Sunderland did just enough to win a proper cup-tie, starting at 100mph and scoring in 35 seconds through Honeyman. A second, from Gooch on 19, had us dreaming of a big score - but a well-taken goal on 35 from Vale's Pope meant we had to dig deep for victory.
Auckland fog turned to Pennine rain, then Potteries sunshine as the traffic ground to a halt at junction 16, necessitating a diversion that took us through Stoke and prompted a discussion on the various pottery manufacturers. There were an inordinate number of boys and girls in blue, who told us we weren't allowed into the town as there'd been problems in the past. I argued the toss, creating sufficient diversion to allow a few to saunter innocently past and out into the big, wide world. Those who did get into tow reported that they had no problems whatsoever, but we gave up and went into the Vale Social club in the car park. Thankfully they had some decent beer on, but the barmaid was a bit taken aback at our order of eleven pints of Pedigree. A few games of cards later and it was match time. The stand to our right had a strange look to it, due to the empty concrete steps nearest us, where Vale had run out of the money to fit the seats. Should have got the fans involved.
After the Last Post and the minute's silence, we lined up:
Matthews Flanagan Baldwin James
McGeady McGeouch Honeyman Maguire Gooch
… and kicked away from our end, not allowing the opposition the chance to start the faster, and got straight into their box. When Maguire took a pass from Sinclair after Matthews's throw-in, he found Honeyman a few yards outside the box, and he passed it beyond defenders' legs into the corner of the net low to the keeper's left. A thing of beauty, that goal. You don't get better starts than that, but we stayed calm and resisted the temptation to hurl ourselves forward and risk getting caught on the break.
This gave Vale a chance to play to their strengths, which quite rightly involved their big lads - and they had a few of those. Baldwin and Flanagan had their hands full with Pope, but did enough to protect McLaughlin, and Flanagan could have doubled the lead when a corner fell nicely, but he fired over. McGeady cut in from the left and shot wide of the near post, and Maguire drew a comfortable save from the home keeper before Sinclair got involved again. This time he held it up for Gooch to take over and fire to the keeper's right and into the corner. Lovely, and less than twenty minutes gone - are we on for a cricket score?
Another good pass from Matthews (he's producing a few lately) set Maguire away, but with Sinclair ready to do the necessary, the cross was way too high and the chance was gone.
No cricket score, then, and Vale upped their game, brought on Oyeleke for Vassel on the half-hour, and he added some guile to their otherwise straightforward approach. After we'd produced a few over-hit crosses - some achievement on a pitch as wide - he was involved in the move that found Pope on the edge of our box, and he curled a left-footer (Pope, geddit?) across the goal and beyond McLaughlin's outstretched right hand. Ten minutes of the half remained, and we contented ourselves with keeping what we had, playing through McGeouch who made sure we didn't lose the ball. Not too often, anyway, which is just as well, as anything that went out of play in our half became the subject of a long throw from their number 5, Legge. McGeady was booked for a high foot, Gooch took a pass from James, but shot just wide and we got to half time after a single added minute still in the lead, and that's what counts.
No changes for the second half, but it was the home side who started stronger, forcing some battling defending by our centre-halves. They had their fans cheering a goal when in fact they'd shot into the side netting. Bless them. With about 25 to go, Maja replaced Sinclair, and he looks to have been working on his hold-up play, not allowing the big defenders to get the better of him with his back to goal, and thus helping the midfield to pick up the ball and get it wide. It looked like he'd add the third, but he couldn't get the ball from under his feet only a couple of yards out, and it was eventually poked clear by his marker.
There was a big shout for a penalty by Vale, and according to the messages immediately received from the telly watchers back home, they had a point. Thankfully the ref, who bore more than a passing resemblance to William Shatner, didn't see a problem with Baldwin's sliding tackle, and we cleared the ball. Down at the other end, a low cross from Honeyman bounced up just in front of McGeady, meaning that he had to shoot high, and the keeper held it above his head.
Power replaced Maguire for the final 20 minutes, playing alongside McGeouch to give the base of our midfield more legs and keep possession. James and McGeady worked the ball down our left, and the latter's cross found Honeyman at the back, but their keeper did really well to keep his shot out. O'Nien replaced Gooch for the final ten, adding his customary energy but also showing more patience as he retained possession. We had to endure a spot of Sunday-morning pinball in our box before James hoofed it clear, they hurled more long throws at our box, and five added minutes were announced. Vale had great chance to equalise when a blocked shot fell nicely for Pope, but McLaughlin stayed cool and made the save. We rolled our metaphorical sleeves up and did what was necessary to get over the line.
An enjoyable contest - not brimming with flowing football, although there were moments especially between our goals when we stroked it around confidently, but more a hard-fought contest in which our ability just got the better of their hard work and muscles. A proper cup-tie.
Man of the Match... McGeough, who was always available and did his best to keep things calm.