Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The times they are a-changing

SO another season bites the dust, and it's fair to say that 2016-17 will not be talked about with misty-eyed reverence when we sit down in our dotage and reminisce about the old days.
It started with optimism and ended with relief, and as usual with Cheltenham Town was never short of incident.
It started with our vice-captain banned for a biting incident and ended with our manager undergoing triple heart bypass surgery as we battled to avoid wasting 2015-16's heroics on  a pitch fit only for a vegetable patch.
I can't honestly say there are many games I actually enjoyed. I only saw two of our away wins, and they were arguably the best two.
They were the 3-2 at Luton (and even then I got a speeding ticket on the way home... Bedfordshire's revenge on a boy of Hertfordshire) and the 4-1 Cup win at Crewe (which Network Rail did its level best to try and make me late for).
I missed the rest of our away League wins - Grimsby, Morecambe and Leyton Orient - but had the dubious pleasure of spending afternoons and evenings at Cambridge, Hartlepool, Yeovil, Colchester, Blackpool, Stevenage and Exeter, games where we were too easily brushed aside.
The pitch ruined most of the home games. We played well in some - Carlisle, Morecambe, Accrington just about spring to mind - but the majority were pretty awful attritional battles where we were walking through treacle.
But we got there. Just. Although I must admit 'celebrating' finishing in 21st place a year after hailing the champions all night in the Whaddon Road bar was all a bit hollow for me.
Finishing above the line was the be all and end all, and Danny Wright's goal against Hartlepool was in the end priceless - as had that game gone the other way, the results on the final day would have sent us down.
That's how close it was.
As we all know, the summer recruitment was pretty poor. None of the loans (Suliman, Whitehead, Smith, Griffiths - although I felt he started okay - Arthur and the returning Dickie) had the desired effect, and one of the two permanent arrivals, Jennings, was gone as quickly as he arrived.
Storer's ban did not help, and neither did an injury to Holman, and pretty quickly we were chopping and changing the side as players struggled to adjust to what seemed to be a larger step up than they and the management had anticipated.
From about September we seemed to be willing the dawning of January 1st so we could rectify the summer errors and happily we more or less got it right this time.
Brown, Onariase, Boyle, Winchester, Plavotic, De Girolamo, Pike, Davis and Wootton formed the cavalry and all played their part to varying degrees as we scrambled our way over the line.
Next season we need to be better - and it was clear that this season's squad was not good enough and major changes were inevitable.
So we have seen 11 players leave and another handful offered new deals to join those already secured for next season and beyond.

Released
James Dayton - I'm a fan of Dayton and his goal at Portsmouth was a frustrating glimpse of what we didn't see enough of. Fitness issues must have played a part in the decision as he did have a frustrating knack of picking up niggles.
Jack Munns - The most controversial decision and like the majority of fans I would have kept him on. However the writing seemed to be on the wall as Jack was a bit-part player for the second half of the season, although for me that excuse that the pitch wouldn't suit him was nonsense. He is the one I feel we could regret letting go.
Calum Kitscha - Really felt sorry for him at Wycombe when injury denied him a League start. Did okay in the Checkatrade Trophy games and I don't feel would have let us down in League games. But obviously not going to be first choice and needs to go and be someone's number 1. Could still have a decent career.
Liam Davis - Brilliant at Luton on his debut and performed adequately in his other games. Like Dayton, I wonder if fitness issues played a part. Was a borderline one for me and I might have been tempted to keep him for experience and he also seemed to be a decent character.
Jack Barthram - Another controversial one like Munns. Big fans' favourite as people seem to like his passion (whatever that really means...) as always seems to be the case with some of our supporters where small right backs are concerned. But there was a fallout with Gary early on and after that it seemed inevitable that his days were numbered. Another who shouldn't have any problems getting fixed up.
James Rowe - In some ways it's a surprise given the fact that he was a regular for much of the season and started 26 games. But never convinced the majority of fans, who felt Munns should be playing instead, and his set-pieces were too often disappointing.
Asa Hall, Daniel Parslow, Amari Morgan-Smith - Three players who all played a big part last season but failed to hit the heights this time around. Once they went to York on loan, their time here was over.
James Jennings - Came in August and had gone by September never to be seen again. Mark him down as a mistake I'm afraid.
Jordan Lymn - Another young player from the Academy who was given a contract then not given a chance, bar a seat on the bench a few times. We need to start trusting these boys. If we give them contracts, we need to find out if they are good enough at first team level rather than just releasing them again. It happens too often for me and it's not fair on these boys to sign them, raise their hopes, then basically ignore them. In my view, he should have played in the Checkatrade.

