Neil Aspin is a Port Vale legend and, whatever he does as manager, that will not be taken away from him.
In a BBC vote taken in 2004, he was voted as Port Vale’s biggest cult hero of the past. He was a tough defender, uncompromising and never giving an inch, making 348 appearances in a ten-year spell at Vale Park.
18-years later he went home, arriving in a time of dire need for the club.
After a fall from League One, a successive relegation looked likely and Aspin was the man they turned to for salvation.
He was in the National league with Gateshead, a club he’d enjoyed mid table success with but not really challenged for promotion.
Was he a cheap option? That might be the case, but he was certainly a popular choice. He brought a degree of feel-good back to Burslem, something desperately lacking under the stewardship of Norman Smurthwaite.
The unpopular chairman is still trying to sell the club, with little joy.
Fans had something else to focus on though, a manager they could believe in who had standing amongst supporters old enough to remember his name. The Valiants were 22nd when he took charge in October 2017, but a first win little under a fortnight later began a revival of sorts.
The revival didn’t continue, not in the strictest sense. They finished 20th in League Two, the joint worst finish the club has ever experienced, avoiding the drop by a single point. It was an improvement, they’d only been out of the bottom two on goal difference when Aspin arrived.
This summer he’s set about recruiting in earnest and despite the woeful campaign last time out, hopes are high of improvement. They’ve bagged Ricky Miller, prolific in the National League but never proven in the Football League. Idris Kanu has joined from Peterborough and former hero Louis Dodds returns from Chesterfield.
In truth, the summer is a smoke and mirrors affair, a high turnover of players who all bring promise but not proven quality. With a club legend packaging and delivering it as a summer of strong recruitment, fans will gobble up the positivity and that in itself can be a good start. The focus is not on the owner or his disastrous reign at the helm, but instead on Aspin, the Valiant through and through who is promising so much.
Those in the know see the potential of Kanu and Miller, as well as the undoubted quality of Tom Pope and see a brighter future for Vale, but then it wouldn’t have to be brilliant to be brighter than last season.
Hopes are high for improved fortunes, something that is surely set to happen.
How much of the hype is belief in their hero and how much is real promise remains to be seen, but surely Port Vale won’t be suffering another campaign quite as bad as the last one.
If all goes well, Mr Smurthwaite might even have a few offers to consider as the year unfolds.
That would be a real result for the long-suffering fans.
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