Football: Vale prevail as Albion bottle proves brittle: Phil Shaw finds West Brom short on spirit in the Second Division promotion struggle

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The Independent Online
THEY sang 'Jingle Bells' on the West Bromwich end when their team took the lead in a Burslem blizzard. After Port Vale's 2-1 victory, which lifted them four points clear of Albion and closer to Stoke at the Second Division summit, Ossie Ardiles could hear alarm bells.

Albion's manager, pondering a third successive match in which they had scored first and lost, saw worrying parallels between the present slide and their slalom from leaders to also-rans a year ago. 'I'm beginning to understand what happened last season,' Ardiles sighed. His predecessor, Bobby Gould, hounded out after fans staged a mock funeral on the pitch, might wish to compare notes.

The unhappy truth is that Albion lack the requisite mental and physical toughness - 'bottle' - to complement their undoubted skills. Among their stoical supporters, who comprised a third of the 13,300 crowd, it is said that if matches lasted 45 minutes and the season ended in February, Albion would be in Europe by now.

Instead it looks like the play-offs at best, and Ardiles's latest transfer target - his old Tottenham colleague Micky Hazard, of Swindon - indicates that he is not prepared to compromise his beliefs.

Five years ago Terry Venables left Ardiles out of the Spurs side on a Vale Park quagmire and paid with an FA Cup calamity. On the Argentinian's return, conditions were better suited to Ski Sunday than the passing game he and Vale's John Rudge espouse, though all seemed well with Albion when Ian Hamilton lobbed an exquisite, Hoddlesque opener.

Thoughts drifted briefly, sacrilegiously, to their epic 5-3 win in an Old Trafford snowstorm in the days of Regis, Cunningham and Cantello. However, when the ghost of Albion past did materialise, it was a Hawthorns striker of less lionised vintage, Vale's Nicky Cross, who planted the orange replacement ball past Stuart Naylor.

Cross also created Martin Foyle's expertly taken winner, and Vale's second-half superiority had its reward. Their manager's verdict tacitly acknowledged the flaws in Albion's psyche to which Ardiles had alluded. 'Conditions were bad but we seemed to relish them more,' Rudge said. 'When it came to the crunch we battled better.'

Battling has not always been Vale's strongest suit, as bottom place in last season's Second Division proved. Now, while short of the class which Robbie Earle, Darren Beckford and Ron Futcher brought to the side who won promotion at this level four years ago, they do have the kind of resilient spirit which even Gould could not instil at Albion.

March will stretch Rudge's resources, further depleted here by a hamstring injury to the playmaker who thrived on Ardiles's omission that January day, Ray Walker. The month begins and ends against neighbouring Stoke, in the Autoglass Trophy on Wednesday and the League on its last day; in between there are six-pointers with Leyton Orient and others.

As Albion were suffering their fifth defeat of the season by Potteries opposition, third-placed Orient were ending Stoke's 25- match unbeaten League run. Most Valeites gingerly making their way into the white night cheered the news out of habit. Some, viewing the situation through less parochial eyes, groaned, which may well have been a football 'first'.

Goals: Hamilton (20) 0-1; Cross (59) 1-1; Foyle (80) 2-1.

Port Vale: Musselwhite; Aspin, Sulley, Walker (Van der Laan, h/t), Billing, Glover, Kent, Kerr, Cross, Foyle, I Taylor. Substitute not used: Jeffers.

West Bromwich Albion: Naylor; Robson (Ampadu, 54), Lilwall, Bradley, Raven, Strodder, Speedie (Heggs, 62), Hamilton, R Taylor, Mellon, Donovan.

Referee: I Hemley (Ampthill).