Saturday, 21 March 2015

It's the hope that kills you

After two highly-promising away games which should have yielded more than two draws, hopes were high going into the Exeter clash that we could get that much-needed win.
But instead of building on what we had started at Newport and Portsmouth, we took another massive backward step and the inconsistency which has blighted us for as long as I can remember reared its ugly head again.
Once again, Trevor Carson was not ridiculously overworked. The same had been the case at Newport and Portsmouth, but like those two sides Exeter didn't have to work hard for their goals.
Our ratio of goals conceded to opposition chances created has been far too high and if we do end up in the Conference that will be one of the big reasons why.
We have been a soft touch defensively, and it is almost becoming too late to rectify it. The stats show we had more goal attempts and corners than Exeter.
Teams don't have to work hard to score against us, and at the other end we haven't created enough opportunities or taken anough of the ones we have made to make up for these deficiencies, and that pure economics means you will be in trouble.
And we are. Big trouble. It's made even worse by Hartlepool's resurgence, and now it becomes two from four, with them, York, Tranmere and ourselves in the mix go down.
That is only because York conceded a last-minute equaliser, otherwise they would just about be out of it, and I think we can forget about Carlisle, Oxford or Cambridge being dragged down into the mix now.
This performance was a relegation display. It was lethargic and lacking in energy in key areas, and a promising first five minutes and a head of steam in injury time was never going to be enough.
With Troy Brown banned, Matt Taylor came back in, but he always looked shaky. He is clearly not fit and the decision to give him a two-year contract last summer looks more and more crazy as he surely won't stay fit to see it out.
Will Packwood, after two superb games on the road, looked to have caught the jitters from Taylor and his decision to go for the same ball as Craig Braham-Barrett cost us the first goal.
It was another goal down our left-hand side. This has now happened for a season and three-quarters and is the most baffling thing that we have done nothing about that position.
Braham-Barrett has somehow played practically every game for the past two seasons, and, bar a good spell of form for a few weeks when we played three at the back, he has cost us goals.
Left-back seems to be a position we cannot get right. Danny Andrew and Billy Jones also struggled at times, but I'd have either of them in the side now.
It baffles me that neither Mark Yates or Paul Buckle tried Paul Black in what was his most natural position while he was at the club, and that he was then allowed to leave. Surely he could not have been any worse? Surely it was at least worth trying?
Black must have been so downhearted that he wasn't able to get a go there, and was left to play his four games for us as a central midfielder (where he had never played before) or on the left of a back three (where he had never played before). Ridiculous.
It's the kind of decision that could send us to Braintree next season and are endemic of the poor decisions that have made at all levels of the club in the last few years.
Anyway. No use crying over that spilt milk now, although you do wonder how many goals might have been prevented had we tried an alternative.
In midfield, Pablo Mills put in a determined display as ever, while Matt Richards was again one of our better players, but Matt Sparrow has just dropped off recently after a really promising start.
He was lucky to avoid a red card just after Exeter's first goal - his challenge was a very poor one as I was expecting him to go, and he never really got to grips with the game.
Several times he had the ball in promising positions but then gave a poor pass or made the wrong choice and it was no real surprise when he got the hook.
The same can be said for Danny Haynes, who I don't feel would have been in the side had Eliot Richards been fit. Like at Portsmouth in midweek, he was largely anonymous and, considering his higher-league pedigree, I expect more from him.
Once again, our main threat was Wes Burns, and he nearly gave us the ideal start, and Haynes needs to learn from his urgency when he has the ball.
At times, Haynes had a chance to break quickly, but didn't move it swiftly enough as Burns did, and we squandered a few promising situations.
Too often we made it too easy for Exeter, especially after they scored. We allowed them to win too many second balls, and they were able to dictate the tempo of the game and control it - something we have not been able to do when we have got ahead in games, hence why we have lost leads so often.
I have some sympathy for Shaun Harrad. He has spent the majority of his return to the club with his back to goal being buffeted by centre-backs without much help from referees or team-mates. He has worked hard with little reward.
At half-time we crying out for changes, but I felt Russ Milton left it a bit late. I'd have made the substitutions he eventually made about 10-15 minutes earlier, and the switch to three at the back and pushing Burns more central with Harrad had an effect.
It made the failure of Mathieu Manset to negotiate the M5 closure all the more annoying as he would have been an asset in that mini-Alamo.
We looked more dangerous, but then Trevor Carson's error to put us 2-0 down left us with too much to do - or it should have done as we then ridiculously created enough chances to win the game in stoppage time after a ludicrous own goal gave us some hope.
It's testament to our season and our predicament that we didn't take any of them.
Omari Sterling-James' shot was deflected wide. Burns shot over the bar. Harrad's golden chance put wide. Joe Hanks had an effort really well saved. Richards' shot was blocked on the line. Five great opportunities all created as we went a bit direct and caused a bit of panic.
The fact that we did that showed that we should have done that earlier and made the gift of the second goal all the more galling - but the bottom line is that we didn't deserve anything out of the game.
Next week, we go into the Plymouth game without Packwood and Burns, as well as still having Troy Brown banned. It's not an appetising prospect, but we really do need people to step up now.
Mills has to drop into centre back to deal with Reuben Reid and I would play three centre backs, bring Hanks into central midfield, and then perm two of Harrad, Haynes, Richards (if fit) and Manset up front.
But we need some grit and determination. We saw it at Newport and Portsmouth, but it was absent here.
If it isn't found again very quickly, and we continue to turn in displays like this one, then there is only one place we are heading.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Time to start winning

