Port Vale meeting the opposition.
Tranmere will aim to return to the form that saw them placed so high up the table this weekend after losing on the road to Walsall and Hartlepool United respectively.
A victory against Darrell Clarke’s side won’t come easy though as they arrive at Prenton Park unbeaten in five with two wins and three draws. Promotion is on the cards for both sides in three months’ time and Saturday afternoon may prove vital in either’s pursuit of success.
Ahead of the game, I spoke to Port Vale supporter Scott Challinor about the Valiants’ campaign so far and how he expects the upcoming fixture to pan out.
What were your expectations going into the season and how do they compare to those that you have now as we enter the second half of the campaign?
Going into the season I was hoping for us to qualify for the playoffs and maybe have an outside stab at a top three spot. At this stage in the campaign, we’re pretty much on course for that. An automatic berth may be slightly too tall an order, but we’re in touching distance of the playoff spots and nine or ten wins from our last 18 games should see us there. So, we can certainly look at making the playoffs as a very realistic target at this point.
Darrell Clarke is Vale’s manager, how would you describe his time at the club so far and are you optimistic about the future with him at the helm?
It’s never a dull day under Darrell Clarke and I truly believe he’s the best manager we’ve had at the club in some time. He arrived at Vale Park with the playing side of the club in turmoil and in partnership with Director of Football, David Flitcroft, he transformed us from struggling at the wrong end of the table to realistic playoff contenders. He’s also helped orchestrate a lot of changes behind the scenes to help move the whole club forward. Despite a lot of overhaul in the summer transfer window as well as in January, and an injury crisis or two in the equation, Clarke and his Vale side have overcome a lot of adversity and are within touching distance of the top seven, so I’m very confident he’s the right man to take us up, whether it’s this season or next when maybe we might have a bit more luck on our side.
What are your thoughts on the ownership at the club and who are they?
I couldn’t be happier with Carol and Kevin Shanahan as owners. Both are supporters of the football club and they live and breathe the local area. The couple already owns successful IT security business Synectics Solutions which is based just next door to Vale Park. They also paid well over the odds for the club to take us out of Norman Smurthwaite’s hands and since then it has largely been a period of steady improvement.
They’ve turned us into a community club 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’ve made their long term ambitions very clear. Hopefully with all off the pitch going so well, it shouldn’t be long until we start seeing success on it.
Who would you say are your stand out men and who do you believe are Tranmere’s? What will the key battles be over the course of the ninety minutes?
In the forward positions, James Wilson is the one to watch for Vale. A product of the Manchester United youth academy, the natural finisher has scored eight goals for the Valiants this season despite missing two months of the season with injury. He also brings an injection of pace to the frontline and boasts a fantastic work rate. When he hits his stride he can breeze beyond defenders effortlessly, and hopefully he’s at his potent best at Prenton Park.
Defensively, 6ft4 Connor Hall has been a revelation since signing from Harrogate in January and is a rock in the centre back position. He is not only aerially dominant but capable of playing out from the back and has an exceptional range of passing. He’s played a major part in the Vale’s recent run of keeping three clean sheets in their previous five games.
As for Tranmere, I’m very conscious of the threat posed by Kane Hemmings. The experienced striker has hit the ground running since arriving from Burton and is capable of causing any defence problems at this level. I expect Nathan Smith or Connor Hall to be tasked with marshalling him and that will be a key contest over the 90 minutes.
Kieron Morris is another whose creativity can unlock defences and loves a snapshot from distance, and we’ll have to be switched on at the back to mitigate that threat. I expect the energy & tenacity of Ben Garrity in midfield may be tasked with keeping Morris in check and that will likely develop into a key duel. At the other end of the pitch, the evergreen Peter Clarke always seems to have a good game against the Vale. It will be interesting to see whether we opt to deploy the pace of Wilson against old legs, or the height of Proctor or Edmondson to draw Clarke into an aerial battle.
