Relying largely on understudies, an exciting newcomer and the return of an important, if still rusty, wide man, Town swept aside a feeble Port Vale to advance to the 4th round of a competition they have seemed barely interested in since returning to the second tier.
Ignoring, for the moment, the weakness of the opposition and the consummate ease of victory, it was gratifying that Wagner was able to field a very competitive alternative eleven from back to front who were comfortable in their roles and the familiar style of play.
New loanee Izzy Brown was drafted in to the team immediately – a departure from the usual gradual introduction of new players – to form a genuinely exciting front four with Palmer, Payne and Lolley; even without a recognised striker the cumulative talent distinguished Wagner’s selections from the defensive formation adopted at Wigan which had singularly failed to deliver entertainment.
FA Cup 3rd round day rarely recaptures the days before the competition was eclipsed by the pressing need for league success or survival – a time gone forever which no amount of yearning will bring back – and mundane draws are usually accompanied by low crowds and a poor atmosphere. The interest and enthusiasm generated by a season of optimism, however, drew an engaged and enlarged audience helped in no small part by a strong away following (whose motivation remains a mystery after witnessing their team).
Having recently lost their manager and having sold their top scorer just days previously, Vale had little cause for optimism against high flying opposition, even with most of the home side’s principle actors rested and a first half dominated by the Terriers emphasised a gulf in class which remained a chasm throughout.
Quickly adapting to the new formation and faces, Town dominated possession and space with scant opposition but wayward shooting, a brave and magnificent save by the unfortunate Alnwick and over elaboration restricted the hosts to a single goal advantage at half time.
Brown and Palmer, Chelsea youngsters with similar styles and blossoming talent, caused the visitors regular problems with intelligent running, Payne was his usual busy self and, while never operating at pre-injury effectiveness, Lolley showed encouraging signs of adding much missed craft down the right, even if his shooting was wayward.
Until taking a knock, Billing glided through proceedings with smooth passing to keep the four in front of him supplied and Whitehead’s trademark combative style largely snuffed out Vale’s puny threat before it reached a solid back four.
Guilty of over elaboration at times, Town’s best early chance came when Hudson met a perfectly delivered Payne corner (sadly, many of the rest were as poor as Mooy’s) only for his downward header to be superbly tipped over. In the process, however, Alnwick collided sickeningly with his post and required lengthy treatment as a result.
The visitors were grateful to their keeper once again when he made a sharp save from Lolley, turning the ball round his post as the home side turned up the heat.
With Vale looking increasingly fragile, Town took the lead. A marvellous turn by Brown in midfield stranded 2 bewildered Vale players and opened up space for him to feed Lolley who, in turn, flicked the ball on to Payne who scored with a finish reminiscent of St James’ Park in August.
Stankovic, assured on the ball throughout, then found Palmer with a delightful ball. A deft header took the youngster past his opponent but with Alnwick narrowing the angle he fired over the bar rather than condemning the Valiants to almost certain defeat before the game was halfway through.
Even against limited opposition, Town’s inability to punish teams with goals their play deserves came back to the fore. Though Vale did not appear to have the wherewithal to take advantage of the failing, any side can throw balls in to the box and see what happens. Even in an almost entirely one sided first half, Town gave away careless free kicks to test this theory – Coleman, who looks every bit as good as Ward, collected and punched away the couple which were not more easily cleared, but the vulnerability of a narrow lead was to remain for some time in to the second half.
Overall, however, the front quartet’s movement and interplay was excellent, ably supported by colleagues and the addition of Brown to the creative hub of an ever improving squad bodes well for the rest of the season.
Vale’s resilience continued to hold after the break with Town taking a while to reestablish the authority they had exerted in the first half. Cranie had the ball in the net following a good move down the left but Palmer had drifted offside before his ball across and, in the process, he collided with Alnwick who was to leave the field a short time later.
With a succession of substitutions, the game stalled for a time and Town nearly paid the price of holding a ridiculously slender lead when a knock down from a long ball saw Thomas blast over from a decent position.
By this time, Mooy had replaced Billing – who was nursing a knock – and it was the Australian who was to orchestrate a late flurry of goals as he imposed his class on an already beleaguered Vale.
The Burslem outfit began to wilt badly as they visibly tired and the loss of the reassuring presence of Alnwick can’t have helped.
Galvanised by Vale’s miss, Town put the game to bed in the space of 10 minutes as the visitors finally succumbed to the home side’s superior skills and fitness.
Jack Payne had already seen a chance spectacularly turned off the line when a misplaced pass by Holmes-Dennis rebounded off an opponent to Palmer, whose instinctive shot took a fortuitous deflection past the substitute goalkeeper.
With the contest over, though there had been little doubt who would be progressing from fairly early on, Town turned the screw on their dispirited, hapless opponents and finally managed to score more than 2 goals in a game for the first time this season.
Mooy, who breezed through his cameo without breaking sweat or getting beyond second gear, found Bunn on the right with a raking pass which exposed the visitors’ beleaguered defence. Running in to the area, Bunn gave his opponent the illusion of a chance to rob him before sidestepping him and planting a left foot shot in to the corner.
Striking a small note of discord on a good afternoon for the team, Bunn cupped his ear in a suspiciously disrespectful way to the largely mild mannered occupants of the Riverside lower tier. A disappointing season and, perhaps, over sensitivity to criticism may have prompted his actions, but it did appear completely contrary to Wagner’s ethos of togetherness.
Payne added a deserved second to cap an effervescent performance following great work by Palmer in the middle of the park and a good ball from Holmes-Dennis and the score line finally reflected Town’s dominance.
It wasn’t difficult to feel sympathy for Vale who look to be a club with significant problems. We have been where they are now, and we have certainly witnessed similarly anaemic displays, including against them, but their lack of fight and ambition and tame acceptance of their fate was illustrated by no yellow cards being shown throughout the game.
For Town, brushing aside mediocre opposition in second gear is hardly a pointer for the future though scoring four could be cathartic and Izzy Brown’s debut was very encouraging. After several years of tame capitulation in cup competitions, it would be good to go on an eye catching run though the dangers of distraction would have to be managed. This cannot be beyond the charismatic, smart and thoughtful Wagner.
With the necessary resting of key players, including Wells, the option of a dynamic front four may well have emerged from the game – even allowing for the opposition, the movement and fluency was a joy to behold at times and could perhaps be deployed in the future; not least where Wagner wants to surprise the opposition.
Here’s hoping for a good draw on Monday.