Deep Dive Rewinds – Whitfield, Chesterfield, Anger, Pain, Relief

The game I gave the Railway seats a good kicking

That Chesterfield win last Saturday affected me more emotionally than any other match I can remember

The famously unemotional, stoic Tom Pope

Tom Pope is rarely one for romanticising, for idealising; his career has been one of downplaying achievements, of borderline baffling reticience regarding his big moments.

A man who shattered records to seal promotion, voted the best player in the league; a striker who has the most goals at our 70 year old stadium, and has the most goals for the club he supports since the world was last embroiled in a global conflict.

“Yeah, alright isn’t it?” – Tom Pope, probably.

When Pope claims that a win affected him more emotionally than any other, when he admits to being tearful leaving the field, when he accurately surmises the tension, fear, frustration, panic, and anger pervading ST6 during the weeks building up to the Valiant vs Spierites ‘loser drops off the face of the planet’ humdinger, you know he isn’t doing it for website clicks. He’s being brutally honest, in typical Pope fashion.

Ben Whitfield curled home in the 82nd minute, as 10 men Vale secured a win that only now, as the club begins to grow again, can be viewed accurately, in our rear-view mirror. As we accelerate away from Smurthwaite’s horrorshow, of days we genuinely feared for the club’s existence, the little moment of magic conjured by Whitfield’s right foot stands tall as one of the defining moments of the club’s recent history.

Without context, the goal is fairly run-of-the-mill; hoofball to Popey; classic Popey flick in; classic Whitfield drive into the box, and a very tidy finish. 2-1 home win against a side destined for relegation. Lovely. Onto next season.

Rewind a tad; in the space of two years, Norman Smurthwaite had single-handedly transformed Port Vale from a decent League 1 outfit into National League lookalikes. Disastrous decisions undertaken by a man woefully out of his depth left a 130 year old club on life support.

PUT YER MONEY ON US, cried Chris Morgan, then coach of Port Vale as the Valiants entered the League 2 season. Michael Brown was manager, a lot of experience had been signed, and old Norm had promised to right his wrongs.

Before Christmas, Brown and Morgan were gone, cast into the wind, more collateral damage of Smurthwaite’s unmitigated masterclass in disaster. Norman needed to win the fans back; he turned to Vale legend, Neil Aspin.

Its hard to articulate the importance of Neil Aspin, as a younger fan living off vicarious memories from my old man/VHS tapes my Grandad owns of the 1990s. Long-story short; Aspo was a hard as nails, utterly committed behemoth in defence. My Dad’s all-time favourite; epitomised all that was good about Port Vale in the 90s. Mention Aspo to any bloke over 30 and they go all soft, reminiscing about beating Stoke four times a season and drawing at Anfield, with the big bald bastard at the back prowling.

He was back. Joined by his old mentor. THE legend of Port Vale.

Aspin and Rudge had arrived, to pluck Vale from the chasm of non-league they were sliding in to. Two of the top 5 figures in the club’s entire history, working in tandem to resuscitate the Vale after Smurthwaite’s car crash. It’s the sort of story, so cliche, so tired, that you’d close the issue of MATCH magazine as a 11 year old for being too predictable. Of course; the old heroes return with shining halos to save the club. Wow, so clever. So bold. Within weeks you’d have moved on to Four Four Two. Give me something edgy, ffs.

Alas, in reality, whilst Aspin did oversee an upturn in results (Norman could have gone full Glenn Tamplin and decided to install himself as player-manager, leading the line, and it would still be better than Michael Brown), things were tight. In a truly abysmal bottom end of a truly abysmal league, the Vale were truly abysmal. A nonsensical demolishing of champions-elect Luton aside, Vale were NOT GOOD. Some players to feature that season; Zak Jules, Tyrone Barnett, Anton Forrester, Harry Middleton (no idea), Anthony Kay (33 times), Rekeil Pyke, Divitar Evtimov, Jack Stobbs, Chris Regis, Lawrie Wilson.

