John Askey doesn’t particularly relish interviews and, even if he did, Saturday’s post-match post-mortem was always going to feel like an ordeal.
The manager fulfilled his duties and answered everything but, after five defeats on the bounce, he knows whatever he says in the media will sound insufficient until his team starts winning.
After repeating the ‘if we carry on working hard’ message, he’s accused of being uninspiring.
But Askey inspired Macclesfield to win the National League in 2017/18 with one of the lowest budgets in that division.
He inspired Vale out of relegation trouble when he took over in February 2019, then inspired them to an eighth-placed finish last season, well above most expectations, on an eight-game unbeaten run and seemingly destined for the play-offs before the season was cut short.
So, whether or not he can get the Vale out of this tailspin, whether or not he is given the time to try, we are not dealing with a manager who is out of his depth, who just isn’t up to it.
There’s no escaping the facts. This defeat made it five on the spin in the league – six on the spin against senior opposition if we count the FA Cup defeat to King’s Lynn and discount an EFL Trophy win over Liverpool under-21s.
From being hard-to-beat, his side are now losing when they are playing badly and, as in the second half here, are also contriving to lose when they are playing well.
They’re not getting many breaks along the way but if you concede three sloppy goals then it’s asking a lot to get a result regardless of referees’ decisions or unlucky ricochets in the six yard box.
In the last month, Vale have transformed from a side that had the best defensive record in the league but struggled to score, to a team that has to score because they can’t keep clean sheets.
Results had been more damning than the overall performances with the defeats to Tranmere, Scunthorpe and Newport.
But for the first time at Stevenage last Tuesday, the players seemed affected by those results, bereft of confidence with a performance which, for all bar the last ten minutes, was the worst of the season.
So, there was a sense of Askey’s reign unravelling, of an unstoppable losing momentum during the first half on Saturday when Leyton Orient reached the break 2-1 up and deservedly so.
Vale had got the start they wanted when Leon Legge headed home Dave Worrall’s corner at the back post on eight minutes, but that lead only lasted for three minutes when Louis Dennis crossed for Danny Johnson to place a header past Scott Brown for his 13th goal of the season.
It got worse, much worse, on 31 minutes when Vale conceded a goal made up of misunderstandings and plain bad luck.
Dennis’ shot would have been harmless had it not scuttled to Johnson in the area. His shot was blocked by Nathan Smith who leaped to his feet to clear but drilled the ball against David Fitzpatrick who had run back to help. That sent it looping over Scott Brown who had to try to make up ground and was facing his own goal when Leon Legge slid in to somehow stop the ball crossing the line – only for the rebound to drop straight to Conor Wilkinson who thumped it into the roof of the net.
The goal clip might make it on to You’ve Been Framed, sandwiched between grandpa falling over the Christmas tree, mince pie on the ceiling, and dad missing the paddling pool with his somersault off the trampoline.
No wonder Orient, looking for their third straight win, started knocking the ball about with composure while Vale looked disjointed and desperate.
It would have been hard to make a case for the manager if his side had produced another 45 minutes like that. Instead, they spent the second half pounding away at the Orient defence, moving the ball quickly, closing the opposition down and creating chances.
This didn’t look like an unmotivated team or one indifferent to the fate of the man in the technical area.
The goal they deserved arrived from an unlikely source on 76 minutes. Cristian Montano was Vale’s best player in the second half, but even so it was going some for him to cut inside look up from 25 yards and bend the ball into the far top corner with his weaker right foot.
But while Vale required an exceptional goal to get back into the game as a succession of loose balls in the penalty area failed to drop their way, Leyton Orient were able to land the telling last punch with a hopeful swing as Vale failed to keep their guard up.
An 86th-minute corner was only half cleared and returned to the far post where James Brophy squeezed it past Scott Brown. All Vale’s hard work was undone – again. Of these five successive league defeats, they have conceded the winner in the 86th minute or later three times.
Orient’s manager Ross Embleton said: “From our perspective it was a bit of a smash and grab, but to come away with three goals you are expected to get the three points.
“It was about us hanging on and coming away with a point.
“But this shows the spirit in the group, our appetite to defend and that we can be deadly at the other end.”
For Askey, it was about emphasising that his team’s fortunes will change if they keep showing the same commitment, that one good result will lift their confidence and start a winning run.
It’s difficult for him because he’s having to repeat the same message as the losing sequence goes on. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong but he badly needs a result to prove it.