Port Vale and emotional Darrell Clarke seal promotion against Mansfield

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<span>Photograph: John Walton/PA</span>
Photograph: John Walton/PA

With the minutes ticking down Darrell Clarke sat back on an advertising hoarding, head bowed, and composed his thoughts. Port Vale were going up to League One, that much was certain: their excellent left wing-back Mal Benning had just volleyed in the third goal and, in truth, the game had been settled long before then. Only Clarke can know exactly what emotions were swirling around during those moments but, when the final whistle blew, the spell of personal reflection had passed. Vale’s players cavorted deliriously on the Wembley pitch, their manager soon joining them, and the overwhelming sense was one of delight at a job exceptionally done.

Clarke had returned to the dugout earlier this month after a phased return to work, which followed a six-week period of compassionate leave upon the death of his eldest daughter, Ellie. He could hardly have pitched himself into a more meaningful run of fixtures; everyone involved has surpassed themselves and the pride will be coursing around a club that had become used to life in the doldrums. Once they had taken the lead through Kian Harratt, Vale never looked like losing a tie that had appeared too close to call at the outset. They were helped by Mansfield’s capacity to self-destruct, manifested most glaringly in Ollie Hawkins’ stupid red card, but this was a performance of intensity and craft that befitted its destination.

Related: Mansfield 0-3 Port Vale: League Two playoff final – live!

“I worked so hard to control those emotions and then they all came out,” Clarke said. “It’s special. I think she was up there kicking every ball, so I dedicate that to my daughter.” It had been an afternoon of deep, meaningful gestures. Clarke began his playing career at Mansfield in the late 1990s, wearing the number eight shirt with distinction, and his former club had instigated an ovation from the stands in the eighth minute. He was visibly moved as all sides of the national stadium applauded. “To do that for myself and my family, I’ll forever be grateful,” he said.

Just before that, Jamie Murphy should have put Mansfield ahead but headed straight at Aiden Stone after defensive indecision. That would have given proceedings on the pitch a different hue but Vale took control from there, using the pitch’s width to excellent effect. Jake Taylor pulled the strings in midfield but the outstanding performer was James Wilson, once such a feted youngster at Manchester United and now looking a class above this level.

The Port Vale manager, Darrell Clarke, celebrates after the League Two playoff final at Wembley.
The Port Vale manager, Darrell Clarke, was emotional after his team’s victory. Photograph: John Walton/PA

The Huddersfield loanee Harratt’s opener was a well-taken stooping header, adjusting himself to show Murphy how it should be done after the marauding Benning’s deflected cross. He had only just hit the post from 20 yards. Within four minutes Wilson made it two from close range after Ben Garrity had nodded a delivery from the right wing-back, David Worrall, onto the bar. “What a player,” Clarke said of Wilson. A big game player who’s produced the goods. I love the kid, he’s got unbelievable talent.”

An experienced Mansfield side might have been expected to stabilise but instead they blew it, Hawkins ploughing through Wilson shortly after receiving his first yellow card and giving Jarred Gillett an easy decision. Only 34 minutes had been played; they could still have made a game of it had Connor Hall not cleared heroically off the line from Ryan Oates, but from then their goose was cooked.

“We didn’t give ourselves a chance,” said a frustrated Nigel Clough, whose side can still be proud given they were in the relegation places last October. Would he nonetheless be back to watch Nottingham Forest in Sunday’s Championship final? “I don’t care if I don’t see another football game for the foreseeable future.”

Clough did, though, say the fact of Clarke’s victory had made the pill less bitter. Port Vale managed the second half consummately and Benning, previously a Mansfield player, added a stylish late flourish. “With all we’ve come through, to put in that performance in the manner we did was outstanding,” Clarke said. It applies to his team, but most of all to him.

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