This nail-biting season

This nail-biting season

Right now Barry says his fingernails are bitten down to the quick. But all that can change if we take all three points tomorrow.

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This Nail-biting Season
After the Plymouth result I was looking for a thirty-minute timeout – a distraction from this nail-biting season both on and off the park. Then a personal message from Sean Ryan eased the tension a little. You all know Sean, yes? He lives in Sand Springs, Oklahoma USA – our very own Irish exile whose love for Port Vale can never be questioned.

Ah, Oklahoma where, according to the musical of the same name, ‘the wind comes sweeping down the plain’. It was 1953 when the screen version of a very successful 1951 Broadway show premiered in picture theatres across Britain. My second eldest brother was a film buff of sorts and bought the records featuring the music from such films as South Pacific, Calamity Jane and, of course, Oklahoma. He would play them time and again and never seemed to tire from the majesty of them all.

It was also the year that Port Vale commenced its most successful campaign and season when they achieved 69 ‘League Points in the old Division 3(North) and reached the FA Cup semi-final. For me it seems like only yesterday. I would watch the ‘Lads from the terraces of the Hamil Road end, and in my minds eye I can still a line-up that rarely changed from week to week. It was:

King,
Turner, Potts,
Mullard, Cheadle, Sproson,
Askey, Leake, Hayward, Griffiths, Cunliffe.
 
It was a team of eight locally born players, plus Ray King from Northumberland, Albert Mullard from Walsall, and my all time favourite Dickie Cunliffe from Wigan. Now these eleven ‘Lads gave their all and more no matter what and they wore the black and white with pride. In fact, they became household names across the land.

Back then Port Vale played what was termed ‘traditional English football’: two flying wingers, skilful inside forwards, a strong goal-scoring centre-forward, wing halves working both defence and attack zones, a centre-half directing play and supporting the full-backs, and a goalkeeper who gave his all to keep the other side scoreless. I simply loved every minute of it and, as previously alluded, it was a time when players across the country gave everything for their clubs and supporters for upwards of £20 a week.

Last week on the ovf message board ‘Brave Valiant’ pointed to a perceived lack of respect by some of the current players and says he would not care if we lost every single game we played – as long as they gave 100%. Like all true blue Valiants he yearns to see a return to such values as commitment, pride and respect.

Where was I? Oh yes. In his personal message Sean also touched on the subject of managers which, in turn, sent yours truly down memory lane. For me, the first one I can remember was Gordon Hodgson. He was at the helm when we moved from Hanley back to the hallowed turf of the Hamil.

Then there was Ivor Powell – a short, unsuccessful stint for him.

Next there was Freddie Steele and his ‘Steel of Curtin’ side of 1953-4. Or ‘The Iron Curtin’ as we affectionately called it. Others included Norman Low, Jackie Mudie, Sir Stanley Matthews, Gordon Lee, and Roy Sproson.

Roy Sproson: what a legend and man among men. If Roy Sproson, then Port vale and vice versa. He was a real true blue of the highest order who served Port Vale with distinction above and beyond. Like his teammates listed above he was ever present, ever reliable, and all the superlatives used in an attempt to encapsulate his contribution to our ‘Club have fallen short in their respective translations because of his yet to be explained intangible qualities.

Sorry folks, I’m on one of my favourite soapboxes. Even today I thoroughly enjoy revisiting the Sproson phenomenon. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that there is still more that could be written about the great man.

Long before the days of the internet, and when the Australian tabloids reported only on the major world league and ‘Cup competitions, information about our beloved Port Vale came mainly in the form of postcards from my second eldest brother – who lives in Baldwins Gate. One of my all time favourite 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 who was bowing out after 22 years of loyal and faithful service. 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 those two will’. My dad was rarely wrong in these matters. Roy’s gone now. But Valiants everywhere will never forget him.

Roy Sproson’s record is both impressive and unique in the history of our ‘Club. He was a locally born player who joined in 1949 before making his debut in 1950. He was seemingly ever present from 1954 to 1972. He has separately been voted Player of the Year and Gillette Sportsman of the Year. His playing career encompassed 22 years and 837 appearances – a ‘Club record. He has been our coach, and was Manager from 1974-7. That’s twenty-eight years of faithful and loyal service.

How fitting that he was manager during our 1976 Centenary year. How ironic that whilst Roy was finally coming to the end of a very illustrious career our current manager, Brian Horton, was just beginning his ‘long way home’ to the Hamil.

Now, what was it Sean was asking me? Yes, that’s it, he was asking for my thoughts on Brian’s current tenure.

As I’ve said at the outset, it’s been a nail-biting season both on and off the park. But now that V2001 have been given Football League approval to take over Port Vale, and subject to a shake-up of human, physical and financial resources during the summer, Brian has his best chance ever to deliver the goods. Or, in the words of several ovf posters, bring home the bacon.

Those who know me will testify that I am a strong supporter of Brian Horton. His pre-managerial record speaks for itself. He came from Hednesford on a free and was sold in 1976 to Brighton for a then Port Vale record transfer fee of £30,000. Then he went to Luton before, according to ovf, moving…”into Management at Oxford, Hull, Huddersfield, Manchester City and Brighton before taking over from John Rudge…in 1999”

Managing a football team is a dangerous occupation. It’s a case of being ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’. But if Brian requires any reminding of the danger of it all, he need look no further than when his predecessor was sacked in the most churlish manner imaginable. Suffice it to say, sacking managers is akin to musical chairs – only much more ruthless and, at times, very vengeful in its application.

The final curtain for many managers has been a cruel mix of hate and emotional hurt. Some contributed to their own demise. Others were simply scapegoats for poor decisions taken at a higher level.

Roy Sproson had given his all and more in a sparkling playing career; John Rudge had given his all and more as a manager. However, when the end came both were sacked and treated shabbily. They did deserve better.

That’s all folks. I am now putting away my soapbox – that is, until another rainy day.

Tomorrow we entertain Huddersfield. Please Brian, can we have three rashers of bacon – sorry, three points to keep us safe for Division 2 next season? But in the meantime I’ll keep biting my fingernails – what’s left of them.

See you later…

Barry Edge
Western Australia
April 25, 2003

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