Dark Times at Port Vale
If ever a start to a season were deceiving, then one can point immediately to Port Vale. Regular contributor Tom Bourne charts an alarming slide over the winter months for the Burslem boys.
Previewing the fortunes of League One teams for this publication over the summer was a troubling task. As a long-standing supporter of Port Vale, Chairman Norman Smurthwaite’s decision to effectively dispense with the services of Robert Page in favour of the unproven Portuguese manager Bruno Ribeiro, filled me and many others with dread. Back in June supporters were promised an extremely ‘high profile’ appointment, who had immaculate references from within the football industry. Riberio’s unexpected arrival was effectively sealed on the phone call of his friend, one Jose Mourinho. A multitude of signings from across Europe, seemingly scouted via YouTube soon followed, none of whom had any experience of lower league English football. If it sounded a recipe for disaster, so it proved. The experiment was both ill-fated and short-lived, as Ribeiro graciously fell on his sword (with a helping hand) following a dismal run of results and performances. Michael Brown, somewhat handcuffed in his role as ‘assistant manager’, has been handed the proverbial hospital pass, having been appointed caretaker boss and tasked with re-shaping a bloated and unbalanced squad mid-way through the season, in what is increasingly looking to be a relegation fight.
Things began brightly enough. As September drew to a close, supporters were pleasantly surprised as the Valiants enjoyed a respectable start to the campaign. A victory over early pace setters and promotion contenders Scunthorpe United, an up-tempo second half display against Gillingham and a midweek victory over last season’s beaten play-off finalists Millwall saw Vale occupy 4th position. A televised victory over a struggling MK Dons suggested better things to come and saw pundits purring over Vale’s organisation.
However, things quickly deteriorated to such an extent that even hardened supporters lost faith in Vale’s season. Between the win at MK Dons and Ribeiro’s departure following the Boxing Day defeat to Walsall, Vale produced a series of abysmal displays. A 4-0 mauling at the hands of Sheffield United (who also had four goals ruled out for offside), dreadful first half displays at home to Charlton Athletic and Oxford United, where sheer bloody mindedness more than any tactical acumen saw a fortuitous point stolen on both occasions. Being 3-0 down after 16 minutes at Bolton doesn’t really need dwelling on, nor does the 4-0 defeat at AFC Wimbledon, where in the aftermath Smurthwaite intimated that his manager was ‘toast’.
Failure to defeat relegation fodder Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town, as well as a defeat to former manager Robert Page’s Northampton Town, were other lowlights, but it was also the insipid nature of Vale’s displays that were causing concern. A particular low point was the soulless and fortunate FA Cup victory over League Two Stevenage, which was best summed up by an elderly gentleman, who after showing no sign of life for 95 minutes, leaving many to fear he had perished in the biting northerly wind, sprang to life at the game’s conclusion, opining ‘bloody rubbish’. He wasn’t wrong. It was the first time in 30 years of supporting the club I have heard boos accompany a victory.
Early warning signs were revealed against hapless Coventry City, who despite having failed to win any of their opening ten matches, and having parted company with manager Tony Mowbray only days before, comprehensively out-thought and out-played the Valiants, providing the blueprint for other teams in how to combat Vale’s approach. The early season ruse of playing out from the back was thwarted by well prepared opposition who pressed high up the pitch, pressurising Anthony Grant, Vale’s deep lying midfielder, and leaving little option but to play aimless balls to an isolated lone striker, none of the various ensemble deployed being in any way suited to the role.
Much of the early season promise was built on a solid back line, featuring two promising young defenders who barely got a look in under the previous regime: Remie Streete, formerly of Newcastle United, seemingly fell out of favour under Page after Vale’s calamitous FA Cup defeat to Exeter City; and Nathan Smith, who enjoyed a productive loan spell with Torquay United, where he picked up the young player and player of the year award, have been stand out performers. Smith, in particular, has attracted the attention of scouts from a higher up the pyramid.
Ribeiro for the most part refused to bow to supporters’ desire to revert to two up front. Well, we say refused. No one knew for sure, as the Portuguese opted out of giving any pre or post match interviews between the win at MK Dons on 9th October and the defeat at Charlton on 19th November. His increasingly sullen appearance in the dug out, where he seemed, from a distance, to be disappearing ever further into his coat, cast further doubt.
