Port Vale 2019-20 Season Review with Joe Baker, Nathan Shapland and Scott Challinor

It’s been a progressive season for the Vale, so Gabriel Sutton caught up with lifelong fans Joseph Baker (@pvfclolly), Nathan Shapland (@_Nathanshapland) and Scott Challinor (@PicardyBreezer) to discuss it.

The obvious explanation for Port Vale’s transformation from relegation candidates to Play-Off contenders would be the change of ownership, which the club had needed for a long time… and I’m sure it makes a difference that Carol and Kevin Shanahan are Valiants themselves. How highly would you rate that as a factor behind the change in fortunes?

JOE: Its genuinely impossible to overstate the importance of Carol and Kevin. I am being deadly serious when I say the previous owner fully intended to see this club cease to exist.

Not only did Kevin and Carol save us, when many would have not, but they have re-energised the club with sensible decisions, community engagement, and honesty; something we have lacked for 20 years.

They are committed to sustainable building, not overspending, and bringing good, hard-working people in to do the job, which has manifested itself on the pitch.

The revival of the club over the last 12 months is miraculous, and until the day I die I will be indebted to the Shanahans for saving us and reignited a faltering flame of love for my football club.

Their trust in Askey, belief in treating the players properly, and running the club ethically has galvanised a broken institution. Fantastic people.

NATHAN: I’d say it’s the main reason for r success this season given how it was around the club last season and how they’ve just revolutionised it by not just being there employer but a friend who always listens to the players and fans.

SCOTT: I think the fact that they both love the club in that way is a massive factor.

They are far more engaged with not just the fanbase but also the wider community, and they have been working proactively with the club’s staff and players simply to make everyday processes better and enhance their working lives.

I feel there is also a greater element of trust from the fans as well, which has been very absent in recent times. I recall on the day of the takeover that Kevin Shanahan said that the duo saw themselves as custodians of the club, as opposed to owners.

That has set the tone for the entirety of their reign thus far. The feel-good factor around the club certainly seems to have translated to results on the pitch.

John Rudge is a Vale legend for his management of the club across the ‘80s and ‘90s. How do you feel about having him involved as Football Advisor and Club President?

JOE: Rudgey is the greatest manager the club has had, and to see a man of his stature at the games, on the training pitch, and working with Kevin and Carol is superb.

Its a befitting honour for one of (possibly THE) greatest figure in the club’s history, and a wealth of knowledge to draw on.

I have no idea to what extent his role is defined, but to have a man who understands the club, has proven success of punching above his weight, and to reward a legend for years of heroic service is a perfect package for us.

NATHAN: John was before my time, but I’m aware of his legendary career. In all honesty, I don’t think it’s much more than a name tag – he probably does some scouting but not much else.

SCOTT: Whereas there is always a danger when it comes to clinging to successes of a bygone era, I think having Rudge involved is the right move, simply because he is very good at picking out rough diamonds in players.

Notably, Rudge had a penchant as a manager for acquiring players cheaply, with a lot of potential, and selling them on for greater sums of money.

I am very much in favour of current manager John Askey being allowed to get on with things and have the squad playing his own brand of football, but Rudge simply being there behind the scenes can do no harm.

Nobody deserves the position of club president more so than the most successful manager in Vale’s history.

John Askey, who seems like a quiet man, is a stickler for stability and he’s been staunch in his loyalty to both his formation, 4-3-3, and the players that start. There had been parts of this season where some might have called for him to freshen things up a little bit and keep opponents guessing, but on the whole, has it helped to have a settled side with players who know their roles and responsibilities inside out?

JOE: At times many fans have become infuriated with Askey’s refusal to deviate from 433, his caution with substitutions, and his rather ‘conservative’ transfer policy, preferring to wait for cheaper, more reliable options than the big-name, big-money gamble.

I have fallen into this trap. It is clear that throughout the year, the players have improved individually and as a unit, with an excellent pressing system becoming more fluid by the game.

