Barry recalls the sad day he learnt of Sir Stanley Matthews’ death.
Now my second eldest brother isn’t one for lengthy communications, preferring the ‘holiday way’ of sending messages on postcards – sometimes in cryptic form. Almost all of us have sent one or two postcards in our lives extending holiday greetings from where ever we were enjoying ourselves. But nearly all of us would have put more than three or more words on those ‘cards. His messages are always ‘short and sweet’. Such as: ‘Now the ‘Vale’, or ‘Where’s the banjo?’. The first, received in April 1993, was relatively easy to work out. The second, received in January 1994, required some research time on my part to finally understand. But more about those messages later.
It all started following my brother’s return to the ‘Old Dart’ after spending a holiday ‘down under’ in the early 1960s. He’d arrived unannounced in the early hours of a late summer’s day at our home north of Perth, Western Australia. He told us he had come for a short holiday, that he was due back in England in two weeks time. The family reunion and celebrations that followed were breathtaking.
My eldest brother, Thomas, had emigrated to Oz in 1950 – the year Port Vale returned to their spiritual home in Burslem. My mum, dad, sister and myself followed in 1960 – just before Bert Llewellyn arrived at Vale Park. So, for the first time in fourteen years we would be together again as a family. By now my second eldest brother’s family included a sister and brother-in-law, plus nephews and nieces.
During one of our many conversations about the ‘Lads and, to a lesser extent, Stoke City, yours truly expressed disappointment that most soccer news from Europe reported top flight competitions only, that it was impossible to find out what was happening otherwise. In response, Alan said he would arrange to have the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel sent out to me on a regular basis.
True to his word, following his return home he did send several copies of the ‘Sentinel over a period of months. Then one day in 1965 I received a postcard which simply said…”Gordon’s Gone; Stan’s the Man”…which meant that Gordon Lee had been replaced as ‘Vale manager by Sir Stanley Matthews. Little did I realise then that this form of communication was to become the norm. Ironically, the latest postcard received – during the writing of this article in March 2000, simply reminded me that Sir Stanley’s gone, but will never be forgotten.
One of my favourites postcards came in 1972 with a scribbled, almost unreadable message of…”Roy’s retiring – 830 plus”. There were no prizes for interpreting this postcard. Forget about Roy of the Rovers. This was a salute to the legendary Roy of the ‘Vale. Roy Sproson was bowing out after 22 years of loyal and faithful service to Port Vale. My brother would have known that our dad was a dedicated Tommy Cheadle and Roy Sproson fan who had said many times that ‘nobody will give Port Vale more of themselves as much as they will’. My dad was rarely wrong in these matters. Roy’s gone now. But like Sir Stan, Valiants everywhere will never forget him.
By the early 1980s the Australian media began reporting on other than the English 1st Division. However, it was sparse detail to say the least. In March 1984 one postcard announced the appointment of…”Another manager”. Little did we know back then the positive impact that John Rudge would have on all things Port Vale. That it all went terribly wrong after so many years saddens me deeply. He didn’t have the budgets of the likes of Man U, therefore his achievements and successes are all the more amazing. And this exiled Valiant will always be appreciative for all that was done for us by a man sometimes referred to as Mr Port Vale. During the 1990s overseas news was available in Oz in abundance. There were weekly versions of the UK Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express – plus newspapers from the USA, France, Italy, Germany, and even Poland. But still the postcards came. One of them, dated Saturday 24th October, 1992 contained the score line Stoke 2 Port Vale 1. What’s this? Had my brother become a ‘closet Stoke supporter’? Or was this one of those cryptic messages? Thankfully the latter was the case. My search for information about the game revealed that it must have been a big day at The Victoria Ground with a crowd of 24,500 in attendance, which, according to the UK press, was the third highest crowd for the day following the 30,088 at Newcastle and 28,052 at Arsenal.
Great expectations. Huge disappointment. One postcard dated April 29, 1993 simply read…”Now the ‘Vale”. The postcard scene was titled ‘In among the pots at Stoke-on-Trent’, a photograph of belching kilns and chimneys that must have been taken well before I was born – at least, I don’t remember such scenes. The best I can remember of the ‘pots’ were the bottle kilns of Etruria being used as storage areas by the Dunlop Tyre and Rubber Company – located next to the canal in Etruria Road. When I was a boy the Wedgwood Company had long vacated them and located to Barlaston.
Port Vale had won the area final of the Autoglass Trophy and history was waiting to be made via another win at Wembley to book a place in the 1st division. Now I’ve got to tell you that between the date I received the postcard on the 10th May, and when I heard the score on the 1st June (Oz Time), I was a ‘bag of nerves’.
Western Australia was three hours behind Sydney, and back then if you wanted to catch the first radio sports news Western Australians needed to be up bright and early. So it was on the 1st June, 1993 yours truly was up at 4am WA time and tuned into the ABC Sydney news bulletin.
When the score was read out my heart sank to the biggest of disappointments. The fact that we had been beaten by a West Brom penalty made it all the more hard to swallow. I had been hoping that my beloved Port Vale would follow Stoke into the First Division.
