Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A crucial period

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

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

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




Monday, 2 May 2016

Bringing down the curtain




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

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

Monday, 18 April 2016

CHAMPIONS...




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


Monday, 7 March 2016

Icebergs

ON the way back from Tranmere a mere 16 days ago, everything in the garden was rosy.
Danny Wright's goal made it six league wins in a row, we were a team looking full of swagger and confidence with expectancy rising that we could take a grip on the title race.
Now, three games later, doubts have crept in, seemingly on and off the pitch as a trio of stuttering performances have suddenly come along.
"Suddenly" is the right word for it. Nobody saw this coming - even though Gary Johnson has warned us all along of potential 'icebergs'. We appear to have just hit one.
It started against Gateshead. The game was moved from a Saturday to a Tuesday due tho their FA Trophy commitments, and everything about it just seemed flat.
I remember getting into the ground around 7pm and thinking that there was just nobody there. It was really strange, especially as pre-match on social media everyone has seemed so 'up for it' and raring to go for the game.
The crowd was small and seemed pretty subdued. Nothing seemed to get going, from the team on the pitch to the fans off it. Gary's words afterwards summed it up - the team was dead, the fans were dead and pitch was dead.
But we didn't lose the game. although we probably should have done as Gateshead hit the post and arguably had the clearer chances.
Then it was on to Eastleigh, and a game which was just a ridiculous lottery on a shambles of a surface that made Whaddon Road's look like the Nou Camp.
It should have finished 0-0 as neither goalkeeper had a save to make, ours only having to pick the ball from his net after a mix-up and then ending the match injured in a massive blow for us.
In some ways, losing Dillon Phillips, potentially for the season, was an even bigger setback than the loss of the 22-match unbeaten run, as he has been simply magnificent.
Before Saturday's game Gary Johnson said he's the best goalkeeper he has ever had - and this is a bloke who has had plenty of them (and some very good ones) in 30-odd years and 1,000 games-plus as a manager. High praise indeed, and fully justified.
Phillips, unfortunately, probably won't be back before the season is over. Calum Kitscha came on at Eastleigh but Johnson turned to Jonathan Flatt for the rest of the term.
Without reserve team football, the life of a number two keeper is a difficult one. Kitscha has only had a few games, just the Trophy really, to show what he can do.
Now he has been loaned to Worcester in the hope he'll get some minutes.
In the past, reserves like Scott Brown and Shane Higgs waited their turn patiently and it came eventually. But we had a reserve side then, while others like Will Puddy, Connor Roberts and Dan Lloyd-Weston have fallen by the wayside.
Kitscha is clearly a capable goalkeeper but Johnson obviously doesn't see him as ready for the pressure of a promotion run-in so, like everything else we have to trust his judgement.
Of course the defeat was also annoying. I feel sorry for Cameron Burgess - but he responded superbly with his display at Welling, his best so far for us.
Interestingly after the defeat Kyle Storer said the end of the unbeaten record was a 'monkey off our back' - suggesting it had been playing on their minds a bit and almost adding to the pressure the longer it went on.
We all knew it wasn't going to last forever and we weren't going to go through the rest of the season without losing a game.
I don't think we deserved to lose this one either - as I said earlier it should have been 0-0 as it was almost exclusively played out between the two penalty areas on a pitch unfit for this level.
That game though was a chance to steal a march at the top as Forest Green weren't playing and had dropped points at Barrow from 2-0 up in their previous game.
Saturday was another opportunity. I sat down on Friday and watched the FGR-Grimsby game and after Craig Disley's winner was full of hope for our trip to Welling.
I thought Rovers looked a bit nervy. They didn't create much and after Grimsby, whose central defenders were magnificent on the night, scored they didn't look like getting back into the game.
So we headed for Welling, without a win in 18 games and no goals in their last five, looking to open up a four-point gap.
Easy then. Just turn up and get the win... and that is how I think a few approached it.
Having seen Welling at WR a few weeks ago turn in the poorest display of any side I've seen this season against us, we maybe expected exactly the same again, and a bit of a stroll.
But Welling scrapped and fought for everything. Rarely for us this season, we were just outfought and outbattled, easily kept and bay, and it really knocked us out of our stride.
We seemed to lack composure, especially in the final third. Shots and crosses were hurried, snatched at, and not struck with any conviction whatsoever.
All that confidence from our winning streak of only a few games ago seemed to have just been sucked out of us. It was a very curious performance.
But we didn't lose the game which is the only consolation after conceding in the 91st minute. Dan Holman's equaliser was actually a very good goal indeed and a point in the circumstances was better than nothing.
