James Russell explores if Vale now need to re-examine the way they use their veteran forward.
James Russell writes…
Tom Pope is a talismanic figure at Port Vale.
He led the line superbly during their 2012-13 promotion-winning season under Micky Adams, scoring 31 league goals including three hat-tricks when flanked by Jennison Myrie-Williams and Ashley Vincent in a 4-3-3 counter-attacking outfit.
The following season, in which he continued a remarkable record of starting 66 consecutive league games for the club, he again top scored in a top half finish, before bagging eight the following campaign when Adams was replaced by Robert Page.
Since returning to the club in 2017 following a two-year stint at Bury, Pope has been just as prominent a figure in this Vale squad – but not necessarily for the better.
It could be that, because the Stoke-born striker is a strong character and has been captain for much if not all of his second stint in Burslem, managers perhaps feel a responsibility to have a particularly warm relationship with him, rather than risk an element of conflict with somebody so influential in the dressing room.
One of the reasons previous manager Neil Aspin had such a strong initial impact last season, as well as his legendary status, was because he instructed the team to get higher up the pitch and, most significantly, play early balls into Pope.
The problem with that methodology is that it might not be sustainable. Pope, despite being very committed, is not naturally quick and thus Vale are unlikely to see him do his best work in big, open spaces.
Ideally, therefore, the midfield needs to be very close to him at all times – and that means midfielders must cover a lot of ground, which is difficult to do for 90 minutes.
The way the modern game is evolving, target men are not featuring as prominently as they used to; although League Two has an external reputation of being a physical league, not many players of Pope’s ilk are featuring prominently in the current top-half of League Two.
Forest Green’s Christian Doidge may come close to that category but he can pose a threat from outside the area and, while Lincoln’s John Akinde is big, he’s also quick and therefore loves open spaces.
Colchester have performed better since speedster Abo Eisa has been brought in to take the regular place of physical front-man Mikael Mandron; plus, while aerial specialist Jayden Stockley was excellent for Exeter in the first half of the season, the Grecians have accrued 15 points from eight games since he left.
Lincoln, Bury and Mansfield are all benefiting from playing on the deck more this season than they were in 2017-18, while MK Dons and Forest Green have keep ball connoisseurs Paul Tisdale and Mark Cooper in charge respectively.
Some generations of Port Vale fans will remember being in the second-tier in the late 1990s and perhaps see their natural level to be higher than their current position, which is a battle against an EFL exit with John Askey’s side 2/1 with Betway to get a crucial win at Notts County.
For them to make those strides back up the English football pyramid – starting of course with preserving their status in League Two – it might be that they need to move away from Pope.
For all the valid criticism of Norman Smurthwaite’s ownership regime, the current squad is potentially more capable than results suggest.
Wide men David Worrall and Cristian Montano played key roles in promotions for Southend and Bristol Rovers respectively, while Ben Whitfield can be a canny operator in the number 10 position.
Athletic box-to-box man Manny Oyeleke can certainly impose himself on games when fully fit – which he clearly was not in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Cheltenham – Tom Conlon looked bright from the bench in that match, too.
The problem for some of those players, especially diminutive performers like Montano and Whitfield, is that they suffer in a scrappy, long-ball contest, because they do not get a feel for the ball unless Pope holds it up for them.
By playing to get the best out of one target man, Vale are limiting the capabilities of what this blog perceives to be a reasonable group of players.
The task for John Askey, therefore, is to think imaginatively about how to get the best out of his side – even if that sometimes involves being firm with a man who is undoubtedly a Vale legend.