Fan’s View 23/24 – No.43: Port Vale Away

Article by Paul Beasley Sunday, March 17th, 2024  

FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.43: PORT VALE AWAY

PORT VALE 0 OXFORD UNITED 2

Obviously a vastly improved performance when compared with the previous Tuesday but Port Vale and Bolton Wanderers are very different opponents. There’s no comparison quality wise and the league table clearly highlights this. 

In the Bursley Ale House we got chatting to a couple of Vale fans who had quickly sussed that we were Oxford. For some illogical reason they seem to think we have posh accents.  A very young Vale supporter who has produced a match day vlog also used the same word to describe our fan base. We ain’t the University and the boat race guys. Stand amongst us and you’ll soon hear some thick Oxfordshire inflections uttering some very down to earth language.

One of the joys of an away day is holding friendly conversations with the home faithful. That’s where you learn a lot about what’s going on at the heart of a football club.

Vale: “If you don’t beat us today you’re shit”

Me: “But we have been shit. We’ve been awful recently.”

Vale: “We have not won a game this year (2024).”

Me: “You’re starting to make me feel better now”.

Their last win was on 29 December when they beat Blackpool 3-0. In the thirteen games since they have drawn four and lost the rest. Now that is bad form. Over the same period we collected 10 more points than them.

A golden opportunity for us then but debilitating beyond belief if we failed to capitalise.

Further discussion covered us going non-league for four seasons. When Farsley Celtic was mentioned as one of our opponents in those dark days, one of the guys said “I’ve played against them”. When asked who he’d played for he told us Droylsden. Yes we played them too. We lost 3-1 there in 2007 in front of 1074 spectators. Oh, how times have changed. The ups and downs of following a team. Today we needed to arrest a down. It’s the here and now that matters.

The ex-player told us his Dad was a “Stokie” but left us in no doubt he was Vale through and through. Club crest tattooed on each calf and an arm too. I was grateful he didn’t show us any further hidden etchings.

His mate encouraged him to tell the story about his house. “Why?” he asked. “Because you tell everyone,” came the reply. As a kid he lived in a house right on the corner of Vale Park. From the bedroom window he had a perfect view of the whole pitch. Didn’t need to pay to watch his side. He told of Liverpool fans knocking on their door and offering his mum money so they could come in and watch their team. He didn’t say whether she actually took the money or not.

I looked it up. That will have been on Monday 27 January 1964. FA Cup 4th round replay following a draw at Anfield just two days earlier. The crowd at Vale Park that day was 42,179. I don’t know if the gates had been locked because health and safety wasn’t much of a thing in those days or the scousers just thought they’d get a better view. Liverpool won 2-1. Scorers Peter Thompson and Roger Hunt. Then the club had the temerity to build a big new stand and block most of the view from the window.

They were good genuine lads. We wished them well for the rest of the season, other than today, shook their hands and headed to the Bulls Head.

There’s not a lot of money sloshing around Burslem. Very working class but populated by people proud of their area I’d say. Whoops, perhaps they’re right I do seem to be coming over as a posh southern knob. Not the intention at all.

Something very old school about the place. The Bulls Head was packed with home and away fans all together in a convivial atmosphere. There was a poster on the wall advertising a Vale fanzine, Derek I’m Gutted, available behind the bar for a quid. Old school indeed. Still, if vinyl is making such a comeback who knows? Perhaps Reggie the Veggie referee will wake from his slumbers.

I was tempted to buy one but the queue for beer put me off. Outside the ground though there was a fella selling them. Pound handed over and first fanzine for many a day purchased. “Didn’t you used to have a fanzine called Seth Bottomley?” I enquired. “Seth Bottomley’s Memoirs, yes. I used to write in it”. When I told him I used to write for the Oxford fanzine” he immediately said, “Raging Bull”.  

This season away fans have been moved from the Hamill Road End to the Bycars stand with home supporters going the other way. That’s because the Hamill Road holds 4000 fans compared to Bycars 3000 and the club are looking to create a permanent fan zone for their supporters.  

Can’t see why anyone would want to drink there when the boozers a few minutes away are so cheap. Only 5127 home fans turned up for this one. Understandable given their plight. We learned in the pub that more season tickets than this have been sold. Work that one out.

I’d call the Bycars stand and toilet facilities a throw-back which fits in nicely with the rest of the experience.

In the first few minutes it appeared that the men in white might be about to put in a fight to try and start clawing their way up from the bottom. That didn’t last long.

After that very brief period, in which we were in no danger anyway, we bossed it in every way right through to the final whistle.

The players and management have understandably come in for severe criticism recently. After this it has to be said acclaim is due. The only downsides being that we should without doubt have scored more and a couple of players are far from hitting the form we’d like. 

