Sunday, 15 November 2015

Calm before the storm

TWO games, nine goals, none conceded and key players given a rest - things couldn't be much better in the world of CTFC at the moment.
After seeing off Guiseley 5-0, the trip to Southport could have been a rude awakening, especially when we arrived in Merseyside to be greeted by strong winds and driving rain.
So what do you need in those conditions? Yes, a nice early goal to settle you down. Okay then, let's go and get three.
Harry Pell's free kick started it off - 'hit and hope' he said afterwards while claiming he hits them like Roberto Carlos on the training ground. It skidded through a non-existent wall into the corner.
Then it was enter Billy Waters with two goals in seven minutes. Yes, he was helped by hapless defending - but still produced two decent finishes.
Four goals in two games, and nine in 10 starts for a confident-looking Billy now... he's our leading scorer in league games, the talk of a loan striker has gone quiet, and no-one is talking too much any more about missing Amari Morgan-Smith's presence.
Like Guiseley then, where we got two in the first eight minutes, the game was practically won when Billy's second hit the net.
Southport had a go - they had 10 corners in the first half and Dillon Phillips had to make a couple of decent saves, but we also had power to add and looked dangerous every time we attacked.
At 3-0 up though, any problems were likely to be of our own making. Phillips rather naively got himself a yellow card after some nonsense at a corner.
Gary Johnson on the touchline was going ballistic at him - keeping our cool was paramount as the result really was not in danger.
Once Daniel Parslow had added the fourth the sting had well and truly gone out of the game with 37 minutes still remaining. From then on it was like a training exercise.
It was time to rest the skipper - sensible management with him on four bookings, and I haven't heard a reception for a player coming off like the one Aaron Downes got for a long while.
We saw Ryan Jennings for his debut. I thought he looked bright and on this view looks to have something to offer. The only small blot on the day was James Dayton's hamstring pull.
All in all, these have been two ruthless wins. No mercy, go out there and kill the game off as quickly as you can.
After the game at Hartlepool, Gary Johnson had said he wanted more ruthlessness. At Victoria Park, we had openings but failed to capitalise. These two games have put that right.
Pell said afterwards he felt we took our foot off the gas at Southport. That's hardly surprising - it's human nature to relax a bit when you feel the job is done.
So here we are - top of the table by a point, second-highest goalscorers, the fewest defeats, the tightest defence and the largest goal difference.
You really can't ask for more than that after 21 games - also, we are unbeaten for eight league games, the longest stretch in the division.
So we are in decent shape going into Saturday's second meeting with our nearest challengers Forest Green Rovers.
I know it's only November and (cliche alert) nothing is won in November, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal game and a pivotal weekend in the season.
Not only do we lock horns with FGR knowing that a win could out us four points ahead of them, but Eastleigh in third also host Grimsby in fourth with those two both needing a win to stay on our coat-tails.
A handy little gap has opened up behind us and FGR - five points separating second and third although Eastleigh do have a game in hand.
This weekend is also the last chance we have to dent Forest Green's hopes ourselves - after this weekend we are in the hands of others to knock them out of their stride, as long as we can keep getting results of course.
Another factor is our upcoming fixture list. After this weekend, we have a few games against sides in the bottom half of the table - we play the sides in 14th, 13th, 19th, 23rd, 21st, 23rd again and 20th.
So we (on paper) have a chance to get some points on the board and maybe open a further gap on the chasing pack - but so do Rovers.
Their games after this weekend see them take on teams currently sitting in 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 21st again, and 16th in the coming weeks - and they will have a game in hand on us as they still have the FA Cup to play, which has cancelled their game at 22nd-placed Southport on December 5.
So both of us have favourable games in the coming weeks - which only serves to show that they probably won't be shaken off any time soon and serves to make this weekend's game even more important for both sides.
They will want to get back in front of us and put the pressure back on us - especially for the Chester game on December 5 when they will fall a game behind us.
For us, there is the chance to keep top spot, get four points ahead of them, maybe have the chance to render that game in hand almost irrelevant, and also get further ahead of the other chasers.
Put it this way - I really don't think a draw suits either side.
Naturally, the excitement is mounting ahead of the game which, even I - despite my traditional feeling that Gloucester City remain our one and only true 'local derby' rivals - unfortunately have to bill as a derby game.
It is a great shame though that we are playing it in November. Had this game been played in April with the sides in first and second place, we could have been looking at a 6,000-plus crowd - maybe even a sell-out.
A Twitter question went out on Sunday asking about the last 'top v second' game to be played at Whaddon Road. Thoughts went back to March 1999 when we were second and hosted leaders Kettering, beating them 3-0 to go top on the way to promotion in front of a 5,202 attendance.
Personally, I don't think the crowd on Saturday will get to that figure - I hope it does, as the team deserves all the backing it gets.
