Vale of Cheers

Sunday 28th July 2013 at 10:23AM

A footie-mad friend often illustrates the special nature of the supporter / club relationship by asking how often you’d see someone with a Tesco tattoo or, indeed, whether Sainsbury’s ever gets enquiries from people wanting to spread their grandfather’s ashes around the car park. For me, these lovely little analogies only serve to make the big question ever more poignant: just how would the world be if football clubs loved their supporters as much as their supporters loved them?

I see Disney is in the country in September delivering some of their famous customer service workshops. How, one imagines, they would love to have a brand that transcends almost all of the considerations of the average shopper, browser or holidaymaker.

At Port Vale, change is in the air. The club is not just making progress on the pitch (after a remarkable effort from Micky Adams’s boys last season) but is also making a concerted effort to re-engage with its supporters off the pitch too.  Among the many developments is a new Retail / Ticketing centre, which opened last week and within the first few minutes of opening, I met some lovely people there.

First: a lady with her daughter, looking for some Vale wear for her new 4-day-old nephew.  A friend of mine has just recruited his 3 month old to Bury’s supporter army, but 4 days? Impressive.

‘Are you the management?’ asks the next customer. Someone less naïve than me might pretend they were otherwise, especially in the football world, where the next line might be ‘now then, about this new signing …’

But no, this was a proud Vale fan who’d heard me talking to the lady and wanted to share his example of Valiant commitment. ‘My middle son is 34’ he began before revealing that the middle name of this middle son was ‘Port Vale’.

I’d hardly finished this conversation when I was aware of another man standing close by. This was a local historian who has been researching the origins of the name Port Vale and had traced it to a Flour Mill in Middleport in 1786, built and operated by John Brindley, brother of the famous innovator and canal builder James. Such was the futuristic status of this mill that, one by one, some of the time’s greatest thought-leaders came along for a visit.  Who knew that both John Wesley and Thomas Jefferson had visited the ‘silicon valley’ of the late 18th century before making their own mark on history across the Atlantic? Vale as the epitome of the future, when we mostly think about the club in terms of the past?

In the space of five minutes I’d learned more about Vale that I ever thought possible, including that 1786 fact that makes the Football League’s 125-year history seem a brief moment in time by comparison.

Learning about supporters, what matters to them, how the club can improve their experiences and make them feel more valued is a big part of the immediate future here at Port Vale FC. Starting with families, the plans are to collect feedback regularly throughout the season so that the club can understand what’s improving and what needs work.

I’m sure supporters will welcome the changes made at Vale Park over the summer, but the biggest one is perhaps one that many might overlook. The club is making a real effort to listen: the only conceivable foundation for fan engagement.


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