Why a little friendly football rivalry is good for Stoke-on-Trent

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor with Stoke and Vale mascots Pottermus and Boomer.

As much as some people would like to hype things up, if you’re from Stoke-on-Trent you know there’s only ever been one football derby worth talking about in these parts – and it doesn’t involve Crewe Alexandra, Shrewsbury Town or another Midlands club.

If you were there on that famous FA Cup night at Vale Park in November 1992 when Stoke striker Dave Regis’s shot got stuck in a puddle a yard or so away from the empty Vale net then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the derbies in which the likes of Stein, Gleghorn and Sheron made headlines for the Potters and Cummins, van der Laan and Bogie became heroes for the Valiants.

How great it was last Sunday that the Potteries derby was resurrected at Vale Park – complete with legends from both clubs and a smattering of celebrities.

Former Vale striker Tony Naylor and his friend, local businessman Kevin Jones, organised the Legends game at pretty short notice and, in all honesty, I don’t think many people thought they could make it happen.

But on a rare sunny weekend almost 4,000 Vale and Stoke fans turned out to watch former players roll back the years in aid of charity.

The Vale team, featuring the likes of Ray Walker and Neil Aspin lined up against a Stoke team including the aforementioned Dave Regis and Micky Pejic while famous names like Jonathan Wilkes, Paddy McGuinness and darts maestro Adrian Lewis added to the mix.

Potteries football icons John Rudge and Denis Smith were there in a managerial capacity, for Vale and Stoke respectively, while top flight referee Phil Dowd volunteered to officiate.

Many Vale employees, including stewards, worked for free in the knowledge that local organisation Approach, which helps older people with dementia or mental health needs, would benefit.

The charity was chosen because Tony Naylor’s father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and he wanted to do something which raises awareness of dementia.

While we await the final figure for how much money has been raised, it’s safe to assume that more than £20,000 will be going into Approach’s coffers as a result of last Sunday’s game.

But perhaps more important than that, the event shone a light on dementia – something which affects more than 800,000 people across the UK. I think Vale and Stoke fans can also be immensely proud of how they pulled together for this worthy cause.

Yes, there was banter – with Stoke fans reminding home supporters of the gulf between the clubs these days and Vale fans enjoying ‘normal service being resumed’ as their team put eight past the visitors without reply.

In the end, however, the result was of secondary importance. The charity was the real winner and Stoke City and Port Vale fans proved they can sit side-by-side in friendly rivalry.

Barring a random cup draw, there’s no guarantee that the proper Potteries derby will happen again in my lifetime.

As a Vale supporter, I live in hope, of course.

But if it doesn’t happen then I’d settle for an annual ‘legends game’ – perhaps alternating between the Brit and Vale Park – in aid of different local charities.

Given more time to organise the game for next summer, and with the involvement of both clubs and perhaps the city council, this could become a brilliant off-season celebration – particularly as Stoke-on-Trent bids to become a ‘football city’, as championed by out-going MP Joan Walley.

Events such as this are relatively inexpensive to organise and they generate enormous goodwill.

It’s another easy way to tap into our city’s heritage and help cement football as a sport fit for a family day out.

Fingers crossed for next year and many congratulations to Tony, Kevin, Stoke City fan Angela Smith and all the volunteers for their efforts on Sunday.

They did us all proud – which ever half of the city you come from.

Did you go to the legends game? Would you like to see this become an annual event?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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How Vale’s goal-den boy made history (and made his dad proud)

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie Mae.

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie-Mae.

There is an alleyway behind Buxton Street in Sneyd Green. This is where our story begins…

It’s where Tom Pope, his brother, and his mates would spend hours kicking a ball about like any young lads the length and breadth of the country.

By his own admission, there was nothing at that stage to indicate he would go on to become an icon at the club he has supported since he was a boy – one of only two Vale players since the war to score more than 30 goals in a season.

Tom, a former pupil of Sneyd Green Primary and Holden Lane High School, said: “If you’d have asked any young lads back then I guess loads of them would have wanted to become footballers.

“There’s not so many these days because they’ve got other distractions but all I honestly ever wanted to do was play football.”

Born into a Vale-supporting family, young Tom was taken to home games by his grandfather and stood in the Lorne Street.

“I’d have been about five when I first started going,” he said. “Dad wouldn’t let me go in The Paddock because he didn’t think it was for children so I spent my first few seasons kicking a can about in the Lorne Street.

“My dad went on the buses to every Vale away game for about 15 years I think and he only stopped to come and see me when I was playing for Crewe.

“My fondest memories as a Vale fan are of the early to mid-nineties and the team John Rudge put together – the likes of Martin Foyle, Neil Aspin, Dean Glover, Ian Bogie and Bernie Slaven etc.

“I guess players like Neil Aspin will always have a special place in the hearts of Vale fans. I used to love his mazy runs from the edge of his own penalty area which never amounted to anything. He would have run through walls for the Vale.

“Then there was Foyley. He wasn’t the biggest of strikers but he was good in the air, strong and such a great finisher. His record speaks for itself.”

Despite his love of the Vale it was Crewe Alexandra’s highly-acclaimed youth set up which nurtured young Tom’s skills between the ages of six and 13.

He wasn’t, however, offered a contract by the Alex and so turned his hand to window-fitting while playing for Biddulph Victoria.

It was his performances (and goals) in the Midland Football Alliance which finally persuaded Crewe boss Dario Gradi to sign him.

Tom turned pro in 2005 at the age of 19 after two unsuccessful trials with, you’ve guessed it… Port Vale.