His pre-season decision to award three players the captaincy, on a rotating basis seemed odd, hinting at a lack of decisive leadership, though at times it has also appeared that Vale had three managers. Communication was left either to the respected Brown, or Ribeiro’s right-hand man, the heavily tattooed Andy Smith, who looked as if he’d be better suited to serving flat whites in Hoxton then providing any semblance of tactical analysis.
The disappearance of one of said captains, the cerebral Ben Purkiss, after an apparent disagreement following the defeat at Bramall Lane, only added to the intrigue. There were some mitaging circumstances, however. Injuries to Anton Forrester and to midfield dynamo Sam Foley and a five-game suspension for Grant left Vale bereft of attacking options at times and heavily reliant for goals on (the now departed) loanee Alex Jones. Seeing the Valiants field a front three at one point featuring two inexperienced left backs, was bizarre to say the least. Many of the imports have looked ill equipped for the rigours of English football. Some have barely featured at all. Glimpses of ability have been shown by the young Monaco pair Sébastien Amoros and Anthony de Freitas. Burslem in the winter isn’t Monaco, however.
The painfully slow nature of Vale’s football, the lack of creativity, chances created, movement or indeed any obvious attacking plan, has made those familiar with Jim Gannon’s bizarre 74 day spell as manager, resemble something more akin to Brazil circa 1970. And this was a man who spectacularly fell out with anyone he came across, infamously fielding two centre halves in midfield against a Barnet side fighting for Football League survival.
That is not to say Vale have stumbled upon some panacea with the appointment of Brown. The arrival of any new manager usually coincides with the claim that his side ‘aren’t fit enough’, but Brown’s assertion that the squad’s fitness levels were alarmingly low was a damning indictment of Ribeiro’s reign, while Purkiss was even more scathing in his assessment following Saturday’s defeat to Peterborough. In an era of sports science, it seems inconceivable that there wasn’t a closer monitoring of player fitness and well-being. Brown at least appeared quick to identify Vale’s deficiencies and to inject some pace, width and energy into the side. The signings of midfielder Callum Guy and forward Tyler Walker on loan from Derby County and Nottingham Forest respectively already appear shrewd acquisitions.
Even so, the January transfer window hasn’t been entirely kind. Bids for first choice targets proved unsuccessful. Last season’s sulking player of the year, Grant, finally got his wish to leave the club after originally handing in a transfer request as far back as August. A six figure fee from Peterborough United for a 29 year old whose contract expires in the summer appears decent business, although Vale’s reliance on him is reflected in their appalling record without him in the side. Less good business was the sale of star goalkeeper Jak Alnwick. Rangers triggered a £250,000 buy out in his contract, a figure well below his current worth. As the legendary boxing promoter Don King often stated, though, “You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate”. Aligned to the departure of the experienced Ryan Taylor and top scorer Alex Jones, the Valiants have lost some key personnel in what was already a struggling side.
Concerning to supporters will be what appears to be a somewhat haphazard recruitment process, both managerially and player wise, which leaves many wondering if there is any identifiable or coherent scouting network in place. The replacements for the above have included 34 year old Danny Pugh from Blackpool, an Italian goalkeeper from Celtic yet to start a professional league game and two callow teenage loanees from Queens Park Rangers, all overseen by a caretaker manager with limited experience operating in trying circumstances. Already the club have used close to 40 players this season, never a sign of a successful side with a clear philosophy. Also a worry is the number of players who are either on short-term deals or out of contract in the summer, so yet another overhaul is on the cards, whoever the manager and whatever the division Vale should find themselves in. With some transfer money banked, there remains hope that a clear headed approach can be taken in the summer, in a much better climate for signing players, whoever is in charge.
History would suggest that experiments such as Vale’s rarely succeed. History suggested that Ribeiro rarely stuck around anywhere for very long. Supporters are at least grateful that the chairman recognised the folly of his decision, hopefully before it is too late. Indeed, Smurthwaite may well look not only at Page’s failure at Northampton, but also at the failure of Vale’s many departed players, who have largely struggled at their new clubs, as some form of bizarre vindication for his decision to get rid of them, however clumsily it was fashioned. Ironically, the Valiants’ small cushion over the relegation zone largely comes from their early season form, when opposition sides had little idea of what to expect. Plan A was a resounding failure and an unnecessary gamble, with Ribeiro now little more than a footnote in the club’s long history. Whether Brown has the requisite nous or quality at his disposal to ensure Plan B doesn’t follow suit, remains to be seen.