King of the Steele Curtain side

In 2000, OVF managed to speak to Ray King, a genuine Port Vale legend, who played in Vale’s FA Cup semi-final side. Read the great man’s thoughts.


Rob Fielding: You joined the club in 1949 – I understand your brother George persuaded you to take a chance at Vale Park. Can you explain how you came to join the club?

My joining Port Vale came about in quite a remarkable and, at times, painful and exasperating way. Prior to that memorable day when I put pen to paper in the presence of Gordon Hodgson and club chairman, Mr Holcroft, I was pretty much on the scrapheap as far as professional football was concerned.

I’d played as a seventeen-year-old for Newcastle United, my ‘local’ club with my debut a derby game against Sunderland! I quickly established myself as their first Team goalkeeper and at the time was being touted as a future England keeper.

However, there was a slight interruption to my playing career in that I was called up for National Service (this during the Second World War) and I joined the army, at eighteen. That interruption lasted some four and a half years – a long spell out of the game in any player’s career.

I did manage to play again for Newcastle United, in 1945 after hostilities had ceased (and I’m not talking about the derby matches!).

I had also been a ‘guest player’ for Chester in wartime regional football games and these were of considerable significance for a variety of reasons, not least because they afforded me an opportunity to play against greats such as Tommy Lawton and Stanley Matthews.

Unfortunately, saving a penalty taken by Tommy Lawton resulted in a broken wrist, the first of such injuries which by rights should have put me out the game for good. I was a stubborn bugger, though…

Unfortunately, saving a penalty taken by Tommy Lawton resulted in a broken wrist, the first of such injuries which by rights should have put me out the game for good. I was a stubborn bugger, though!    I also suffered a double fracture of the jaw on another occasion, so the likes of Roy Keane are perhaps following in a dishonourable tradition! The player who inflicted that particular damage upon me approached me years later, revealing that he had been given specific instructions from his manager to “put Kingy out of the game”. Regrettably, this particular incident occurred in my first match back in goal after being out for three years. It was a disaster for me.

It seemed that I’d finally reached the point where I must bow to the inevitable and kiss goodbye to a career which had begun full of promise. I did find myself eventually back on the pitch for my local team, Amble, who played in the Northern Alliance, but it was as a full back, centre forward or any other position except goalkeeper.

It was during this period that Ashington (home of Jackie Milburn and the Charlton brothers) were looking for a keeper and they invited me to play for them. Again I hadn’t been between the posts for some years due to those numerous injuries and I was somewhat anxious about how I’d cope physically.

Nevertheless I decided to risk it. I ended up playing a couple of games in their second Eleven, which was not exactly an awe-inspiring experience and I was hardly Ray King, future England goalkeeper.

But fate again played its hand, this time more favourably. Ashington manager Jimmy Denmark, a former Newcastle centre-half, sent me a telegram instructing me to report to Roker Park, Sunderland’s football ground, that coming Saturday. The Ashington First Team keeper had taken ill and so there I was, in at the deep end against a Sunderland team whose players all made regular 1st Division appearances (often the Northern Alliance served as a good run-out for players not able to find a place in the first Elevens of their League sides).

As I ran out onto that splendid pitch at Roker Park, soaking in the atmosphere, I realised just how much I’d missed those St James’s Park crowds of fifty to sixty-five thousand-plus. It was like returning ‘home’.

Ironically, Sunderland had been my first opponents with me as a ‘Big Time’ goalkeeper and, as it turned out, it was the Black Cats who played me back into that same ‘Big Time’. The confidence which I’d always had in abundance as a keeper flooded back to me at Roker Park and it was as though I’d never been away.

My brother George was playing for Port Vale at the time, having previously been a centre forward with Newcastle United and Hull City. He happened to mention me to Vale’s manager, Gordon Hodgston, who informed George to get me down to the Potteries immediately. Gordon wanted me to play in the final of the Staffordshire Senior Cup at Hanley.

Of course, I thought I was dreaming but off I went and Gordon duly signed me up before the game, despite not having seen me play! He told me: ‘Ray, you’ll do for me!” Winning the game against Walsall  was an added bonus. It had been a sometimes tortuous route but I was back where I felt I really belonged.

Rob Fielding: Many younger fans will recall you as the keeper behind the famed Iron Curtain defence – can you explain to the younger supporters just how good that side was?

The Iron Curtain nickname came about because we conceded so few goals. This was due to a system in which every player in the team worked hard for each other. It should be remembered that nine out of the eleven regular players were local lads which contributed greatly to what was a wonderful team spirit.

I have said many times over the years that I believe that team was on a par with all the top teams in the country at the time…

I have said many times over the years that I believe that team was on a par with all the top teams in the country at the time. We could have beaten anyone (such was our confidence and abilities), including West Brom in that FA Cup semi-final when only a fluke goal off the back of Tommy Cheadle’s head and a disputed penalty (the incident took place well outside the eighteen-yard line) prevented us from a Cup Final place and who knows what?

Rob Fielding: We have a vote on onevalefan where readers can select their best-ever Vale side. Ray King is often selected as the club’s best keeper ever. Does it please you to still be held in such high regard?

Yes, it certainly does give me tremendous satisfaction to be held in such regard still, especially after so many years have passed since I was a player at Vale. They were great days and I remember them vividly and with great fondness. Gordon Hodgson really took a chance on me and I owed both he and my brother George a great debt for resurrecting my career.

Barry Edge: The modern game sees some goalkeepers marshalling forces and directing traffic, even taking penalties. Was that ever a part of your role and responsibilities? Or did the manager do all of that?

Certain aspects of the goalkeeper’s game have changed and new rules have improved the flow of the game, especially in relation to the back-pass and running with the ball before its release. In my day we were subject to some hefty physical challenges though I should say that I relished the rough-and-tumble (except when I ended up in hospital).