The contrast in the celebrations told the story however. Welling's goal was marked with wild exuberance - ours by a fist pump from Holman and very little else.
The final whistle saw the players applaud the fans and troop, heads down, purposely off the field. They know it wasn't good enough.
The sight of the players in a huddle before the second half with Storer laying down the law and the injured Aaron Downes having his say too says it all.
They want to do better. They want to turn it round and after what they have done this season they have earned the expectation for us as supporters to trust them to strive all they can to do so.
They have given their all, but some of them look exhausted.
Wright for instance, after his superb scoring run of eight goals in six games, has suddenly looked shot in the last three games, losing his battles against central defenders he was bullying a few games ago.
He has started every game, and given everything for the cause with non-stop effort and workrate, so these last three displays have been very out of character.
Asa Hall too - having played something like 10 games in a row after being out of the game for year it is bound to take its' toll, and he also seems to be jaded now.
James Rowe was the fall guy in Johnson's eyes, hauled off after 34 minutes - again that previous lack of regular games before this run in the team maybe catching up with him.
In trying to explain this little stutter, some have pointed to the injuries we have suffered, and over the course of the season we have been stripped of the spine of our team.
Phillips' loss has been added to that of Downes, Harry Pell, Rob Dickie and Amari Morgan-Smith - all massive players in the first half of the campaign.
But remember that after Downes was injured at Boreham Wood we went on to win six in a row.
However, we have lost his leadership and mere presence. There is no doubt that since him and Dickie have been out we have not been as threatening at set-pieces.
Pell's midfield drive has been a miss, and like Downes he is a big presence. His reappearance at Welling was a welcome sight as was that of Morgan-Smith, who after four months out gave a lively little cameo and will be a welcome option as he gets fitter.
Dickie will, I believe, be back at the club imminently and has been training at Reading already so it won't be long before he is an option too. People are coming back slowly but surely.
In their absence, players like Burgess, Hall, Rowe and James Dayton have played their part, and I felt the latter's injury left us a little unbalanced.
When he got his contract extension, I was surprised along with many others but he has vindicated it and that natural width and outlet he gives us was missed on Saturday - he has that ability to get us up the pitch quickly.
So much did we lack that, it forced Johnson had to withdraw Rowe and ask McLennan to try and reproduce it as the one thing we also lost was pace. Welling had lots of it and caused us some problems with it, we had very little. If Johnson does bring a loan in, someone with pace is a must.
I felt we also looked unbalanced, with Rowe and Jack Munns trying to provide us with some width until McLennan came on.
He was on the bench as part of Johnson's left-back conundrum - his Cranston pickle (copyright James Young)
I have seen some criticism of Jordan Cranston's performances so far and it's true to say he hasn't maybe settled in yet.
Johnson has elected to almost rotate the left-backs - his rationale being that he needs to get Cranston up to speed, which makes sense. If George McLennan got injured he wouldn't want a totally rusty Cranston being thrown in.
But the reverse of that is that McLennan has been in very good form and got himself into a rhythm, only then to be coming in and dropping out of the side again. It's a tough dilemma.
However I feel he needs to settle on one, and that would have to be McLennan - especially if, when Dickie returns, he wants to play 3-5-2 and use wing backs.
That would seem to be a big possibility, with Dickie and Burgess either side of Daniel Parslow, with McLennan and Jack Barthram as the wing-backs they were signed to be, Storer, Munns and Pell in the middle with Holman and Wright up front.
Then you have Cranston, Billy Waters, Hall, Rowe, Morgan-Smith and Dayton also available to you to change it if necessary - and that is before a possible last-ditch dabble in the loan market.
These players have done superbly to get us to where we are, and we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It's not the time for negativity, and it's not necessary to rip everything up and start again as I don't believe there really isn't a great deal wrong. As manager and skipper said after Saturday's game, it's down to mental strength over these last nine games.
We are a bit fortunate that our little run of two draws and a defeat has come at the same time as Forest Green have taken one point from six, but we can't keep relying on that.
Grimsby were the real weekend winners. They have three games in hand, starting with Southport at home tomorrow, and if they win them all and beat us at our place they'll be three points behind us, so maybe they aren't quite out of it.
We need to do our bit as well. It's time to raise the noise on Saturday - show the players and manager we are with them and bring that away atmosphere like we saw at Tranmere and Eastleigh to WR and help get things back on track.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

