Vale’s finest manager – John Rudge

Site Editor Rob Fielding and others pay tribute to the long-serving former Port Vale manager in a special five part tribute to the Vale Park legend. Including quotes from Robbie Earle and Sir Alex Ferguson.

The tribute is in three parts:

1. A tribute to the great man

2. A review of the supporters dinner

3. Quotes from the supporters dinner

4. A tribute from a Watford website

5. Quotes about John Rudge

1. A Tribute from Rob Fielding



As the longest serving Port Vale manager this century, John Rudge took Port Vale to new heights while making an extraordinary transfer profit. His loyalty and devotion to the club over nineteen years has been acknowledged by football fans nationwide.

Rudge turned down lucrative offers from other teams (including Bradford and Preston) to stay with Vale, developed some of English football’s top players and remained loyal to a “proper passing game” throughout. “I like to play good football,” said Rudge, “And in my opinion that is the controlled pass and move game.” Vale played with two wingers as often as possible under Rudge’s Management.

Rudge, born in Wolverhampton, started off with Wolves schoolboys, but spent most of his unglamorous career playing on the wing with Huddersfield, Carlisle, Torquay, Bristol Rovers and Bournemouth. “My playing career was not exactly a sparkling affair” he admitted. His career was eventually cut short by an Achilles-tendon injury at 32, limiting his appearances to 211 and his goals to 70. Rudge found a post as an assistant to Mike Green at Torquay, before moving on to Port Vale.

Rudge joined Vale as Coach to John McGrath in 1980. From the first moment he arrived at Vale Park, he was helping out painting the dressing rooms. “We were bottom of the Fourth Division when John McGrath and myself took over at Vale Park,” Rudge says “They were very bleak times but we managed to avoid the drop and then get promotion.” In fact Rudge played a significant role in that promotion. When McGrath took ill, Vale took ten points out of twelve under Rudge.

A disasterous showing in the third Division saw Rudge take over as Manager in 1984. “I was the 15th Vale Manager since the war so I wasn’t surprised when they only chalked my name on the door when I became Manager,” said Rudge, “What did worry me was that they left the sponge hanging next to it, ready to wipe it off.”

Vale were pinned to the foot of the table with just six points from seventeen games. Rudge actually succeeded in lifting Vale out of the bottom four at one stage before they slipped back. “My biggest disappointment at Vale was getting relegated in 1984 after we had been promoted…(however) that gave me the opportunity to manage…” says Rudge.

Rudge took the club back to the Third Division in the 1985/6 season with a team including a player who would be significant to Rudge’s future success – Andy Jones. a £3000 buy from Rhyl who had also been attracting the interest of Arsenal. Rudge went to see the player but he was injured and started on the bench. However, Rudge’s wife persuaded him to stay just a little longer and when Jones eventually entered the field of play, Rudge saw enough to sign him.

The “chancer” as Rudge called him, went on to equal Vale’s post-war scoring record with 37 goals in a season and a goal on his International debut for Wales. Sold to Charlton for a club record £375,000 Rudge was able to rebuild his squad with the Jones’ cash. This “buy cheap, sell expensive” routine was to become a dominant feature in Rudge’s career.

The defining moment in Rudge’s career came after Jones was sold, on the 10th January 1988. Vale, had lost twelve games in a row and faced Conference side Macclesfield fin a FA Cup game. The Radio Five Live show “Giant Killers” revealed the ternsion behind the scenes, as skipper Phil Sproson explained Vale Directors had approached him to take over as Caretaker Manager if they lost. The score was still 0-0 with five minutes to go when Kevin Finney, a YTS player, headed the winner for Vale.

So Rudge survived and in the next round Vale defeated cup holders Spurs in a famous victory. Vale drew with First Division Watford in the fifth round before losing 2-0 in the replay. But this was merely a foretaste of the Cup heroics which were to characterise Rudge’s reign.

Rudge took the club into the heights of the Second Division in the next season. With som emoney to strengthen his side, he established the classic Rudge line-up. In defence were the stopper-player partnership of Aspin and Glover. In midfield there was the playmaker-box-tobox runner partnership of Walker and Earle. Upfront, the experienced Nicky Cross partnered goal machine Darren Beckford.

