09 Dec 2021 | 06:39 | News
It is Armistice Day and as it nears 10.55am at Vale Park, manager Darrell Clarke and his staff filter out, past the Roy Sproson statue and towards a corner of the stadium to pay their respects. The owners, Carol and Kevin Shanahan, lay a wreath and players in tracksuits stand beside kitchen staff, a couple of dozen supporters, and contractors. Passersby peer over the wall on Hamil Road. The Golden Valiants, a group of over-50s who meet every Thursday, including 92-year-old Vera Hill, lead a chorus of We’ll Meet Again. “It’s not one minute and then the game starts – it is two minutes of silence,” Carol says, to a warm smattering of laughter.
t is Armistice Day and as it nears 10.55am at Vale Park, manager Darrell Clarke and his staff filter out, past the Roy Sproson statue and towards a corner of the stadium to pay their respects. The owners, Carol and Kevin Shanahan, lay a wreath and players in tracksuits stand beside kitchen staff, a couple of dozen supporters, and contractors. Passersby peer over the wall on Hamil Road. The Golden Valiants, a group of over-50s who meet every Thursday, including 92-year-old Vera Hill, lead a chorus of We’ll Meet Again. “It’s not one minute and then the game starts – it is two minutes of silence,” Carol says, to a warm smattering of laughter.
Matchday is 36 hours away. “Come on, lads: training ground, we need you ready for Saturday,” she says, and the players disperse towards the home changing room, revamped as part of £200,000 summer facelift, first for a squad photo – Clarke has won League Two manager of the month two months running – then for a team meeting. “Have you met Eminem?” Clarke says of the defender Dan Jones who has bleach-blond hair. A few hundred yards down the road is the Red Lion, a pub once run by the parents of the pop star and ardent Vale fan Robbie Williams. “I met his dad at an awards night not so long ago,” Clarke says. “He’s not rung me up giving me any tactical advice just yet so I must be doing an all right job.”
The assistant manager, Andy Crosby, runs through a presentation collated by analyst “MJ”, Mike Johnson, that, among other things, details how their next opponents, Bradford City, rank third in the league for goals from set pieces and 21st for possession. Johnson will also WhatsApp players footage of their opposite numbers. On the dressing-room floor a green pitch helps Clarke make his point and halfway through one clip he jumps up to show his midfielders how to exploit space. “Let’s get cracking,” he says.
What you see is what you get with Clarke. He was reduced to tears after his Bristol Rovers side were relegated to non-league in 2014, which led him to peel “Clarke Out” posters off the walls at training, but led them back at the first attempt. He then stayed loyal when Leeds came calling. Quickly apparent are the minutiae of his work. Sandwiched between two full-size pitches is a mini red “tactics pitch” on which they walk through set pieces before doing the real thing. “Everything we’re doing, neat and tidy,” he says during a passing drill, before checking in on his top scorer, Jamie Proctor, who is working with the strength and conditioning coach Aaron Watkin after hernia surgery.
Watkin, laptop in hand, is monitoring real-time data of every player, assessing their distances, speeds and workload. Dennis Politic is among those who head for a local swimming pool to aid recovery before Crosby expertly demonstrates an exercise to help beat the press. “Do you want to see it on my left foot as well?” he says to the players’ amusement. It is high intensity but Vale are reaping the rewards. They have won 10 of their past 12 matches and have scored 17 goals in their past four. “We won 5-1 against Accrington on Saturday and just gone 6pm I went downstairs to the coaches’ office to say, ‘Well done, congratulations’ and they were in a full-on meeting for Tuesday [a 5-0 win v Liverpool Under-21s],” Carol says. “Every detail was being discussed. Darrell just went: ‘Chip paper, Carol, chip paper.’”
The odd fan watches training from various vantage points and also in view is Synectics Solutions, the IT company owned by the Shanahans. The first-team coach, Dean Whitehead, leads a shooting drill and Crosby takes the defenders, while Clarke oversees everything. He is supercharged. “Pressure is a privilege. Being sat at home watching Netflix or doing a 9-5, that’s not me. I’m not knocking those people because, trust me, if I was on a long losing run I wish I was those people – but I do like pressure … It is a drug. I want that next buzz, that next promotion.”
At the end of the session, Whitehead skies a penalty. Clearing the metal gates, Clarke says, warrants a fine, as does players freely using the “P-word”. A whiteboard in the coaches’ office lists fines for losing at “circle”, a game of piggy in the middle they play on Fridays. “Gaffer £10, Crozzer £20, Deano £10. Dan Jones £10. James Gibbons £10.” There is still time for the goalkeeper Lucas Covolan and his deputy, Aidan Stone, to practise their goal-kicks. “Not too many balls,” Clarke says, wary of the load on their legs.
Vale are second, thriving in Clarke’s first full season, but there is a bigger picture at play for the Shanahans, who have had a profound effect since taking ownership in May 2019. Vale recently linked up with Aim-For to offer free mental health support to staff and fans. At a Q&A, Clarke told a struggling fan he was welcome to join him for a coffee “any time you want”. It is a subject close to the heart of the director of football, David Flitcroft, whose father, John, killed himself. “A lot of people do it to tick boxes,” he says. “We’re doing it because we care.”
It is difficult to envisage many clubs where the owner will go for “a five-mile walk and talk” around town with the manager or exchange book and podcast recommendations. “We’ve got a little book group, so we’ve all read Belonging and Fear Less, which is about being based in fear,” Carol says. Flitcroft is just back from a wander round Burslem with Carol before a 2pm board meeting. “We had a bus drive past us and the driver, obviously a Vale fan, was peeping his horn like nobody’s business,” she says.
It is easy to see why Vale won the EFL community club of the year award. Shortly after the silence, office staff gathered outside the main reception for a funeral cortege to pass via the ground. In pre-season, they held a barbecue for the squad and their families in the stadium car park and every home game a player’s family is invited into the boardroom. Their Golden Valiants programme offers free social activities. “They have this knitting club they call knit and natter, which I call stitch and bitch,” Carol says, laughing.
Clarke arrived at 7am and a marathon day culminates with a trip to Salford City to watch the Under-18s in the FA Youth Cup, a 7pm kick-off that went to extra time. It is mid-afternoon and as Clarke heads downstairs to go over his lineup and set pieces with his staff, he walks past the Valiant Suite, where the academy players are having their pre-match meal. “All the best tonight lads,” he says, leaning through the double doors.
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