Port Vale
Vale Park

Ground No. 7 (return visit)
Visited - Saturday 17th January 2009
Result - Port Vale 1-1 Shrewsbury Town
Competition - Coca-Cola League 2
Attendance - 7068

It had been over 10 years since my first (and only) visit to Vale Park and after completing the 92 in April ’08, then along with Tranmere and Stockport which had had similar time gaps, then it was near the top of my list for a revisit.

2007/08 had been a bad year for Vale fans, as if being relegated to League 2 for the first time since 1986 wasn’t bad enough, it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with their beloved neighbours (sic), Stoke returning to the top flight in the same season. As a result, you’d have expected the mood in the Potteries to be one of contrast, but against the odds Vale had actually managed to sell record numbers of season tickets, so despite some mixed league form, crowds had been on the up. Their visit to Shrewsbury back in October had seen a good away following, but it had ended in controversy when a late goal saw a pitch invasion and trouble in the away end, and Shrewsbury, forever on the lookout for a new rival with Chester, Wrexham, Walsall and Hereford all having bigger foes to be bothered with, had jumped on the chance of building up the game as a derby match, despite the two sides only having played each other once since an FA Cup game in 1982.
At one time I’d called the Shrews my second team, but since the move to the New Meadow, then it had become slightly apparent that my affection was more for the Gay Meadow than the club itself. Tucked away in the beautiful town centre, the old ground was a fantastic place to visit, but the bland, out of town, shiny new stadium that had replaced it failed to ignite the same passion, but despite this, I was more than tempted to watch them away in the all new derby match at Vale, so planned ahead for the game to be my return to the ground.

Setting off early, I arrived into Stoke just after 10am, visiting the derelict Eastwood Hanley ground before making my way up to Burslem. Close to the town centre, Vale Park was once billed as ‘The Wembley of the North’, it had been envisaged as a 70,000 super stadium (see picture) to rival any in the league, but with post-war shortages and a lack of money, the dream never became reality and the club were left with a half-finished ground, initially open on all sides. Various covers and a new away end had helped make it feel more enclosed, although on my last visit the Lorne Street stand with its open terrace was still there, but that had since been replaced, in time honoured Vale tradition, with a half-complete stand.

The newly named BGC Stand is an impressive structure. With a single tier of seats and two rows of executive boxes above it, then from both outside and in it looks every bit a grand-stand, but unfortunately this effect is slightly lost with the near end being bare concrete with no seats and the upper row of executive boxes remaining uncompleted. There have been plans to finally finish it off, but the sigh of the man in the club shop when I was talking about it to him perhaps indicates it’s best not to hold your breath! The rest of the ground is more dated, but no less impressive. Both ends are single tier, all-seated stands, the Bycars End slightly larger with a walkway halfway up splitting the seats into two sections. One interesting fact about the Hamil Rd End is that the roof originally saw league action at Chester’s old Sealand Road ground, Vale buying it and moving it there in the early 90s. To the right of the Bycars End, sitting in the corner is the Sentinel Family Stand, an unusual looking structure, with a lower section of seats that was a former terrace and a separate, covered upper tier that faces directly at the pitch as opposed curving round. Thanks to Dr Beeching, the Railway Stand’s name became obsolete some 40 years ago with the loss of the line that is now barely visible on walking up Hamil Road to the ground, but nonetheless, the name stuck and the stand itself is now the oldest at the ground. At one time it wasn’t uncommon to walk up a bank to the top of the terracing, but now this stand is probably one of the few that is so evidently like this left in the country, with nicely landscaped banking rising from the outside after going through the turnstiles, which are situated some 50 yards away. Inside, it consists of a gloomy upper tier and a former paddock that has since had seats added. The stadium is completed with two traditional floodlight pylons and two modern ones, ironically with the modern ones on the older side of the ground and the older towers on the new side!

After being let in to take some pictures, and go in the club shop, then I made my way back to Hanley for the next few hours, before coming back, having decided to sit with the Shrewsbury fans in the Hamil Rd End. With Vale not having played for three weeks, then from the off, they looked understandably rusty, the visitors making the most of the early running. Despite this though, it was the home side who took the lead with a fantastic solo effort from Steve Thompson. Starting near the byline, Thompson took the ball in, beating several Salop players before unleashing a curling effort from all of 25 yards right into the top corner. It was a great goal, a real contender for goal of the season, but the home side were soon on the back foot again, and the equaliser came in the 28th minute, Richard Walker netting for the Shrews in a crowded penalty area. Vale weren’t helped four minutes later when they were reduced to 10 men, with Kyle Perry getting sent-off for an apparent elbow on Kelvin Langmead that looked more clumsy than deliberate and perhaps deserving of a yellow. Despite this, they managed to hold on until half-time, and after the break, the difference in numbers was barely noticeable with the game becoming much more even. Genuine chances were at a premium as both sides matched each other, Shrewsbury perhaps looking more dangerous in front of goal, but still unable to capitalise on some desperate Vale defending. In the 71st minute Marc Pugh came onto the pitch for Ben Davies, before promptly being ordered off it in the 74th by Trevor Kettle, seeing red for a challenge on Anthony Griffith that like with Perry’s sending off, looked more worthy of a yellow at best. The game eventually petered out and when the ref blew his final whistle, the home fans were the ones happier with the point.

When Wolves had come here 10 years ago, with a travelling support of 6000 we made up over half the crowd that day, and whilst Shrewsbury didn’t quite have the same percentage in terms of numbers, the 1400 that had made the trip from Shropshire stirred up a great atmosphere under the cavernous Hamil Road End roof. It was slightly marred during the first half with trouble after the equaliser when a quite obviously pre-meditated attempt to get on the pitch was made by some supporters down in the right corner which saw a confrontation with police and stewards who were attacked by a number of ‘fans’ who could be clearly seen running down the steps just to land punches on the stewards when at the bottom. There had been trouble before and after with the police busy all afternoon, but thankfully I managed to keep out of it, and after leaving I made my way back to Hanley, managing to persuade the staff at the Walkabout to change the channel from Arsenal to Wolves (despite protests from a number of gloryhunters that godforbid, 1 of their 9 screens had changed (there was only about 10 of them in the bar!)) to watch our draw with Bristol City in the late kick-off, before finally heading home, getting back later on.

Overall, the day out had been pretty good. It was good to see the ground again after such a while. I normally hate being asked the predictable question of ‘what is your favourite ground’, because I always look for the individual characteristics in each one and each trip, but Vale Park is certainly up there amongst my favourites. Slightly dated and incomplete it may be, but it has a character all of its own and in a way, takes me back to when I started going, with a feeling to it that you can sense the history of fans flocking there every week for years gone by. The Lorne Street Stand does look a lot better than its predecessor, and it would be great if the club can get it finished, but even without, it’s a ground I’d be more than happy to come back to one of the days, hopefully a little less than the 10 years since the last time!

Welcome to Vale Park
The Lorne St Stand Main Reception

Rear of the Lorne Street Stand

The Club Shop

Rear of the Hamil Road End

The Port Vale Pub

Rear of the Railway Stand

Leading up to the Railway Stand

Rear of the Bycars End

The Hamil Road End

The Railway Stand

The Bycars End

The Lorne Street Stand

The Lorne Street Stand

The Bycars End

The Railway Stand

Vale Park at night

Vale Park Panoramic 1

Vale Park Panoramic 2

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