Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mission accomplished - part one

So for the third time in our 13-year Football League existence, we are in the play-offs, and that is something that should be celebrated.
The win over Bradford was made up of a dreadful first half display and a superb second 45 minutes, but to be honest, who cares about that - it's job done and we can look forward to the play-offs now.
Back in August, we would have taken that after a disastrous relegation, and two seasons battling at the bottom end of League Two - 22 wins, eight draws and 15 defeats is easily our best season since John Ward's team won at Cardiff.
But still there is negativity around. Booing at half-time, the crowd chanting 'you don't know what you're doing' to the manager... Seriously? What is that all about?
Fans pay their money, and they can do, sing and shout what they want - and I agree that the first half was very poor indeed, but do these players who have run through brick walls this season deserve to be booed and jeered at? I don't think so.
And what about Yatesy? Does he not deserve a bit more respect for turning us from relegation candidates into promotion contenders? Surely he does.
After the game, all people wanted to talk to me about was the first half, not the superb second, then looking around the net at tweets and other comments, we apparently blew the top 3 on purpose as the chairman wants the money from the play-offs, and apparently it's not worth us going to League One anyway, as we will get hammered every week because Yatesy will get 'found out' at the higher level. Ok, so let's just give up now then...
Half-time booing and chants at the manager are something new and distasteful in my view, which have crept more and more into the game in recent years.
Stoke fans yesterday were booing Aaron Ramsey, seemingly for no other reason than he got his leg horribly broken by one of their players, and Chelsea fans abused Anton Ferdinand because he was allegedly racially abused by their captain.
Of course this wasn't anywhere near as extreme as that, but booing the team you purport to support is always something I will oppose. It seems so counter-productive to me, and I am sure our players knew they had performed badly in the first half yesterday, and I fail to see how a volley of abuse is going to lift them to improve.
It may make the fans feel better as they feel they have had their opinion heard and vented their frustration, but I do not feel it can ever help the team.
A volley from their manager at half-time and the change in formation just before the break after Mo's introduction certainly did the trick however and we were transformed in the second half.
By the way, I even had some tweets and read comments that the booing and the chanting made Yatesy change his system. Come on - do you really think he is that weak a character to let terrace opinion sway him into a decision? I think not.
That substitution was the key for the 'you don't know what you're doing' chants as Mo came on for Russ Penn.
The diamond was not working, and Yatesy wanted to go to 4-4-2.
 I am assuming that the chanters wanted Josh Low to come off, how did they think that change would lead to 4-4-2?
To change the system, Yatesy had to take one of the trio of central midfielders off to play Mo on the left and Josh on the right and give us the correct balance.
He could not leave Penn, Pack and Summers on and play 4-4-2 without one of those three having to play as a right winger.
I could be wrong, and they could have been suggesting that Jermaine McGlashan should have come on for Josh Low, but McGlashan will not work in a diamond, and if we brought him on and went to 4-4-2, then who would have played on the left wing? Yes, one of Penn, Pack and Summers - another square peg...
Right, mini rant over, back to the game.
I am not going to pretend that the the first half was not poor, because it was - and I commend Mark for changing it when he did rather than leaving it until half-time or even later.
It was pedestrian, we lacked any zip or urgency, there was no pace and no width - and but for Scott Brown and the post, we could easily have been three or four goals down and had no complaints about that.
Browny apart, I cannot think of anyone who remotely played well in that opening 45 minutes... in a ruby shirt anyway as Bradford's Nakhi Wells was superb, James Hanson a handful, their centre-halves dealt with Burgess and Spencer easily and their midfield won every first and second ball.
He took his goal well and was denied a hat-trick by two superb Brown saves while only Ricky Ravenhill will know how he found the post before Wells scored.
It was as bad a 45 minutes from us as we have seen at home this season, and Mark gave them a volley at half-time and it must have worked as we levelled within 42 seconds of the re-start.
For the first time in several weeks, we looked like the team we were before Christmas. Crisp passing, carving out chances and playing with confidence.
By the middle of the half, those fans chanting 'you don't know what you're doing' at Yatesy were asking him to give them a wave. How things change in 30 minutes or so - such is the fickle nature of the modern-day football fan.
By that time we were 3-1 up, with Jimmy Spencer curling in his second and Ben Burgess lobbing the third, and it was good to see the front two sharing the goals.
I was delighted for Jimmy, as he has come in for a lot of flak lately. Those goals take him to 10 in the league and 11 in all - a decent return for a teenager in League Two, and I think he has proved to be a successful loan signing.
Yes, he moans a lot and gets frustrated easily - but so do a lot of our fans when things aren't going well, don't they?  As far as I am concerned he can moan and groan all he likes if he is going to score goals as he does it.
There were a few grumbles around when people saw him starting ahead of Darryl Duffy but Jimmy vindicated the selection with his goals, as did Ben Burgess with his lovely lob to seal the deal at 3-1.
I would have no arguments if Yatesy was able to get Jimmy permanently as I think at 19 he has the makings of a decent lower-league striker, and the attitude is part of that.
It's the same question as people had about Wayne Rooney in the past - if you took away the volatility and the petulant streak, would you take something away from his game??
So with Oxford losing and Crewe drawing, that is job done, and the first part of the job - finishing in the top seven - has been accomplished.
It leaves Plymouth as a dead rubber, and gives Yatesy the chance to give a few players a rest and give a chance to some other squad members - for example I am sure Jermaine McGlashan will start, and the likes of Junior Smikle, Harry Hooman, Theo Lewis, Steve MacLean and the current invisible man Jeff Goulding may get a look in.
