Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jermaine makes the Brewers droop

After Tuesday's game with AFC Wimbledon, the two main gripes of the fans were the tactic of playing one striker up front at home, and the absence from the side of our (alleged) record buy Jermaine McGlashan.
Mark Yates responded by rectifying both of those wishes and the response was as comprehensive a 2-0 home victory as you could wish to see.
Yatesy felt that some critics were too harsh after Tuesday, but after taking one point from nine at home, the fans' reaction was borne from frustration of failing to capitalise fully on home games where a win or two in those games could have given us breathing space at the top.
It is maybe more understandable that fans will see it that way when the team then turns in a display like this one, realising the potential that the squad has and leaving fans wondering why the quality of the football we saw today couldn't have been produced in one or two of those previous three games.
'We got two goals, but could have had 10' said Yatesy afterwards and it was hard to disagree with him this time after Jeff Goulding's missed penalty and several more good saves from the Burton keeper Ross Atkins.
I may be facetious to suggest that we had more shots in the 90 minutes today than in the previous three home games put together - but it felt that way. Every time we came forward we looked incisive and dangerous.
McGlashan was undoubtedly the catalyst for that, as he got one left-back dragged off before half-time, his replacement sent off with 16 minutes of coming on, won a penalty, scored a goal, tried to claim the second  and was denied at least three more by the goalkeeper. Not a bad full home debut...
He has been out of the side for two games, and may have had a point to prove, and he certainly did that.
We have seen from him already that he will be an asset for us, but my caution would be that, as with most wingers, we cannot expect him to play like this every game. Someone after the game said to me he will either be a nine out of 10 or a five, and that might be the case.
But let's enjoy this wonderful display. Today was a nine - or even a 10. He was unplayable.
From the moment Marlon Pack's first-minute cross flashed past Jeff and Alan Bennett, we were irrepressible - good passing, neat touches, good movement and link-up in the final third and excellent work-rate and pressing when we lost the ball.
The switch to 4-4-2, which saw the dropping of Kaid Mohamed from the starting line-up for only the second league game this season and Luke Summerfield for the first time since September was a bold move.
It was a shame for Summers - but if one of the midfield three is to be left out, it isn't going to be the League Two player of the year nominee or the man chomping at the bit to face his former club, now is it?
That formation has not exactly been a success for us - we played it in the 4-1 loss at AFC Wimbledon and at home to Plymouth, when we battled through to win late on, and in the opening game at Gillingham.
It meant that we had Kaid's nine league goals, Darryl Duffy's eight and Summers' four (the highest tally of the midfield three) on the bench - but it didn't leave us short of potential firepower.
The major surprise was Josh Low keeping his place after his indifferent display on Tuesday, but on the other hand it was good to see us play two 'orthodox' wide men, and two strikers and the four of them dovetailed together superbly.
The early goal was a great fillip and Jermaine finished it well after good work from Josh, and gave us the confidence to express ourselves and keep Burton on the back foot.
They simply could not cope with us, and put in some dubious challenges which the referee didn't punish quickly enough with cards, until the hapless Patrick Ada's cameo appearance.
Jimmy Spencer hit the woodwork, then came the penalty - maybe a slightly fortuitous decision - but I felt Jeff's penalty was decent and the goalkeeper pulled off a good save.
That set off that nagging worry that we needed the second goal, and Ada's two yellow cards for a pair of ridiculous challenges on Jermaine helped our case.
That was his debut for Burton - he looked so rusty it was ridiculous and was totally rinsed by Jermaine as Danny Blanchett had been before him.
But even then we saw the value of the re-signing of Jack Butland, as, having had very little to do, he pulled off a stunning save to deny Adam Bolder.
We then went up the other end and got that second goal with Sido Jombati getting the final touch although Jermaine wants to claim it, and that was a big relief and allowed everyone to relax a bit.
Atkins in the Burton goal was excellent - he saved at least three times from Jermaine, once from Alan Bennett and made a few other stops as we could have run riot.
Aside from Jermaine, Russ Penn was back to his energetic best against his former club, Marlon was delivering sublime passes and I thought Jeff and Jimmy up front linked up superbly - I have read posts from some fans giving them stick on the Robins Nest, but I thought they both worked hard and gave the Burton centre-halves the runaround all game.
But I feel it would be a good move if we were to bring in, as seems likely, Steve McLean from Yeovil to bolster our forward options - it keeps everyone on their toes and gives us a different option.
He was prolific for Scunthorpe when first he came on loan from Rangers, and has a decent scoring record in the lower divisions, and it is good to see us looking at this calibre of player.
At the other end, the back five were solid and made it three clean sheets in a row, and bar two saves from Jack didn't have much to trouble them.
We know that the back four and goalkeeper has not been the problem at home, with only nine goals conceded in 17 games now - it has been at the other end, and credit to Yatesy for changing the system and finding a formula to make us more dangerous.
It might have been a good time to play Burton, with a few injuries and confidence levels low, but once again these are the sides we have to beat and we looked like a top-three side in a home game for the first time in a while - if I was doing marks out of 10, no one would get less than an eight.
We have opened up a little cushion - four points on third-placed Southend, six on fourth-placed Shrewsbury, and 15 points on eighth-placed Port Vale, so surely, barring a collapse only matched by the England's middle order batsmen of the 1980s, we will finish somewhere in the top seven.
Torquay finished seventh last year with 68 points, only five more than we have now, and I would suggest that 80 points should be the next target, and we see where that takes us.
Yatesy is right when he says all we can do is keep picking up points. Other teams around us have games in hand, and some of those are against each other, starting with Shrewsbury-Crawley on Monday, so points will be dropped along the way.
Northampton are next, and that has to be targeted as a win given their plight near the bottom of the table, followed by the trip to Morecambe before that much-awaited five game block of Swindon, Gillingham, Shrewsbury, Oxford and Southend in 20 days during our mad March.
