A saint and a sinner. Bill Bell: One of Vale’s unforgettable characters

Former Vale Chairman Bill Bell.

Former Vale Chairman Bill Bell.

‘It’s a good little runner,’ were the first words Bill Bell said to me.

No, he wasn’t referring to Andy Porter. Rather, the then Vale Chairman was actually showing me my new company car – a bright yellow Austin Metro. I kid you not.

The year was 1990 and I had just started as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press in Burslem – a firm which, at the time, leased all its cars from Bill’s dealership on Sandbach Road.

I didn’t know what to make of this eccentric car salesman with a glint in his eye and more than a whiff of cigars about him.

But, over time, a pattern emerged. Very often I would meet our new signings on the forecourt at W.T. Bell. Legendary names like Ian Taylor, signed for threepence from Moor Green, who was there to pick up his new ‘company’ car.

Not a yellow Metro, I might add.

By 1990 Mr Bell, as I referred to him back then, was already the Prince of Burslem and his emerging partnership with manager John Rudge was beginning to bear fruit.

Through canny stewardship, the man who bought the Vale for a song was transforming a struggling fourth division club (see any parallels?) into one that went on to compete in what is now the Championship.

In doing so, by backing Rudgie’s judgement, he oversaw the comings and goings of legendary Vale players and enjoyed the most successful years in the club’s history.

Let us not forget Bill Bell also was responsible for huge improvements to Vale Park – transforming it into a stadium which puts others in the lower leagues to shame.

The great cup wins over Spurs and Everton, the Autoglass Trophy victory, the Anglo-Italian Cup Final appearance at Wembley and, of course, our highest league position all happened on Bill Bell’s watch.

His partnership with John Rudge was never any easy one but with the gaffer’s guile and the Chairman’s, shall we say ‘unconventional’ business style, it was – for Vale fans at least – a match made in heaven.

Bill Bell also, as he was entitled, did rather well himself out of a relatively modest investment.
He was, to put it mildly, considered ‘shrewd’ and most fans inevitably sided with the Messiah that was Rudgie whenever their private spats became public.

Like when Rudgie stormed out of the club during contract negotiations – only to be persuaded to return to the table by a gaggle of fans standing on Hamil Road holding a placard calling for him to stay.

Bill Bell’s final years in charge at Vale Park were soured by the sacking of the manager who had brought so much success to the club.

The Chairman then suffered the final indignity of having to put the club he had built up from almost nothing into administration.

When Valiant 2001 took over the club what they discovered wasn’t pretty: Vale’s infrastructure had been sorely neglected as Bill Bell looked to extricate himself from the hotseat.

For a period the former Chairman was reviled, his name besmirched by some of those who followed.

No doubt a minority of fans, and perhaps some former employees, still have a dim view of Bill Bell.

But time is a wonderful healer and recent years have served to put a slightly different gloss on the man whose reign at Vale Park served up my favourite football memories thus far.

You could say nothing was black and white with the former chairman. But, make no mistake, he was black and white through and through.

Bill Bell was, and remains, an enigma. He was a canny operator who was more than a little Arthur Daley but who was also capable of displays of great humility and incredible generosity.

He is part of Vale’s rich tapestry and deserves to be remembered for those good times.

Pick up a copy of today’s (February 13, 2013) Sentinel for comprehensive tributes and a look back at Bill Bell’s time in charge at Port Vale or log on to: http://www.thisisstaffordshire.co.uk

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