Cult hero Bob Pursell: he had an extraordinary footballing career, he helped set a club record that still stands and all the while, he was featured on a cigarette card on Rob Fielding’s wall.
Rob Fielding writes…
As a collector of Port Vale cigarette cards, I was unaware that I had a card featuring one of the club’s most interesting characters until I researched Bob Pursell’s history. It’s certainly a “zero to hero” story as he went from being banned from football for life to a war veteran, a key member of a notoriously mean Vale defence and ultimately a shareholder in the Valiants.
The Pursell cigarette card
So, cult hero readers, here is the fascinating story of Bob Pursell…
In the early 20th century, Pursell was one of a number of Scottish players to be snapped up by English clubs. Bob was a full-back and was snapped up by Liverpool during the first of many controversies during his career. Pursell was playing for Queen’s Park at the time and Liverpool were fined £250 for an illegal approach.
Nevertheless, the 22 year-old Scot joined the Reds and made his debut in 1911. Although he was only to make occasional appearances for Liverpool, one nearly proved to be his downfall. Pursell played in Liverpool’s controversial 2-0 loss to Manchester United in 1915. He gave away a penalty in that game and was subsequently found guilty of match-fixing alongside three of his colleagues and three United players. Ironically, Man Utd actually missed from the spot-kick that Pursell conceded.
The incident was known as the “Good Friday betting scandal” (in those days, the media clearly used the ‘Ronseal’ approach to naming scandals) and it subsequently emerged that Liverpool player Jackie Shelton was the ring-leader. In 1917, Shelton, a former Man Utd player, confirmed his guilt as did six other players, including Pursell who apologised for his part in the scandal.
However, that was not the end of things for Bob. Due to the players’ apologies and service in World War One, all the banned players were pardoned. One player who was killed in the war received a posthumous pardon. However, for Pursell, it was too late to resurrect his Liverpool career. He broke his arm on his return to the club in 1919 and made just one more appearance.
Meanwhile, back at Port Vale’s Old Recreation ground, the team was progressing nicely under the managership of Joe Schofield. The side had just completed their first season at the Old Recreation Ground in Hanley (finishing in 13th place, just three places below rivals Stoke, in the Second Division). One of the star performers had been a Scottish defender called Peter Pursell, the younger brother of Bob.
So, in 1920, Bob decided to join his brother and sign for the Valiants. The pair shored up the Vale defence to the extent that Vale finished above Stoke at the end of the 1920-21 season. Meanwhile, as is usual, the club was struggling for money and chairman Frank Huntbach launched a public appeal for funds. At a public meeting, the Chairman emphasised the club’s potential and the Pursell brothers were so moved that they each bought £5 worth of shares.
By the next season (1921-22) the Pursell brothers had hit their stride. Welsh International keeper Teddy Peers was a virtual bystander as Vale recorded a run of seven clean sheets – a record that still stands today. According to press reports “Peers was so confident he often felt able to lean casually on his goalpost to watch the Pursell brothers clear up any danger in front of him.”
However, the brothers’ run of good form was to come to an end in April 1922 when Bob broke his leg. He never played again.
Bob Pursell died in Hanley in 1974, aged 85 years of age.
Cult hero Bob Pursell
Cult credentials: Controversial, record-breaking, shareholding footballer