For all Barry’s good intentions he only made it to one away game.
My educational journey to Cellarhead had been a comfortable one via Bucknall – aka ‘Bottom School’ – and Townsend primary schools where most of my schoolmates were ‘Vale followers. However, the majority of the boys and girls in our village would eventually attend Bucknall Secondary Modern – aka ‘Top School’ – as did my two eldest brothers. But my sister and I went to Cellarhead – along with a handful of other Bucknall youth. As the crow flies Bucknall SM was less than one mile from our house. Cellarhead SM, on the otherhand, was several miles by bus.
Cellarhead’s student roll included a Taffy, a Jock, and two brothers from London. I can remember that the fathers of the former were coal miners. But I’ve long forgotten what the London boys’ father did for a living.
Now Taffy and Jock were constantly at each other’s throats – literally. Fistfights were common between them, which provided great schoolyard entertainment for other students, some of whom were even known to bet their lunch money on the outcomes. First Taffy believed he was boss of the schoolyard. Other times Jock assumed the mantle. Then back again to Taffy, and so on. However, it was someone else who ruled the ‘yard. More about ‘them’ later.
Back then the consequence for such ‘unruly’ schoolyard behavior would have been a visit to the headmaster’s office for the cane across the hand. If you were lucky it would be left to your form teachers to meter out punishment – several of whom would use the slipper across the backside instead of the cane. One particular lady, in full view of your peers, would use a ruler to lightly tap you across the knuckles. Now for those of my generation this last option put a big dent into a lad’s ego. After all, boys like Taffy and Jock had ‘reputations’ to protect. Not for them the soft option of the ruler. No, their choice would be the headmaster’s room. Yes, it was that clear cut.
Having said that, there was one other form of punishment they all feared. In fact they would even submit to the humiliation of the ‘ruler’ rather than have their personal time constrained by the chore of having to prepare overnight 100, sometimes 200 lines in their best printed style of ‘I must refrain from fighting in the schoolyard’. Nothing other than a clear, neatly printed assignment would be acceptable or you would be made to do it again. Further, those ‘Lines’ were to be on the teacher’s desk first thing next day. Worst still would be a minimum of 500 ‘Lines’ on a Friday night for first thing Monday morning. Our mate Taffy once begged to be caned rather that take home ‘Lines’ on a Friday afternoon. Didn’t do him any good. In fact he ended up with extra lines for his trouble.
Taffy and Jock’s dislike of each other was one of nationality. Oh, and the fact they accused each other of having funny accents. In the Britain of today their parents could call in the police who, in turn could call in the CPS. The latter could press charges, in the public interest of course, before hauling one or both before the Youth Court.
The London brothers also had their fair share of ‘bovver’ with us local lads. But not because they talked in the funny accent of ‘cockney strine’. One of the ‘bruvvers’ was a tall, mean looking soul who scowled when talking to you. The other ‘bruvver’ seem to sneer when he spoke. Either way, it could be quite scary. In fact, over time we learned not to mess with them – including Taffy and Jock.
In 1956/57 West Ham United, Fulham and Leyton Orient were in the same division as Port Vale and Stoke City. And didn’t the Stoke followers love to verbalise their dislike for all those who were ‘silly enough’ to follow any other team – especially Port Vale. Enter the London ‘bruvvers’, allies to all Valiants and silencers of the ‘big gobs’. You see, whilst Stokies went around verbally jibing ‘Vale followers, they ‘kept mum’ about all things West Ham, Fulham and Leyton Orient. ‘Don’t worry bruvver’ they would say with one arm around your shoulder, ‘we’ll keep an eye out for you, and if any Stokie bovvers you just let us know’. A lovely gesture don’t you think? They would mention rearranging ‘boatraces and fings’. Mind you, we never dared to ask what ‘fings’ meant. But you didn’t have to be a mental giant to figure it out. Problem was the London ‘bruvvers’ lived out Leek way. Most of my tormenters lived close to Bucknall. So any schoolyard support given by the ‘bruvvers’ would all too easily be extracted in kind away from school.
