The Road Not Taken – John Askey’s future at PVFC
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
We could, in a COVID-free world, be a League 1 club now. There are fairly substantiated arguments afoot that, with the team improving and looking more dangerous by the week, John Askey’s Port Vale may have continued their fine form of February-March 2019, finished in the top 7, and then swept aside the obstacles with a high press and a bit of luck.
However, 2020 has been a big pile of shite, and we’re still in League 2. What could be more galling, too, is that it seems we have regressed.
The recent run is NOT GOOD. A loss to Kings Lynn, two calamitous collapses in the 90+6, and two insipid losses to teams in 23rd has seen ambitions of the top 3 in tatters, reassembled into ‘well, we’re still not far off the playoffs’.
Rightly, there are questions being asked in the fanbase. Whilst loyalty and support are the building blocks of our debilitating relationship with Port Vale Football Club, fans should always have high expectations; blind obedience to the incumbent is often counter productive, and sensible evaluation of ‘potential vs achievement’ often leads to the correct decisions being made.
I intend to offer my perspective on this current plight. Which path do Port Vale take; do they stick with solid, reliable John, who has improved the club considerably and may just be having a bad spell? Or, do we accept the ceiling has been reached, and the end has naturally arrived?
Just under the surface
I’ll give a warning to the Luddites now; this contains stats, so if you don’t believe in them, skip this paragraph. Stats are taken from the essential experimental361.com
Port Vale, last season, were a mid-table side, if you are to believe the flawed, yet useful, underlying statistic of Expected Goals (this explains Expected Goals, or xG, if you’re unfamiliar)
I will preface this by making it clear that xG stats, especially at this level, are riddled with flaws and there is mass internal dispute amongst the analytics community regarding it’s veracity and viability. However, it can certainly be useful.
If we are to take this at face value, we were a mid-table side last year, and a slightly worse mid-table side this year. With thanks to our heroic goalkeeper, we keep out more goals than the shots we concede would usually yield. We don’t create much, but manage to convert at a very decent rate, probably due to Mark Cullen and Tom Pope being what I would deem ‘good bagsmen’. They can finish.
Whilst not catastrophic to have a good keeper and some good finishers, some core tenets in football ring true from UCL to Sunday League; good teams create good chances at a frequent rate, and concede good chances at an infrequent rate. We don’t do either of these, and haven’t done since Askey arrived.
Part of this can be player-based; a lack of individual quality. However, Askey’s 433, with a 6 and two 8s in the middle, must be the root of some of these chronic creativity issues. We have a void of invention in the number 10 space, with all creativity being the burden of our Daves on the flanks.
We we even that good in March? Yes, we had an 8 game unbeaten run, but four of those were draws, poor ones, against Walsall and Scunthorpe, for example. The wins, such as at Northampton, were a proper smash and grab effort, The Whites being under siege for 80 minutes as Scotty Brown conjured magic in the nets. They weren’t results of a side sweeping aside teams at a canter; they were hard-fought, close, and, at times, a bit lucky. We were ever as good as we thought?
However, look down the path a bit further, and things get a tad more concerning…
Evolution, or lack thereof
When Askey arrived at the Vale in early 2019, the club was metaphorically on fire. Norman was threatening liquidation, fans were leading caustic opposition, and the team were floundering, again, near the basement to non-league. Talented, proven footballers like Worrall, Joyce, and Legge, were simply not performing.
With a firm hand, Askey routed the squad of ill-discipline, installed an effective and identifiable pattern of play, and restored the aforementioned players to the level they had performed at their entire careers.
We’re now nearly 2 years down the line, and the best 11 is virtually the exact same.
What’s worse; the squad is old, and regressing.
You could make a very fair argument that this is our current best 11, when fit;
Gibbons Legge Smith Clark
Oyeleke Joyce Conlon
Amoo Pope Worrall
How many of those have joined the club after Askey?
One. Amoo. 10 of our 11 best players were inherited, nearly two years ago.
How has this been allowed to happen? As my previous post ‘A Recruitment Manifesto’ eludes to, recruitment has been sub-par under Askey.
Of his signings, you could argue Amoo has become an effective League 2 winger, and Burgess has showed himself to be an astute acquisition. After that, you’re really struggling. His Macclesfield 17-18 2.0 experiment last summer was disastrous, and of his summer signings this year, none have yet to consistently assert themselves in the First XI. The reliance on his Whatsapp contacts and Phil Sproson is simply not conducive to long-term success.
To make matters worse;
We had the 2nd oldest average age in our starting 11 last season, and the joint oldest this year. The only other team to match us is Salford, whose older squad is largely comprised of players who belong at higher levels.
Even worse, our 11 has gotten older. As old as it gets at this level.
Look back to the ‘best 11’ I posted a few paragraphs ago; look at the spine.
Brown. Legge, Joyce. Pope
35. 35. 33. 35.
Our entire spine is in their mid-to-late 30s. They’re either about to decline, declining, or have finished their decline. And there doesn’t seem to be replacements ready to go. Since Joyce’s suspension, the club has almost imploded, but there have been no attempts to anoint a successor.
Our summer business appears to have consisted of signing back up players over the age of 28 (bar Rodney and McKirdy), and allow an already old squad to age and regress. Due to this, promotion is needed in the short-term, or a big ol’ rebuild is seriously on the cards in a season or two.
Not only has Askey failed to add to his first 11, and let them age, he has failed to provide the long-term replacements the club is going to need in a couple of seasons. Through design, Askey has built a squad that needs to win promotion soon, or faces mass restructuring, and he fundamentally is not close to delivering at the present.
“We’re not doing 8th again, let me tell you”
We’ve got a superb owner, one who has skilfully handled a club in shambles upon arrival, re-energised a broken, dejected fanbase, and steered us through an unprecendented pandemic whilst doing the job of the government and feeding local people.
However, when the above quote was broadcasted after her noble decision to end the season in March, I felt Carol had made a slight mis-step.
As asserted in the opening, I believe high expectations and optimism are crucial to a club’s success. Despite this, I feel that quantitative barometers for success should rarely be proclaimed by an owner, lest it give the fans a concrete ‘line’ to judge a manager on.
Based on the stats, we’re not a playoff side, and, bar one weekend when beating Colchester 3-0 last season, have not properly entrenched ourselves in the playoffs at all.
If we finish 8th (or lower) again this year, what evidence do we have to suggest next year will be better? The squad will be older again, and does the club trust Askey to recruit sufficiently?
As previously argued, Askey’s Port Vale have not been particularly fantastic since he arrived, and he has contrived to assemble an ageing squad in urgent need of refreshing.
As a consequence, I look at Carol’s expectations and come to the conclusion that we are on the wrong path. We can’t even treat this season as a consolidation year; the squad is too old. We may need an entire new spine in the coming two seasons, with no signs of youth prospects to fill the chasm.
I like John Askey. He’s a decent League 2 manager, who offers a playing identity, hard work, and steady results. You know exactly what you’re getting every week.
We’ve had excellent high points; the FA Cup run, the games against Crewe, the magical time pre-pandemic where we all got a bit giddy and convinced ourselves we were going up.
However, the poor recruitment, the analytics being consistent in suggesting we’re not much more than a mid-table side, leaves me coming to the conclusion that the cycle is drawing to a close.
It happens. Managers arrive, do what they need to, and reach a ceiling, beyond which the club and manager shake hands, part ways, and move on, having both benefitted.
Askey has rebuilt his damaged reputation post-Salop, and we have started to look upwards after the years of panic and anger.
Unfortunately, if we’re not doing 8th again, I feel Port Vale needs a fresh start, and to take the less-travelled path.
A Recruitment Manifesto
Carol Shanahan, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Our Chairlady has overseen the most transformative periods in the club’s recent history, propelling us from cold pie-eating liquidation flirters, to respected and well-oiled operation hopeful to be rapping on the League 1 door in 2021.
The swift transformation of all facets of the club, from match-day results, backroom staff, and retention of key players, to commercial, financial, and PR has been a joy to witness as a Vale fan who has long advocated that Vale is run properly, and not as a one-man circus/ego trip.
With all this in mind, as a fan sat at home missing his biweekly pilgrimages to Burslem, I still feel there is one area of our football club that, if given the same care, diligence, and foresight which characterises the Shanahan model, could propel us to a return to the now-distant, fuzzy memories of the 90s, which has defined the club’s ambitions for the past 20 years.
Recruitment. Signings. It dominates current perceptions and consumption of football. Top-level clubs employ data analysts and physicists, psychologists and nutritionists in order to exact maximum value from their investment. Transfer sagas emerge and linger in football’s consciousness all summer, with many people more aware of the fluctuations of the Jadon Sancho transfer than they are of the Government’s latest COVID restrictions (probably as the incompetence at Utd somehow pales in comparison to that in Government at present).
At our level, the same furore and obsession is diminished, but still exists; see Exhibit A, Nicky Maynard, and B, Mitch Clark. Both tales saw otherwise rational humans clinging to faraway fantasies, begging the social media man to ‘announce X’, preparing the images and memes that would be deployed within seconds of the confirmation that X had been announced.
This fascination stems from the seismic shift a new signing can bring; see one Hughesy in 2o12, or choose any of the myriad options from Rudgie and his flat cap of bargains circa 1990s.
However, in my view, recruitment will be THE defining factor in Port Vale’s ascension (or lack thereof) in the coming five years. We are a well-run, COVID-aside sustainable business which most likely has the revenue to run itself at mid-table League 1 level. We’re a fairly large fish in this tinpot, barren League; nowhere near the largest.
As a result, we have become accustomed to the usual suspects accosting us in the dead of night, gazumping us of transfer targets, their greatest trick being convincing the world they’re not interested before snaffling the player from under our noses. There’s certain clubs, especially with the arrival of 92/Vegan money at this level, that we simply cannot expect to compete with for the same players without ending up like the poor sods at Bury.
My view, therefore, and it’s infinitely easier said than done, is to get creative. Not lazy creative, like Big Norm’s Big Shop at an Altrincham petrols salesman’s agency whilst half cut on Rioja, but hard-working creative. Don’t go for well-known, expensive lower league stalwart number 4, as that other big club with the 3 massive stands and one shit one, or that other club with 9 strikers and a stand in greater disrepair than the old Railway bogs, will, 9 times out of 10, outbid us.
How would this creativity look?
Principle 1; look to the Big Boys
There was a spell, in the early-mid 2000s, where we had a good run of the fabled, cliched “pick up players released from big academies”. My early Vale years are textured with blurry memories of Steve McPhee, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, Micky Cummins, Steve Brooker, and Mark Goodlad, all very decent footballers picked up from ostensibly bigger academies when it became clear they weren’t going to get minutes there. With Category 1 Academies now able to pick up promising youth players for scant coin at the age of 9 through EPPP, and hoard them before booting them into the world, qualification-free, at 16-18, there are hundreds of talented footballers who picked up an injury at the wrong time, were stuck behind a proper baller, or didn’t get on with the coaches, who end up on the scrapheap. Surely, there are half a dozen who can come in and, with trust, minutes, and good coaching, be serviceable EFL players? For this to work though, you need to…
Principle 2; cultivate a proper scouting network
You need people who know where the talent lies. We’ve benefited through links to Forest, and hopefully Sinclair can pull strings and bag us a player or two. However, it’s all well and good a scout coming to Askey and saying ‘that striker who scored 17 in League 2 in 17/18; he’s good’. What sets a club apart is a scout who comes to Askey and says ‘this lad whose contract is up at a Cat 1 Academy in June, needs to work on his decision-making but the ingredients are there’, or ‘there’s a big lad playing for Marske Town; unfit but has all the raw ability to be a Championship striker’. The creative thinking, the discovery of undervalued talent, forgotten by the big boys but desperate for a home and some proper minutes, is where we can set ourselves apart. This is all futile, however, if you don’t give said players…
Principle 3; opportunity, opportunity, opportunity
There is no point spending loads on an extensive scouting system, signing lots of forgotten players who COULD turn out great, if they aren’t going to get properly coached technically and tactically, and if they don’t get proper minutes. Old Norm did a lot of shite, but his Development Squad idea was bang on. Get George Foster out, let him find a dozen undervalued talents, have them working day in, day out with a proper coach like Jimmy Bell, and get them integrated in the first-team squad. Hugill made Norm £2m from that little venture; I wager Andoh would have made similar amounts. The appointment of Sinclair is promising, but Port Vale needs to become the home of overlooked talent, a place to get minutes, develop, and get qualifications (academic or vocational) should football not go to plan. Get them coaching badges. Get them doing business stuff, alongside their training. Make Vale attractive to young players. Treat it holistically; if the first-team see the Development Squad can consistently develop players and give them first-team minutes, you garner competition. If one player succeeds, the investment is worth the money. To find these players though, we need to…
Principle 4; be creative
There are numerous ‘think outside the box’ quotes from business leaders I could bore you with here, but the central tenet is crucial. We can’t buy success at this level, or the next. We’re never going to assemble an Avengers-style EFL squad like Salford or Plymouth. We need to think differently. Brentford are a prime example; with a budget lower than most Championship clubs, but through an engagement with data (which seems to terrify many traditionalists), they’ve signed undervalued talent from Scandinavia and France, developed them, and sold them for stupid money, all the while identifying, signing, and developing their replacements well in advance. Data analytics is growing and every elite club engages with it in some capacity. It would require some initial outlay, but if it helps us identify one player, who then is verified through the scouting system and developed by our coaches, into a valuable asset, it’s worth it, in my view.
My overriding view is that now Port Vale is secure and sustainable, the steps need to be taken to allow her to march up the levels. The best way to do this is through effective, creative recruitment.
A combination of identifying undervalued players from Category 1 Academies and overlooked markets (non-league/abroad) through the utilisation of data analytics and extensive scouting networks, with dedicated coaching from a Development Lead (Sinclair) in a Development Squad with the guarantee of minutes throughout the season, could allow us to see this progression.
It will require planning, a long-term view, attention to detail, and a holistic approach, but in our OBE Chairlady, we have just the person.
(I know this is all outlandish pie-in-the-sky nonsense, you don’t need to tell me).
Deep Dive Rewinds, Edition Due – Boom Boom
Most people are aware of the butterfly effect of chaos theory; for me, exposure came via a regrettable infatuation with Muse in my early teens. Tiny, insignificant events can have monumental ramifications down the line.
In sports like football, low on ‘goals’, lengthy in active playtime, the butterfly effect is everywhere; a slip here, a nudge here, and the entire play, the entire move, the entire match, the entire season, is altered.
An element of the obsession football provokes emanates from the low-scoring element of it; more goes into each goal, each a result of far more effort than the double digit ‘scores’ you’d see in other sports. Whilst sometimes conducive to more boring spectacles, when it clicks, it is f****** class.
As a consequence, each goal can have real, seismic impacts on a season.
Today, I wish to step back 8 years to a windswept identikit lego stadium on the Lancashire Coast, and how an insiginifant bullet header altered the Vale, and my young life.
Vale were, still, in administration. Keith Ryder had showed up, paid for the pre-season trip to Ireland via a bag of loose notes, then disappeared, never to be seen again (until he was linked with defrauding pensioners). The Vale had no buyer; contracts signed were null and void. Micky Adams, an obstinate and abrasive character, but an undoubtedly brilliant lower league manager, had convinced all his squad, bar one (honestly, you’ll never guess who, he’s usually such a nice guy), to sign revised deals, and go into the season hoping to stay competitive till financial security was found.
Sondico sent us some left over, basic template kits; our strikeforce was Tom Pope (hit double figures once), Louis Dodds (not a striker), and Ben Williamson (good lad, like). The fans expected little. Chrissy Shuker, former winger, formed a midfield duo with young terrier Sam Morsy. It didn’t bode well. 442, MickyBall manifest.
A reasonable start leads us to the Globe Arena, on the 25th August 2012. A fantastic KFC pre-match ensured we left for the ground, to quote Richard Richard, in good spirits. Me, my pals, my Dad. Not expecting much, but there for the ride.
About 15 seconds in, Sammy Morsy, now disintegrating ankles in the Championship, bagged. Great. EIEIEIO etc etc
Voldemort, far from getting clarted by an Expelliarmus charm (woeful conclusion, Joanne), is alive and kicking; in this case, slotting home and incensing travelling Valiants, in the superb way which ensures his cult-status for fans of League 2 (C’mon. Kevin Ellison. Keep up).
Fair dos. 1-1 is a shame, but a point keeps us ticking.
Alas, John ‘Boom Boom’ McCombe trudges forward for a late corner.
How does one describe Boom? You know those defenders with no discernible talents but churns out 200+ games for your club by being outrageously consistent, error-free, and steady? Not a leader, not a bawler, just Steady Boom, a reliable tractor in a tumultous harvest. Under the cosh late on? Boom will usher you through, a gentle shephard tending to his frightened flock. Lovely Boom. Reassuring.
Boom wasn’t quick, or massive, or good on the ball. He was just always there, right when you need him, never the star but THE fundamental cog. The machine falls apart without yer old man Boom arriving, bang on the buzzer, to head away, to slide in, to nod home.
Chris Shuker, all of 5″1, undoubted baller energy in a past life but just has no legs in him anymore. Still, pulls the strings, and whips a tasty corner right on your big lad’s noggin.
Shukes whips one, right in front of the away end terrace; standing, fair bit of room for mayhem; just what the doctor ordered for a 15 year old and his two mates, high on Boneless Banquet and poor football ‘banter’.
In at the near post, no pace about him, Boom appears. How he’s garnered separation is a myth. He stoops, and he nods. The sort of nod you give to the bloke at work you don’t know, but you respect him as a good member of the team. ‘Alright, pal’. ‘Aye, sound’. That sort of nod.
Boom delivers an ‘alright, pal’ perfectly timed, rifling into the bottom corner, and wheels, another successful delivery from Papa Reliable. The Vale players launch after him.
Me? Pushed my mate, 2 years younger, down the terrace, stumbling and a rumbling, my first ever proper ‘limbs’. I know the words been overused now, but never before had I celebrated a goal with such gusto and fervour that my heart pounded and long-term, visceral memories were formed.
Vale sealed it late on with a Tom Pope tap in, but thats immaterial. The win, late-on, morale-boosting, set the Vale on a course with promotion. We genuinely never looked back, after Papa Reliable nodded us into a late lead at the Globe. My love of travelling to the arse-end of the nation with my Old Man was birthed; desperately seeking that high, often falling short. I attended 17/23 away games that season, all sparked by a gentle nod of the head.
Classic Boom. Understated, no fuss. Whip me the ball in wee Shukesy lad, tidy that, right on me head, bang. See you in May for the promotion piss-up.
John McCombe is a top 3 Vale player for me. Not for talent, or even achievements; just for the years, as I grew up, that I could trust that he’d be on hand to allay my fears, to quash the anxieties, and, rarely but with perfect timing, deliver a proper good football memory.
Deep Dive Rewinds, Edition Uno- Whitfield, Chesterfield, Anger, Pain, Relief
That Chesterfield win last Saturday affected me more emotionally than any other match I can rememberThe famously unemotional, stoic Tom Pope
Tom Pope is rarely one for romanticising, for idealising; his career has been one of downplaying achievements, of borderline baffling reticience regarding his big moments.
A man who shattered records to seal promotion, voted the best player in the league; a striker who has the most goals at our 70 year old stadium, and has the most goals for the club he supports since the world was last embroiled in a global conflict.
“Yeah, alright isn’t it?” – Tom Pope, probably.
When Pope claims that a win affected him more emotionally than any other, when he admits to being tearful leaving the field, when he accurately surmises the tension, fear, frustration, panic, and anger pervading ST6 during the weeks building up to the Valiant vs Spierites ‘loser drops off the face of the planet’ humdinger, you know he isn’t doing it for website clicks. He’s being brutally honest, in typical Pope fashion.
Ben Whitfield curled home in the 82nd minute, as 10 men Vale secured a win that only now, as the club begins to grow again, can be viewed accurately, in our rear-view mirror. As we accelerate away from Smurthwaite’s horrorshow, of days we genuinely feared for the club’s existence, the little moment of magic conjured by Whitfield’s right foot stands tall as one of the defining moments of the club’s recent history.
Without context, the goal is fairly run-of-the-mill; hoofball to Popey; classic Popey flick on; classic Whitfield drive into the box, and a very tidy finish. 2-1 home win against a side destined for relegation. Lovely. Onto next season.
Rewind a tad; in the space of two years, Norman Smurthwaite had single-handedly transformed Port Vale from a decent League 1 outfit into National League lookalikes. Disastrous decisions undertaken by a man woefully out of his depth left a 130 year old club on life support.
PUT YER MONEY ON US, cried Chris Morgan, then coach of Port Vale as the Valiants entered the League 2 season. Michael Brown was manager, a lot of experience had been signed, and old Norm had promised to right his wrongs.
Before Christmas, Brown and Morgan were gone, cast into the wind, more collateral damage of Smurthwaite’s unmitigated masterclass in disaster. Norman needed to win the fans back; he turned to Vale legend, Neil Aspin.
Its hard to articulate the importance of Neil Aspin, as a younger fan living off vicarious memories from my old man/VHS tapes my Grandad owns of the 1990s. Long-story short; Aspo was a hard as nails, utterly committed behemoth in defence. My Dad’s all-time favourite; epitomised all that was good about Port Vale in the 90s. Mention Aspo to any bloke over 30 and they go all soft, reminiscing about beating Stoke four times a season and drawing at Anfield, with the big bald bastard at the back prowling.
He was back. Joined by his old mentor. THE legend of Port Vale.
Aspin and Rudge had arrived, to pluck Vale from the chasm of non-league they were sliding in to. Two of the top 5 figures in the club’s entire history, working in tandem to resuscitate the Vale after Smurthwaite’s car crash. It’s the sort of story, so cliche, so tired, that you’d close the issue of MATCH magazine as a 11 year old for being too predictable. Of course; the old heroes return with shining halos to save the club. Wow, so clever. So bold. Within weeks you’d have moved on to Four Four Two. Give me something edgy, ffs.
Alas, in reality, whilst Aspin did oversee an upturn in results (Norman could have gone full Glenn Tamplin and decided to install himself as player-manager, leading the line, and it would still be better than Michael Brown), things were tight. In a truly abysmal bottom end of a truly abysmal league, the Vale were truly abysmal. A nonsensical demolishing of champions-elect Luton aside, Vale were NOT GOOD. Some players to feature that season; Zak Jules, Tyrone Barnett, Anton Forrester, Harry Middleton (no idea), Anthony Kay (33 times), Rekeil Pyke, Divitar Evtimov, Jack Stobbs, Chris Regis, Lawrie Wilson.
Tom Pope, immortal, unflinching, trundled on; 17 goals as he carried the club on his slouched shoulders to competitiveness. The next top scorer was unconvincing winger/good left back Monty, with FOUR league goals, closely followed by pensioner midfield duo Tony Kay and Micky Tonge.
This was real ugly shit. Not good. A chore to support.
Nontheless, owing to other teams being equally NOT GOOD, The Whites were alive. Barely. The fans were worried. The tension was palpable. The tension could be palpared.
Even your most easy-going fan, your most laidback, stress-free ‘que sera sera’ lad, was shitting it in the boozer, unable to finish his pint. Wrights Pies were eaten in a nervous frenzy. Bovrils were downed in shaking hands. Even Jean, with her over-optimistic slant on the Vale, was undoubtedly worried, looking up hotels in Eastleigh and Chorley for next season’s away travels.
It culminated in a game at The Wembley of the North. Good Friday. A day of the recognition of immense suffering for billions of Christians worldwide, and quite possibly, 4-5,000 Vale fans.
Chesterfield were bad. Vale were bad. Who was less bad? The answer would seal the immediate futures of both clubs; the loser, consigned to QUEST highlights-free existence of non-league football, of financial turmoil, dwindling fanbases, and diminishing memories of ‘The Good Times’. The winner, the chance to go again, a reprieval, resuscitation, clinging to the ever-so-precious ‘EFL Member’ status. Win, and the Vale are 8 clear of the drop. Lose, and its 2 clear, with two more games played.
Look at the absolute state of this.
Line ups: Cheeky Whites – Boot; Raglan, Howkins, Smith, Monty; Worall, Tonge, Pugh, Hannant; Pope, Barnett
Chesterfield – Ramsdale; Barry, Nelson, Whitemore, Talbot; Brown, Weir, Reed, Hines; Kellett, Dennis.
Off the benches; Vale – Tony Kay, Whitfield, Harness
Chesterfield: Vale cult-figure Louis Dodds, Kay, O’Grady
Nowt happens. Stroke of half-time, Davey W fizzes one in, and the galloping, decrepit Danny Pugh converts. Bang. Off he jogs in front of an empty Lorne Street, quite pleased. Proper ‘go on, son’, player. Not very good anymore by By Jove he’ll put a tackle in.
He whips himself into such a frenzy, such a state of ‘I am class, me’ at the prospect of being Port Vale’s saviour, that he two foots a lad in injury time, within 120 seconds of bagging. Proper nails him. Experienced head, been there and done that, loses it in the most crucial of moments. Vale have the momentum, crowd are buzzing, get in at half-time and see it out. Not Danny P. Wallop. Off he trudges.
Vale feel deflated. 10 minutes after the restart, Reed curls one top bins past Wee Ryan Boot. Its inevitable. Vale are f*****. 10 men, Chesterfield score, players are gone. The Valiants wait expectantly and patiently for the crushing, yet comforting, disappointment which has enveloped large swathes of the years since John Rudge left.
In the 57th minute, a young, small winger/attacking midfielder from Guiseley enters the fray; Ben Whitfield had been a lone bright spark of a dismal season, with energy, pace, and directness that fans love. He’d been red-hot, had one of them agent meltdowns in January, come back, and not been great. He’d lost his place. Undoubtedly a good player. Just not cutting the proverbial mustard, especially in a dogfight where Tony Kay, Danny P, and Micky Tonge are your midfield generals, and 3 of your back 4 are Charlie Raglan (slabhead), Kyle Howkins (slabhead), and Nathan Smith (slabhead). Pope and Barnett lead the line, immobile, good in the air, huff and puff (in Pope’s case), both getting on.
There’s no place for a young, inconsistent, profligate livewire like Whitfield in these parts. A bit-part; lob him on against tired legs etc etc.
On he jogs, just over half an hour to work some magic.
It doesn’t look good; Chesterfield rattle the bar. Vale are struggling. Every fan’s stomach is twisted, churning, proper feeling sick. This is it; the last vestiges of the Vale; the decline of the Roman Empire, played out in a turgid 90th vs 91st, as bad as professional football gets. Chaos, enabled through lack of talent, reigns supreme. The Vale put a shift in; the 10 men have no choice. There’s very little talent on the pitch; your midfield is now two old defensive midfielders. You need one spark, one bit of class, and your season, your club, is saved.
Before we conclude, let us quickly imagine life in non-league. Lost revenue, fewer fans, fewer away fans, Norman at the helm; the cycle of cynicism, apathy, and anger would likely continue. Directors’ loans would multiply exponentially. The club would have, most likely, ceased to exist, with that clown at the helm.
One bit of magic; against us, and its oblivion. For us, and its salvation, and the chance to go again the next day.
82 minutes in. Booty launches a punt at Legend. He, as sure as day follows night, wins his flick on. It falls to the dimuntive wizard. He drives. He drives and drives, the one thing he excels at. Head down, close control, vroom vroom.
You hear the noise crescendo; more pleading than encouraging; more desperate than hopeful. Please, Ben, this club is important to us. Burslem crumbles without it. People lose their lifeline.
Ben seems to get it stuck under his feet, bobbling on the edge of the box as he finds a crumb of space, as chink of light that points the way to the bottom right corner.
He’s about 15 yards out, on his right foot. Three defenders within 2 yards of him, future Premier League goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale keeping net.
Ben wraps his right foot and caresses the ball, gently placing it in a manner not befitting the blood, thunder, and existential crises that have encompassed the game.
The ball flies and dips in the bottom right.
It produces one of those primal, guttural noises that unites man, woman, child, pensioner in the ground. I distinctly remember my response. A Potter-supporting distant family member had come, and was quite chuffed that the Vale were going down.
At the back of the Railway, I started running. No idea where. Just ran. Kicked a seat. Ran back; kicked another seat. Proper wellied it. Took my Vale shirt off and flung it to the ground. Angrily chuntering to myself, like a teenager in detention. Weird. Wrong-un behaviour. Red in the face, spit down my chin, tears welling. Game of football, ffs.
It was a release of a lot of emotions, something I very rarely feel or articulate; frustration and anger, at the manner in which Norman, without much criticism, had completely decimated the main constant in my life. Fear and anxiety, at the prospect of not having the Vale on a Saturday with my Dad, a routine as established and unquestioned as the passage of time. Relief and optimism; we’d live to fight again, maybe things would be different, maybe things wouldn’t always be shit.
Pope admitted to tears after the final whistle. The Vale limped home, just, with that win proving crucial. It re-energised a tired instiution, bereft of hope for so long, infected with apathy from top to bottom.
As we sit here now, with optimism spilling out of the club’s every orifice, it is very easy to overlook the important moments. Carol Shanahan blew the kids inheritance to keep us alive, and to have us thriving. Whether this season finishes or not, whether we end up at Wembley, whether Pope breaking our post-war scoring record as he nods home to complete a flowing move at the home of the Treble Holders actually matters, we can point back to the moment that Neil Aspin (now departed), chose to deploy mercurial Ben Whitefield (now departed) on that terrifying Good Friday, and remember fondly stroke of the right boot that gave us a chance.
A chance Carol has grabbed with both hands, and her black and white bobble scarf.
An uninformed comment on League 2
The purpose of this article is entirely just to be a bit of fun for me.
Based on a cursory following of League 2, I’m going to write a few sentences summarising how I view each team so far this season. I will not refer to notes/Google throughout this; purely what’s in my head at the time.
This might be useful as a fan to see how an impartial fan instinctively views your club, or it might enrage you that I’d that ill-informed.
I will misspell names, forgot players, and probably have a hit rate of about 5%. Enjoy:
Bradford City – spent big on decrepit forwards and a shithouse manager. The league collectively soiled itself because they signed some recognisable names; unsuprisingly, its fallen apart. James Vaughan had a good season about 5 years ago and Clayton Donaldson’s got to be hitting his mid 40s. Lee Novak has been signed as the saviour, as well as Kurtis ‘he played well once against the Vale’ Guthrie who has scored 5 goals this season, so we’ll leave it there.
Cambridge United – a team who did a swap deal of David Amoo for Luke Hannant are unsuprisingly barreling towards midtable nothingness. A complete non entity, sacking their manager in a desperate attempt to inject life into their dying season. Jabo Ibehre? Some Taft lad at the back? No idea.
Carlisle United – Probably would be relegated if Macc weren’t in shambles and there were two relegation spots. Their best player was a 14 year old centre half who played 6 games, and he’s had enough and left. Hallam Hope was the bagsman and he’s gone too. Most excitement that ground has seen is when it was underwater. Maybe time to join the SPL and waltz that farmers league.
Cheltenham Town – Doing quite well because Duff is Sean Dyche 2.0. Good home form and organised. Broom is good, I think. Rueben Reid is their ‘I recognise him so he must be good! forward. Will probably eke top 7, despite having about 2 good players. Destined to win the playoffs and come back down with 21 points and 19 defeats next season, when Duff gets tempted by ‘Bad Championship Team A’ and they replace him with, I don’t know, Alan Curbishley.
Colchester United – My pre-season tips for top 3 are finally coming good. Jevani Brown didn’t work out but I like the stability and the recruitment they do. Vincent-Young is a loss but Brammall and Norris are good. McGreal a safe pair of hands. Will finish top 5, bottle the playoffs.
Crawley Town – Seem to have some good players; Lubala, Palmer, Greco-Cox, but Cioffi was a big fraud. Seem to have picked up under whoever is managing them now, but I can’t trust a team who deploys Dannie Bulman in the middle at the tender age of 52. Is that lad who we released still there? Midfielder, can’t remember his name. Another non-entity. Were better when Steve Evans was shithousing the gaff up.
Crewe Alex – Begrudgingly have to accept they’re quite good, with another conglomeration of technical midgets having been rolled off the production line. Anene seems tasty up top too. Will miss our dancefloor next year if we bottle this playoff surge. Jussi’s lad in the nets is a nice ‘Football Manager In Real Life’ story. Hope Dario still gets his cut of the transfer takings, the old fox. They’ll probably make in excess of 5 million British sterling this summer and 4.5m will go to Dario.
Exeter City – Seemingly in the playoffs every year, so will assume the same will happen again. Is Bowman good? No idea. Nicky Law seems to be still doing some business. 4th place. Lose in the semis. Nice cathedral. Hate grounds with one massive stand and then three neglected ones. Obvious balls up of finances, none of this ‘Kop/Wall’ rubbish. Looking at you, Railwaymen.
Forest Green Rovers – Stats have been bad all year for them and now its biting them in the backside. xG strike again. Is Aaron Collins there? Old man Joe Mills plays at left back, I think. That’s it. Were torn apart by Richie Bennett at home so are probably a bad team. Ironic for a Port Vale fan to say this but they play in Nailsworth. Not a fan of the lack of any barrier between fans and pitch on the side (might have been fixed). Must be a very placid fanbase for no-one to fear a 50/50 reducer from Baz, 52, as the opposition star winger bears down on goal.
Grimsby Town – I assumed Holloway was a classic ‘I recognise him so he must be good!’ appointment but he seems to actually be quite decent. Made us look silly at Blundell with Hanson wreaking havoc. Apparently travelling in numbers every week, probably as an excuse to get out of Grimbsy. Did these lads sign both JJ Hooper and Sam Kelly when we released them?
Leyton Orient – Tough year and credit to them for staying up. Lost their two top scorers in the summer and have had to make do. Can’t name any of their players or their manager (is Embleton back? No idea. Who was thta lad appointed for about 3 weeks?). Jobi McAnuff, is he about still? Mad that they once signed Andrea Dossena and were on the verge of the Championship with Russell Slade in the dugout.
Macclesfield Town – Impressed they still exist, to be quite frank. Had 4 points off us and the likes of Kelleher, Gnahoua, Ironside, Archibald, and apparently Theo Vassell would get in most League 2 sides. Hope the ownership set-up is sorted because its a good away trip. Terrible, terrible Burger King next door on the industrial estate. Steer well clear. Apparently the owner is on the session in Ibiza or something.
Mansfield Town – Spent big and its backfired. Decided to stockpile old forwards past their sell by dates and act shocked when it doesn’t work. One day, someone will realise that ‘I recognise that player so he must be good’ is not equitable to good transfer policy. CJ Hamilton is class. Bobby Olejnik has the biggest thighs I’ve ever seen. 2-2 merchants. Pip us to the post in the ‘unfinished stand’ competition; what a disaster that is.
Morecambe – Thought they were finished but Adams is a good operator and made some decent signings (Toumani D, can’t spell his surname without Google). Ellison seems to not be playing, which is a shame. Does Barry Roche still tend the nets?
Newport County – A mid-table team seemingly surviving on the ‘3 games in hand’ nonsense they’ve been faffing about with all season. Did they start on minus 3 games? Goodness me, lads, get them played. Amond and Matt a good forward line, and I think Howkins is there, doing reasonably. Cup upset merchants.
Northampton Town – Another side whose strategy was ‘I recognise that player, so he must be good!’. Lines, McCormack, Smith, Adams; lots of money thrown at the affair and after a ropey start, things are clicking. Curle is a serial playoff bottler though so don’t be suprised to see desperate hoofball on the last day of the season, where they need to win 19-0 to usurp Cheltenham. Awful, awful ground.
Oldham Athletic – Are they still messing about with the foreign players experiment? Maouche (?), Nepumoceno (?) et al. And then Mr Brexit David Wheater at centre half. What a club. Hate Wheater. Did they sign Carl Piergianni too? If so, I doff my cap. What a f****** shambolic state of affairs. Brilliant madness. Who manages them now? Is it Maamria? Good.
Plymouth Argyle – Annoyingly, it would seem ‘replicate Bury but without the liquidation’ strategy has worked. Still not convinced Lowe is any good. Is Mayor as good as people make out? Probably. Just seems a bit of a ‘beat a man and do naff all with it, but it looks good’ sort of player. Couldn’t name a forward for them. Telford, maybe? One of those teams you forget is good till they go up in 2nd on the last day.
Port Vale – Classic above average side who convince themselves “we’re a good striker away’, which is what 95% of the EFL are telling themselves. Hard-working but probably going to miss out on the top 7, just.
Salford City – Thought they could walk this league like they have in non-league, and quickly realised that Adam Rooney was a monumental waste of money. Panic-bought about 16 League 1 players and have tried to shoehorn them into a starting 11. Will miss out on the playoffs. Alexander fraudulent.
Scunthorpe United – Gillead, Eisa, and Van Veen are class. Rest are rubbish. Apparently spending loads of money. Big trouble ahead. Hurst gone just as he was turning things around. Good ground.
Stevenage – Well and truly bad. Craig Mackail-Smith, a man who peaked in the mid 90s, is starting ffs. Went begging back to Graham Westley in a scramble to shithouse enough draws to finish 23rd in this tinpot league. Will probably fall short.
Swindon Town – There surely has to be some competition laws regarding their squad. Who on earth allowed them to sign Anthony Grant? Absolutely outrageous transaction. They’ve resurrected the corpse of Paul Caddis at fullback and have christened Eoin Doyle ‘The Ginger Pele’, despite him being far more of a AC Milan Shevchenko. Play XTC when they score which pleases my Dad. Wellens good.
Walsall – No idea. Only team to beat us at VP this season but just seem to be a mid-table non entity. Lavery is there, maybe? Some lad from Stoke on Trent, too. Billboard merchants who would have gone bust if it wasn’t for the M6 and IKEA down the road.
Analysis/Forecast of the January Window
I do try and avoid cliches on here, but one is very useful for a summation of Port Vale’s season to this date; I’d have snapped your hand of.
Many pointed to a final position of around 15th, safe from danger. To be 10th, always just out of reach of the playoffs, and to be in the 3rd round of two cups (forgetting the City tie), is an excellent return from a club that twice in two seasons very nearly dropped out of the EFL.
In this lengthy post, I’ll look at the state of the squad as we stand, how players have done, and where improvements can be made. I have no inside track, no ITK rumours; simply one fan in the Railway’s perspective.
I have no concept of budget/how much City money we’ll spend, so my suggestions for signings will be largely in line with what a mid-table League 2 side could look to do within sensible fiscal means.
At the end of each positional group, I’ll give a short summary of whether that area is likely/needs reinforcements.
Starting then, in the sticks…
Goalkeepers: Scott Brown, Jonny Maddison
We seem absolutely fine here; Brown is a very good keeper at this level, and Maddison the young understudy. Maddison was fairly good in his solitary appearance this season in the Leasing.com Cup, so there is no reason to do any work here. Nothing to see, folks.
Full backs: James Gibbons, Cristian Montano, Adam Crooks, Will Atkinson, Callum Evans
One of the most interesting positional groups in the squad. Gibbons is, in my view, our most valuable asset, and has been our of our best players this season. Energy, an attacking threat, a great ability to read passes and get a tackle in. Behind him, Atkinson won MOTM on his debut in the right back position, and Callum Evans is available to fill in.
Left back is really, really interesting. My first post for this site was a celebration of Cristian Montano; as erratic as he can be, he still has performed very well at left back, and his introduction to the side has sign a considerable upturn in form. Adam Crooks arrived as a young and fairly raw defender who had looked OK at the back end of last season. Unfortunately, he started the season in a sub-par fashion, and a lengthy absence due to injury has set him back further. He does have some very decent attributes; he reads the game well, and can tackle strongly. However, his lack of pace was exposed at times, as well as positional indiscipline that is inherent in any young player that is learning a new position. Evans, the squad’s utility man, has ‘done a job’ here too, but is no long-term solution. The question the club has to answer is; is Monty to be trusted and stuck with, or is a specialist left back brought in to claim the position, allowing Montano the chance to go back to his natural position?
A lot of fans are clamouring for this to occur; I am not as keen in my desire for left back reinforcements, but wouldn’t be against the idea. Possible signing incoming
Centre halves: Leon Legge, Nathan Smith, Shaun Brisley, Kieran Kennedy (out on loan), Adam Crooks
We have a very settled and consistent centre back partnership who have played every league game together. Legge is a natural captain and his aerial dominance has allowed Smith to flourish alongside his first consistent partner for years. On a regular basis these two are our best players and I wouldn’t consider swapping them for anyone realistic.
Behind them, is a questionable one. Kennedy didn’t impress after his signing, and by all accounts was a tad slower than what Askey remembered him as being. Brisley was recruited and has a very respectable pedigree at EFL level, and should be more than fine if needed to be called upon. Apart from that, we are very thin; Crooks was initially a centre half but injury problems/conversion to left back has left that prospect remote.
We’ve had a decent time at loaning centre halves in recent years; Kyle Howkins, Tom Anderson, Ryan Inniss, and Charlie Raglan have all been more than fine. Should we desire a bit more depth in this area, especially if Legge, well into his 30s, needs a break at some point, it would be a good idea to see what Premier League/Championship clubs have a giant who fancies a 6 month spell. Of course, this would be caveated by the proviso that our two centre halves are playing well and entrenched, and won’t be dropped bar injury. Possible signings incoming
Central midfield: Luke Joyce, Jake Taylor (loanee), Scott Burgess, Tom Conlon, Manny Oyeleke, Will Atkinson, Callum Evans, Ryan Lloyd, David Worrall.
Our strongest positional group by far. Joyce, Taylor, and Burgess have formed an effective, energetic trio in Askey’s 433 and have dislodged Conlon and Atkinson, who are both very decent League 2 footballers. Oyeleke is gifted and most probably the squad’s most talented player, but horrendous luck with his hamstring ensures that no set plans can be made with him; mid-late January as a return date has been mooted. Evans and Lloyd, utility men, make up the numbers, and there’s a reasonable chance one or both may be at a new club via the loan system in January. If Taylor is poached, and our bid is unsuccessful, we may bring one more body in, but it is likely the team will manage fine with the personnel available, especially if Oyeleke’s hamstring recovers. Worrall did a good job in the middle at the start of the year, so is an extra option. Unlikely to see signings
Wingers/Attacking Midfielders: David Worrall, David Amoo, Rhys Browne, Cristian Montano, Dan Trickett-Smith, Will Atkinson, Ryan Lloyd
Worrall has been possibly our best player this year. Amoo, despite some critics who don’t like the fact that a pacey winger doesn’t like 50/50 tackles, is doing his job of stretching the play and providing width, whilst chipping in with a goal and two assists in his last 4. Browne is still fairly young and has flashed potential with great feet and a burst of acceleration, but has had limited opportunities. Beyond that, this area is weak. Montano is currently needed at full-back; Trickett-Smith is back at the club after a loan spell at Curzon Ashton and is yet to feature in the league; Atkinson is probably needed elsewhere and probably does not have the legs to contribute out wide; Lloyd has failed to impress.
