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Dale Rudge lived the dream of coming through and playing for his home-town club of Wolves.

Although at one stage there was a chance he could have joined Saturday’s opponents Manchester United instead.

Rudge also produced an impressive performance in his debut in front of the Match of the Day cameras, a few days after being shunted in his car, and was later afforded a hero’s reception when walking into a local pub after being part of a struggling Wolves team which had surprised West Bromwich Albion.

Then, during a spell playing in Norway, he worked both as a painter and decorator – despite being colour blind- before trying his hand at scaffolding on a North Sea oil rig.

Oh yes.  And he has also had a fanzine named after him.

The footballing life and times of Dale Rudge have certainly never been dull or straightforward.

It’s now 40 years since the Christmas fixtures brought Rudge his first taste of senior football, patrolling the Wolves engine room at the age of just 19.

To set the scene, it was December 18th of 1982 that Wolves, then occupying third position in the Second Division, welcomed Queen’s Park Rangers, sitting top, to a chilly and icy Molineux.

At half time it was goalless.  At full time, thanks to John Humphrey, Wayne Clarke, Geoff Palmer from the spot, and Alan Dodd, Wolves had despatched the table-toppers in some swashbuckling style.

QPR would end the season with the Second Division title. Wolves joined them back in the top flight by finishing second to secure promotion.

For Rudge, who followed up an impressive debut with starts in 2-0 wins in successive days against Shrewsbury and Burnley – no worries about fixture congestion back then – it was certainly one to remember.

“Yes, I was nervous,” he admits.

“I didn’t know for sure I was going to play but there had been a bit of talk so in training on Thursday and Friday I was feeling a bit tense.

“It is living the dream, isn’t it?  Your own club, what you have worked for to try and get that opportunity.

“For a top of the table clash as well, and at that stage I probably didn’t realise how much it meant to everyone else and the supporters.

“But it was a perfect way to start.”

There were, however, plenty of other narratives which topped and tailed the 90 minutes on the pitch that cold December afternoon.

Because Rudge’s senior debut came about a year after he had suffered a serious knee injury, ironically also against QPR, in an FA Youth Cup win – in which he scored – on the artificial turf at Loftus Road.

Not even realising the extent of the problem until reporting for training the next day, and finding it impossible to walk, Rudge eventually needed an operation.

However, back at Molineux after the surgery, he was taken ill with septicaemia, and blue-lighted back to hospital to be immediately put on a drip.

The surgery itself had not been a complete success, and Rudge’s knee repeatedly ‘ballooned’ with swelling every time he tried to return, and pre-season with the team at RAF Cosford afforded slow progress.

Eventually he returned to action, a couple of months before that first team debut, but there was still, to add insult to injury, more drama ahead.

“The week before my debut I was in a car accident when someone went into me from behind and knocked me – in my rock and roll Datsun 2020 – into the car in front,” Rudge recalls.

“So, I went off to buy another car and was sat in the seller’s house getting it sorted – when my face popped up on the television on the local news.

“It was a report speculating about whether I would start in the game, and the guy I was buying the car off looked at me and I was like, ‘yeh, that’s me!’

“That was a strange moment, but I’m not sure he gave me a discount, probably charged me more, I mean with the huge wages I was on at the time!”

More media attention was to accompany Rudge following the game as well.

He was selected, along with Kenny Hibbitt, for the post-match interview on Match of the Day.

“Kenny had been one of my heroes growing up, he still is,” says Rudge.

“If you watch my interview you can certainly see there was no media training in those days.

“And the whole thing actually took about an hour-and-a-half because their equipment kept breaking.

“I’d been really keen to get off and away with my mates but I had to wait for ages while they got it all working properly.”

Rudge hadn’t had to wait that long to take his chances with Wolves.

Born in Wolverhampton and attending Claregate and Pendeford schools growing up, Rudge played for his local Sunday side and for the district, but it wasn’t perhaps until reaching his teenage years that the opportunity to become a footballer loomed into view.

He was playing in the same junior side as Timmy Chung, son of Wolves coach and manager Sammy, and it was Chung and chief scout Joe Gardiner who spotted the potential in Rudge’s talent.

