Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Finishing the jigsaw

IT has been a time of transition since Paul Buckle came in, but the time is coming now when that will be over, and everything will settle down for the crucial last few months of the season.
Staff have come and gone, with Buckle, Rob Edwards and chief scout/recruitment guru John Milton arriving as Mark Yates and Shaun North left.
On the playing side too, the three Liverpool loanees, Jake Gray and now Durrell Berry have arrived - with rumours of Macclesfield winger Adriano Moke to follow.
Their arrivals have been financed by the departures of Raffa de Vita, Jason Taylor, Adam Powell and Paul Black, plus Andy Haworth's loan - and then also by the sale of Byron Harrison to Chesterfield.
That last departure is by far the most significant, and as is the same with every player who leaves the club has been met with a mixed response, almost down the middle between those who think it is a good move, and those who can't believe Buckle has got rid.
I am in the 'good move' camp. It was obvious almost from the start that Harrison was not going to be a Buckle-type player.
He likes exuberant, hard-working players who chase lost causes and put real shifts in for the team from minute one to 90 - Byron that is not.
I am afraid all too often we saw sulky Byron. Rarely did he have a smile on his face - indeed there are times when I have wondered whether he actually enjoys being a footballer at all, whether his heart is really in it.
He was always a good interview. Deep at times, a thinker, but I would sit and watch him and just want to see more 'get up and go' from him. Too many times I would think he was playing within himself and not giving it his all.
On his day he was unplayable. But I can remember many of those individual 'days'. Swindon this season, At Mansfield last Easter when we won 2-0. The fact that I can do that shows that they didn't come round very often, and certainly not often enough.
He started the first three games of Buckle's reign, scoring against Oxford, but was then benched and listed.
The final nail in his coffin at Cheltenham came at Hartlepool. We were trailing, and he was summoned from the ice box. This was his chance to really show Buckle he was wrong. Really prove a point.
But he didn't. He came on and we saw the insipid Byron, the one who didn't challenge the centre-halves, didn't give them a hard time, didn't run the channels or give us any spark at all. He did nothing to change the course of the game.
That display and the almost 'so what' reaction to being dropped was what finally showed me Buckle is right to move him on. It is best for all parties.
Yes, he scored 15 goals last season in a mediocre side, and swept the player of the year board. That came after a rocket from Yatesy at Kidderminster when he was abysmal in a pre-season game which we lost 3-1.
That was meant to be the springboard for this season - time to kick on and really become one of the division's most feared forwards and maybe attract the interest of higher-level clubs.
But it didn't happen, and he can't live off past glories. If Yates' two play-off season were irrelevant in the eyes of many fans in ultimately deciding his future, then surely Harrison's goals last year also can't come into the equation? It is all about the here and now.
His supporters will also claim he suffered from a lack of service.
That is maybe true to a certain extent, but I also feel that the 'I had no service' line is also being used as an excuse for laziness.
Look at last Saturday - Jack Dunn didn't always get great service but still looked like a goal threat and worked openings himself through hard work and endeavour, rather than just lolling around, hands on hips as Byron was prone to do on occasions. Sometimes you have to try to make the best of what you have.
People will cry 'where will the goals come from now'. Well, Harrison scored four league goals in half of this season, so do we really trust him to score another 10 in the remaining games? I don't - but yes, we do need someone to do that.
It may well be that League One will suit Byron. There is a bit less hustle and bustle, and he might get a bit more time at that level, with less chance of a big centre-half clattering him at every opportunity.
John Marquis has started well at that level on loan at Gillingham and it seems to suit him better, and I am sure if Byron does likewise the fan club will be out in force to slam Buckle for letting him go.
But they won't be heard as vociferously if Buckle can find a replacement who comes in and makes an impact - and that is now the final part of the jigsaw.
A small fee (I am guessing about £10,000) and Harrison's wages (another guess, but I'd say upwards of £1,000 a week) should, allied with the other savings, be enough for Buckle to bring someone in.
Already the agent and 'ITK' Twitter accounts have been at work, and the 'old chestnut' name of Rene Howe has cropped up.
Howe has been a pain in the neck for us in the past, notably in his Torquay days, and is certainly the type of player I would like us to bring in - a physical line-leader to hold the ball up and give us some presence.
He is now at Newport, and scored in their reserve side at Plymouth this week as he continues to find full fitness after injury.
Howe started for County at Northampton on Saturday, but that was his first start since August, and he was out for four months. His sub appearance against us over Christmas was his second game back, and he did look rusty in the 45 minutes he played.
That is the main issue with him - fitness. I remember how he went off against us in the play-off semi-final first leg for Torquay... but he had been a real handful in the 20 minutes he was on the field.
Get him fit, and there is a player there, and that has to be the key. No point signing him only for him to break down quickly, leaving us short again - but every signing is a gamble.
The rumours have grown a bit of pace with news that Newport are reportedly close to signing a forward on loan (believed to be Swindon's Miles Storey) and that could make them more amenable to an enquiry for Howe.
Buckle has to weigh this one up very carefully as this final signing could make or break us - it is the most important signing of all, the final piece of his jigsaw.
While the results have not been great on the pitch, I don't think Buckle can be criticised for the wheeling and dealing he has done so far. Everyone was crying out for new arrivals, for the squad to be overhauled and some 'dead wood' moved on. Well, it has been done.
The Liverpool lads have settled in well so far, and I just really hope we can keep them on. Jake Gray showed some promise on Saturday and will add some energy to us as he settles in and Kane Ferdinand will also be an asset I believe, if he isn't farmed out wide.
Durrell Berry is a solid performer, having played 100 games at this level and looks a good addition. Some disquiet has been heard about the award of a six-month deal, but I think it is sensible while we don't know what league we will be in next season.
While if we get Adriano Moke, we are getting one of the top assist-makers in the Conference and someone who has been a big part of Macclesfield's fine season.
A big, strong forward and keeping the Liverpool boys are the last pieces, and I think if he manages those things, Buckle will then have achieved all he could possibly have done in January.
I think is is always ideal to have two players for each position, and that is what Buckle would have achieved and we will have a very different-looking squad, which would look something like this:

Goalkeepers
Trevor Carson
Matt Gould
Harry Reynolds (scholar)

Right-backs
Lee Vaughan
Durrell Berry

Left-backs
Craig Braham-Barrett
James Bowen

Centre-backs
Matt Taylor
Troy Brown
Lloyd Jones
Jack Deaman
Steve Elliott (inj)

Central midfielders
Kane Ferdinand
Kevin Stewart
Joe Hanks
Matt Richards
Asa Hall (inj)

Wingers/attacking midfielders
Zack Kotwica
Jake Gray
Adriano Moke
Omari Sterling-James
Harry Williams

