Within the six towns that comprise Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem is known as the Mother Town, so perhaps it should be unsurprising that the local club, Port Vale, have made the mother of all messes of a season that promised so much. Before yesterday's entertaining but barren draw with Bury, one insider called it "the asylum". In recent weeks, it has certainly been more like Bedlam than Burslem.
A supporters' message-board thread likened events to a soap opera, dubbing it EmmerVale. With managers coming and going, a disaffected team spiralling down League Two and revolting supporters (in more ways than one according to one player) plus a bitter struggle for regime change involving (or not, if he can help it) Robbie Williams, it has turned into the footballing equivalent of Coronation Street's 50th anniversary tram crash.
Vale have been tearing themselves apart since Christmas. At times they threatened to do likewise to a Bury side struggling against the effects of a sickness bug that has swept Gigg Lane and playing in the knowledge that their manager, Alan Knill, is likely to join Scunthorpe tomorrow.
They spurned chance after chance against opponents in the automaticpromotion places, Tom Pope and Marc Richards striking the woodwork in a sparkling opening 20 minutes and Doug Loft repeating the feat early in the second half, although Bury had begun to look good for a point even before Steven Schumacher's 76th-minute dismissal for a second bookable offence.
Mark Grew, Vale's caretaker manager since the sacking of Jim Gannon last Monday, said pointedlythat "the players have never lost belief". Despite a run of 21 points from 20 games, they are outside the play-off zone by only two points. The former Vale goalkeeper added: "If they keep putting that effort in, and showing the same tremendous spirit, they'll win more than they lose." Last year finished with Vale lying second in League Two, trailing the leaders Chesterfield by three points. But then the popular Micky Adams, who favoured a fairly direct playing style, was lured away by Sheffield United's managerial vacancy. Vale's directors replaced him with Gannon, formerly of Stockport and Motherwell, who not only espouses an intricate, ground-level passing game but also arrived with a reputation for being confrontational.
Gannon departed after 75 days, the shortest reign in the club's 135-year history. By that stage Vale had dropped out of the automatic promotion places and through the play-off zone, the gap between them and champions-elect Chesterfield having widened to 19 points. He left a trail of fall-outs with the staff and players he inherited.
The most notorious was the spat between Gannon and the assistant manager Geoff Horsfield on the team coach heading for Aldershot last month. Branded the "Busgate" saga, their heated exchange ended with the pair disembarking at different motorway service stations, Gannon later joining up with the squad and witnessing one of only four wins in his 15 games.
Even before that altercation, a deputation of players had requested a meeting with the chairman, Bill Bratt, to voice concern over Gannon's methods. Personnel who were instrumental in Adams taking Vale to the top of the table last autumn, notably the midfielder Gary Roberts, found themselves no longer even on the bench.
Roberts, a former England youth international, vented his frustration publicly, saying "the manager doesn'tlike me and I don't like him". On Gannon's final morning in charge – when he took training oblivious to his impending fate, – Roberts was ordered to work with the youth team.
Another player, Exodus Geohaghon, had become a target for angry fans after joining on loan from Gannon's previous club, Peterborough. While Gannon was protected by stewards after last weekend's 3-0 defeat at Accrington Stanley, Geohaghon had to be dragged away by team-mates after confronting Vale followers whom he alleges had racially abused him. The FA and the PFA, the players' union, are investigating the incident.
The in-fighting has not stopped with Gannon's demise, however. Valeites are campaigning to oust the six-man board, drawn from leaders of the V2001 campaign which saved the club from administration. Protestors claim Bratt and his colleagues are resisting a widely backed £1.21m takeover bid by the businessman Mo Chaudry in order to protect their privileged positions.
Even the club's most famous supporter, the Take That singer Williams, has been dragged into the dispute. Port Vale Supporters' Club wrote asking him to throw the 25 per cent shareholding for which he paid £249,000 behind Chaudry. Williams has replied that while Vale were "a big part of my roots", he "does not feel close enough" to the debate to take sides.