Football: Houdini lives on in Horton

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Port Vale 2 Queen's Park Rangers 0

THE DAY David Pleat did his much-replayed, manic dance across Maine Road after one of Luton's great escapes, Brian Horton was the player he leapt upon.

As Gerry Francis shook Horton's hand following a Port Vale victory which maintained the latter's record of never having been relegated during three decades in football, he must have hoped the Houdini touch might rub off on him.

Five years after leading Queen's Park Rangers to fifth place in the inaugural Premier League - which made them London's top team - Francis enters the final week of the First Division campaign still in danger of the drop. Rangers can guarantee safety by beating Crystal Palace at home on Sunday, but have now lost five in a row and look like a team who have forgotten how to score, let alone win.

Vale's continued status as the Potteries' top club, in terms of standing if not support, was assured by West Brom's late winner against Bury. That meant that the Lancashire side would have to inflict a record 11-0 defeat on Vale next weekend to finish above them. It also seemed to be good news for Rangers, and heaven knows they needed some.

Had the match at The Hawthorns remained goalless, Francis' team would have slipped into the bottom three for the first time since November. But then the doubts, bordering on paranoia, began creeping in. What if Rangers succumbed to tension or bad luck against Palace, and Vale, with the pressure off, were mentally on the beach at Bury?

Horton's professional pride, allied to the fact that the likes of captain Neil Aspin are playing to earn new contracts, should allay such fears. When Horton took on the awkward task of succeeding the revered John Rudge, Vale lay 23rd and had kept only five clean sheets in 31 games. The last seven matches have produced four, a run in which the new incumbent's self- confessed "gamble" of signing five players on deadline day has been vindicated by 12 points.

One of his recruits, Carl Griffiths, sealed Saturday's hard-fought success with a fine header. Anthony Gardner, an 18-year-old defender, earlier scrambled his first senior goal to nip in the bud a bright Rangers opening in which Steve Slade forced a stunning save from Paul Musselwhite.

The confidence so transparently lacking in Rangers after six months without an away win - dating back to when Francis returned in place of Ray Harford - might have flowed if Slade had scored. Despite dominating possession, they failed to trouble Musselwhite in the ensuing 76 minutes. Mike Sheron's position as joint leading scorer with eight goals tells its own story; he joined Barnsley in January.

"We still stand a chance of staying up, but saying it and doing it are different things," sighed Francis. "The club missed relegation by one point last year and the League table doesn't lie at this stage. Wherever we finish, we'll have to sit down with the owners and discuss the way forward."

Rangers last played in the third grade in 1967, when Francis was an apprentice and Rodney Marsh, Mark Lazarus et al doubled up by winning promotion and the first Wembley League Cup final. Returning to that level could be calamitous in terms of wooing a new generation of fans in west London; they would not only fall further behind Chelsea but also pass Fulham on their way up, leaving Brentford as the "big" derby.

Parochial concerns are also a major factor for Vale, whose supporters, if a local-radio phone-in is anything to go by, judge success by their position in relation to Stoke City.

Horton, a picture of relief in his bolt-hole beneath the shell of a new stand, was interested purely in praising the fighting spirit which Francis' players must now summon. But when the perennial survivor suggested he would put two goalkeepers on the bench at Bury, he was probably only half-joking.

Goals: Gardner (22) 1-0; Griffiths (66) 2-0.

Port Vale (3-5-2): Musselwhite; Aspin, Beesley, Gardner; Eyre, Brammer, Widdrington, Smith, Tankard; Foyle (Lee, 69), Griffiths (Bent, 89). Substitute not used: Barker.

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Miklosko; Breacker (Jeanne, 59), Plummer, Linighan, Baraclough; Murray (Gallen, 59), Kulscar (Rowland, 78), Peacock, Darlington; Slade, Kiwomya.

Referee: F Stretton (Nottingham).

Bookings: Vale: Aspin. QPR: Baraclough, Linighan.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 9,851.

n The Bristol City manager, Benny Lennartsson, blamed himself for his side's relegation from the First Division, after their 3-1 defeat to Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. "I'm a part of this failure," he said. "I'm not looking for another scapegoat. The big reason was buying a lot of Second Division players."