The Roy Sproson legacy, years of underachievement and the emergence of John Rudge.
In his second season, new manager Gordon Lee took Vale to their fourth promotion as they finished in fourth place in Division Four. John James finished as top scorer with 15 goals whilst long-serving Roy Sproson was voted the Gillette Sportsman of the Year.
Striker Sammy Morgan was signed from Gorleston in the summer while midfielder Brian Horton was snapped up from Hednesford for a reported “pint of shandy.”
In February 1972, Morgan was capped by Northern Ireland and scored on his debut versus Spain. A new floodlight system and a £1,500 PA system were installed at the club.
On the 8th May 1972, Roy Sproson made his 755th and final league appearance in a 2-1 home defeat by Rotherham. He failed to match the all-time league appearance record for one club by just nine games.
In the 1972-3 season Vale finished in an impressive sixth place in Division Three – just four points short of promotion. But in the summer Sammy Morgan was sold to Aston Villa for £22,222 whilst defenders David Harris and John Ridley were signed up.
In January 1974, Lee left after accepting the job of Blackburn Rovers manager.
The Sproson era
Legend Roy Sproson was made caretaker Manager. He took on the job permanently in April as the club just missed relegation by a mere seven points.
In Sproson’s second season, 1974-5, the team improved considerably. Brian Horton scored thirteen goals from midfield as the club finished in sixth place – just four points off promotion.
But on the 9th April 1976, there was a significant loss for the club. Brian Horton was sold to Brighton for £30,000 as the club tried to stem losses of £400 a week. Horton proved near impossible to replace and Vale slumped to twelth place in the league. Mick Cullerton top-scored with 21 goals.
In August 1976, Terry Lees was sold to Sparta Rotterdam for £25,000 and Vale again engaged on an epic cup run, putting out Burnley 2-1 in the fourth round. No doubt the Burnley captain’s claim that Vale were “a bunch of kickers” proved inspirational.
In the fifth round Vale travelled to First Division Aston Villa and lost 3-0 in front of a crowd of 48,872. Highlights were later shown on television. However, in the league Vale struggled and finished nineteenth – just three points clear of relegation.
At the start of the 1977-8 season the board announced that they were reviewing Roy Sproson’s position as Manager. On the 10th October Roy Sproson was sacked. The legend had finally ended his connection with the club.
The managers’ revolving door…
Colin Harper was made acting boss in October but he was replaced by Bobby Smith, the former Manager of Bury, in November. In that month Neville Chamberlain became the club’s first black professional player. The season ended in disaster as Vale finished in 21st place and were relegated.
Bobby Smith departed in the summer to Swindon and Dennis Butler was made the new manager for season 1978-9. Soon Butler was making waves in the transfer market as John Ridley was sold for a club record £55,000 to Leicester and Peter Farrell bought from Bury for a club record £40,000. In total thirteen players moved in or out of the club in four months for fees totaling £250,000 and at a net loss of £30,000 for the club.
In January, former England keeper Gordon Banks was appointed coach but the season was a disaster. Vale finished in sixteenth place and a record £52,000 loss was announced. Lack of money meant that only free transfers could be obtained for the new season.
By August of the 1979-80 season, Vale were second bottom of the Fourth Division. Butler was dismissed and Alan Bloor took over as manager. By September, Vale had slumped to bottom and Vale fell out with the local paper, refusing to send them news about the club for several weeks. Despite £30,000 being spent on defender Paul Bowles from Crewe, Bloor was also sacked. Senior player Bill Bentley was put in temporary charge.
A new dawn
Mark Chamberlain and John McGrath
Finally, after announcing the Fourth Division’s first-ever shirt advertising deal with Creda, Vale appointed 39 year old former Southampton player John McGrath as manager with Torquay’s John Rudge as assistant. Things could only get better.
Initially, McGrath could not help the team slumping to fifth from bottom of the league. They only escaped the indignity of re-election to the league by one goal as Hereford failed to win their final game by 3-0 with the result ending 2-0. Vale had a mountain to climb.
Young winger Mark Chamberlain was making a significant impact and was voted the 1982 “Daily Star” Fourth Division player of the year. But with Vale suffering a financial crisis they were forced to sell Chamberlain and goalkeeper Mark Harrison to Stoke City for £180,000.
Meanwhile, in the summer Andrew Cribb won a competition amongst schoolchildren and his design was adopted as the new Port Vale badge. Local bus company PMT became the club sponsors and a new “V” design shirt was adopted.
McGrath spent the Chamberlain money astutely. Burly striker Bob Newton, defender Wayne Cegielski and veteran goalkeeper Barry Siddall were signed whilst John Ridley returned to Vale Park for a second spell.
Shortly into the season, another significant signing was made when Steve Fox – a fast and skilful winger was signed from Wrexham. In December, McGrath became ill and Rudge took charge of the team for the first time in an unbeaten five match spell.
The side soon showed their class and by the end of the season, Vale had managed promotion in third place. The promotion-winning goals had come from Jim Steel in a 2-0 victory away at Stockport.
Four Vale players were chosen in the PFA all-star team for that year – Steve Fox, Phil Sproson, Russell Bromage and Phil Sproson. The final game of the season was a cause for celebration with fans turning up in fancy dress, former Vale players appearing before the crowd and a motorcycle stunt rider.
However, Vale struggled in their next season in Division 3. Martin Henderson had been signed to replace Bob Newton but his partnership with Irish International Eammon O’Keefe was floundering. On the 26th November Vale lost 7-0 to Burnley and on the 6th December McGrath was sacked.
The Rudge era
McGrath’s assistant John Rudge took over. His first signing was Kevin Young on loan from Burnley and his first game was a 1-0 home defeat to Lincoln. Despite achieving “mission impossible” and getting Vale briefly out of the relegation zone, Vale were doomed to return to Division Four.
The only positive note from the season was the form of young striker Mark Bright who netted six times in the final matches. However, Vale’s hopes of building around the youngster were quashed as Leicester snapped Bright up for £33,333.
Rudge gradually imposed his style upon the side. For the start of the 1985-6 season he snapped up striker Andy Jones from Rhyl for £3,000. His striking partnership with Ally Brown together with the additional skills of locally born Phil Sproson, Russell Bromage and youngster Robbie Earle helped Vale to promotion in third place. Meanwhile, Manager John Rudge received his first Manager of the Month award in May.
In 1986, Rudge signed Ray Walker, an elegant reserve midfielder from Aston Villa, along with Mark Grew, a goalkeeper from Ipswich. Phil Sproson, made his 400th appearance but during this season it was striker Andy Jones who made all the headlines.
Jones smashed the club’s post-war scoring record with 37 goals including five in one match versus Newport and an away hat-trick in a 6-0 win at Fulham. He was selected for Wales and scored on his international debut versus Finland on April 1st. Vale finished in a respectable 12th position.
However, Vale’s fortunes dipped at the start of the next season. By September, Jones was attracting floods of scouts to Vale Park and was eventually sold to Charlton for £350,000 to ease Vale’s financial problems. He was replaced by striker Darren Beckford who had moved to Vale Park in the summer in a move part-funded by fans.
Rudge’s position at Vale Park looked in danger after a string of twelve poor results but a very special cup run was just around the corner.