Made In Wolverhampton, Steeped In Success

Outstanding Memories Of Managerial Legend

He tried to sign Steve Bull and Don Goodman, made Bob Hazell his club’s first black captain and even worked closely with a former Wolves club secretary.

Well, with John Rudge’s roots and longevity in the game, there was every chance of some cross-over with the club of his young dreams.

There certainly have been plenty of gold and black links in a coaching and management career that lasted well over 30 years and took in both sides of the Potteries divide after his teenage heart was broken by rejection at Molineux. He even reckoned his best signing was one made at the expense of Graham Turner.

Rudge is now finally in retirement and has chosen his 80th year to launch an outstanding autobiography that has Sir Alex Ferguson and Robbie Williams, no less, as writers of forewords. To Cap It All contains reference to the fact the Manchester United legend might have found his repeated requests for loan players a pain in the proverbial but the tribute from Old Trafford was heartfelt: “Travelling around the country watching games, we saw the same faces. Archie Knox called them The Old Soldiers. When I got my first call from John, I took it with the enthusiasm of a young boy because I wanted to understand where he got all his energy from…..he was an absolute genius.”

The story could hardly have had stronger Wulfrunian beginnings. Rudge, born towards the end of the war, grew up in a terraced house on the Dudley Road and his mum sold fruit and veg on Wolverhampton Market for over 60 years until she was the age her son now is.

After helping out on busy Saturdays, he used to stand on one of the stall’s boxes in the paddock at the match in the afternoon. And he had quite some team to marvel at…..

“Wizard winger Johnny Hancocks was my role model as a small, lithe, quick attacker,” he writes. “I remember that famous game against Honved so well. Wolves won 3-2 and Stan Cullis claimed our heroes to be world champions.” 

Rudge saw Puskas, Yashin and Di Stefano at Molineux and had a wonderful mentor in his sister’s boyfriend (later her husband), Peter Clark, who was in the Wolves reserve side as Eddie Clamp’s understudy before moving on to Doncaster, Mansfeld and Stockport and later managing Willenhall.

Unlike Peter, Rudge wasn’t taken on as an apprentice despite starring in schoolboy football locally and added: “I was inconsolable but help was at hand swiftly in the form of (former Wolves full-back) Laurie Kelly, who was scouting for Huddersfield.” Rudge jumped at the chance of going to the Second Division club as an apprentice at 15.

He also quickly jumped into Denis Law’s bed, the mercurial forward having just joined Manchester City and vacated the digs John moved into with a Mrs Sobey in the Milnsbridge district of the town. Law forgetfully left behind a pair of smart black shoes that Mr Rudge Snr proceeded to enjoy showing off in various Wolverhampton hostelries after being handed them as a present by his son.

Only the elite few pitch up in Manchester and Turin, with international stardom as a bonus. There are a lot more Rudges than Laws and the subject of our feature plied his goal-scoring forward’s trade for an injury-plagued decade and a half, first at Leeds Road, then amid some long-haul moves to Carlisle, Torquay, Bristol Rovers and Bournemouth.

Phil Shaw at work at Molineux.

It’s for his work on the other side of the white line, though, that he has become best known.

Memories of his time as Port Vale coach under John McGrath, initially in the depths of Division Four, are a brilliant read and it was a well-known figure from these parts, former Wolves secretary Phil Shaw, that helped him into the hot seat in December, 1983. 

McGrath’s relationship with some of the Vale Park policy-makers was combustible and his falling-out with Shaw, who had pitched up there as secretary the previous summer, inevitably got back to the directors. Change duly came and so began the longest managerial reign in the club’s 150-year history.

The successor oversaw or figured in four promotions, two relegations, Wembley success in the Autoglass Trophy and defeats at the twin towers in the League One play-off and Anglo Italian Cup finals.

Equally impressive were all those remarkable cup exploits, Tottenham, Southampton, Everton, Crystal Palace and a top-flight Derby being included among Vale’s victims, with draws also registered at Arsenal and Liverpool. That’s some record. Rudge’s wheeler-dealing was legendary as well and the huge catalogue of players he moved on at massive profit included Ian Taylor, Steve Guppy, Mark Bright, Darren Beckford, Andy Jones, John McCarthy, Robbie Earle, Robbie Van Der Laan and Gareth Ainsworth.

We shall home in on Wolves angles for anecdotes, though, and Rudge writes: “Bob Hazell was a huge man and a huge help to me when he signed in December, 1986, from Reading on a free transfer. He was experienced at higher levels, had played in an FA Cup final and did a sterling job for us.

“On the ball, he had much more skill and ability than he was given credit for and, off the pitch, he was just the nicest fella, so softly spoken. Even so, no-one took the mickey out of him and his physicality frightened opponents at times. He took no prisoners.”

Evidence of what Rudge admits was his side’s occasional dabble in the dark arts came when Hazell clattered into Clive Allen early in Tottenham’s notorious 1988 FA Cup defeat away to a Vale side languishing in the lower reaches of the Third Division. Hazell then towered over the striker’s prostrate body and warned: “You’re going to get that for another 85 minutes.”