Having lost our last 6 away games, five without scoring, it would be nice to get some confidence back on the road, but the home form has ended on a high with three wins in a row and nine goals.
A good way to look forward to the first play-off leg in a couple of weeks time, now we just need to know if it will be against Southend, Torquay or Crawley. Whoever it is, we hope to see the second-half side turn up.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Brilliant saves in the first half, especially the one-handed one from Wells. Less busy after the break but had more than earned his money.
Sido Jombati - Two player of the year awards but not on top form. Needs to work on his crossing as it was poor - for some reason he crosses left footed.
Luke Garbutt - Coped better in the second half with wide threat and got forward a bit more effectively.
Alan Bennett - Turned easily by Wells for the goal but a tower in the second half to keep Hanson quiet.
Steve Elliott - Some timely interceptions but also shaky moments. Also a rock in the second half as we turned it around.
Luke Summerfield - Along with Mo, the driving force in our second half. Set up the second goal and made one superb run which could have ended in a goal.
Marlon Pack - Good second-half display as we took control in midfield. Will be a key man for the play-offs.
Russ Penn - Sacrificed for the change in formation, but at least he had a shot in the first half.
Josh Low - Looked lost in the first half but much happier and became a threat in the second. Nearly set up two late goals.
Jimmy Spencer - Anonymous first half, brilliant second with two great finishes and some good hold-up play and touches. Deserved his ovation on coming off.
Ben Burgess - No change from Branston and Oliver in the first half, but bullied them in the second and finished with an exquisite chip - good touch for a big man...

Kaid Mohamed (for Russ Penn, 40 mins) - Made the difference as his arrival gave us balance, and he set up the equaliser 42 seconds after the break.
Keith Lowe (for Josh Low, 90 mins) - Brought on to shore things up and make sure of the win.
Darryl Duffy (for Jimmy Spencer, 90 mins) - Allowed Jimmy to get his standing ovation.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Keeping it below eight...

As I walked up the stairs of Crewe's main stand, the memories of what happened there a year ago came flooding back.
But we are a different animal from that deflated side which surrendered so abjectly to that 8-1 loss, the low point of my 30+ years of CTFC watching.
A win would have been the perfect revenge for that horror show, and we could have got one.
That was especially true after a good first-half performance which was spoilt by a lack of cutting edge and the conceding of a poor goal at a bad time - a minute before half-time.
But we didn't maintain it after the break, mainly because we had to chase the game and fell into the trap of going a bit direct and things ended up becoming a bit disjointed and shapeless at times.
The starting line-up chosen by Yatesy has certainly raised a few eyebrows.
In the build-up to the game, the main question would be whether Sido Jombati would come straight back in after Keith Lowe scored one, made one and took the sponsors' bubbly home last weekend.
As it was, Alan Bennett's tweaked groin ended his ever-present league record and made the decision for him, with Sido back and Keith Lowe moving inside, and we already knew Scott Brown was going to come back in.
The main decisions were further up the field - it was always obvious, I felt, that we would play one up front and when I saw Steve MacLean in the directors' lounge at 2.15 I knew he wasn't involved. Obviously, he didn't look to happy about it either.
I don't think Ben Burgess can play as a lone striker due to him not being as mobile as Jimmy Spencer and Darryl Duffy, and I think Yatesy got it right with Jimmy.
He was excellent in the first half - as good as he has been since Christmas in fact, holding the ball up well, running the channels and occupying their central defenders all the time.
The same can also, I feel, be said for the surprise selection, Junior Smikle. He made some good runs in support, helped Summerfield, Pack and Penn to break up play and keep Crewe's midfield quiet.
Now that won't be what the Jermaine McGlashan fan club want to hear.
Once again, both during and since the game, there has been a lot of conspiracy theories about Mr McGlashan.
The lastest one I have just read on the Nest suggests that he was signed over Yatesy's head to appease the fans and this is the reason he doesn't get in the side as Yatesy doesn't want him. I don't believe that for a moment.
In 18 games since he signed, McGlashan has started nine of them, and come off the bench in another six, not figuring in the other three.
His debut was the 2-0 defeat by Bristol Rovers, and he came on the pitch a minute before Rovers scored their first goal - and his arrival co-incided with our slump in form.
I am not blaming him for that - but I do not feel he has been the qualified success that some others seem to think he has been in his appearances so far.
He did well at Macclesfield when we won there, totally ran the show against Burton and also had a decent game at Swindon I felt - but that is about it for me. 15 appearances, 3 good ones. Is that enough?
He hasn't shown the sort of form he did in the two games against us for Aldershot, and the system we were playing in the first half suited Junior better.
I thought he deserved a start after his decent sub appearances in the previous two games, but the selection did show we were erring on the side of caution.
But we had good shape and discipline in that half, restricting Crewe to one chance, Browny saving from Scott Miller, while Mo hit the post and Spencer had a shot wide.
It wasn't particularly adventurous from us - when we went forward we were not committing many to attack, but we were containing them very well and they hadn't threatened much until they scored.
We should have cleared the ball after Browny had punched away a cross through a crowd of players.
However we lost a 50-50 on the edge of the box, and when the cross came in, our central defenders both got sucked across and David Artell was left all on his own.
That totally undid all the good work from the first half, and meant that Yatesy's team talk was changed and the approach of the side had to change as well.
We saw Ben Burgess come on pretty quickly and the approach became more direct - sometimes too direct, as Ben won a lot of headers but the flick ons were mostly harmless, easily being cleared or going harmlessly out of play.
Our tactical change allowed Crewe's midfield to come into the game for the first time, especially when Russ Penn came off and we went to a 4-4-2.
