Defensive issues cost Port Vale a chance to compete in the League Two play-offs last season, missing out by a single point in eighth place.
John Askey and his men were forced to watch Northampton Town, who finished one place above them in the table secure promotion to the third tier.
One game more than any other was the reason for their failure. The Valiants drew 2-2 against Scunthorpe United in the penultimate game before the season was brought to a premature end. They conceded a last-minute goal as George Miller found the net to deny Vale the three points. As a result, Askey and his men were outside of the top seven and could not compete in the play-offs.
Askey moved to reinforce his backline in the summer, signing David Fitzpatrick and securing another loan deal for Mitch Clark. Clark played for the club last season and impressed enough to earn a third chance at Vale Park. He is deemed surplus to requirements at Leicester City, where he was not quite good enough to break into a squad, who are backed at 22/1 in the Premier League odds from Paddy Power to win the top flight. However, Clark has continued to impress for the Valiants operating at right-back, while fellow new signing Fitzpatrick has often slotted in on the opposite flank.
The moves in the off-season appeared to have made strides in tightening up Vale at the back. Askey’s men kept five clean sheets in their opening ten matches to aid a charge into the top seven. There was only one poor result in the form of a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Cambridge, although one of those strikes conceded was from the penalty spot and another came in the 95th minute.
Riding the back of a three-game winning streak courtesy of triumphs over Oldham Athletic, Cheltenham Town and Southend, Vale were on course for a fourth victory on the bounce against Tranmere Rovers. Strikes from Tom Conlon and David Amoo put them ahead at Vale Park, but the dismissal of Luke Joyce turned the game on its head. James Vaughan found the net twice to level the scores, and despite a goal from the penalty spot from Devante Rodney, Rovers stunned the Valiants in stoppage time to snatch the win through efforts from Kaiyne Woolery and Kieron Morris.
It was all-too familiar feeling of disappointment for Askey and his men. Their propensity to crack under pressure was on full display once more. It cost them notably in matches against Mansfield and Scunthorpe in the last campaign, throwing away from points from winning positions. It cannot happen once again this term.
There has been attention on Vale’s attacking qualities but there are also issues at the other end of the pitch. The pressure is on Askey to get the best out of Leon Legge and Nathan Smith along with Clark and Fitzpatrick to form a cohesive defensive unit. Their statistics have been skewed by two poor performances against Tranmere and Cambridge. However, their form outside of those two fixtures has been solid. If they can produce that standard on a consistent basis they can ride out this blip and be in contention for a play-off berth.