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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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.