A week is a long time in politics - and football as well. After going to Dagenham last Saturday on the back of one point from nine, we end this Saturday with seven from nine, and three clean sheets.
How quickly things can turn round.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Stunning save in the second half and another good one at the end of the first. Two dominating takes from crosses as well. Ninth clean sheet for him in 14 games for us.
Sido Jombati - First goal at home and a good weapon coming forward, linking up well with Jermaine McGlashan down the right. Defensively sound as usual.
Luke Garbutt - Good set-pieces again and also had few alarms defensively. Heads off on England under 19 duty after another solid game.
Alan Bennett - Few problems at the back, but made one good clearance. A threat at the other end and denied a goal by a good save.
Steve Elliott - Third clean sheet in three since his return to the side. Surely not a coincidence...
Marlon Pack - Back to his dominating best. Showed his full range of passing and the switch to a two-man midfield didn't faze him.
Russ Penn - Also back to top form as he showed his old club what they are missing. Was clearly up for the game and put in some thunderous tackles.
Jermaine McGlashan - Unplayable. One left back taken off, one sent off. A well-taken goal, claimed another, had another three of four efforts saved, and won a penalty. Can't do much more than that.
Josh Low - Bounced back well from a poor game on Tuesday. Made the goal for Jermaine and also won a 50-50 challenge in the seccond half. On this form, has plenty to offer and needs to show it more often.
Jeff Goulding - Denied from the spot by a good save but followed his good shift on Tuesday with another and looked a lot happier with Jimmy alongside him.
Jimmy Spencer - Worked very hard and his hold-ups and lay-offs were excellent. Hit the bar and was unlucky not to get on the end of some other half-chances.

Darryl Duffy (for Jeff Goulding 74) - Came on with the game safe but looked a little rusty.
Kaid Mohamed (for Josh Low 74) - Good outlet for us late on as we consolidated the points.
Junior Smikle (for Jermaine McGlashan 86) - Allowed Jermaine to come off to a rapturous standing ovation and will enjoy the win bonus.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Firing blanks at home - again

Coming off the back of a 5-0 cruise against a (let’s face facts) poor Dagenham side, all the indications were that a Pancake Day battering might be in store for AFC Wimbledon.
All the ingredients seemed to be there – confidence was bound to be high, and the start of a run of three home games was a chance to really get ourselves into the promotion mix.
On the flip side, the Dagenham result and Jack Butland’s return served to create a positive buzz around a disappointingly sparsely-populated Theatre of Shattered Dreams.
But it all fell a bit flat, and we were unable to whisk up much in the way of clear-cut chances and were almost left with egg on our faces.
It was an opportunity missed – Wimbledon is another of those sides we should be beating if we want to cement ourselves in the increasingly-competitive top three.
With Shrewsbury and Southend losing, it was a real chance for us, and we never looked like taking it.
To be honest, it was a surprise and a bit of disappointment when Mark’s post-match interview started with the words ‘I’m pleased, I thought we played well’.
Hmm. Sorry, but I can’t agree with that. Or his feeling that it was ‘a good point’, as I don’t feel it was. It was two dropped.
It wasn’t that the players couldn’t give a toss – far from it, the effort seemed to be there but, once again, you have to give credit to Wimbledon for their set-up which once again served to nullify our more creative players.
They were resilient, and deserved their point while we didn’t show enough nous to break them down or exploit their system.
Right from the off, our tempo was too slow, and but for a five-minute burst at the start of the second half we never mounted any concerted pressure or managed to get a head of steam up.
So, have we become too predictable at home?
Two defeats and a draw in a row at HQ, all without scoring a goal and not really looking like doing so, may suggest that has become the case. It is not promotion form.
Here are some stats...
At home, we have scored 19 goals in 16 games this season - only five teams (Burton, Aldershot, Macclesfield, Plymouth and Hereford) have scored less home goals.
Contrast that with away games - we have scored 31 goals in 16 games, and only Southend, with 34, have scored more.
This was the sixth blank at home after Hereford, Crewe, Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers and Torquay.
Contrast that with away games - we failed to score at Gillingham and Aldershot, two of our first three away games. Since then, we have scored in every away game.
We have let in nine goals at home - only Shrewsbury and Swindon have let in less, and they have played two home games less than us.
Mark Yates said after Saturday that the shackles had come off. Last night, they looked like they were firmly back on again.
The player I felt most sorry for was Jeff Goulding. He has been much-maligned in the past but I could not fault his efforts last night.
He chased forlorn balls, won more than his fair share of headers and grappled with the Dons’ two centre-backs, all to no avail.
I suggest a change of after-shave Jeff – as no-one in a ruby shirt seemed to want to get within 20 yards of you.
The problem was summed up perfectly in the first half when Luke Garbutt took a throw to him on the near post, he flicked it on and there was no-one in the box in support, allowing Seb Brown an easy take.
It happened a few times where he went into the channel, or won the flick-on and it was an easy sweep up for the unchallenged Dons centre-halves.
He needed help – and so, the time may have come now for a change of system on Saturday against Burton, whose manager Paul Peschisolido will have left last night without too much to worry him.
Darryl Duffy has been at his best with a man alongside him to feed off. Jeff needed that support man last night, and as we have to set the tone at home, I think we need that change.
Jeff, Darryl and Jimmy Spencer have 25 goals between them – a good return – but we still, I believe and so do many others I have spoken to, need another alternative up top – a bustler, a Steve Brooker or Kayode type, raw pace and power, to be the battering ram that defences do not relish.
We can play two up, and keep the midfield three intact, but one of the ‘wide’ men would have to be sacrificed.
On last night’s evidence that would be Josh Low, who, after returning to good effect on Saturday, returned to his malaise of being unable to string two good games together.
I have no complaint with him being chosen for last night, as after a 5-0 win it is hard to change a winning side, unless you have an England under-21 international waiting in the wings.