Forwards
Terry Gornell
Bobbie Dale
Jack Dunn
AN Other




Monday, 26 January 2015

Another small step

AS many of you will already know, I had my own reasons for really wanting us to win Saturday's game.
But by the end, the fact that we didn't wasn't too much of a disappointment as I came away with encouragement from many aspects of our performance.
Therefore I have been surprised once again at the level of negativity after the game.
I heard some boos at full-time, and have had tweets giving the view that my BBC Glos colleague Pete Matthews' summing up of the game was very much on the generous side. The studio also had some critical tweets and texts post-match about our display.
But the vast majority of people I have interacted with in person and on social media since the game seemed to concur with my view that we put in a decent-enough display and more than merited the draw we got.
We weren't brilliant throughout, and yes, I know we didn't win. I also accept that it is getting to the stage of the season, given the position we are in, that we need to start winning games, and decent performances to get draws are not going to see us climb that table at a great rate.
But surely fans can understand that the transition from Mark Yates to Paul Buckle was always to be a gradual one, and was never going to bring an instant upturn in results, and that we look a better side now than when Buckle arrived?
The vast majority of teams change their manager mid-season because they are in a poor run of form, with a low-confidence squad and the arrival of a new manager with new staff and new ideas is going to take time to bed in properly and start to produce consistent results.
Buckle needed six games to work out what he really had inherited, and to find out which players were going to buy into his way of working.
Now having more or less sorted that out, he has more or less decided who he wants and who he doesn't.
Then it is a case of wheeling and dealing to bring some new faces in and get some of the sidelined ones out, as he has with Jason Taylor, Paul Black and Andy Haworth.
To my mind, this game was the last of his honeymoon period, and from the game at Dagenham on Saturday onwards, he needs to get results as he will have done everything he can by then to put his own mark on the squad.
As I showed in the blog last week, his record for his first eight league games is not really any better or worse than any other CTFC manager.
I think we all know that it's going to be a bit hairy between now and May, as it was when Yatesy took over five years ago.
Despite the failure to really upturn the results and get that so-far elusive home win, I don't feel we are as much of a soft touch now (Hartlepool excepted), and am convinced that if Yates had been in charge on Saturday, we would have lost that game, as Luton would have bullied us out of it.
It was heartening to see us show a bit of backbone when we needed to, digging in during what became a very attritional second half, having in the first played some pretty decent stuff at times.
While he has been assessing what he has, Buckle has gone more 'horses for courses' with his selection.
It was 3-4-3 against Morecambe to match what they did, and then this week it was a 4-1-4-1 to be solid.
I thought in the event he got it right, looking for solidity at the back and in mdifield while trying to use a bit of pace with Zack Kotwica and new boy Jake Gray coming in to the side to try and get in behind them.
I thought they both did ok, I was bit disappointed at times though when Zack cut infield when I thought he had a chance to take on his man, while Gray tried to go outside when he could but was a bit weak physically at times.
I'll cut him some slack as it was his first game. To both of their credit though, both worked hard defensively and kept going for the full 90.
In Zack's case, that was, I felt, his most encouraging performance for us when he has started a game. Hope he can keep it up.
Matt Richards was back in as the midfield sitter and to be fair to him, the axe and subsequent rocket up his backside seemed to have had an effect.
I thought he did a decent enough job, and allowed the two ahead of him, Kevin Stewart and Kane Ferdinand, to play with a bit of freedom.
Stewart was, for my money, comfortably our best player (not Troy Brown as the sponsors somehow concluded...) and is getting better every game he plays as he settles into the hustle and bustle of proper football - which is what you want from a young player.
He looks like he belongs, and alongside him Ferdinand had comfortably his best game for us. Please no more playing him out on the right, as he was suited to the role he was given, getting forward to be a support for Jack Dunn.
We do look much better with a three in there, and this trio plus Joe Hanks will have to do the work in there for the rest of the season - I for one have written Asa Hall off until pre-season next June.
Stewart and Gray made the goal, and credit to Zack for being in the right place to finish it off. I felt we merited the lead.
The downside was, of course, that we conceded so quickly. The midfield I praised above did switch off to allow Adam Drury space to shoot and Trevor Carson won't be happy with how he dealt with it - although he will ask Craig Braham-Barrett why Shaun Whalley reacted quicker than he did.
For the rest of the half we were on the back foot, and it was going to be a test for our defending and we just about passed the examination.
Some of the clearances were a bit panicky, but they got the job done, and Carson made one decent save.
But we didn't fold, as we might have done a few weeks ago. There was backbone, determination and a desire not to concede, but to stand firm. They were led by Matt Taylor, whose fitness in the next few months could really be pivotal to the club's future.
Among those defenders was Lloyd Jones deployed  in an unusual right-back position, with Lee Vaughan dropped to the bench.
However, Vaughan being on the bench was a surprise as I could not see many circumstances that he would come on, and with Jack Deaman also being on there, but Harry Williams not being in the 18 at all after doing well from the start in the previous two games.
Before the game there were rumours that right-back Durrell Berry is heading this way from Torquay, and it seems this deal will happen - so you assume that Jones' switch was for one game only, while you wonder whether Vaughan's exile may be a longer one.
I would wonder whether putting Vaughan on the bench rather than leaving him totally out of the 18 was a bit of a softener for the blow of being dropped.
In attack, Dunn was his usual effervescent self. The battle with his fellow Scouser Steve McNulty was always going to be a fascinating one, and although he never got near him in the air as you would expect it was a different story on the floor.
He picked his pocket a few times and managed to get a shot away most times, bar the second-half rugby tackle wide out of the left which got McNulty a yellow. Some fans thought he should have got red, but it was never going to happen.
Dunn battled hard up front, and at times got frustrated with the service he was getting, and we were guilty of going a bit too direct to him at times and as we had to dig in during the second half, he did get a bit isolated.
I would hope that this week we can bring in a physical forward who could lead the line, hold the ball up and occupy the centre-halves while Dunn gets a bit more freedom to run in and around and using his pace.
But that of course would mean us playing two up front, which would affect the three man midfield, or mean playing three at the back... dilemmas and choices there for the manager.
We deserved a point overall - no more than that. Luton were what I had expected - solid, organised and a tough nut to crack as John Still sides usually are, and I must admit to slight disappointment to hear him blaming the pitch for them not winning. You're better than that John.
I didn't feel they did enough to win, and neither did we, so a draw was right, and I certainly would have taken that before the game.
There was a bit of talk after the game about the lack of substitutes until the very end when Byron Harrison made an almost token appearance in place of Dunn.
I said in the commentary that I might have made a change around the 65-minute mark to replace one of the wide men like-for-like with maybe Omari Sterling-James just for fresh legs, but some people have wondered why he didn't put a second forward on.
My only explanation for that would be that maybe Buckle felt that the system was working and that he felt it was more important not to lose the game rather than making an attacking change to try to win it. It was stick rather than twist, and I guess some would see that as negative, but I saw it as sensible.
I can see Buckle's reasoning in feeing one point was better than none. I would not have changed the system as I thought we were comfortable in the second half with Carson having no direct saves to make.
I think a system change would have left us more vulnerable to losing the game rather than giving us more of a chance of winning it.
Still made three changes, taking off in my view his side's three most effective players and changing their system to one which I thought actually made them less of a threat in the closing stages.
Now we have a big week culminating with the game at Dagenham on Saturday.
The transfer deadline is coming to an end soon, but I am sure that Buckle will ideally want all of his business done before we go to Victoria Road, and so things could get busy.
Priority number one will be deciding what to do about the three Liverpool lads. Dunn and Stewart have definitely improved us and it would be a real shame to lose them.
Jones has done alright, but with Taylor now fit, and also Troy Brown and Jack Deaman here, we have four centre-halves - and then you also have to add in Steve Elliott.
Elliott has been out for a while now (he is yet to play under Buckle) and doesn't seem to be any closer to a return, and I am afraid you have to start wondering if he will come back at the age of 36.
I am most certainly not pushing him into retirement as I love Stevie to bits, but being realistic, could we have seen his last game for CTFC?
In any event, I am sure Buckle will want to keep all three of the Liverpool lads, and he has said as much with negotiations already under way.
Berry's arrival seems pretty nailed on even though the manager flat-batted my question about it post-match.
I am sure he wants some more physicality in the final third. I suspect that will be it on the incomings unless the manager can do a bit of bonus business.
As far as outgoings are concerned, Black and Haworth moving on will have freed up a bit of cash on top of Taylor leaving, and there could be more if any of our other players are wanted.
My feeling is that if a club came in for one of our contracted players (with one or two exceptions - Carson for instance) and the player fancied it, they would be gone.
Harrison, who as far as I understand has turned a move elsewhere down, and Terry Gornell would be favourites to move on, and I wonder whether, as an outside chance with Berry coming in, if Vaughan might also get a loan move if one came up.
What I do hope is that after this week we might find a more consistent selection and way of playing.
I can understand the horses for courses thing, but by my reckoning we have used 30 players now this season.
I feel we need things to settle down and try to get used to a system and a more settled 11 as that will, I think, give us the best chance of getting the wins we need to move clear of danger.
Saturday was a small step in the right direction. I still feel positive but this is where we have to stop being encouraged by promising performances and start getting wins on the board.
We are getting better. Now we need to start getting the results to go with it...



