Vale revel in FA Cup glory
EVEN if Port Vale can create a major shock at Bramall Lane on Saturday, it will be nothing compared to the last and only time they've beaten Sheffield United in the FA Cup.
You do have to go all the way back to the end of the 19th century, but it's worth the effort as the Valiants pulled off one of the most sensational giant-killing acts in football history.
It was 1898 and Vale, then in non-league, somehow got the better of a team proving almost unbeatable in the top flight.
Imagine Blue Square Premier club Lincoln City knocking out Manchester United? That's the scale of the victory achieved by Tommy Clare's plucky minnows more than 114 years ago.
Vale initially drew the tie 1-1 before shocking Sheffield United 2-1 after extra time in the home replay.
United were right in the middle of their most celebrated era as a club. Top of the old Division One, the team then nicknamed 'The Cutlers' were storming to what remains their only ever top-flight title.
In 21 league games, they had lost just twice as a side containing the legendary Billy 'Fatty' Foulke, the 20-stone goalkeeper who also played for England, and five other internationals swept almost all before them.
So when the first-round draw paired United at home to Midland League outfit Burslem Port Vale, the only question was not if they would win, but by how many.
Vale, then playing at the Athletic Ground in Cobridge, had joined Division Two as founder members in 1892, though a 10-0 defeat against United was just one of a string of poor results and they ended a difficult time by resigning for financial reasons four years later.
They dropped into the Midland League and though now under former Stoke and England international Clare, who was now both captain and coach, a trip to the bright lights of Bramall Lane was a daunting one indeed.
Yet the plucky Valiants pulled out all the stops and stunned home fans by taking the lead after 18 minutes with a goal from left-half Ted McDonald.
With 24-year-old Herbert Birchenough, a steam engine maker from Haslingden, enjoying the game of his life between the sticks, the visitors just about held their own until they were controversially pegged back on the hour mark.
Outside right Walter Bennett went down under a challenge from McDonald and left-back Thomas Spilsbury, giving Ernest 'Nudger' Needham, the half-back who played both football and cricket for his country, the chance to ram home the equaliser from the spot.
But far from caving in, Vale held their own during the last half-hour with Birchenough emerging as the hero.
The shock result made Clare's men the talk of towns up and down the country, but also gave ground staff back home just four days to prepare for by far the biggest game in the club's short history.
A capacity 12,000 crowd crammed into the ground – which stood next to the Hanley and Burslem tram line – for the replay of a tie which would become part of folklore in these parts.
Starting with a near gale-force wind blowing in from the Grange end at their backs, Vale were at it from the start and when Foulke's first goal-kick was blown almost back into his own goal, United must have known they were in for a tough time.
Just two minutes had gone when McDonald's clearance found left-winger Billy Heames in space. His whipped cross was not cleared by visiting defenders and outside right Dick Evans smashed his home-town club in front.
The Smallthorne-born star forced Foulke to make two fine saves as the Valiants pressed for more and though United's John Cunningham flashed an effort wide at the other end, it was the home side who were on top.
Evans even had another great chance to make it two, but having burst through on goal, chose to square the ball to Heames, who was flagged offside.
United poured forward with the wind in their favour after the break and Clare was forced to head off the line with Birchenough beaten.
Vale were pushed right back and the visitors' grip on the game was so strong that Foulke was soon crossing the halfway line to add his considerable weight to the attack.
In a rare break, right-half Lucien Boullemier ran clear of the Sheffield defence only to be body checked by the formidable Foulke, who had raced 40 yards out of his goal, but there was no punishment for the goalkeeper.
Indeed, Foulke was soon joining the front line once more as United pressed for an equaliser which eventually came with eight minutes to go as defender Harry Thickett stabbed home in a crowded penalty area.
Vale were forced to hang on as the one-way traffic continued and it took a fantastic save from Birchenough to deny Kenny McKay in the closing moments and force extra-time.
Fans who had to leave the ground to catch last buses, trams and trains home missed the special moment that would live with those who stayed behind forever.
And it was Boullemier, who was also forging a successful career as a ceramic artist and painter, who hit the winning goal in the end to seal what remains one of the biggest-ever shocks in the competition and one of the best results in Port Vale's history.
Vale's reward for their efforts was a trip to Division Two Burnley, but it was a case of after the Lord Mayor's Show and they were roundly beaten 3-0.
They went on to finish seventh in the Midland League that season, but were elected back into the Football League anyway for the following campaign.
Vale have played United only once in the FA Cup since 1898, falling to a 2-1 fourth-round defeat at home in 1963.
All eyes, then, on Bramall Lane this weekend.