Individuals like Shaun Brisley, Rhys Browne, and Mark Cullen were able to seamlessly slot into the 11 during suspensions/injuries and the machine continued to run smoothly.

Gibbons, Smith, Burgess, and Taylor have all dramatically improved, which is surely assisted by consistency, regular minutes, and a clear playing style to work towards.

Yes, his safety-first and consistency has cost us on occasion, but compared to the bedlam we’ve had to endure for the last three seasons, its refreshing to have a reliable squad who, as a unit, are better than what you may expect looking at the squad list.

NATHAN: 100%. I’m not against changing formation to suit different opponents but we’ve done that in the past few seasons and it doesn’t let the players get used to playing with each other. This season, everyone knows their jobs and all have good understandings such as Legge and Smith as well as Gibbons and Amoo down the right.

SCOTT: I think having a settled side does help, but even when we have had to reshuffle the squad due to injuries, every new member of personnel coming into the team, particularly in the midfield and front three, has slotted seamlessly into the 4-3-3 system.

Even if opposition sides know how we’re going to set up system wise, the high intensity, gegenpress style of play we’ve adopted this season seems to ruffle the feathers of visiting teams, nonetheless.

In addition to that, when we have opted to start with a different formation, with Askey experimenting with a midfield diamond once or twice this season, we haven’t looked quite as effective, at least not from the outset of a game.

I think the 4-3-3 serves as an effective formation to start with, which keeps us regimented in midfield and solid at the back, while allowing us to get numbers in and around a focal-point forward when we do have possession.

This system allows us to apply pressure and force chances. When we are forced to chase a game after the hour mark and do need to throw on an extra forward, we’re able to sacrifice a midfielder for the sake of that and we seem to play a conventional 4-4-2 system much more effectively under those circumstances.

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but Askey himself once said that as long as individual players know their roles, formations are irrelevant, which could explain why the starting system has remained so consistent.

Collectively, you’ve obviously improved hugely from the previous campaign but the goalkeeper, Scott Brown, was maybe more of a stand-out in 2018-19. Has Brown regressed incrementally at 35, or has he simply not been tested as much?

JOE: With an ‘average’ League 2 keeper, we would have been relegated last year. Brown’s heroics kept us alive, and the club is indebted to him.

This season, with a settled defence, and a better team, we are definitely less reliant on his excellence, and he is not called into action anywhere near as much as recent years.

There has been a very slight increase in avoidable mistakes; not howlers, just sometimes not claiming crosses or being beaten in the air, but these are still fairly rare. Brown is still an excellent keeper for League 2, an articulate, experienced dressing room leader, and we are blessed to have him in our nets.

NATHAN: He’s definitely made a few more errors than last season, but on the whole he’s still very good for the level. I’d say a slight decline but nothing to worry about.

SCOTT: I wouldn’t necessarily say that Brown has regressed. Albeit they were few and far between in 2018/19, he did make one or two errors, and more than atoned for that over the course of the season with numerous key saves at vital times.

That has been the case again this season, he has made mistakes at times but has balanced that out by keeping us in games more often than not. For how good he was last season, his performance in this year’s victory at Northampton was probably among the best individual performances from a Vale goalkeeper in some time.

I would agree that he perhaps hasn’t had as much to do this season as in the previous campaign, given that he has a settled defence in front of him.

The best right-back in League Two probably lies somewhere further along the A500, alas, but James Gibbons, at least, seems to be recapturing the form that made him Young Player of the Year in 2017-18. Do you see him as a key asset?

JOE: James Gibbons is our most valuable asset. He has everything you’d want from an athletic full back. His two weaknesses are his height, partly negated by a steady aerial ability, and his discipline, which has shown marked improvements under the tutelage of Askey.

He’s got electric pace, superb determination and work rate, an ever improving cross, and is capable of lifting the team with excellent interception and tackling skills. He lacks penetrative passing skills but is more than able to charge past his man through sheer will and athleticism.

With another 2 years at Port Vale signed up, he will only improve his distribution and positioning. Any League 1 club in need of some aggression, athleticism, and attacking prowess should take a long look at Gibbons. Love him.

