An emotional Darrell Clarke dedicated Port Vale’s 3-0 play-off final victory over Mansfield at Wembley to his late daughter Ellie.
The former Stags player was given six weeks of compassionate leave in February following the death of his 18-year-old daughter but made a phased return to work to help Vale into the Sky Bet League Two play-offs and they subsequently booked a trip to the national stadium with a penalty success over Swindon.
Backed by a sea of black and white shirts, the Stoke club had one foot in the third tier after 24 minutes when goals by Kian Harratt and James Wilson put them in control and Mal Benning provided the icing on the cake with a third in the 85th minute.
It allowed a tearful Clarke to soak up the final few minutes following a season full of challenges on the pitch – but more crucially off it.
The Vale boss admitted: “I’ve have worked so hard the last few days to control those emotions and then they all come out when we were nearly there.
“I didn’t want to take that for granted but we were in a great position and yeah, it is special.
“It is special for my eldest daughter, who I lost this year, and my family that are going through a tough time. No different from any other family so I certainly don’t want sympathy but it was just, I don’t know. I think she was up there kicking every ball for me today so I dedicate that to my daughter.”
Before Vale had taken control, a show of solidarity occurred in the eighth minute when both sets of supporters applauded Clarke, who spent more than a decade at Mansfield as a player and wore the number eight shirt at Field Mill.
The 44-year-old responded by thanking all four corners of Wembley and acknowledged after it had been his “most emotional day in football” before he paid tribute to everyone at his current employer for their support in addition to that of the League Managers’ Association.
Clarke added: “That was very special. Ellie was from Mansfield, she was a Mansfield girl born and bred and for those Stags fans to do that, it touched me.
“I have a great affinity with the club. I was there from 10 until 23 and I have so much time for the football club and Nigel Clough. They will bounce back and I am praying they will go up next season but for them to do that for myself and my family after eight minutes I will forever be grateful.”
Mansfield had started brightly with Jamie Murphy denied by Aidan Stone but once Harratt stooped low to head in Benning’s cross in the 20th minute, it was largely one-way traffic.
Wilson nodded in a second soon after and when Oli Hawkins was sent off for a second bookable offence before half-time, Vale were almost there and former Stags player Benning provided the clincher with a superb volley late on.
The next step for Clarke and his family? A holiday in Greece with his wife, youngest daughter and stepson.
“I am going on holiday tomorrow,” he revealed.
“We are just going to Greece for a week. The phone will be off and I won’t be doing any interviews! I will just mend the family. We will go away and have our own special moments away.”
Opposite number Clough paid tribute to Clarke and reflected on his own frustration that the Stags failed to do themselves justice.
“I class Darrell as a friend and that’s the only decent thing that came out of the day. I am delighted for him so many congratulations to him and Port Vale,” the Mansfield boss said.
“When you are joint bottom of the league seven months ago, it is a big step to come to Wembley. We were hoping the experience we had would help us be able to cope but we didn’t do ourselves justice today and that is the most frustrating part of it.”