Football: Victorious Vale thrive on the tonic of a visit to Wembley

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Stockport County. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

THE CLAIM that Wembley's sanctity has been diminished by its use for a veritable sideboard of cups, vases, trophies and shields - not to mention semi-finals, replays and play-offs - makes more sense in principle than in practice. For the uncorking of the home of football has proved a tonic for the troops. The build-up, the 'great day', and the memories all strengthen a club's finances and its bond with the community.

Take Port Vale, winners of the Autoglass Trophy at Wembley. The average gate at their Burslem home is 8,000: three times as many headed south, the traditional swathes of young men marching up the ramparts to the Twin Towers supplemented by thousands in family or father-and-son combinations revelling in a day to remember. 'It takes occasions like this to stir the emotions of those who normally sit at home,' John Rudge, Vale's manager, said.

Queues at Vale Park will lengthen further if they keep up with rivals Stoke. The Potteries' premier club left the Second Division as champions; Vale are a win away from following them up. Vale waited a lifetime to find Wembley (an absence that encouraged hundreds to don T-shirts printed with a route-map) but needed only eight days to return - for the play-off final against West Bromwich.

Rudge's men have overcome Ossie's Order twice this term but the Baggies will be backed by at least 38,000. Older Vale fans will recall Albion, then a real force in the land, denying them an FA Cup final appearance in 1954, Freddie Steele's barnstorming Third Division (North) side faltering in the Villa Park semi-final.

Sunday's showdown promises to be the best of the play-offs. For an hour against Stockport, Vale flaunted the full scope of their skills, a brave 3-5-2 formation securing the initiative with two goals fit to grace any cup final. Paul Kerr flicked in the first, following a well-judged through pass by Bernie Slaven, who added the second with a low drive after Dean Glover and Martin Foyle had linked to give the Irishman a glimpse of an opening.

Slaven, released by Middlesbrough in March, said: 'It was a gamble coming to Vale. If we win again next weekend my gamble will definitely have paid off - I'll be back in the same division as Middlesbrough.'

Slaven had Stockport all at sea. 'At half-time I told the lads that the only thing you can't repair in life is death,' their manager, Danny Bergara, said. County set to work commendably, ensuring a nervous denouement when Kevin Francis headed home. But nothing could ruin Vale's festivities.

Goals: Kerr (14) 1-0; Slaven (37) 2-0; Francis (66) 2-1.

Port Vale: Musselwhite; Aspin, Kent, Porter, Swan, Glover, Slaven, Van der Laan (Billing, 90), Foyle, Kerr, Taylor. Substitute not used: Cross.

Stockport County: Edwards; Todd, Wallace, Finley, Miller, B Williams, Gannon, Ward, Francis, Beaumont (Preece, 55 min), Duffield. Substitute not used: Frain.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).