The tension was unbearable. At times, Watford’s fans could simply not watch – and not just because the setting sun behind the Vale Park was blinding.
A week earlier, the game had been postponed after heavy rain during the afternoon. Now it was on, Watford knew victory would take them into the play-off zone with just two games left.
The Hornets had won five in a row to force themselves into contention when all hope looked to have been lost. Terry Challis, the Watford Observer cartoonist, summed up the situation beautifully. He depicted a Hornet rapidly gaining ground on a nervous-looking pig (Bolton are the Trotters) and a terrified wolf (Wolves) with the caption ‘The marathon is over, now it’s time for the sprint finish.’
Watford lost the toss and had to kick into the sun in the first half. It made things very awkward for the defenders. ‘Kenny Jackett said to me before the game that if I was in doubt I should just head the sun,’ says Steve Palmer.
Allan Smart, sent off against Tranmere, was suspended so sat in the stand among the Watford supporters and remembers the night he willed the team on with the fervour of a lifelong fan.
This was not a dead, end-of-season fixture for Port Vale. They were fending off relegation and couldn’t afford to lose their game in hand at home.
It was an edgy match from the start and Watford’s nerves didn’t really settle after Tommy Mooney had given them the lead because Vale were level four minutes later. Palmer and Alan Lee clashed off the ball and Tommy Widdrington scored the resulting penalty.
A minute later, Paul Robinson was lucky to avoid a red card when he lunged late and hard at Stewart Talbot after the whistle had been blown and the ball had gone. It was a horrible challenge that left Talbot with a broken leg.
Mooney scored Watford’s second goal on the hour mark and then there was the agony of waiting for the final whistle for the supporters.
The celebrations at the end were epic, as if the belief coursed from the supporters to the team and back again.
Six wins had hauled Watford up to fifth in the table. Now they had one foot in the play-offs, Graham Taylor had to work his magic and keep the players focused. ‘Every game was a big game but it was all about winning by then,’ says Mooney. ‘We knew we had to win every game. Normally you concentrate on the performances and hope that the results follow but this was different.
‘After beating Port Vale you could tell everyone was thinking we were going to do it. No one dared say it but in the Port Vale dressing room we knew we were going to Wembley.’
Watford Chamberlain, Bazeley, Kennedy, Page, Palmer, Robinson, Ngonge, Hyde, Mooney, Johnson, Wright (Hazan 80)
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorer Mooney 24, 60
Port Vale scorer Widdrington 28 pen
Why was this match chosen? The most incredible run-in in the club's history had been kick-started with the scrappy clash with Tranmere. Now, after four more wins the Watford juggernaut was up to speed. This game had everything – it had already been postponed once. The sun took an age to set, meaning the bulk of the first half was watched through fingers covering the eyes. The short-lived lead, the nervy last 20 minutes. The fact that when the final whistle blew it felt like the play-offs were on. But, for me, the thing that will never dislodge from my mind is the Vale Park announcer reading out the teams and pronouncing the name of Watford's number seven as 'Michael Nonge.'
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? A game of such heartstopping tension I can still feel it now, almost 20 years on.