Monday, 27 August 2012

Thunderbolts and lightning... very very frightening

Driving along the road from Bracknell towards Aldershot on Saturday afternoon, it started raining.
That precipitation was then joined by thunder and lightning - then the radio told us that the game between Sunderland and Reading was called off.
In August.
Things seemed to have cleared up by the time we reached the EBB - but it was a false dawn, as no sooner had the game started than the heavens opened.
And how. All that was missing was the grey-haired bloke building a boat.
By the 20th minute of the game, it was stair rods, and the thunder and lightning had moved across, so referee Darren Bond's decision to call a halt was not a great surprise.
I was told afterwards that some fans were moaning about the decision - but there is no sense in taking any chances, so safety first is a sensible way to go.
The break of around 15 minutes, however, disrupted us as we had started the better of the two sides.
Steve Elliott had a header well saved, and down the right hand side, both Sido Jombati and Jermaine McGlashan had got into promising positions and wasted them both with poor crosses.
We had gone into the game with one change - Jeff Goulding keeping the 'hole' position in place of Sam Deering, while Alan Bennett and new boy Darren Carter came in on the bench.
The Goulding-Deering switch was an interesting one.
Sam didn't have a great game at Torquay, while Jeff did well when he came on - but also Aldershot's more 'direct' style and added physicality and height in midfield could also have tipped the balance.
We did start brightly, but the unscheduled break obviously gave Dean Holdsworth a chance to get into his side and they came out a bit more fired up.
Adam Mekki caused problems down the right hand side and was given too much space on a couple of occasions, notably once when he flashed a cross right through our six-yard box.
In that spell up to half-time, Michael Rankine, another off the production line of bulky League Two strikers, which also produced Rene Howe, Bayo Akinfenwa and our old favourite Kayode Odejayi, missed a real sitter and Peter Vincenti forced the only save of the afternoon out of Scott Brown.
Yes, his only save.
That was testament to those in front of him, and especially Harry Hooman and Steve Elliott. Skipper Benno was back on the bench, and he will be there for a while if Harry carries on like this.
Going forward, Sido and Jermaine are a real force down the right hand side, and on his return to the EBB, Jermaine won a few free-kicks and managed to upset his former fans by doing so.
I accept that on occasions he may go down too easily, but some of the challenges were, shall we say, robust - notably the one which got the completely inept Jordan Roberts a booking after Jermaine had run about 50 yards skinning three defenders on the way.
He has started the season very well indeed - along with Hooman I would say he has been our most impressive player in the first three league games.
As the game wore on, the chances were becoming fewer and fewer and the yellow cards were growing - the tally ended up on seven.
One of them had gone to Russ Penn, so Mark Yates opted to take him off and bring on Darren Carter - whose first two touches alone were enough to showcase the quality he will bring for at least the next six months.
Another plus point from the afternoon, and the season as a whole, has been Billy Jones' set-piece delivery.
His free-kicks and corners brought a goal at Torquay and some of our best chances yesterday, and in a tight game like this it was going to be our best chance of opening the door.
And so it proved - a near-post delivery was met by Shaun Harrad, his header hitting the post and going over the line.
The assistant confirmed it, no Shots players complained about it, so that's three out of three for 'King' Harrad, who apparently scores when he wants, but only if they are inside the six yard box at the moment...!
Three goals from a combined distance of about 11 yards - but so far he has been the difference in taking those half-chances and he couldn't stop smiling about it afterwards.
He is the sort of striker we have needed for a while - a player who fed on scraps for 89 and three-quarter minutes, but was alert enough in that split second to make the difference in a knife-edge match.
We never looked like surrendering that lead, and at last we managed to win one of those ugly games we have lost so often in similar circumstances in the past (notably at Aldershot last season around this time...).
And so for the fourth time in our league history we are unbeaten after three league games.
One of those seasons ended in promotion under John Ward, but another, under the previous manager in 2009-10, did not, so not much can be read into the embryonic table.
But there are good signs - Hooman and Elliott's partnership, Billy's excellent set-pieces, the Sido-Jermaine right-hand side axis, Shaun's goals - and also the strength in depth.
Yesterday, our bench had Keith Lowe, Darren Carter, Sam Deering, Alan Bennett and Darryl Duffy on it - I would argue that all of those players would get a starting place in the vast majority of League Two sides (and quite a few in League One).
