The league table suggests Port Vale’s start to the season has been demanding, not that it will get any easier tomorrow.
They head to leaders Cambridge United, a side who won 5-0 at Scunthorpe on Saturday to hit the top.
But Vale, in eighth, are only three points off the leaders and their six league opponents so far – Crawley, Exeter, Harrogate, Morecambe, Carlisle and Salford – are all in the top half of the table.
Okay, we’ll see where all those sides are after 46 games rather than six but it would be a huge surprise if Salford aren’t up there. They kicked off this game as favourites for the title and unbeaten in the league and so, although Vale weren’t free-flowing, that’s at least something to do with the quality of the opposition.
So, John Askey was understandably pleased with his team’s performance, and not just the 1-0 win courtesy of Cristian Montano’s 86th-minute volley.
Salford had the lion’s share of possession but struggled to break down Vale with Luke Joyce restored to the side and back to patrolling in front of the back four and Nathan Smith back after isolation to partner Leon Legge in central defence.
Vale haven’t conceded a goal in the four league games Legge and Smith have been together, although let’s not ignore the contributions of full backs Mitch Clark and David Fitzpatrick in this one or the efforts of David Worrall and Montano who were playing wide in a front three of the 4-3-3, but earned their win bonuses with some tireless tracking back.
When even that wasn’t enough, Scott Brown dusted off his cape for a couple of his trademark contributions.
Vale were in trouble on 38 minutes when Legge brought down Ian Henderson but Brown read Henderson’s penalty correctly to save – then got to his feet in time to see the striker’s remarkable miss from the rebound as he leant back and lofted the ball into the back of the Bycars.
Henderson’s striker partner, Biddulph’s James Wilson, was far more accurate in front of goal with a powerful 75th minute header, but was denied by Brown flying to his right.
The fact this is standard stuff for the Vale’s number one shows what a great signing Neil Aspin made when he recruited him on a free from Wycombe in 2018.
So, Vale might not have won this one with an average keeper between the sticks, but although this was a battling rather than sparkling team performance, it wasn’t a case of John Askey’s Vale defence against Paul Scholes’ Salford attack.
Nathan Smith, Montano, twice, and Danny Whitehead, twice, all had openings before the winner arrived when sub Theo Robinson crossed to the back post where Worrall headed across the area for Montano to smash a 12-yard volley into the roof of the net.
Vale had to hang on for eight minutes of stoppages, mainly caused by a nasty injury to Salford’s Darron Gibson who was stretchered off after seeming to catch his ankle in the turf.
Subs Tom Elliott and Brandon Thomas-Asante both threatened as Vale held on for a win that lifts them four places in the table and lifts morale after back-to-back league defeats, to Morecambe and Carlisle.
Askey’s team have made a habit of responding strongly to poor results over his 20 months in charge. They have also tended to do well against the better sides in the division – losing just two games last season, at Exeter and Swindon, to teams who finished in the top ten.
Salford clearly have high expectations having sacked manager Graham Alexander last week even though they were unbeaten. But co-owner Scholes, who took temporary charge of the team for this game, didn’t underestimate the difficulty of getting a result at Vale Park.
He said: “We have created chances, of course we have. But with the quality that is in this team, especially in the forward line, you would expect that.
“Hopefully you would expect a couple of goals from that. But today wasn’t to be. You come to these places and they make it difficult for you. It’s not going to be easy and you are going to have to work for what you get.”
For Askey, the win was a reminder to his side that they can live with the best in the division. After the desperately disappointing performance in last week’s 1-0 defeat at home to Carlisle, it was also a return to the work rate that has been evident throughout their rise from relegation candidates to play-off hopefuls under this manager.
He’s always said we’ll have a better idea of his team’s prospects after ten games, a point we’ll reach by the end of this month after Cambridge (a), Oldham (a), Cheltenham (h) and Southend (a).
He said: “We are a team that need to play with a lot of energy. I thought they did that today. I thought they were really at it and showed a great team spirit.
“October is going to be an important month and hopefully we can keep putting in displays like this and be at the right end of the table.”