The First Time Ever I Saw Your Ground: Port Vale and Vale Park

Malcolm Dawson writes……….it’s years since I’ve been to Vale Park, the last time being in 1998 when we won 2-0 thanks to an own goal and one from St Niall of the Disco Pants but for those of you going this coming weekend, see if you can find the Staffordshire Oatcake take away shop, which I seem to remember was just up the hill a bit from the ground and if it’s open on a Sunday I can recommend the bacon and cheese version to non veggies.

Pete Sixsmith of course, has been there a few times and in the latest of his reminiscences about the homes of our future opponents, he takes us back to the day that S Express topped the UK charts, Canadian Celine Dion represented Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest and won and Sunderland AFC were set fair for promotion as he ticked off another ground.

Pete Sixsmith – cheers


It’s in Burslem. It’s not in Stoke. It’s not in Hanley (although it was between 1913 and 1950) and it’s not in Longton or Fenton or Tunstall. These are the Six Towns that make up The County Borough of Stoke-on-Trent, formed in 1910 to unite the competing towns into one and promote The Potteries as a single entity.

Stoke is the UK’s only polycentric city although there have been attempts to create Leeds-Bradford and Newcastle/Gateshead but Bradfordians and those who live in The ‘Heed have not succumbed to the charms of their self-styled elders and betters.

Although it is now subsumed into “Stoke”, Burslem has a clear fingerprint on British society.

Josiah Wedgwood, our most famous manufacturer of pottery came from the town and it was the kilns of Burslem that produced his distinctive pots and plates. I once spent a day in the Potteries museum in Hanley looking at his designs prior to a game at Vale Park (a 1-1 draw in our 95-96 promotion year) in preparation for a scheme of work which bamboozled the OFSTED Inspector who was due when term started.

As well as Wedgwood it has as a native son, the finest chronicler of late Victorian and Edwardian life in Arnold Bennett (no relation to Gary). The author of Anna of The Five Towns and The Old Wivess Tale (one of the greatest novels I have ever read) was born in the town and charted its progress and the beginnings of its decline in his writings. [And my favourite of his is Riceyman Steps – Malcolm Dawson]

Arnold Bennett

He even wrote about football in The Card, a novel which charted the rise and fall of Edward Henry (Denry) Machin, who (temporarily) cemented his popularity with the good folk of Bursley by purchasing native son Callear –“the greatest centre forward in England” – for struggling Bursley FC.

Vale have been around for a long time. Founded in 1876, they eventually joined the Football League in 1892 when the Second Division was formed. They played at Cobridge, a location situated on the Burslem to Hanley tram line and they took their name from the valley of ports on the Trent and Mersey Canal. Or so it says, meaning there is a Corbridge near Newcastle, Staffordshire as well as a Corbridge near Newcastle, Northumberland.

They left the Football League in 1907 and moved to The Athletic Grounds in Hanley and re-joined in the Great Expansion of 1920 when Divisions Three North and South were formed. The Athletic Grounds were badly damaged in the war and the club were nearly bankrupted when they announced an ambitious plan to build “the Wembley of the North” in Burslem.

Built in a clay pit, it resembled Wembley in that it was inaccessible and stuck in a place where nobody wanted to go. The plans for an 80,000 capacity were scaled down to 40,000 and it opened in 1950. It’s a sign of the times that there was one small main stand with 360 seats and only a small covered terrace at one end. Oh and it poured down on the day the ground opened, a 1-0 win over Newport County in Division Three (South).

The capacity now is 19,052 and it is completely covered with 19,052 smart seats. The only noticeable sign of “the Wembley of the North” is a very wide players’ tunnel and the fact that it takes up a hell of a lot of room.

Wembley of the North

By 1988 the days of an all seater and covered ground were still pipe dreams for a club who were beginning to stir themselves under the leadership of John Rudge. Any Vale fans reading this will do as the citizens of Rock Ridge did when the name of Randolph Scott was mentioned and go all misty eyed and nostalgic at the Great Man’s name.