Add the still-injured Kaid Mohamed to that list too, and Yatesy will be reaching for the headache tablets a lot this season when it comes to picking a starting 11.
Accrington at home next week gives us the chance to make it four unbeaten, then we have three of the pre-season fancied sides in Wycombe, Southend and Oxford which will provide a decent test, and by the end of those games we might have an even better idea of how things will pan out.
The atmosphere in the squad, around the club and among the hardcore fans is superb at the moment, the best it has been for several seasons - long may that continue.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Not much to do as he was so well protected, but made one decent save late in the first half. Has made a great start to the season.
Sido Jombati - Still gives me heart failure at times, but links up well with Jermaine. Got into some good forward positions, but needs to work on crossing and his final ball.
Billy Jones - Some tricky moments defensively against Adam Mekki, especially in the first half. His delivery from set-pieces is excellent and brought us the winner.
Harry Hooman - Continued his strong start to the season. Seems to have taken it in his stride and kept the fit-again Benno on the bench, which is no mean feat.
Steve Elliott - Dominant as ever and after having one cleared off the line at Torquay, he nearly got a goal again. Looked after Michael Rankine well.
Marlon Pack - Best game of the season so far. Broke play up and looked to get us moving with his calmness  on the ball in a frenetic midfield. Also won important defensive headers on many occasions.
Russ Penn - His sort of game. A bitty, scrappy game suited his combative style. Got a booking and was a sensible decision to take him off.
Jeff Goulding - Thought Jeff did well. He gave us extra height and a physical presence in midfield and linked well with those around him.
Jermaine McGlashan - Another good game. Always our biggest threat and made some great runs and showed excellent work rate. His old fans were booing him, so he must have done well.
Chris Zebroski - Not his most effective game, but he worked very hard again. Remember he is playing out of position and will be an asset for us over the season.
Shaun Harrad - What can you say? Three goals in three games, all poachers' efforts, and this one in a game where he fed on scraps. Hold-up play excellent again.

Darren Carter (for Russ Penn, 66) - Looked good when he came on. Good passing and calm under pressure.
Darryl Duffy (for Shaun Harrad, 89) - Allowed Shaun to get an ovation from the travelling fans...
Keith Lowe (for Jeff Goulding, 90) - Extra insurance policy in midfield to shore up the win.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A Riviera rollercoaster ride

It seemed like we had never been away as the supporters' bus drew up outside Plainmoor on Tuesday night.
It's a ground I know well, having covered the Gulls for a few seasons, and it was a shame not to be walking up to that old rickety press box with a terrible view and no leg room at all once again.
We have only played three competitive games since we were there last, on that never-to-be-forgotten night of Marlon's free-kick and booking a ticket to Wembley.
We all know what happened there - but if we want to go back there again, or go one step further, then a trip to Torquay is one of the tougher hurdles we will encounter.
And so it proved, as we turned in what can only be described as a patchy display, but came away with a point from a cracking game.
We started well enough, Harry Hooman's header being cleared off the line, then when he was first to another Billy Jones corner, Shaun Harrad touched it over the line.
Two in two from Shaun now, making him the division's joint-top scorer and it is to be hoped that he can keep himself at the head of the scoring charts, and again it was another poacher's finish.
But then we went off the boil. Torquay, inspired by Lee Mansell, who, despite being from Gloucester, is a super player at this level and a great leader for the Gulls, started to boss the midfield and cause us problems.
Billy Bodin was buzzing around and we were struggling with the height and power of Rene Howe, who was dropping off to good effect and picking up loose balls.
For a 20-25 minute spell, in the first half, they just seemed to want it more, simple as that.
They were winning the second balls, putting together nice little moves and we looked off the pace.
In that time came their two goals, in the space of about a minute, both poor ones to concede, and both from crosses delivered from similar spots on their left-hand side.
Kevin Nicholson sent over the first and Aaron Downes towered over Chris Zebroski to head in at the far post. A good ball, yes, but a) it travelled a long way, and b) why was our winger the man picking up the big centre-half at the far post?
The second was a ball in from Mansell, and Howe peeled off Steve Elliott and was too strong for Billy Jones, glancing in a header at the far post. Another good cross, but then we allowed ourselves to be bullied in the box.
