Any centre-back whose first and best intention is not to get his head on a cross into his own penalty area is hardly worth his contract, and that is why no one at Torquay United will waste a second blaming Brian Saah for the own goal which enabled Port Vale to stop the Gulls making an even more impressive start to the npower League Two season than they already have.
Martin Ling’s men – well, there were also quite a few ‘boys’ in their side at Vale Park – were under the proverbial cosh, but still stoutly defended Ian Morris’ 39th minute opener when Vale’s left-winger Ashley Vincent swung over a fairly innocuous cross in the 69th minute on Saturday.
As it was, no Vale forward looked like getting on the end of Vincent’s delivery, but Saah was hardly to know that as he went to clear.
Unfortunately, he was always stretching to get there and he only succeeded in glancing the ball past his goalkeeper Michael Poke and into the net.
They say that when troubles come they come in big battalions, and less than four minutes later Saah went to clear another cross, this time from Vale’s right. It was on his weaker left foot, and this time the ball sliced off Saah’s boot, hit the far post and, to his huge relief, rebounded to safety.
For a player who has been an absolute rock in United’s defence for most of the past year, it would have been the cruellest misfortune if that miscue had also ended up in the back of the net.
Saah was virtually head and foot perfect for the rest of a match in which he and his defence, including 18-year-old debutant Kirtys McKenzie, were under pressure for long periods.
Vale hit the woodwork three times, forced Poke to a couple of outstanding saves and saw Kevin Nicholson head the ball off his own line in stoppage time, so Ling was quick to acknowledge afterwards that Micky Adams’ side deserved their point.
But the fact is that United soaked up the pressure so well and allowed Vale so few clear-cut chances that you could not help wondering if they might not have held on for all three points without Saah’s mis-header.
This match was all about the build-up for United, which saw them without six players through injury or suspension even before their most experienced midfielder, Craig Easton, had to drop out.
Easton failed a fitness test in the morning on a groin strain picked up near the end of training last Thursday. Ling already knew that he would have to start both his first-year professionals, Niall Thompson on the right wing and McKenzie in central defence, but Easton’s absence meant that the Torquay boss had to give a first League start to 20-year-old Nathan Craig.
The trickle-down effect also gave places on the bench to two scholars, Danny Sullivan and Jake Hutchings, a 16-year-old first-year trainee defender. A point in Burslem when you are at full-strength is nearly always a ‘result’. A point in Saturday’s circumstances was more than acceptable.
The bonuses were the performances of McKenzie and Craig. McKenzie could not have had a much more testing debut, because he was up against Vale’s powerful targetman Tom Pope for most of the afternoon. But he seldom took a backward step against Pope, his concentration never flagged, and his stamina held up remarkably well.
Ling had sufficient faith in former Everton youngster Craig to give him the important anchor man role in midfield, and a good job he did of it, wholehearted in the tackle and always prepared to get on the ball and pass it whenever he could.
With United’s back four in alert mood, they had little trouble weathering Vale’s early onslaught. Then, just after the half-hour mark, they had a series of escapes.
McKenzie, Poke and right-back Joe Oastler all came to the rescue, Vale defender John McCombe blazed over from close range and then, in the 38th minute, Poke produced a heart-stopping moment.
Worried about carrying a deflected high ball over his own line, he pushed it out to Vincent and then had to pull off a point-blank save to stop the surprised Vale winger accepting the chance.
But that incident only heralded United’s goal. Seconds later Rene Howe chased a long punt down the middle of the pitch, cleverly held the ball up and drew both central defenders McCombe and Clayton MacDonald to him. He rolled a pass into the path of the supporting Morris, and the Irishman beat home goalkeeper Chris Neal with a left-foot shot from ten yards.
Not surprisingly, Vale poured it on in the second half. Before Saah’s own goal, Poke came up with the save of the match, low to his left, to deny Vincent.
After the equaliser, Vale hit the woodwork twice more, from Saah’s miskick and and a Craig clearance which hit McCombe and looped onto the top of the bar.
Sam Morsy and Louis Dodds went close, and a goalbound shot by Pope was deflected just over by a never-say-die block from United skipper Lee Mansell.
Finally, Nicholson – he and Oastler gritted it out to the end against dangerous wingers Jennison Myrie-Williams and Vincent – was in the right place at the right time to head off his line from a stoppage-time effort by McCombe.
Port Vale (4-4-2): Neal; Duffy, McCombe, MacDonald, Loft; Myrie-Williams, Morsy, Shuker (Burge 87), Vincent (Taylor 82); Dodds (Williamson 87), Pope. Substitutes (not used): Johnson (gk), Owen, Lloyd.
Goal: Saah (og) 69.
Torquay United (4-3-3): Poke; Oastler, Saah, McKenzie, Nicholson; Mansell, Craig, Morris; Thompson (Leadbitter 67), Howe (Jarvis 78), Bodin (Cruise 90). Substitutes (not used): Rice (gk), Yeoman, Sullivan, Hutchings.
Goal: Morris 39.
Referee: S Bratt (West Midlands).