Martin Tideswell: Bill Bell is part of Vale's rich tapestry and deserves to be remembered for those good times
"IT'S a good little runner," were the first words Bill Bell said to me.
No, he wasn't referring to Andy Porter. Rather, the then Port Vale chairman was actually showing me my new company car – a bright yellow Austin Metro. I kid you not.
The year was 1990 and I had just started as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press in Burslem – a firm which, at the time, leased all their cars from Bill's dealership on Sandbach Road in Cobridge.
I didn't know what to make of this eccentric car salesman with a glint in his eye and more than a whiff of cigar smoke about him.
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But, over time, a pattern emerged. Very often I would meet our new signings on the forecourt at WT Bell. Legendary names like Ian Taylor, signed for threepence from Moor Green, who was there to pick up his new "company" car. Not a yellow Metro, I might add.
By 1990 Mr Bell, as I referred to him back then, was already the Prince of Burslem, and his emerging partnership with manager John Rudge was beginning to bear fruit.
Through some canny stewardship, the man who bought the Vale for a song was transforming a struggling Fourth Division club – see any parallels? – into one that went on to compete with distinction in what is now the Championship.
In doing so, by backing Rudgie's judgement, Bill Bell oversaw the comings and goings of legendary Vale players and enjoyed some of the most successful years in the club's long history.
Let us not forget, he was also responsible for huge improvements to Vale Park – transforming it into a stadium which puts others in the lower leagues to shame.
The great FA Cup wins over Tottenham and Everton, the Autoglass Trophy victory, the Anglo-Italian Cup final appearance at Wembley and, of course, our highest ever league finish all happened on Bill Bell's watch.
His partnership with Rudge was never any easy one, but with the gaffer's guile and the chairman's, shall we say "unconventional" business style, it was – for Vale fans at least – a match made in heaven.
Bill Bell also, as he was entitled, did rather well himself out of a relatively modest investment.
He was, to put it mildly, considered very "shrewd", and most fans inevitably sided with the Messiah that was Rudgie whenever their private spats ever came to light.
Like when Rudgie stormed out of the club during contract negotiations – only to be persuaded to return to the table by a gaggle of fans standing on Hamil Road holding a placard calling for him to stay.
Bill Bell's final years in charge at Vale Park were soured by the sacking of the manager who had brought so much success to the club.
The chairman then suffered the final indignity of having to put the club he had built up from almost nothing into administration late in 2002.
When fans' group Valiant 2001 took over the club what they discovered wasn't pretty: Vale's infrastructure had been sorely neglected as Bill Bell looked to extricate himself from the hot seat.
For a period the former chairman was reviled and his name besmirched by some of those who followed.
No doubt a minority of fans, and perhaps some former employees, still have a dim view of him.
But time is a wonderful healer, and recent years have served to put a slightly different gloss on the man whose reign at Vale Park served up most of my favourite football memories thus far.
You could say nothing was black and white with the former chairman. But, make no mistake, he was black and white through and through.
Bill Bell was, and remains, an enigma.
He was a canny operator who was more than a little Arthur Daley, but who was also capable of displays of great humility and incredible generosity.
He is part of Vale's rich tapestry and deserves to be remembered for those good times.