Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Another late show

Coming as it did on the back of two four-goal defeats, this was never going to be a walkover.
Barnet, bottom of the table, with Edgar Davids in their ranks, had improved of late, and showed that they are nowhere near the worst side we have played this season.
The pressure was on us a bit after those defeats on the road.
The table had closed up after our loss at Chesterfield, and the way the fixtures fell for the other sides around us did not help.
While we had two away games, the other sides had two home games, but had not really taken advantage of them, with Gillingham and Rotherham among the team beaten on Tuesday.
Now we were at home, and everyone else was away, so we had to try to take advantage of it. Which we did. Just.
With Jake Taylor coming in from Reading, and on the back of those defeats, Yatesy's team selection was always going to be an interesting one.
Jeff Goulding had not excelled in the lone striker role at the Proact Stadium, so Shaun Harrad came back in, while Kaid Mohamed's injury saw Chris Zebroski move out left.
Taylor came back into the side, but I have to admit I could not understand Russ Penn being left out to accomodate him.
He had been the pick of the central three against Rotherham and Chesterfield, and with Davids in the Barnet side I thought he would be the perfect man to combat the Dutch master.
But Yatesy opted to keep Marlon Pack and Darren Carter together, despite worries over how they have gelled together lately... and some of those doubts surfaced during the game.
On a few occasions, Mark Byrne was able to make dangerous runs to the edge of our box and get shots in, as did Davids just before half-time, shooting wide, while Ricky Holmes on the left had some dangerous moments.
That was partly due to a lack of tackles and closing down in midfield, but also by our back four's tendency to back off and invite them to keep running at them rather than standing their ground.
In the first half, we didn't create any real golden chances - just some half-chances, Taylor shooting wide and Harrad also.
This was, in the main, down to the presence of Clovis Kamdjo, who was a human barrier for anything we tried to pass through or around the Barnet midfield.
He sat 10 yards in front of their back four, and nothing was getting through. We had him on trial under Martin Allen, but he was allowed to go. No further comment is needed.
I thought Harrad generally looked sharper of late, while Taylor looked a neat and tidy player. I was encouraged that he always wanted the ball and was available.
He found space well on the edge of the box twice in the first half, but looked a bit reluctant to have a shot. I am sure that confidence will come with games.
The big turning point was the penalty, and it looked a stonewaller as Carter had his arm out, and the ball hit it. These days those are given straight away.
To be fair to Scott Brown, his record from penalties has not been great - I must admit I do not think I have ever been at a game when he has kept one out.
But with the help of Sam Deering (via Steve Book pointing from the bench), he guessed right this time and made a good save.
That seemed to deflate Barnet, and Yatesy soon looked to his bench, with Deering the first to come on and I thought he looked lively straight away and seemed to perk us up.
He was followed after 79 minutes by Penn, and then - most tellingly of all - Goulding, once again brought on ahead of Darryl Duffy.
Jeff had been on the pitch for precisely 84 seconds, and had not had a touch when he reached into his bag of tricks and dug out a pitching wedge to direct a very precise chip over Graham Stack for what proved to be the winner.
It was a sublime finish, with very little backlift, the quality of which we have seen before from Jeff - at Accrington last season, again when he had just come on, and in a pre-season game at Telford, when he chipped in from about 40 yards.
Therein lies the frustration with the enigma that is Jeff Goulding. We know he has that quality in his locker, but do we see it enough...?
If he did it all the time, he would not be playing in League Two, no doubt, but contrast that with his display on Tuesday, when he barely got a kick and you can see why fans do get frustrated with him.
Shades of Josh Low, whose languid style and tendency to affect one game in four or five was a source of much teeth-gnashing.
Jeff is a bit of a bete noir with some Robins followers anyway after the game at Wycombe this season, where he was accused of flicking a sign at the away contingent who were unhappy with him after missing a late chance for a winner.
I wasn't in the away end so did not see a) if he flicked anything and b) if it was directed at the away fans, but some fans have demonised him for that
I am told there were some boos and yells of derision when he came on last weekend. They didn't last long as his moment of magic was enough to win us the game.
That was despite Kamdjo hitting the post and Stack heading a late chance wide when he popped up in the box, but, once again, for the second home game running, we ground it out with a late winner.
Sometimes, that it was what you have to do. These teams will not roll over, and after two chastening away defeats, a win and a clean sheet is all that matters.
It opened up again a three-point gap for us in the third - now cut to one again by Rotherham's midweek win.
Finally, a few stats...
After 20 games, we have won half of them, drawn five and lost five, which is respectable.
We have kept nine clean sheets, the most in the division, yet in the five games we have lost, 17 goals have gone in (3 lots of three goals and the two fours last week).
In the other 15 games, we have let in eight, and four of those were in two games, the 2-2 draws against Torquay and Fleetwood.
