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Paul Ware: Footballer loved by Stoke fans for his honest endeavour

His brutal drive from 30 yards sent his side to Wembley, but he missed the final through injury

Two types of footballer, broadly speaking, are revered by Stoke City supporters. One is the ball-playing artist epitomised by Stanley Matthews or Alan Hudson, who, in the era of hot, dusty potbanks and pits, provided the thousands who toiled in them with an escape into a world of finesse and fantasy. The other is the honest, unassuming artisan who, like those paying their hard-earned cash to watch them, positively relishes an arduous shift. Paul Ware embodied the second category.

Ware, who has died at the age of 42 after suffering from a rare form of brain tumour, was viewed by Stoke fans as the archetypal local boy who understood what it meant to wear the red and white stripes. The perception grew after the midfielder's move to Stockport County for a nominal sum in 1994. The deal was one of the last acts of Joe Jordan's 10-month tenure as manager at the Victoria Ground. Many of the faithful – rueing the absence during the 1990s of home-grown talent in a team that had historically drawn heavily on the area – never forgave the Scot.

In fact, Ware was born and grew up in south Cheshire, outside the Potteries but within Stoke's catchment area. Having joined the club on YTS forms in 1985 he turned professional three years later on his 18th birthday. By then he had been blooded in the first team by Mick Mills, facing Shrewsbury in the final match of 1987-88. Mills' successor Alan Ball, perhaps seeing something of himself in the 5ft 8in ball-winner for whom perpetual motion and fearless tackling came naturally, made Ware a fixture in his side. However, it was under the guidance of another diminutive former international, Lou Macari, that he really blossomed.

Ian Cranson, a senior member of Stoke's squad at the beginning of the 1990s, described Ware as "a real Macari-type character – a battler who gave everything for the team and was someone we all knew we could rely on". Macari himself recalled a "down-to-earth, genuine person" whose sole focus was on excelling for Stoke. He added pointedly: "I look at his attitude and character and then look at some of the players who are in the Premier League these days. There's absolutely no comparison."

Ware was colloquially known as "Tupper". The nickname stemmed from Tupperware, though those who saw him play and were not acquainted with the humour of the Six Towns could have been forgiven for assuming its roots lay in the tenacious, resilient postwar comic-book hero Alf Tupper, aka "Tough of the Track", the welder-cum-athlete who could run all day (especially after fish 'n' chips). Alf's last appearance, in a newspaper, came in 1992, which was coincidentally the year when Ware scored the goal for which all Stoke followers of a certain vintage remember him.

As members of the old Third Division, Macari's team contested the Autoglass Trophy and advanced to play Peterborough over two legs in the Southern final. After a 3-3 draw at home, 4,000 Stoke fans travelled east more in hope than expectation. John Coates, son of the current Stoke chairman Peter Coates and now joint chief executive of Bet365, travelled to the match on a "rickety old coach" which had its windscreen shattered, forcing passengers to take it in turns to wipe rain off the driver's glasses so that they would arrive in time.

The match was goalless in the second half when Stoke were awarded a free-kick 30 yards out. John Coates, who had been in the year below Ware at secondary school, "expressed concern" when it became clear he was going to shoot. Yet a brutal, right-footed drive speared the ball past the defensive wall and beyond the goalkeeper's outstretched hand. Stoke went on to beat Stockport at Wembley, although the man who sent them there missed the final because of a knee injury.

While Stoke won promotion as champions the following season, 1992-93, Ware's starting place became less secure. He still contributed to the cause, coming off the bench to score twice with headers in an unlikely cameo at centre-forward to turn a barren stalemate against Huddersfield into a 3-0 romp. When Macari left for Celtic late in 1993, Jordan took his place and would deploy Ware only once in the next 10 months, in a 6-2 drubbing at Luton, before selling him on after 141 appearances and 14 goals for Stoke.

In his 54 games (four goals) for Stockport he helped the club reach the second tier, winning their goal of the season award in 1995-96 for a volley against Carlisle. He also served Cardiff (on loan), Macclesfield and Rochdale as well as playing non-League football for Hednesford (two spells) and Nuneaton before retiring in 2002, going on to work in banking and insurance, but he never recaptured the sense of belonging he felt at Stoke.

Paul David Ware, footballer; born Congleton, Cheshire 7 November 1970; played for Stoke City 1985-94, Stockport County 1994-97, Cardiff City (loan) 1997, Macclesfield Town 1999-2000, Rochdale 2000-02; married Tracey (two daughters); died Sandbach, Cheshire 17 April 2013.