Contract offers
Kyle Storer - Blotted his copybook with the ban to start the season, then with two red cards which mean he sat out 15 games through suspension. But the fact that he played in all but one of our league wins despite that shows his value to the side and he redeemed himself with his leadership in the run-in.
Danny Wright - Was surprised to see some fans saying he should be released or that he was a borderline case. If there was any doubt it might have surrounded the fact that he will be 33 in September. Runs through brick walls for us and was second on the goal charts - but might not be regular starting pick next season.
Aaron Downes - A great leader and ambassador for our football club. Will be on the bench to come on shore things up late in games when needed I suspect as well as helping young defenders like Boyle, O'Shaughnessy and Bower progress. Is he a future manager of the club?
Daniel O'Shaughnessy - As you would expect from a young player in his first League season, had some good games and showed his naivety and inexperience in others. Scored three league goals, which actually made him our joint fourth L2 top scorer (and another in the Checkatrade), and the long throw is a useful weapon. Glad we are presevering with him and Downes' influence will help.
Adam Page - Two years ruined with injuries, so hope he gets a break now, and deserves the chance to prove his worth. Hope he is given an opportunity, and I know Russell and Gary like him so I'm hopeful.
Rhys Lovett - Did well on loan at Shortwood and rated by Booky. I'd have been tempted to play him at Wycombe but I assume next season he will be number 2 (as I can't see us buying two keepers) and therefore might get the Checkatrade games and the bench role. Hope he does.
Jordan Cranston - Along with Rowe, he has been the scapegoat this season, and I don't know many fans who agree with the decision to keep him on. But he has been a regular for most of the season and clearly Gary and Russ see something in him. But they signed Jennings and then Davis to either challenge or replace him so it remains to be seen whether he will start next season as our first choice left-back.
Billy Waters - Player of the season by a street, 16 goals and played some part in every game (the only man to do so). Simply has to stay, and I would hope the contract offer is for two years at least. Hoping next season to see him used through the middle more often than not.

Under contract
Harry Pell - The life and soul of the club. His late-season performances and goals dragged us through and hope he can start next season as he finished this one. But does need to cut out the yellow cards - 14 is too many.
Carl Winchester - Showed flashes of what he is capable of but didn't really grab games by the scruff of the neck as had been hoped. A pre-season will help him and so will not being used as a right-back. Hopefully.
Will Boyle - Outstanding since his arrival and I've barely seen him have an off-day. Looks a great pick-up and will surely only get better. Captain in the making and can only get better with Downesy's help.
Matt Bower - Was thought to be of sufficient promise to be fast-tracked on to a pro deal, so next season we will see if he is trusted by the management team. Like Page, Lovett and Thomas he could play in the Checkatrade. Was surprised he wan't loaned out last season, but that might happen this time - but at a decent level please (National League North/South in my view).
Josh Thomas - Youth team captain and has been on the bench a few times. A handy midfield prospect from what I have seen and can learn from Storer, Pell and Winchester. Hope he gets a chance and doesn't go the way of players like Lymn, Hanks and Williams before him, or a decent loan move to a good level.
Dan Holman - 30 goals last season, two this. That tells the story of a difficult season for him, so let's hope he stays injury-free and gets his form and confidence back. There were signs that it was coming back towards the end of the season (Crawley notably when he could have scored four) so hope he can carry that on.

So we have the nucleus of a squad there. Six under contract (of whom four would be expected starters) and eight more under offer (two starters in Storer and Waters - maybe four with Wright and Cranston).
That means a lot of work for the Johnsons as we need anywhere between three and five first-choice players to find this summer.
My wish list consists of a goalkeeper (a permanent one please), full-backs (at least one either side), two centre-backs (if we want to play a 3-5-2),  some midfielders - I'd like to see one with steel to try and stop us being a soft touch on the road and a creator/set-piece taker, proper wingers with some pace who can beat a man, get to the byline and deliver some decent crosses, and a couple of strikers - a target man with some mobility and penalty-box finisher (although Holman and Waters could do that).
Having lost 11, it's not unrealistic to expect around the same number to come in, so it could be a busy summer.
Let's hope we can do the business early as was the successful formula in 2015-16 and we can avoid a struggle like this time, so we can start looking up.
With a flashy new scoreboard coming, a better pitch promised, new additions and enthusiasm on the board fresh impetus in the Supporters Trust, and the brilliant season ticket initiative, things are changing for the better off the pitch.
It's a shame to see so many of our champions leave, but things have to move on and what they did for our club will never be forgotten.
We will still talk in years to come about Munnsy's assists and his hat-trick at Halifax, Asa's winners at Bromley and Barrow, Morgs' cracker against Wrexham, Dayts' free-kick against Grimsby, Barts' goals against Luton and Crewe, Pars' calm defending under pressure. They are always champions.
But now let's hope Gary's recovery continues and these changes on the pitch match that forward-thinking optimism off it.
The retained lists are coming out and there are already names out there who might interest us and might end up in red and white - so the merry-go-round starts again...
Have a good summer.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Alarm bells

