Port Vale’s EFL Trophy tie with Stoke City’s youth team this evening will be played under the strangest of circumstances.
With the competition largely failing to capture the imagination of Football League supporters since its inception, home ticket sales originally started at a snail’s pace. Attendance figures for Port Vale in this season’s EFL Trophy have broken club competitive lows twice.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘proper’ derby but if people want to call it that and think it is then good luck to them.” – Port Vale Captain Tom Pope
Port Vale supporters, already unhappy with being forced to play their rival’s B-Team were angered even further when Chairman Norman Smurthwaite threatened to open areas of the stadium regularly reserved for home supporters to house Stoke City fans.
Against League 3 was contacted by a number of Port Vale fans voicing concerns at both the fixture itself, and Chairman Norman Smurthwaite’s handling of the situation.
One Port Vale supporter told us via email: “Then came the disaster from Norman Smurthwaite, trying to give the Railway Paddock to our bitter rivals. This is like Liverpool giving United the Kop! A comparison many may turn their noses up at, but to us Vale fans it’s just as important. Thankfully he saw sense but the handling of that situation was, in typical Vale fashion… shambolic.”
Smurthwaite had originally said that only 300 tickets had been sold to Port Vale fans ahead of the tie, and with heavy demand coming from Stoke City fans, the Vale Chairman had planned to open additional areas of the ground to prevent away supporters from coming into the home section of the stadium.
Norman Smurthwaite’s quotes as reported by the Stoke Sentinel:
I can understand home fans having a view but I don’t think this is the way to do it because this competition will continue, it will not die, it will continue to propser and eventually it will get the people behind it. How long that takes, who knows?
I understand the fact our fans feel it is something they don’t want to support, but you have now given me a dilemma. We now have to open another stand – the first time it’s a problem for me as it were for the away situation.
We have to open another stand and that limits our options. If I saw the Lorne Street sell out as quickly – or indeed if it does sell out – as has happened with the Stoke side, then it would have given us an option to maybe consider both.
But from a safety point of view we are going to have to open another stand, and that is a decision we are going to have to take on Monday.
I am looking at the stadium as I stand here and, whatever I do I will be castigated for, but from a safety point of view we are going to want to accommodate the away fans in a sterile area and that means dedicating a stand to them.
Smurthwaite’s plan was hastily scrapped following supporter feedback. A statement on the club website said: “I have felt the pain and anger expressed by so many of our fans directly to me via social media. I am deeply sorry for the anguish that the announcement made on Saturday has created and understand the emotional and historical value of where fans choose to sit.”
The reversal did prompt an upturn in ticket sales for home fans for the fixture. At the time of writing a total crowd of around 8,000 is expected and the fixture could be Port Vale’s most heavily attended fixture of the season.
The saga is the latest in a series of notable incidents surrounding Smurthwaite.
In June Smurthwaite purchased Nuneaton Borough’s Liberty Way Stadium, becoming the club’s landlord. How the deal does not breach FA, EFL and National League rules regarding involvement in multiple clubs is unclear.
Nuneaton owner Nick Hawkins alleges that Smurthwaite had previously agreed to waive certain portions of rent but then billed NBFC for backdated rent payments. Smurthwaite has also threatened to recall PVFC players on loan at NBFC, but the Vale Chairman says that this is a seperate disagreement involving working conditions and expenses.
“To think, after all those years of dreaming, my first taste of a potteries derby is going to be our first team playing their kids. I find it insulting and condescending. This game in particular has highlighted how little the footballing authorities care about the lower league supporter.”
Port Vale fan Edward Blackman via email
The last “Potteries Derby” was over 16 years ago in 2002, when Port Vale scored in the first half to beat City 1-0 in front of 23,000 at the Britannia Stadium in the second division. Stoke’s last victory in the derby came back in 1997.
The rarity of a proper Potteries Derby has no doubt created a sense of intrigue within both sets of supporters. But for many Vale fans, that has come at the expense of the EFL Trophy boycott which had been well supported at Vale Park.
Post on onevalefan.co.uk supporter forum
In October in the EFL Trophy Port Vale secured victory against Middlesbrough B in front of just 554 spectators, a record low for a Vale Park crowd. The club’s average home league attendance for this season meanwhile, is around 4,500.
For many, the EFL Trophy in its current format is still seen as a precursor to the possible, potential inclusion of B-Teams into the League Pyramid in the near future. The EFL vehemently denies this is the case, and indeed the EFL Board did change voting requirements to ensure that B-Team inclusion would require 90% of clubs to vote in favour of such a change.
Despite the difficulty of changing the league structure, supporters remain wary of future proposals. With FIFA likely to implement significant changes to loan regulations that could reduce player hoarding, elite level clubs threatening breakaways unless demands are met, the current EFL Trophy format sets a precedent that B-Teams are somehow acceptable in English football.
…this fixture should be regarded as the biggest insult to our football club in our entire existence…
When the attendance is confirmed this evening, it will likely be seen as cause for celebration by the competition’s organisers. But when laid bare, the reasons for such a following should be heartbreaking for any football fan.
Due to the competition’s format, and aided by Smurthwaite’s decisions, supporters of a club with 146 years of history will attend for no other reason than to stop the embarrassment of being outnumbered in their home ground by rivals intent on watching their youth team, who keep trying to offer up Charlie Adam as the future of the England team…
Port Vale, like all League 1 and League 2 fans, deserve better.
The sad reality is that tonight’s game at Vale Park is not “Port Vale v Stoke City”. This game is not a Potteries Derby, no matter how it’s dressed up.
By James Cave