As Bad As Things Got: Port Vale, 20th February 1968

by | Mar 18, 2021

When former England international (and arguably British football’s first true celebrity) Stanley Matthews finally ended his playing career with Stoke City in 1965, there was much conjecture as to what his post-football career might look like. Matthews insitally couldn’t quite resist the temptation to carry on playing, and travelled to Canada to play a few matches in the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League. This opportunity had come about thanks to a close friendship with another former Stoke player, Jackie Mudie, but when Mudie returned to England to take the manager’s job at Stoke’s local rivals Port Vale, Matthews went too, accepting the job of General Manager alongside Mudie.

Mudie’s time at Vale Park was not especially happy, and when Mudie resigned at the end of the 1966/67 season, citing ‘personal reasons’ for his departure, Matthews was invited to accept the position of first team manager. Vale had spent the previous two seasons in the bottom half of the Fourth Division and barely had two pennies to rub together, but Matthews was convinced that he could turn around the club’s fortunes by bringing in young talent, developing them as players, and selling them on for a profit, even though Mudie’s similar plans for the club had come to little.

The 1967/68 season started with a foreign tour that would change Matthews’ life forever. Port Vale went on an eight-day trip to Czechoslovakia, a year before Soviet troops invaded the country. The trip comprised two matches against Second Division opponents, with Matthews himself being required to play in both. More than 7,000 people turned out for the first match against Gottwaldov, which Vale won 2-0, and they drew their second match 2-2 with TS Jisara Skutec, while the squad went sightseeing in Prague and attended the ballet. Behind the scenes, though, Matthews met and fell in love with his translator, Mila, which would eventually result in him divorcing his first wife.

Back in England, Port Vale’s Fourth Division season started disastrously, with the team picking up just two draws from their first seven league matches, while their involvement in the League Cup ended in the Second Round with a 3-0 defeat at Portsmouth. Although the team’s form in the league did stabilise a little, though, it was proving to be another season of struggle at Vale Park, a fact further underlined when they were knocked out of the FA Cup in the First Round by Chester. Matthews, meanwhile, had irritated supporters by travelling back to Czechoslovakia ‘on business’ after the season had begun.

Off the field, meanwhile, tensions had been building behind the scenes, not least in December 1967, when holiday camp entrepreneur Graham Bourne purchased 13,000 shares in the club, only to be refused a place in the board of directors by chairman Fred Pinfold, who was wary of Bourne becoming involved. Bourne, a lifelong supporter of the club, sold his shares and moved on. But the club had bigger concerns to worry about by this point, regardless. A month earlier, a routine check of the club’s accounts by the Football League had raised several questions about payments that the club had been making to players, and after referring the matter to the Football Association, a joint investigation into what had been going on at Vale Park was set up.

Port Vale weren’t the only club being investigated at this time. The ending of the maximum wage at the start of the 1960s had raised football’s financial stakes, and while the game’s reputation for financial probity had been shaken by stories of “shamateurism” – concerning amateur players receiving under the counter payments – and the match-fixing scandal of 1964, which led to ten professional players going to prison and thirty-three being prosecuted. At the same time as Port Vale, another club, Peterborough United (who’d only been elected into the Football League in 1960) were also charged with similar offences.

On the 20th February 1968 at Lancaster Gate in London, the club admitted all charges. There was little point in them doing otherwise. Everything had been minuted in the club’s records. Stanley Matthews, who’d never been booked or sent off in a 33 year playing career and was concerned at his carefully cultured reputation being tainted by the allegations being made, had urged the club to publicly admit what had happened, but this didn’t happen until this meeting.

The club was charged over six irregularities:

  1. Several amateur players had been paid despite not being registered.
  2. Associate schoolboys had played for the club.
  3. Extra bonuses were paid after a 3-0 League Cup victory over Chester in August 1967.
  4. Illegal bonuses had been paid to players Clinton Boulton and Gordon Logan.
  5. An illegal signing-on bonus had been paid to defender John Ritchie (who, by the time of the investigation, had already been sold to Preston North End.)
  6. A director of the club had made gifts to young players.

