Thursday, 30 June 2011

A deflating summer

Tomorrow, Cheltenham Town's players return to pre-season training. The 10-month slog starts here.
Among them, will be our two new faces, Russ Penn and Kaid Mohamed, our returning new face Marlon Pack and our young tyro Ethan Moore.
In May, we released Dan Lloyd-Weston, Martin Riley, Frankie Artus, JJ Melligan and Jake Lee, while Wes Thomas opted to increase his salary somewhat with a move to Crawley.
Add to that the position of Michael Pook, to all intents and purposes released, and more or less persona non grata, but still pulling in a decent wage given to him by the previous manager.
So that is six (and a half with Pook) players out, and, so far, four players in (one a youth team graduate).
So I think I am justified in calling 2011 a deflating summer. Another one.
It's not quite on a par with John Ward's summer of discontent when Lee Ridley arrived then we scrambled about to sign Andy Lindegaard, but forgive me if I don't get out the bunting.
Every summer the mantra is the same - there will be more players than ever looking for clubs this summer; there will be some real bargains out there; there will some top players up for grabs.
All that may be true - but they all go elsewhere.
They do that every summer as the same depressing pattern is repeated over and over again.
Cheltenham fans raise their hopes that this summer will be different - that the squad will look stronger come the start of pre-season than it did in May - but every summer that wish seems to be dashed.
I know that Mark Yates and Neil Howarth have been working tirelessly this summer talking to players and agents, but the cynic in me would suggest that the main reason Russ Penn signed for us as he has played for Mark before at Kidderminster.
Don't get me wrong though, I am delighted we got him.
My devil's advocate would suggest further that we got Marlon Pack solely because he was on loan with us - had that not happened, let's face it, no way would he have come to us. Same again, he is a great signing though.
But Kaid Mohamed is a gamble - probably a cheap one. A player who, at 26, is desperate for a shot at the Football League. Probably his last chance to make it.
Of course I hope he does well, and hope I end up eating my words, but I see him as a bigger gamble than Wes, as he is three years older and even less experienced at this level.
He might come off as Wes and Justin Richards (goals-wise if not attitude) did for Mark, and as James Constable and Matthew Barnes-Homer did for him at Kidderminster - but then again, he might not.
So here we sit, hours before pre-season, two players down on where we ended the season, and hoping that pre-season will see Mark pull some rabbits out of a hat.
I am sure there will be some triallists at Seasons hoping to catch Mark's eye, and already he has said that we are going to look at a couple of six-month loans - a sign, I am afraid, if we needed to be told, that Cheltenham Town cannot compete with their fellow League Two sides for experienced players.
Earlier this summer, I went through the retained lists and churned out a list of names who I felt represented the sort of players we needed.
There were about 60 or 70 names in that piece, we got one of them, Russ Penn.
Now, I don't know how many others we went for apart from two, Jack Midson, who ended up at AFC Wimbledon, and Ashley Grimes, who was too expensive and went to Rochdale in the league above, so fair enough.
Mark said in the Echo the other day that experience is the key to success in League Two - very true, but we can't afford any of it.
The players we had last season, the likes of Danny Andrew, Keith Lowe, Marlon Pack, Brian Smikle and Jeff Goulding, will come back more experienced - but they have not got five or six full seasons of League football behind them.
In most cases, last season was the first time they have played 30 or 40 games at this level.
Yes, we have Dave Bird, Steve Elliott and Andy Gallinagh, all with more than 100 games behind them.
A lot more in Bird and Elliott's case, but in an ideal world only Elliott would be classed as a first-team regular next season.
Scott Brown still does not have any competition for the goalkeeping spot, which I am sure will delight his legions of fans on the Whaddon Road terraces, we still don't have a partner for Elliott, no one to get down the flank, beat a man and whip in a cross, and no one to help Jeff Goulding stick them away.
It makes me laugh now when I think back to the play-off wins at the Millennium, when fans said we could establish ourselves in League One.
Back then, the board were castigated for not throwing money at it, for not spending big and trying to consolidate us at that level. Some still go back and point to that as the start of the problems.
Even now, I hear fans saying we should be competing with teams like Yeovil, with Rochdale, with Leyton Orient, all of whom have gone up and stayed there.
But when we were there the first time, we had an ageing team, lost our best-ever manager and could not build a new team overnight in our financial state.
The second time, we had to bust a gut for three seasons trying to chase an impossible dream.
John Ward and then Keith Downing performed heroics and ran themselves into the ground trying to keep us up - every week the players had to play at 120 per cent to scramble the points.
In Downing's case, three loans of Alex Russell, Richard Keogh and Steve Brooker (apparently at a combined £2000 a week) did the trick, but Keith was left drained and had nothing left to give the following season, hence our dreadful start.
Then we brought in the previous manager, threw money at him and nearly bankrupted ourselves, which has left us where are now, seemingly struggling to compete with teams like Hereford, Accrington, Barnet and Macclesfield.
So let's not run before we can walk - I'm afraid we have to forget promotion this season, forget the play-offs. 
As of now I would rip your hand off for 22nd - and it takes a lot for me, one of the most optimistic CTFC fans you will find, and frequently criticised for my 'rose-tinted' views, to write that.
I can't remember a League Two which has looked so strong on paper, and where clubs seem to have been pushing the boat out to assemble squads.
We don't have a boat to push out (maybe one of those £3.99 inflatable dinghys you get from the beach) - that is the reality, and that is what Cheltenham fans must wake up to.
What this summer has been is a big reality check to where Cheltenham Town stand in the pecking order of League football.
It has rammed home the message that we are not a big club in Football League terms as some fans bang on that we are. In fact, we are one of the smallest.
There are still fans of other clubs who forget we are even in the League - and once again we have to battle against the odds, as the bookies, for the umpteenth season in a row, have us as favourites for the drop.
I hope against hope we can prove them wrong once again, but I see this season shaping up to be probably the toughest we have had in our Football League adventure.
Good luck to Mark, Neil and the players - please prove me wrong.