Port Vale: Tom Pope races to new club record against Bristol Rovers
SO THE dawn of a new era seemed to have a suitably inspirational effect.
With new owners Paul Wildes and Norman Smurthwaite urging them on from the directors' box, Micky Adams's Port Vale produced a performance to match the occasion.
• GALLERY: Match Action: Port Vale 4 Bristol Rovers 0
The business partners, who completed their £1.25m takeover before the match, were all smiles before kick-off and positively beaming afterwards as a hat-trick from Tom Pope and a strike from Ben Williamson saw off sloppy Bristol Rovers.
Pope becomes the fastest-ever Vale player to reach 20 goals for the season, beating legendary scorer Wilf Kirkham to the target.
He's also the first Stoke-on-Trent-born footballer to reach that figure since Mark Bright in 1988 – not bad for a player who netted just five times during the whole of the previous campaign.
The result, never truly in doubt after the first 22 minutes, saw Vale return to winning ways after a run of five league games without a win.
And it was timely too, as defeats for rivals Gillingham, Cheltenham and Fleetwood saw them gain ground in the push for promotion.
Adams had sprung something of a surprise with his team by handing a full debut to Kingsley James.
The 24-year-old, who had figured three times as a substitute this season, was given his first start alongside Ryan Burge in central midfield.
Striker Ben Williamson won the nod to start up front alongside Pope, and with Ashley Vincent returning from suspension on the left, it meant three changes from Saturday's 2-2 draw at home to York City, with Louis Dodds, Chris Shuker and Rob Taylor dropping to the bench. Vale were looking to get on the front foot early, but it was instead the visitors who looked the livelier side in the opening moments and Adam Yates, again playing at left-back, was forced to make a crunching tackle to snuff out one particular Rovers raid down the right.
In truth, there was little going on at either end until Williamson forced Bristol goalkeeper Neil Etheridge into action after 12 minutes.
The striker galloped on to a cute Tom Pope pass on the left side of the area, but his drilled low shot was gathered comfortably enough.
James sensed glory soon after, but saw the ball balloon high and wide after letting rip from fully 25 yards.
Vale were at last starting to find their feet with Vincent probing down the left. And the home side soon converted that attacking momentum into something of real substance after 20 minutes.
There seemed little on when the ball dropped to Pope some 20 yards from goal, but the striker needs no second invitation these days and smashed a sweet first-time volley all along the floor and into the far corner of the net beyond Etheridge's despairing dive.
It was 2-0 less than two minutes later and that man Pope had done it again. Vincent crossed from the left and the front man, whose reputation clearly hadn't filtered down to the Bristol area, was incredibly allowed space inside the box to loop a lovely header into the far corner.
Vale's uncomfortable recent habit of letting two-goal leads slip immediately sprang to mind, but Williamson was doing his best to make it three after 27 minutes, turning his defender to send in a snap-shot that Etheridge could only parry before his defenders completed the clearance.
But it wasn't all one-way traffic and home defenders were let off the hook on the half-hour. Rovers striker Tom Eaves was somehow allowed to race beyond the Vale back four after a simple punt downfield by his goalkeeper, but dragged his shot from an angle badly wide.
Six minutes later, Williamson had shown him how to find the back of the net and Vale were out of sight.
Richard Duffy's cross from the right again found Pope in space and when his header across goal came back off the far post, Williamson was there to ram home the rebound.
It could have got even worse for slap-dash Rovers almost immediately as Pope drilled in a low shot that was deflected only just wide by Vincent.
Burge won a round of applause after busting a gut to chase back, win the ball and then spread it wide and, while visiting midfielder Matt Lund, on loan from Stoke, made sure keeper Chris Neal was awake with a shot before half-time which never truly threatened, the Valiants could reflect on a first half which couldn't really have gone much better.
Jennison Myrie-Williams, back to his lively best, marked the start of the second half with a run down the right and a cross only just deflected to safety.
And there was all sorts going on two minutes later, when fans were left scratching their heads wondering how it wasn't 4-0. Pope looked to have been felled inside the area, and as the referee waived away claims for a penalty, a cross from the left found Williamson unmarked.
His close-range header was headed against keeper Etheridge, rather than into the net, and John McCombe somehow scrambled the rebound around the post, rather than between them.
Vincent then had a shot from 20 yards saved as the leaky Rovers defence opened up once more.
The visitors mounted some sort of reply and McCombe pulled off a brilliant goal-saving clearance from under his own crossbar after 52 minutes.
Left-back Lee Brown then cut inside to fire a low shot into the arms of Neal, but normal service was resumed midway through the second half. Clayton McDonald launched a long free-kick from just beyond halfway and as Etheridge inexplicably raced out of his goal in a vain bid to intercept, the unmarked Pope simply nipped in front of him to head home his 20th of the season. Easy as pie.
Some of Vale's defending didn't match their forward play and Lund found himself all alone in the Vale box only to send his free header arrowing over the crossbar.
The game was up for Bristol, who had to struggle on with 10 men, having used all their substitutes, when Tom Parkes had to be stretchered off with five minutes to go.
The defender, who came off second best in a challenge with Vale sub Sean McAllister, left the ground with a suspected broken ankle to round off a miserable night for Rovers.