Before heading to Exeter last night, I watched the National League highlights.
It brought back memories of last season - places like Guiseley, Woking and Braintree... but also made me think how much I don't want to go back to that in a hurry.
10 days or so ago, as the final whistle blew on the Mansfield game, it didn't seem that we would have to worry about that.
Three wins and a draw, 10 points from 12 and no goals conceded had lifted us into a position of relative safety - probably the most secure position we had been in for a while.
Then we lost at Doncaster on Saturday - I wasn't there, so have only seen brief highlights and on paper there is no disgrace in that outcome.
Any reward from that trip would have been a bonus, and the main thing was that the gap to the bottom two remained the same.
But the Exeter display got the alarm bells ringing a lot louder. Now we really do have to worry again in earnest about Solihull, Sutton and Maidstone.
They are a good side. Lively, with a quick tempo, two decent forwards - but it was our failure to compete which was the worrying thing.
We started poorly, and could have been behind in the opening seconds, but seemed to stabilise it a bit only to give the penalty away.
At first sight it looked stonewall, and there weren't many complaints and to be honest we deserved to be behind - but Barthram's chance could have thrown us a lifeline.
But it summed the night up. He looked to be on the corner of the six-yard box, in space, chested it down nicely - then hit the corner flag when it seemed certain the net would bulge.
We quickly went two down and then (unluckily) three - and from then on we went downhill. Second best all over the field, no real challenges and no signs at all of getting back into the game.
We showed brief signs of life but it was too little too late and overall it was a throwback to two seasons ago.
It was more surprising as this group of players have rarely let us down in this manner.
Of the 13 outfield players we saw, only Onariase in my view was anywhere near doing himself justice.
Boyle was a miss as the back three had to shuffle around a bit, but they didn't get much protection from those ahead of them.
Cranston had a difficult night from the off. Exeter seemed to target him with two or three combining down his flank at will.
Winchester and O'Shaughnessy tried to help him out but that merely left us short-handed elsewhere and constantly on the back foot.
Last night showed me how costly the Storer red card and suspension are - whether you blame him for the tackle or the referee/Steve Evans/anyone else for the decision
Without him - or any sort of midfield 'enforcer' - there was nothing much in the way of protection to the back three, who were left exposed.
It makes the timing of the decision to send Hall to York for a month more bemusing - I feel he would have been ideal in this situation, but we can't bring him back until just before the Barnet game.
It will be interesting to see what happens there. He has played three games, so could slot in - if the manager decides to go that way. Personally, I'd have him back here and in the team.
Pell, Winchester and Dayton also struggled to get us moving forward, as the final ball to the front two was pretty much non-existent. I felt sorry for Waters and Wootton as they had nothing to go on.
They have not had a sniff for three games - and suddenly we barely look like scoring a goal.
Winchester was the best of the midfield trio in my view, and I was a bit bemused by the decision to take him off and introduce Rowe.
Munns came on and was bright in those last 15 minutes and he might be worth a shot for a start on Saturday.
Our best first half outlet was Barthram, who at times had ridiculous amounts of space down the right - but such was the decision making we failed to give him the ball enough. When we did, he forced a rare save from Bobby Olejnik.
When Exeter came forward, their crossing was dangerous and their set-pieces caused problems. Ours did not - bar one in the 85th minute from Dayton which Wright nearly got on the end of.
Apart from that, when we, albeit rarely, got into a good position, our crosses hit the first defender or didn't even get that far. The corners weren't much better.
Our first three corners were taken by three different players - and we need to improve them, especially with the height we have in the side and the dangers we have posed this season when we get them right.
No matter who the personnel are, we seem to have a tendency to allow sides to get crosses into our box too easily, especially away from home.
We can be a soft touch on the road - last night, Yeovil, Hartlepool, Crewe, Cambridge to name a few - and it needs to be addressed as we can't go to Barnet, Wycombe and Crawley and play like that, or we'll get nothing.
Not just this season, but going back several years. It's something we need to cut out and tighten up on.
I think it is a bit simplistic to say that the absence of the manager for two games has seen the wheels fall off a bit. It won't have helped obviously, but I don't see it as the root cause of the two defeats.
Gary will have been involved somehow in the set up for these last two games. I am sure the team selections, tactics and set-up will have been at least run past him, although Russ will obviously have decided the subs etc as the games went on.
But it's not Russ's fault that Davis switched off for Doncaster's first goal, that Rowe stood and watched after losing the ball for the second, and that we turned in a powder-puff display last night.
That's down to the players and we need to start digging in. Other teams are doing it and they are getting results - Newport, Crewe, Accrington - all picking up points with the latter now in 16th and virtually free of danger.
If complacency has set in, then it needs to be banished again, and fast, as last night's was a 2014-5-style performance, and we will have a 2014-5 result f we carry on like this.
Back then, we thought Hartlepool were doomed but they rose up, rolled their sleeves up and got out of it, sending us down.
Newport were doomed two weeks ago, now after two wins on the road they might be doing a Hartlepool, so we need to sort ourselves out. Fast.


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

False dawns?

