Over the following weeks various members of the backroom staff will be explaining to us what life is like inside the walls of Vale Park, and how the club has transformed over the past 12 months under the guidance of new ownership. There will be highs, lows, and a pocketful of untold stories.
Today, in Episode 2 of 'The Renaissance' we view the journey from the eyes of the Port Vale Supporters Club chairman, Mark Porter.
When a young Mark Porter returned from Tommy Mclaren’s Port Vale testimonial in the late 70’s, he realised that he had just discovered a newfound passion, and one that would ultimately change his life forever. From that day on, Mark would religiously make the short walk up Hamil Road to watch the mighty Vale thrash it out in the fourth division of English football. From Bob Newton and Andy Jones, to Robbie Earle and Martin Foyle- he was hooked. Over the years, there has been an abundance of talent pass before his eyes and grace the holy turf of Vale Park, but it is the togetherness that runs throughout the spine of Port Vale Football Club that really puts a smile on Mark’s face today.
“It is just incredible isn’t it?” he said rhetorically. “The way that the club is run today, the relationship between the supporters, players, and owner is something that I’ve never seen before, and to be honest, something that I don’t think anybody else in the football league is doing either”.
Mark is the proud chairman of the Port Vale Supporters Club and has been a loyal follower for 40 plus years. It is fair to say that he has experienced a whirlwind of events during that time; from the ecstasy of promotion and excitement of Championship football, to the tears of relegation and misery of administration. However, it was the memorable moment in which Carol and Kevin Shanahan were confirmed as new owners that perhaps topped them all:
“I knew it was supposedly happening, but I didn’t truly believe it until the text came through from Carol that morning. It was a great moment, and from day one, the absolute relief was there for all to see. It felt like a massive weight had been lifted off our shoulders and immediately we started to see positive vibes for the future of the club.”
For Carol, Kevin and the backroom staff- it was the start of a new era; an opportunity to engrain fresh values into Port Vale’s woodwork and reenergise the entire football club that Carol frequently labels a “Championship club that finds itself in League Two”. Nevertheless, in order for them to pioneer a shift in fortune, the couple had to resolve a number of issues; the first being the manager’s contract situation. Just a few days into their reign, Carol and Kevin managed to tie both John Askey and his assistant Dave Kevan down to new, well-earned contracts. The next was to arrange a fan’s forum to fundamentally offer transparency to disgruntled supporters, and communicate their short and long term goals for the football club. It was something that Carol described as high-priority, and it was in this very meeting that the fruitful owner-supporter relationship was first formed:
“From that moment I knew that there we were going to witness mass changes. I sat down with Carol, Kevin, and Colin [Garlick], and there was a real sense of optimism in the room,” Porter said. “We were all smiling; we were asking questions and getting answers. We all knew that they had bought the club at a big price and made a massive commitment, so we as fans wanted to repay them for that. That day felt like a child had been born to be honest, we were all over the moon and came away with a real sense of unity between us,” he added.
After a successful pre-season camp in Scotland, the highly anticipated 2019/20 League Two season was officially underway. All the positivity that had been manufactured behind the scenes prior to kick-off flowed harmoniously from the stands to the football pitch. Consequently, the performances on the field improved and results were solid, however it was a 1–0 victory away at Crewe Alexandra at the beginning of November that symbolised a watershed moment:
“The Crewe win was a big turning point, and the moment that people really took note. We stood up, looked at one another and said ‘this is it, we’re back’. We outplayed them, we outfought them, we out sung them”, Porter said with unmistakable pride. “It was a complete team performance, which was the polar opposite to how it had been previously.”
Nobody would have been able to truly predict what followed the A500 derby however. With a hard-fought 1–0 win away at MK Don’s, and a 3–1 demolition of Cheltenham Town, the team were drawn away to Premier League title-holders Manchester City in the country’s most prestigious competition- the FA Cup. If there was an occasion that ever epitomised the amelioration of the Port Vale spirit then this was certainly it. The black and white apparel of ‘Super Vale Away’ swamped the streets of central Manchester as they braced themselves for the nonpareil experience of watching their heroes go toe-to-toe with the best footballers in the world. For Mark Porter, it was a day that he will remember for many years to come:
“Wow. The Man City game,” he thought aloud. I could envision the mental images flickering between his eyes as he reminisced momentarily. “The media build-up, the atmosphere, the train journey down, black and white everywhere, Popey’s header to equalise; it was Roy of the Rovers stuff.
“Twelve months earlier we were facing football oblivion and protesting against our former owner, then a year on had 8000 Vale fans singing their hearts out whilst watching the lads play against Man City- and people say football’s a funny old game!”
As we sit and talk today, the club sit eighth in League Two with a play off spot well and truly up for grabs. It goes without saying that it has been a fantastic season in comparison to previous years, but it is the work that has been accomplished away from the white lines that Mark Porter heavily admired:
“Carol has been brilliant- an absolute breathe of fresh air from the fan’s perspective. The staff behind the scenes have been phenomenal, and they’re getting the public recognition that they deserve.
“Carol is the figurehead of our royal family. She conducts it all from the top, but it is the collective efforts from everybody else that pieces it all together. Kevin, the board of director’s, the backroom staff, the players, the fans; everybody is pulling together in the same direction. The beauty is that the players that go out onto the pitch each week are no different to the supporters that pay their money to come and watch them play. We all have one common interest in mind; one goal, and that is Port Vale.
“To give you a picture of how much us fans believe in the vision, you only have to look at the figures on our fundraising page which we set up to raise money to complete the concourse of the Lorne Street. We’d only been on it a week or two prior to the pandemic and reached around £10,000. We’ve also given the club some money to put towards the flooring at the club, whilst other supporters groups have donated money towards gym equipment. We’re doing everything we can from our point of view to unite behind Carol and the rest of the club”.
The match-day experience has been a pivotal part in this season’s success story. When attending any football match, the match-day experience is an essential aspect in ensuring that those that flood through the turnstiles enter with the confidence that they will remain safe. Remarkably, there hasn’t been a single arrest made at Vale Park this season and with the support of the club’s dedicated football officer, Nicola Burton, a newly formed system gives supporters a direct line of communication to voice any general concerns over safety or policing matters.
“The club has introduced a meeting every month that I attend, where we sit down and discuss any concerns that the fans may have. We’ve had some really productive debriefs with Nicky where we’ll look at what went wrong and why. It’s good because it allows us to break everything down in order to analyse what we can do better. It’s shifted the whole focus of a match-day and what it’s all about.
“It’s no longer purely about the football; it’s about the whole holistic approach, and ensuring that everybody: family, fans, players, visiting staff members, visiting fans, all leave with a positive experience and want to return.”
To end our conversation I asked one final question.
“Mark, try to explain the way in which Port Vale has rebuilt its relationship with the community?” I said.
The question brought an unexpected emotional response, but one that I feel summarises the incredible cohesion that stands strong under Carol and Kevin:
“A friend of mine,” he began slowly. “Shaun Kelly, a lovely, lovely bloke. He unfortunately passed away at the age of 51 a few weeks ago. Sadly, it was all kept quiet due to the current circumstances, with social distancing etc. He was a long serving Vale fan and to be honest, it took us all by surprise. His funeral was a couple of weeks ago, and they brought his hearse in front of Vale Park and all the staff came out to clap him as he made his final journey to the Vale. I think that just says everything about the environment, the club, the relationship, the togetherness.
“Moments like that are special, and rare. It’s what makes me really proud to say that I am a Port Vale fan.”
Stay tuned for week 3 of ‘The Renaissance’…