Kaid Mohamed was equally anonymous in the second half but had our best (and, let’s face it only) real chance after 88 minutes when he shot across the face of goal.
He has been more effective away from home, scoring 7 of his 9 goals on our travels, and it could be worth trying a 3-5-2 formation with Sido and Luke providing the ‘wing-back’ option, with Benno and Steve Elliott joined by Keith Lowe.
Just a thought -  and we clearly need a new approach at home in the next two games, which become more important after last night’s other results and with Crawley’s games in hand and run of  next three games (v Southend, Shrewsbury and Torquay).
More concerning in my eyes about last night was that Wimbledon did not park the bus as other sides have started to do.
In fact, at times they had three men up, and stretched us wide while flooding the midfield and keeping Marlon, Russ and Luke Summerfield more committed to defensive work than getting on the offensive.
Only when the full-backs got forward or one of Russ or Summers made a run wide did we look remotely dangerous, and that was happening all too little.
It should have happened more often as the Dons’ narrow midfield looked to serve up opportunity for Sido and Luke Garbutt to get some space out wide
No-one seemed to want to get a grip on the game, take it by the scruff of the neck and say ‘I’m going to make something happen.’
The one time it did came just before half-time when Kaid got the ball and ran through, opting to shoot when Josh and Russ had made runs either side of him.
Of course, there were groans – why did he shoot and not pass, someone said to me after the game, and maybe he should have. But at least he had a go and tried to make something happen, and should be lauded for it.
On to the substitutions – and I agree with those who felt Yatesy left it a bit late to change it, and it was right to go 4-4-2.
But I would have left Jeff on for the reasons outlined above, and put Darryl up with him.
But the change which has provoked most debate was the Keith Lowe for Russ Penn change, and that’s not because it meant Junior Smikle didn’t get on.
If I had a pound for everyone who asked me either in person or on Twitter what Jermaine McGlashan has done wrong, I would be quite well off. Nothing, I suggest.
‘Why have we spent all this money on him and left him on the bench for two games’ was the usual question. Pass.
I was surprised when we didn’t see him – Jermaine for Josh Low and Darryl for Summers are the first two changes I would have made if we were to go 4-4-2, and I would have done it after an hour, rather than waited that extra 10 minutes.
If anything, we looked worse, and even more shapeless after those changes that we had for the first 80 minutes, and all in all we were maybe a bit fortunate that, for their endeavour, the Dons were toothless up front.
It is good to see young Mr Butland  back – but very harsh on Scott Brown who kept four clean sheets in 11 games since Jack left.
But I’m afraid, when you get the chance to bring back an England under-21 international who could end the season at Euro 2012 or in a Great Britain kit at the London Olympics, you don’t say no.
Last night, with two crosses and one late take to deal with, Jack could have stayed in Birmingham and still kept a clean sheet, such was the paucity of attacking threat.
Benno and Steve take some credit for that in the way they dealt with Jack Midson, Jason Euell and Christian Jolley, then Byron Harrison late on, as they switched roles, dropping deep and moving wide to keep them on their toes.
So the blessing was that we took a point from the game, but with Burton and Northampton coming up, we need to find that recipe to turn it into three.
We are still second in the league, but Swindon, having gone top with games in hand, and Crawley with their games in hand, despite Tyrone Barnett’s strangely-timed departure following hot on the heels of Matt Tubbs’ sale, still appear in the box seat.
So is it narrowing down to us, Shrewsbury, Southend and Torquay aiming for one place? Maybe, so winning games like last night comes more into focus.
Would Swindon, Shrewsbury, Crawley, Southend or Torquay have dropped two points in a similar game? I doubt it, and therein lies the rub.
We cannot afford to ‘settle for a point’ any more if we don’t want to let these great foundations we have built over the past few months subside into rubble.
We have to capitalise, make these games count, and in so doing put pressure on the sides around us to win those games in hand.
If that means taking a few more risks, then we have to do it. It’s all about points on the board at this stage and we need to be dealing in threes, especially on home soil starting with the next two Saturdays.
Player by player
Jack Butland – Even less to do than Scott Brown had at Dagenham or in the second half against Torquay. Could have gone and stood with the Wymans.
Sido Jombati – Tried to get forward and was effective when he did. Also defended solidly, if somewhat unorthodox on occasions...
Luke Garbutt – A few dodgy moments but also looked to get forward and set-piece delivery good.
Alan Bennett – Commanding against Midson and Euell and rarely beaten in the air or on the ground.
Steve Elliott – Good to see him come through a full game. Won most of his headers and makes us look more solid.
Russ Penn – Pegged back well by Dons’ system and unable to make his usual supporting runs, but usual commitment.
Luke Summerfield – Poorest of the midfield three for me. Also struggled to come to grips with the flooded midfield and was on back foot for most of game.
Marlon Pack – Tried to spread play as much as he could but also hamstrung by Dons’ effective pressing game.
Kaid Mohamed – A few sparks but was largely anonymous after the break, although he had our best chance to win the game late on.
Josh Low – Frustrating beyond belief. At this stage we need battlers and scrappers, and for all his quality on the ball, he doesn’t do that off the ball.
Jeff Goulding – Sympathy for him as he was left so isolated. Chased hard, won headers but efforts went unsupported.
Darryl Duffy (for Josh Low 72) – No clear-cut chances to get a sight of goal and found it tough against the uncompromising centre-halves.
Jimmy Spencer (for Jeff Goulding 72) – Quite a lively cameo. Nearly won it at the end with a header and his dummy set up Kaid’s chance.
Keith Lowe (for Russ Penn 81) – Strange choice of substitution. Slotted in at right back as Sido was pushed forward. Had a half-chance but shot over from a corner.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Motoring to a five-star win

So much for a blip...
Having seen the side backfire a few times in recent games, Mark Yates had a little tinker under the bonnet, and we moved through the gears on to the fast lane to victory.
