We’ve all probably had that dream. You know, the one about listening to the Champions League theme playing at Vale Park, every stand packed to the rafters as the lads prepare to take on Barcelona, scarves held proudly aloft and the crowd full of awe, as Lionel Messi juggles the ball ahead of kick-off…
James Russell writes…
Then we wake up, rub those dreamy images from our bleary eyes, and realise that the nearest Port Vale will get to continental adventures any time soon, is a trip to Grimsby and fish n’ chips looking out over the North Sea. But hey, such is life being a diehard supporter of a club languishing in the lower reaches of the English game – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is, however, one player currently at Port Vale who has experienced magical European nights, for real, even if it was somewhat briefly. He might be well into the twilight of his career, but 35-year-old player-coach Danny Pugh made three Champions League appearance…
Of course, there are other ways of experiencing our continental fantasies with Port Vale, that more than a few of us will have done over the years. Whether it’s playing FIFA or building our own coaching legacy in Football Manager, it’s likely there’s plenty of us who have scratched the itch for glory by conquering Europe with pixel versions of The Valiants.
There is, however, one player currently at Port Vale who has experienced magical European nights, for real, even if it was somewhat briefly. He might be well into the twilight of his career, but 35-year-old player-coach Danny Pugh made three Champions League appearances, one of which included his official first-team debut with the Manchester United.
Back during the 2002-03 season, Sir Alex Ferguson handed Pugh his first appearance during the 5-2 win against Maccabi Haifa at Old Trafford, replacing Ruud van Nistelrooy as a late substitute. He also featured in games against Juventus and Deportivo La Coruña, before the Red Devils were eventually eliminated by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
Compared to these days under Jose Mourinho, with Champions League predictions suggesting Man Utd will be lucky to qualify from the group stage this season, back when Pugh was trying to make his breakthrough, United under Ferguson were regarded as one of the habitual favourites to lift the trophy, despite the nine-year gap from 1999 to 2008 in doing so.
The wait for Pugh to experience continental competition again would be even longer. After leaving Old Trafford for spells with Leeds United and Preston, he was a key player helping Stoke City end their 23-year exile from the English elite, as they won promotion to the Premier League. Coincidentally enough, the same season his former club Man Utd were celebrating their 2008 Champions League triumph.
For Pugh, the next taste of European action eventually came thanks to an excellent FA Cup run, and although Stoke were defeated by Man City in the 2011 final, they still gained a Europa League spot. The following 2011-12 season, Pugh made three appearances in the competition and scored once, with the Potters eventually bowing out of the competition against Valencia.
The journey since then has seen Pugh feature at several clubs, albeit without returning to the same lofty heights and heading towards the latter years of his career. Nevertheless, he’s settled in well at Port Vale since arriving in January 2017, plus his wealth of experience is always a bonus, as he looks ahead to becoming an increasingly important part of the coaching staff, off the pitch.