Beyond the Vale of Tears: A Bright Future Stokes Optimism

It is every fan’s worst nightmare. Your deadliest rivals (insert team name here) wins promotion to the promised land. At the same time you are relegated to the lowest league of all – unjustly of course.

However, this was the grim fate that awaited Port Vale supporters in May 2008, when they ground their collective teeth at Stoke City’s return to the big time. All those famous Potteries derby victories of the 1980s and 1990s were instantly forgotten, as the Valiants fell through the trapdoor to oblivion of “League Two” (they still call it the 4th division round here…)

For two clubs in such close proximity (the respective grounds are separated by just 6.3 miles), it is astounding just how spectacular their change in fortunes have been – at opposing ends of the spectrum.

No one could have envisaged the rapid rise of Stoke, nor the demise of Vale. Consider that just nine years ago, the Valiants took four points from their bitter rivals, which included a 1-0 away victory at the Britannia Stadium.

It is Stoke’s chairman Peter Coates who has received much adulation and credit for his role in guiding the club to the dizzy heights of Premiership Football. It was his decision to re-install manager Tony Pulis in June 2006, whilst Coates’ continual financial backing, that included the £6 million purchase of the Britannia Stadium from the City Council, has also been highly commended.

In a stark contrast Vale chairman, Bill Bratt has recently come under heavy scrutiny by a section of the club’s supporters. Some fans have become so frustrated with the current ownership, that they have started a campaign: ‘Black and Gold Until It’s Sold,’ to try and encourage new investment and push through the sale of the club.

The Valiants plight began in 2002 when the club plunged into administration, with estimated debts of around £2 million. However, the following year Vale were saved from extinction by self-styled ‘supporters group’ Valiant 2001. At the time, Bratt stated: “Every single member of Valiant 2001 can justifiably claim (to be) committed supporters.”

Other parties were also reportedly interested in investing in the club. These included a consortium led by Gunnar Gilason from Iceland who, at the time, was in control of Stoke. If Gilason’s £1.6 million takeover bid had been successful, there were rumours that he was eager to uproot the Valiants from their home at Vale Park, and move the club into a groundshare with Stoke – what’s Icelandic for conflict of interest? There was also confirmed interest from a local businessman, by the name of Mo Chaudry, who would come more apparent later on in Valiant’s quest….

In 2008, six years after the club was saved by Valiant 2001, Bratt confirmed in a club statement that new investment was essential to take the club forward: “I feel the board and I have taken the club as far as we can…new investment will be required. I will happily stand down if it will allow someone who carries the backing of the supporters to take Port Vale forward. If that new investment can be found then I’m happy that anyone following in our footsteps will find a strong and healthy institution that finds itself struggling only on the football pitch.”

Vale’s eventual slide into League Two mounted excessive debt on the club. The need for investment became more apparent as after Vale announced losses of nearly £400,000 for the financial year to June 2008.

The current ‘Black and Gold Until It’s Sold’ campaign, which (at the time of writing) has attracted nearly 3,000 signatures, comes three years after the statement was released by Bratt, who declared that he had taken the club as far as he possibly could. Yet, three years on and the club remains with the same owners, in the same division.

The latest twist in regard to new investment comes in the form of Mr Chaudry, a familiar name from 2002. Chaudry was born in Pakistan in 1960 and first moved to England with his parents in 1969. He set-up his first company in 1985 and soon built up a personal fortune, as he became a millionaire by the age of 30. In 1999 he bought Stoke-on-Trent’s Water World theme park, which was operating at a substantial lost. However, in the last decade Chaudry has transformed the theme park into the UK’s most visited and profitable water-based leisure attraction.

Chaudry’s net worth has been quoted in The 2010 Sunday Times and currently stands at £60m. The Staffordshire based tycoon is eager to start a new project and In a recent interview with The Sentinel, Chaudry revealed his ambitious 5-year proposal to get Port Vale back into the Championship:

“When I first showed an interest in taking over Port Vale during the early days of Valiant 2001, I decided to step back because I felt that, at the time, a fan-run consortium was the way forward. Things are very different now. I am 50 and at a stage in my life when a major project like this is viable. I am still young enough and hungry enough to make a success of Port Vale. One of my immediate priorities would be to deal with this debt…it is key to get the club on an even keel financially before we can move forward. I see Port Vale as a five to seven-year project, minimum, on which I may have to spend as much as £5 million in order to give us a real shot at being successful.”