For the rest of the day the whole ‘play-off for promotion concept’ bothered me to distraction. Even today I’m still a little bemused by it all. For it seemed to me that Port Vale’s journey to Wembley had been unnecessary. That is: they were 4 points clear of West Bromich Albion at the end of the 46 game season, and 17 points clear of Stockport – whom they just beat to get to Wembley. If I was disappointed, then John Rudge and the ‘Lads must have been doubly so.
It seemed a strange coincidence too, that West Brom would be Port Vale’s nemesis for a second time when it counted the most. The first time being in 1954 in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup at Villa Park. And coincidentally it was in similar circumstances that gave West Brom the opportunity to achieve victory both in 1954 and 1993 – something that the unlucky Peter Swan would have been reminded of. Back in 1954 it was the bringing down of Lee in the goal area that gave West Brom their 2-1 victory from the penalty spot and a trip to Wembley – where they went on to beat Preston 3-2. In 1993 Port Vale’s achilles heel – or was that ‘Ardiles Heel’ – was in defense too.
History will tell us that the bringing down of Lee in ’54 and the sending off of Peter Swan in ’93 were perhaps the most critical and deciding factors in both games.
When later reading the post match comments, Ossie Ardiles raved on about not expecting promotion for West Brom in 1993. He sympathised with John Rudge, then went on to say that West Brom’s promotion was a bonus in their plans and preparation for returning to the top division and Premier League competition. But whilst the ebullient Ardiles was promoting West Brom’s future, the media down under was informing us that Tottenham was making him an offer he couldn’t refuse to return to his old stamping ground as coach. I couldn’t help but wonder at the time that perhaps Ardiles was actually saying that West Brom’s promotion was a bonus only in terms of certain ‘personal aspirations’ of returning to the Premier League.
Not all postcards are about the ‘Vale. Several of them referred to other soccer issues and happenings. The difference being that yours truly would have to do a little extra homework to figure out the meanings. One such ‘card arrived in January 1994 begging the question…”Where’s the Banjo?”
The key word in this question was ‘banjo’. Had to be! You see, our dad used to play the banjo, and I never tired of listening to him play and sing – with my particular favourite being his rendition of ‘Mona Lisa’. Anyway, whatever I was looking for in the soccer pages must contain some reference to a banjo. And it didn’t take long to find it.
When I read the manager’s comments, as reported in one of our national newspapers, It occurred to me that it must take a special kind of soccer manager who can use black humour, without malice, to reveal his true feelings when going through a rough spell. You know, people who can encapsulate situations through the use of a bizarre descriptions. And I remember thinking to myself that Dave Basset must be one of those people. At the time he was not particularly enamoured with a struggling Sheffield United failing to find the back of the net. It seems that the first goal scored in seven games was against Oldham one weekend in January 1994 – and that was from the penalty spot. It would appear at the time that whatever hope his players held for their manager to be both pleased and circumspect in his public pre or post match comments would have been quickly dashed when Bassett was reported as saying…”At the moment we couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”.
With the disappointment of May/June 1993 behind us a postcard arrived in January 1994 depicting a scene of the Cauterets à Pierrefitte – in the Pyrenes near the border with Spain. Its message…”WE’RE THE MIGHTY MINNOWS” was proudly bolded in large letters. The subsequent media search time-warped this Pottery born boy to the pages of the Sentinel forty plus years ago.
Page 90 of The West Australian, dated January 20, 1994 gave John Rudge’s Port Vale headlines usually reserved for Premier League teams. There wasn’t too much information about the game. But it was enough to bring back memories of 1954 when the ‘Lads from Burslem were grabbing similar headlines each time they stepped out in the FA Cup. But 46 years ago we weren’t called minnows. We were known as GIANT KILLERS.
Back in 1954 the game plan was one of getting a quick goal, maybe two, then putting up an ‘iron curtain’ defense for the rest of the game. It was a time when Ken Fish, Vale’s trainer, took Jack Cunliffe, Ken Griffiths, Ray King, Stan Turner, a bloke named Sproson, Reg Potts, Tommy Cheadle, Albert Leake – to name a few – to Villa Park and a Semi-Final with West Bromich Albion. In the same year Port Vale were Third Division (North) Champions. Yours truly was just 12 years old at the time when the halcyon clime of the Potteries was temporarily shattered by that dizzy roller coaster FA Cup experience.
All of my brother’s postcards have been carefully archived, and still they keep coming. As mentioned previously the last one received to date reverently whispered…”Sir Stan (RIP)”.
All that can be said of Stanley Matthews has been said.
For me personally, it takes me back to the times when our dad told us little yarns about Sir Stan the boy. Like many born in the same era, same town, same streets, or went to the same school and church, my dad could speak with some confidence that his yarns were worthwhile listening to. Such as: in the school yard during recess and lunchtimes, the boy Stanley Matthews would spend many hours on his own with a small ball kicking it into one of the playground corners so that whichever way the ball would bounce off the corner walls it would encourage the use of both feet to practice his skills. Or, in the street where he lived he would put rocks or similar at certain intervals apart and practice ‘the dribble’ that one day he would be renowned for.
Bye for now and, as we say in Oz, ‘see you later’…