So, it would appear that, rather than the season being a write-off, it has just stalled a little and hopefully, with a reconditioned Steve Elliott back in the engine room, we will be purring nicely again.
I am sure that the naysayers will brand Dagenham a poor side, which they were on this showing, but, as ever, you can only play what is in front of you and we put in as ruthless an away performance as we have all season.
They will also point to the sending-off of the goalkeeper, but by that time we were already 2-0 up and had missed two or three other decent chances before that incident, so we would have won the game anyway.
Scott Brown had another quiet afternoon, and posed more of a threat to the opposition goal than the Dagenham forwards posed to his all game.
The defence was secure with Elliott's return, although it was the perfect game for him to come back, and Yatesy even had the luxury of taking him off with 15 minutes left as the game was won.
Our midfield got the space to cut them open, and with Kaid and the returning Josh Low doing well on the wings, we were able to attack at will.
Jeff Goulding did well up front but after getting  dead leg he went off and it was good to see Jimmy Spencer come on and get back among the goals.
It was also another sign of just what a good job Mark Yates has done.
Think back to December 2009, when we went to Dagenham for his first away game.
They were flying high, heading for promotion to League One, we were at a low ebb with a new manager picking up the pieces from the previous (now unemployed again) imcumbent of the post.
We won 2-0 with Josh Low outstanding and now, a little over two years on, the roles have been reversed.
It was just about the perfect afternoon as we equalled our best-ever league win - but, more importantly, boosted our goal difference and let the teams around us know that we are not going away that easily.
The bookies had started to lose faith, moving us out to 14-1 or longer for the title, but that's fine - people have been writing us off all season so let them carry on.
We are still in there fighting and yesterday's win is testament to that.
People wanted to see some resilience, some bottle and some ruthlessness, and we showed all that - Dagenham away is the sort of game we need to be winning if we are serious about lasting the pace and being there for the chequered flag in May.
Forget about other teams having games in hand - they have to win them. At this stage it is about getting points on the board.
Crawley have Swindon, Torquay and Shrewsbury to play in the next two weeks, other teams in the top six have to play each other.
Points will be dropped and picked up everywhere - look at Torquay losing to Bradford, that wasn't expected so it's going to be impossible to predict what will happen.
Anyway, back to yesterday - and we just did everything well, good defending, good passing, good link-up, good movement and good finishing.
It would be too simplistic to say that Elliott's return sparked it all off, but it has to be a factor.
He hasn't played since Spurs, and in the six games he has missed we have picked up seven points from 18. Make up your own mind.
That's nothing against Keith Lowe, but with a statistic like that you can see why Mark Yates went looking for some cover for Elliott's role as the dominant centre-half, and it's surely not a coincidence that he comes back with a 5-0 win and a clean sheet.
Hindsight is great, but I suspect with Elliott in the side, Delroy Facey would not have been left at Hereford and Brian Saah would not have had a free header against Torquay last Tuesday, but those things are gone now and we are pleased to have him back.
You could see right from the off that the defensive unit, and Alan Bennett in particular, looked much happier with Steve back in there and as soon as he won the first header of the day the chests seemed to pump out all over the pitch and the confidence level rise.
It grew even higher when Luke Summerfield smashed in the first goal after 20 minutes, and he is making a habit of these goals.
He seems to be able to pick up space 20-25 yards out and hit these efforts so truly, like he did at Rovers and at home to Aldershot, and the keeper had no chance.
Then came Scott Brown's moment as his clearance nearly caught Lewington out and he backpedalled to tip it over the bar.
From the corner, twinkletoes Elliott found the ball at his feet and picked his spot expertly for number two.
Game over basically, and when the keeper got red-carded we could definitely have retired to the bar.
He came out to block Josh Low's run, and having seen it on the TV I am not sure he was outside the box, but the linesman was and off he went.
Medy Elito was sacrificed having touched the ball once in 42 minutes and Dave Hogan, the 'portly' sub keeper, with games this season against Bowers and Pitsea United, Stanway Rovers and Brightlingsea Regent entered the fray.
His first job was to block Luke Garbutt's free kick into Kaid Mohamed's path, and that was 3-0 at half-time.
The second half it was all about the clean sheet, and the goal difference with Jimmy Spencer and an own goal (sorry Mo...) finishing it off - then in the closing stages it all turned a bit nasty and became about leaving without serious injury as the Daggers players lost their heads completely.
How Abu Ogogo stayed on after going straight through Alan Bennett, over the top of the ball, on the halfway line I will never know.
The referee went to his back pocket for the red card at first, then after being surrounded by Daggers players and with the crowd yelling at him, bottled it and kept the player on - tellingly though, John Still took him straight off. After one minute or 90, and at 0-0 or 5-0, it was a red card.
The crowd were a disgrace, calling Benno a cheat - he was lucky not to end up with a broken leg.
With a tighter scoreline and without the goalkeeper's red card earlier, Ogogo would surely have been off - it was a shocker of a 'tackle' and could have seriously injured Benno.
Then Jon Nurse went through the back of Mo on the touchline in front of the main stand, and it was relief to get our team out unscathed - those sorts of challenges have no place in the game.
But don't let that detract from a good team performance, and now we have three home games to try to cement ourselves in the mix before our tough March kicks in.
People say our home form is poor - in fact it matches our away form, but we have lost our last two at Whaddon without scoring so let's hope we have saved some goals for Wimbledon, Burton and Northampton. Nine points would be wonderful, but six or seven not a disaster.
Mark said afterwards he still wants reinforcements, and may have something before Tuesday's game, so we wait and see - however when you can win 5-0 with your record signing and top scorer sat on the bench, do you need them...?

Player by player
Scott Brown - Absolutely nothing to do. Daggers had one shot over the bar in each half. Would have been a great moment had his clearance gone in!
Sido Jombati - Comfortable game defensively but usual busy self going forward.
Luke Garbutt - Set-pieces much better as we scored from two of his corners. Defensively sound.
