A cup of kindness: Port Vale (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Pat Bell

12 November 2011

Port Vale 0 Grimsby Town 0

Years ago, I had this explanation. The third round of the FA Cup is like a huge new year's party, and you just have to be there. Town fans can't leave those hostages to fortune any more. If you want to party, you have to take your chances when they come. Some posed for photos with the Port Vale mascot. The subs shared the joke with the support as they took a succession of wildly inaccurate shots at the Town goal. It was a day when we had nothing to lose, and it turned out we were determined not to lose it.

It began well. Better there was no cause, but as there so often is, it sometimes feels like every match should start with a minute's silence, the only sound the slamming of a door and, on the road behind the home end, the burr of a motor bike, until the whistle and the roar and the start of what is licence for emotion, but still only a game. A few ventured to put their bums on seats, but this was a day for standing. This was the good old days.

First half
It almost began very well. From Port Vale's kick-off, Townsend and Coulson and Disley worked a triangle down our left which left Disley striding parallel to the goal-line into the penalty area. His low cross was half cut out but evaded the squat figure of Tomlinson in the Port Vale goal. The half cut-out cross half reached Panther, sliding in and scything at the ball. It inched towards goal, but a Port Vale defender was on hand to fully, wholeheartedly clear.

A very early pattern was set. Town's 4-3-3 invited Port Vale to pass the ball around in front of seven, eight, or nine Town players. Nothing much looked like coming of it. A cross that scraped across a Port Vale forehead. A I'anson clearance that looped behind him and only just above the goal. Runs into blind alleys. The Mariners worked the ball wide, wing forward passed back to full-back, full-back kicked up the line, and surprisingly often Coulson, especially, was in space, in possession. Hearn too, but on the left, never looking as though he was going to enjoy himself, his best moment checking in to force the corner that he knew was the best he could hope for.

The best chance had come in the very first minute, but Town had set out their stall and matched Port Vale, player for player, and more than half-chance for half-chance. Panther? Just like his name, a prowling figure, covering the ground with dangerous economy. He was good and he'll get better. Today, we weren't quite on his wavelength, or he wasn't on ours. Give him time and we'll meet in the middle.

The heroes of the first half were Disley, always in Port Vale faces and rarely a wasted pass; the full-backs, Wood and Townsend, their simple balls down the line simply effective; and Coulson, probably the most skilful player on the pitch, a buzzing nuisance.

The first half was Port Vale's regular formation against our guerrilla unit. Surprising how often it's the guerrilla tactics that win.

Second half
The Port Vale players may have had a bit of a talking-to at half time. There was probably a subtle tactical shift, but my guess is their wingers were instructed to press up more on the Mariners' full-backs, so Wood, especially, struggled for time and space, and the whole team were told to up the tempo.

Early on, Hearn chested down a cross but did not make a clean connection with his shot, Tomlinson able to flop down on the ball. Towards the end, Town managed a three-minute period of pressure, Elding almost getting on the end of something. But if we had shaded he first half, Port Vale dominated the second.

How did they not win? Let us count the ways.

There are 50 ways to miss the goal, from headers that go wide or high, chips that drift high and shots that are dragged or sliced high and wide and ugly. Port Vale found most of the variants, with Pope's finishing in particular, far from (wait for it, wait for it)... infallible.

So we had the number 5 who slid in and shot over direct from a corner, two yards out (we kept a clean sheet, but that doesn't mean we've learnt to defend set pieces). We had the patiently worked chance and a shot hooked against the outer edge of the goal support. We had the ball lobbed again and again over, not quite into the Grimsby penalty area, tipped away by McKeown but not cleared, a Port Vale player failing to find a path from foot to goal amid a crowded area.

Because, as well as ways of missing, there are ways of hitting only the goalkeeper or a defender, so it was not just luck that our goal stayed intact. At all times, there was the willingness of Kempson and I'Anson, Disley, Wood and Townsend to throw themselves with calculated abandon into the path, more often the potential path, of any shot Port Vale might consider.

This was more than backs-to-the-wall, seat-of-the-pants determination. A huge amount of time played in and around the Grimsby penalty area and not so much as a stifled appeal for a penalty. No-one slid in. No-one committed to a tackle when the option of shepherding player and ball from goal offered a lower risk. Last-ditch it may have been; determined, by all means; but desperate? Never quite. Port Vale failed to score because we made it hard. It was a defensive effort backed by an ever more ardent wall of noise, the volume of the Town support rising as the need became greater.

And at a certain point, ruefulness. Two Vale players exchanged sympathetic smiles after one had his shot from the penalty spot kicked away by McKeown and the other shot wide from wide of the goal after two, three Town players had made sure the chance from the rebound was no quick and easy thing.

And arrogance. A neat triangle had a Vale player with a clear shot on goal from the edge of the area. It demanded simply to be lashed, but the player tried something elaborate with the outside of his boot. It would have looked fine in his agent's DVD compilation, but for the fact it allowed McKeown to get down low and tip round the foot of the post.

Arrogance gave way to frustration. At the end, with Town hanging on, Wood was fouled, just inside the area. A Port Vale player officiously picked up the ball from where it had landed, a yard outside the area, and replaced it two yards closer to the Grimsby goal. It made no difference to our likelihood of scoring, but it certainly gave us cause to delay the restart and we knew then that Vale would not score. It was pretty much the last action.

We even finished on the attack. No-one moved, though. We waited as the players exchanged embraces and then turned to us, arms raised to return and share the applause. It was a day when both the Grimsby team and the Grimsby support demanded nothing less.