It also dulled Spencer's effectiveness and Luke Murphy, Ashley Westwood and Byron Moore started to become more effective and up front A-jay Leitch-Smith was causing us problems.
We brought on McGlashan and then later Darryl Duffy, but never got a head of steam up as Crewe were happy to sit on what they had and try to hit us on the counter attack, having a goal ruled out.
Ben had a shot which Steve Phillips saved - about the only time he was tested - and right at the death I thought Darryl had curled one in, but it was wide and that was that.
So it is six away defeats in a row, and five and three-quarter away games without a goal - hardly inspiring statistics when you consider our second leg in the play-off semi-final (should we get there...) will be away...
But at least we kept it below eight.

Player by player
Scott Brown - No chance with goal as he was left exposed. Made a great save in the first half.
Sido Jombati - A quiet return. Seemed a bit subdued as if he was holding back a bit for fear of another red.
Luke Garbutt - Steady game without really standing out.
Keith Lowe - Did well in the centre of defence and won most of his headers.
Steve Elliott - Usual commanding self with vital headers and interceptions. My player of the year.
Junior Smikle - Rare start and did well in the first half, less so in the second and seemed to tire.
Luke Summerfield - Played as the deeper of the three and was effective in keeping Crewe quiet in the first half.
Russ Penn - Busy afternoon keeping Crewe's midfield at bay as we were on top first half and we lost that battle when he came off.
Marlon Pack - Passing radar was off and threat was nullified well by Crewe.
Kaid Mohamed - Odd decent run, especially in the first half, and hit the post but otherwise quiet.
Jimmy Spencer - Excellent first half, back to his best, but suffered when he had to drop deeper after the break.

Ben Burgess (for Russ Penn, 61 minutes) - Won lots of flick ons but they were either mis-directed or not read by team-mates. One good chance which he wasted.
Jermaine McGlashan (for Junior Smikle, 66 mins) - Never got on the ball in the right areas where he could do damage and was mainly having to defend as Crewe counter-attacked.
Darryl Duffy (for Kaid Mohamed, 81 mins) - Busy as ever and had a great chance at the end. If only he had curled it just inside rather than outside the post....

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Never mind the quality, take the points

This was the first time this season we had scored four times in a League Two game at home - but it didn't feel like a 4-1 performance.
After the game my over-riding emotion was one of relief, as we managed to overcome what could have been a banana skin, got past the 70-point barrier having been in the 60s for months and closed in on a top-seven finish.
In the end, this game will probably now be best remembered as Jack Butland's swansong in a Cheltenham Town shirt, as he returned to Birmingham 48 hours later as his loan spell was cut short.
His first spell with us coincided with our fantastic run of form in the Autumn, and when he returned, everyone seemed to expect that form to miraculously return along with Jack, but it didn't happen that way.
His second spell was trickier, both for him and the team as whole.
Despite flashes of brilliance, notably the save from Izale McLeod against Barnet, there were the mistakes at Southend, and overall he hasn't reached the same consistency of performance.
That could be down to the players in front of him also struggling at times, but there is no doubt that he will be a top goalkeeper, and when he wins the first of his England caps and stars in the Premier League, we can be proud that we played a part in his development. Who knows, we may even see him line up this summer for Team GB in the Olympics.
It was interesting that in the Stanley goal was Lee Nicholls, the player we were also linked with before we signed Jack first time around.
He was Jack's understudy at under-19 and under-20 England level, and they seemed poles apart as goalkeepers.
But Jack is not our player, and he has gone, and now it is time to throw our support behind Scott Brown, who did not let us down in the games earlier in the campaign, and he will get the chance to avenge his worst footballing day on Saturday.
With his goalkeeping choice made for him, Mark Yates will only now have one tricky decision to make - does Sido come straight back in...?
Keith Lowe had been steady enough against Barnet, but had a trickier time at Rotherham - then became goalscorer and goalmaker against Stanley.
It is a choice between Keith's steadiness and Sido's pace, Keith's unflappable defending and Sido's claw-like tackling and occasional rash lunge... my gut feeling tells me that Sido will get the nod, possibly for his greater threat in the attacking third - but then Keith was lethal on Saturday!
He was helped by the fact that Stanley's defence looked pretty clueless at set-pieces from the off, and we must have won the first header at just about every corner or free-kick we put into the box.
But it was a good header after great work from Russ Penn and Alan Bennett, and just the early goal we needed to settle any nerves flying around - well I definitely had a few even if no-one else did.
Despite their set-piece hopelessness, I have to give some credit to Accrington, as they did not park the bus, but actually came and tried to have a go at us.
Their manager Paul Cook had made a few changes, giving some young lads a chance and they wanted to impress him, and I did feel the scoreline was a bit harsh on them.
Bobby Grant was excellent and along with Will Hatfield and Bryan Hughes they gave our midfielders something to think about - but we did keep them largely at arms length and restricted them to long-range shots.
Our next aim, after the early goal, was to try to kill the game off, and we did that with a couple of goals in the space of four minutes, Ben Burgess heading the first from a Keith Lowe cross, and then Marlon Pack's free-kick creeping out of Nicholls' grasp.
It was good to see Big Ben get off the mark - a goal has been all that has been missing from his displays in the five games he has had for us.
Two of them were hard work, the away displays at Southend after Sido was sent off, and Rotherham in the wind and rain when we were on the back foot, but we have seen effort, commitment and some good flick-ons and hold-up play which has given us a different dimension when we have needed it.
At home we have had two wins and a draw since he came in, and he is also a course and distance winner in the play-offs - I know he has already inspired the boys by telling them about the feeling of winning at Wembley with Blackpool, so he will be a big asset.
