Which of Port Vale's Players Can Step Up?
His previous appearances for us have seen Tom Bourne chronicle the recent, decidedly torrid financial history of Port Vale Football Club. After entering administration just over a year ago and suffering the requisite ten point penalty, the unease at Vale Park was lessened when Paul Wildes took over the club in November.
So for once, we are happy to allow Tom to reflect on a still encouraging season on the pitch for Vale – here he speculates as to which of the current playing staff might successfully negotiate the potential step up to League One while also assessing the credentials of their experienced manager. Tom can be followed on twitter at @thethomasbourne.
The invitation to pen this piece on which of Vale’s team could make the step up to League One came at an interesting time. During a recent BBC Radio Stoke commentary, expert summariser Ray Williams, a former Vale striker, suggested that possibly only two players could comfortably do just that. Given that Vale were at the time top of the table, it seemed at the time to be a more than surprising comment.
However, over recent weeks, and apart from back to back wins over York City and Cheltenham Town, performances have dropped alarmingly, which leaves the Valiants in a battle for promotion. Hence, should Vale succeed, player additions would be highly likely, although of those who currently reside at Vale Park, it may be interesting to take a look at who could make the step up the footballing ladder and whether Williams is right to be so pessimistic:
Goalkeeper: Chris Neal
Undoubtedly one of the major reasons for Vale’s success this year. Surprisingly captured from one of last year’s promoted clubs, Shrewsbury Town, Neal opted for the ‘security’ of a two year deal in the Potteries, rather than a one year contract with the Shrews. Not that there was much security following the collapse of Keith Ryder’s proposed takeover back in August. The 27 year old has added an air of calm authority to the defence, and a couple of mistakes notwithstanding has looked as secure a keeper seen at Vale Park over recent times. Not that the competition for that particular award has been fierce.
Right Back: Richard Duffy
Whilst not the most mobile or necessarily the quickest, Duffy has been another to improve the team this season. A chequered fitness record may have put others off, though many at Exeter City were sad to see him depart, having played in League One last term. Vale have notably conceded fewer goals at the back post and given the lack of defensive support at times owing to the Valiants ultra-positive approach, the Welshman has enjoyed a solid first year in the Potteries.
Verdict: To be Retained
Left Back: Daniel Jones
A January signing following his release by Sheffield Wednesday, the Dudley born full back has impressed during his brief stay. Possessing pace and bundles of energy, he appears tailor made for Micky Adams’ side. Having played at the League above for the majority of his career, there is little doubt that Jones has the capabilities to make the step up, although given the number of clubs he has turned out for, consistency and focus may well be the watchwords going forward.
Centre Half: Darren Purse
The former Birmingham City and Cardiff City defender initially added a much need dominant presence at the heart of the Vale back four following his January move from Plymouth Argyle. While the legs may no longer be as willing, Purse remains very much a no nonsense kind of defender. However, he has begun to look his age during recent outings. A lack of pace and an inability to play games in quick succession may hamper him in the league above, though the nature of his contract suggests he will be given a new deal should Vale earn promotion.
Verdict: To Be Replaced
Centre Half: John McCombe
A popular member of the squad among both players and supporters, the Yorkshireman has been a reassuring presence in the Vale side over recent years, particularly during some very barren times. However, he is another with a lack of mobility and this would likely hinder his rise up the footballing pyramid. If the Vale are to prosper at a higher level, he may well be one who needs to move on.
Verdict: To Be Replaced
Right Winger: Jennison Myrie-Williams
The enigma. More clubs than Jack Nicklaus and still only 23. The archetypal lower league winger who both enthrals and enrages in equal measure. Myrie-Williams has enjoyed the most successful season of his career, being an almost ever present. Along with his wing twin Ashley Vincent, he was one of Vale’s star men over the first few months of the campaign. Strong, quick, athletic, two footed and with an eye for goal, he possesses all the attributes needed to play at a higher level, yet is frustratingly inconsistent. He has not been as effective in recent times, but he is someone Vale fans would be pinning their hopes on to provide a creative spark going forward.
Central Midfield: Ryan Burge
One of the more surprising developments this season has been the emergence of Burge. Signed from the Glenn Hoddle Academy in Spain a couple of years ago, Burge had enjoyed loan spells with Doncaster Rovers and Oxford United without making a significant breakthrough. A serious knee injury ruled him out for a year, and Adams responded by placing him on the transfer list. However, Burge quickly forced his way into the first team. Playing central midfield in a Vale side that effectively plays 4-2-4 can be a thankless task, though Burge’s energetic and industrious displays have impressed many, including the watching scouts. However, Burge’s future is uncertain at present owing to a very public spat with manager Micky Adams following his omission from the team to play Bristol Rovers after missing a team meal. The midfielder then unwisely took to Twitter to vent his frustration.