So in 60 seconds our good start was extinguished, Torquay had their tails up and we were rocking. Now it was going to be time to see what this 'new' squad was made of.
In that first half, Sam Deering, Russ Penn and Chris Zebroski, all impressive on Saturday, struggled to make an impact.
Jermaine McGlashan was always a threat and a worry for the Torquay fans who were still booing him from the play-off game three months ago.
But rather than looking like equalising, we looked more likely to concede a third - until I felt we got a helping hand from fate, as Torquay lost Damon Lathrope to injury just before half-time.
He is their shield - the very effective bits and pieces man who breaks things up and barely moves from a 10-yard area either side of the halfway line each game.
When he went off, they lost that insurance policy, and all of a sudden more room appeared in midfield for us, and I felt we exploited it after the break.
We could have gone 3-1 down as Howe hit the post then Sido kicked his backheeled follow-up off the line, then Scotty came off his line well to thwart Bodin as they had some breaks which they should have made more of.
Hence Mark Yates' comment after the game that we were a bit 'gung-ho' at times - and yes, we were, but that was good to see. I was glad to see us having a go and taking a few risks. Rather that than a meek surrender.
Deering's off-night ended when Jeff Goulding replaced him, and the system stayed the same with Jeff making a bit of a difference I felt.
Billy Jones' corners and set-pieces were causing problems and still looked to be the best bet of us getting an equaliser, Steve Elliott's header being cleared off the line nearly brought that to fruition.
Then Sido nearly scored a carbon copy of his goal at Oxford, cutting inside on his left foot but the keeper turned it away. That had me thinking the equaliser wasn't going to happen.
But in the end it did, and with another carbon copy goal from last season - think Luton in the FA Cup and Darryl Duffy's opener.
Scotty launched the ball downfield, the defender made a hash of it under pressure from Jeff, Zeb controlled it in the left channel and put it into the far corner. 2-2, and on the second half display we deserved it.
A great impact for Zeb against his old club, and we go to Aldershot now hoping Jermaine can do the same thing.
And we will have a new face on the coach as the search for a new midfielder ended in success in the shape of former Birmingham, West Brom and Preston midfielder Darren Carter.
On paper, it looks as though Yatesy has pulled another rabbit out of his ever-deepening transfer hat with this one.
A player who has spent all of his career at Championship level or above, Carter is fit after a nasty-sounding injury, with a six-month deal suiting both parties it would appear.
For us, we get a player who enhances our midfield options in spades at what seems to be a reasonable price wages-wise, while Darren gets a shop window to prove he is still an option for clubs higher up the ladder.
But who knows, if he does a job for us and no-one comes knocking in January, a longer deal may be thrashed out, but let's see how it goes.
I would suggest that will be that on the recruitment front now unless anyone, for example, comes in for Danny Andrew or if we get another couple of injuries to add to Benno and Mo's absences.
Yes, they are still out. Such has been the impact of Harry Hooman and with a goal from Zeb on Tuesday, it is almost forgotten that our skipper and joint-top scorer from last season are still to come into the ranks.
Nice problems for Mark to have, and also reassuring to think we have made a decent start in the league without two almost ever-present members of last season's side.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Not sure he could have done much about the goals. Otherwise, he made a couple of good saves and his handling was secure.
Sido Jombati - Defended well enough and linked superbly with Jermaine, notably one great run which nearly set up a goal and denied himself by a good save.
Billy Jones - Was ok defensively but really starred with a string of dangerous set-piece deliveries from corners and free-kicks.
Harry Hooman - Continues to impress in Benno's absence. Also unlucky not to score but did get an assist for the first goal.
Steve Elliott - Did his best against Howe and also tested by Bodin's movement. Also unlucky not to score from one of Billy's corners.
Marlon Pack - Much better game than Saturday. Was pick of the midfield in the first half and made us tick in the second.
Russ Penn - Not as good as Saturday and struggled to make a real impact as Mansell and Lathrope overshadowed us, especially first half.
Sam Deering - Off-night for Sam as he struggled to find space and lost out on a few second balls before being rightly taken off.
Jermaine McGlashan - Seems to have started the season in a good form. Always a threat, keeping Nicholson pegged back for the most part.
Chris Zebroski - Not comfortable on the left and drifted inside too much, but redeemed himself with a great finish for the equaliser and his first goal for us.