At 3-0 we should have been cruising, but Stanley got one back, and everyone seemed to get jittery for a while for some reason, but we made some changes, with the J-team of Jermaine, Jimmy and Junior coming on, and things calmed down a bit.
However, Jermaine got little sight of the ball, Jimmy tried to fight the centre-half and Junior was all bustling energy, diagonal runs, five-yard passes and closing down.
For the second game running, Junior had a calming influence on us, and although I know he polarises opinion along with so many of our players, but it remains a mystery why he has not been used much over recent weeks.
His cameo roles before Christmas and just after helped us kill off and win several games, but then he disappeared and we hardly saw him in March.
While I am not going to claim his absence was one of the reasons for our mini slump, I feel it would have been worth trying him out in a few of those games, as the formula we had was not working - but that is hindsight now.
I did not have any particular quibbles about the substitutions at the time, but in the few days since the game, I felt it was a chance missed to give Steve MacLean a go up front at the end of the game.
We have seen him for a total of 155 minutes in his loan spell, both times in the hole.
Now, as someone who has played all of his career as a striker, and scored goals, it would have been nice at some point to see him given the chance in his favoured role. Maybe we will in the next three games ...
Anyway, back to those who were out there, and Kaid Mohamed made it 11 league goals with a late tap-in to seal the 4-1 win and he is now joint top league scorer with Darryl, and that is an excellent return for a first full season in League football, and for someone who has not played as an out-and-out striker.
Another Marmite man, but amongst the frustrating blind running up dark alleys, he has produced some great moments this year and some very important goals.
So that was that. At this stage of the season any win is welcome, and it was good to see us back in the goals.
Now for the next test - Crewe away. Just those two words make me shudder at the thought of last season, and the unforgiveably meek slaughter we witnessed on April 2 last year.
Only five of the 17 who rocked up last season and looked good for about two minutes will be present on Saturday - messrs Brown, Elliott, Pack, Goulding and Smikle. The first three are the only ones likely to start.
The other 12 - Bird, Riley, Andrew, Pook, Artus, Thomas, Gallinagh, Green, Melligan, Lewis, Eastham and Lloyd-Weston - now ply their trade in various places between Greece, Grimsby and Gloucester.
That was a harrowing day, and it would be very apt if we could book our play-off place with a win at Gresty Road, and go some way to exorcising that ghost.
It will never go for ever as I am permanently scarred by just how abysmal it was. It should never be forgotten as the lowest of the low - a benchmark for an utterly unacceptable performance by a Cheltenham Town team.
But a win there would put into a nutshell just how the club had turned round in 12 months and 19 days if we can pull it off.
After that game, I had to ask Yatesy live on the radio if he was still the man for the job at CTFC.
He said he was, and I think most will agree this season has proved him right.
Saturday would see objective one completed.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Shame he didn't get a clean sheet on what looks like his final CTFC appearance.
Keith Lowe - Made one and scored one. Perfect way to stake a claim to keep his place. Will it be enough?
Luke Garbutt - Solid enough, and the best set-piece delivery for a while as well.
Alan Bennett - Seems to be getting his confidence back slowly but surely after a rocky few weeks.
Steve Elliott - Once again, won just about every header he went for in both boxes. Immense.
Marlon Pack - Back from suspension, and got a goal, but looked a bit rusty at times.
Luke Summerfield - Not his best game but set up Mo's goal and tried to keep us ticking over.
Russ Penn - Good cross and awareness for Keith Lowe's goal and never stops working.
Kaid Mohamed - 11 goals from wide on the left. Thought this was his best home display for a while.
Ben Burgess - Deserved his goal and he seemed to enjoy it. Height and flicks gave Stanley problems.
Darryl Duffy - Buzzed around Ben and denied by a good save in the second half. Needs a goal.

Jimmy Spencer (for Ben Burgess, 66 mins) - Worked hard as ever, but I would have liked to have seen MacLean.
Jermaine McGlashan (for Russ Penn, 73 mins) - Barely touched the ball, and, despite flashes, for me the jury remains out.
Junior Smikle (for Darryl Duffy 79 mins) - Did well again, calming us down and keeping things nice and simple.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A kick in the teeth

There are not many gloomier places in football than the Don Valley Stadium in the rain.
You are sat in an athletics stadium, miles from the pitch - and when your side musters about two shots and are forced to defend stoically for a lot of the game, it gets no better.
The Rubies (or the Nerazzurri as we were here) did the latter fantastically for precisely 92 minutes and 51 seconds until Ryan Cresswell's header smacked us in the solar plexus, and 71 seconds later it was all over.
Had Jack Butland punched the ball away and not connected with Steve Elliott's head instead, this blog would have read much different. We didn't deserve to win it, but I felt we didn't deserve to lose it.
That is not a criticism of Jack by the way. It was a good header by Cresswell, which Steve Elliott may have prevented but for Jack's fist.
It was just about the only thing Steve didn't get in the way of. Once again, he was magnificent, and Alan Bennett was equally solid as they coped well with Alex Revell. When they weren't there, Jack was.
The problem we had was in front and to the side of them, especially in the first half.
Down the flanks, Lewis Grabban and especially Gareth Evans had the beating of Luke Garbutt and Keith Lowe.
In the centre, Russ Penn and Luke Summerfield were forced back and outnumbered by Jason Taylor, Ben Pringle and Danny Schofield. They could not get out of an area about 20 yards from the edge of our box.
It was here that I felt we missed Marlon Pack, as he might have been able to play the right pass to free the shackles a bit and get the creative players moving.
But, as has happened many times, having two central midfielders and coming up against three caused us problems, and had us on the back foot.
