Vale’s loveable rogue who’s legacy is there for all to see

Port Vale Chairman Bill Bell celebrates with fans at the end of the 1993 season.

Port Vale Chairman Bill Bell celebrates with fans at the end of the 1993 season.

He was the archetypal cigar-chomping, Rolls-Royce driving football club chairman.

A man with a polished mahogany veneer but who was all solid, working class oak beneath.

Yes he may have divided opinion – indeed he still does.

I asked Vale fans on social media sites to sum up this most colourful of Potteries characters in one respectful word.

‘Shrewd’, ‘steadfast’, ‘cornerstone’, ‘foundation’, ‘wise’, ‘boss’, ‘astute’, ‘unique’, ‘character’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘entertaining’ and ‘rogue’ were some of the adjectives used.

Other words that cropped up included ‘promotions’ and, of course, ‘Spurs’.

Towards the end of his tenure at Vale Park, Bill Bell’s star was certainly waning – due in large part to the fracturing of his strained relationship with John Rudge.

During the Valiant 2001 era he was reviled by many as the man who sacked the club’s most successful manager and took Vale into administration.

Where had all the money gone from the sale of great players like Beckford, Guppy and Ainsworth? That’s what people wanted to know.

The former Chairman’s unconvential business methods certainly came under scrutiny like never before and it seemed that his reputation would forever be tarnished.

Had a group of Vale fans met in a pub 10 years ago I dare say their opinion of Bill Bell would have been negative as nerves were still raw.

But time, and perhaps the events of recent years, have served to put the man’s period at the helm in a different light.

I always got on well with Bill Bell. He was warm and generous and always had time for a chat or an interview.

Interestingly, some of the people who knew him best at the Vale – those who were there before he arrived – still hold him in the highest regard.

Groundsman Steve Speed is unequivocal.

He said: “Without Bill Bell I don’t think Port Vale would still be at Vale Park. We would have had to move to a smaller ground somewhere else.

“When he took over the place was literally falling apart and he laid the foundations for the stadium we have today. As Chairman he was so positive. He somehow managed to bring everyone together.

“It didn’t matter to him whether you were a cleaner, a player or the manager – we were all on the same team.

“Without his enthusiasm and his initial investments we wouldn’t have enjoyed the success we did – simple.

“I think towards the end he perhaps felt that he hadn’t received the credit he deserved for what he had done in partnership with John Rudge.

“It was very much a team effort. The Chairman would be down here seven days a week.”

Club Secretary Bill Lodey was Stadium Manager when Bill Bell took the reins at Vale Park and views the former Chairman as ‘Vale through and through’.

When I asked if Bill Bell had always been a Vale fan, Mr Lodey said: “Well he told me that when Vale Park was built he came along with his uncle and helped out with the work.

“He certainly put his heart and soul into the club while he was here.

“I think what’s crucial is that without the former Chairman’s initial investment to bring in the likes of Dean Glover and Neil Aspin – in the days before John Rudge was buying, polishing and selling-on players – we wouldn’t have gone on to enjoy the success we did.

“What’s more I’m pretty sure those investments, which were big money at the time, came out of his own pocket.

“He laid the foundations for the successful period when Vale fans enjoyed being in what is now the Championship and had numerous trips to Wembley and Cardiff.

“He was a classic wheeler-dealer. I think he paid about £4,000 for the second hand Sealand Road stand from Chester City and had it transported to Vale Park.

“What a piece of business that was. Just look at the stadium today to see what a difference he made.

“Bill Bell was also incredibly down to earth and carried the respect of everyone here at the club.

“Over the last decade or more I’ve heard more than a few people say: ‘This would never have happened under Bill (Bell)’. They’re right.

“He was a one-off and his partnership with John Rudge was exceptional.”

Potteries entertainer Pete Conway, father of pop superstar Robbie Williams knew Bill Bell for more than 50 years.

He said: “I think what is sad is that the Potteries has lost another of its most colourful characters.

“Bill delivered great times and wonderful memories for the Vale, however, and his legacy is the great stadium the club has today.”

Pick up a copy of today’s Sentinel (February 16, 2013) for more tributes to Bill Bell in the Green ‘Un.

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One game at a time. And let’s win tomorrow for Mr Bell

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I wasn’t too disappointed with the goalless draw against Barnet.

It was a classic case of a game where league positions were irrelevant with a team near the bottom scrapping for their Football League existence.

We were lucky to come away with a point, by all accounts, but the fact is we did and, who knows, that point – or the point we rescued away at Wimbledon – may just prove crucial.

If nothing else, last Saturday reminded the players, coaching staff and fans that we can’t take anything, or any game, for granted.

It is, and always has been, a case of one game at a time and a matter of changing up the formation and tactics depending on the opposition.

Forget the 10 point cushion between Vale and the play-off positions: If we win at least six of the remaining 15 games and pick up two or three draws that should see us promoted automatically.

There’s every chance we could go up as champions, which would be terrific, but as I’ve said before – promotion without the lottery of the play-offs – is all that matters.

What is particularly encouraging about recent results is that we have tightened up at the back and the influence and experience of Darren Purse is clearly paying dividends.

