If great football management was based on supreme self-confidence, eloquence and passion Piers Morgan, rather than Roy Hodgson, would be coaching England.
There won’t be many smarter, street-wise men working in English football than Graham Westley, but that intelligence is currently failing him in his current day job. This is a young Peterborough United team he’s running, one that needs conviction rather than confusion to get out of a most horrible slump.
It’s one point from the last 21 for Posh after yesterday’s (March 12) second-half capitulation and the lead over the bottom four could well be down to eight points on Tuesday (March 15). If the men who matter at the club believe that’s an unbridgeable gap they haven’t been paying close enough attention to recent matches.
The manager’s lust for team changes to his starting line-up didn’t affect the latest disappointing result, but his substitutions probably did. Posh were a goal up after 75 seconds and two goals ahead at the interval, but a reply from the visitors soon after the re-start appeared to suck the spirit, as well as the confidence, out of such an out-of-form side and it then became a case of waiting for the inevitable. The fact it arrived so late with two Port Vale goals in the final five minutes ensured audible boos rang out from home areas at the final whistle.
At no time did there appear to be an attempt to shore the side up to protect a lead some fine counter-attacking football had provided in the first half. A warrior like Gaby Zakuani was stuck on a bench that didn’t even include Harry Beautyman, someone who could well have been employed to protect the back four once the returning Chris Forrester’s legs had gone. Zakuani could well have plugged some of the alarming gaps that appeared in and around the Posh back four, but instead on trotted attacking midfielder Adil Nabi and a rookie in Jordan Nicholson with sadly inevitable consequences.
It’s rather lovely that Posh have this ‘attacking, entertaining’ ethos, but there are times in games when a more pragmatic approach is required. If the passing has gone awol and the ball isn’t sticking up top, try something else. Posh could have booked their post-season sun loungers with three points here, but instead they face a tense encounter next weekend (March 19) with Darren Ferguson’s Doncaster, the only team in the division with a worse playing record over the last 10 matches.
Westley discarded four members of the team that had had earned a confidence-boosting point at Wigan in the previous outing. Predictably Forrester returned from injury, on-loan left-back Harry Toffolo and striker Tom Nichols returned from a brief spell in the wilderness, while Aaron Williams was handed his first Football League start.
Williams’ presence forced some eyebrows to raise, but Posh did well in an opening 45 minutes that ebbed and flowed. A terrific breakaway from an early Vale corner included a fine pass from Nichols and a strong run and accurate cross from Toffolo which led to Jon Taylor volleying Posh into an early lead, and Williams might have scored twice - he shot badly wide following another Nichols pass in the fifth minute and saw a close range effort blocked by Vale ‘keeper Chris Neal soon afterwards - before he did open his Football League goals account with a splendid strike into the bottom corner after Michael Bostwick’s superb long-range pass four minutes before the break.
Vale rocked defensively throughout the first-half, not helped by central defender Ryan Inniss being stretchered off after a six-minute delay following an awkward fall. Taylor and Nichols also saw close-range efforts blocked by defenders, but Vale enjoyed enough possession in the opening 45 minutes to suggest the game was very much alive at the break.
Vale hadn’t created much - the clearest chance fell to Louis Dodds whose shot smacked straight into Bostwick - but they were finding gaps behind the Posh full-backs and among the home midfield that were to yield dividends.
One sloppy Posh pass, one strong run and cross from the left and a fine finish from Byron Moore four minutes after the re-start gave Vale the belief they would soon be back in the game and the only surprise was it took them so long to take control of the scoreline.
Sam Foley missed the ball completely when unattended six yards from goal within 60 seconds of Moore’s strike and Moore, having been left completely alone on the left edge of the Posh area for severeal seconds, somehow contrived to pass the ball straight to Stuart Moore in the Posh goal when he had all the time in the world to pick his spot.
But Vale kept probing Michael Smith’s defensive frailties and their just rewards eventually arrived. Ryan McGivern’s superb cross enabled JJ Hooper to head home from close range in the 86th minute and in the 89th minute Dodds was left all alone in the area to claim the winner - his first goal for three months and scored with the aid of a generous deflection off Jack Baldwin.
McGivern and Hooper were substitutes who made a difference. Hooper’s physique was a problem for Baldwin and the lack of a ball winner in central areas was an issue for the whole team once they stopped retaining possession.
In a terrible second-half Posh only managed shots on target from Marcus Maddison free-kicks. Three of them to be precise and all were dealt with comfortably by Neal.
Westley admitted aferwards that he’d be hammering himself if he was a fan, but he retains great faith in his own ability and that of his team, one that yesterday included most of the so-called ‘big hitters’.
Whether or not those supporters share that faith is open to debate. Westley asked for unity after the game yesterday and, while great support in numbers and in volume is guaranteed at Doncaster, it might not last much longer if the the slump contunies against Fergie’s equally troubled side.
Posh: Stuart Moore, Michael Smith, Harry Toffolo, Jack Baldwin, Michael Bostwick, Simon Gillett, Chris Forrester (sub Adil Nabi, 76 mins), Jon Taylor, Marcus Maddison, Aaron Williams (sub Jordan Nicholson, 82 mins), Tom Nichols (sub Lee Angol, 74 mins). Unused substitutes: Dion-Curtis Henry, Gaby Zakuani, Erhun Oztumer, Shaquile Coulthirst.
Port Vale: Chris Neal, Ben Purkiss, Richard Duffy, Ryan Inniss (sub Ryan McGivern, 36 mins), Carl Dickinson, Byron Moore (sub Sam Kelly, 76 mins), Anthony Grant, Michael O’Connor, Sam Foley, Louis Dodds, Theo Robinson (sub JJ Hooper, 66 mins). Unused substitutes: Jak Alnwick, Chris Birchall, Matthew Kennedy, Michael Brown.
Goals: Posh - Taylor (2 mins), Williams (42 mins).
Vale - Moore (50 mins), Hooper (86 mins), Dodds (89 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Baldwin (foul), Bostwick (foul).
Vale - Grant (foul), O’Connor (foul).
Referee: Darren Bond 6
Attendance: 4,942 (237 Vale).