Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Riding our luck?

SEVEN points out of nine, two clean sheets and one goal conceded.
Even the most demanding of Cheltenham fans would struggle to be disappointed with that return, but will also know it doesn't quite tell the whole story.
Bar a last minute penalty miss and a very dodgy offside flag deep in injury time in the last two games, we could have been sat with four points and mulling over two more home games without a win.
The difference between the two games is that on Saturday we deserved the win and therefore in my view that lucky break, while last night we didn't.
We were second best and none of us could have complained had that offside flag stayed down and Billy Paynter's goal had given Carlisle the win.
The saying has it that these things even themselves out, so by that reckoning we are due to be bitten twice on the backside sometime between now and May...
Last night, they were sharper than us, moved the ball and kept it better than us, used the width better than us and had more of a forward threat than us.
It also shows the value of having options in your squad - Graham Kavanagh had five players out and yet he could still field a very strong side. Lose five players from our side and we'd be struggling big time.
Some of our players looked very leggy after the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday start to the season, especially Joe Hanks, and it was no surprise to see him taken off. That is not a criticism of his performance - he wasn't alone in looking off the pace at times.
I thought the front two were disappointing. Byron Harrison didn't look fit to me and Terry Gornell, excellent on Saturday especially with his hold-up play and non-stop work-rate, was the opposite of that.
His touch looked off completely and overall he and Byron made it a very easy night for the Carlisle back three.
Our midfield three were second best and our wing backs fought a losing battle, having to concentrate more on the weaker side of their game, defending, rather than being able to get forward.
At the back, our trio were troubled by the movement of Jack Marriott and experienced guile of Paynter.
You can see why Yates was interested in Marriott - he was lively, skilful and a real goal threat with his low centre of gravity and good little runs off the shoulder always a worry for us.
Paynter was happy to drop deeper and let his young partner roam about - and he used  his experience a number of times to earn dangerous free-kicks.
I am sure some CTFC fans would blame the referee for 'favouring' Carlisle with some decisions, but they (and Paynter especially) were just more streetwise and managed to draw our defenders and midfielders into some naive challenges around the box.
That has often been a failing for us - our game management. Other sides seem to 'draw' these fouls more easily and more regularly than we do. It's not cheating - it's experience, and using your head a bit, something our players never seem to get the hang of.
Our opening two league games have been built on high work-rate, and I do feel we dropped off that slightly last night.
Carlisle played a very high pressing game - one of our midfielders or wing-backs got the ball and straight away there was a couple of yellow shirts in his face straight away.
That led to us either giving the ball away or being forced into a rushed and often aimless ball forward as they forced us to be more direct which just played into their hands.
I don't feel we deliberately played 'hoofball' - rather that we were given no choice to use the ball as a hot potato due to the tight pressing game Carlisle came to play - all credit to them as that's just what we did at Bury.
We gave away the impetus and tempo of the game almost straight away and spent a lot of time on the back foot. There is no doubt that last season we would have lost that game - but one thing we did have in our favour (aside from Lady Luck in those last seconds) was resilience.
Yes, they had their problems with Marriott and Paynter, but Matt Taylor, Steve Elliott and Troy Brown stood firm, aided by the man behind them Trevor Carson.
I know I wasn't alone among CTFC fans in being worried when Scott Brown went. Having had the same and increasingly reliable goalkeeper for so long, change is always difficult.
But in four games, Trevor has almost totally taken those worries away. Browny's strength was his shot-stopping and his weakness his command of the penalty area.
Trevor seems to have that authority, and has also shown his shot-stopping prowess, notably with the one-on-one block from Marriott last night and the late touch on to the post before the 'offside' flag. Early impressions are very good indeed.
Despite our problems last night, we could have nicked the win ourselves, with a Hanks free-kick going close, Elliott glanced a header just wide, then there was Koby Arthur's two chances.
The first saw him go through with Byron making a great run to his left, all alone. He chose to shoot, and there is no question that he should have passed as Byron would had a tap-in. His second effort was a shot which was blocked, possibly with a hand.
But overall, we have to happy with a point and the way we stuck at it against a decent side. Like Bury, I think Carlisle will be up there and this draw may turn out to be a decent result in the long run.
I felt, however, that the manager didn't make the most of what he had available to him.
I thought he should have changed it earlier and also needs to look at the composition of his bench.
He had Arthur, Andy Haworth and Omari Sterling-James on there - but no orthodox central midfielder. He has Harry Williams and Adam Powell in his squad, and I feel, for balance, he should look at having one of them on there.
Williams could then have come on for Hanks - but as he wasn't in the 18, I'd have put Haworth on, and used Arthur for Gornell to get him further up the field with Byron to try to stretch the Carlisle back three. I think that would have given them more to think about.
We will have the same starting 11 at Tranmere again I expect, so I hope that training is a bit lighter this week and the management find some way of keeping some energy in their legs ahead of the long trip north.
But as I said at the top, seven from nine and still unbeaten is a more than satisfactory way to start the season, and overall the new 3-5-2 system has been a success I feel.
It is nice to see that the manager has worked the system around the players he has, rather than deciding stubbornly on his system and then wedging the players - unwillingly at times - into it.
The three centre-halves, lack of pace aside, seem a good fit as a unit, and it definitely helps Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett's strengths.
We always look better with a midfield three, and by and large they have looked comfortable with the shape.
Jason Taylor and Matt Richards have had good starts to the season while Hanks has fitted in well and I am sure Asa Hall will do likewise when he comes back. That just leaves us needing to really get the front two firing.
There have been signs from them in the first three league games, especially against Accrington, but I feel we just generally need more from the pair, or find a way of getting them integrated into things better, otherwise it will be time to try a different pair.
There is no doubt we need some reinforcements, and to that end it would good to hear the manager's words after the game last night.
There was no "we'll see what we can do" or "we're hoping to do something" - it was much more emphatic than that. He said "after Saturday we HAVE to bring people in" as he targets the free week after Tranmere to nail a couple of players down. Let's hope he can deliver on that.
It's needed to freshen up the 11 we have and also to bolster further the options off the bench - but then you have to credit those who haven't had a look in up to now for putting six past a decent strength Forest Green side at Seasons, many of them giving the manager something to ponder.
There were a number of interesting and encouraging things to come out of that game, starting with the system - as we played a 3-5-2 here as well to mirror the first team, with some interesting positions for a few players.
Zack Kotwica and Haworth were used as the wing-backs, an interesting development using orthodox wingers there - definitely something that could be used late in games if we are chasing it and would give width and that more attacking outlook.
Paul Black and James Bowen, usually left-backs, in the back three with Jack Deaman, while the midfield three of Williams, Omari Sterling-James and triallist Angelo Balanta was very attack-minded.
Arthur played alongside Bobbie Dale up front and Dale bagged four goals.
Having been on the bench recently, that haul must surely have pushed him further forward in the manager's mind. He did say he nearly put him on ahead of Arthur on Saturday and Bobbie cannot really have done any more than that to impress.
Mark Yates says he will have a 'longer look' at the Colombian Balanta, who was at QPR for seven years and had a few loan spells at MK Dons, playing against us a few times and scoring in the League Cup and then he went to Bradford City.
He apparently turned down the chance to join Bristol Rovers this summer and has also had a run-out for Crewe. As a left-sided wide men or striker he could fit in with us in this system, maybe in an advanced midfield role, or out on the left if we decided to use the 4-3-3 formation at any point.
We'll see what develops there, but seven out of nine is a promising start - and two or three new additions would help give us the chance of keeping that momentum going.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Home comforts at last

