Friday, 22 April 2011

The 12-year rollercoaster

TWELVE years ago tonight, a miracle happened.
Cheltenham Town reached the big time. The Football League.
I watched my first Robins game in 1981 and my first full season was our promotion campaign from the Southern League Midland Division, in 1982-3, where we pipped the mighty Sutton Coldfield Town to the title.
Even a couple of years before promotion happened, it was still a seemingly impossible ambition, a pipedream.
The club had spent 50 years in the Southern League, and had a short spell in the Conference before relegation back again, and, under Lindsay Parsons, had tried and failed constantly to get back to non-League football's top flight.
Then along came Steve Cotterill, and hauled the club up by the bootstraps and shook it into life.
The club was going nowhere under Chris Robinson's management when the board gave the job to Cotterill - a local lad who came through the youth team, then headed off to Burton, Wimbledon and Bournemouth before a knee injury finished his career.
He had been managing Sligo Rovers in Ireland, but came home, and edged out our fiercest rivals Gloucester City   to second place - enough for promotion to the Conference as champions Gresley Rovers' (where are they now...) ground was not good enough.
In our first season back in the Conference, we came second to Halifax, and won the FA Trophy at Wembley, beating Southport 1-0 with Jason Eaton's goal - with 18,000 making the trip to the (then) Twin Towers.
Then, in 1998-99, we went one better, clinching the title on April 22, 1999 with a 3-2 win over Yeovil Town - either Michael Duff or Jamie Victory scoring the winner seven minutes into injury time.
I left the Whaddon Road bar at 6 six o'clock the following morning having interviewed every player, director and the manager (at 3am in the gents' loo...).
Great days, and a great night.
Since then, we have had two promotions, both through the play-offs at Cardiff, with wins over Rushden and Diamonds and Grimsby Town.
The Rushden play-off was Steve's last game - he went to Stoke City, and now, after spells with Sunderland, Leicester, Burnley and Notts County, is firefighting at Portsmouth.
Graham Allner came in and lasted six months in League One, and Bobby Gould finished the job of getting us relegated straight back to League Two.
He went the following October, resigning after a home defeat by Rochdale on my birthday, and John Ward was next in the door.
Ward got us promoted again thanks to Steve Guinan's fluke against Grimsby, and kept us up the following season.
He then cut and run after a 3-0 loss at Port Vale, headed for Carlisle and now has the Cheltenham old-boys club at Colchester, with Steve Gillespie, Ashley Vincent, Brian Wilson and Kay Odejayi among his charges.
His number two Keith Downing took over and strained every sinew to keep us up again thanks to Paul Connor's winner against Doncaster and some (expensive) loan signings.
His last game was a 4-1 defeat at Hartlepool, and I was in an Edinburgh pub when it was announced he had left, and a few hours later was in the same pub when his successor was announced, Martin Allen.
Allen's dad managed the club in the 70s, and he was the fans' overwhelming choice, so nothing could go wrong, could it?
Well, yes actually.
Quite a lot.
We went down that season, and used 51 players, and Mr Allen was gone the following October amid certain allegations, and most Cheltenham fans were glad to see the back of him.
Our former skipper Mark Yates picked up the pieces and kept us up - thanks mainly to the fact that Grimsby and Darlington were totally inept, and also to a 6-5 win at Burton which was just a ridiculous game of football!
Yates had one player under contract for this season - and he didn't last the campaign as Marley Watkins joined Bath City.
Only five of the 18 who played in that 6-5 Burton win were in the squad for the return visit to the Pirelli last weekend - testament to the changes Yates has made.
Up to Christmas, we were in the play-off hunt, but since then we have slipped down the table, and with four games left are seven points above the drop zone.
So what has gone wrong? Bad tactics? Players not bothered? Pitches got heavier? Lack of leadership? Lack of experience? A combination of all of them?
In my view, the side over-achieved in the first half of the season, and things have levelled out since Christmas, and we will finish in just about the right position for the squad we have.
Many of them had not played regular league football before Yatesy brought them in.
For example, Brian Smikle and Martin Riley had been with him at Kidderminster in the Conference, Frankie Artus, Jeff Goulding and Wes Thomas had been fringe players at Bristol City, Bournemouth and Dagenham respectively.
They will come back next season better players for the experience they have gained this term, and it will be up to them to make sure our 13th year as a Football League club is not an unlucky one.