The play-offs looked a realistic prospect for Port Vale after a gutsy performance on this day, April 10, in 2004.
Martin Foyle’s side had been in contention for the top six in League One for months but needed a result, after a 2-1 defeat at struggling Wycombe had suggested they may slide out of the reckoning.
So, Foyle was looking for a big performance at home to Wrexham, managed by Denis Smith and also harbouring hopes of making the play offs.
They were a decent side, with Trinidad and Tobago internationals Dennis Lawrence and Carlos Edwards, plus striker Chris Armstrong who was finishing his career at his first league club after spells with Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Bolton.
So, no easy task for the Vale, but that 2003/04 side had some quality performers and a united group of players who were rising to the challenge as their club attempted to make it back into the Championship for the first time since relegation under Brian Horton in 2000.
Foyle had taken over in February 2004 from Horton who had left by mutual consent following talks with the Valiant 2001 board who were in their first full season in charge after taking the club from administration.
He had left the team just outside the play-off spots, ending his reign with a 3-0 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
Foyle, a highly respected coach at the club, was an obvious candidate to replace him and was justifying that faith in his first management role.
He had maintained the Vale’s excellent home record – they had won 13 games at Vale Park to this point and had scored in every one of their league matches on home turf.
That run was to continue although it wasn’t easy.
Foyle’s squad was showing signs of wear and tear towards the end of this campaign. Centre half Sam Collins only started after passing a late fitness test on a knee injury while striker Steve Brooker played despite being less than fully fit because of a groin strain.
He had to be substituted on 63 minutes because of a back problem but the tough, physical striker had once again demonstrated his importance to the side by the time he departed to a standing ovation.
His 26th-minute drive forced an excellent save from Michael Ingham, although the keeper was helpless on 37 minutes when Brooker’s close-range flick rolled just the wrong side of the post.
However, the key moment arrived seven minutes into the second half when Steve McPhee slid the ball through to Micky Cummins, whose early strike from around 12 yards was too good for Ingham.
That proved enough, although Vale were grateful to keeper Jonny Brain for a couple of smart saves – the first to block a Chris Llewellyn header on 30 minutes and the second an excellent one-handed stop to deny Matt Crowell’s 20-yard drive just after the break.
Brain, then just 20, had joined the club as a free agent the previous summer having been on the books at Carlisle and Newcastle United. He was brought in as an understudy to Mark Goodlad. However, when Goodlad was injured, Brain had risen to the challenge.
It can’t have been easy for any young player to step in for the excellent Goodlad, but this was Brain’s 30th consecutive game in the first team, and the clean sheet put his team back in contention with five games to go.
He was praised by his manager after the game although Foyle was also concerned by growing injury problems.
As well as Brooker’s injuries, Neil Brisco and goalscorer Cummins were also forced off with ankle knocks.
The win put the Vale within goal difference of the play-off places, but unfortunately that is where they would finish as they were edged out by Swindon and Hartlepool after those rivals drew on the final day of the regular season.
Still, this win is a reminder of some of the performers in that Vale side, not least matchwinner Cummins, the hard-working, goalscoring midfielder who who could play in central or wide midfield or at right back.
He’s currently assistant manager to Steve Watson at York City who were top of the National League North when the season was suspended.
As well as being a damn good player himself, he’s clearly also a good judge of one.
When John Askey signed Scott Burgess on a free from Bury last summer, Cummins gave The Sentinel a report of the young midfielder who had spent time on loan with the Minstermen last season.
Talking about Burgess last summer, Cummins described a midfielder who had impressed in an attacking midfield role in a 4-3-3.
Cummins said: “He struggled at first. He found the physical side of Conference North really difficult. But after a couple of games he came into his own.
“He is brave and he likes to get on the ball. He is more of an attack-minded midfielder, a number eight, although he could play number 10.
“We were hoping to keep him and offered him a contract at the end of this season, but we were conscious that he would be sought after in the leagues above us.
“He got between the lines and got in really good areas. He is a really good mover with the ball at his feet and he caused the opposition in our league quite a lot of problems.
“He receives the ball on the back foot and looks to play forward, he brings strikers into play well. He has an eye for goal, he scored a couple from outside the box and he has created a few by sliding in strikers.
“He came through a couple of times when he was targeted. At this level teams can try to spoil your game rather than focus on being creative themselves. They targeted Scott, he has been the main creator in our team.
“He came through real sticky spells and that is testament to him.”
PORT VALE 1 (Cummins, 52)
April 10, 2004.
Port Vale: Brain, Rowland, Collins, Pilkington, James, Cummins (Burns, 86), Brisco (Lipa, 83), Bridge-Wilkinson, Brooker (Littlejohn, 63), McPhee, Paynter.
Subs: Armstrong, Delaney.
Wrexham: Ingham, Whitley, Roberts (Spender, 69), Lawrence, P Edwards, C Edwards, Barrett (L Jones, 65), Crowell, Thomas (S Holmes, 63), Armstrong, Llewellyn.
Subs: Whitfield, Mackin.