Shaun Harrad - Two games, two goals. Can't ask for more than that and looks stronger and fitter now. Good touch and hold-up play.

Jeff Goulding (for Sam Deering, 64) - Made a difference when he came on with good link-up and was a good presence just off the front man.
Darryl Duffy (for Shaun Harrad, 87) - No real time to make an impact.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Opening day success

As starts to the season go, this wasn't one from the Carlsberg stable, but more of a Ronseal job - it did what it says on the tin.
All you want from the first game is a win, a clean sheet and some decent performances from your new signings. That's what we got.
It wasn't spectacular. It didn't send a roaring message out to the rest of League Two. We just did what needed to be done.
After last season's over-achievement of finishing in sixth place, we now start with that as the minimum requirement in most supporters' minds.
The bar has been raised, and therefore most of the 2,655 who bothered to turn up (more on that later) did so not hoping for a Ruby victory, but expecting it, against a side beaten 7-1 on aggregate last season.
I suspect that had we ended up with a draw, there would have been a few teeth gnashed together in the town's pubs, but as it was we got the win.
The performance itself was patchy. That might have had something to do with the absence of two key men in Alan Bennett and Kaid Mohamed - losing your skipper and joint top league scorer on the opening day is not always easy to overcome.
If fact, it probably mounts to an injury crisis for us, as last season we hardly lost anyone to injury throughout the campaign - so let's hope this isn't a foreboding of what is in store this time around.
So Harry Hooman kept his place alongside Steve Elliott - a vote of confidence for him as he was preferred to Keith Lowe, the right decision in my book as HH is more natural at centre-half than Keith.
Mo's absence pushed Chris Zebroski out left as Mark Yates decided not to play a natural left-footer in Bagasan Graham or even Danny Andrew out wide.
I felt it did at times leave us a bit unbalanced as Zeb looked to drift inside and on occasions we were a bit short of width on the left unless Billy Jones was able to get forward and help out, or Sam Deering found himself moving out there.
The loss of two players also showed up the depth of the squad, as the 18 included youth teamer Joe Hanks and the (by the manager) unwanted Andrew, and beyond that there is no-one else. Reinforcements are still needed.
Benno and Mo are still out at Torquay tomorrow, so bets are off for the make-up of the squad...
As well as Zeb's move, Mo's injury meant Shaun Harrad came in for his debut, and the goal would have been the perfect start to his career with us.
We started well, and created a couple of openings, Jermaine McGlashan shooting wide and Deering hitting the post, but Daggers came back into it as the half went on.
Browny made a couple of decent saves and the Daggers won a few corners, and as the half was coming to an end, I was thinking that the win was not going to be as straightforward as maybe a few people thought pre-match.
But then, with practically the last kick of the half, we scored. Sido's ball up the line, Sam's low cross and Harrad got in front of Gavin Hoyte to score at the near post. Just the sort of half-chance we have been crying out for someone to convert.
The goal would have changed the two managers' team talks, and when Jermaine smashed in the second four minutes after half-time, it looked like the job was done.
Ultimately, it was, but we seemed content to sit back and defend our 18-yard line, letting them have the ball 30-40 yards out.
I am not a fan of this habit we seem to have fallen into when we get a lead. We have the players who can hurt the opposition with pace and movement - I would rather we had looked to get a third and tried to kill the game off, but instead at 50 minutes, it seemed we settled for 2-0.
The humid conditions may have played a part in that mindset, but credit to Dagenham as they carried on pressing and with a bit more composure and luck (I thought Steve Elliott's clash with Dwight Gayle was a penalty, not a yellow for diving) they could have made things a bit more hairy for us.
I may have to revise my pre-season predicitions on this basis - Dagenham were better than I thought they would be.
After Jermaine's goal, I can't remember us creating another clear-cut chance as we looked to close the game out, but we kept our shape and managed to close the game out.
Of the newcomers, Harrad and Deering were the most impressive, Harrad with his finish and good hold-up play and Deering with his ability to find space and time on the ball in a cluttered midfield.
His arrival pushed Russ Penn deeper, and I thought he was our best player - he was everywhere and amazingly told me afterwards that this was the first time in his pro career that he has tasted victory on the opening day of the season.
Zebroski showed promise, while Billy Jones looked a steady performer but worried me positionally on a couple of occasions when crosses from his side nearly caused problems.
