“Have you ever had to work again?” asked the taxi-driver as he took us to East Midlands airport at 5.30am for an early flight. That is the common misconception if you have played professional football with the consensus being that you are somehow set up for life and that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Dale Rudge. “If anything my career in professional football meant I had to work harder when I finished,” Dale responded, with his usual, dry sense of humour.
For many years there was a void of apprentices not being given their opportunities at Wolves, but in the early 1980’s, with funds sparse, the chances were rationed out to young players who were worthy of a crack at the first team. One such debutant was the locally born Dale Rudge who made his bow as an innocent 19-year-old on December 18th, 1982 against QPR at his beloved Molineux.
Born in Pendeford and brought up in Claregate, Dale describes it simply as a dream coming true. “I was eight-years-old when I went to my first game and my father Joe took me and my brother Craig to Molineux when we played Norwich. I used to love going to games. One early memory was a game against Arsenal, I remember the goalkeeper Bob Wilson jumping high for a ball and these were memories that stuck with me.”
Dale could be forgiven for dreaming, although even in his wildest aspirations he could never have envisaged trotting out in the famous old gold and black and following in his heroes’ footsteps. Dale initially played for the school team and another early memory was Bobby Gould, Hugh Curran and John Richards visiting his school, Claregate Primary. “I got their autographs and couldn’t believe I had met them.” Dale later played with King John in the Wolves reserve side as the then club record goalscorer was nearing the tail end of his career.
Dale then got recruited to the locally formed Blakeley Green Rovers where he made his debut in goal which was probably where the joy of watching the legendary Bob Wilson came from. Dale was clearly as humble back then as he is now. “I wasn’t the star player! Myself and my brother Craig played, he had a great left foot and eventually we were both scouted by Wolves and signed schoolboy forms at the club. We had to stop going to Wolves games at that point as we were playing most Saturdays and Sundays. Eventually I got signed as an apprentice and I was surprised Craig didn’t make it as I thought he was the better player and many others did too.”
Dale though had a rawness about him and was no doubt an emerging talent that was courted by the big guns and the interest spread far and wide. “I had trials at Leeds, Arsenal and Manchester United but after I heard of the possibility of an apprenticeship at Wolves I had set my heart on that.” His mind was made up. Dale was awarded an apprenticeship at Wolves on £35 a week, training daily for his boyhood club and released for Business Studies at College one day a week. In Dale’s words his early duties were being ‘beholden to the first team doing jobs’, with one such chore being Andy Gray’s boot boy. “I was cleaning Hughie Atkinson’s boots and Andy Gray’s. We were usually given a fringe player and a first-team player to look after. Andy used to give me a £20 tip at Christmas and when I was only on £35 a week it seemed like a fortune. Andy had a sponsorship deal with Patrick but said the boots weren’t as comfortable as his Puma King ones. I would have to put black paint over the Puma logo and paint two white Patrick stripes on the back. I shouldn’t be telling you this, I hope I don’t get him into trouble!”
It wasn’t long before the plucky teenager was gracing the same pitch as the idols he had revered. No fewer than four of the 1980 League Cup Winners from just two years previous, were on the same pitch as him as he made his debut and he remembers it as it were yesterday. “It was a dream come true. I know it sounds like a cliché but to play with these players was my dream growing up. It was John Barnwell who gave me my first professional contract and Graham Hawkins who gave me my debut.
“I remember during the week before the game there had been a few injuries to the squad. On the Tuesday training session we were playing first team against reserves, I was playing for the reserves and the next day I was asked to train with the first team. I’d got told on the Thursday that I was to be making my debut on the Saturday. On the Friday we were working on set-pieces and getting ready for the game and I remember getting home to letters, cards and even telegrams all wishing me luck.”
The game went very well for Dale who slotted into the side comfortably as Wolves chalked up a 4-0 win and the debutant was lauded on a TV interview conducted by Jimmy Hill as his team-mate Kenny Hibbitt rang the praises. The video that is still on YouTube hears Kenny praising the new protégé. “He’s come into a big game today for us, a six-pointer,” said Kenny. “I know he had butterflies before the game so we all had a word with him in the dressing room but as soon as he went out on that pitch he was Dale Rudge. I’d told Jim Barron a few weeks before that this boy is good and today he proved me right. If he or any of these young players coming through can take the shirt off me and get into the side then good luck to them. I won’t give up the shirt without a fight and I’ll be playing for as long as my legs will let me.”
