Port Vale 1 Southend 2: Valiants lose their way with another home defeat
THE natives are getting restless and, after this performance, it's easy to understand their concern.
Desperate to get back on track with their first win in four games, Vale instead produced perhaps their worst display of the season.
A demoralising, and deserved, defeat left Micky Adams' men glancing nervously over their shoulders at the chasing pack.
And it extended a run which has fans fearing all of the Valiants' good work earlier in the campaign could be thrown away right at the end.
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There's no need to panic just yet. Vale remain in second place, three points above the play-off places and with a far superior goal difference with only nine games to go.
There's more than enough quality in this squad to pull them out of such an untimely run of poor form.
But there's no doubt the team has somehow lost its way at a crucial stage.
It's time for strong minds, big hearts… and crossed fingers.
Familiar problems have resurfaced on home turf – this was their third defeat in four games at headquarters – and there lies the biggest issue.
For it's at Vale Park where the club's destiny will be decided.
With promotion rivals Cheltenham, Burton and Northampton among the teams to visit Burslem in the coming weeks, boss Adams must quickly come up with a solution to make sure his side don't fall at the final hurdle.
The manager, who twinned Anthony Griffith and Sam Morsy in central midfield, with Chris Shuker on the left against Southend, shouldered some of the blame for a defeat in which his team simply never got going for the first hour.
"Our supporters will tell me I got the selection wrong and they're spot on," he said.
"I will have to take that.
"I was disappointed with the performance again and I keep saying the same things. I feel like a stuck record."
Out-of-sorts Vale failed to muster a shot during a woeful first half as Southend took a two-goal lead into the break.
And even though the home side woke up for the final half-hour, Lee Hughes's goal was a mere consolation.
"We never gave ourselves a chance," added Adams.
"We were two-down within half-an-hour and never recovered. We're not getting any sort of momentum in the wide areas and we're causing ourselves problems."
Southend, struggling with injuries and sporting their own poor record of just one win in seven, made the brighter start.
And when Liam Chilvers let a high punt forward roll off his boot into the path of Britt Assombalonga, it required Darren Purse to avert the danger.
As Vale struggled to create anything of note going forward, the visitors were on the attack again after 19 minutes – and made it pay.
Assombalonga waltzed into the penalty area on the right and put in an inviting low cross towards Matt Lund.
Purse slid in and looked at first glance to have taken the ball, but referee Darren Sheldrake pointed to the spot and Sean Clohessy fired his penalty into the top corner.
Assombalonga found himself unmarked soon after, only to send a header over, but he made amends when he doubled the visitors' lead after 31 minutes.
A great turn on the edge of the area left Purse floundering and the livewire front man pulled the trigger to send his shot past keeper Chris Neal via a deflection off Griffith.
Adams felt it was another goal which could have been easily avoided.
"We could have easily stuck the ball into the stand and recovered during the build-up," he said, "but for some reason we wanted to play.
"Maybe that's because we're at home and we might get a negative reaction from our fans. But you have to live with that."
Two down and already staring down the barrel, Vale fans would have been expecting their team to respond.
But there was nothing.
Rob Taylor, having come into the side to replace knee injury victim Dan Jones at left-back, seemed to pose Vale's biggest attacking threat with several exciting runs forward.
But they came to nothing and it could easily have been worse right on half-time as Ryan Leonard smashed a first-time screamer from 20 yards against the underside of the crossbar with Neal beaten.
Purse and the ineffective Jennison Myrie-Williams were replaced by John McCombe and Chris Birchall for the second half and it was the latter who breathed life into his team.
Pope's cross from the right just after the hour gave Birchall the chance to get in a shot which was tipped over the bar at full stretch by Southend keeper Paul Smith.
And with their tails up at last, Vale were soon halving the deficit as Shuker, now floating from right to left, delivered a cross for Hughes to glance home from eight yards.
The crowd sensed more urgency as the Valiants pushed forward in the final 10 minutes and Birchall sent in a cross that Hughes volleyed just wide.
Hughes was close again on 83 minutes, getting on to the end of a free-kick, only to see his volley stopped by Smith.
Morsy went down when the ball was returned into the area, but Sheldrake, poor for most of the afternoon, looked right to ignore appeals for a penalty.
And the young midfielder, still driving forward at the end, went close to an equaliser in the fourth minute of injury time when he shot just too high from 18 yards.
Southend could have added a third at the end when substitute Neil Harris broke clear, only to drag his shot wide.
While that would have been harsh, no-one could argue about the result in the end.
Disappointing and, yes, something of a concern, but no-one is ready to raise the white flag.
Victory at Bristol Rovers tomorrow night would, after all, go a long way to restoring the feel-good factor.