The man who scored the magnificent first goal in that unforgettable giant-killing of Terry Venables’s all-star team was Ray Walker, ‘possibly my best signing’. Rudge swooped for him for a tribunal-fixed fee of £12,000 while the midfielder’s Villa manager, Graham Turner, was away on holiday. ‘The Hoddle of the lower leagues’ went on to make 424 appearances for Vale.  

There are countless tales of note in the 350 pages. “In late 1986, I tried to sign a young striker I had seen playing for West Brom’s reserves,” Rudge said. “I liked his power, pace and eye for goal and thought he could be the replacement for Andy Jones. I couldn’t persuade him to leave the Black Country, however, and he joined Wolves instead. That young striker’s name? Steve Bull. I wonder what happened to him….”

Don Goodman was separately – and unsuccessfully – targeted as well and a young Kevin Doyle, then at Cork, later evaded Rudge before joining Reading. But he did land Lee Mills, who delivered big time before yielding another major profit. And the author adds rich anecdotes about Ade Akinbiyi and Chris Iwelumo after crossing the city in 1999 to become Stoke’s director of football. Why is it he seemed to much prefer Wolves strikers (past, present or future) to the defenders and midfielders at Molineux?

Rudge tells how Akinbiyi, Wolves’ one-time £3.5m record signing, once used his office to stage an astonishing late-afternoon sit-in, demanding answers from the board over a contract wrangle.

While the forward achieved cult status in the Potteries, Iwelumo fell short with Tony Pulis, so the author compiled a ‘best moments’ video of him, including a crashing volley against Wigan, to help secure a sale. “The tape made Chris look like Pele, Alan Shearer and Zinadine Zidane combined,” Rudge said. “Having seen it, the manager caused great amusement by summing up: ‘Hang on, John, he looks just the type of player we need!’

Bobby Downes…..in the colours of Blackburn after his 1995 exit from Wolves and described by the author as ‘a good coach’.

And how’s this for man-management? So furious was Rudge after a flop of a Vale performance in a pre-season tournament in the Isle of Man that he cancelled the players’ planned night out, only to discover from a hotel waiter that several had sneaked out anyway to go drinking.

Next day, his coach, Bobby Downes, who would join Graham Taylor’s Wolves the following summer, was told: “Run the bollocks off them today, Bob.” Rudge then had an exhausted squad sat out on the grass while he prowled above them – ‘you’re better looking down on lambs to the slaughter’ – and suddenly changed his demeanour by pointing at Bernie Slaven and snarling: “Did you let me down last night?” The striker’s admission that he did go out drinking opened the floodgates to several others confessing, too.

But the subsequent fine of a week’s wages was kept in-house. The players’ wives weren’t told of the reason and neither the press nor even the directors were aware that the manager used the money to place a 6-1 bet on the club winning promotion from the third tier. “It was legal for football people to do that then but I got a friend to put it on anyway,” he recalled. So, over the following nine months, Rudge was able to tell his players they were playing not only for the usual bonus money but also for a share of a handsome pay-out if they went up. A 3-1 last-day victory at Brighton did the trick and Burslem would stage second-grade football for only the second time.

It’s wonderful stuff, which we highly recommend to our readers. And we draw this piece towards a conclusion by recording that Rudge knew Carl Henry, Seyi Olofinjana and Michael Kightly as Stoke players and by emphasising a spectacular change that unfolded over the course of his long journey in the game.

His own playing career was a throwback to when players’ wages were modest and he was subsequently desperately short of funds for so long in his time as Vale manager. Then, across the patch, he found himself facing the hopeless task of trying to negotiate Peter Crouch down to even £40,000 a week. The bar had been somewhat raised.

It was all a bit different to when he and other Carlisle players had taken umbrage after discovering Hugh McIlmoyle, previously of Wolves, was on £7 10s a week more than them.

Rudge still felt he had a curtain call or two in him after leaving Stoke at the age of 68 and attempted to rekindle the promising link he had established with Jez Moxey at the Britannia Stadium before the chief executive’s move to Molineux. But his offer to work for Wolves, around the time of their slide into League One under Stale Solbakken and Dean Saunders, was not taken up.

John Rudge photographed by Wolves Heroes at the weekend.

To Cap It All was published earlier this season and we were delighted to spend an hour in John Rudge’s company at the weekend talking about it.

“I actually started writing it with a journalist friend at the Evening Sentinel called Chris Harper when I was at Vale,” he said. “Then I joined Stoke and it was pushed to one side. 

“But our daughters had been on at me about finishing it, so I saw it through with a writer and publisher called Simon Lowe as Chris died many years ago. It’s great they and their families have now got something like this to remember my career by.”

Rudge is donating all of his income from the venture to the fund to have a statue erected in his honour outside Vale Park. If any of our readers need advice about purchasing a copy, they are more than welcome to contact us.

 

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