Seventy-five days ago Port Vale were left managerless when Micky Adams was poached by Sheffield United, and long-standing backroom boys Geoff Horsfield and Mark Grew were appointed caretakers.
Now the Vale are managerless again but this time just Grew is the caretaker. Horsfield's disappearance from the role is part of the tale that has engulfed the League Two club.
Just before Christmas the season was going swimmingly. Adams had a team with the tightest defence in the division (almost in the entire league), briefly top, but solidly in the automatic promotion slots. But then Wales needed a new manager and Sheffield United's Gary Speed was selected. It was immediately apparent that United had set their cap at Adams, a lifelong Blades fan, and Vale were going to need a new manager. Adams' last game was a depressing 3-0 defeat at Gillingham. (It was 28 December, with a temporary away end, no roof, sleet and after an hour my daughter said: "Daddy, if you love me, you'll take me home now". I did).
Jim Gannon was relatively swiftly announced as Adams' replacement. Gannon was much loved at Stockport County for his time as a player and manager, but he was in charge at Motherwell for a mere 25 games and even fewer at Peterborough. The feeling about Gannon is that it is His Way Or The Highway. This swiftly became clear as he changed Vale's successful playing style from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, partially enforced by injury to their top scorer, Marc Richards. Four of his first five games in charge were lost.
February saw a brief upward turn in fortune, including a televised victory over Bradford City featuring two goals by Tom Pope, a Vale fan and signed on loan by Gannon. And then came the infamous coach journey. On the way to Aldershot, Gannon and Horsfield rowed. Gannon got off the bus at a motorway service station. Horsfield was dropped off at another service station. So, apparently it was Gannon's Way Or The Motorway (Service Station) (© James Richardson). Despite Vale's chairman, Bill Bratt, promising that the dispute would be sorted quickly, it drifted on and on.
To add to the controversy, Stoke fans — who can usually comfortably patronise local rivals three divisions below — had been enraged by Gannon's appointment. Gannon had been involved in an unpleasant incident with City's Mark Stein many years earlier, involving allegations of racist abuse and a fracas. An abusive ditty about "Steino" is still a firm favourite among Vale fans.
Bratt, meanwhile, was under pressure himself. Takeover rumours have swirled around the club and the fans' disenchantment with the regime has led to a Black and Gold Until It's Sold campaign. Horsfield's troubles were also tied up with these rumours. Stoke-born, New York-based hedge fund trader Mike Newton had fought a rancorous takeover battle in the summer but when he finally gave up he switched his attentions to Stockport, a move that was believed to have been revealed by Horsfield, who was said to be lined up as County's next manager.
Next up was the Staffordshire businessman, Mo Chaudry — famous for appearing on Channel 4's Secret Millionaire programme, infamous for giving away less than any other millionaire. The owner of Stoke-on-Trent's Water World theme park is still interested in buying the club. Indeed, the Vale Supporters' Club are now trying to enlist the help of the club's inactive shareholder — Take That's Robbie Williams — to force an EGM to boot out the board and install Chaudry.
I have sympathy with the inactive involvement of Williams, a Vale fan who even named his own football team LA Vale and became the club's majority stakeholder when he bought shares worth £249,000 in 2006. He bailed the club out because he had the money and Vale needed it but, showing admirable awareness, it was always clear that he didn't want to be involved in running the club because that way madness (and hassle and endless funding) lay.
Back on the pitch, there had been spells of light amongst the gloom. That abortive trip to Aldershot had actually ended in victory. And when the next home game was won the players' goal celebrations were a re-enactment of the motorway row.
Since taking over from Adams in January, the 42-year-old Gannon had overseen Vale's fall out of the League Two play-off places with just four wins in 14 games. The 3-0 defeat at Accrington Stanley and a fracas afterwards were the final straws. Not least because some of the team's best talent had been left out in controversial circumstances, with Gareth Owen, Louis Dodds and Gary Roberts left to drink tea in the stands. Gannon's festering row with Horsfield was such that the assistant manager was not in the dugout either.
So, Gannon has gone, Grew (who was the goalkeeper in the finest Vale team in living memory) is in charge, Hereford United are the visitors on Tuesday night, and there might just be time to get the promotion challenge back on course.
We will be there for Vale's final game of the regular season at Barnet. Port Vale may still be hoping for promotion, but it could well be Barnet's last game in the Football League. Such is the precarious nature of lower league football.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010