The bashful Rudge responded: “I’ve been on the terraces watching Kenny, he was one of my favourites.” Jimmy Hill continued the commendation of Dale and showed an alternative camera angle of one of the goals that Dale had a part in as he boasted: “Dale Rudge amongst others is emerging and learning quickly illustrates his awareness at the speed in which he recognises and exploits an opportunity.” High praise indeed from football royalty.
It wasn’t quite the dream build-up that he had been hoping for as the weeks and even days and hours before it all could have been very different. “The season before I had played against QPR in an FA Youth Cup game and tore my knee cartilage and was out for nine months. I had only played a few games in the reserves on the build up to my debut, infact the game before we had lost 6-0 to Huddersfield so I was quite surprised when the call up came. The night before the game I was driving home and another car hit my car and sent me into another vehicle. I was shook up but didn’t tell the club as I just wanted to play.”
Dale came through the game unscathed and his dream had come true, he had made his bow for the club that he had watched from the terraces and also had praise for the man who made it possible. “My Dad used to take me to all of my football training and matches when I was growing up. After I made my debut though he didn’t come as much. I think he had thought that his job was done. I hope I made him proud.”
Dale was never too far from the cameras. In a game against Aston Villa beamed live to the homes of millions Dale got involved in a tussle with the Villa legend Dennis Mortimer and taught the European Cup winner a lesson. “I was battling with Dennis, there was a bit of shirt pulling etc then I took it to the by-line and squared it to Wayne Clarke who scored with a backheel.” The memories were being regaled and they could never be taken away.
The man responsible for these memories was Graham Hawkins. A surprise managerial choice by Wolves who looked to bounce back from relegation and get promoted at the first attempt and against the odds to the First Division. Derek Dougan – aka ‘The Doog’ – was back at the club, this time as chairman and he began to build a team around him on and off the pitch to help repair Wolves’ ailing fortunes. Clearly ‘The Doog’ wanted to create heroes on the pitch where he had once been worshipped and locally grown talent was the most economically viable option. Graham was named manager after he had been tempted away from Shrewsbury Town where he had been the assistant to a certain Graham Turner, of whom there had been talk of him getting the Molineux job. It was Hawkins though who guided Wolves to promotion in Dale’s debutant 1982/83 season and then many more memories were made.
“I played against Manchester United up front in front of 41,000 at Old Trafford facing the likes of Gordon Strachan and Gordon McQueen.” The latter of which Dale demonstrated his cheeky yet skilful side yet again. “I nutmegged Gordon (McQueen) and passed the ball off. I went jogging off and then I felt the wrap of knuckles on my head and it was Gordon reminding me not to do it again… or I think it was DON’T DO THAT A-F***ING-GAIN!.
“I played against Gary Lineker at Leicester. I was left-back that day and Steve Lynex gave me a torrid time. I played at Upton Park against West Ham in midfield and in total made 19 appearances that season in what was then the First Division. I played in a few different positions for Wolves but always felt most comfortable in midfield, but never complained as I was just happy to wear the shirt.”
The ‘baptism of fire’ as Dale referred to it as came on November 26th, 1983, as Wolves defeated their rivals West Bromwich Albion 3-1 in a top-flight derby at the Hawthorns. “I knew about the rivalry but didn’t know how big it was. It was a great game to play in and win although I was at left-back which wasn’t my preferred position. That night, after the game I went for a few drinks in Kingswinford and started at The Forge and it was full of Wolves supporters. I didn’t have to buy a drink all night! Later on they took me for a curry in Dudley and that’s when it hit me how big the game was after spending time with the fans.”
As Dale was a close friend, so much so we were best men to each other at our respective weddings, I didn’t feel too bad in asking the question about money, especially to those players who played during that era as it was more curiosity than cheek. I’d never dare and had no interest in asking a player of their earnings from 2000 onwards as there would be nothing to gain from hearing that a player was on several thousand pounds per week – it would be embarrassing for me and the subject I was interviewing.
As it happened, as well as the adulation on the turf, Rudge was remunerated well off it. “That’s a bit personal isn’t it?” Dale responded jokingly with a grin… and however much our taxi-driver had flowered up his earnings Dale was honest to me in his response. “£140 a week was my weekly pay. My Dad was earning the same money and he had worked hard all his life and I was 19 in my first job. This increased though with bonuses by £120 a point per game and we had position bonuses too, for example for top three or top six but in my second season we were nowhere near it!.
