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Port Vale FC: A century of league football

Club Historian, Phil Sherwin, looks back on this day 100 years ago when Vale regained their league status.

13 October 2019

Today marks the 100th anniversary that Port Vale have been continuous members of the Football League.

The club had been in the league before, between 1892-96 and 1898-1907, but clocking up a century without a break is no mean feat. They will be the 39th club to achieve such a feat, only two of which have never played in the top flight, the Vale and Rotherham.

It all came about in unusual circumstances. At the end of the 1914/15 season, the Football League was suspended due to the First World War and after the war ended it was decided to resume the Football League for the 1919/20 campaign. Before the war the two divisions of the Football League contained 40 teams and it was decided to extend that to 44.

Ahead of the vote at League headquarters on 10th March 1919 Vale were confident of gaining one of the extra four places, having been a league club before. When the voting was announced though, it read as follows; Coventry City 35, West Ham 32, South Shields 28, Rotherham County (later United) 28, Port Vale 27, Southport 7, Rochdale 7 and Chesterfield 0. So they missed out by one vote. Bitterly disappointed they prepared to re-join the Central League and apply again the following year.

Then enter Charlie Copeland, a name not synonymous with Vale’s history, but maybe it should be. Charlie was a full back with Leeds City, already in the Football League’s Second Division. With league football resuming, Charlie asked his club for a pay rise. It was refused – a decision that had a huge bearing on the fate of the Vale.  To say that Charlie wasn’t happy was an understatement - he wrote a letter to the Football League in July 1919, saying that his club Leeds City had made illegal payments and bonuses to players in the war leagues! His reward was that Leeds immediately released him and he joined Coventry City.

The FA and the Football League were duty bound to investigate and requested to look at the books. Other clubs had been found guilty before, but after a look at the books, a fine or just a warning had been issued. Leeds officials though flatly refused to hand over their books which made it a more serious offence. Their manager during the period under investigation, Herbert Chapman, had suddenly resigned in December 1918 to take up a position at an oil and coke factory.

The affair became public knowledge in September 1919 and Leeds had been given until 6th October to hand over their books or be suspended from the league. It had been intimated that Vale may be asked to take over their fixtures at that time as they had been the next club in the March vote. The Mayor of Leeds appealed to the League but they refused to budge. On 4th October the Leeds directors suddenly all resigned and the books in question were then mysteriously destroyed in a fire!

Leeds City then became the first club to be forcibly expelled during a season on 6th October. It was the only time it had ever happened up until this season when Bury suffered a similar fate. The Leeds directors plus manager Chapman were given life bans from football (more about that later) and Vale were asked to take over their fixtures, despite a late bid from Tranmere Rovers. Leeds had played 8 games, with 4 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats and Vale would start with that record.

Of course Vale leapt at the chance and on 13th October 1919 they were duly elected to the Second Division. Leeds City were wound up but almost immediately a new club was formed, Leeds United, and they also played at Elland Road and joined the Football League a year later. The Vale reserve side took the place of their first team in the Central League.

The elevation was most welcomed by the Vale but not without its problems. Their first game was just five days away, at home to South Shields, which had to be switched to South Shields because there simply wasn’t enough time to get the ground ready for a much larger crowd. The home ground in those days was the Old Recreation Ground in Hanley, which they played at until moving to Vale Park in 1950. It is now the site of the Hanley Shopping Centre car park, and there is a plaque commemorating the fact on the walkway to the car park.  Some of the Vale players were attached to other league clubs, signing for Central League clubs as well as a Football League club was allowed, and there simply wasn’t time to re-register them all.

Vale travelled to South Shields the day before their opening game on Saturday 18th October but were missing five players due to registration problems. They lost 2-0, South Shields being awarded two penalties, both for hand ball, one of which was missed. Vale were also awarded a penalty but James Hill drove his effort over the bar.

The first home game v Tottenham was moved from the following Saturday to the Monday afternoon (no floodlights in those days) because Stoke were at home to Rotherham, the grounds then being less than three miles apart. The Stoke crowd was 5,000 whereas Vale pulled in 16,000 for the visit of Spurs, triple their usual Central League crowd.  Spurs were the only unbeaten side in the country. Vale had by now completed the outstanding signings of players and gave a good performance but lost 1-0 to a controversial late goal. In those days scoring direct from a corner wasn’t allowed (it became a law in 1924) and when a Spurs player curled the ball in Vale ‘keeper John Hammond allowed it go straight into the net but a Spurs player got his head to the ball and the goal was allowed with Vale saying it had already crossed the line. No VAR in those days!

Vale eventually finished 13th out of 22, very creditable in their first season, and also met Stoke for the first time in league combat.

In 1921 former Leeds City manager Herbert Chapman appealed to the league to quash his life ban and he was successful. He then became manager of Huddersfield Town, taking them to two league titles, leaving to take over as manager of Arsenal before Huddersfield completed a hat trick of titles, the first team to do so. He then became one of Arsenal’s greatest ever managers, taking them to success in the FA Cup and the brink of three successive league titles before he died from pneumonia. He also pioneered numbers on players’ shirts, the use of a white ball, and was responsible for rebuilding Highbury amongst other innovations. Today there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium and a marble bust in the entrance hall. How careers change!


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