Port Vale – Meeting The Opposition

Port Vale – Meeting The Opposition.

Tranmere go into the second game of the League Two campaign on the back of an opening day victory whereas their upcoming hosts lost their opening game away to Northampton Town. One similarity? Both teams had new recruits receiving red cards, as Vale keeper Lucas Covolan was dismissed. Ahead of the game at Vale Park, I spoke to a supporter of Darrell Clarke’s men in the form of Scott Challinor who told me who to look out for amongst a range of other relevant subjects.

How long have you been a Port Vale supporter and how did you first come across the club?

I have been watching the Vale since 2001, with the LDV Vans Trophy Final triumph of that season being the first game I can remember. We beat fellow Division Three club Brentford 2-1 that day. How things have changed for both clubs since! As for how I encountered the club, I owe all that to my Dad for indoctrinating me by taking me along to games as a boy. 

What are your best and worst experiences whilst supporting Vale? How does this current period compare with others?

As well as that 2001 trophy victory, my best memory of any success we’ve had would be promotion in the 2012-13 season. The club started the season in administration from the previous campaign and didn’t even have a permanent first-team kit by the opening day. 21 wins, 15 draws and just ten defeats later and the club was celebrating a miracle promotion which had manifested itself completely against the odds. Boyhood Vale supporter Tom Pope also notched 31 league goals that season (33 in all competitions) and walked away with the League Two golden boot to put the cherry on the cake. You couldn’t have written a better script for us. I’ll also have to leave an honourable mention to Tom Pope scoring at the Etihad against Manchester City to level the game at the time. 8,000 Vale fans going absolutely berserk at the home of the English champions is a moment I’ll never forget, despite the end result.

My worst moment is probably going into administration in 2011/12. The fans knew it was coming for a while but the news broke that it was actually happening on a Tuesday morning in March 2012, and we had a night game against Burton in League Two coming up. I walked up to the ground in tears that night not knowing whether we’d see out a second administration in under a decade. We won 3-0 that night. From then to the end of the season it went from a playoff chase mission to getting enough points to be mathematically safe and the lads went about their business so professionally. Fortunately, we came through the ordeal of administration and had something historic to celebrate the following season. 

It seems that this season, there’s a real sense of optimism compared to previous years, probably more so even than last year when we were fancied to do right by ourselves and win promotion after a season curtailed by the pandemic and settled on PPG ripped away the chance of securing a playoff place. Sadly the players didn’t deliver last season. However, the way we finished last season and the strong recruitment we’ve seen this summer have both offered hope that we can push on. 

There is undoubtedly more quality and mobility in the side now, but the key thing will be scoring goals. If we can make it click in the final third, I’m confident we’ll be in and around the top seven.

Random fact about Port Vale?

Since I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter lately asking “where’s good to drink in Port Vale?”, it’s going to have to be this one: Port Vale is NOT actually a place. We’re one of the few professional clubs in England not to be named after a geographical location. “Port Vale” is thought to originate from “Port Vale House” where the club was founded in nearby Longport, right on the Trent and Mersey Canal network. The town we play in is Burslem, one of the six constituent towns of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. 

Going into the upcoming campaign, what are your thoughts and expectations? How do they compare to those that you had last summer?

Funnily enough, my expectations are exactly the same as last season! I had us down finishing between 3rd and 5th last season and we didn’t deliver under John Askey. However, after the incredible job Darrell Clarke did in steering us up the table toward the end of last season, plus the players we’ve recruited over the summer, I really do feel like we can push on now.

As much of a disaster as last season may have seemed at times from a Port Vale perspective, had a few games won on fine margins swung in our favour, we could’ve been far closer to the top seven that we ultimately ended up. We’ve recruited this summer in a smarter way than ever before to try to make sure we win those marginal gains. So, despite the high turnover in players, once we gel, I think a good run of results could put us right in the mix. It’ll be build from the back and edge games I feel rather than going out and scoring lots of goals if we’re to be successful.

Darrell Clarke is the current Vale gaffer and was given that role earlier this calendar year. What are your thoughts so far of the former Bristol Rovers and Walsall manager? What has he brought to the club? How does he normally approach games tactically?

I’ve been really pleased with Darrell Clarke. Last season, his man management and coaching made a team that looked bereft of confidence and energy a hard to beat outfit, and he masterminded a six-match winning streak which propelled us up the table. He’s brought a winning mentality back to the Vale team, and made it clear to the players that representing Port Vale and wearing that shirt is a privilege and you should give your all in it. There’s a real sense of pride back among that squad of players now and you can see how he’s bounced back from a relegation out of the EFL with Bristol Rovers by achieving back-to-back promotions.

Tactically, Clarke doesn’t marry himself to any philosophy other than winning games, and his setup isn’t about catering to certain players or playing a certain style, it’s about what it takes to win the game on that day, on that playing surface, against that opponent. He has always spoken about wanting a squad that can change shape in-game according to different situations as the momentum of a match alters. His “Plan A” has tended to take the shape of a solid 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 to make us hard to break down and pack out the midfield to start with, but then we’ve seen the team switch to a back four during the match in certain phases of the game to counter the opposition when they switch things around, or to simply go on the offensive more. 

We’ve seen us playing it around nicely on the ground when the playing surface is good, and we’ve seen us go direct and win games ugly when the pitch has been a disgrace. So, a lot of different approaches and styles of play can be expected from this Port Vale team. 

Who are the owners of Vale and what are your thoughts on them? Are there any off-field projects that are exciting you and other supporters?

