Columnist Martyn Cooke has a four point plan to survive relegation which he wants to share with you.
So there we go. If there was any doubt remaining in your mind suggesting that Port Vale were not in relegation battle then you were probably corrected when the club dropped into the bottom four after Saturday’s draw with Bristol Rovers.
The performance itself was OK – certainly not brilliant but a step up from recent showings – and at least it got another point on the board. The players certainly appear to be putting the work in on the pitch and there is nothing in my mind which believes that the current issues are down to a lack of effort or poor attitude. If anything, Saturday’s performance simply demonstrated that the squad lack quality, especially in the final third.
So a relegation scrap it is, and here is my four point master plan to guide the club to safety.
1) Clarify the managerial situation
When Bruno Ribiero resigned on Boxing Day it was little surprise to see Michael Brown step up and take hold of the reins on a temporary basis. However, it is nearly two months further down the line and we are still talking about the former Wigan and Sheffield United midfielder being a caretaker manager. If the club is to start moving forward then Norman Smurthwaite needs to be decisive and definitive about the managerial situation. I am a firm believer that having a “caretaker” manager in charge breeds uncertainty and can undermine authority in the long run because players simply do not know if the man on the touchline will be the same from one week to the next.
The club have two options. If Smurthwaite believes that Brown is the man to turn the Port Vale ship around then he needs to hand him a contract until the end of the season with the option of a further year should he guide The Valiants to safety. If not, then the club needs to move quickly to secure a more experienced figure. Personally I would not have been against a move to bring in Lee Clarke, a proven manager at this level who has plenty of experience (both good and bad), and it is perhaps no surprise that Bury were victorious in his first game in charge on Saturday. But that is the calibre of manager that the chairman would need to tempt to Vale Park.
I am relatively comfortable with either option. This current scenario is certainly not of Brown’s making and he has been dealt a really poor hand during the transfer window following the departures of Alex Jones, Anthony Grant and Jak Alnwick. He already has a relationship with the current group of players and is well respected throughout the club, yet on the other hand a new face could provide Vale with fresh impetus, energy and ideas. Either way, Smurthwaite needs to be decisive.
2) Develop a clear identity
Just what is Port Vale’s current identity? What does the club represent and what are we trying to achieve? Do we have a specific playing philosophy and style or are we just milling along hoping for the best?
The point I am trying to make is that I am not entirely sure what the plan is at the moment on the pitch. Port Vale need to develop and implement a clear identity if the club is to avoid relegation – the supporters and players need a clear and definitive plan of action.
Are we going to try and play our way out of trouble with possession football? Or are we going to play ugly and try and grind out results?
Are we going to try and keep thing tight at the back and play defensively? Or are we going to play on the front foot and try to outscore our opponents?
Again, I am comfortable with either method as long as the club decide how the team are going to approach the next three months or so – because at the moment I am not sure what the plan is, if we have one at all. Milling along and hoping for the best will not alter the current trajectory of the club, but implanting a clear playing philosophy might.
3) Consistency in team selection
Who are the best eleven players in the current Port Vale squad? We will all have our opinions on who should be starting each game but it would appear that the Michael Brown is not entirely sure. The team continues to be chopped and changed on a weekly basis and it would appear that the manager is still experimenting with the team selection as he attempts to find a winning formula. There was a bizarre moment against Millwall when the manager named himself amongst the substitutes – is that how highly he rates those that were not included in the match day squad?
In my opinion the constant changing of playing personnel can only be detrimental to performance. Players need consistency in order to develop relationships, partnerships and an understanding on the pitch and the simple fact is that, barring injuries and suspensions, Vale need to get their best eleven players out on the pitch and stick with them. Placing trust in experience would be my preferred option whilst mixing in the energy and dynamism of some of the younger loan players who demonstrate that they have the confidence and mentality to deal with the pressure.
Brown needs to calculate who is best eleven players are and show faith in them.
4) Build momentum
Momentum is probably the most powerful force in football. When things are going well for your club and confidence is at a high everything appears to go your way – the prime example being the remarkable achievement of Leicester City winning the Premier League title last season. On the flip side, when your club is struggling and the confidence of players is all but gone everything just appears to collude in a downward spiral – the prime example being Leicester City this season.
If Port Vale are to survive then they need to start building momentum by developing an unbeaten run of games that will enhance the confidence and belief around the club. The draw on Saturday needs to be the start and we need to start picking up points as soon as possible. It may be somewhat cliché, but all of the remaining fixtures are like mini-cup finals and the team need to maximise the points that we earn on home soil. You sense, considering our poor away form this campaign, that the overall destiny of the club will be decided on the Vale Park pitch in the coming months.
Martyn Cooke has written for several publications on Port Vale including features for The Boot Room. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooke_martyn