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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Why our Jonny changed goals to become a stage star

If you’d have placed a bet on what a young Jonathan Wilkes would do when he grew up, you would have got short odds on him becoming a professional footballer.

Little Jonny, pictured here as a mascot for his beloved Port Vale, lived, ate and breathed football when he was a youngster.

It was football which dominated young Jonny’s life from an early age and very nearly resulted in him earning a living from it.

Speaking earlier this week before the launch of The Regent Theatre’s Christmas panto Cinderella, Jonny recalls a very happy, very busy childhood.

Young Wilkesy grew up in Baddeley Green, attending Hillside Primary School, and lived above his dad’s travel agent’s.

Born in 1978, he is an archetypal child of Eighties.

He said: “I do love the Eighties and the fact that there’s such a fondness for Eighties nostalgia. For example, I’m a massive fan of Eighties movies. I love films like the Karate Kid, the Rocky films and The Goonies or Weird Science. In fact, anytime an Eighties movie comes on telly I’ll try to watch it and try to get my lad Mickey to watch it.

“Growing up, though, I was always playing football. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the ladsandads leagues and for the Miltonians – we had a very good side and we beat everyone.

“Because my dad owned a travel business and was one of the first to offer airport transfers, very often there would be drivers round our house and I’d pester them to go in goal for me in the back garden.”

Jonny’s obsession with football and God-given left peg led him to being put on Everton’s books from the age of 14 but, ironically, that was when he fell out of love with the game.

He said: “The travelling was hard for me and my parents and I never really felt accepted there. I was offered terms at Crewe, Wrexham and Chester but by then my experience at Everton had put me off and I remember feigning an injury to avoid carrying on.”

Jonny didn’t give up on football altogether, however – and turned out for a very good Stone Dominoes side in the mid-Nineties which swept all before them.

However, aged 15 he realised that football wouldn’t give him a career.

Jonny said: “I panicked, if I’m honest. I realised that I hadn’t worked that hard at school and didn’t know what the future held. I went to Sixth Form College in Fenton and studied for a BTEC in leisure and tourism before getting a job at a travel agent’s in Hanley. But I always thought I was destined to do more.”

Jonny explained: “I’d watched Rob (Robbie Williams) performing from a very young age and though to myself ‘Wow. I’d love to do that’.

“So I made my stage debut at the Queen’s Theatre at the age of six. I’ve got very hazy memories of it. It wasn’t actually until the age of 13 when I had my tonsils removed that I found I could sing a bit. So I started to sing at karaoke bars and the like. Then my mum spotted something on GMTV about an upcoming talent competition and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Jonny’s referring to the prestigious Cameron Mackintosh Young Entertainer of the Year Award which he won in 1996 at the age of 17 by wowing the judges with his version of Tom Jones’s ‘Kiss’.
He then became the youngest entertainer to headline a show in Blackpool.

It was so popular it ran for three years.

Jonny said: “I’ve been lucky at times but I’ve also worked extremely hard for the success I’ve had.

“I’m never more comfortable than when I’m on stage and The Regent Theatre really is my second home which is why I’m so excited about returning for panto. Last Christmas just wasn’t the same because I was away from Stoke-on-Trent.

“This year’s going to be a cracker!”

Don’t miss 12 pages of nostalgia in The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

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.