Norman Smurthwaite. As revolutionaries go, you wouldn’t expect one to be called Norman Smurthwaite. But Port Vale’s feisty ‘do it my way or not at all’ owner is just that, a mold-breaker looking to turn one of the midlands’ more sedentary clubs into a Championship powerhouse.
It is a stubborn attitude that has got him involved in quite a few clashes in the four years since this successful local businessman rescued Vale from administration, including banning the local paper for being critical, throwing the Port Vale Community Trust out of Vale Park and arguing with the police over policing costs. On top of that Port Vale’s holding company was hit by a HMRC winding-up order (case still ongoing).
To be fair, Smurthwaite has put a lot of his own fortune into the club and oversaw promotion to League One in his first season in charge. But his determination to do things his way has also seen the recent departure of two managers, Mickey Adams and Rob Page and the introduction this summer of a new coaching and player-recruitment set-up not seen before in the normally humble surroundings of Vale Park, never mind the quiet backwater of League One.
This is Smurthwaite’s continental revolution, a brave but risky attempt to turn the club into a successful Championship outfit. If it fails, he has already threatened Plan B, which most people interpret as him selling the club.
The Smurthwaite revolution began this summer with the signing as manager of Bruno Ribeiro, whose experience of English football had been playing stints with Leeds and Sheffield United 16 years ago previously. His managerial record before Port Vale comprised short, largely unremarkable spells at various clubs in Portugal and one in Bulgaria.
Although also recently linked with the manager’s job at Cardiff City and Rotherham, the largely unknown Ribeiro’s emergence as a managerial contender in the UK is still something of a surprise until you learn that he has influential people on his side; he “is like a brother” with one Jose Mourinho, who has been recommending him for these jobs.
According to Andy Smith, the former Northern Ireland international who was with Ribeiro at Sheffield United and became his assistant at Ludogorets in Bulgaria: ‘Tactically, he’s very smart, very clever.
“He worked as a coach under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid. Bruno has a fantastic reputation in Portugal.”
The next stage of Smurthwaite’s revolution was to agree the acquisition this summer of 12 new players, but only two from the UK. The rest came from the likes of Portugal, France, Holland and Norway – an unusual balance at this level and certainly a gamble.
After Vale finished 12th in League One last season under Page, it is now Ribeiro’s job to meld this eclectic squad into a coherent team, something Smurthwaite is confident his new manager can do.
“I genuinely think that once we get everybody clicking as they should do, then we will take the division by storm,” he says.
“I am excited. It is mixed emotions. There is a lot of change, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
Currently Vale sit sixth in the table, three points behind Scunny having won both their home games, drawn one away and lost one away, last Saturday at Swindon, where they conceded their first league goal of the season.
Keeper Jak Alnwick puts this parsimony down to playing a new 4-3-3 system instead of 4-4-2, with the emphasis on playing the ball out from the back.
Says Alnwick: “That is why we haven’t conceded many goals. We like to get it down and pass and our pitch is quite big so hopefully we can keep building on it and give the fans more attractive football.”
Well that should certainly suit Scunny’s own passing game, even if our own continental revolution is restricted to KVV up front.
Port Vale’s foreign legion
Curacao: Rigino Cicilia
France: Sebastien Amoros, Anthony de Freitas, Quentin Pereira
Netherlands: Kjell Knops, Calvin Mac-Intosch
Portugal: Kiko, Paulo Tavares, Miguel Santos
Sweden: Christopher Mbamba