Throughout the opening two games of the season, and on the long trips home from Bury and Brighton, the debate among Cheltenham fans centred mostly around two questions.
Will the new 3-5-2 formation work at home? - and can we play it in such a way to create enough chances to win a match?
After 93 pretty eventful minutes today, I think we can come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions is a yes.
The winning margin may have been narrow, and we may only have taken the victory because Kal Naismith chose the 93rd minute to try and impersonate Andrea Pirlo from the penalty spot, but again there were plenty of good things to take away and other things to work on.
We deserved the win, but two wins out of two does not suddenly make us the finished article by any stretch - there is no doubt that Mark Yates needs a couple of reinforcements and he admits as much himself.
But without them for now, his players are scrapping for everything and setting themselves high standards for effort, commitment and work rate which we will now be expecting them to maintain.
We have a decent first 11, but below that we are looking to youngsters and untried new arrivals - today for example of the seven players on the bench only Bobbie Dale (11 minutes against Plymouth last season) had appeared at Whaddon Road before in a competitive first-team game.
So it wasn't a surprise to me that there seemed to be a feeling of apprehension around the place before kick-off today.
Throw a new look team and a new system into the mix with memories of last season's poor home record and some insipid performances and it all added up to a bit of an unknown quantity. No-one really knew what was going to unfold.
A good, positive start was important, and I felt that was what we got. Led as we had been on Tuesday by the energy of Craig Braham-Barrett down the left-hand side, we were on the front foot.
There is no doubt he is revelling in the new system, which means that he gets isolated defensively very rarely and can bound up and down his flank. See also Lee Vaughan on the right, and these two definitely enjoy the freedom they get.
Every successful team (and I'm not saying this is definitely going to be one) is built on the bedrock of a solid defence, and the early signs are that Troy Brown, Steve Elliott and Matt Taylor are just that.
Brown was the pick of them for me - but only just as all three looked commanding in the air at different times, and also strong in the tackle and on the ground generally.
In the first half, Accrington barely had a sniff - one long-range shot saved by Trevor Carson was just about it - while we got a goal and could have had more.
The minus of the first half was the loss of Byron Harrison - just the thing most CTFC fans feared with our striking options not exactly being plentiful.
He was just about to come off after getting a bang on his left leg early on and being able to run it off, and his last act was a tap-in from about a yard after Troy Brown's header hit the post.
Luckily, it does not seem too serious and he might play on Tuesday, but it once again signals the need for reinforcements in that area.
Before he went off, I thought Byron and Terry Gornell had done well. We all know Terry has not scored for a long time, but you cannot criticise his appetite for getting into the positions, and he had a few openings today but last-ditch tackles, blocks and deflections denied him a goal or two today.
He also showed good strength with his back to goal to bring others into the game, and I am sure that if he keeps up performances like today, the goals will come. I hope so.
After Byron went off, we looked a bit lost until half-time I felt - the team looked a bit unsure of themselves, and we needed the break for Yates and his coaches to reinforce things.
It worked, as we again came on strong at the start of the second half, with Koby Arthur and Gornell lively.
After he had a goal disallowed last week, and had one cleared off the line in the first half, the bar denied Matt Taylor his first Cheltenham goal.
Jason Taylor fired over after a good move, and Arthur's blistering volley forced the Stanley keeper into a great save, and Troy Brown had a headed chance.
We needed that second goal, and as time went on we fell into our old habit of defending deeper and just losing our grip on a game we should have been winning comfortably.
Our lack of options didn't help either in my view. Accrington made two changes and looked revitalised, while I felt we started to look a bit leggy, with the two long trips and big efforts taking their toll a bit.
This was especially true of the midfield three. They worked hard once again, and if we had another orthodox midfielder on the bench I'd have thrown him on. We were second to everything in there for a 10-15 minute spell around Naismith's equaliser.
It would have been typical of our recent home displays to have played as we did, carved out the chances we did and not won the game, but Accrington were suddenly the side with their tails up.
But then we snuck ourselves back in front again, and it was all down to quick thinking by Trevor Carson.
It would be fair to say that Carson's arrival as Scott Brown's replacement was not greeted with universal joy - but today's intervention will only serve to endear him further to the fans.
He was a hero last week at Bury with three great saves, and today he was confident with his handling again, and confident enough too to race off his line once in each half to avert a Stanley break.
This time, it was his quick thinking to send a ball downfield after catching a corner which set up our winner. Arthur still had a bit to do, but he beat his man and then finished very coolly, with a decent celebration as well. We'll excuse him the yellow card for taking his shirt off. Stupid rule anyway.
That should have been that, and we seemed to be seeing out the game well, until a mis-timed challenge by Lee Vaughan almost cost us dear.
It looked like a penalty. None of our players had anything to say about it to the referee, but Naismith must also have felt we deserved to win by serving up one of the worst penalties I have seen for a while.
So thanks to that aberration we got the victory, and we have won our first two games of a League Two season for the first time ever. And a home win too - I'd almost forgotten the words to Happiness.
No-one is getting carried away with it. There is a long, long way to go, but we seem to have a united squad which is working hard for their manager and the supporters, which is all we have asked for all along.
Long may it continue.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

