Promotions, epic cup runs, the club’s first-ever trophy and the controversial final days of John Rudge’s reign.
We have lift-off…
Ray Walker scores against Spurs
“A director pulled me aside and said that if that if we don’t beat Macclesfield then… would I be looking at possibly taking care of the side on a very short term basis, possibly as a caretaker until they get somebody in I was flabbergasted by that, and didn’t know what to do, I just kept my mouth shut”
Phil Sproson – talking to Radio Five Live
In 1987, John Rudge was perilously close to the sack. His side had gone twelve matches without a win. Vale were drawn against non-league Macclesfield in the FA Cup. It was a must-win match!
Vale were outplayed for eighty five minutes, but they scraped through with a goal in the last five minutes from locally born midfielder Kevin Finney. But who knows what would have happened without that win!
In January 1988, Vale were drawn against the mighty Spurs – cup winners the previous year in the fourth round. The hype for the game started on the eve of the match. On live daytime TV, pundit and ex-Spurs player Jimmy Greaves dismissed Vale’s chances out of hand. “The only problem Spurs will have is finding the place” said Greaves. The jibe reportedly fired the Vale players up, while the appalling pre-match weather only added to Spurs’ difficulties. It was a classic giant-killing situation.
For 25 minutes, Vale put on a spectacular start. Ray Walker took on a pass from Gary Ford and struck a curling shot from 25 yards over Spurs’ goalkeeper Tony Parks’ head.
It was to get even better for the Valiants. Within a few minutes, Vale were 2-0 up. Walker took a free kick that dropped like a mortar bomb into a crowded penalty area. Darren Beckford challenged the goalkeeper. The ball broke loose to Phil Sproson who belted it into the net. He wheeled away in delight as crowd and players went crazy with delight.
In the second half Spurs rallied and as Vale’s legs tired the visitors managed to get a goal back through young defender Neil Ruddock. The last fifteen minutes were fraught but Vale held on to claim one of the most famous cup upsets of the twentieth century.
At the end the crowd went crazy, no-one wanted to leave and people shouted themselves hoarse. It was a day that would live long in Port Vale’s history.
The match had been broadcast live on Scandinavian TV and shown as highlights on BBC Match of the Day. The Valiants had captured Europe’s attention by now and attracted many valued Scandanavian supporters as a result of that match.
Vale were drawn against First Division Watford in the next round. The match was again screened live on Scandanavian TV and highlights shown on Match of the Day. The cup run was by now turning into a gold mine for Vale.
Watford held Vale 0-0 at Vale Park despite loan striker Michael Cole coming within inches of putting Vale in front. At the other end, goalkeeper Mark Grew performed heroics with one save from Malcolm Allen a world class tip-over. Vale’s run continued and it was off to Vicarage Road.
At Vicarage Road, in front of thousands of Vale fans but lacking the frenzied atmosphere of Vale Park, the side were less effective. They eventually went out 2-0 in the replay and Vale’s cup run was over.
However, in terms of securing John Rudge’s job, the revenue gained and the high profile gained for Port Vale the cup run was an astonishing turn-around in the fortunes of the club. Fans were united behind John Rudge and revenue gained would help to build a better Vale side next season.
“Even now, when they look at Vale what they’ve done, I think most people will remember that Spurs match, it really was a lift-off time for them… it transformed the club in many ways for them when you look at what they’ve achieved since, and I was think that was lighting the touchpaper to be honest.”
Sentinel journalist Chris Harper
And now for League success…
Striker Darren Beckford – partially paid-for by fans’ bucket collections
The sale of Andy Jones and the cup run had left Vale in a good financial position. Rudge spent wisely in the 1988-9 season appointing veteran striker Ron Futcher to partner Darren Beckford.
Vale started the season in astonishing form with consecutive five goal wins over Cardiff and Chesterfield. The partnership of Darren Beckford and Ron Futcher was blossoming. Meanwhile, The pairing in midfield of Robbie Earle and Ray Walker was proving exceptional and Earle was plundering many vital goals.
As promotion got ever-closer, Rudge bravely smashed the club record fee by signing classy defender Dean Glover for £200,000 whilst fans’ favourite Andy Jones returned for a loan spell. Unfortunately, long-serving Phil Sproson missed the run-in as his career was ended by injury.
Despite the signings, Vale missed automatic promotion on goal difference.
However, promotion was not to be denied. In the play-offs Vale easily saw off Preston 4-1 on aggregate and drew the first leg of the final 1-1 with Bristol Rovers. In the home leg, locally born midfielder Robbie Earle scored the winner and his nineteenth of the season to secure the Vale’s first promotion to Division Two for over 30 years. Meanwhile, Ray Walker was voted onto the PFA Award Winning side for the season.
