A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today
Apart from Arsenal, Port Vale are the only club in English senior football with no geographical location to their name.
There is logic, though. Cross-town rivals of Stoke City, though the two have rarely met in recent times, Port Vale are based in Burslem, part of the Potteries conurbation that became Stoke-on-Trent in 1910 – and a city in 1925.
So why ‘Port Vale’? Some believe they were formed after a meeting at Port Vale House, others that they are named after the canal ports that lined a local valley.
Historians even disagree on dates. When players walk out onto the turf at Vale Park, they pass under a sign saying, ‘Port Vale FC 1876’. But 1879 is now considered the more likely foundation date.
What we do know is that the club first played at Longport, close to Burslem, then nearby Westport before moving to Burslem itself in 1884. In between, they played a first derby, in the Staffordshire Senior Cup, against Stoke City at Westport Meadows.
By now called Burslem Port Vale, the club moved again, to the Athletic Ground at adjoining Cobridge and became founder members of the Second Division in 1892 – Stoke City had first dibs on the Football League slot in 1888.
Burslem Port Vale won the Staffordshire Cup in 1898 and again in 1912 – by the time they won it again, in 1920, they were just ‘Port Vale’ and based at the Old Recreation Ground in Hanley.
With goals from Sam Jennings, whose career then took him from Port Vale to Stockport to Marseille to Paris to Wisbech, the Valiants won the Third Division North in 1930 and scaled the Second to fifth, still the club’s highest league finish to date.
But Port Vale’s best achievements were to come after the war. Moving out of the dilapidated, facility-free Old Recreation Ground, the club raised £50,000 to build a new ground back at Burslem. Set by an old clay pit, Vale Park was going to be a showpiece, reflecting the football boom in the immediate post-war period. Once scaled down, Vale Park opened in 1950 with a 40,000-capacity – half the original plans.
The team, though, were in the Third Division South. This would change with the arrival of Hanley-born Freddie Steele. A prolific goalscorer for Stoke and coach of Iceland for their first ever international, Steele became player-manager of Port Vale in 1951.
What was remarkable about Steele’s success was that he achieved it with the same squad he inherited – he just built a cast-iron defence, the so-called Steele Curtain. In 1953-54 it proved near impenetrable as Port Vale won the Third Division North and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup.
In all that time, the back four rarely changed or wavered. In goal, Ray King played all but one of the 46 league games, Port Vale conceding five goals at home all season. In the cup, the Valiants memorably beat the holders Blackpool, Stanley Matthews and all, then fell to WBA at the penultimate stage. The semi, in front of 68,000 at Villa Park, not only featured an unlikely penalty for the First Division side but a decent Vale goal ruled out.
Immediately after Steele’s departure in 1957, the club fell two divisions in two seasons and struggled until the 1980s. Bridging much of that period was Burslem-born club legend Roy Sproson, who made 842 appearances from 1950 to 1972. He even managed the Valiants for three years afterwards. His statue stands outside Vale Park.
Longevity was also behind Port Vale’s post-Sproson revival. John Rudge achieved three promotions in his 16 years managing the club, from 1983 onwards. In his charge, players such as Mark Bright and Robbie Earle developed and Port Vale beat Spurs 2-1 in the cup.
His attack-minded Port Vale side of the mid-1990s may be compared to Steele’s in terms of results – eighth place in the second tier and a win over Everton in the FA Cup were impressive achievements. Midfielder Ian Bogie was a mainstay, as was striker Martin Foyle, whose vital contributions included his late goal that beat Stockport to reach the third-tier Division Two play-off final in 1993.
At Wembley, Port Vale were easily dispatched by WBA but came up two years later, reviving the Potteries derby fixture – satisfyingly twice won at Stoke with single goals from Foyle then Bogie.
Foyle also scored a brace when the Valiants improbably made the final of the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1996, another visit to Wembley seeing Genoa romp to 5-2 victory.
Rudge left in 1999. Since then, Port Vale have been mired in the lower two tiers, twice going into administration. Significant financial input from celebrity fan, singer Robbie Williams, even failed to stem the tide of debt. A returning Martin Foyle was the manager who came closest to a play-off out of the third flight, in 2004.
Arriving as manager for the 2016-17 campaign, former Leeds and Sheffield United midfielder Bruno Ribeiro brought in Paulo Tavares, his former charge in the midfield at Vitória Setúbal, but Vale’s first foreign manager only lasted until Boxing Day.
Relegation in 2017 coincided with the return of outspoken forward and lifelong fan Tom Pope, whose goals failed to lift Vale into a play-off spot.
