Port Vale 1
by RICK COWDERY
LIVE by the sword, die by the sword.
Argyle, who had benefited from late goals in their previous two matches, suffered the agony of conceding one in the frozen Potteries to tumble back into the npower League 2 relegation zone.
Vale substitute Tom Pope was the man who had the Pilgrims on their knees with a deflected strike four minutes from time.
The goal sent Argyle home with nothing to show for a splendid rearguard action, especially in the second half, when they stood firm in the face of almost continual Valiants' pressure.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher had made just one change to the starting line-up that began the Pilgrims' previous two matches, consecutive games at Home Park against Burton and Crawley which had garnered four points.
Potteries-born Nick Chadwick returned to the front line after recovering from a hamstring problem, although not in a switch that would have been largely predicted.
Chadwick replaced Northern Ireland international Warren Feeney, who had been unable to shake off a calf problem, and lined-up alongside teenager Matt Lecointe.
Otherwise, it was same again for Fletcher, which meant no return for Irish under-21 midfielder Conor Hourihane after his suspension, not even on the substitutes' bench.
Vale had stopped the rot with a 1-0 victory at Rotherham the previous week so manager Micky Adams saw no reason to change his starting 11, with match-winning forward Marc Richards having agreed to postpone indefinitely an ankle operation in order to lead the Vale line.
The home side made the early headway and should have at least asked a question of Argyle goalkeeper Jake Cole after Sean Rigg made a break down the left to sling over a decent cross.
However, although Ben Williamson's height allowed him to easily reach the sumptuous delivery, he misdirected his header back across goal so that it looped harmlessly off target with Cole flatfooted.
That move stood out like a beacon in a first 15 minutes otherwise devoid of chances for either side before the game fizzed into life.
Argyle were given a sniff of goal after Luke Young's strong run off the right flank was interrupted illegally by Adam Yates 30 yards from goal. Wotton range.
The Argyle stalwart duly obliged with a low shot that breached the Vale defensive wall and was spilled by goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson, who nevertheless recovered before the nearest Pilgrim, Maxime Blanchard, could profit.
Vale responded immediately through some enterprising play which ended with the ball reaching Richards in the centre the penalty area, some 10 yards from goal.
He looked odds on to open the scoring, but Cole made a fine save from his shot, which may also have been deflected by Darren Purse.
Another period of middle-third calm followed as both sides flexed their muscle in a physical battle for dominance before Lecointe used guile to beat both of Vale's hulking centre-backs in the air and play in Ashley Hemmings.
The left-winger's twinkling toes worked an opening that promised much but ultimately ran into a blind alley and failed to exercise Tomlinson.
It was not a pretty match but if you wanted evidence of the effort and will from the Pilgrims, you had only to look at Young.
When the midfielder's weak free-kick was charged out by Vale, the home side broke super-quick against Argyle's forward-committed players only for their threatening attack to be snuffed out in Cole's box by Young after 75-yard dash to redeem his error.
The Pilgrims reached half-time with no further problems, and you felt that, if they could just keep it goal-less for another half an hour, the likes of Hemmings, Young and substitute Joe Lennox might find their legs against tiring opponents on a wide pitch.
That, of course, would require a deal of dogged defending on Vale Park's sapping marl-based pitch.
The home side ratcheted up the pressure when Rob Taylor picked put Richards in space but the Vale skipper merely headed the ball into Cole's hands.
Then Riggs found himself on the end of a move for a shot from long range that a Pilgrim boot deflected for a corner.
Fletcher then withdrew Chadwick in favour of Ladjie Soukouna in what appeared to a move intended, at least in part, to limit the effectiveness of Vale's defensive midfielder Anthony Griffith.
Argyle were still required to dig deep in defence of their clean sheet and obliged to see off a succession of Valiants' corners before Craig Sutherland took over the lone striker role from Lecointe.
The tide remained white and strong, and Purse headed out a dangerous cross before Clayton McDonald turned another cross into the danger zone wide.
There was a glimmer of hope when Hemmings broke from yet another Vale corner and made it as far as the opposition penalty area before combination of the cover and the pitch ended his searching run.
That apart, it was a real backs-to-the-wall effort which appeared to be getting the job done until substitute Pope stepped up and negated more than 85 minutes of hard, hard work.
Port Vale (4-4-2): 12 Stuart Tomlinson; 2 Adam Yates, 25 Clayton McDonald, 5 John McCombe, 7 Doug Loft; 17 Sean Rigg, 4 Anthony Griffith, 18 Sam Morsy, 3 Rob Taylor (11 Tom Pope 76); 9 Marc Richards (capt), 19 Ben Williamson (8 Louis Dodds 70). Substitutes (not used): 1 Chris Martin (gk), 21 Kingsley James, 26 Joe Davis.
Bookings: Richards 83.
Argyle (4-4-2): 23 Jake Cole; 28 Paul Bignot, 5 Darren Purse, 22 Maxime Blanchard, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 15 Luke Young (21 Joe Lennox 89), 19 Paul Wotton, 8 Simon Walton (capt), 31 Ashley Hemmings; 29 Nick Chadwick (13 Ladjie Soukouna 59), 27 Matt Lecointe (10 Craig Sutherland 69). Substitutes (not used): 1 Romain Larrieu (gk), 2 Durrell Berry.
Referee: Iain Williamson.
Attendance: 4,375 (460 away).