through Billy Bodin to secure a point and the result leaves Vale in the bottom four for the first time this campaign.

However, Kiko explained to the Port Vale official website that there were plenty of positives to take away from the contest.

“I think that the team had a good game and every player worked hard, but unfortunately they managed to get an equaliser. But if we keep working as hard as we did today then the victory will come. We need to work hard and play our passing game.”

The 24-year-old has found first team action hard to come by so far this campaign and his selection in the starting eleven last weekend was his first since mid-December. Kiko now has his eye set on keeping his place when The Valiants host Bradford City on Saturday.

“Whether it is me or Kjell or Tanser playing left back, we are all good players, so we will see. I will work for a starting position against Bradford next week.”

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Port Vale Chairman Norman Smurthwaite has commented for the first time on crowd disturbances that took place in the away end during Saturday’s fixture against Bristol Rovers.

Clashes between stewards and visiting supporters erupting late in the second half inside the stadium whilst violence continued outside the ground after the final whistle. 30 Bristol Rovers supporters were ejected from Vale Park whilst there were also a number of arrests, including a steward who was detained on suspicion of assault. The weekend’s events have been widely reported across the mainstream media and Rovers chairman Steve Hamer described the treatment of away fans as a “disgrace” and has called for a full investigation.

Smurthwaite has released a short statement via Port Vale’s official website offering reassurances that the club is working behind the scenes to analyse and dissect the crowd disturbances.

“I would like to reassure everyone that myself, CBI (our security partners) and Staffordshire Police are currently investigating the disorder. The safety of all supporters and staff remains of paramount importance to us.”

It remains unclear as to the reason(s) behind Saturday’s events. Rovers supporters have complained of a lack of seating and heavy-handed policing whilst there have also been reports of a steward being racially abused. It is hoped that the on-going investigations will provide a clearer picture in the near future.

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