Port Vale's Attacking Quartet Help to String a Good Start Together
As the tables begin to settle down into the kind of patterns that we can to some extent expect for the rest of the season, there’s one team in particular in League 2 whose position comes as something of a surprise.
Despite being some six months into a period of administration, Port Vale are flying; Tuesday’s 5-2 romp at Fleetwood their fifth win from the seven league games played thus far.
Coming off the back of a further away win at Plymouth, to which I was a witness, as well as a 6-2 mauling of Rotherham, Vale’s forthcoming encounter this weekend at home to first-placed Gillingham now promises to be some game.
Given the long, dispiriting summer period — chronicled on these pages by Tom Bourne — which witnessed an aborted takeover deal, the loss of key men Marc Richards, Anthony Griffith and Sean Rigg, and a well-publicized wrangle between players and administrators over contractual terms resulting in the premature departure of new signing David Artell, few would have anticipated such a positive start. Rather, in the words of Tom Bourne, the only comfort at the beginning of the season came — perhaps — in simply still having a team to support.
But with the club breaking even and paying its players — for now — and with six parties apparently interested in purchasing English professional football’s current top scorers, things are looking up.
Is this just a flash of good form, or does this Vale side possess the quality to remain in the division’s top three? This was the question that was running through my mind on Saturday as I saw Vale run out at Home Park last weekend in their ghastly dark acid pink away number.
Lining up with the same eleven that has now gone unchanged for eight games, Vale initially struggled to cope with the home side’s short passing game and looked — in the most part — like just another bunch of bottom tier duffers intent on driving it long to their beanpole striker.
But a goal down, Vale rallied around the 30 minute mark and the last period of the opening half provided a series of examples of why the Burslem side have made such a mark in the first six weeks of the season.
Led by boyhood Vale fan Tom Pope in attack, their game continued to be characterized by direct play but, as confidence returned to the side, this was increasingly mixed with neat, quick interchanges between Pope, support man Louis Dodds — as fine a footballer there is at this level — and wingers-cum-strikers Jennison Myrie-Williams and Ashley Vincent.
In particular, lower league nomad Myrie-Williams made a significant impression, teasing his marker and always eager to shoot when cutting in from the right.
But as the game wore on it was Vincent, the ex-Cheltenham speedster, who made the most tangible contribution to the game. Bumped off the ball in the area, it was his darting run that assisted Myrie-Williams’ leveller from twelve yards before sliding in a second goal himself.
There was more to come; with Argyle manager Carl Fletcher suffering — in his own words — from ‘shell shock’, Vincent drew a foul just a few minutes later which resulted in a third, game-killing goal.
It finished 3-1 and I was tempted to write up an upbeat post-mortem directly afterwards. Yet, eyeing Vale’s next game at a similarly form-blessed Fleetwood on Tuesday night, I didn’t quite have enough courage of my conviction and decided instead to see how the game played out.
I needn’t have worried. Citing the ‘streetwise’ qualities of his namesake’s Micky Adams’ side, the nature of Vale’s win sounded familiar as Fleetwood manager Micky Mellon referred to the ‘untold problems’ caused by Vale’s front four in his post-match comments.
That’s not to say that this quartet is up to the levels of quality that saw Peterborough rise through the divisions with George Boyd, Aaron McLean and Craig Mackail-Smith, for example; indeed, Dodds himself perhaps summed up — albeit jokingly — the general view on target man Pope after he scored four goals against ex-club Rotherham: ‘I didn’t know Tom Pope had three in him, let alone four.’
But in a year where Vale’s attacking players can finally come out of the shadows following talisman Marc Richards’ departure and in a division where momentum and confidence can take a team far, these four could provide the foundations upon which a promotion bid is built.
Whether they are backed up adequately across the park is another matter. The back four is solid and shows promise out wide with full backs Doug Loft and Richard Duffy both eminently capable performers. Yet in the centre of midfield a combination of veteran Chris Shuker — one of those players who Shebby Singh would have down as being ‘quite literally of no use’ if he was to continue playing as a winger — and youngster Sam Morsy merely keep things ticking over and looked far from world-beaters on my viewing. That, perhaps, is a position on the pitch which opposition managers may target in the future.
Moreover, Vale quite understandably keep a small squad and only a smattering of players outside the current starting eleven would appear to be candidates for a promotion-winning side. Further, it seems like a roster that’s unlikely to be added to any time soon; Marc Richard’s quote from an interview last season providing an insight into the mindset that currently prevails at Vale Park: ‘If another team comes in for any player, it’s a chance to go and get paid. We’re a tight-knit bunch of lads and we’re trying to be light-hearted about it. But if we miss the next pay packet, that’s two months’ mortgages.’
Overlooking all of this, though, is manager Micky Adams and his experience is probably Vale’s best asset. Despite some less successful times at other clubs in recent years, Adams knows this level of the game all too well and although there are other wily operators in the division — Steve Evans, Martin Allen and Paul Sturrock to name but a few — Adams’ time at Vale Park, in both his first and second stints in charge, have been resoundingly positive despite the club’s numerous off the field problems.
Two tough opponents in the form of Gillingham and Bradford come next, but few would have predicted a fourteen goal haul from Vale’s last three fixtures against Rotherham, Plymouth and Fleetwood. It’d be silly to make a prediction based on such early form but, for now, it would seem that Vale are giving their fans a lot more than simply providing them with a team to support.