NATHAN: He’s definitely our most valuable asset after recently signing a new deal. While not the finished article, he has made a lot of progress this season on the ball… he’s much more composed in his crossing and his energy down the wing is a big part of our attacking play. Defensively, he’s good but needs to become less rash as he gets far to many bookings. Overall a good season – despite Ng being annoyingly better!

SCOTT: Considering that I don’t watch Perry Ng every week, I’m in no position to verify David Artell’s assertion that the young man is the league’s best right-back. Albeit we got the better of them the one time we played them and kept a clean sheet, Crewe are having a superb season, so presumably the aspiring Singapore international is doing something right!

As for Gibbons, he has certainly made substantial progress this season and perhaps that has come with added experience. Over the previous two campaigns, we were privy to some erratic performances from the young full-back, including some rather questionable back-passes which once or twice proved the pass of the season to the opposition forward, much to my horror.

Fortunately, he seems to have eliminated that from his game. He loves to get forward, can deliver crosses, and has all the tenacity you need from a full-back. If I were to pick out one lingering criticism, I would say that his discipline still needs work, since we’ve seen one or two needlessly rash challenges thrown in at times over the season. Even that, however, has reduced compared to the previous two years.

Having recently put pen to paper on a new contract at Vale Park, he has cemented his place as one of our major assets, and at the age of 22, he is only going to get better. He is certainly among those likely to fetch us a transfer fee in future.

Before this season, you’d been on a three-year decline, dating back to Nathan Smith’s first season – and yet ironically, Smith always seems to be seen as a rose among thorns. Are you pleased for the centre-back to be finally playing in a side befitting of his own ability?

JOE: I think this season is a perfect summation of Smith’s qualities; he’s not the type to turn a team on its head through leadership and outrageous abilities. If a team is poor, he’ll do his job steadily and never let you down. If a team is good, the same goes.

Smith has never made a mistake in a Port Vale shirt and never has a ‘bad’ game. He is Mr. Reliable, capable of stringing nearly 100 consecutive appearances together, and a slight hamstring tweak earlier this year was his first proper injury of his Vale career. He’s undersized, but doesn’t play like it; I regularly see him pocket much larger forwards (see Keith Curle’s comments about Smith marking 6″5 Harry Smith from our first home game), with a superb aerial ability, unwavering aggression (he loves a scrap), and excellent positional senses.

He underwhelms in possession, despite obvious improvements this year, and will opt for safety first, but that’s Smithy; won’t let you down, does his job, no fuss. A good team around him has allowed him to focus on his own game, without covering the blemishes of the oft-shambles around him. If he leaves on a free, someone is getting an absolute bargain, and will gain years of consistent service whilst barely noticing he’s there.

NATHAN: Smith has finally been in a side he deserves to be in this season. He’s arguably been our best player but also, a big help has been having a regular partner in Legge as previously, he’d never had a partner on his level. He has that in Legge which has brought the best out of both of them.

SCOTT: It is pleasing to see, but in that time, Smith himself has improved. Despite scooping numerous accolades in his breakthrough season, inexperience has reared its ugly head at times over the last two seasons. That said, he has been one of our more consistent performers, and playing alongside an experienced centre-half like Leon Legge has only enhanced his development. Like the rest of the team, he has really kicked-on this season and developed into a defender who is not only aerially capable, but also comfortable playing the ball out from the back. I think much of that comes down to the style of play that Askey has implemented. At the age of 24, Smith is another major asset and one of our better players, all the more worrying then that his contract is up in the summer!

Smith and partner Leon Legge have scored a combined nine league goals – which is very impressive – and though I doubted Legge in pre-season, he’s been an ever-present! Do you think Askey is happy in accepting Legge’s limitations in possession, in order to benefit from his aerial dominance?

