Magic moment for Pope echoes Eighties Vale legend

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Vale legend Andy Jones with his gaffer John Rudge.

Believe it or not 30-goal strikers are a rare breed in these parts.

That is why the achievement yesterday of Sneyd Green’s finest – Tom Pope – is worthy of such high praise.

As I write this the Pontiff, as he is affectionately known, has scored thirty goals and – with six games remaining – has every chance of setting a new post-war record.

Since 1980 only two players – one for Port Vale and one for Stoke City – have reached the heady heights of 30-plus goals.

Before that you have to delve deep into the history books for names like Wilf Kirkham (three times for Vale between 1924 and 1927) and, for Stoke, Charlie Wilson (1927/28) or the great Freddie Steele (1936/37 and 1946/47).

Since 1980 the only Stoke City player to score more than 30 goals in a season (in all competitions) was Mark Stein.

The pint-sized marksman hit 33 goals, including 26 in the league, to fire the Potters to promotion during the 1992/93 season.

I was a cub reporter at the time and was covering all Stoke and Vale home games and even I, as a Vale fan, had to acknowledge I was witnessing something special at the Victoria Ground.

Stoke went on a 25-game unbeaten run that season and Stein’s partnership with Wayne ‘Bertie’ Biggins was prolific.

At Vale Park it was a unheralded Welshman who was to set a new post-war goal-scoring record in the mid-Eighties.

Andy Jones joined the Vale from non-league Rhyl in May 1985 – manager John Rudge having paid the princely sum of £3,000 for the man who had failed to make an impact at Wrexham.

He was only at Vale Park for two and a bit seasons but his impact during that time was astonishing.

He was Vale’s top scorer in his first season with 18 goals and his strike partnership with Robbie Earle, which fired Vale to promotion from the old Third Division, was unforgettable.

But it was the following season when Jones really hit the heights. He scored 37 goals and 27 of those came in the league – making him the top striker outside the top flight.

As Vale’s penalty-taker, he scored 12 of his goals from the spot.

But he also scored twice in eight games, scored a hat-trick against Fulham at Craven Cottage, and managed to score five against Newport County.

Andy Jones had scored six goals in eight games at the start of the 1987/88 season when he was transferred to First Division Charlton Athletic.

Ironically, his time with the club wasn’t a success and he probably looks back ruefully at the fact that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson just missed out on signing him.

Tom Pope may not be on Sir Alex’s radar just yet. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t taking Vale’s penalties at the moment.

However, having just been named the League Two Player of the Year, the lad who was born just a few months after Andy Jones signed for the Vale and grew up supporting the Valiants has emulated a club legend made in the Eighties.

Whatever happens between now and April 27, our Popey has had a terrific season and deserves all the plaudits he’s received thus far.

But I am sure all football fans can see the romance in him scoring a few more goals this season and firing his boyhood club to promotion after the most turbulent of periods.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

I’m bored of the Olympics already. How about you?

NEWSFLASH: Contrary to what you may have been told, not everyone is obsessed with Olympics.

Despite what Lord Coe would have you believe, we aren’t all sitting at home wearing skin-tight, Team GB branded lycra outfits and waiting for the opening ceremony.

Some of us can live without tickets to the eagerly-anticipated Uruguay versus Outer Mongolia badminton clash.

Simply put, I reckon there are quite a few people like me – for whom – London 2012 can come and go. Really.

I won’t be sitting glued to the telly in 10 days’ time and assessing whether our opening show was better than the one in Beijing.

I can live without watching BBC presenters run out of adjectives again like they did during the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant.

And don’t get me started on those ridiculous, one-eyed mascots – Wenlock and Mandeville – which are enough to frighten small children.

If truth be told I struggled to feign interest when the defective, fiery cheese-grater (sorry – I mean Olympic Torch) came to the Potteries.

It’s not that I don’t wish Team GB well. It’s not that I don’t want local heroes like pole vaulter Steven Lewis or rower Anna Watkins to be on the podium.

It is simply that I’m not that interested in the vast majority of sports served up by this overblown, over-hyped and over-commercialised behemoth.

This is sacrilege, of course and I will doubtless be roundly condemned in The Sentinel’s newsroom.

You see, I work in the media and thus I am obliged to get excited about any event involving more than half a dozen people, animals or vehicles. But I simply can’t stand the hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s my age but I can’t be doing with people becoming instant disciples of sports that they have never shown an interest in until five minutes before. Unless you are a child, of course.

I have friends who are hugely excited because they entered the lottery for tickets for London 2012 and managed to get a couple of passes for the first round of the weightlifting.

