John Askey has turned Port Vale from relegation candidates to promotion contenders in his second spell at Vale Park.
His first spell involved cleaning boots, laying out kit for the first team and painting the old gym. It’s fair to say he’s worked his way up.
That said, the 55 year old, from Milton, looks back fondly on that time, having joined on the old YTS scheme from Holden Lane High School.
He said: “It was just for six months and then they had to decide whether to take you on or not. So, it was just me and Robbie Earle in that age group.
“My day would start with the walk from Milton to the ground, sometimes passing our trainer Lol Hamlett who lived in Baddeley Green. But he didn’t really like you walking with him because very often he would get a lift and if there were two of you there was less chance!
“Lol was a lay preacher so never swore, so everything was ‘fizzing!’ while he was there with John Rudge as assistant manager and John McGrath manager.
“You’d get there and put out the kit for those players who didn’t take theirs home to wash. Some of them never had it washed and it would be in the boiler room. So you’d pick it up and it would stink and be like cardboard with all the dry mud.
“You’d also clean boots if they wanted you to and I also remember me, Rudgie and Robbie Earle painting the gym green, with Rudgie doing Johnny Mathis impressions.”
That said, John didn’t just learn about the importance of laundry and the assistant manager’s singing talents during his YTS spell. He says he was also lucky to learn about the game.
He said: “After my first training session, Jimmy Greenhoff came over to me and said ‘well done son.’ I felt ten feet tall because of that.
“He was unbelievable. I remember we were in the gym practicing, keeping the ball up volleying against the wall. We could do two or three but he could have been there all day, right foot, left foot, he was fantastic. He has to be one of the best volleyers there has ever been.
“Nowadays, players who have been at the level he had, have made so much money that very few drop down when they are coming to the end of their careers. We were lucky that players like that were able to pass on their experience to younger players, and some of the older ones.”
John credits McGrath and Rudge for turning the Vale around – ‘we had been near the bottom of the old Fourth Division and the ground was falling to bits’ – but McGrath decided not to keep on the young forward after his initial YTS contract.
Technically he was offered £5 a week to extend the deal but he recognised that was McGrath’s way of letting him down gently.
In those days though players could still turn out as amateurs so he continued to play for the ‘A’ team or reserves while working during the week and playing for Milton United and Miners Arms Milton.
He said: “My mum got me a job labouring at Alexandra Pottery in Tunstall. That geared me up for life and made me appreciate things.
“I was lucky that I was labouring so was moving about the factory. But one day I was on a conveyor belt. There were women feeding the plates at one end – biscuit ware – so all the dust comes off. Because of the noise you can’t speak to anyone.
“So, they would feed it through these brushes, it would go down a conveyor belt and my job was to catch these plates and put them to one side. Luckily I only had to do it for one day. But you appreciate what people did to make a living.
“You never saw people complain, they just got on with it.”
At 19, he was old enough to become an insurance agent so followed his dad and older brothers into that business, a job he would keep until he went full time professional with Macclesfield in the Football League.
The job allowed him to play football at the weekends, for Vale’s A team, later for Macc in non-league, but also for the local teams in Milton where he had grown up learning the game.
As one of five children, Bob, Mark, Steve, John and Joanne, he grew up following his three elder brothers in making his name in local football. His dad Colin had also set the bar high by being a Port Vale hero, part of the 1953/54 team that won Division Three (North) and reached the FA Cup semi finals before moving on to Walsall and Mansfield where he would also win promotions.
However, John explains he never felt under pressure because of his dad’s achievements.
He said: “He only ever really encouraged me, he just let us play.
“It helped me because he had a very good understanding of football. Mind you, until I got older, I thought my name was ‘son of….’, because everywhere I went I was ‘son of Colin’, or ‘brother of….’
“But my dad’s experience helped me and what also helped was having older brothers and playing with them and against them. I couldn’t ask for better as regards having an understanding of the game of football.”
He progressed from kicking a ball about in the garden to joining Ladsandads.
He said: “My first team was called Milton Spurs. I was six but I was playing with ten and 11 years olds – and it got me out of going to church.
“We used to play at Carmountside. The pitches were horrendous, on the side of a hill. But it was through Ladsandads, which had been started by Doug Brown, that a lot more football was played other than in schools.
“But school football was still massive at that time. I played for Milton schools and then at ten I played for Hanley schools.
