PSG one week, Port Vale the next. In the tournament formerly known as Papa John, this week’s stop for United’s U21s was Vale Park. Matthew Philpotts was there for TF, along with a handful of Toon fans and a thousand locals to reflect on the meaning of life… and football.
“Fuuuuucking hell, fuck this”. As nine minutes of added time were announced at the end of the first half, there was a collective expletive-laden groan. Not out of concern that the home side might concede an equaliser – take my word for it, there was more chance of Suella Braverman hosting a Save our Small Boats charity dinner – but because it was cold. And most of us had been ever more desperately counting the minutes until our ritual half-time bladder easing.
With that relief apparently postponed indefinitely, the Lorne Street Stand witnessed a mass exodus to the bogs. Sadly there was still plenty of time to get back outside and catch the last seven of the added minutes. The only coke being snorted in the toilets was black, fizzy, and liable to rot your teeth.
Safe to say, the first half action had not swept Vale Park away in a tidal wave of EFL Trophy (aka Freight Rover, Sherpa Van, Autoglass, Papa John’s) fever. For 1,126 locals and one intrepid and curious TF correspondent, this was our Tuesday night entertainment of choice in an increasingly autumnal corner of Burslem. PSG in the Champions League it was not.
Meanwhile, the 40 or so away fans from Tyneside (officially 70) were safely contained in the furthest corner of the adjacent Bycars stand, including the two middle-aged blokes who’d wandered amiably into the home stand in Newcastle shirts and were kindly guided back out. Signs of life from that corner were few and far between, or at least impossible to detect at that range.
Forty-five minutes earlier it had all been so different, as the Vale Park PA announcer’s distinctly eclectic set list whipped us into a veritable frenzy of pre-match anticipation. Or not.
With Elvis and “The Wonder of You” giving way seamlessly to Motörhead and “Ace of Spades”, an elderly gentleman with an ale drinker’s bushy white beard and festooned in “Save Our Ticket Offices” badges politely asked to squeeze past me. Presumably, away matches at Crewe offer infinite crossover delights. As Fatboy Slim took the crescendo ever upwards, conversation turned from the failings of the modern rail network to the 90 minutes ahead. Get it done by half-time, avoid injuries, and bring on the kids seemed to be the consensus.
The rag-tag mascot guard of honour lined up to welcome the teams, Valiants flags waving optimistically, if somewhat limply. At least the first little lad had got the memo about wearing team kit. The rest not so much. Grey tracksuit and goalie jersey, jeans and anorak, it didn’t seem to matter. Their hands sunk disinterestedly in pockets, we knew how they felt, as the dulcet tones of Vale’s favourite son inevitably came over the tannoy.
Hell is gone and heaven’s here… I was distinctly unconvinced. There’s nothing left for you to fear… You sure? Shake your arse come over here…. If you insist. Come on, let me entertain you… Somehow, I doubt it.
It was all a far cry from the previous group tie at the Racecourse Ground, where the late summer sun was shining strongly, more than 7,000 occasionally raucous Wrexham fans had turned out, and 250 of us in the away end (well, side) joined in what was a largely celebratory atmosphere.
With away tickets suddenly in short supply, three EFL Trophy matches spread across the north west’s lower league representatives seemed like a fun diversion for a Manchester exile. Not to mention a welcome antidote to the overblown corrupt excesses of the Premier League and our ownership.
The one point of continuity between North Wales and the Potteries was the quality of football. Wherever the burgeoning investment in the Academy and Europe’s most promising talent is having its effect, it’s certainly not in the U21 side. The cupboard looks worryingly bare – on the evidence of three hours of often dire stuff, a league placing of 21st in PL2 and a record of one win in ten matches this season looks pretty accurate.
At Wrexham, Amadou Diallo had been a rare ray of light. Endlessly busy and often sharply incisive, the diminutive winger had been at the heart of all our good work, only to be undone by his teammates’ poor finishing. At Vale Park, he didn’t get a touch for the first 30 minutes and thereafter was easily snuffed out by his more physical, more experienced opponents.
The result was one-way traffic and a glut of first-half chances for the League One outfit, not helped by the distinctly shaky presence of Aidan Harris between the sticks. At fault for Wrexham’s winner last time out, this time he had a nightmare opening 15 minutes, flapping at corners, spilling shots, and dropping crosses. “He might be a young lad, but he’s dodgy, him”, as the woman behind me wisely concluded on less than five minutes of evidence.
He’s got time on his side, of course, and let’s hope the experience galvanises him, but whoever picked him out for The Guardian’s “Next Generation 2023” can’t have seen him play much. The bench at San Siro was some stretch.
