Matthew Crichton: Port Vale finished 13th in League Two last year, what are your expectations for the club this season?
Scott Challinor: I’m expecting Vale to be fighting for the playoff places in League Two this season. There’s a great deal of confidence in the new management structure at the club, spearheaded by Port Vale manager Darrell Clarke and director of football David Flitcroft, which largely springs from the fine winning run that took us up the table toward the end of the 2020/21 campaign.
Albeit, Clarke has opted to dispense with much of last season’s squad and ring the changes, more effort and precision has gone into the recruitment process than ever before to ensure the players brought in fit the club’s ethos and ambitions, as well as having the ability to cope with the demands of the division.
The club’s owners, Carol and Kevin Shanahan, have made a significant investment to make all of this possible, and I feel this could be the season where their efforts and patience are rewarded after a steep learning curve last term. With things going well off the pitch, a football structure headed by capable men and a playing squad with plenty of quality at this level, there is no reason we shouldn’t be looking to get into the top seven.
Of course, with as many changes as there have been, it will take time for a new squad to gel and find its best form. Indeed, our narrow opening day defeat at Northampton vindicates that idea. It will be this factor that probably means the automatic promotion places are just beyond us, but I’m optimistic that we can occupy between 4th and 7th to secure a playoff berth.
MC: After a tricky start when he was first appointed, Darrell Clarke guided your team to a nine-match unbeaten run last season - what are your thoughts on his time managing the club so far?
SC: I have been really pleased with Darrell Clarke’s reign to date. It took a few weeks of patience and hard work, but eventually the many hours spent on the training ground drilling a struggling Vale side to become hard to beat culminated in our best winning streak for many years to guide us away from relegation trouble and into the safety of midtable in 2020/21.
Clarke came into the club with an air of realism, a desire to win, and a hunger to improve the squad and ensure results matched the ambition of the owners.
He and newly appointed director of football David Flitcroft have also set about making major and overdue changes to the club’s infrastructure, looking to enhance the training facilities and overhaul the sports science department in an effort to take the club forward in the long term and do away with our traditionally lengthy injury list.
Even though there was the sense that it would be all change at the club this summer, with that winning run behind us from the previous campaign it would have been tempting to trust the same core of players to extrapolate similar results this season, or at least offer deals to one or two.
However, Clarke opted to instead dispense with the group of players that had, through their poor form earlier last season, masterminded predecessor John Askey’s downfall. Clarke’s decision to release every out-of-contract player in the squad and back himself to rebuild the side may have seemed brazen at the time, but he will feel vindicated in that decision by the fact that the majority of those released have dropped down into non-league.
His replacements, at least on paper, look to have improved the side and I was and still am happy with the decisions the manager has taken. The issue in the immediate term is how long it will take the squad to gel?
A Vale team with seven debutants slipped to a 1-0 opening day defeat to Northampton, during which goalkeeper Lucas Covolan was sent off. Still, I’m happy with the manager, I am very pleased with his reaction following the opening day defeat, and we can be cautiously optimistic in our expectation of a reaction.
The question is when it is going to come.
MC: The Carabao Cup has received vast criticism over the past few years regarding fixture congestion and whether it is still relevant, do you think the competition needs to be evolved, scrapped or kept the same?
SC: I think there is still a place for it as it is, personally. It is a good competition to have a run in and doesn’t consist of quite as many rounds as its counterparts, the FA Cup and the much-maligned EFL Trophy.
Further to that, it provides managers with a chance to rotate and experiment early on in the season in a competitive game, as well as presenting opportunities for an early-season plum tie for one or two.
I suppose the further you get, the more it does catch up with you. So, I think scrapping extra time and having the ties settled by spot-kicks after 90 minutes was a move in the right direction from the EFL and avoids unnecessary fatigue.
MC: Port Vale’s most notable signing is ex-Manchester United striker James Wilson, is he someone you believe can be a 20 goal striker if he stays fit?
SC: If he stays fit and if we use him properly, yes. Wilson is a natural finisher who comes with a lot of pedigree as well as a reasonable amount of pace. He also scored eight goals in League Two last season playing in a wide role for Salford City, so he should be able to add to that by leading the line and playing more centrally.
However, a lot of our play during the opening game saw long balls going into channels that we expected Wilson to chase. He is not a striker for chasing lost causes nor is he a hold-up player. He is best with the ball coming into feet, linking play and finishing chances.
That said, as we play more games and gel as a team, I think we’ll become braver on the ball, work the ball into more dangerous areas, and Wilson will be getting the service he needs to score goals. He is also very much a confidence player from what I have seen of him, so getting him off the mark with a goal early in the season will be crucial.
MC: The club also signed Brazillian goalkeeper Lucas Covolan, who scored a header in the national league playoff final against Hartlepool recently. I imagine signing a player with Brazillian youth caps raised eyebrows amongst your fanbase?
SC: It certainly did, and two red cards in back-to-back games (our final pre-season game against Chesterfield and the opening game at Northampton) have also done that. Lucas comes with a decent pedigree from his youth career in Brazil, but there were some concerns among the fanbase about his lack of EFL experience compared to predecessor Scott Brown, with the majority of his career in English football spent in the National League or below. Encouragingly, reviews from Torquay fans upon his arrival for positive all-around, and not just because of that playoff final goal.
