A 3-2 defeat away to the league leaders is far from Port Vale’s worst result of the season but Darrell Clarke was taking no comfort in a scoreline that was a good deal more respectable than the actual performance.
In fact, far from being pacified by his side’s two late goals, his post-match assessment can’t have been much different from the one he would have delivered even if Will Swan and Alex Hurst hadn’t struck on 83 and 85 minutes to raise hopes of an unlikely comeback.
Clarke swatted away suggestions he could take consolation from the late rally, saying: “I have to stick with the players, I have to support my players, but I’m not happy.
“There are no positives to take for me because it was men against boys at times. We gave them the first goal with an individual error and we have conceded two goals from second phases from set pieces. So, if you do that in football matches, you aren’t going to win, certainly against a team that is going to go up this year.”
Vale’s prospects are not so rosy. This defeat, Barrow’s win at home to Mansfield and Southend’s draw at Oldham, leaves Clarke’s side just five points clear of the relegation zone.
Three more wins and a couple of draws from their remaining 13 games might be enough, but Vale have only taken 15 points from their last 23 games so badly need something from their run of three consecutive home games, starting with Oldham tomorrow.
Even if the Vale were to hang on in their current position of 21st , that would still represent the lowest league finish in the club’s history so don’t expect Clarke to be celebrating.
His immediate priority is getting a result against Oldham, and cutting out the defensive errors that handed Cheltenham the game.
A side on a run of five wins in six games didn’t need any help, but got plenty on 14 minutes when Scott Brown came to the edge of his area but hesitated to come any further to meet a ball hooked on hopefully from the half-way line.
Alfie May pounced on the chance to run off Zak Mills, beat Brown to the ball and fire into the empty net.
It got worse four minutes later when Chris Hussey’s cross from the left was headed down at the back post by Matty Blair and half-volleyed home by May via the underside of the bar and Brown’s back.
Vale, in Clarke’s words, ‘huffed and puffed’ to try to get back into the game but didn’t look like doing so before Liam Sercombe made it 3-0 on 75 minutes with a miscued half volley that looped off the turf and into the top corner.
On-loan Nottingham Forest striker Swan pulled a goal back, firing home the rebound after his effort had been saved. The substitute didn’t celebrate his first Football League goal out of respect to his team’s predicament, but he did set up a dramatic end to the game when he got down the left and picked out Theo Robinson whose shot was saved before Hurst scored the rebound.
Luke Joyce went close with an effort from the edge of the area in stoppage time although a draw would have been more than Vale deserved – and even that might not have spared them the inquest with Clarke.
The manager said: “I will analyse it, I will be watching the full game and analyse it and see what went right and what went wrong. I don’t think the ‘rights’ will be too long to be honest with you.
“So yes, I am hurting. The fans will be hurting and I want to make sure the players are hurting. I have been a manager that has been in a relegation fight and been relegated. It was the worst day of my life.
“I want to make sure that these players make sure that they hurt very much, make sure they respond. Because actions….you can talk as much as you want in these situations. I don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t particularly like the players talking because fans get sick of it when we are at this point.
“We are in a relegation fight, we are in a dogfight and actions always speak louder than words.”
Clarke was relegated from the Football League with Bristol Rovers before taking them to back-to- back promotions.
But he wasn’t hired last month for his expertise in guiding a club out of the National League. A win on Tuesday would be welcome for a team now embroiled in a fourth relegation battle in five seasons.
He added: “I want to do it for this football club, for the owners and fans. I have met some fans and know how passionate they are about the club. But they need a team to be proud of and this team’s not doing it at the minute. This manager is not doing it.
“Because I am in charge of it. I am fully responsible for it now. Five games in has not been good enough by me so that is not me putting all the responsibility on them. I have got to do better and make sure everyone stands up to be counted.”