The only hint of a cloud to pass across Bruno Ribeiro’s face comes with the mention of a place that used to bring him so much joy.
Ribeiro spent a two-month sabbatical watching matches up and down England during the spring and Elland Road, where he played for two seasons during that period in the late 1990s when Leeds United began to beguile everyone, was always going to feature somewhere. He deliberately picked a match against Queens Park Rangers in April – the occasion could double up as a reunion with his close friend and former Leeds team-mate Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – but the overriding sense was of wistfulness.
“Just 17,000 people in there,” Ribeiro says with a long sigh. “For that club, a massive club … pffff … I just feel sad. Jimmy and I were talking afterwards, remembering how the supporters loved us at that time, how nearly 40,000 would come every week and make such an amazing atmosphere. To go there now and see how things are – it’s very difficult.”
A glance outside returns Ribeiro from the point of reverie. A pristine Vale Park pitch is the backdrop and, if Leeds need an injection of life, then his current employers require levering from the doldrums themselves. Port Vale have not finished higher than ninth in the third tier since 2004 and when Ribeiro, now five years into his management career, got the call at the end of May he was ready. Those weeks spent studying teams and styles across the leagues – with particular attention, he says, on how to combat direct tactics and win second balls – had paid dividends and the brief was to turn around a club with one of League One’s lowest budgets.
“When I arrived here we had seven players,” Ribeiro says, recounting a tale that is far from unusual these days, such is the churn of contracts in the lower divisions each summer. “We needed players everywhere, every position. I called agents, players, friends, watched a few videos and went to see some play live. We had to do it quickly and I must say thank you to everyone who helped me, because bringing all these players to England and making a team is not easy.”
By the time Ribeiro was done, 18 new players had signed, two-thirds of them from abroad. His contacts book had done the trick; four of the arrivals came from clubs in his native Portugal while two, the promising midfielders Anthony de Freitas and Sébastien Amoros, were last at Monaco under Ribeiro’s friend Leonardo Jardim. It seemed, and perhaps still does, a risky business. Mass transplants of low-cost foreigners into Leagues One and Two have little precedent for success; a lack of competence in England’s relentless footballing demands is a recipe for losing matches, and dressing-room schisms can twist the knife further.
Ribeiro was a step ahead. He knew the mix of cultures would need help and repeated a trick he had used during a summer of similar flux when in charge at Vitória Setúbal, naming three English stalwarts of last season’s side – Jak Alnwick, Ben Purkiss and Anthony Grant – as joint-captains to expedite the settling-in process.
“To have one captain for 18 new players would have been very difficult,” he says. “A few people were surprised at first – ‘that never happens here’ – but they’ve seen how important it is. Three captains is easier; it makes sure everyone gets the level of help and attention he needs and makes the dressing room strong. Those guys know what I want on and off the pitch and they’ve been fantastic – it’s brought everyone together.”
Something is certainly going right. Ribeiro’s side are sixth in the division and, in beating Millwall last month, set a Vale Park record by winning their first five home games. Most of the foreign signings are being eased in gently but, with the former Vitória playmaker Paulo Tavares pulling the strings in midfield, an attractive brand of football is gradually drawing supporters back.
“From the first day they understood what I wanted and that made it easier for me,” Ribeiro said. “Things have changed since I played in England; back then it was just long balls in the lower divisions but now in League One you can see six, seven teams starting to play football. Peterborough, Swindon, they try and play. We pass from the back, we aim to play good football for our fans and by the end of this season I want to see this stadium full.”
That might be a stretch. Vale Park can hold 19,000 and, for all the cautious optimism, only 5,605 from Burslem and beyond saw Coventry City end that historic home run last Saturday. It has an air of the land that time forgot, an impression heightened by the grass bank and brick turnstiles that front the northeast-facing Railway Paddock and the vestiges of dying industry that mark the surrounding area.
A high-profile visitor may drop in over the next eight months, though. Ribeiro and José Mourinho are both sons of Setúbal and go back most of a lifetime. Mourinho’s father, Felix, gave a teenaged Ribeiro his debut at Vitória and the families have been close ever since. Ribeiro spent time assisting with training and match preparation during Mourinho’s spells at Chelsea and Real Madrid while, when the Port Vale chairman, Norman Smurthwaite, had three candidates to choose from for the recent vacancy, it was Mourinho whose personal reference helped tip the scales.
“I speak with him every week, he’s a very good friend and I always say his father is my father, because he helped me so much,” Ribeiro says. “He’s 45 minutes up the road so sometimes we meet for a drink. José is fantastic, a good man, really lively and happy all the time, just not the same person you see on TV or in the press. At a table with six or seven friends, he’s great company.
“Learning with him for a few months was vital for me, it made a big difference. I have my own ideas and he has his but 90% of what I do now I have learned from him.”
Being a member of the Portuguese managers’ union has evident advantages but half a decade in the dugout has not been plain sailing. Last July Ribeiro took over at the Bulgarian champions, Ludogorets Razgrad, only to leave after six weeks amid a stand-off over an alleged breach of contract that is still in Fifa’s in-tray. Ludogorets claim to have sacked him for disciplinary reasons relating to his contract; Ribeiro says he resigned and is not for budging on his reasons.
“I didn’t sign one player myself,” he says. “The owner went to Brazil, found players, brought them over and I never knew a thing. One time I went into the dressing room and there was a new guy just sitting there, someone I’d never been told about. The others, I’d open the newspaper and see who was signing for Ludogorets.
“Another day I went to take training at 10 in the morning and the sporting director was there. ‘You need to hold training at 7pm,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked, and he told me it was because the players’ wives needed to watch the sessions. Crazy! I couldn’t allow that, it’s a distraction and there’s no focus. I couldn’t work the way they wanted, so I said I was going home. It’s a big club with very good facilities but the people …”
No more needs to be said and Ribeiro’s next position, with Académico de Viseu in Portugal’s second tier, was similarly ill-starred. This time there was no training equipment, a shortage of pitches and, it turned out, no pay forthcoming. Three weeks and five games were enough for Ribeiro to want out. In the resulting free time he embarked on that tour of England and got the break he had craved. Smurthwaite has demanded a concerted top-six challenge and Ribeiro is at ease with the pressure. Competing with Sheffield United, where he spent two years after leaving Leeds, and clubs of similar resource is a tall order but he feels unfazed.
“The chairman can’t be any more ambitious than me,” he says. “Our budget isn’t big compared to others like United, who I think have £11m, but I’m working to that and we’re looking to move forwards. For me this is a Championship club.”
Ribeiro insists on showing the way to the car park after the interview – the kind of courtesy he exudes – and in Vale Park’s main reception sits Miguel Santos, a young goalkeeper signed from Benfica’s B team. Introductions are made and Ribeiro laughs: “See, we can sign players from Benfica now, eh?” If there is any lingering regret at the decay of another club that once meant so much, the energy of his approach to life at Port Vale has quickly taken precedence.
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