Football: Rudge in the market for another spur: Port Vale's manager is arming his big game hunters to cull the Wolves. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the mysteries of managerspeak is the phrase: 'We set our stall out.' For John Rudge, who guides Port Vale into Saturday's fourth-round visit from his home-town team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, experience transcends the expression.

While the tie rages 35 miles away in the Potteries, it will be business as usual on the Rudge family's fruit-and-veg stall in Wolverhampton. It was there - and on the Molineux terraces - that the man hoping to put a banana skin under First Division Wolves learned the relationship between hard graft and life's sweeter moments.

As a boy in the mid-1950s, Rudge used to rise early to collect the truck from a rat-infested cellar known as 'the vaults', and push it uphill to market. (Ideal preparation, some would argue, for the task he was to take on at Vale Park, where 11 years in charge make him the League's third longest-serving manager behind Oldham's Joe Royle and Dario Gradi at Crewe.)

Then it was on to school, where he showed such footballing promise that he represented the town, before heading back to help his mother with the Cox's and King Edward's.

Evenings were spent in interminable games of street football. Except when Billy Wright and Co were putting Spaniards or Soviets to the sword. On those magical, old-gold nights, the young Rudge was given an orange box from the stall to ensure he saw it all from the South Bank.

Wolves were in his blood. Soon they were in the family. 'My sister met one of the reserves, Peter Clark,' the 49-year-old Rudge recalled. 'She was already going out with someone but I kept telling her: 'This is the one for you.' They ended up getting married.'

In a perfect world, Rudge would have gone on to captain Wolves. Instead, 15 injury-blighted years as an artful journeyman striker brought fewer than 250 League appearances (and a respectable 70 goals) with five rather less fashionable clubs.

First stop was Huddersfield. 'I took over Denis Law's digs after he was sold to Manchester City,' Rudge said. 'I remember him leaving a pair of shoes in the wardrobe, and my father showing them to everyone in the pub]'

Chances to fill Law's boots were rare. Not until he joined Carlisle did Rudge sample regular first-team fare. The pay, pounds 27/10- a match, was hardly lavish, and he missed nearly as many as he played. 'One press man told me I was the only player he'd ever known who could pull a muscle putting on a tracksuit. It was hurtful but true.'

In 1967, the side assembled cheaply by Alan Ashman came third in what is now the First Division. Crucially for the development of Rudge's thinking, they did it with a style based on touch and passing.

When Ashman left, Tim Ward had the job of sustaining Carlisle's shoestring success. He stayed a year. 'The beginning of the end for Tim was when we'd lost heavily away and coming back we ran out of petrol on the Shap,' Rudge said.

Bob Stokoe's arrival also signalled a change for Rudge. Three years at Torquay were followed by three with Bristol Rovers alongside the 'Smash & Grab' duo of Bannister and Warboys. But at Bournemouth he spent more time on the treatment table than on the pitch.

Rudge had retired and was coaching Torquay when, late in 1979, he agreed to become John McGrath's No 2 at Port Vale. Initial impressions of Stoke-on-Trent were 'bleak, to say the least. . . a culture shock'. Once, when he was still commuting from Devon, he set off in sunshine wearing short sleeves and arrived in snow. Now he loves the place and the people.

Then there was the club: deep in debt, gates around 2,500 and lying 90th in the League (four divisions behind Stoke City). 'I remember John marking the team photo, saying: 'We don't want those eight. You take them.' They became known as 'the lepers'.

'In our first year we avoided a re-election plea by one goal. The next season we made great progress - we came sixth from bottom.'

Having escaped the Fourth, Vale were nine points adrift at the foot of the Third when the volatile McGrath was sacked in December 1983. Rudge stepped up, quietly confident in his own ability but with no great expectations. The rest, to coin a phrase, is his story.

Some claim Vale's victory over Terry Venables's Tottenham, six years ago this weekend, as the turning point. 'What really launched us,' Rudge suggested, 'was buying Andy Jones for pounds 3,000 from Rhyl and selling him to Charlton for pounds 350,000.'

Using the cash to rebuild around Darren Beckford and Robbie Earle, who later brought in a further pounds 1.7m, Rudge took Vale into the former Second Division for the first time in 32 years. They lasted just three seasons but almost climbed straight back up last May when, after amassing a record number of points for a club not automatically promoted, West Bromwich pipped them in a Wembley play-off.

'That took a hell of a lot out of me, and the players. It was hard gearing up for this season, which was reflected in our slow start.'

Vale, now averaging 8,500 and with a new generation of fans who expect them to compete on equal terms with their neighbours, are still only on the fringe of the Second Division promotion race. In the Cup, however, they have put out Southampton, supporting Rudge's theory that they are 'a big-game team'.

For all his achievements, and a production line which includes Earle, Beckford, Jones, Mark Bright and now Ian Taylor, a goalsoring midfielder plucked from under Wolves' noses, Rudge has yet to receive an offer 'good enough to sacrifice what I've got here'.

He attributes that to Vale's low profile in a media no man's land between Manchester and Birmingham. And when it comes to courting controversy he is no Barry Fry, though he insists he is ambitious.

Beating the big-spenders from Molineux would not only raise the Rudge profile. It would also thrill at least one resident of Wolverhampton, his 85-year-old mother Marie, who will be at the sell-out tie.

Wolves, indeed, would do well to heed the lesson learned by England's manager-designate. In the FA Cup, market forces count for nothing - and John Rudge certainly knows his onions.

(Photograph omitted)