Port Vale was wreathed in relief by sunset. It was not just the second-half recovery from 0-1 to 4-1 against lowly Wycombe Wanderers; they could have lost and still been second in League Two. It is the prospect of coming out of administration, which they entered in March. The 10-point deduction cost them a play-off chance.
The relief remains guarded. Similar takeover hopes fell through last month. Paul Wildes, CEO of Alchemy Investment Group, was named as new preferred bidder last week. So far each side likes what it has seen – Wildes two wins by three goals in six days, Vale a would-be first-time owner paying £1.25m in cash who sees them as a better bet than Darlington. He and Micky Adams, the manager, Sheffield Wednesday and United fans, have already begun the banter. Football League ratification is talked of by the end of the month.
"No one is going to get carried away," said Pete Williams, chairman of the Supporters' Club who have been put through the kiln lately, "but Mr Wildes is clearly a successful businessman and wants to take Port Vale on as a long-term project and make the club sustainable." Wildes says: "I'm not saying Port Vale will be in the Champions League in six years' time but I think the club has the potential to be a Championship club because that's where it's been in the past." Vale have spent 41 seasons in the second tier, longer than any club that has never been in the first, though their last time there was in 2000.
Wycombe returned to supporter ownership in the summer and, after a shaky start to the season which saw the replacement of Gary Waddock as manager, Gareth Ainsworth has revived them as player-caretaker. He could even become a Chairman. Ainsworth, now 39, had 14 months at Vale Park in 1997-98, coming in for £500,000 from Lincoln and leaving for £2m to Wimbledon, both Vale records, and fans regaled him with "There's only one Gareth Ainsworth" before and after the match. Happiness was in the air. Between times they could not sing the same for Adams for more than an hour.
Vale's manager explained why himself. "I don't want to put a damper on it but I was disappointed with how we played in the first half. We looked a tired and leggy unit, strutting around like peacocks. I really had to get into them at half-time. In the second half we did the right things but we shouldn't forget the big turning point was the sending-off . Thankfully we made the pitch big and reaped the reward. Our wingers [Jennison Myrie-Williams and Ashley Vincent] can create carnage."
Joel Grant's penalty, conceded by John McCombe, put Wycombe ahead after 20 minutes and Jo Kuffour, already booked, was dismissed in the 45th for clattering late into Chris Neal. Arguably the turning point came later, also involving Neal. His flip away of Grant's curling shot to the top corner at 0-1 had Adams suggesting there had "not been a better save at Vale Park for a long while". Despite Tom Pope's two goals that followed, the keeper was named man of the match. At Port Vale the sponsors are as wise as the fans are generous.
Adams did not disagree. "Tom Pope has scored two goals because he was in the penalty area where he should be. He didn't get in there in the first half and I had to remind him what his job is." Until the last half-hour Leon Johnson's marking and Gary Doherty's marshalling subdued him. Then he put Ben Williamson in for the first and added his twopenny worth with headers – one direct, the other delicate – before Ashley Vincent's fourth. His 14 from 13 league games lead the division. At Rotherham he got four from 53. Here he has made good the summer loss of Marc Richards (67 in 181), whom Vale lacked the funds to keep. They subsist on 21 players.
Vale Park may never be the Wembley of the North, as envisaged in the 1940s, but there is room to expand for Championship crowds. The sun set over the Burslem claypits on cautious smiles. Stoke's noiseless neighbours are dreaming again.