My first professional football match of the year turned out to be quite entertaining viewing for a neutral, as I spent an uncomfortably cold Sunday afternoon at Vale Park for this FA Cup 3rd Round tie between Port Vale and Plymouth Argyle. I had actually put at least some degree of forward planning into this having booked train tickets to Stoke earlier on in the week, and as research told me that there was a bus stop near the station that would go relatively close to the ground I booked a day pass for the bus too. However, upon arrival at the bus stop, I was less than impressed to discover that it was a half hour wait until the next bus and, as the website I’d taken the directions off also specified that it could take up to an hour to get out to Burslem on the bus anyway, I thought I might as well walk it. I’d barely made it half a mile into the three and a half mile trek when another bus went past, a whole lot earlier than it should have done. Oh well.
Around an hour later, I finally arrived at Vale Park after what was a surprisingly pleasant stroll through a not-surprisingly unpleasant city. I collected my pre-paid ticket from the office in the club shop smoothly enough, but that was just about the only part of the pre-match experience that went according to plan; I drew considerable ridicule from the obviously accustomed Port Vale fans as I attempted to enter the stadium not once but twice through the wrong gate. If they’d only do what we do at Chesterfield and print the gate numbers on the ticket then this would have all been avoided, but alas it was not to be. Anyway, I finally made it into the ground and headed up to the upper tier of the BetBright stand which was all unreserved seating. Given that it was now only five or so minutes before kick off the pickings were slim, so I popped myself down on a spare seat at the back next to an old man who, much to my delight, was incredibly vocal throughout the entire match.
The game started at quite a lively pace and both sides were clearly up for it, and it was the visitors who came closest to scoring early on as Tope Obadeyi hit the post and Chris Neal tipped the rebound shot from Lewis Blanchard out for a corner. The corner was poor and Vale launched a counter attack that resulted in Andres Gurrieri conceding a free kick just outside the Argyle box on the left. The free kick was delivered perfectly by Jennison Myrie-Williams onto the head of Gavin Tomlin who nodded past Jake Cole to put Vale 1-0 up and spur them on. The second goal, coming 21 minutes later, was pretty similar. Another cross from the left was this time met by the head of fan-favourite Tom Pope for 2-0. Half time came soon after, although not before Richard Duffy was taken off injured. A comfortable first half from the home side, then, and I was quite happy to see that Port Vale actually allow you to go out and smoke at half time – they’re only the second Football League ground I’ve been to where this is possible.
As the temperature dropped and dropped, I tried in vain to warm up with a coffee before the second half began. If you’ll pardon the cliche, this really was a game of two halves; whatever John Sheridan said to the Plymouth players at half time obviously worked and six minutes after the restart Argyle had one back – Lewis Alessandra ran with the ball down that oh-so-popular left hand side and Chris Neal made the poor decision to come charging out towards him. Alessandra played the ball across the penalty area for the unmarked Reuben Reid to calmly place it into the unguarded net. Game on, and I was beginning to sense that the Devon side had more to offer. Indeed, they pressed and pressed with Vale not getting a look-in – this, combined with the decidedly poor standard of refereeing invoked considerable anger from the home fans (BBC Sport state that Vale committed an astonishing 18 fouls), and when Plymouth grabbed their inevitable equaliser on 74 minutes the atmosphere in three quarters of the ground fell flat. Yet another break down the left was capped off by the youngster Ben Purrington dinking the ball over the once-again outrushing Neal into the far corner. The supporters surrounding me (particularly the aforementioned old man) were irate beyond belief at this point, whilst the impressive contingent of Plymouth fans who had made the long trip up north were dancing behind the goal. Argyle even had a chance to really rub salt in the wounds (very) late on, only for Gurrieri’s driven shot to come cannoning back out off the post. The final whistle went and Vale Park erupted in a chorus of boos, with the fans heading straight for the exits before the players even had a chance to thank them for their support.
I didn’t reckon I could make it back to Stoke station in 55 minutes, so instead I jogged (yes, jogged – that is not a typo or blatant lie you see before you) down to Longport station instead (thank you so much Google Maps) to take the train back across town before changing and heading back to Manchester. An enjoyable day out indeed, although I imagine the majority of the 5511 present weren’t feeling the same as they filed out into the light rain on a chilly Staffordshire evening.