Port Vale: Roy Sproson finally takes his rightful place as Valiants legend
IT WOULDN'T happen these days of course.
A star player remaining loyal to his home-town club for his entire career? Unthinkable.
But Roy Sproson was no ordinary footballer.
And while the man who would finish his playing days with the all-time appearance record for Port Vale was from an altogether different era, his legend lives on.
The statue to be unveiled at Vale Park will make sure it does so for all time – a fitting tribute to Vale's greatest servant and an ever-present reminder of his unique place in the history of the club he loved.
It's a shame Sproson won't be there to see it for himself.
Instead, his widow, Joyce, will unveil the memorial to a unique Potteries footballing family who will be out in force to see one of their own immortalised by the club so close to their hearts.
But it's also a special moment for supporters, as a decade of hard work finally comes to fruition.
Their phenomenal effort to raise almost £100,000 for the 16ft bronze statue – a magnificent sculpture depicting Sproson in typical pose – was completed two years ago, only for the unveiling to be delayed by the club's financial problems.
Money raised by fans has also been used for a granite memorial wall and a plinth paying homage to Roy's elder brother Jess and to nephew Phil – the remarkable dynasty who between them clocked up an amazing 1,370 appearances for the Valiants.
And it's those supporters to whom Phil, whose own glittering record of 495 games for the club took him to third on the all-time appearance list – still way behind uncle Roy, of course – feels such a debt of gratitude.
"The fans are the heart, soul and very fabric of the club and the fact they have done so much to recognise not just Roy, but the whole family, speaks volumes," he said.
"There aren't many of them, but they've worked so hard to make this happen and I feel so proud, honoured and humbled that they've done so much.
"The whole family very much appreciates the huge amount of effort this has taken, and there'll be four generations of us there tomorrow to see it happen."
The statue will take pride of place outside the club's main entrance and Phil, now a football agent, hopes some of the old Sproson magic will somehow rub off.
"Hopefully the players will look up at this great man who did so much for Port Vale and perhaps try to emulate him in some way," he added.
"Maybe they could touch his boot as they walk past and take some of the Sproson spirit with them. If they do, they won't go far wrong."
Football was already in the family blood when Roy was born in Burslem in 1930.
His father, Jessie, had been with Stoke City during the 1920s.
While brother Jess went on to be a professional with Vale, making 38 appearances in a career blighted by injury and truncated by the war years, Roy started his own footballing life in more modest surroundings.
His family had moved to Trent Vale and the boy who would be Vale king joined junior outfit Trent Vale Lifeboys.
He later graduated to the Trent Vale club with whom he won the Sentinel Shield, ironically beating Port Vale 5-0 in the final.
Roy then spent 12 months as an amateur with Stoke, attracting early interest from the likes of Aston Villa, West Ham and Bolton.
But when he went along to meet manager Gordon Hodgson at Vale Park, the deal was done and he signed on the dotted line in July 1949 for the princely sum of £3 a week.
Roy made his league debut at left-half at Gillingham on November 11, 1950 – and would never look back.
He soon became an integral part of a Vale team developing its own style, along with a reputation of being difficult to beat – a fact proved beyond question in 1953/54 when they cruised to the Division Three (North) title and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, knocking out holders and favourites Blackpool along the way.
Vale were never to reach such dizzy heights again during Roy Sproson's time, but he was to play a key role in two more promotion campaigns – going on a run of 128 consecutive appearances at one stage.
Vale won the new Fourth Division title in the 1958/59 season and then came fourth in the same section in 1969/70 with Roy still at the heart of it all, but by now a veteran with a young Phil watching his every move.
"We were a closer family than most and uncle Roy used to live opposite us in Trent Vale," added Phil. "Him and my dad (Jess) were inseparable at times, and football was all we ever talked about.
"My first memory of Roy as a player was in a night game at Vale Park. I must have been about nine or 10.
"I would have known he was a player before that, of course, but I perhaps couldn't grasp at the time what it all meant. But I can remember seeing him during that game – he was playing at centre-half by then – and he looked like a giant.
"It wasn't until I got a bit older than I fully realised who he was and what he meant to Port Vale."
As managers continued to come and go – he served under eight different men during a Herculean 23-year stay at Vale Park – Sproson remained a reassuring constant, and it wasn't until he was 41, and by now drifting in and out of the team, that he pulled on a Vale shirt for the final time – for a 2-1 home defeat by Rotherham in May, 1972.