More green shoots

After shaking up the Shakers in the north, it was time to head south to try to shoot down some Seagulls - but while we couldn't manage it, there were more encouraging signs to take away from the Amex.
The win at Bury was built on commitment and work rate, and we knew we would need all of that again and a bit more if we were to pull off a shock in Sussex.
The stadium is magnificent - well worth the wait for Brighton and a massive change from the Withdean, but they are in a slight state of flux with Sami Hyppia taking over in the summer.
Many sides at Championship level take the chance to rotate their squad, blood a few youngsters maybe, but not Hyppia. He picked seven players who had started on Saturday and promoted four more from the bench, so his intentions were clear.
After Saturday's defeat by Sheffield Wednesday, he clearly wanted a win and wasn't going easy on us in any way.
But whatever team he fielded, this was always a case of us going there more in hope than expectation. One of those times where we have to be right on it, and they have to have an off day.
I was treating it as a chance to find out a bit more about the character in this squad. Whether the bodies-on-the-line grit and determination to play for the shirt and the appetite to put in a shift in we saw on Saturday could be repeated 72 hours later.
And I think it was. Again, we showed good organisation, shape and resilience. There were odd moments of quality, but eventually that little bit of Championship quality, and that quicker thinking and decision-making you get the higher up you go was the difference.
We made two changes, one enforced as Joe Hanks got his starting chance with Asa Hall injured, while Matt Taylor sat out as he was about 75 per cent fit on Saturday and Jack Deaman was handed an opportunity in the back three.
I am not going to lie - having seen Jack in pre-season, especially that game at Redditch where he gave a penalty away and cost a goal with a poor back-pass, I was a little worried, but I thought he slotted in very well for his debut.
He grew in confidence as the game went on, and that was typified when he stepped out superbly to intercept a pass and then bounded forward 25 yards into the Brighton half. He then looked a bit lost for what to do next, but he definitely didn't look out of place overall.
We knew that Brighton were going to boss the possession and we would have to be patient and disciplined, and that is how it worked out - although their formation was fluid to say the least.
Their full-backs were pushed very high up the pitch, and they almost relied solely on their two centre-backs to defend, and also kept two strikers up front, while the other outfield players seemed to be going wherever they wanted, popping up all over the place.
But overall, I thought we coped very well.
Brighton moved the ball very quickly, used runners to good effect, but we kept our shape, for the most part didn't dive in too much, and kept them at arm's length for most of the game.
Trevor Carson was not unduly overworked, one Chris O'Grady header aside - and even that wasn't too alarming, so we did our job again from that point of view.
Most of their chances were from long-range or were blocked almost at source as once again we threw bodies on the line - but I have to admit I thought we were quite comfortable and I almost got to the stage when I felt they weren't going to break us down.
The catalyst for Brighton ending our stubborn resistance was the introduction of Kazenga LuaLua, who added a different dimension to their attacking play.
That was combined with a few tired legs and maybe tired minds unsurprisingly setting in for our lads after a tough couple of games and two massive efforts.
As the game went into the last 20 minutes, there were a few weary challenges, and there again is the difference from the Championship to League Two - Brighton had proven quality on the bench, while we have to rely on our youngsters.
That aside, the manner of the opening goal was disappointing - a short corner caught us slightly unawares and then Lewis Dunk was allowed to make a run round to the far post unchecked and head in. If that was a League game we'd be furious to give that goal away, so this should be no different.
The second goal was well-worked, as we were caught square for the only time in the game, LuaLua's through ball being finished by Craig Mackail-Smith, who timed his run perfectly and sealed the game.
It wasn't a great surprise that we found ourselves on the back foot for most of the game, and we dealt with that well, but again we were not able to get much of any note going in the final third.
Byron Harrison was better and stronger than he had been on Saturday, while I felt Terry Gornell struggled a bit, but we were unable to fashion any chances of note to trouble David Stockdale.
With Brighton's full-backs pushed so high up the field, it gave our full-backs a bit of freedom to come forward more, and Craig Braham-Barrett especially made the most of it.
He had a good battle with Inigo Calderon and had the beating of him on a couple of occasions, and when he did that and got a cross in, we looked dangerous but couldn't get on the end of anything.
We all know Braham-Barrett is not the most popular of CTFC players with the fans, but this was one of his better games. He was our best attacking outlet, and also defended well with some good blocks, interceptions and tackles allied with better positioning.
Hopefully he can keep it up and there is no doubt that he is helped by the 3-5-2 system, and it definitely suits his game better.
Our midfield three were once again competitive and all put in good shifts - Joe Hanks looked absolutely out on his feet when he came off and when he emerged for the post-match warm-down he was really feeling it.
But Hanks, Matt Richards and Jason Taylor are not blessed with much pace, and are not going to make many runs ahead of the forwards to support them - neither are the three of them the most creative players in the world, so you can see why Mark Yates wants a player who can do those things.
There was talk about us possibly having a good penalty shout when the score was 0-0. From my viewing position, it looked like Byron simply collided with Dunk as the ball came over, but you can make up your own mind here (video courtesy once again of @hEaLeRCTFC on Twitter).
We gave Andy Haworth and Omari Sterling-James debuts near the end, but neither was able to have any impact, and so our Capital One Cup interest comes to an end, but I think we can hold our heads high.
Now we come back home to start our season against Accrington and then Carlisle, and it will be interesting to see whether Yates thinks he can use the 3-5-2 at home.
It has proved so far that away from home it makes us more resilient, solid and hard to beat, which is fine on your travels, but it has also proved difficult to be too creative up to now.
At home, especially after last year's toils and tribulations, we need to put a marker down and be on the front foot, so it will be interesting to see what Yates does. The home form is key.
Above all, there is one thing missing from the team - pace - and he has pacy players including the likes of Sterling-James and Koby Arthur, and he might need to incorporate one of them in the side somewhere, but after two good displays from everyone it will harsh to leave anyone out.
This is, of course, assuming that Yates doesn't manage to bring a player or two in before Saturday, which is an outside bet, so he has some decisions to make.
Overall, two games in there are encouraging signs. All we want is effort, commitment and determination, and we have had that in the opening two games.
The players have set themselves some high standards on those fronts and they need to maintain them now. Let's hope they can.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Something to smile about

