Martin Hardy: Port Vale prepare for a brighter future in bid to banish past
Life Beyond the Premier League: “It has been hard and emotional after the past few years and it was draining”
Over the course of the past 10 years, the other club in the Potteries could have been forgiven for turning to divine intervention.
Port Vale's, however, is not quite the traditional route to oblivion, though there has been the usual smattering of hapless chairmen and directors, and wannabes.
The knights generally do not wear shining armour in football finance fairytales at this level.
Keith Ryder came from nowhere earlier this year with bold promises of investment in players – they always do – but his bid to buy the club has since come to nothing. Instead, a local administrator, Begbies Traynor, who had to sift through the financial mess left back in 2003, are once more in control. At least for now. And, as it happens, very few people are complaining.
It is 16 years since John McCarthy's goal knocked the FA Cup holders of the time, Everton, out of the competition, at a packed Vale Park, under the floodlights, when dreams seem more likely. That night 19,197 squeezed in to watch Everton, with the likes of Neville Southall, Andrei Kanchelskis and Daniel Amokachi, crash out of the cup.
Vale banked just over £170,000 that night. It remains the most they have made for a home game. It was four years after the inception of the Premier League. The machine that has been created is unforgiving for those who either missed the boat, fell off it or could never stretch themselves quite far enough to reach it.
These days you do not need me to tell you £170,000 would not pay the weekly salary of a top earning Manchester City player. In that imbalanced financial landscape has to come sense, but it rarely does, not until the clock has always gone way past the eleventh hour.
"The Vale have lumbered from crisis to crisis in the last 10 years," said Alan Baker, a lifelong supporter who became a spokesman for Black and Gold two years ago as genuine crisis loomed. "We went into administration eight or nine years ago, having been owned by a cigar chomping chairman Bill Bell, we finished eighth one year, but then John Rudge was sacked, replaced by Brian Horton, and that's when things began to go badly wrong. The club went bust, came out of administration in 2003-04, and that was when the fan-owned experiment was tried and went wrong.
"In the end there were 600 shareholders. The singer Robbie Williams (below) put in £250,000 and he was the biggest shareholder. We were fan-owned in the sense that in theory we were owned by the fans. It wasn't as simple as that though. It wasn't one man, one vote. It was one share, one vote. At the AGM at the end, there might be 250 hands in the air up but they were 10 per cent of the share.
"It has been hard and emotional over the past few years and it was draining. It is refreshing to go to games now. There is no one there to dislike for their corruption or dishonesty. I think the club will be reborn, hopefully it will happen before Christmas."
Port Vale have been fortunate so far. A significant part of their debt, £2.8 million, was owed to Stoke-on-Trent council. To help the football club survive, £1.5m of that was written off. The council have also handed over a further £440,000 to pay Begbies Traymor, but that is money they will one day seek back.
"We think Port Vale can be viable if it maintains average crowds of 5,000," said Bob Young, from the administrators. "But if they drop below that we have taken our lives into our own hands."
Somehow, and this is when football clubs and their stories get interesting, Port Vale are winning. Their victory at Exeter on Saturday was their ninth of the season. They dominated, and in the middle of it was a big, six foot three inch striker who supported Port Vale as a kid and dreamed of playing for them.
Tom Pope was in his fourth loan spell at a club when everyone finally realised that he should be a regular at home, doing on the pitch what so many in the stands had been doing to save their football club.
He scored both goals at St James' Park (the other one). He has nine for the season. Pope saving hope. You can't make some of it up.
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