With Vale not employing a full-time scout, Rudge watched at least four games a week as he sought to strengthen the squad. However, Earle and Beckford moved on to bigger clubs and Vale were relegated again. But despite the drop, Vale enjoyed two great seasons in Division Two, winning the Autoglass Trophy at Wembley – arguably Rudge’s finest hour – and promotion a year later at Brighton.

Given Vale slender resources, Rudge’s record of three promotions, three Wembley visits and a string of FA Cup giant-killings become all the more laudable. In 1997, Vale finished in 8th place in Division One – their highest position for 50 years. As Rudge said, “We have made great strides over the last 10 years, we have grappled to change our unfashionable image and we have done that through playing good football.”

Revered by Vale supporters, respected throughout the country, the Port Vale Manager was a living legend and it was a shock when the end for Rudge finally came.

In 1999, the club were struggling to compete in the big-spending First Division, Rudge seemed unable to continue his transfer policy of picking up and grooming ‘chancers’. The club were struggling but it was still a surprise when Rudge was given a terse two paragraph notice of his dismissal as Manager. The offer of a job as Director of Football seemed to be only a token gesture.

After twenty years of loylaty and dedication to the unfashionable Port Vale, Rudge’s dismissal note did not even say “thank you.”

Playing staff were reportedly in tears and supporters outraged. However, despite protests from Burslem to Australia, Rudge left the club on the 18th January 1999. Even to the last, Rudge remained the gentleman and thanked fans for their support.

Rudge’s last words before leaving Port Vale were at a press conference.

“This is a sad occasion for me because Port Vale hasn’t been a job – it’s been a way of life and I’ve loved every minute of it. Over these traumatic days I’ve been overwhelmed with the support from fans. I’ve had cards, letters and even flowers – you would have thought it was a funeral. I will reply to them all but it will take time because there are hundreds. They have backed me through thick and thin and are the reason I’ve stayed when I’ve had better financial offers. Usually the crowds gets a manager the sack, but I would say Port Vale supporters have kept me in a job.” Rudge had left – but his legacy and legend will surely live on… and Port Vale fans still remember the man who during his spell in charge was simply “Mr Port Vale.”

2. The John Rudge Tribute Dinner

rudge-johnA report by Rob Fielding.

Walker’s shot swerving into the Spurs net… Sunshine as the team emerge onto Wembley’s famous sward… Those massed Autoglass celebrations in Burslem… Robbie Earle soaring for a winning goal versus Bristol Rovers… McCarthy sweeping the ball into the Everton net… Walker, McCarthy, Ainsworth, Guppy in full flow…

I’m sure that at least one if not all of these will be at the very top of every Vale fan’s treasured collection of Vale memories.

Well, last Saturday, it was time to pay tribute (as best we could) to a modest genius / legend / gentleman / hero going by the name of John Rudge who was directly responsible for all these great memories and so much more as well.

Looking back, on this unique night, the events of this unforgettable evening have also joined the list of the most precious of Vale recollections. On a night when words may struggle to define and illuminate what was a night of emotions, I will try my best to explain and describe the events of that night.

I think I’ve seen quite a lot of special events in my time, improbable cup wins, seemingly impossible trips to Wembley, acts of heroism beyond the call of duty…

But, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such an singular emotional, simultaneous, uniform, unique outpouring of affection, thanks and outright love by 700 people that night. When John Rudge entered the room, the room erupted into a celebration of the man who for so many had made their dreams come true. If ever Vale fans’ emotions and feelings on John Rudge could be crafted into noise then that extraordinary ovation that lasted for minute after minute after minute was it.

Then the cheers were replaced with a mass-singing of “Rudgie we love you!”. Again, it went ringing round the Trentham Ball Room for what seemed an age.

So, what about the events of this unique, special night?

Presented by Gerald Sindstat and Ray Stubbs (both of Match of the Day fame and providing services free of charge), the evening kicked off properly with a “This is your life” special on the Legend. On came players and people from Rudge’s past each offering their own tribute:

Bristol Rovers Manager Don Megson (and father of Gary Megson) had signed Rudgie for the then Eastville based club and he reminded us of a famous goal Rudge scored versus Manchester United.

