The move to Vale Park, the cup run of the famed ‘Steele Curtain’ side and the controversy over league expulsion.
A new ground
In 1944, following problems with the City Council over the lease of the Old Rec, Vale arranged to sell their current ground and a new thirteen and a half acre site was purchased near to Burslem station.
A 70,000 capacity was ambitiously planned with parking for 1,000 cars along with a new entrance to the ground from the train station.
In 1946, the construction of the new ground was financed by the sale of part of the Burslem site to a colliery. Although this provided the funds to develop the new ground, the mine workings were to prove a constant and costly hazard in later redevelopments.
But 1948, the cost of the new ground were rising steeply. Work had already cost £13,000 and at £100 the pitch was “the most expensive ever laid in Britain”.
However, with the lease on the Old Rec running out, Vale pressed ahead and arranged to complete the new ground in stages. The two terraces and Bycars end would be concentrated on for the time being and the main stand on Lorne St would be delayed until 1950. A reduced initial capacity of 40,000 was announced for the newly named ‘Vale Park.’
The ground opened in time for the 1950-1 season. It had cost £50,000, had a capacity of 40,000 and a vast playing surface of 115 by 83 yards. After finally getting approval, the old Swan Passage stand from the Old Rec was assembled on the Bycars End to provide some much needed cover.
A crowd of 32,042 turned up for the first match and saw Walter Aveyard score the first goal at the new ground in a 1-0 win over Newport County. The only disappointment was the club record sale of star striker Ronnie Allen to West Bromwich Albion – to help ease increasingly stretched club finances.
Start of the Steele era
In 1952, Freddie Steele joined Vale, initially as player-manager.
Steele was an experienced England International and by 1954 he had formed a side consisting of eight locally-born players – of which none had cost more than a £10 signing on fee.
Four of the defenders in the side were locally born. Youngsters Roy Sproson, Reg Potts and Stan Turner were complimented perfectly by the experience of club captain Tom Cheadle and goalkeeper Ray King.
The new-look defence soon became a formidable unit and began to be referred to as the Iron (or Steele) Curtain for their ability to snuff out opposing forwards.
The side became unstoppable in the Third Division North. They opened with 43 points (out of a possible 50) from their first 25 league games and a mere eight goals were conceded by that famed defence.
Vale also rose to the occasion in the FA Cup. In the fourth round Vale put out First Division Cardiff City and were subsequently drawn against current cup holders Blackpool. Their star-packed first division squad contained six current Internationals and local hero Stanley Matthews.
Vale conceded just one goal in fifteen home games up as the big match approached. Typically, as one of Vale’s most important matches got closer and closer, the Burslem weather got steadily worse and reports claim that it rained solidly for a week before the match. The Vale Park pitch was a quagmire, but interest still remained high as thousands queued for tickets.
The big game kicked-off and in the 14th minute Dickie Cunliffe broke clear on the left only for his shot was deflected out for a corner. From Cunliffe’s kick, inside-forward Albert Leake rose to head the ball in. Vale made it 2-0 in the 26th minute as Cunliffe started the move and laid the ball to centre forward Basil Haywood, whose low cross was driven into the net by Leake.
Blackpool never got back into the game as Vale cleverly forced Matthews away from the drier edges of the pitch and into the muddy middle where he met a massed defence. Late on Ken Griffiths hit the post for Vale, while Basil Haywood was fouled in the box only for no penalty to be given.
The national press praised “Vale’s hard-working display” and called it a “triumph of teamwork.”
Vale were drawn against fellow Division Three side Leyton Orient in the sixth round. Eight special trains took 8,000 Vale fans to the match and they saw Vale triumph 1-0 with Albert Leake scoring the only goal. Vale were through to the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in their history. They were drawn against First Division giants West Bromwich Albion who contained former Vale striker Ronnie Allen in their team.
As excitement reached fever-pitch, 40,000 people turned up for a Vale reserve match versus Mossley in order to queue for Semi-Final tickets.
A hundred coaches and fourteen special trains carried the army of Vale supporters to Villa Park on 27th March. A crowd of over 68,000 saw Vale sensationally take the lead in the 40th minute through Albert Leake.
Defender Roy Sproson commented “At half-time we thought the game was over.” However, in the second half the Baggies rallied and a 68th minute equaliser was fashioned from a long ball through the Vale’s Iron Curtain defence.
Then disaster occured as captain Tom Cheadle tackled Albion forward Lee on the edge of a box. A disputed penalty was awarded and former Vale star Ronnie Allen scored an unlikely winner. Roy Sproson claimed that Lee had handled the ball and taken three steps before falling and the West Brom keeper stated afterwards “You had all the bad luck”. The Valiant Vale were out of the FA Cup after a memorable run.
Following the disappointment of the semi-final exit, the team could now concentrate on promotion. Vale returned to league football but their cup run had left a daunting run of twelve fixtures in thirty days.