Monday, 19 January 2015

Paying the penalty

AFTER the game on Friday, I was asked whether the draw with Morecambe represented one point gained, or two points dropped.
It was a difficult question to answer, as our performance for an hour, having gone in front and had chances to kill the game off, would have made it two points dropped, but over the last 30 minutes, with the penalty save, equaliser and a great save from Trevor Carson, it was a point gained.
Following the meek surrender at Hartlepool, I wanted to see changes and was glad to see that they were bold ones. On the night, most of them were positive.
The biggest positive was Matt Taylor's return. Leadership, and the lack of it, has been an issue of late and we definitely look better and more solid with him in the side.
The decision to go back to three centre-halves was also a good one in my view - it helped bed Taylor back in, and gave Lloyd Jones someone with great experience alongside him to guide him through the game, and Troy Brown definitely looks happier with the skipper alongside him.
What it should have done is also help the full-backs. Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett, have, in my view, looked weak in recent weeks, so the hope was that three at the back would suit their games as it had in previous months.
It didn't work, and I thought both were disappointing again. They conceded a penalty each, and had problems defensively, especially Vaughan in the first half with most of Morecambe's attacks coming down his flank. He got caught sleeping a couple of times, and was lucky to get away with it.
Further forward, the axe fell on Matt Richards. As I said last week, he has been frustrating me more and more, and I was pleased to hear Paul Buckle's post-match comments about wanting more fight in his game, and more dynamism.
It gave Kane Ferdinand the chance to go more central with Kevin Stewart and it worked in the first hour. They were effective with the ball - but not so good without it as again at times we got caught high up the field and Morecambe had a few chances to break on us.
Further forward, Harry Williams, Omari Sterling-James and Jack Dunn gradually got on to the same wavelength as the half wore on and their pace was causing problems for Morecambe back three.
We got the penalty - ours was for my money the least clear-cut of the three - then Dunn had one kicked off the line and Williams another chance blocked when he was maybe a tad late in pulling the trigger, so we could have been further clear.
Morecambe had caused problems, one shot just went wide but others were from long distance and more wayward - I didn't feel their first-half chances were as clear-cut as ours.
The second half started superbly for us, with their keeper making great saves from Omari and Dunn, and a second goal seemed like it was certain to come.
But then I feel the manager made a mistake when he put Joe Hanks on for Harry Williams, as it totally killed our momentum.
I can see why he did it. He was worried about how much space Jamie Devitt was getting and wanted someone to shadow him  - remember the game at Cambridge when Hanks did a similar job on Ryan Donaldson which took him out of the game.
But we were in the ascendancy. What we were doing was working, so I didn't see the logic in changing it to start worrying about what Morecambe were doing. I feel it would have been better to keep it as it was and try to get the second goal, then maybe you have a look at shoring things up and seeing the game out.
Stewart lined up alongside Devitt for a couple of minutes afterwards, then Jim Bentley made a change, with an attacker replacing one of his wing-backs and went to 4-4-2.
That negated our change completely, and our midfield was never the same again in the match and Morecambe were able to press us backwards.
Dunn, who was not the same player after picking up a heavy knock and might have been taken off, and Omari became isolated as the link-man, Williams, was off the field.
Hanks looked lost, and seemed to be unsure of what role he was being asked to play. It was a muddled change, and disappointing to see us concede the initiative so freely.
Morecambe saw much more of the ball and posed a big threat. We started to give away far too many fouls around the box, and it was fortunate that Morecambe's long-range shooting was pretty terrible.
The first penalty was nailed on, and it was great save from Carson and an unbelievable miss from the rebound. At this point, you could have been forgiven that it was going to be our night.
Even more so when Carson made that save from Paul Mullin's header before the second penalty - one of those which is given these days even though the handball is not deliberate, as I was always taught it should be. Ho hum.
In it went, and to be fair it was just desserts for Morecambe, and over the 90 a draw was about right, disappointing though it was as this was a game I, and many others I am sure, had looked at as one we needed to win.
However, I was as encouraged by the first hour as I was frustrated by the last 30 minutes.
In the hour, we had energy, and some zip about us. We looked defensively happier with Taylor back, moved the ball quicker in midfield and had some pace in the final third.
But we needed that bit more ruthlessness. At least one of the Dunn clearance off the line, Williams chance and the Dunn and Omari efforts that were saved should have gone in.
We got into some good wide areas at times, but the crossing, as ever, was poor from the full-backs.
We were hoisting high crosses in for three small men - just senseless. We needed to drill balls across for them as the crosses were either gobbled up by the goalkeeper or easily cleared.
Consider also the more senior players who were not in the side through non-selection or injury, or on the bench - Richards, Andy Haworth, Paul Black, Asa Hall, Steve Elliott, Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell.
That represents a large chunk of the wage budget not in the starting 11, and so it's not easy to work out why Buckle is frustrated at the lack of flexibility with regards to bringing players in.
Three of those players were injured, and four left out (one on the bench), with Black now having left the club, and, in a disappointing move for the conspiracy theorists, he doesn't appear to have fallen out with anyone, including the manager.
In fact, he was waived a chunk of money to help the club out, and the manager has been been helping him to find a new club in the USA. All very amicable, and a decent gesture from Black to help the club out.
Brought in as competition for Braham-Barrett at left-back, he only started four games, two in central midfield against Dagenham and Burton and two on the left of a back three, against Swindon and at Stevenage, where he had a very difficult afternoon. He also came on in the JPT win over Oxford.
He never got to play as a left-back, his best position, mainly as Braham-Barrett had a good start to the season - but after the way CBB had played last season, having not displaced him at the start of the season I suspect he was never really going to.
Now James Bowen, who came on on Friday after CBB had a tight hamstring late on, will be the back-up in that position.
It remains to be seen how much, if any, that helps Buckle out with regards to bringing anyone in, but we can hope.
After the result on Friday, it was time to sit back and see what the others could do, and how much trouble we would find ourselves in by Saturday evening.
The answer is a bit more than we were, as the gap is now down to three points - the narrowest it has been up to now, after wins for Carlisle and Tranmere (who seem to be the side in form among the bottom bunch).
Oxford, York, Dagenham and Mansfield all lost, as did Hartlepool, but now, even though there are teams between us in 18th and Dagenham in 23rd, we are now within one set of unfavourable results of dropping in there.
I think we have improved under Buckle, but the bottom line is that we need to start winning games, and fast.
We could have won this one but the substitution he made played a big part in why we didn't, so now we go on to a tough one with Luton before a vital trip to Dagenham.

