Port Vale 3
by CHRIS PARSONS
THREE goals in the space of 12 second-half minutes condemned Argyle to what, at half-time, looked like a totally inconceivable defeat.
In the first period, Argyle were simply magnificent. They controlled the game with their slick, sensible passing game, enjoyed prolonged periods of possession in the final third and went in at half-time deservedly a goal to the good, thanks to Robbie Williams’ third of the season.
Initial scrimmages after the interval even looked positive but after the hour, with the Pilgrims on top, a Vale penalty, conceded by Luke Young and converted by Jennison Myrie-Williams, changed the game.
Suddenly, Port Vale discarded the sheeps' clothing, shifted into gear and were soon ahead through Ashley Vincent. Two minutes later, substitute Ben Williamson had finished the job.
It was an utterly ruthless display from the visitors who, for two thirds of the match, were the second best team.
The positives were clear to see, though, and Argyle despite the scoreline, can surely build upon what for an hour was the best football played by an Argyle team in recent memory.
Manager Carl Fletcher opted for just one change for this clash with npower League 2’s leading scorers.
After missing last weekend’s Devon derby at Torquay United to play in his country’s African Cup of Nations qualifier with Angola, Zimbabwean Onismor Bhasera was recalled to the left hand side of midfield at the expense of Joe Lennox.
Port Vale, understandably after their 6-2 demolition of Rotherham, opted to keep to field the exact same XI and even keeping faithful to the same bench.
Having survived a brief but speedy attack within the opening seconds, the Pilgrims counter-attacked to provide the game with its goalmouth action when Alex MacDonald headed Conor Hourihane’s deep cross into the hands of Chris Neal.
The early chance seemed to work as a stimulant for Argyle, who for the next ten minutes, controlled the game by retaining possession – feeding short, sharp and sometime intricate passes to each other in the middle third of the pitch.
The even fashioned a couple half chances, usually from deep, but Vale’s defence stood strong to repel them before they could reach the ‘keeper.
Then, just before the 20 minute mark, Argyle made their dominance in possession count when Williams, the Pilgrims’ top goal scorer so far this season, put them ahead.
It was no more than the slick-looking Greens had deserved and when it fell to the left-back, 25 yards from goal after a Hourihane corner had been cleared, he made no mistake and fired a low, cross-goal drive into the bottom right-hand corner.
Argyle were really purring and had a chance to double their lead just a few minutes later when Young, Hourihane and Bhasera combined for the latter to unleash a shot goalwards. Neal made a good, full-stretch dive, clinging gratefully onto the ball at Warren Feeney advanced.
As the game approached the half-hour, Vale managed an offensive sortee and Jake Cole had to be alert to deny Jennison Myrie-Williams from the right flank.
But in the next attack, Argyle came close again when MacDonald’s curling cross from the right touchline was hastily palmed over by Neal.
The onslaught continued when, five minutes before the break, Paul Wotton’s free-kick from the left was met by the foot of Darren Purse but was cleared from the line by a defender on the line.
As the half petered out, Young saw himself go in the book for an over-enthusiastic tackle on Clayton MacDonald - the only negative of an otherwise flawless first-half.
Argyle had been fantastic, passed the ball well, kept possession and made their dominance count. If they could replicate that performance in the second period, this would turn into a memorable victory at Home Park.
Just like they had in the first, Port Vale began the second half with real aggression and this time forced a good save from Jake Cole who reacted well to Tom Pope’s shot in the turn.
Then, just like they had done previously, the Pilgrims reacted with Neal making a good save low to his left from a perfectly delivered Wotton freekick.
Desperately trying to recreate the free-scoring form they had found last weekend, the visitors decided on a change of tactic and bombarded the Pilgrims with a number of long balls.
They even forced a series of corners but after an initial scare that required a timely Purse intervention, the pressure dyed out as Argyle again found their passing feet.
Knocking it around between them at will, Argyle were looking very dangerous and aided by Matt Lecointe’s fresh legs as a 54th minute substitute, again began to take the game to their visitors.
And then, disaster struck when, against the run of play, Port Vale broke into the Argyle box, Luke Young mistimed a challenge on Ashley Vincent and sent the forward tumbling to the floor.
It was, in football parlance, a ‘stone waller’ and after some delay, Myrie-Williams fired past Cole from the spot.
It was a really, really cruel blow for Argyle who had played some of the best football seen at Home Park in the last couple of years.
They tried to respond almost immediately as MacDonald saw his thunderous effort pushed wide by Neal. When the corner came in from Hourihane, it was Purse who came nearest to applying the finishing touch but alas, he couldn’t quite make it.
Port Vale smelt blood and just two minutes later, goalscorer Myrie-Williams cutback for Vincent to slide his side into the lead.
Fletch reacted straight away, replacing Young with Guy Madjo. But before the Cameroonian could even have a touch, Vale had made it 3-1, when Williamson evaded Williams to convert a low cross from the left.
Home Park was shell-shocked but despite the undeniable score line, the Pilgrims continued to press and again had a shot cleared off the line as the game entered the final few minutes.
But it was to be the last meaningful contribution to the match, when just five minutes later, the Pilgrims left the Home Park pitch – defeated for the first time in three games.
Argyle (4-5-1): 1 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 4 Maxime Blanchard, 3 Robbie Williams; 32 Alex MacDonald, 6 Conor Hourihane, 15 Paul Wotton (21 Matt Lecointe 54), 8 Luke Young (18 Guy Madjo 76), 14 Onismor Bhasera; 11 Warren Feeney. Substitutes (not used): 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 17 Curtis Nelson, 19 Joe Lennox, 27 Andres Gurrieri, 28 Johnny Gorman.
Booked: Young 45, Bhasera 64, Berry 77.
Port Vale (4-4-2): 1 Chris Neal, 24 Richard Duffy, 5 John McCombe, 14 Clayton MacDonald, 7 Doug Loft (capt); 9 Jennison Myrie-Williams, 18 Sam Morsy, 15 Chris Shuker (23 Ryan Burge 62), 10 Ashley Vincent (3 Robert Taylor 81); 8 Louis Dodds (19 Ben Williamson 62), 11 Tom Pope. Substitutes (not used): 2 Adam Yates, 6 Gareth Owen, 12 Sam Johnson (gk), 22 Ryan Lloyd.
Booked: Dodds 4, Vincent 73, Loft 87.
Referee: Darren Sheldrake
Attendance: 6,080 (203 away)