Port Vale's Colin Askey at 80: 'Blackpool fans applauded me. It was a lovely feeling'
COLIN Askey can remember leaving boyhood hero Stanley Matthews in the shade as if it was yesterday.
The man regarded as arguably Port Vale's best-ever player idolised England's wing wizard for years, first as he grew up in the Potteries, then as a fellow professional, albeit in the lower leagues.
Now he was on the same pitch as his hero.
It was February 20, 1954 and lowly Port Vale, of Division Three (North), had reached the fifth round of the FA Cup.
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They had been drawn at home to Division One giants and cup-holders Blackpool – fresh from that famous 4-3 Wembley victory over Bolton in what became known as "The Matthews Final".
The odds were stacked against Vale, who had already hugely exceeded expectations to reach this stage.
But with Matthews subdued on a boggy pitch, and manager Freddie Steele's tactics working a treat, Askey wowed a sell-out crowd of around 42,000 with the performance of his life to inspire a sensational victory... and claim a place in the quarter-finals.
The football world was turned upside down by Vale's 2-0 win, and Askey, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, says the memory will remain with him forever.
"It was sensational," said Askey, who lives in Milton with wife June. "We murdered them.
"Our whole team had been to Wembley the year before to watch the final and it was almost unbelievable that we were on the same pitch.
"I had grown up watching Stan, pictured, from the terraces and was his biggest fan. I idolised the bloke. He was like a god to me.
"But our pitch was heavy and Freddie Steele had a plan. He had played with Stan at Stoke and knew him inside out. He wanted to force him inside on to his left foot and where there would be less room to hurt us.
"Dickie Cunliffe, our left winger, and (left-half) Roy Sproson did a fantastic job in blocking off the line and, combined with the state of the pitch, Stan just couldn't cope. It was the worst game I'd ever seen him have."
Askey, though, took the chance to shine, and it was Vale's right winger who earned all the plaudits as one of his finest individual performances ended with one of the best results in the club's history thanks to two first-half goals from Albert Leake.
"We were a good team, but we were brilliant that day," added Askey. "I had a good day. I turned it on a bit and thoroughly enjoyed it.
"In those days, there were still very few cars around, so I had ordered a taxi to get home. I had to walk along Park Road in Burslem and all the Blackpool fans (there were around 10,000 of them) were getting on buses.
"They applauded me as I walked along the road. It was a lovely feeling."
It also showed shows how times have changed.
Vale's magical FA Cup odyssey, which started in the first round with a 3-1 win at Darlington and was followed by victories against Southport (after a replay), QPR and Cardiff City, would go on.
Askey was in the form of his life and it was after that stunning victory at then Division One Cardiff that the Welsh club were to make a sensational offer. Not that he knew much about it.
"It was a freezing day in Cardiff, but I had done well and we'd won. Apparently, after the game, they put in an offer for me," he said.
Cardiff initially offered £30,000, huge money in those days. When that was turned down, the Ninian Park club told Vale to name their price.
"They offered a blank cheque for me," said Askey, "but I didn't know anything about it at the time. I was kept in the dark. I eventually found out by reading The Sentinel some time later.
"I remember going into training on the Monday after the game. I was a bit late, and was walking down the terrace towards the rest of the lads when they started to clap me.
"I thought it was strange, but apparently it was because a team like Cardiff had made that sort of an offer for me. That was something special."
Following the Blackpool victory, Vale were drawn away to Division Three (South) outfit Leyton Orient in the quarter-finals – and were enjoying their status as minor celebrities.
"We stayed at a top hotel in London before the game thanks to our chairman, Alderman William Holdcroft," recalled Askey.
"Arthur Askey, who was a big star at the time, must have seen my name in the papers, so he invited all the players to his show at the London Palace and afterwards we went backstage with him. It was fabulous."
On the pitch, a hard-earned 1-0 win, courtesy of another Leake goal, sent them into the semi-finals for the only time in the club's history.
"There was little between the teams and, although we went ahead, it was (goalkeeper) Ray King who kept us in it with a fantastic save right at the end," Askey explained.
"As soon as their lad hit it, I thought 'this is going in', but Ray somehow kept it out and we were into the last four of the FA Cup. Dreamland."
That semi-final, against West Brom in front of 70,000 fans at Villa Park, did not go Vale's way, of course, but Askey believes the outcome could have been different.
"They were flying high in Division One, but we were one up at half-time thanks to Albert Leake again," he said.
"But we were missing Ken Griffith, who was injured, and that was one change we could have done without.
"They won a free-kick in the second half and when it came into the box, there was a mix-up between Ray King and Tommy Cheadle and the ball finished in the net.
"Then Tommy brought down West Brom's George Lee a yard or two outside the area and the referee gave a penalty. We couldn't believe it.
"Ronnie Allen, a former Vale player, was never going to miss and he smacked it in.
"Even then we could have got a draw. I got the ball in the last few minutes and must have beaten three men and then fed Leake.
