Loyal, devoted and dedicated. Just three of many words often used to describe John Rudge when talking about his contribution to football.
‘Mr Port Vale’, as he’s known in Stoke-on-Trent, the 76-year-old is a true gentleman, whose legacy and legend will live on long after his eventual departure from the game.
“Every Port Vale supporter should get down on their knees and thank the Lord for John Rudge. Nineteen years of hard work, self-sacrifice and service to one football club borders on disbelief - especially in this day and age.” A glowing tribute from undoubtedly one of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson.
The former Manchester United manager is not alone in his thoughts, either, for many share Sir Alex’s opinion on the great John Rudge, who has dedicated almost his entire life to the beautiful game. Sixty years, to be precise. It’s a level of commitment that was rightly recognised with the most prestigious of accolades at the 2021 EFL Awards ceremony, which saw a “speechless” Rudge presented with the Contribution to League Football Award for outstanding service and dedication to football throughout his career.
“I was so surprised,” he said, after being presented with the award live on Sky Sports.
“I couldn’t believe it when they started talking on the show and I realised it was me they were talking about, I didn’t even know I was up for an award!
“It was such a great honour to have been presented with the award and it took me aback a little bit, I didn’t really know what to say. I was lost for words, which isn’t a very common thing.”
An unsung footballing hero, Rudge has epitomised all that is good about the game since beginning his playing career at Huddersfield Town in the 1960s.
Born in Wolverhampton, he started off with Wolves schoolboys before making the move north to Huddersfield, where his illustrious but injury-filled career began.
“As a young boy who supported Wolverhampton Wanderers, I was always desperate to play football. I didn’t want to do anything else,” he admitted.
“I went to Wolves and wasn’t taken on, so I went to Huddersfield Town, which is where I met my wife. That was a huge moment for me because I couldn’t have asked for anyone to give me more support in my career than she has.
“But, as a young boy, it’s always your ambition to play football and work in football. It was certainly mine, and I never thought I’d last this long - it’s a bit of a surprise that I have to be honest!”
From his early days at Huddersfield, Rudge went on to represent Carlisle United, Torquay United, Bristol Rovers and AFC Bournemouth, before retiring at the age of 32 with more than 250 appearances and 79 goals to his name.
“My injuries didn’t help me much when I was playing,” he added. “I used to get injured just putting my tracksuit on!”
But the best was still to come, as he began a chapter of his career that has since gone down in history.
In 1983, Rudge embarked on a journey with Port Vale that will never be forgotten, putting the Staffordshire club firmly on the map and establishing himself as one of their true greats in the process. Following the departure of John McGrath as first-team manager, Rudge took on the challenge in the dugout and the rest, as they say, is history.
On taking the job, he said: “Vale’s reputation has been built on grit and determination and I will be looking to bring in the player who is willing to die for the cause.”
As Rudge prepared for his first full season as manager, it was clear that Vale were in good hands. What came next, however, was a period of greatness not even Rudge himself could have predicted. “My greatest-ever achievement,” he admits today, as he led Vale through arguably their most successful period in what can only be described as a golden era for the club.
During a remarkable 16-year period as manager, Rudge lifted Vale from the Fourth Division to a position in the Football League above their traditionally more successful neighbours, Stoke City.
Following promotion from the Fourth Division in 1986, not only did his side famously knock Tottenham Hotspur out of the FA Cup, but in 1989 they achieved promotion to the Second Division for the first time in 32 years, a run that began the best decade in the club’s history.
His flat cap became a familiar sight on the touchline, while his ability to unearth and develop talent became just as recognisable on the pitch.
Following an EFL Trophy triumph in 1993, Vale reached Wembley twice more before achieving promotion to the Championship and finishing 10th, their highest finish in 85 years. Vale were firmly on the map and Rudge had become one of the most respected managers outside of the Premier League.
“Port Vale - where the hell is that?” Ian Bogie once said. “It was a non-league set up here and he got us pushing for the Premier League at one stage.”
“One of football’s genuine gentlemen,” many also said, as it became clear how much Rudge meant to all those associated with the club.
“I spent the best part of 19 years at Vale the first time around as manager,” Rudge continued. “We achieved so much in that period, it would have to go down as my greatest achievement in football.
“I always wanted to be a better player than I was when I finished. I think the injuries that I had stopped me fulfilling my football career as much as I would have liked, but my period at Port Vale as manager is up there with the best moments of my career.”
After a remarkable period at Vale Park, Rudge did something few have ever done before and crossed the great divide to take on the role of Director of Football at Stoke City, a position he held for 14 years.
“Everyone knows there’s a great rivalry between Port Vale and Stoke City,” he said. “But for me to cross the divide and go to Stoke was fantastic, I loved my time there. I had a very different role as Director of Football, but we enjoyed some great success there. I worked with about four or five different managers, did many different things and I feel very fortunate to have done what I’ve done.”
And he wasn’t finished there. How fitting that, after his role at Stoke came to an end, he should return to Port Vale as President, working for the club with which he is so closely associated to this day.
“To be asked to come back to Port Vale, initially just to help the manager at the time, but now as President, was a great honour for me. I feel like it’s a new era at Port Vale; we’ve got a new manager, a lot of staff and new ownership, which is fantastic, and I think the ownership that we have here at Port Vale gives us an opportunity to move forward even more.
“I’m so grateful and so thankful for the support that I’ve had in all my years in the game, it’s been tremendous. Port Vale and Stoke City are two Clubs that I’ve spent a lot of time at and I am very fond of, they’re excellent football Clubs and I’m so very lucky to have been involved in football for such a long period of time, almost 60 years now.”
A man who has devoted his life to the game, giving it everything along the way, but what has the game given him?
“A lot of enjoyment, but a lot of frustration,” he laughed. “But that’s part of being in football.”
Sixty years of service, more than a third of that to Port Vale. Sir Alex summed it up perfectly: “Every Port Vale supporter should get down on their knees and thank the Lord for John Rudge.”
“And they do, every single day,” Vale owner Carol Shanahan admitted, speaking at the EFL Awards.
“John is the most loved person at Port Vale Football Club, and if you speak to anybody at Port Vale or further afield and you mention his name, they will always speak with great affection.
“Kevin and I have been at Port Vale for two years now and, in that time, John has been our friend and our mentor. We go to matches together and he’s taught me how to be a leader of a football club rather than a fan. Sometimes he gives us tough love, but it’s always wise; he’s always right, and we love him to bits!”
A glowing tribute for the adopted son of the city of Stoke-on-Trent and a deserving recipient of the Contribution to League Football Award. Rudge is a true gentleman, respected by all who know and meet him, and football - including Port Vale fans in particular - will forever be grateful to him.