Port Vale will go into this weekend’s Emirates FA Cup clash against Sunderland on the back of a five-game unbeaten run in all competitions, and assistant manager Lee Nogan insists that the squad are relishing the test.
Last weekend’s draw at home to Notts County showcased the character of the players as they bounced back from conceding late on to salvage a more than deserved point, with Tom Pope heading home in the final minute.
With a strong contingent of Sunderland fans making the trip to Burslem and an increased number of home supporters inside Vale Park as well, it is set to be a great occasion on Sunday, but Nogan wants the players to thrive in the situation.
“It’s a big stage for any player, but I think it’s easier to play in front of big crowds if I’m being honest,” he said.
“When there are less people you can hear more of the negative stuff, but when there’s a big crowd in and the noise is up, your concentration levels seem to go up too - hopefully we can thrive on the occasion.
“It’s a cup tie and I’ve played in plenty as underdog, winning a few and losing some as well, but you can be a little more relaxed as you’re not expected to win. However, we expect to give them a good game and if everyone plays to their best on the day, we’ve got a chance of winning.”
Defensive solidity has offered Vale a platform to build upon this season, with four consecutive clean sheets being recorded before the 2-2 draw with Notts County, and seven being kept across the Sky Bet League Two season so far.
Following the heavy home defeat against Lincoln City, Neil Aspin opted to change the formation and it has paid dividends thus far, resulting in an upturn in results and a climb up the table.
Despite the improved form, Nogan insists that Vale must remain adaptable to certain situations, but he has been impressed with how the players have responded to the change in shape and is eager to see a strong performance against Sunderland.
He said: “The new shape is obviously working because we’ve started to win a few games and draw some as well, but we’ve looked more solid too. It’s a shape that we tried at Gateshead and it worked for us for about seven or eight games, then we reverted back to a back four.
“You can toy with things a little bit and if it works that’s great, but there’s certain games where you look at the opposition and question whether we need to change it. We did that against Bury and we changed to a back four towards the end because we were getting overrun, but at the moment, the current system is working.
“Theo Vassell has adapted well to the position because he’s more of a centre-half, he’s played most of his career in that more central role.
He has played at right-back and he’s had stints at left-back, but he had never really experienced being in the wing-back position. He’s more defensive than Mitch Clark, but I think that gives us a good balance within the team.”
With Sunderland being one of the fancied teams in Sky Bet League One, Jack Ross’ men are the favourites to progress into the second round of the FA Cup, but Nogan believes Vale can match them if everyone performs to their maximum levels.
One player who will be key to any success is Tom Pope, and with seven goals to his name already this season, he will be a figure that the opposition pay close attention to. Now just five goals shy of 100 in a Vale shirt, Nogan has lauded his influence.
He said: “Tom Pope has been magnificent and I’m sure that he’ll surpass the 100-goal mark. Doing it for one club is immense because usually you’ll see strikers getting to that tally after five or six clubs.
“He epitomises everything you want. Port Vale fans will see what he does for the team and the club, not just on the pitch, but off it as well. There’s a lot said about when he doesn’t play and even when he does play, we get branded as being one-dimensional at times, but we don’t mean to be.
“You’ve got to play to your strengths, and his main attribute is getting on the end of crossing. When we get into the final third and into good areas, we’re always looking to put the ball into the box.
“We did that well on Saturday against Notts County, and he thrives off that. In other games if we’re not playing to his strengths, it can be difficult for him. He’s a big player for us and there are no doubts about it, everyone else can see it from the outside.
“We’re trying to get him a bit more help, whether it’s formation wise or getting runners around him, we’re always working on it. He’s pivotal to what we’re doing.”