But it seems (from what their club itself are saying) they are only likely to bring around 6-700 for the game, which isn't all ticket for them.
Assuming that is 700, to get the attendance to 4,000 we would need 3,300 fans in home areas - which is 1,100 home supporters more than came to the Guiseley match last Tuesday.
Not wanting to sound like Delia, but come on you floating fans... come on you fans who turned your backs over the past two seasons... let's be having ya!!!
I think 4,000-plus would be a decent attendance figure. I am told that seats are selling very well with only singles available in many T&B Stand blocks. Great news.
It's been difficult not to get carried away with things over recent weeks and with the recent run of results, especially the last two.
We all know it won't decide anything conclusively but a win on Saturday might make even the most sceptical of fans believe that we can pull this bounceback thing off.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We're halfway there (nearly...)

DON'T worry, I'm not about to launch into Bon Jovi - trust me you really wouldn't want to hear that...
It has been difficult not to walk around with a satisfied grin since the final whistle last night signalled our move to top spot in the National League.
But while it's nice to be there and yes, I am enjoying it as much as anyone else, it is important to remember that nothing is won yet.
As my first question to Gary Johnson post-match said, it was just about the perfect night against Guiseley, one of those which that well-known lager company might have had in mind when they dreamed up their adverts.
Two early goals, an injury to the opposition centre-half, then a bit of cruise control through the rest of the first half (getting a bit sloppy at times maybe, but we'll let them off just this once).
That was followed by a red card within two minutes of the re-start, a third goal just to make sure, a chance to rest your two central midfield workhorses, then a couple more goals to add a bit more gloss and send us all home happy.
Added to that were the goings-on in three games being played in the Kent and Greater London area, all of which ended with decent enough results for us as Forest Green were held and the teams immediately below us, Dover and Bromley, were beaten at home.
All very satisfactory, and keeping us on schedule for Gary's 'two points a game' target - 20 games, 40 points, after we had previously had 20 after 10 games.
Even the goals for column is almost playing ball, with 39 at the moment - only one away from two goals a game - statistics which really lay bare just how bad last season really was.
Now I don't want to hark back to those dark days too much, suffice to say that a point and a goal at Haig Avenue on Saturday will match our points and goal tallies from the whole of that wretched campaign.
More vindication then for Gary's summer recruitment, and also yet another sad indictment on the previous two close seasons.
Gary has proven that, if you know where to look and do your due diligence, the players are out there, and they don't demand a king's ransom. Let's remember his budget is somewhere around two-thirds of what the previous manager-but-two-or-three-I've-lost-count started last season with.
He has also proved that you can mould a new group of players into a close-knit group, who are motivated, care about the club they are playing for and want to do well for themselves, their manager and the supporters.
But that's enough about what went before. We know it was terrible, we know that's the reason why we are striving to get back up and keep our club on an even keel.
It's time to look forward to the next 26 games, which, if we can carry on with Gary's twin targets, really can take us to where we want to be.
This group really are responding to what Gary is demanding of them. They are listening and he comes across as a man not easily satisfied. Even after wins he has come out afterwards and asked for, nay demanded, more from them.
The players have taken it on board and they have stepped it up when needed - last night being an example.
After the Hartlepool game, Gary had a little go at a few. I suspect behind closed doors one or two got a bit more of a rocket. It certainly worked.
That's a sign that the players respect their manager and believe in what he is trying to do and in what he tells them.
He rewards them with (in the main) a consistency of selection which is paying off with results.
Five players - Dillon Phillips, Kyle Storer, Aaron Downes, Daniel Parslow and Danny Wright, have started all 20 league games.
One, Harry Pell, only missed a game due to his five bookings while Jack Munns and Jack Barthram, have started 18 and come on in the other two.
Amari Morgan-Smith started the first 18 games before his injury, Billy Waters has featured in 18 games (9 starts, 9 sub), George McLennan has missed three games due to his suspension, Rob Dickie has started the last 15 after signing for us.
So that's a core group of only 12 players, with Asa Hall, Lee Vaughan, James Rowe and now James Dayton added on, who have got us into this position.
Yes, we have been lucky with injuries up to now, but they have all stepped up when needed.
Of the five ever-presents, Phillips, Storer, Downes and Wright have been the real spine of the team - but what about Daniel Parslow? He's quietly got on with it, turned in consistent seven-out-of-10 performances and been a bit of an unsung hero.
Pell has come into his own since moving more centrally, while Munns, with six goals and officially nine (but I'd say he's got more than that) assists has shown his value regularly.
Barthram has been another consistent man, and made a few goals - even if he seems destined never to score one himself, while Morgan-Smith, pre-injury, has been a good foil for Wright and come up with some crucial goals.
Waters has seven goals in nine starts - enough said - and the young defenders McLennan and Dickie seem to be getting better and better.
