Port Vale: Neal says players are up for Cheltenham clash
G OALKEEPER Chris Neal has been there, done it and got the promotion T-shirt.
So he knows from first-hand experience just what a crucial period this can be for teams at the top of the table.
Vale start the hectic Christmas and New Year spell with a tough-looking trip to third-placed Cheltenham today and Neal is desperate to start a run of seven games in less than a month on the front foot.
"There are a lot of points to play for over Christmas and the New Year, so we're looking forward to an important time," said the stopper, who helped Shrewsbury finish second in League Two last season.
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"We had a terrible Christmas last year, I think we played four games and picked up only three points, so that show's it's not the be-all and end-all.
"But if we can do well over what is a busy time in the fixture schedule, then we'll be well placed to kick on in the New Year.
"Hopefully, we can start at Cheltenham."
Vale follow today's trip to Whaddon Road by entertaining AFC Wimbledon next Saturday.
There's a trip to Rotherham on Boxing Day, a long journey to Dagenham and Redbridge on December 29 and a New Year's Day clash at home to Fleetwood.
The Valiants play host to Plymouth on January 5 and then it's the showdown at Gillingham a week later.
Neal insists the team will go into the games full of confidence despite a disappointing run of results.
Two cup defeats and a home loss against Chesterfield have, he said, failed to dampen team spirit.
"Chesterfield were a good team," he said. "It was disappointing to lose in the manner we did at home, but you are going to get blips along the season.
"It meant we had lost three in a row, but the results we had previously mean it's hardly a crisis.
"After 21 games we are second in the table. If someone had offered us that at the start of the season, we would have snapped their hand off.
"We've only lost one in six in the league, so there's no reason to lose confidence.
"I'm in training day in, day out and I certainly can't see anything different."
The 27-year-old admits the Cheltenham clash will be the game of the day in League Two.
"It's second against third, it's the fixture of the weekend, so there will be a lot of eyes on it," he said.
"Hopefully we can go down there and put on a good show.
"We've shown before that we can go away to the top teams and put on good performances, so hopefully we can get back on track.
"It would be good to keep a gap to fourth place, but if we can beat Cheltenham and open up a gap to third, it helps us even more. It would take the pressure off us."
Neal revealed he'll be sporting a new look for the game.
The superstitious stopper has been wearing a protective face mask, inset, since bruising a cheekbone in the home game against Dagenham and Redbridge on October 2
He left it off for the game at Northampton Town later that month, but a 2-0 defeat at Sixfields prompted a rethink.
"I left it off against Northampton and we lost," he said.
"I put it back on against Forest Green in the FA Cup and we won, so it has stayed on since then.
"But we lost to Chesterfield on Saturday, so that's it now. It's going."