When Vale scored from a corner with Harris glued to his line and the ball skimming off defensive heads, it was hardly a surprise. Perhaps defensive headers from set-pieces aren’t part of the modern-day Academy curriculum. “Men against boys” has never felt more apt.
Synchronised clapping to the Dave Clark Five and “Glad all over” followed. Never gladder, I can assure you. Even Boomer the weirdly creepy dog mascot tried his luck again, having wandered off disconsolately shortly after kick-off. It was a tough gig.
Not that the locals were happy. The only possible reason to attend an EFL Trophy group tie on a cold October night is a masochistic desire to wallow in low-level misery. This is what football is for. Happily, the size of the crowd meant that every expression of that grumbling misanthropic discontent that characterises the long-suffering football fan was audible. A comfortable, comforting background noise that made everyone feel warm inside.
Vale were too slow to pass. The manager had played too many first-teamers. The wing-backs were out of position. The ref was letting our fouls go. The liney was blind. Chizzy was gonna get hurt. We wanted to get home by 10. There were too many flavours of crisp in the world these days. The neo-liberal economic consensus had been consolidated by misguided third-way centrists. That kind of thing.
Mind you, you can forgive the long-suffering locals their outlook. After 112 seasons of league football, they’ve still never played a single game in the top flight. Mightily impressive mediocrity and a record among English clubs.
Their glory days, if we can all them that, came under John Rudge in the 1990s. Twice promoted to the second tier, they knocked Spurs out of the Cup, won this very trophy in its Autoglass era in 1993 and managed an 8th place finish in 1997. So pretty much like Sunderland, if you think about it.
As a teenage United fan, I always thought Port Vale was on the South coast. I’ve no idea why. I suppose it sounded like an idyllic sunny resort hundreds of miles away. Well, I guess if you’re going to be the only English League club not to be named after a settlement, you have to expect some confusion.
By the time February 1992 came around, the Messiah had walked into St James’, and I’d discovered that Vale away was a handily short hop for Keegan’s second away match in charge after the trauma of Blackburn and David Speedie a fortnight earlier. An early Steve Watson goal was enough to settle a relegation six-pointer in front of 10,000 at what was originally planned in the 1940s as the 80,000 capacity “Wembley of the North”, but by then had become a sorry dilapidated memorial to what might have been.
Since Rudge’s departure in 1999 – apparently after a dispute over the sale of Steve Guppy, formerly of this parish – Vale have been mired in League Two and twice entered administration. Now a strong community club under the enlightened ownership of local entrepreneur Carol Shanahan, this is their first season back in League One, albeit one that seems likely to end in a swift demotion.
So if you turn out on a Tuesday night to watch your reserve side play a bunch of kids from a fancy Dan Premier League side, then fair play, you’re entitled to grumble. And if you’re 15 and got school in the morning you’re entitled to remind the world that the Boothen End really is (was, hate to be a pedant) “full of shit, shit, and more shit” (note to Mr Evans to work on synonyms in Wednesday’s Year 11 English class).
What you’re very much not entitled to do is maintain an unremitting 90-minute (actually 104-minute) commentary to your girlfriend in the whining brain-bleeding tone of the perennial office bore, complete with endlessly repeated “jokey” nicknames and homespun football truisms. At least not if you’re in the seat directly behind me. When I close my eyes I can still hear it two days later. My sleep is haunted by flashbacks. Waterboarding would have been a humane alternative.
So when second-half substitute Lewis Stanton creamed a low, turf-scorching Exocet of an equaliser from the edge of the box into the bottom right-hand corner in the 90th minute, feelings were mixed. A goal! A point! But also the cue for the most futile penalty shootout in football history to determine who got an extra point.
Most of the locals agreed, heading for the exits rather than participating in a further ten minutes of existential absurdist despair. Happily our U21s proved themselves well versed in the ways of United penalty shootouts, missing three out of five spot-kicks for a 3-2 defeat that buried any lingering hopes of qualification.
It would be too grand to claim that I found the lost soul of football at Vale Park. But I did participate in football as part of the everyday fabric of community in one of the left-behind towns of England outside the south and beyond the Northern city powerhouses of Manchester, Liverpool, or Leeds.
Football matters in people’s lives. And not just on glorious, tub-thumping, adrenaline-charged, Champions League nights. In the space of my football-supporting lifetime we were once equals with Port Vale. We would do well to remember that next time feel aggrieved at the minor inconveniences that come with billionaire ownership and FFP regulations.
In the meantime, where’s that email draft I started?
Subject: New Cup Final ticket criteria
1. Attendance at all three EFL Trophy group ties
2. Anyone else
Next stop Crewe…