SINCE Russell Milton took the reins at Whaddon Road, everything has been positive.
The atmosphere has been better around the club, and the results, from the low base of the disastrous Paul Buckle era, have also seen an undoubted upturn, with one defeat in six games.
However, one crucial thing has not improved. The league table. It still makes worrying reading with the Robins below the dotted line of doom.
In isolation, draws at Newport and Portsmouth are good results. In a ‘normal’ season you would come away from those games thinking ‘fair enough, we’ll take that’ and move on.
This is not a ‘normal’ season however, and closer analysis reveals the continuation of a worrying Achilles heel which had set in long before Milton took charge -  the inability to hold on to a lead and grind out a priceless win or two.
Since the start of 2015, the Robins have led against Morecambe, Luton, Accrington, Mansfield, Newport and Portsmouth. All six games were drawn. That’s 12 points gone.
It’s not a new phenomenon. In Mark Yates’ two play-off seasons, chucking away leads cost us an automatic place in League One. Now it could be even more costly.
On May 2, these will be the games we will look back on ruefully and think ‘if only’.
Even two or three of these draws turning into wins would have seen some valuable breathing space open up.
Now, the next two home games with Exeter and Plymouth plus that Good Friday cruncher at fellow battlers York loom large as games where at least two wins are needed.
No-one else is going to get us out of trouble. We have seen that starkly in recent weeks.
After the Newport game last Friday, the results of fellow strugglers 24 hours later could not have fallen better as Tranmere lost while York and Carlisle battled out a 0-0 draw.
Then on Tuesday night after the Pompey point, news of unlikely away wins for Carlisle, Tranmere and – most worryingly of all – Hartlepool took the gloss off things and returned the Robins below that fateful line.
A few weeks ago, the Pools needed snookers. Now they are back within touching distance, so from it being one team from four to go down with them, it is a five-team free-for-all with two to head off on that Vanarama tour.

Performances have been better in recent weeks - that is not in doubt. Now we need to see the maximum dividend for that improvement, starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