JOE: Leon Legge loves to make the fans panic with at least one buccaneering charge from the back, attempting to outskill pressing forwards, a game. Despite this, we love him. A superb captain, he plays hard, aggressive, and is a real leader. His distribution is obviously his weakest area, but, as with Smith, he’s not needed for that; a simple pass into Joyce is sufficient to kickstart attacks. Legge is probably the best aerial defender in the league, and, when combined with his leadership, has made him indispensable this year. To churn out the amount of minutes he has, at his age, is testament to the professionalism he maintains and his work off the pitch with charities is a credit to himself and the club. He’s that good in the air, and at defending crosses (high and low), that we’ve come to accept his launching of long balls. Hope we get another 1-2 years from him.

NATHAN: I wouldn’t say he’d be happy with it, but given Legge is dominant in the air and still showing decent pace for his age, he accepts it. He’s also someone Askey trusts, given that he’s handed him the captaincy.

SCOTT: I think what Legge offers in terms of aerial prowess and experience outweighs his limitations. His performances in games against the top six this season have been instrumental, particularly in the away fixtures at Crewe and Northampton. Admittedly, there have been times this season when even the most laid-back Vale fan has suffered heart palpitations when watching Leon attempt to Beckenbauer his way out of pressure in defence, but his ball-playing game itself has somewhat improved this term, which once again I would say is down to the brand of football we now play.

With Smith and Legge showing such consistency, do you feel a little for the likes of Kieran Kennedy and Shaun Brisley? The latter seemed to have a good few games when Smith was absent.

JOE: I don’t think we’ll see Kennedy in a Vale shirt again; he hasn’t played much and didn’t impress in those games. Brisley, however, despite a rocky start, kept Nathan Smith out of central defence with several dominant performances, especially at Northampton where he was imperious. Brisley is a very steady League 2 centre half who will do well for any club at this level; to have him as a back up is very reassuring. I’d love to keep him for another year, and maybe as a longer term successor to Legge.

NATHAN: Brisley was exceptional when he came in after Smith got injured. He was unfortunate he himself got injured and Smith came back in and carried on where he left off. As for Kennedy, he never really got a chance; he got loaned out pretty quickly so clearly didn’t impress in training.

SCOTT: – I think the case for reintroducing Smith into the centre-back pairing was helped by the fact that Brisley picked up a knee injury in the match at Walsall. On the whole though, I do feel a little for him. When he stood in for Smith in our recent run-in against top-six rivals, he delivered everything you’d expect from a defender his size and age, showing experience, awareness, aerial prowess, and a clinical finish to boot!

Unsurprising since he featured in a Notts County side two seasons ago which reached the playoffs. With Leon Legge now approaching 35, 29-year-old Brisley is a ready-made replacement. He is, however, out of contract this summer I believe, so pandemic permitting, I would love to see him given a new deal.

In Kennedy’s case, I feel he looked a little uncomfortable when brought into the team early in the season. He seemed short of confidence and self-belief and that was probably exacerbated by a couple of defensive mishaps and two own goals in separate fixtures. He has been on loan at Wrexham now for some time, which I think is exactly what was required to give his confidence a boost and provide vital game time. If we are to see him in a Vale shirt again, I’d like to see more from him in particular.

It’s unlikely that the popular Mitch Clark will be back in Burslem when football returns and ball-player Adam Crookes has struggled with injuries. Would you be happy to see Cristian Montano start at left-back again, or do you need a new first choice option?

JOE: Clark has demonstrated in limited minutes he is better than League 2, managing to control games with searing pace and energy from left-back. Could start for a good League 1 side very soon.

Crookes has positives; steady, tidy in possession, hard-working, but seemed to struggle with the transition to left back from his natural centre half, where I think his future lies.

I would be happy with Monty at left-back, provided there is good, experienced competition. Montano has shown to be a much better left back than winger, with great pace, aggression, octopus-limbs, and reading of winger’s intentions.

He insists on waltzing past the entire opposition right flank once a week, looking like prime Ronaldinho with silky touches and a gangly sprint, before his erratic final ball lets him down.

Between his mistake at Mansfield on Boxing Day and his slip at Walsall just before the postponement, he was our best, and most consistent player. Due to his late transition, and unnatural playing style, you have to accept the odd mistake with him, but if he’s our starting LB next season I’ll have no qualms.

