Who Are These Jobbers?
In the autumn of 2015, I made the solemn vow I would never step foot in Stoke-on-Trent again. For years of watching Sunderland offer up feeble performances in the possibly worst place in the British Isles (not quite as bad as Luton, but close), the nadir was Joe Allen tearing the lads in terrible away kits apart.
There was no redeeming feature to an afternoon in Stoke. From the overly hostile police force to the incredible dearth of pubs where you won’t be given stares that burn through your skull, there was nothing to suggest “hey, let’s come back here every year”.
However, here we are in the autumn of 2018 and we’re going back to Stoke. And this time we get to see the other Stoke... hooray. The black and white half of this weird collection of Staffordshire towns and a team that is named after absolutely nowhere - Port Vale.
The team of Robbie Williams and - since it’s Robbie Williams, I can only assume - Jonathan Wilkes. Yeah, Soccer Aid legend Big Johnny Wilkes. Remember when he was everywhere in the early-2000s and his only claim to fame that he was a ‘mate of Robbie Williams’? Well, now he’s a regular feature on the panto scene and has been wooing the hordes at the Regent Theater Stoke for 12 goddamn years. What a worker.
Speaking of famous (well, “famous” in Wilkes’ case) fans, darts’ ultimate heel Phil Taylor is also a keen Valiant and also a member of that weird trend of loads of mint darts players coming from Stoke. Honestly, look it up, Stoke breeds incredible darts players. There’s got to be something in the water down there.
As for the football team, Port Vale have been the perennial lower league staple for bloody forever. In the club’s entire history their highest finish was fifth in the Second Division (that’s the Championship for all you youngsters) in 1931. They are currently managed by club legend Neil Aspin who scored an absolutely amazing own goal the last time Sunderland visited Vale Park.
They are currently back in League Two after four seasons in the third tier and are currently languishing in mid-table but they do have centre forward Tom Pope who is among the club’s all-time top goalscorers. However, could he lace the boots of the Big Dawg Johnny Wilkes? You kidding me?!
What’s The Ground Like?
As Sunderland supporters, you need to have a pretty brass neck for criticising other football teams for swathes of empty seats. Fortunately, at Cans & Megabus we are made entirely out of brass and our necks are so gleaming that any hint of hypocrisy simply washes over us. As we stretch out our polished, shiny necks, we would like to tentatively point out that there are a lot of empty seats at Vale Park.
The Saturday ritual of delving into Colin Murray’s Dungeon of Apathy and Disappointment on Quest always features the Valiants locking horns with someone like Mansfield Town played out in front of nobody. As I watch, in a drunken haze following Sunderland’s devouring of whatever poor saps we face in the hellscape of League One, I wonder “does anyone actually watch Port Vale”?
I remember that I’ve seen Port Vale supporters. They were loads that time I saw them at Sheffield United, that time against Bury and that other time at Sheffield United. Why aren’t they at Vale Park? What I hadn’t realised is that Vale Park is bloody massive with a capacity of almost 20,000 and a respectable average attendance of over 5,000 is kind of dwarfed in a ground of that size.
It is something that Sunderland supporters can certainly empathise with. The Valiants have played in this corner of Stoke-on-Trent since 1950 and Vale Park has a proper football ground feel. Port Vale have kindly given us over 4,000 tickets, all situated in the Signal One Stand behind the goal, so make some noise and that.
How Do I Get There?
Hey, you know when we used to do those awful trips to Stoke and freeze our bollocks off at the Britannia? Well, did you ever think “I want to see what the rest of this area is like”? Lucky you, because now you can and this is the perfect opportunity to inform you that Stoke-on-Trent is actually made up of six town (whudda thunk it, right?) and Vale Park is situated in a place called Burslem.
Should you be hitting the Great British highways, take the A1 (M) down through Yorkshire before taking the M1 past Leeds. Exit at junction 42 for the M62 following the signs for Manchester and then continue on the M60 until junction 12 when you rejoin the M62 until junction 10 when you take the M6 heading south. Leave at junction 15 for the A500 towards Stoke-on-Trent and take a left at Longport railway station for the A527 towards Burslem passing through the town centre.
Vale Park is on Hamil Road where you’ll find a large car park next to a superstore which charges £5 for parking. Alternatively, you can chance your arm with street parking.
There is no need to get lost, just stick ST6 1AW into your sat nav.
If you’re travelling by train, my word, you’re in for a treat. Longport railway station is the closest to the ground but it is horrendously served so you will most likely arrive at Stoke-on-Trent station. Despite only being four miles away, Vale Park is quite the bugger get to. You can catch either the 9, 21A or 25 bus but this requires changing for the number 3 in Hanley (wherever that is).
Like with Stoke City, for larger games there is a shuttle bus service from The Terrace pub but whether the police choose to implement this remains to be seen.
**UPDATE: There will be a bus service running from outside The Terrace to the ground at around 1.30pm. Return fare is £4.**
A Love Supreme buses leave the Stadium of Light at 7.45am with return fares priced at £30. Book your place here.
Where Can I Get The Sesh Started?
There is nothing that fills my soul with unbridled joy more than the thought of venturing into hostelries in Stoke-on-Trent on a Sunday afternoon. It takes me back to a time where I was constantly stared at for having the temerity to order a pint of lager in the local Wetherspoons, all that was missing was an abrupt record scratch.
Despite the huge variety of pubs in Burslem, I am reliably informed that the patrons of these fine establishments are heavily invested in the whole ‘Home Fans Only’ schtick. However, The Bulls Head on St John’s Square serves a lovely drop of local tipple Titanic Brewery as well as a delicious array of ciders and perries.
If you take a wander along Market Place and you will find both The Leopard and The Post Office Vaults and while they are good choices for a slurp, I cannot guarantee they will be welcoming to our Sunderland brethren.
Port Vale have stated that Sunderland supporters will also be allowed in The Vale Social pub on Hamil Road (which I think forms part of the ground but Google and Google Maps is proving inconclusive).
Alternatively, you could be among the unfortunate gets that take the train to Stoke and feel rather parched. If that’s the case then I can recommend The Glebe on Glebe Street around the corner from the station and nowhere else.
I’m Staying Owa, Is There Owt To Do?
It’s a Sunday afternoon kick-off in the Potteries lads and lasses, unless you want to look at some pots in the short time you have after the match, just go home - you’ve probably got a hangover to sit through at work waiting for you on Monday.