So that means in 13 games, only four goals have gone in - Keith Lowe's own goal at Wycombe, Peter Leven's penalty against Oxford, Byron Harrison's header at Wimbledon and Conor Hourihane's opener for Plymouth.
We have scored in 17 of our 20 League games. Only Accrington, York and Gillingham have kept us out.
This is a record only bettered by Gillingham, who have failed to score in two games (one against us).
Our home record after 10 games is 7-1-2 - the best in the division - and we have now played all the teams in the bottom half of the table, winning eight, drawing three and losing one (to Accrington) -  again the best record in the division.
We have three teams left to play - Port Vale, Northampton and Rochdale. By December 21, we should be able to gauge properly who the strongest teams in the division are.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The road to hell

As I drove up the M1 to Rotherham last Saturday morning, I was in an optimistic mood.
We were on a decent run of form - one defeat in 12 games, four clean sheets in a row, third in League Two and had looked in decent nick away from home.
Driving back down the same road some 84 hours, two defeats and eight bad goals shipped later and I felt like some punch-drunk fighter battling to get off the ropes after an onslaught of hooks and jabs.
The good run was well and truly over, the clean sheets were a distant memory and the only (scant) consolation was that we are still third in the league.
I am always a glass-half-full guy - not one to go in for knee-jerk reactions.
Two heavy away defeats do not instantly mean that our players are not good enough, our manager is suddenly a clown and that we are now automatically destined to plunge headlong down the League Two table.
But you're only as good as your last game - although I not feel that two four-goal defeats condemns us as a terrible side, merely one which has some flaws to iron out.
We have been in decent form, grinding out results without being overly spectacular, and you cannot be third in the table if you are a poor side.
If anyone out there was guilty of getting ahead of themselves, be that in the dressing room or on the terraces, then these two games will act as a welcome reality check.
Taking the two games as a whole, the main problem in my eyes has been in midfield, and especially the dynamic between Marlon Pack and Darren Carter.
Carter, I am afraid, was especially poor in the double header, quite rightly being the man to come off at half-time at Chesterfield.
As I saw it, during the one-and-a-half games they had together, both Pack and Carter frequently went forward together, rather than one going up and one staying back - so when we lost the ball it left the defence hopelessly exposed.
Compare this with Gillingham, where at times it seemed that the pair of them were too deep, almost playing as extra centre-halves. This time, they took it to the other extreme.
But we kept a clean sheet at Gillingham, and let in eight in those last two games - so which was the better tactic?
Ahead of them, Russ Penn was the only one to emerge from Chesterfield with any real credit.
This is mainly because he often found himself having to do the work of three, and was almost trying to stem the blue tide on his own, such was the anonymity of the pair behind him.
We went 4-4-2 after half-time, and, strangely enough, looked more resolute and solid - but we know that we cannot sustain that formation on the road.
After this weekend, we will have Lawson D'Ath back from Reading, and also from the Mad Stad we have brought in Jake Taylor, and with Sam Deering also knocking on the door, Yatesy has scope to shake things up.
I feel 'safer' with us playing 4-2-3-1 - but I must admit that Penn playing as the more advanced of the three central players perplexes me somewhat.
His job is to support the front man, get into the box and get shots in. But in the time Russ has played that role, he has scored twice, in successive games against Southend and Luton.
So has he worked in that role? Largely no, so why does he still play it?
Surely, with his terrier-like ball-winning abilities, he would be better deployed defensively, alongside Marlon as one of the covering two, with young Taylor, D'Ath, Deering or Carter pushed further up.
Deering played there for Barnet and - let's face it - if he is not going to get a chance after two four-goal defeats then when will he...?
Taylor is described as an attacking midfielder who can play wide or off the striker, so seems to fit that bill, and D'Ath certainly showed lots of energy and an eye for goal against Exeter.
That leaves Carter, who seemed to be hitting his straps before these last two games, with his goals against Morecambe - yet we definitely miss Luke Summerfield's box-to-box energy and there is no doubt that midfield trio has not been 'right' this season.
Their failings have contributed to the majority of the eight goals we have leaked this week, especially the first three of Tuesday's goals.
For the first, Chris Atkinson's run was not tracked, ditto Sam Togwell for the second after Darikwa's shot his the bar and then the ball was given away to Brennan Dickenson and we parted for Marc Richards to score. All basic errors.
The fourth came from a cheaply-conceded corner which was then not defended at all.
Some have pointed to the loss of Sido Jombati for the last two games as a factor in the two losses - personally I think that has nothing to do with it.
The problems lie further up the field - you have to defend from the front, and we have not been doing that.
I don't blame the defenders or goalkeeper as much as I do the lack of application in the middle of the park and also the inability of the front players to provide a suitable outlet.