But it was a win. No frills, not spectacular, just a win, and we haven't had many of those on the opening day down the years, so we'll take it, and move on to two tricky awaydays at Torquay and Aldershot.
Before we head for Devon, a final word on the attendance figure of 2,655, of which 200+ came from East London.
To put it mildly, 2,400 home fans on the back of what we achieved last season is a pathetic figure.
Twice that number went to Spurs. Five times as many went to Wembley. Whether the excuse is holidays, being sat in the garden having a barbecue because the weather is nice, post-Olympics hysteria or whatever, it's crap.
We all know that if the season pans out as we hope, and in 8 months time we are heading upwards, they'll be back, queueing for tickets.
It's a recurring theme and not a new problem. I just wish we had a solution to it.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Two good first half saves and one dodgy back pass to worry about but otherwise protected well by his back four.
Sido Jombati - Some galloping forward runs and solid enough defensively, but got a silly booking at the end.
Billy Jones - Better going forward than defensively. Was caught out positionally a couple of times which led to crosses into our box.
Harry Hooman - The odd nervy touch early on and one anxious back pass, but otherwise did well.
Steve Elliott - Usual dominating self as he led the back four in Benno's absence.
Russ Penn - My man of the match. Thought he was everywhere, breaking up play and throwing himself around to block shots and passes.
Marlon Pack - Didn't think he had the influence he has had in past games. Good spell in the first half but was in and out of the game.
Sam Deering - Slow start but grew into the game the further it went. Great cross for the first goal and unlucky to hit the post in the first half.
Jermaine McGlashan - Great strike for his goal and almost had another. Did well against the left-back Femi but thought crossing was patchy.
Chris Zebroski - Out of position really, standing in on the left for Mo, but showed some good touches and nearly got on the end of a good move in the first half.
Shaun Harrad - Poaching skills shown with the finish for his goal, and he was excellent at holding the ball up and linking with Deering, Zebroski and McGlashan. Promising signs.

Jeff Goulding (for Sam Deering 73) - Thought Jeff struggled in that 'hole' position, didn't really get into the game.
Bagasan Graham (for Chris Zebroski 82) - Could have got on the end of a cross with a bit more awareness, and only had one little run. Needs to show more when he gets a chance.
Darryl Duffy (for Shaun Harrad 85) - Not really enough time to influence the game.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Here we go again...

OK, so in around 44 hours time the first game of the new League Two campaign will be over, and hopefully we will have our first three points in the bag having mercilessly swept Dagenham and Redbridge aside.
And that's the great thing about it - here we are on the cusp of the season, and no-one knows what will happen in the next 10 months.
We are a perfect example of that - no one, not even the most optimistic of our fans, really thought deep down that we would get anywhere near the play-offs last season.
But we did, and such is the way that football goes and fans' expectations increase, in some of our fans' eyes, the play-offs will not be enough for some.
Everyone wants their club to progress and move forward, and so the only way we can move forward and improve on last season is to go up - either winning the play-offs or finishing in the top three.
On Twitter, I asked some Cheltenham fans for their views on how they felt we would go and what their hopes for the season would be.
Here are some of them:
Stowe Gregory: Realistically play-offs would once again be a great achievement. But we want more! Squad has the quality, but not much depth
Kevin McKenna: Think the main concern is we need to remain injury free with such a small squad.Having said that we will be in the top 8.
Laurence Horton: Last season everything that could go right went right. Expect some setbacks this season but still a comfortable top 10 finish.
Jamie Howells: We set the bar last season with the core still here and only Summers leaving and some good additions coming in. We have to aim for the play-offs as a minimum but I'm really confident we can go one better I know its gonna be a tough season but with MY and the togetherness of the squad I'm really optimistic and looking forward to the season ahead!!
Healer: It will be hard to beat last seasons efforts and with the division improved I think a playoff place would be a good target.
Alan Calverley: My view 'building on last year'. One first teamer out - Summerfield - 4 in which makes for more competition. Playoffs minimum.
So there you are - a small straw poll, but it shows where the expectations are - top 10, top 8, play-offs minimum, improve on last season is the mantra coming from the terraces.
But can we do it? I don't see why not, but I do have some concerns about areas of the team, and I also feel that the division is going to be stronger than last season.