COMING back from Luton a fortnight ago, all seemed rosy in the Cheltenham Town garden.
We’d seen a vibrant away performance, full of resilience, commitment and determination capped off with a much-needed victory.
The new signings were bedding in nicely it seemed, and this was the start of the upturn.
But it seems to have been a false dawn.
We’ve had a few of those this season - performances where we think the penny has dropped, everything has clicked and we are on our way.
The Crewe cup replay was one -  that was followed by a good display against Portsmouth but then a flat showing against a ridiculously out-of-form Colchester.
And that has been the story - one of inconsistency and an inability to string a series of performances together and to get a run of wins to put breathing space between us and the trap door.
Tuesday’s game at Stevenage followed a worrying pattern away from home - with that Luton win being the exception.
Cambridge, Hartlepool, Yeovil and Notts County all spring to mind as away performances where we have rolled over far too easily.
At Broadhall Way, things started brightly - then the penalty award affected us badly and we retreated into our shells allowing Stevenage to wrest the initiative.
A poor second goal conceded after half-time - again from a set-piece which is becoming an ever-more worrying trend -  left us a mountain to climb.
Even the red card for Charlie Lee failed to help as we failed to take advantage - it was too easy for Stevenage to set their two banks of four up and keep us at bay.
Kyle Wootton’s goal should have signalled a bombardment for the last 10 minutes, but it never materialised and so it was another miserable away day.
It was made worse by two late goals apiece for Notts County and Leyton Orient - but we can’t go desperately hoping for favours from others.
We are in charge of our own destiny, and it’s looking like a mini-league of six with fourth place of higher the aim.
Saturday’s home game against Yeovil is followed by a massive game at Leyton Orient, and points on the board are crucial now.
Gary Johnson has called for the players to do more - and they need to, but he also needs to look at himself.
The travelling fans’ reaction to Billy Waters’ withdrawal on Tuesday was stark.
Yes, Billy didn’t have the greatest game, but is he being played to his strengths?
Is our 12-goal leading scorer and fox-in-the-box poacher being best used when he plays out on the right - and was it the right decision to take him off when you need a goal and are chasing the game?
Nothing against James Dayton - another player I feel has been under-used lately – but the answer has to be no.
Waters  needs to go back up front with Wootton, who has worked hard with little support in the last few games, and got two goals from half-chances and his own anticipation.
Carl Winchester has shown he has good ability on the ball, but needs to stay in a central role so he can affect the game - but I feel our midfield needs some steel in it.
In those away defeats especially, teams have been able to break on us too easily and quickly and a Kyle Storer or Asa Hall type sat in front of the back four could be the way forward to break things up and free Winchester and Harry Pell to drive us forward.
Jordan Cranston’s two-match ban will allow Liam Davis free rein down the left hand side.
He looks a class act and has the ability to deliver dangerous crosses and decent set-pieces.
On the other side, Jack Barthram needs to play.
He was outstanding at Luton but was benched at Notts County and out of the 18 at Stevenage - a strange decision as I feel he gives a different dimension going forward and offers that width down the right.
He and Davis are our best wing-back options if we are going to use the 3-5-2 system, which has brought us the most success this season and is, I feel, the way to go from now.

My side for Saturday: Brown; Onariase, Boyle, O’Shaughnessy; Barthram, Storer/Hall, Pell, Winchester, Davis; Waters, Wootton.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Upgrades

ON Saturday morning I need to change my mobile phone.
I've had it for two years.  It's been a faithful servant but now it's showing signs of wear and tear, the screen is a bit cracked and it could do with freshening up.
When the time comes, I'll say thank you to it and move on to something new in the hope of a better future.
The same could be said for our January transfer window.
Our squad on  December 31 had served us well but needed an upgrade - and now as we sit here on February 2, the first impressions are favourable.
In goal we had Russ Griffiths. He started well enough but tailed off as the weeks went on, a few errors sapping his confidence.
Now we have Scott Brown. His last two displays, at Crewe and Luton, show that the experience and shot stopping skills are a big plus - even if he still doesn't always command his box from set-pieces.
In front of him, Easah Suliman, who has just turned 19, went back to Villa having never really looked ready for League football.
In has come Alex Pike, who is 20 next week and does look ready being a year ahead of Suliman. He looks a good athlete, a common theme in the players who have arrived this month.
On the other side is the latest acquisition, Liam Davis.  Good experience behind him,  he is well known to Gary and his brother, who had a wide smile on his face after Tuesday night's win.
He says there is another 10 per cent of fitness to come. After a debut as good as he had (forget the own goal) I can't wait for that.
I especially liked the way he glided past people and took us up the field quickly - a big factor inot how we counter attacked so effectively at Luton.
He has taken James Jennings' squad place, and his is a move we just have to chalk down as one that just never worked out. We haven't had many of those that I can remember down the years.  These things happen.
Into central defence and we have lost Rob Dickie, a great performer last season who maybe didn't hit the same heights this time - which could partly because put down to the fact that the team as a whole was struggling.
In addition we have seen Daniel Parslow head to York on loan. A true colossus last season,  players' player of the year and someone who we will always hold dear. That rendition of his song in the WR bar post-Halifax won't be forgotten quickly.
Replacing  them are Will Boyle and Manny Onariase,  who have settled in very well already.
Boyle looks a terrific signing.  Good leadership qualities,  organisational ability, an old head on young shoulders - all adds up to me as future captain material.
If anything he is (and I hate to say it) a real Aaron Downes replacement - and it really does look like we might not see the silver fox on the field very much, if at all, from now on.
But he has a role in Boyle's development which can only be good thing.
Onariase made a nervy start but seems to have settled down well. Athletic and quick, he's just what the doctor ordered.
His distribution might need work and his heading sometimes might bring back memories of the ultimate 50p head, Drissa Diallo, but he was excellent against Plymouth and Luton.
Midfield saw Danny Whitehead head off after a very undistinguished stay, and in came Carl Winchester, who looks like another fine acquisition.
He is one of those players who always seems to have space and time on the ball - and that pass to Jack Barthram on Tuesday showed his undoubted quality.
Further forward, out of the club have gone Jonny Smith and Koby Arthur.
Smith showed odd glimpses of promise, but I'm afraid Arthur did not.
There was great excitement when he returned after what he did in his first spell,  but there was no repeat. Think Medy Elito's second spell,  and you get the idea.
Diego de Girolamo has already shown his worth with the hat-trick against Leicester and goal against Accrington with the promise of more to come.
At the top end of the side, we have seen Amari Morgan-Smith join Parslow in York as injuries have restricted his game time.
Another champion, no one will forget that goal against Wrexham.
In has come Kyle Wootton, who has already played his part with a fine display at Luton in a tough position to play, a lone striker.
I thought he held the ball up well and was the outlet we needed with good runs and strength - not to mention the delicate touch to set up Billy Waters' goal.
His arrival will take some of the workload away from  Danny Wright - as well as his place in the team from time to time no doubt.
So all in all, and nothing  against the guys who have left, but I feel we have had an upgrade.
All of the arrivals look to be athletic and mobile, the team has had an injection  of pace and most of the performances have been promising.
That was topped off at Luton and that fantastic win showed the options and flexibility Gary now has at his disposal.
A first look at the team shrieked a defensive 541 going for a 0-0 but turned into a counter attacking formation which worked with devastating effect.
The squad looks so much stronger, shown by the bench on Tuesday, with Storer, Munns,  Wright, Holman,  Waters and de Girolamo on it.
Add to that Hall, Dayton and Downes, and there is real  competiton and real options and, after Tuesday, real optimism that we can head in the right direction.
January was a crucial month off the field as we needed to upgrade, now February is crucial with games against sides in and around us, but I feel we go into them invigorated and in better shape than we were a month ago.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A crucial period