Chris Zebroski, Kaid Mohamed and Jermaine McGlashan were the front three at Rotherham, and Zebroski worked hard as usual but the other two were ineffective.
McGlashan paid the price on Tuesday with Zebroski moving right and Jeff Goulding slotting in, and that change did not work at all.
Goulding barely touched the ball in the hour or so he was on the pitch, and Mohamed - bar a great header for his goal - had a second successive off-day.
Mo's was another goal from a set-piece, and we had another couple of decent squeaks from corners, and while it is all well and good that we look threatening from them, we cannot rely solely on Billy Jones' left foot to set up chances.
A worrying aspect of these last two games is just how little we have created in front of goal from open play. Yes, Zeb's goal at Rotherham was a good move, but that has been the exception, rather than the norm, as we have been unable to get our wide players functioning and our midfield runners linking up with the increasingly-isolated front man.
In the second half at Chesterfield, when we went to 4-4-2 with McGlashan, Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy coming on things did not change in that regard, with none of the substitutes making any real impact, and demanding that Yatesy puts them in the team for Barnet.
With the arrival of Taylor and D'Ath, Yatesy has managed to bolster the squad for a busy-looking December, and soon eyes will turn to January, when he will have some decisions to make.
The Echo this week mentioned the possibility of two players being paid up - this would surely point to Danny Andrew and Bagasan Graham, neither of whom can get a look-in.
Andrew has been on the bench and got a run-out against Exeter, but seems to be in the 18 simply because there is no-one else and having had loan spells elsewhere his days are numbered.
Bags appears to be fit, but has lost out to youth teamer Joe Hanks for a place on the bench in recent weeks, showing where he sits in the pecking order.
In addition, Carter's deal runs out, and given his form in the last two games, serious thought has to be given to whether it should be extended, or whether Yatesy feels he can spend the money better elsewhere - maybe on a Summerfield clone if he can find one...
Then there are the strikers... and Yatesy will be looking for a solution here to the lack of regular goals from his four front men.
Zebroski, before Tuesday, had scored three in four games, and is the only one in any semblance of decent nick at the moment.
Of the other three, Harrad is on a very expensive loan - and the question must be whether Yatesy gets to January and thinks that it is too expensive and cuts it off in the hope of deploying that cash somewhere else.
Duffy and Goulding look bereft of form and confidence and unless they can find it next month, they might find themselves being asked to look elsewhere in January.
None of the latter three deserve a place in the starting line-up at the moment, so if I was sitting down to pick Saturday's side, it would be something like this...
The back five pick themselves, Brown, Lowe, Elliott, Bennett and Jones.
Then into midfield. Hmmm. I would pair Pack and Penn in front of the back four, and give Deering a start ahead of them.
He deserves a chance, and there is also a bit of 'former-club syndrome' coming into play with that choice - look what it did for Penn against Burton.
McGlashan gets the nod on the right, and then I would try something different by giving loanee Taylor a place on the left, with Zebroski up top.
I was tempted to be even more radical and push Mo through the middle, but with his recent goal record that would be very harsh on Zeb.
Bench would therefore be Roberts, Carter, Goulding, Duffy, Harrad, Andrew and Mohamed.
Over to you Yatesy...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Nightmare at the New York

I had been looking forward to this game for a few weeks, mainly because it was the chance to see Rotherham United's new stadium.
It is an impressive place - just the sort of stadium I would love Cheltenham to have one day - and as it turned out the stadium was the highlight of the whole day, especially as I didn't see the Chuckle Brothers (unless they are called Steve Evans and Paul Raynor).
The pies were decent as well, and it was a surprise that the nice Mr Evans had left some for the rest of us.
That was about it, as the football from a Cheltenham point of view did not hit the heights - apart from the first 45 seconds.
That was when the lethal Keith Lowe was more surprised than anyone to find himself all alone in the Rotherham box with the ball from a Billy Jones corner at his feet.
So that was 1-0 with the Bilston Cafu's fourth goal of the season... but that was about as good as it got.
Within three minutes, he had been skinned twice by the teenage Villa loanee Courtney Cameron, and the second cross saw Scott Brown punch Alex Revell in the head rather than the ball and Daniel Nardiello had an open goal to head into.
For the next 25 minutes or so, we were over run. We never got to grips with Rotherham's midfield, especially Lee Frecklington and Ben Pringle, and they were cutting us open at will.
Darren Carter and Marlon Pack were constantly being caught ahead of the ball, and unable to get back and make a worthwile challenge, so when Rotherham broke, they often had 5 or 6 on 4 advantage on us as they ran at our unprotected back four.
The tackling in midfield was powder puff, our wide players were anonymous, and Chris Zebroski isolated, which meant we also had no escape outlet, and so the attacks were almost relentless.