One step forward... two back

COME on, nobody thought it was going to be easy did they?
After the euphoria of Saturday, a fine performance on the field and terrific support and enthusiasm off it, there was great optimism for the long trip up the M6 to Carlisle.
We were coming off the win over Tranmere; they had lost four in a row, and their local paper had tales of behind the scenes issues.
There was no getting away from the importance of the game. A win would have put us four points ahead of the Cumbrians with a better goal difference, and the atmosphere was tense among the home fans.
If we could have made a decent start as we had on Saturday, put them under some pressure and maybe nicked a goal, the crowd may have turned on their team. But it never happened.
Unfortunately it was a bit of a 'Southern softie' performance from us - one that we have seen a little too often on the road, especially when we have gone up North, and when the weather is a little wild.
There was no surprise when Russell Milton chose an unchanged side - but we never got anywhere near the heights of Saturday's performance and that has been such a frustrating thing about us over the past two seasons or so.
We never seem to be able to back up a good performance with another when the side is unchanged. It is a real dilemma why the same 11 players can produce such chalk and cheese displays within four days.
I am sure there is something in the theory that players like Matt Sparrow, Shaun Harrad, Pablo Mills and Eliot Richards have not played as many games in quick succession recently. But they are experienced enough and should be able to cope with it - but they were part of a below-par display.
So, we are back to square one again. After climbing up to 21st, we have dropped back down to 23rd, and the sides above us are becoming more and more spread out.
Carlisle had the benefit of the wind in the first half, and they used it well, but we never got to grips with it, in a mirror image of the conditions and way we coped with them at Hartlepool in another crucial match.
The home side adopted a very direct approach, and twice in the early stages our centre-halves let long balls bounce, then struggled to deal with them and we nearly paid for it. We would have done but for Trevor Carson's saves.
Our midfield, having been the bedrock of Saturday's win, never got going. The direct approach from Carlisle bypassed them, and they could not get involved to the same extent as they had at the weekend. They couldn't dictate the game.
So with them coming out second best, our forward players also struggled to get into the game. Shaun Harrad was isolated while Burns and Eliot Richards were largely anonymous as we couldn't make use of the wide pitch.
The main threats to both goals in the first half came from set-pieces. Carlisle's corner routine was clever - all their attacking players in the six-yard box would then run out in different directions making it hard for us to pick them up.
From free-kicks too they were dangerous, and that is how the goal came. A deep kick to the far post took Carson out of the equation and it was headed back across for Charlie Wyke to bundle in. A scruffy-looking goal which settled ultimately a scruffy-looking game.
We only really had once chance in the first half - a Troy Brown header straight at the keeper from a Matt Richards free kick in a carbon copy of Saturday's second goal.
Other than that, we didn't create anything. We had some promising positions, but were thwarted by poor passing, poor decision-making or a lack of support arriving quick enough for the player in possession.
I was hoping for better in the second half. We would have the wind with us, and I was looking for us to get on the front foot and try to exploit the conditions.
But again, it never happened. Carlisle defended very well, and we were never able to get a head of steam up, or really put them under concerted pressure.
We had two chances, with then both falling to Matt Taylor, who had one shot cleared off the line, and then , right at the end, put a free header well wide.
It summed our night up really. Close but no cigar, without ever really having the conviction to go and make something happen.
We just seemed tentative, and let's face it Carlisle were not a great side at all and even a performance somewhere near Saturday's would have been enough to get something out of the game.
But we allowed them to play their game as they wanted to - direct in the first half, containing in the second, and stopping the game at regular intervals by winning free-kicks as we fell into their trap.
While we dictated things and 'managed' the game well on Saturday, we conceded that last night and fell into Carlisle's trap and paid a heavy penalty for it.
Russ made a quick change in the second half, putting on Mathieu Manset for Eliot Richards, and it seemed a sensible change with Harrad being isolated, Richards struggling and the need for a bigger target up there.
That is just the job I envisaged him playing when we brought him here - with the conditions, we needed to be direct and look to hit him and see if we could play off him.
Since he has come here, he hasn't looked very fit, but Russ said Manset has been impressive in training and those performances have been asking Russ to be pick him.
As far as the result goes, it didn't work but after 10 minutes or so to get used to the pace of the game, I thought he had an effect, and gave us a bit more threat.
The ball stuck when it went up to him, and he made a couple of runs which finally had the Carlisle back-four back-pedalling after they had enjoyed a pretty comfortable ride all night, one of which ended with Harrad scuffing a shot wide.
Harrad playing up on his own is not the best option for an away game in conditions like we came up against here and it might well be that we have to look at other systems in games like this in the coming weeks.
Carlisle managed to negate Burns and Richards, and took a grip on the midfield, and that was it - we were stopped from playing completely - we need to have a Plan B, and Manset or Denny Johnstone might be it.
Mills was taken off after being booked for a tackle which another referee might have sent him off for - it wasn't the best challenge and the Carlisle side were not happy with it, and it was a chance for Jordan Wynter to come on and he didn't do too badly when he came on.
But no Cheltenham player can say they performed well. The whole back four looked jittery and failed to deal with Wyke and Steven Rigg, or with Anthony Sweeney and David Amoo out wide.
In midfield, Anthony Griffith had a decent game, and the Carlisle midfield overshadowed ours, and our wide men never got the better of their full-backs, leaving Harrad isolated and unable to get any change out of Troy Archibald-Henville and Sean O'Hanlon.
So disappointing all round in a big and important game, as we were at Hartlepool and again at Dagenham, and let us hope that these games are not the ones which cost us in the long run.
But we have to stay positive, and move on to the Mansfield game, which like Tranmere last week now takes on must-win status once again.
Mansfield will feel a win at our place this weekend will almost make them safe. so they will have a big incentive.
I was hoping that we would have been aiming to get to 40 points on Saturday, but we need the win to put the pressure on those sides above us and look to get back out of the bottom two.
We have 12 games left. Four wins, four draws and four defeats would get us to 50 - will that be enough?
Maybe... maybe not - but we need to keep the positivity up, keep the support up from last weekend and repeat that on Saturday. We saw the effect it had last week.
We all knew that last week's win didn't mean it was going to be automatically plain sailing from here on in -  but we need to make sure this was just a blip.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The feel good factor