I wasn't going to write any more blogs after we won the title last season - going out at the top if you like - but just when you all thought you'd got away with it this current situation has prompted me to hit the keyboard again. Sorry about that!
I for one didn't expect us to be in this situation, and I don't think I was alone.
We were meant to ride on a large wave of momentum, sweeping League Two before us, our team of champions striding on to further glories, on an unstoppable tide.
Maybe the expectations were too high, but that's what was supposed to happen, with Holman and Wright banging them in, Storer and Pell tackling everything that moves and Downes and Parslow keeping strikers at bay for fun. Just like last season, eh?
Only it hasn't worked out like that. At all.
I actually don't think we started too badly. We seemed to be feeling our way into the level, but, somewhat ironically since our best performance of the season at Crewe, the wheels have started falling off.
Against some of the better sides, we've done quite well. A draw at Carlisle - yes, we were battered, but were seconds from a win, and a last-minute loss at Plymouth when we played pretty well, for instance.
But there has been a lot of dross lately. the last 45 minutes at Sutton (so I am told), one and three-quarter games against Colchester, Barnet, the first half against Wycombe.
So we sit 23rd, and results and tables don't lie even if overall we might not think we are the second-worst team in the division, the hard facts say that we are, and we need to dig ourselves out of it.
January is always a big month, with the window and having made a bit of a Horlicks of recruitment in the summer as it has transpired, it becomes even bigger.
By the end of February, we will play many of the sides around us in the bottom half of the table again, including Accrington, Crewe, Newport, Notts County and Stevenage, so by the time the National Hunt Festival takes over the town, we'll have a better idea of where we stand.

The manager
Any manager with his team in 23rd place, having won four games out of 23, could really have no argument if their job was under question.
That Gary Johnson's isn't, or at least doesn't seem to be, is only because of the miracle he performed last season to sign 18 players in no time and win the National League by 10 points.
He opted - and the vast majority of fans had no issue with this as they chanted 'sign them on' after chairing them off the pitch last April - to put his trust in his championship-winning squad, bar one, who opted to leave of his own volition.
No problem with that. But what he failed to do was supplement it with players capable of making the squad stronger and ready for the demands of the higher level.
Of the six loans he brought in, four (Smith, Suliman, Whitehead and Arthur) were abject failures.
Then, having been able to get Dillon Phillips back, Russell Griffiths was recruited, and having started promisingly saw his form become erratic and now he has gone too.
Only Rob Dickie, tried and trusted last season, was anywhere near a success, but he hasn't hit the heights of last season, like many of those around him.
The other summer arrival was James Jennings, who played twice early on before being loaned to Morecambe - a quick admission that the move had not worked out.
Alex Cooper's arrival and four-minute appearance only served to sum the season's recruitment up really - from the sublime to the poor in a matter of months.
From early in the season, Johnson has criticised the players for their inability to make the step up to the level - even after they played heroically at Carlisle and nearly won the game, he was critical, which surprised me.
Some of it has been justified at times, but some of it has also been over the top - and I can see the argument from some fans that this deflates confidence - and also seems to be the manager deflecting the criticism away from himself.
There is no doubt he is feeling the pressure - he has in recent weeks picked fights with the Echo over the transfer window poll and over speculation stories about signings and departures, saying there is a 'mole' in the camp.
I am not sure I would go picking fights with people when I've won four games out of 23 - I'd want these people nominally on my side in tough times like this.
In his defence, he has not been helped by injuries and suspensions right from the off - Storer's eight games to start with, then an injury,and then three more on top, Pell's red card and numerous bookings (he's out of the next two), Holman's injury, Hall missing longish-term, Dayton only being able to play one game then missing the next two, play one, miss two - not a help to consistency.
Only Pell and Waters have shown anything like the consistent form they did last season, and it's no coincidence that these two have played practically every game they have been available for.
But others have been chopped and changed (or had to be with knocks or bans) and some, I'm afraid, have looked light years away from last season's performances.
Whether some have had a fair crack of the whip or been played in their best positions is open to debate. I know many fans have sympathy for Barthram, and I for one think our top scorer Waters is wasted on the right wing and if Morgan-Smith is going to play, play him through the middle, not wide left as we saw on Monday.
Unfortunately, some fans have turned on a few of the players they were chairing off the pitch as 'heroes'and 'legends' a matter of months ago, and also singing songs in the club bar with - a massive shame, but I'm afraid that is the way things seem to be these days.
We have been told by many to forget last season's title win and concentrate on the here and now. OK. The here and now is four wins in 23 games. So there is a dilemma.
Gary and his brother Pete have formulated the January transfer window plans with the board, so I see it as inconceivable that a change is being mooted in the short-term at least (although the talk of a two-year contract has gone quiet).
If, by the end of February, when we have played our nearest rivals and the window is closed, things haven't improved, what then?
Do you stick or twist? Stick with the manager who the players know, who has signed them all and should know them inside or out, or twist and bring someone in blind, with no power to change anything (bar free agents) if he comes in and doesn't fancy the group he has got to work with?
We went down the twist road very frequently in 2014-15 and it didn't work. My gut feeling as it stands now is that we won't do that again.