Personally, I’m very happy with Lucas as a shot-stopper and also as a so-called ‘sweeper keeper’ who likes to come out, command his area, and play out from the back. The one issue with his game, judging by Saturday, is that he needs to recognise when to take an extra touch when in no man’s land, and when to simply clear his lines. He opted for the former on Saturday, paid for it by having his pocket picked, and was forced to pull down the striker and take one for the team resulting in a red card.
So, an eventful start to his Vale career, but he’s one I expect to come good, given time.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who excites you the most out of Port Vale’s 12 new signings for this season?
SC: For me, Malvind Benning. The marauding left-back known as ‘Mal’ or ‘Sir Mal’ to fans of former club Mansfield is an effective defender but also offers a lot going forward. He has a great crossing ability and turn of pace and is also a proficient set-piece taker.
At 27, he is a good age and is familiar with the demands of League Two and League One, having amassed over 300 career appearances across both leagues. I’ve been impressed by his form in pre-season and expect him to play a major part in our season.
MC: Given that both clubs are highly unlikely to advance far in the competition, do you think it likely that we will see two second-string sides and a more friendly-like intensity?
SC: I’m expecting a few changes in the Sunderland team, but I imagine Darrell Clarke will use this as an opportunity to play a strong side with just one or two changes from Saturday and possibly a slight system change to help prepare the side for our first home encounter in the league against Tranmere.
From a Port Vale perspective, Clarke will want the match played at a decent tempo and intensity and for one or two to be a bit braver in possession and look after the ball better than was the case at the weekend. However, if Sunderland quickly assert dominance and begin to monopolise possession, whichever side Lee Johnson opts to deploy, then it may turn into a more defensive exercise for the Vale and be more of an examination of our work off the ball, rather than on it.
There were elements of our defensive game which could be improved going off our game at Northampton, so however the game pans out it will be a good test for us.
MC: Who are the eleven players who you believe Darrell Clarke will select and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter?
SC: My predicted starting XI would be a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Aidan Stone starting in goal for the suspended Lucas Covolan; Lewis Cass, Aaron Martin and Nathan Smith making up the back three; Brad Walker in the central defensive midfield position; David Worrall and Mal Benning as wing-backs, Tom Conlon and Tom Pett operating as more advanced central midfielders, and James Wilson and Devante Rodney forming the forward partnership.
Deploying a back three has been Clarke’s ‘Plan A’ for some time now, and I expect that to continue, given that he spoke ahead of this game about wanting his side to keep and use the ball better in this system to get the fullbacks higher up the pitch and cause problems.
A compact back three of Cass, Martin and Smith should help keep the defence watertight, while the onus will be on attack-minded wing-backs David Worrall, traditionally a winger, and Mal Benning to get up the pitch, with Brad Walker screening the back three to provide cover.
Saturday’s formation saw the Vale use a 3-4-1-2 with a double pivot of Pett and Walker sitting in front of the back three, leaving Conlon playing in the number ten position and left too isolated in between the lines without another midfielder joining him in the press. Getting a more technical and attack-minded midfielder in Pett further up the pitch alongside Conlon will be key for that forward press and help us become more competitive in the midfield battle.
Getting Pett further up the pitch will also be vital to retaining possession in the opposition half and getting those wing-backs further forward rather than seeing them pinned back in a defensive five. After seeing the wingbacks sat in deep and a lot of long balls going into channels over the weekend, I expect our football to be played on the ground, getting our more advanced midfielders and wingbacks on the ball in the final third, and looking to supply balls into the feet of Wilson and Rodney.
Should Sunderland opt to play a high defensive line, we could see the Vale side mix up their approach at times and look for long balls over the top in an effort to use Rodney’s electric pace to get in behind.
MC: Sunderland have won their last two recent cup fixtures against Port Vale, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
SC: This Vale side is still a work in progress, so I’m expecting it to be 2-0 to Sunderland.
Despite some notable summer departures from the Stadium of Light, including hitman Charlie Wyke, the versatile Max Power and attacker Chris Maguire, there’s plenty of quality left in the Black Cats attacking arsenal. This largely comes in the shape of fans’ favourite Aiden McGeady, livewire Lynden Gooch and midfielder Luke O’Nien, plus Alex Pritchard and Will Grigg are two capable players who’ve featured regularly at a higher level than the Vale currently occupy and have proven to be a thorn in our sides before now.
So, being realistic, I think there’s just a little bit too much quality there for a Vale side still finding its feet to overcome this particular hurdle. Should Johnson deploy a strong team, which he may well do having had some success in this competition with Bristol City in the past, our ability to get our more influential players onto the ball could be limited.
My worry is that it could become something of a defensive performance if signs of those opening day nerves continue to linger large and we don’t endeavour to get on the ball enough. But I hope we do show some hunger to play our game, keep the match at a reasonable tempo and give a good account of ourselves rather than retreat and resort to long ball as our primary outlet.