Stats watch
Buckle's first eight league games have yielded seven points, with one win, four draws and three defeats, and we have scored six goals and conceded nine - one goal in seven of the games and two at Hartlepool.
It is clear that we have become more solid, as we let in 20 goals in Yates' last eight games - but we scored nine goals in those games, and also managed to take seven points, with two wins, a draw and five losses.
But how does Buckle's record over his first eight league games compare to previous Cheltenham managers in the Football League?
Yates, record in his first eight games after taking over from Martin Allen is ridiculously similar to Buckle's, and he took over in a very similar situation - a low-quality squad of senior players, low on confidence and on a poor run of results.
In fact, the only thing different between their records over eight games is that Yates' side scored one less goal - five - in his games, with a win, four draws and three defeats, letting in nine goals like Buckle, also for a return of seven points.
In between Yates and Allen, John Schofield managed us for nine games, he also won one, drew three and lost five for a return of six points - his win being 5-1 against Barnet.
Allen's performance as manager overall was not a success, but he is the only boss to win his first game in charge - that 2-1 success over Bristol Rovers.
After replacing Keith Downing, his first eight games overall yielded eight points - two wins, two draws and four defeats and there were 31 goals in those games, 13 for and 18 against with no clean sheets.
Downing, like Yates and Buckle, had one win, four draws and three defeats in his opening eight games, with eight goals scored and 13 conceded with one clean sheet - coming in his eighth game which was his only win... the unforgettable 1-0 success against Leeds.
John Ward lost his opener, 3-1 at Torquay, but he started with a return of nine points from eight games, two wins, three draws and three losses, with eight goals scored and 11 conceded.
Before Ward came Bobby Gould, who started off with two goalless draws before we beat Tranmere 3-1 for his only win in his opening eight games.
That was the only one, as he, like Buckle, Yates and Downing, has a 1-4-3 record to kick off with, with nine goals scored and 13 conceded.
Gould had replaced Graham Allner, who had a torrid start to life in charge with only three draws from his first eight games, and five defeats as we took on the League One challenge for the first time.
We scored six goals and let in 12, with his first win actually coming in game nine, when we beat Swindon 2-0 - although we did win 3-0 at Norwich in the League Cup, but this little study is all about league games.
Last - but no means least of course - we have Mr Cotterill. He lost his first two games in charge, which no manager has done since, against Sittingbourne and King's Lynn, but won the next three. His first eight brought four wins, a draw and three losses for 12 points, scoring 12 and letting in nine.
But this study is about the Football League - and there we took nine points from his (and the club's) opening league games, with three wins and five defeats. His 'goals for' tally of four is the lowest of any CTFC manager for their first eight FL games, and we conceded seven, which is fewer than anyone else.
His nine points from the first eight league games (that's 24 points remember...) is the joint best, with Ward. Then comes Allen with eight, while Buckle, Yates, Downing and Gould all got seven (with identical win-lose-draw records) and Allner three.
I think these statistics show that a change of manager is never the sign for a quick upturn in results, and therefore I do feel that some fans (especially those giving him a pathetic and very childish nickname on the forum) have expected too much too soon.
Even more so, that he has no real scope to make the changes he wants to, with all due respect to the loan lads I think he had more experience and some permanent arrivals in mind.
Clubs usually change their managers because they are not winning enough games - we have done that virtually every time (bar the Ward-Downing switch, and Cotterill-Allner) and the stats above show that is very rarely been a quick fix, more a long-term thing which takes time to settle down - and even then it has had varying degrees of success further down the line.
There is no guarantee, but just as we did when we changed Allen for Yates five years ago, we have to hope we get enough points in the remaining games to stay above the line, then maybe Buckle can finally put his stamp on things next summer.


Friday, 16 January 2015

A vicious circle

So we are skint.
There's a shock. In other news, the sky is blue and the grass is green.
But Paul Buckle's comments that the budget is spent and he has blown the cobwebs off the 'we go with that we've got' speech which John Ward put in the cupboard when he left for Carlisle have come as a bit of a surprise.
Particularly after Paul Baker's comments in the wake of the Dover Cup defeat, when he said the squad would be strengthened in January, which were re-iterated earlier this month.
Baker has said that players would have to go out to facilitate arrivals, but now the cupboard is bare - despite the departures of Jason Taylor and Raffa de Vita along with youngster Adam Powell, and the listing of Andy Haworth, Paul Black and Byron Harrison either for loan or a permanent departure.
Buckle tried to bring in Billy Kee, but pulled out of the deal - presumably a financial decision - and I understand there was another deal he was trying to do which also was out of our reach cost-wise.
Alongside those departures, we have paid off a manager and assistant, and also employed a new manager and assistant, plus a chief scout, so that will presumably have eaten into any spare cash there was.
The chairman did, however, talk about some 'good financial news' in the wake of the Dover loss.
The assumption was that this pointed to some sort of outside investment, maybe from the same mystery person who put in the 500k a few years ago. Maybe this didn't happen? If it was an investment, maybe they changed their minds? Who knows.
To be fair to Buckle, he has been saying all along that the budget was spent. This was not a new comment, so he has known all along that there wasn't going to be a lot of cash to use - hence the attempts to wheel and deal with Taylor and de Vita going.
So in my view, he has kept his part of the bargain. I fail to believe that the three Liverpool loanees are that costly - we are not going to be paying huge amounts in wages, and he must have hoped those two departures gave him a bit more leeway.
But the goalposts appear to have moved elsewhere, with the chairman's mixed messages - having promised some sort of backing to give the manager a chance, Buckle's arms appear to be tied once again.
Naturally, this has prompted a number of theories.
One of them is that Baker has decided he doesn't trust Buckle, so doesn't want to give him any money.
Absolute nonsense.
This is a manager the chairman himself approached - he was virtually headhunted for the job, and persuaded to come from New York to take the job.
Therefore it is inconceivable that a month later, and the club in perilous circumstances, that he would then decide to tie his new manager's hands behind his back and make his job even harder.
That would be gambling recklessly with the club's Football League future - and remember this is a chairman who has always bent over backwards to back his manager.
Sometimes this has worked - the costly loans of Richard Keogh and Steve Brooker did the trick in League One a few years back - but sometimes it hasn't, with the spectre of administration perilously close under Mr Allen's watch.
I find it utterly inconceivable that Baker would not want to back Buckle as much as he could in the situation the club finds itself in, and with the club's Football League status in jeopardy.
We all know relegation would be a disaster and would leave the club in dire straits and the board will do all they can to prevent that happening - but equally the memories of what happened under Allen must be stopping the board taking risks.
The calls are there saying Baker must find the money - the old 'speculate to accumulate' argument.
But the simple fact is that we cannot spend what we have not got. The club has to be run as a business.
Yes it's boring and sensible, but the board are not going to gamble with the club's long-term future.
I, and many others, get very angry when we see clubs splashing money they haven't got, then crying wolf a few months later when they head for administration, then get let off by the FA and Football League, and do the same thing all over again.
We have all seen what has happened down the road at Hereford. That has ended with the club being wound up. Under Graham Turner they ran a tight ship, but the next regime spent money they didn't have.
Here, the simple fact is that the previous manager spent the budget on an unbalanced and pretty low-quality squad, so it has gone.
We are now paying the price for another summer of, on the whole, pretty bad recruitment.
As I have said before, to have only had two recognised senior strikers on permanent contracts was terrible planning and terrible management, and meant he was always relying on short-term fixes.
Koby Arthur worked (and thank goodness it did, or we'd be down with Hartlepool now) but John Marquis did not - and now Buckle has not been helped by injuries either.
We all know about Asa Hall, but with Matt Taylor and Steve Elliott now injured as well means there is a sizeable chunk of your wage budget, and your experience, in the treatment room.
I can only presume that the lack of money is also partly down to wanting to minimise the losses due to lower than expected attendances - and here is the rub.
We are, and have been for a long time now, trapped in a vicious circle.
Poor results, especially at home, leads to a drop-off in attendances.
This leads to less cash flow
This means less money in the manager's budget.
The quality of players drops.
Results get worse.
More fans drift away.
Cash flow continues to fall.
Budget is reduced.
Quality of players drops further.
Results get even worse.
And so it goes on.
Poor results = less fans = less money = poorer team = poorer results = even less fans... etc etc, and that is only going to end in one thing eventually.
That is a very tough circle to break without some new investment, which, going back to the example of Hereford again, is often fraught with dangers.
Money through the gates is a massive part of the club's income as, unlike many other clubs, we don't have the facilities to really maximise our off-field revenue streams like clubs like Morecambe and Burton can.
A new main stand would be fantastic - but if we can't afford a new centre-forward then a new stand is just a pipedream.
With any new investment, we are back to the 'better the devil you know' or 'be careful what you wish for' scenarios.
There are people who think Paul Baker should go, he has had his time, taken the club as far as it can go etc etc - and the boardroom succession when it comes is the biggest decision facing the club, as it will make or break its future.
In any case, I don't exactly see a huge queue of millionaires beating down the door saying 'take my money'...
My feeling is that is a miracle that we have lasted 15 years in League football, and much of that is down to the chairman.
He has spent a lot of his own money - bought players out of his own pocket, and even bought a house which was then knocked down to build the Hazlewoods Stand.
But he has made mistakes as he will freely admit, the Allen appointment, and, as he admitted recently, keeping Yates on after last summer was another one.
He is also very open and transparent - but maybe too much so, and after saying on more than one occasion that there would be tools for the manager to work with in January, the message has now changed.
I feel sorry for Buckle. He knew it was a tough job when he came in, and I am sure he will not be happy about the finances making it even harder - especially if he was told there was scope if he got players out... which he has.
He was working with what he had for six games until January in the hope that then he would be able to put his own mark on it - and I am sure he was hoping to do more than bring in three young lads from Liverpool.
There is no doubt in my mind that (bar Hartlepool) we have improved performance-wise since he has taken over, but he will know now that is results that matter.
I can see what he is trying to do with our style of play.
We need wins and we need points and I don't mind how we get them, even if we play the most horrible, direct style of football imaginable, as long as we get to 50 points by May 2, and are above two teams I don't care.
Buckle's task now reminds me of Yates' when he came in in 2009 to replace Allen and also had nothing at all to work with.
That squad was the worst we have had in the Football League and Yatesy just about kept us up, so now we have to hope history will repeat itself.