It was a shame as Yatesy had picked an attacking formation, with Jermaine McGlashan, Kaid Mohamed and Jimmy Spencer all supposed to be providing support to Ben Burgess in a 4-2-3-1 line-up.
It didn't work out that way though, as it was all hands to the pump, with Jimmy almost becoming a third midfielder and the wide men helping out the full-backs.
All this rendered Ben a passenger - isolated up front and gave Rotherham licence to push right up almost to the halfway line.
I don't think we got into their box at all in the first half - Rhys Taylor definitely had no saves to make and may have caught a long through ball or hacked away a clearance, but that was about it.
Jack had made two or three good saves, and then there was the penalty.
Benno was penalised for a challenge on Grabban, who was going down the left channel and heading out of play towards the running track.
It was a rash challenge, but a harsh decision - one of those which home sides tend to get - but Grabban's penalty was too close to Jack and he caught it well.
His handling was good. He got down to save a few long-range efforts well given the wet, slippery conditions, and the penalty save gave me hope that our luck was changing a bit.
Following on from Clovis Kamdjo's header against Barnet which rebounded off the post back to Jack on Friday, maybe, just maybe, I thought things were going our way. Not so it seems.
Before we get there, some credit for Mark Yates.
At times this season, he has been criticised over his substitutions, usually the lack of them or the timing of them, but he acted quickly here.
It is almost unheard of for him to make half-time changes, and we could tell one was in the offing as all five subs were not on the pitch passing the ball around in a pointless fashion, getting drenched during the half-time interval.
I could see the idea behind taking the isolated Burgess off and pushing Jimmy into the front role, but it was a surprise to see Junior Smikle coming on.
He has been the invisible man of late, but he was very easy to see in his lime green boots, and he had a very good half.
His only start this year was at Macclesfield, and he did well there in the three-man midfield as we won 3-1, and again he buzzed around well, giving Penn and Summers some assistance and respite, and was a good link between them and Jimmy.
He helped set up our best chance (some might say only chance...) setting up Keith Lowe to cross for Kaid to head wide. As I was watching the game from somewhere near Leeds, it is hard to tell how close the header came.
Josh Low came on for Jermaine, which was a more defensive substitution as Jermaine was unable to affect the game from an attacking point of view - not his fault, but just the way the game panned out for us.
Mark had to decide whether to stick or twist, and he opted for stick, so Josh came on, then he switched Darryl Duffy for Jimmy in the last 10 minutes.
We didn't look like winning it, but I also felt in the second half that we didn't look like losing it - they had few if any clear-cut chances until that header right at the end.
The Smikle change had shored it up and solved our problem, and a point would have been a good return from a tough game in tricky conditions.
We had shown great effort, commitment and backbone, even if the quality and attacking flair was lacking, and would be harsh to apportion blame at the end for the winning goal.
It was a decent corner, but as I mentioned earlier Steve collided with Jack and Cresswell headed in. Gutting.
Steve told us afterwards that he was a bit dazed afterwards, and didn't realise Rotherham had scored until he got up off the floor and saw us kicking off again...
So that was that. 71 seconds away from a decent point, and still being three points ahead of fast-rising Crewe in 8th place. But now we sit only two ahead with that game at Gresty Road looming large.
Our March madness has left us in a battle for the top seven when it could already be done and dusted, but I feel wins at home against Accrington and Bradford will do it whatever the result at Crewe - my feeling is 74 points will get us in the top seven. Time will tell.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Good saves in the first half, and kept the penalty out comfortably. Deserved a clean sheet.
Keith Lowe - Stuck to his task, but struggled with Gareth Evans down his flank especially in the first half.
Luke Garbutt - Same as Keith, and had his hands full with Lewis Grabban.
Alan Bennett - Solid at the back alongside Steve as they dealt well with Alex Revell. Slightly rash challenge for penalty, but still a harsh decision.
Steve Elliott - Commanding - won everything in the air and on the floor bar the one at the end.
Russ Penn - Hard working as usual but unable to influence the game going forward.
Luke Summerfield - Same as Russ, and I think they will be happier when Marlon comes back.
Kaid Mohamed - Had our best chance with a header but no attacking runs of note.
Jermaine McGlashan - Back in the starting line-up but a peripheral figure, restricted mainly to defensive duties.
Jimmy Spencer - Became a third midfielder in the first half and unable to get forward to support Ben, before moving further forward, but again had little joy.
Ben Burgess - Isolated in the first half as we were pressed back, and taken off at half-time.

Junior Smikle (for Ben Burgess, half-time) - Did well in my opinion. Linked between attack and midfield and worked hard to pen Rotherham back as they had done to us in the first half.
Josh Low (for Jermaine McGlashan, 60 mins) - Half an eye on making us more solid with this change, but Josh had our only shot on target...
Darryl Duffy (for Jimmy Spencer, 80 mins) - Worked hard and chased lost causes, but no chances to grab a winner.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Get lost March, hello April...!

Finally, at around 4.37pm yesterday, it happened. Yes, we scored a goal.
As soon as it did, the legend that is Paul Godfrey came into the radio box and wrote '10 hours 2 minutes' on my team sheet - yes folks, that's how long since we last scored before Kaid Mohamed smashed the ball past Dean Brill to lift the clouds over Whaddon Road.
I haven't heard a goal celebrated quite like that for a long time. It just seemed that a massive weight was lifted off everyone's shoulders - players, directors, management team, fans - and us media types as well.
Jimmy Spencer put the gloss on it, which was great for him as he hasn't scored for a while (okay, let's face it, who has...) and with the results elsewhere, suddenly things look much brighter all round.