MIDFIELD - that is usually where football matches are won and lost, and the axis on which successful teams are forged.
We have seen it down the years, how that 'engine room' can be so crucial.
I think back to Brian Hughes and Steve Brooks in the mid-80s, providing goals and flair, then Lee Howells, Dave Norton and some bloke called Milton in our Conference-winning side.
Also John Finnigan and Grant McCann in John Ward's play-off-winning team, and then the Marlon Pack, Russ Penn, Luke Summerfield triumverate which should have matched that feat.
All of those combinations had different attributes to bring - goals, energy, flair, mobility, tackling, playmaking - but they all dovetailed together and allowed the other parts of the team to function.
Since 2011-12 however, our midfield has been a bit of a mess.
Combinations have been tried, and they have all failed; loanee after loanee has come and gone.
We haven't been able to find that winning formula again, and it isn't a coincidence that we have struggled.
Playing 4-4-2 hasn't been possible, and we have seen the dreaded diamond come and go with 3-5-2 having the odd success, but nothing lasting.
Up at Accrington, Russ Milton opted for a 4-5-1, morphing into a 4-3-3 when we got forward. Matt Richards played as the deeper of the three, with Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks ahead of him, and we scrapped and battled to a 1-1 draw.
Richards did his job well, but Wynter and Hanks at times showed a bit of naivety, as you would expect of a (then) teenager in Hanks and a player in Wynter still relatively inexperienced in battles like the one at the Crown. Their time will come - they are both highly-promising players with big futures.
Fast forward eight days, and on Saturday Milton was able to field a midfield of Richards (409 league starts) and Matt Sparrow (353), with Pablo Mills (337) as their screen.
All 30-plus, all with more than 1,000 games between them under their belts - and boy, did that experience show.
Right from the off, Sparrow looked different class (and yes, I will overlook the dodgy back pass this time).
There was no hot potato, get rid of the ball anywhere stuff as we have seen too much of in the last two seasons.
He cultivated the ball. Looked after it. And if he came under pressure, there was no panic at all. He would get himself of trouble with a pass almost every time.
Behind him was Mills. Not match fit apparently. Ok, like to see him when he is because the man was an absolute rock.
Nothing fancy here. Just get the ball and make a 10-15 yard pass. Forward to Sparrow or Richards, Right to Lee Vaughan, left to Craig Braham-Barrett, or backwards to Troy Brown, Matt Taylor or Trevor Carson.
It didn't matter where, but it found a red and white (or yellow) shirt, practically every time. No panic, no fuss.
Those two set the tone, and they allowed everyone around them to calm down. Yes there was pressure on the game, we needed the win badly, but the nous they brought transferred itself around the team.
Taylor and Brown were able to concentrate on their job, ie to stop Kayode Odejayi or Jordan Hugill. Vaughan and CBB could do likewise with Rory Donnelly or Jennison Myrie-Williams without feeling under a constant siege.
But the biggest change those two brought was in Matt Richards. I don't think many players have come in for as much flak as he has in recent times - some of it justified - but on Saturday he looked a different player.
He looked like a player who had seen a massive weight lifted off his shoulders.
No longer was it his sole responsibility to bring some calm into the middle of the park.
No longer did he feel he was fighting a sole battle to be the man to get us on the front foot.
He was finally able to take the shackles off and seemed to have some freedom to express himself properly and be the player he has wanted to be for two seasons.
In the second half especially, he was magnificent. As good as he has ever been in a red and white shirt - and he topped it off with a decent set-piece at long last, straight on to Troy Brown's head.
That capped off a better show from him as well. Troy and the skipper barely missed a header all afternoon.
The full backs were also full of confidence. Vaughan is like a man possessed at the moment, seemingly determined to take teams on almost single-handedly.
Some of his tackling on Saturday was ferocious and the way he has formed a partnership down our right-hand side with Wes Burns has been fantastic.
That is where most of our threat came from at Accrington and on Saturday, and they work together well in attack and defence. We haven't quite matched that down the left yet with Braham-Barrett and Eliot Richards, but there are small signs.
We know that CBB is not everyone's favourite, but was better on Saturday and it is to his credit that Myrie-Williams was very quiet and had to swap to Vaughan's side in a bid to get himself in the game.
As for Eliot Richards, he is growing on me. While Burns has taken all the plaudits for his performances - and rightly so - Eliot has also played his part.
He might not have scored yet or really made a game-changing impact, but he was quietly effective on Saturday with little bursts of pace and making himself available with little bits of link-up play - and he nearly got on the end of a goal-kick with a Robin van Persie-style flying header which would have brought the house down.
At the axis of the team was Shaun Harrad - and it is great to have him back. A natural goalscorer - probably one of the most natural we have had in recent years, and a penalty-box poacher who might just turn half-chances into goals.
In the first 20 minutes on Saturday, he was irrepressible as we shot out of the blocks. He was stretching their back line, and forced the own goal (sorry Hazza, you are not having that one!) and showed that he wants to make up for lost time.
Although he didn't carry on that energy, and it would have been some feat of he had done, he put in a real shift and deserved his ovation when he came off.
We looked like a team transformed with the injection of experience on the pitch and enthusiasm off it from the new management team.
But overall we are a club transformed. Saturday's win was only a small step, we have a long way to go still however the atmosphere is just fantastic.
The board have done their bit by sanctioning the new arrivals we desperately needed, and the sponsors weighed in with the free scarves and sticks.
The supporters have bought into it as well, and to have 2,700 of a crowd of just over 3,000 was a significant rise on the turnout for recent games. Long may it continue.
The atmosphere was brilliant. Noise, singing, standing ovations for players as they went off and everyone staying and applauding as one at the final whistle. Togetherness from the board down to the terraces.
Saturday showed just what can be achieved by everyone pulling together. That is what we did in 1999 when we got into the Football League in the first place. We pulled together to achieve a common goal.
Recreating that can get us out of this pickle we find ourselves in now. Disunity and petty infighting won't do us any good - that was sending us only one way.
But this needs to be a permanent mindset. Yes we will lose games, yes the club will do things we don't like or don't agree with, yes we will have players in the side who fans may not necessarily rate.
We can't go back to the old days of moaning and groaning and turning our backs on the team after a defeat or two. It is so counter-productive.
There might still be a rocky road ahead over the next 13 games, and I don't just mean the M6 to Carlisle later this afternoon.
We have to stick with it. Keep up this tide of optimism and passion which has been generated in recent weeks, then look to go into next season with this same mindset from the start. It's the only way our fantastic football club will thrive.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Going with what we have got