“It’s all about being able to say you were there,” they croon. “It’s about being part of a huge global sporting event. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Oh come on. It’s actually about sweating like a stuck pig on rammed tube trains and queuing for hours to watch eastern European athletes you’ve never heard of do stuff you’ve never tried in sports you’ll never understand and then wittering on about the ‘incredible atmosphere’.

For all that the Olympics is supposed to unite people through sport it’s actually a pretty bizarre and, I would argue, divisive event.

There are so many popular sports which aren’t even represented at the Olympics and a number of very odd, niche ones which are.

Let’s examine some of the sports on offer, shall we?

Beach volleyball: Do me a favour. We all know why lots of blokes will be watching this and it won’t be to enthuse about the Rally Point System.

Diving: This can’t be a sport, can it? Discuss.

Handball: I honestly had to look this one up and I’m still none the wiser.

Synchronised swimming: See diving. More a concept for entrants on a Simon Cowell talent show than a sport, surely.

Trampoline: Fun to watch the kids do at Rhyl. Beyond that I can’t see the point.

Wrestling (Greco-Roman or Freestyle): Can’t be taken seriously as Kendo Nagasaki, once of this parish, has now retired.

You see what I mean? The remainder of the offerings are niche at best – take canoeing, cycling, equestrian and fencing – hardly mass participation sports are they?

And when the Olympics does try to go mainstream we end up with some unique fudges.

For example, all but three of Team GB’s footballers have to be under the age of 23. Random or what? No wonder the governing bodies of world football sneer at the tournament.

Granted, the 100-metres final may pique your interest and you may enter the office sweepstake on the number of drug cheats caught out but, beyond the athletics, let’s not pretend most of us care. Especially if you live north of the Watford Gap.

As for it being an Olympics for the whole country I take my hat off to the organisers for doing their best to peddle that myth.

But I would suggest the only tangible legacy for the UK from this multi-billion pound extravaganza – funded during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – will be new housing and sports facilities for a deprived area of London.

A small number of pottery firms may have made a few quid but I can’t see Northwood Stadium benefiting too much or see London 2012 inspiring a generation of youngsters in the Potteries to take up rhythmic gymnastics.

If this all sounds incredibly cynical then I make no apologies because the Olympics itself is a cynical, money-making enterprise.

Coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Euro 2012 football tournament (I enjoyed both) I just don’t think I have it in me to get excited about something which may as well be taking place on the other side of the world.

There may be too much football, cricket and rugby on the TV but you can always switch it off – just like I do when Wimbledrone and that awful John McEnroe person put in their annual appearance.

If the Olympics is your bag then I hope you have an absolute ball and thrive on every minute of it.

But if, like most of us, you’re not the slightest bit interested, then you’ll do your best to avoid this London-centric bonanza of weirdness.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

It’s hard to match the thrill of destroying a Death Star…

As I’m happy to admit, I’m a geek. A nerd. Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi and horror: That’s all my bag. Oh, and computer games.

I got into computer games early because I was fortunate to grow up in the decade when they migrated from arcades and pubs into our homes.

However, my earliest memory of video games is from sitting in the upstairs rooms of a pub in Rhyl.

I would have been 10 or 11 at the time and, as mum and dad enjoyed a drink, my brother Matt and I would occasionally be given money to spend on Space Invaders.

Actually invented by Japanese company Taito in 1978, this was arguably the daddy of all arcade games which became a global hit in the early to mid-Eighties.

Simple and addictive, it was a two-dimensional game in which the player controlled a laser cannon by moving it horizontally across the bottom of the screen and firing at ever-descending ‘aliens’.

Your cannon was protected by stationary bunkers which slowly got worn away by the aliens’ missiles (and your own).

The aim was to defeat rows of aliens that moved horizontally back and forth as they advanced towards the bottom of the screen. You earned points for destroying each alien and they became quicker and more difficult to destroy as the game progressed.

Occasionally an alien ‘mother ship’ floated across the top of the screen and hitting this meant major points.

The object was obviously to get the highest score you possibly could. Truth be told, I wasn’t great at it but I loved it nonetheless.

I also have vague, blurry recollections of playing Atari’s Pong – a very simple, 2D table-tennis game which seems such a simple concept now I’m sure most children wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

Then, in 1984, I went on a school coach trip abroad. A couple of classes from years one and two at Holden Lane High went to Valkenburg in Holland.

It was in an arcade there one evening that my friends and I (Rob, Richie and Glyn) discovered the Star Wars arcade game. It was a revelation to kids like us who had grown up playing cowboys and indians, ‘Army’ and play-acting the heroes from our favourite films and TV shows.