AT about 5.10pm today, I saw something that I haven't seen very often recently. Mark Yates smiled.
It's true - I saw it with my own eyes. He did it twice in fact - so it must really have been a good day.
It may have been one smile of satisfaction at a small victory over his critics and another at the pre-match doom-mongers (who included me, I fully admit), but I suspect they had more to do with his new look team carrying out the game plan pretty much to perfection.
He allowed himself a sly dig at David Flitcroft's pre-match comments about us 'not having a style' or 'not many good players' - and while, Mr Flitcroft, we may not have the big names or six-figure signings you have brought in, we had many other attributes in abundance. You and some of your fans thought this was a 'turn up and win' job for your team. Think again.
Last season, many of our insipid performances were followed by criticism of a lack of effort, work-rate and commitment. These three characteristics were the bedrock of today's victory.
And that's all fans ask for when they pay their money and travel a long way to watch their team.
By the end of the game, a few players were cramping up, and were on their knees. That's not a sign of lack of fitness, more a sign that they had put everything in. And so they deserved their reward.
Pre-match, I thought we would play a compact 4-5-1 system, with the hope of nicking something we could hold on to.
But Yates opted for the 3-5-2 he had tried with some small success against Bristol City, but none at all against Kidderminster, and it was a big gamble.
The back three of Matt Taylor, Steve Elliott and Troy Brown had only had 45 minutes of match action together, and it did take a bit of time to settle.
That wasn't helped by Asa Hall limping off inside five minutes, with Joe Hanks coming on. More of him later - but nobody typified the effort and desire more than Jason Taylor.
He is a man many Cheltenham fans were hoping to or expecting to see the back of this summer (and maybe the manager was as well...), and when they didn't, were hoping that he would be sat on the bench, or the stand.
In the first half especially, he was like a man possessed. He was pressing on the ball, snapping into tackles and then getting forward for a shot which was tipped round the post.
Hanks alongside him was composed. That is one of his best characteristics - he never seems flustered in that congested middle area, and several times he just got the ball and played a simple pass to relieve pressure or get us moving again.
Bury had a lot of the ball in the first half, but such was our shape and organisation, that we managed to keep them at arm's length, bar one cross which was prodded just wide of the post.
We were on the back foot possession-wise for a lot of the time, but Bury didn't do a lot with it, while we got forward at times to good effect and created some decent chances, with Taylor's shot, a Shwan Jalal save from Hanks after a great build-up, and then our two goals.
Yes, two goals. I know the referee only allowed one of them to stand, but have a look here - http://instagram.com/p/rezGKTgVnP/ - and try and work out why Matt Taylor's fabulous header didn't stand. I can't see it. It just looked to me like three players just ran into each other.
It would have annoyed me more but for the goal which did come along and did count five minutes later, and what a goal it was. See the great moment for Joe Hanks here - http://instagram.com/p/rezrhNAVoW/?modal=true (videos courtesy of the legendary @hEaleRCTFC)
Brilliant scenes behind the goal for the 166 travelling fans, many of whom didn't make it until 3.30pm because of a crash on the M6, then had a puncture on the way home, and as I write this (10.50pm) haven't got home yet due to a puncture on the way home.
And it was great to see the players celebrate it with the fans - we are one club, players and fans united, and scenes like that can only bode well for the season ahead.
They saw a second half where we came under intense pressure, and we came through that test - not exactly with flying colours or without a few alarms, but we came through it.
It was also the chance to see what Trevor Carson was made of.
In pre-season, he hasn't had many saves to make, and we hadn't been able to judge what he can do - but today he made three fantastic saves - the second of which was the best of them - and his catching of crosses was spot on.
Full-backs Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett had their hands full with wingers Adams and Mayor plus attacking full-backs Jones and Hussey, but for the most part dealt with it well.
They were helped out by centre-backs Troy Brown and Steve Elliott, and midfielders Taylor and Matt Richards for the most part, and when they were we kept them at bay.
But on some occasions the full-backs were left one-on-one and when they were we looked a bit exposed and they were able to get crosses in.
However, again for the most part either Carson's gloves or the head of one of our centre-halves got in the way, and on the occasions that didn't happen, a body was thrown on the line to get in the way of a shot and the danger was gone. It may not have been pretty, but it was effective and it got the desired result.
I mentioned Taylor and Hanks, but Richards was also key in that midfield. His seeming lack of effort and what some fans perceived as him cruising through games was criticised last season, but he was on his knees at the end, having given everything with some crucial tackles and intelligent passing, plus one or two decent set-pieces.
If there has to be a slight criticism, and I appreciate it is picky after such a committed performance, I thought the front two were slightly disappointing.
Byron Harrison or Terry Gornell never really managed to impose themselves on the Bury centre-halves, allowing themselves to be dominated for much of the game, and were unable to really be an effective target or outlet for us and hold the ball upfield, hence why we found ourselves under pressure - especially in the second half.
But that is a small negative on a day of many positives - we didn't buckle under pressure as we have in the past, notably in dropping 37 points from winning positions last season - I must admit I feared an equaliser might have led to a collapse, but we held firm and showed some backbone.
That, for me, along with Joe's great moment, were the biggest plusses from a fantastic start to the season.
One swallow doesn't make a summer, and there is a long way to go, we all know that.
The starting 11 we had on the field isn't the worst in the division, but they won't all play 46 games, and we definitely need a little bit more quality in to help them put and bolster the ranks a little bit.
But if we can reproduce this work-rate, effort and commitment on a regular basis, and maybe add these couple of players Yatesy wants to the squad, then some of the doom-mongers may join the manager in allowing themselves a smile...or even two.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ready for the rollercoaster