McLennan had a rough spell after coming back from his ban but has come through it and been impressive lately and Dickie also looks to have a good future with his trademark surging runs out of defence.
Hall and Rowe have a goal apiece now and showed on Tuesday what good strength in depth we have got in the midfield area - I'm convinced they'd walk into most teams at this level, as probably would Vaughan.
Dayton made his first start on Tuesday but while he may not have had too much an impact, has shown with his cameos from the bench that he can be an asset - there is more to come I think over the second half of the season, if he stays beyond January.
But despite their good performances up to now, Gary wants to add - no resting on his laurels. A loan striker for competition while Amari is out is being hunted, the mere thought of which seems to have perked Billy Waters up - last night's display from him was just the sort of reaction you want.
How much more Gary can do after December 31 depends on a few factors.
Will Charlton let Phillips stay? Please let that be a yes...! Will Dayton's stay be extended?
What of the loanees, especially the ones he doesn't appear to want, who are seemingly Jack Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence, will they be moved on or paid up?
Harry Williams, Joe Hanks, Bobbie Dale (currently injured), James Bowen, Zack Kotwica and Adam Page, what of them? More loan action, or a chance in the squad? Will some of them get a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season?
I personally hope some of them get that opportunity and take it, but I have to be honest and say I am becoming increasingly unsure about whether that chance is going to materialise.
Take Williams for example. He is back at the club from Farnborough where he has scored something like 25 goals in all games.
He was an option for the bench on Tuesday given our shortage of attacking options - yet was overlooked and we went with two right-backs and two midfielders plus Rhys Lovett. I really hope that's not a signal of where Gary is going with that group of players.
Before the Guiseley game, Gary said of Williams: "If I pick him it's because I think it's right, and if I don't it's because I don't think it's right just yet." He wasn't picked, so it's obviously not right yet. The question is will it ever be?
Can Eliot Richards come back from his illness and make an impact? It certainly seems that Gary wants to give him the chance to do so, maybe even before Christmas. It would be like a new signing and could save us looking elsewhere in January.
Finally, has Jordan Wynter got a future here when he is over his injury? - there has to be a doubt about that given our midfield resources.
All these questions which need answering before Gary can really look at what he wants in January to add to that core group he has, which has done so well.
If he can move some of the unwanted ones on he might have some breathing space - whatever way those questions are answered it seems that some serious wheeling and dealing might be in store.
Fir now though, back to the present - and we are embarking now on a very important period which we have to take advantage of - and also keep on schedule with what Gary wants.
This upcoming run of 10 games could prove pivotal to our hopes of a quick bounce-back as many of them look winnable on paper - and realistically they are the games which title-challengers should be winning.
Of the 10, eight are against teams currently in the bottom half. The other two are, of course, the re-match with Forest Green a week on Saturday, and what is currently scheduled to be our 30th game, at Dover on January 23.
The others are trips to Southport, Aldershot, Kidderminster and Boreham Wood, and home games against Chester, Altrincham, Torquay and Kidderminster.
Six of those games are against the current bottom six - so these are the games we have to really take advantage of, maybe open up a gap at the top and look to give ourselves a real springboard for the final push.
We're (nearly) halfway there but the real fight is only just beginning.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Time to believe?

FRIDAY night's hike up to Cleethorpes was built up as the big test for Cheltenham Town's title credentials.
A 5,000-plus crowd, under the lights in front of the TV cameras against a side unbeaten in 11 games with only one home defeat all season.
So - having come through it with a 1-0 win, what now? Is it now time to start believing that this team is the real deal, and can challenge for, if not win, this league?
Yes, I believe it is.
If we can go to Grimsby and win there we have to believe we can win anywhere as I don't see many bigger tests than this in the league.
Looking at the table, we have drawn at Forest Green, beaten Dover and Wrexham, won at Bromley, drawn with Eastleigh, Gateshead, Braintree and Lincoln, and now won at Grimsby.
The home defeat against Tranmere is the only blip against teams in the top half - and you have to honest and say there is very little to fear from what we have seen from the sides being laid out as title challengers.
We have been better than most of them and more than matched the others, including Tranmere.
Personally, I have earmarked Grimsby as the team to beat. My feeling since the start of the season has been that a team which finishes above Grimsby will win the league or go very close.
In the first half on Friday, we started well enough, and looked confident on the ball, but gradually got pushed back and allowed their wide men too much freedom.
Our wing-backs were pushing on and allowing too much space in behind and about half-an-hour in we could have paid for it as we were second best.
The penalty-which-should-have-been and Dillon Phillips' save from Danny East were big alarm bells - but the switch to 4-4-2 paid off for us.
That formation has been a worry for me in the past - mainly because of our right-hand side with Rob Dickie having looked uncomfortable before at right-back and Jack Barthram not looking convincing as a right winger.
Also on the left  we don't have a natural wide man, with Jack Munns having to perform that role - and that system has a 'square peg' look about it.
