Cult Hero 27. John McGrath

Cult Hero 27. John McGrath

The first manager to enter our cult hall of fame, McGrath’s reign may have been outshone by that of John Rudge but nevertheless McGrath enjoyed a memorable, brief and (at-least partially) successful spell with the Valiants..

Name: John McGrath
Cult credentials: Charismatic, quotable and partially successful manager
Time at Vale: 1981-1983
Managerial record: 181 games (74 wins, 53 draws, 65 defeats)

The underated John McGrath

By Rob Fielding

The charismatic McGrath celebrates with a “gorilla” as Vale celebrate promotion

Our cult heroes are not the greatest personalities, players or manager; they are not universal heroes but instead are people who may divided opinion and who nevertheless brought something memorable to the club. With those criteria, McGrath is a shoe-in to be the first manager on our cult list…

His reign and skills may have been outshone by those of John Rudge but nevertheless McGrath enjoyed a memorable, brief and (at-least partially) successful spell with the Valiants.

After a period of “managerial musical chairs” in the late 70’s (four managers came and went in two years) McGrath was a crucial stabilising presence before the Rudge era. He instilled discipline within the players, levying two fines in his first fortnight in charge.

McGrath also brought flair, charisma and quotable copy to the job. McGrath was the Sentinel’s best friend with memorable quotes such as “the holiday is over” (when he joined the club) and the ad lib and alliterative “We blew it at Burslem” (to explain the side’s poor home form in 1980-1981).

McGrath also belonged to the school of unorthodox football managers. He once placed fifteen players on the transfer list (which resulted in a six-match unbeaten run) and sent assistant John Rudge on a scouting mission, only to rip up the report and telling the squad “It’s not about them, it’s about us!”

Rudge is a rich source of McGrath anecdotes. Here’s a couple from the “Port Vale Tales” books. Rudge recalls painting the dressing-rooms with Lol Hamlett but “John was crafty because when the phone rang… it was the last we saw of him.” Rudge also recalls how McGrath tried to get to Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park for a scouting trip – and ended up at Accrington Stanley’s ground instead!

Phil Sproson, who rose to prominence under McGrath is also complimentary about his influence calling McGrath the “Bruce Forsyth” of the , a “right comic” but also and more importantly, a “great help” and “I’ll always be grateful because he taught me how to play centre-half.”

Popular with both the players and the pubs in Burslem, McGrath’s finest hour was the promotion season of 1982-1983. Fine work in the transfer market had brought the likes of Steve Fox, Bob Newton, Ernie Moss, Geoff Hunter and a young Neville Southall (on loan) to Vale Park. The side duly gained promotion to Divison Three after an away win over Stockport County and Phil Sproson, Russell Bromage, Hunter and Fox were named in the division’s team of the year as a result of their exploits.

Promotion celebrations in 1983

But McGrath failed to build on his promotion success. He made crucial errors in the transfer market replacing the likes of Bob Newton, Ernie Moss and Jimmy Greenoff with the inferior Tommy Gore and Martin Henderson while Gary Pollard and Chris Pearce were also poor signings.

As a result, the team had an awful start to their Division Three campaign and John McGrath was replaced by John Rudge in December.

Although, the rest as they say is history… McGrath’s regime light the touch paper for Rudge’s unprecedented success and McGrath makes a worthy first managerial entrant into our cult hall of fame…

John McGrath sadly passed away in 1998.

John McGrath 1938 to 1998
RIP. Forever Valiant


  1. Great to read about John McGrath. So many fond memories, he had so much charisma and knew exactly how to whip up the fans for the big games. I always remember his comment when he arrived when he described the players “skills” saying that most of them could control the ball as far as he could kick it. I loved the 81-83 period when McGrath took us to 8th and then promotion the following year. Away matches were great, big followings all the time like Crewe, Bury, Chester, Hull, Wimbledon, York, Stockport of course. It was the first time I’d seen Vale get promoted after 8 years of mostly grim fair.

    So McGrath will always hold a special part in Vale’s history for me. Even when it all went pear shaped I still believed in him and was with the several hundred who chanted his name at Burnley after we lost 7. I can still picture him looking up and applauding us and looking embarrased after what his last game in charge. But he was like the pied piper and we’d have stuck with him.

    Great times…RIP JM

  2. I think McGrath played a part in helping to develop John Rudge and I am grateful for that.

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