His final tally of 837 starts (with a further five as a substitute just for good measure) will never be beaten, according to Phil.
"There is no chance it will happen," he said.
"Times have changed and now that there's such freedom of movement, I can't see anyone getting past my own total, let alone Roy's."
Even when he'd hung up his boots, Sproson senior's connections with the club weren't over, and he was back on familiar territory when he took over the manager's role from Gordon Lee in January 1974 – initially in a caretaker capacity.
Vale avoided the drop during his first season in charge and then, boosted by new signings including Terry Bailey, rose to finish sixth in the 1974/75 season.
"Me and my cousins Mark and Ian (Roy's sons) were following the team all over the country when Roy was manager," recalled Phil, who now lives in Church Lawton.
"Dad was chief scout at the time and they spent most Sundays at our house talking about the previous day's game and what they were going to do next.
"I can remember trying to earwig their conversations, so that I would be first with the news."
Vale ended the next campaign in 12th place, but had slid to a final position of 19th a year later and Sproson was sacked in October 1977 after a run of poor results. He very rarely returned to Vale Park again.
He left the game completely and ran a newsagents shop in Sneyd Green before his death from lung cancer in January, 1997, aged just 66.
"It hurt him deeply to be sacked and he turned his back on football," said Phil. "I could understand that.
"He kept in touch with us all though and I think his interest came back a bit when I broke through for Vale too."
Sproson junior had been spotted by coach Reg Berks playing for Thistley Hough High School and his subsequent signing, in December 1977, maintained the family connection with Vale Park. As The Sentinel splashed with 'Third Sproson signs for Valiants', Phil knew he had a lot to live up to.
"I can remember making my debut at Peterborough and it was big news at the time, simply because of my uncle and my dad.
"But I didn't go into my time at the club thinking 'Roy stayed here so long, I'll have to do the same'.
"My intention was simply to get into the team and to keep being picked. I had big ambitions and I wanted to play at as high a level as I could."
Phil soon established himself in the heart of the back four, first under Bobby Smith, then when Dennis Butler took charge.
By the time John McGrath became manager in 1979, the mercurial centre-half had become one of the first names on the team sheet, though that 79/80 season was otherwise entirely forgettable as Vale finished 20th in Division Four – the club's worst-ever finish.
With Sproson still standing tall, McGrath engineered promotion to Division Three in 1982/83 and the arrival of John Rudge as boss changed little as far as Vale's key defender was concerned.
While the Valiants spent the next few years yo-yoing from one division to the other, Rudge finally hit on a formula that would see the club scale the heights and with players such as Darren Beckford, Ray Walker and Robbie Earle alongside him, Sproson helped set up one of Vale's best-ever cup results.
The defender found the net as the Division Three outfit sent Tottenham Hotspur crashing out of the FA Cup with a 2-1 win in front of the television cameras.
"My uncle didn't like going back to Vale Park, but I saw him in the week after we had beaten Spurs.
"He cupped my chin, pulled me close and said 'You'll do for me'. He told me he'd been at the game and that I'd have made it into any side he played in. That, to me, was so important.
"He said his heart had been bursting for me and to hear a legend saying those words was just magical."
Promotion to Division Two followed in 1988/89 and Sproson was a proud man.
"That team was great," he said. "We had some brilliant players and were a really tight-knit unit – a bit like today's squad seems to be."
But Sproson suffered a knee injury during training in January 1989 and never pulled on a Vale shirt again.
He had played 495 times for the club and enjoyed three promotion campaigns in all.
"I loved my time at Vale Park, of course," he added.
"I would have perhaps liked to have played at a higher level, and people within the game were telling me I could have, but I have no regrets."
Sproson ignored medical advice to join Dave Mackay's Birmingham City in August, 1989.
"It was a bigger club and I thought I'd give it a go, but my knee was never right," he said. "It didn't really work and I was forced to pack it in."
Sproson did later turn out for non-league sides Stafford Rangers and Northwich Victoria and, after working as head of the PFA Player Management Agency for a while, he became a players' agent.
Most of his own family will be along to celebrate the unveiling of the statue ahead of the game against York City, though there'll be one significant absentee.
"My son, Warren, is serving with the army in Afghanistan," said Sproson, "but he's a big Vale fan and he'll be with us in spirit."
Along with Uncle Roy, of course.