Tom Pope, immortal, unflinching, trundled on; 17 goals as he carried the club on his slouched shoulders to competitiveness. The next top scorer was unconvincing winger/good left back Monty, with FOUR league goals, closely followed by pensioner midfield duo Tony Kay and Micky Tonge.

This was real ugly shit. Not good. A chore to support.

Nontheless, owing to other teams being equally NOT GOOD, The Whites were alive. Barely. The fans were worried. The tension was palpable. The tension could be palpared.

Even your most easy-going fan, your most laidback, stress-free ‘que sera sera’ lad, was shitting it in the boozer, unable to finish his pint. Wrights Pies were eaten in a nervous frenzy. Bovrils were downed in shaking hands. Even Jean, with her ever-optimistic slant on the Vale, was undoubtedly worried, looking up hotels in Eastleigh and Chorley for next season’s away travels.

It culminated in a game at The Wembley of the North. Good Friday. A day of the recognition of immense suffering for billions of Christians worldwide, and quite possibly, 4-5,000 Vale fans.

Chesterfield were bad. Vale were bad. Who was less bad? The answer would seal the immediate futures of both clubs; the loser, consigned to QUEST highlights free-existence of non-league football, of financial turmoil, dwindling fanbases, and diminishing memories of ‘The Good Times’. The winner, the chance to go again, a reprieval, resusciation, clinging to the ever-so-precious ‘EFL Member’ status. Win, and the Vale are 8 clear of the drop. Lose, and its 2 clear, with two more games played.

Look at the absolute state of this.

Line ups: Cheeky Whites – Boot; Raglan, Howkins, Smith, Monty; Worall, Tonge, Pugh, Hannant; Pope, Barnett

Chesterfield – Ramsdale; Barry, Nelson, Whitemore, Talbot; Brown, Weir, Reed, Hines; Kellett, Dennis.

Off the benches; Vale – Tony Kay, Whitfield, Harness

Chesterfield: Vale cult-figure Louis Dodds, Kay, O’Grady

Nowt happens. Stroke of half-time, Davey W fizzes one in, and the galloping, decrepit Danny Pugh converts. Bang. Off he jogs in front of an empty Lorne Street, quite pleased. Proper ‘go on, son’, player. Not very good anymore but By Jove he’ll put a tackle in.

He whips himself into such a frenzy, such a state of ‘I am class, me’ at the prospect of being Port Vale’s saviour, that he two foots a lad in injury time, within 120 seconds of bagging. Proper nails him. Experienced head, been there and done that, loses it in the most crucial of moments. Vale have the momentum, crowd are buzzing, get in at half-time and see it out. Not Danny P. Wallop. Off he trudges.

Vale feel deflated. 10 minutes after the restart, Reed curls one top bins past Wee Ryan Boot. Its inevitable. Vale are f*****. 10 men, Chesterfield score, players are gone. The Valiants wait expectantly and patiently for the crushing, yet comforting, disappointment which has enveloped large swathes of the years since John Rudge left.

In the 57th minute, a young, small winger/attacking midfielder from Bingley enters the fray; Ben Whitfield had been a lone bright spark of a dismal season, with energy, pace, and directness that fans love. He’d been red-hot, had one of them agent meltdowns in January, come back, and not been great. He’d lost his place. Undoubtedly a good player. Just not cutting the proverbial mustard, especially in a dogfight where Tony Kay, Danny P, and Micky Tonge are your midfield generals, and 3 of your back 4 are Charlie Raglan (slabhead), Kyle Howkins (slabhead), and Nathan Smith (slabhead). Pope and Barnett lead the line, immobile, good in the air, huff and puff (in Pope’s case), both getting on.

There’s no place for a young, inconsistent, profligate livewire like Whitfield in these parts. A bit-part; lob him on against tired legs etc etc.

On he jogs, just over half an hour to work some magic.