Cast your minds back about a decade. Every transfer window, John Ward would be asked about new arrivals.
"We'll go with what we've got," he would reply, and the fans' forums would go into overdrive.
Now, that mantra can be used to describe today's no-brainer decision to stick with Russell Milton and Steve Elliott for the rest of the season - and everyone is delighted.
If Paul Buckle did anything for Cheltenham Town FC, he can be credited with uniting the fanbase in a way I haven't seen for a long time.
Okay, they were united against him - but they were united, and that seems only to have been strengthened with Russ and Steve taking over.
Even Martin Allen had people among the supporters who would stick up for him. Paul Buckle didn't. I've not seen any tweets or had conversations with anyone who thinks he has been harshly treated.
For several weeks, I was getting direct messages on Twitter from people telling me that one way or another we had to get him out of our club, or he would take us down. Some of those came from people within the club.
Last Friday, one of those people sent me a message. It said: "Get in, we've done it." That tells you all you need to know.
Paul Baker has talked this season about a lack of passion among our fans. The passion with which they turned against Paul Buckle was there for all to see.
Fast forward to Saturday, and you would have thought we were going for promotion such was the mood about the place. Smiles on faces, springs in steps - on and off the field.
Everyone seemed in a good mood. Even that naughty Jim Haggin got in on the act - his decision to play 'Go West' by the Pet Shop Boys was surely no coincidence. I was waiting for it to be followed by New York, New York. A chance missed Jim.
It was swiftly followed by All Together Now, and that becomes the new mantra for the last 15 games.
Board, management, players and fans are all together. That is going to be crucial as the weeks go by.
Jim's reading of the teams was greeted by hearty cheers after each name. The team was cheered and clapped off the field after the pre-match warm-up. Everything seemed different.
Then the game started. Within 17 minutes, we knew that maybe not everything was different after all.
Same old problems. Midfielders caught the wrong side of the ball, taken out by one pass, lack of mobility to get back, player left to run at the back four who can't come out and make a challenge or Trevor Carson would be exposed, accurate finish from the edge of the box, 1-0 down.
Then a two-on-one down our left-hand side (for a change...) cross to the near post, player not tracked, bundles it in, 2-0 down, mountain to climb.
At that point, I was worried. Bury were playing it around, and had one move of about 25-30 passes where were were really chasing shadows.
But to be fair, the fans seemed determined to stay with it. I heard very few grumbles, and then heard a roar when Wes Burns won a 50-50 and Denny Johnstone fired in a well-taken goal - just the spark we needed.
From then on, we gave it a go. You could not fault the spirit, and the belief in the side.
We couldn't get an equaliser, and in truth never looked like getting it as we didn't trouble Nick Pope, but Trevor Carson had nothing to do either - there were four on-target shots in the match, three went in.
But it felt like a win. There were no boos at the end as people could see the players gave it all they could.
That was typified by Lee Vaughan. Gone was the forlorn figure I spoke to at half-time at Roots Hall on Tuesday when he felt he had been pushed out, and wouldn't be playing again in a hurry.
Here he was back in the team, and his link-up with Wes Burns down the right-hand side was one of the highspots of our performance. Another was Johnstone's display up front, his non-stop running and effort typified our work ethic.
There are problems, we know that, in central defence, at left-back and in central midfield especially, and if the management team can make changes, these have to be their priorities.
We have had a soft centre for too long now, with central defence not strong enough and our midfield not mobile enough - especially with Matt Richards and Kane Ferdinand in a two.
That pair were very poor, especially Ferdinand - and if we could end the loan and send him back early I'd do it to give us another option for change.
Jordan Wynter will be back soon, and Joe Hanks must be in contention. Oh for a fit Asa Hall. He's two weeks away. Or more. I think. Shame.
Richards' set-pieces were terrible - maybe Russ can spend some time passing on some of his left-footed wizardry from free-kicks and corners, or can we just bring him on to take them, NFL 'special teams' style.
Everyone knows we have a weakness at left-back. We have had for a season and three-quarters, and I am afraid that not even 10 or 20 training sessions with the best left-back I've seen in a CTFC shirt for 35 years, Jamie Victory, would improve the current incumbent. Get JV out of retirement!! (he said, only half joking).
Steve Elliott would be welcomed back at centre half, but he will only play if his knee or body can take it.