With less than 48 hours to go until the new season gets under way, it is fair to say that expectations among CTFC fans for the new season are not high.
Most are expecting a tough campaign ahead, with many fearing that this may be the time we fall through the dreaded trap door.
The so-called experts with their pre-season guides concur with those sentiments, with one, FourFourTwo magazine, tipping us to finish bottom.
I am not that gloomy - but have to admit that the Kidderminster performance last weekend has given me a bit of a jolt (and yes, I know that goes against my belief that you cannot set much stall by pre-season displays or results).
It has been a strange pre-season. For some parts of some games we have looked decent, especially the games against higher-level opponents Wolves and Bristol City, and the overall display against Bristol Rovers was the most encouraging.
But I think we have played too many games, and also that they were in the wrong order. I would rather see us try to increase the level of opposition as we go along, rather than jumping about from a side in the Southern League, to a Championship team, back down to Conference North or South opposition and so on.
I also feel some players have not had enough football, and we haven't taken time to test out viable alternatives in some positions, notably right back and centre-forward. Only one player, Jack Deaman, played some part in every friendly, but never was tried at right-back, where we are told he can play.
While nine players have come into the squad, there is no doubt that a few of them are gambles who might come off, or might not - players like Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Koby Arthur - while the likes of Matt Taylor, Paul Black and Andy Haworth come to us without much first-team football in recent times.
Other clubs of a similar stature to us have brought in what amounts to more proven quality at this level, while we have gone the other way it seems, either by the manager's choice or because the budget at his disposal is such that this is all he can afford to do.
I also have a slight concern that, as we get ready to go to Bury, that the manager is still hunting for two players he wants to go straight into his team and make a difference - hardly a ringing endorsement for the ones he has already brought to the club.
He ended last season under pressure, and the award of a one-year contract with a much-changed coaching team allied with this summer's dealings have not done much to ease that, and there is no doubt that the first 12-15 games are very important for him.
The first 15 games takes us to the end of October, and FA Cup time, the part of the season where chairmen get twitchy - and by then we will have played a lot of the sides being tipped by many to be at the top of the table.
His interview yesterday was interesting and I was pleased to hear him come out in optimistic mood about our chances, but to be honest we shouldn't expect anything different.
I have not, however, been impressed by the building-up of Bury as some sort of world-beaters.  It's Bury, not Barcelona.
"They're going to be right up there" and words like that have been used - it smacks of getting your excuses in early, and also I found it strange when he said "we're not expecting it all to be singing and dancing on Saturday" suggesting that deep down he maybe isn't too optimistic on our chances this weekend.
Tactically as well it all seems a bit muddled. We thought we were going to get 4-3-3/4-5-1 and we have seen a lot of that, but we have seen 4-4-2 tried again (without success again) and also all of a sudden we try 3-5-2 and a bit of 3-4-1-2 as well. I guess we must be grateful to have missed out on the despised diamond.
The three at the back idea seems to have been a late, spur-of-the-moment experiment from the manager, who has never shown any inkling of using it before. It may well be a success down the line - but with a lot more work on the training ground, and I certainly would not try it out this weekend.
So how will we fare? To be honest, we could be anything with this new look squad. I do not share the view of some that we will be nailed-on relegation candidates, but I fear may have to bear some pain on the way to a lower-mid table finish again, finishing in the bottom eight.
I have divided the league into three sections of eight, and think (in no order) Luton, Shrewsbury, Southend, Burton, Northampton, York, Plymouth and Bury are the leading candidates.
The next eight, bubbling under, who could, with a good run, break into that section for a play-off bid are Carlisle, Stevenage, AFC Wimbledon, Oxford, Portsmouth, Dagenham, Newport and Tranmere.
That leaves the rest - ourselves, Accrington, Morecambe, Cambridge, Exeter, Hartlepool, Wycombe and Mansfield in the lower section.
Obviously, I want to be totally and spectacularly wrong, and I'd love to see us improve on last season and finish comfortably in the top half and even flirt with the play-offs, but realistically I cannot see that unless key players stay fit and others step up to the plate and have strong consistent seasons.
The spine of the team will be crucial - the performances and fitness of players like Trevor Carson, Matt Taylor, Matt Richards and Byron Harrison will, in my view, hold the key to our ultimate fortunes.

