Port Vale 1
Saah o.g. 69
A CRUEL own goal from Brian Saah denied the Gulls all three points at Port Vale but the pattern of proceedings made the single point very welcome in the end.
A very young United side withstood early pressure to pinch a half-time lead through Ian Morris, finishing neatly after superb work in the vanguard by Rene Howe.
The second period was a black and white wave on the Yellow goal and the Gulls held on until Saah glanced a header into his own net on 69 minutes. The pressure that followed was intense but United bravely stuck out for a terrific draw.
The fresh feel to Martin Ling’s line-up was indicative of a difficult week of juggling for the manager. The late dismissal of Aaron Downes in last Saturday’s thrilling 4-2 win over Rochdale left a vacancy at centre-back, which, after much deliberation, was filled by talented youngster Kirtys MacKenzie for his professional debut.
A new problem arose in training on Thursday, as midfielder Craig Easton, already deputising for the injured Damon Lathrope, picked up a strain. His place in the starting 11 went to Nathan Craig for his full Yellow debut.
Niall Thompson, making just his second start after a storming debut seven days ago, maintained the young theme, which was given added gloss by the inclusion of promising scholars Daniel Sullivan and Jake Hutchings among the replacements.
Vale boss Micky Adams had the luxury of naming the same side that recorded an excellent 3-1 win at Morecambe last weekend and the Valiants have defied their worrying financial status as a club in administration with a confident start to the campaign.
That confidence was echoed by MacKenzie, lashing clear with authority in his first touch as a professional, as the home side looked to exert early pressure on a youthful United outfit. Vale continued the mini-siege with a whipped cross from Sam Morsy and Joe Oastler was forced into a superb clearance with Tom Pope lurking dangerously.
The tactical pattern developing in the opening stages immediately placed emphasis on Craig to pick up Louis Dodds, who was playing in that hole between the powerful Pope and the Vale midfield.
The worry for Ling and his coaching staff was the lack of impact from his forward trio, as Vale maintained their almost relentless control of possession and territory, and MacKenzie was the stand-out performer in first 15 minutes.
When Pope did turn the youngster sharply in the box, goalkeeper Michael Poke was in the right place to make a comfortable save and keep the scores level.
Gradually, United settled with a string of attacking set-pieces, which culminated in a pair of hopeful strikes on goal from MacKenzie, forward from defence. The changing tide continued with Thompson and Billy Bodin attempting to expose their full-backs, but with minimal success.
The Gulls were posing more of a threat, a fact highlighted by Kevin Nicholson finding the well-marshalled Howe with a deep cross, but the in-form forward was unable to generate sufficient power with his header.
Port Vale responded with a fabulous burst from winger Jennison Myrie-Williams, skipping past Craig for a rifled shot and Poke was up to the challenge with an excellent block. Myrie-Williams then delivered an inviting cross for big defender John McCombe, who, mercifully, lifted the ball over with his shot on the stretch.
The Gulls survived the wave of Vale pressure to create an opening for Howe, who headed straight at Chris Neal after a cross from Oastler, but the action soon returned to the other end, as a header back from Saah had Poke in serious trouble.
The goalkeeper was perched on the edge of his penalty area and forced into parrying the ball away to Ashley Vincent, but immediate amends was made by United’s custodian, saving miraculously from the return shot.
Somehow the confusion cleared for the Gulls to score through Craig’s long ball to Howe and the striker bombed into space before laying on a lovely pass for Morris to despatch a confident finish beyond Neal and into the bottom corner.
Even the most ardent Gull would concede the goal was against the run of play but perhaps reward for a stoic first-half display from such a young side.
The second period began with United looking like a side reprieved and Howe was keen to keep up the physical pressure on McCombe and his defensive partner Clayton McDonald. At the other end, MacKenzie was still competing heroically with the robust Pope.
All the signs pointed to a battle ahead for the Yellows and some rare slack marking handed Pope a free header from a corner, but he fluffed his lines by heading off target. Vincent was next to threaten the Yellow goal, exchanging passes with Dodds before spearing a shot toward the bottom corner and Poke earned his corn with another excellent save.
United were under severe strain and Poke was next thankful to his crossbar after a deep cross by Vincent drifted beyond the ‘keeper and bounced away to safety. Saah then came to the fore with a brilliant clearing header from a Chris Shuker cross.
The first change for the Gulls arrived for the final quarter and it was an understandably protective move, with Thompson sacrificed for the defensive instincts of Daniel Leadbitter.
Unfortunately, the new man had not touched the ball when Saah turned into his net on 69 minutes. It was a whipped cross but the ball was heading safely for Poke when Saah deflected into his own goal for the Vale equaliser.
It was a real shame for Saah, who had been excellent alongside MacKenzie in a brave rearguard action but the new objective for the Gulls was ensuring a resilient performance yielded at least a point.
The disaster was almost doubled when Saah sliced a cross from Richard Duffy against his own bar. It could have been a horrible moment for big defender but good luck often falls on those who deserve it, and United escaped.
Ryan Jarvis was introduced for the final 10 minutes to give Howe a hard-earned break but the ball remained entrenched at the United end, as the Gulls continued to defend stubbornly in the face of seemingly endless Vale corners.
The closing moments were filled with tension but Vale had finally run out of steam as an attacking force, and the afternoon ended as very much a point gained for United.
Port Vale (4-4-2): 1 Chris Neal; 24 Richard Duffy, 14 Clayton McDonald, 5 John McCombe, 7 Doug Loft (capt); 9 Jennison Myrie-Williams, 15 Chris Shuker (19 Ben Williamson 87), 18 Sam Morsy, 10 Ashley Vincent (3 Rob Taylor 81); 8 Louis Dodds (23 Ryan Burge 87), 11 Tom Pope. Substitutes (not used): 2 Adam Yates, 6 Gareth Owen, 12 Sam Johnson (GK), 22 Ryan Lloyd.
Booked: Myrie-Williams 78
United (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 20 Nathan Craig, 11 Ian Morris; 29 Niall Thompson (12 Daniel Leadbitter 67), 9 Rene Howe (8 Ryan Jarvis 78), 15 Billy Bodin (21 Tom Cruise 90). Substitutes (not used): 13 Martin Rice (GK), 23 Ashley Yeoman, 31 Daniel Sullivan, 32 Jake Hutchings.
Booked: Howe 59
Referee: Steve Bratt
Attendance: 4,721 (139 away).