I couldn’t be happier with the owners we have. Carol and Kevin Shanahan are both supporters of the football club and they run successful IT security business Synectics Solutions which is based just next door to Vale Park. They both paid well over the odds for the club to take us out of Norman Smurthwaite’s hands (thankfully!) and since then it has largely been a period of steady improvement.

They’ve turned us into a community club again that does our bit locally, but aren’t content with just “existing” as that “nice club” and chugging along in League Two. They live and breathe success in their business culture and they’re bringing that winning mentality into Port Vale. They want promotion and they know all about uniting the fanbase and exciting the supporters with positive PR. 

Concerning projects, there are a lot of improvements going into the ground which will improve the matchday experience such as the food and drink kiosks taking debit cards at last, which seems like a simple thing but makes a huge difference to the fans and the club’s income. 

I also believe the wheels are in motion to commission a statue for John Rudge, the most decorated manager in the club’s history, as well as an elite new training facility for the players. This is all part of bringing the club into the 21st Century and making us even better run than we already are. It’ll spruce up our image, make us a more attractive prospect for fans and players, and improve us going forward. The investment the Shanahans have put in to make all of this possible shouldn’t be understated either. We have so much to be thankful to them for.

Who are your key players and danger men?

In the forward positions, Devante Rodney and James Wilson. 23-year-old Rodney finished as the Vale’s leading marksman last season with 11 league goals and boasts strength, power and pace to leave defenders trailing in his wake when he gets going.

Wilson meanwhile has suffered from injury woes in the past but is a product of the Manchester United youth academy and has enjoyed regular minutes at a higher level. He is a natural finisher and if we keep him fit could be a major asset for us. He netted eight last season for Salford playing out wide, so could sneak into double figures leading the line alongside Rodney. 

Another duo to look out for is that of captain Tom Conlon and winger/wingback (formation depending) David Worrall in the midfield. 

Conlon cleaned up at the Port Vale Player of the Year Awards for last season and was the first Vale centre midfielder to hit double figures in goals for 15 years. He has established himself as one of the most proficient set-piece takers outside of the Championship and been rewarded with a new three-year deal. 

On the other hand, Worrall finished as one of League Two’s leading assists providers last season and is known for his industry and work rate. He has already turned provider on more than one occasion during pre-season, so I suspect he’ll be on song with his deliveries again over this upcoming campaign. 

What has Vale’s summer recruitment and outgoings been like and with some time left on the clock, what else needs to be done?

The one word to describe recruitment this summer is “busy”! Clarke started the summer by releasing all 15 out of contract senior players and transfer listing a further three, leaving a core of nine players remaining in his plans and targeting a final squad of roughly 23. He backed himself to get enough quality through the door and it seems that the new-look recruitment team here have done just that.

Clarke and director of football David Flitcroft have so far recruited 12 players, including goalkeepers Lucas Covolan (who famously scored for Torquay in the National League playoff final) and Aidan Stone, defenders Lewis Cass and Ryan Johnson (both of whom won promotion to the EFL with Hartlepool last season), experienced defender Aaron Martin, long throw specialist Dan Jones, marauding fullback Mal Benning, technically gifted defensive midfield man Brad Walker, silky playmaker Tom Pett, the hard-working and combative Ben Garrity, as well as physical forward Jamie Proctor and natural finisher James Wilson.  

With quality in abundance and a squad of 21 players now, we just have two more spots to fill. One extra striker who can play off the shoulder and give us that extra bite up front, and a left-footed winger for an additional creative option out wide are the priority areas that Clarke is targeting. 

What are your thoughts on Tranmere as a club in general and who do you believe are their danger men?

As a club in general, I see Tranmere in a similar light to ourselves: a club with a history of playing in the second and third tiers and are probably underachieving by being sat in League Two. The Palios family are another fantastic set of owners who seem to love the club and have really gone above and beyond with their investment to make Tranmere a competitive force. 

As was the case last season, I expect Tranmere by May to be in and around that top seven and perhaps go one better this time providing that one quality forward can be added to the side for that little extra firepower.

As for players to watch, I think Callum McManaman is a fantastic pickup for League Two level and will cause teams a lot of problems from out wide. Kieron Morris is another versatile attacker with a lot of ability who can play in the hole and drift further wide and is capable of creating and scoring goals. 

Vale will have to be on their guard against players like those two if the result is to go our way. 

We’ve spoken about this in private many times. However, considering you couldn’t go to any of the games last season, what will it be like to finally be back?

It will be very special. I actually went to watch our first game of preseason recently. It might have been a friendly against local non-league opposition but hearing the click of the turnstiles and walking through to join another 2000 or so fans watching the lads for the first time in 16 months was one of those moments where the hairs on the back of your neck stood up. 

But there’s nothing quite like competitive fixtures is there? Getting back into the ground, the roar when that first goal goes in, the chanting on the terraces…it’s our life as football fans really, isn’t it? It’s what we all live for and we’ve been deprived of what we know and love for so long. Now it’s back, and I’ll never take it for granted again. 

The best thing about football is who you share it with, and whatever club we support we’ll all be making the most of being back in stadiums with friends and family, making memories and doing what we love. 

If we had to finish this conversation off with a score prediction from yourself, what would you say the game will finish as?

I think we’ll see a 1-1 draw. Despite my expectations of both sides over the course of the season, we are two teams that are feeling their way into the campaign with a lot of new recruits and I think we’re still in that stage where everything is gelling together before we hit our stride. I therefore expect to see a battling point between two good teams who’ll be finishing in the upper echelons of the table by May. 

’I have been watching the Vale since 2001, with the LDV Vans Trophy Final triumph of that season being the first game I can remember. We beat fellow Division Three club Brentford 2-1 that day’ 

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