The Chamberlain brothers paid their tribute together and talked about the Rudge early years.

Mark Grew offered a wonderful tribute and showed the bravery to turn up to the occasion despite his current employment with a club still sourly at odds with their former Manager.

Phil Sproson offered his heartfelt thanks and for a brief moment, a representative of the most loyal playing family in the club’s history stood side-by-side with the loyalist of the club’s Managers.

The quietly spoken, Ray Walker, perhaps one of the most influential of all Rudge signings, spoke with obvious admiration and feeling about his mentor for 406 Vale games.

Andy Porter came on and referred to Rudge as “the gaffer” at the end of each sentence. He was appearing just 3 hours after ninety minutes ofaction for Wigan Athletic in the Play-Offs. The dedication to the former boss by his former players was by now obvious.

Peter Ward, the Stockport Captain in 1991, put aside his personal disappointment at a Wembley defeat to pay a magnanimous tribute to his Valiant victors in the Autoglass Trophy. It was a magnificent selfless gesture on a extraordinary night.

Robbie Earle came on to remark that “Mark Bright and myself have often said John Rudge has had a bigger influence on our careers than anyone else”

The magnificent Neil Aspin, spurned an offer from host Steve Lee to plug his own well-deserved testimonial to say – “this night is about John Rudge not me. I would not have signed for any other Manager” said Aspin – his admiration for the great man all too evident.

And finally… a video link up with the unique “Robbie Williams” to say his thank you to similarly unique person. “(Port Vale) is part of my heritage and John Rudge is one of the last people I remember before the insanity of becoming famous. The atmosphere you created is something that will stick in my memory until I die. You have been phenomenal for the club and phenomenal for me.”

Shortly afterwards, other ex Vale players were introduced. Unfortunately, there were too many to recall everyone but I do remember them including Gareth Ainsworth, Peter Swan, Alan Webb and Russell Bromage. A telegram was read out by Steve Guppy. It simply read: “I now realise how much I owe John Rudge for my career”. Somehow, that seemed to sum up how every ex-Vale player felt.

The tributes continued. The cheers flowed. A huge gang of people followed Rudgie’s every move. They sought to get one final autograph, to utter their personal thanks and offer a final tribute to the great man. As usual, their hero complied, with humble attention paid to every demand and request.

A video displayed the Legend’s – and almost by default Port Vale’s – finest moments. That Spurs game, that Stoke FA Cup victory, Playoffs won, Everton destroyed, Wembley conquered, – each event so special, so charged with memories and all singularly down to the modest, quietly spoken man sitting and watching on the top table.

Several tributes followed. Geoff Wakeman made a heartfelt and brilliant speech on behalf of the Official Supporters Club. It is perhaps time to briefly break away from the Rudge tribute to pay a similar “thank you” to the Supporters Club who had worked so very tirelessly to make this unique event happen. Without their efforts such an occasion would not have been possible. It is also galling to note that it has taken ordinary fans to fashion this night whilst the club itself has not uttered one single public word of “thanks” to John Rudge. Something they should be thoroughly ashamed of.

Finally, it was time for the great man himself to make a speech. He said:

“This makes me very humble. I can’t think of many or any managers who have been to a dinner like the one you have bestowed on me tonight and I thank you most sincerely. Over the last 19 years we have had some absolutely fantastic times together and we’ve had some fabulous players who have done Port Vale proud. I’ve got some great memories and tonight is one I will remember for the rest of my life.”

As the formal procedings ended, Rudge was brought over to the ValeMail (The Port Vale Internet Mailing List) tables to receive the group’s gift to the Great Man (thanks to Ade Fieldhouse for his work on this). He seemed shocked to hear how Vale fans from all over the world had contributed.   Typically, for Rudge, on Sunday morning, he called Eddie Jackson, one of the ValeMail members, to thank us for our support. Yet another unselfish gesture which is so typical of the great man.   You could argue that this report has been painted with unrealistic or romantisied ramblings. But if ever one man deserved this night, this tribute and so much more from Port Vale football club, Rudge did. And if ever one night was so impossible to describe accurately without emotion intruding – this was the one.