"He finished it, but the goal was ruled out for offside when it wasn't. It was a sickening way to lose."
"We had done so well for a Division Three side, but I was gutted to miss out on the final. I've only just recovered."
Vale did have the consolation of winning the Division Three (North) title a few weeks later to leave the club celebrating their best-ever campaign.
Born into a football-crazy Potteries family, Askey was proud to have played his part.
"We lived in Milton, and nine professional footballers came from our street," he said. "There must have been something in the water."
Former Stoke City players Roy Beckett, Albert and Fred Basnett were among them, along with Colin's brother, Ray, a regular for Vale reserves.
Len Barber, who once scored five goals in a game for Vale only to see them chalked off when it was abandoned, was another, as well as Jackie Manley (ex-Vale and Aston Villa).
Askey grew up a supporter of both Vale and Stoke, and would regularly go to games with his dad, George, who offered plenty of encouragement as his son's football talent grew.
"I was never without a tennis ball or something in those days," recalled Askey. "We used to throw it on to the roofs of houses and then trap it when it came down. It was football at the time."
Askey left school at 14 to take a job at the nearby British Aluminium factory. But it wasn't long before he had first signed forms with Port Vale.
"Gordon Hodson was manager and he was all for giving local lads a chance," he said.
"I could have gone to Stoke or Bolton, who were both in Division One, but it was reserve team trainer Bill Cope, who lived near us, who persuaded me to go to Vale.
"'Stoke have got Matthews, George Mountford and Johnny Malkin in their team," he told me, "how are you going to get in? That made me think, I tell you."
Askey broke into the first team under Hodson aged 17 and made his debut at the Old Recreation Ground in Hanley – now the site of the Potteries Shopping Centre.
"Gordon made good players into a good side and was the most interesting man I've ever heard talk about football."
But Hodson died when just 46, and when nothing went right for his replacement, ex-Aston Villa international Ivor Powell, former Stoke star Steele took charge.
"Steele was miles ahead of his time," added Askey. "I used to watch Matthews and Tom Finney, and when they lost the ball, they would not bother about getting it back.
"Steele made sure we tracked back, and used to tell us once we had lost the ball we were defenders.
"He'd say me and Dickie Cunliffe, who was the other winger, were fit enough to do our own jobs and get back too. And it worked."
Askey's time at Vale was interrupted by national service with the RAF, but he was soon back making a name for himself – at the club's new ground in Burslem.
"We had some great times and I loved every minute of it, although I can't have been doing it for the money, I was only on £12 a week."
Their fabulous cup run having come and gone, promoted Vale struggled to find their feet in Division Two and eventually dropped back down, and Askey's near 13-year stint with the club – in which he made 218 appearances and scored 23 goals – was almost over.
"I did my ankle in an FA Cup match at Hull and could never get it right again," he said.
"I was only 26, but I was sold to Walsall and they were taking a chance because I was a bit of a crock.
"Billy Moore, the former Stoke player, was the Walsall manager. When he came to talk to me, he first stopped at the Plough pub, where Freddie Steele was now landlord, to ask what he thought of me.
"Freddie said 'he isn't the best player in the world, but by God he is the best eater'."
"He must have given me a good report though because Billy took a chance on me."
The Saddlers were promoted twice in two seasons with a fit-again Askey in their ranks, but with transport links still poor he continued to train at Vale Park.
"We beat Vale 6-2 at Walsall one day and I celebrated too much," he explained. "When I went in for training on the Monday, Roy Sproson said the manager, Norman Lowe, was fuming and wanted to see me. That was the end of me training at Vale Park."
Askey still winces when he remembers the injury that followed.
"I was playing for Walsall back at Vale and was being marked by Roy Pritchard. We were good mates, but Roy was a different character on the pitch.
"I could see this ball coming towards me and I knew he was behind me. And then whack, he just took me out.
"It was a hell of an impact. Neil Franklin (ex-Stoke) was at the game and said it was the worst tackle he'd ever seen. I didn't play again for 18 months."
Now training at Stoke, Askey did eventually get fit again, but was gradually squeezed out of the side.
However, it was while at Walsall that he scored the goal of his life... without being able to see the ball.
"I wore contact lenses and had lost one on the morning of the match at Shrewsbury," he said.
"As the ball came over all I could see was a blur, so I just threw myself at it. it hit the corner of my head and flew into the net.
"Walsall fans still go on about that goal, but I knew little about it."
Askey switched to Mansfield in 1962, then under former Derby and England legend Raich Carter, and was involved in another promotion before seeing out his career at non-league clubs including Macclesfield, Wellington and Stafford Rangers.
He was 33 when his career ended, but the injuries had caught up with him. A life in insurance followed.
Askey spends much of his time now watching games either at Macclesfield, Vale Park or on TV. So what does he make of modern-day football?
"In our day, you'd get the ball wide to the wingers, and they had the skill and pace to make things happen," he said. "No-one takes on their man anymore. Wingers have drifted out of the game. It's a shame."