Port Vale: Bill Bell helped bring glory and progress to Vale Park
The Bill Bell years were some of the best at Port Vale and, in the end, also some of the worst. Michael Baggaley looks back at his reign as chairman...
HE presided over arguably the greatest period in his club's history and transformed their stadium.
The reign of Bill Bell, who has died aged 81, would be the envy of countless football club chairmen.
Vale were in English football's third tier when Bell became chairman in May 1987.
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They were in the same division when he lost control of the club in 2002, yet were hardly recognisable from the outfit he had taken on.
Bell's greatest legacy remains the stadium at which supporters will hold a minute's silence in his honour at Saturday's game with Morecambe.
When Bell took over, Vale Park, which had been styled 'the Wembley of the North' when it was built in 1950, was a ramshackle mess.
He described the ground as a shambles and that was fair enough considering the place was in such a poor state of repair that even the floodlights had been declared dangerous.
Within two years of his appointment, the family enclosure and disabled stand were built.
By the time he left the club, the stadium was under cover and all-seater, with only the unfinished Lorne Street Stand left to complete his dream of a completely redeveloped Vale Park.
Bell's commitment to Vale Park had begun long before he became chairman.
He had played a small part in building the ground in 1950 as, aged 18, he helped maintain the machinery on its construction.
He built up a garage business in Cobridge and, in May 1984, was invited to join the Vale board. His expertise was the commercial side of the club, an area which was a notable success before he became chairman three years later following the resignation of Jim Lloyd.
Bell, then 55, was the youngest member of the Vale board and about to form a hugely successful, if occasionally tempestuous partnership with his 42-year-old manager, John Rudge.
It was a period in which Vale won promotion to what is now the Championship in 1989 and 1994, played at Wembley three times and pulled off FA Cup giant-killings, most notably against Tottenham and Everton.
It was also a period in which Vale spent nine seasons out of 11 in the second tier and so, for the majority of the 1990s could claim to be the leading club in the Potteries.
Bell sanctioned club-record signings such as £200,000 for Dean Glover in 1989 and £500,000 for Gareth Ainsworth in 1997.
While Rudge was transforming fortunes on the field, Bell tapped into funds and grants from the Football Trust to transform the stadium.
Perhaps the chairman's most ingenious signing was the Hamil End Stand. Bell transferred the main stand from Chester's Sealand Road after buying it for scrap value.
The chairman was never afraid to ruffle feathers. He took on the city council, but lost the battle to keep the Vale market which generated weekly income in excess of £2,000.
He also had to face spells of criticism from fans and the media, never more so than when Rudge was axed in January 1999.
Rudge's replacement Brian Horton kept the club up that season, but Vale went down the following year and continued to decline.
The club reached crisis point in December 2002 when they were forced into administration, owing £590,000 in tax.
Bell lost control of the club to the administrator who would sell the club to supporter consortium Valiant 2001 in May 2003.
When once asked his favourite ever Port Vale game, Bell didn't opt for one in which he'd been chairman, but went for a famous FA Cup win he'd seen as a fan when his heroes famously got the better of Stanley Matthews and the FA Cup-holders.
He said: "I would have to go for the Blackpool game in 1954. We had a great team full of local lads. That was probably my favourite Vale side.
"I remember watching the game from the Railway terrace with a group of mates from school. I think we all thought after that game Vale would go all the way in the cup.
"The ground that day wasn't up to the same standard as the team. You knew before a match that if it was raining you should go in your wellies."
Vale fans don't have to put up with those facilities these days. Chairman WT Bell saw to that.