History boys

LET'S get this out of the way straight away. The free-kick was absolutely hilarious. But we all know it wasn't the most important thing which happened at Prenton Park yesterday.
We witnessed history. No other Cheltenham Town team in the 129-year history of our club has done what this squad has managed to do (and no, I don't mean completely cock up a free-kick, which has now been watched 7 million-plus times on Vine, and rising).
It is a fantastic achievement and one that deserves to be celebrated and hopefully not overshadowed by a viral set-piece routine.
21 games unbeaten, six straight wins, three straight clean sheets, 14 wins in 16 games. In any other season we'd be over the hill and far away from the rest, trying to work out in which game it would all be done and dusted.
The fact that we are not is down to that lot from up the hill, and you have to say fair play to them. Even when they went one down on Saturday, there was a sense of inevitability that they would turn it round.
They did, and then all we had to worry about was whether we would hold out for the win. We did, so as you were with 12 games left.
On the way up, I'd have been happy with a draw, as I saw this as, on paper, one of the toughest games we had left to play.
But if this is one of the toughest, then we have nothing to fear from other upcoming 'tricky looking on paper' away trips to Braintree, Wrexham or Eastleigh.
Tranmere were fourth at the start of play, but trailed us by 21 points. That gap is now 24 points.
To put that chasm into context, top side Leicester have 53 points in the Premier League. 24 points behind them would be 29 points, and Bournemouth, in 15th, have 28.
That shows how fantastic we have been, so maybe the lesson for me is that I need to have more confidence in my team...! A classic case of worrying more about Tranmere's reputation as a 'big' club in this league than what they were actually fielding against us.
Unchanged team, unchanged bench showed Gary Johnson's confidence in his team and, as we seem to have done so often on the road, we made a magnificent start.
As Danny Wright left Michael Ihiekwe on his backside, the result was inevitable, and in went Danny's 21st of the season, his eighth in six games, and 11th in the last 11. Flames.
I had confidence this time... confidence that he wasn't going to miss.
The only surprise after this was that we didn't score any more, as Tranmere seemed to be doing their best to help us.
They had a strange reluctance to close us down at all, leaving James Rowe and James Dayton loads of time and space to run at them, and Asa Hall and Kyle Storer were left free to win the ball and pick passes out at will.
Many of the Tranmere side have big reputations at this level and above - people like Michael Higdon, Jeff Hughes and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, but all three of them looked to have their best years (and trim waistlines) well behind them.
It was all too easy for us, in the first half especially, and crosses and long balls up to Higdon were their only tactic, with Dillon Phillips having a couple of saves to make.
I actually felt a bit sorry for James Norwood. The poor guy was having to run his socks off, simply because the majority of those around him simply couldn't run.
Their immobility was summed up by a loose ball in the first half which Taylor-Fletcher and George McLennan went for. It was about an 80-20 in favour of the Tranmere man, but George won it easily.
The fact George won it so easily was also symptomatic of our players' fantastic attitude and work rate.
Defending from the front, led by Wright and Dan Holman, and closing down in midfield from Hall, Storer, Rowe and Dayton kept the pressure off our back four and kept Tranmere at arms length.
Rowe and Dayton especially were outstanding. They were a constant threat and have added a different dimension to us in recent games.
In the second half, Wright and Holman (with an audacious 25-yard lob-shot-chip sort of thing) had other chances to score and Tranmere became slightly more dangerous when they bought some players who could actually run on to the field, especially Adam Mekki.
Even the loss of Jack Barthram through injury couldn't derail us, as Jordan Cranston slotted in seamlessly, as players have done all over the pitch of late.
We saw the game out well, and the players fully deserve their place in the record books. Now all we have to hope is that they get the league title they deserve as well in 12 games time.
The players deserve it, but so do the fans. Saturday's support at Prenton Park was just fantastic - the noisiest and best following I can remember in a long time. Non-stop singing, and 300 sounded like 3000, easily drowning out the 5000-odd home fans.
It was also brilliant to see Harry Pell, Aaron Downes and Amari Morgan-Smith in there leading the songs with the chairman as well - more evidence if it were needed of the togetherness at the club from top to bottom.
That has to be another major factor in this run and title challenge, the unity has been great to see. Long may it continue - you certainly wouldn't have seen many players from the last few seasons getting such a warm welcome in the away end...!
It's just been a remarkable run and season - just bear in mind too that the two games we lost were both decided by stoppage time winners. Without them, we could be The Invincibles!
Talking of stoppage time goals, our main title rivals have now salvaged seven points of late. As I said above, they deserve credit for not giving up and we did the same of course in several games, but we could so easily be 11 points clear now...
Ifs buts and maybes though. We remain in the driving seat, and the pressure is on FGR to keep up with us, to keep winning and to stay in touch.
It's proved too much for Grimsby and the others who have fallen by the wayside and now we know the VNL title is coming to Gloucestershire. All we need to know now is what colours the ribbons will be...



Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Breathing space

RIGHT - that's the first objective of the season successfully completed, now that we are safe from relegation and the thought of a wet Tuesday at Gainsborough Trinity.
So now we are free to concentrate on completing the second objective, securing that league title and automatic promotion.
After the late show at Barrow, we had on paper two favourable home games against Welling and Kidderminster, knowing that we would be four points clear at the top if we came through them.
Welling were a bit of an unknown quantity really. No real 'star' players in their side and the only team we hadn't played yet, which seems strange two-thirds of the way into the campaign.
It was one of those games where you felt the win would come, but where an early goal would be needed, otherwise they would be happy to park the bus and frustrate as the game went on.
Danny Wright's header provided it from a terrific Jordan Cranston cross, which hopefully is a good portent of what is to come from our newest recruit.
He had come in for George McLennan, which was harsh on George I thought, but he was back against Kidderminster and the two will be competing now for that left-back berth.
How nice it is to have two decent players to potentially fill that role, with little to seperate them it seems, which hasn't been the case in more recent times. Shame we didn't have either of them a season or two earlier...
After Wright's goal, I thought the floodgates would open as to be honest Welling were as poor as anything we have come across all season.
Their goalkeeper was the main reason we didn't get more than two as he made several fantastic saves, while our defence and Dillon Phillips had as quiet a day as they have enjoyed all season.
Dan Holman got the second, probably the easiest goal he will score, and that was just about that.
The only downer was the injury to Harry Pell, which I must admit seemed pretty innocuous at the time. No-one even appealed for a foul and there was no urgency from anyone to knock the ball out of play.
In real time, it didn't even look a foul to me, and I thought the tackler had won the ball, and only when Pell stayed down and was obviously hurt did doubts appear about that first impression.
Later it became obvious it was a poor tackle, a penalty and arguably a red card, while Pell takes possession of the special ankle boot now Amari Morgan-Smith has vacated it.
So we still sat a point clear going into the Kidderminster game, which, being our game in hand on Forest Green, had a little bit of extra pressure on it.
Despite their league position, they had given us a tough game on Boxing Day and came to Whaddon having won three games in a row, including wins over Eastleigh and Macclesfield.
Add to that the invented 'rivalry' many fans have tried and keep trying to stoke up between the clubs and there were plenty of ingredients for a decent game.
In the first half it wasn't that - it was frenetic, physical and scrappy (not helped by an inadequate refereeing performance), and I have since seen many fans being critical of what they perceived to be an overly direct approach from us, including some sour-grapes comments from the Kidderminster manager.
Yes, we were quite direct, probably more so than usual - but I thought it was a deliberate tactic to get the ball into the channels and to get the Kidderminster defence turned, exposing what may be a lack of pace with Kelvin Langmead and Keith Lowe in the centre.
But to be honest I don't really care how we play. At this stage and in the position we are in, all that matters is results and we all want to end the 46 games with more points than anyone else.
So does it matter how we get them? Not to me it doesn't. If lots of long balls are needed to win games and secure the title, bring them on.
I thought the first half was just two sides being pretty cagey, not wanting to give anything away and almost feeling each other out.
