Port Vale 1 Bradford City 1
LEE MILLS , ridiculed in a programme article on his return to Port Vale, answered his anonymous critic with the equaliser that took Bradford into the First Division's second automatic promotion place in a robust encounter at Vale Park last night.
Bradford looked set to seal all three points when the ball fell to Stuart McCall in a goalmouth scramble after 89 minutes. But Paul Musselwhite saved bravely, and relegation-threatened Vale might have secured a precious victory but for stoppage-time misses by Alan Lee and Marcus Bent.
The League table at kick-off suggested that Vale were the third worst team in the division and Bradford the third best. The early exchanges made a mockery of the respective positions, with the Potteries side forcing the pace from the start.
Six of Vale's line-up were players recruited since Brian Horton succeeded the long-serving John Rudge as manager in January. An 11th-minute shot by one loan signing, Tommy Widdrington, was spilled by Gary Walsh to allow another, Lee, to drive the ball across goal without finding a colleague.
Lee, whose regular habitat is Aston Villa reserves, put Vale ahead after 20 minutes with a fine individual goal. Having dispossessed Ashley Westwood, the 20-year-old striker evaded two challenges as he cut in from the right to curl a left-footed shot beyond Walsh from 12 yards.
Bradford's initial discomfort, manifested in a booking for Darren Moore following a foul on Lee, was almost deepened by a 25-yard free-kick by Alex Smith. Walsh atoned for a series of handling errors by leaping to his right to tip the ball over.
The reprieve served to stir Bradford, who deservedly equalised in the 33rd minute. McCall fed the ball wide to Lee Sharpe, whose cross induced something between panic and hesitancy between Neil Aspin and Musselwhite. Mills was able to collect his 24th goal of the season with a stooping header at the far post.
Mills, sold to Bradford for pounds 1m last summer, was entitled to a certain sense of vindication. The programme described his passing as "poor" and his touch as "frequently awful".
Paul Beesley was cautioned for dissent before half-time after being adjudged to have fouled Mills. The incident was symptomatic of the pressure under which Vale increasingly came as McCall drove Bradford forward.
When Moore's ungainly attempt to chest a centre by Richard Eyre back to Walsh forced the goalkeeper into a desperate save in the 64th minute, it was the first time Vale had threatened since going in front.
But the home team could not be faulted for their fighting spirit and willingness to chase seemingly lost causes. There was no better example than when Sharpe, having rounded Musselwhite after being put through by McCall, found Beesley racing back to clear his drive off the line.
Port Vale (5-3-2): Musselwhite; Eyre, Butler, Beesley, Aspin, Smith; Widdrington (Talbot, 78), Brammer, Allen (Rougier, 85); Foyle (Bent, h- t), Lee.
Bradford City (3-5-2): Walsh; Moore, Westwood, Jacobs; Sharpe, Lawrence, McCall, Whalley, Beagrie; Mills, Blake (Windass, 69).Substitutes not used: O'Brien, Rankin.
Referee: P Reger (Leamington Spa).
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