Let’s get this out of the way now. We’re not mentioning the League Two play-off final is on Saturday May 16.
That would be absurd, over-confident, tempting fate, just asking for things to go wrong when the Vale need everything to go right. Seriously, put the diary away. Forget the whole thing.
That’s the precarious situation we’re in. With just nine games remaining of the regular season, every goal scored, conceded, mistake made or even fate tempted is projected to the final day and what bearing it will have on whether the Vale finish inside or outside the play-off line.
The last time Vale were this close was in 2003/04 when they missed out on goal difference, so don’t blame anyone who squirmed through that for analysing whether every incident great or small will make the difference by the last game of the regular season, away to Plymouth on April 25.
In short, this is not the time for big decisions to go against the Vale. I’m thinking, for example, of a referee awarding them a penalty, then going over to the linesman before changing his mind.
This goalless draw away to a Cheltenham side who were the form team of the division was perfectly acceptable, actually better than that because Vale were the stronger side, but their best chance of winning it came and went in the 42nd minute when referee Scott Duncan ruled Mitch Clark was fouled by Charlie Raglan, then decided he wasn’t.
Asked if he was perplexed by that, and a 61st-minute decision to deny Tom Conlon a penalty for a foul by Rohan Ince, John Askey captured his feelings with an alternative phrase, but let’s settle for brassed off.
Tom Pope then veered off message somewhat by saying he didn’t think either was a penalty but he was equally, let’s stick with perplexed, that the ref had changed his mind for the Clark incident. He also said the officials missed a stamp on Clark right on full time.
He said: “With the first one, he (Raglan) got the ball, but the thing I can’t understand is why he (the ref) let someone 50 yards away, further away than him, overrule him.
“Everybody makes mistakes, a linesman will give an offside that wasn’t. It’s a human error. But the referee has given a penalty and he has to stand by it. You don’t get overruled by somebody. You might as well go up the stand and ask one of the commentators if they thought it was a penalty.
“With the second one, I think the lad left a leg and he (Tom Conlon) was waiting for the contact but it didn’t come. Maybe, off-balance, he has gone down.
“But it was the whole game, even the stamp at the end on Mitch right at the final whistle. I could see it on the other side of the pitch. But the fourth official, the linesman and the ref have seen nothing, they are the ones they should be getting right, but they got quite a few wrong.”
That incident at full time resulted in some argy-bargy that quickly settled into handshakes at the end of a hard-fought, and occasionally fractious, game in which even assistant boss Dave Kevan was yellow carded for, presumably, offering his own critique of the officials from the touchline.
Having kicked off in the play-off places, Vale ended the 90 minutes outside them by a place but looking a stronger bet to make them by the season’s end.
Perplexed? Consider this: The Vale had just looked the better side away to a team that are fifth and had won their last five on the spin.
That’s eight games unbeaten and, although the last three have been draws, if the Vale can maintain this standard of performance then there’s no reason why they can’t finish in the top seven. That would be truly remarkable, after two seasons of relegation battles, but Askey and his players are making remarkable look reachable.
No doubt they’ll need a bit of luck, such as the ref going their way when Clark and Conlon went down in the area.
They also created four of the six best chances of the game, when Mark Cullen headed Dave Worrall’s cross against the bar on 10 minutes, the luckless striker’s header on 52 minutes from David Amoo’s cross was well saved by Owen Evans, and then Amoo flashed a shot inches wide on 64.
Cheltenham threatened on 15 minutes when Alfie May just failed to connect with Sean Long’s low cross, and when sub Jonte Smith could only deflect the ball wide from close range after a goalmouth scramble on 86, but the Vale almost won it on 88 when Pope’s diving header was just wide of the near post.
So, a couple of inches here or there and the Vale would have been celebrating three points.
But they can at least reflect on a promising performance on a day that began in an unpromising fashion when the team bus broke down and the players made their way to the game in their cars.
So, we look forward to the arrival of Crawley on Saturday hoping Vale can claim one of the five wins they probably need.
Can they do it? Can they make the play-offs? Pope scratched his beard and delivered his verdict.
“One hundred per cent. If we keep performing like that, there are no issues with that. I think we will.
“But the league is so tight. It is just about consistency, it is a nine game league now. Forget what’s gone before, there are seven teams fighting for the four spots and there is no reason why it can’t be us.”