While Burslem had celebrated Port Vale’s return to the Championship for the start of the 1989/90 season, the bookmakers had no such sentiments.
Vale were back at this level (then called the Second Division) for the first time since the 1950s, but the bookies had made them the favourites to go straight back down again.
So, good luck John Rudge and the team. Vale fans knew they could do it, they just had to prove it to everybody else.
That, however, required some resolve and nerve.
The Vale were knocking about in the bottom six after only one win in their opening nine games, but Rudge gave an interview to The Sentinel’s Chris Harper to say his team wouldn’t be changing the passing style that had got them promoted.
He explained: “It has always been my firm belief that the higher you go in the league, the more constructive you need to be, which is why we are trying to play the majority of Second Division teams at their own game.
“I believe supporters like to watch their team win in style and this is something I have attempted to bring into the Vale game in my ten years with the club.
“There were times, back in the Fourth Division days, when we stood criticism for playing too much football, and there may have been occasions when we were guilty of over-elaboration.
“Nevertheless, I maintain it has stood us in good stead and enabled us to make satisfactory progress, especially over the last few years.
“There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and whilst most managers seem to like style, there are those who produce results with alternative methods.
“Wimbledon and Leeds, both of whom we have met in the past seven days, spring to mind, along with Sheffield United and, to a lesser extent, Wolves, with whom we were promoted.
“We may have been considered the best footballing side to come out of the Third Division last season, but it is Sheffield who are flying high, while Wolves have recovered to mid-table from a sticky start. I hasten to add, however, that we could have easily been with them. There has been little wrong with our general play.”
Rudge had arrived at the Vale as coach to John McGrath in the middle of the 1979/80 campaign before taking over as manager in March 1984 after a three-month caretaker stint.
In fact, in 1990, he became the club’s longest serving manager for 60 years. He surpassed former England international Joe Schofield who was in charge from 1924-30 during a 10-year stint in which he also doubled as secretary.
So, Rudge had the experience, and surely enough, his team started to turn results around and climb into mid-table.
They had to overcome setbacks such as defender Alan Webb breaking his leg in the October, an injury that ruled him out for the season.
But there were some notable successes, not least a 5-0 hammering of Ipswich in Burslem on New Year’s Day, ending their 13-game unbeaten run. Plus, let’s not forget a 3-2 FA Cup win away to Derby, beating a team that included Peter Shilton, Mark Wright and Dean Saunders in front of 5,000 travelling fans. Previously Liverpool had been the only side to put three past England keeper Shilton at Derby that season.
Rudge signed a new three-year contract in March 1990. It transpired that Plymouth had made a tentative inquiry for the Vale boss but chairman Bill Bell, while granting permission, had confidently told them they would be wasting their time.
Rudge’s long term deal replaced the remaining 18-months of his existing contract and, by the time Wolves came to Vale Park on March 24, the Vale were only one short of the 50-point mark the manager had set for safety.
They broke that barrier in style against Graham Turner’s Wolves, winning 3-1 to extend their splendid record of just one defeat in 19 league games at home.
Wolves were no mugs. They were going for the play-offs, had the much-feared strike partnership of Steve Bull and Andy Mutch, and were backed by 4,500 travelling fans in the crowd of 12,509.
However, they barely got a look in during this game as Vale dealt with the windy conditions much better. Dean Glover won the man of the match award from game sponsors The Sentinel for the splendid way he policed Bull, just as he had on his debut the previous season.
Vale effectively won the game in the first half, capitalising on poor defending to score through Paul Millar and Darren Beckford in the space of three minutes before netting a quality third. Millar held the ball up before slipping it back to Glover who hit a long, diagonal pass out to Andy Porter on the right.
He nodded the ball inside and into the path of the onrushing Robbie Earle who gleefully grabbed his tenth goal of the season.
Wolves had a glimmer of hope when Mutch headed home Bull’s cross on the hour but there was to be no comeback.
The Vale were safe and would go on to finish the season comfortably in 11th.
PORT VALE 3
March 24, 1990
The Second Division (Now called The Championship)
Port Vale: Grew, Mills, Hughes, Walker, Parkin, Glover, Porter, Earle, Millar (Cross, 81), Beckford, Jeffers. Sub not used: (Miller).
Wolves: Kendall, Bennett, Venus, Westley, Thompson, Bellamy, Steele, Cook, Bull, Mutch, Dennison.
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Jones.