“We had crowd bonuses too. Anything over a certain amount in the ground and we would all get a bonus if we played. I’ll never forget my first month’s pay, I took home £2,400 but it wasn’t always like that’. I duly reminded Dale that there was 15,000 at the game vs QPR. “There seemed more than that!” Dale exclaimed. We concluded that ‘The Doog’, in his wisdom, may have miscounted the figures, if only to keep the club afloat.
It remains local folklore of Wolverhampton Wanderers much publicised financial plight during those dark and desperate times. “The club was in financial difficulty,” Dale recalls. “I remember Gordon Taylor from the PFA coming into the club for a meeting and talking with the players. We were assured we would get our wages as they had been late. It didn’t bother me, I had no mortgage or kids and was just happy playing football. I didn’t really listen to be honest.”
Memories continued to be made off the pitch and in particular Dale would always enjoy pre-season, though not for the running up and down Cannock Chase or Milford Common but for the tour which was normally a flight away. “We went on a pre-season tour to Sweden and a TV ended up being chucked out of the window. That ended a certain player’s time at Wolves.
“We went to Magaluf one year. We were all drinking at the hotel and there was a Mr Muscle contest as part of the entertainment. John Burridge told us he was entering and we thought he stood a chance to be fair. In the pre-season he would get a job hod-carrying to maintain his strength as he was always in great shape. He ran back- stage to make his entrance after one of the locals had been flexing his muscles and fancied his chances. Budgie then came walking across the stage on his hands which was his party piece. He was stark-b*llock naked and as he got to the judge on his hands he toppled over and knocked him off the stage! It all went off and a fight broke out….it was hilarious!”
Dale then thought about the memories he had from Molineux, although not so many on the pitch there were some great moments off it especially when he was a budding apprentice with the world at his feet. “I remember being on dressing room duty against PSV Eindhoven in the European fixture when the floodlights failed. Luckily I had got a ball signed by the team just before kick-off.
“There was one day when we had played Nottingham Forest. I was in the away team dressing room again sweeping up making sure it was clean and tidy. Wolves had won and Brian Clough was ranting and he told his players that they had to get straight on the coach and not via the players bar. When he got outside he was just about to step on the coach and a rather large lady, a Wolves fan said – ‘What’s up Cloughie? You got a ball stuck in your mouth?’ At that point he stepped off the coach and gave her a mouthful back with words to the effect of, ‘it looks like you’ve got a dozen balls down there love’. At which point a flag hit him, a fight ensued and punches were thrown! Never a dull moment.”
Dale could now see the writing on the wall. Following relegation from the top flight, Wolves had ridden their luck with their financial woes and costs had to be cut. Dale was one who was asked to make way as most of the players in and around the first team had been told that they could leave in a bid to steady the sinking ship.
“I was told I had to go as they couldn’t afford to pay my wages. They were fair with me and said if I didn’t find a club I could come back but it would have been heavily reduced terms. I had a few options but John Burridge had recommended me to Preston and I signed there. I was disappointed it ended so quickly at Wolves but I had done already what every young footballer dreams of and wouldn’t change a thing.” The Molineux bubble had burst.
Preston was the next destination and Dale was relishing escaping his roots. “Preston had a lot of tradition, much like Wolves, and I felt it was a good move. Deepdale was a great ground but the training facilities weren’t the best and we found ourselves on local parks and some bad pitches. Brian Kidd was on the coaching staff, it was one of his first jobs after he had finished playing and he would get involved in training and he was the best player on the pitch. Mark Jones was there, Dave Jones’ brother, and he became one of my best friends in the game.”
Time was catching up with Dale and he had gone from a brightly shining teenage star to a player who needed to mature fast as someone Preston heavily relied on. “I played 47 games over two seasons and felt that I couldn’t learn and develop from players like I had been doing at Wolves as I was classed as one of the best players at the club and my team-mates were looking up to me.”
After an alcohol abstinence at Wolves, Dale had learnt to let his hair down. His drinking partner came in the unfamiliar face of the landlord of his digs in Preston, Derek Tattersall. Derek and his wife Phyllis instantly made Dale feel at home in his new surroundings in Lancashire. Dale started a nightly card school with Derek that soon became his bonus scheme after being so richly rewarded at Wolves.
