I’m not a big fan of Stoke to say the least. I don’t like the town. I don’t like the football ground. And I particularly don’t like Stoke City FC. Sorry Stoke. It’s probably for these reasons I was in no rush to visit their near neighbours Port Vale. On the ‘snow day’ in January, when I eventually decided to visit Birmingham City, Port Vale was on the list of potential destinations. The thing that had really put me off visiting Port Vale was the fact that the ground was quite tricky to get to get to. Getting to Port Vale’s Vale Park home is tricky to get to by public transport; the small town of Burslem, a suburb of Stoke, is best accessed by a 10 minute taxi drive from Stoke train station. Finding the motivation to visit the small town was difficult. But, a free ticket is always a helpful incentive. A free ticket would be the cause for my first ever visit to Vale Park and it’s arrival would be thanks to this very blog. I first met Rob on my visit to West Didsbury and Chorlton FC and since then he has become a regular commentator on our blog. Just last week Rob commented on our Crewe blog entry that he had a free ticket for Port Vale v Morecambe and would I like to come; with Swansea not travelling to Anfield until Sunday (we won’t talk about that though) I was very much up for it.
As usual, the day started in Manchester Piccadilly where I was meeting Rob to catch the 10:30 train to Stoke. The train was surprisingly full, but our cans of Carling made the journey go quick enough and by 11:15 we were in Stoke. It’s never good to hang about in Stoke, so we headed straight to the nearest taxi rank and soon we were on our way to Burslem. The taxi journey was no more than ten minutes and that took us right outside Vale Park. With tickets collected, we headed into Burslem town for our pre-game drinks.
I may dislike Stoke, but the town of Burslem is great. It just seems to be small town centre with lots and lots of pubs. On walking down the main road we found that we were spoiled for choice, but eventually we opted for a classic looking pub called The Leopard. On entering, Rob and me discover that despite one old punter, we were the only people in the pub. Inside the pub was great and it had a very tidy, classy, antiquated look, but unfortunately a pint of San Miguel crept over the £3 mark. After a chat with two Port Vale fans who eventually joined us in the Leopard, we decided to move on. We mulled over the various pubs ahead of us and eventually plumped for the large, Tudor looking pub on the street corner called the Duke William. Once again, the pub was practically deserted and we began to wonder where everyone was on this crisp, sunny early Saturday afternoon. Next on the magical tour around Burslem was the Post Office Vaults (a pub, not just the underbelly of the Royal Mail). Of the three pubs we visited the Post Office Vaults was probably my favourite, despite it basically just consisting of a very small room with a bar. At least there were actually people in the Vaults though. And they were kind enough to put the Luton v Millwall game on the telly for us.
By 13:30 we were outside Vale Park and heading into the on-site bar, Tommy Cheadle’s. I had made a big deal to Rob that it was important to arrive at the ground in plenty of time for kick off purely for one reason: the Morecambe fans. Anyone that knows me will know that the past few months have seen me develop a slight affection for the North Lancashire club. This soft spot purely blossomed from my visit to the Globe Arena (which can be read here) where the Morecambe fans treated me superbly and made me feel more welcome than any other club has on my travels. My main host that Saturday afternoon in earl November was Morecambe fan Paul Carter and it was Paul who had arranged with me, via Twitter, to meet up with the rest of the Shrimps fans in Tommy Cheadle’s.
On entering the bar I easily spotted Paul, thanks to his incredible mohican, and the band of Morecambe fans and went over to say my hellos. After saying my hellos I decided to put on my Morecambe badge which was given to me as a memento on my Morecambe visit. I’m even known by another name to the Morecambe fans: Paul had christened me “Jack Shrimp” – a combination of my Swansea support and Morecambe’s own nickname. I also once again got to meet “Two Scarves”, the famous Shrimps fan I had met up at the Globe. As he questioned me on my visit to Morecambe’s home, I asked had he read the blog – “Oh no! I’ve not got the internet. Stone age me.” Brilliant. “Two Scarves” was a bit of an understatement today as he practically had a kilt made out of a whole load of red Shrimps scarves. To all the Shrimp fans, thanks for your company and your welcoming spirit once again. Top fans!
Tommy Cheadle’s was superb! The place was very spacious and catered for both home and away fans, who were happily mingling together. However, the best bit of the pub came on reaching the bar: £2 a pint! We decided to take advantage of such outrageous prices as possible and began doubling up our drinks. With kick off approaching we said our goodbyes to the Shrimps and made our way around to the Lorne Steet Stand. En route to our turnstile we encountered the statue of former player, manager and all round club legend Roy Sproson. The statue of Sproson heading a ball was only unveiled in November 2012 after ten years off fundraising and a two-year delay following its completion, as the club sat in administration. The supporters’ club even delayed its unveiling on purpose, as they were concerned that the financially strapped club might sell the statue for scrap metal!
We entered the Lorne Street Stand and was greeted by a very wide and spacious concourse. I decided that it was time for a pie and went for a safe meat and potato pie. Once again, I was outraged! Just as at Crewe on the previous Tuesday night, Port Vale also had no forks! What is wrong with these places!? The pie eating was a disaster as I tried to navigate my way through it ‘fork-less’ and predictably singed the whole roof of my mouth. It was a nightmare!
On looking around I noticed there was no tunnel leading up into the stands. Strange indeed. I soon realised that entry to the stands was through the bright yellow double doors in the corner of the concourse – a strange perk of the stand.