I feel that playing 3-5-2 suits the players we have... but this time it worked a treat- as we matched them up and went on to prove that overall, man for man, we have better players.
Nowhere else was that shown up better for me than in central midfield, where I felt Kyle Storer and Harry Pell took the game by the scruff of the neck against Craig Disley and Craig Clay over the last hour - and especially in the second half.
The switch also took their wide men out of the game with Dickie and George McLennan having excellent second-halves.
We stopped the supply to them and in doing so negated the threat of Omar Bogle and Padraig Amond after the break.
Amond was denied by Phillips right at the end of the first half but that was it as far as direct saves for Phillips - Disley's shot over the bar was their only real threat after the interval.
We grew into the game the longer it went on with every single player displaying the work-rate and commitment which has typified our season.
This is despite all the travelling of recent weeks - Halifax, Bromley, Havant, Gateshead, Cleethorpes - a lot of miles on the motorway network - and the extra game we had in midweek.
It's prompted a few worries about fitness, and whether our small squad could cope, but by the end of the game we looked the fresher side, and I was impressed with the calmness we showed in seeing the game out.
After Aaron Downes' brilliantly-taken goal we 'managed' the rest of the game very well indeed, led by Downes and the unsung hero alongside him, Daniel Parslow.
Downes quite rightly got all the plaudits post-match but Parslow deserves a few as well as he has been a very consistent performer this season alongside the Silver Fox (copyright H Pell, 2015).
As soon as Grimsby took Bogle off I was confident we would see the game out - it seemed a strange move to me, almost a concession that the game was up.
We could have had more goals - there were a couple of times where a shot was on instead of a pass, Billy Waters and Danny Wright got into good positions but maybe took the wrong decision.
On the subject of those two, Wright had a frustrating first-half but a much better second (along with a few of his team-mates!) but I felt Waters was always lively.
Having watched the game 'lie' and then sat through the TV re-run, the BT pundit Adam Virgo was always picking him out for praise saying he was making intelligent runs and getting into good positions.
I do think we missed Amari Morgan-Smith's extra physicality at times against two big centre-backs as it left Wright to take on the brunt of that side of things, but Waters did worry the Grimsby defence in a different way by running at them and with his trickery.
The partnership between him and Wright still needs some work - there were times when Wright flicked on or looked to hold the ball up and Waters was not close enough to him to take advantage but they will have a few weeks until Amari is fit again to work on that.
But maybe that's just nit-picking as it truly was a superb win and one which puts a marker down - not only for us but for the rest of the league.
It was a very important win too with a lot of teams behind us winning on Saturday - indeed the defeats for Grimsby and Tranmere (1-0 defeat at home to Dover) have dropped them to ninth and 10th. That's how tight it is.
Importantly, they are now seven points behind us - a useful cushion even at this time of the season.
It's still very congested behind us - a sign maybe that these teams are all much of a muchness and can all beat each other... which could play into our hands if we can keep picking up points and start to pull away from the pack.
I am convinced we have what it takes to win this league. If we do, then an October Friday night in Cleethorpes will go down as one of the key reasons why.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Never say die

One of those 'football' words which pops up constantly - usually when a team is performing badly and the fans claim to have a lot of it while the players have none whatsoever.
A few months ago, we certainly wouldn't have seen goalkeepers leaping around the penalty area to celebrate a last-minute winner (not that we were likely to see many of them!!!) and fans waiting for the manager's fist-pump on the final whistle.
At Bromley last night, one of our directors turned to me at half-time and said: "It's an absolute miracle how Gary Johnson has put together this squad on our budget." It's hard to disagree.
I don't think even the most optimistic of CTFC fans would have expected 17 new signings to gel together almost instantly into a squad playing decent football, winning games and with a really good team spirit. In some ways it is a miracle.
They care. They want to do well for the club, for the fans and for each other, and it shows in their performances and in the way they go about things on the pitch.
Going into last night's game at Bromley, there seemed to be a bit of extra pressure on us.
Saturday's game at Gateshead, which I missed as I was on dad duties, was followed by what I felt was a fair smattering of social media negativity.
There were gripes about missed chances, with Amari Morgan-Smith especially in the firing line, worries that we had only won one game in five, and fears that Forest Green were heading over the hill again while those beneath us were bunching up.
I thought a lot of it was over the top. All strikers miss chances, and Amari is not the only culprit. He has also won us games, Wrexham being a case in point with a spectacular goal.
Yes, after Gateshead we had won one in five - but we'd only lost one in five too, had one defeat in nine, and two defeats in 16. We were sitting second in the table with one of the best goal-scoring records and the second-tightest defence in the league. Statistics can be turned any way you fancy.
Yes, FGR were five points clear. Earlier in the season they were nine clear, but were reeled in and briefly overtaken. Five points is not a terminal lead, with 30 games left.
