Football: Interview: The master builder's biggest test

The famed street wisdom of Vale's faithful servant has never been more crucial. By Andrew Longmore

ONE of the abiding pleasures of the FA Cup is its ability to throw new faces into the kaleidoscope of football imagery. A brief respite from the Premier League dream factory is welcome on the first Saturday of the New Year, a healthy reminder of life in the poorer suburbs of Disneyworld. John Rudge needs no introduction, but it is good to see him again.

If it's Rudgie and Port Vale it must be FA Cup time. Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton would testify to the shrewd football brain that lies behind that impish smile. Port Vale, Rudge will remind you almost as soon as he settles back in his shoebox of an office underneath the half- demolished main stand at Vale Park, gave the champions two of their toughest games of last season. Only penalties and David Seaman saved them. The thought prompts the first tale of the hour.

Afternoon of the Arsenal replay. Rudge is sitting in his office after training with his youth coach, plotting Arsenal's downfall on a magnetic board. They have just put Gary Porter on Dennis Bergkamp when there's a knock at the door. It's Jill, who washes the kit. The Creda washing machine has broken, could John fix it? Creda are the club sponsors. "Yeah," says Rudgie, "I'll give them a call in the minute." The door shuts. "I wonder," he muses, "whether Arsene Wenger is sorting out the washing machine at this moment." And he returns to his vain masterminding of the future Double winners.

Next Sunday, Rudge is back on the FA Cup trail, playing host to the dandies of Liverpool and it is fair odds that Gerard Houllier, their urbane French manager, would not have the faintest idea what lies in store. Like the ground, Vale are in a period of transition, struggling in the league and in the transfer market. Some pounds 3m worth of players have been sold this season, in part payment for the new all-seater main stand. But the wacky economics of the big league has skewed the base rate for the lower divisions and Rudge's street-trading skills are being tested to the limit.

"I love building teams," he says. "But it's becoming more and more difficult. I have got some money to spend, but the problem is if I go into the reserves of a Premiership team like I used to, I've first got to attract the player to come here and then I've got to pay his wages. Players are now quite happy sitting in the reserves getting three times more than our players are getting. They ain't going to get a game in the first team, but they're saying: `What do I want to go to Port Vale for?' "

It's a fair question. Rudge's missus asked roughly the same 19 years ago when her husband was invited to become assistant manager to John McGrath at Vale Park. Rudge dropped her in the town centre, went to the club, picked her up later. "Why on earth have you brought me here?" she asked. Rudge's reputation for being a one-club man might have cost him the chance of testing his considerable skills more regularly against the sort of Premiership stooges he'll harry to the death on Sunday. He has had offers: Barnsley, Bristol Rovers, Bradford City, Preston. What he calls "sideways" moves, nothing which demanded his full attention.

"I've been through that front door a lot of times and I suppose I will regret that I've not had the opportunity to see if I could have been tested at a higher level. But they want big players and big names these days. I was a bread-and-butter player; pounds 3,000 was the highest signing-on fee I ever got. I've not made a lot of money out of football. But the most important thing to me is the missus and the two kids. I've never had the situation where I'm 150 miles away, coming back at weekends. We've always been together and that's worth more than money." And the local taxi drivers call him God and Alex Ferguson returns his calls.

Inside the game, his judgement of a player has brought widespread respect. An all-time Rudgie Development XI would include Ian Taylor, Mark Bright, Robbie Earle, Steve Guppy, John McCarthy, Gareth Ainsworth and Lee Mills. Some pounds 10m worth of rough diamond lovingly polished. When Rudge enquires about a player, other managers take another look. Like Dario Gradi up the road at Crewe, he looks after his players, has an eye on their future as well as the club's pocket. Officially, only Gradi has been manager of the same club longer than Rudge, but, counting his years as assistant, he holds the league's long-service medal. He will celebrate by bringing out a book, Managing to Survive, next year.

Yet there is an edginess to his manner, a legacy of a year in the twilight zone of the First Division. A question about what makes him angry prompts a typical verbal romp; from the joys of one-off cup matches, to judging and motivating players ("they're not frightened of me any more, but I can smell it when they're not right"), to the frustrations of his present team. What really angers him is people - "they" - not appreciating how hard it is to compete in the same division as Sunderland, Birmingham and Wolves, big-city teams who have been down on their luck. It can grind you down, he says. "I don't think we've got a team good enough to be in the top six. What I've got to make sure is that I've got a team that can keep a respectable place in the division."

Particularly, with a big new stand to fill. "Got to keep on chipping away, trying to improve." The thought triggers a reminiscence about better days. "Good teams are complementary, the pieces in the jigsaw fit. Earle and Walker in midfield, they could have played in the Premiership together, no problem. Simon Mills at right full-back, not a great defender but good on the ball and he had Aspin beside him to help out. Glover, good on the ball, slow but we had a quick left-back. Anything over the top he swept up. Up front, Futcher and Beckford, brains and whatever, Ford and Porter. Strengths and weaknesses intertwined. I'm not happy with the links in this side at the moment." He leans back, his balding head nearly touching the point of a Real Oviedo pennant hanging on the wall behind.

Liverpool should not be fooled. Rudge could set out a team of traffic cones for one afternoon. Preparations have already begun. At the club's Christmas concert, the apprentices staged a preview of the tie. Four of them bandaged and on crutches representing the ageing Vale defence and Michael Owen zipping round them like Sonic the Hedgehog. No one laughed louder than the manager, who now gets up from his chair and launches into full pantomime.

"To be honest, Liverpool's the last thing on my mind. Got Bolton on Monday and they're one of the best sides in the division. When the draw came out, I thought: `That's great'. But those games look after themselves." Men like John Rudge can build whole seasons around one cup tie. Thirty- five years in the game, three promotions, three trips to Wembley and never sacked. Loyalty, he would say, there ain't much about.

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