In an action-packed meeting at Vale Park, Notts County were beaten 2-1 by Port Vale. Both Vale goals came from the penalty spot through Jennison Myrie Williams (24) and Gavin Tomlin (79), either side of Ronan Murray’s stunning finish ahead of the break.
Notts suffered a disappointing blow in the build up to kick-off as in-form right-back Kieron Freeman was recalled by his parent club, Derby County, but boss Shaun Derry was boosted by the return of Mustapha Dumbuya. The defender made his first appearance since October in place of Freeman, despite resuming full training on the Monday.
Two further changes were made from the side that faced Bristol City on the previous Saturday, as Callum Ball and Gary Liddle dropped out of the side after taking heavy knocks. Mark Fotheringham and Ronan Murray slotted into the side in midfield and up front respectively.
Murray nearly found a way in on goal in the opening exchanges, after a lengthy header forward by Alan Sheehan allowed him to escape the Vale backline. The striker’s pace almost enabled him to reach the ball but home goalkeeper Sam Johnson raced out of his box to hack clear.
Moments later, a quick Johnson throw onto the left wing gave Gavin Tomlin space to race forward at pace. The wideman picked out the run of Lee Hughes, whose cutback was prodded away from the former Magpies fans favourite by Dean Leacock before Bartosz Bialkowski pounced on the loose ball.
On 10, County should have moved in front when Callum McGregor’s whipped free-kick from deep evaded the home defence. Morgan Fox rose well at the back post but cleared the bar with a headed finish.
Jack Grealish was next to ask questions of the Vale backline with a tricky run from the left wing, which saw him glide past a number of defenders into the box. However, his resulting strike was well charged down.
Vale moved in front in the 24th minute following an unfortunate handball by Andre Boucaud. The referee pointed to the spot and Myrie Williams sent Bialkowski the wrong way with a penalty into the bottom-right corner.
Notts enjoyed a lot of the attacking play but were frustrated as several moves broke down in the final third. McGregor finally found an opening when he combined with Grealish but his stern hit from 12 yards deflected wide of the mark.
Vale came even closer to the next goal after Tomlin’s inventive backheel found Carl Dickinson in space. The left-back let loose with a powerful drive but found the wrong side of the right-hand post.
Notts’ equaliser arrived shortly before the interval, as Grealish surged forward to find McGregor on the edge of the box. The forward touched inside to Murray, who, from 20 yards, unleashed a stunning drive into the corner that not even a hand from Johnson could keep out.
Murray was involved a gain for the Magpies’ first attack of the second period and held up play for McGregor. The Scotland Under-21 international then found Campbell-Ryce, whose drive across goal was deflected inches wide of the far post.
Campbell-Ryce, who was a constant menace to the Vale defence, tried his luck again in the 56th minute. However, on this occasion, he stung the palms of the Vale stopper.
As Boucaud struck into the arms of Johnson, it was real end-to-end action and Bialkowski had to remain alert. The Pole had to react sharply to keep out Dickinson’s low attempt but he was required to produce an even better piece of work in the 70th minute.
Substitute Ben Williamson carved open the County defence with a superbly weighted pass inside the box. Tomlin only had Bialkowski to beat but the reliable number one stood up well to provide a vital block at the winger’s feet.
At the other end, in front of the 811 Magpies fans, Campbell-Ryce had a thumping hit bravely denied by the body of Richard Duffy. Enoch Showunmi, who had replaced Murray up top, then clipped the bar following an excellent cutback by McGregor.
On 76, Bialkowski had to be at his best again, as Tomlin targeted the bottom-right corner. The home fans were on their feet but the County stopper somehow gained a fingertip touch to guide the ball around the post.
Pope was presented with a golden opportunity shortly after, when Tomlin found him with a low centre. The striker took on the shot with his first touch but found the fans behind the goal.
Vale’s second goal arrived via the penalty spot, after Tomlin went to ground amongst a crowd of Notts players. The danger man dusted himself off to take the spot kick and fired just out of Bialkowski’s reach, into the bottom corner.
Chris Shuker fed Williamson into another excellent goal-scoring position late on but Bialkowski made another impressive stop with an outstretched boot. The game was wide open as County pushed more bodies forward, aided by an extra striker, Danny Haynes, who had been introduced at the expense of Campbell-Ryce.
Five minutes of added time set up a tense ending, during which Notts threatened through Hayne’s pacy cross, which was kept away from Showunmi by Chris Robertson’s last-ditch tackle. This proved to be the Magpies’ last chance and the Valiants claimed a hard-fought three points.
Another top showing by the Pole and Vale were only able to beat him from the penalty spot.