Horton's hard work brings Vale reward

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The Independent Football

A pint of shandy. That was the transfer fee when Brian Horton, then a raw, promising midfielder in the West Midlands League, joined Port Vale for the first time. More than three decades later, with the 54-year-old Horton now their manager, Vale cannot even afford to pay peanuts.

The club was in administration for six months this year. But being potless in the Potteries never prevented Gordon Lee from making Hednesford's secretary part with Horton in return for a drink. Nor has it stopped Vale making a champagne start in this season's Second Division.

Two points clear at the top after Tuesday's 3-0 defeat of Peterborough, they visit Wrexham today seeking an eighth victory in 12 matches. Last season, amid a protracted struggle for control between rival consortiums, it was late January before Vale won as many.

The campaign proved a gruelling test of Horton's managerial acumen, which was deployed on Manchester City's behalf in the Premiership as recently as 1995. At the lowest point, the administrator had to sack his assistant, Mark Grew, and Vale's chief scout, Ray Williams.

"That just left me and the physio," Horton recalled. "It was the toughest year of my footballing life. People are saying 'we're top of the table, fantastic', but I think staying up last season was fantastic, too."

A supporters' group, Valiant 2001, took over during the summer from Bill Bell, the chairman who installed Horton after dismissing the long-serving John Rudge. But the new board came armed with bold ideas rather than big money, and Vale were widely tipped for relegation.

"I can sort of understand why people expected us to do badly," Horton said, in his spartan office below the still-unfinished, cash-draining new stand. "We came 17th last time and because we've been in administration, the League let us bring in only two players over the close season.

"I picked up Andreas Lipa, an Austrian who was with Xanthi in Greece, and George Pilkington from Everton, both on frees. I felt we needed a squad of 24, but we've got 21, with three keepers, a player-coach, Ian Brightwell, plus seven who have come through the youth ranks.

"Realistically, I'd have said we'd finish mid-table. I certainly never accepted we'd go down - the squad is too good for that. But this division is very open. There's not much money around and no Wigan or Cardiff with a benefactor. Maybe someone like us can mount a challenge."

Being the leaders has brought "enjoyable pressure", according to Horton. "We lost at Hartlepool and to hear their dressing-room you'd have thought they had won a cup final. I told my players, 'Listen to that. That's what you've set yourselves up for'. It was similar at Luton."

For most of his team, it is a novel sensation. Their previous action came chiefly in second-team football with clubs ranging from Liverpool, Newcastle and Middlesbrough to Derby, Coventry and Nottingham Forest. They are players who, in Horton's words, "didn't make it".

One who did is Lipa, an international and Horton's first foreign recruit since Uwe Rösler and Maurizio Gaudino at Maine Road. Now 32, the midfielder happens to be married to a Staffordshire girl (who, contrary to the "bimbo" stereotype of footballers' wives, holds two degrees).

At the other end of the experience spectrum is Billy Paynter, 19, one of four forwards Horton often fields at home. Several Premiership clubs are watching the Liverpudlian, whose five goals mean that, like the six-goal Scot, Steve McPhee, he has already scored more than last season.

Is regime change driving Vale's revival? "Yes and no. Crowds are up. Our fans are loving it. But if we'd been top when Bill Bell was here, they would have come just the same." Will they be able to buy again soon? "No. Anything we achieve will be with this shoestring squad."

And yet Horton is still scouting as religiously as ever. One afternoon last week he stood behind a goal at Macclesfield's reserve fixture with Oldham. A far cry, he chuckled, from when he would watch Manchester United play Barcelona in preparation for an impending derby.

Judging by the invitations he receives to be a guest at their functions, City supporters remember his attacking style fondly. As a highlight of his time on Moss Side, he unashamedly cited a 5-2 FA Cup defeat by Tottenham: "What a wonderful game. It could have ended 9-8 to either team.

"To say I didn't miss those big occasions would be lying. I went to City versus Lokeren and when I saw the new stadium I went: 'God almighty!' But it's important to look forward rather than back. Once I'm out on the training pitch at Port Vale, I enjoy the job as much as ever."