We now sit sixth, five points ahead of Crewe, having moved above Oxford and within two points of Southend, who have a few bans to contend with for Monday's game. All much rosier now isn't it?
Mark Yates deserves some credit for that win - he started with the diamond, and when that didn't bring about the breakthrough, he found a Plan B with 4-4-2, and all three subs played their part in the goal, Kaid and Jimmy scoring them and Jermaine helping Kaid with his goal with a neat one-two.
But he also deserves credit by sticking with Jack Butland after the Southend shambles.
It would have been easy to have pulled him out of the firing line, and put Scott Brown in, but Mark showed faith in Jack, and it paid off.
Yes, Jack had some luck - the punch in the first half which hit his own player and nearly rebounded past him, and Clovis Kamdjo's header off the post which fell right back to him - but the save from Izale McLeod's header in the second half was from the top drawer.
His handling was immaculate, and he made two other good stops to pass what was a tough test of character for him after last week with flying colours. That's the sign of a top player.
With Sido and Marlon suspended, we knew there would be changes, and Keith Lowe stepped in at right back, doing well I felt after a bit of a dodgy start.
Barnet attacked a lot down our right hand side, with Ricky Holmes and Keith dealt well with him in the main, but we did miss Sido's better options going forward
Keith did have two good headed chances from corners and put a 30-yarder just wide, but with Sido out for three games, Keith will be in for Rotherham and Accrington at least.
Marlon's absence broke up the Three Musketeers in midfield, and we went back to the diamond we used against Oxford, with Summers at the bottom, Russ Penn and Josh Low wider and Steve MacLean at the top behind Ben and Darryl.
That meant no place again in the starting line-up for Jermaine, which was a bit of a surprise - but I don't feel he can play in a diamond, where you need to have half an eye on defensive duties as well as going forward.
In the 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation we have used a lot, it is okay to have a 'luxury' player, which Jermaine is, as you have that extra insurance policy of the two more defensive midfielders.
Just because we paid money for him, it does not guarantee him a place on the pitch. He has to fit into the system we are playing, or you may as well have 10 on the pitch.
Also, with Jermaine on the bench, you can use him as an impact player against tiring defenders - and it was handy to have him and Kaid both there to unleash late on.
I felt the diamond did okay - no more than that. Summers did very well in the Marlon role, keeping it simple and providing some decent through balls, while Russ Penn and Josh Low got up and down well.
Josh polarises opinion, yet I thought he out in a good shift apart from his crossing. On a few occasions he got into excellent positions with players waiting for service, but then hit the first man or picked out the centre half. That's what frustrates people about him.
Steve MacLean also did better than he had against Oxford. I thought he linked up well with Ben and Darryl and had a couple of half-chances to score - one in particular he could have shot but elected to cross.
That was our problem early on. We had several good openings, but seemed to want to either walk the ball in or pass on the responsibility. Not surprising maybe after 10 hours without a goal, but someone just needed to take it by the scruff of the neck and try their luck.
Darryl especially looked a bit tentative when he had an early chance and checked back when he could have hit it, and then Ben put a great chance over.
But the two of them linked up well, Ben winning a lot in the air and showing great touch on a few occasions to set up chances for us, and also setting up the second goal for Jimmy.
After an hour of knocking on the door and surviving a few scares at the other end, Yatesy opted to change it, and on came Jermaine to a huge ovation.
Steve MacLean was sacrificed as we had to go to 4-4-2 to accommodate Jermaine and it gave us better width and we were able to stretch the play much wider across the pitch.
Kaid's arrival with Jimmy for Josh and Darryl were two predictable changes, and you have to say they worked...
The first goal was brilliant, and was all about the Kaid Mohamed we have seen so often this season - think Bristol Rovers away and you have some idea.
From a Barnet corner, he picked the ball up in our half, accelerated past a defender and laid it off to Jermaine who gave it him back and he smashed it into the net.
That takes him to 10 goals for the season, and I am sure he would have settled for that before the season started - after all it is his first 'proper' campaign in league football.
Yes, he is frustrating. Yes, he runs up blind alleys. But when he does something like that, he frightens defences and gets people off their seats. It was a stunning goal.
Jimmy's tidy finish put the seal on it, and he now has nine goals (eight in the league) and I am sure he too will be pleased with that and hoping to hit double figures over the next five games.
So five games to go, and we have 68 points. To make sure of being in the top seven, I think we need to get two more wins, and one on Monday on our last trip (thank goodness) to the Don Valley Stadium would be perfect.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Brilliant display, even more so on the back of Friday's horror show. The save from Izale McLeod's header was stunning.
Keith Lowe - Steady display in Sido's place. Kept it simple and did his job. Could even have scored a couple of times.
Luke Garbutt - Also steady and came forward well too. Nice free kick to help set up the second goal.
Alan Bennett - Good display in support of Steve alongside him. Went for the safety first approach and it paid off.
Steve Elliott - Commanding. Won just about every header and dealt well with McLeod and Ben May in the air.
Luke Summerfield - Thought he did well in Marlon's role. Broke a lot of things up and set up a few of our half-chances.
Russ Penn - Usual self, making good runs and tracking back with some crunching challenges. Should have had a penalty in the first half.
Josh Low - Thought he did OK on his 100th Football League start for CTFC. But his crossing let him down.
Steve MacLean - Linked up well with Darryl and Ben, and had a couple of half-chances. Sacrificed when we went 4-4-2.
Ben Burgess - Excellent display. Won a lot in the air and was a willing worker. Set up the second and missed a good early chance.
Darryl Duffy - Linked well with Ben but looked tentative in front of goal. Also should have won a penalty.

