Two grand old clubs are struggling with poverty and point deductions, but they should both be held dear for their place in English football history
The 10-point reduction for a league club's financial misdemeanours has this season fallen on Portsmouth in the Championship and Port Vale in League Two. The automatic sanction strikes me always as wretchedly unfair to players and spectators when the sole culprits are invariably the spivs and chancers of the boardroom or money markets. For all their scrapping, Pompey look doomed to relegation, while Port Vale, courageously, at least seem set for a mid-table finish.
It has made for painful viewing through the winter to see and hear on local television news the anger and desperation of Port Vale's supporters, and resentment has been simmering even longer down on the south coast, where erudite Ashley Brown, the chairman of the Pompey Supporters' Trust, the other day described in anguish how his allegiance amounted to "spending your whole life watching your team miss open goals".
After a turbulent early history, Port Vale rejoined the old Second Division in 1919, a year before Portsmouth became founder members of a new Third Division – since when alphabetical fluke has kept them side by side in the lists in both sickness and in health. By fond coincidence, I've always kept a soft spot for both of them.
It has certainly been a mighty fall for Portsmouth, FA Cup winners in 2008, the day after which more than 200,000 spontaneously celebrated with a glorious all-dayer on Southsea Common, everyone totally oblivious to the imminent disasters. It was good that day to ruminate on Pompey's history, for they had once been an even mightier power in the land.
For a dozen years or so in the 1970s and early '80s I spent a hectic whizz on football's (even then) frenzied non-stop treadmill; at least then a railway trip on the Waterloo buffet-car special meant refreshing relief for a day and a bracing frisson of nostalgic edge as you ducked through the "pseud-Tude" black-and-white portico of amiably tumbledown Fratton Park, where uniformed matelots still turned up in their hundreds each match and the Pompey Chimes still chorused "Play Up Pom-pee! Pom-pee Play Up!" mimicking Big Ben's bongs. Of course, for my generation, Portsmouth were the crack team of our boyhood – and I reckon I can still recite, uncribbed, the eleven Royal Blues who won successive Championships in 1949 and 1950 – er, well almost – Butler, Ferrier, Whatsisname, Scoular, Thingamijig, Dickinson, Harris, Reid, Clarke, Phillips, Froggatt. Well, not too bad, eh, after all these years?
I once watched a match at Fratton with John Arlott and it was a nice romance to do so while realising that fully 30 years before the great man himself had blazed a significant trail by broadcasting the first ever live account of a league soccer match for the inaugural transmission on the opening Saturday of January 1948 of the now venerable radio teatime Sports Report.
Not, mind you, from Fratton Park itself that day, but from three railway stops down the line in the basement of the Portsmouth Civic Offices where, settling from his breathless rush, John had time only to clamp earphones to his head before being cued in from London: "This was a magnificent game at Fratton Park, the forward lines of both Portsmouth and Huddersfield keeping on the attack throughout because the wing-halves of each side brought the ball to them along the ground." And so, with such soft, grave certainties, did football's broadcasting's jabbering and excruciating babel begin.
That match of mine in the 1970s alongside Arlott had ended with us being welcomely winked backstage at Fratton by club secretary Jimmy Dickinson – he of that long-before Championship side – who had produced a bottle of the best to share with old buddy Arlott. Jimmy Dick had played an astounding 764 (1946-1965) matches for Pompey – which was just three more than another historic and heroic stalwart, for Roy Sproson played 761 times for Port Vale between 1950 and 1972. I also relished trips to (usually) bleak and windswept Vale Park, and always made a point of being early to pay a dutiful visit down below in Cobridge to genuflect at the home in Waterloo Road of Arnold Bennett, first Eng-lit novelist to put football and fandom squarely in the social and cultural fabric of England (see The Card, and The Matador Of The Five Towns and "Most things are to do with nothing but, in its way, football is to do with everything").
One of my own favourite interviews was with Roy himself, by now a highly successful shopkeeper, on the eve of Vale's 1988 fourth-round FA Cup tie with Terry Venables's city slickers of Tottenham Hotspur: "It's going to be frosty. So they must turn off the radiator in the visitor's dressing-room. Out of their snug stockbroker-belt houses, then straight from that warm luxury coach – and into a cold and cheerless room, their bones and their spirits will at once be chilled to the marrow. And don't forget to give them only that lukewarm pot of tea for half-time. It did the trick for us once or twice I can tell you".
And so it came to pass that Saturday almost a quarter of a century ago. Venables's strutters slunk back, shivering, to London and Vale were in the fifth round. Ten points. But romance and rhapsody remain happily intact.