Moving up a level…
Vale’s first Dutch signing Robin van der Laan
The cost of renovating Vale Park to meet new stricter safety concerns was hitting Vale hard but the club still splashed out signing striker Nicky Cross and defender Neil Aspin for six figure fees in the summer.
Vale began well with a 2-2 away draw at Bradford City. John Rudge was now the club’s longest serving manager for 60 years and he lead the side out for an historic derby match against Stoke City. The Valiants acquitted themselves well – with Earle scoring in a 1-1 draw.
In December, Vale achieved another great cup upset with a 3-2 away win over first division Derby County but they lost 6-0 to Aston Villa in the next round. Vale finished the season in a creditable eleventh place. Robin van der Laan became the club’s first foreign professional.
However, following the sales of stars Darren Beckford and Robbie Earle for nearly £2m, Vale struggled during the next season despite spending a club record £375,000 on striker Martin Foyle.
Vale again managed another minor cup upset with a creditable 2-2 draw away at Anfield in the League Cup in front of 8,000 Vale fans, but new signings Nico Jalink and Keith Houchen had failed to gel, Vale slipped back to the now re-named 2nd Division and were relegated.
Visiting the twin towers
In 1993, Vale had already put neighbours Stoke City out of the FA Cup with a memorable 3-1 victory. They were also progressing nicely in the Autoglass Trophy – another great victory over Stoke City had been appreciated by the fans and it was followed by a area final versus Exeter City. The winners would be off to Wembley.
A 1-1 draw at St James Park resulted in a Vale win over the two legs and amidst joyous scenes, fans and players celebrated the club’s first ever trip to the twin towers.
As the Vale team walked out onto the hallowed turf, lead by a beaming and proud Rudge, some 20,000 Vale fans were ecstatic. For some, it was the stuff of dreams to see their heroes at Wembley.
Vale continued the fairytale when the match began. Vale’s football in the first half was superb. Paul Kerr was put through by a defence-splitting pass from veteran striker Bernie Slaven and expertly placed the ball past the keeper. Vale were 1-0 up in the first 15 minutes. The fans celebrated wildly!
It got even better on the half-hour as Slaven expertly turned onto Glover’s pass and put Vale into a 2-0 lead.
Stockport rallied in the second half and giant striker Kevin Francis made it 2-1 with 30 minutes to go. Could Vale hold on for a victory in their first Wembley appearance.
Despite a nerve-sapping nine minutes of extra time the Valiants’ experienced trio of central defenders – Dean Glover, Peter Swan and Neil Aspin held firm. Vale had won the cup and captain Dean Glover climbed the Wembley steps to claim Vale’s first ever domestic trophy.
After the match, there was time for a triumphant and memorable tour of Burslem to celebrate the victory. Rudgie’s team had once again put the Valiants on the footballing map.
Unfortunately, that was where the fairytale ended that season. Vale were to go to Wembley again in the Play-Offs Final but lost 3-0 to West Brom after defender Peter Swan was sent off. They finished with the highest number of points on record for a non-promoted team.
For 1994-95 the task for Vale was obvious – avenge the play off final defeat by West Brom in the previous season and gain promotion back to Division One. Vale’s experienced side set about their task with relish.
With established centre halfs Aspin and Glover becoming unbeatable and club record signing Martin Foyle topping 20 goals up front, promotion was achieved on a memorable day at Brighton in front of 5400 Vale fans. Vale were back into the upper divisions again. It was Rudge’s third promotion in 10 years in charge.
For the next season, left winger Steve Guppy was purchased from Newcastle Utd for £225,000 and with an impressive twelth place finish, the 1995-6 season was also memorable for a double over neighbours Stoke City with Ian Bogie scoring the winner in both matches.
Tony Naylor takes on the Everton defence
In 1996 Vale achieved their highest league position for over 50 years. Prompted by the attacking wing-play of Jon McCarthy and Guppy, Tony Naylor top scored with 21 goals as Vale finished in a creditable eighth place.
One of Vale’s best ever performances came in the FA Cup where they put out holders Everton in a 2-1 replay victory with Bogie, Guppy and McCarthy all outstanding.
An extraordinary 4-4 draw with QPR on live TV was soon followed by the exit of star winger Guppy for £950,000 to Leicester.
At the start of the 1997-98 season, Guppy’s partner McCarthy was sold for a club record £1.5m to Birmingham and Gareth Ainsworth a bustling winger from Lincoln as bought for a club record £500,000 as his replacement.
Vale managed yet another cup performance of note – holding double-winning Arsenal to two draws in the FA Cup but unfortunately losing out on a penalty shoot-out. However, Vale struggled all season and with Vale still in danger on the last day of the season – only a last match 4-0 win over Huddersfield was enough to secure Division One football yet again.
At the start of the 1998-99 season, star striker Lee Mills left for £1m and was quickly followed by Vale’s third winger to be sold in four years as Gareth Ainsworth left for a club record £2m fee to Wimbledon.