Overall, the squad is stronger with the additions of Sam Deering, Billy Jones, Chris Zebroski and Shaun Harrad, as well as the young keeper Connor Roberts.
Deering looks like he will play the 'in the hole' role when we play 4-2-3-1, and I am delighted we have got him as he has been one of those players who I always wished was in our side when he was playing for Barnet.
Jones will be solid at left-back - no frills, just a steady 7 or 8 every week, and gives an option for set-pieces and possibly penalties as well as giving us lots of experience in that position.
Zebroski is the sort of player we have been looking for - a speed merchant down the middle to really worry defenders and I hope he can find the goalscoring streak he had at Torquay.
We have seen what he is capable of when he has played against us in the past - and the same can be said of Harrad, who has been a thorn to us when he played for Burton.
If those two play like they did for those clubs then we have guaranteed goals in our locker, as well as those from Darryl Duffy (15 last season), Kaid Mohamed (11), Jeff Goulding (6) and Jermaine McGlashan, who was the play-off semi-final king.
Marlon Pack can contribute as well, as can Sido Jombati, Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett from set-pieces, and also Billy - basically, we have the potential to score goals all over the team.
Zebroski, Deering and Harrad give us multiple options in the midfield and up front - we can now play practically any system Mark Yates wishes, and have the players to fit those formations.
It looks like Russ Penn will have a different role - he looks set to play deeper, alongside Marlon in the role Luke Summerfield had last season, so basically he will be the enforcer while Marlon tries to be our quarterback.
However, I have a worry if Russ, Marlon or Sam get injured, and I feel we are crying out for at least one more central midfielder as cover.
I know we have had youth teamer Joe Hanks in and around the squad, and it looks like Jordan Hibbert will be offered something, maybe a six-month deal, and nothing against them, but I am just a bit worried we are a bit light in that central area.
I have seen Hanks play for the youth team, and only saw Hibbert briefly against Cardiff in a sterile second half, and they may be short-term cover but I feel we need a 'front-line' player to bolster us in the middle.
As well as Summers, we lost Josh Low, Junior Smikle and last season Dave Bird from that area and it seems we have gone from a position of strength in there where we almost had too many options in midfield to not having enough.
Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 which Yatesy chooses to adopt, the only consistent thing is the '4' at the back.
Sido, Benno, Steve Elliott and Billy will be the first-choice four, with Scott Brown behind them.
They will be aiming for that consistency we found in the first half of last season, when the bedrock of that great run we had in October and November was built on the clean sheets we managed to keep.
But the defence is my other area of slight worry.
I wasn't at the MK game as I was watching Brazil choke in the Olympic final against Mexico, but I was slightly concerned to note that Steve Elliott was ruled out and Benno went off late in the game.
We know already that the pair are 'managed' very well with their training workload and therefore they clearly have some fragile fitness issues.
When Stevie was out for a few games after the Tottenham game last season, we struggled - and the first game he came back was the 5-0 win at Dagenham and Redbridge, when he slotted in like he had never been away.
This is no criticism of Keith Lowe or Harry Hooman, as Keith is a wholehearted player who has never let us down, and I think Harry has shown that he has great potential and will be looking to kick on this season, but I would be slightly worried if either of them had to fill in long-term at the heart of the defence.
I feel Keith has played his best games for us at right-back anyway, and he won't get much of a chance there with our cult hero Sido in that role.
On the other side, with Danny Andrew out of favour and seemingly heading for the exit door, we don't have any natural deputy for Billy Jones - I would guess if Billy gets injured or suspended, Sido will swap and Keith will play at right back.
So for these reasons, in an ideal world, I feel we need another defender - preferably a player who was equally comfortable playing at centre half and left back, which would then give us adequate cover right across the back line.
Behind them, Scott Brown has a vote of confidence and will be number one for the season, with only injury, suspension or a horrendous loss of form likely to take him out of the side.
So how are we going to do...?
Looking down the clubs in League Two, and the squads they have assembled in the summer, and it is going to be a competitive season.
I could make a case for at least half of the division to finish in the top seven, including us, but I feel we will be strong challengers for that, but I must admit, if I am realistic, I think the top three may be out of reach.
Fleetwood will be right up there having the backing of Andy Pilley's millions and players like Jon Parkin, Steve Gillespie, Youl Mawene, Damien Johnson, Dean Howell and David Ball will give them a strong backbone.
