After the coronavirus pandemic brought about a premature end to Port Vale’s 2019/20 campaign, manager John Askey looks ahead to the opening clash of the 2020/21 Sky Bet League Two season.
The Valiants were in the midst of an eight-game unbeaten run prior to the season’s curtailment, with a 0-0 draw at Cheltenham proving to be the final chapter of a story supporters really did not want to see conclude.
But alas, it is time for a new chapter – one which has begun with an impressive 2-1 Carabao Cup victory at Scunthorpe United’s Glanford Park, followed up by a penalty shootout win at home to Tranmere Rovers in the EFL Trophy.
After an extended layoff, requiring communication with his squad through Zoom and WhatsApp prior to the return of pre-season, the Gaffer is - despite the absence of the Valiant faithful, very eager to get going.
“It is nice to get back, obviously it seems an age since we last played in the league, but we’re pleased with how pre-season went and the result in the Carabao Cup first round. We’re also going into the new season with more or less a full squad to choose from.”
The Gaffer has highlighted the Sky Bet League Two campaign as the club’s top priority, with the Carabao Cup and EFL trophy fixtures providing timely competitive opportunities to bed in new signings.
“We have treated the league as the first game of the season and that is our main priority. It is unusual to start with two cup games, but we have treated it as a hard pre-season and hopefully we will be ready for kick off on Saturday.
“It’s going to be massively different [without fans]. Even on Saturday at Scunthorpe it still had that pre-season friendly feel. I’m hoping because, obviously the first league game of the season is so important to us - that should take over. Without supporters there it just isn’t the same, but we still need the three points whether the supporters are there or not, and we have got to try and do it without them. I’m sure the players will be very much up for the task.”
While the fans will be supporting from afar it is the players who must look to pick up where last season left off, without the home crowd’s backing in what is sure to be an eerily quiet Vale Park.
“It’s a completely different playing environment. They have got to motivate themselves but the fact that three points is at stake should be motivation enough.
“We are all pushing for the same goal and I am sure it won’t be a problem for them, but crowds can have a big influence on games. In different situations the crowd can feel when the opposition are starting to get the jitters and it can play a big part – but we haven’t got that at the moment, so we have to be at our best.”
In terms of the preparation for Vale’s upcoming league campaign, while there was an extended layoff for the squad, the Gaffer is pleased with overall training and performance levels throughout pre-season.
“It hasn’t differed too much [in terms of pre-season training regime] – when we first came in, we were working in small groups which wasn’t the norm. We have had slightly longer, and we soon got back to what I felt was the normal way of training and pre-season games have not been too bad, because crowds aren’t usually too big for pre-season.”
“I think they [Vale’s first team squad] have done remarkably well. They were out for so long and the opposition that we have played have all been tough, and the squad has performed well in every game. We are just hoping that bodes well for the start of the season.”
The nucleus of manager John Askey’s most regularly employed squad members was retained, with 9 contract extensions announced since the suspension of the Sky Bet League Two season in March.
“We were lucky in keeping as many players as we did, that says a lot about the club and how it’s ran. We haven’t had to bring in too many, but the lads we bring in we always try and make sure as much as we can, that they will fit in with the rest.”
“They must also understand the philosophy of the football club. I am sure that the ones who have come in will do well and have slotted in seamlessly really and are getting on with everybody, we’re hoping that will continue – there’s nothing like getting results to keep that going.”
When questioned on whether the club can go one step further and improve on the Valiants’ 8th placed finish, the manager provided a reasoned response.
“I rate our chances as good as anybody else in the league. You always need that little bit of luck, especially early on. If we continue to work hard and keep trying to improve then we have got a good chance – but a lot of other clubs will be saying the same thing.”
Since the arrival of coronavirus to British shores, each of us as individuals has had our lives impacted by the enforced lockdown, even at this very moment, as you instead read this Matchday Programme between the walls of your own home. The gaffer was no exception and recounted his main learning as more appreciation for what it is that you do have.
“You appreciate things more, all of us do. For me, the time has been good as regards to spending time with family that I have not had… for, forever really - because I have always been involved in football! I’ve enjoyed that time [with family] and it’s given me time to assess things and get myself fitter and feeling better.”
During the time that has elapsed since Vale supporters were permitted to attend matchdays at Vale Park, a number of improvements have been made in and around the stadium. Namely, the seat installation into the previously unoccupied Lorne Street stand, which had stood as empty concrete for the two decades prior.
“Just as you walk into the football club, everybody can see it’s a club that is being looked after well. It’s probably the first time since the ground has been built that it looks completed! It’s probably, if not the best ground in League Two, very much up there in the Top One…”
We are sorry that you cannot be with us for the opening game of the 2020/21 season Valiants, but we look forward to welcoming you back to Vale Park as soon as fans are allowed to do so. We will be ready. Are you?
Want. Need. Expect.