End of an era
In November, Antony Gardner made his debut in defence at just 17 years of age but the transfer money from the two expensive sales had been swallowed up by ground improvements and Rudge’s mix and match of free transfers and loan signings was definitely struggling.
In January, Rudge spent £375,000 on young striker Marcus Bent but to the surprise of the majority of Vale fans, Rudge was sacked just three days later after a home defeat to Swindon.
The manner of the dismissal hurt the most as after fifteen years, a transfer profit of £5m and 843 matches in charge, the Board did not even thank him for his services. Fans organised a Flat Cap march to say their own tributes whilst a Tribute Dinner was also held in Rudge’s honour.
The club’s most successful era was finally over on the dawning of the 21st century. Brian Horton was appointed to take the club into the year 2000.
Post-Rudge – mostly in decline
LDV Vans Trophy final goalscorers Bridge-Wilkinson and Brooker
The post-Rudge, new Millennium Vale started well. Horton’s side reached the final of the LDV Vans Trophy and defeated Brentford 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. But the club plunged into administration and its very future seemed in doubt until it was placed in the hand of fans-based consortium Valiant 2001. The new owners deserve much credit for keeping the club in existence.
Following the mutual departure of Horton, the club appointed Martin Foyle as manager. He enjoyed a honeymoon season in 2003-2004 when boosted by the striking partnership of McPhee and Brooker, the club flirted with the League One play-off places before falling short. That was to be the highlight of the decade. Foyle departed in 2007 and replacement Lee Sinnott was unable to prevent relegation to the bottom division.
Sinnott was controversially axed early in the 2008-2009 season and Dean Glover (an unpopular choice with fans) was named as successor. After a bright start, the team fared even worse and at one point looked like they could exit the league. The team stayed up but Glover departed at the end of the season.
Adams earns promotion
In the summer of 2009, the experienced Micky Adams was brought in to steady the ship. Despite a growing grassroots rebellion against the Valiant 2001 board, Adams steadied the ship, installed discipline and hard work and looked to be guiding Vale towards promotion. But in December 2010, with Vale in second place in the League, Adams opted to join Sheffield United.
The board then made a bizarre appointment bringing in Jim Gannon, whose style of play was completely opposite to that of Adams. The outspoken Gannon quickly became a target for the boo boys and after an alleged bust-up with coach Geoff Horsfield on the team coach and an awful defeat to Accrington, Gannon was dismissed after the shortest managerial reign in the club’s history. At the end of the season, Vale reappointed Adams who had been sacked by Sheffield United.
Adams’ first season of his second spell was noticeable for events off the pitch rather than on them. Opposition to the board reached a climax, prompted by revelations that directors Perry Deakin and Peter Miller had not paid for their shares in the club. In March 2012, the club entered administration.
In the summer of 2012 things looked bleak. Preferred bidder Keith Ryder had failed to complete his deal. Vale could not afford to bring out an official kit, the players had not agreed contracts and the club were 18th favourites for promotion. But in a remarkable season and against all the odds, Adams motivated his remaining players into a formidable outfit and fed by wingers Ashley Vincent and Jennison Myrie-Williams, striker Tom Pope hit a prolific streak. In mid-season, Paul Wildes and Norman Smurthwaite took over the club and duly strengthened the squad. By the end of the season, Pope had hit 33 goals and Vale had gone up to League One.
Adams’ second spell ended in September 2014 when he resigned after six defeats in a row. He was succeeded by assistant Rob Page. By this time, Norman Smurthwaite had parted company with Paul Wildes and was now the sole owner of the football club.
Rob Page looked a safe pair of hands to lead the club but relations with owner Norman Smurthwaite soured and Page left the club in 2016 to take up a position at Northampton Town. Vale surprisingly opted for Bruno Ribeiro, untested in the English game, on the reported advice of Jose Mourinho. Ribeiro brought in a string of foreign players and although his regime started brightly, by Christmas Vale were in deep trouble and Ribeiro resigned on Boxing Day. Caretaker Michael Brown was unable to stop the club being relegated back to League Two.
Brown started the 2017-18 season as permanent manager but a terrible start to the season saw him replaced by former favourite Neil Aspin. Aspin was able to keep the club in the league – just.
In the 2018-19 season, fans’ annoyance with the ownership of Smurthwaite was starting to reach tipping point. It culminated in a Supporters Club meeting which passed a vote of no confidence in the owner with fans urging the owner to tell us his plans for the future of Port Vale, or even better to put the club up for sale at a fair price. A series of protests took place against the owner while manager Aspin resigned after a run of poor results.
Aspin was replaced by John Askey and after protests during the Mansfield Town game, Smurthwaite responded with an extraordinary interview with local radio where he said that in response to the protests, he would put the club into administration in May 2019 if a takeover bid could not be agreed.