NATHAN: Mitch’s future is up in the air. He’d probably admit he made a mistake going to Leicester. As for Crookes, he’s clearly not a left-back… it’s not nice to say but it was a blessing in disguise when he got injured.

I like Monty, he’d be a good squad player and has performed admirably at left back but he’s not the long term answer, Ryan Campbell-Gordon is rated highly in the academy but it’s probably to soon for him so left back is a priority if we can make signings in the summer.

Ideally, that would be Clark, but I don’t know how likely that is.

SCOTT: In fairness to Montano, he has really made that left-back position his own. He put in a complete performance against Colchester’s Frank Nouble in our last victory at Vale Park and his tendency to burst forward from that position often pins back opposition wide players and full backs.

However, his forays into the opposition half have sometimes left us vulnerable on the break, and one or two times when he has been caught out of position, we have conceded goals. A more natural player in that position was something many Vale fans had hoped for in January, which is why Mitch coming back was so important.

If we can’t get him back at the club for another few months, whereas I would be happy to see Montano start games, I think we do need another natural left-back, perhaps more defensive minded, to come into the squad to challenge him in the long-run, particularly if Crookes’ injury woes continue.

Luke Joyce has started 35 league games this season and, as an outsider, I’m not sure I see alternative, natural holding midfielders in the squad with whom you could rotate the 32-year-old to give him more breathers next season. Do you think the versatile Callum Evans could fill that role, or is it something you’d need to recruit for?

JOE: If football was more aligned to American sports, and we had ‘Most Valuable Players’, Joyce would probably win Vale’s.

He is absolutely crucial to us, the fulcrum of the side, combining expert awareness to pick up second balls, and a very handy distribution ability which can see him spread the ball superbly. He chooses the tempo we play at and has been the one, experienced constant in a revolving midfield of largely young lads.

You are spot on in saying we have no replacement; the one home game he missed is the only one we’ve lost all season. A priority for the next transfer window is identifying his successor; I’d like to see a younger player, either from non-league or released from an elite academy, taken in and sat for a year, learning from the excellent professional (and future coach) that Joyce is.

Joyce has a few years left in him so there’s no immediate rush, and he doesn’t seem to ever get injured, but we need to plan long-term.

NATHAN: That’s the only position in the squad with no depth. Atkinson played there when Joyce was suspended, but he struggled, so a young understudy is needed in the summer.

SCOTT: Personally, I think Callum Evans has found himself short of minutes, so it’s difficult to judge whether he’d be a ready-made replacement. There is clearly a player there, but I think he perhaps lacks in self-confidence to an extent and that can be reflected in his performances. From the amount I’ve seen of Evans, I’d look to recruit in the holding midfield department, just so there’s a little more experience there, but that’s not to say that Evans doesn’t have a future in the club, I’d just like to see that little bit more from him.

As alluded to above, it seems like most of your midfielders are forward thinking, as Askey seems to like one holding and two looking towards the half-spaces between lines. Does this suit energetic midfielders like Tom Conlon, Scott Burgess and Will Atkinson?

JOE: If a midfielder has energy, is disciplined, and is tidy without being excellent in possession, they suit our midfield.

Burgess has emerged to be an excellent young midfielder, the archetypal box to box. Conlon struggled for fitness and form early in the season but has flourished since Christmas with his committed, all-action play style and wand of a left foot.

Safe in the knowledge that Uncle Joycey will stay back and patrol the midfield, these lads are free to fly forward, harrying, pressing, and arriving late into the box, which Jake Taylor made his trademark before his injury in January. Its made for some exciting football and really suits the players at the club.

NATHAN: Burgess has been the surprise of the season.

He didn’t get his chance till October but he’s been an ever-present since his energy is key in our system and he’s also our best passer in my opinion… needs to add more goals to his game but at just 22, he’s another asset.