Steve Elliott - Immense in both boxes. Won every header at the back and took his goal like a striker. Great to have him back.
Alan Bennett - Just pleased he survived intact after a late horror tackle. Happier with Steve back, and also turned up on the right wing at one point.
Marlon Pack - Better game, with his full range of passing on show. Also good that we could take him off with 20 minutes left.
Luke Summerfield - Keeps producing these spectacular goals and that one got us up and running. Usual busy game.
Russ Penn - Our driving force as usual. Close to getting a goal but doesn't seem to be feeling effects from his niggling injury.
Josh Low - Surprise to see him start but did well. Linked up well and gave an option out wide. Shows the value of having a decent squad.
Kaid Mohamed - Another good away performance and up to nine goals now - our leading league scorer, and a constant threat.
Jeff Goulding - Unlucky to have to limp off but I thought he did well. Nearly got a goal and was a good target man.

Jimmy Spencer (for Jeff Goulding 45 mins) - Good to see him back in the goals and what a thumping finish it was.
Junior Smikle (for Marlon Pack 72 mins) - Played a vital role in the 20-minute keep ball session after the fifth goal.
Keith Lowe (for Steve Elliott 76 mins) - Back on the bench but the scoreline enabled Mark to give Steve Elliott a rest. A comfortable last few minutes.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A slump... or just a blip?

When does a blip become a slump?
That must be the most pressing question for Mark Yates after what was a deeply frustrating defeat against  a Torquay side who drew level on points with us, after their fourth successive 1-0 win.
It's now 41 points from 48 for the Gulls, who are doing to sides what we were about a month ago - grinding out those results even when they may not play at their very best.
They were an efficient unit - they held us for half an hour, got a goal from a set-piece, well-worked by them, poorly defended by us, then showed great resilience to keep us at bay as we were camped in their half after the break.
The game could almost have been defined by two headers from Brian Saah - one in the 34th minute, touched in on the line by Ian Morris, and one in stoppage time, under his own bar as Jeff Goulding looked set to nod in our equaliser.
We had more possession, and more corners (12 to 3) and all that was missing was a goal.
It was not a bad performance from us, and certainly did not deserve the ridiculous pockets of booing I heard at the final whistle, or the assertions in some quarters that the wheels have come off and here comes the 'annual slump'.
Everyone was more than happy to be associated with the team back in October, November time, when Southend, Oxford and Bristol Rovers were being out to the sword, so why not stick with them now?
But yes, it is a concern.
It's one win in our last five games, but surely it is better to have a blip when you have 56 points than with 26 on the board? Remember, that was off the back of one defeat in 16...
After 30 games last season, we were 12th, so to be second on goal difference, even after a small run of indifferent results, isn't bad, now is it?
But having got into this position, the task now will be to try to turn it round in the next few games before that mad March is upon us, with games at three of the other sides in the top six.
We go to Dagenham on Saturday, then have three successive home games against AFC Wimbledon, Burton and Northampton.
Our in-form side of pre-Christmas vintage would have approached them full of confidence, but now we need to  re-create that, and Yatesy needs to find that formula to get us back on track.
Defensively, we have just started to concede a few poor goals, the sort we were letting in last season, but which we thought had been eradicated.
Saturday's at Hereford, the last one of the four at Crawley, and tonight - a set-piece, free header and tap-in on the line - all preventable. Goals we probably would not have conceded a month or so ago.
People then will say ok, let's get Jack Butland back, but it's not all down to Browny. He's not the centre back who should head the ball away, the full-back who didn't prevent the cross or the man stood on the post who watched Morris tap the ball in tonight.
Then there was the ball in which was criminally allowed to bounce TWICE in our box before Morris nearly scored at the far post. If he had a right foot, we would have been two down.
No disrespect to Keith Lowe, but Steve Elliott is a miss. The dominant centre-half in our back four, our version of Brian Saah if you like.
In midfield, we seem to have lost that spark, that zest we had before Christmas, which was seeing our passing look so incisive and cut through teams, but now we can't find that killer ball, or for all of our probing we can't break sides down as we were before.
Russ Penn's return tonight was a boost. He was, I thought, our best player with his drive and energy setting the tone, and Marlon Pack and Luke Summerfield just seem to feed off him and look different players when he is around.
On the subject of Pack, yes, he seems to have gone off the boil a bit. But we need to remember, he is only 20 years old.
How many 20 year olds could play consistently well for a 46-game League Two season without having a few 'off' days? Not many, I would suggest and if they did they wouldn't be in League Two for long.
He will be back.
And our three strikers are all struggling to find the net. Darryl Duffy's goal at Crawley was his first since Barnet in mid-December, Jimmy Spencer hasn't scored since Southend and Jeff Goulding's at Macc was his first in the league since Accrington in October.
But the effort is still there. Spencer (who, let me say as I read on a ridiculous Robins Nest post the other day is quite clearly not 'worse than Tom Denton') clearly needs a break in front of goal.
His hold-up play and effort levels are high, but so is his frustration level - although I sympathise with him tonight as I thought the referee gave him nothing as he was wrestled around by Saah and Mark Ellis.
But once he got wound up and frustrated, the referee was going to give him nothing, and so it turned out.
I am also not going to condemn his reaction to being taken off. He was clearly angry with his own performance (and said as much on Twitter afterwards) and I am happy to see him show that frustration after coming off. The guy clearly cares and wants to do well, he is not another loanee just here for the hell of it.
But they are not scoring, and the goals dry up from elsewhere in the side then we have a problem - and it is noticeable in recent games that we have found it harder to create clear-cut chances.
For all of our second-half pressure at Hereford, Adam Bartlett was not really tested, and tonight Bobby Olejnik made a save from Mo, Russ Penn and Jeff Goulding - despite us almost exclusively being in their half.