The window - 'we need experience'
So January is here and the rumour mill (or the mole in the camp...) is being racheted up to full speed.
We've had two loanees arrive already replacing two of the five who have left, and if Dickie is allowed to stay we will have four (assuming the Scott Brown return happens).
Only five can be played at one time, so we await one more - and the manager has told us he hopes for three more arrivals at least before Accrington on the 12th (or maybe Leicester on the 10th).
Some of them will see us take over their contracts from other clubs - ie they probably expire in the summer, or maybe the one after that.
The main cry from fans has been for league experience - especially after neither of the two latest loan signings has very much.
I get that. But go back to 2014-15 (sorry, I know it's painful) and look at the experience we had then. Pablo Mills. Matt Sparrow. Danny Haynes. Kane Ferdinand. Mathieu Manset. All experienced at League Two level and above. All transferred at one time or another for massive fees. All utterly useless.
If anything, the arrivals who actually did anything decent were by and large the younger ones - Jack Dunn, Wes Burns - so experience is not the be all and end all.
Yes it can help, and no we don't have much actual League Two experience at the moment - the back five on Monday of Dickie, Onariase, O'Shaughnessy and Cranston, with Griffiths behind it for instance.
I feel we must guard against bringing in experience just for the sake of it. I am sure Gary will have learned from seeing what the 1,000-game-plus quintet - I am sure he'll never forget Ferdinand's 27 minutes at Northampton.
We need a mix. Experience yes, journeymen picked up because no-one else wants them, no.
Some young, energetic legs combined with some nous, but above all more mobility, and more pace all around the team.
Onariase and de Girolamo will, I feel, help to provide that as they settle in. Onariase looked more promising as the game wore on, while de Girolamo looked much happier once Wright was on the pitch.
I'd like to see a big, mobile forward come in, the ilk of Akinde and Ikpeazu, who have impressed me more than any other forward this year. I know... there are 50-odd other clubs looking for that sort of player.
We need some natural width. If you are playing 4-4-2, you can't have Waters and Morgan-Smith as your wide men - they are not wingers and they looked lost on Monday. It was two players wasted (no fault of theirs).
I also feel we need an enforcer in midfield. Someone happy to sit and break things up allowing Pell and others to go foraging for the ball (while hopefully avoiding yellow cards...). This is where I feel Hall has been a miss in the squad. He has good experience at League level and can play that role happily.
Also we need people who can cross a ball. Friday and Monday were so frustrating when Cranston and Dickie especially got into great positions and crosses hit the first man.
Holman, Wright and co are not going to get into goalscoring positions if the ball is not coming anywhere near them, and we don't seem to be able to score 'easy' goals. If they can take good set-pieces all the better. Ours have been abject of late.
It's a big shopping list, maybe bigger than we are going to end up with, but let's hope the Johnson boys can spot the special offers before anyone else does and get them in the basket.