Rudge was a very influential figure at Vale and supervised a steady rise from Division Four to Division Two, where they enjoyed a lengthy run in the eighties and nineties. They claimed bragging rights over Stoke City as The Potters slid into the third level but the momentum ended and they have bounced around between Divisions One (Three) and Two (Four) for the last few years.

The last time I saw them was the day they got relegated at Fleetwood in 2017. It was one of the worst games I have ever seen and it culminated in both sides failing to reach their objectives. A win for Fleetwood might have got them automatic promotion while a win for Vale would have probably kept them up. The result was an awful 0-0 draw which confined the home team to the playoffs (they lost to Bradford City) and the visitors to relegation (a win would have sent Gillingham down). Manager Michael Brown, a Hartlepool lad, picked a defensively minded side and packed his bench with forwards. When it was clear that Gillingham and Bury were losing, he sent them on but to no avail.

Brown was sacked in September with Vale the 92nd club of 92 and was replaced by current boss, Neil Aspin, a former Leeds United, Vale and Darlington player who was enticed away from the manager’s chair at Gateshead. He’s still there, aided by (pause for reverent sigh) John Rudge who is director of football.

Rudge and Aspin

Rudge was manager when I saw my first game at Vale Park.

It was the penultimate game of the 1987-88 season and it was the game that clinched promotion for us, although that had hardly been in doubt since October, when we first got into the top two. I travelled with Pete Horan by car, had a couple of pints of splendid Robinson’s beers at a pub near Kidsgrove and arrived at a crumbling “Wembley of the North” to watch the following two teams;

Ian Hesford; John Kay, Gary Bennett, John McPhail, Frank Gray; Paul Lemon, Steve Doyle, Gordon Armstrong, Colin Pascoe (Pete named one of his splendid German shepherds after the Welsh Wizard); Eric Gates, Marco Gabbiadini subs; Reuben Agboola (for Bennett70), John Cornforth.

Mark Grew; Alan Webb, Bob Hazell, Phil Sproson, Darren Hughes; Ray Walker, Robbie Earle, Gary Ford, David Riley; Darren Beckford, Simon Mills subs; Paul Maguire (for Riley 81); Kevin Steggles.

Vale had some useful players. Ray Walker went down in Burslem folklore as the man who hit a sensational winner against Spurs on an absolute mud heap of a pitch, Mark Grew was a solid keeper who went on to become a coach at the club and serve as caretaker manager a number of times and Robbie Earle was a fine player who was part of the Wimbledon set up and a decent pundit on TV before he lost his job after a problem with tickets at the 2010 World Cup. He now lives in the USA and works for NBC as a football commentator and resident Premier League expert.

Eric Gates

Vale played well that day and held us until the 79th minute when Eric Gates wriggled away from the defenders and scored in front of a sizeable number of Sunderland supporters gathered on the Bycars Road end – uncovered in those days. It was a pleasant journey home that night and we wrapped up the title in front of 29,000 three days later when goals from McPhail (pen), Armstrong and Gates saw us to a 3-1 win over Northampton Town.

The crowd at Vale Park that day was 7,596. Football in the late 80s was not fashionable and the prawn sandwich brigade (of which this editorial team sometimes are members) did not exist. It’s possible that somewhere in that crowd was a young Robbie Williams and a developing Phil “The Power” Taylor, both dedicated Vale men. Whether Lemmy from Motorhead was there is less likely and if he was it is doubtful whether he remembered anything of it.

Hopefully, Sunday will be another case of getting out of Burslem with a win under our belts and a place in the Second Round of the FA Cup.

As the old lady in Blazing Saddles says, “Oh, the cruelty of it…..”

If there is any copyright claim, not answered by ‘fair use’ exemptions, on the images used to illustrate this report, please make us aware and we will add credits or remove as requested.

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