With the wheeler-dealing manner of the used-car salesman he was in his "day job", and a habit of blowing clouds of cigar smoke, Bill Bell resembled an old-school football chairman from central casting.
Behind the stereotype lay a pragmatic, aspirational character, who, despite a tempestuous relationship with manager John Rudge, brought Port Vale the greatest decade in their 137-year history.
Under Bell, who has died after suffering from stomach cancer, and Rudge, who was nearly a quarter of the way through a 16-year tenure when Bell graduated to the chairmanship in 1987, Vale enjoyed two promotions, three Wembley finals, a spate of giant-killings in the FA Cup and a succession of record signings. The pair not only raised the club to the same status as Stoke City – and had Vale a division above their historically ascendant neighbours at the start of the 21st century – but guided them to their highest finish in 66 years, eighth in the second tier in 1996-97. Stoke are now in the Premier League, Vale in the basement division, League Two.
Bell had followed the club since 1948, when they played in Hanley, and two years later, aged 18, he worked as a maintenance mechanic on the construction of their new home, Vale Park, in Burslem. Fancifully touted as "the Wembley of the North", the ground was not in the team's class. The memory of rain-drenched nights watching his favourite Vale side, the FA Cup semi-finalists of 1953-54, may have informed his zeal for transforming it. In compliance with the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy, it became all-seated and all-covered. In 1992, Bell bought Chester's old main-stand roof and transported it to Burslem. He also opened a family enclosure and a disabled stand.
His partnership with Rudge began in 1987. The Blackcountryman had been promoted from assistant manager in 1983, and when Bell, by then established in a local car dealership, joined the board five months later, Vale were newly relegated to the old Fourth Division. The duo did not get on (though Rudge said after Bell's passing that they had made their peace), yet Bell was shrewd enough to back his manager in the transfer market.
In 1988, as a lowly Third Division team, Vale despatched Tottenham Hotspur from the FA Cup. The momentum and revenue generated by the cup run helped Rudge lead them to promotion the following year. Before the first Potteries derby since 1956, a Stoke fanzine described Bell as "dedicated to making Vale the No 1 team in the Potteries." It continued: "Bill also wants to find the lost city of Atlantis, be the first man to walk the Channel and skateboard up Mount Everest."
In the event, Vale had the measure of Stoke in their clashes and competed well with clubs such as Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds and West Ham. At Wembley they won the Autoglass Trophy but lost the third-tier play-off and Anglo-Italian Cup finals. In 1996 they dumped holders Everton from the FA Cup with a thrilling 3-1 replay victory; on the last day of 1996-97 they survived in what is now the Championship while Stoke – and Manchester City – were relegated; and in 1998, after drawing at Highbury, they led Arsenal, en route to the Premier League and FA Cup double, in a penalty shoot-out before losing.
Crowds, however, remained small. Rudge, having made handsome profits on selling signings such as Jon McCarthy, Steve Guppy, Ian Taylor and Gareth Ainsworth, found it hard to keep pulling rabbits from the hat. Bell's standing with the public, who invariably sided with Rudge in their increasingly bitter spats, all but collapsed in 1999 when he sacked the manager during a long run of poor results. His final three years in charge saw work start on a stand which remains unfinished and a slide into administration with debts of £2.4m. The supporter-led consortium which succeeded him in 2002 plumb greater depths of opprobrium and led Vale into administration.
In 2010 Bell was fined for threatening a builder with an axe in a dispute over the bill for work on a toilet at his home. But on his death, ex-players and fans focused on his achievements. Robbie Earle, a Rudge protégé who represented Jamaica in the World Cup finals, recalled a tough negotiator who always struck a hard bargain in Port Vale's interest, while the Supporters' Club started its annual meeting with a minute's applause in his memory.
William Thomas Bell, football club chairman and businessman: born Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent 21 January 1932; married Jean (one daughter); died Brown Edge, Staffordshire Moorlands 11 February 2013.