So have teams worked us out? Maybe, but we just have to be a bit 'cuter' when they come and park the bus - someone in there needs to take a bit more responsibility by trying that long-range shot or killer pass even if sometimes it does go wrong.
We have to try to keep that tempo high, move the ball quicker, stretch the play and use the flanks - things we were doing early in the season but in the last few games we have stopped doing - or been prevented from doing by our opponents.
We tried everything we could for 40 of the 45 second half minutes then ruined it for the last 5 and injury time by panicking - going too direct and narrow, which was meat and drink for their centre-halves.
Mark Yates is still looking for fresh blood, and maybe that's what it needs - a new face or two may give us the impetus to rediscover that spark and keep us in what is now an incredibly tight-knit pack of six at the top of the table.
I would prioritise a forward, someone with pace and power, and a midfielder to take some of the pressure off that first-choice trio of Pack, Penn and Summerfield - but not a centre-half especially as Steve Elliott will be back soon.
As, so we all hope, will the Cheltenham Town of pre-Christmas vintage...

Player by player
Scott Brown - Had his pipe and slippers on in the second half as I don't think he touched the ball and barely had a save to make in the first half either.
Sido Jombati - Tried to get us going forward and was able to do that throughout the second half as Torquay sat back, but didn't always pick the right choice.
Luke Garbutt - Not his best game. Didn't react after the Saah header for the goal and Morris was allowed to poke the ball in as he stood on the post.
Keith Lowe - Better than Saturday as he coped better with Atieno than he had done with Facey, but still not as dominant as Steve Elliott.
Alan Bennett - Not playing as well as he was five or six games ago, but not the only one. Needs to rediscover that form and leadership.
Marlon Pack - Also having a little dip in form, but at his age not a great surprise.
Luke Summerfield - Better than in recent games, and like Marlon seemed happier to have Russ Penn back.
Russ Penn - Surprise to see him playing but good to have him back. Tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck and nearly scored a couple of times.
Kaid Mohamed - Good chance in the second half and tried to get the ball down and run at them but thwarted by the solid yellow wall.
Jimmy Spencer - Frustrating evening. Hold up play was good but got nothing from the officials and cut a disconsolate figure when taken off.
Darryl Duffy - Usual effort but well dealt with by the two imposing centre-backs, as at Hereford. Needs some help up there.

Jermaine McGlashan (for Darryl Duffy 58) - Set Penn up with a chance. Unable to really impose himself on the game however.
Jeff Goulding (for Jimmy Spencer 75) - Thought Jeff out himself about quite well, Denied a goal by a fabulous save and a goalline header.
Junior Smike (for Russ Penn 86) - His arrival saw us go 4-4-2 but also saw us go direct and start to panic. Barely had a touch.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Here we go again...

It's getting to be a common routine now - going to Edgar Street hoping this is going to be the year we finally win there, and come away with a 1-1 draw, muttering 'maybe next year' in a rueful manner.
This is the third year in a row we have come away with that result - but this is the first of the three where I felt that we did not deserve any better.
After the game, Mark Yates said it was a good point - and in some ways it was, after the first half performance, which was ragged, and as bad a 45 minutes as we have put in all season.
It cannot be a coincidence that it came with a change in formation to 4-4-2 - remember we played that in the first half against Plymouth and struggled, we played it at Wimbledon and struggled - and there has to be a worry here that the players we have cannot mould into that formation.
Marlon Pack and Luke Summerfield were bullied out of it in the first half, lacking the physicality to compete with Hereford's three-man midfield, and putting us on the back foot - Russ Penn's competitiveness was sorely missed.
Hereford were direct, and Delroy Facey was a good target man, giving Keith Lowe especially a very torrid time - that game was just made for Steve Elliott.
In a nutshell then, we are badly missing Elliott and Penn. Alan Bennett looks a different player with Elliott alongside him - just more assured and confident.
The skipper has been superb, but has made a few errors recently as he has had to take on the 'lead' role in the central defensive partnership usually assumed by Elliott - Steve is the dominant man, the one who wins the first header nine times out of 10 and without him there, Alan is having to try to take on the role and is uncomfortable with it.
In midfield, Penn is the driving force. He is the one who sets the tone with his energetic runs and strong tackling, and without him there our midfield looks rather limp, I'm afraid.
We know Mark is looking for players - and the top of his list, if Penn and Elliott are out for a while - has to be a dominant centre-half and midfield Russ Penn clone.
Add to that a striker with some power and pace to really ruffle defences up, and Darryl Duffy and Jimmy Spencer, for all their effort and work-rate, don't have the capabilities to do that.
Remember at Bristol Rovers, Duffy had Rickie Lambert alongside him and thrived. That's the sort of player we need.
Basically, the spine of the team needs bolstering.
Elliott we are told will be back in a week or two, while Penn was on the bench but did not come on and did not participate in the post-match running on the pitch with the other substitutes and unused reserves.
This suggests that he is more injured than we have thought, or that Mark and the backroom team are just trying to wrap him in cotton wool. As he was on the bench, I suspect the latter is closer to the truth.
With Russ out, Mark went for 4-4-2. In hindsight, I felt that was the wrong decision and I would have used Junior Smikle in that role as happened at Macclesfield and kept with the same formation.
Mark after the game said he felt that to say we were outbattled in the first half was wrong, but we didn't win enough headers around the pitch. I felt outbattled was the right way to describe it.
Hereford just seemed to want it more, and, as they usually do against us, they raised their game and got the boost of the Facey goal.
It was probably the worst goal we have conceded all season, coming from a hopeful diagonal punt from the left-back and Facey couldn't believe he was left alone to head past a helpless Scott Brown.
Watching the highlights, Lowe and Bennett both seem to commit the cardinal sin of leaving to to each other, then both appeal for a non-existent offside.
Summerfield then kicked one off the line, and maybe the biggest bonus of that first half was that it ended with us only 1-0 down. It could have been worse.
Mark must have had words in the dressing room, and in the second half we were much better.
