Plymouth Argyle opened the scoring in an npower League Two game for the first time this season – but that was not enough to save them from defeat on Saturday.
It all seemed so promising for the Pilgrims when Robbie Williams fired them into the lead in the 18th minute. Not only were they ahead, but they were passing the ball with fluency and purpose.
Further goals could have followed before half-time, most notably when Zimbabwe international Onismor Bhasera had a fierce shot saved by Chris Neal.
Port Vale were outplayed for long periods, but it was a different story after the break. The visitors were already getting on top when Argyle lost experienced defensive midfielder Paul Wotton to injury in the 56th minute.
That was when the home team’s troubles really began as Vale piled on the pressure, leading to three goals in a decisive 12-minute spell. After such a promising start, Argyle were left to reflect on their third defeat out of six league games this season.
During that second half, some of their defending was poor, to say the least. But, at the same time, it should be pointed out the Pilgrims’ rearguard did not get much protection from the rest of the team after Wotton went off.
Manager Carl Fletcher persisted with a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Warren Feeney as the lone striker. Those tactics worked for Argyle in the first half, with Bhasera on the left and Alex MacDonald on the right offering good support for Feeney. But, when Vale gained the ascendancy after the interval, Feeney became more and more isolated.
Eventually, striker Guy Madjo was sent on as a 75th minute substitute for midfielder Luke Young. Fletcher must have thought about starting with Madjo, either as a partner for Feeney in attack or as his replacement.
Soon after Madjo was sent on to the pitch, however, Vale took a 3-1 lead and, from that point on, the outcome of the match was inevitable.
Fletcher needs to find a way of getting more players in and around the opposition penalty area, especially at home. Argyle lack a clinical goalscorer – unless the injured Rhys Griffiths can step up to the plate once fully fit – so they need to create numerous chances to make up for that. That has been a problem for them for some while, and it continues to be the case.
The Pilgrims started very positively against Vale, with MacDonald to the fore. The Burnley loan signing was busy from the off, having a header easily saved by Neal before a low shot was blocked by his namesake, Vale defender Clayton MacDonald.
Plymouth gained reward for their enterprise when Williams shot them into the lead. The ball was worked across the pitch to the left-back, first by Young and then by Young’s central midfield partner, Conor Hourihane.
Williams was not closed down and he drilled the ball past Neal into the bottom left corner of the net from 30 yards. It was a confident finish by the left-back and it took his goal tally for this term to three from five games.
Neal made a good diving save to keep out a shot from distance by Bhasera in the 25th minute. Argyle goalkeeper Jake Cole then made a smart stop from Vale winger Jennison Myrie-Williams shortly afterwards, but, apart from that chance, the visitors’ struggled. They were suspect at defending balls into their area, especially Wotton’s corners and free-kicks.
From one of his corners in the 38th minute, captain and centre-back Darren Purse almost stabbed the ball into the net from close range.
Vale did have a couple of half-chances before the break which, in hindsight, was a pointer of what was to come.
Cole made an excellent reflex save from striker Tom Pope in the 47th minute, with midfielder Ashley Vincent making a complete mess of the follow-up attempt.
Vale started to exert some pressure, although another Wotton set piece almost led to Argyle taking a 2-0 lead.
Wotton fired a curling free-kick into the penalty area, which Purse and MacDonald narrowly failed to make any contact with. Had either of them done so, they would surely have scored.
As it was, Neal still needed to be alert to keep the bouncing ball, which was travelling at some pace, out of the net.
That was to be the last involvement in the action for Wotton, and it was not long before Vale equalised.
The side from Burslem did so in the 66th minute, when Myrie-Williams scored from the penalty spot after a clear foul on Vincent by Young.
The Argyle midfielder had already been booked, for a challenge on Clayton MacDonald before half-time. So the 19-year-old was fortunate not to be shown a second yellow card, followed by a red one, for sending Vincent tumbling over.
Alex MacDonald tried to restore Argyle’s lead but his angled drive was pushed away for a corner by Neal.
Vale then took a 2-1 lead in the 74th minute after Pope floated the ball over Williams and into the path of Myrie-Williams. He had time to consider his options before cutting the ball back to Vincent who, from 12 yards, shot low past Cole.
Argyle’s fate was sealed four minutes later when substitute Ben Williamson put Vale 3-1 up. Robert Taylor, who had also come off the bench, crossed from close to the left touchline. Williamson got to the ball before Argyle right-back Durrell Berry, and his shot went into the net off Cole.
Taylor should have added a fourth goal for the visitors in the 83rd minute, after he was set up by Myrie-Williams, but failed to hit the target from close range. That would have heaped even more misery on the shell-shocked Pilgrims.