Then there is Rotherham, with the lovely Mr Evans in charge and a brand-new stadium, the chairman Tony Stewart has provided big funds for 11 summer signings, including Kayode Odejayi, and there is no doubt they will be right at the top.
Of the relegated clubs, Chesterfield will be strong - two seasons ago they walked the league but come back down with the signing of our old target Marc Richards, who is sure to give them a cutting edge.
Wycombe's fortunes could hinge on whether they keep Stewart Beavon, who scored 25 times in a relegated side, but players like Gareth Ainsworth, Gary Doherty and Matt Spring give them big experience.
Rochdale and Exeter I am not so sure about - they will be in the top half, but I am not sure if they will have what it takes to challenge for the top seven.
Then we have Southend, Torquay, Oxford, Northampton, Bradford, Bristol Rovers and Gillingham.
Southend and Torquay were alongside us in the play-off zone and, like us, will think they should be there again. Southend have signed Freddy Eastwood permanently, while Torquay have landed Billy Bodin - but lost Bobby Olejnik and Eunan O'Kane, two big players to replace.
The other five clubs fall into the 'can do better' category.
Oxford and Bristol Rovers both go into the season with expectations of getting out of the division.
Chris Wilder must be under some pressure to deliver after flattering to deceive of late, while Rovers improved under Mark McGhee and will want to continue that upward move.
I don't believe Bradford will have another poor season, and the arrival of Alan Connell from Swindon is a good acquisition, as is the vastly experienced Gary Jones from Rochdale, and Adie Boothroyd sorted Northampton out after he arrived.
He has signed Clive Platt to form an imposing front line with our friend Mr Akinfenwa, and I fully expect them to be looking upwards as well.
That leaves Gillingham, and anything could happen there given the man they have in charge. They have good players and the prolific Adam Birchall is fit after missing the whole of last season, but I wonder how long the Martin Allen-Paul Scally dynamic will hold out.
Scally will want promotion, but nothing will ever convince me that Allen's scattergun approach to players and tactics will provide it.
Elsewhere, I think Aldershot will be a dark horse. Dean Holdsworth has assembled a decent squad, and I think they could challenge for the top seven as well.
Port Vale are also in that category, as long as they can sort out their financial problems they will not be in any trouble and could be a top 10 side given a good run.
There are a few clubs who I cannot see making a challenge for the top echelons, but will not be in danger of the drop - AFC Wimbledon, Accrington, Plymouth and York should safely be mid-table.
AFC have Jack Midson to score goals, Accrington had a good finish to last season and can carry that on, Plymouth should be strong enough and York, while an unknown quantity, seem to have made some useful signings on the back of the momentum of promotion and their FA Trophy win.
That leaves Barnet, Burton, Dagenham and Redbridge and Morecambe - and I see two of these going down I'm afraid.
Barnet have hovered around there for a few seasons, Burton dropped like a stone last season, while Dagenham and Morecambe both work under financial constraints which may prove insurmountable.
So, prediction time, and here goes:
Top three: Fleetwood, Rotherham, Chesterfield.
Play-offs: Cheltenham, Wycombe, Southend, Bristol Rovers.
Relegated: Barnet, Morecambe.
There. Head on the block... let battle commence.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Patience is a virtue

'All good things come to those who wait' is fast becoming the mantra of Cheltenham Town's close season.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of Ruby fans were getting a bit jumpy as the days count down to the start of the proper stuff next Saturday.
I turned up for the Cardiff friendly and looked at the team sheet, thinking 'right, we can put out a decent starting 11, but after that... hmm'. Not any more.
Before that game, the Echo had published their story linking us with Chris Zebroski, a player who started out as a youngster at the Cirencester Academy and went off to Plymouth, Millwall, Wycombe, Torquay and Bristol Rovers.
He is a player we tried to sign back in January, with rumours of a £75,000 bid being turned down - but in true Mark Yates style, he answered the questions about Zebroski after the Cardiff game with a flat bat of which Alastair Cook would be proud.
But the way he responded was an indicator that there was something in Jon Palmer's story - and so it proved when the signing was announced.
I am told that the fee is less than that £75,000 figure, and he will give us options up front and also out wide.
