Sunderland host League Two side Port Vale tonight in their last sixteen tie of this season’s EFL Trophy. The Black Cats beat Oldham 2-1 in the previous round, whereas The Valiants knocked out Wolves Under-21s.
Lee Johnson’s side have struggled of late, winning just one of their last nine League One matches, but Port Vale are currently managerless having sacked John Askey earlier this month. Danny Pugh is currently in temporary charge and overseen the club’s 3-0 victory over Grimsby on Saturday.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Port Vale fan Scott Challinor, we discussed who he would like to see appointed as Port Vale’s new manager, as well as what Sunderland can expect from the match.
MC: Port Vale recently sacked John Askey, after a run of six games without a win, do you think that was the correct decision?
SC: I think it was absolutely the correct decision and one that had perhaps been coming for a few weeks. Looking deeper than the fact that it was a six game winless streak, we were also on a run of just one win in thirteen in the league having accrued six points from a possible 39 and had failed to score in our previous three games, all against sides who sat below us in the League Two table. For a side harbouring ambitions of the playoffs, that simply was not good enough and I credit the owners for making what must have been a difficult decision.
I say it was a difficult decision because throughout his tenure, Askey undoubtedly improved the side by getting the best out of the players he had at his disposal (until recently!) and had last season run its natural course, he may well have led us into the playoffs. This campaign began in a similar vein, until Askey’s successful stint in the hot seat began to unravel at the beginning of November.
Following a shock FA Cup Round One exit to part-time National League side King’s Lynn, all of his managerial frailties seemed to rear their ugly heads at once as we entered a period of free fall. It seemed at the start of December we had managed to arrest the slide with a stunning 6-3 victory at Bolton and creditable draws against playoff contenders Colchester and Forest Green, but after proceeding to throw away a 2-0 and then 3-2 lead at Walsall the following match to lose 4-3, the barren spell resumed. An abject performance away at Mansfield Town in our first match of 2021, which saw us fall to a 4-0 defeat - our heaviest of the season - brought Askey’s tenure to the point of no return.
Throughout that poor run, a number of factors regarding the manager seemed to concerned the fanbase, namely Askey’s hesitancy to make substitutions and deviate from his favoured 4-3-3 formation, even on the occasions where he has opted to make a tactical substitution. I could go on about those problems for hours, however I feel those issues stemmed from a problem which became the Achilles Heel of Askey’s entire rein: recruitment.
Out of 14 players he signed in the summer transfer window and January transfer window, just prior to and during 2019/20 season, only six remain at the club to date with just three of them having featured regularly in the starting eleven at any point in time. The summer prior to the current campaign, we signed a further seven players. The two most high profile arrivals in that window, forward Theo Robinson and winger Harry McKirdy (who between the scored 23 goals in all competitions last season) have barely featured and are now transfer listed six months into their contracts. Perhaps his unwillingness to make changes was owed to not trusting the players on the bench, players that he himself had signed? It therefore came as little surprise that rumours of discord in the dressing room began to surface as Vale’s form worsened.
To Askey’s credit, the signing of versatile young striker Devante Rodney over the summer has been a revelation and the bright spark of an underwhelming first half of the season. He has been one of the few hits among Askey’s cohort of new recruits and repaid the faith shown in him with seven goals in all competitions, but too few of his signings have had a tangible impact on the squad. Football after all is a results business and sadly results of late just were not good enough. I was sorry to see the manager go the way that he did, but I feel it came at the right time.
MC: The likes of Graham Coughlan, Emile Heskey and ex-Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson have been linked with role, who would be your preferred choice to take over as manager?
SC: I may be a touch optimistic with this one, but my preferred candidate would be Danny Cowley. Yet, that optimism may not be entirely misguided given that at the time of writing, SkyBet have slashed the odds of him taking the Vale job to just 4/1.