Jermaine McGlashan (for Steve MacLean, 59 mins) - A popular arrival and he did ok, giving us width and it was a nice touch for Mo's goal.
Kaid Mohamed (for Josh Low 70 mins) - Electrifying run and finish for his goal lifted the atmosphere.
Jimmy Spencer (for Darryl Duffy 70 mins) - Glad to see him back on the scoresheet. Did well when he came on.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Surrendering to the Shrimpers

My son Luke is six years old and getting to that age where his interest in football is growing, despite his Mum's best efforts, yet much to my delight.
He has memorised our fixtures for the rest of the season (and what colours our opponents play in), knows where we are in the league table, and so on. Yes, he is definitely my son...
Every Sunday, he asks me the same question. As soon as I go to pick him and his sisters up, he says 'Who won the game, Dad?', accompanied by much excited jumping around.
Most of the season, I have been telling him about wins, or draws, but lately it has not been so good, and today, I had to break the news to him that it finished Southend 4, Cheltenham 0.
Cue one crestfallen six-year-old, yet after a pause for thought, out came the perfect summing up...
'That was a bit rubbish then, wasn't it Dad?'. Get him on the radio instead of that other bloke, I hear you cry.
Difficult to argue with that, isn't it? Maybe I should end the blog there...
But then, after another thought, he added: 'Are they ever going to win again?'.
The million dollar question. To be honest, if he had asked where babies come from it might have been a bit easier to answer.
Mad though it may seem after a run of four and a bit games without a goal and no win in six, I was actually quite confident as I drove to Southend, as they have not been in great form either recently.
The omens should have been there really. I had to divert round an accident at Birdlip, went to wrong way round the M25 (south instead of north), got stuck at the Dartford crossing then missed the turn-off to Southend. I either need to buy an atlas or a sat-nav...
I had no complaints about the team sheet, Kaid has been at his best away from home, and Steve MacLean dropping out, and I expected either a diamond with Russ Penn at the top, or an orthodox 4-4-2.
So I was a bit surprised when we went back to 4-5-1 and had Darryl Duffy on the right hand side, looking for him and Kaid to support Ben Burgess.
I thought it was a little cautious. It seemed that we were going to try and play on the counter attack rather than really have a go at them and carry on from where we left off last weekend, when Darryl and Ben had linked up quite well.
It left Darryl with the job of running the channels, and that is not his job - we brought the target man in as we know Darryl works better with him, then put him out on the right. A strange one for me. As it was, Darryl only had to do the job for 20 minutes.
We had started ok, no more than that, with Ben winning some headers and were just settling down when Sido was sent off. After that, Ben was isolated on his own, and if I am honest I would have taken him off then and left Darryl on.
We probably should have expected something like red card to happen with Trevor Kettle in the middle, but even he had little choice after Sido's poor challenge.
Top player yes,  but Sido has been guilty this season of a few rash challenges, resulting in penalties, free-kicks and heart-in-the-mouth moments.
This challenge was rash, studs up, two-footed (according to the highlights I have seen) and late. He caught Michael Timlin right in front of Mr Kettle and that was that.
Darryl was sacrificed for Keith Lowe, and so we went to 4-4-1. Time for some application, resolve, grit and backbone.
We showed that for about nine minutes until we conceded the first goal, a sloppy one from a corner we didn't clear and after losing the second ball a cross came in and Kane Ferdinand glanced it in.
That was that. From that moment on, there was only one way we were going, and that was to defeat - it was a case then of how many Southend were going to get.
At times, we kept our shape, two banks of four, and restricted Southend to long shots - but even that was our downfall just before half-time.
I had just thought 'let's get to half-time at 1-0' when Ryan Hall shot home the second.
From the radio box, there is a pillar right in the way and when I saw Jack Butland dive one way and the ball go straight through and in off his foot, I assumed there must have been a deflection somewhere in the part of the box covered by the pillar.
Not so. Jack, you should have saved that one, and that goal, if it was needed, was more confirmation of our impending defeat.
All I wanted to see now in the second half was that grit, application and backbone I spoke about earlier. A bit of pride.
Sorry, but until the 88th minute when the game was gone, we didn't get any of that.
The half started with a curious substitution, Josh Low for Russ Penn. Unless there was an injury, I couldn't see the reasoning for that change - although Josh didn't do too badly when he came on.
We got a disjointed, shapeless, at times shambolic display from a team feeling sorry for themselves after being down to 10 men - and it was refreshing to hear the manager admit as much afterwards rather than looking to hide behind the 'we had 10 men' excuse.
In many cases, when a side goes down to 10 they are galvanised. Plenty of times you see the 10 men become the better side, rally together and have a real go despite the handicap. Not here.
Southend were attacking us at will. They made good use of the width of the pitch, their central midfielders however had it all too easy, and we got off lightly with four.
The third goal was another poor one. A ball upfield, Alan Bennett was favourite for it, but Freddy Eastwood simply wanted it more. He got it, turned Benno and his shot was deflected in.
When you see your captain beaten so easily like that, you know it's going to be an uphill last 40 minutes.
I do not know what had happened to Benno but he is struggling for form and confidence. As the captain and leader, you need him to find it again, and fast.
I will credit Jack for two good saves, but he dived over the fourth from Bilel Mohsni, another long-range effort, and re-ignited the debate about our goalkeeping position.
During the game, we had 45 texts in to BBC Gloucestershire.
Many of them were calling for Scott Brown's return on Friday (that must be a first - CTFC fans wanting Browny to play...), and Mark Yates has a massive decision to make.
