By Gerry Prewett
This weekend Bristol Rovers head up the M5/M6 to face a Port Vale team whose fortunes have fallen away as those of the Gas have risen.
When the teams met back at the end of September, Vale were in 5th place, with 14 points from their 8 games (58%) and Rovers were languishing in 21st place with 7 points from 7 games (33%).
Now Rovers have risen to 10th spot with an additional 38 points from 25 more games (50%), whilst the Midlanders are now in 20th place with 19 more points from an additional 22 (29%) games. Vale’s descent saw them part with Manager Bruno Ribeiro, who resigned after a 1-0 home loss to Walsall on Boxing Day.
Ribeiro was replaced by Michael Brown as Caretaker. Brown’s record has not improved Vale’s prospects with 1 win, 3 draws and 4 defeats in his 8 games in charge.
In their latest game, Vale travelled down to South London on Valentine’s Day, where there was no love lost as they went down 2-0 to highflying Millwall. After seeming to weather early pressure Vale went behind as the first goal arrived on 26 minutes. Calum Butcher touched the ball inside for Fred Onyedimna.
Onyedimna was thwarted on the edge of the area but the clearance found Aiden O'Brien onside and through on goal. He made the most of the opportunity, hammering a low ball low past Leo Fasan from around eight yards.
As the second half got underway Vale conceded a penalty just six minutes into the second half when Kjell Knops brought down O'Brien in the area. Steve Morison's penalty forced a fine save from Fasan low to his right. But the ball was scrambled behind for a corner from which Jak Cooper headed in to clinch the game.
Speaking after the game Brown said he believed his team are due a change of luck after losing Remie Streete and Anthony De Freitas to injury Streete was forced off in the first half with a suspected fractured leg before De Freitas limped off after the break with a groin strain.
Talking about the injuries and Streete first, Brown commented, "It is a potential fracture. You lose him in the first half and you lose Anthony De Freitas with a groin. This is what we are left. We haven't got the biggest of squads, i.e. men and people that have played games and seasoned pros.”
"We have some young boys who are having to play Saturday, Tuesday, especially with their first taste of the game only a month ago. It is going to be tough."
Reflecting on Millwall, Brown commented, "They are a strong team and have had a long time working out there, their squad and the physicality. It is a tough place to come. I thought the boys started quite well. I thought we were quite comfortable and it was maybe a clearance that you would expect Nathan Smith to put down the other side of the pitch, but unfortunately it hit the guy on the hand – although obviously it wasn't handball – and it fell right into his path. That was 1-0, but it was a first half that I thought we did OK in."
"Results are not going our way. It was a fantastic save by Leo, another penalty. It was outside the box but this creates the pressure and you look at things and are thinking 'is it our day? So you know you are up against it and it is going to be tough. But the penalty is given against you when it is outside the box. It is very hard to take because the pressure starts to build then."
Rovers and Port Vale first met on 7 January 1939 on a pre-War Division 3 (South) game and the Midlanders ran out 1-0 winners, with Tom Nolan scoring for Vale. The return fixture saw a 2-1 home victory with Nolan again scoring along with Len Smart and Frank Curran scoring for Rovers.
Rovers’ first victory in these fixtures didn’t come until the sixth game on 20 December 1947 in a Division 3 (South) fixture, with Fred Leoman and Bill McGarry (Own Goal) scoring for Rovers and Alan Martin scoring for Vale.
Rovers’ home record against Vale is a strong one with 19 victories, 9 draws and just 6 defeats.
Although the clubs have met a total of 63 times they are rarely high scoring affairs, with Rovers averaging 1.23 goals per game and Vale 1.25 per game. The highest scoring game between the teams took place on 28 December 1963 when the teams shared a 4-4 draw at a muddy Eastville. Ian Hamilton (2), Alfie Biggs and Johnny Brown scored for Rovers and Tony Richards (2) and Jackie Mudie (2) notching for Vale.
Rovers followed that up just over a year later on 16 January 1965 with a 4-0 win. Bobby Jones (2), David Hudd and Joe Haverty scored Rovers goals.
Perhaps the most important game between the two teams was the second leg of the Third Division Play-Off Final at Vale Park on 3 June 1989. The first half was goalless, it meant that Rovers needed to score as the first leg had finished 1-1 and they risked losing on away goals. The second half saw the "MBE" combination pay off, resulting in a Robbie Earle headed goal in the fifty-second minute. The "MBE" move was a Mills corner, flicked on by Beckford and knocked into the net by Earle. It was to prove the only goal of the game.
The game earlier this season saw Rovers come out on top even though Vale had taken a 23rd-minute lead when a mix-up in the centre of the home team defence allowed Martin Paterson space inside the box to drill a left-foot shot past Kelle Roos from 12 yards.
Rovers had created the better openings to that point and equalised a minute before the break. Lee Brown delivered a deep cross from the left to the far post where Ellis Harrison rose to send a powerful header back across goal and into the roof of the net.
On 63 minutes Rovers were awarded a penalty when Paulo Tavares fouled substitute Byron Moore. Jermaine Easter drilled a low spot-kick to the left of goalkeeper Jak Alnwick
The injury crises at Vale Park has been exemplified by Sam Foley who has been playing when not fully fit. Foley only returned to action three games ago following ankle surgery, which kept him on the sidelines for three months.
Caretaker Brown noted, "It is just medically, he has been out for 12 weeks. He covered an enormous amount when he played on Saturday and we knew he was at risk for a muscle injury with being tight. We had to really look after him but he has gone through it and managed to stay on the pitch. We are looking at it and just hoping he can create something for us. But as I say he has come through it OK."
Vale are forced into a change in midfield for this game as Anthony De Freitas is out for four to six weeks after suffering a groin injury at Millwall. Brown could bring in Olamide Shodipo or Chris Eagles, although Brown also named himself on the bench at Millwall.
Brown has recently said of his injured players, "Pereira hasn't trained great for a long time now, he has not been near it, and that is where we are. But Seb is working away. He is still a young boy who wants to learn his trade in English football, I think he has played a couple of games but he didn't make this squad."
Fasan has certainly made an impression on captain Ben Purkiss. Speaking after the Millwall game, he said: "He has saved a couple of penalties in training as well, and is obviously excellent at saving them.
Vale are likely to be without Remie Streete for some time after his suspected broken leg at Millwall. Midfielder Anthony de Freitas could also be out after suffering a groin injury while it is still unclear when Jerome Thomas (calf) will return after an apparent disagreement with caretaker manager Michael Brown.
Brown, 40, was forced to name himself on the bench on Tuesday after on-loan QPR midfielder Axel Prohouly suffered a knock.