I mentioned earlier that my Cellarhead days had seen some success in athletics. By 1954 I had played my last game of soccer against a team called Ebenezer. We had lost 24-0, and as goalie in the second half 12 of those goals went past me. Reality having set in,and there being little or no rugby union played at school, I would unsuccessfully put my name down for school cross-country events. Then one day our sports master, an ex RAFPTI, asked me to ‘volunteer’ to plug a gap in the team for the five mile cross-country event against a rival school. The regular nominee was injured and any reserve entry was better than none. I jumped at the chance. Anyway, library was not one of my favorite school ‘chores. To the surprise of everyone, including myself, I performed above expectation. After that I would be one of the first picked for cross-country events which, sadly to say, were few and far between. But now, I’m thinking, perhaps I had found a sport I could be good in.
My library reading now included anything to do with the world of athletics. And wasn’t there a veritable feast to be brought up on: Pirie, Bannister, Chaterway, Brasher, Landy, and later Kuts and Elliot. But first there was Zatopek.
The year was 1952, the place and occasion was the Helsinki Olympics, and the man was Emil Zatopek. Our coach never tired of telling the story of the great man’s achievement in bagging three medals to add to the one he had won in 1948 – the last one for the marathon, an event he had never trained for. There he was running alongside the great Jim Peters and begging the question as to whether he was running too fast for a beginner. According to our coach, Peters raised a wry smile. Shortly afterwards Zatopek had left the great Englishman roadside with the cramp. To the amazement of the people packed into the Helsinki Stadium Zatopek took line honours streets ahead of the rest, and left a world wondering what else this man could do before hanging up his kit.
Zatopek passed away on the 21st November, 2000.
In later years my personal coach was convinced I too would do OK in the middle and long distances including the marathon which, according to him, was the ultimate expression of athletics madness – at best a thin line between sane and insane.
For most of us the marathon was a grueling encounter that left you each time declaring that enough was enough. But you always came back for another dose. Yes, total madness. And like Zatopek and Landy I would run at whatever times were available to me; early mornings, lunchtimes, evenings, even in the middle of the night. Running to and from work became the norm. Nor was it unusual for me to be found spending some weekends climbing the nearest mountainous regions. Yes, Sheer madness. But along the way I made great friends, achieved personal satisfaction, and won a few trophies.
Afterall, I was never going to make it playing soccer.
So there I was in 1957 working for the Co-Op Dairy in Sneyd Green, just a hop, step and jump from Vale Park. In my schoolboy years yours truly and his true blue Valiant mates had passed this Co-op landmark many times when going to see our heroes.
In 1956/57 we were still in the old 2nd Division and throughout the season our league position was perilous to say the least. In fact, by January 1957 we were second from bottom. Our recent signings, Stan Steel and Harry Poole must have been wondering what sort of a team they had joined up with. But they were local lads, and history tells us that both stayed on and served us well with Stan making over 350 and Harry nearly 500 appearances.
It was also a time in the club’s history where money was being raised to complete the Bycars end of the ground through a ‘join the Supporters’ Club’ initiative. Annual membership was one shilling, life membership one pound. Now at that point in my life one pound was beyond my financial reach. Therefore, like many others, I paid my annual membership of one shilling to one of the club officials who sat in a little hut on the corner of the Hamil Road end and the Railway Paddock side of Vale Park. In return I received a small membership card and lapel badge.
The official Co-op Dairy working day for me was 5am to 1pm with one-week annual leave. My weekly pay was £3.7s.6d. Also, I was required to work seven days before proceeding to one day off. Over a seven week period I would get Monday off the first week, Tuesday the second, Wednesday the third, and so on. Then in the sixth week I would get Saturday for the week just passed and Sunday for the week ahead. In short, one weekend off in seven. Add to that the fact that we rarely ever finished our milk round before 1pm – particularly when it was raining or snowing – our average working day was closer to 10, rather than 8 hours. But I loved the work.
Compare this with my mum’s first pay packet of 4s 6d for a five and half day week back in 1914. In 43 years wages had moved upwards at a very slow rate. Still, the cost of living had moved upwards at a similar rate. For instance, my mum says in 1914 it cost one penny to travel on the tram from Smallthorne to Burslem. By 1957 the cost of a bus ride for the same journey was two pence.
Port Vale followers outnumbered Stoke City followers at the dairy and the former would organise special coach trips to take them to see the ‘Lads play away games. Depending on the distance to travel, the cost ranged from 7s 6d to 12s 6d – and that included admittance fees to the ground. However, and because I could not guarantee an early finish off the milk run, I figured that my best option would be to book only for the games against teams within a thirty or so mile radius of Burslem. In fact, I was pushing it sometimes to get to Vale Park by kick-off time. On a few occasions it was nearly half time before I was standing in the Hamil Road End.