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Blown off course

IT was the supreme irony that the game at Hartlepool on Saturday ended with players squaring up to each other in one of those pathetic displays of posturing you get far too often in football these days.
It was the only time during a 90 minutes which plumbed the depths of performances this season that our players had shown any willingness to fight.
Up until then, they had shown nothing. No desire for a battle, no appetite to compete against a team who looked as if they wanted to fight for their lives despite their precarious position and terrible run of results.
Spineless, gutless, pathetic - pick your adjective. It was an abject surrender, and while the manager wants to be positive and says he was happy with the work rate he got from his team, I wasn't.
Neither were the 177 behind the goal who spent 15 hours of their Saturday on the motorways to get there.
The manager was right about two things though.
There are no leaders in our team, no-one who wants to take any responsibility. No one to shake up the rest of his team-mates and say 'come on, we're going to do something about this.' They are all happy to leave it to someone else.
That has to come from the senior players. Matt Richards, Troy Brown, Trevor Carson, Lee Vaughan, Craig Braham-Barrett,Terry Gornell - they are the senior players in the 11 which started. They have to set the example to the rest of them. None of them did.
The other thing he got right was about the conditions. Hartlepool adapted to them, we didn't.
This comment was interpreted by some as Buckle 'blaming the wind' for us losing the game. Wrong. He didn't.
He was blaming our players for not having the appetite to go out and play in it, and rolling over far too easily just because it was a bit breezy. He didn't say we lost because it was windy, he said we lost because our players didn't want to or just couldn't adapt to it.
If anything, I think he let them off a bit easily in public after the game. I hope he didn't do the same in private.
Let's start with the goals. The first one was comical.
Vaughan failed to stop the cross, then Lloyd Jones didn't deal with it at the near post. Brown and Carson looked at each other as it made its way through the six-yard box, then Braham-Barrett was dozing at the far post as Scott Fenwick tapped it in.
Then the second came from our corner. Yes, our corner.
It was cleared to the edge of the 18-yard box, and we lost a second ball. No shock there as we haven't won one of those for about 12 years.
Hartlepool broke, then Michael Woods won a 50-50 challenge and set Rakish Bingham away. Braham-Barrett came towards him - then started a retreat Mussolini would have been proud of.
Bingham kept coming, and could not believe his luck at the gaping hole inside Carson's far post and he rolled it in.
Two pathetic goals. Braham-Barrett partly culpable for both in the week he is supposed to have rejected a new contract. Not the most sensible action Craig, as the video of those goals might make sure there isn't another offer forthcoming.
Yes, you have been better this year, but from a pretty low base and if I were you I wouldn't be turning my nose up at too many contracts.
Carson wasn't blameless either. Yes, he has been our best player this season and kept us in many games. That doesn't say a lot for the shower in front of him though, and the cold facts are that he has not kept a clean sheet in the league for 19 games.
All-round, he is a better keeper than Scott Brown in my view - but Browny is now having a great time at the other end of these islands - top of the SPL with Aberdeen with seven successive clean sheets. You are better off out of it Scott!
Bingham's finish was well-taken, and of course has led to the moans that we didn't sign him in the summer.
He was terrible at Bath and Leamington though, and had plenty of time in trainig to impress. Mansfield took a chance, but have bombed him out on loan again despite him being their top scorer - four goals in 25 games... a worse record than Gornell and Byron Harrison have his year.
It wasn't a great surprise that Buckle went with an unchanged team after the Oxford win.
We have seen many times though where the team plays well, gets the vote of confidence and responds with a tame shambles next time out. It shouldn't have been too much of a surprise.
But I would have changed it. It wasn't the game for Omari Sterling-James, and he never got to grips with anything and was pretty anonymous for the second game running.
I'd have played Joe Hanks in a narrow three with Kevin Stewart and Richards and had Ferdinand just ahead of them - the sort of system with finished with at the Kassam. Hindsight...
As soon as I saw Ferdinand lining up on the right the alarm bells were ringing.
Like Omari, he was never in the game. In commentary I barely mentioned him, so with him and Omari not contributing, we were basically playing with nine.
Stewart tried his best, and along with Jones (the first goal aside) these two were probably our best players, but he and Richards never got on top of Woods and Tshibola in the centre of midfield.
It is here were our problems really lie. At this level, that is always the key area. Get on top here and you can control the game and more often than not you will win it.
We have always struggled to find the right formula here. We've never managed to find a trusty and reliable pairing to play two in there, looking more comfortable with three - but then you more often than not have to sacrifice a forward.
Buckle needs to find the solution to that conundrum quickly if he wants to play 4-4-2 - but that will mean he has to drop Richards in my view. Two of Stewart, Ferdinand and Hanks is surely the way to go - hopefully we can add Asa Hall to that shortly, and that's a decent quartet.
With every game, my frustration with Richards grows. On Saturday, he contributed very little.
Paul Buckle said after the game things have been poor for two seasons at the club. Richards is the common denominator as he has been in the side for practically every game in that time, and seems undroppable.
He is constantly slow on the ball and gets caught in possession. Then he lacks the mobility to go and win the ball back. He is weak in the tackle more often than not and his set-piece delivery is terrible on the whole.
Add the leadership thing I mentioned earlier. He is the most experienced player we have and it says a lot for me that he is not the captain with Matt Taylor out.
On that subject, Taylor is a big miss at the back, as is Steve Elliott.
Jones, Brown and Jack Deaman have done their best but they need that experienced help - that calming influence, leadership and know-how. But that's where Carson has to take that over. He has to be the one guiding them.
Up front we offered very little. Jack Dunn had a shot in each half and one disallowed for offside, but that was about it. We didn't look like scoring.
Dunn tried his best but Gornell was as anonymous as OSJ and Ferdinand had been. They were bullied too easily by the centre-halves.
So all the focus was then on whether Harrison would come on. Whether Buckle would 'swallow his pride' - as some have put it - and chisel him out of the ice box. Not that he would have needed chiselling on Saturday.
He did - and in the time he was on field showed just why I think the manager is right to try and move him on.
You would think that a player who had been on the bench for three games while teenagers came on ahead of him would have a bit of fire in his belly. Would want to come on and say 'right pal - I'm going to show you.'
But no. Nothing.
He had absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever and turned in another of his listless, bordering-on-the-uninterested displays, the type of which is not going to persuade Buckle that he is wrong about him.
He was meant to be the focal point for us to try to get back into the game, but he offered nothing. No physicality, no test for the central defenders, no target to hit.
Yes he is our top scorer, and our main goal threat - but I fear that says more about the quality of the rest of the players we have at the club than the attributes of Byron himself.
'He scored a hat-trick against Swindon' I hear you cry. Yes he did, and memorable it was. But the mere fact that we keep harping back to that shows what little he has done in the other 25-odd games we have played this season. One good game in 25 is not enough.
I feel for Buckle as he has inherited a squad which is nowhere near good enough, and he doesn't have the resources to do what is needed with it - ie ship half of them out and replace them.
He has try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and try to find a way to get six more wins between now and May, or we are gone. It's as stark as that.
Buckle is trying to wheel and deal, but he has been left with, on the whole, a very poor group of senior players (it is unfair to group the youngsters in here) and even if he made them all available I'm not betting there wouldn't be many takers.
So now we are basically relying on two teams being worse than us in the next 21 games, so let's have a look down there and try and clutch manically at some straws.
There are six teams below us, and even after that win on Saturday Hartlepool still face a battle. They are 11 points behind us, so need to win four more games than we do to overtake us.
Tranmere, now under Micky Adams, haven't really had an uplift in form, and neither have Carlisle under Keith Curle, and they have been hit by off-field issues with six players being fined and he wants to bomb another few out as well.
Dagenham have been very up and down, but are the only team in the bottom seven not to have changed their manager and that trust and stability may work in their favour. Our game there on the 31st is a big one.
Mansfield weren't impressive against us, but Adam Murray has brought in five players, many with experience including our target Billy Kee so he'll be hoping they gel quickly.
York are another team whose managerial change hasn't maybe had the impact they'd have wanted, and they are more or less in the same boat as us.
Add the three above us, Northampton, Portsmouth and Oxford, and it's a mini-league of 10 in which we need to finish seventh or higher, unless someone higher up drops like a stone.
The quest for those points and the first of those six wins we need starts with Friday's game against Morecambe, then we host Luton the Saturday afterwards.
There has been much doom and gloom about the predicted attendances for those two games, but to be honest I am not bothered about how many turn up - it's all about points now.
We need results now, and I don't care how we get them.
But on the subject of fans, they were short-changed again. Another long trip in hope and expectation left crumbled into dust as they were let down by their team.
Again after the game, we saw complaints that they weren't acknowledged by players or management, and some calls for fans' travel to be re-imbursed and for an official club apology.
I saw all the players acknowledge the fans before the game, during the warm-up. After the game I was watching the melee to see if anyone was yellow or red carded so didn't see what happened after that. To be fair however, practically all of the players were involved in that as the game ended.
After a 2-0 defeat in such weak circumstances, I am not altogether surprised if they didn't want to face up to the fans, having not wanted to face up to Hartlepool either, while I am sure Buckle's first thought would have been to get into the dressing room ready to tear a strip off them.
I have tremendous respect for everyone who follows the team away from home. We all want to team to succeed and they spend their hard-earned cash on the team.
It is expensive and time-consuming. If I wasn't commentating, I would be there with you as I was for many years before moving to the press box.
But travelling to any away game is your own personal choice, and you have to go into it with your eyes open. The risk you take every time you get on that bus, train or into the car is that the team will not perform. Yes, there are days like Bury, Tranmere and Cambridge but there are also more than your fair share of Hartlepools.
Paul Baker or Paul Buckle is not in the car park holding a gun to your head, and you know that a trip to Hartlepool is going to mean an 15-16 hour day and you are running the risk that there might be nothing at the end of it. I have done enough trips like that myself (the 5-0 at Runcorn still leaves scars).
I can understand the club doing the odd gesture for fans who have travelled like they did after the 8-1 at Crewe, but they cannot be expected to do it every time the team put in a disappointing performance on the road (they'd be bankrupt...).
I think the players and management should always try to acknowledge the fans who have travelled. But sometimes I think we have to accept that the circumstances of the match might mean it doesn't happen. Not saying that's right, but it will happen from time to time.
The fact that it happened away at Hartlepool after a limp defeat so far from home does, however, make it worse and I think the players and management do have a duty to fully appreciate what these fans sacrifice to follow them.
All in all, on and off the field it was a day to forget - but lessons must be learned from it or the consequences could be dire.