These words will never properly convey the feelings that were there that night. I just feel that even after parting from the club, I’ve been given one more final irreplaceable Rudgie memory.

3. Quotes from the Tribute Dinner


“What a great night… It was a privilege to be present. I don’t know about Rudgie but I was in tears!”

– Dave Wills – Vale fan

“What I thought made it so ‘magical’ was that it was just like one big ‘Family do.”

– Dave Felstead – Co-Organiser, Vale fan

“That reception you gave John Rudge will live with me for the rest of my life.”

– Ray Stubbs – Host of the Rudge Tribute Night.

“It really was a night we will all remember for many years to come.”

– Neil Fletcher – Vale fan.

“It was an evening unique to the Potteries, perhaps unique to football, and a triumph for those fans and professionals who combined their efforts behind the scenes to conjure up an emotional, unforgettable occasion.”

– Martin Spinks, Staffordshire Evening Sentinel

Rudgie, we thank you…

4. It’s “Happy Hour” at the Last Chance Saloon

rudgeBy staff at ‘Blind, Stupid and Desperate’, a Watford website

The First Division soap opera is reaching new heights of absurdity. As directors continue to ignore the very obvious reality that their investments can go down as well as up, that the Second Division is as close as the Premiership (and easier to get into), the casualties are piling up. Portsmouth are now in administration with Oxford likely to follow; Crystal Palace have paid the inflated price for an absurd dalliance with Terry Venables; no less than seven of twenty-four clubs (Bristol City, Swindon, Wolves, Palace, QPR, Bury and Port Vale) have changed managers.

And so we get to the point. Of all the ridiculous, idiotic decisions made in English football so far this season (and let’s face it, there have been a few) one stands out.

After fifteen years and 843 matches, Port Vale have sacked John Rudge. You do have to wonder what qualifies some people to own and run a football club, I do struggle to understand what’s going on in their empty heads.

John Rudge was Port Vale. No, scratch that, John Rudge is Port Vale.

In footballing terms, he was simply the best manager that Vale will ever have. He may not have achieved headline-grabbing success – fittingly for a seemingly modest, understated man, his reign leaves no indelible mark on the national consciousness – but that shouldn’t mean that what he did achieve passes unnoticed.

Three promotions and three Wembley visits isn’t the stuff of childhood dreams – but for an classically unfashionable club like Vale to be occasionally challenging for the Premiership was truly remarkable. As Watford fans ought to remember, all things are relative. Crucially, however, Rudge did it differently from others.

Many have bruised their way into contention, winning no friends. Vale, on the other hand, were one of every season’s highlights. Their visits to Vicarage Road were never likely to break box office records, yet Rudge’s sides were guaranteed to at least attempt to provide good entertainment. The formula never changed – passing football, forward-thinking, always with two fine wingers – but, as I remarked earlier in the season, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Vale were frequently quite lovely to watch. More than that, they were distinctively lovely – a team that you could pick out in an identity parade (“It was the one with the two wingers what done it, officer”). First Division football will be much poorer for his absence.

In the process of quietly building his teams, Rudge unearthed so much talent, a great deal of which is exercising its considerable earning power elsewhere – Mark Bright at Charlton, Robbie Earle and Gareth Ainsworth at Wimbledon, Ian Taylor at Villa, Steve Guppy at Leicester, Robin van der Laan at Derby, Jon McCarthy at Birmingham, Lee Mills at Bradford. That’s nearly ten million quid’s worth. Several of these, and current, players appear to have that unshakeable, burning loyalty to Rudge that indicates a manager who is not only obeyed, not only respected but loved. There are few who can claim that. That he appears to have done most of this transfer trickery via his own scouting is fairly typical of the man.

To dismiss him is one thing. There is, if you’re that way inclined, some cause for it – Brian Horton will provide a major culture shock for Vale fans but he’s performed minor miracles at Brighton and may do the same at his new club (although it’s difficult to imagine that anyone will be able to resist the eternal pull of gravity like Rudgie could). To dismiss him with a two paragraph memo that doesn’t even bother to say “thank you”, to try to put him out to pasture as “director of football” above a new manager with whom he shares no footballing philosophies whatsoever, well, that’s just too much. Have some respect. If Rudge was a gentleman, he was clearly one of a dying breed.

