From play-off places to the bottom eight in six maddening weeks. John Askey had it right when he described Port Vale’s situation as, ‘the wheels have fallen off’.
This 2-0 defeat at home to Barrow extended the Vale’s awful run to one win, two draws and seven defeats from the last ten league games – a sequence that began when they blew a 3-2 lead at home to Tranmere after 93 minutes to lose 4-3 on November 14.
What followed was been a case of missed opportunities, soft goals conceded and points squandered – but there were no ‘what ifs’ about this performance.
Vale, put simply, were dreadful. The defensive inadequacies which had undermined recent performances were still there, in abundance, but this time they were equally hopeless going forward.
A team that has scored 15 goals in the last six games were so devoid of ideas and desperate that Barrow looked home and dry as soon as they scored their second goal five minutes into the second half.
Askey said: “It knocks you back and we haven’t been able to respond. We just weren’t good enough, it is as simple as that. There are not many times I have stood here and said we haven’t been good enough but today was one of them.
“You can’t deny that (Barrow were better). There might be circumstances why but if you get a chance to get in the team you have to put on a better showing than we did today.”
Askey had made two changes to the side beaten 4-3 at Walsall as Danny Whitehead and Adam Crookes replaced Tom Conlon and Leon Legge. Conlon’s absence was enforced because he is having to isolate but Legge was dropped after Askey criticised both him and central defensive partner Nathan Smith for their performance at the Banks’s Stadium.
Dropping both centre halves might have been too much of a gamble but the manager may have been revising that opinion on 23 minutes when Smith’s poor clearance was returned to Scott Quigley who held off the centre half to drill the ball low past Scott Brown.
Quigley couldn’t get in the Vale side two years ago but was a handful all afternoon. He also had a hand in the second when he slipped the ball through for Luke James who crossed low for Patrick Brough to finish with a tap in.
Vale’s attacking threats for the rest of the game came almost exclusively from half-time substitute David Amoo but, despite his best efforts, Barrow couldn’t have imagined they would have earned a clean sheet away from home so comfortably.
The visitors kicked off third from bottom but stand in manager Rob Kelly finishes with back-to-back wins as he hands over to new boss Michael Jolley.
Vale’s managerial situation is more complicated. Do the owners consider Askey’s achievements in stabilising a relegation threatened side in 2018/19, and then taking them to eighth last season, outweigh the problems this year and decide he is still the best man for the long term?
Or, do they make a change now, getting a new manager in place before the end of the January transfer window?
Vale, in 17th, are seven points off the play-off places and eight off the bottom two but there’s no question about which end the table this performance belonged.
Asked about the possibility of a relegation battle, the manager added: “The most important thing is the football club. It’s not myself or players or anybody else, it is the football club. If we don’t get our act together pretty soon then that is what we will be in.”
However, he does believe there is enough in the squad to avoid that, saying: “Yes, we have shown that previously. We probably have about five or six starting players not in the team. When they are available then we are more than capable, as we have seen in other games, of getting results.
“When the pressure is on they normally respond.”
Next up is a trip to a rejuvenated Bradford side on Tuesday. The Bantams won 1-0 at Tranmere on Saturday, their third victory in a row under caretaker manager Mark Trueman to move just a place below Vale.
Askey confirmed that Vale will go into that game still without David Worrall, who has an ankle injury, and Cristian Montano, who has a thigh problem.
But they will assess Manny Oyeleke who also missed this game having aggravated an ankle injury in the warm up at Walsall.
Oyeleke would certainly improve the midfield but the defence remains the greatest area of concern.
Shore that up and Vale would at least have something on which to build.
The team’s decline has been as rapid as it has been disappointing for Askey who had hoped his side would be competing in the top seven by this stage.
He said: “We were doing so well and the wheels have just fallen off. Up until today you couldn’t put your finger on why. We were playing well in games but we haven’t kept enough clean sheets, that is always the start.
“We need to get a clean sheet and if we can do that at least you know you are in the game.”