And yes, the table is very tight, but everyone seems to be beating everyone else around and about us, and I am sure a few teams will slowly drop away to leave a pack of real title challengers - which hopefully we will be part of.
I'd seen Bromley dubbed as a 'must-win' game, seen pleas that the system needed to be changed (10 days after that system saw us win 7-1 away from home...) and that we urgently needed new players to add to the squad.
Gary Johnson soon put paid to the latter before the game. I'm happy with my squad and my subs, and won't be calling any loanees back.  That cleared that up then.
At 9.45pm last night those concerns about the system and personnel seemed to have been quelled once more - and in any case we are over budget, so we can forget any embellishments to the squad unless we have a decent FA Cup run, while the loanees who are in Gary's plans are playing regularly and scoring goals. If they came back they'd not be guaranteed a bench seat and might get no action at all.
Last night was a fantastic night - one of the best away days in a while and one of those we will look back on in future years.
It showed once again just what a resilient and spirited lot we have got in red and white (or purple). They don't give up.
We saw it against Barrow, when we dragged ourselves to victory. We saw it against Braintree, where we salvaged a point at the death and could have won it, and we saw it again last night. Just don't leave before the end or you will miss something!
It was a rocky old road though. In the first 20 minutes, we could have conceded five or six times.
For the first time in a long time - maybe even all season - we looked defensively dodgy.
The movement of the Bromley front four was causing us big problems in the back three and we were struggling to cope. Only Dillon Phillips (three or four times), the post and one bad miss by the league's top scorer Moses Emmanuel kept it at 0-0.
However we weathered that storm and as the half wore on we took control more and more, without really creating a clear chance - the best being Aaron Downes' header from a corner which was saved.
After the break, we were clearly the better side. Whether it was the part-time v full-time thing I don't know, but we seemed to gradually wear Bromley down.
Their only real chance in the second half bar their penalty was Emmanuel's shot brilliantly saved again by Phillips, but as the game went into the final 15 minutes at 0-0 it was still on a knife-edge.
I mentioned earlier about some fans' concerns over AMS and there has been a clamour for Billy Waters to start up front with Danny Wright.
But Billy's impact from the bench might be working against him on that front - and he came up trumps again with the opening goal, making it three in four games after coming on.
He seems to be an instinctive finisher - the poacher - fox in the box, call it what you will.
That can be useful late in games against tiring defences and sides we have struggled to break down - like Braintree and like Bromley, who has been stubborn and defended well in that second half when we put a lot of corners into their box.
Gary seems to like having him up his sleeve - but another goal isn't going to stop the fans' clamour for him to be given a go from the start. We'll see on that one.
All that remained after that was to see the game out, but it looked like we had shot ourselves in the foot when the penalty was conceded.
It was a penalty, as clear-cut as you can get. As soon as Anthony Cook burst past George McLennan I was saying to myself 'don't dive in... be careful... don't foul...' Ah. Too late.
Another draw then, we thought. But again we reckoned without the fantastic never-say-die spirit of those in purple.
Asa Hall said afterwards that he asked the referee how long was left. He was told six minutes, and they all looked at other and said 'right, let's go and get another one.' What an attitude!
No settling for a draw, no hunched shoulders, no feeling sorry for themselves. No capitulations like we have seen from previous Cheltenham sides after late setbacks - just a determination to go up the other end and win it. It's so refreshing.
And how fantastic was it to see Asa lash in that winner after his terrible year of injuries? What a great moment for a player who has never moaned about his lot, whether it be injury or not being in the starting 11.
I do wonder what a fit Asa Hall would have been able to do last season, considering the bunch of miscreants we had loitering our midfield for much of the season - but it's too late for that now.
Then we got the bonus. At the same time Asa's shot hit the net, Eastleigh got a winner against FGR and the 'terminal' five-point gap was down to two, and we also opened a three-point cushion on Dover in third. Happy days! How thing change in the blink of an eye.
So the perfect response to our perceived little 'blip' of only one win in five and two draws which could've or should've been wins. Now on we go to a little crop of three more tricky games.
Eastleigh at home is up first, a side with wins over Wrexham, Tranmere and FGR in recent weeks, who might have a new manager installed by Saturday - if it's not Chris Todd though he's very unlucky.
Then it's a trip to Havant and Waterlooville in the Cup, a big game for its' financial implications, and we hope Charlton and Reading give the green light and let Phillips and Rob Dickie play.
Finally in October it's a trip to Grimsby, fast emerging as real contenders after a good run of form and matching our seven-goal haul against poor old Halifax.
They don't get any easier - but this squad seem to take them in their stride and let's just hope that continues.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The big picture

AS we approach October, we could so easily be sat top of the table - which I feel would have been remarkable given the massive summer of change we saw.