Monday, 2 May 2016

Bringing down the curtain




WHAT a great weekend we have just had to bring down the curtain on a magnificent season for our football club.
A trophy presentation with the players and staff who have made us proud of our club once again getting their hard-earned medals and that large hulk of silverware (it's bloomin' heavy by the way...)
That was followed by an open-top bus tour which saw a decent turnout to see the trophy being shown off to all and sundry.
Okay, so it wasn't 1998 with the FA Trophy being thrown about on the Town Hall balcony, but it was great to see so many people (and especially so many youngsters) waving their scarves and flags.
Things like this serve to bring the club into the consciousness of the town - people will remember they have a football club and if some of them come to games next year it's done its job.
Then in the evening was the end of season dinner at Jury's Inn. It was a terrific evening, and got livelier as the hours wore on.
The dance floor is out of range for me these days but it was great to see fans and players in unity - and that is the theme of the season, and the bedrock of what has happened since that fateful day against Shrewsbury.
I've not seen the club this united in a very long time. 1999 is the only time that comes close to the situation we are in now,  and its no coincidence that we've had on-field success as well.
Our players are a fantastic group. They always have time for everyone, no cliques, no airs and graces - and all of them want to do well for our football club.
They deserve our thanks for their efforts this season - and it would be fantastic if we could keep them all together and have a go at League Two next August.
We have built up some momentum and if we could keep a big nucleus of this group together we have a chance - and it would be a surprise if many of them felt the grass is greener elsewhere.
The whispers I hear are encouraging ones, and it would be good to get a few wrapped up early and announced, keep the positivity going... and shift some more season tickets.
The directors and chairman Paul Baker also deserve our thanks. Yes they've made mistakes - they are only human after all, and they've accepted and faced up to them.
But as they get flak for mistakes, they should get equal credit for doing the right thing, and appointing Gary Johnson is up there with the best choices they have made.
Like our players, there are no egos on our board. They have our club at heart, with people like Colin Farmer, 30 years on the board and John Murphy, a winner as a player, a manager and now as a director.
They are Cheltenham people. Not fly-by-night serial directors or chairmen, moving from club to club, looking for an opportunity, a chance for a quick buck. They are people who care about the football club. Fans, like the rest of us, but also realising the vital role they have.
Then we come to Gary Johnson. What a man.
It would have been easy for him to have walked away last May.
The club was on its knees, the players were a disgrace and it needed major surgery to try and find a heartbeat of any kind.
Let's face it, the guy doesn't need the money - and at 60 years old he doesn't need the hassle either. Other clubs would have offered him an easier ride had he wanted it, but he chose to stay - and we are eternally grateful that he did.
To recruit 18 players from scratch and mould them into a team which has won 30 matches, scored 87 goals and amassed 101 points is an unbelievable achievement.
We got the most wins, most points, most goals, most points at home, most points away, conceded the fewest goals... etc etc... and throw in a club record 22-game unbeaten run to boot.
The pressure on Gary was huge. He knew he and his players had the future of the club in their hands.
Fail and we were looking at massive budget cuts, no academy, part-time football and us becoming a Lincoln, a Macclesfield, a Chester or a Kidderminster, marooned in the non-League ranks for the forseeable future.
It wasn't an option... and thankfully we don't have to think about it.
We are a club that has been refreshed and reinvigorated - in some ways you could say relegation has been a blessing.
I think it has woken a few people up, shaken them out of a malaise. We all knew deep down that relegation was coming as we had been on a slide from the Crewe play-off final defeat.
I hope we have learned the lesson - that this has been a wake up call for the whole club, and we need to avoid the same mistakes again in the future.
I feel some people on and off the field took league football for granted - that mustn't happen again.
The club worked so hard to get back there, and we must not allow it to be thrown away again. We are back in that elite 92 club, so let's stay there this time!
We should do that comfortably - but we shouldn't expect to waltz through League Two to another promotion party next season. Hope yes, but expectation will no doubt rise.
With this group of players, we can do well I am sure so again we have to hope they stay together and that Gary and Peter Johnson can work their magic and find the right characters to add to what is already here.
But we have momentum, and that can be a big ingredient. Once you get on a roll, it can be hard to stop and five wins in a row can give us that little springboard.
The key to it has to be keeping the main men from this season - people like Downes, Parslow, Storer, Munns, Dayton, Wright and Holman especially (I'd love them all to stay - but realistically I think we know some of them will go). If that happens, I don't see why we can't give it a good crack.
With seven subs and no 'emergency' loans (ie outside transfer windows) we'll need to carry a bigger squad, and I feel we need a goalkeeper ( as we can't rely on Dillon Phillips coming back, although we can hope), another centre-half (as Rob Dickie and Cam Burgess have gone back), a left-sided wide player, an attacking midfielder and another forward.
We have an interesting summer in store - but I'm sure it won't be as hectic as the last one.
And now it's awards time...
Player of the year - Daniel Parslow. Played every minute bar one against Forest Green. Mr Consistent, and a tower of strength at the back.
Goal of the season - Amari Morgan-Smith v Wrexham. Several candidates, including Harry Pell at FGR, Jack Munns at Halifax, Danny Wright at Barrow and several from Dan Holman, but Amari's goal was special, and won a tight, televised game.
Match of the season - I'm going for Grimsby at home. That was the game that most of us knew the title was getting closer.
Awayday of the season - The one I enjoyed most was Bromley away. A midweek trip which ended with a last-minute Asa Hall winner.
Moment of the season - Tempted to say the final whistle against Halifax - but I'm going for Aaron Downes' goal at Grimsby. That was the night I thought we really could challenge for the title. After that night we were top after every match bar one.

So that's another season over.
Roll on 2016-17... see you at the first friendly!!

Monday, 18 April 2016

CHAMPIONS...




