John Rudge peruses a team photo of Wolverhampton Boys, featuring his 15-year-old self sporting a Tony Curtis quiff, and wonders where the past 50 years have gone. He may enjoy a moment of nostalgic reflection today at Molineux, but then the thoughts of Stoke City's director of football will focus on reaching the FA Cup's last 16 at the expense of Wolves.
Now in his 32nd year in the Potteries – "the Great Train Robbers never got a sentence like that," he grins – the man who served Port Vale for more than 20 years is 12 months into his second decade with Stoke. Yet his roots are 30 miles down the M6, and his youthful "passion" was for the old gold and black.
"I lived about a mile from Molineux, in a terraced house with no bathroom on the way to Dudley," he recalls. "At primary school I desperately wanted to play for the Wolves. When I was 13, I used to go training at the ground and see my heroes; Billy Wright, Peter Broadbent, Eddie Clamp, Bert Williams."
His late mother, Marie, had a fruit and veg stall on Wolverhampton market and Rudge used to collect the truck from a rat-infested place called The Vaults. "Then I could go to watch Wolves. I took an orange crate to stand on for a better view from the corner of the South Bank, where Johnny Hancocks played on the right wing. I saw the famous floodlit matches – Honved, Spartak Moscow and so on – and I remember an FA Cup tie against Bournemouth [in 1957] when the crossbar snapped."
Wolves were in the blood. Soon they were in the family. His older sister Pat married a young reserve, Peter Clark. "She already had a boyfriend but I kept telling her, 'He's the one for you'. Peter used to take me round the park to practise. He was a really good player; you had to be even to get into Stan Cullis's second team. He was an inspiration, though sadly he's dead now."
Fresh out of school, the Brylcreemed striker attracted interest from West Bromwich Albion, but the offer he craved did not materialise. "I ended up joining Huddersfield. Denis Law had just gone to Manchester City and I moved into his digs. I remember finding a pair of his slippers in a wardrobe. I gave them to my dad, who liked telling people he wore Denis's shoes!"
After injuries blighted his career, Rudge found fulfilment in management. But "the one job I'd have loved" eluded him. "I had several opportunities to leave Vale before I was sacked, but I was proud of what I'd achieved there and reluctant to go unless it was an irresistible offer. Wolves would've been hard to turn down."
Now 65, he works with Tony Pulis, an apprentice at Bristol Rovers when he was a first-teamer. "Tony reckons he kicked lumps out of me in practice matches but I seem to remember being too quick for him. As a manager he's progressed through his various jobs, all the time learning from experience. He has done exceptionally well to establish Stoke in the Premier League."
Rudge, who contributed to FA Cup lore when Vale vanquished Tottenham and holders Everton, will set sentiment aside today. "Wolves were my passion as a boy. I always look out for their results and my sister still lives there. But I work for Stoke now. That's my living and I hope we can beat them."
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