They barely threatened us and we had the better chances, and I felt at half-time that we would go on and win the game.
We did of course with Wright and Holman on target again, a penalty and a header which crept into the corner after great work from James Rowe. Job done, another 2-0 win, and four points clear with 13 games to go.
So a club-record equalling 20 games unbeaten, 15 wins and five draws, five successive wins, nine wins in the last 10, 13 wins in the last 15... however you want to dress them up they are impressive stats.
Even more so when you take into account that the last five wins have been achieved without the skipper Aaron Downes, and several other mainstays haven't been there either, Jack Munns and Billy Waters on the bench, and Pell suspended, then benched and now injured.
To have maintained the run and momentum without those four, such important cogs for the first two-thirds of the season (in fact, with Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie also out that number rises to six), says much for Gary and Pete Johnson's recruitment and judgement of players and characters, and the attitude and desire of the players who have come in.
Few sides in this league could afford to lose or leave out players of that calibre and barely affect the quality of the team.
At the back, Cameron Burgess has just slotted in like he has always been there. He looks composed and doesn't seem to panic - a mature head on is 20-year-old shoulders.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow has taken on the mantle of the defensive leader seamlessly and continued in his unfussy, consistent way in Downes' absence. As it stands, he's still my player of the season... the others have 13 games to change my mind.
The two of them, plus Jack Barthram and the two left-backs mentioned earlier have kept chances down to a minimum, especially in the last two games, where Phillips has probably made two difficult saves at most in the 180 minutes.
In midfield, Asa Hall, James Dayton and James Rowe have all justified their selections and seem to be getting better game by game.
Hall was magnificent at centre-half at Dover and then came up trumps at Barrow, while Dayton did the trick at Dover and has looked dangerous at times in all the recent games.
Rowe has provided assists and moments of quality, like his cross for Holman against Kidderminster, and it is testament to all three that no-one has been clamouring for Munns, Waters and (before injury) Pell to come back in.
Gary Johnson's faith in Burgess, Hall, Rowe and Dayton has been repaid by their displays and it shows the depth of the squad - the latter trio's patience and positive attitude has been rewarded.
That brings me to the front two. Like our unbeaten run stats, their run of goals is impressive.
Holman has four in five for us (all at home...) while Wright, since an eight-game drought between scoring at Gateshead in October and at home to Chester in December, has 10 goals in 10 games, and seven in his last six.
He and Holman have 11 goals between them in their five games together, and after 90 minutes getting used to each other at Dover their partnership has blossomed.
It's a bit early to compare them to previous double acts, but the early signs are very promising indeed.
Holman's work rate is phenomenal. He doesn't seem to stop and never gives up on lost causes while always looking to fashion a chance to shoot. No wonder he has had more on-target shots than any other VNL forward.
Combining that with Wright's hold-up strength and willingness to run channels and get on the end of crosses, they seem to complement each other well.
Let's hope there is more to come from the Deadly Dans, starting on Saturday at Tranmere.
The trip to Prenton Park is, I believe one of the toughest games we have left, along with the trip to Wrexham and Grimsby at home - but with our current form we shouldn't be fearing anyone.
We have competition for places in all areas and confident players in form, so why can't we go up there and win, and set another record in this fantastic campaign?



Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hall's well that ends well

BARROW was the 'must-do' trip of the season for me - a new ground after the delights of the M6 ending in the 36-mile cul-de-sac to the Cumbrian coast.
In the end it was well worth the 6.30am fried breakfast, the diversion round the motorway closure which took us through the wilds of Cheshire and getting home just in time for Match of the Day.
And when we sit down at the end of April, hopefully with the championship trophy for company, we may well put this win down in the 'pivotal afternoon' category.
Having got back to somewhere near our best form last weekend against Bromley, Gary Johnson had several riddles to consider beforehand - Jordan Cranston or George McLennan at left back? Should Harry Pell come back after suspension? Should Jack Munns or Billy Waters force their way back in? Should he stick with Asa Hall, James Rowe and James Dayton?
I thought Pell would come back in as he has been such an integral figure this season, but in the event he was on the bench as Gary Johnson opted for the same side.
That decision was vindicated in an opening half hour which was ridiculously one-sided.
Barrow manager Paul Cox decided to play a 3-5-2 system for the first time this season, and as tactical decisions go it wasn't one of his best.
His players looked very uncomfortable and we tore into them, with Jack Barthram and Dayton down the right and McLennan and Rowe down the right having a field day.
Danny Wright scored a very well-taken goal and could have had a second, then Dan Holman had a shot blocked and Rowe's follow-up was saved.
Every time we went forward we were dangerous, and Barrow just looked clueless, but we didn't take sufficient advantage with some poor final balls and a little bit of over-elaboration.
It reminded me of the first half-hour at Southport when we took them to bits and led 3-0, but this time we let Barrow off the hook. We should have been at least three up again.
That was compounded by the missed penalty. It was stonewall as Barthram was felled, and Wright did the same stuttering run-up as Dover but went for the other corner and Joel Dixon saved it.
That, and Cox's double substitution, was the signal for us to lose our way.
Suddenly, from a position of power where we could have been out of sight, we looked jittery and nervous for whatever reason.
Between the penalty and Asa Hall's winner I can't remember us having a chance of note as Barrow were able to contain us with ease.
They had a lot of territory but Dillon Phillips barely had a save to make, yet as time wore on with us only having that one-goal lead the nerves were growing.
We lost Barthram at half-time with Hall dropping to right-back and I thought Pell coming on would really drive us on and help us take a grip on things.
It didn't happen. We were unable to get anything going in a curious turnaround to the afternoon as Wright and Holman became pretty anonymous and all the odds were on a Barrow goal.
It came when a corner was poorly defended, hit Simon Grand and went in. Things were anything but Grand at this point.
Last season and in campaigns before that we would have crumbled. That equaliser would have been followed by another goal.
But we know this team is different. We've seen it several times this season - home games against Barrow and Braintree, and away at Bromley and Dover spring to mind especially.
Games where we have gone behind or been pegged back late, then dug our way out of it with a draw or a win - and this was to be another example.
And just like at Bromley, it was Hall who was in the right place to smash in the winner.
It's been a remarkable few weeks for him. A bit-part player for most of the season, he's now starred at centre-half and in centre-midfield, then filled in at right-back and scored Saturday's winner.
It's another example of 'squad' players putting their hands up, as Rowe and Dayton also played their part again, and as it stands, former regulars like Munns and Waters have a real battle on to get back into the side.
Unthinkable a few weeks ago, but that's how it should be. No-one has a divine right to be in the side.
The bench, with Munns, Waters, Pell and Cranston on it was extremely strong. 25 goals between them and lots of assists - real options to change things if needed.
Cranston came on for Rowe, and interestingly it was he who went to left-back with McLennan pushed forward, and then being replaced by Waters - maybe Gary just taking a chance to see Cranston in his regular position.
Add to those options the soon-to-be-back Amari Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie and hopefully by the end of February we should be well prepared for the final countdown.
Speaking of which, as the weeks go on it is looking more and more like us and Forest Green going head to head.
We took top spot again, by a point with a game in hand, after they drew at Wrexham, with their third '90 plus something' goal in successive games - strikes that have yielded five points by earning wins against Southport and Macclesfield before Saturday's draw.
Without them we'd be six points clear with a game in hand - but before we call them 'lucky' let's remember we've done the same at those games I mentioned earlier - Braintree, Bromley, Dover and now twice against Barrow... results that we called 'resilient' or 'spirited'. Swings and roundabouts.
It's what good teams do. They keep going to the end and don't chuck in the towel - and that's what both sides are going to do in the title race by the looks of it.
We now have home games with Welling and Kidderminster coming up - the latter being our game in hand, with three of Rovers' next four games being away.
They have trips to Halifax and Guiseley and then they end February at Barrow. Let's hope Paul Cox doesn't decide to play 3-5-2 that day, shall we...?