Pope grabs a hat-trick for Vale as patched-up Rovers are swept aside
PORT Vale striker Tom Pope grabbed a hat-trick as Bristol Rovers' hopes of ending their poor run of form were dashed at Vale Park last night.
Rovers boss Mark McGhee, who was seriously hampered by a host of injuries and suspensions, pretty much saw his side's hopes of claiming anything, from what was admittedly a difficult trip, evaporate inside two first-half minutes.
Rovers had started brightly enough – but disaster struck as Pope struck after 20 and 22 minutes and Ben Williamson added another goal in the 35th minute to effectively render the game over as a contest before half-time.
McGhee's side, however, did restore a small bit of pride with an improved performance in the second-half – although they were still unable to keep a rampant Vale at bay as Pope completed his treble, before Tom Parkes was carried off on a stretcher to see Rovers finish a dismal night with ten men.
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It will be a night, however, that will live long in the memory of youth-team youngster Alfie Santos, 17, who was offered a surprise debut and supplied one sublime cross that Derek Riordan almost converted with his head.
But that will be of little consolation to McGhee, who knows a change in fortune needs to be instigated quickly if this season is to develop into anything other than a battle at the wrong-end of the League Two table.
McGhee could be at least offer some mitigation after being forced into making four changes to his starting line-up.
David Clarkson and Joe Anyinsah both failed fitness tests and did not travel. Garry Kenneth was also suspended to facilitate a change in formation to a back-three to compensate for a lack of bodies.
The raft of injuries and suspensions the manager had to deal with, along with some poor form, meant Rovers were given little hope of suffering anything other than a defeat by those outside of their own camp – but a patched-up side did start brightly.
Tom Eaves and Matt Lund, who returned to midfield following suspension, both had chances to claim the opening goal – but that hope lasted all of 20 minutes before Pope grabbed a quickfire brace to put Vale firmly in the driving seat.
The first came in the 20th minute when he received the ball in the penalty area and clinically smashed the ball past Etheridge.
Rovers did not even have a chance to catch their breath and compose themselves before the striker was on the scoresheet again. This time, he found time and space at the back post to guide Ashley Vincent's cross into the net off his head.
Pope almost secured a hat-trick five minutes later when he fired another shot on target, but Etheridge was equal to the effort to offer Rovers some semblance of hope that they were still in the game.
They had a couple of chances, too, just before the half-hour mark, but Lund's direct free-kick was curled straight into the hands of Vale goalkeeper Chris Neal, while Eaves' shot from a tight angle, after getting in behind the defence, skidded just wide of the far post.
Respite was short, however. Williamson scored Vale's third in the 35th minute when he rattled in the rebound after Tom Pope's header had looped over Etheridge and come back out of the post.
Vale sensed blood now. Vincent almost made it 4-0 minutes later – but his effort trickled wide of the post, before McGhee got the opportunity to reassess how to limit further damage as the referee brought the opening period to an end.
The manager changed things at the start of the second-half by sending skipper Matt Gill off the bench and in to the fray for the first time since October 3.
Danny Woodards was the man withdrawn, which saw Matt Lund moved into the back three, yet it wasn't enough to stem Vale's constant onslaught.
Etheridge had to be at his best to push out Pope's close-range header in the 47th minute, before defender John McCombe unexplainably failed to convert the rebound from a matter of yards.
Rovers did finally get a sight of Port Vale's goal in the 50th minute, but Parkes was unable to make a significant connection at the far post when Eaves guided a header back across the face of goal.
The enigmatic Derek Riordan was thrown on in a central striking role just before the hour mark as McGhee attempted to find the right formula by which his side could restore some respectability to the score line.
A switch to 4-4-2 followed as did the introduction of Santos as McGhee rolled the dice for a final time, all of which failed to have the desired effect.
Pope grabbed his hat-trick with over 20 minutes to go and, with three points safely in the bag, Vale manager Micky Adams felt comfortable enough to withdraw his leading marksman for the remainder of the game.