Port Vale and Swansea had concerns at opposite ends of the table when they met at Vale Park on April 8, 2006.
Martin Foyle’s Vale were looking for a victory to make absolutely certain they would still be playing League One football the following season, while Kenny Jackett’s Swans were in the play-off places and looking to claim the second automatic spot.
So, no easy task for the Vale, especially as they were up against Swansea’s much-vaunted strike-force of Lee Trundle and Ade Akinfenwa.
Trundle remains a Swansea hero – understandably so after a remarkable first spell with the club in which he scored 86 goals in four years before moving to Bristol City for £1m in 2007.
However, Vale fans can wonder what might have been because their side had come close to signing him in the summer of 2003. Brian Horton was firmly in the race to sign the player who was out of contract at Wrexham, but had to drop out because Vale had just come out of administration and the Football League wouldn’t let them exceed a £1.2m wage budget on players.
As for Akinfenwa, he’s always been a thorn in the Vale’s side, although they aren’t the only team to have found the target man unplayable over the years.
In fact, years later in his Sentinel column, Tom Pope would recall having to mark Akinfenwa at set-pieces when the striker was at Gillingham.
Pope said: “The couple of hundred Vale fans who watched our game at Gillingham from the open stand in the howling wind and rain, might remember I was marking big Adebayo Akinfenwa. As I looked at him, I thought, ‘He’s a big lad, but I don’t think he’s going to outjump me, so I should be okay’.
“By the time he’d beaten me to score twice I realised just how wrong I was. I might as well have tried marking a bus. It wasn’t that I lost him from set-pieces, I couldn’t do anything about him.
“He is the strongest player I have ever come up against – by a long way. He didn’t have to jump, he just put an arm across me and I couldn’t move, it was like I was in a straightjacket.
“Mind you, it wasn’t the first time we’d had problems with him. He was playing for Northampton when Gareth Owen ran 20 yards to launch himself into a tackle to try to flatten the big fella. Akinfenwa turned into Gaz as he made the challenge and, while the striker carried on regardless, Gaz ended up being helped off with a dead leg.
“So, Micky Adams was well aware that we always had problems with Akinfenwa, although that didn’t save me from his wrath in that Gillingham game. I was subbed after he scored his second goal, but Micky saved his fury for the dressing room as he laid into me and the team with a conversation which went something like this… Micky Adams: “******* ****. I’ve tried John McCombe and he couldn’t mark him, I’ve tried Gaz Owen and he couldn’t. I thought you’d be able to Popey, but ****** ****.”
Me: “I couldn’t do anything else, he’s that strong” Micky: “Oh, don’t give me that….’
“That was the edited version, but you get the gist.”
So, back to April 8, 2006 and a major task for Foyle’s side who were keen to give their fans a lift over the final few weeks of the campaign.
The manager was able to call on Michael Walsh for his first appearance of an injury-hit campaign.
Walsh has to be one of the best defenders to have pulled on a Vale shirt since the turn of the century. Injuries restricted him to 193 appearances in nine years with the club but the then-28 year old showed again in this game he was a class act.
He was given a standing ovation here when he departed, exhausted, after 74 minutes after a super performance against Trundle and Akinfenwa in his first game back.
“You won’t get a better header of the ball,” said Foyle of his defender.
“His timing is magnificent and you wouldn’t think he has been out for that long. It is just a shame we didn’t have him for the other 40-odd games of the season because he is probably the best defender we have.”
By the time Walsh left the pitch, the Vale were 3-1 up. They deservedly took the lead on 43 minutes when Chris Birchall crossed for Sam Togwell to power a header home from 12 yards.
They were pegged back two minutes after the break when Trundle beat George Pilkington in the area before crossing to the back post where Akinfenwa headed home.
However, Micky Cummins gave Swans keeper Willy Gueret no chance with a sweetly-struck 25-yard drive on 58 minutes before Leon Constantine met Jeff Smith’s superb cross with a flying header past the helpless keeper on 63 minutes.
Game over? If only. Swansea redoubled their efforts and gave Vale a hair-raising final few moments after Rory Fallon turned home Trundle’s deflected shot on 90 minutes. The four minutes of injury time were enough for Trundle to have a shot cleared off the line by Mark McGregor and strike the bar from 12 yards when he seemed certain to score.
But the Vale claimed the points with what was arguably their best performance at home that season.
That was a triumph for Foyle’s tactics and also 34-year-old Danny Sonner who was named man of the match, playing a holding role in a three man midfield which allowed Cummins and Togwell to push forward.
The Vale would finish the 2005-06 season comfortably in 13th while Swansea made the play-off final, only to lose on penalties to Barnsley.
However, Roberto Martinez, who played for them in this game at Vale Park, would become manager in 2007 and guide them to the League One title in 2008.
PORT VALE 3
League One, April 8, 2006
Port Vale: Goodlad, McGregor, Pilkington, Walsh (Fortune, 74), James, Cummins, Sonner, Togwell, Birchall, Constantine (Matthews, 89), Smith.
Not used: Dinning, Husbands, Brain.
Swansea: Gueret, Tate, Monk, Lowe, Ricketts, Britton (Fallon, 74), Tudor Jones, O’Leary (Martinez, 45), Knight (Robinson, 61), Akinfenwa, Trundle.
Not used: Forbes, Williams.
*Former Port Vale captain Tommy Cheadle was born on this day, April 8, in 1919.
The local lad made 358 appearances for the club and led the team in their famous 1953/54 campaign in which they won the Third Division (North) title and reached the FA Cup semi-finals.
Tommy died in 1993 in Bucknall, aged 74. The Vale Social Club on Hamil Road is named Tommy Cheadle’s in his honour.