Match report: Cheltenham v Port Vale
FOOTBALL has a habit of creating unlikely heroes – and Port Vale had two of them.
Who would have thought the men to shine at Cheltenham would be Louis Dodds and Chris Shuker?
• GALLERY: Match Action: Cheltenham 1 Port Vale 1
Though Dodds played an integral part to the team's flying start to the season, he has drifted out of the picture since.
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And Shuker has barely figured at all after making way for a succession of rivals for his position in central midfield.
So it was something of a surprise that both played such pivotal parts in what could turn out to be a crucial result come the end of the season.
Dodds, back in his favoured role just behind striker Tom Pope, was Johnny on the spot to ram home Vale's equaliser only five minutes after the third-placed Robins had taken a deserved second-half lead.
Substitute Shuker was also in the right place at the right time with only seconds remaining.
Cheltenham, desperate for the win that would have seen them leapfrog the Valiants into second place, were piling on the pressure at the end, but the diminutive Scouser – back to help out his creaking rearguard – made a brilliant double block on the goal-line to preserve a precious point.
Micky Adams's men went into League Two's match of the day looking to put a run of three defeats behind them and only arguably deserved to do so in the end.
The visitors more than held their own in the first half, though Cheltenham turned up the heat after the break and their goal, after 62 minutes, had been coming.
Town showed just why they have one of the best home records in the division by creating, and failing to convert, a string of chances before eventually making the breakthrough.
Chris Zebroski's cross from the right was cleared by Liam Chilvers only as far as Darren Carter, whose first-time effort from 14 yards found the corner of the net.
It looked at that stage as though there would be no way back, but Vale are made of stern stuff these days and had levelled matters only five minutes later.
Rob Taylor, another of four changes to the team overturned by Chesterfield last week, produced a peach of a cross from the left and Pope's close-range header was beaten out by Robins keeper Scott Brown.
The ball dropped kindly for Dodds, who kept a cool head to slide home the rebound.
While that was it for the goal-scoring, there was still drama to come, and Shuker's late intervention took the biscuit. Darryl Duffy looked for all the world as though he was about to clinch the winner for Cheltenham, but with keeper Chris Neal beaten, the Vale sub stood firm on the line to sighs of relief from 331 fans at the opposite end of the ground.
He raced back to shovel Duffy's effort away in the nick of time and when Zebroski stabbed the rebound towards goal, Shuker was there again to make an even more impressive clearance.
"I'm not going to claim the credit for the substitution, but I was thankful for it," said Adams.
"It looked as though their striker had scuffed his shot, and he'll probably be disappointed he didn't finish it, but Chris was there."
Midfielder Sam Morsy and centre-half Chilvers were the other men brought in to help shore up a team which had been proving too leaky for Adams's liking.
And Vale started on the front foot, with Dodds flashing an early header across goal and only just wide.
Sido Jombati got the better of Taylor and delivered an inviting low cross that was only just scrambled to safety as Cheltenham tried to reply, but John McCombe went close for the visitors with a strong header following a ninth-minute corner which Brown did well to parry away.
Ashley Vincent had a strong shot well saved as Vale pressed again and, though Russell Penn beat Doug Loft to deliver a floated cross that was bizarrely headed back across goal by Zebroski, rather than towards the net, there was little else to suggest the home side could unlock a well-organised back four.
Cheltenham should, however, have taken the lead before the break. Jake Taylor's shot from the edge of the area fell to Zebroski, who completely fluffed his close-range volley when a decent connection would surely have given his team the advantage.
Mark Yates had clearly asked for more from his in-form side during half-time and they poured forward looking for the breakthrough.
Billy Jones, rampaging forward from left-back, was denied by a great block from Duffy after 48 minutes, then smashed a first-time shot from the rebound against the post.
Marlon Pack's effort soon after was cleared off the line by Loft and when Steve Elliott stabbed a loose ball towards goal, it was lucky that goalkeeper Neal was positioned well.
Shaun Harrad went just wide with a snap-shot from 20 yards and, from another raid down the right, after 58 minutes, Taylor sent in a thumping header which Neal turned away with a brilliant flying save. The tide had turned and it was no surprise when Cheltenham were finally rewarded for their efforts as former Birmingham and Preston man Carter claimed his fifth goal of the season.
But they weren't ahead for long and Dodds had soon grabbed his own high five for the campaign to give expectant home fans an unexpected jolt.
It was his first goal since September and a welcome one at that.
The Robins were suddenly not the same potent attacking force and it was 10 minutes from the end before they mounted another serious threat when a great cross into the six-yard box produced a fantastic clearing header from Pope who was under all sorts of pressure.
Pack was only just too high with a speculative effort from the halfway line and, though Ryan Burge squandered the chance to win it by driving an 87th-minute chance straight at Brown, it was Cheltenham who were pressing in injury-time.
But Shuker, having been on the field for only a matter of minutes, stepped in to save the day. Twice.