But his priority now is to be there to back Russ as he is the man now until the end of the season.
After Saturday, it was the only decision the board could make. The fans want it, the players want it and as he said after the game, Russ wants it as well.
And it was a masterstroke to bring Steve back. His exit was the last straw with Paul Buckle as far as the majority of fans were concerned. Most of his other changes were accepted - but saying Steve wasn't wanted was a step too far.
He'd go through brick walls for this club and that's the attitude we need in these last 15 games.
Russ and Steve, along with Jamie, Steve Book and Ian Weston are people we can and want to identify with, people who we know care about our football club and will do all they can to succeed.
They have all played for us. All proudly worn the shirt. Yes, even Wesso a couple of times.
It also makes sense to bring in an experienced head to guide them and act as a sounding board for them - but it must be made clear that is the role they are taking on.
They are not the manager. They are not picking the team or deciding the tactics. They are there to advise Russ and Steve, help with coaching and organisation and to offer their experience. They also must not rock the boat around the club.
Before the game on Saturday, I was in the Nest with two CTFC stalwarts and a former director of the club. We all talked about the need for a knowledgeable head to help our rookie gaffers and all came up with the same name. John Ward.
Again, it is a no-brainer. Wardy knows the club, the fans and the board. He knows the coaching staff, and he would come in and he would be doing the job for the good of the club - not their own ego.
I have heard names like Nigel Worthington and Gary Johnson banded about but I don't want them. They would want too much control and they don't know about the fabric of the club.
We brought in an 'outsider' and it didn't work. Why do that again when you have someone like Ward, who has the experience we need and would, I feel, fit in seamlessly.
Again, the fans want him. Most of them anyway. Some have mentioned the 'boring football' we played under him, but surely we will settle for boring football if we win games - and Wardy's team when he was here knew how to win ugly.
Others have worries over what happened at Bristol Rovers last year. I don't. I think they would have stayed up had they now panicked eight games from the end and moved Ward out, putting Darrell Clarke in charge.
And he won;t be the manager anyway. Just go and get Ward. It all fits.
But I can understand the board talking to other candidates. We criticised them for not doing that when Buckle came in, so we can't have a moan at them for checking out the field this time.
Just make sure you give the job to Wardy though - and I would go further by putting him on the board... get a real footballing man on there. We could do a lot worse.
We know this decision is the last throw of the dice, but the board had little option with this one.
Buckle had to go, and it was the only decision they could have made to put Russ in charge, as they had to try to unite the club, and it has worked.
Now the hard part. Turning a team of players who have won three games in the last 25 into a side which can win six or seven games in the last 15 to keep us up.
It's going to be tough. We all know that, and by the end of the next four games I think we will have a pretty good idea if we are capable of it or not.
Accrington, Tranmere, Carlisle, Mansfield. All teams in and around us, and we need to win, I feel, at least two of these games to give us some sort of springboard.
Two wins and two draws would be huge, with a clean sheet or two to boot.
Playing on Friday, three points at Accrington would be a massive result. It would lift us up a couple of places and put the pressure on the sides playing on Saturday, when one of the games is Oxford v Mansfield. A lot of the other sides near us are playing promotion-chasers.
On the way back from Southend, I had no hope. I was ready for our inevitable relegation as we were a disunited club heading one way without so much as a whimper.
Now I have hope, real hope. I enjoyed Saturday's game, and enjoyed the atmosphere around the ground.
That needs to stay around for the next 15 games, and with that environment off the field, the players will, hopefully, respond and get the points we need.
There is positivity everywhere. The chairman is positive, Russ and Steve are positive - talk of 'when we climb the table, when we stay up'. None of this 'third from bottom is a success' rubbish.
Lee Vaughan is positive. And as I write this, Trevor Carson has tweeted this: It might sound 'Irish' after recent results, but we are in a better position to beat the drop now than we were a month ago. Believe me!!
Going with what we have got might be the best decision this club has made in a long time. It will be a rollercoaster in the next few weeks, but I now have optimism that we will be having a party on May 3 - not a wake.