How do you see the upcoming battle panning out, score prediction etc, and do you believe this game will pose different questions than the previous encounter (0-0 at Vale Park in August) did? If so, why?
With both sides very much building from the back at the present time, I’m expecting a battling encounter with few clear chances and much of the action taking place in midfield. I’m going for a 1-1 scoreline and expect the game to be far less open than the return game at Vale Park which although 0-0 was an end to end encounter. I say more goals in this one because with both sides having clicked going forward, I can see both capitalising on fewer chances created compared to the return game way back in August.
What starting eleven do you think Clarke will select and how would you describe the playing style he’s implemented on the squad?
I’m expecting a 3-5-2 formation with Tomas Holy in goal; Nathan Smith, Aaron Martin & Connor Hall in the back three; David Worrall and Chris Hussey as right and left wing backs respectively; Brad Walker operating as a defensive midfielder with Tom Pett and Ben Garrity playing further ahead of him; then James Wilson and Jamie Proctor as the forward partnership.
As for playing style, it’s very much built from the back. He’s drilled the Vale to be hard to beat but also to endeavour to play football, with the midfield and wingbacks pushing high up the pitch, plenty of balls going into the box for the two strikers, but also plenty of runners off the front two when the opt to hold up play in the final third. It’s direct and positive as a game plan at its best, but when the wingbacks sit deep and the back three becomes a back five, it can quickly become tedious when under a bit of pressure. Getting the balance right at Prenton Park will be critical. As much as we will need to be defensively organised, we don’t want to be inviting too much pressure for 90 minutes.
Thinking of the previous encounters between the two clubs, what games/moments stand out as being memorable for you?
There are three that stick out for me. Firstly a 2-0 win in the EFL Trophy in the 2012/13 season. Tranmere were runaway League One leaders at the time and Vale were second in League Two. Former Rovers man Jennison Myrie-Williams scored a free kick for Vale to help secure the win, with Micky Adams’ men going on to win promotion that year. This game felt like an early sign of what that team could go on to achieve.
The following season (2013-14), the Valiants were also victorious 1-0 at Prenton Park in what was my first visit to Tranmere. Despite Tom Pope missing a first half penalty, a peach of a free kick from Chris Lines was enough to secure the win. Later that same season, Vale completed the double over Rovers with a 3-2 victory at Vale Park. Tranmere would go on to be relegated to League Two just weeks later but made a go of it as Vale were seemingly cruising to victory at three-up on the hour mark, before Tranmere scored two in quick succession to make for a nervy finish. The Super White Army were in fine voice that day and it made for a fantastic atmosphere.
As the January window has now finished (this being a few weeks ago now), how would you describe the business The Valiants were able to complete and the impact the incomings have had on the team’s performances?
There has been a lot of talk about the number of signings made during the January transfer window and maybe we’ve had to do more business than the manager would’ve liked. That’s been down to a combination of moving on deadwood and having to cover for injury problems, but we managed to get quality bodies in and the recruitment team did fantastically well to be able to do that. The players that have left – bar Dennis Politic and the injury enforced loss of on-loan Newcastle defender Lewis Cass – wouldn’t have featured regularly in the matchday squad. Coming into the building, the likes of Connor Hall and former Cheltenham skipper & League Two winner Chris Hussey are excellent signings that have helped shore up the defence and added an extra creative element with the latter’s deliveries and set plays, and the loan additions of Ryan Edmondson (Leeds) and Kian Harratt (Huddersfield) have given us an extra bit of bite up front. With the level of overhaul we’ve had at the midway point and having gone most of December without playing due to Covid enforced postponements, it has taken a run of games for the side to click into shape again. However, with our unbeaten run now stretched to five games, the signs are there that the Vale are starting to hit their stride once more this season and hopefully we’ve saved a good run of form for just the right time. Overall, I think we’re stronger than we were going into the transfer window, it’s just all about consistency now.