City 0, Port Vale 1

Lost: one plot. If found, please return to Valley Parade as quickly as possible to avoid massive disappointment.

Four defeats on the trot; five in a row away; the first home loss for six months. City’s timing for the current slump is terrible.

The silver lining, for what it’s worth, is that nobody in that top bracket is turning it on.

Nails are being chewed up and down League Two, hence the fact that only Rochdale emerged winners among all the play-off contenders – and they were facing Wycombe.

City, one point adrift of seventh-placed Shrewsbury, are still very much in the hunt by default – but favours from elsewhere will have no effect until they put their own house back in order.

Stuart McCall has had better fortnights than this last one. If the boss had hoped for a powerful response from his midweek ultimatum, he was left bitterly disappointed.

Port Vale, City’s traditional whipping boys, came and did a job; ugly but effective.

Dean Glover, Vale’s under-fire manager, sensed it was the perfect time to play City, who were vulnerable after the hat-trick of trip-ups on their travels.

He said: “We knew there would be a bit of pressure mounting. As we frustrated Bradford, you could feel the edginess in the supporters.”

Those supporters, who have trailed the length and breadth of the country in the past couple of weeks, must be wondering how it can suddenly go so wrong.

And how about Mark Lawn, who ploughed an extra million into City’s coffers a week ago and has since seen them crumble to Bournemouth and Port Vale?

Against the backdrop of their worst form of the season, he has still got to persuade fans to shell out early for next year’s season tickets.

It was hardly the dream debut for Paul Mullin, the bustling targetman snapped up from Accrington to beef up City for the run-in.

The big fella could not be knocked for his efforts, and he won far more headers and flick-ons than the striker he was brought in to replace, but how ironic that Barry Conlon should score in his first game at Grimsby.

Mullin had seen Vale at close quarters four days earlier when they offered little resistance against Stanley. He hardly recognised them on Saturday.

“They were set up totally different and made it very difficult for us to break them down,” admitted Mullin.

“Port Vale went 4-4-2 last week and obviously fancied getting a result at Accrington. They put five men across the middle of the park this time and it was hard to get the ball through.

“We had enough chances and Spike (Graeme Lee) has been unlucky with a couple of headers. They just seemed to be sticking legs out and the ball was hitting them.

“But you come to a stadium like this and people do raise their game. It’s happened with me in the past.

“A cold Tuesday night at Accrington is a different occasion to here on a Saturday afternoon when they sun’s out and you’ve got a big crowd.

“But you can’t fault the work ethic of our lads. Unfortunately it was one of those frustrating games when the ball just wouldn’t go in.”

McCall was happy with his latest addition but felt the team could have played to his strengths more.

He said: “I don’t think we put in enough crosses from high up the park. But in the main, Paul did everything we asked of him and it was a good debut.”

Vale have had a wretched season since being relegated but there are a few notable notches on their belt, including a win at Shrewsbury in Glover’s first game in charge after replacing Lee Sinnott.

They also tend to do better away from the home crowd who have been calling for the manager’s head. But let’s be honest here, they were not world beaters.

Vale looked another Macclesfield; another Chester. Having lost their previous six games against the Bantams – and not managed a single goal in those – they should have been cherry-picked as the perfect pick-me-up opponents.

Their ultra-defensive intentions were clear from the outset but we have been here before this season many, many times and usually City find a way to pick the lock.

After his encouraging cameo at Dean Court, Keith Gillespie got his first start and his quality was clear. But the lack of pace from his advancing years meant City could not stretch Vale down the right flank the way that a flying Joe Colbeck or Omar Daley could.

And with the visitors cramming everyone into midfield, the Northern Ireland international’s room to whip in an early cross was heavily restricted.

He still produced some knowing passes and clever little balls in for Michael Boulding but not the production line that Mullin would have lapped up.

The game as a spectacle was not helped by the hapless efforts of referee Steve Bratt, who demonstrated he had learned little since his last farcical appearance at Valley Parade against Blackpool two years ago.

The West Midlands official showed little grasp of when to play advantage and his handling of Vale’s physical tactics was lenient to put it mildly.

Centre half Luke Prosser, in particular, seemed to enjoy more lives than a cat in Baghdad high street.

Inevitably, Prosser was one of those who should stick a leg out at just the right time to divert a goal-bound header from Lee.

Anthony Griffith was another walking a disciplinary tightrope who defied Lee in front of goal, knowing little about it at the time as the header powered against his foot.

But City feared it would not be their day when Lee and Mullin flicked on from a free-kick and the loose ball sat up deliciously for Boulding and Steve Jones eight yards out.

The striker got there first and it looked a goal all the way but the ball hit the prone body of keeper Joe Anyon and somehow stayed in play.

As the frustration mounted, City’s approach grew more direct. Unable to get things moving through the middle because of Vale’s extra man, they resorted to the dreaded hoof-ball, which made watching even less palatable.

They could have been forgiven if something had come from it but instead the only goal was snatched at the other end four minutes into the second half.

City were caught cold on the counter after Gillespie’s loose pass towards Dean Furman was picked off by Paul Marshall inside his own territory.

Suddenly there were more blue shirts up there than claret and amber. Lee briefly held up Marshall’s surge but Matt Clarke missed the tackle and the unmarked David Howland swept home.

It was the first goal City had conceded at Valley Parade since Mullin’s Accrington two months earlier. Having picked the ball out of his net, Rhys Evans was not troubled again.

But City, for all their huff and puff, could not dig out an equaliser. Their mad March goes on.

Attendance: 12,436