Port Vale 1 Argyle 0
Port Vale 1
NOT for the first time, Burslem proved to be a veil of tears for Argyle, who suffered a third successive away defeat since winning 3-0 up the road at Crewe on the opening day of the season.
A second-half goal from man-of-the-match Nathan Smith, the Valiants’ centre-back who was a thorn in the Pilgrims’ side in both penalty boxes, was the difference between two sides in a niggly encounter occasionally interrupted by some sublime football.
Argyle will regret not making the most of some fine build-up play in the game’s opening third and turning their possession into something more tangible.
Antoni Sarcevic had returned to the Pilgrims' midfield after completing his three-match suspension, replacing Joe Riley in the starting line-up.
Joe Edwards, who again captained the side, moved to right wing-back to cover for Riley, while Edwards' recent role as central midfielder was assumed by Jose Baxter, with Sarcevic and Danny Mayor either side of him.
The attack again comprised Ryan Taylor and former Port Vale winger Byron Moore, who came close early on to scoring for the third successive game, cutting in off the left-hand side and being denied only by a smart stop from goalkeeper Scott Brown.
The opportunity came amidst a healthy period of Pilgrim midfield dominance in which Mayor was so much involved, inevitably, that he quickly became a marked man, equally inevitably. James Gibbons was cautioned for an agricultural challenge after only six minutes when Mayor made a monkey of him.
With Moore to the fore up front and Taylor dovetailing nicely, Argyle moved the ball around slickly on the former marl pit and were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty when Callum McFadzean was tripped.
Clear chances at either ended were as rare as a day without a Brexit headline, in no small part down to the stop-start nature of a rumbustious contest. The game, that is, not the political arguments over Britain’s future.
The physicality saw the home side dealt a double blow midway through the first half, when they lost forward David Amoo and midfielder Tom Conlon to injury in quick succession.
After the hiatus, the Pilgrims picked up the pace again and Edwards created half an opening when he wriggled his way to the bye-line and crossed to the far post, where the ball was taken off Taylor’s head at the last.
That challenge, and some of Vale’s other interventions, smelt faintly of desperation. Certainly, there appeared to be an attitude of stop-them-at-any-cost and, when that did not work, the blond-topped head of Smith was over employed.
The Valiants again paid the price for their dubiously cavalier defending when substitute Callum Evans’ 11 minutes of game ended after he fouled Sarcevic, obliging the home side to use their third and final replacement with more than an hour of the match to play.
Vale had shown significantly less than Argyle in the danger area but, every now and again, gave a little hint that that the various disruptions to the flow of the match had not affected them, most notably when Smith headed wide from a corner.
Then, in the four minutes of time added on before the interval, one of the three Vale substitutes, Jake Taylor, produced the first shot on target for the Staffordshire side, a grubber that Alex Palmer was fully behind.
Vale landed the first blow of the second period, too, Smith getting on the end of a corner and heading powerful towards goal. McFadzean was behind it, and possibly Palmer, if he had been required.
Argyle’s response came through Moore after the Pilgrims had broken up a Vale breakout, the Stoke-born Pilgrim dragging his shot from mid-distance across the goal and wide of Brown’s far post.
Suddenly, the game brightened in the gorgeous late summer sunshine, with pressure on Argyle. Cristian Montano’s devilish drive needed Palmer to turn the rising on-target shot around the post, and Leon Legge then headed over from David Worrall’s cross.
Argyle made their first – tactical – substitution after an hour, with Dom Telford, back from a hamstring injury, replacing Taylor to give the Pilgrims an all ex-Potteries attack.
The pendulum swung back to Argyle, with several threatening penalty-area incursions from both sides, the best of which saw Josh Grant’s goal-bound header from Edwards’ corner intercepted on its way to goal.
A similar swing in fortunes ended with Vale making the breakthough. The ball was played in from the right to Ritchie Bennett, the home side’s giant pivot, who showed a cliched surprisingly good touch for a big man to deftly lob the ball to the far post, where Smith headed home.
Argyle immediately brought on Zak Rudden and George Cooper for Edwards and the off-colour McFadzean. Whether it was the changes or an injection of confidence into the Vale veins, the Pilgrims momentarily lost a handle on the game and the home side should have scored a second when Montano fired over after more good work from Bennett.
They collected themselves enough for Mayor to curl a final effort wide of the post and Argyle must regroup quickly for the midweek trip to Crawley.
Port Vale: 1 Scott Brown; 3 Adam Crookes, 15 Nathan Smith, 5 Leon Legge, 2 James Gibbons; 4 Luke Joyce, 7 David Worrall, 10 Tom Conlon (18 Callum Evans 23, 17 Rhys Browne 34); 19 David Amoo (16 Jake Taylor 19), 21 Ritchie Bennett, 11 Cristian Montano. Substitutes (not used): 6 Kieran Kennedy, 9 Tom Pope, 13 Mark Cullen, 30 Johnny Maddison.
Booked: Gibbons 6.
Argyle (3-5-2): 24 Alex Palmer; 5 Scott Wootton, 6 Niall Canavan, 25 Josh Grant; 8 Joe Edwards (capt, 32 George Cooper 77), 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 14 Jose Baxter, 10 Danny Mayor, 21 Callum McFadzen (39 Zak Rudden 77); 9 Ryan Taylor (11 Dom Telford 64), 17 Byron Moore. Substitutes (not used): 1 Mike Cooper (gk), 3 Gary Sawyer, 4 Will Aimson, 15 Conor Grant.
Booked: Mayor 43, Canavan 47.
Referee: Marc Edwards.
Attendance: 5,275 (735 away).