Friday, 13 February 2015

Unbuckled

FOOTBALL is a results business, and one win in 12 league games in charge of Cheltenham Town was reason enough for Paul Buckle’s reign to be cut short.
But it goes deeper than that. This was a man who managed to make himself deeply unpopular both within and outside the club in a very short space of time.
On Tuesday night at Southend, the hardcore 50 who headed to Essex were chanting before the kick-off of their desire to see him leave the club.
And his body language during the game at Roots Hall and post-match comments were not those of a man supposedly determined to put up a fight to keep the Robins in the Football League.
Buckle and assistant Rob Edwards spent the whole game in the dugout, not once coming to the side of the pitch to offer encouragement to the players, as if resigned to another limp defeat.
Then on the final whistle, he vanished quickly, leaving goalkeeping coach Steve Book to guide the players over to acknowledge the travelling fans.
Post match, Southend were hailed as a good side, as if we should be accepting of a 2-0 defeat against a side in the top seven.
None of this helped his connectivity with the fans, many of whom saw him as a poor appointment from the start, and practically all of whom now celebrate his departure.
He was parachuted in from America after two years out of the game with ridiculous haste after the exit of Mark Yates in November.
As the results failed to pick up,  Buckle seemed reluctant to take on any responsibility, preferring to blame his predecessor for ‘leaving him with a poor squad’ and ‘spending all of the budget’.
It was the players who took all the blame. Especially the ones he was left with, and he shipped eight of them out in an effort to revamp his squad.
The team had won two games in the last 12 when he took over – they needed lifting, motiviating and instilling with belief.
Instead, they were told they were not good enough, a poor squad with a losing mentality – so it is little wonder that they went out for every game with no confidence, as their manager obviously had no confidence in them.
Had he stayed, there was a sad inevitability to Cheltenham Town’s relegation to the Conference.
The board must take responsibility for a poor, hasty appointment, and a failure to invite applications for the role.
But it’s time to draw a line in the sand. Recriminations and the blame game can wait.
Russell Milton, a Cheltenham Town man through and through, has been put in charge and now is the time for unity.
Board, management, players and fans need to pull together, We have to put this sorry episode behind us, as we have a football club to keep up.
So, if you aren’t doing anything on Saturday at 3pm, get down to Whaddon Road and shout your lungs off for Russell Milton and the Robins.

Your club needs you.

