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In-Depth: How Darrell Clarke galvanised Port Vale

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Gab Sutton takes an in-depth look at how Darrell Clarke has galvanised Port Vale...

Intuitive. Instinctive. Decisive. Pragmatic. Flexible. Passionate. Proactive. Abrupt. Direct. A hater of big-picture questions, a lover of high-stakes.

Playfully confrontational at times, yet equally self-effacing and – whether he cares or not – likeable to an audience that finds his straight-talking refreshing, while coaches elsewhere pontificate on philosophy.

Pound for pound, Darrell Clarke is one of the most successful managers in English football over the last eight years, having won three promotions in his last six full seasons in management, as well as steering Bristol Rovers to a ninth-placed finish in League One – their highest in 16 years.

Gasheads still talk about Clarke with great warmth, about how he galvanized a club after such a dark period.

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It’s similar at his current employers, Port Vale, although owners Carol and Kevin Shanahan had started that process when they took over two years prior.

In a different era, anyone with Clarke’s track record in lower leagues would be heavily sought after by second-tier or even top-tier clubs.

In this one, Championship decision-makers place a heavy emphasis on the candidate’s coaching or playing background: Michael Beale. Vincent Kompany. John Eustace. Rob Edwards. Michael Carrick.

All people who didn’t have multiple clear successes on their CV at the time of appointment, although Edwards had won the League Two title with Forest Green, but they did have high-profile coaching experience and presented themselves well.

Image and external perception may get in the way of Clarke managing in the Championship, unless he can take a low-budgeted League One club like Vale to that level.

In some respects, though, that’s to the Valiants’ advantage. It enables them to build for the future with stability under a fantastic manager, without having quite as many fears that he’ll get poached.

Accrington Stanley have enjoyed a similar advantage under John Coleman, recording successive top-half finishes: Vale are a much bigger club that have played in a higher division in a previous era, so what could they achieve?

For starters, here’s how Clarke has got Vale back on the up...

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Rotation

How often do we hear fans say of a manager “he doesn’t know his best XI”?

When results aren’t going well, that can be the first thing a lot of people go to. 

And yet, Clarke has in some ways built his own success on precisely not wanting to know his best XI: 28 different players have started league games for Vale this season.

The Valiants were deserving 1-0 winners over Lincoln last Saturday, but the boss still made the call to make six alterations to that side, dropping forwards Dan Butterworth and Mipo Odubeko to the bench after excellent performances.

The duo came on at Adams Park and their lively movement contributed directly to a 10-minute period in which Vale could easily have snatched a winner, before ultimately settling for a point.

Does that show the call to leave them out of the starting XI to be a genius move, that gave Vale two aces up their sleeve for the second half?

Conversely, was it a bad call, which meant Clarke’s side missed their quality for 74 minutes?

One could make the case either way, but James Wilson and Gavin Massey linked up well with Ellis Harrison in the duo’s absence, and there’s a strong argument for the freshness that comes from Clarke’s rotation-heavy policy.

Substitutions

If something doesn’t feel right to Clarke, he’ll take whatever measures necessary to change it.

It’s simply not in his nature to wait and see how a situation unfolds, which feeds into his policy on substitutions: Vale average 4.41 substitutions per game in League One, with only Portsmouth averaging more.

It’s a real strength for his side, too. In eight of the Valiants’ 17 league games, they have ended up with a result better than the one they were on course for at the time of their first alteration, collecting a worse result in only three of them.

In seven of those matches, Clarke has made at least one change before the start of the second half. On one or two occasions, it may have been enforced, but it’s clear the 44-year-old sees the game differently to a lot of managers and the switch from three to five permitted helps him in that regard.

For many coaches, making an unforced alteration at half-time let alone in the first half would be an admission that, with the starting XI, everything has fallen apart – it would have to get to two or three goals down for them to consider it.

Many of Clarke’s opposite numbers might feel like swift changes from a position that isn’t disastrous would reflect a lack of trust in the players that started, a perceived inability to give them the space they need to find the coherence required to carry out the game plan designed during the week.

Clarke’s belief is very different. He sees making changes early to reflect trust in the squad. He accepts that games rarely pan out exactly as planned, and that it’s essential to adapt to each one’s individual needs, rather than persist with an idea that sounded great in theory but in practice isn’t working.

Clarke’s belief is that keeping players on their toes is more valuable than giving players the clarity of one XI and system to settle into, that you can steer a game your way by spotting problems early and taking action to change them.

Culture

Darrell Clarke’s methods in management are almost unique in the modern game.

There’s no other manager in League One, for instance, who isn’t very different to him on at least one facet of the job.

The former midfielder sets incredibly high standards for commitment, and is not afraid to call people out when they fall short of them.

Some players respond extremely well to those challenges and become far better as a result, while others are simply not wired in the same way he is and can perhaps wilt in that environment.

The latter element is the risk that comes with Clarke, but once he finds a core of players who share his mentality, who will grab the gauntlet he throws down to them, who he knows he can fundamentally trust, there can be no stopping his sides.

In fact, Bristol Rovers lost their 94-year Football League status under Clarke in the lowest moment in their history, but what followed was successive promotions prior to a top half finish in League One.

All three accomplishments were achieved largely with a core of Dan Leadbitter, Mark McChrystal, Tom Lockyer, Lee Brown, Ollie Clarke, Stuart Sinclair, Chris Lines, Billy Bodin, Matty Taylor and Ellis Harrison.

Each of those players knew what Clarke expected, were willing to run through brick walls for him and attack every challenge that came their way.

In that sense, stepping up a division, as they did twice, was not a big problem because although there were different technical and physical standards, mentally they were never overawed by them and they approached every game with the same mindset.

The crop might not have been world beaters, exactly, although Bodin certainly brought a sprinkling of genius, but they could almost smell when there was something in a game for them and would simply grab it.

To cultivate that sort of mentality, though, it’s so important to recruit the right people as well as the right players.

Vale have vocal operators in Tom Conlon, David Worrall and Tom Pett, as well as strong characters in Connor Hall, Nathan Smith, Dan Jones and Ben Garrity, while Harrison, as above, is clearly somebody Clarke thinks the world of.

After a slightly difficult few years, the former Gas front-man could be onto the best season of his career, having scored seven league goals already for Vale – only four in this division have found the net more often – and his all-round game has been fantastic.

The manager can only set the culture up to a certain point: he needs other figures to buy into his approach and carry out his message in the dressing room.

When you have a group of people who will call each other out and challenge one another to be better, the standards rise every day and when a club has that, it can take them a long way.

Port Vale Odds

  • In Vale’s case, Clarke’s side are 8/11 with BetVictor for a top-half finish, which looks well within their range given the depth available and the way the manager has used it so far to keep everyone on their toes.
  • They are also 7/1 for a top-six finish, currently four points shy in 10th. Unlikely? Perhaps, given the quality of other sides in the Play-Off scramble like Portsmouth, Bolton, Derby, Barnsley and Charlton – it’s likely at least three of those will miss out as it is.

And yet, Clarke relishes the high-stakes: he has a team that’s fighting for him and a club that’s galvanised. So… who knows what will happen?

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