It has long been my opinion that in some ways a goalkeeper is the most important player in a team. He can see the whole field of play in front of him allowing him the opportunity to marshall his forces and, to some degree, direct operations, as Barry suggests. When I talk to aspiring young keepers today I tell them that making brilliant saves is only one aspect of a keeper’s game and that the most important responsibility of a goalkeeper is to control his eighteen-yard area.

He must be brave and display sound positional sense, knowing when to come off his line to take crosses, either handling cleanly or punching away with aggression. A goalkeeper has a love-hate relationship with the ball, caressing it into his safe keeping or punching it away as if in rejection.

I often used to go outfield to take free kicks and I also quickly learned how effective throwing the ball speedily out to a player could turn a game and put our team in a threatening position. These were useful strategies and I considered it an important part of my role to turn defence into attack as effectively as I could. Nobody taught me these aspects of the goalkeeper’s game – it was instinctive and learned through experience.

In fact I was never ever coached, and I believe natural ability is paramount in a goalkeeper. Personally, I believe that modern goalkeeping coaching practices have done more harm than good.

Barry Edge: What was the atmosphere like for you and the other members of the team on that August day in 1950, the crowd singing Abide with Me and Land of my Fathers’ in the pouring rain too; Walter Aveyard’s goal, and applause all-round for both victor and vanquished?

Yes, that August day was one I’ll never forget. Players and spectators alike were caught up in what was a memorable atmosphere. It was truly special and not even the torrential rain could put a dampener on any of it.

Barry Edge: I’ve no doubt that Port Vale 2 Blackpool 0 was your favourite game.  But is there any one particular moment in that game that stands out?

The Blackpool cup-tie was indeed my favourite game. For me the highlight occurred in the closing stages of the match when I was confronted by a one-on-one situation with Stanley Matthews. Blocking his shot, it was the only time I have ever heard Stanley swear…

The Blackpool cup-tie was indeed my favourite game. For me the highlight occurred in the closing stages of the match when I was confronted by a one-on-one situation with Stanley Matthews. Blocking his shot, it was the only time I have ever heard Stanley swear. Another incident concerning Stan came when he took an in-swinging corner on the left side. Blazing sun was completely blinding me and so I was obliged to attack the ball where I deduced it would land and, luckily, it ended up comfortably in my arms! It was a nice gesture from Stan when he shook my hand after the game, although he was very despondent.

Barry Edge: It seemed to me that you, Stan Turner, Tommy Cheadle, Reg Potts, Roy Sproson, Basil Hayward, Dickie Cunnliffe, Albert Leake, Ken Griffiths, to name a few, were always there “Always Port Vale” as my dad would say. Did you keep contact with any of them in retirement?

Sadly the only member of the team I have been able to keep in touch with is Colin Askey. All the other lads, apart from Ken Griffiths, have passed away. Colin I’m still in touch with regularly by phone and he has been very helpful with regard to my book, lugging copies around the shops! I have also been in touch with John Poole who was an up-and-coming young keeper during my time at the Vale.

Both Colin and John have helped keep me in touch with current events at the club and John has also done his bit plugging the book! When you don’t have a marketing department you need all the help you can get!    I should also mention here other younger players who themselves still continue their allegiance to the club – Harry Poole, Stan Smith, Terry Miles, Freddy Donaldson and Graham Barnett.

Barry Edge: And finally, I’ve always wondered what the relationship was like between you and Ray Hancock?

Ray Hancock and I always had a good relationship. In fact my wife Norma and I lodged with Ray and his wife, Joan, until we got our own house.

Rob Fielding: The book ‘Hands, Ball and Feet’ is a fascinating account of footballing life in the 1950’s. For Vale fan it has to be an essential purchase. Is the book available and if so where can fans get a copy?

Yes, the book is still available and anyone wanting to get hold of a signed copy can e-mail for mail order details. It’s priced at £6.99 plus £2.00 postage and packing for UK orders (overseas orders please enquire for postage and packing details). There are 360 pages, quite a few photographs and it’s been gratifying just how many people have got back to me saying it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. Very flattering. It received a half page write-up in the Daily Mail and their columnist was very enthusiastic about it.

The book was available in the Vale club shop for a good long time but you’d be forgiven for not realising that despite a good browse around. I’m disappointed at what seems like a general neglect of it (it ended up almost hidden and you’d really have to look hard to find it) at the shop, so I’ve recovered most of what stock there was there. I’d anticipated a a lot of sales in the shop but if it’s not promoted and not visible it’s not going to be noticed. Like I say, very disappointing. I expected better.

Rob Fielding: Have you visited the onevalefan website – and if so what do you think of it. Do independent sites play a valuable role in providing unbiased news to supporters?

I haven’t had a chance to visit the site yet. I don’t actually have a computer myself and it was my nephew, a freelance writer and editor, who set up my web site and looks after it. I’ll  be getting the people at the local Community Centre to point me in the right direction for onevalefan. I look forward to seeing it and I’ll let you know what I think.

In general, I think the technology these days is marvellous and it gives the fans a great way to voice and share their opinions and to swap information. I think such web sites do play a really important role in maintaining contact amongst fans and providing feedback to the clubs, just as independent fanzines have been doing.

My own web site is a typical example of how useful they can be. Already I’m potentially in touch with more Vale fans via links your own site than I could ever hope to reach any other way (apart, perhaps, from standing on a soap box outside the ground on a match day, spouting off to anyone who cared to listen; no I’ll stick to the web, thanks).

onevalefan would like to thank Ray King, a genuine Vale Park legend and Dave White for taking the time to assist with our interview request.