Football is changing. If it has no room for people like John Rudge, then it is not changing for the better.

(reproduced by kind permission of ‘Blind, Stupid and Desperate’

5. Quotes about John Rudge

“Every Port Vale supporter should get down on their knees and thank the Lord for John Rudge.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

“One of football’s genuine gentlemen.” – William Johnson  (The Daily Telegraph)

“If John left Port Vale tomorrow there would not be a rush to fill his position because every manager in the game knows how difficult he would be to emulate.” – Lou Macari

“He’s such a hard act to follow. It’s like following Busby or Shankley. Without him they’d probably be in the conference.” – Tommy Docherty

“He’s one of the most respected Managers outside of the Premier League. I owe most of what I’ve achieved to John Rudge.” – Mark Bright

“If you look at his record during the 19 years he’s been there it’s unbelievable. The things he’s done for the club management wise, football wise and financially are a credit to him.” – Gareth Ainsworth

“How do you measure success? Is it winning trophies like United down the years or is it spending 13 or 14 years at Port Vale and having to sell your best players. Every time you go to a game you see him with that bonnet on. He’s carried on like that for years. That’s dedication for you. He’s done a fantastic job at Vale, unbelievable” – Sir Alex Ferguson

“I’ll always be grateful to John Rudge because he gave me my chance in league football.” – Ian Taylor

“Rudge established himself as one of football’s loaves-and-fishes merchants, lifting Vale to a position in the Football League above their traditionally more successful neighbours, Stoke City. Just as his flat cap became a familiar sight on touchlines, so his trademark away from the action became his ability to unearth and develop talent. Unfortunately for Rudge, Vale’s modest support and slender resources meant he was constantly having to sell his discoveries and rebuild his teams. Given those circumstances, his record of three promotions, three Wembley visits and a string of FA Cup giant-killings was all the more laudable.” – Phil Shaw  (The Independent)

“John is very well respected throughout the Football League, I know that since moving away from Port Vale just how much other clubs think of John.” – Jon McCarthy

“He takes credit for what was achieved because it was him who made all the transfers.” – Ray Walker

“John has done a fabulous job here… Be realistic – people used to say ‘Port Vale – where the hell’s that?’ It was a non-league set-up here and he got us pushing for the Premiership at one stage and we’re still in the First Division. John bought us all here, a lot of us for next to nothing. I was going nowhere at Orient and I’ve had four years of First Division football. I’m grateful to him for that.” – Ian Bogie

“He spoke from his heart because he is Port Vale through and through… He hasn’t got the recognition he deserves.” – Martin Foyle

“Largely by dint of his efforts, Vale have more money in the bank – believed to be in excess of £2m – than they have ever had and the stadium will soon look something like it was envisaged 50 years ago.” – Chris Harper  (Staffordshire Sentinel)

“Over all these years Rudge has given so much to Port Vale and in return he’s been kicked in the teeth. It’s about time Rudgie looked after number one, went to a real club that appreciated him and got the recognition he deserves from that club because he’ll never get that from Port Vale.” – Anonomous Vale Fan

“But for him, it is possible I would never have had a chance to play for a top flight club. John is not just a former colleague, he has become a close friend (the Port Vale players) couldn’t work with a better Manager.” – Robbie Earle

“One of the greatest talent spotters in the lower Divisions has been forever lost to the cause and, rest assured, Vale’s loss will soon be someone else’s gain. We may eventually look back on January 18, 1999 and conclude that it was a far sadder day for Port Vale than it was for John Rudge.” – Martin Spinks  (Staffordshire Sentinel)

“I’m really going to miss John and I just hope that he comes back. He’s been a part of my life since 1986 now. I’ll probably miss him more than anyone else. We’ve had a great relationship over the years and I don’t think we’ve ever had a cross word. He’ll be a great loss to me, never mind Port Vale.” – Mark Grew

“I sincerely hope that John’s magnificent service to Port Vale will be recognised by the club at some point in the future, as not to would be a dis-service not only to John, but also to the club. Nineteen years of hard work, self-sacrifice and service to one football club borders on disbelief – especially in this day and age.” – Sir Alex Ferguson


Please share this on: