4 league games in, 7 in total. I have always preached anti-reactionary conclusions and a trust in the process, patience and an avoidance of making judgements based on scorelines and luck.
I have watched every minute of Vale’s 7 games and feel adequately briefed to offer a few reflections;
1. Same Issues – “they stopped us playing”
Vale are good at myriad things; solid defensively, good at progressing the ball down the wings via triangles and link up play, great at pressing in a coordinated manner, and can beat good sides. This has remained unchanged for 12 months.
By the same token, the same trends are being to emerge early doors of the 20/21 season. We consistently struggle against teams who employ a low block (sit deep), who want to restrict space behind and in between lines, ensuring there is little opportunity to get the ball into the channels and then into the box. Away at Exeter, Rodney galloped into the chasm of space left void as a result of Exeter chasing the game. Up against Morecambe and Harrogate, there was pitiful space to attack, and as a consequence we had to be more inventive. We failed.
In the absence of Oyeleke, Vale lack many players who can progress the ball into the final third. The ability to draw in players and beat them, before splitting lines with a through ball, is something only Oyeleke (and maybe McKirdy, strangely absent today) can offer.
We heard the cliche “they stopped us playing” last season in winless games against Macclesfield, Scunthorpe, and Morecambe (as per), which to me translates as a slightly disparaging way of suggesting the other team played negatively, as we are a behemoth of football brilliance and have them cowering at our technical prowess.
In reality, teams have clocked that no space equals no chances for the Vale, and Plan A crumbles. Which leads to.
2. Lack of Plan B – “who’s coming on at 60?”
My old man and I have made a game of guessing a) when subs will start warming up, b) who the subs will be, and c) when they will enter the fray.
My Dad has a remarkable hit rate, win lose or draw. 57 minutes, Bowers mentions ‘X is warming up’. 61 minutes ‘X is coming on’. Without fail.
Askey’s devotion to consistency and a clear style has advantages and disadvantages. It ensures our team is a stable and well-oiled machine, when things are going well.
When teams sit deep, restrict space, and dare us to break them down, things stutter. We don’t have another option. We have never deviated from 433 in Askey’s tenure, bar the last few minutes of games when 2 strikers are lobbed on in desperation with no semblance of plan, which barely counts as a deviation.
Askey, who I rate, is not a man to drastically alter things when it is clear things aren’t working. If Joyce is marked out of the game, the centre halves have to go long to Cullen. This is futile. Utterly and completely pointless. To persist with this for 60 minutes is not wise. Cullen needs ball to feet, so he can spin and release a winger, before getting in the box for a cutback. If you HAVE to go long, Pope is the only option, despite my desire to see us transition away from a reliance on the ageing legend.
The Vale need to have backup plans when high-pressing 433 predicated on wing play doesn’t work.
3. Steady but not spectacular – “Decent player”
Rodney is class. Love him. Will be hit or miss but beats his man and is easily our best attacking outlet.
Bar him, have any other the other signings added anything bar the fabled ‘squad depth’. It’s all well and good the bench looking pretty and nice, but unless these players can influence games when they play, is there any point?
It is early doors and I have high hopes for McKirdy, but are we guilty of signing too many players who are good backups, but do not improve the 11? This may be very pre-emptive, so I am holding back on making conclusions, but so far I fail to see a great deal of potential in the signings.
I would like to end this positively. We are great defensively. Scott Brown is eternal. Leon Legge gets better with age. Conlon is improving. Rodney is great fun. We’re a good side. Carol is a legend. The away kit is nice.
However, I still feel a bit ‘samey’ about the Vale. Not a great deal has changed. There’s a lot to be said for continuity and sustainability (as I have long advocated for), but improvement needs to exist in tandem with this. Has there been sufficient to have us battling for the top 3 this season? We will learn over the next few games, but I am getting an unfortunate sense of deja vu at this early stage.
Vale announced David Worrall had extended his contract until 2022 today. This is a far bigger deal than some realise.
Let’s start with the basics; David Worrall is an industrious winger with a great cross, a good corner in him, and always looking for a goal and an assist. Any team would crave him in this tinpot division. All-round good bloke and a baller.
Let’s dive a tad deeper – Worrall leads the division in:
- Chances created
- Key passes
- Successful Crosses
- xGA (Expected Goal Assist – basically the quality of the chances he creates, even if our forwards don’t score them).
That is a phenomenal return, considering the widespread adulation of Danny Mayor, the respect for Nicky Adams, and the cooing over golden boy Charlie Kirk. Worrall leaves them all in his wake. Leading one category would be good; two would be excellent. To be leading all major creative statistical categories in February is testament to the season the man is having
Going further; not only is Worrall a phenomonal creator in every metric, his workrate is utterly mind-boggling. Watch him for 5 minutes next week; he is consistently moving, never still, and this continues from 1-90. Even in the last few minutes, he sprints like he’s just come on.
There’s more to it; Worrall has arguably had a slight dip in form in recent weeks, after revealing that he has struggled with a hip injury for a while and being moved to the left. On the left wing, not on his favoured foot, he has done a stellar job assisting Cristian Montano, a winger by trade, adapt to a more defensive role and allowing Monty to motor forward with wanton abandoment, safe in the knowledge his pal Davey is there to bust a gut if things go south. By dip in form, I mean ‘really, really good’, as opposed to ‘league on strings’ performance levels.
Even a further salutation to our wizard; Worrall is first to the fans whenever we score. He relishes it. Goal; Davey looks for the fans. Davey sprints to the fans. Davey hugs the fans. Look at him in this video from the Bradford game; he collapses, visibly shattered after running Bradford ragged for 90 and whipping in the cross leading to the goal. Suddenly, he springs up, and is first to the cataclysmic away end which encompasses grown men hurdling rows of seats. Davey grins, and embraces:
I could write about David Worrall for hours; a hard-working, experienced, professional winger who blows the league out of the water in terms of creativity, has more than 10 goal + assist contributions this season, and seemingly showing no signs of decline. Would be a battle to keep him, surely? When’s the firesale? When does the Bradford curse strike once again?
Alas, Davey came out weeks ago and publicly and unequivocally stated he wants to stay at Port Vale. A player who could probably play a good part in most teams in League 1; a player probably the best in his position at this level; a player who had no business being ostracised from the first team by previous managers and battling relegation in turgid tinpot tribulations, and would have been well within his rights to say “f*** this, I’m off” to a club more appreciative of his talents.
To have a player as good as Davey basically beg to stay, and the club to get it wrapped up with a pretty little bow by February, is a sign of where we are. Davey would be have been gone in January in previous years; sold for a pittance to Mansfield, glad to be rid of a toxic club in complete and utter disarray. Askey has brought him from the cusp of leaving the team to bein the most indispensable player in the squad, and one of the league’s best. The club is so well-run and positive Davey didn’t faff about with negotiations; get the contract on the table, and get me signed.
Port Vale is new, fresh, and going places. And Davey wants to be a part of it.
UTV; we’ve got Worrall.
Ambition, Prudency, and the Cockney Minx
We all want signings. Shiny; new; they provide an unknown quality in what is otherwise a fairly turgid and trundling existence in the lower leagues. Maybe this one will be an Ian Taylor; if not, at least a Hugill; or maybe he’ll be a Dom Blizzard/Axel Prohouly.
Regardless, it is entirely understandable for fans to crave that sweet hit of Max McLellan (RIP, never forgotten) teasing us like the Cockney minx he is with a ‘announcement in 10 *eyes emoji*’, as fans scramble to predict who it is;
“I heard James Wilson on loan”
“Rubbish, Ryan Babel’s finally accepting Norm’s offer”
“Is Hughesy still playing?” (he is)
And, despite the good performance of Askey and his squad, it is undeniable that one or two new faces could be a big lift. The squad isn’t massively deep and an injury in the wrong places (cough cough Smudger) leaves us a tad ropey.
Therefore, I get the disappointment as we approach February that bar the sensible move to extend Jakey boy’s deal (amidst some good competition, which is testament to how much he rates being here), we’ve done nothing apart from rightly loan out Archer.
However, what I don’t quite understand, is the accusations of mismanagement or ‘lack of ambition’.
I think its safe to assume that in Carol and Askey we have two of the more financially prudent operators at this level; not the type to gamble, and probably favouring financial stability over impulsive, Rioja-induced gambles (I’m naming no names. Norman preferred Shiraz).
For whatever reason, they’ve decided that there most likely isn’t value for money at this stage, and they’re probably right. Without labelling it a normal January, last year we signed Dan Tricky Smith, and 5 other youths I can’t remember. January, whilst having the potential to be a game-changer (Hughesy x Purse x Jones x Birchall was elite business from Norman and Wildes, can’t deny), has more often than not been a catastrophe. Jones, Alnwick, and Grant out as Shodipo, Tanser, and Mehmet come in, springs to mind.
As a result, whilst overwhelmingly in the minority, some of the more ‘virulent’ accusations launched at the club, by individuals who support a Premier League club behind Vale’s back, has struck me as overwhelmingly entitled, knee-jerk, and downright baffling. Some specimens literally DM’d Carol to tell her we need signings, as if Kevin had forgotten, and rings Garlick in a panic:
“Crumbs, Colin! You didn’t tell me we could sign players! Well, what are we waiting for; deploy the war chest! Gazump the negotiations! Spunk the cash up the wall!”
All are entitled to a gripe, and I desperately wanted a pacy forward to come in, but I trust Carol and Kevin and John enough to accept they’ve probably spent the entire month agonising whether player X is worth 70% of their weekly wage when he’s probably not much better than what we’ve got. I don’t think they’ve sat in the Vale Park offices, twiddling their thumbs and expecting a player to parachute onto the centre circle, starling Speedy.
As a result, I’m content to, finally, entrust the people running the club to know what they’re doing. I think most fans fall under the same bracket. Maybe we could have gambled on Striker 1 from the Championship, or centre half 2 from League 1. And its fair enough grumbling a tad.
I just beseech; let’s trust the folks who’ve turned us into a club on the up, as opposed to a club at death’s door.
The Healing Process
Repair it. Heal it and get it back to where it should be. That is not by suddenly putting tens of millions of pounds into it because I don’t believe it is that sort of club.Carol Shanhan, on what her intentions were with Port Vale FC
I was stood handing red cards out in the corner of Synectics Car Park. Black and Gold had organised the largest protest to date on that day, and things were going relatively smoothly. People were very receptive to the idea of change, and were in near-agreeement that Norman Smurthwaite needed to be dispensed with.
One very polite gentleman, however, pointed out that ‘there isn’t a queue of Arabs Sheikhs and Russian Oligarchs queuing up Hamil Road’.
This was obstensibly true; it is highly unlikely the Valiants are used as a sportswashing vehicle for the PR wing of a Middle-Eastern oil nation, or a Russian businessman looking to raise his profile.
What we did have, however, was people that cared.
I am aware that Carol and Kevin Shanahan have received a lot of praise since their takeover in May, but their work simply cannot be commended enough.
Yes, there was a stroke of luck in the Man City draw.
Yes, the team keep bottling leads against clubs we should be seeing off.
Yes, the Railway Stand toilets are still an ice rink which require nimble footwork to survive unscathed (a challenge for the lads and ladies who arrive at 2:58 from the various Public Houses of the Mother Town).
However, through a clear vision and attention to detail, the Shanahans have achieved something me and my Old Man had thought we’d lost forever; a genuine love and connection for the club that had had its soul ripped apart through neglect and disinterest. I don’t want to linger too much on the man who gave this website its name, but towards the back end of the tenure of Big Norm, the players were being fed left-over pies, we had little to no relationship with local law enforcement, media, and businessess, and had a disengaged fanbase grimly accepting of whatever may come.
That ignores the on the field catastrophes.
Carol and Kevin haven’t arrived and splurged hundreds of thousands on a 29 year old striker who had a good 14/15 season; they haven’t promised X Division in Y years; they haven’t ploughed millions into a new training facility to make us coo and whoop.
It sounds fatuous, almost pathetic. Well, of course they care! Its their business. They paid a lot of (in my view, ludicrously excessive) cash for this business. Of course they care.
For a club who arguably have not had caring custodians for the past 20 years, having owners who are here not for financial gain, not for the ego trip of Wembley hospitality and wining and dining, but people here to lift up the local area, using the Vale as a vehicle; this is refreshing.
We may not go up next year; we may not have the best team. Despite this, for the first time in my lifetime, I can look at the Directors’ Box and feel pride at who is representing Port Vale, and have confidence and trust in their ideas and where they want us to go, and by what means.
Most importantly, Carol and Kevin have given me the chance to drive to the arse-end of this nation with my Dad, to throw some limbs about when we score, to bemoan last minute equalisers (not mentioning any games!), and to argue passionately and aggressively about football; who should start, who we should sign, what system needs to be played. Prior, it was discussions more along the line of ‘what do we do next season if there’s no Vale?’, and ‘do you reckon we could start a Phoenix Club?’.
I’ve got my club back; its unclear whether I’ve ever had it before. Either way, even if we fall short this season, even if Man City break all records against us in the 4th Jan, even if my Dad will never accept that 433 is an eminenetly sensible system in the modern game, I’d like to thank Carol and Kevin. For not being Arab Sheikhs, for not being Russian Billionaires, for being for owners who care.
Team of the Decade
Pointless, these, aren’t they? Is it most talent or most impactful? Despite no one playing 442 anymore, do we use that formation? Does it need to function as a unit or just shoehorn the best players in?
Here’s my Port Vale team of the 2010s:
GK: Chris Neal – A big trio to choose from; the unflappable Neal, the outrageous Alnwick, or the heroic Brown. Personal preference led me to Neal; a promotion winner, Mr Consistent, and the best leap to claim crosses I’ve ever seen.
RB: Adam Yates – A solid full-back. Another promotion winner and very consistent in his years at the club. Overriding memory is a whipped ball in (his most underrated attribute) for Popey away at Rochdale leading to Yates, Pope, and Hughes aggressively celebrating in front of 2300 Valiants.
CB: John Boom McCombe – Probably my favourite player to make this team. No-nonsense, danger off set pieces, and an all-round solid defender. His late header away at Morecambe prompted some very dangerous limbs in an open terrace.
CB: Nathan Smith – a tough one; Legge also had a shout. However, in the most turbulent time in the club’s history, Smithy gets his head down and does his job. Loves a scrap, does Smudge.
LB: Carl Dickinson – forgetting his regrettable early career, Dicko captained a very decent League 1 Vale team. At times a tad suspect, his commitment and energy brought a lot to one of the more balanced Vale teams of the century.
RW: Jennison Myrie-Williams – I think Vale fans forget how good this lad was. Nearly 20 goals from the wing across two seasons, instrumental in Pope’s 12/13 season, and some outrageous talent on the ball. A shame how his career has turned out, but undoubtedly a very, very good footballer.
CM: Anthony Grant – I love an arrogant ball-player. One of them that just waltzes about, pinging arrows when he can be arsed. Does nothing for 45 mins then bang, he’s sliced you open, game done. Grant was probably our most ‘talented’ footballer of the decade when he felt like it.
CM: Michael O’Connor – Good at everything. The true box-to-box midfielder. Perfect compliment to the more laidback Grant.
LW: Mark Marshall – Probably a right winger but there’s no way I’m leaving him out. Only the one season with us, but rapid, hard-working, and a bag of talent. Our wings would be lethal.
ST: Marc Richards – Spent half of his Vale career before 2010, but was still an exceptionally good forward up to his departure. Consistent, a captain, and a siperb finisher.
ST: Tom Pope – Doesn’t need explaining. Only Vale legend of my lifetime.
Alnwick – Supremely gifted and has pulled off the best saves I’ve seen from a Vale keeper
Legge – Love the bloke. Gresty Road Dancer. Big shithouse.
Duffy – Steady contributor in the promotion season, and good for full back or centre half.
Foley – Great pro, great player, stuck with us during the Bruno experiment
Lines – Very classy player. A big ‘what if’.
Dodds – Big-game player, the Burslem Bergkamp, and he deserves the spot for Fleetwood away.
Hughes – Couldn’t leave him out. At times was dragging this club to promotion, kicking and screaming. What I’d give for one more shithoused tap in and to do that infuriating jig once more.
The Richie Bennett Conundrum
After 3 consecutive draws to open The New Era, Forest Green Rovers visited Vale Park on the 20th August.
Whilst a steady start, the lack of cutting edge and wins overshadowed passages of very decent play against Salford, Northampton, and Colchester. Despite this, Vale had failed to click in front of goal.
John Askey made the brave decision to replace Tom Pope with summer signing Richie Bennett, who had scored his first goal away at Salford the Saturday prior. Bennett had a good non-league record but hadn’t made the grade at Carlisle, and was seen as a back-up big man for the ageing Pope.
That warm Tuesday evening, Bennett terrorised a FGR side currently fifth as Vale secured their first, vital win of the season. A physical, pacy performance in the lone striker role was capped by a smart diving header, and Bennett left the pitch to universal applause from an impressed Valiant fanbase.
Bennett followed this performance with the only goal versus Cambridge, and goals away at Macclesfield in both the Leasing.com Cup and the League. He provided a touch of class in a flicked assist for Nathan Smith at home to Plymouth, and appeared to be a successor to Tom Pope, providing pace and a good pressing ability, a key tenet of Askeyball.
Things then, to put things bluntly, fell apart.
Bennett now hasn’t scored since the 12th October in any capacity, and when he has played, including the Macclesfield game on NYD, appeared to struggle; the industry was there, the desire to press, but the all-action display of Forest Green appeared a distant memory. Removed for Pope nearing the game’s conclusion, it is hard to see how many more opportunities Bennett will receive, with Mark Cullen lurking, Jordan Archer impressing, and many fans calling for striking reinforcements in the January Window.
The opinion of this fan is, though, that Bennett deserves perserverance as a reasonable rotational squad player at League 2 level, for the following reasons.
Goals SHOULD come (key word should, not will).
Now, as a younger fan immersed in the new footballing world of social media, VR analysis, and hot-takes, I have become a fan of the flourishing analytics community which provides some fantastic insights, if handled correclty. I’m well aware of the ire this raises in some sections of the footballing community.
The xG model, whilst heavily flawed (especially at our level), is useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it provides a degree of objective analysis of how good a ‘chance’ is; a long shot from 35 yards, such as the one banged in top bins by the Silkmen midfielder on New Years Day, is a much worse quality chance than a tap in from 2 yards, as the tap in is more likely to go in.
The xG model (Expected Goals) provides each chance a team creates with a value between 0 and 1, with a chance of 1 being a shot which goes in 100 times out of 100 and a chance of 0.01 being a shot that goes in 1 time out of 100, based on analysis of tens of thousands of shots from every league in the world. This incorporates factors such as; position, distance from goal, position of defenders, number of defenders between attacker and goal, position of goalkeeper (in some models), and body part used to shoot.
A second reason xG has use as its sometimes illuminates trends that are hard to see by diehard fans, with our tendency to excuse our favourite players and castigate our less favoured, our reliance on narratives and stories to construct the way we perceive players.
xG analysis of Port Vale yields one very, very interesting trend; Richie Bennett is consistently our best striker when it comes to having good chances. If you add up every shot he’s taken, he averages about 0.3 xG a game. Based on the average finishing ability, he should score 1 in 3, which, with a record of 5 in 23, he clearly isn’t (or even his goals per minute ratio being a goal every 382 minutes).
Here is a graph by the excellent Ben Mayhew of Experimental 361 (experimental 361.com, @experimental361), which illuminates which players have our best xG. Players within the coloured zone fit are scoring at a rate their xG would predict, above are outperforming and are likely to regress (or they’re very good finishers), and below are underperforming and are likely to improve (or they’re very bad finishers):
Whilst Jake Taylor’s return of a 0.3 goals every 90 minutes is exceptional, Bennett’s returns of around 0.2 per 90 is disappointing. Bennett is, by a massive margin, our best player at being in the right place at the right time. He just isn’t scoring these chances.
By basic laws of averages and regression to the mean, Bennett SHOULD start to score at a rate more akin to 1 in 3. He may be a bad finisher, or a poor decision maker. However, any striker who can consistently get himself into good positions for chances, and also fits the manager’s tactics, is worth keeping in the squad.
This isn’t a rallying call for Bennett to start every week with the captain’s arm band, but maybe a plea for a modicum of patience moving forward.
Chaos Personified – an ode to the most bafflingly wonderful player
I embrace chaos; I’m not sure whether it accepts meBob Dylan
There was a distinct moment, pre-season of 18/19, when I realised that Montano was in trouble.
Neil Aspin, seemingly buoyed by England’s success at that Summer’s World Cup, had decided to go with a three-at-the-back system. Fair enough; Antonio Conte had promoted a resurgence of the system in previous years, and it had been employed at the Wembley of the North before by Micky Adams and Rob Page, to relative adequateness.
However, Aspin had decided to copy the Southgate template to the greatest extent, down to the inclusion of a pacy wide player on the side of one of the three centre halves. Whilst Southgate transitioned City full-back and Pep Guardiola acolyte Kyle Waler into a wide centre back role, Aspin decided mecurial Colombian left-sided player Cristian Montano could do the same job.
Context; Monty had had an erratic first season at Vale and wasn’t living up to expectations. A move to full-back in an injury crisis yielded a League 2 Roberto Carlos, flying up and down the left wing and leaving havoc in his wake. He was awarded a new deal and the number 3 shirt; this was Monty’s position moving forward.
Alas, the Aspin-Southgate experiment yielded many fans’ initial fears; moving a world-class defender like Kyle Waler slighly inside, is a different job than moving what was, 6 months prior, a flamboyant and inconsistent winger into a purely defensive role.
Lo and behold, Monty struggled, was then moved back to left back, struggled, and his season, once more, had stalled. A modicum of form returned when re-instated back onto the left wing, but Cristian had contended with 3 positions in 3 months, and it showed in a player who needs confidence, stability, and consistency to deliver his best.
Montano is one of the most baffling players I’ve seen don a Vale shirt; I’ve never seen a player manage to look world-class and non-league in the same move. Monty manages to waltz past 3 men in his typical Bambi fashion, never quite looking in control of the ball as limbs flail in unexpected directions, before shanking it out of play. Fans applaud and groan at the same time. Adoration and bafflement.
He has the most ‘limby’ dribbling style I’ve ever seen; its highly effective but every move almost looks accidental. Just as you think he’s lost the ball, he contorts his body and wriggles away, stumbling and flailing as he drives forward. He’ll glide past half of the oppostion team before you realise that the previous passage of play was intentional.
A return to left-back this season has seem the re-emergence of the Monty I fell in love with; erratic and exciting, worrying and wonderful. He’s chaos embodied in the human body, in the footballer’s boot, and we humans are naturally attracted to chaos. Just maybe not when chaos is facing his own goal, pressed by 3 players, and has decided a Cruyff turn, flip-flap, and roulette preceeding a cross-field through ball is the safest route out.
In the last two games, Monty has reminded us of his true abilities; aggressive, physical, pacey, creative; all of the key attributes from a full-back. Two consecutive Man of the Match performances
Cristian; you give me weekly heart attacks, I’m never sure what you’re attempting to do, and you’re still my favourite player.