Ben Garner's last trip to Vale Park six months ago was not a happy one.
He took his Swindon team (including Mandela Egbo, Jack Payne and Josh Davison) up there with a 2-1 lead in the League Two play-off semi-final in May. Port Vale scored in the seventh minute to level the tie but there were no further goals and, after extra time, it went to penalties. Port Vale won 6-5 and went on to beat Mansfield 3-0 at Wembley, thus clinching the final promotion place to League One.
They have made a reasonable start and sit in fifteenth place, just one point behind Charlton. They have already been beaten three times at home, albeit by top six sides Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich. On the other hand they have had three away wins (Burton, Derby and Shrewsbury) although last Saturday they were well beaten 0-4 at Oxford.
"We were soft - we didn't really get ourselves going," said manager Darrell Clarke (who was previously in charge at Bristol Rovers and Walsall) "One or two decisions went against us but that doesn't mean we have to be soft in our approach. It certainly should give everybody a kick up the backside, to realise there's still a long way to go to be an established League One team, because on that performance we are nowhere near it. We have to have a hard, physical week on the training ground to make sure we respond on Saturday."
Our last visit to Vale Park was in October 2016 when we took the lead through a Fredrik Ulvestad goal but were pegged back by a late Vale penalty. We also drew there in April 2000 as we stumbled over the line to promotion back to The Premier League - Rufus and Hunt ensuring a 2-2 draw. We managed a win in April 1998 when over three thousand Charlton fans took advantage of free travel provided by the club to see Clive Mendonca score the crucial goal. It was the fourth of Sasa Ilic's nine consecutive clean sheets leading up to Wembley. We haven't lost there since March 1997 - a year when Vale finished above us.
It wasn't that long ago that Charlton supporters were asking where the goals would come from but we are now the sixth highest scorers in League One with 30 from 18 games. It is the patched up defence that is the problem at the moment with the 26 conceded being the worst in the top half apart from Exeter. Sean Clare will be available on Saturday after suspension which should improve matters. In midfield, George Dobson and Scott Fraser looked a bit jaded at Burton and it might be that Jack Payne or Jake Forster-Caskey is introduced to freshen things up a bit. However, as George is the first player in League One to make more than fifty tackles and thirty interceptions, it is unlikely that Garner will dare to leave him out of the starting line-up.
If Port Vale have had a "hard physical week on the training ground" Charlton may well have to withstand an early onslaught on Saturday. If the defence can manage that, it might be that Chuks can turn the tide against tiring opposition later on. If we continue at best to draw games like this we can't be taken seriously as play-off candidates.