Rob Fielding outlines his own personal wishlist of items that should be high on the agenda of any future Port Vale owner.
Rob Fielding writes…
The playing side
In many respects this is the first and foremost priority. Good performances on the pitch will help with a lot of the other issues mentioned in this article.
In this fan’s view, Rob Page has done a decent, but not outstanding job. The question for the new owners is will he continue to develop and grow as a manager or do they need to bring someone else in? Changing the manager is a big risk – as we know to our cost, even those with good reputations elsewhere do not necessarily guarantee success.
I always think that (contrary to some Vale fans who always seem impatient to make changes) there is a lot to be said for continuity. Page has proved himself with additions such as Jak Alnwick, Anthony Grant, Sam Foley and AJ Leitch-Smith and most of the squad have been brought in by him or are otherwise familiar with the manager. A change of face could actually create more problems than it causes – with the new man presumably wanting to bring in his own players.
And one more thing before I leave the playing side…
I really hope the club can identify and secure promising talent that they have faith in. In recent years, it seems that every summer, a popular player leaves through freedom of contract. I was pleased that the club acted quickly to give Jak Alnwick a two and a half year deal without waiting till the end of the season and I hope that this carries on.
This is an area where I really think the club haven’t really done well under successive regimes.
I do think more effort needs to be made to make it easy and simple to get to the game and support the club. I appreciate that the bottom line is performances on the pitch and no matter what marketing is tried, people won’t rush to see a struggling side but nevertheless here are a handful of promotions I wish the club would try:
- Pricing: there’s no need to re-invent the wheel here. If something works well elsewhere then copy it. With that in mind, the club should really look at Bradford’s innovative season ticket initiative. After all – what’s better for the team on the pitch – a 16,000 capacity stadium with 5,000 fans all paying £20 walk-up prices or a 16,000 capacity stadium with 10,000 fans all paying £10? Not only is the ticket revenue the same but there are an extra 5,000 fans to buy refreshments, programmes, memorabilia and (hopefully) to roar the club on.
- Transport: how come AFC Fylde can lay on a free bus service for fans and Vale don’t even bother to trial one? Perhaps it comes as no surprise that AFC Fylde are one of non-league’s up-and-coming sides with growing crowds and plans to make it to the Football League. Vale Park is not the easiest ground to get to and park up at – the club should be trying everything in its power to make it easier to get to the stadium. With the parking at the ground and the layout of the conurbation of Stoke-on-Trent, I think a shuttle service should at least be trialed, not ignored.
The key to these initiatives is a commitment to them. You can’t just try something once and know whether it’s a success or not. Too often Vale have tried something with little or no marketing or advertising once and it has failed. The club’s response is that it will never work rather than sticking with it multiple times so that the advertising can sink in, fans get familiar with the concept and you can properly judge results over time.
In that respect supporter measures such as this are a leap of faith. It’s pointless trying to judge the worth of something (such as the trial of cash turnstiles this season) over just one or two matches – there are too many variables (weather, people’s finances, the opposition, what else is on offer) to know if it worked if you only try it once or twice.
For me, something like a cut price season ticket offer (such as Bradford’s) needs to be part of a long-term plan. Keep it in place for at least five years and judge the results continually. If like Bradford, the club do it correctly then in five years time they will have significantly increased the attendances in the ground – something it’s vital for Vale to do with the lure of Premier League football down the road.
Of course there are probably many other initiatives and it’s therefore key that the club liaise and work closely with the Supporters Club to find out what else could be tested to see if it works.
An off-pitch identity
I really liked the idea, under Paul Wildes’ tenure, of giving the club a distinct identity. There was a specific font used, all communication used a block of colours and the message was that Vale had a proud history and was a community club.
How about some fan-friendly measures for the club? It would be great to see things that get Vale a reputation as a tolerant and understanding club namely:
- Adopt a policy of paying at least the minimum wage to anyone (from turnstile operator to players)
- Get accreditations such as Investors in People to show your commitment to your staff
- Look at slashing prices and treating away supporters with equal respect (i.e. no sneaky additional charges) – this would appease organisations such as the FSF who are appealing for clubs to adopt cheaper pricing plans. Not only that but slashing prices may be the only way to respond to the Premier League product offered down the road.
- Does anyone really know or look at Vale’s customer charter? There is one here. It’s not an enthralling read. I appreciate that some of the terms and conditions need to remain in place but why not come up with a short, pithy opening paragraph, a club vision that really shows what the club wants to commit to and make people aware of it? Here’s my version – “Port Vale FC is a forward-thinking, progressive club that respects its supporters, the local community and the club’s history. We do not tolerate racism or discrimination of any type and we treat employees, fans, players, officials and visiting supporters with respect. We expect the same of our fans and will take strong but fair action against any who do not follow our guiding principles.”
I think measures such as these would give Vale a reputation as a club who appreciates its fans, its employees and its history.
An on-pitch identity
On the pitch there seems to be several distinct models among lower-league clubs:
- The big-spenders, so the likes of Bournemouth who spent their way up
- The developers – the likes of Peterborough who bring in raw talent, often from non-league and sell them on
- The academy set – the likes of Crewe and Colchester who put their faith in youth development
- The steady progression and continuity approach (with the best example being sensibly run Burton)
Clearly, option one is a fairly decent bet as eventually money and the higher quality of player it can attract will prevail. But if there isn’t a big pot of money I hope that new owners will have a long-term commitment to the club. If they do, they could do a lot worse than take elements of the other three models that is – spot promising talent and sell it on, develop local youngsters and allow for steady progression and continuity. It sounds easier than it undoubtedly is but I firmly believe that these models have shown that they work time and time again.
The stadium and matchday environment
Some traditionalists may not like me saying this, but I’m afraid to say that Vale Park may not be the long-term answer for the club. The stadium is showing its age – the sightlines are not the best, the Lorne Street stand remains incomplete, there are poor refreshment concourses compared to more modern stadia and getting to and parking at the ground remain problematic. Perhaps even more important financially is the lack of ability to grow the non-football revenue because of the club’s town location.
I really do believe that the club’s long-term future lies in a move (not very far) to land next to the A500 (how about Middleport – the place where the “Port Vale” roots were laid down?) where the club will enjoy better transport links and a more prominent location (that can only benefit the non-football revenue – many other clubs have lucrative hotels, offices and housing attached – something that wouldn’t really work in Vale Park’s location – and revenue that Vale are missing out on).
Not only that but a new-build could benefit the matchday experience too. The stands could be made steeper, there could be concourses on all four sides and a smaller sized ground (albeit with foundations to increase the attendance if the club is promoted) would surely produce a better atmosphere.
Not all new-builds are soulless. Look at Dartford’s innovative eco-designed wooden stadium, Burton’s compact (but does the job) Pirelli stadium and so on. I don’t want a stadium in a retail park in the middle of nowhere but equally I don’t want an increasingly decrepit old ground that is from a previous era. Port Vale has already moved several times in its long history, I think it’s time to consider it again.
Of course these ideals remain a pipe dream until or if new owners come along. Even if they do we have to hope that they have the long-term ambition to be at Vale for a long period and have the passion to want the club to succeed.
And most of all, even if they implement all of my personal wishlist, they also need something else which is perhaps the most important factor of all – luck!