To my disappointment the 1956/57 season left me with two possibilities – namely Stoke and Liverpool. Even though you wouldn’t find me going to the Victoria Ground it was academic anyway, and there was no chance of going to Liverpool either because Port Vale had already played both teams in the 1956 half of the season.
By 1957/58 we were back down in Division 3 (South) and the number of possibilities had increased to three teams: they were Shrewsbury, Coventry and Walsall. Yes sir, this was the year I was going to go everywhere. Well, football grounds not too far away like Gay Meadow.
Ah, Gay Meadow. So named as I recall after a man named Gay who, in days of yore, owned and grazed his livestock in the meadow now used as a football ground. Didn’t I read somewhere there was talk of changing the name? Perhaps not.
We were in Division 3 (South). Gosh, how times had change. But why not Division 3 (North)? According to my dad the ‘North/South’ concept was designed to reduce travel costs for the lower league clubs in the post WW2 years. Back then business sponsorship was provided mainly at a local level, such as advertising in football programmes to help cover printing costs. For those clubs that were in the old 1st and 2nd divisions it was assumed their gates were big enough to absorb such travel costs.
The first away game was in August at Aldershot. But this coincided with the last few days of my one-week annual leave in which I had planned, then went hiking and camping down south. In hindsight I was annoyed with myself because my camping destination should have been Aldershot. Then I could have watched my beloved Port Vale win the first game of the new season. I remember making myself a promise that I’d be better organised in the future.
Our second game of the season was also an away game, this time against ShrewsburyTown. The coach was scheduled to leave the dairy at 12.30pm, and on the off chance I would finish early for once I booked and paid my 7s 6d. My intentions were relayed to my milk-round driver and he agreed to do whatever he could to get us back to the dairy in time to make the connection. We did, just. The Bassets coach was being gunned into life as I ran across the loading yard.
One or two of my workmates grumbled because, according to them, as a result of my lateness there would be less time to spend at the first port of call – a pub of course. The majority was more forgiving towards me by telling me to ‘take no notice’. They knew that this was my first away game. When I had previously told them about my, ahem, two visits to the Victoria Ground, I was informed they didn’t count. Well, what else would you expect to hear from true blue Valiants? Yes sir, it was posh to be in such champagne company.
Back then my drink was a cup of tea, so I’m unable to share with you the details of the ‘watering holes’ visited, or the number of crates of beer carried on the bus. I can tell you that by the time we reached Gay Meadow, Shrewsbury the vocal chords of several of our mates were well and truly oiled.
Gay Meadow, nestled next to the River Severn, was bathed in sun and the pitch looked in great condition. On the back of our first win at Aldershot two days earlier a number of Valiants, anticipating another victory, were lustily singing different songs, with the exiled Taffies amongst us being particularly prominent. I somehow remember thinking to myself that one song sounded the same as another. Still, what the heck, we were having a great day out – so far.
In my mind’s eye I can see the stand on the eastern side of the ground, its members with rolled up sleeves assembled for the entertainment of the day. And to my right, just outside of the ground, I vaguely remember seeing what appeared to be a public school style building -a Preparatory perhaps – of the Ivy League with a history to match.
The game itself was over and done with without any great excitement, with the exceptions that the game ball was lost when it went over a fence into the River Severn, and we lost 1-0. Still, the enthusiasm of the travelling Valiants remained high. But by the time we’d arrived back at the dairy the beer had long been consumed and the demeanor of those who had heartily imbibed was more subdued.
It is sometimes said that first images are sometimes the most indelible. Well, the saying is certainly true for my first ‘away game’ to Shrewsbury Town Football Club.
There was never any chance that I would make the away game to Coventry because it was played over the Christmas period and I was working – including Christmas and Boxing Days. In fact, here’s a question for Valiant purists. Did not Port Vale play Coventry City on successive days over Christmas 1957, losing both games?
So, this left the 1957 match against Walsall. With every intention of going on that trip I paid and reserved my coach seat. Did I get there? Did I heck! What a day for mechanical failure. We were probably still in the back-blocks of Chapel Chorlton when the coach left Sneyd Green for Walsall. And no, there were refunds.
See you later…
January 12, 2002