As I pulled into the Lorne Street car park on a grey, dreary June morning the place somehow seemed different. I parked where I have always done and looked around. Was it the same as always?
Something told me not. Yes, the retaining wall and railings were freshly painted and to be fair it was nice and tidy everywhere thanks to the sterling efforts of keen volunteers, but that wasn’t it. I got out of the car and looked again. A faint sweet smell reminiscent of freshly mown grass brushed past on the breeze. Speedy’s been in early again, I thought, but that wasn’t it either. Yes, there was a faint smell but subtlety different from mown grass.
For some reason I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and that sweet smell suddenly made sense. As clear as day I saw an image I have played over and over in my mind’s eye. Mills with the corner, Beckford with the flick on and Robbie Earle thundering into the box to head home. Promotion was won.
I remember it so well, that day in early June 1989 and the excitement of winning promotion to the second tier. The jubilation, the anticipation of what was to come. The optimism. The penny dropped. That was it - the sense, the feeling, it was the faint sweet smell of optimism. And now 30 years later, almost to the day, that optimism was here again at Vale Park.
I stood there for a moment and tried to take it all in. The sun broke through the clouds and as the grey began to lift, caution took hold and I tried to calm down. If over 50 years of watching my beloved Vale has taught me anything, I know that when you expect too much your hopes are likely to be dashed.
We might have wonderful new owners and a down to earth manager who wants to instil hard work and belief into his players but there’s no simple panacea for a club that has suffered the decline we have witnessed through the various regimes of the last 10 years or so. Sweet smell there might be but the acrid blue mist that descended upon us during the last few years and managed to hang around for far too long, affecting everyone and everything that it came into contact with, will take a while yet to completely dissipate.
Please accept that the omens are good. Carol and Kevin are pretty much everything that the previous owner wasn’t. In a good way. But return for a moment to that balmy evening back in June ’89 when promotion was won and John Rudge instinctively knew that was not the end of his hard work, merely the beginning of it. So it is for Carol and Kevin who must realise that having won the unnecessarily tortuous battle to own the club outright, it’s now that the hard work starts and the task of turning things around at Port Vale begins in earnest.
There is clearly much to do but if the smiles on the faces of everyone at the club are anything to go by the start has been a positive one. Season Ticket sales already exceed 4000 and the squad is certainly taking a better more balanced shape. We shouldn’t expect miracles, though. Maybe just hope for better:
Better engagement with the supporters
Better financial control
Better links with local community and businesses
I could go on with a list of things that need improvement, which I’m confident that Carol and Kevin can influence and manage properly. However, despite their undoubted business acumen they have never run a football club before and that is going to be a huge learning curve. I’m sure that they will improve so many aspects of the organisation and business side of the club but it’s on the pitch that counts the most and that is the biggest challenge of all.
A better team yielding better results is a must. Not just to see us sitting higher in the table but because it makes critically important off-field revenue such as sponsorship and general commercial activity so much easier to realise. If the intention is to plough some of this income back into the club through additional team strengthening, the long term future should be further enhanced.
So is it so far so good? Most supporters I have spoken with share my feelings and seem happy, encouraged and needless to say, optimistic. You can’t really ask for much more at this stage. The past few weeks since the takeover have been inspiring and certainly my own optimism is far greater than the usual pre-season anticpation when you can’t wait for the games to start again. Yet at the same time this optimism is tempered by the belief that recovery to where we should be as a football club is going to take time.
Like all Vale supporters I want better and I believe that we deserve better. For me, whilst improvements in organisation and off field management will be as welcome as they are necessary, better will be crucially defined by progress on the field of play, no matter how small. To be honest the bar has been set quite low in the last few seasons so, in that sense, better should not be too difficult to achieve.
Did we make progress under Bell and Rudge in the 90s? You bet we did. Will the Shanahans and Askey ride this resurgent wave of optimism to provide us with a repeat of the kind of exciting football and supporter satisfaction that we witnessed back then? I certainly hope so.
Don’t bank on it though and don’t expect too much too soon. Instead look for positive steps, no matter how small and be prepared for setbacks. Unfortunately, they are inevitable. We had a few setbacks in the 90s, but generally overcame them quite well. Progress will demand that our new owners can do the same. The sensible, logical and business-like approach they are demonstrating should surely stand the club in good stead in this respect.
In any event I’ll be back with regular monthly updates throughout the season to examine how all things Port Vale are going and discuss once again “What do you think of it so far?”