The Thursday Preview: Oxford Vs Port Vale
With year-end targets at work biting, it’s an express preview this week based predominantly on recent first-hand impressions rather than diligent research.
Indeed, along with the other original unfortunate (not to mention a further couple) I made the trip to the Kassam on Tuesday to see a youthful Plymouth side soundly beaten by their hosts. It was a depressing event; besides being a pain to get to, many will appreciate that the stadium is about as spiritless as they come and, perched a distance away from home supporters at the far side of the North Stand, I did start to wonder what it was all about, just as one Gary Andrews did in a moving recent post.
Yet the home XI that took to the field on Tuesday night is undoubtedly one which is capable of putting fire in yellow bellies, for underrated manager Chris Wilder really has got them playing well. As Rupert Fryer commented afterwards, this is a team whose movement is causing opposition problems and with their levels of confidence soaring, it was a question of when rather than if as they strode towards Jake Cole’s goal in the last third of Tuesday’s game.
With beanpole striker James Constable at their apex and dynamos Alfie Potter and Robert Hall, the subject of our next Monday Profile, buzzing in and around his position, challenges were drawn and space created at a rate for chunky midfielders Simon Heslop, Paul McLaren and Peter Leven to exploit. When adding rangy full-backs Damian Batt and Liam Davis to the mix, Oxford’s attacking presence seemed on another level to those sides’ I’ve previous seen in League 2 this year.
Though there may be doubts about the kind of wages:turnover ratio they’re working under, the depth of the squad is impressive. The experienced Andrew Whing and a highly-rated Danny Philliskirk arrived from the bench during Tuesday’s game, not to mention the likes of Deane Smalley, Tony Capaldi, Tom Craddock and Harry Worley, none of whom made it on to the pitch for varying reasons.
A narrow defeat at Gills last Saturday aside, the U’s form reflects such a positive spin. The comfortable 5-1 and 3-0 victories at home to Plymouth and Bristol Rovers are the icing, but wins have been ground out regularly after a disappointing initial start and Oxford look fair-set to remain in the promotion party for the course.
Whether they’ll be joined by their opponents this Saturday is perhaps less clear. Wins have been slightly more interspersed throughout the season and there have been a few forgettable defeats already, not least last week’s miserable 4-0 drubbing at home to Morecambe, but Vale lie just one point behind their southern rivals going into this game. Indeed, poor defeats have generally been followed up and overturned by strong performances in the next game; a midweek 3-0 thrashing at an off-key Bristol Rovers a case in point.
With an experienced side in place, which incorporates many players in their third or fourth year with the club, there appears to be a certain continuity in place at Vale. Manager Micky Adams has been, gone and come back in that time, but one gets the sense that he’s now in it for the long haul and, like Paul Sturrock at Southend, his many previous spells at this level suggest that his is a side that cannot be discounted. I haven’t yet seen them, but it’s not difficult to fathom that Vale will put up a stronger fight against Oxford than Plymouth did on Tuesday. I have reservations about the quality of the U’s defending, particularly down the flanks, so I’ll go to go with a score draw here.