Monday, 9 February 2015

New team, same outcome

HAVING signed up five new players on deadline day, it felt like we were finally going to see Paul Buckle's team in earnest when Burton came to town on Saturday.
He has spent the past couple of months bemoaning what he was left with, but now it is his team, and he didn't waste any time throwing the majority of them into action, with all bar Eliot Richards of his new boys starting the game.
But it was the presence of two of his 'old heads' which put things on a downer almost from the off - the choice of Matt Richards on the left hand side, and Troy Brown keeping Lloyd Jones out as Matt Taylor's centre-half partner.
Neither have exactly distinguished themselves of late, and with viable alternatives available, it was strange to see them both getting the nod, especially Richards deployed in the role he was - Eliot Richards, Zack Kotwica, Jake Gray or Omari Sterling-James (not even in the 18 after some promising displays lately) seemed to be more 'round peg' alternatives.
It made even less sense given that we had our two big, physical men up front in Mathieu Manset and Denny Johnstone.
Playing two big men, you want orthodox wingers to be on the flanks, chalk on their boots, beating their men and looking to get crosses in.
But we had Richards on one side, whose delivery may sometimes be half-decent but will never use a turn of pace to beat a man to get half-a-yard and then cross, and on the other side Wes Burns, who - although he scored and was probably our best player - to my mind is better used centrally and only came into the game after the break.
Of the new boys, Manset was the biggest disappointment. He seemed to be blowing a bit at the end of the pre-match warm-up, which didn't bode well and although he did win a couple of flick-ons he also got caught offside rather lazily twice from goal-kicks and looked a fair bit off the pace.
A shame, and you have to hope he will get up to speed in time, or maybe he could have to be used as an impact man, to come on for 20-25 minutes and knock about a tiring back four. He certainly hasn't started many games for Walsall.
Johnstone was willing, he chased everything but due to the team having no natural supply line, forged largely in a sea of futility. He had one half-sniff of goal, and could have got on the end of the chance we created at 3-1 down - but I think there is something there and I have hopes he will contribute.
The midfield pair of Kane Ferdinand and Jordan Wynter, both six-foot-plus and quite mobile, are a potential partnership to work on. I thought they started the game well, but like everyone else, after the opening goal were a victim of Burton's increase in confidence and an unsurprising loss of belief in our ranks after we conceded.
The opening goal was down to a fine opportunist finish from Stuart Beavon - we didn't do much wrong in my view and he seized on a half-chance and that was that.
But the second was horrendous. Craig Braham-Barrett was slow to react to a throw-in, didn't stop the cross, then we watched Jacob Blyth flick it on and then Burns and Durrell Berry left Adam McGurk to each other. 2-0 and all my pre-match optimism and anticipation of a new slate wiped clean had gone.
A double half-time change was good to see. At least the manager was pro-active and wasn't going to let it drift as Gray and Eliot Richards replaces Matt Richards and Manset. We kept the 4-4-2 and looked a bit more balanced.
But then out came the service revolver once again and was aimed squarely at our feet with Phil Edwards left standing on the six-yard line scarcely able to believe his luck. Back to the drawing board when it comes to defending from set-pieces.
We did wake up. Burns took it upon himself to spark some life with a run between two defenders and a thumping finish, and - credit to them - the supporters got behind the team, who responded with a good 15-20 minute spell.
A Gray cross hit the bar, Burns returned it across goal, Johnstone couldn't turn it in and Matt Taylor put it over. That was the chance and had we got to 3-2 with the crowd raised up, you never know.
But with that chance, the belief we had got back ebbed away again. The 15-20 minute storm petered out as Burton, like the good side they are, held out comfortably for the win to take them back to the top.
Half-time subs Eliot Richards and Gray acquitted themselves pretty well and probably deserve starts at Southend tomorrow. Tellingly Jones appeared for Brown late on (no injury involved) - and I wouldn't be averse to seeing that finishing team coming out of the tunnel at Roots Hall.
However, the bottom line is that a 20-minute spell against a side already 3-0 up and coasting is not going to win us games. We need more than that to get us out of the situation we are in.
I got some grief on Twitter today for being negative. I am usually a very positive person, especially where CTFC is concerned - but I really am struggling for positive straws to clutch at.
The facts are stark. 24 games without a clean sheet. Three wins in 23 games - half a season - in which we have collected 16 points. Over a full season, that is 32 points, and that is only taking you to one place. Well, 24 including Braintree and Wrexham actually.
After 14 points from six games, we have only just doubled that tally by game 29. That is not me being negative, that is (at the risk of going all Rafa Benitez on you) the facts.
Yates' last 12 games as manager yielded eight points, Buckle's first 11 have also yielded eight points - so there has been no change in results, no upturn, no new manager bounce.
After Yates left us 10 points clear of the bottom two, now that gap is two points. By tomorrow night we could be down in there.
I am not saying Yates should not have gone. He should. Probably earlier than he did in hindsight, but when it came the decision was, I feel, taken at the right time after two pretty hapless defeats by Stevenage and Wycombe.
But I will say it again. The succession was rushed. There were people out there who were not given the chance to apply, to come in and talk to the board and for them to show what they had to offer.
There was no need to parachute a manager in with such haste, and I remain convinced that the Dover Cup game's importance to the club financially was the reason for the speed of thought.
Buckle was headhunted after two years off the scene in America. At the moment, in my view, it is not working. He has made the changes he felt were necessary, and I agree with the vast majority of the exits - I would have kept Steve Elliott around though. Even though he may not be a long-term option, his short-term value and experience is there for all to see.
The jury is still out on many of the incomings as most have played a game or two, but Burns and Wynter made promising starts and - to be fair - it is a shame he lost Kevin Stewart and Jack Dunn, who were adding something to the team.
On the subject of Elliott, the social media post attributed to him which was shared on Twitter makes worrying reading, talking as it did of 'not being able to work in the environment' at the club.
That is not the sort of thing we want to hear when our existence as a Football League club has never been in more jeopardy than it is now.
You want unity and a determined attitude to fight this situation. The environment should be harmonious, and for Steve to say something like that suggests that maybe it isn't. Concerning if so.
I have to admit I am not convinced that this manager will pull us away from trouble. His tactics and how he sets the team up does not instill me with confidence. The slide which started under Yates has not been halted, and if anything seems to be gathering pace.
He also does not seem to have been able to get any connectivity with the supporters. A fans' forum early on in his reign would not have gone amiss and I have to admit that to see him stomp straight down the tunnel on the whistle on Saturday rather than even look at, let alone acknowledge, the supporters isn't going to help his cause.
I fully understand that the players he has brought in need time to settle and knit together but, let's face it, we haven't got the time for them to bed in. He needs to inspire them, fire them up with belief and get them firing now - definitely for that run of four make-or-break games against Accrington, Tranmere, Carlisle and Mansfield which is coming up.
The manager says we need six wins, and we have 17 games to get them in, starting tomorrow. Remember, we have won three times in the last 23 games.
This is why I am not optimistic that those six wins will be forthcoming and I have to admit to being very fearful that the efforts of Steve Cotterill and that team which dragged us up in 1999 could all be undone.
I would be stunned if the board are not concerned, and did not discuss the situation at their regular meeting today. They care about this club, and I feel confident they will do whatever they feel is necessary to give us the best chance of avoiding the trap door.
If that means considering another change of manager, they have to entertain that thought, even though it would be a gamble and an admission that they got it wrong in November.
Ultimately it could be a call they have little option but to take - that is if the results continue in the manner they are going at the moment... and wouldn't a win tomorrow would be such a shot in the arm for us all?