Sunday, 4 January 2015

Calm down, calm down...

For the past six games, Cheltenham Town fans have had three words ringing in their heads non-stop - January transfer window.
That mantra has been repeated ad nauseum in the hope that it would miraculously rescue our season as Paul Buckle would be able to weave some magic.
He didn't waste his time with Jason Taylor being shipped off to Northampton with three Liverpool youngsters coming down to bolster our ranks.
On the subject of Taylor, I am not sad to see him go. He had a few good games for us, especially at the start of this season, but not enough to justify the very decent wage I am told he was on, and to be transfer-listed by two managers, including the one who signed him, says it all really.
The signing of the three Liverpool lads was definitely a gamble. All three have been doing well in their under 21 side but that is very different to the hurly-burly of League Two.
And it is more loan signings. Not all fans, myself included, are entirely happy with that due to the short-term nature and detrimental effect on our own young players.
Much of my own unhappiness about that has been down to the quality of the player coming in. Players like Kemar Roofe, Jake Taylor, Lee Lucas and the easily forgettable Billy Daniels in my view did nothing that Harry Williams or Joe Hanks could not have done at the time.
The likes of Jack Butland and Luke Garbutt had that little bit of extra quality which we didn't have at the time - and that is what Paul Buckle would have been hoping for when he asked Liverpool's Academy director Alex Inglethorpe for Lloyd Jones, Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart.
The other difference now is that I feel Buckle trusts our own young players more than Mark Yates did and will be using them alongside this trio - not to replace them.
I know that Williams, Zack Kotwica and Jack Deaman were dropped to the bench yesterday, but I am talking long-term.
He has just given Kotwica, Hanks, Williams and Omari Sterling-James new contracts - and I fully expect deals for Deaman, James Bowen and Bobbie Dale to follow, so he isn't going to suddenly sideline them all now having given them a chance recently - they will come in and out of the side as time goes on.
The fact that all three of the loanees come from the same club also makes some sense - they can help each other settle in and are not total strangers on the field either.
It wasn't a total surprise to see them all in the side yesterday. Buckle has identified that the spine of the side needs a bit more energy in it and that's what he got, especially from Dunn and Stewart.
But the side was always going to take some time to settle in, and we struggled in the opening 35 minutes.
Our passing was ragged and we gave the ball away far too easily in the opening stages.
I am sure there were some nerves out there as Jones got himself an early booking and Trevor Carson made an early save while we struggled with the movement from Oxford's front three, especially Danny Hylton when he dropped deeper.
We struggled to create anything with Terry Gornell unable to hold the ball up, while Sterling-James, so lively last Sunday, was totally anonymous.
Oxford were getting in too easily down our flanks, as Matt Richards was looking lost on the left-hand side and he and OSJ were giving little help to the full-backs.
We looked a bit unbalanced as Buckle tried to shoe-horn three central midfielders in Richards, Stewart and Kane Ferdinand into a 4-4-2. It didn't work and he may need to take the bull by the horns and leave one of them out.
As the half wore on, an Oxford goal was definitely on the cards as we were very much second best. It came when Stewart lost the ball high up the field and they broke through us too easily.
The front three worked it well between them for Wes Burns' header, but we had five defenders in the box when the cross came in and the header was won. Not the best defending.
So no clean sheet again - and that will be Paul Buckle's next big aim for Hartlepool next weekend as we made it seven games in a row under his management conceding one goal each.
So we were right behind the eight-ball. Not playing well and deservedly a goal down, and needing to score twice to get that much-needed win... and let's face it scoring twice is not something we have done much.
And then it happened.
After 40 minutes of no attacking threat whatsoever, Lee Vaughan laid the ball up to Dunn on the right side of the box. One left-foot touch, and bang with his right and the ball was past Ryan Clarke before he knew it.
That is what we have been missing. That's why Buckle brought these lads in as Dunn produced something out of nothing. It wasn't even a half-chance.
But it was the spark and it got even better when Stewart got the second a few minutes later from our first corner of the game.
I was about to berate Richards in commentary for playing a short corner but then it came to Stewart and his shot found the corner after a piece of goalkeeping Clarke will not want to see too often.
Yes, it was fortunate. Yes, we went off at half-time wearing masks and sombreros after stealing a 2-1 lead but we have earned that luck in recent weeks when things haven't always gone our way.
The second half saw Buckle change the formation to a 4-3-1-2 / 4-1-3-2, making us much narrower and it worked better, while we were keeping better tabs on their dangerman Hylton.
The disappointing OSJ was rightly taken off with Hanks coming on and that shored us up even more as Hanks played on the right of the three, doing well in the latter stages with his composed passing and breaking up the play.
They had to chase the game, and we were going to chances on the break by using the pace of Dunn to stretch their defence and he came close to a couple more goals, once when he rounded the keeper and once when he fought off two defenders and shot wide.
Defensively, we still looked a bit suspect and my feeling was that we were going to need a third as I wasn't confident we wouldn't keep Oxford out.
But Carson only had one real save to make in the second half, low down from Hylton, and although they had a few corners and put crosses in, most of the time we dealt with them pretty well.
We should have had that third goal, with Dunn's two chances and a fantastic Richards cross we didn't make the most of and a few other promising breaks.
Overall, the second half was a bit too open for my liking.
We played some good stuff after the break, although there were a few little scares. We rode our luck a bit throughout, but who cares - the final whistle was a welcome sound and we'll take the points thanks.
It was great to see nearly 500 make the trip and for most of the second half they were all I could hear in the Kassam. Their noise and passion may have been questioned in some quarters but it was in full evidence here.
The Oxford fans spent most of the time in the second half booing their side and calling for a penalty every time the ball went anywhere near our goal. They must be one of the most fickle set of fans in League Two - get on top of their side, and they don't take long to turn.
The arrival of the three Liverpool lads and the recent introduction of a few of our youngsters at the expense of under-achieving seniors seems to have brought about a new sense of enthusiasm among some fans who seemed to be losing heart.
I sensed it this week on social media in the run up to the game with the new arrivals persuading a few more to make the trip, and the result has justified their decision. Right lads, Hartlepool next week...?
The players and management acknowledged them before the game and it was good to see them do the same afterwards. We need to all pull in the same direction, after all.
Buckle will know that the performance wasn't perfect. He needs to look at the balance of midfield, and as I mentioned earlier might need to take a tough decision about leaving someone out of the side.
Of the three central midfielders, Richards was the poorest, while up front Gornell struggled to make a real impact and OSJ was nowhere near the same threat as he had been against Newport.
And then there is Byron. He was on the bench again, and that's where he stayed with Williams being used as the late replacement for Gornell - the third game running now that a teenager has been preferred to him when changes are made.
No mixed messages here. Surely if someone came along with a £10-15,000 bid or asked if they could negotiate some kind of swap deal then it would be seriously looked at.
The odds on Byron still being here on February 2 when the window shots must be narrowing by the day.
The three Liverpool lads got better as the game went on.
Jones started nervously, and got himself an early booking before going in for a couple of rash-looking challenges and not staying on his feet - but luckily Keith Hill had lost his cards by that point.
Like the rest of our back four, the movement of Hylton, Burns and Jamie Roberts caused him problems, but he looked more confident after the break and won some key headers.
Stewart recovered well after his loss of possession led to the Oxford goal. He said after the game that he has only been playing in central midfield for a matter of weeks having been a full-back for most of his career.
But he showed decent energy and got stuck in better than the more senior players around him as well as hitting the winning goal - so not a bad debut overall.
Dunn was the pick of the three. Again it was a slow start for him as we struggled to get the ball up front to any effect in the first half, but when he did get the ball, there was only one thing on his mind.
He was always looking to spin off his defender and use his pace and touch to create a chance, and that's what brought him his brilliantly-taken goal.
He seems to have that ability to create a goal out of nothing, and turn those half-chances we haven't been taking into goals, as he showed yesterday.
At Liverpool, he has had coaching from Robbie Fowler and learned from Michael Owen, while training with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. It would be difficult not to learn something from that lot.
That goal was the moment of the match and could turn out to be the spark we were looking for.
Alex Ferguson had his 'Mark Robins moment' at Nottingham Forest, and time will tell in the next few weeks or months whether this was Paul Buckle's 'Jack Dunn moment'.
Unlike Ferguson, Buckle's job wasn't in jeopardy as the guy has only just got here, but he definitely needed the win to finally lift off his Cheltenham career.
The victory was the reward for performances which have been getting better as the weeks have gone on, and there is no doubt that the work-rate is much improved.
The attitude in the second half was superb, with players showing good fitness and the desire to chase down lost causes to the end and scrap for every ball.
That's what we need to see every game in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully this will be the lift-off and that we can back it up with another good display in an important game at Hartlepool next week.
Buckle took a gamble on these three youngsters and has got an instant dividend from it, but I don't think the wheeling and dealing is over yet.
I still think we need another forward - more of a hold-up target man for Dunn, Gornell, Williams or Dale to play off - and if we are sticking with 4-4-2 we either need to use Zack or Andy Haworth down one side with OSJ on the other, or go and look for another wide man.
My understanding is that we were close to getting a left-sided player in before this weekend but the deal wasn't done, so clearly that is an area he wants to look at.
No-one is kidding themselves that this was the perfect performance and that we are the finished product, but it was a much-needed win, and a shot in the arm for everyone of a CTFC persuasion.
Now we need to build on it. We are not out of the woods yet of course after one win, but I believe the signs are there that we can climb the table.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A month of destiny

