After the heartbreak of instant relegation from the First Division at the end of the 1990-91, season following our rather fortuitous promotion via “the back door” the previous summer, we were perhaps not too surprisingly installed as one of the pre-season favourites for promotion from the Second Division in 1991-92.
For perhaps asides from a rather select group which consisted of ourselves, North East rivals Middlesbrough and Newcastle, Wolves and one or two others, the Second Division of 1991-92 had a bit of an average look about it. So an immediate return to the First Division appeared, on paper at least, to be something of a formality for ourselves.
As it happened, our form in the first three months of the new campaign was rather erratic, particularly on our travels, when we seemed to fluctuate between the spectacular and the truly abysmal. This was rather graphically illustrated when we triumphed 3-0 at Barnsley in our first away engagement of the season, only to crash rather embarrassingly by 1-4 at Millwall in the following game.
Then in mid-September, there came a goal-packed but still ultimately unsuccessful trip to Swindon, which ended 5-3 in The Robins favour, before just three days later, we triumphed rather emphatically by 4-1 at Charlton, when Marco Gabbiadini scored his third and final hat-trick in what was his penultimate appearance for us, before his move South to Crystal Palace.
Sunderland’s form at the time possibly pointed to a home win, which looked very much likely at one stage, before a fighting comeback materialized which wouldn’t have been out of place in “Roy of The Rovers”. And our line-up showed a rather significant change up front, where Peter Davenport returned to the side to partner Kieron Brady, who was making his first appearance of the season.
So on a bright, sunny October afternoon, Port Vale were the first to show up in attack, and following an early corner won by the home side, Tony Norman made a great double-save, firstly from Andy Porter, then Dean Glover. However, this led to Vale taking a second-minute lead, for Simon Mills’ kick picked out Peter Swan, whose powerful header left our Welsh stopper rather helpless.
The Lads responded positively to this early setback, and a left-wing centre from on-loan Peter Beagrie picked out Gary Owers, whose header was just over the top. Then a free-kick from Dean Glover had caused a fair amount of confusion in our defence, before Anton Rogan cleared to find Kieron Brady, whose eventual cross was easily cleared by the home defence.
A twenty-five yard effort from Martin Foyle took a deflection off Gary Bennett on it’s way through to Tony Norman, Andy Porter then had an effort blocked, the ball breaking Robin Van Der Laan, whose shot flashed just over, as Vale began to subject us to a fair amount of pressure. But we were by no means out of it, and a neat move involving Gary Bennett, John Kay & Peter Beagrie set up a chance for Peter Davenport, whose effort from twenty-five yards was not far off target. Our best chance so far came just short of the half-hour mark, when Gary Owers dispossessed Bryan Hughes and found Peter Davenport, who headed for goal, but instead of trying a shot, he brought in Owers, whose low drive was well saved by Vale keeper Mark Grew.
Tony Norman then had to race out of his goal to relieve a potentially dangerous situation, when Kevin Ball and Martin Foyle had contested possession, then in the thirty-sixth minute we almost drew level. Peter Beagrie robbed Neil Aspin and sent Kieron Brady away, and while the youngster was stopped in his tracks, the ball fell kindly for Paul Bracwell, whose fierce twenty-five yard effort rattled the post, with Mark Grew well beaten.
0-1 then at the break, not an insurmountable deficit by any means, and we began the second period brightly, and looked as if we might snatch an equalizer.
Unfortunately, in the fifty-second minute, the home side edged further ahead. Simon Mills split our defence wide open with a neat pass to Martin Foyle, and while their may have been a suspicion of offside, Foyle was allowed to go on and beat Tony Norman.
Norman then had to save with his legs another effort from Foyle, who’d been presented with the chance following a mix-up between Gary Bennett & Paul Bracewell, but then in the fifty-sixth minute Vale looked to have put the game out of our reach with a third goal.
A free-kick from Simon Mills was only partly cleared by our defence, and while the ball fell to Robin Van Der Laan, there still appeared to be no real danger. However, the Dutchman let fly with a spectacular effort from just outside the penalty area, which flew past the helpless Tony Norman into the top corner of the net.
Game over then so it seemed. However, it appeared that Kieron Brady in particular had other ideas, for just three minutes after Vale’s third goal, the youngster gave us a glimmer of hope. John Kay and Peter Beagrie combined well to find Gordon Armstrong, who appeared a certain scorer. However, his shot struck the upright, but the rebound fell nicely for Brady, who had the simple task of tapping the ball into the empty net.
Boosted by this goal we stepped up the pressure, but Peter Beagrie and Gary Owers both missed good chances to further reduce the deficit. However, in the sixty-ninth minute we pulled another goal back, although we needed an element of good fortune. A corner from Peter Beagrie was only partly cleared, and when he curled the ball back into the box it eventually fell to Gary Owers, who tried his luck, and his effort struck Kevin Ball to leave Mark Grew completely flat-footed on it’s way into the net. Game on.
And it got even better just minutes later, when quite incredibly, and after having appeared “dead and buried” at one stage, we drew level. A sustained attack led to confusion in the Vale defence, and when the ball broke for Kieron Brady he mis-hit his shot, though it took a deflection and rolled agonizingly over the goalline, in spite of the desperate efforts of two Vale defenders to keep the ball out.
We were very much on top now, sensing that we could go on and win the game, and a centre from substitute David Rush just eluded Kieron Brady at the far post. Then, three minutes from time, Kieron Brady missed a great chance to complete his hat-trick, and at the same time complete a dramatic comeback by possibly giving us three points. A surging run from Gary Owers took him into the area, and his cross from the byline was met by Brady, but he pushed his effort the wrong side of the post, when it seemed much easier to score.
So it ended 3-3, it had been an entertaining affair for the crowd of 7,525, with our own rather dramatic (if at one time seemingly improbable) comeback having in no small way contributed to the occasion, as well as of course having gained us a point, when at one stage all seemed lost.
The return league fixture at Roker with Vale would also end all-square, and come the season’s end, the Vale Park side would be relegated in last place, while we had a narrow escape from a second successive relegation, as we ended five points clear of the bottom three, after our league form in 1991-92 had been rather lacklustre overall.
A bit of a contrast then to our fortunes in the FA Cup (which ironically started with a win v Port Vale at Roker in the third round), when we went to reach the final at Wembley, thanks in no small way to the sort of spirit we displayed at Vale Park, which perhaps led most of us to wonder how things may otherwise have been in the league, had this spirit been prevalent a bit more often during the season.