PORT VALE 4 (Cullen 12, Hurst 20, McKirdy, 61, Rodney, 64)
LIVERPOOL U-21s 2 (Millar, 11, 34)
EFL Trophy group game.
Port Vale are through to the knockout stages of the EFL Trophy after beating Liverpool’s under-21s, 4-2 in a hugely entertaining game at Vale Park.
The Vale only needed a draw to go through, and must have wondered why that was still in doubt at half time having dominated the first half. Instead they went in at 2-2 as goals from Mark Cullen and Alex Hurst only left them level after a double from Liverpool’s 21-year-old Canada international forward Liam Millar.
But Harry McKirdy and substitute Devante Rodney netted after the break to ensure Vale go through as group winners to guarantee a home draw in the next round.
John Askey had made eight changes as Nathan Smith, Adam Crookes and Scott Burgess were the only survivors from the side beaten 1-0 at home to King’s Lynn in the FA Cup. That was always the plan rather than a reaction to the cup result, although there was a new face on the bench where 16-year-old youth-team striker Eden Bailey – the grandson of former Vale star Terry Bailey – was included.
The first half was full of chances, mainly for Vale who threatened in the opening stages when McKirdy crossed for Cullen to head back across for Theo Robinson. However, the ball wouldn’t fall for the striker who hooked it over.
Instead, the visitors took the lead on 11 minutes after Conor Bradley took on Cristian Montano. The Vale left back seemed to have won the ball, but Bradley was persistent, got free and cut the ball across to Millar who drove powerfully past Dino Visser from 15 yards.
Vale were level just a minute later as McKirdy got free down the left and drilled the ball to the near post where Cullen met it with a diving header past keeper Vitezslav Jaros.
McKirdy continued his lively start by breaking from half way and showing the pace to get free into the left of the area before his shot was pushed away well by the keeper.
But Vale took the lead on 20 minutes when right back Nathan Smith slid the ball down the right to pick out Cullen’s run. He looked up and cut the ball back for Alex Hurst who took a touch to control it and then another to wallop the ball into the roof of the net from 15 yards.
Manny Oyeleke played a lovely through ball to Cullen who tried to dink the ball over Jaros but the keeper did well to get something on the ball to deflect it just wide.
The same combination came even closer to forcing a goal as Oyeleke turned away from his man in midfield, surged forward and waited for Cullen’s run before sliding the ball through to the striker. Cullen steadied himself and hammered the shot past the keeper – but against the bar.
Vale’s third goal seemed only a matter of time but Liverpool gave a reminder of their threat as Millar pounced on a loose pass from Shaun Brisley and tried to beat the defender for pace on the left of the area. He almost did it but Brisley stretched to put the ball behind for a corner. That was swung in and met by Sepp van den Berg who headed well over at the near post.
Cullen was denied again by Jaros before Liverpool levelled, on 34 minutes, as the impressive Millar lined up a shot from 15 yards and watched the ball fly past Visser – taking a slight deflection on the way.
Vale went close to regaining the lead when Cullen got free in the left of the area but was denied once again by Jaros. The rebound fell to McKirdy who forced an even better reaction save from the keeper who wasn’t to know that McKirdy had been flagged offside.
Askey made a double change at the break as Tom Conlon and Luke Joyce replaced Burgess and Oyeleke in midfield.
But Liverpool came close to taking the lead, on 52 minutes, as Bradley’s cross from the right was met by Paul Glatzel who forced a fine save from Visser from close range.
Joyce’s ball over the top found Montano who did well to chest the ball down on the run but then fired well over under pressure from two defenders.
But the goal came, on 61 minutes, as Joyce chipped the ball through to pick out McKirdy’s run on the right. He took the ball in his stride, raced into the right of the area and walloped the ball into the roof of the net.
Devante Rodney replaced Robinson on 62 minutes – and scored just two minutes later as the visitors lost possession on the edge of the area. He had time to look up before aiming his low shot perfectly between the keeper and his right-hand post.
Fidel O’Rourke fired too close to Visser after he was played through in the area, but Vale had more to worry about as McKirdy pulled up after stretching to reach a crossfield pass.
But all three substitutes had been used so the forward carried on and started to move more comfortably.
Cullen pounced on a loose ball from a corner but was denied – again – by Jaros.
Conlon’s shot was blocked after the midfielder had surged into the area, and Rodney bent a 25 yard free kick just wide.
But that didn’t matter as Vale moved into the knockout stages.
Port Vale: Visser 6, Smith 6, Brisley 6, Crookes 6, Montano 6, McKirdy 7, Burgess 6 (Joyce, 45, 7), Oyeleke 7 (Conlon, 45, 6), Hurst 7, Cullen 7, Robinson 6 (Rodney, 62, 7).
Subs: Brown, Legge, Worrall, Bailey.
Liverpool: Jaros, Glatzel (Hardy, 61), Millar, Longstaff (Ritaccio, 69), Savage, Cain, Clarkson, O’Rourke, Van den Berg, Bradley, Koumetio, (Beck, 69).
Subs: Winterbottom, Hardy, Sharif, Bearne
Referee: Thomas Bramall.