The club was found guilty on all six charges, though it has been said that, with a new chairman at the club (Fred Pinfold had only been the chairman at Vale Park since 1965), it’s likely that nobody at Port Vale particularly thought that they were even doing anything wrong. After all, why would these transactions have been minuted otherwise? The club was fined £2,000, and was told that the recommendation was that they should receive the most severe of penalties. Two weeks later, a further meeting with the Football League doubled the fine to £4,000 and ratified expulsion from the Football League. Peterborough United, who were up on similar charges to Vale, were later deducted the requisite number of points to be demoted from the Third Division to the Fourth. Port Vale couldn’t be relegated from the Fourth Division, of course. They could only be expelled.

The irony of the club’s situation at that time was that they’d only got their Football League place in the first place in 1919 when they took over the fixtures of Leeds City, who, it turned out, had been the last club prior Vale to be expelled in such a way. Of course, expulsion didn’t quite mean the same as it had to Leeds City in 1919, when that club was thrown out altogether and liquidated in a matter of weeks. Vale’s expulsion would take the form of a standalone vote at the end of the season. In other words, Port Vale would be standing for re-election back into thre Football League, even if they didn’t finish in the bottom four places in the Fourth Division. As things turned out, they ended the season in 18th place in the table, three points clear of the bottom four.

The reaction to the punishment at Port Vale was astonishment. Vale had been fined four times the amount that Peterborough had been for similar offences, though the counter-argument to that was that Vale remained likely to be voted back into the Football League come the end of the season, whereas there was no escape from relegation for  Peterborough. Supporters began a fundraising appeal to raise the cost of the fine (a local newspaper sold badges saying “I’m Backing Vale” in support of the campaign), while vice chairman Arthur McPherson described the club as being “shocked and appalled at the severity of the findings.”

When the vote came around at the end of the season, though, it turned out that there was little for Vale to be concerned about with regard to their ongoing existence within the Football League. The vote on whether they should be allowed to remain in the Football League was a standalone vote, with a total of 52 available. Port Vale won the vote by 40 to 9, and retained their place in the Football League. But the damage to the club’s reputation was not insubstantial. Described in the press as “the minnows who took on the big fish and got caught in their own net”, and regardless of the outcome of the vote, there was little question that this was humiliating for the club.

It also terminated their relationship with Stanley Matthews. His face had been plastered all over the press coverage of the story, just as he’d feared might happen, and the club’s refusal to publicly admit the charges or exonerate him of responsibility for it – to be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Matthews was behind these misdemeanours – deeply hurt him. He moved back into the General Manager’s position – continuing to work primarily with the youth team – at the end of the 1967/68 season and replaced by Gordon Lee, who would later go on to higher profile managerial positions with Newcastle United and Everton.

Matthews’ time with the club was coming to an end, though. Owed £9,000 in back wages when he left, and in December 1970 – seven months after Gordon Lee had got the club promoted back into the Third Division – he agreed a settlement of £3,300, with the remainder being written off. The experience left such a sour taste in his mouth that he never went back into management again. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1968, shortly before the Soviet invasion, and once divorced from his first wife he married Mila. She died in May 1999, and Stanley Matthews followed her less that a year later, three weeks after his 85th birthday.

It was even said at the time that under the counter payments to players were so common at the time that Port Vale’s biggest crime throughout this period was getting caught, rather than what they were actually charged with. Within six years, the formal distinction between amateur and professional players, which had existed since professionalism was first permitted in 1885, was abolished, but the temptation to bypass bonus payments from the accounts in order to avoid paying tax on them has remained a rumour that has circled the game at all levels ever since. But Port Vale did at least survive, which is more than could be said for Leeds City, the club they replaced in the Football League in 1919, and it would be another half century before another club – Bury – would be expelled from the League again. Had they actually been ejected from the Football League in 1968, it’s far from certain that Port Vale would ever have returned.