Port Vale’s summer transfers have raised eyebrows, with new manager Bruno Ribeiro bringing in 11 new players from far and wide. His chairman, Norman Smurthwaite, has loudly stated his high expectations. Tom Simmonds thinks both men are walking a high wire with no safety net.
However bad you think your club has had it recently, a special corner of purgatory has been reserved for Port Vale fans. Always seen by outsiders as Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘other club’ by virtue of not being called ‘Stoke’, seeing their neighbours from Hanley establish themselves in the Premier League, reach the FA Cup final, play in Europe, and sign genuine world-class players has exacerbated the sense of ennui in Burslem.
Not surprisingly, set against this backdrop, Valiants fans are rightly fed up with being best known as an adjunct to the entertainment industry – while the interest in the club that was temporarily resultant from Robbie Williams’ support for them has long died down, they last made major news when their former goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson headed to the States in 2014 to begin a new career as WWE wrestler Hugo Knox.
This summer’s activity must therefore be a relief to Valiants fans in one way, given that it’s actually about football as opposed to cultural ephemera. The 11 arrivals span a veritable league of nations; Brits such as veteran winger Jerome Thomas have been joined by Swede Christopher Mbamba (who was playing in the Norwegian third division last season), Curacaoan striker Rigino Cicilia, Dutch defenders Kjell Knops and Calvin Mac-Intosch, French midfielders Quentin Pereira and Anthony de Freitas, and a trio of Portuguese players, two of whom played for Ribeiro at Vitoria Setubal. The third member of this trio, Carlos Saleiro, was the first ever IVF baby born in Portugal.
Smurthwaite clearly expects a quick return on whatever he has spent to hire Ribeiro and this cavalcade of players of whom few have heard before they tipped up in the Potteries, announcing that he expects the team to be in the top six by Christmas, and that he has “a Plan B” if this does not happen. This is talk that makes seasoned football fans very nervous. Given that “Plan B” can only conceivably involve recruiting even more players or changing the manager, one wonders what Ribeiro must be thinking privately, given his boss has said publicly he only has four months in which to impress him.
Ribeiro will not, of course, make any public protestations of self-doubt, and his talk of managing Vale in the Championship within three years are more realistic and less bombastic than Smurthwaite’s utterances. Smurthwaite may have told Ribeiro personally that he has more four months to complete the project, but, at present, there are mixed messages coming out of Vale Park from manager and chairman.
Ribeiro’s tack is wiser, as clubs who overhaul their squads as completely as Vale have tend not to end anywhere near the promotion places. Team building takes time, and even if the new signings settle quickly and Ribeiro is a master coach who can get the new squad to gel quickly, it seems likely that the natives of Burslem will have to put up with a degree of inconsistency, given how little experience of the English lower divisions and their heavy schedule these players have.
Vale are not totally without continuity; legendary players Martin Foyle and Dean Glover are on the backroom staff, and the likes of ‘keeper Jak Alnwick, Ben Purkiss, and grizzled veteran Michael Brown (who will dual-hat as Ribeiro’s assistant) provide something of a spine of players versed in League One’s vagaries. However, the recruitment strategy Vale have pursued this summer is a leap into the unknown. All transfers are risks, but it seems like Vale are trying a massive blind bet in the hope of getting a straight flush. Their fans, and Smurthwaite, will be hoping that fortune favours the brave.
Vale fans, do you think the exotic cocktail of signings and Bruno Ribeiro are what you need to push for promotion next season, or do you fear a failed experiment?
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