Football: Resourceful Rudge still reigns against all the odds

FA Cup countdown
It was Boxing Day. The bus bringing Port Vale back from a 4-0 pounding at Preston had just dropped their new manager off at their rusting, rotting ground. Bottom of the Third Division by the length of the M6, their coffers were also emptier than a chairman's promise. "I remember sitting in this office," says John Rudge, "and thinking: `Where the bloody hell do we go from here?'''

Fourteen Christmases later, Rudge has cause to ponder the same quandary. Vale, on the fringe of the First Division play-off zone in mid-November, face a relegation battle after six successive defeats - equalling the sequence which led to his promotion in succession to John McGrath in 1983.

The immediate, factual answer to Rudge's question illustrates how far Vale have come under his understated stewardship. On Saturday they visit Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup, after which he will have managed the Burslem club in competitive fixtures against every League side except Chelsea, Coventry and Wycombe.

To summarise the story behind this remarkable fact: after narrowly failing to retrieve a lost cause in that first season, Rudge has presided over three promotions and a further relegation. Vale have also made three trips to Wembley, enjoyed cup-tie jaunts to Old Trafford, Anfield, Goodison, Villa Park, Elland Road and Italy, as well as coming out even in derbies with once-dominant Stoke City. Not bad for a reign that opened with a home defeat by Lincoln before 2,800 diehards.

Alex Ferguson, whose faith in pure footballing values Rudge shares, reckons everyone connected with Port Vale should go down on their knees and thank the Lord for him. Yet the 53-year-old Rudge is under no illusions that his loyalty will be reciprocated if the present slide is not arrested. By the same token, he takes confidence from the knowledge that he has been within one defeat of the sack "more than once" and bounced back.

Exactly 10 years ago, when Vale were floundering in the Third, they met non-League Macclesfield in the third round. "We didn't play well but a lad called Kevin Finney got the winner late on," Rudge recalls. "I'd almost certainly have gone if we hadn't got through, but then we drew Tottenham at home.''

The Spurs match changed the course of the club's history. Rudge can still picture Terry Venables inspecting a Vale Park quagmire and telling Ossie Ardiles: "This one's not for you." The decision gave Vale a psychological fillip and they won 2-1 with goals by two Rudge stalwarts, Phil Sproson and Ray Walker.

"The club had been yo-yoing between the Third and Fourth for 30 years. That Cup run helped put us back on the map. The TV and advertising revenue it brought in also helped us buy better players.''

Rudge had already demonstrated his ability to wheel and deal, paying Rhyl pounds 5,000 for a striker called Andy Jones and selling him to Charlton for pounds 350,000. The pattern of unearthing rough diamonds and turning them into gems has become a trademark.

"When I bought Darren Beckford for pounds 15,000 from Manchester City we were so hard up our fans had to raise half the money. We got pounds 925,000 from Norwich for him.

"Later I paid pounds 15,000 to a little club named Moor Green for Ian Taylor. We ended up taking pounds 1m from Sheffield Wednesday for him and he's now doing brilliantly at Aston Villa.''

In the 12 months between the vanquishing of Venables, Vale's biggest signings soared from the pounds 40,000 bracket to pounds 200,000. Even so, it was not until earlier this season that Rudge bought his first pounds 500,000 player, the Lincoln winger Gareth Ainsworth.

The anatomy of the transfer was archetypal Rudge. "I'd signed Robin van der Laan from a Dutch club for pounds 80,000 and sold him to Derby for pounds 475,000 plus Lee Mills. I went straight out and bought Jon McCarthy from York. I'd offered pounds 300,000 which is what I thought he was worth, but they were insisting on pounds 450,000.

"I told the chairman [Bill Bell] we should go for it because we were effectively getting two for the price of one. We eventually sold Jon to Birmingham for pounds 1.5m and replaced him with Gareth."

Among his other proteges are Steve Guppy, Robbie Earle and Mark Bright. "I've sold pounds 7m worth of players," Rudge says. "Although I've reinvested part of that, a lot has gone into improving the ground.

"When you've got resources like ours you have to buy them cheap and sell them dear. I think building teams is my big strength, but other managers picking off your players is forever weakening your hand. And while you're reconstructing you've got to keep winning games.''

Vale can not afford a full-time scout. Instead, Rudge relies on tip-offs from a network of friends in contacts built up over 35 years. He spends four nights a week watching matches and attempts to be "like an encyclopedia of players".

"People ask why I don't delegate, but there's no one to delegate to. There's only me, Billy Dearden [assistant manager] and Mark Grew [youth coach] running the show. There can't be any other First Division outfit - competing with Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Sheffield United - run by three blokes!''

There have been tempting offers, from Preston, Bradford and much closer to home. Like a man with a mission, Rudge has resisted them. Now he is looking to the trip to Arsenal as an opportunity, like the tie against the other half of north London's elite, to revive morale and raise funds.

Although he played at Highbury only once, for Bournemouth reserves, Rudge spent a week with the Gunners 20 years ago, studying Don Howe's coaching methods. The likely clash between the pounds 7.5m Dennis Bergkamp and his compatriot Mark Snijders, a centre-back Vale picked up free from Alkmaar, encapsulates the disparity between the clubs.

The chance "to show Burslem to Bergkamp", as he puts it, could provide an interesting chapter for the autobiography on which he is working. The provisional title, Managing To Survive, could be seen as tempting fate given Vale's parlous position, but Arsene Wenger should be warned that John Rudge's reputation owes more to success against the odds than to mere survival.