So therefore the loss of five points late in the games against Forest Green and Tranmere, while disappointing, is not really the end of the world.
I suspect many Robins fans heading up the hill to Nailsworth would have taken a point at 7.45pm last Tuesday, even if it was then a bit difficult to swallow two hours later.
I didn't feel we played that well at the New Lawn, especially in the first half.
I felt we were too deep in midfield for most of the game, which left Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith isolated, and we struggled to get much going.
On the plus side, we probably created three decent chances and took two of them - the other being the AMS chance which was saved by Maxted, who also blocked Jack Barthram's follow-up.
We did most of the defending, Dillon Phillips was the busier keeper, so all in all maybe a point wasn't that bad after all.
Yes, we could have gone top, taken the bragging rights, called ourselves the county's number one team again, whatever... but we did none of the above, so we can try again in November.
Then it was on Tranmere, and once again in hindsight it was a chance missed.
Once again we could have ended the afternoon top of the league as other results more or less went in the right direction for us, but we couldn't take advantage of it.
With Harry Pell banned, Gary Johnson had to make one change and Asa Hall was the natural replacement. He did well enough - but the gaffer decided to go further.
The two Jacks, Munns and Barthram, were rested for James Rowe and Lee Vaughan and in hindsight I didn't feel those changes were as successful, and were unnecessary.
It seemed a strange decision from the manager, who has preached consistency all season and looked to make as few changes as he can, then opts to rest two players,
Saying that, I was pleased to see Rowe given a chance to start as he has done well from the bench in little cameos, but he didn't take the opportunity. After a promising start he faded quickly out of the game and it just passed him by.
Vaughan and Barthram both give energy down that right-hand side, and Vaughan got into a number of good positions again but I feel Barthram's supply is more consistent - although Vaughan did supply a cross for our one decent chance, Wright's header which was saved.
All in all, the game was very tight with both teams more or less cancelling each other out. It was a bit of a non-event, with few clear-cut chances and neither goalkeeper kept busy.
From early on, it was either a 0-0 draw or was going to be 1-0 either way. The smart money would have been 0-0 as neither side did enough.
AMS rightly had a goal ruled out for offside, and then when he went through and seemed to be fouled, I thought the highlights showed him simply losing his balance and if there was contact with the defender it wasn't intentional.
Tranmere's stall was well set out in the second half as their keeper took longer and longer over goal-kicks and clearly they would have been delighted with 0-0,
It was going that way and makes the sucker punch goal even more disappointing - but I am going to stay positive and look at the bigger picture.
We made 17 (I think...I lose count...) signings in the summer and I admit to surprise at how quickly it has knitted together.
It could so easily have gone the other way and let's be honest about it - not many of the so-called pundits had us in their favoured challengers at the top.
But all the indications are that we are going to be in the mix for the top five, and maybe also for the top one as we reach the quarter of the season stage.
We have seen good performances, resilient performances, battling performances, committed performances and some not-so-good performances which have still brought some reward.
We have lost two games, both to goals scored after the 90th minute of the game and the whole mentality around the club has changed for the better. And yes, it needed to.
Now we head into another congested month with six league games - five against sides in the top 10 - and our foray into the FA Cup, which, as we know well, is financially important.
After Halifax on Saturday, we play Braintree (9th), Gateshead (2nd), Bromley (4th, and flying), Eastleigh (10th) and Grimsby (7th). A big month.
By the time we leave Blundell Park, we will have played 19 league games - and we will be remarkably nearly halfway through the campaign after three months.
A good month will really set us up for an assault on the title. A less good one might leave us fighting it out for the play-offs - yes, I feel it might be that pivotal so soon.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Case for the defence

After the game yesterday, I stuck a microphone under Steve Book's nose to get a few thoughts from him ahead of Tuesday's game at Forest Green.
Interviewing Booky is always an 'interesting' experience - but he came out with one pearl of wisdom which cannot be denied.
'Goals win you games, but clean sheets win you leagues,' he said - and that certainly seems to be ringing true as far as we are concerned at the moment.
Last season we didn't keep a clean sheet for 27 games between August and February. Look where that got us.
Already we have kept five clean sheets in 11 games this time round, and that has matched the total in league games in the whole of last season. We sit in second place with the best defensive record in the VNL.
The manner of the victory at Woking yesterday was almost Cotterill-esque - and yes, I know that is high praise indeed.
Under Cotterill, we would frequently go away and dig out victories, keeping a clean sheet and getting a goal in each half to almost steamroller the opposition.
There was a little bit of that in the manner of yesterday's win.
Gary Johnson made two changes from the Macclesfield victory, breaking the old cardinal sin of changing a winning team.
His explanation was that George McLennan was always coming back in, and then Jack Barthram edged Lee Vaughan out because he has trained and played more.
Jack Munns' return for Billy Waters was almost erring on the side of caution - playing a more orthodox midfield player instead of a midfield-forward.
