NATHAN CLARKE’S slick overhead kick sent Town into the third round of the FA Cup and 1,335 travelling fans home happy.
This was not the perfect performance by any means, but there were enough positives to make Lee Clark smile, and as the manager pointed out, in cup football, progression is the most important thing.
Town managed that thanks to Clarke’s 12th-minute goal and a deserved clean sheet against a Port Vale side who had plenty of possession, particularly in the second half, but to the annoyance of their fans in a 5,311 crowd, struggled to create chances.
Keeper Alex Smithies didn’t have a serious save to make, but underlined his ability by coolly dealing with a string of awkward crosses as Micky Adams’ team, who had a real dangerman in on-loan Bristol Rovers winger Lewis Haldane, pushed forward in vain.
In fact the home side’s best chance came two minutes before Town took the lead, with Kris Taylor crossing to Marc Richards, who had time and space but shot wide.
Eager to bounce back after last Tuesday’s disappointing 2-1 League I defeat at Swindon, Town began brightly, and Jordan Rhodes had a great chance to notch in only the second minute.
Peter Clarke ducked to allow Gary Roberts’ corner to reach the striker, but he sidefooted wide from 10 yards out, signalling the start of a frustrating afternoon for the 19-year-old.
Rhodes got into some good positions, but the top scorer, whose last goal came in the 6-1 first-round destruction of Dagenham and Redbridge, remains stuck on 13 after his 23rd-minute deflected shot was saved by Chris Martin, his 33rd-minute volley went over and his effort in first-half stoppage time was blocked by Lee Collins.
Collins was one of three centre-backs deployed by Vale – former Town man John McCombe and Luke Prosser were the others – but after Rhodes’ early miss, there were decent opportunities for both Roberts, whose shot was saved, and Lionel Ainsworth, who fired wide, before Clarke counted with his fourth of the campaign.
Robbie Williams flighted in a free-kick which Peter Clarke headed across the face of goal. Lee Novak nodded the ball into the path of Nathan Clarke, who with his back to the posts, hooked in a shot which deceived Martin and flew into the net off the underside of the bar.
Antony Kay crashed a shot too high from Roberts’ lay-off and Lee Peltier had Martin scrambling to parry a left-foot shot from the edge if the area as Town, playing some neat passing football, worked to increase their lead.
Martin was again in action to deal with Roberts’ 39th-minute shot from Novak’s lay-off, and a second goal at that stage would have gone a long way to killing the tie.
But Vale survived, just as they did early in the second half when Kay whistled a drive just over and Ainsworth, making only his second start of the season in place of the injured Anthony Pilkington, romped forward only for Collins to get in a key challenge.
Ainsworth was off target after Vale could only partially clear the resultant corner and the home side, who put out both Sheffield clubs in this season’s Carling Cup, then enjoyed their best spell of the match, with Collins’ goalbound header cleared by Williams and Haldane’s shot blocked by Kay.
Adams threw on veteran striker Geoff Horsfield at the expense of defender Prosser, but it was still Town who were creating the better chances, with Kay testing Martin with a low drive and shooting wide either side of a Novak attempt which was only just over.
While it was job done as far as Clark was concerned, opposite number Adams admitted: “We had the first real chance of the game but didn’t take it. I said beforehand that we had to take our chances because I knew we wouldn’t get that many.
“And I have to say I was disappointed with their goal. I thought it was poor defending and we didn’t show enough aggression in our box and it cost us.
“You can’t allow good sides to get a foothold in a game.
“I said to the boys at half-time that we needed to turn the game into a cup-tie, get more bodies forward and stop them from playing as best we could.
“We did that and I thought our second-half performance was good other than our deliveries in the final third, which were not up to the required standard.”