Made by Atari, this game was truly brilliant for its time. It enabled you to take on the role of Luke Skywalker, piloting an X-Wing Fighter in his final run against the Death Star.

You sat inside the ‘cockpit’, while your mates hung around outside egging you on.

As you downed Imperial Tie-Fighters character voices from the film would echo through the explosions.

“Use the force, Luke”, “I’ve lost R2!”, and, of course, “This one’s strong”, added to the excitement.

By today’s standards, the simple, linear graphics seem incredibly old-fashioned but I can tell you that nothing quite matched the thrill of hitting the exhaust port of the Death Star with your proton torpedo and watching its explode. Happy days.

PC gaming was still in its infancy (my much-loved Commodore 64 had yet to arrive) but video games slowly were migrating into our living rooms – with Atari, Nintendo and Sega leading the way with their chunky ‘third generation’ consoles, ‘joy sticks’ and slide-in games which were the size of a roof-tile.

In 2012, many homes have a Wii the latest X-Box or PlayStation but, back in the mid-Eighties, being able to play video games in your house was a real novelty and any lad (it was usually lads) who owned one gained many cool points.

Some of the games from this era had such an impact on us that they entered popular culture – with Donkey Kong, Mario and Frogger springing to my mind.

Indeed, Namco’s Pac Man was so big at one stage that U.S. President Ronald Reagan once set aside matters of state to congratulate a player on getting the highest score ever.

It was during this time that many of the best-loved platforms were born: First-person shoot-em ups, roleplaying games, survival horror games etc.

Certainly, today’s online mass, multi-player games and the home console games with astonishingly realistic graphics owe a huge debt to the mid-Eighties.

That was the golden age of video arcade games and, looking back, its not hard to see why.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Memories of holidays in Rhyl are ever golden

It seems strange these days but, before the advent of cheap flights and the boom in package holidays, you could almost guarantee where most of your friends and neighbours were going during the Potters’ fortnight.
The Eighties marked the decline of a much-loved tradition – a decades-old, mass exodus of families from North Staffordshire to either Rhyl or Blackpool.
Tens of thousands of us made the annual pilgrimage to either of the seaside resorts.
It was North Wales which dominated my childhood holidays to such an extent that I just assumed everyone went there.
Indeed, such was Rhyl’s popularity with plate-turners that you could even pick up The Sentinel of an evening from one of 30 retailers in the town during the last week of June and the first week of July.
(You see, you can take people out of Stoke-on-Trent but you can’t take Stoke-on-Trent out of its people).
Rhyl will always remind me of endless days spent building sandcastles, too many coppers lost in slot machines and countless bags of chips eaten as we walked along the front.
I can almost taste the cold toast mum fed me and my brother as dad drove us along the A51 to Chester before turning on to the A55 in the direction of North Wales.
Even now I can recall the excitement of that first glimpse of the sea as we rounded the corner at Splash Point and my desperation to get on to the sand – even before we’d checked in to our accommodation.
Mum and dad always booked one of the wooden, beach-front chalets close to the old lifeboat station and Uncle Eric’s cycle track.
That was our base for the week – complete with tiled floor, a sink, a powerpoint, a table and four chairs.
The resort itself was a place filled with wonders to a couple of lads from Sneyd Green.
Who cared if the sea was freezing cold? There were miles of sandy beaches to play on – packed with parasols, deck chairs and wind-breaks. All you had to do was watch out for the donkey poo.
There were little shacks selling buckets and spades, tiny flags for our sandcastles, sea food and all sorts of holiday tat.
The front was dominated by the Royal Floral Hall – a riot of colourful plants, flowers and shrubs which spilled out on to the promenade.
This giant, three-piece greenhouse backed on to a huge outdoor paddling pool which was always crammed with youngsters.
There were also a number of beautifully-maintained crown green bowling greens which gave the oldies something to watch and somewhere to sit and have a cuppa.
In June 1980 another building was opened of a size and scale to rival even the Floral Hall.
The Suncentre, an indoor water park which was a forerunner of our beloved Waterworld, went on to become the most successful tourist attraction in the town’s history – not least because it gave families like mine somewhere to go when ‘Sunny Rhyl’ didn’t quite live up to its billing.
At night time the focus switched from the sand to the amusement arcades with names like The Bright Spot, Joyland and Casino Corner which lured us in with flashing lights, loud music and the smell of hot dogs and candy floss.
My brother Matthew and I would each be given a handful of two pences in a plastic cup with which to win our fortunes.
When they ran out it was off to the pub with mum and dad to sip on cokes and listen to the jukebox before sharing a cone of chips on our way back to the B&B.
I’m sad to say that Rhyl nowadays is a shadow of its former self and you seldom have trouble parking along a promenade which was once teeming with tourists.
But those three miles of sand still remain – as inviting as they ever were – which is why yours truly and his children will be back there next year, if only for the day, to make some more golden memories.