Jack was brilliant earlier in the season, and his arrival co-incided with our brilliant run of form before he left after the Southend home win.
In came Scott, but he was always looking over his shoulder as he knew Jack - billed universally it seemed as the saviour of our season - was still on the radar for a return.
Sure enough, back came Jack, out went Scott, and things have not panned out how we all hoped.
It was an easy job for Jack to come into a side playing with confidence, and he only added to that - now he has come into a side with no confidence at all, and he looks like what he is, an inexperienced 19-year-old goalkeeper with 20-odd league games behind him.
In his first spell, we didn't look like conceding goals, and it was a surprise when we did. Now, every time the opposition come over the halfway line, it is heart-in-mouth time.
We had a couple of chances in the last few minutes, Kaid and Marlon Pack with headers, but it didn't matter by then, and the goal drought extends to 525 minutes, in which time 13 goals have gone in the other end.
So that's March. Played 7 Won 0 Drawn 2 Lost 5 For 3 Against 15 Points 2 (out of 21). Eek.
Thank goodness that's over.
We knew March would define our season. We knew it would be the difference between automatic promotion and the play-offs, and so it has proved, but not in the way we had hoped.
The conspiracy theorists have been out in force.
Conspiracy one - It's the Spurs game's fault for taking away our focus. That was in January, since then we have won a few games, but this run is two months later. On the other hand, three our four wins since then were against Macclesfield and Burton, who were on terrible runs, and a poor Dagenham.
Conspiracy two - The trip to Portugal after the Spurs game has taken away our focus. See above.
Conspiracy three - Jermaine McGlashan's arrival for a fee and on decent money has upset the dressing room. Firstly, we don't know for sure a) how much he cost and b) how much he earns, and anyway he has hardly figured in this recent run of games anyway. More of that later.
So what now? Well, forget the top three. It's gone, bar one of the most amazing turnarounds in form ever - ie six wins for us and some dropped points elsewhere. Not going to happen.
Now, it is about staying in that top seven with Crewe, Gillingham and maybe even Aldershot ganging up behind us.
We start against Barnet on Friday, and Sido's absence and Marlon getting a two-match ban for 10 bookings (the last one on Friday which was totally brainless by the way) means things will have to change.
Keith Lowe will come in for Sido, but Marlon's absence will surely mean 4-4-2 or a diamond, and will see the likes of Junior Smikle and Jeff Goulding back in the 16, while Harry Hooman will presumably be on the bench to cover the back four.
Ironically, one of our best performances recently was at Macclesfield - the only game which Junior has started this season, and he played at the point of a diamond, and Jeff Goulding also played well and scored that day...
So, what side would I play against Barnet on Friday?
I feel that Scotty has to come back in goal. Rather in the way that Robert Green paid the price for his howler in the last World Cup, I think Yatesy has to take Jack out of the firing line.
Yatesy has been ruthless this season - Keith Lowe and Danny Andrew were taken out of the side almost overnight, and he has to do it again here.
Defensively, Keith Lowe will play, and I cannot see any changes to the other three, Benno, Steve Elliott and Luke Garbutt.
So the midfield, and I think I would go for an orthodox 4-4-2, with Russ and Summers in the middle, Kaid and the left and Jermaine coming in on the right, with Ben and Darryl up front.
The bench would be Harry, Josh Low, Jeff, Junior and Steve MacLean.
Apart from the Butland/Brown dilemma, a lot of the texts to BBC Glos on Friday were about Jermaine - why is not playing as he has been in the Team of the Week a few times, why did Yatesy not bring him on, why pay money for him and not pick him, why sign a target man and not play an orthodox winger etc etc.
All valid points... and I can understand why Yatesy didn't bring him on at Southend. Down to 10 men and looking to keep shape is not really the game for a 'flair' player, but the other questions are for the manager to answer.
There are games when I feel he could have started or come on, but he has to play Jermaine on Friday, as we have to go for it, at the start of our 'six cup finals' as we look to prevent what could have been a great season, one of our best ever, ending with a whimper.
We know what these players are capable of. They don't need telling that they have fallen below their ability and the standards they have set  - so the abuse directed at Marlon Pack on Twitter is totally out of order.
When I showed pundit Luke the league table, he said 'They look rubbish Dad, we should beat them shouldn't we?'. Two months or so ago, I would have said yes. Now I am not so sure.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Two horror goals let in, and has to be taken out of the firing line I'm afraid.
Sido Jombati - Rash, late challenge and deserved his red. Needs to learn he can't tackle like that.
Luke Garbutt - Form has dipped. Letting too many crosses into the box.
Alan Bennett - Another error cost us a goal. Not the skipper he was in the Autumn.
Steve Elliott - Battled against Moshni but it was an uphill fight.
Russ Penn - Started OK, but then had to play wide right. Taken off at half-time in a strange change - unless he was injured.
Marlon Pack - Brainless booking for dissent means he misses the next two games. Be interesting to see how we cope without him.
Luke Summerfield - Looked lost in the second half as they over-ran us far too easily. Another whose form has dipped badly.
Darryl Duffy - Asked to play wide right, not his position, before being sacrificed.
Kaid Mohamed - Tried to keep running at them to relieve the pressure - but gave the ball away for the first two goals.
Ben Burgess - Thankless task after the red card. Won some flicks early on but was then practically out of the game. I would have taken him off after the red card.

Keith Lowe (for Darryl Duffy 21 mins) - Like Garbs, too many crosses came in from his side.
Josh Low (for Russ Penn, 45 mins) - Can't understand why he came on, but I thought he did OK.
Jimmy Spencer (for Ben Burgess, 69 mins) - Few decent touches and set up a couple of late chances.