Harry McKirdy’s brace was enough for Swindon to secure an important 2-1 victory over Port Vale in the first leg of their Sky Bet League Two play-off semi-final – but James Wilson’s late goal handed the Valiants a lifeline.
End-to-end action early on matched the emotional expectations of a bumper home crowd, with Vale’s Harry Charsley and Ryan Edmondson both having their shots blocked inside the hosts’ box while Jack Payne finished off a Swindon counter-attack with a shot that sailed over the bar.
Intermittent chances were broken up by fouls that disrupted any attempts by either side to build momentum, however the deadlock was broken by McKirdy in the 26th minute as he scored his 21st goal of the season to give Swindon the lead.
Louie Barry pressured defender Nathan Smith into accidentally conceding a corner and it was a perfectly weighted cross to the near post that allowed McKirdy to glance his header past Aidan Stone.
Edmondson’s shot on target in the 37th minute momentarily had home fans worrying but the attacker could not place his shot either side of Lewis Ward, who saved comfortably.
Wales international Jonny Williams went closest to doubling Swindon’s lead with a 30-yard strike that appeared to be dipping just under the bar before Stone managed to get a hand to it and tip the ball out of play.
Wilson almost handed the Valiants the perfect second-half start as the former Manchester United striker escaped under pressure from Louis Reed before pulling a shot wide from outside the area.
Jamie Proctor marked his introduction with a strike from range that stung the palms of Ward, but Vale would rue missed chances in front of goal as McKirdy grabbed his brace with a volleyed finish in the 68th minute.
Payne burst into the box before shooting right-footed and having his effort well saved by Stone. The goalkeeper, however, could only navigate the ball into more danger as it fell perfectly for McKirdy to finish powerfully.
Striker Josh Davison should have added another goal almost immediately after the restart as the on-loan Charlton striker was played through for a one-v-one only to watch on as his eventual chipped effort nestled on top of the net.
Wilson pulled one back for the visitors with less than 10 minutes remaining by reacting quickest inside a crowded box to score a tap-in and give the travelling Vale supporters hope heading into the return leg.