The changes made to the starting line-up had a few wondering what was going on, but it worked. The back line were never troubled. The hosts did not have one shot on target. From a defensive perspective, the back four selected are probably the best we have. Elliott Moore obviously and alongside him Ciaron Brown looked sharp and in command. At right back Sam Long was solid and his distribution was decent too. Leaving Greg Leigh out raised many eyebrows. He has been one of our top performers for much of this campaign but occasionally perhaps, whilst an offensive threat, not quite as good defensively. Joe Bennett’s experience was helpful indeed – and what a player Leigh is to have on the bench.

We never lost any battles and the soft underbelly which I’m forced to refer to quite regularly was nowhere to be seen. Along with the defensive solidarity, the football was quite entertaining. The ball was moved quickly, one twos were played and the Vale defence was sliced open. On the ball we looked assured with it not looking like we were struggling to keep hold of it. When not knocking it about individuals had it at their feet looking to go this way or that. A quick turn to go the other way and defenders didn’t know what was going on.

Our wing play was delightful. Josh Murphy has been on top form and he was at it again. On the other flank Owen Dale matched him. Running at pace with the ball and dragging it about with his studs as he went. Defenders didn’t know what to do.

Sometimes with two wide players we never get a foothold but when they’re on it like this it’s a different story. Against better opposition, when we get outnumbered in midfield, I’d like to see them tuck in more to increase our manpower in that area. No need for this here though.

Given how they’d been playing recently there was a feeling that either Marcus McGuane or Ruben Rodrigues should be dropped. We’ve got a sizeable squad so I’d ask why not both? On their day they are very good footballers but off their day they can seem like passengers in the heat of the battle. Is that unfair?

MM didn’t even make the bench but RR started and lasted 73 minutes as did Billy Bodin who came in. Both played their part but neither put on a display that yelled start me every week.

The same can also unfortunately be said about Will Goodwin, who began in place of Mark Harris. He looks nowhere near what is required of a top L1 striker. Not good enough? Not fit enough? Never been fit since we spent big money on him? He didn’t come out for the second half. Injured again?

So Harris got a run out after the break. He though has reverted to the version we saw earlier in the season, lots of effort but not looking much like scoring.

Our opener in the 16th minute came from a routine corner that Vale did not deal with and Brown finished efficiently with a well taken low shot that gave Conor Ripley no chance.

The second half was only four minutes old when we doubled our lead but it could have been a different story when we were reminded that single goal leads held by teams that rarely keep clean sheets are precarious. Long played a backwards pass that was short allowing James Wilson a run on goal. Magnificent muscular defending by Brown saved the day.

Goal number two again emanated from a corner. It was taken short by Brannagan to Murphy. I wanted us to get it over – “what are you doing?” I asked. Then before it happened added “scoring a goal” although I wasn’t really expecting what happened next. Murphy brought the ball to the edge of the area then whipped one in. Whether that whipping was a shot or centre I can’t work out but in it went having evaded the heads of Long and a defender. 

It was only poor finishing and lack of composure that prevented the score line being at least double what it ended up as. Brannagan and Harris thrashed shots into the side netting and Murphy should have got himself a second after he spurned a finely created chance. Having got the ball back from a throw, Long slotted it first time to Brannagan who in turn bisected two defenders to find the intelligent run of James Henry. The ball back across the box was crying out to be buried. Instead of doing so Murphy took a touch which wasn’t the best allowing Ripley to smother.

For a change plenty of positives to take away. Henry and fellow sub Josh McEachran fitted in nicely, and we saw the return of Marcus Browne for a few minutes. “How long will he last this time?” it was said. The answer was through to the end. Small steps.

Competition for places, even on the bench, is now as hot as it has been all season. Tyler Goodrham was back but didn’t get an opportunity to stretch his legs.

Another positive is that we are now back up to sixth and with the remaining fixtures as they are it is again in our hands to remain there. Stevenage can also claim likewise but on current form Lincoln are the biggest threat. Just as well they’re not coming to Oxfordshire next Saturday now. The Imps are unbeaten in 13 having collected 29 points from those games. We’ve both played 39 games but we’re still two points better off than them although their goal difference is 13 better than ours. As they’ve scored 16 in their last three games one would think this margin is down to the number of times overall they’ve found the back of the net, but not so. We’ve scored 62 in total so far compared to their 56. It’s defensively they’ve got the edge. They’ve conceded just 33. We’ve leaked 52 but that number wasn’t added to in the Potteries.

On to Shrewsbury on Good Friday where hopefully we’ll continue the good work produced in this victory but one thing is guaranteed, the opposition won’t be as inept.

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