VALE PARK: Making The Leap

February 2020 was a tough one for the UK. Storms Ciara and Dennis brought disruption and destruction to many parts of the country, while unparalleled flooding hit my home county of Shropshire.

I felt very fortunate that the rising river levels didn’t directly affect our hill-top house in the centre of Shrewsbury. But I still felt frustration that my plans were being called off every weekend – and guilt for thinking such things while businesses and homes were clearing up water damage.

Thankfully, respite came for the town towards the end of the month, as a dry spell allowed the breached water to recede and the eerie, apocalyptic scenes in places such as The Quarry park were soon memories.

As normality began to return, the girlfriend and I planned to see a game on this year’s Leap Day. Port Vale’s match against Scunthorpe fit the bill – a fairly local ground that would most likely survive another incoming storm named Jorge.

The Highs

Wild scenes

Setting off before midday, we thought an hour and a half journey to Staffordshire would be simple. However, a 40-minute train delay meant we spent a lot of time waiting – first in wind, then in snow and finally in sunshine.

We didn’t arrive at Longport Station until half an hour before kick-off and, incidentally, Google Maps told us the walk to Vale Park was 30 minutes from Longport. So we rushed through the streets of Burslem in the north of Stoke-on-Trent and beat the estimated arrival time, with five minutes to spare before proceedings commenced.

We’d already bought our tickets in advance and collected them from the club shop just as the game started. After a steward asked a fan where our section was, we headed to the opposite end of the ground with many people still queuing up to buy tickets. I figured they were going to miss about a third of the game by the time they entered, which surprised me. Is that the scene outside every club just before kick-off?

We entered the Bycars Stand to a timid ‘oooh’ from the crowd. No goals had been scored during the first 10 minutes and we heard nothing indicating we’d missed much during our scurry around the ground.

Being in so late left us in a daze, as we swapped seats to get a better view and avoided the bitter winds blowing through the stand. We ended up sitting right in front of the main aisle to the toilets and snack booth – which didn’t help our confusion, as several fans – including many excited children – were darting by throughout the contest.

Port Vale took the lead among all the chaos when Mark Cullen flicked in a Scott Burgess shot after being set up by the impressive David Amoo. The rest of the half was low on quality, though, mainly because of the blustery conditions.

We moved seats again at half-time and found there was no escaping the wind wherever we sat. The poor standard of football continued in the second period – which didn’t help us feel any warmer – until further pandemonium ensued in the final 20 minutes.

Immediately after Vale fans had finished paying tribute to a fan who’d passed away, Devarn Green played in Alex Gilliead, who rounded home keeper Scott Brown and equalised for Scunthorpe.

The play-off chasing Valiants have found draws a hindrance so far this season and the fans urged their team to find a winner. They thought it had arrived when Vale scored in memorable style.

I’ve always heard managers say they would take a goal even if it came off someone’s backside but I’d never seen it happen until Nathan Smith directed the ball in from a corner with his rear end. That would have been my highlight of the game had it not been for the last-minute equaliser the Iron grabbed from former Wrexham forward George Miller.

Even though he never scored for us, Saffron and I always thought he was better than National League standard, so we were surprised to see him on the bench for Scunthorpe. But we were both delighted to see him spoil the party at Vale Park with a glancing header, particularly after he’d missed a sitter moments before.

The Lows

Eisa injury

Another Scunthorpe player we were excited to see was Abo Eisa. The former Shrewsbury forward was a regular face around the town centre before he moved in the summer and he’s proven to be a big signing for the Iron since, scoring five goals in League Two.

Along with Amoo, Eisa was one of the best players on the field during the first half and looked to be the away side’s only real threat of making a breakthrough in front of goal. Unfortunately, though, the 24-year-old broke down with an injury just before half-time and was replaced by Green.

It was quite gutting to see Eisa limp off the field, particularly as we remembered him walking around Shrewsbury with a brace on his knee for a couple of months. Hopefully he’ll be back in action before the season ends.

The Verdict

After seeing photos of the ground online before arriving, I wasn’t expecting much from Vale Park – but I actually really liked the place. The whole ground resembled a castle as it stood on an embankment and, inside, the two stands behind the goal stretched quite far back, which added to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the disabled viewing platform next to us was also top-notch.

The biggest problem I had was the wind-chill. Memories of being stood at Macclesfield in the snow came back to me as I tried to recall a game that felt as cold (coincidentally, that fixture was when Miller made his debut for Wrexham).

The wind and all the rushing around stopped me from taking any decent photos – which meant I couldn’t capture how seriously run-down Burslem was outside the centre. But besides the location problems of Port Vale, I would enjoy a re-visit during a time when the elements don’t dominate the spectacle.

Port Vale 2
Scunthorpe United 2

EFL League Two

Ground rating: 7/10

Thanks for reading. To keep updated on the latest hops, stories and photos from the mental health stadium tour, you can follow the blog on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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