“I got within two miles but it then took me two hours to find the ground. I thought Port Vale was a place.” Neil Aspin on signing for Port Vale in 1989.
Despite making over 700 appearances as a player and having over 500 games to his name in management, Neil Aspin had to wait until his fifty-third year to finally become a Football League manager. With three promotions and three unsuccessful play-off campaigns during his managerial career, it is surprising he had to wait that long before the opportunity arose. Furthermore, there cannot be many footballers who can say that Robbie Williams played in his testimonial match.
Starting his playing career with Leeds in 1982, uncompromising defender Aspin became the second-youngest debutant in the club’s history (after Peter Lorimer) when he appeared against Ipswich at Elland Road in a First Division game at the age of sixteen. Allan Clarke’s Leeds lost 2-0 that day and were relegated to the Second Division at the end of that season. The game against Ipswich remains his only experience of the top-flight either as a player or manager.
Aspin found a regular place in the side from 1983-84 and went on to spend seven years at the club, winning the Player of the Season award in 1985 at the age of twenty. The closest Leeds came to regaining top-flight status during those years was in 1986-87 under Billy Bremner when they finished fourth and qualified for the first ever Football League playoffs. Having disposed of Oldham in the semi-finals, they went down 2-1 to Charlton in a final replay. In those days, the side finishing nineteenth in the First Division was involved in the playoffs, a system that was abandoned after two years. 1986-87 was also notable for Leeds reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup where they were beaten 3-2 after extra time by eventual winners Coventry. Aspin hit the headlines, postponing his wedding to play in that game.
Leeds were destined not to challenge for promotion again during Aspin’s time there, and after 244 appearances, he was sold to Port Vale for £150,000 in July 1989. Ironically, Leeds won promotion the following season, and the last ever First Division championship in 1992.
When Aspin eventually found Vale Park after getting lost in the summer of 1989, Vale had just won promotion to the Second Division after a 2-1 aggregate play-off final win over Bristol Rovers. If seven years at Leeds showed great loyalty, he was to stay with Port Vale for ten. In his first season he was named Player of the Season and was named captain for his second. After two mid-table seasons, Vale finished bottom of the Second Division and were relegated to…the Second Division – the divisions were renamed in the summer of 1992. The first season after relegation was to prove very successful, with the side winning the Football League Trophy at Wembley with a 2-1 win over Stockport. A third-place finish ensured an appearance in the playoffs, and a 2-1 aggregate win over Stockport (again) took them to Wembley. Unfortunately they came up against a good West Brom side and went down to three late goals in front of 53,471.
Vale went one better the following season, returning to the second tier in second place after winning eight of their last nine games. Aspin was named Player of the Season for the second time and also appeared in the PFA Team of the Season for the Second Division. Vale finished in mid-table comfort in their first two seasons back in the First Division, and in 1996 reached the final of the last ever Anglo-Italian Cup where they lost 5-2 to Genoa at Wembley. They also reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, beating Crystal Palace and holders Everton in replays before losing 2-1 at home to Aspin’s former club Leeds – in another replay. Vale achieved their highest Football League placing since 1931 when they finished eighth in 1996-97, missing a playoff spot by just four points.
The following season saw Vale struggle badly; only a 4-0 win at Huddersfield on the final day after three successive defeats ensured First Division survival by a single point. The 1998-99 season was even closer, with Vale surviving only on goal difference from Bury. Aspin was rewarded with a testimonial season and a final game against Leicester in May 1989 for which Robbie Williams flew in specially from America. Williams played on the wing and scored, but a notable omission was Paul Gascoigne. Despite attending the same Gateshead school as Aspin, he failed to turn up despite having agreed to play. At the end of that season Aspin departed for Third Division Darlington after making 410 appearances for the club.