Football: Rudge's era ends after 15 years at Vale

One of English football's longest managerial reigns has come to a close in the Potteries. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
PORT VALE'S decision to end the 15-year managerial reign of John Rudge finds the Potteries club lying second from bottom, just as they were when he arrived as coach. The difference is that while Vale now hold First Division status, they were looking up at almost the entire League in 1979.

The symmetry surrounding Rudge's spell in charge, which made him the second longest-serving in the English game, does not end there. When he was promoted to succeed the sacked John McGrath, initially on a temporary basis, Vale were in the middle of a club-record 18 matches without a win. In his first match, they went down 1-0 at home to Lincoln City.

The Rudge era was terminated at an emergency board meeting yesterday after a run of 14 games which have produced 12 defeats and a solitary victory. On Saturday, in what proved to be his swan-song, Vale again lost at home by the only goal, to Swindon.

In the intervening years, the 54-year-old Rudge established himself as one of football's loaves-and-fishes merchants, lifting Vale to a position in the Football League above their traditionally more successful neighbours, Stoke City. Just as his flat cap became a familiar sight on touchlines, so his trademark away from the action became his ability to unearth and develop talent.

Unfortunately for Rudge, Vale's modest support and slender resources meant he was constantly having to sell his discoveries and rebuild his teams. Given those circumstances, his record of three promotions, three Wembley visits and a string of FA Cup giant-killings was all the more laudable.

Rudge almost lost his job 11 years ago this month when, with results in the former Third Division going badly, Vale were drawn at home to non- League Macclesfield in the third round of the Cup. He said later that he was certain he would have been sacked had the tie been lost, but Vale won with a late goal to qualify for a visit from Tottenham.

Terry Venables' team were famously vanquished on a quagmire in the first of his epic Cup conquests, a triumph which served as a springboard for promotion 18 months later to what was then the Second Division. Squad- building was financed in what became classic Rudge style: having bought a striker called Andy Jones from Rhyl for pounds 5,000, he sold him to Charlton for pounds 350,000.

The pattern continued when Darren Beckford, bought for pounds 15,000 raised by supporters, went to Norwich for pounds 925,000. Others nurtured and sold by Rudge include Robbie Earle and Gareth Ainsworth (Wimbledon), Mark Bright (Charlton), Ian Taylor (Aston Villa), Jon McCarthy (Birmingham), Steve Guppy (Leicester), Robin van der Laan (Barnsley) and Lee Mills (Bradford City) for a total of around pounds 10m.

Yet it was not until last season that he paid his first pounds 500,000 fee, signing Ainsworth from Lincoln for a quarter of the sum he would fetch within a year. With Vale not employing a full-time scout, Rudge watched at least four games a week, including frequent trips to the Netherlands.

Alex Ferguson once said: "Every game I go to, he's there with his `bonnet' on, and that's dedication. Port Vale should go down on their knees and thank the Lord for having him. We all dread a phone call from John with his `I've got no money, what've you got, I fancy this one' routine. Eventually he gets a cheap player and turns him into a better one."

Until this season, in which Vale have used a club-record 35 players, Rudge had managed to maintain their status, albeit with the help of a last-match escape last May, and also added the scalps of Derby County, Southampton and Everton in the FA Cup. Indeed, he steps down having finished no lower than third in the Second Division over the past decade; but the chairman, Bill Bell, with whom Rudge had an uneasy relationship, clearly felt it was time to act.

Rudge, who rejected offers from Stoke, Preston and Bradford City to stay loyal to Vale, has been offered the chance to stay on as director of football. But the former Vale winger Kevin Kent, who reports on the club for Radio Stoke, said Rudge would not accept the job "in a month of Sundays".

Vale's coach, Phil Bonnyman, has also lost his job, leaving two of Rudge's back-room staff, Mark Grew and Bill Dearden, to work as joint caretaker managers until a replacement is named. Brian Horton, the Brighton manager and a former Vale captain, has emerged as favourite, with Adrian Heath, Lou Macari, Dave Bassett, Nigel Spackman, John Ward and another ex-Vale player, Ray Harford, also possible candidates.

Supporters ringing a radio phone-in last night were divided over the board's action; some believed that Vale's plight demanded drastic measures, others threatened to organise a protest march against Bell. Rudge, meanwhile, will at least have more time to work on his memoirs. Ironically, the provisional title is Managing To Survive.

THE SURVIVORS

CURRENT LONGEST-SERVING LEAGUE MANAGERS

1 Dario Gradi

(Crewe Alexandra, since Jun 83)

2 Alex Ferguson (Man Utd, Nov 86)

3 Brian Flynn (Wrexham, Nov 89)

4 John Duncan (Chesterfield, Feb 92)

5 Joe Kinnear (Wimbledon, Mar 92)

6 Alan Little (York City, Mar 93)

7 Sammy McIlroy

(Macclesfield Town, June 93)

8 Bryan Robson

(Middlesbrough, May 94)

9 Harry Redknapp

(West Ham United, Aug 94)

10 Mel Machin (Bournemouth, Sep 94)

STILL HANGING IN THERE

Alan Curbishley (Charlton - joint manager with Steve Gritt from July 91, took sole control in July 95)

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