Conlon struggled at the start, then got injured but since coming back into the side in February he’s been our best player. Excellent passer, good presser and an excellent set piece taker – Atkinson hasn’t played much but has done a good job when needed, it suits them perfectly.

SCOTT: Absolutely. Whether we’ve had Conlon, Burgess, Atkinson, or the lively Jake Taylor playing in the roaming midfield positions, all have been effective and it hasn’t had a negative impact on the overall performance of the team.

It is a vital element of the way we play giving those midfielders the licence to break forward, and so often you see the midfielders loading in around the centre-forward when we apply pressure. Having a midfield pivot like Joyce shielding the defence means the other two in the midfield three don’t need to sit deep, and they only need to drop in and defend when we concede possession, and with the athleticism of the afore-mentioned players, they are capable of dropping back and defend well when required.

Manny Oyeleke, I thought, was your best outfield player in 2018-19 when fit… but he’s made just six appearances this term. Is that solely down to injuries? Alternatively, given that he wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement for Joyce, Conlon or Burgess to my eyes, would there be stylistic issues with incorporating him into the current setup?

JOE: Manny Oyeleke is our most talented player, a gifted advanced playmaker with excellent short burst, strength, vision, and distribution.

He glides round the pitch and can beat a man at will, carving open defences with one pass. He could play higher than League 2. However, he’s really struggled with injuries in his first two seasons. A recurring hamstring problem has hopefully been sorted by surgery, after his disappointing breakdown after a lengthy spell out earlier in the season.

Manny could fit into the midfield three as the most advanced member, and his partner may need to be more cautious in his forays as Manny is most effective when unshackled from defence responsibilities, able to pick up the ball in space and drive. It may see a slight alteration to a 4-2-3-1, with Burgess/Conlon sat next to Joyce, but wouldn’t be a massive change. A fit Manny would be a huge asset next year.

NATHAN: It is mainly down to injuries he doesn’t suit the pressing side of r game as his body breaks down however wen fit and at his best he still gets in r side for his ball carrying ability he’s different to our other midfielders.

SCOTT: I would say that injuries are the main issue here. However, we have been far better at coping without him this season.

As a result of that, I think he has found it difficult forcing his way back into the reckoning due to his lack of minutes.

In terms of where he would fit into the side, he is certainly capable of being a midfield enforcer given his strength, but as a box-to-box midfielder with good strength and weight of passing, I think he’d be better suited as one of the roaming midfield pair, rather than sitting deep in the Joyce role and keeping things ticking over.

He’s a different type of midfielder to the likes of Burgess and Conlon, but what he offers would make him effective in either of their positions in my view. That said, he must wait for his opportunity and take it. Conlon and Burgess had been playing far too well to be dropped.

David Worrall has won promotion from this level before with Southend, but I think it’s fair to say that the form he has been producing in 2019-20 hadn’t been there in the previous two seasons. Has Askey been able to press certain buttons to get the best out of him? Does the style of play suit him?

JOE: Its no secret that Worrall and our previous manager fell out, hence his absence from the side. Since his reintegration under Askey, Worrall has been our best player, and, in my completely impartial view, the best winger in the league.

People point to Williams, Kirk, and Mayor, who play in much better attacking sides, surrounded by creative talent, but Worrall is, at times, our sole creator. His assist tally, xAssists, key passes, crosses completed all rank in the top 3, and that is a bonus to his exceptional workrate, which is infinite. He doesn’t tire.

Our first away win of the season came at Bradford, a direct consequence of Worrall’s limitless stamina and determination to beat his man and swing in a cross. Playing out wide in a 433 allows him to harry limited fullbacks, and have less defensive responsibility, maximising his talents in the right area.

He’s even been playing on his weaker side to accommodate Amoo, and still put up league leading numbers. Worrall could slot into League 1 with no issues at all, but his public desperation to stay has only endeared him further to the fans. With a high-energy style suiting him perfectly, I can only envisage further success with Worrall on the flanks.

