Bristol Rovers 2 Port Vale 0: Valiants sink to another defeat
HANG on to your hats – Port Vale's promotion push is turning into a roller-coaster ride.
Defeat at Bristol Rovers last night extended a shocking run in which Micky Adams' men have now lost four of their last five matches.
There'll be plenty of twists and turns yet, but there's no doubting the Valiants are on an alarming, and puzzling, slide.
Adams changed his formation to 3-5-2 in search of a winning formula.
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But no amount of tinkering with the team can help if they don't defend set-pieces.
And that was the case at the Memorial Stadium, where former Stoke striker Ryan Brunt took full advantage.
The 19-year-old scored from two first-half corners and Vale, who had plenty of possession without making the most of it, paid a high price.
Chris Birchall came in for the first start of his second spell with Vale in one of three changes to the team after Saturday's defeat at home to Southend.
The midfielder, who impressed as a second-half substitute at the weekend, replaced Jennison Myrie-Williams, who dropped to the bench.
John McCombe stepped in for veteran defender Darren Purse in the heart of the back four, while Ben Williamson was preferred to Lee Hughes up front.
Vale lined up with Richard Duffy, Liam Chilvers and McCombe at the back, Yates and Rob Taylor on either flank with Birchall, Anthony Griffith and Sam Morsy in the middle.
But it was Rovers who made the brighter start and striker Ryan Brunt, a January purchase from Stoke, posted notice of their threat in the first minute with a header that was only a couple of yards wide.
Jim Paterson then burst into space on the left before fizzing a shot across the face of Chris Neal's goal.
But Vale were pushing at the other end two minutes later when Morsy drilled a shot over the angle.
Bristol, whose results have picked up under boss John Ward, were looking handy early on and they made it count after just seven minutes.
Ollie Norburn drilled over a regulation corner and Brunt rose at the far post to plant a header into the corner of the net, leaving questions to be asked in the Vale defence.
Birchall had a chance to level matters soon after, but drilled just too high from a good position after Yates's cross had dropped to him inside the box.
But Norburn made sure Neal was staying alert when he tested the keeper's handling with a shot from distance after 21 minutes and Harrison did the same before the half-hour was up, without truly threatening a second goal.
Yates was getting forward well on the right and, indeed, Vale were enjoying plenty of possession in decent areas without showing any real penetration.
It looked as though they had at least got a foothold in the game , but there was another blow to come after 38 minutes, and it came from another set-piece.
Norburn swung over another corner and this time Brunt had found enough space in the area to crack a right-foot volley from 10 yards out past Neal and into the net.
Griffith shot hopelessly wide as the Valiants tried to respond and Tom Pope was off target with a header on the stretch from Morsy's free-kick on the right.
But there was no sign of a way back before the break and the defenders, at least, looked set for a traditional half-time roasting.
Yates's cross at the start of the second half caused momentary panic in the Rovers' defence as Vale looked for a sign of encouragement, but the home side went close to a third three minutes after the break.
A long ball from the left drifted beyond Chilvers to land at the feet of Ellis Harrison, who cut inside before letting fly with a stinging effort that was pushed over his crossbar by Neal. And as the home fans demanded more, left-back Lee Brown launched a long-range missile that was straight into the keeper's midriff.
Taylor was keen to press down the Vale left, but he was getting little change out of Michael Smith, though the Valiants had a chance to halve the deficit after 54 minutes.
Yates produced another decent delivery from the right to give Pope an opportunity, but the striker was back-pedalling as he sent a header wide.
Duffy was booked for a crude pull as Harrison threatened to break clear and, while the visitors were seeing plenty of the ball, chances were proving few and far between.
As the biting cold temperature seemed to drop another couple of degrees, Adams was shaking things up with a double substitution, bringing on Lee Hughes and Calvin Andrew in place of Pope and Williamson. Hughes had an immediate chance to make an impact, but mistimed his jump and landed a tame header into the hands of under-worked keeper Steve Mildenhall.
Norburn tried his luck from 30 yards at the other end and very nearly prompted another goal after 66 minutes. The ball bounced wickedly in front of Neal and rebounded off the keeper into the path of Brunt, who had only to keep his shot down to claim a hat-trick.
But as Neal scrambled to recover, the striker lifted it over the bar instead.
The introduction of Ashley Vincent, at the expense of Duffy, prompted another switch in formation as Vale went back to 4-4-2 for the final 20 minutes.
But O'Toole had home fans hoping for a third goal once more with a shot from 25 yards that whistled past Neal's left-hand post.
Vale went close to a much-needed goal after 79 minutes, when another Yates cross was fired towards the bottom corner by Hughes. But Mildenhall leapt to his left to make a great save and Vincent was called offside as he tried in vain to follow up.
The winger, who looked to have fallen awkwardly, was eventually taken off on a stretcher, leaving the Valiants with 10 men for the final seven minutes.
Taylor's surging run at least had the visitors on the front foot, but his shot from the edge of the area was blocked.
A spell of pushing and shoving near the touchline provided an illustration of Vale's growing frustration, and Morsy forced Mildenhall into another save with a shot from distance, even though it was pretty routine.
There was no way back, even with the addition of seven extra minutes. Worrying times indeed.