Port Vale: It's cup heartbreak for Micky's brave Valiants
FOOTBALL can be such a cruel game at times. Just ask Micky Adams.
The man whose heart was broken he was sacked by hometown club Sheffield United must have been relishing the chance to show how well his latest relationship is going.
And just when you thought he was about to get his own back, he was kicked where it hurts instead.
Tom Pope's 21st goal of a stellar season looked as if it would be enough to put the Valiants into the hat for the draw for the third round of the FA Cup as United struggled to break down a resolute rearguard.
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Danny Wilson's League One outfit, unbeaten at home all season, just couldn't find a way past brilliant goalkeeper Chris Neal, and looked to have run out of both time and ideas as the game went entered the final minute or regulation time.
But it's never over until it's over, and former Crewe striker Shaun Miller suddenly made amends for squandering several earlier opportunities by finding his shooting boots at just the wrong time.
If his late, late leveller wasn't bad enough, his winner deep into stoppage time was a real for Vale.
Adams must have gone home to kick the cat.
"I was so proud of my players," he said afterwards. "To a man they battled hard.
"We've come to a team in the top four of the division above us and gone toe-to-toe with them.
"We played particularly well in the first half, and while Chris Neal had to make a couple of saves, their keeper made a great save as well."
You had to feel sorry for Neal. The former Shrewsbury stopper pulled off a string of great saves as United woke from their first-half slumber to pile forward after the break.
He didn't deserve the late, late blows which rendered his earlier efforts meaningless.
And it must have been particularly difficult to take for almost a third of the crowd.
Nearly 3,300 Vale fans had made the trip north and, having out-sung the surprisingly small Blades contingent all afternoon, it was such a shame they had the prospect of an upset snatched from them right at the death.
Rows of empty seats in every other area of Bramall Lane showed this second-round tie had failed to capture the imagination of the home supporters and, during the first half at least, it seemed to have done little for their team either.
Although Clayton McDonald, having declared himself fit following a thigh injury, slid in to divert a low cross towards his own goal early on, the Valiants were hardly under the cosh early on.
McDonald did well to deny lively United striker Nick Blackman with an important block on 14 minutes, and Adam Yates produced a great tackle as Chris Porter surged forward down the right, but the visitors were otherwise rarely troubled. Instead, they were soon causing problems of their own.
Pope's clever reverse pass freed Ben Williamson down the right of the penalty area just after the half-hour, but his low shot was kept out by keeper George Long.
But if that was a warning for the home side, it was one they failed to heed as Vale took the lead a minute later.
Harry Maguire's terrible attempt to find his goalkeeper with a backpass was intercepted by Williamson.
And although Williamson ran out of room on the edge of the Blades' penalty area, the ball ran free to Pope who found the bottom corner of the net with an accomplished finish.
His celebration on the sidelines with boss Adams showed just how much the goal meant to him.
David McAllister's long-range reply, brilliantly pushed away by the diving Neal, wouldn't have counted anyway thanks to an offside flag, and Vale went into half-time with seemingly little to worry them.
United were always going to pick up the tempo after the break, and so it proved.
Blackman's shot soon after the turn-around was blocked by a desperate lunge from Ryan Burge, and then Michael Doyle escaped down the left to deliver a pin-point cross.
Alsager-born Miller somehow found space in the six-yard box, but his close-range header was superbly clawed out by Neal.
The Valiants were under growing pressure as the Blades pushed forward at every opportunity.
But their fans were begniing to believe it could be their day after Miller fired just wide and Blackman was denied by another flying block by Kingsley James.
Blackman burst through again after 69 minutes, but he was thwarted once more by the advancing Neal. And with John McCombe and Richard Duffy willing to put their bodies on the line, the Blades looked rattled – even falling out among themselves after one misplaced corner.
Blackman's run and cross provided Miller with a golden chance to level matters with nine minutes to go, but the striker got his close-range header all wrong and the ball bounced down and over, rather than in.
But just when you thought Vale were through, the game took a dramatic twist.
Referee Kevin Wright awarded the home side a last-minute corner on the right when he should instead have pointed for a goal kick.
The ball was cleared only as far as Ryan Flynn and his hopeful ball forward caught the visiting defence flat-footed, allowing Miller to nip in behind McDonald and glance his header beyond Neal's dive and into the far corner of the Vale net.
There was still time for another sting in the tail.
Flynn's shot from the edge of the area four minutes into injury time was brilliantly kept out by Neal, but substitute Richard Cresswell challenged for the rebound and the ball fell kindly for Miller to fire home.
It was difficult to take, but Adams is right. Promotion remains the top priority for Vale.
The result was a bonus for United boss Wilson after staring down the barrel of a cup upset for most of the afternoon.
"It was certainly the late show in terms of goals, and it was quite a relief to get a couple," he said.
"We put Vale under extreme pressure in the second half, but were faced with a goalkeeper in inspired form and also some glaring misses.
"However, we finally got that all-important equaliser, and then we went for the throat and it paid off.
"But it was a terrific effort from Vale. We knew it was going to be a tough game as Micky Adams's team are very well organised.
"Their play was no surprise to us, although we did give them the perfect tonic of a goal.
"It was a good finish, but it was a gift from our point of view."