“Sammy would take us for extra training, and at the time my running style was horrendous,” says Rudge.

“He sent me to a coach at Wolverhampton & Bilston to work on my running technique and get myself up to speed.

“Football had always been there, but then it got more serious, and I ended up having every Monday off school to go training at Wolves.

“Before becoming an apprentice, I actually went to a fair few other clubs as well.

“I spent a week at Manchester United when Dave Sexton was there, and they wanted to sign me, and I also had trials with Everton, Arsenal and Aston Villa.

“But for me there it wasn’t really a choice, I went to those other clubs as my Dad said it was worth looking around, but it was always going to be Wolves.

“My Dad was a Wolves fan and took me to my first game when I was eight or nine, a win against Leyton Orient.

“From there you just get hooked, don’t you? So, the only club I really wanted to join was Wolves.”

And from there, coming through as an apprentice to make his debut, making a total of eight league appearances as Wolves won promotion, Rudge was staking his claim, whether in the centre of the park, in other positions across the midfield, or later at left back.

As the club returned to the Premier League, his starts included the opening day draw against reigning champions Liverpool, the defeat in front of almost 42,000 against Manchester United at Old Trafford and – most spectacularly – the local derby with West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns.

At that stage, Wolves had played 16 games in all competitions in the season, and not won a single one, but that soon changed thanks to a Danny Crainie masterclass with two goals and another for Clarke securing a 3-1 victory.

“That Albion game was amazing, and the highlight of my footballing life,” says Rudge.

“When you grow up playing football and trying to become a professional, you have games every Saturday so you don’t see many other games and, despite living in the area, I didn’t realise how big the rivalry was between Wolves and Albion.

“After the game I went with a mate to the Forge pub in Kingswinford, and it was absolutely full of Wolves supporters.

“There must have been 200 or so in there, it was packed, and when I walked in the whole place erupted.

“It was awesome, an unbelievable experience, and they were all saying they could handle being bottom of the league, because we had beaten Albion!”

Sadly, it was to prove a rare high point of a thoroughly miserable season as Wolves set off on a successive and catastrophic plunge through the divisions and almost out of existence.

Rudge was one of the fleeting positives, plying his trade at the top level at such a young age, putting another 19 appearances in the bank and keeping his head when a fair few around him were losing theirs.

But at the end of the season, with Wolves hurtling towards financial chaos, there was no real prospect of a decent contract to stay at the club even though caretaker boss Jim Barron offered Rudge the chance to continue training with the squad.

“A lot of players left the club at that point and then others came in to replace them,” he recalls.

“Some of the stories from those days, about players being paid in cash and so on, were all a bit strange and it turned out to be a very sad time.

“Things happen in football, times can change very quickly, and it soon became clear that it was probably the right time for me to move on.”

Move on Rudge did, to Preston, even though, when the fixture calendar allowed, he would go and watch Wolves when playing at nearby grounds such as Blackpool.

He enjoyed it up north, chalking up another half century or so of appearances, and even after leaving, has made regular trips back to catch up with his landlord and landlady, although his landlord sadly passed away during the Covid pandemic.

He enjoyed life at Preston on the pitch, while off the pitch he left a legacy that very few footballers can aspire to.

Rudge had a fanzine named after him: Deepdale Rudge.  ‘A bit like Steve Bull and A Load of Bull?’ I ask. 

“I’m not sure mine was anything to do with football ability,” he laughs.

“It’s just that they had never had a player called Dale before, to fit in with their stadium name.

“I think it’s still going as well, Deepdale Rudge, although it’s turned into a blog now.”

If that sounds slightly different and off-piste – he’s actually just back from a skiing trip – then wait for what happened next, as Rudge headed to Norway to spend several years with Djerv 1919, situated in the town of Haugesund on the North Sea.

The football was all good, a mixture of abilities in a 12-team division, but the lifestyle even better.

No crime, not to mention the opportunity for Rudge, having gone straight into football from school, to broaden his employment horizons.

“Going to Norway was probably the nicest experience of my career,” he reports.

“The fact there was no crime for starters.

“Now this might sound weird, but I remember the first time I walked up the high street and saw a shoe shop, where they had both the left and right shoes on display.