So we've only gone and done it... and I don't know about you but my overall feeling as the final whistle blew on Saturday was one of relief.
Relief that it was all over and we didn't have to worry about ridiculous goal difference swings any more and relief that we don't have to worry about what might have happened if Operation Bounceback had failed.
Fears of part-time football, massive budget cuts, no academy and the job losses which go along with that, the manager and players leaving can all be put to one side.
Seeing several staff members sipping a celebratory pint and saying "at least I've still got a job" put it all into perspective.
But we can forget all that and look forward with optimism knowing that our football club is back on a more secure financial footing, in good hands with the board of directors with the club at heart, a terrific manager and a squad of players who actually give a toss.
The scenes at the final whistle and in the bar afterwards were fantastic and will stay in the memory for a long time.
Supporters got their pitch invasion without anyone trying to stop them, and seeing players leading the singing and serving the drinks later on was fantastic.
A club united - and that has been the key to it all. The disconnect which had been growing between fans and players over the last few seasons was a drip, drip, drip which had a big say in what happened last season.
But enough about that lot. Now we have a squad of players and a manager who the fans want to associate themselves with, players who obviously get on well and enjoy playing together and who the supporters want to come and watch and want to get behind.
What this manager and squad have achieved is phenomenal. To be the first club in 26 years to go back up straightaway as champions is remarkable - considering that this league is totally transformed from the one which Darlington won in 1990 and Lincoln did before them.
Now it is packed with former league clubs like Grimsby, Tranmere and Wrexham who attract bigger crowds than we do and spend more money than we do.
Back in 1990 there weren't many full-time clubs or ex-league sides as automatic promotion and relegation had only just been introduced back then, now there are lots of both in the league.
You also have to consider where we were last May. A mess, basically.
Johnson had seen the previous squad at first hand and got rid of them all as soon as he could (some had to stay a bit longer than Gary wanted them to as they had contracts...).
Only the untarnished Asa Hall is now left of the senior players and having brought in 17 or 18 players over the summer it could have gone either way.
I have to admit my pre-season thoughts were play-offs at best as the squad we had was such an unknown quantity.
I highly doubt that any team has ever gone on to win a league having fielded 11 debutants in the opening game of the season. It's quite ridiculous really.
No-one knew how it work out, how these players would gel together - but now we know we needn't have worried. Most wins, most points, most goals scored and fewest conceded. No arguing with that.
They have coped superbly with the pressure of knowing that they were playing for the future of the football club as we know it.
It was never sugar-coated. Gary Johnson mentioned it regularly in interviews and the mantra never changed - we have to win this league. It was never hidden, but embraced by him and the squad superbly and they will never be forgotten.
The focal point of the team has been the spine, starting with Dillon Phillips in goal. I have never known a loan player embrace a club like he has. He has been fantastic - a credit to himself and to Charlton Athletic.
Even after his injury, he was always there backing his squad and who was right at the forefront of the celebrations post-match? Yes, Dillon was and I wouldn't rule him out for a return next season.
Then you have Aaron Downes, a fantastic captain on and off the field - hope he comes back to lead us in the League - and Daniel Parslow, Mr Consistent and my player of the season. I just love the bloke... and I can't stop singing his song. All together now... We've got Parslow... No? Ok then.
Kyle Storer, our midfield dynamo who has taken on more responsibility after Downes left, and next to him Harry Pell - our driving force and the real heartbeat of the dressing room.
Pelly sums everything up for me. He is a fantastic player but also he epitomises the passion and connect with the supporters. You can tell how much he loves playing for the club and alongside his team-mates.
Then there is Danny Wright. I remember there being a lot of doubters when he was signed, but 21 goals in 42 league games has shut them up and he deserves a shot at League football.
That's not to forget the rest of them. Dan Holman's 14 goals in 16 games, Jack Munns' assists and Halifax hat-trick, Billy Waters' Autumn run of goalscoring form, Asa Hall's two crucial late winners, Amari Morgan-Smith's pace and power and early-season goals, James Dayton's free-kicks and assists, Rob Dickie's set-piece goals and Rolls-Royce defending, Jack Barthram and George McLennan bombing up and down the flanks, and the contributions of Jonathan Flatt, James Rowe, Cameron Burgess and Jordan Cranston.
Heroes all.
I am certain most of them will be with us again next season, Gary has already said he wants to take them up to the next level and with them we have a great nucleus for League Two.
I am confident that we can have a good go at League Two. I am not going to come out and say we will go straight through it as there will still be some big clubs in there with big budgets, but we will be competitive.
We have something like this:
Goalkeepers: Kitscha, Lovett
Defenders: Barthram, McLennan, Downes, Parslow, Cranston*
Midfielders: Pell*, Storer, Hall, Rowe, Munns, Dayton
Strikers: Wright, Holman, Morgan-Smith, Waters
That's assuming loanees like Phillips, Flatt, Dickie and Burgess return to their clubs, but I can definitely see Gary trying to get Phillips and Dickie back again - at least.
So he will need a few more to come in, as of course next season we can have seven substitutes and so we will need a slightly bigger squad.
I am confused, I admit, about whether Omari Sterling-James and Jordan Wynter are still officially CTFC players now or not, but we all know they won't be in a few weeks.
Decisions also have to be made on Bobbie Dale, who was not among the raft told last January they weren't getting a new contract, ans also on the second-year scholars we saw in the FA Trophy games - the likes of Niall Rowe, Jordan Lymn, Karnell Chambers, Sam Mendes, Alex Dinsmore, Lewis Thompson and co.
So where will Gary be looking to strengthen?
Obviously it depends on whether everyone stays - but I get the impression that if Gary dangles a contract under their noses it won't be a tough decision for them.
He will need a goalkeeper - and we know who the number one choice is. Dillon is up for it too if you read a recent Twitter exchange I had with him - but there will be a list of others already from the scouting branch of Johnson Brothers plc if it doesn't work out.
A centre half or two, a right back to challenge Jack Barthram, a left-footed wide man, maybe another forward... just a few suggestions for the shopping list.
But we can look forward to League Two now - I for one am in the position of actually relishing the idea of going to Mansfield, Hartlepool, Carlisle and Newport.
There are three dates I am really looking forward to already - Gary's return to Yeovil, and a meeting with two ex CTFC managers, Martin Allen and Mark Yates when we play Barnet and Crawley. Should be fun!
But first we have two games left, and it will be nice to watch them with no stress at all, no worries about the result - although wouldn't it be great to win them both and get to 101 points?
It's no drama if we don't, and we can just enjoy these two games and have another party on the 30th when we get the trophy - after the relief of last Saturday, I for one will really enjoy that day.
I have been lucky enough to see four CTFC championship wins, and they have all been special.
Johnson had a dream.  And it came true.