One night though Phyllis had had enough of the pair’s antics. Dale took over. “It was a cold January night and myself and Derek had been drinking and he had one too many. Phyllis had got fed up and kicked us both out. I was coming to the end of my stay there as I had got the keys to my new house in Leyland but there was absolutely nothing in what was an empty property. Outside was my two- seater TR-7 that I had bought with my signing-on fee and although I was a little worse for wear I decided the best thing to do, of which I’m not proud of, was to drive to nearby Leyland so me and Derek had a bed for the night. I remembered when I got there, that there were no beds!
“We arrived within a few minutes and I tried to get Derek out of the car then I realised there was no furniture and Derek looked quite comfortable in the car. I remember getting into the house, finding some curtains on the floor in the living room which I wrapped myself in and fell asleep. The next morning I remembered Derek was outside in the car. I rushed out to him and he was still flat out. I barely recognised him as he was blue with cold and covered in cobwebs!”. This cemented the start of a relationship between the two that has lasted forever.
That same January in 1986, Dale achieved an unenviable record that is still held to this day. Preston recorded their lowest crowd ever, of just 768 fans who clicked through the turnstiles for a Freight Rover Trophy cup-tie at Deepdale. Dale explained the mitigating circumstances. “The floodlights had been condemned at the ground so it meant we couldn’t play midweek evening matches. This particular game had a kick off time of 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon so people were struggling to get the time off work and school. Still, I made the record books!” Dale was always one to see the positive and put everything in a better light.
Dale Rudge is still fondly remembered at Deepdale. The Preston North End Fanzine was graciously named after him and aptly called ‘Deepdale Rudge’ in his honour. It has now turned into an online supporters blog and although a play on words it has ensured that his two-season stay enabled him to leave his mark in more ways than one.
The next stop for Dale was Norway. The now defunct Djerv 1919 to be precise. “After Preston I had a few offers but the most interesting one came from abroad and I went over to Norway. I loved the way of life there and it really suited me. It was good security for my family at the time. We had a free house, a free car, free fuel and five free flights a year to go back home. What’s not to like?
“The football, although we trained daily, was part-time. We would train in the evenings for a couple of hours and that gave us the day free. I would spend the day in coffee bars, reading yesterday’s English newspaper as that’s all you could get hold of but I quickly realised I needed to fill my time in the day.
“The club found me a job on my request and I became a painter initially, then a scaffolder working on North Sea Oil Rigs. My first job was to paint some flowers on a building in a nearby town. We had a template to work from but there was only one problem… I’m colour blind! To be honest there were no complaints so I must have got it right.” Dale assured me that his debilitation never affected his football career and he never passed the ball to the wrong team. We will never know!
I levelled with Dale. I asked him if he had felt any sort of decadence at his career hanging so quickly from playing for your boyhood club and being hailed as ‘the next big thing’ to then just a few short years later you are doing jobs to get you by.
“No, not at all,” he replied. “I accepted the situation and didn’t have any regrets. Some things in life you have no control over.” Knowing Dale, I believed him.
For family reasons Dale returned to the shores of the UK leaving his paintbrush behind. There were no shortage of offers to get back into the league but surprisingly the most lucrative offer came from non-league Hednesford Town.
“It suited me perfectly,” Dale admitted. “John Baldwin was in charge and they were offering me more money than league clubs were. It was local and as they only trained twice a week it suited me as by this time I’d had five knee operations.” The rigours of professional football had taken their toll. The medical care and attention wasn’t as it is today and Dale knew his days were numbered. He did have one final swansong as he helped Hednesford get to the 1992 Welsh Cup Final where they narrowly lost to a strong Cardiff side at Cardiff Arms Park and that called time on a career that 10 years previously had promised to offer so much more.
Football is still in his blood. Since hanging up his boots he has coached the Kidderminster Harriers Youth Team and helped other young players realise their dream of becoming a professional footballer. Dale has always been one for giving back and is now a sports coach and through his business he works closely with mainstream schools, disabled children and also works in the PE department of a boarding school.
At 38, Dale made one final comeback in the Wolverhampton Beacon League to pull on the boots for Pendeford 2000 and take to the pitch again with his brother Craig one final time. Less than two decades from where it had all first started his career had turned full circle. “Your career goes so fast and everything seems to happen so quickly. Luckily, I’ve got all the memories and nobody can ever take them away from me… and it all still seems like yesterday.”
And yes, in response to the taxi-driver.…Dale did have to work again.