It’s a popular opinion that not only has Carol Shanahan OBE instilled a new-found belief among Port Vale fans for the future of their football club, but she has also revitalised the mood of one of the UK’s most disadvantaged areas.
“Do you want to be remembered for baking banana bread, or do you want to make a difference?”
That was the first question that Carol Shanahan OBE asked of her dedicated team when the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK.
With football suspended until further notice back in March, Vale Park - like football stadiums up and down the country - shut its doors to supporters. Based in Burslem, known as ‘the Mother Town’ to locals, its once vibrant matchday atmosphere was stopped in its tracks. No more pie and a pint, no programme seller on every corner and no lengthy queues outside the ticket office on a Saturday afternoon. Just quiet concourses and empty seats. At least it was.
Within days of going into lockdown, a community hub was set up at Vale Park, as it began to assist thousands of families across Stoke-on-Trent and, despite being the ambitious woman that she is, not even Carol herself could have predicted the impact it would have on the local area.
Sixty-two-year-old Carol and husband Kevin launched their IT company, Synectics, in 1992, employing 350 people and running systems all around the world.
After relocating to the Potteries in 2015, Synectics was awarded the 2017 Stoke-on-Trent Evening Sentinel Business of the Year Award, while both Carol and Kevin were awarded Honorary Doctorates by Staffordshire University in 2017.
But it was their passion for the community and new-found love for Port Vale that saw them make the headlines.
“I’ve always loved football, since I was a child,” Carol reveals, speaking to the EFL.
“I love being a part of a group behind the goal, watching the team. When my husband and I started our IT company, we had 350 staff on different sites, but we wanted to bring everyone together and that’s when we moved next door to Port Vale Football Club.”
After forging a bond with the club, Carol took on the role as Chair of Port Vale Foundation, building on her community work. And it wasn’t long before her interest turned to the football club itself.
“I started to build a relationship with the club,” she continues. “I’ll never forget us playing Sheffield United, I just fell in love again. We cheered together, we booed together, the emotion was fantastic and I’ve been to every single home match since.”
But it wasn’t all smiles on the pitch at the time.
“The club was going through a tough time, on and off the pitch” she explained. “Football wasn’t good from a fan perspective; morale was low, the club was bottom of League Two and we were looking down the trap door.
“We went to an away game at Cheltenham and the atmosphere was bad. We wanted to help, but we didn’t know how. I remember driving home and I don’t think we’d even got as far as the motorway when I said to Kevin, ‘we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to buy the club.’
“Port Vale is in one of the highest areas of disadvantage in the country, and I knew if we really wanted to help the community, we had to start with the football club. I knew the club was key to the community and, to be successful, we had to bring back pride, positivity and purpose. So we bought the club!”
A humble woman, with Port Vale in her heart, Carol speaks not only of her love for the town and the football club, but also the people of the Stoke-on-Trent community - an area within which her work and commitment has been truly noticeable.
“Running a football club is like running a family, there’s no one way to do it,” she adds.
“I believe there are three strands to every club: there’s entertainment on the pitch, there’s hospitality and there’s community, which is matchday and non-matchday. For me, it’s always been about keeping those three strands and making sure they are working to their full potential.”
So, in came the Shanahans, and with the new ownership came stability, longevity and, most importantly, hope for Port Vale Football Club.
On the pitch, Port Vale was transformed from relegation candidates to Play-Off contenders in the 2019/20 campaign. Unfortunately, a curtailed season due to the coronavirus pandemic saw Vale’s campaign cut short, as they finished just outside the Play-Off places.
Off the pitch, however, Port Vale has become the heart of the community, with Carol transforming the football club into a thriving community hub, where her and others have been assisting some of the country’s most disadvantaged families for an extended period of time.
“When we went into lockdown in March, I got the leaders of the club, my IT company, Port Vale Foundation and the Hubb Foundation on a Zoom call together and asked, ‘how do you want history to write us?’
“I asked if they wanted be remembered for baking the best banana bread, or whether they wanted to make a difference. Without hesitation, everyone said they wanted to make a difference.”
And make a difference they did. After galvanising volunteers, local businesses and staff from Port Vale, her team set to work on transforming Vale Park.
“Who are the families that keep you awake at night?” Carol asked of all the headteachers in the local area. Within days, she had a list of children who were at risk of going hungry and missing out on vital support throughout the pandemic.
“We’d already built up strong relationships with schools and social services through my running of the Hubb Foundation, but we put out an open invitation as well. I’d rather more people get help than some missing out. As long as we’re feeding, entertaining and helping those that need it the most, that’s all that matters.
“We’d already grown the local church community group from about 30 people a day to 110 a day just by feeding people and putting on activities, so we had the contacts and got to work.
“We deep-cleaned the kitchen here at Port Vale, all the staff on furlough volunteered to help and we just started to produce food. Businesses and different food providers got involved, our matchday pie maker was sending us 500 pies a week, so we just made thousands of meals and froze them, before delivering them personally to families.
"The stadium concourse became the distribution centre, it was full of freezers and the kitchen was producing on average 1,000 meals per day.
“It was all about engagement. We wanted to help anyone we could and let them know that we were there for them.”
By October, Carol and her team had produced, packaged and delivered more than 170,000 meals to more than 50,000 people across Stoke-on-Trent - of which approximately 35,000 were children. And, at the time of writing, they’re already planning Christmas Day meal provision for any families who want it.
So, it’s no surprise really that in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List, her services to the community and significant contribution to the UK’s COVID-19 response were deservedly rewarded with an OBE.
“It’s been quite a time, really,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t tell my husband until 24 hours before it went public, because he can’t keep a secret! I wasn’t telling my daughter either, but it turns out she’d given some information about me in the nomination process, so was also keeping the same secret from me.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t celebrate like we normally would have, but we did at least have a home game at Vale Park that day.
“If you look at what drives me, it’s the community. I’m as pleased for the club and for the charity as I am for myself. It’s all about the work that they’ve done; I’m so proud of our achievements.”
The local business owner joked in a recent interview with the Stoke Sentinel newspaper that she’s gone from one O-Level to an OBE, but it has all been part of her passionate mission to help drive social mobility in the city.
And they’re looking after their own, too. Throughout a time when supporters have been asked to stay at home, Carol and husband Kevin never felt closer to them.
“Between me, Kevin, the players and the manager we’ve rung every single season ticket holder to check in with them. Now more than ever, engagement is important.
“I see football as a faith-based system. I don’t view it as me owning Port Vale, I view it a bit like running a church and our fans are our congregation. With no fans, you have no football club. They’re a huge part of this organisation and that relationship with them and the community is really important. It’s what drives success.
“It’s a Port Vale family here and our aim at the start was to bring back that sense of pride to Vale Park.”
Now, she is determined to make sure the club’s progress off the field continues to be matched on it.
Her parting words sum her up; optimistic, ambitious and devoted to the cause.
“Our ambitions for the future are to make Vale Park the centre of the community here, for whoever needs it. It will continue to be a focus for us. The long-term idea is to have some form of community engagement on the stadium site every day of the year.
“Our ambitions on the pitch and as a football club are just to be better this week than we were last week. I often ask myself, ‘what would we do if we were a Championship club?’ and we do it because that’s where we should be aiming, and that’s what our job is.”
With or without football, one thing is for sure; in Carol and Kevin Shanahan, Port Vale Football Club has owners to be proud of.