Port Vale 1
ON the surface, it is six defeats in a row for United and a nightmare run of form. Dig deeper in this 1-0 reverse to Port Vale and you find a performance full of enthusiasm, quality and hope.
The visitors snatched victory with a deflected strike from Calvin Andrew on 28 minutes but the majority of the first period was spent with the Gulls camped in the Vale half, and only a couple of fabulous saves from Chris Neal stopped that vital goal.
The second-half saw the Yellows run out of steam but there is surely enough talent in this team to find a recovery.
Interim manager Alan Knill made just one change of personnel in his debut team selection, introducing Elliot Benyon for his first start since rejoining the Gulls on loan from Southend. Danny Stevens was the man to make way and he was not even included on the bench, where Niall Thompson was preferred.
While United came into the game after a drab 1-0 loss at Aldershot in midweek, high-flying Port Vale were also licking their wounds from a 1-0 home defeat to Morecambe last weekend.
It was a setback to their promotion hopes that was reflected in the changed line-up chosen by manager Micky Adams, with John McCombe and Andrew replacing Adam Yates and the injured striker Lee Hughes.
The opening involvement for Jarvis the winger was a delightful swinging cross to Rene Howe, who cushioned a header for Billy Bodin, but the young wide-man was crowded out by the Vale defence.
The visitors then scampered up the other end to find Jennison Myrie-Williams cutting in from the right to smash a fierce left-footed drive inches past Michael Poke’s top corner.
A fabulous start to the game continued with Kevin Nicholson delivering a terrific cross from the left to pick out Howe, who timed his jump beautifully to plant a powerful header at the bottom corner but Vale ‘keeper Chris Neal was equal to the challenge with a stunning tip around the post.
The Yellows were piling on the pressure, backed by a buoyant crowd in the bitter cold of Plainmoor. Benyon miscued a shot after more good work by Jarvis and the rebound appeared to hit a Port Vale arm. Referee Keith Hill waved away penalty claims but Bodin soon got on with the game, forcing Neal into another decent block from his stinging long-range drive.
Jarvis was having a stormer and the only way Ryan Burge could stop another charge inside from the right was with a foul and Neal did well turn the subsequent free-kick from Bodin over his bar.
Knill was presented with his first major dilemma on 25 minutes, as stalwart defender Aaron Downes was forced off with a pulled hamstring. Angus MacDonald came on as his ready-made replacement.
The Valiants had barely shown as an attacking force when a huge slice of luck left the Gulls despondent. Captain Loft took the initial shot from 25 yards, which looked easy for Poke until it deflected off Andrew and floated agonisingly into the corner.
It was another cruel blow in a season of misfortune for United but the challenge was responding to the disappointment. Port Vale were understandably lifted by the goal and the Gulls were forced to hold firm for the next few minutes.
When the mini-siege ended, Howe picked up a neat pass wide from Craig Easton to then cut back inside full-back Daniel Jones and fire in a low left-footer that kept Neal honest at his near-post.
United’s energy and the quality of football remained impressively high for the rest of the first period and the outstanding Jarvis had another strong shot on goal blocked by the increasingly desperate Vale defence.
The second-half started with a lung-bursting run down the left from Ashley Vincent but his cross was deflected into the side-netting by Easton. United’s opening was again full of purpose, a point typified by skipper Lee Mansell snapping into tackles all over the pitch.
The Gulls were then presented with their first significant chance since the restart, as a slip by Richard Duffy allowed Bodin to set his sights for a long-range half-volley but the ball drifted harmlessly over Neal’s crossbar.
Another slight concern growing for Knill and the coaching team was the fitness of MacDonald, who looked to be struggling with some sort of mystery ailment. It was a situation to be monitored, especially with United’s substitute facing Tom Pope, the leading scorer in League 2.
Right on cue, Pope muscled his way to a header from a Vale corner, forcing Poke into a decent save and then Mansell bravely stuck his head in amongst the flailing boots to complete the clearance.
The visitors made their first change midway through the second-half, withdrawing Burge for the fresh legs of Sam Morsy in midfield. Knill also turned to his replacements, replacing Bodin with Lloyd Macklin.
There was no doubt some of the first-half spark had left Yellow legs but Macklin did inject some pace with a twisting run and cross for Benyon, but his shot lacked the power to trouble Neal.
Andrew came back with a swift counter to force Poke into a superb block low down to his right and moments later, the same man had United’s custodian sprawling the other way for an equally good save. Vincent then had a moment to forget, slicing horribly after being released by a Pope pass.
Slowly, frustratingly, the game was plodding to another difficult defeat and there was simply nothing left in the Yellow tank to muster a final chance.
We now turn to the visit of Wycombe on Tuesday night as the next chance to end this worrying run.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 1 Michael Poke; 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes [16 Angus MacDonald 25], 3 Kevin Nicholson; 8 Ryan Jarvis, 18 Craig Easton, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 15 Billy Bodin [14 Lloyd Macklin 68]; 9 Rene Howe, 26 Elliot Benyon. Substitutes [not used]: 6 Damon Lathrope, 13 Martin Rice [GK], 21 Thomas Cruise, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 29 Niall Thompson.
Port Vale [4-4-2]: 1 Chris Neal; 24 Richard Duffy, 6 Darren Purse, 5 John McCombe, 36 Daniel Jones; 9 Jennison Myrie-Williams, 23 Ryan Burge [18 Sam Morsy 66], 7 Doug Loft [capt], 10 Ashley Vincent; 11 Tom Pope, 16 Calvin Andrew. Substitutes [not used]: 2 Adam Yates, 3 Robert Taylor, 8 Louis Dodds, 15 Chris Shuker, 26 Chris Birchall, 32 Ryan Boot [GK].
Booked: Burge 17, Purse 56
Referee: Keith Hill
Attendance: 2,679