The squad
1 Trevor Carson - Looks a safe pair of hands, and will prove an adequate replacement for Scott Brown, but I hope fans don't spend all season comparing the two. Carson will do some things better than Brown, and some things worse, but all goalkeepers are only as good as the defenders ahead of them.
2 Lee Vaughan - Shaping up to be a fans' favourite already, and looks to have no shortage of energy and commitment. Looking forward, however, to seeing how he shapes up against Football League wingers.
3 Craig Braham-Barrett - Has the seemingly impossible task of turning round fans' opinions, with a majority adamant he is not good enough, his cause not helped by his part in 'non-trying-gate'. Paul Black's arrival gives proper competition in the left-back position and if Craig starts the season he will have to show more consistency than he has up to now.
4 Matt Taylor - Not seen much of him, with an hour in roasting weather against Bath and 45 minutes against Bristol City, but his record suggests he will be the leader and solid presence we have been looking for.
5 Troy Brown - Solid enough last season, but hasn't, in my view, enjoyed the best of pre-seasons and will need to show, with competition at the back now, that he is worthy of his place.
6 Steve Elliott - Rumours of his demise may be greatly exaggerated. The arrival of Taylor seemingly meant Steve would be put out to grass, but has been our best central defender in pre-season, and he might yet still be a regular - especially if we persist with three at the back.
8 Matt Richards - Unfairly castigated last season and scapegoated over 'non-trying-gate', he was nowhere near as bad last season as a lot of fans made out. Has been good in pre-season and his set-piece delivery will be important, and this is an area where he needs to find more consistency. Will be a key man.
9 Byron Harrison - 15 goals in a team which finished 17th was a superb effort and he needs to at least match that this time around - but will need some help from those around him. Needs to cut out the lethargic displays which creep into his repertoire as on his day he can be unplayable. If those unplayable days happen more often however, we will struggle to keep him.
10 Terry Gornell - Talented player who has not lived up to expectations so far, and no goal since October 22 tells the story of a frustrating time for Terry. Time is running out for him though with Yates looking to bring in forward reinforcements and he could soon find himself the odd man out.
11 Andy Haworth - Looking to find his way back into regular league football, and we have to hope he rises to the challenge. Will be an important man in trying to give Byron the service he needs, and will also have to weigh in with some goals.
14 Asa Hall - Disrupted pre-season with injury but showed that he could be a useful acquisition. He will have to be the midfield player who gets into the box and contributes a few goals, and with his height, especially from set-pieces, he is capable of doing that.
15 Jack Deaman - Very raw but definitely has some promise. Has made some mistakes in pre-season but could develop into an asset with some work on the training ground and in the gym.
16 Joe Hanks - Hoping this will be his breakthrough season. Not used enough last season in my view and shone in the last two games. Hasn't played enough in pre-season in what would be viewed as the first-choice team but I have no doubt he could succeed at League Two level. I'd hope to see him make at least 10-15 starts this season.
17 Zack Kotwica - Last season's great hope, but despite some promising cameos it didn't quite happen for him. Should have had a few starts earlier in the season, but needs to show signs of improvement this term as I feel he has plateaued slightly. Big campaign ahead.
18 Paul Black - Majority of fans would pick him at left-back immediately simply as he isn't Craig Braham-Barrett. Has played more than 100 league games, but has lost his way career-wise recently. Showed some good signs in pre-season and the left-back battle will be a good one.
19 Omari Sterling-James - A gamble, which may or may not come off. Some bright signs in pre-season, while at other times he looked a mile off a League player. Six-month contract worth the risk, and he has work to do to prove himself.
20 Koby Arthur - Comes in with glowing reports from Birmingham fans, and has shown he has ability. Interesting to see if he can produce it at League Two level, and could be a surprise package for us.
21 Harry Williams - 38 youth and reserve goals last season deservedly earned him a contract and some first-team exposure last season, and I have high hopes for him. I hope he is given chance to develop this season with more first-team chances and not to stagnate as Hanks did a bit last season as I view him as a great prospect.
22 Bobbie Dale - Also had a good goalscoring record at youth and reserve level and another who needs the opportunity to develop. May have to go on loan to get regular games, but another good prospect in my view.
23 James Bowen - Tenacious, feisty player with a nice left foot who can play anywhere up that flank, and capable of weighing in with goals. Another with a chance of being a good player for us in the future with the right opportunity to progress, again with a loan in the offing I suspect.
24 Adam Powell - Quite similar in my view to Hanks - tall midfield player, good on the ball and handy set-piece taker. Scored a lovely goal at Redditch last week and as with Williams, Dale and Bowen needs to be given chances to show what he can do. Likely to be loaned at some point.
25 Jason Taylor - His squad number shows where he sits in Mark Yates' plans - transfer-listed and not really wanted by the manager. But he will start the season in the side, although I suspect that if Yates had brought another midfielder in, or given Hanks more game-time that he would be the man left out. He had not had a bad pre-season and showed that he could do a job as the defensive one of the midfield three - until Kidderminster when he had a disastrous afternoon.

And so to Bury, and I get the idea many - the manager included - would view a draw as a superb result, and I hope Yates does not try the three at the back at Gigg Lane, as I fear that would be a disaster.
I would to see the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, and I think the team will be something like:

Carson
Vaughan
Two of Brown/Elliott/M Taylor
CBB/Black
J Taylor
Richards
Hall
Haworth
Arthur
Harrison

Subs from: Reynolds (gk), one of Brown/Elliott/M Taylor, Deaman, CBB/Black, Hanks, Gornell, Sterling-James, Kotwica, Williams, Dale, Powell, Bowen