Along with Chaudry, an American consortium consisting of five men based in Houston, Texas recently made their interest known. But despite supplying the board of directors with a 30-page document outlining their intentions with the club, The Sentinel recently reported that any perspective takeover deal regarding the Americans is: “completely dead”.

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Initially Vale’s inaugural debt, combined with a lack of consistency in regard to management, culminated in their disastrous slide into League Two. Lee Sinnott, and club legends Martin Foyle and Dean Glover all came and went within the space of four years. All unable to stop the rot.

In spite of the long-running saga involving takeovers and investment, Vale’s on-field problems look to have finally been resolved.

In a bid to stabilise the club, Bratt appointed former Leicester boss Micky Adams in June 2009, to replace the departing Glover. The decision to appoint Adams (who had just left a disastrous second spell with Brighton and Hove Albion) proved a masterstroke; the Valiants went from strength-to strength and the club even came within four points of the play-off places last season.

After the previous much improved 2009/10 campaign, the club were on the up and Adams proved his devotion to the Valiants by signing an improved two-year contract extension, insisting that Vale does not belong in League Two: “The vision that I share with the board and the supporters is to win promotion. I think it can be achieved. It’s all about short steps. The first one was to stabilise and we’ve done that. The players have bought into my philosophy and the next stage is to win promotion and establish ourselves as a League One club.”

Given the expectations instilled by Adams, and the club’s overall finish to the previous campaign, the 2010/11 season looked destined to be a success. A play-off finish was the minimum expectation surrounding the club. However, disaster struck just halfway through the season. Vale were embroiled in a fight for automatic promotion, before Sheffield United came calling for the services of Adams. Unfortunately for Vale, he could not resist the temptation of managing the club he supported as a boy.

In January the board appointed former Stockport County boss Jim Gannon as Adams’ replacement. The Irishman is one of the few managers in the lower divisions to hold a full Uefa Pro License, and one of the few that would dare to move Port Vale into the new generation of football.

Gannon is young, ambitious and keen to implement his brand of football on the club. He wants to ensure that every single player is comfortable in possession, and that his side play an attractive, passing and most importantly winning style of football:

“I like to play football…I think short passes are more effective than long ones and that passes on the ground are more effective then balls in the air. I like players to have control and discipline, and to think about what they’re trying to achieve by taking care of themselves and the ball. My teams have been known for being tactically adaptable, playing good football and also having a very good attacking edge.”

It is not just Vale’s on field future that is looking bright; a number of their academy prospects are also showing signs of promise.

In recent years, the Valiant’s fierce rivals, Crewe Alexandra, have been renowned for producing and nurturing home-grown talent. Dean Ashton and Danny Murphy graduated from their academy, whilst the club has nurtured players like David Platt and Robbie Savage, whose careers had stalled elsewhere.

While Crewe have proved to be a continual conveyor belt of talent, Vale have struggled to keep up. One of the most notable graduates of the Valiants youth system, Anthony Gardner was sold to Tottenham Hotspurs for a fee in the region of £1 million, but that was over a decade ago.

However, that looks set to change, as during the club’s third round FA Cup 4-2 defeat to Burnley, youth team players Kristian Cox and Joe Davis featured on the substitutes bench, whilst 19-year old Sam Morsy was handed his full debut. It suggests there is a growing sign that the future is bright at Vale Park, with Gannon admitting: “We have some undoubted talent in our youth ranks.”

It remains to be seen whether Vale can finally shake off the financial shackles that have restrained the club over the last few years. Regardless of recent investment talks, supporters must remember that Bratt saved the club during its darkest hours. However, Vale Park is a stadium built for Championship football, and with the potential investment of Chaudry, the club could be about to enter a new era. And who knows, we might even get an opportunity to witness the first ‘Potteries Derby’ since 2002.

Written by Joe Questier

Article title: Beyond the Vale of Tears: A Bright Future Stokes Optimism

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