However, the Iron Curtain settled into their old ruthless routine. Vale secured promotion with a win over Bradford City in April and a record 7-0 rout of Stockport followed as Vale swept to the Third Division Championship.
The team had won promotion with 69 points, eleven points clear of second placed Barnsley. The “Iron Curtain” defence (with the same five players virtually ever-present) had conceded just 21 goals all season with just five coming at undefeated Vale Park. This was a league defensive record which stood for thirty years.
Only three games had been lost all season while in attack 74 goals had been scored. Basil Haywood topped the scoring charts with 25 goals while Albert Leake had 20. The “Iron Curtain” side were by now the stuff of Vale legend.
End of an era
The season after the unprecedented success of the “Iron Curtain” promotion, Vale constructed a new 4,000 seater stand on the Railway side. The side then had another cup success in 1955. Drawn away to West Ham in the FA Cup third round, they trailed 2-0 but battled back to draw 2-2. They deservedly won the replay 3-1. But the side unfortunately lost 4-2 to Tottenham Hotspur in the next round.
In 1957 disaster struck as legendary Manager Freddie Steele resigned after a series of bad results. The famed “Iron Curtain” side was no more. Norman Low took over as manager but he could not prevent Vale crashing to relegation to Division Three.
The following season was even worse for Vale as they finished fifteenth in the Third Division and dropped into the newly created Fourth Division.
Vale bounced back as they won the first ever champions of the Fourth Division. The season also saw the debut of the club’s brand-new £7,000 floodlight system.
The club then went on yet another epic cup run in 1960. A second round defeat of QPR boosted confidence and 4-1 and 7-0 league wins followed. In the thirdround, Cardiff City (then second in the second division) were knocked out in what the press reported as “one of the clubs’s finest ever performances.”
In the fourth round Vale knocked out another Second Division side – Scunthorpe United and were drawn against Aston Villa in the fifth round. In front of a club record attendance of 49,000 at Vale Park, Vale took the lead but Villa hit back to win 2-1.
In May 1960 the club engaged on a brief tour of Czechoslavakia. On the 2nd October the Czechslovakian tean repaid the favour, playing a friendly at Vale Park before their Internationals versus Scotland and Ireland.
In 1962, Vale were becoming jealous at the attention paid to the transfer of Stanley Matthews to neighbours Stoke City. They tried an audacious counter-stroke by trying to persuade Tom Finney to join the club. Unfortunately, the former-player could not be persuaded out of retirement.
In May the club went on a four match tour of Poland. Then sensationally in September Norman Low resigned and Freddie Steele was reappointed as Manager. Vale’s defence remained supreme and comparisons with the old “Iron Curtain” were inevitably made.
In 1964, Vale abandoned their amber and black strip to return to the classic black and white kit of the Iron Curtain” era. Not only was this strip seen as more easily visible but Steele declared it a “a manly-looking outfit.”
Steele had signed Walsall’s prolific goal-scorer Tony Richards but the club finished in third place just four points from promotion.
In 1964 Vale were drawn to the eventual champions Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round. Vale managed a superb 0-0 draw in front of 52,726 and narrowly lost 2-1 in front of 42,179 people at Vale Park in the replay.
But the following season was a disaster as Vale slipped to 23rd place in the table with just 41 goals scored. Freddie Steele had resigned and the club was in serious financial difficulty.
Sir Stan signs
However, in the summer of 1965 Vale announced a sensational signing. On the 19th July legendary player Stanley Matthews was appointed manager.
Matthews soon announced his intentions as “there is only one way that Vale can get back to the top and that is by attracting and nurturing young talents.”
Matthews was true to his word. Trials were given to 700 boys and the youth policy resulted in the signing of seven youngsters onto the books.
In 1966, Vale fielded a forward line of three 17 year olds, an 18 year old and a 19 year old. This was the youngest line-up in the Football League. Soon afterwards, Malcolm McKenzie became the club’s youngest-ever player at the age of 15. But despite the influx of youth, Vale only managed nineteenth position in the league.
John Ritchie – the club’s most popular player had to be sold for £15,000 as the club faced crippling debts of £80,000. Vale went on another successful tour of Czechslovakia in 1968 but unfortunately another disaster was just around the corner.
An FA enquiry in 1967 revealed that Vale had breached rules on payments to players. Their conclusion ruled that several amateurs had received a wage, an illegal signing on bonuses made, associate schoolboys played in contravention of the rules and illegal payments made to first teamers John Ritchie, Clinton Boulton and Gordan Logan.
In February the enquiry team announced a fine of £4,000 and Vale were expelled from the league from the end of the season. It was total humiliation for the club.
On the 8th of June 1968, Vale were re-elected to the league by 38 votes to 9 and Stanley Matthews was moved upstairs to General Manager. However, Matthews was still owed a substantial amount in wages by the club and he drifted out of the picture. Gordon Lee became the new manager.