Sunday, 3 August 2014

More questions than answers

With a week to go before the season starts, this trip to Kidderminster was meant to be something of a dress rehearsal for Bury next week.
I went to Aggborough expecting to see a starting 11 and system pretty close to that which we will see at Gigg Lane, and hopefully a nice, fluid performance to give some confidence.
But if that was the starting 11 and system we hope to employ, then on this evidence it will be a long trip home next weekend.
Last season we went to Aggborough and came away 3-1 losers in what was a pretty limp display. We had a few youngsters on display then - this time there are no real excuses.
Even the 'it's only a friendly' thing can't gloss over it. It wasn't good enough, and the seeming lack of desire from some players was the worst part of it. Kidderminster simply wanted it more.
After trying out the three at the back system last week against Bristol City, we were without our new skipper Matt Taylor with a slight knock and his absence was keenly felt.
A look at the teamsheet when we arrived led to the assumption that we would play 4-3-3 with Jason Taylor alongside Matt Richards and the returning Asa Hall in midfield.
But no. Taylor was employed in between Steve Elliott and Troy Brown in a back three, and to put it mildly it was a complete shambles.
In the first minute, Craig Reid got through and forced Trevor Carson into a great save, and we were totally unable to cope with the powerful Nathan Blissett.
He bullied his way through some very half-hearted 'challenges' to score the first goal after six minutes, and the first quarter of the game was a mess from our point of view.
At least Mark Yates saw sense and changed it, Taylor moving into midfield and I really do hope that we never see him tried in that role again. He cannot play centre-half.
The formation change, which also pushed Omari Sterling-James and Terry Gornell into wider roles supporting Byron Harrison saw us get slightly better (from a low base) but we still created nothing and looked rocky defensively.
The second Kidderminster goal came after Ahmed Obeng and Blissett again bullied our defenders, Troy Brown this time, and he and Lee Vaughan were helpless as Jack Byrne had a simple finish.
The third was even worse. A free-kick was placed into our box and none of our players were switched on to it - Craig Reid was and he scored.
Then Brown - who has looked poor this pre-season in my view - gave away a needless free-kick which Carson saved well, and thankfully the half-time whistle came. We were three down, and if it had been six we could not have argued with it. It was a mess.
Shape and organisation have been two key factors of pre-season - but they went out the window in those first 45 minutes along with any sense of cohesion, fluidity and - most worryingly - desire.
We were back out for the second half a good five minutes before Kidderminster emerged, and I have to confess surprise that we made one change.
That was Craig Braham-Barrett for Paul Black, who was not the worst player in the red and white - as someone watching the game with me said "it was like getting a cut on your leg, and putting a plaster on your ear".
Vaughan, Brown, Elliott, Taylor, Harrison, Sterling-James, Gornell. Any or all seven of them could have been dragged off at the break, and had no arguments at all.
Carson kept the score down, Hall needed the extra time on the pitch and I don't feel Matt Richards was as terrible as the ones mentioned above - yet Black was the one replaced.
Vaughan and Brown were culpable for the second goal, Elliott was bullied by Blissett, Taylor could do nothing right in either role he was used in.
Harrison was anonymous - bullied by centre halves Josh Gowling and Chey Dunkley, Sterling-James was utterly anonymous for the hour he lasted, and Gornell was, well, Gornell.
I like Terry, but how many chances can he have? He is an enigma, flatters to deceive, and much as I and others like him, the time has come when he has to start delivering performances that show he deserves a place in the side.
Whether he has played in his best position or not, the bottom line is that he hasn't scored since last October, and hasn't often looked like ending that drought - it is now 24 league and cup appearances since his last goal.
So he has still had plenty of chances in the side, and for a player who came here with a decent record for Accrington and Shrewsbury, he just hasn't delivered.
At 24, he needs to kick on now with his career but he isn't producing the goods, and hence it isn't a surprise Yates wants to strengthen our forward line.
At the moment, we are totally reliant on Byron, and what happens if he pulls a hamstring in the first five minutes at Bury, or does a Cureton with a dislocated shoulder or something? I'll tell you. We are stuffed.
We may be stuffed anyway if Byron turns in too many performances like the one we saw today. His movement was poor, his anticipation non-existent and I don't remember him winning a header all afternoon. It was like going back 12 months to the insipid display he put on in the same game last season.
Sterling-James looked miles away from someone ready to be thrown in for a debut next weekend. He has shone at Evesham and Bath and sparked a little against Bristol Rovers, but in the last two games looked miles off the pace. If Bowen, Dale, Powell and Williams are not ready, then neither is he.
He played against Bristol City, where he was lively for the first half, and again yesterday 'in the hole' but at Aggborough he barely touched the ball. I would have hooked him off at half-time, but he lasted an hour and his replacement Koby Arthur was much more lively and probably the only CTFC player who looked like making anything happen.
It seems to be between these two for Bury as Zack Kotwica was at Ledbury with the youth team - they won 15 (yes 15!) -1 with Zack getting four goals and Harry Williams five.
In midfield, Richards was his usual neat and tidy self as the shambles ensued around him, while Hall not surprisingly looked like a player who hadn't played for a few games and Taylor just had a day to forget.
I was delighted to see Joe Hanks get a runout and I thought he did well as we switched to 4-4-2 with Joe alongside Taylor as Hall and Richards went off.
I know he went with the Scottish under-21 squad last week, but I do not feel Hanks has had enough football this pre-season. He was a major positive in the last two games of last season, but I don't feel he has been given enough opportunity to carry that on and build on it.
For that reason I don't think he will start next week. But I really think he should, as he put in more tackles and accurate passes in the time he was on the field as anyone.
Defensively, the first half was a horror show. Brown and Elliott never looked comfortable in the three with Taylor, and never recovered from it.
Blissett was a handful for Elliott, while Brown and Vaughan's channel always looked suspect and after that area saw three of Bristol City's goals conceded on Tuesday they were culpable for Kiddy's second.
The first came down the other channel where Blissett came off the wing past three or four players and the third was a total nightmare from the set-piece - so no-one escapes without blame at some point - bar Trevor Carson.
He cannot be faulted for any of the goals as he was let down by those ahead of him, and made three good first-half saves and another in the second.
We did improve overall after the break, but it would have been hard not to, so woeful were we in that first 45.
I thought Arthur and Hanks of the substitutes put a case forward for a bigger role next week, while some of those from the first half got (slightly) better, including Vaughan and also Gornell, who had a shot saved and looked a little more lively - but the others' day got little better.
As someone who has constantly stressed in the past that pre-season results don't matter, I am aware that some may believe I am going wildly against my own words here - but my unhappiness with this outing was more about the performance and the levels of desire, as we simply rolled over far too easily. Friendly or not, that is what was simply not acceptable.
Some of the aspects of the performance were sadly reminiscent of what we saw at times least season - many of the personnel and coaching staff may be different but  in so many ways the on-field issues looked worryingly the same.
Therefore I was pleased to hear the manager afterwards not try to gloss over it with the 'it's only a friendly' mantra, but to admit it leaves him with more questions than answers, and that some players have played themselves out of the team.
It was interesting to hear him say he had tried to sign their centre-half Chey Dunkley, and on this evidence it was a shame he was not successful,  as he and Josh Gowling were infinitely superior to our centre-backs. I assume this bid came while he was unsure that the Matt Taylor deal was going to happen.
It appears our Tottenham target may be going closer to home in Southend, but Yates desperately needs to get some competition in a couple of areas - for Byron up front and in central midfield.
From maybe having five or six places nailed down for Bury before this game, this limp effort may have cut that number down to maybe three or four - Carson and Richards for my money, and also Vaughan and Harrison, but a lot of that is all because of a lack of competition in those areas rather than their performances meriting a shirt.
Like Harrison, Vaughan is another for whom we do not know the replacement if he was to pick up an injury or ban. Jack Deaman can play there we are told - but why has he not done so in pre-season?
Joe Hanks and Craig Braham-Barrett have filled in during friendlies to rest Vaughan but I hope neither does so should he be absent for any reason, so we have not taken the chance to try out viable alternatives.
Since getting back from Aggborough, I have been telling myself not to over-react, and I don't feel I have done so. I have to call a spade a spade and this was a big step backwards after some encouraging signs.
Winning every game in pre-season is not a certain prelude to a great season, as is losing them all not a ticket to relegation, but you hope to see progress as you go along, signs that the team is building gradually to a peak.
But this pre-season has not been like that for me. There have been the odd signs of progress, but nothing has really clicked into place, and after some tentative steps forward this was a big reality check.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Tactical shenanigans