The Sneyd Green Pontiff will doubtless return to the scoresheet tomorrow as the club and fans look to pay a fitting tribute to former Vale Chairman Bill Bell who died this week.

There will be flags at half mast, black arm bands and a minute’s applause which will echo the gesture made at the Supporters’ Club AGM on Tuesday night.

Always a divisive figure, there is no denying Bill Bell’s shrewd investments and his partnership with John Rudge delivered the best period in Port Vale’s history to date.

His legacy is a stadium to be proud of which puts others in the lower leagues to shame and the foundations of what will hopefully soon be a Championship club.

As someone said to me earlier in the week: “Billy Bell may have been a rogue, but he was our rogue.”

Who knows, very soon the new owners of our club may see fit to honour ‘our rogue’ – and possibly even his partner in success JR – with some sort of lasting tribute.

Something perhaps for the new Supporters’ Club committee to work towards as we all look forward to a bright new era while paying a respectful nod to our past.

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

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

Proud To Be Vale Thanks To ‘He Of The Flat Cap’

It is sad but true to say that there is a generation of Port Vale supporters who have grown up without experiencing any real success.
It’s 11 long years since the club’s day in the sun at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the LDV Vans Trophy Final win over Brentford.
Before that you have to go back to the mid-Nineties when the team was managed by ‘He Of The Flat Cap’ – otherwise known as ‘The Bald Eagle’ or plain old ‘J.R’.
John Rudge may hail from Wolverhampton but he is a genuine Potteries legend and, unless you come from these parts, it is difficult to appreciate just how much a part of local footballing folklore he is.
He is one of only a handful of men who have crossed the great divide between Port Vale and Stoke City and somehow managed to retain the respect and admiration of both sets of fans.
As comfortable as a public speaker at a fund-raising dinner in aid of Vale’s youth team as he is talking tactics with Tony Pulis at the Britannia Stadium, Rudgie is a special bloke.
To fully appreciate the reverence with which he is held by Vale fans like myself, you have to journey back to December 1983 when he took over the reins after manager John McGrath was sacked.
Under McGrath, Vale had lost 13 of the opening 17 games that season and J.R. was unable to prevent relegation to the old Division Four.
What followed was a season of consolidation during which Vale finished twelfth before Rudgie took fans on a dream journey which included promotions, a number of genuinely jaw-dropping giant-killings, several trips to Wembley and some cherished silverware.
J.R formed an unlikely alliance colourful former chairman Bill Bell and together they oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history.
As marriages go, it was a fiery affair.
One afternoon, as a cub reporter, I was camped outside the old main entrance awaiting confirmation that Rudgie had signed an extension to his contract.
He swept past me, refusing to speak, jumped in his car and sped away from the ground – only to return a few minutes later.
“What’s going on, gaffer?” I asked.
He told me that the chairman had annoyed him so much by quibbling over money that he had decided not to sign a new deal.
However, as he drove away from Vale Park, Rudgie had spotted a small group of fans at the gates holding up a banner pleading for him to stay. Thankfully, that persuaded him to turn his car around and sign on the dotted line for another eight years.
Rudgie was manager at Vale for 16 years and during that time generated almost £10 million in transfer income for the club.
He nurtured the likes of Robbie Earle and Mark Bright and had a wonderful eye for talent – bringing a raft of quality players to the club whose names trip off the tongue of any Vale fan worth his or her salt.
These included Andy Jones, Mark Grew, Ray Walker, Bob Hazell, Darren Beckford, Simon Mills, Neil Aspin, Dean Glover, Martin Foyle, Gareth Ainsworth, John Jeffers, Robin van der Laan, Ian Taylor, Nicky Cross, Keith Houchen, Andy Porter, Paul Musselwhite, Steve Guppy, Jon McCarthy, Bernie Slaven and Marcus Bent, among others.
They were Vale’s golden generation – delivering FA Cup victories over Spurs (1988), our neighbours down the A500 (1994) and cup holders Everton (1996).
I was in the Press Box for the Stoke and Everton games and I am ashamed to say I was as un-impartial as you can get.
I remember the action from the Everton game like it was yesterday and recall beforehand having every confidence that our wingers would cause havoc for the top-flight team. Which they did.
Damn we had a good side. I reckon we’d have beaten anyone that night.
Rudgie was the mastermind behind it all and led us to Autoglass Trophy Final victory in 1993, the Anglo-Italian Cup Final against Genoa in 1996 and no less than three promotions to the dizzy heights of the old Division Two (now The Championship).
The only shame is that when J.R. did leave Vale Park after 19 years and 834 games in charge, it was after being sacked by Bill Bell.
Cue an outpouring of grief among Vale fans which included noisy demonstrations and the infamous ‘flat cap’ protest march.
You see, we knew what we had lost – even if the chairman didn’t quite appreciate J.R. who went on to take the club to an industrial tribunal and win a £300,000 pay-out.
I’ve heard the odd Vale fan label Rudgie a traitor for joining Stoke City.
It’s nonsense, of course. The truth is most of us just wish he was still ours.
Following his dismissal in 1999, no-less than Sir Alex Ferguson is reported to have said: “Every Port Vale supporter should get down on their knees and thank The Lord for John Rudge.”
To be honest, I think many of us were too busy praying he’d come back.