The field of dreams – and the stands around it
Still with its half-built Lorne Street Stand, there’s something very old-school about Vale Park. It was built in 1950 when the club was reaching its peak – four years later, 42,000 crammed in to Port Vale beat a Blackpool side featuring local boy Stanley Matthews.
Capacity has duly gone down to an all-seated 19,000 since then.
Opposite the Lorne Street Stand, the two-tier Railway Stand dates back to Vale’s historic cup run of 1954. Visiting supporters are allocated the Hamil Road Stand, accessed through gate C. Louder home fans gather in the Railway Stand, flocking nearer the away goal for each half.
Going to the ground – tips and timings
Burslem has no train station. The nearest one of Longport is only one stop /5mins away from main Stoke-on-Trent but services are only hourly and infrequent on Sundays. If you time it right, though, the 98 bus runs from Longport Road near Longport station to Burslem Town Hall by the pre-match Leopard pub – Mon-Fri every 20mins, Sat every 30mins, not Sun, 10min journey time.
Walking uphill from Longport station into and through Burslem to Vale Park takes 25mins.
Bus 3/3A, between Hanley bus station and Burslem (Wedgwood Street, then turn right down by the Queen’s Theatre for Jenkins Street/Hamil Road), is more frequent, every 10-15mins Mon-Sat, every 30min Sun. From Stoke-on-Trent station, first take buses 21 or 25 to Hanley bus station. Overall journey time with one change at Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent to Burslem, 30-35mins. A taxi to Burslem from Stoke-on-Trent station should cost around £12-£13.
The sat nav code for Vale Park is ST6 1AW. A car park (£5, pay on the day) operates at the ground at gate C, the away end on Hamil Road.
Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much
Sales are through the ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, until 7.45pm for midweek home games, match-day Sat 9.30am-3.15pm) at Vale Park and online. This is a print-at-home service – if you can’t, contact the club (01782 655 821, email@example.com) and for a small charge they will issue your tickets.
There are no cash turnstiles on the day – for visiting supporters, there’s a cash-only outlet behind the away end. The main ticket office also distributes until after kick-off, by card or cash.
Prices for home and away fans are set at £22, £17 for over-62s/under-22s and £10 for under-18s. A seat in the Lorne Street Stand is £1 extra for adults. Under-12s are admitted free.
what to buy
Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts
The Port Vale shop (Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, match eves, closed half-time during matches) at Vale Park stocks a range of imaginative T-shirts, one with Dave Clark Five single Glad All Over, another showing Tom Pope celebrating yet another goal.
First-team tops for 2021-22 are white with gold trim, away kit the surprisingly Wolves-like gold and black.
Where to Drink
Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors
The centre of Burslem around Swan Square, 7-10min walk from Vale Park via Hamil Road, is choc-a-bloc with pubs. All are Vale-centric, of course, but some are happy to welcome sensible away fans, unless it’s a derby fixture.
One is the brew-specialist Bursley Alehouse on Wedgwood Place, a short walk to the junction Swan Square where pre-match pubs line up on Market Place and adjoining St John’s Square.
Furthest from the ground, the The Bulls Head is a great choice for away fans. Run by the nearby Titanic Brewery, opens from 11am on Saturday match days for both sets of supporters, serving up to ten real ales, at least seven real ciders plus bottled Belgian beers. It also contains, God be praised, a vinyl jukebox, plus classic pub games, even table skittles. Other weekends it opens at noon, and from 3pm Mon-Thur.
Alongside, the Duke William is every bit as historic as it looks, its origins dating back around 300 years. It also specialises in real ales and has a separate, first-floor restaurant.
Next along, the Saggar Makers (31 Market Place) is a no-nonsense traditional boozer named after a pottery worker of specific skills while The Leopard at No.21 was made famous by its appearance on TV’s Most Haunted. Many famous guests, including Robbie W, have ignored the ghosts for quality pub grub and decent beers – sadly, though, the place is currently up for sale.
On the other side of the road, the football-focused New Inn has long been a Vale haunt, and dates back far earlier than its repainted façade would suggest.
The corner Post Office Vaults, a tiny but extremely popular old-style alehouse, proudly flies the Port Vale flag.
The closest pub to the ground, by Burslem Police Station on Hamil Road, is the Vine Inn, refurbished in 2016. Big-screen TVs show sport and real ale is on offer when Vale are at home – it’s part of Shropshire-based Darwin Inns. Again, well behaved away fans might be served.
At the ground, in the car park behind the away end, Tommy Cheadle’s performs a basic function on match days and for weddings and Northern Soul nights. The sign outside displays an image of the hard-headed captain of Vale’s legendary side from the 1950s – inside is pretty bare. Away fans may be charged a modest entry fee.