AND so it can begin - the January transfer window of 2015, possibly the most important four weeks we have faced in our Football League existence.
By the time the final whistle goes at Dagenham on January 31, it is anyone's guess what our team will look like, but we can probably guess a few names which won't be in it.
We know Jason Taylor is one - even with five players out injured, the manager preferred to give a squad number and seat on the bench to second-year scholar Danny Reynolds on Sunday.
And another of them will surely be Byron Harrison. Since he came here in the 2013 transfer window, he has divided opinion as much as many other players before and since.
He scored one goal in the half-season after he arrived, then 15 last season and has seven this, so in a team which hasn't been prolific at all, he has carried the main goal threat.
Yet at Exeter on Friday with us chasing the game at 1-0 down, 18-year-old Harry Williams was sent on. On Sunday, in the same situation, another 18-year-old, Bobbie Dale, got the nod.
Those decisions were explained away by talk of work ethic, and the youngsters deserving their places on merit by their performances in training.
Basically, the manager has decided he is lazy, and it seems that it will take something akin to an earthquake for him to put Harrison on the field.
Six months ago Byron swept the board at the player of the year awards - yet I am sure his detractors in the stands and on the terraces will be saying 'at last.'
However I suspect even his harshest critics were calling for Harrison's introduction on Sunday. I am not, by and large, a critic of his but I was among them - but Paul Buckle will clearly not be moved, and that surely sounds the death knell for Byron at this club.
It's a brave decision - the manager of a team without a league win for two months, with only two senior recognised strikers leaving its leading scorer on the bench two games running when they need a goal.
It might have been designed to give Byron a kick up the backside, but I don't think Byron is the kind of character to respond to that.
He needs to be loved, have an arm put round his shoulder, and Buckle isn't going to do that. His mind is made up, and that's it.
His teams are based on work ethic, attitude and pulling together. If you aren't going to buy into that then you are gone. No second chances.
Brave, or foolhardy - but it proves once again that Buckle is going to do things his way whether we as fans or the players like it or not, whoever they are - young first year pro or higher-earning senior players - and he will back himself to get it right, and presumably (and hopefully) able to find a better replacement.
His words are confident too - and for the most part I like the way he talks. Straight to the point, always upbeat, always enthusiastic.
Those who criticised Mark Yates for his dour interview demeanour should be pleased. I for one am always interested to hear what he has to say.
While we might not always agree with what he says and does, we have to put our faith in him to do something this month with his wheeling and dealing, and improve the results on the field.
In between the speculation about who will come in and who will go out, we have some big games.
Trips to Oxford, Hartlepool and Dagenham, all in the bottom nine with us, and home games against Morecambe and Luton - a set of games we need to get some points from.
After the game on Sunday, I came away disappointed that we did not get what I felt we deserved, which was at least a point.
I was upbeat about the performance - I felt we had more spark and energy about us than we have for several weeks. Compared to the performances at the end of Yates' reign, I thought we were much better.
But we lost - and that is the bottom line for many, hence the surprising amount of negativity I read after the game. There were many saying it wasn't an improved or encouraging display at all, as we lost the game.
I woke up on Sunday to tweets saying we were going to get 'hammered', 'embarrassed', 'stuffed' and all other similar adjectives, and then since the game I have seen comments that we were terrible, that we'd be better off under Yatesy and that Buckle should go.
Yes, seriously. People are entitled to their own opinions, but some of them have been completely knee-jerk.
I don't think there is any question that the performances have improved since we lost 5-1 at Stevenage and 4-1 to Wycombe in Yates' last two games, and also since Buckle's early games. I felt yesterday was light years better than Dover, for instance.
Improved performances yes, but three 1-1 draws and three 1-0 losses are the bottom line, and I am not kidding myself that we don't need to get wins and clean sheets on the board, as we do.
But I am not panicking about it. Yet.
There is still half a season left to get those wins and clean sheets, and the manager at the very least deserves the breathing space of a transfer window to finally put his mark on the squad... come back to me on January 31 and we'll see where we are then.
We lost on Sunday as we switched off for a few seconds and let Adam Chapman have the space to find Chris Zebroski, who was then allowed to turn too easily and fire in a super shot into the corner - then before and after that we failed to show enough ruthlessness in front of goal to finish the chances we created.
Aside from the goal, I didn't think Trevor Carson had much to do. After the opening 10-15 minutes, Jack Deaman and Troy Brown looked pretty solid to me, coping well with Zebroski and Rene Howe when he came on, while Lee Vaughan had one of his best games for us - both defensively and going forward and Craig Braham-Barrett maintained his consistent form.
In midfield I thought Matt Richards and Kane Ferdinand were good - remember the problems we have had finding a 'two' to play in midfield in recent times - and I felt they kept us on the front foot.
Omari Sterling-James was undoubtedly the star of the show. He was irrepressible - getting the ball, running at people, taking them on and having the confidence to try his luck, and he was unlucky with a couple of efforts, one over the bar and one beaten away by the keeper.
His display shows the benefits of trusting the younger players at the club, something Yatesy never seemed to want to do. OSJ was, along with Koby Arthur, the catalyst of the comeback win at Tranmere, but was then sparsely used until now.
He was so dangerous in the first half that Newport changed their system from 3-5-2 in the first half to 4-4-2 to try and negate his influence - a massive compliment to Omari and to our overall display.
Overall, Newport had six players booked, which was another indicator into how hard they had to battle and what they had to do to stop us - and most of those yellows were for fouls on Omari.
