Ever had one of those days when even the best possible outcome only seems to paper over the cracks of an underlying problem? Lets take it back to Boxing Day in 2003 where the seeds of doubt for the future of my beloved game were initially sown.
|Football League One – KO 15:00|
|Sheff Wed||2 (2) – 3 (1)||Port Vale|
|At Hillsborough on 26-12-2003|
Sheff Wed: Lucas, Geary, Lee, Bromby, Barry-Murphy, Reddy (Burchill, 51 ) , McLaren, Mustoe, Smith, Robins, Ndumbu-Nsungu
Subs not used: Pressman,Smith,Holt,Haslam,
Port Vale: Brain, Pilkington, Rowland, Collins ( Brooker, 48 ) , Boyd ( Bridge-Wilkinson, 83 ) , Paynter, Brisco, Lipa, Cummins, Littlejohn, McPhee
Subs not used: Goodlad, Birchall, Burns,
Bookings: Barry-Murphy , Bromby , Geary , McLaren , Smith (Sheff Wed) Brisco , Rowland (Port Vale)
Referee: R Pearson (Peterlee)
“Eurghhhh!” was my usual reaction to how bad I felt that day as my eyes attempted to focus on the ceiling of my bedroom. Copious amounts of drink and food conspired against and had their wicked way with me. That numb yet painful feeling behind my eyes acted as a catalyst for the decision making process in my head. ‘Was today going to be worth a two hour journey to Sheffield with Packard as the driver?’. There was only going to be one way to find out. My conclusion was inevitably compromised due to my condition and that regular daily event when my brain ‘takes the piss out of me’. An enormous amount of effort later, I was dosed up on general in-effective lemon hangover powder and fully showered. Now was my final chance to bail on a day that I had been looking forward to, well sort of. A day out with the lads plus Packard and a rare chance to see Jimmy Hall was probably the only catalyst behind finally confirming my attendance.
It was only two seasons ago where I would have jumped at the chance of attending such a ‘high-profile’ fixture. After all, Sheffield Wednesday does not come around every season for a club like Vale, especially on Boxing Day. Something had definitely changed in my mindset. Granted a heartbreaking, yet expected relegation had occurred a few years previous, however the new team was doing rather well and on their way to gaining promotion back to the ‘gravy days’ of old. There was also a rare financial interest for the club in the shape of Italian businessman and millionaire, Gianni Paladini. Things were looking up, so why did I feel an increased lack of interest in all things Port Vale?
Was it the relegation that had affected me? Was I just another ‘glory hunter’ and only in it for success and the good times? Maybe I could have done what a large percentage of the people I knew at the time and ‘support’ a more successful outfit, one that I could attach as a bragging point in conversation with strangers. I may even exaggerate to my acquaintances about how many times I have seen this team play or the amount of time I have been a ‘lifelong’ supporter. Being a Port Vale supporter could have been erased from the memory banks of time and the evidence destroyed like an East German STASI office after the Berlin wall came down. I knew deep down that this was not an option.
Could it have been the appointment of Mr Brian Horton as Port Vale manager and the ‘narrowing’ of the Vale Park pitch to suit his ‘direct’ style of football? Or could it have been due to the retiring Port Vale legends like Tony Naylor, Neil Aspin, Andy Porter et al and their replacement with mercenaries who could not give a toss? Was it the board’s rejection of a promising Italian businessman who would later go on to be the sole cause for Queens Park Rangers’ revival and unimagined riches? It could just have been down to the smell from the Bycars toilets or the incessant cries of ‘Come on Vale, face up!’ from an annoying wannabe football coach from the back row. After months of reflective thinking, I finally cracked it! It was a culmination of them all, how stupid of me. Anyway, back to the day in question….
Packard’s driving could have been described as ‘sketchy’ at best and did no favours to the way I was already feeling. Our choice of route may have been a little bit too much of a risk due to his previous track record with ‘writing off’ automobiles. The Peak District looked especially bleak that day and would not have been a fitting way for four young men to die, however the emergency services would not have had difficulty finding the destroyed car with its deceased occupants as Packard insisted on driving with his full beam permanently on. If his driving did not kill us then some enraged individual would, after deciding to turn around and hunt us down for his distinct lack of highway courtesy.
After a merry few ales in one of Jimmy Hall’s locals, we decided to make a beeline to the ground. As usual, Vale supporters did themselves proud with the amount of numbers bothering to make the journey. The price of £25 enraged some supporters who decided to make a statement by just paying it and doing absolutely nothing about it. I was no exception to this rule, after all I’m feeling marginally better than I did when I awoke and Sheffield Wednesday does not come around every season. My apathy towards this changing face of football coupled with the awful reality of twenty five sheets for third tier football was just as boring as my repeated justification for just being there on the day.
Will Rogers, American humorist and social commentator once said “money was all appropriated for the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy”. It was on this economic model that the Premiership was born promising more money into the game which in turn would equal more money for all professional clubs. Football was no longer a sport but a business run on such a model derived by Reaganomics and it was apparent that the ‘brave new world’ promised by the creation of the Premiership was not quite as rosy as many had predicted. In the long run, the richer clubs got richer and the poorer… you get the idea. Was football adopting the economic systems we had experienced in society since the 1980’s? If so, I never voted for it and I’m not too sure if the fans were ever consulted.