The Valiants have played at Vale Park since 1950 after they left the The Old Recreation Ground. Despite being a third tier team in the 1940s, the club were highly ambitious and wanted to build a ground that reflected this. The original plans of Vale Park showed a 80,000 capacity stadium and it was known in the early planning stages as ‘The Wembley of the North’. When the ground opened it only had half the capacity that it boasted about in the formative planning years with the ground costing £50,000 to build. A bit of further Vale Park trivial knowledge: it is the eleventh highest ground above sea level in the country (I visited the highest earlier in the season) and the second highest in the Football League (the Hawthorns is the highest in the Football League – one for the pub quizs!).
On walking through the yellows doors and out onto pitchside, I was quite struck by how big the ground actually was. The stand opposite and the stand to our left looked a long way from us. The ground has to be one of the widest in the Football League and the stands have to be some of the shallowest as well. The wideness was further accentuated by the quite large distance between the touchline and the front row of the Lorne Street Stand. The Lorne Street Stand was opened in 1999 and is the most modern in the ground; however, a large section of it remains not built and instead an empty, unfinished, unused concrete area takes up half the stand. The Lorne Street Stand also has the dugouts and tunnel as well as the main stadium entrance and reception. Opposite us was the Railway Stand, a classic looking sheltered stand with a number of pillars supporting the roof. The away support took the whole of the Hamil Road End behind the goal to our left and behind the goal to our right was the Bycars Road End. A strange feature of the ground was the two-tiered stand almost strangely rammed into the corner between the Bycars Road End and the Railway End, which is now used as the club’s designated family stand.
On walking to our seats in the second row, we walked past the away dugout. On spotting Morecambe manager Jim Bentley, who I had been introduced to on my Globe Arena visit, standing near his dugout, I could not resist shouting to him and saying hello. Bentley then came over to speak with me and I was more than impressed that he recalled who I was (everyone in Morecambe seems to know me as “the Welsh lad that wrote that blog about us.”) Rob and I took to our seats and settled down for some League Two football.
Port Vale were sitting top of the league coming into the game, whilst Morecambe were fighting away in midtable, although they had hit some decent form in the games leading up to this one. On scanning the Port Vale lineup I noticed an unlikely pairing: in defence stood ex-Cardiff captain Darren Purse alongside former Swansea protegé Richard Duffy. Duffy is Swansea born and was at his hometown club many years ago as a young, highly promising full back. Duffy made his debut as a 16-year-old for lower league Swansea, before being signed up for Premier League Portsmouth for a six figure fee. It never worked out for Duffy and his career became a series of loan moves (including a return to Swansea, where he was a shadow of the player that left years before) before settling at Exeter and now Port Vale. Despite my fandom leaning towards Morecambe for today’s fixture, I also had to cheer on a former Jack.
Port Vale attacked Morecambe from the first minute and if Ryan Burge had connected properly with a first minute effort, it surely would have been 1-0 to Vale. Despite a lot of early pressure from the Valiants, Morecambe settled into the game well and started to hold their own. I was particularly impressed with how organised Morecambe were and their positional play was great at times. Despite this, the Shrimps were not threatening and they lacked any cutting edge during the first half with their only real sight at goal being a stinging effort from Andrew Wright. 1-0 at half time and not really the most thrilling of contests.
The second half continued with Vale plugging away at the Morecambe defence and despite two half chances for Doug Loft and Tom Pope, Vale were getting little from the stubborn Morecambe defence. Morecambe began to show signs of fighting back when Kevin Ellison messed up a good chance to score, but soon the Shrimps found themselves 1-0 up. A ball from Morecambe’s left-wing was not dealt with by Port Vale and somehow the ball made it across the six yard box, past the Vale defence and keeper and to Lewis Alessandra who tapped in an easy finish at the far post.
Vale increased their pressure on Morecambe and pushed much further upfield with Duffy and Purse even popping up regularly in the opposition half. Purse went close to scoring himself, but his header was cleared off the line. Soon Morecambe were down to ten men when Andrew Wright found himself seeing a second yellow and it began to look like only a matter of time until Port Vale got their goal. Vale continued to pummel the Morecambe defence, but to the Shrimps credit they dug in, largely thanks to keeper Barry Roche who made a whole host of impressive saves. Despite a final flurry and a couple of penalty box scrambles, Morecambe managed to hold out and gain a very useful 3 points on the road.
We departed through the yellow double doors (walking past the littered away dug out – Morecambe really need to tidy up after themselves when visiting others) and we decided to head back to the £2 a pint haven of Tommy Cheadle’s. Unfortunately, post match, the club was closed and instead we witnessed a wholly unnecessary amount of stewards fence in the Shrimps fan and guide them onto their mini buses back up north. Spotting some of our pals from earlier in the day, I gave a cheeky thumbs up to signal my happiness at their victory.
To finish off our day in Staffordshire, we headed back into Burslem to try out another two pubs, the Ye Olde Smithy and another more Wetherspoons-esque pub which irritatingly I’ve forgotten the name of, before hopping in a taxi back to Stoke train station.
Highlights: Having a free ticket for the game, lots of pubs near the ground (and lots of them good pubs), Vale Park’s bar: Tommy Cheadle’s (£2 pints!), meeting up with the Morecambe fans again.
Low Points: No train link near Port Vale, some of the pubs were empty, no real atmosphere in the ground (I’m sure this was because it was so spacious), ground too wide (seemed a bad thing on the day anyway), not a great game.