We wouldn’t usually select a memory match from a relegation season – but we’ll make an exception for a remarkable game at Vale Park on this day in 1992.
The Vale hadn’t won for 18 games by late March, a run that had taken them to the foot of the old Second Division, now the Championship.
In fact, after a 1-0 defeat at Millwall on March 21, the Sentinel’s experienced Vale correspondent Chris Harper began his match report with: “Port Vale have been cut loose in an open boat as they drift ever closer towards the Third Division.
“Five points now separate rock bottom Vale from their nearest fellows in distress which, sadly, suggests relegation is now only a matter of time.”
After winless game number 18 equalled the club record, even John Rudge conceded the Vale had ‘a mammoth task’.
Their problems were understandable considering they had lost Robbie Earle, To Wimbledon, and Darren Beckford, to Norwich, the previous summer. Martin Foyle had played well in his first season but there had been too few goals throughout the side to compensate for Earle and Beckford’s departures.
The Vale at least avoided going clear with the new club record when Plymouth were beaten 1-0 at Vale Park on March 28, thanks to Ray Walker’s spot kick. Mind you, even that goal emphasised the tough time they had endured, as Harper observed: “Just to see the ball hit the back of the net at the Hamil was something in itself, for Vale had only previously scored twice in the league at that end of the ground and those both against Sunderland last October.”
So, a first home win in four months, but Rudge’s side were still underdogs three days later when big-spending Blackburn Rovers came to Burslem.
Big-spending? Yes indeed. Rovers were financed by their owner and supporter Jack Walker who had recruited Kenny Dalglish as manager to assemble a formidable team.
They were a good side then, and look even better in hindsight. After all, of their starting XI and two subs at Vale Park, Bobby Mimms, Alan Wright, Kevin Moran, Colin Hendrie, Gordon Cowans, Tim Sherwood, Mark Atkins and Roy Wegerle all played the team that finished fourth in the Premier League the following season.
Also in their side at the Vale was new signing Duncan Shearer, picked up for £750,000 from Swindon.
However, never write off the Vale. The home fans in the biggest crowd of the season, 10,384, might have wondered if they would spend the 90 minutes peering through their fingers, but actually Rudgie’s side won it – and won it well.
They never looked back after taking the lead on 27 minutes when Robin van der Laan got his head to Dean Glover’s free kick. Mimms couldn’t quite prevent the ball from crossing the line but the Dutchman followed up to belt it into the net to remove any doubt.
Van der Laan popped up at the other end to hook David Speedie’s header off the line, but the Vale had the better of the game.
Neil Aspin, David Lowe and Martin Foyle all went close before the deserved second goal arrived 17 minutes from time.
Van der Laan dug the ball out of two tackles to release Foyle who dashed 40 yards before drawing Mimms out of goal and outsmarting the keeper with an expertly placed shot from the edge of the area.
Dalglish said his side were well beaten: “It was the worst we have played away from home since I arrived. Port Vale were stronger than us and played very well. They deserved to win easily.
“Every away game is like a cup final for us, which is a compliment, but it is up to us to handle that.”
Rudgie was understandably delighted: “The lads were magnificent in all departments, in playing football, making chances, attitude and application.
“It shows what we can do and it is amazing to think the side had gone 18 games without a win. We still face a tall order but if we can produce that kind of form from now until the end of the season, we could get out of trouble.”
Blackburn’s defeat worsened a wobble that almost cost them a place in the play-offs. However, they made it, beat Leicester in the play-off final and were crowned champions of England three years later.
Sadly, Vale’s mini-revival wasn’t enough to keep them in the Championship. But the season was a rare blip in a terrific period in the club’s history.
Rudgie’s side would win the Autoglass Trophy and reach the play-off final the following season, before returning with automatic promotion in 1993-94.
Port Vale 2 (Van der Laan, Foyle)
March 31, 1992.
Port Vale: Grew, Aspin, Hughes, Walker, Swan, Glover, Lowe, van der Laan, Cross (B Mills, 87), Foyle, Porter.
Sub not used: Parkin.
Blackburn: Mimms, Price, Wright, Cowans, Hill, Hendry, Sherwood (Wegerle, 49), Atkins, Speedie (Moran, 78), Shearer, Sellars.
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