James Gibbons used to carry a bucket around to raise money for Port Vale – now he is dreaming of lifting a trophy.
The defender helped with the collections to keep the club’s academy going during dark days at Vale Park.
Vale face Mansfield in the Sky Bet League Two play-off final at Wembley on Saturday in their biggest game for years.
It is a world away from a teenage Gibbons, who lived just minutes away from Vale Park, walking round the stadium hoping fans would help keep his dreams alive.
“When I was in the academy at the age of 13, we had to go bucket collecting around the ground,” said Gibbons, who has made 137 appearances for the club.
“We wanted money from fans to keep the academy afloat and you were standing there in your tracksuit to try and raise as much money as you can.
“That was one of the real low points of the club – it wasn’t what you want to be doing.
“That was probably the worst point the club has been at in its history. I hope none of the lads have to experience that just to keep the dream alive.
“If it had gone it would have been a dream over for me, without any money we wouldn’t have had an academy. Never mind Wembley, I’d have been playing Sunday league with my mates.
“Young lads want to be playing football and watching the first team, not walking around with buckets.
“Under the previous owners, the club was an intense place to be around and negative.
“Now it’s an attractive club to come to, it’s been tidied up from top to bottom and all the credit should go to Carol and Kevin (Shanahan, owners) for what they have done.
“They have flipped the club on its head and got it going in the right direction.
“This is the highest point since I have been here and hopefully it can kick on even further from here.”
Vale finished fifth in Sky Bet League Two having seen manager Darrell Clarke take a bereavement absence in February.
Assistant Andy Crosby took an interim charge to help them in their promotion drive, with Clarke starting a phased return in March before returning for the final game of the season and the play-offs.
Crosby said: “It was a tragic event in Darrell’s life.
“The effect on the football club meant that we had to try and galvanize everyone together again.
“It hit the group really hard. The first 10 days were really tough for everyone, knowing that the manager was suffering like he was.
“I remember addressing the group for the first time and informing them of what had happened and we said that when the gaffer does come through the door we want to be in a better place for a variety of reasons but certainly in the league table.
“We’ve managed to do that, we managed to give Darrell time, which he obviously needed, and he could see that the football club was functioning, the team were functioning.
“But it’s great to have him back now and he’s obviously a really popular guy around the football club and we’re delighted he’s back.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.