NATHAN: Worrall has been rejuvenated since Askey took over. It’s well known he didn’t get on with Aspin but under Askey, he’s playing his best football in years. Again, pressing comes natural to him, he seems to enjoy the responsibility of being our key attacker and has a good relationship with the fans. No one has a bad word to say about him which is rare in any fan base.

SCOTT: I think the style of play certainly suits Worrall. He is a notoriously hard-working player, so a high-pressing game where he is playing in a front three and constantly seeking to take on his full back certainly plays to his strengths. I think under the previous manager, Neil Aspin, we saw something of a clash of personalities, and Worrall probably wasn’t getting the game-time in the first place to even try to prove his form. Since Askey has taken over, Worrall has been ever-present and an integral member of the squad. He’s a promotion winner at this level, and we’re now seeing pretty much the player I expected to see when he arrived.

David Amoo has relied on pace for much of his career, so I felt it might have been a risk to sign him at 28 last summer. Has the risk paid off, for you?

JOE: In short, yes. Amoo is a decent League 2 winger, still with electric pace, as well as a bit of height.

He has all the classic hallmarks of a League 2 winger; inconsistency, a lack of desire to contribute defensively (at times), and an ability to go missing, but on the flip side he can change a game in the blink of an eye (his run, to win a penalty, at home to Exeter turned a horrendous performance into a memorable one).

With Vale being a club who has always prided hard work and grit, he sometimes draws the ire of some of our more vocal fans, and those who seem to want Amoo with all the qualities of David Worrall, without clicking that that player exists, probably in the Championship. Amoo is an above-average League 2 player who scares defenders and can change a game; well worth the gamble, in my view.

NATHAN: Amoo on the whole has been gd goes more under the radar than others he’s our key outlet and often teams double up on him creating space for others he’s improved as the season’s gone on however he divides the fan base as some say he doesn’t track back enough I’d say that’s harsh as he’s made the most tackles out of all our forwards so he does do work defensively it just goes unnoticed ideally I wouldn’t have him as a starter next season but still as part of the squad.

SCOTT: It has, certainly. He is one of the quicker players in the squad and on his day can look unplayable.

Leyton Orient left-back James Brophy is one of the higher-rated full-backs in the division, and Amoo gave him a torrid time throughout when the O’s came to Vale Park, before hammering in the winning goal himself.

At 28, I think he’s probably got another couple of good years in him, and for all the concerns over his injury record when he arrived, he has held up well. He is a flair player who is unafraid to take on his full-back, is capable of crossing a ball and has an eye for goal. He is certainly among the most exciting wingers we’ve had at the club in recent years, probably since names such as Mark Marshall and Jennison Myrie-Williams.

When he gets the ball and runs at his full-back, there’s always a sense that he will make something happen. Perhaps natural for a winger of that style though, his work rate sometimes lacks, and he can have long spells in a game where he seems to go missing. However, the one time he beats his man, he tends to create a goal. I suppose you could say that’s the sign of a good player.

One of the main problems with last season’s Vale side was the tactical overreliance on Tom Pope… it seemed like going direct to the target man all the time both wore him out and denied his teammates chances to show their technical capabilities. With Mark Cullen arriving in the summer and Askey introducing a more floor-based style, have you reduced the burden on Pope?

JOE: We simply had to reduce our reliance on Pope, for several reasons; one, he doesn’t really suit the style.

Askey’s system is predicated on a mobile centre forward, and whilst Pope has served well in his minutes, it is clear that he isn’t entirely built for the demands of the high pressing way we play.

Also, he is undoubtedly on the decline, which is understandable at his age. He is still a dangerous forward, capable of lifting the team (Crewe away) and bullying Champions League defences with his imperious aerial prowess (Man City).

Cullen seems to have grown into the role and cursory research suggest he has one of the best minutes/goal ratio in the league (only behind Eoin Doyle). There’s a role for Pope, but it benefits everyone to utilise him in big games, in away games, and as an impact sub, and not the sole provider of goals for 90 minutes every week. He’s a massive, massive legend, mind.

