It has been, on the whole, a very positive first half of the season for Port Vale, with Darrell Clarke’s men – who finished 13th last term – currently in the League Two play-off places with several games in hand. What have you made of what you have seen so far?
I have been really impressed. There was a bit of uncertainty at the start of the season because there had been such a change in the squad since 2020/21, with 15 out-of-contract players having left the club in the summer, including a couple of popular players: goalkeeper Scott Brown, who was a former Player of the Year, and striker Tom Pope, who is the club’s post-War record goalscorer. But they recruited really well, made an excellent start and are still in the top seven despite not playing for a few weeks now.
Owing to several postponements, which seem to have hit League Two particularly hard, Saturday’s FA Cup third round game will be the Valiants’ first outing since December 11. How much frustration has this caused at the club?
Initially, it was not the worst thing for Vale because they had a lot of players out injured. For example, in the last game against Newport, all five of the senior strikers were sidelined and that really caught up with them. They have had four games postponed altogether; the first two were at Vale’s request because, once they had positive Covid tests on top of all of the injuries, they just didn’t have enough players. After that, they did have players back from Covid and were ready to play the last two games, though they were then called off at the request of Rochdale and Harrogate. It is frustrating in that respect, but you understand that other clubs are in the same situation and have not had enough players either. It was also frustrating to not be able to play over the Christmas period when, traditionally, you get the biggest crowds.
Brentford fans will obviously be familiar with defender Leon Legge, who started his professional career in west London. Injury has restricted his appearances so far this season, but how influential a figure has he been for Port Vale over the last three years or so?
He has been excellent – a real leader and a former captain as well. Even this season, though it has been difficult for him, when he has come back into the team, he has done really well and showed that he can still do a job. He is a real dominant defender, as Brentford fans will know, and wins everything in the air. There have been a couple of spells during his time at the club where he has lost his place, but then there has been a change of manager and he has come back and done well again. He is someone you can never write off.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Saturday?
I would say midfielder Tom Conlon has done really well. He is a left-footed, classy midfielder who can pick a pass and is very good from free-kicks as well, having scored three or four so far this season. He is one of those players who you think could play at a higher level. Another one to keep an eye on is James Gibbons, who started the season as a right-back – where he was very good - but has since been moved to left wing-back – where he has been even better. Conlon is a local lad, but didn’t come through the youth system at Port Vale, while Gibbons did. He is a real terrier-like defender who likes a tackle, but is also very good going forward and has impressed in Darrell Clarke’s 3-5-2 system.
How is Clarke likely to set up his side at Vale Park?
He likes to keep his cards close to his chest when it comes to team news, injuries and so on, but it’s fair to say that for the majority of the season so far, Vale have lined up in a 3-5-2. It has not looked like a defensive line-up with five at the back; the two wing-backs, Gibbons and Dave Worrall are attacking players, really, and it is a really effective, attacking system.
The two teams were very familiar with one another until the last meeting eight years ago, which Brentford won 2-0 at Griffin Park. What’s your score prediction for this one?
Brentford are, obviously, the favourites and though I appreciate they are likely to make changes, looking at what they have done in the Carabao Cup, for example, they are going to be a strong side, regardless of that. My head says Brentford will win, but I will let my heart rule my head and say Vale will nick it 2-1.
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