When David Worrall looked down at his phone last Thursday, he laughed out loud. There it was; his name, sandwiched in between a cluster of Premier League stars. De Bruyne, Worrall, Grealish, Maddison, Alexander-Arnold. According to ‘playmakerstats’, these are the footballers with the highest number of key passes-per-game in 2019/20 throughout top four tiers of English football.
“I thought somebody was having me on, I couldn’t believe it,” Worrall says. “I was with my missus when I received a message. She’s a City fan so we had a good laugh about it, especially because of De Bruyne. I’m just gutted the season is over because they will all overtake me now!” he adds.
Since joining Port Vale back in August 2017, Worrall has pulled on the black and white shirt 112 times, chipping in with ten goals along the way. His industrious style and never-say-die attitude has won the hearts of the supporters and Chair, Carol Shanahan, over recent months. “I always use David Worrall as an example,” Carol said. “He epitomises what Port Vale is all about; the energy that he brings, the expression, the creativity, his humour and character.”
Those kind words are enough to make anybody blush, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Mancunian. Under the management of Neil Aspin, his form was erratic. The ups and downs- along with the underwhelming team performances- began to take its toll on Worrall’s happiness in Burslem. At one point, the winger was eyeing up a move away from the club.
“I honestly thought I was done at Port Vale. It was only when the gaffer and Carol came in that everything changed,” he said.
“The previous two seasons at the club, I hadn’t been anywhere near what I’m capable of as a player. The last year I feel as though I’ve come into my own- the proper ‘David Worrall’, both on and off the field. The gaffer has played a big part in helping me get my confidence back,” he added.
The arrival of John Askey in February 2019, and Carol Shanahan three months later, helped bring some optimism to the football club. For both the supporters and David Worrall, it was an important juncture. Despite being left out of the starting line-up for Askey’s first three games in charge, Worrall has been one of the first name’s on the team sheet since - barring injury or suspension.
“The gaffer’s put his faith in me and I’m thankful for that. As soon as new management walked through the doors we could see the changes happening. Then we got the first win under our belts, and that’s when we all started thinking ‘right, it’s changing on the pitch now too’. It gave us all the belief that we could turn things around.”
The introduction of a high-tempo, front-foot style of play has been a revolution during the Askey era. It has not only entertained a slew of supporters that flood through the Vale Park turnstiles each week, but triggered an upturn in results too. Prior to the EFL vote that subsequently brought an end to the League Two calendar, the team- agonisingly- sat just one solitary point behind Northampton Town who occupied the final Playoff spot. The teams surge towards the top end of the table was largely down to the form of players such as Nathan Smith, Luke Joyce, and David Worrall, to name a few; with the latter fitting into the playing philosophy like no other:
“We are a high-pressing team which suits me down to the ground. I get to just run around- that’s something that I’ve made a career out of,” Worrall jokes.
“In all seriousness, we spend a lot of time on the ball, whereas in the past we used to chase the opposition around and sit back hoping for the best. Fitness is also big- we’re a very fit team.
John Askey, with the help of his assistant Dave Kevan and first-team coach Danny Pugh, has played a pivotal role in injecting life into what was once a gloomy dressing room at Vale Park. Askey and Kevan work methodically throughout the week to cover the entire tactical elements prior to game-day. The experienced Pugh meanwhile, orchestrates the passing and possession drills, developing the players’ techniques and decision-making in possession. Whilst Ronnie Sinclair is tasked with keeping the goalkeepers on their toes. Undoubtedly, the overall organisation is much improved, something that Worrall was quick to heap praise on.
“They’ve made a massive impact. The manager works hard with us all week on the tactical side of things,” Worrall explains. “Away from the training ground, he rarely gets involved with us in the dressing room until a match-day.
“Before a game he just reinforces everything that we’ve done during the week, and reminds us of how far we’ve come as a group. He gives us the licence to express ourselves, which in my opinion, is massive.”
In any football season, there are ups and downs. In Port Vale’s case, there have been more positives than negatives over the past twelve months. Carol Shanahan pointed out a 0–0 draw away at Notts County in March 2019, as a watershed moment. “It was the first time where we as fans came away feeling hard done by,” Shanahan said. Mark Porter, the Chairman of Port Vale’s Supporters Club on the other hand, described the hard-fought 1–0 victory in the A500 derby as a “this is it, we’re back” type moment. For David Worrall though, two games immediately sprung to mind: Northampton Away, and something about a kick about at the Etihad Stadium?
“The Northampton game was a big moment in our season. We were both fighting to get into the playoffs- I scored in the last ten minutes and it was a really good game of football.
“The Man City match as well. We deserved that occasion because of the way that we got there; beating a really good MK Dons side at their place and Popey’s hat-trick at Cheltenham to get us into the draw.
“We started the [Man City] game really quick and I think it surprised both us and them to be honest. Scott Burgess or Jake Taylor had a chance within the first two minutes where it took a deflection and went just wide, so we were actually thinking ‘wow, we could be 1–0 up here’. When we got it to 1–1 we were all looking at the clock saying, ’right ten minutes, lets just get in at half time like this.
“In the second half we knew that they were going to step it up a gear, and our mentality went to ‘right, lets keep it at 2–1 for as long as we can’. I think in the end, we were happy with 4–1.After the game the players and fans were buzzing, our spirits were high and we took that into the league with us.”
Mark Porter recently explained how ‘the fans are now filled with pride when they walk out to their seats at Vale Park’, and it’s something that the players have also noticed, Worrall explained:
“The fans are brilliant now,” Worrall says. When Worrall uses the word ‘now’, he is using a fixture away at Forest Green on January, 6, 2018 as a direct comparison. The 1–0 defeat in Gloucestershire marked a dismal run of thirteen games without a win, and as the team made their way back towards the changing rooms after the final whistle, the supporters frustrations boiled over.
“The fans were telling us where to go, and understandably. I hung my head- I was ashamed,” he says.
“Now, when we lose a game the fans are right behind us because they believe that we can put things right the next week,” he says.
“It’s the little things like when I’m taking a corner; I can hear them backing us. It’s definitely made a huge difference to our confidence as a group and the fact that we have done so well at home. As a team, we were disappointed that we couldn’t go unbeaten all season, and I think that just shows the change in mentality.” he adds.
Exactly one year on from Worrall contemplating a move away from the football club, he put pen to paper on a new two-and-half year contract tying him down until 2022. If anything highlights the unpredictable nature of the game, then that must be it. For Worrall, a player-of-the-year contender, the decision to extend his stay was straightforward.
“It was easy. Since John and Carol have come in it’s been a completely new experience. The gym and food are good examples- I was really big on the food. I would complain all the time about how bad it was. Carol came to me and asked me for some advice on what needed to change. After she sorted it out, she’d wind me up and say ‘are you happy now!’” he says.
“I’ve always said that I want another promotion on my CV, but for the first two years we were closer to relegation. This past season we were on the right path, and if we carried on for another week or two I think we would have had a chance,” he adds.
Alongside his playing duties, Worrall has been coaching part-time within the Academy set-up, passing down his knowledge and experience to the younger generation of budding footballers. The twenty-nine year old hopes to transition into a coaching role once he hangs his boots up, so has began making small strides towards preparing himself for the future, and has even envisaged seeing out the remainder of his career at the Vale.
“The club have been brilliant with me. At the moment I’m enjoying repaying them on the pitch, but I realise that there will come a time when I wont be able to carry on doing that. So, I have to start thinking about life beyond my playing career. I’d love to coach in the Academy set-up and try to build my way up to the first team or youth team in the future.
“I’ve certainly started to consider whether I would retire here…”