Football / Fan's Eye View: What's beneath the veil?: No. 3 Port Vale

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DOES anybody have any idea what the record time is for the about-turn of pre-season optimism into the abject realisation that your on-field heroes, on whom all your summer's hopes and expectations are confidently pinned, cannot, and are not likely to, cut the mustard?

Well, after witnessing the first half of Port Vale's opening game against an equally dull Fulham, I believe I've every right to assume such a record. Twenty-five minutes into the game and I'm a disheartened and miserable man, 25 flippin' minutes - surely unbeatable.

From pre-season European champions (we returned as victors from a four-team tournament in the Netherlands) to shapeless chumpions, the season flashed before me, and all in the time it takes to laugh yourself hoarse at a rerun episode of Citizen Smith.

Our trials and tribulations have ebbed and flowed with the best of 'em. Port Vale's elevation to the Second Division three years ago rates as one of the most popular of recent years, though one particular set of red and white stripey eyed numbskulls (Stoke City) would probably contest this. The aesthetically pleasing passing game that John Rudge and Mike Pejic adopted that season played the Vale out of a typically physical Third Division.

Port Vale became everybody's favourite 'other' team. The antithesis of Millwall, we could have re-worked their anthem, bringing 'Everybody Loves Us' to the Vale Park terraces.

The very image and mystique which surrounds Port Vale is itself attractive and alluring, our coastal sobriquet giving no hint as to our locality. Hands up Dads who've had to answer 'So where is Port Vale then Pops?'

Correspondents to the 'curiously titled' (The Independent, Feb '89) Memoirs Of Seth Bottomley (Seth is a fictitious former Vale right-half) have put our location as somewhere 'between Southport and Morecambe', or 'an island tax haven next door to Sark'. How I wish. (Vale Park is, actually, in Burslem, a few miles from Stoke.)

Three seasons of Second Division football proved to be too much for the Vale to take. An 18-game stretch without a victory sent us hurtling down the table with the speed of a plunging pound. And all this in the same season of arguably Vale's finest hour - the 2-2 draw at Anfield in the Littlewoods Cup (we lost 4-1 in the return).

Dire performance after dire performance was set before us, and a strange kudos could be gained for those willing to endure every match. The fans, to their credit in such a notoriously fickle area ('Ball/Mills Out' etc), in the main remained behind Rudge. The manager, just past his 10th year at the helm, stayed, vowing to persevere with his attractive passing methods.

Although we all took the eventuality as no surprise, relegation was still a bitter pill to swallow. Not even the bumbling failure of the 1972 League Cup winners and internationally revered Stoke City in their attempts at Third Division promotion could sweeten the taste. At least we had the derbies to look forward to, the rivalry as intense and passionate as anything in Manchester or on Merseyside.

While the ambition and enthusiasm of chairman Bill Bell cannot be faulted, the question that still niggles is, how far can a club of our size and crowds expect to elevate itself? Already this season the club has lost the revenue from its lucrative outdoor Friday market, as the city council decided to move it into Burslem town centre, and any chance of earning a few bob in the Coca-Cola Cup went up in smoke against Bolton.

The recent ground improvements have been impressive (and necessary), but maybe our short-term objectives should be reconsidered. With gates not likely to improve, all energies need to be channelled towards the playing staff. The Vale, sadly, will probably never feature in the Premier League and, thankfully, never have Andy Gray invading their changing-rooms, but again the shoe-string resources of the club only add to the overall allure.

Rudge's new signings obviously need time to settle down (none more so than our most expensive pre-season acquisition, the grandstand from Chester City, which won't be 'settled down' until late October), but I've a feeling that he is again assembling the basis of a good squad.

Footballing dilettantes everywhere, fear not, the Vale will rise again. Oh yes indeed, the old optimism has returned.

I wonder if I can beat 25 minutes?