Football: Aspin a rock in a sea of change

Port Vale's veteran defender hopes experience will pay against Michael Owen tomorrow
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TWO TEENAGED prodigies will be in direct opposition when Liverpool visit Port Vale tomorrow. One is a serial scorer just past his 19th birthday with a transfer value in excess of pounds 25m. The other is under orders to stay in his own half and faces a possible free transfer next spring, by which time he will also be 34.

Michael Owen made his Premiership debut at half that age, though he was an old codger compared with the tough-as-teak defender who aims to deny the England striker his first FA Cup goal in the third-round tie.

Neil Aspin, Vale's club captain, was a mop-topped 16-year-old when he fulfilled his dual ambition of playing for Leeds United in the former First Division. Some 650 games later, in a richly deserved testimonial season, it remains his only appearance at the highest level.

"I was due to play for the juniors at Doncaster but got pulled off the bus and told to go home and put my feet up," Aspin recalled. "When I came back to Elland Road I still didn't know what was going on, though the first team had injuries and suspensions. Allan Clarke, the manager, came and sat by me during the pre-match meal and said: `You're playing against Ipswich today'. I nearly choked on my baked beans."

A week later Aspin watched in awe from the bench as the Liverpool of Dalglish, Hansen, Souness, Rush and Lawrenson closed in on another championship by outclassing the relegation-bound Yorkshire side. "They were as good as any team I've seen," he said.

High praise from one whose earliest heroes were Don Revie's Leeds. Aspin, who attended the same Gateshead school as Paul Gascoigne, was taken by his father to watch them at Newcastle. Norman Hunter made a "lasting impression" on him, if not in the way he did on many forwards, and he resolved to follow in the legendary leg-biter's footsteps.

In 1985 his name was inscribed alongside the greats of the Revie era on Leeds' Player of the Year trophy. Two years later, he came within tantalising reach of more widely celebrated silverware: the FA Cup itself.

Leeds, then in the old Second Division, qualified for a semi-final against Coventry at Hillsborough. Aspin had arranged his wedding for the same Sunday, never imagining such a fixture clash. "I drove over to Harrogate, where Diane was modelling in a fashion fair, to tell her we'd have to cancel. She'd already heard. Fortunately she forgave me."

Coventry came from behind to win 3-2 in extra time, just as they would at Wembley. A further two years on, with Howard Wilkinson reshaping Leeds, Aspin reluctantly elected to move on rather than return to reserve football. He spoke to Charlton, a division higher, but did not fancy living in the South. Enter John Rudge, the already long-serving Vale manager.

"He kept pestering Leeds for me," Aspin said. "It got to the stage where Mr Wilkinson said: `Go and see him just to get him off my back'. We met at a hotel near the M1 and by the evening I'd agreed to join Vale.

"But the day I set out to sign, I couldn't find the club. I was looking for signs to somewhere called Port Vale and there weren't any. It took me an hour and a half to get to Stoke-on-Trent and the same again to find the ground."

His uncompromising tackling and willingness to stick his head where it hurts have helped establish the Burslem club in the second grade. Now he hopes Leeds will provide the opposition for his testimonial match, and that Gazza and Robbie Williams (the pop-singing Vale-ite who cites Aspin as his favourite player) will play for him.

"Testimonials will soon be a thing of the past because of the Bosman ruling," Aspin said. "Loyalty doesn't seem to count for much - you're better off financially if you move around. It's also a sad fact that you're not necessarily better thought of if you stay a long time at a club."

This season, with Vale again near the foot of the First Division, Aspin's honesty and commitment have led Rudge to look to him for leadership. The respect is mutual. "Most managers make buys who lose their club money. Mr Rudge's signings either give great value or he re-sells them at a good profit. His eye for a player is excellent but he'll tell you it's getting harder: clubs don't want to sell someone cheap to him, then see him get pounds 2m for them within a year."

"He treats the club's money as carefully as if it were his own. That's because he's got great feeling for Port Vale. He could have gone to Bradford, Preston and even Stoke at various times but he has stayed loyal."

Aspin's contract expires at the end of the season and he fears the club may wait until they know which division they will be in before deciding whether to offer an extension. Perhaps a heroic FA Cup performance, like the one which broke Everton's grip on the prize four seasons ago or the two draws with Arsenal last January, would convince any waverers in Vale's boardroom.

"We drew at Liverpool in the League Cup a few seasons back but Steve McManaman destroyed us in the replay. As soon as I heard the draw I thought about facing Michael Owen. It's only six months since I was leaping up off a mate's sofa after his goal against Argentina in the World Cup, so the prospect of facing him is both frightening and exciting."

Owen, whose father Terry was a Vale player at the time of his birth, will find this latter-day Hunter an unyielding adversary. The boy wonder need not worry, however, about tracking back should Vale gain a corner; Rudge has instructed his rock not to roll into enemy territory.

For Aspin to score the single goal he needs for double figures in his career may therefore require something unusual. "I'm still ahead of David Batty," he said with a self-mocking smile. Stifling the natural finishers in Liverpool's ranks, or even Owen, would more than compensate.