It was important that we got back into the game quickly as the longer it went at 1-0 the more confident and determined Hereford would become, and it was a great cross from Jermaine McGlashan and a good header from Kaid Mohamed.
Kaid had been moved into what is now known as 'the Penn role' and we looked much better and more comfortable playing that way.
We had territory and pressure in our favour and Kaid had a chance cleared off the line, but as with Hereford in the first half, we didn't test their goalkeeper enough - Adam Bartlett did not have a save to make.
Facey had gone off after an hour and that was a bonus for us and Keith Lowe in particular, and we left our changes late.
I was disappointed to see McGlashan go off as the left-back was on a yellow card and we had also just brought Jeff Goulding - the nearest we have to a target man - on and he then ended up playing on the left wing. Just seemed a bit strange to me.
Tom Barkhuizen's late chance was a let off for us - I expected him to score, but to be honest neither side deserved to win, and a draw was right over the 90 minutes.
I have not read the Nest forum, but did speak to fans afterwards and disappointment was the order of the day, and not to end the hoodoo there was disappointing.
But on the positive side we responded well to a below-par first half performance and came back to get a point against a determined, physical side.
If that game had been at Accrington or Macclesfield, I wonder if the reaction from fans would have been the same as it has been since yesterday - or whether the fact that it was against Hereford makes it more exaggerated.
After all the pre-match nonsense I have seen on the Nest, Facebook and Twitter about us going there to 'smash them', 'hammer the scum' and rubbish like that, maybe some people were left with some egg on their faces and feeling a bit silly. I don't know.
Yes, we want to beat Hereford. I would have loved to see us beat Hereford and lay the jinx at last, but we didn't play well, and I would rather credit Hereford for stopping us in the first half, maybe acknowledge a tactical mistake and admit we didn't deserve any more than we got.
Hereford held Crawley at home, and got a draw at Swindon. Anyone can slip up anywhere.
I certainly won't be blaming the cold weather, the pitch or our defenders having the sun in their eyes. At Crawley, we were beaten by the better side on a pitch that was the same for both sides in weather that was the same for both sides. Same as yesterday.
We have to be able to adapt to conditions and weather. That's what good sides do and for the last 6 months we have shown we are good side.
 A defeat at Crawley and a draw at Hereford does not mean the wheels are falling off. We are still top of the league, with 17 games to go.
Yes, we might not have hit the pre-Christmas heights recently, but we play Torquay at home on Tuesday night, a side who have been flying recently and are now only three points behind us and it would be good to see a decent crowd getting behind the side and being that 12th man.
This is when the team needs the fans.
Swindon play Crawley the same night, so someone will drop points there and Southend go to Gillingham  tomorrow, and it would be nice to see their slide continue to maybe see one of the top six start to slip away.
It's not all about one game. Overall, after 29 games, a one point lead at the top of the table and being 13 points clear of the side in 8th place is more than any Cheltenham fan would have expected in August, isn't it?
Don't panic!

Player by player
Scott Brown - Left exposed for the goal, but didn't have many shots to save, just one by his post in the second half.
Sido Jombati - Steady enough game. Defended well in the first half and looked to get forward in the second, but crosses were disappointing.
Luke Garbutt - Same as Sido really. End product from crosses and free-kicks not as good as it has been recently.
Keith Lowe - All at sea against Facey in the first half, but a bit happier in the second when Facey went off, including one amazing Cruyff turn...
Alan Bennett - Doesn't seem the confident player he was before Christmas without Steve Eliott alongside him.
Marlon Pack - Gone off the boil recently. But remember - he is only 20 years old and is still a great talent. He will be back.
Luke Summerfield - Looks unable to play in a two-man midfield. Seemed to struggle but was in the right place clear off the line.
Jermaine McGlashan - Shame he was taken off as he could have unlocked them. Great cross for goal and work-rate was good throughout.
Kaid Mohamed - Good header for the goal and was the man most likely to win it in his central role. But offered little in the first half.
Darryl Duffy - Struggled to make headway against Townsend and Green. Needs some more power alongside him to help him thrive.
Jimmy Spencer - Anonymous afternoon I'm afraid but did well to help set the goal up. Got frustrated and was easily dealt with by Hereford.

Jeff Goulding (for Darryl Duffy 83) - Tried to get involved, but bizarrely ended up on the left wing.
Junior Smikle (for Jermaine McGlashan 86) - Busy as usual, had half-chance but didn't pull the trigger.
Josh Low (for Jimmy Spencer 90) - Barely touched the ball.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Not dancing on ice...

Sometimes, you just have to hold your hand up, and say 'fair enough, we were beaten by the better side' - and, however unpalatable that may be when Steve Evans manages that side, this was one of those occasions.
It was a strange day - I got to Crawley at 4.30, had some food, got into the ground, set up the radio kit, then overheard the chief steward telling the ground staff that there was a pitch inspection at 6.40pm.
Great. All this way for nothing - and all the work of those Crawley fans who cleared the pitch of snow was all going to be in vain as well.
I stood at the front of the main stand as the referee Graham Scott said game on - and although the second half saw the pitch resemble a skating rink, the game finished, we lost and are no longer top of the league.
I am sure there are some Rubies fans shaking their heads, thinking this is now the end of the world and forecasting a quick plummet down League Two, never to be seen again.
So, for them, and anyone who wants it, some perspective.
That was our first defeat away from home since September.
It was the first time all season we have lost after taking the lead in a game.
It was the first time since Torquay away that we have let a goal in inside the first 20 minutes of a game.
We are still joint top of the table with 18 games left.
The first two Crawley goals were two of the best you will see anywhere, and Jack Butland would not have saved them either - in fact if Jack Butland AND Scott Brown had both been in goal, they wouldn't have saved them.
Luke Garbutt's opener wasn't bad either, and I am sure everyone enjoyed his Adebayor-like dash to the away fans, even if it then did take him a few minutes to recover from it...