The fundamental reason behind my measured excitement for this match was actually a realisation that something had changed within football and that these big away-days became fewer and more of a rarity as time wore on. The passion, pride and exhilaration that was once a fortnightly occurrence at Vale Park was no longer apparent. The regular preachers that made the Bycars stand a unique and special place were no longer showing their faces. A once loud and proud get together of like minded individuals who had a passion for football was ripped apart and replaced with yellow-ish seats that became paler and paler through exposure to the elements. The gentry who stood tall and shouted for their team for ninety minutes regardless of the result transformed into a group of different, passionless and ‘seated’ individuals content with continuously barracking the referee and on occasions their own team. The Bycars was officially deceased.
One could have been forgiven for thinking that someone regal was gracing us with their presence at Hillsborough that day. The well-dressed Italian took centre stage as he wooed supporters with his coffee drinking skills and rather expensive Versace suit. ‘The saviour is here!’ was the apparent feeling of the day as he attempted to win the hearts and minds of Port Vale supporters and give them the usual fantasy tale of how Premiership football was possible in the next 5 years. As you may have probably guessed, the current board of Port Vale FC ignored his interest in their first example of how they had turned a supporter run football club into something from a dystopian George Orwell novel.
The match itself was actually fit enough for someone of regal proportions. A topsy-turvy encounter with two equaliser’s and a last minute winner that somewhat made me forget about the issues I had with football at that time. To finally cease the inane babble that Sheffield Wednesday fans called ‘supporting’ their football club was a pleasure. I think I would have only tolerated their incessant attacks on Sheffield United for one more minute before forcing my fingertips in my own ears and visiting the refreshment bar for another helping of Wright’s pie with peas. A strange item to have on sale in Sheffield, I’m sure you will agree.“Hark now hear, the Wednesday sing, United ran away… And we will fight forever more because of Boxing Day”.
An appallingly shite chant I think you will concur but it made me sit up and take an interest in the behaviour of some of my fellow supporters. What hit me smack in the face was an absence of originality, the constant drone of “Vale! Vale! Vale!”, the forgotten classics that were consigned to the archives and above all the presence of supporters with a different mindset from myself towards watching football. For them, Gianni Paladini was to be revered as highly as a brand new star signing. Who would have thought that a potential investor would generate more chants than for the whole of the football team? This was the all-new sad state of modern football and the new paradigm that I had to come to accept.
‘Soulsearching’ became the new buzzword in my head for the remainder of the 2003-2004 season. Many Saturdays were spent conforming to the status quo whilst witnessing the gradual death of Port Vale FC and football in general. The journey from Biddulph to Vale Park via The Goose public house was only done out of sheer boredom and became more of a social event just to have a beer with the lads. What happened for ninety minutes in-between visits to the pub became lost in the memory banks due to the sensory deprivation that occurred after parting with eighteen of your hard earned queen’s heads. The constant droning from ‘The Coach’, the harsh icy breeze focussed through the open doors at the back of the Bycars (left open by someone who must have been born in a barn) and above all the passionless efforts from the men who used to be my heroes in white and black. If I was original enough I could have been the first person to start one of my all time favourite football chants whilst vegetating away in my usual seat, although asking Port Vale fans to sing along to anything with more than two syllables was a bit too hopeful…“Hoist up the John B Sail, See how the main sail sets, Call the captain ashore and let me go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go hoooooome, This is the worst trip, I’ve ever been on”
The long period of apathy amongst Port Vale supporters had begun. Season after season of acceptance in the mediocre and continual financial mismanagement from a board who knowingly exploited its ‘For Us All’ motto by using the club charter for their own gains. Something that was all too apparent on that evening in South Yorkshire was that my beloved football club was just another ‘small’ club forever flirting with administration and hardship whilst passionless mercenaries used the club to stop their careers from eventually declining into non-league. Year after year, the privileged ‘equals’ presided over the AGM’s, protecting their interests at the expense of the fans. Myself, a week in, week out supporter alienated through my unwillingness to buy shares. In the long run I suppose my cynicism prevailed.
I decided that I was to follow up a new lead of interest, after all what had I got to lose? Maybe a change or a break would re-ignite my passion for all things Port Vale? The ‘loyalist’ in me would demand that a new sport must be found as defection to another football team could never be an option, however did I want to leave football completely behind? Luckily for me my diverse interest in other sports meant that getting to grips with something different would not be a major issue. With this in mind I prepared a rendezvous with my eventual new religion, a team that had been mentioned in my household from an early age due to my Father’s affection towards Manchester United and all things red. One cold Friday night I pointed the car in the direction of St.Helens, into the great unknown, to experience what Rugby League had to offer.“We’ve been to Hull and we’ve been to Leeds,
Rochdale, Paris, Keigh-er-ley,
We’re the team you want to see,
Salford RL… FC!
We don’t like Bill and we don’t like Ben,
We hate Ken Dodd and his Diddy Men,
We knocked the spots off the Wooden Tops,
We are the Salford, faithful!”