Thursday, 8 November 2012

Not green around the Gills

It's a long trek to Gillingham, and I had one hell of a marathon trip back home, but it was worth it to witness the most complete Cheltenham Town performance of the season.
Pre-match, all of the talk was about Martin Allen, and the dreadful mess he left when he finally departed our club three years ago.
Tuesday showed how well we have recovered - but this was Mark Yates' 150th match in charge, testament to how much of a long-term task it has been to get the club back on its' feet.
It would have been very sweet to have gone down there and got one over on Mr Allen, but he did get the ball kicked into his crown jewels by Jermaine McGlashan, who has now earned hero status.
The reception given to the team by the 109 souls high in the Brian Moore Stand on the final whistle showed that a draw was more than acceptable.
In the first half we were exceptional - shades of our purple patch last season, and possibly our best 45 of this campaign.
We passed it quickly and accurately; broke with pace and incisiveness; closed down in midfield and defended strongly - all that was missing was a goal.
Kaid Mohamed came closest, forcing a good save from Stuart Nelson, Russ Penn had a header saved, Chris Zebroski shot wide, and there were other half-chances.
The second 45 minutes was equally impressive - but for different reasons, as we stood up to Gillingham pressure, soaking it up well and allowing them only two clear-cut chances.
Yatesy was able to pick what, on paper, is currently his strongest 11, with Steve Elliott, Darren Carter, McGlashan and Zebroski all coming back in.
Gillingham have been scoring goals for fun at home - three successive four-goal wins - but this was the first time they have been shut out on their own turf, and the display should give everyone optimism that we can mount that challenge to go one better this season.
That record tells you they are a good side, but so are we - and we showed it as we knocked them off their game in the first half.
They were restricted to one golden chance which Danny Kedwell somehow hit the bar from about four yards after Scott Brown saved from Jack Payne, while we had the chances mentioned above.
I felt our midfield trio of Penn, Carter and Marlon Pack were the key to it - they broke up the play well and Marlon especially looked to spread possession wide and they also supported our breaks.
The best of those saw Mo get through, and we had a three on one but that one was Callum Davies, and he made a superb tackle.
In the second half, Gillingham's midfield got on top with Romain Vincelot especially impressive, and they had the bulk of possession - but Scott Brown had one save to make, a brilliant flying tip-over from Chris Whelpdale.
The introduction of Deon Burton alongside Kedwell made Gillingham more dangerous and he was a threat, heading a good chance just wide of the post.
We didn't create much at all in the second half, but showed resilience and kept our shape superbly, led, as ever, by those two defensive rocks, Elliott and Alan Bennett.
With Captain Marvel Benno in the side alongside Stevie, we are undefeated in 10 games this season, letting in only six goals and keeping six clean sheets. Some record.
Nothing against Keith Lowe - he is unlucky to be left out - but Benno and Steve Elliott must be the best central defensive pairing in League Two. 
They are our best since the legendary Chris Banks and Mark 'Boka' Freeman - and I might even go as far as to argue they are better... Discuss.
They were backed up by the full-backs - Sido was his usual self, marauding forward and having to hare back after losing the ball, slicing the odd clearance, but getting the job done in his unorthodox style, and it was to his credit that Myles Weston was withdrawn early.
And Billy Jones - for some reason criticised by a few fans - had another steady 7 or 8 out of 10 game and, as well as defending stoutly and largely nullifying Gillingham's threat down the right-hand side and - once again - almost setting up a goal with his superb set-piece deliveries.
Up front, Zeb worked really hard, linking well with Jermaine, Mo and the midfield trio and justified his selection ahead of our other three strikers.
He currently looks the best bet to play as the '1' in our 4-2-3-1 system - but that is as much to do with his looking the sharpest and busiest of the three, as it is to do with Darryl Duffy, Jeff Goulding and Shaun Harrad  not hitting their straps.
Goulding came on late on Tuesday and did what was required - looking to hold the ball up and provide an outlet to relieve the pressure.
But our goal threat from the strikers is the one part of the team which is worrying me slightly at the moment.
Harrad has five goals, but has not scored since September 18, Zebroski has scored three times, while Duffy and Goulding have a goal each - so 10 goals in total from our strikers in 19 league and cup games, which is not good enough for a team looking to challenge for automatic promotion.
Mo, Jermaine, Darren, Marlon, Keith, Sido and Steve have also contributed, which is what is needed, but the forwards need to start firing - and I still think we need a 'proper' target man.
But that is for the future. Our display on Tuesday laid a marker down as we went to the side who have been the best in the division for the first third of campaign, stood toe-to-toe with them and showed that we can more than match the best.
They are a good side, with some experienced players and they will be up there this season. On this showing, so will we.