Today’s match at Vale Park feels oddly important in the scheme of this season, writes Tom Morton.
Port Vale are not a team challenging for the top of the table, from their performances so far they look solidly mid-table. Which is all the more reason it’s a game we should show we can win away from home. We’ve taken four points from Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday in recent weeks where the Valiants have lost the same fixtures in about the same timeframe. However, throwing down gritty performances against top teams is only part of the story and we need to turn in good performances against teams like this as well.
Calling Port Vale mid-table isn’t a slur by the way. They were promoted last season and seem to have done sensible business in the summer break. As a result, they’ve turned in a comfortable bottom-of-mid-table performance so far this campaign. It’s the Valiant’s away performance that is giving them a good boost – they are tenth best so far and have taken points from Derby, Burton, and Cambridge. By the way, we now sit fifth for away performances picking up an impressive 1.63 PPG when not at the Bank.
The other thing that seems to have worked for Port Vale is their signings, especially Ellis Harrison. Harrison is highly experienced at this level having played in the third tier with Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth, and Fleetwood (and briefly at Championship level with Ipswich). He joined over the summer for an undisclosed fee; I am not sure how controversial the move was. Harrison joined Fleetwood in the January transfer window last season and is credited with helping them stay up scoring six goals in twenty appearances. He signed a one-year extension with Fleetwood but in early August jumped ship to join the Valiants (and his old manager from Bristol Rovers days). Whatever the reason, he’s scored seven in twelve appearances putting him joint 5th on the top scorers this season so far.
So how will today’s game go? I went through the Goals-By-Minutes stats for both teams to try and pull out some insight. Port Vale have some real peaks and troughs for scoring goals – 30% of them are in the last ten minutes, and overall they score nearly half their goals in the last 15. If they finish strong this works well for us, our danger zone is about 20-30 minutes into the game (24% of goals conceded). Outside of that time period, we don’t have any hotspots or risky spells (including the last ten minutes). That’s fairly impressive and shows the work we’ve done on being a consistent and solid defensive unit. Another goals-by-minute stat I find interesting is that we’ve not scored in the last twenty minutes, at all. Contrast this with the last few seasons where we have seemed to pull goals out of the bag in the dying seconds to get results. On the face of it, having a period of not scoring seems poor. However, marry it with the defensive stats and I think it shows we are scoring early (around half our goals come in the first ten minutes of either half) and then securing the game.
The Valiants will likely line up 3-4-1-2, with James Wilson (Manchester United & Brighton) partnering with Harrison up front. They actually look like a very aggressive team going forward. From clips I can see they like to load the box with three of four players and loop in high crosses. Look out for the high ball to the far post where Harrison will be waiting (he loves to camp out on the corner of the six-yard box and pounce on loose balls). Genuinely they look like a threat at the front, both forwards will be a handful and will need careful managing. I feel like, given their preference for high crosses and well-drilled set pieces – it’s a game we will see Jackson start over Walsh.
At the back, Port Vale do look weaker. They aren’t the fastest line and look to struggle against harassing play of the sort we see from House and Diamond. They do look tight against set pieces but struggle to clear their lines so we should see plenty of second balls and follow-ups from corners. One risk for our opponents is in goal; first-choice keeper (Jack Stevens) didn’t start on Tuesday due to a dead leg and so the Valiant’s started second-choice Aidain Stone. Stevens is on loan from league rivals Oxford United, which in itself is a confusing piece of business given that he had the number one shirt in Oxford’s squad prior to the move and had 30+ appearances for them in previous seasons. In either case, both keepers are struggling to settle and keep clean sheets in their appearances.
One familiar face we may see is Tom Pett. Pett was part of our 18/19 promotion campaign and something of a fan favorite in midfield. After suffering from various injuries which left him unavailable during the early part of the 19/20 season and left us in May 2020. After a spell back at Stevenage, he joined Port Vale in 2021 and was again a key part of a League 2 promotion campaign, appearing 39 times and scoring twice in the league. Over the summer Pett suffered a recurring back injury ruling him out of the early part of the season (genuinely it’s like history repeating itself!) and is struggling to get back into the starting lineup – we may see him as a sub though, having made a total of seven appearances this season.
Head to Head
Our recorded history with the Valiants dates back to 1892 when we joined them as one of the founding teams of Division Two. Since then we’ve been regular opponents as each team’s fortunes rose and fell, meeting a total of 88 times. That means we’ve shared a league for at least 44 years over those 122 years – or 30% of the time. Over time everything has evened out, with around 30 wins each and 23 draws through that period.
Most recently we met in 2019, our promotion season saw us smash Port Vale for six goals away from home. It would be a real boost to this season to run the same gauntlet again!