The first leg finished 1–1, with Vale's talisman Robbie Earle equalising in the 73rd minute after Gary Penrice had given Rovers the lead in the first half. In the second leg, Earle was the hero once again, scoring the only goal of the game with a 52nd minute header.
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Port Vale had finished the 1988–89 Football League season in third place in Division Three, two places ahead of Rovers. Both therefore missed out on the two automatic promotion places and instead took part in the play-offs to determine the third promoted team. Vale had finished level on points with second place Sheffield United, but their inferior goal difference cost them automatic promotion. Fulham took 4th, nine points below Vale and Rovers finished 5th, ten points behind the Vale. Over the course of 46 games both clubs had only lost ten games, Vale's superior goal scoring helped them to win five games more than Rovers.
In the semi-finals, Rovers had on paper the most difficult task in facing 4th placed Fulham, However, Fulham record of conceding a further sixteen goals than Rovers over the course of the season showed and the Bristol side went through in emphatic style – winning 4–0 at home and 1–0 away. Vale's opponents Preston North End proved to be a greater challenge and after a 1–1 tie at Preston, the Vale won 3–1 at home thanks to a Darren Beckfordhat-trick. At Preston's ground there was a pitch invasion by the Preston fans after a fire erupted under the wooden slats of their stands. Joan Walley called for an enquiry at Parliament, but no enquiry was made.
It was Robbie Earle who equalised seventeen minutes from time to level the tie, heading home a Futcher cross. The Vale nearly won the game in the dying moments only for Beckford's header to be cleared off the goal-line.
Port Vale Manager John Rudge announced an unchanged side from the eleven that held Rovers to a 1–1 draw in the first leg.
The first half finished goalless, meaning Rovers had to press Vale in the second half to score a goal, else face losing the tie on away goals. The second half saw the "MBE" combination pay off, resulting in a Robbie Earle headed goal in the fifty-second minute (ironically Earle would be made an MBE years later). The "MBE" move was a Mills corner, flicked on by Beckford and knocked into the net by Earle. It was to prove the only goal of the game.
"We practised corners for hours, and it certainly paid off. Millsy could put in a brilliant delivery and as soon as it went toward Becky I knew it was coming my way. At the end of the game it was a huge feeling of relief that we had proved a point – we were good enough for promotion. We knew as a group of players we could play at a higher level and this gave us a chance to do so. I had a great time at Vale, and this was the greatest of them all.
Rovers recovered excellently from the loss and the following season joined Port Vale in the second tier, coming up as champions. Port Vale lasted in the second tier until 1991–92 when they took the wooden spoon with them back to the third tier. In 1992–93, Rovers did the same.
Robbie Earle was sold on to Wimbledon for £775,000 in July 1991 and later appeared in the 1998 FIFA World Cup for Jamaica. Now retired, as of 2009 he is a successful columnist and TV pundit. The man that effectively put Vale in the final – Darren Beckford, was himself sold for £925,000 in 1991, to Norwich. His career however was to go into a decline, and was in the non-leagues by 1998, after retirement he took a career in education. Mastermind of the success John Rudge continued to manage Vale until 1999 when he was sacked in a very controversial decision by chairman Bill Bell. He then became Director of Football at rivalsStoke City, a position that as of December 2009 he still holds.