It doesn’t look good; Chesterfield rattle the bar. Vale are struggling. Every fan’s stomach is twisted, churning, proper feeling sick. This is it; the last vestiges of the Vale; the decline of the Roman Empire, played out in a turgid 90th vs 91st, as bad as professional football gets. Chaos, enabled through lack of talent, reigns supreme. The Vale put a shift in; the 10 men have no choice. There’s very little talent on the pitch; your midfield is now two old defensive midfielders. You need one spark, one bit of class, and your season, your club, is saved.

Before we conclude, let us quickly imagine life in non-league. Lost revenue, fewer fans, fewer away fans, Norman at the helm; the cycle of cynicism, apathy, and anger would likely continue. Directors’ loans would multiply exponentially, Norman chucking money at problems, papering over black holes with a bag of loose fivers. Eventually, he’d get bored, demand his money back, withdraw financial support, and let the affair fold. No one wants a club with monumental liabilities, poor set-up, dwindling revenues. The club would have, most likely, ceased to exist, with that clown at the helm, a final chef’s kiss of ineptitude, the shit cherry on top of the burnt cake.

One bit of magic; against us, and its oblivion. For us, and its salvation, and the chance to go again the next day.

82 minutes in. Booty launches a punt at Legend. He, as sure as day follows night, wins his flick on. It falls to the dimuntive wizard. He drives. He drives and drives, the one thing he excels at. Head down, close control, vroom vroom.

You hear the noise crescendo; more pleading than encouraging; more desperate than hopeful. Please, Ben, this club is important to us. Burslem crumbles without it. People lose their lifeline.

Please, Ben.

Ben seems to get it stuck under his feet, bobbling on the edge of the box as he finds a crumb of space, as chink of light that points the way to the bottom right corner.

He’s about 15 yards out, on his right foot. Three defenders within 2 yards of him, future Premier League goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale keeping net.

Ben wraps his right foot and caresses the ball, gently placing it in a manner not befitting the blood, thunder, and existential crises that have encompassed the game. A soft touch, the way Dimi Berbatov played football; bags of time, nice and gentle now, bit of finesse.

The ball flies and dips in the bottom right.

It produces one of those primal, guttural noises that unites man, woman, child, pensioner in the ground. That unifying, out-of-body experience when something REALLY IMPORTANT to you and 4,500 others happens, live.

I distinctly remember my response. A Potter-supporting distant family member had come, and was quite chuffed that the Vale were going down.

At the back of the Railway, I started running. No idea where. Just ran. Kicked a seat. Pushed an old man who was doing a similar thing. Ran back; kicked another seat. Proper wellied it. Took my Vale shirt off and flung it to the ground. Angrily chuntering to myself, like a teenager in detention. Weird. Wrong-un behaviour. Red in the face, spit down my chin, tears welling. Game of football, ffs. Sat in my seat, head in hands.

It was a release of a lot of emotions, something I very rarely feel or articulate; frustration and anger, at the manner in which Norman, without much criticism, had completely decimated the main constant in my life. Fear and anxiety, at the prospect of not having the Vale on a Saturday with my Dad, a routine as established and unquestioned as the passage of time. Relief and optimism; we’d live to fight again, maybe things would be different, maybe things wouldn’t always be shit.

Pope admitted to tears after the final whistle.

The Vale limped home, just, with that win proving crucial. It re-energised a tired instiution, bereft of hope for so long, infected with apathy from top to bottom.

As we sit here now, with optimism spilling out of the club’s every orifice, it is very easy to overlook the important moments, as we firmly set our Sat Navs to ‘Not League 2’, looking forward, not back.

As a teacher of History, I put great importance in contextualising everything. Pope’s Man City goal, any potential promotion, means so much more when properly placed in this club’s history.

Carol Shanahan blew the kids inheritance to keep us alive, and to have us thriving. Whether this season finishes or not, whether we end up at Wembley, whether Pope breaking our post-war scoring record as he nods home to complete a flowing move at the home of the Treble Holders actually matters, we can point back to the moment that Neil Aspin (now departed), chose to deploy mercurial Ben Whitefield (now departed) on that terrifying Good Friday, and remember fondly stroke of the right boot that gave us a chance.

A chance Carol has grabbed with both hands, and her black and white bobble scarf.