Port Vale - a club we haven’t played in 20 years. The last time we played The Vale we had Peter Reid in charge, Tony Blair was yet to become a war criminal and B*Witched were number one in the hit parade. It’s fair to say a lot has changed since then.
At the end of the 90s The Valiants (great nickname) fell down the Football League as we bounced between the Premier League and Championship. Now though, with our fall from grace fully complete, we’re set to face each other in the FA Cup First Round. There’s nothing that quite says “you’re not in the big time any more, buddy boy” than playing in the FA Cup First Round.
Taking it all into account, you can be forgiven for not being too up to date with the goings on at Vale Park.
Like most sides we’ve faced this season, we’ve needed a local expert to catch us up on the opposition and we’re lucky enough to have Mike Baggaley doing the honours this week.
Mike writes for the The Stoke Sentinel, mainly covering Port Vale, so you couldn’t ask for anyone better to fill you in on Sunday’s opponents.
RR: It’s been twenty years since we last met Port Vale, so can you give us a brief catch up on the goings on at the club in that time?
MB: Where to start! John Rudge, the club’s greatest ever manager, lost his job in January 1999 and the Valiants were relegated from what is now the Championship the following season.
Success in the LVD Vans Trophy at the Millennium Stadium followed in 2001, under Brian Horton, but these have been tough times for the club, certainly compared to the glory years of the 1990s.
Since then the club has been in administration twice and spent its time in Leagues One and Two.
There have been highs along the way though. The Vale were promoted from League Two under Micky Adams in 2012/13 when local lad Tom Pope top scored with 33 goals. Tom is back leading the line for the Vale (he’s top scorer with seven this season) and will be the dangerman this weekend.
Neil Aspin, one of the stars of the Vale side of the 1990s, is back at the club as manager and doing a sound job of turning around a club who were in danger of going out of the Football League when he was appointed last October.
Vale eventually stayed up by a point last season but have improved this year and mid-table looks a good bet.
John Rudge is also back at the club as football advisor to Aspin and, although they face a tough job, the steady improvement over the last 12 months gives cause for optimism.
RR: Being from the North East, I’m sure Neil Aspin can’t wait to get stuck into Sunderland. He’s been in charge of Port Vale for just over a year now and, as you mentioned, steered the club away from relegation last season to mid table - a pretty decent record considering this has been a step up for him. Given that he’s a club icon as well, I’m guessing the fans are mainly pleased to have him in charge?
MB: The reviews are certainly more positive now than a month ago when Vale were thumped 6-2 at home to Lincoln, an afternoon Aspin described as his worst in football. I think overall supporters recognise he has a difficult job having taken over a club that had been relegated from League One and was showing signs of going straight through to non league.
As a hero as a player, there is a huge amount of goodwill towards him. That doesn’t spare him from criticism, but I think supporters appreciate he is doing a decent job.
RR: Onto the game, who’s been in good form for you this season? Anyone in particular that Sunderland fans should be worried about?
MB: Look out for Tom Pope, the Vale supporting local lad and target man who is top scorer with seven goals.
Ben Whitfield, who is likely to play just off Tom up front, will run his socks off and is capable of moments of brilliance.
Former Gateshead players Luke Hannant and Theo Vassell are doing well in midfield and wing-back respectively too.
RR: How about our squad? Can you pick out any of Jack Ross’ men who you think will do some damage at Vale Park?
MB: Vale couldn’t have had a tougher draw. Even if Jack Ross makes four of five changes, the strength of his squad has to be respected.
I’ve seen Chris Maguire play really well for Oxford against Vale and I am sure wide-men Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch will be a threat.
RR: Do you expect Neil Aspin to put a strong side out on Sunday or will he rotate? Would a cup run be a nice bonus for Vale or an unnecessary distraction?
MB: He’ll definitely play his strongest side.
The FA Cup and the finances from it are hugely important to Vale so I wouldn’t have expected him to rotate players whether Vale were playing Sunderland or a non-league side.
RR: Finally, can we have a score prediction please?
MB: I’ll go for an entertaining 2-2 draw and look forward to a replay!