By Tony Dewhurst
Jim Cooper smiles at the memory of his first day in the job as Port Vale prepare to celebrate their community scheme's silver jubilee.
"I can remember the date, April 3rd 1993, and Peter Withe, who scored the winning goal in the European Cup final for Aston Villa 10 years before, met me on the steps of Vale Park," recalled Jim.
"Peter showed me into a one room, brick building besides the visiting supporters terrace - with no carpets, no heating and a tiny window - that was the community office.
"I eventually managed to beg, steal and borrow some old carpet from the boardroom and a friend who worked in a shop up the road bought me a portable gas fire.
"Entrance D is a ticket office now, and when I walk past the building I do think about those humble beginnings and how far we've come as a community scheme."
That was two decades ago and Cooper's steady hand remains firmly on the tiller at the heart of the Potteries, where he was raised.
Cooper had to learn on the hoof, too. When he took charge, his first task was to stabilise the finances of a scheme that was perilously close to going bust, then to further develop it to meet the needs of the club and the community.
We sit and talk in Cooper's office on Hamil Road, where the community building now boasts a few more resources, including a teaching classroom, sports hall, and offices.
"I'm a very driven person and I love this job with a great passion," he said.
"It was always a dream for me to work in football full-time, and only second to playing really."
He was on Port Vale's books as a promising kid when injury wrecked any hopes of a career with the Burslem club. Jim rifles through the years, recalling the community scheme's most successful ventures.
He is intensely proud of Vale's disability scheme, with two teams competing in the Staffordshire FA Ability Counts League, and it continues to go from strength to strength.
"We've a deaf team and another squad with mental health issues and they've been champions for several years," he said.
"I get great joy from helping them. I remember coaching three blind children, and one of them, Lee Greatbatch, went on to captain England's disabled youth team and competed at the 2008 Paralympic Games.
"I delivered the coaching on a concrete floor and the blind kids used a ball with a bell in it.
"It was incredible to see them inspired by the disabled scheme."
In many ways the link between Port Vale's past and its future is Jim Cooper because he is the man on the front line in the community.
His idea for a new mascot - Boomer the Staffordshire Bull Terrier - remains a much loved part of the Vale match-day experience and he fizzes with ideas and initiatives.
Indeed, When Vale launched their anti-racism project, a play entitled, Its not as simple as black and white, it received national acclaim, winning several awards.
Teaming up with Stoke's New Vic Theatre, the powerful play was watched by 7,000 people in Stoke-on-Trent and went on to be performed in the Houses of Parliament, thanks to the support of Stoke North MP Joan Walley.
"I thought we could use the power of football to raise awareness of discrimination and racism in the community and it went down a storm, touring local schools and we also went into a young offenders' institution," said Jim.
"The actors wore Port Vale shirts and it was a wonderful experience to see the club getting that anti-racism message out so successfully.
"We wanted to explode the myth of how different people are perceived. For example, that every Asian man owns a corner shop or every Englishman is a football hooligan.
"We did follow up plays, Black and white, the replay, and Blow the Whistle and we'd love to do it again."
With a wide geographical reach, Port Vale draw their support mainly from Burslem, The Staffordshire Moorlands and Cheshire.
But five miles down the A34, City rivals Stoke are now firmly established in the Premier League, while Vale have had to endure a lengthy spell in the basement, and twice going into administration
"Port Vale's fortunes have been in decline for a decade, with little or no investment in the football club, and with Stoke in the top flight it is a double whammy so we've got to fight even harder to attract fans to the club and people into our community scheme.
"It is not going to be easy to turn that around, but we've got to find a way of encouraging junior supporters back to Vale because we have lost a generation of fans."
There are signs of a welcome recovery, though, with Micky Adams team challenging for promotion from npower League 2.
"Throughout the turmoil of the last 10 years the community scheme was probably the only part of the club not criticized in the press and I think that tells you a lot about our community team.
"We've some fantastic staff, and thanks to The Football League Trust, who are always hugely encouraging, they've helped us raise the bar to have a well governed scheme that benefits the whole community."
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