“Anyone could have walked off with them, or in them, or maybe that was just the Englishman coming out in me!

“It was a really nice lifestyle and the contract was such that I was over there for nine months, back home for three months, but I got paid for all 12.

“Training was always in the evening, so during the day I would just be going to the coffee shop and reading all the English papers from the day before.

“I needed to keep busy, so I went to the club and asked them to find me a job.

“The first one was painting and decorating, which wasn’t great for someone who is as badly colour blind as I am.

“That one went out of the window pretty quickly.

“The next one was working in grounds maintenance, mainly sitting on the back of a tractor, which was fine, but not too exciting.

“Then they asked me how I fancied a bit of scaffolding?  ‘Well, yes, I’ll give it a go,’ I replied.

“I went on a course, got to grips with all the health and safety elements of it, and got a job on a gas plant, which was brilliant.

“It was working on the rigs but not actually on the North Sea as they came into port and we worked on them there.

“Even so, I was working a few hundred feet up in the air dangling from a safety harness – not sure you’d get away with that as a player these days!

“But I really enjoyed it, and that was probably the fittest I have ever been during my time as a footballer.”

On returning to England, Rudge played for Hednesford Town, helping them to the 1992 Welsh Cup Final, before hanging up his boots and embarking on a new chapter.

Football has remained a significant part of that – for a time he coached Kidderminster Harriers youth team and has spent 20 years working within the PE department at Oldswinford Hospital School.

Rudge continued to turn out for Wolves Allstars for many years, under the leadership of Mel Eves and Jason Guy, but now, at 59, pursues more of a spectating brief thanks to that troublesome knee.

There are also plenty of other fulfilling areas to Rudge’s daily life now, namely in helping youngsters with disabilities and their families as well as time spent with his own family, wife Lynsey and sports-mad six-year-old daughter Poppie.

“I am involved with a company which puts sports coaches into schools, specialists in different areas,” he explains.

“During holidays we’ll hire a sports hall, have inflatables, trampolines, all sorts of equipment and have coaches manning six or seven different sessions.

“The young people can all take part, and it’s not just for those with disabilities, their siblings come along as well so there is some respite for their parents or carers.

“It’s something that’s really rewarding and an interest I have had for a long time.

“When I was at Wolves, my sister-in-law at the time worked for Social Services in Dudley, and I used to go down to the Social Education Centres (SECs) where she was based.

“There were activities and games going on, and I just joined in and tried to help promote it all as much as anything.”

And family life also keeps Rudge busy, and happy.

He has two grown-up children and also now Poppie, who has already earned a place in the Worcestershire County ranks at tennis.

She plays at Far Forest and Stourport clubs, and both Rudge, coaching, and wife Lynsey, on the administrative side, are very much involved.

Shades perhaps of how Rudge remains very grateful to the support of his own parents Joseph and Pauline – who still live in Claregate – for their encouragement and backing through his formative years.

Swapping a football for a tennis ball sits well with a man who remains very supportive of all things Wolves.

“Poppie puts her heart and everything into her tennis, as with everything else, and it’s lovely to see,” says Rudge.

“She enjoys it and I probably enjoy watching her just as much, she’ll have a go at anything.”

Sounds like the approach Rudge took to his football all those years ago, and it is difficult to believe that four decades have passed since that debut which provided such a memorable afternoon.

As for the career as a whole, there are some mixed feelings, but, in playing for his home-town club, including at the top level, Rudge temporarily hit the heights of which so many others have tried and failed.

“I enjoyed everything about my career,” he reflects.

“There are things I could have done better, but, with hindsight, football has evolved, and training methods and so on are so much better now.

“When I look back, I think sometimes you need a person to come along at the right time to bring the very best out of you.

“For me, Sammy Chung was a brilliant coach and person and there are many more I came across during my career, but there were others who I probably haven’t got that much time for.

“That happens in work in any walk of life – it’s about who you meet at certain points of your career – but I still have some very good memories to look back on.”

Memories which stem from four decades ago as Rudge’s footballing life began 40 years in the past.

From the ups and downs of a promotion and relegation, the highs and lows of being suspended above an oil rig to being rushed to hospital with septicaemia, it was always eventful and, just as with Deepdale Rudge, worth reading about!