He had the best spell of his career at Torquay, and the move to Bristol Rovers did not really work out, especially after Paul Buckle, who took him to the Mem, was sacked.
Mark clearly wanted his man, having been knocked back and then saw him come back on to the radar - and it seems that he had to use his persuasive powers to get him here with the gaffer being quoted as saying that Zebroski 'finally saw sense and realised his future was with Cheltenham'. Nice one Mark.
Zebroski only got three goals in 28 starts - one at Whaddon Road - but was more prolific at Torquay so we have to hope he can find that Plaunmoor form.
Back to that Cardiff game, and we were beaten 4-0 - a thumping on paper but we were up against a side who will be chasing a Premier League place, and we competed well for half an hour before they got their three goals before half-time, and added another with that superb free-kick just after the break.
Possibly our brightest player during the Cardiff game was Tristan Plummer, who had scored on his first appearance at Evesham, then headed for the Welsh bonding camp, played at Port Talbot and also faced Birmingham.
This was his last chance to chance to impress, and he was our main goal threat, forcing a save from David Marshall from a free-kick and putting another chance over the bar.
Post-match, Mark said he needed to make a decision, and yesterday a tweet from Tris told us that he would not be getting a contract.
I must admit I was surprised, as were many others judging by the response to Tris's tweet from other fans - but thinking about it I suggest that the Zebroski signing put paid to his chances.
In my view, they would be a similar type of player, and I feel that had the Zebroski move not materialised, then Plummer would have got a deal.
Yatesy also had to weigh up his budget, given the fact that he wants to bring in a central midfielder (young, box-to-box, six-month loan hopefully tied up next week said the gaffer) and also a goalkeeper to back up Scott Brown.
On that front, we have seen three candidates this pre-season - Phil Smith, the former Swindon keeper who played well at Evesham, saving a penalty, but is felt to be too expensive; then former Everton youngster Adam Davies played at Port Talbot but has signed for Southampton, and finally Connor Roberts, another Goodison Park product who played for 20 minutes against Cardiff.
So that is a work in progress - and I am told there was an another goalkeeper training at Seasons with Browny and Steve Book yesterday, so someone might play a part against Burnley today.
The Zebroski signing had whetted the appetite for that Burnley game with fans looking forward to their first sight of him.
After that signing, some fans were bemoaning the fact that he is not a 'goalscorer' - not that 20-goal striker every team seems to crave.
I am not sure many of them exist - as the top scorer in League Two his 18 in the league - but then, as he has done so often, the gaffer went and pulled another rabbit out of the hat.
Yesterday morning, one of those infuriating Twitter rumours said that Bury striker Shaun Harrad was signing for us on a season-long loan.
Given the stream of nonsense these sites have come out with this summer, it is no surprise that people were sceptical, and I was top of that list until I had a Twitter message telling me this one was true.
Wow. That one certainly came out of the blue.
At Burton, Harrad was a goal machine. He hit that famed 20-goal mark for Burton before heading off to Northampton and then Bury, and he scored a few goals there without really hitting that prolific form again.
We saw him score the winner for Burton at Whaddon Road, and he got the Brewers' first two goals in 'that' 6-5 game at the Pirelli, and I remember in that first half that he ripped our defence apart and could have had more goals.
Potentially, he is the goalscorer we have been looking for, and to get him on a season-long loan is a coup, and the reaction to it from fans of other clubs has been mainly 'good signing, how did they manage that?'
I cannot understand why things seem to have gone wrong at Bury and why they seem happy to let us have him for the season, but to paraphrase Barry Davies from the 1988 Olympic hockey final, 'frankly, who cares'.
If they don't want him, we will welcome him with open arms, and he definitely gives us options in that final third of the field now, and it was another triumph for patience as the gaffer got his man again.
Yatesy will be able to play whatever system he wants now. Against Cardiff, we played 4-2-3-1, but with Zebroski, Harrad, Darryl Duffy and Jeff Goulding - backed up by Kaid Mohamed, Jermaine McGlashan, Sam Deering and Marlon Pack we have creators and finishers in abundance, and we really should not be short of goals.
We also have pace to burn and as we have seen in League Two in recent seasons, that can be a potent weapon.
And with that the jigsaw is nearly complete, with a couple of pieces still lying on the floor waiting to be picked up and put into place, and after this week, is anyone betting against Yatesy finishing the job?