He spent four years with the Alex and was the club’s top scorer with 10 goals from just 17 starts during the 2008/9 season.

That season, however, Crewe were relegated from League One and Tom signed for League Two rivals Rotherham for a then joint club record fee of £150,000.

His time in Yorkshire wasn’t a particularly happy one and goals were few and far between.

He missed out on a trip to Wembley because of a broken metatarsal and when he returned to fitness found himself behind Adam Le Fondre and Ryan Taylor in the pecking order.

By his second season with the Millers the then Rotherham boss Ronnie Moore was quite prepared to sell Tom to the highest bidder as he hadn’t been scoring regularly.

Several clubs expressed an interest but it was Jim Gannon who tempted Pope to Vale Park.

“It was about the only thing Gannon did right, wasn’t it?” I ask.

Tom smiles. “You could say that. I was grateful of the opportunity Ronnie Moore gave me to get out on loan, to be honest. I think he just wanted to get my confidence back up.”

In August 2011 Tom joined the Vale on a free transfer, having been released by Rotherham.

He said: “There were five or six clubs interested in me at that time and Vale’s offer was by far the lowest on the table, to be honest. I took a huge pay-cut. I’m not just talking a few hundred quid either. But there’s more to your career than just money.

“This is where I’m from and my family and friends are here. In the end it was an easy decision for me.”

He played 45 games last season but scored just five goals as Marc Richards went on to become Vale’s leading scorer for a fifth season running.

Tom said: “We were a different team last year. We didn’t really have any wide players to speak of. Lewis Haldane was out injured and Rob Taylor kept having little niggles.

“All our play came through the middle of the park and when you’re a bloke who likes to get on the end of crosses there wasn’t much in the way of service for me.

“To be truthful I think there were quite a few Vale supporters who would have been glad to see the back of me during the summer. Thankfully, Micky Adams gave me a one-year deal and I’ll always be grateful for the faith he showed in me at that time.”

So what’s been the difference this season? Why is Tom Pope, at the age of 27, now breaking records and picking up awards?

He said: “Believe it or not this summer was my first pre-season in a while when I’ve been able to train properly.

“I would go running round Forest Park and up to Bradeley and I felt good.

“I remember we went to Ireland for the pre-season tour and I started scoring a few goals and the gaffer (Adams) took me to one side and said he’d never seen me looking so sharp. That really gave me a boost. I was ready to go.”

Of course, Vale started the season in administration and there were no guarantees there would even be a club in 2013.

It was a worrying time for fans but also for the club’s staff and players who – at one time – went unpaid.

Tom said: “It was extremely difficult for us all. We could see and hear what was going on and I think it was obvious that the club needed a new board and a change of direction.

“Of course, as employees, you can’t speak out. You’ve got a job to do and you just have to get on with it – no matter what you think.

“Thankfully, we had a great set of lads in the dressing room and in Micky Adams we had a strong leader to hold everyone together and I think he deserves enormous credit for that.

“Do I think the supporters were right to campaign for change? Yes I think they were. We’ve got a good set of fans and they usually know when something’s not right.

“The club is certainly in a better place now than it was 12 months ago. It’s a happy ship.”

This season’s heroics have seen Tom, nicknamed The Pontiff and The Sneyd Green Sniper by the Vale Park faithful, named League Two Player of the Year – among other accolades.

Barring a barren spell around March-time he’s been prolific all season and his goals are effectively Vale’s goal difference of plus 30-something.

He said: “It makes such a difference for a striker like myself having good, creative wide players in the side.

“Jeno (Jennison Myrie-Williams) and Ashley Vincent will always cause problems for defences because of their trickery and pace.

“I’ve tried to stay more central – rather than doing lots of chasing around – and I’ve had good crosses coming in. Fortunately I’ve been able to put quite a few of them away.”

Does he think players in the current squad could step up to the level required to survive and thrive in League One?

“Definitely,” he said. “We’ve got some very talented lads in the dressing room. You look at skilful players like Doddsy (Louis Dodds) and you think that actually playing at a higher level might suit them.”

Whats it like to be a Vale fan, though, playing for the club you love and scoring goals?

He said: “To be honest I try to keep my feet on the ground. I know I’m very lucky but I don’t tend to get carried away.

“Of course I can hear the supporters – I used to be one of them shouting for Foyley and the like – so I know what that’s all about.

“It’s hard to believe they are shouting for me, to be honest, and I try to block it out and concentrate on my game. I know it’s special for me but now isn’t the time to start thinking about records and awards and personal targets.

“I’m not someone who thrives on praise. If I score a hat-trick then the manager will shake my hand and that’ll do.

“My dad is very like Micky Adams in that respect. I’m sure he tells all his mates how proud of me he is but he wouldn’t tell me. If I score a hat-trick he’s more likely to pick me up over a mis-placed pass. Him and the gaffer know how I tick.”

What about the future, then, for a bloke who is enjoying the form of his life while juggling the responsibilities of being a dad?

“I’ve said before I’d like to see out my career here. I’ve probably got four or five good years left and I love the place.

“The new owners made me an offer which was respectful and it ties me to Vale for another two seasons. I’d love to think I could stay beyond that too and score a lot more goals.

“Let’s put it this way – it would take an offer of silly money to tempt me away at this stage and, if that were to happen, then I’d obviously have to think about my family and see what’s right for us.

“At this moment in time, however, I’m enjoying my football and I want to be able to look back in five, 10, 15 years’ time and have people say to me: ‘What a season that was. What a team we had back then’.”

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.

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.

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.