By the time June 1989 came along I had been supporting the Vale for over 21 years, flitting between the third and fourth divisions as they were then known, but never really threatening to go higher and we were always in the shadow of Stoke City. I could never see that changing, until – 3rd June 1989!
John Rudge had been working his magic for five years and after beating Spurs in the FA Cup and selling 37 goal striker Andy Jones to Charlton for £350,000, he built a side good enough to challenge for promotion from the Third Division (nowadays called League One). All through the 1988/89 season Vale, Wolves and Sheffield United vied for the two automatic promotion spots.
Vale even showed their intent in the February of that season, when following injury to central defensive pairing Phil Sproson and Bob Hazell, they paid five times their previous record transfer fee to land the classy Dean Glover for £200,000 from Middlesbrough. The disbelieving fans responded in numbers as over 16,000 turned up at Vale Park for his debut v Wolves which ended 0-0, a rare blank for Wolves striker Steve Bull. Glover was superb, as he was for the next ten years.
Wolves won the title but Vale remained in a battle with the Blades which was eventually won by the latter after the 45th league game. A win for Vale on the last day at Fulham meant the gap was only actually goal difference, Sheffield’s 39 beating Vale’s 30 for the final automatic place. Thoughts then turned back to the home game against Sheffield United in which Vale led 3-1 with twenty minutes remaining before United escaped with a 3-3 draw. So near, but it was then off to the play offs which were relatively new, only having been introduced two years before. For the first two years the play offs were competed for by the teams in 3rd, 4th and 5th plus the team that finished third bottom in the division above. This season saw that change to the teams that were 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th and ignoring teams from the division above.
Vale were up against sixth placed Preston North End over two legs having finished 12 points ahead of the Lilywhites. Vale were away first and sold their 3,500 allocation for the game on Monday 22nd May 1989 in three days. In those days Preston had a plastic pitch and were managed by former Vale manager John McGrath, who first brought John Rudge to the Vale in 1980. Preston went in front through Nigel Jemson in the 16th minute but Vale drew level in the 68th when a John Jeffers cross was flicked on by Darren Beckford and Robbie Earle buried the chance. A fire behind the away end caused a pitch invasion and prompted a short delay, but Vale were happy with the draw.
Three days later the second leg took place at Vale Park in front of over 13,000. Vale took an 11th minute lead when Beckford slid the ball home after Ron Futcher had headed it on but Mark Patterson equalised two minutes later. Futcher then thumped a penalty against the cross bar but Vale did regain the lead six minutes into the second half. Beckford converted a Jeffers cross and then completed his hat trick in the 75th minute to clinch a 3-1 victory and send Vale through to the final. It wasn’t a Wembley final, those started the following season, it was a two legged affair against Bristol Rovers.
Vale were again away first, having finished highest of the two clubs, and in those days Bristol played their home games at Twerton Park, the home of Bath City which only held 9,000. Vale were allocated 1,500 tickets and on the first day of sale almost 50 camped overnight and the queue was over 400 by the time the ticket office opened and they soon sold out. Popular defender/midfield player Simon Mills had just got married but postponed his honeymoon for the final.
The first leg took place on Wednesday 31st May 1989 in front a packed house and the Rovers side included Ian Holloway, the present day pundit and former manager. Gary Penrice volleyed Rovers in front in the 31st minute and just before half time Vale thought they had equalised two minutes before the break only for Ron Futcher to be flagged offside.
Vale dominated the second half and eventually equalised in the 73rd minute when Earle headed home from a Futcher cross. Vale almost won it near the end when Beckford had an effort cleared off the line.
The game that would decide the fate of Vale’s season took place at Vale Park on Saturday 3rd June 1989, the only time that Vale have ever played a competitive game in June. Over 4,000 came from Bristol to swell the gate to 17,353 and the scene was set. Strangely the Bristol press were praising Rovers for getting to the final, but the theme of the article was that they had no chance of winning even though the scores were level and away goals didn’t count. It just showed how well the Vale players were thought of that season to the wider public.
As the game got under way Vale dominated the play and only Rovers future England ‘keeper Nigel Martyn stood between a hatful of goals. Glover had a 30 yard shot superbly saved and the ever reliable Beckford and Earle both went close. Vale found the breakthrough seven minutes into the second half through the tried and trusted MBE method which had served them so well. Mills took a corner, Beckford flicked it on and Earle came roaring in to head the ball into the net. It was Earle’s 19th goal of the season and certainly the most important and also the fourth headed goal he had scored against Rovers in four games that season. They just couldn’t stop him!
The crowd roared their approval and kept it up throughout the rest of the game as Vale retained control to hold on to their 1-0 lead and the final whistle was heralded by a huge roar almost as loud as the Motorhead concert eight years before. It was fitting that local hero Robbie Earle scored the winner and it was an iconic photo that saw him slumped in the tunnel afterwards.
There was a good-natured pitch invasion at the end and the players went on a well-received lap of honour.
I never thought I would see the Vale in the Second Division not having been born the previous time it had happened, let alone being in the same division as Stoke City. After the festivities were over we all headed down to the pubs in Burslem which were all packed all night amidst much singing and drinking, and after the pubs shut a good old sing song in the old bandstand, which stood in the space opposite the Post Office Vaults pub. I don’t think it ever recovered and was demolished soon afterwards.
As it all sank in over the next few days, we then couldn’t wait for the fixtures to come out, as they would contain games against Leeds United, West Ham, Leicester, Newcastle United, Sunderland and of course Stoke City!
It was the start of the best decade in the club’s history, as we had nine seasons out of the next eleven in what is now called the Championship, appeared at Wembley Stadium three times (winning the Autoglass Trophy) and had numerous FA Cup runs and many tussles with Stoke City, winning more than our fair share.
Will those days return?
The line ups for the historic final game were as follows; (note only two subs in those days)
Mark Grew, Simon Mills, Darren Hughes, Ray Walker, Gary West, Dean Glover, John Jeffers, Robbie Earle, Ron Futcher, Darren Beckford, Andy Porter (Kevin Finney 77),
Sub not used – Ronnie Jepson
Martyn, Alexander, Clark, Yates, White, Jones, Holloway, Mehew, Reece, Penrice, Purnell
Subs not used – McClean, Nixon