Port Vale will be involved in a proper promotion match this weekend when John Askey’s seventh-placed side take on Michael Duff’s fifth-placed Robins in Gloucestershire.
So, what sort of challenge do the Vale face? For an inside track on the opposition, we are grateful to reporter Jon Palmer who covers Cheltenham for Gloucestershire Live, the Western Daily Press and The Football League Paper, and has written three books about the Robins…..
WHAT’S THE MOOD AMONG SUPPORTERS JON? ARE CHELTENHAM EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS OR DID FANS EXPECT TO BE IN THE HUNT FOR AUTOMATIC PROMOTION?
The mood is excellent, with supporters thoroughly enjoying the progress being made by Cheltenham under Michael Duff’s management.
The second half of last season was encouraging as they pulled clear of the relegation zone to end up 16th, but what has happened so far this term has still far exceeded most fans’ expectations.
The first two-and-a-half seasons in League Two since winning the National League title were a real struggle, but Duff is showing what can be done with a clear plan and strategy, along with a united and highly motivated squad.
Automatic promotion to League One has never been achieved by Cheltenham before, but belief is starting to grow that they can make a genuine top-three challenge.
WHO ARE THE DANGERMEN VALE HAVE TO WATCH OUT FOR?
In recent weeks it has been Alfie May who has caught the eye, with six goals in 11 appearances since joining from Doncaster Rovers in January.
He’s played up front with either Luke Varney or Reuben Reid, who are sharing the workload as they recover from long-term injuries. Elsewhere in the side, left wing-back Chris Hussey has been excellent and scored a fine free-kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Colchester United. Most players have chipped in well during the recent five-game winning run, with Duff using his squad depth particularly well.
HOW DOES MICHAEL DUFF LIKE HIS TEAM TO PLAY?
It’s a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formation, with one central attacking midfielder supporting the two front men.
They try to play a passing, possession game at home, but have shown the ability to mix it up away from home on some heavy pitches of late.
The defence is well-drilled, boasting the best record in the division by a considerable margin, showing the structure and organisation Duff, himself a defender during his playing days, has introduced. They have plenty of energy and a good blend of youngsters, alongside more experienced heads.
WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF PORT VALE FROM THE FIRST TWO MEETINGS THIS SEASON?
The FA Cup tie was all about Tom Pope and his eight-minute hat-trick after Cheltenham had done well for an hour or so, but it showed just how dangerous Vale can be.
When the Robins visited Vale Park they registered their fifth draw in six games, despite a bright performance and goal from Alex Addai, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. Cheltenham missed Varney that day, but it was still a decent result against a team charging up the table to emerge as play-off contenders.
WHAT’S YOUR BEST GUESS AT THE CHELTENHAM TEAM? ANY KEY PLAYERS MISSING?
It will be Owen Evans, on loan from Wigan Athletic, in goal. He came in for the experienced Scott Flinders, who broke his leg in January, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
The back three will be (from right to left), Charlie Raglan, captain Ben Tozer and Will Boyle. Boyle recently reclaimed his starting place ahead of Hull City youngster Jacob Greaves, who has impressed during his loan spell.
The wing-backs will be Sean Long and Chris Hussey, with the midfield three depending on injuries.
First choice would be Jake Doyle-Hayes, Conor Thomas and Ryan Broom. Chris Clements and Max Sheaf started alongside Broom on Saturday, with Doyle-Hayes (groin) and Thomas (knee) ruled out. Broom operates in the more advanced role, in support of Alfie May and either Luke Varney or Reuben Reid.
Varney felt his hamstring at Colchester and could be struggling, but Michael Duff has plenty of other attacking options, including Jonté Smith, Tom Nichols and Alex Addai. Like Addai, another forward George Lloyd is recovering from a knee problem.