Port Vale’s team of 1953/54, weren’t just good, they were extraordinary.
Not only were they outstanding in their own division, winning the Third Division (North) title by 11 points and conceding just 21 goals, they also reached the FA Cup semi-finals.
In fact, it was on this day, 66 years ago, that Freddie Steele’s Vale lined up against West Brom at Villa Park for a place at Wembley.
To say interest was high in the game would be underselling it.
When tickets, priced 13p for the terraces, 30p for the paddock or £1.25 for seats, went on sale at Vale Park, queues were a mile long.
They were put on sale during the reserve game at home to Mossley on March 20, a decision that resulted in a 30,000 people actually passing through the turnstile for that game. In fact, an estimated 40,000 turned up to try to get tickets, but many left disappointed.
The size of Vale’s task was almost as large as the ticket operation. Vale faced a West Brom side who were going for the double as they were also in the thick of the race to be league champions of England. That challenge was spearheaded by Ronnie Allen, from Fenton, the England international striker who had played for the Vale before leaving for the Baggies in 1950.
So, the Vale were underdogs but undaunted. After all, they were having a remarkable season. Not only were they dominating their division, they had also turned heads in their FA Cup run.
That run had started back in the November with a 3-1 win at Darlington, thanks to goals from Basil Hayward, Albert Leake and Dickie Cunliffe.
Southport were beaten in the second round after a replay, QPR seen off with a 1-0 away win in the third round and then First Division Cardiff knocked out 2-0 in South Wales in round four.
The Bluebirds had their formidable centre forward Trevor Ford but he was matched by Vale captain and centre half Tommy Cheadle.
Cheadle’s Vale team mate, Roy Sproson, recalled: “I will always remember the duel between Tommy Cheadle and Trevor Ford. Pound for pound they were probably the two hardest men I have known, yet they came off with a smile and a handshake at the finish, battered and bruised having gone at each other hammer and tongs for 90 minutes.”
Vale won it with goals from Ken Griffiths and Albert Leake, and brilliant performances on the wings from Colin Askey and Cunliffe.
In fact, after the game, Cardiff offered a ‘blank cheque’ to sign Askey. Vale told them they weren’t interested.
The game set up a fifth-round tie at home to Blackpool – Vale’s only home draw in the entire cup run. Still, this was no easy task.
First Division Blackpool had Stanley Matthews and were the FA Cup holders, having beaten Bolton 4-3 in what remains one of the most famous finals.
However, the Vale triumphed in front of 42,000, two goals from Albert Leake sending them through 2-0, as Cunliffe and Sproson combed to nullify the threat of Matthews.
It was Leake who struck again in the quarter finals, his first half goal sending the Vale through with a 1-0 win at Leyton Orient.
One drawback from the game was a knee injury to Vale’s inside left Ken Griffiths. He then had constant treatment with trainer Ken Fish before the semi-final but had to concede defeat after a fitness test on the day of the game. In those days there were no substitutes so Griffiths was being unselfish, as well as honest, by pulling out for the sake of the team.
The incident is recalled in ‘Men of Steele’, a brilliant book about the 1953/54 season by Phil Sherwin and the late Steve Askey.
“After the test, Griffiths turned to Freddie Steele and said ‘I am sorry but my knee still hurts and I cannot honestly say that I am fit’.
“The manager told Griffiths to go and gather his thoughts, and he just sat on a wall and cried.”
So, Derek Tomkinson replaced Griffiths in the first change of Vale’s FA Cup run, and they strode out to meet West Brom in front of 68,221 at Villa Park.
Vale took the lead, five minutes before the break as Cunliffe’s ball into the area caused a scramble before Leake forced the ball home.
However, West Brom levelled on 62 minutes when Jim Dudley’s ball into the box grazed off Cheadle, under pressure from Ronnie Allen, and the ball rolled into the corner of the net.
The key – and hugely controversial – moment came on 70 minutes when Cheadle caught George Lee on the edge of the area. A photograph of the incident strongly suggests the challenge was outside the area, but the referee gave a penalty and Allen scored from the spot.
Vale went close to an equaliser in the last five minutes but Cunliffe fired just wide and Leake had a goal ruled out for offside.
So, the Vale were out, just failing to become the first team from the third tier of English football to reach an FA Cup final.
But their record remains. Fifty four competitive games – the first English club side to play that many in a season – and just four defeats. Truly extraordinary.
PORT VALE 1
WEST BROM 2
FA Cup semi final, at Villa Park.
March 27, 1954.
Port Vale: Ray King, Stan Turner, Reg Potts, Albert Mullard, Tommy Cheadle, Roy Sproson, Colin Askey, Albert Leake, Basil Hayward, Derek Tomkinson, Dickie Cunliffe.
West Brom: Heath, Rickaby, Millard, Dudley, Dugdale, Barlow, Griffin, Ryan, Allen, Nicholls, Lee.
* ‘Men of Steele’, the story of Port Vale’s 1953/54 season, is published by Pass Publishing.