So should the game have been played? Probably not, as the side of the pitch near the main stand got trickier as the game wore on, but it was the same for both sides, so, no sour grapes from me - they were better than us, period.
Alan Bennett said he asked the ref about the pitch throughout the second half - so did we let it get into our heads at the detriment of our concentration on the game?
Maybe - but again I will say it, same for both sides and I don't feel the pitch had any effect on the result, they were the better side.
In Tyrone Barnett, Billy Clark and Sanchez Watt, they have three players who patently should not be playing in League Two.
Barnett has been the subject of six, or seven-figure bids depending on what tabloid you read, Watt is one of Arsenal's seemingly endless line of talent who, while he may not get a look-in at the Emirates wouldn't look out of place in the Championship, which is where Clark has just come from.
And it doesn't stop there. Torres was signed for 250k, Bulman has played at Championship level, McFadzean is also wanted by clubs higher up, and in Mills and Davis, they have two of the biggest centre-halves you will ever meet.
So, whatever you, I or Mark Yates thinks about their manager, they are a very good side and will probably fill one of the top three slots come May. Sorry about that, but it's the way it is.
Whether we will be there with them is still a big possibility, and this defeat alone will not stop us getting there or signal an immediate slide.
After the game, Mark Yates said there are irons in the fire with regards to strengthening the squad.
A midfielder seems to be a target. The other irons could be a centre-half, a forward, and yes, the hardy perennial that is Jack Butland, who seems to be the Cheltenham Town version of Coronation Street, so long has the soap opera been going. Not quite going on as long as the Kristian O'Leary saga of a few years back, but it's getting there.
To be honest, it's all getting rather boring.
Yes, he is a very good goalkeeper and would make our squad stronger, but it's all down to Chris Hughton whether we can have him back or not.
So Chris, can you just tell us once and for all if we can have him back?
Just say yes, or no, then everyone can accept it, and we can move on. Thanks.
Anyway. Back to the game.
We started well with Luke's cracker, then Watt and Barnett scored from somewhere in the vicinity of Brighton and we were behind.
15 minutes in, three worldys (copyright, R Milton) and we knew we had a game on our hands. Suddenly it didn't feel like my toes had dropped off.
But Crawley took a grip on the game, and our midfield - the big strength in the amazing four-month run - was our Achilles heel, they seemed to be chasing shadows.
All of a sudden, Luke Summerfield and Marlon Pack looked laboured and tired, Russ Penn seemed not to be fit, Kaid Mohamed couldn't get into the game and Jeff Goulding was ineffective and isolated.
Jermaine McGlashan had set up Luke's goal by chasing a lost cause and nearly conjured an equaliser out of nothing, but we were second best all over the field - even Alan Bennett was being bulled by the beast Barnett.
Clarke was dropping into space where we couldn't pick him up, and Watt was flitting around with Howell and Hunt getting forward at will and it seemed inevitable that a third would come, and it did, just before half-time, and that was the killer blow.
If we had got to half-time at 2-1, we could have regrouped and come out stronger - 3-1 seemed to be too big a mountain and now it was about pride.
Garbutt had a free kick saved, but then Watt added a fourth just after Yates made a triple change.
Smikle, Duffy and Spencer came on, and Goulding and Penn could have no complaints about coming off, but I felt McGlashan could - I would have taken Kaid off, as I felt McGlashan was more likely to produce something.
We went to 4-4-2 and played quite well for the last 20 minutes - it was good to see some grit and determination - all too often we have seen Cheltenham sides fold when they go 3 or 4 down in a game, like at Crewe for example, but not this time.
Darryl Duffy poached a goal and we put some crosses in, but by now the pitch seemed so tricky that it was a bit of  lottery for those last few minutes before the last rites.
Yates and Evans were sent to the stands as a little sideshow - Evans apparently claiming Yatesy and Neil Howarth were trying to get the ref to abandon it, and Yatesy said afterwards he 'fell for the old one-two'.
But we move on to Hereford now and look to get back on track - maybe with some new additions to freshen things up and maybe end our horrendous record at Edgar Street.
Now that really would cheer everyone up.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Let in four goals, but no chance with any of them. First two were brilliant strikes and other two poor defending from those in front of him. Other than that, no saves of note to make.
Sido Jombati - Unable to get forward and had his hands full with Watt and rampaging full back Howell. Not his best game.
Luke Garbutt - Thought he was our best player. Great goal, unlucky to have a free kick saved, and some quality crosses.
Alan Bennett - Barnett gave him his biggest test of the season so far. Gave his all as usual but found it very tough. Picked up a booking.
Keith Lowe - Also found it tough coping with the movement of Clarke and Barnett. Nothing against Keith who always gives it 100 per cent, but we are missing Steve Elliott.
Marlon Pack - Looked tired. Struggled to have any impact on the game, often being dispossessed or giving the ball away. A few neat touches and passes yes, but not enough.
Luke Summerfield - As above. Luke's poorest game for a while. Didn't have his usual energy and looks in need of a rest - after all this is his first long spell of regular football for a while.
Russ Penn - Started well but seemed to fade very quickly and became anonymous by the time he was taken off. Does not look fit to me.
Jermaine McGlashan - Better of the two wide men and I was a bit surprised he was taken off. Had a part in our goal and nearly conjured a second.
Kaid Mohamed - Thought he had a poor game. No real opportunities to get at the Crawley defence and was kept very quiet.
Jeff Goulding - Deserved to keep his place after goal at Macc but was too easily dealt with by Mills and Davis, and became isolated as our midfield could not get up in support.

Junior Smikle (for McGlashan 59) - Usual work rate but didn't really get into the game.
Jimmy Spencer (for Russ Penn 59) - Thought he did well and had a good chance to score but shinned it wide.
Darryl Duffy (for Jeff Goulding 59) - Good to see him back on the scoresheet and looked lively when he came on.