The rest were for fouls on Harry Williams, who in my view got a long-overdue first start of the season and got better and better as the game went on.
He started the game right up front alongside Terry Gornell and didn't find it easy against the physicality of Ismail Yakubu and Darren Jones in the first half.
Yet after the break he dropped off 10-15 yards deeper and I thought he began to have a real impact on the game, drawing fouls and setting up situations for us - and I am convinced he was taken out at the end and we should have had a penalty.
Zack was slightly disappointing as, like at Exeter, I wanted him to take on his full-back more. When he got the ball he looked to either dribble or pass inside instead of trying to commit his man down the outside - I'd like him to be a bit braver.
Gornell was his usual hard-working self. His touch was good, hold-up play usually adequate - but he lacked the ruthlessness in front of goal in hitting the post with one chance in the first minute or two and spurning a decent one-on-one.
I liked our positivity though. We kept going, had good 'legs', good energy and I thought we created as many chances as we have in any game for a while, and considering we had five players out - four injured and one in the ice box - it was a creditable, encouraging performance.
We didn't fold, as might have done on other occasions with the team we had out, and as we have done with a far more experienced line-up. Buckle said post-match we 'will not fold' under him. We'll see about that, but on this occasion we didn't.
I thought we took the game to Newport and they had to work hard to keep us out, resorting to fouls and picking up six bookings in doing so. It wasn't a stroll for them and they needed all their resilience to see it through.
But we still lost, I hear you cry. Yes. I know that. I saw the game too.  Despite that, I am reserving the right to be encouraged by what I have seen, and to feel that the overall display was better than we have seen lately and tells me we are improving.
The decision of Buckle to put the youngsters in was justified and long overdue, especially after the display of Omari, and Williams in the second half, and we finished the game with a front four of three teenagers in Dale, Williams and Kotwica and 21 year old Omari.
The average age of the starting team was 23.5 with only Matt Richards over 30, and he only reached that landmark on Boxing Day - all encouraging for me to see such a young team give it such a good go against a team with only two defeats in 19 games.
But we still lost. Yes, okay. I hear you. And we haven't won yet under Buckle - but I don't understand how people can have been expecting a sudden, and massive improvement from a team with no confidence or belief, which lost 5-1 and 4-1 in successive weeks before he came in, transforming overnight to a free-flowing team banging in the goals for fun.
In the whole of 2004, we have only scored 42 goals in the league, so we are not suddenly going to bang them in for fun, hence why keeping them out is so important.
Surely the progress was always going to be gradual? Surely he had to try to stem the flow of goals as a priority? I know he hasn't had a clean sheet yet on his watch, but six goals conceded in six games is an improvement on nine in two. Even my dodgy maths confirms that.
In my view, we were always limping through until January while Buckle assessed the squad he had inherited, hoping to pick up what points we could, then get an injection of players and form in January when the window is open.
As far as I am concerned, Buckle's job really starts now, as he has six games with his hands more or less tied by having a squad of players which is not his own.
It's like moving into a new house and not feeling it is yours until you have changed the curtains or covered up that horrible brown wallpaper in the hallway - he now has the chance to put his own impression on things in earnest with a coat of magnolia here and there or a nice Venetian blind in the bathroom.
By that Dagenham game on January 31, he won't be able to hide behind the 'squad he inherited'. The decision on Taylor and the almost-certain demise of Harrison along with some others maybe - Andy Haworth? Paul Black? - means that he will be overhauling it so it won't be the squad he inherited by then, it will be the squad he wants and will rely on until May - so no excuses and the improvement will need to have started by then to steer us away from trouble.
We won't have Asa Hall unfortunately, as he needs surgery and will be out for six more weeks. I am one of the rare breed who have seen him play a League game for us - most of the away fans missed it as they got the the Bury game late by which time he had already gone off.
I feel very sorry for him. I am sure there are those out there labelling him a sicknote as if he is enjoying himself spending six months not playing football having joined a new club. It sounds a horrible injury and I am sure he hasn't been having fun sat around watching when he wants to impress first Yates and now Buckle.
On the incoming side, I don't think we will have to wait long for a new arrival - I wouldn't be surprised if there was one new face at least in the squad for Oxford. Buckle doesn't seem like the kind of guy to muck about.
I understand a winger will coming in, and I am hoping for at least one striker and maybe also a central midfielder, depending on whether he wants to keep Kane Ferdinand or not. A centre-back might also have to be considered if Matt Taylor and Steve Elliott are out for a while, but I suspect they'll both be back by the end of January.
Raffa de Vita's departure has cleared some money, and my educated guess would be that Taylor and Harrison are close to the top of our highest earners' list, so more cash for wages freed up if they go.
We are three points away from the bottom two, but I am not worrying yet. The glass is going to remain half full and will be re-assessed on January 31.
2014 was a forgettable year in the history of CTFC, but 2015 needs to start with a bang to make us all breathe a little easier.
We all want this club to thrive, and to stay in the Football League, so we should all wish Paul Buckle the best of luck in the month ahead.
He will, and already has I suspect, made decisions which we don't all agree with, but he is the manager and that isn't going to change for a while so I just think we have to put our trust in him and hope he makes the right decisions.
The consequences if he doesn't are too horrible to contemplate, so let's just hope he gets us moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.