John Rudge signed Gareth Ainsworth for his outfield skills rather than in goal, although fans got to see both on April 6, 1993.
The Vale were pushing hard for promotion from what is now League One, but frustrated by a Preston side featuring the future Vale hero turning out for North End.
In fact, this 2-2 draw at Vale Park turned out to be a point gained rather than two dropped for Rudgie’s side considering they had to come from 2-0 down.
The Vale weren’t helped by losing Ray Walker with a knee injury close to half time, although they were already two goals down by then.
Preston had got off to a flyer after six minutes when Ryan Kidd, who had joined them on a free from Vale the previous summer, sent a long ball over the top and Vale were caught square as Tony Ellis darted through to finish.
Keith Houchen hit the bar for the Vale but Preston celebrated their good fortune by racing upfield to double their lead on 28 minutes. Lee Ashcroft’s pass played through Liam Watson to score on his debut.
The Vale came out for the second half knowing they needed an early response, and came up with one on 48 minutes when keeper Simon Farnworth made a hash of an attempted clearance on the edge of his own box, following a long ball by Chris Sulley, and Nicky Cross accepted the gift.
Farnworth, who had been in the wars after a collision with Cross, was forced off on 77 minutes when he plunged bravely at Alex Mathie’s feet. The blow broke his nose and knocked him out cold, meaning Ainsworth took over in goal.
The Vale could only find a way past him once – and that took a super strike. Dean Glover’s 82nd-minute free kick was turned back by Mathie into the path of Paul Kerr who scored with a low 20-yarder.
Vale would eventually be pipped for second place by Bolton and lose out in the play-off final to West Brom, but they clinched automatic promotion under Rudgie in 1993/94.
As for Ainsworth, he would return to Vale Park to become a typically brilliant Rudge signing.
The manager paid £500,000 to Lincoln City for the winger in September 1997, bringing him in as a replacement for Jon McCarthy who had been sold for £1.5m to Birmingham City.
Ainsworth was a huge success with Vale over 14 months in what is now the Championship. In fact the Vale turned down £1m from Leeds in the summer of 1998, but did say goodbye when chairman Bill Bell agreed a £2m deal with his Wimbledon counterpart Sam Hammam.
Ainsworth is now manager at Wycombe Wanderers and remains hugely popular at the Vale – feelings that are reciprocated.
Vale keeper Scott Brown played for Ainsworth at Wycombe and would recall: “I remember when we came with Wycombe to Vale a couple of years ago and won 3-2. The manager was saying what a great club Vale was and how much he was looking forward to coming back.
“He’s a fantastic manager and a great bloke, but after the game we were all raging because we were at the ground until about 7pm afterwards because he was still there talking to everyone!”
PORT VALE 2
April 6, 1993
Port Vale: Musselwhite, Aspin, Sulley, Walker (Porter, 42, Mathie, 60), Swan, Glover, Kent, van der Laan, Cross, Houchen, Kerr.
Preston: Farnworth (Fowler, 77), Ainsworth, Lucas, Whalley, Kidd, Greenall, Cartwright, Burton (Allardyce, 86), Watson, Ellis, Ashcroft.