0 Steve Speed to leave Port Vale after 43 years

Head groundsman Steve Speed is to leave Port Vale, bringing an end to his 43 years at the club.

Speed has no plans to retire but is parting company with the club he has served since 1979, having joined as a 17 year old from the city council's parks department and gone on to be the club's head groundsman for 31 years.

He has prepared the pitches for 16 different full-time managers, from Dennis Butler to Darrell Clarke, and has been a constant at a club that had to fight to avoid applying for re-election near the bottom of the old Fourth Division, was transformed into a Championship outfit under John Rudge in the late 1980s and 1990s and then had to twice come through administration since the turn of the century.

It's no secret he's been working against the odds for most of those years because Vale's pitch, first laid when the stadium opened in 1950, hasn't had the advantages of surfaces at new stadiums opened since then.

But Vale's groundsman has always understandably taken huge pride in the pitch he and his staff have been able to prepare.

In an interview back in 2014, he said: "We are probably one of the few clubs now with a soil pitch. Other clubs in our division have had new stadiums so they have a new pitch, while other clubs have sand pitches.

"It would be nice to sit at home and operate the sprinkler system remotely, like groundsmen at other clubs can, but here if we want to water the training ground or main pitch we have to come in at 4am and put it on.

"We work hard because we want the best pitch we can get, but I am not just talking about myself here, every groundsman is the same. But I do take criticism to heart, including when it is our own players who criticise."

In the same interview, he added, tongue in cheek: "If we had a new pitch it would be perfect, but then where would the challenge be? I'd have nothing to aim for."

'Speedie' as he's better known, has worked for ten chairmen and women since he took the job when Arthur McPherson was in the hot-seat. The most long-serving, and perhaps most colourful, of that list was Bill Bell, who was at the helm from 1987-2002. Speed spoke affectionately and movingly at his old chairman's funeral in 2013 about a relationship that had more ups than downs.

One occasion when they didn't quite see eye to eye was over a flock of sheep.

As the groundsman would recall in an interview to mark his 35 years at the club: "We have about an acre-and-a-half of grass banking at the back of the Railway Stand which is a nightmare to keep short.

"So, tongue in cheek one night, I said to the chairman it was a pity we couldn't get any sheep. He got talking to someone in the pub and a week later he told me he could get six or seven for the summer.

"It worked really well. They were eating all the grass and all we had to do was keep their trough filled up with water.

"The problem was Sky Sports got to hear about the sheep at Vale, not realising they were just at the back of the stand.

"The chairman decided it would be great publicity and told me to get them on the pitch for a few pictures."

Speed, it's fair to say, voiced his objections, but to no avail. Instead, legend has it that Bell removed a cigar from his mouth and uttered the once-in-a-lifetime line, "Speedie, round 'em up".

The groundsman added: "We had these sheep running all over the pitch and Sky got their pictures. But could we get the sheep off afterwards? No chance.

"They wanted to stay on this lovely lush grass not go back to walking up the back of the stand. We were chasing them everywhere, it must have taken us an hour to get them off the pitch. To be fair, I have seen a few midfield players here over the last few years who didn't move as fast."

When sheep weren't taking centre stage, Speed would occasionally find himself roped into various madcap publicity stunts.

When supporters complained about the overpowering smell from the then infamous Railway Stand toilets in 2006, the club decided to hand out pegs to fans to put on their noses until the problem was sorted. Cue pictures of the head groundsman doing his bit by dutifully posing with then chairman Bill Bratt, and a couple of pegs.

But just because he was prepared to be game for a laugh on occasions, don't make the mistake of thinking he hasn't taken his job, and the reputation of his staff and his pitch, extremely seriously.

I'm talking from experience when I say disparaging remarks about the pitch in print did not go down well with the head groundsman. The reporter would get it both barrels regardless of whether the comments printed had come from the opposition manager, his own manager or players.

The trusty, 'don't shoot the messenger' defence didn't wash. The olive branch had to be extended on the next awkward visit pitchside and, on one occasion, came in the form of breakfast 100 yards up Hamil Road at the Vale café.

Little surprise he took criticism of the pitch personally when a typical matchday would involve starting before sunrise to be all ready for the game, and then getting ready again for the next one immediately after the match had finished.

His efforts over the years have won praise from reporters, supporters and his peers. Recognition includes being named Vale's 'club hero' in 2015 after the EFL asked each of its 72 members to nominate an individual based on their outstanding contribution.

He was also nominated by Vale owner Carol Shanahan in the service to sport category in the Sentinel/City of Stoke-on-Trent awards of 2020, and was recognised in 2021 when he was given the EFL long service award.

There can't be many fans who don't recognise Steve Speed - mostly with his clothes on, although he was pictured naked at his mower for a calendar in 2014, raising funds for prostate and testicular cancer charities.

However, the more classic Steve Speed picture, from the 1970s to the 2020s, involves several layers, a wheelbarrow, shovel, and a pitchful of snow as generations of Sentinel photographers have been dispatched to Vale Park in the depths of winter when it seemed the game would surely be called off.

Rain, frost or snow, it's a testament to Vale's departing head groundsman that he managed to beat the elements and an old pitch to get games on as often as he did.

He officially leaves this month. It's worth pointing out that this story is written only with the reluctant acknowledgment of the man himself who was happy to go without the big song and dance and whose only request was we correct any assumptions out there that he's retiring.

Vale chief executive Colin Garlick added a personal tribute, telling StokeonTrentLive: "I would like to thank Steve most sincerely for his tremendous service to Port Vale Football Club and I wish him all the very best for the future."

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