September is one of my favourite months of the year. The last vestiges of summer fade away as the days get noticeably shorter and cooler. Proper football conditions at last, without the heat and glare of the August sun and the table starts to take shape with 10 games played against League opponents offering various degrees of challenge.
Well that’s the theory. This season the climate and the fixture list seemed to have other ideas.
Yes, we’re 10 League games in, but 9 of those games have been against teams which either currently sit above us in the table or were heavily fancied before a ball was kicked in August. Then just to twist the knife, the Saturday weather has provided us with relentless stamina sapping Mediterranean-like heat.
But we’ve managed a decent 13 points from those 10 games and mid-table respectability is a reasonable return all things considered. I certainly take it as a positive and an inkling of that all-important progress I keep banging on about.
I’m particularly pleased with the response following the Grimsby debacle. The unexpected drubbing there was a setback, but we don’t seem to have let it bother us too much. Ok we didn’t quite have enough to create an upset at Newport or Exeter but we have kept our home record intact even if it sometimes hasn’t been too pretty. Especially against Mansfield who employed tactics which left quite a bit to be desired and I found odd considering the quality and pace in their team.
Importantly, we didn’t give up. Despite an injury hit squad and trying our best to play against a team determined to spoil the game at every opportunity, we kept going to the very end. Not our best performance but a welcome point and the usual mixed reaction from supporters. Realists accepted a point gained from a losing position. Others were doom and gloom over the lack of quality.
Proof, as if it were needed, that you can’t please everyone.
Grinding out a result, as it’s often called, has been a feature that I’ve been happy to witness during the first quarter of the new season. Games against Colchester, Cambridge and Plymouth spring to mind. Games, just like the draw against Mansfield that would have probably been lost last season, mainly because player’s heads would have dropped when it wasn’t going to plan. The combination of the New Era optimism and the Gaffer’s determination to instil belief seems to be addressing that issue quite effectively. Another sign of progress perhaps.
One thing that still seems to be holding us back though, is injuries. Epitomised by the farcical situation against Plymouth. I don’t ever recall seeing 3 injury-enforced substitutions in the first 30 minutes of a game. Never mind one of those being the replacement of a previous sub who only lasted 10 minutes before going off injured himself. But you can’t escape the fact that we went on to win that game as sheer hard work got us over the line.
The Plymouth win was definitely the kind of performance that all supporters appreciate, and it bodes well for the future. However, I don’t think that we should assume that we could perform like that every week with such a disrupted and injury-weakened team.
Incredible isn’t it that some players seem to play week-in, week-out and never get injured. Nathan Smith is a perfect example. Hardly missed a game for 3 seasons. Puts his body on the line time after time, yet he’s always fit and raring to go. Yet others can’t seem to string 5 or 6 games together without picking up some kind of knock, strain or muscle injury and they’re out for a month or so. Beats me.
I appreciate that the Gaffer’s plan has been to put together a squad which provides adequate cover in every position on the park and you could argue that he’s managed to do that despite a relatively modest budget. From what we’ve seen so far, I think a full-strength Vale team can compete with anyone in this League. I also think that might still be the case when we field a team including one or two cover players.
However, it’s a fact of life in lower League football that a settled side has a much greater chance of success. We don’t have the Premiership luxury of riches that enables squad rotation. Indeed, giving players specific roles in a limited number of defined formations with few changes of personnel has to be our best chance of progressing up the table. I just don’t see us playing to our maximum potential with 4 or 5 of our first choice out stranded on the sidelines.
We need players like Amoo, Manny, Conlon and Monty out on the park not in the treatment room. A consistent formation breeds confidence as well as better results. It also creates opportunity to ease potential like Evans, Archer, and Hurst into games gradually when the time is right rather than through necessity. That has to be better for the team and better for the development of these players as well.
Back in August I talked about the need for goals throughout the team and whilst I still think our goal tally could improve, it’s refreshing to see a good mix of players on the score sheet. Cullen, Burgess and Taylor all got off the mark this last week and the ever-fit Nathan Smith has definitely stepped up to the plate this term after a barren couple of seasons. Three league goals makes Nathan one of our leading scorers so far and crucially two of those goals have been critical in gaining points.
So, injuries apart, I would say that the start to the season has been acceptable and the overall signs are good. I’m confident that if we can manage to get everyone back to fitness and keep them that way, the results will come. Then maybe we can look forward to better than mid table respectability and a nice dollop of progress to boot.
Let’s start with a return to the team for Manny on Saturday. Three away points would be very welcome too.