The late midfielder was brave, totally committed and beloved of fans. Many would consider Tommy to be Vale’s ultimate cult hero.
Name: Tommy McLaren
Cult credentials: A huge fans’ favourite, total commitment, sad, untimely death
Time at Vale: 1967-1977
Editor’s Note: I became a Vale fan in 1980 and never saw Tommy McLaren. But I’d always been aware of his legacy and impact and wanted to feature him in this section of the site. As a result, I am grateful to former Port Vale player Ray Williams and supporter David Williams for their contributions to this feature. The article below is David Williams’ work with some final memories from Ray Williams and not my own work. I would like to thank both contributors for a heartfelt feature that hopefully enables Tommy’s legacy to live on.
The unforgettable Tommy McLaren
Tommy McLaren arrived at Vale at a time when the club were on the verge of their darkest hour. One of half a dozen promising Scottish youngsters, Tommy joined a Vale where Sir Stanley Matthews was facing the impossible task of meeting massive expectations without promised resources.
The club was a shambles of disorganisation, and disaster struck when inaccuate documentation and rule-breaking were severely punished and Vale were thrown out of the league, with Matthews quietly fading away and leaving the club.
Sir Stan went, but Tommy stayed, and played a handful of games in a very poor Vale team in the 1967-68 season, making his debut in a 2-4 away defeat at Swansea in November 1967 and scoring his first goal – the winner – against Exeter in March 1968.
The transitional Vale team of the time included Mick Cullerton and Roy Chapman, as well as Stuart Sharratt in goal and other quality players like John Green, Ron Wilson and Clinton Boulton who all contributed to the emerging talent that the young Scotsman was becoming.
When Gordon Lee joined Vale, Tommy continued his progress throughout 1968 and was already popular with the fans, for his Beatle-like/George Best looks and his willingness to fight hard for the cause.
“Tommy became a legend at Port Vale not because he was a great player but because he touched everybody that he came in contact with.” – Ray Williams
By 1969-70 he had become a fixture in Lee’s hard-working promotion team, making over 40 appearances and providing some flair in a side that was more noted for dour but effective play, Vale finished 4th after starting the season with a long unbeaten run, and one of the highlights of the early part of the season was Tommy’s goal at Wrexham. The Welsh side were also vying for top spot and the game attracted amazing levels of interest, with Tommy earning Vale a superb point in front of a crowd of 19,602 at the Racecourse.
Vale and Tommy also had the pleasure of gracing the Old Trafford turf that autumn, when non-league Wigan held Vale to two drawn games in the FA Cup 1st round, and in those days 2nd replays were the norm, and the theatre of dreams was chosen as the venue, with Vale scraping through with a last-gasp John James winner at the end of extra time, in front of another bumper crowd of 16,453.
Tommy had scored one of the goals in the first replay at Vale Park and in all he contributed five goals but assisted in many more as Vale returned to the old Third Division.
Tommy was by now a firm favourite, and mixed well socially with the fans as he settled well into the higher division. At this point he would easily have been good enough to play a division higher but he always looked like he was really enjoying his time at Vale.
1970/71 saw him win the clubs Player of the Year award, and a superb goal against Aston Villa in the 71/72 season.
A regular through all the early 70’s, perhaps one of the real highlights was the infamous 1973 cup tie at home to West Ham, where Tommy played a brilliant game. The so-called aristocrats of football, with Bobby Moore, Frank Lampard Snr, Trevor Brooking and all the rest were given a torrid time and Vale were robbed of a famous victory by poor refereeing and dubious play from the London side.
Tommy continued to be a vital cog in the Vale machine under Roy Sproson in 1973-74 and went on loan to Portland Timbers in the summer of 1975, helping them to the championship final of the NASL.
Despite being a regular throughout the 75/76 and 76/77 seasons and racking up a total of 369 games and notching 29 goals, McLaren was given a free transfer and joined Telford in the Southern League for the 1977/78 season.
After leaving the club, McLaren sadly passed away in July 1978 and David Williams closes with his own thoughts on Tommy’s untimely death: “The circumstances of his tragic death are still shrouded in controversy, and all I can comment on is the strong memory of being devastated at reading about the loss of my favourite player, who I like to think is watching down on Vale with a smile on his face. RIP Tommy, we’ll not see many like you again, and those that had the pleasure of experiencing your talents won’t forget you easily.”
David Williams, 2011
Ray Williams was a former teammate of McLaren and he told OVF: “Tommy became a legend at Port Vale not because he was a great player but because he touched everybody that he came in contact with.
“He had a unique personality and lived life to the full. On the pitch he played to win and the fans loved his commitment. He excited them with his dribbling and made them wince with his tackles. He made us laugh in the changing room. You could find him in the Vale Cafe every lunchtime and he had a word for everyone in there.
“We shared a room for five years on overnight stays and got into quite a few scrapes – none of which can be repeated, but he was a true friend and I miss him greatly to this day.
They broke the mould when he died. RIP mate.”
Tommy McLaren: 1 June 1949 – 23 July 1978. Forever Valiant. RIP