The Lilywhites struggled to open up the Port Vale defence during the first half as the visitors scored twice in the opening 45 minutes, but despite an improved second half performance – which began with Tom Barry’s goal – PNE couldn’t turn the game around.
Port Vale created the first of few chances for either side in the first half after two minutes, as Liam Mattram ran inside from the right and shot straight at Callum Roberts left-footed.
The visitors had another shot deflected over moments later but it was in the 17th minute that they opened the scoring. Mattram broke down the right side again and found Brian Barton with his low cross, who finished past Roberts into the bottom right corner.
In a competitive game epitomised by Akwasi Kwateng’s harsh booking after 20 minutes, PNE had more of the ball but it was Port Vale who went close again through Barton in the 23rd minute, as he shot across the face of goal from the right.
Roberts was forced off his line to clear at one end whilst Melle Meulensteen threatened to create something in attack for PNE, as the captain showed some neat footwork near the box at the other end, but both sides were kept out by the defences for most of the half.
PNE got the ball wide more often in the last ten minutes of the half but couldn’t get the necessary touches to equalise from some good crosses, and it was the visitors who scored next through James Steele three minutes before half-time. Charlie Walford crossed from the left for Port Vale and Barton touched it on to James Steele for a simple tap in.
Roberts had to save well again from Barton before the break but PNE came out much stronger in the second half and pulled a goal back immediately. Meulensteen had drilled a shot just over only seconds earlier when Barry stole the ball inside the area and tucked the ball into the bottom right corner from the left side of the area.
The visitors then appealed for a penalty as Jack Burgoyne held off Barton, and the opposition striker was booked after going to the ground
The momentum was with the Lilywhites, though, as Leon Creech headed at the goalkeeper and Dylan Davidson shot just wide in the following minutes.
However, Roberts had to be alert in the PNE goal as he saved at the feet of Barton, who had attempted to round him for a third goal.
Substitute Myles Mason then had his volley blocked from Davidson’s cross, and Lewis Fensome shot into the side netting from a tight angle from a Josh Earl cross soon after.
Another substitute, Harry Garstang, also had a shot blocked from close range from Creech’s cross soon after coming on, as Mason shot through a defender’s legs but straight at the goalkeeper not long after.
Garstang was played through by Kian Smart but was robbed by an opposition defender, and Jack Burgoyne went close with a fantastic glancing header just wide of the far post from Meulensteen’s corner with just two minutes left.
Final substitute Alex Wood nearly got an equaliser from a corner but the visitors had the final chance, as multiple efforts had to be blocked close to goal before the final whistle went.
Despite the loss, manager Nick Harrison believed his side were better on the day: “I thought we played better than them, passed the ball better and had more possession. In terms of the play we were better, but they scored two and we only got one, and that’s what the game is all about.
“I thought we started very slowly in the first half in terms of our passing. We were too slow in attack and didn’t defend well, which gave them an opportunity to go into the lead. They had two attacks and punished us twice, so it wasn’t a great start to the game, but then in the second half we started really brightly and got a goal back.
“We had lots of possession throughout the second half without hurting them with it, and we didn’t do anything well enough in the final third to open them up and create any chances. Overall, we’re disappointed with the performance.”
However, Nick believed his side didn’t do enough in the second half and rejected the idea that his players were left with too much to do after the break: “We asked the players to do the same thing in the first half as the second half, but our ability on the ball in the first half wasn’t great – we didn’t pass it well and touches were off – so we didn’t really get hold of the ball.
“They scored two goals in 45 minutes and we challenged the players to do that at half-time, too. At 2-0 down we needed to get back into the game so we needed two goals. The game is about scoring goals and stopping the opposition from scoring goals and we didn’t do those things well enough today.”