IN his time as our manager, Mark Yates has been called many things - but 'tactical genius' has not often been one of them.
In fact, for most of his reign, it has been the opposite... he has been accused of being too rigid with his formations, having no plan B, C or D and not being able to change the course of a match with a tactical twist or two.
Four at the back, the sometimes successful but very much disliked diamond and frequent failed attempts to make 4-4-2 work have been the norm, with the form from that golden Autumn of 2011 and 4-3-3 fluidity having proved elusive.
It was slightly ironic therefore that on the night of the return of the CTFC manager who could do all of the above and frequently did in his five years in charge that Yates threw us all a curveball.
He had been asked at Bath on Saturday about playing three at the back. He said it was a possibility, but we didn't expect to see it in action three days later.
One of the big riddles this pre-season has been the 'perm two from three' we expected to see with the front-line centre-halves Troy Brown, Steve Elliott and our new arrival Matt Taylor.
I am sure his critics will claim Yatesy is only doing this as he is not capable of making a decision - but I applaud him for having a go at it and if he can make it work then it will be another option this season - and during games if we are chasing it and need to push full-backs on.
The 3-4-1-2 which we used is a system which is coming more and more into the game, especially now that many sides on play one out-and-out striker and some don't play any at all.
It can be a waste to play two centre-halves and two rigid full-backs against one forward - three at the back gives more flexibility and it will be interesting to see if we carry on with the experiment.
We started with a strong side - Carson; Elliott, Brown, M Taylor; Braham-Barrett, J Taylor, Richards, Vaughan; Sterling-James; Harrison, Gornell - no Asa Hall again as his Achilles injury continued to be rested, and no Joe Hanks as he had been training with the Scottish under-21 side.
The absence of Hanks and Hall meant we once again only had the two orthodox midfielders and we conceded a lot of possession in that area and again showed we need that third player in there.
I think Jason Taylor and Matt Richards have been up there with our best players in pre-season, and both would be in my Bury starting line-up, but not without an extra body - so let's hope Hall is fit, Hanks gets a go or we bring someone else in by then.
At the back, the three centre-halves, having only tried the new system the day before in training, unsurprisingly looked a bit rocky at times but had few alarms, bar the goal we conceded.
That wasn't their fault however - it came when Braham-Barrett was caught in possession and Scott Wagstaff gave Sam Baldock a chance he wasn't going to miss.
The goal came seconds after we could have gone ahead when Byron Harrison got in behind Bristol City's three-man defence, which looked more unstable in the first-half than ours did.
He hit the post - and there, in a few seconds, was the difference between the middle of League Two and the top end of League One, that ruthless finishing and punishing of any little error.
But overall, our front three of Harrison, Terry Gornell and Omari Sterling-James linked up well together and caused problems. All three were lively and we had a few good situations, with Gornell winning a penalty which Richards converted.
However well they combined though, there is no getting away from the need for another forward, and with Rakish Bingham not being kept on, there is hope that Yates will succeed in his hunt, as we will otherwise be reliant almost totally on Byron staying fit and scoring goals.
Gornell had a very good half, but still didn't look like scoring a goal. Credit to him for getting back on the bike again, but I am desperate for him to succeed and to get back in the goals again.
At half-time, we saw Matt Taylor replaced by Jack Deaman, and kept the three-man system, but it didn't function as well after the break, along with the rest of the team.
We lost three goals, two to headers from crosses and a third after another header was saved well by Carson - a slight worry to see us losing headers in our own box with three central defenders in there.
Further forward, we weren't able to carry on the fluency from the first half - whether it is a fitness issue or just a legacy of the hard work they have been putting in during training and previous pre-season games, but I thought we just looked a bit leggy in the closing stages.
Joe Curtis, the triallist  from Southampton, was given a third chance to impress, but again I didn't feel he did enough to demand a contract, and he is nothing new to what we already have.
Koby Arthur also had another run-out and looked lively at times, but I cannot see both he and Sterling-James playing at Bury. Sterling-James looked blown out after an hour, so I don't see him starting - more of an impact man.
Zack Kotwica didn't get on the field, so I think Arthur and OSJ have moved ahead of him, and there is also Andy Haworth to consider, who came on in the closing stages.
There were also late appearances for Paul Black and Bobbie Dale, and although the result was a 4-1 loss, there were positives to take from the first half especially.
I don't think we learned much about some of the places which are still up for grabs for that game at Gigg Lane, but we have reinforced where Yates still needs to stiffen up the squad with another goalkeeper, midfielder and forward.
It may not happen before Bury, but has to happen in the medium term, be they permanent or loan arrivals.
We are told that Yates could be after a young Tottenham striker, so with the help of a couple of Spurs-supporting friends of mine, here are some of the likely candidates...

Shaquile Coulthirst – We know a bit about him as he scored the only in the FA Youth Cup game against us a couple of years ago.  He made his first team debut for Spurs in the Europa League last season.  Has had loans at Orient and Torquay (did well there).  Would have thought League One was more his level or even Championship if they want to push him.

Daniel Akindayini – out and out goalscorer (20 last season in under 18/19 games).  Decent record for the Under 18s but Harrison seems to have overtaken him as far as ratings go.

Shayon Harrison – Links play better but gets his share of goals (15 last season).  Quite highly rated by youth team followers at Spurs.  Only 18 though so may be a bit early for a League 2 loan.

Anthony Georgiou – 18 (I think) – Don’t know much about him.  Not much of him from what I’ve seen so again seems a bit early for him.

Nathan Oduwa – England under 18 regular.  Fast, skilful but plays mainly as a left sided forward, 14 goals last season in youth sides.  If you can find it check out his goal in Ledley King’s testimonial! Very highly rated.

Souleymane Coulibaly – Big hit in World under 20 tournament for Ivory Coast a couple of years ago.  Done little since but suffered with acclimatisation issues.  On loan in Italy (Grossetto in Serie B) last season.  Possible if they want to give him one last chance to settle.

Emmanuel Sonupe – young, raw but scored a few goals.  Once again, may be a bit soon for him too.

Tomaslev Gomelt – Croatian, made a splash in Next Gen competition a couple of years ago.  Seems to have fallen off the radar since.  Bit left field but was rated quite highly at one point.

We shall see if it comes off, and whether one of these names is going to join our squad. We do need a bit more forward potency, and if Yates can pull off a deal for one of the above, they could give us a lift.