Why we all loved being blasted off into SPACE

June 20, 1983, was blast off for a new initiative aimed at preventing crime by providing activities for young people during the summer holidays.
The Staffordshire Police Activity and Community Enterprise or SPACE scheme was launched in Stafford on the same day that the Space Shuttle ‘Enterprise’ flew over the town, piggy-backing on a jumbo jet.
It proved to be a good omen because the programme went on to run for 17 years and kept generations of children like yours truly out of mischief during July and August.
Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the SPACE scheme was at the peak of its powers in the late Eighties and it became the Rolls-Royce model for similar programmes across the world.
In 1988, for example, more than 25,000 children participated in 33 different projects under its umbrella.
That year it cost £320,000 to operate the scheme – and that didn’t include the salaries of the many police officers involved.
Each youngster paid a £1 registration fee (if their family could afford it) which earned them to a SPACE identity card entitling him or her to cheap bus travel across the county.
As well as serving police officers, literally thousands of members of the public volunteered to help co-ordinate what was a huge logistical exercise.
The highlight of the SPACE scheme was carnival day when around 20,000 children and carers visited the Stafford County Showground.
As well as the usual police dogs, Army vehicles and funfair rides, in 1989 carnival attractions included The Falcons parachute display team, the Royal Signals motorcycle display team and even the Red Arrows.
Activity courses were also staged at the Police’s Cadet Camp at Consall, near Leek, for children who were unlikely to be going away on holiday.
SPACE scheme Day trips included Alton Towers, Granada TV Studios, Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum, Drayton Manor Park and Zoo and – my personal favourite – Rhyl Sun Centre.
Football teams representing the SPACE scheme also took part in the force’s annual five-a-side football competition.
But many people remember the SPACE scheme because your I.D. card also got you free entry into the cinema to watch movies which were a couple of years old.
I have a vivid memory of being in the rowdy audience of mainly boys to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the former Odeon Cinema in Piccadilly (now The Regent Theatre).
In those glorious pre-Health & Safety days, the SPACE scheme also allowed us to try our hands at activities such as trampolining, canoeing, archery and shooting or clamber all over an RAF Sea King helicopter. (The engine was off at the time).
The SPACE scheme ended in 1999 due to funding and staffing cuts within the force.
It may be gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten as there is even a Facebook page calling for it to be reinstated.
Sadly, unlike the Wispa chocolate bar and Monster Munch, I think the SPACE scheme won’t be landing in the Potteries again anytime soon. More’s the pity.

Chuffed to bits my dad has quit smoking at 64

My dad. Smoke free!

My dad. Smoke free!

Smoking has always been part of my life. I’ve never known a time when at least one person close to me wasn’t puffing away.

Indeed, some of my earliest memories involve cigarettes.

I recall being in a bunk bed, aged maybe eight or nine, in a B&B at Rhyl.

I could hear my younger brother snoring away in the bottom bunk.

After a day flitting between the beach and our hired chalet, we’d just walked home along the front and shared a cone of chips.

It was the end of a top day for a lad from Sneyd Green.

In the darkness, before I drifted off to sleep, I would watch the tiny pin pricks of red light – emanating from my dad’s fags – flare as he inhaled and then fade away.

When the tiny light died I knew it was time to go to sleep.

Mum tells me she used to smoke too but stopped when she fell pregnant with me.

Just like that. No help. No patches. No counselling. She just quit.

My brother Matthew started smoking when he was at school.

As an asthmatic whose smoker grandad died after being diagnosed with cancer I was, of course, appalled.

I immediately seized the moral high ground – constantly warning him of the dangers and nagging him to within an inch of his life to stop the filthy habit.

Not that it made a scrap of difference. He’s still smoking now.

You see, I’ve learned the hard way that emotional blackmail against smokers simply doesn’t work.

They either want to stop or, more often than not, they don’t.

Take my friend Martin, for example.

He’s tried to give up smoking more times than I’ve tried dieting – which is a lot.

You can always tell when he’s trying to give up because, by his own admission, he’s a miserable, short-tempered git who also just happens to eat for Scotland.

Martin’s actually quit half a dozen times – sometimes for several months.

Then, inexplicably, he’ll ‘fall off the wagon’ – as he puts it – because he will be out for a drink or it’s a special occasion or because he’s stressed about work.

Or because it is a day of the week ending in the letter ‘y’.