Verdict: Likely to be released
Central Midfield: Doug Loft (Captain)
Without quite hitting the heights of last season when he scooped the Player of the Year award, Loft remains an influential player. Not least owing to his versatility which has seen him fit in at left back, right back, on both flanks as well as his favoured central midfield position over the last 18 months. Whether his favoured position is indeed his best, is another debate entirely. Vale would require a more creative midfield at a higher level, however.
Left Wing: Ashley Vincent
Another to start the season on fire following an injury plagued couple of seasons, Vincent sparkled with a series of dynamic performances. However, a worrying loss of form over recent months has left supporters scratching their heads. Whether Vincent can recapture and maintain his best form in a higher division, where he previously played with Colchester United, remains in some question. Recent opposition have flooded the midfield and doubled up on Vale’s wide men, negating much of the Valiants’ attacking threat. A recent injury is likely to see Vincent miss the remainder of the season.
Verdict: Jury Out
Striker: Tom Pope
Last season, Pope was the often the subject of fans’ ire and many would happily have seen him depart. With a full pre-season behind him for the first time in years, a more mature approach, and a system that suits him down to the ground, the 28 year old has been a revelation. The clues, however, should have been spotted earlier. When the ‘talismanic’ Marc Richards missed the early part of last season, Pope formed an effective partnership with Sean Rigg, now at Oxford United. With nearly every attack going through Richards, and with no natural width on offer, the life-long Vale fan was reduced to the role of ‘worker’, performing all the ugly jobs with no rewards.
Many of his recent performances have coincided with Vale’s loss of form. He has yet to forge an effective partnership with Lee Hughes, with both preferring to play with their back to goal and given a lack of service, Vale and Pope’s threat has often been negated. An eleven goal barren spell coincided with the downturn but now, armed with the League Two player of the season award, Pope has bounced back in style. Given the same service at a higher level, there is little doubt that he’ll continue to find the net. His record is all the more impressive for the fact he takes neither penalties nor free kicks.
Striker: Lee Hughes
One of the most controversial signings of recent memory. From my point of the view, doubts lay for footballing reasons. Not that Hughes has lost any of his predatory goal scoring instincts – six goals in eight starts are testament to that – but Vale have lost much of their fluidity and shape since his arrival. Would be a more than useful option from the bench, and if Vale do go up looks set to be rewarded with a new deal. However, at 36, even Hughes may struggle to continue to be as effective.
Verdict: Squad Player.
Of the others, Louis Dodds remains a personal favourite, although possibly not with Adams. As technically proficient a player as there is at this level, Dodds has provided Vale with some tactical flexibility this season, often being deployed behind Pope and helping create space for others. Out of contract in the summer, he may be a casualty.
Adam Yates has impressed in recent outings though has struggled to cement a place in the first team. Liam Chilvers would likely be surplus to requirements, while I’m convinced that the raw Ben Williamson will make a striker for someone. However, that is unlikely to be in League One next season. Others who would likely to depart include Calvin Andrew, the frustrating Robert Taylor and Chris Shuker. Clayton McDonald has already departed on loan to Bristol Rovers. Sam Morsy has often found himself out of favour of late and could be another Adams chooses to move on. Most would agree that Morsy has been hard done by. Chris Birchall has been thrust into the spotlight after waiting patiently for a game. Whether he has enough opportunities to earn a new deal remains to be seen. Anthony Griffith has returned on loan from Leyton Orient where many felt he didn’t handle the step up a level, though is clearly a favourite of Adams.
Youngsters Joe Davis and Ryan Lloyd would likely be given more time to develop, though Kingsley James may not. Davis in particular can count himself unfortunate not to be given more opportunities this term.
As for the main man himself, it will be very much job done for Micky Adams should Vale gain promotion. If they don’t then he may well be looking for fresh employment. He did a terrific job in trying circumstances during the months in administration, guiding Vale into the automatic promotion places and there was a large tide of goodwill. However, at times this season he has been tactically out-witted or at least proved a little inflexible. With opposition managers negating Vale’s attacking threat, deploying an extra body in midfield and doubling up on the wide-men, Vale increasingly struggled, albeit not helped by a poor pitch. Recent signings have largely been uninspired. The Vale boss has also irked many with his criticism of supporters of late. Alienating fans when you are successful is an unwise move as you then find sympathy in short supply during the bad times. Vale’s new owners seem to be looking at a long-term plan, though promotion or not may well dictate whether Adams is the man to oversee it.