NATHAN: Pope has started more than I expected he’s had a decent season better than last in recent months Cullen has undoubtedly become 1st choice with his linkup play and finishing benefiting him and the team Pope still has his uses but will become more of an bench option next season as we will definitely sign at least 1 striker plus Cullen will hopefully be fit from the start.

SCOTT: There’s certainly less of a reliance on Pope now, and it isn’t just because of Cullen’s arrival. I give Mark Cullen huge credit though – he has found opportunities hard to come by at times and yet his minutes played to goal ratio has been very impressive. Again, he’s out of contract this summer, so Covid permitting, I’m praying we can hang onto him!

The main factor in taking the pressure off Pope has been the new style of play. We are noticeably getting more numbers in and around the forward, be that Pope or Cullen, both from the flanks and midfield when we apply pressure, so we’re seeing the midfielders and wide men chipping in with more goals to ease the burden on the strikers, and the defenders are more than doing their bit in that respect too.

It looks like Port Vale will be playing in League Two again when football recommences, so how do you reflect on the season as a whole? Long-term, I imagine you’d see yourselves as a club worthy of operating in a higher division but are you pleased to attain your first top half finish since 2015-16?

JOE: Its been excellent. Many were content with consolidation, of arresting decline and putting the house in order.

Instead, we’ve been treated to a playoff challenge (which, based on form, I think we would have made), a memorable cup run (with Pope breaking Vale’s postwar scoring record, to bring us level with the Treble holders, after a 10 pass sweeping move, weeks after guaranteeing he would on Twitter, being right up there in the all-time great Vale moments), and a manager, club, players, and owners to be proud of.

For the first time in 20 years, we trust the people in charge, and we’re genuinely optimistic to for next few years. Our rise won’t be meteoric, fuelled by unsustained gambles and oil money, but hopefully one built on sensible, ethical decisions. Up the Vale.

NATHAN: Long term league one has to be the goal providing were ok financially after we get back to some sort of normality this season whatever happens from now has been a success better than I expected.

SCOTT: I’m thrilled with how the season has gone, and it has been a successful season however it ends.

Prior to the campaign, I set my stall out to finish around 14th to deem it a decent season. After successive relegation fights, Vale fans weren’t expecting the side to become promotion hopefuls overnight, but what we collectively wanted to see was tangible progress and a season free from the worry of being pulled into the dogfight. A finish in the region of 16th to 20th, having finished 20th, in the last two seasons would, therefore, have seemed somewhat underwhelming.

Before the season, I would have said that a top half was a great return. Top ten brilliant, any better than that: phenomenal. Considering that we’ve been on the border between brilliant and phenomenal for most of the season, I would say that Askey and co have surpassed all expectations for a first full season in charge, if you could call it that. Many of us were hoping for a good cup run and we had one of those to enjoy too, which brought us Pope’s historic equalising goal at Manchester City, where incidentally he broke the club’s post-war goalscoring record.

Being very picky, I’d have maybe liked to have reached the quarterfinals of the EFL Trophy or gone further after reaching the last eight stage in last season’s competition, but that really is nit-picking at a good all-round campaign. If it came down to Wembley in the Trophy or Wembley in the playoffs, I think we’d all pick the latter, and that did seem to be becoming a realistic possibility until the season was suspended.

Having proven our mettle as playoff hopefuls this time around, I would like to see us build on that and really count ourselves as genuine promotion contenders next season. Long-term, we need to be looking at a return to League One within the next two to three years and then look to stabilise and push on from there.

Promotion from League Two is the first hurdle though, but the example of Crewe, rather interestingly, gives me some optimism. For large parts of 2017/18, they were in a relegation battle alongside us before pulling away late in the campaign.

A stable midtable finish followed for them last season, and this time around they’re in the top three and challenging for the title. We’ve had our season of stability now, so when football does resume, should we be in League Two for our next full campaign, hopefully we can follow the same trajectory.

Much will depend on how the current Covid-19 situation unfolds, and none of us can be too sure of what the shape of the squad, and the league as a whole, will be like. But if we can carry on in the same vein, there’s reason to be optimistic for sure.