Having cut their teeth in non-league, what the Cowley Brothers accomplished in three seasons at Lincoln is nothing short of remarkable and I feel they were somewhat hard done by to have been dismissed by the Huddersfield board having kept the Terriers in the Championship last season. Their impressive collection of promotions and trophies is also backed up by a win ratio of 51.% over 658 games in management.
Looking a bit deeper than that, and taking into account Cowley’s recent comments on Quest TV, I think Port Vale would be an ideal match for the Cowleys. We are very much a community club these days with good owners, very much akin to the sort of project Danny Cowley said that he was looking for. Furthermore, such successful coaches open up a whole new range of possibilities for player recruitment, which has been a huge problem for us in the past, and their brand of football would go down very well with the vast majority of Port Vale supporters.
MC: Port Vale have won the EFL Trophy twice, in 1993 and 2001, how seriously do you think the club are taking it this season and how much does it mean to the fanbase?
SC: Although we tend to rest players in the early stages of the Trophy to ensure the fringe players have as many minutes in the tank as possible, I feel once we reach the knockout stages we gradually start to take the competition more seriously and the further we get the lesser the changes from what would be our strongest side.
Looking at the context in which we go into this last 16 tie, we are out of both the FA Cup and League Cup, have slipped to midtable in the league, and interim boss Danny Pugh will be eyeing this up as another opportunity to stake his claim for the manager’s job on a permanent basis. That in mind, I think and indeed hope that the club will take the tie seriously and we may only see one or two changes at most from the weekend’s victory over Grimsby. Fielding a strong side would not only give us more of a chance of sneaking through, but I think the club should and most likely will be eyeing up the financial rewards of progression and keeping another potential success in our sights to keep the season alive if we prove unable to pick up enough form to mount a realistic assault on the playoffs in the league.
It is a tainted competition compared to the days where we lifted this trophy ourselves, but silverware is silverware and you want to make winning games a habit, regardless of the competition you’re playing in.
MC: In League Two Port Vale currently sit 13th, but have played more games than many of their rivals, is the job for a new manager simply to avoid relegation or is the club aspiring to reach the playoff positions?
SC: Realistically, I think the new manager’s mandate as far as the majority of Port Vale supporters will be concerned is to finish as high in the league as possible and build for an assault on the promotion places next season.
Yet, I have a sneaky feeling that the club’s owners (who set their sights on a promotion bid this season) haven’t ruled out the prospect of a late playoff charge this year. They have a lot of faith in the current squad which fell short last term only on a PPG basis, and I suspect they will be quietly hoping that with a successful transfer window, the new manager could still salvage the campaign. So, I think the target will still be to reach the top seven if possible, but the new gaffer is unlikely to be burdened by unrealistic expectation and will be given ample time to build towards a promotion push.
MC: 35-year-old striker Tom Pope has scored over 100 goals for the club and is the club’s second highest goal scorer of all time, do you think he has enough years in him to become number one?
SC: I would absolutely love for Tom to do it, he is a boyhood Vale fan turned club legend and nobody would deserve it more. Sadly, however, I think it’s going to be beyond him. He’s currently sat on 115 goals in all competitions for the Vale and he’s 49 goals behind our all-time leading scorer Wilf Kirkham on 164.
At 35, I’d say Pope has one, possibly two more seasons left in him. Considering his conversion rate of the last couple of years, he’d need perhaps four more years to come close to beating that record. However, he keeps proving the doubters wrong even at the age he’s at and has backed up his previous Twitter clout by netting at the home of the then champions of England before now (I am of course referring to that famous goal at Manchester City in last season’s FA Cup), so if he does last four or five more years and hit 50 goals in that time to break Wilf’s record and shut me up I’ll happily eat humble pie!
MC: Who are three Port Vale players Sunderland will have to be wary of during the match?