I used to nag him too. Now I just shrug my shoulders and wish him all the best for his next attempt.

Another thing I’ve learned is that smokers, nowadays, know damn well what the dangers are.
They know how expensive it is and how much money they could be saving.

They also know it makes their fingers turn brown and it makes them smell.

The trouble is that whatever they get from smoking outweighs the well-documented disadvantages and thus they simply can’t break the habit.

It is their right, after all – as my former Sentinel columnist colleague Peter Bossley would argue.

Then again, Pete was very right-on in his views and balked against any infringement of civil liberties – from either the ‘Nanny State’ or M Tideswell Esquire.

For many people, he used to say, smoking was one of life’s few pleasures.

They should get out more, I would reply.

The fact that 500 people a year from Stoke-on-Trent die of smoking-related illnesses wouldn’t have swayed Peter.

The shameful statistic that around 54,000 adults – about one in three over-18s in the Potteries – are smokers wouldn’t have mattered either.

That’s because, to some people, having the right to smoke is more important than any consequences.
Not to me, it isn’t.

As someone who has never even had a drag, I’d have done a cartwheel, if I could have, when the ban on smoking in public places became law.

What’s more, I really hope the current campaign to encourage people in the city to give up is a roaring success.

On Saturday my dad was 64. He’s a fortnight away from retirement and, hopefully, plenty of golf and time with his grandchildren.

More importantly, after smoking for almost half a century, he’s just quit – with a bit of willpower and the help of some NHS tablets.

I don’t care why he’s given up. I’m just glad that he has.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s one down and two to go.

The charm of Rhyl hasn’t faded… but the visitors have

There is a thick, four foot high concrete wall overlooking the beach at Rhyl.

It’s very close to the lifeboat station and right in front of where chalets one to five used to be.

Thirty odd years ago yours truly would camp out in the shade behind that wall with a tin of toy soldiers and spend a glorious week staging battles in the sand.

Mum and dad, meanwhile, would split their time between what seemed to us to be the Mediterranean heat of the beach and the cool solace afforded by the chalet – complete with sink, powerpoint and a table and four chairs.

In those days Rhyl boasted an outdoor paddling pool and floral gardens.

Donkey rides were 10 pence and, of an evening as my brother and I got older, we were each given 25 two pence pieces to waste on the slot machines in The Bright Spot and other such noisy, colourful arcades dominating the promenade.

Then, after dad had supped a few pints, we’d share two cones of chips and head back to the B&B for a sleep before the whole wonderful cycle started again.

My family went to Rhyl every year from when I was three until I was 10. In fact, for years I just assumed everyone went to Rhyl for their holidays.

Literally tens of thousands of people from Stoke-on-Trent would visit the resort during Potters’ fortnight – many travelling by train.

We would meet up every 12 months with people from Stoke-on-Trent who we never saw for the other 51 weeks of the year.

I remember the beaches were packed and every other voice had a familiar Potteries accent.
It’s a far cry from the Rhyl of summer 2009.

I took my own children to the resort for the first time last week.

I confess, I set out with trepidation – not wanting my own childhood memories to be sullied.

I needn’t have worried. Much of the allure of what kept me and so many Potters happy year after year still remains. Including my wall.

There are still miles and miles of beautiful beaches. The Sun Centre – a forerunner of our own Waterworld – is still going strong.

The Bright Spot amusement arcade and its accomplices still wink at you temptingly as you walk along the front.

Indeed, the promenade itself has been spruced up beyond all recognition. It’s clean, safe and altogether welcoming.

All that’s missing are the people. It’s sad – but the absence of tourists does have its benefits.

You can find a parking space on the front with relative ease these days – even in peak season.

There’s no queuing for anything and the children have so much space to run and play.

There may not be a pub selling our own Parker’s ales anymore but you can still get your hands on a copy of that day’s Sentinel from one of 30 retailers in Rhyl during the last week of June and the first week of July.

My girls had an absolute ball. They paddled in the sea, marvelled at dad’s sandcastle-building prowess, and enjoyed a picnic fit for princesses in the Garden of Remembrance (which we had to ourselves).

Donkey rides may have shot up in price a bit but I can assure you they are still worth every penny of your £1.50.

In fact, we enjoyed the whole experience so much we returned the next day.

These days, the thought of spending a day or more in Rhyl is probably an alien concept to many who are so used to flying abroad for a dose of sun, sea and sand.

But, if you have young children or yours have flown the nest, never underestimate the simple, enduring charm of places like Rhyl.

It’s no coincidence such resorts hold so many cherished memories for generations of Potters.

Try them soon – you might just be surprised.