Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 20th; W 11 / D 14 / L 21 / F 49 / A 67 / Pts 47
Not exactly the season the Burslem outfit were hoping for, back in the fourth tier. An opening day win against Crawley Town wasn’t a portent of things to come. The Valiants lost the next six and failed to win any of the subsequent five. In the middle of that dismal winless run, Michael Brown was sacked and eventually replaced by Neil Aspin, three weeks later. He astutely observed that the previous régime had not got close to, or enough out of club icon Tom Pope, so he changed the tactics accordingly.
Results picked up heading into the New Year, only to once again fall off a cliff. It would take another 14 matches to register a victory. An unthinkable second successive relegation was avoided in the end by a solitary point, but luckily for the Staffordshire side, it didn’t come down to the final day, as they were on the receiving end of a 5-0 thwacking by Cambridge United. The close season has brought renewed hope and a high turnover of players.
Top Goalscorer: Tom Pope (17 goals in 41 starts/3,679 minutes)
Top Creator: David Worrall (7 assists in 36 starts/3,237 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Neil Aspin; a bona fide playing legend at Vale Park, having served the club so admirably as a centre back/right back for a decade and accumulating north of 400 appearances in that time. His win percentage as a manager prior to returning ‘home’ was very high, having cut his teeth at three northern non-league clubs, most notably FC Halifax Town. He has gradually down a bloated squad, which numbered as high as 33 when he inherited it There are still several players on the transfer list at the time of writing. Having (just) guided them to survival, he will be hoping for, and expecting better from his troupe.
Ins: Emmaunel Oyeleke (Aldershot Town), Scott Brown (Wycombe Wanderers), Brendon Daniels (Alfreton), Leon Legge (Cambridge United), Luke Joyce (Carlisle United), Connell Rawlinson (The New Saints), Theo Vassell (Gateshead), Ricky Miller (Peterborough United), Scott Quigley (Blackpool on loan) & Idris Kanu (Peterborough United on loan).
Outs: Joe Slinn (free agent), Henry Middleton (free agent), Anton Forrester (free agent), Ryan Boot (Solihull Moors), Luke Dennis (free agent), Rob Lainton (Wrexham on loan), Kjell Knops (free agent), Charlie Walford (free agent), Graham Kelly (free agent), Chris Regis (free agent), Dan Turner (Falkirk on loan) & Callum Howe (Harrogate Town).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Using way too many goalkeepers ought to be a thing of the past for Vale in 2018/2019. Scott Brown has come in, having played every single league game of Wycombe’s promotion gaining campaign. His all-round game is superb, but if there is one major weakness, it’s if the ball is played back to him at pace on his left side. He will always look to shift it onto his right and high-pressing opponents might target that.
A lot of goals were conceded last term, so it’s unsurprising to see increased competition at centre back. Nathan Smith will be joined by the likes of Leon Legge and Connell Rawlinson. If it’s a flat four, I anticipate the latter getting the nod, and he will use his height and muscular frame to shield the ball from attackers and dominate in the air. James Gibbons is a tireless worker on the right side, and is adept at wing-back, should a switch be needed. On the opposite wing, Cristian Montaño is similarly versatile, as well as being incredibly agile on and off the ball and should have the freedom of the flank.
Younger legs have been brought into the fold to be the defensive pivot. Even at 30, Luke Joyce is one such player, and he has a good number of rivals for his place. Aggressive in the tackle without being over the top, his screening job will be key to winning the ball back quickly and cleanly if they’re countered upon.
Luke Hannant and David Worrall can play in the half-space or wide as required, offering Aspin plenty of flexibility and food for thought. The latter, well-known to Bury fans in two separate spells, hasn’t lost his pace and, more importantly, has improved his threat from crosses and drifting runs to the far post.
The key with captain Tom Pope as a focal point is to play to his considerable strengths whilst not being too predictable and over-reliant on him as an outlet. The signings of Ricky Miller and Louis Dodds should simultaneously ease the pressure on him and give him more quality to work with close-by.
Dodds is a playmaker, who can dictate play from out wide or in a front two, as well as behind the strikers and can often be seen accurately attempting shots with the outside of his right foot. Miller can create nice angles with his strong left peg, and should find space to move into with Pope’s help.
The ‘banter king’ of lower league Twitter scarcely needs an introduction; he’s the archetypal target man, whose hard work often goes unnoticed, especially if he’s not scoring. An uncompromising, unselfish player, his team ethic and leadership, as well as his heading ability, make him one of the most influential and dangerous in his role.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; with his feet firmly under the table and largely now his own roster of players, Aspin should lead Port Vale from the nadir of their joint-lowest ever finish in the EFL to at the very least, the top half of the standings. There is an excellent amount of tactical flexibility in the squad, most of the weaker areas have been considerably strengthened and there’s more depth to their team, despite the overall numbers being trimmed. They have every chance of making the top seven, if long, winless runs can be stamped out.