He got both decisions right. The game plan worked to a tee.
McLennan had a very good game against the tricky Bruno Andrade, who was Woking's most potent threat down the right-hand side, while Munns' set-pieces caused problems and brought us our goal.
Before Saturday, Woking had five wins out of five at home, and in John Goddard they had a seven-goal player in prime form.
But he never had a shot, and was taken off before the end - in fact so effective was our back three and full-backs that Dillon Phillips never had a serious save to make all game.
In front of him, our back three were superb. Aaron Downes carried on what he has been doing all season, heading everything that comes his way, and throwing his body on the line when needed.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow is quietly efficient. Remember that this guy has played 300 games in League Two and the VNL. He is a no frills player - just gets on with his job and is doing it very well.
Rob Dickie seems to grow in stature and the games go by. After his goalscoring debut, he looked a little out of his comfort zone at right-back and the return to a back three has suited him.
He had another assured game and is growing in confidence - he likes to bring the ball out from the back and is a threat at set-pieces. He headed one great chance over and nearly got on to the end of another.
Those three and the confident Phillips behind them, backed up by the wing-backs and with Kyle Storer hoovering everything up in front of them is providing a very solid base for us.
I can't think of any time during the game that I felt uncomfortable, and that we were going to concede. The only worry was that we might not get a goal as we had created some good chances.
Danny Wright missed a couple in the first half, shooting wide from one and having a header very well saved, and there was also Dickie's headed chance.
Then in the second, Morgan-Smith had an opportunity before the goal finally did come.
Maybe not surprisingly, it was from a set-piece.
One of the best things about this season so far has been the threat from corners and free-kicks and with the height we have in the side from Downes, Parslow, Dickie, Wright, Morgan-Smith, Harry Pell and (if he's not taking them) Storer, it's hardly a shock.
More and more, other sides know we are a threat and the managers mention it frequently - but they seem powerless to do much about it. This time Wright got on to the end of Munns' corner and the ball ended up in the net.
Cole got a hand to it, and someone got a touch, whether it was a defender or Morgan-Smith, but I think it had already gone in so from my point of view it's five for the season for Wright.
After that goal, we went into fully-fledged strangle mode. Despite Craig Braham-Barrett trying his luck from 30 yards Woking never really had much of a look in.
We kept them very much at arm's length and I felt we closed the game out very comfortably and it was a fully-merited victory.
As Booky said, clean sheets win leagues. So does grinding out results at difficult places to win like Woking. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective and that's another big test passed for this team, and number one of Gary Johnson's two 'cup finals' won.
The second looms large down the A46 on Tuesday, and a win could send us to the top of the table. No pressure then.
There is no doubt that we go into the game with the momentum - five wins out of six means we are top of the VNL current form table.
After their blistering start Forest Green have now lost two in a row and they have influential midfielder Rob Sinclair suspended as well.
Following the Dover game, when they were nine points head of us, there didn't seem much of a chance that we would go there with the chance to overtake them at the top.
It just goes to show that you can't count chickens too early - and the same will be the case if we go there and beat them at the New Lawn.
It will certainly be a big psychological blow to go up there and win, but it's just another three points towards where we want to be - and even if we don't get the win we've only had a quarter of the season so far.
 Another big game and another big test - but our team have passed them all so far and I have every confidence they can take this one in their stride as well.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Home comforts

It's been a long time since we have been able to use the phrase 'routine home victory' about a Cheltenham Town game, but it is the perfect way to describe the win over Macclesfield.
We saw an utterly dominant first half followed by a comfortable second, and all in all probably our most complete performance of the season so far - well, out of the eight games I have seen for definite.
There was no late drama and no need for comebacks - we just went out, imposed ourselves on the game from the off, went 2-0 up and saw the game through.
So that's five wins in a row now at home, all very different from the past two seasons (but let's face it, just about  everything around the club is different from the past two seasons...).
In fact we have now won as many home games as we did in the whole of last season - and that factoid tells its own tale.
The 3-5-2 seems to work. The players look at ease and comfortable in it and, for the most part, we have round pegs in round holes. It gives the team confidence and they can just go out and play.
Gary Johnson used this system when he won this league at Yeovil and I can see it becoming the norm for us now.
Rob Dickie looks happier as part of a back three than he did at right back. Ditto Harry Pell in a central midfield role rather than out on the right, and Billy Waters just behind the front two.
The team looked more fluid as they seamlessly carried on from the second half of the Dover win, which cheered me up in my sick bed last weekend, At 2-0 down I was reaching for more drugs to numb the pain.
The only slight square peg on Tuesday was Jack Barthram, retained down the left side, where he is nowhere near as effective, with Lee Vaughan keeping his place on the right after his half-time introduction against Dover and George McLennan sat on the bench after his ban.
