Out-fought by one Potteries team a month ago, when their unbeaten start ended in a 4-3 defeat at Stoke, Ardiles's team were out-thought by the other before a best-of-the-season crowd of 17,512 at the Hawthorns. In between they also lost at Burnley while beating only Exeter in a sequence which is beginning to undermine Albion's early-season optimism.
Defeats for Leyton Orient and Stockport mean they retain the Second Division leadership, but only on goal difference from Hartlepool, whose victory at Bolton took them into the highest place in their history. Hartlepool return to the Hawthorns on 4 November, having won there in March to put the skids under Bobby Gould's managerial tenure, and there is much of a tactical nature for Ardiles to ponder in the interim.
John Rudge, the Vale manager, deployed a flexible 3-5-2 formation which was astutely marshalled by his captain Ray Walker. The front two hustled assiduously to prevent Albion building from the back, while in midfield Vale restricted the space required to establish a rhythm.' I've seen them murder teams with their passing,' Rudge explained. 'We made them play a lot of long balls, which they don't like doing.'
The sheer numbers ranged across the pitch, and the discipline with which they stuck to the task, also enabled Vale to deny Albion the width to which they are accustomed. Bradley Sandeman, recruited when Maidstone's demise put him out of work, defended particularly well and still found time to embarrass Steve Lilwall, Ardiles's attacking left-back, on the day he was named Barclays Young Eagle of the Month for the Midlands.
Vale retreated into a virtual 3-6-1 after Ian Taylor's fifth goal of the season, which he drove beyond Stuart Naylor after Keith Houchen headed on a kick-out by the goalkeeper, although they remained dangerous on the break and at set-pieces. Taylor, incidentally, is a tall, wiry Brummie in the Robbie Earle mould who came to Rudge's attention when with the Beazer Homes League club Moor Green. He sealed his advance into the full-time ranks in a local final - at the Hawthorns.
In frustration, Albion began bypassing midfield in the hope of inducing panic in a side who had not won away for 11 months. Without the injured Craig Shakespeare there was insufficient guile to disrupt Vale's gameplan, although Bob Taylor read perfectly one deft chip by Ian Hamilton to head into the side-netting in the 72nd minute. It could have been Ardiles in his pomp, picking out Archibald or Crooks, but proved an isolated cameo.
'Port Vale are one of the best teams in the division and certainly did their homework,' the Albion manager said. 'But we have to be patient, and carry on believing in ourselves.' Gary Robson, brother of Bryan, put it more succinctly: 'Ossie's as upset as anyone but he doesn't go off his head. Even though we've lost three out of four he won't change the way we play.'
He might well have to adapt it, though, or reassess the balance between skill and strength. For all their honourable intentions, physically lightweight sides such as the one Ardiles has constructed in his image rarely thrive on the heavier pitches that are just round the corner. As his lordship the Maastricht Mauler demonstrated last week, the odd bruiser certainly has his uses.
Goal: Taylor (59) 0-1.
West Bromwich Albion: Naylor; Fereday (Coldicott, 72), Lilwall, Bradley, Raven, Strodder, Garner, Hamilton, R Taylor, McNally, Robson (Donovan, 61).
Port Vale: Musselwhite; Sandeman, I Taylor, Walker, Swan, Glover, Aspin, Van der Laan, Cross, Houchen, Kerr. Substitutes not used: Foyle, Kent.
Referee: B Hill (Kettering).Reuse content