Again, this is an area where depth is probably needed as opposed to splashing out on an expensive player, who is unlikely to be a massive upgrade on Worrall/Amoo. What the squad could do with, is another player who can compete with Browne to push the regular starters and come off the bench when one tires. The loan market could be our friend again, although the previous January wide signing of Luke Hannant from non-league was a reasonable acquisition. Likely to see signings
Forwards: Tom Pope, Richie Bennett, Mark Cullen, Jordan Archer
In my view, the most imperative signing, but also the most tricky. All 3 of the main strikers have had spells of form, with none of them consistently getting goals. It is widely accepted that at the age of 34, Tom Pope is still our best option up front, but needs careful management to extract the best. Pressing and harrying in a lone striker system is not conducive to Pope trundling up front for 90 minutes every week. However, in his recent run of starts, Pope provided assists for Burgess’ worldie vs Swindon and Legge’s scrambled effort away at Mansfield, as well as his heroic hat-trick away at Cheltenham. Unfortunately, and Pope would be first to agree, 3 goals in 22 league games is not a return that would see the Vale in the top 7. Bennett has struggled in recent weeks, and Cullen is not the player I thought we were signing; a decent predator in the box, but lacking any physical attributes to effectively lead the line in the 433 formation. Archer looked very enticing in his cameos in the cup, but clearly hasn’t impressed enough to warrant a start when all in front of him are flagging; he’s failed to make the bench a couple of times recently.
Because of this, it would be my argument that a striker who can press, be physical, and return anywhere around the 1 goals in 3 games bracket is imperative IF the club decides to go for the playoffs this season. However, this isn’t easy. Demand outstrips supply at this time of year, and the only strikers on the move are ones not playing, out of form, injured, past it, or from lower levels. Every signing is a gamble; we were extremely lucky to bag Lee Hughes in January 2013, and even he was well into his late 30s.
Thankfully, with pragmatism emanating from every crevice of the club, including the boardroom and dugout, I can’t see the club pulling the trigger on a questionable, expensive signing. Likely to see signing
Based on these conclusions, I would rationalise that Port Vale could do with signing players in the left back and forward positions, with depth signings at centre half and wing.
These are a few suggestions, purely based on my own experiences of watching matches live or on television, as well as some research as to available/highly rated players:
Left back: David Fitzpatrick, Macclesfield: An experienced left back who has always looked assured when facing the Vale, he may provide solidity in the place of Montano’s exciting bedlam. Considering the issues at Macclesfield, it is likely he could be tempted.
Janoi Donacien, Ipswich: A speculative one, and not a left back by trade, but has played there before and was excellent for Accrington at this level before his career has stalled at Ipswich. Would be difficult to tempt.
Frazer Blake-Tracy, Peterborough United: A player with a lot of games at non-league level before sitting behind Dan Butler at Posh. Picked up an injury recently. Would give him valuable EFL experience.
Nick Anderton, Blackpool: Another non-league graduate who hasn’t seen much play time at Blackpool. Impressed me on loan at Stanley last season.
Ben Coker, Lincoln: Vastly experienced but has had plentiful injury issues before and since joining the Imps. A risk, but if fit, a very worthwhile one.
Forwards – Craig Davies, Mansfield: A familiar name to Vale fans, Davies has had a very good career since leaving us after a decent loan spell. Injury problems have stopped him flourishing in a crowded forwards position at Field Mill, so would be open to a switch; does he still have the legs to play as a lone striker, however?
Zach Clough, Notts Forest: Clough has never lived up to his early potential, with a disappointing spell at Rochdale compounding his stagnation. With Vale’s newly formed good relationship with Forest, can Askey convince Clough a spell in League 2, as the main striker, could re-ignite a faltering career? Many Forest news outlets report Clough is one of three definite ‘outs’ at the flying Championship club.
Jamie Soule, West Brom: A rogue choice, and an unfamiliar one, but Soule is the latest out of the currently flourishing Baggies academy, which has produced Nathan Ferguson, Rekeem Harper, Jonathan Leko, Louie Barry, and Morgan Rogers in the last few years. Soule is one of the top scorers of the PL2 (Premier League Youth League) and has attracted interest from Borussia Dortmund. Has his development reached a point where he needs first-team football for half a season?
Jordan Bowery, MK Dons: The move from Crewe to MK hasn’t worked out for Bowery, who has played less than half of the available minutes and scored 2 in a struggling side, earn many detractors in the fanbase. However, his all-round physical attributes would suit our lone striker role perfectly.
Centre half – Fiacre Kelleher, Macclesfield: Another Macclesfield nab, Kelleher seems the right age and the no-nonsense defender that could take over from Legge as he ages
Jakob Mensah, Crystal Palace: Was sought after by a number of Premier League clubs when starting at 18 years old for Ramsgate. Palace won the bidding war, and must now think it is time for Mensah to be blooded in professional football. Ryan Inniss is a recent example of Palace centre halves flourishing on loan at Vale.
Ethan Laird, Manchester United: A physical defender, primarily a full back but capable of playing centre half, Laird could gain valuable first-team experience as back up across the back line. A England youth international, he made his debut for United in the Europa League last year and it is imperative he sees first-team football.
Wingers: Jermaine McGlashan, Unattached: Released a day before this was written by Swindon, McGlashan is the wrong side of 30 but has had a very respectable career in the lower leagues and could provide some steady contributions from the bench, alongside some very useful experience for a final hurrah.
Olamide Shodipo, QPR: Another player we’ve seen before, Shodipo looked to have a lot of potential in a woeful Vale side in the year we got relegated from League 1. I attributed his struggles more to poor management than the lad himself. He’s failed to kick on at QPR since and needs to look elsewhere. Very pacey and direct.
Josh Ginnelly, Preston: A player who would be very good in League 2, he’s failed to make the cut at PNE after a good spell at Walsall.
Obviously, to enable these signings, outgoings would have to occur:
Jordan Archer; undoubted potential but doesn’t seem to be ready/trusted by the management. A half-season in the National League would be ideal.
Ryan Lloyd; hasn’t been on the bench in recent weeks and hasn’t looked up to standard when playing. Whilst some fans’ ire towards him have bordered on embarrassing at times, its probably best that Lloyd goes to a level where he can contribute.
Dan Trickett Smith; a ‘Big Smurf’ signing, probably isn’t going to cut it at EFL level.
This is all merely speculative; I have no inside track, no idea of budgets, and have merely suggest what players I like and think would add something.