“I then got picked for Stoke-on-Trent schoolboys and in that same team were Chris Maskery, Philip Heath, Kevin Kent and Robbie Earle.
“But back then you didn’t get taken on by league clubs until you were 15. I think that’s a big difference now in football. Lads are missing out on their childhood and playing with their mates. There are scouts everywhere – Liverpool, United, and they are getting picked up a lot younger.
“Most of them aren’t going to make it and parents are running them here, there and everywhere chasing the dream.
“In my case, I just played, whether it was Ladsandads, school or wherever. I just wanted to play every day of the week, and if you weren’t playing you’d be practicing at lunchtime at school or after.
“I played tennis as well because we had a teacher who was well into it. We weren’t what you would call a tennis school but we won the Staffordshire championship at Holden Lane. It’s not because I was any good but the other three players were decent.”
As for football, John enjoyed playing for various teams including the Milton United side run by his dad on a Saturday and then Miners Arms Milton on a Sunday. Occasionally this would clash with Vale A team commitments – in one case he was substitute for the Vale first team against Halifax on a Saturday afternoon then turned out for Miners Arms the next day.
He says the local Saturday and Sunday football leagues were an experience.
He explained: “It certainly toughened you up. I remember playing one game and I had gone past the bloke, well the ball had, and he hit me and put a hole in my lip and basically knocked me out. My brother was behind me and said ‘you wouldn’t do that to me would you?”
“So, he put my brother down as well.
“The best of it was the referee played on. That was the type of game you sometimes got involved in.
“A lot of the time there was a fight or someone would get sent off. But having come through experiences like that when I was young, I wasn’t frightened of anybody when I did go and play at places where players thought they could intimidate me. I had already been punched and kicked upstairs and downstairs.
“But also, football was very strong in Stoke-on-Trent then on Saturdays and Sundays. There were a lot of good players and it was very competitive.”
John initially joined Macclesfield because his brother Bob was playing for them and they were short of players.
That arrangement became more formal and John would become a legend with the Silkmen. His promotions with them as a player included winning a place in the Football League and he would also manage the youth team, reserves and first team.
He played for Macclesfield for 19 years although he only actually went full time when he was 34.
He explained: “When we got into the Football League, I still stayed part time. But then we finished second in what is now League Two and got promoted. I just thought, well we are playing teams like Man City, Stoke, Burnley and Preston. I’ll just go full time for a year and enjoy myself and get myself really fit. That’s what I did and I have been full time ever since.”
It’s a football cliché to say a player will be given the freedom of the town after different achievements. In John Askey’s case it is official, he was made an ‘Honourary Freeman of Macclesfield’ at a ceremony at the town hall in 2018.
His greatest achievement as a player was coming back from the badly broken leg he suffered at the age of 32. Macclesfield had just won the Conference but been denied promotion because of ground facilities. John was told the injury would probably finish his career but he came back after a year, played the whole season and helped them secure a place in the Football League at the second time of asking.
His finest achievement as a manager has to be leading Macc to the Conference title in 2017/18 despite having a budget of £300,000, the lowest in the division. That got him a move to League One Shrewsbury but he was only given five months there by the board.
That proved to be the Vale’s gain when John was appointed in February 2019, asked to steady a team showing signs of sliding out of the Football League.
Neil Aspin had done well to keep Vale up the previous season but felt he had gone as far as he could. A misjudged managerial appointment then and Vale could easily have been taking the path trodden by Chesterfield or Notts County into non-league.
John said: “I felt I could do the job. I had done a good job at Macc, I wasn’t given any time at Shrewsbury through different circumstances but I felt as though I could do something.
“I had watched Vale play quite a few times that season and, luckily enough, things turned. But I wouldn’t have liked to be the manager that took Port Vale down. It would have been a struggle to walk around Stoke-on-Trent knowing that.”
‘Luckily enough’ doesn’t do justice to the job he has done in not only stabilising the Vale last season but making them genuine promotion contenders this year. When the season was suspended in March, Vale were eighth, just one point outside the play-off places.
He adds: “Things have gone as well as we could have expected but I don’t get carried away if we are doing well or not so well.
“At the moment we are in a position where we have done okay and turned things around a bit. But we have a great opportunity now to go and achieve something.
“It is getting the winning mentality into the players, and everyone at the club, so we expect to go out and win.”
It’s almost forty years since he walked through the doors as a YTS player. But as John Askey sees it, the job at Port Vale has just begun.