Phil so proud of keeping Vale in the family

It has taken 11 years, an awful lot of time, effort and fund-raising, and there have been numerous headaches and hurdles along the way.

But next Saturday, at 1.45pm up at Vale Park, supporters will finally have their chance to gaze upon a permanent memorial to a unique Potteries footballing family.

The Sproson statue, orchestrated and funded by Vale fans, will be unveiled to supporters, the media and a gathering of VIPs including Roy Sproson’s widow Joyce and Gordon Taylor OBE from the Professional Footballers’ Association.

It is a magnificent sculpture showing Roy – the club’s greatest servant – in a pose he would typically have adopted during his record 837 appearances for the Burslem club.

But the granite plinth on which the statue sits, also pays homage to Roy’s elder brother Jess and his nephew Phil who both pulled on the white shirt and added their names to Vale folklore.

Sadly, neither Roy nor Jess are around to witness what will be a very special day for the Sproson family who clocked up an amazing 1,370 appearances for the Valiants.

However, Phil will be there with his auntie Joyce to represent this extraordinary footballing dynasty.

The 53-year-old, now a players’ agent, said: “I know the whole family will be incredibly proud. I hope it will give Vale fans tremendous pride too and hopefully spur on current and future players.

“They can walk down the steps, look up at this great man who did so much for Port Vale and perhaps try to emulate him in some way.

“Maybe they could touch his boot for luck before games and if a tiny bit of uncle Roy’s spirit rubs off on them then they’ll do alright.”

Phil, now aged 53, followed in his father and uncle’s footsteps by signing for Vale as a professional at the end of 1977 having graduated through the club’s youth ranks.

He went on to play for the Vale 495 times and enjoyed three promotion campaigns before a training ground injury in January 1989 ended his time at Vale Park.

Phil is third in the all-time appearances list at Vale – behind his uncle Roy (837) and Harry Poole (498).

He said: “I always loved pulling on the shirt. It gave me an enormous sense of pride. I remember when I was made captain by John Rudge. He asked me: ‘Do you want it? (the captain’s armband)’ I said: ‘Yes’. Rudgie said: ‘It’s yours. Nobody deserves it more.’ I could have exploded I was so happy.”

Phil, who lives in Church Lawton, says there was no real added pressure in being related to the man who was Mr Port Vale.

He said: “To me he was just loveable uncle Roy who lived over the road from us. It wasn’t I think until I had got a full season of 30 or 40 games under my belt that I started to think: ‘Eight hundred games!’ How the hell did anyone play so many?’

“Then I realised just how special Roy was and why so many Vale supporters held him in such high regard.

“In fact, the best compliment ever paid to me was by my uncle Roy. It was after we had beaten Spurs in the cup.

“He came over to me, cupped my chin and said: ‘You’ll do for me. You’d have made it into any side I ever played in.’ That, to me, was so important.”

Phil rates the contribution of Vale managers John McGrath and John Rudge to his own career as ‘massive’.

He said: “John McGrath made me the player I was. He took me to one side one day and asked me how much I wanted the shirt. Then he told me we had work to do and put me in the gym to build me up, sharpen me up, and make me a better player.

“In contrast Rudgie was a thinker. He wasn’t as bullish but when Rudgie spoke people listened. He certainly knew how to get the best out of people.”

Phil played in an emerging Vale side alongside the likes of Ray Walker, Robbie Earle and Darren Beckford.

He said: “If I was to pick out a couple of players who were really special from that era I’d have to go for Mark Chamberlain and Robbie.

“Mark was just a flash of brilliance. Robbie had such a great work ethic. He just loved to win.”

And what does Phil think of the current crop of Vale players riding high in League Two despite the constraints of a period during which the club has been in administration.

Phil said: “The way they have started the season is testament to Micky Adams and the coaching skills of Rob Page and Mark Grew.

“The only problem I can see is injuries and suspensions. It’s not rocket science: The squad has very little depth but if they are able to strengthen it then they’ve got a good chance of promotion.”

He added: “As for Tom Pope (17 goals already this season), he’s a throwback to my era – he really is. Popey’s a local lad, a Vale fan, who is in the form of his life and loving the game – scoring goals for the team he supported as a lad. You can see it all over his face and it’s wonderful to watch.”

Phil’s 23-year-old son Warren is currently serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) out in Afghanistan and so will miss next Saturday’s celebration.

His dad said: “He will certainly be with us in spirit. He’s taken a Vale shirt out there. We’re all exceptionally proud of him and thinking of him.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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