Barthram had started the season superbly on the right and has not been able to replicate it down the left in the past four games.
I have nothing against Vaughan. He had a few dodgy games last season as did just about everyone else, but in some supporters' eyes he is 'damaged goods' having been a member of that relegation squad.
He does deserve credit for having not sulked after being transfer listed by Johnson, but instead deciding he would knuckle down, aim to change the manager's mind and show some determination to get back into the side.
It's that 'passion' and attitude which many fans love and can go wildly over the top about where he is concerned - he has become a cult hero to some simply for telling Paul Buckle where to go on the team coach at Southend.
He is proven at VNL level, and on Tuesday, he did perfectly well, giving the width and support when needed with the only drawback being the quality of his final ball.
So if Johnson wants to get his natural left footer in McLennan back down the left-hand side, he has a choice between Barthram and Vaughan to make as the season goes on. Interesting to see how that one goes.
You could see the determination throughout the team to start well on Tuesday and not fall into the trap of the previous three home games.
That tone was set by Pell and Kyle Storer, who took the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and everyone else fed off them. They were brilliant in the 60-odd minutes they played together.
Once again it was work rate which shone through and no one epitomises that more than Danny Wright. It's been said before and not only be me, but it's good to have a hard-working target man.
Amari Morgan-Smith isn't a slouch on the 'putting in a shift' front either, and they do complement each other well as a front pair.
Just behind them, Waters was buzzing around, looking confident again after his goals against Dover finally kick-started his season.
You look at that midfield trio of Storer, Pell and Waters and then see the trio on the bench - Jack Munns, James Rowe and Asa Hall - and realise how well stocked we are in that department. That's before adding Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks into that mix.
At the back, Dillon Phillips didn't have a save to make until just about half-time, because Dickie, Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow provided a solid barrier.
The two goals we scored were further rubber-stamping of our danger from set-pieces - another refreshing change from the recent past.
No longer are our corners or free-kicks greeted by feelings of trepidation that we will concede a goal to a counter-attack - we actually now pose a real threat that we might score from them,
First we saw Storer's ball from the right headed in by Pell, and then Wright was on the end of 'The Weasel' - a Johnson training ground production which apparently has seen success in the past at Yeovil.
It involved a pass from Storer to find Waters, who had run along the edge of the box before feeding the pass to Wright, who, along with Morgan-Smith, had dropped out of the defensive wall, and he finished clinically.
All very clever and on this occasion it worked to a tee.
2-0 at half-time was the least we deserved and it allowed the second half to be much more comfortable. We could afford to drop a gear or two, and almost coast our way through it.
Macc were a bit more threatening but I never had a worry they were going to score, let alone do what we had done on Saturday and turn the game on its head.
Johnson had the chance to rest Pell and Waters and give Munns and Rowe 25 minutes each. Munns we know about, but I was again impressed by Rowe in his cameo.
He has energy about him and seems a very composed player with good passing range and quick feet - another clever footballer who adds to the ability in the squad.
McLennan was also brought on in the last 10 minutes and did a good job in that time - all in all, a highly satisfying night and a win reminiscent in some ways of the home wins under Steve Cotterill back in the Conference days - almost a steamroller performance.
So that is 10 games done now. We have six wins, three draws and one defeat, for 21 points - matching the 'two points per game' target.
We also have 18 goals, spread around nine different goalscorers. Wright has four, Morgan-Smith and Downes three, Storer and Waters two and there is one each for Munns, Parslow, Dickie and Pell.
That's almost at the 'two goals per game' target as well - and it is proving that we are scoring goals from everywhere in the side rather than being over-reliant on one or two players to get them.
We have also had eight ever-presents so far, Phillips, Barthram, Storer, Downes, Parslow, Pell, Wright and Morgan-Smith starting every game. This points at consistency of selection. Fingers crossed we won't be using 40-odd players in this campaign...
As the weeks go by, we see more and more evidence that this team and squad are the 'real deal'.
We have seen their work rate and commitment in spades. We have seen their resilience and spirit to come from behind and salvage draws and wins from losing situations. We have seen players with some backbone - putting their bodies on the line to protect our goal when we have come under pressure instead of collapsing like a pack of cards. Basically, they actually care.
It's all been a breath of fresh air and it's hard not to get carried away by it. These opening 10 games have been full of plusses and positives and all the signs are there that we will have a good fist at getting straight back up.
However, now we face two tough games on the road. First we go to Woking on Saturday, and they'll be cock-a-hoop after ending Forest Green's 100 per cent start, and then of course it's our trip over to Nailsworth.
Two cup finals, says Gary. He's not wrong. We go into them with good momentum after these two home wins and could really propel ourselves into the thick of things if we can come out unscathed.
But even if things don't go right in these two games, it wouldn't be the end of the world or any promotion hopes - I'd back this team to respond to it and come back stronger and there will still be a long, long way to go.