Our fifth Vale cult hero wasn’t scary, wasn’t controversial and wasn’t rubbish, he was just a thoroughly likeable player…
Name: Simon (Simon) Mills
Cult qualifications: fans’ favourite, song inspiration, good bloke
Time at Vale: 1987-1994
During this series, I have often pondered… what makes a cult hero?
Often it’s odd combinations – take David Riley who combined hard graft with limited ability, or Ron Futcher, who combined a footballer’s brain with the odd moment of madness.
But sometimes, it is far simpler. It’s just a player that the fans take to. A player who may not be the stand-out player in the side (after all, a cult hero cannot be the weekly headline grabber) but the one that also gets a smile and a word of encouragement from the masses.
That was the case for Simon Mills.
A cultured midfielder while at York City, he was purchased for £35,000 by John Rudge in December 1987. But, despite some solid performances in the centre of the pitch (one in the first Potteries derby game against Stoke City stands out) he often found places in the midfield limited, due to the form of Ray Walker and Robbie Earle. If Mills was to remain a midfielder, he would always be the poor man’s Ray Walker.
So, John Rudge pulled off another masterstroke. To get Mills into his side, he simply switched the midfielder to right-back. And it worked. Darren Hughes’ raw pace offered an attacking element on the left flank. When Mills’ cultured right foot was added to the equation it made perhaps the ultimate Port Vale full-back pairing.
While this ability to play out of position may put Mills into the Daiv Riley category of “a grafter, a team player, willing to play out of position” Mills was so obviously comfortable at right-back, that it doesn’t really count as a reason to acclaim him as a cult hero.
And it wasn’t Mills’ undoubted skill. After all, this was a team that boasted the likes of Walker and Earle, a couple of the club’s all-time greats. So, Mills was not the team’s stand-out talent, but he was, nevertheless, talented.
The 1989 promotion owed much to the goalscoring of Robbie Earle and that in turn owed much to the ‘MBE’. To the uninitiated, the MBE was Vale’s corner-kick routine at the time. M – Mills took the corner. B – Beckford flicked it on. E – Earle finished it. Mills’ delivery made it a lethal weapon and it was fitting that Vale’s promotion was sealed thanks to an MBE goal in the play-off final, second leg against Bristol Rovers.
Yes, Mills definitely had the talent to appeal to the fans. But a talented player isn’t always a fans’ favourite.
Mills’ main cult credentials were his likeability.
His receding locks inspired the terrace chant of “Simon Mills.. he’s got no hair… but we don’t care!” and Mills even memorably donned a joke shop wig when coming down the tunnel. An incident that sparked an extra loud crowd rendition of the song.
Mills played the game with a smile on his face and an awareness of the supporters on the terrace. I am convinced that it was his likeability and popularity with the fans, which is the main reason why his name is still spoken with affection on the terraces.
Mills stayed with the club for seven years, making 184 appearances and scoring eight goals before a knee injury saw him given a free transfer in 1994.
He retired from professional football and had a couple of spells in non-league with Matlock Town and Boston United.
After leaving football, he became a drayman and I’m sure many Vale fans would happily raise a glass to toast the memory of a genuine terrace favourite.