SC: I mentioned him earlier on but one is certainly Devante Rodney. The little known 22-year-old was the Vale’s first 2020 summer signing having been released by big-spending Salford, and raised eyebrows having been handed a three-year deal with most of his goals having come in the National League. He is raw, and there are aspects of his game which can be improved, but he has repaid the club’s faith by netting seven goals in all competitions for Vale this season so far, the most recent of them coming in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Grimsby, and brings both pace and power to the forward line. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s fit for this game having been substituted at half-time on Saturday following a slight knock, but he’ll most likely enter the fray from the bench to wreak havoc against tired legs.
The second is winger David Worrall. Despite having scored just two league goals himself this season, with eight assists (ten in all competitions) he is the leading goals provider in League Two and in the eyes of most Vale fans should be playing at a higher level. Indeed he has already played at a higher level, having featured in the Championship for Millwall and at League One level for clubs including Bury, Oldham and Southend. Unfortunately for the club and for former manager, John Askey, he was out with injury for the majority of December and was sorely missed as we took just two points from a possible 12 in the four games of his absence.
At the age of 30, Worrall still has plenty left in the tank and backs that up with a magnificent work rate. As a winger, he is very direct, loves to take on his fullback and put balls into the box, and can often be seen gambling at the back post when crosses come in from the opposite flank. Definitely a danger man.
Thirdly, Tom Conlon. The 24-year-old centre midfielder is one of the Vale’s most improved players of the last 18 months having first joined the club in the summer of 2018, and was rewarded for his recent performances by being handed the captaincy on Saturday. He has grown into an uncharacteristically classy midfield player for League Two level with a neatness and composure to his passing, but he is also unafraid of the ugly side of the game and can often be seen making full blooded tackles in the centre of the park.
Like Worrall, Conlon had a spell on the sidelines in December through self-isolation and was a huge miss in the Vale midfield as the team faltered without his in-game vocality and presence. His importance is underpinned by his season statistics, having notched four goals and three assists over the course of the campaign, and he has developed a reputation as a proficient set-piece taker, with two of his four league goals coming from direct free-kicks.
MC: Who are the eleven Port Vale players you are expecting Caretaker Manager Danny Pugh to select, plus what style of play can Lee Johnson’s men expect to face?
SC: I’m only expecting one or two changes so my predicted line-up for Tuesday is 4-4-2 with second choice shotstopper Dino Visser starting the game in goal, Saturday’s quartet of Zak Mills, Shaun Brisley, Nathan Smith and Cristian Montaño making up the back four, David Worrall, Scott Burgess, Tom Conlon and Alex Hurst in midfield, and Tom Pope and Mark Cullen the forward partnership to start.
I’d expect to see a direct approach with the fullbacks pushing up in support of wingers Worrall and Hurst, with all four wide men looking to supply crosses into the box for the forward duo of Pope and Cullen. I’d also expect the centre midfield pair to be looking to drive forward at every opportunity against a Sunderland team that I also expect to be changed from the status quo of league action.
Of course, we are going to have to do some defending in spells on Tuesday, during which time wingers Worrall and Hurst will tuck in to augment the midfield and the defensive line will drop back to help absorb pressure.
MC: Sunderland beat Port Vale 2-1 when the two teams last met, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
SC: I’m expecting the same scoreline: 2-1 to Sunderland. It is certainly going to prove a far sterner test than Saturday’s walkover against opponents who currently sit second bottom of the EFL!
Based on the team selections the Black Cats have gone with previously in this year’s competition, the most recent of which featured Chris Maguire, Will Grigg, Josh Scowen and Max Power, I imagine we’ll still be coming up against a strong Sunderland side even if Lee Johnson makes a couple of changes. I imagine he will also be mindful of taking the competition as seriously as I hope we are, with the quarter-finals up after this game and just under £30,000 worth of prize money up for grabs too.
All of that in mind, I’m expecting a spirited Port Vale performance and for us to get onto the scoresheet, but I feel there is still much for us to prove defensively against better opposition and our hosts will have the quality to shade it this time. I’d be happy with a spirited performance and narrowly bowing out now to focus on the league, but let’s see if the lads can surprise me!