It was no surprise when the second goal came. Alan Bennett made a decent enough header away under pressure, but the ball fell to Pringle, who was not closed down and came up with a crisp (!!) finish, although the shot did appear to go through Scott Brown's dive.
Our passing was ragged and we could not get enough decent possession to get a foothold in the game, and we gave a third goal away when Craig Morgan's hopeful pass was missed by Steve Elliott (just about his first mistake of the season, it has to be said...) and Nardiello kept his cool to finish.
I have to admit that at this point I was worried. Such was our lack of appetite for a battle in midfield, I could see the game becoming another Stevenage, or even a Crewe as we were not in the game at all.
They could have had more goals - our midfield malaise was summed up when Frecklington won the ball on the halfway line and ran 40 yards without a challenge, straight past Pack and Kaid Mohamed and shot from the edge of the box, shaving the outside of the post.
It was not good enough, and disappointingly out of character from what we had seen at places like Gillingham on our travels this season.
But out of the blue we got a goal, when Marlon and Jermaine McGlashan set up Zeb for a well-worked goal which was rather out of character for the previous half-hour.
That goal showed what we could have done with a little more application, and, to use the manager's words post-match, had we wanted to stand up and be counted.
Rotherham did not look the best side defensively and were coming off a 5-0 defeat but we never tested them for long periods and, to be honest, handed them their goals on a silver platter.
We were a bit more resolute after the break, and, at 3-2 were somehow still in the game with the chance of getting a point.
Rotherham did not have as many chances in the second half - Browny had one save to make from a deflected shot and Nardiello chipped over when he could have got his hat-trick, and to his credit Yatesy made two positive changes on the hour.
Jeff Goulding and Shaun Harrad came on, and I have no arguments with Mo coming off as it was not his happiest afternoon, but I did not agree with Russ Penn coming off.
I would have given Carter or Pack the hook, but Penn was sacrificed again, as he was after his man of the match outing against Burton last weekend, robbing us of any steel or energy in the middle of the park for the last half-hour.
We went to 4-4-2 as Zeb was pushed out wide, and I thought Goulding and Harrad did okay. Jeff had a header onto the roof of the net and Harrad was denied twice by some good defensive blocks. That was about as close as we got to an equaliser which - let's face it - would have been a bit of a travesty given our overall display.
It was interesting to see that once again Jeff and Shaun were the first two subs introduced, once again ahead of Darryl Duffy, which could be a telling insight into how Yatesy sees the pecking order of our forwards.
Zeb has now joined Shaun in five goals and is deservedly the first pick, with Harrad on five - but he has not scored since September 18. Jeff has one league goal and Darryl's goal this season was in the JPT and he has not scored in the League since March, at Morecambe.
With rumours that Yatesy is after another forward, they need to find their shooting boots, or one or two of them may be kicking their heels for a bit longer.
Sam Deering was the last change, and again I was disappointed that it was Jermaine, rather than one of the two central midfielders, hauled off.
He had just been stupidly booked for kicking the ball away, and had been well looked after for the afternoon but I would have liked him out there for those last few minutes as he could have produced something.
Sam hasn't yet hit the heights of his performances against us for Barnet, and he started well with a decent touch and cross which set up one of Shaun's chances - but then blotted his copybook at the end.
For some reason, he tried to take a quick free kick by our own corner flag and made a mess of it, gifting the fourth goal to Frecklington, and that was that.
Rotherham were a decent-looking side, but not unbeatable, and they cannot be helped by their manager's ridiculous antics on the line, playing to the crowd with overblown reactions to every decision which goes against his team - and what was he doing on the pitch after the fourth goal??
But enough about him. We could have got something out of the game with a bit more desire and application.
But we lost the game, and did not play well, but it is two defeats in 12 games, and we still stay in third place.
Hopefully, Yatesy will get the right reaction at Chesterfield in another tricky away game on Tuesday, and get us back on track. Let's hope this was just a blip.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

They all count...

When a team is looking to mount a promotion challenge, the difference between success and failure can often be a thin one.
A dropped point here, and unlucky defeat there - but one thing teams have to do when they are in our position is to find a way to win.
Those tight, tense games, like this one was, are the ones that have to be won, and the ones which will be looked back on with great satisfaction if we get what we want in May.
I don't feel that there is any doubt that we deserved to win the game, but equally Burton could have nicked it on the break and it was a great relief when Chris Zebroski was in the right place at the right time to nick the winner.
It isn't the most spectacular goal he has ever scored, but in the context of our season it could prove to be a very important one.
I am sure Burton will feel aggrieved after a stoic defensive display and some dangerous breakaways were not rewarded but they have enough about them to stay in the top half.
Almost all of our threats on their goal came from Billy Jones' set-pieces, Alan Bennett hit the bar, Zebroski shot wide and there were countless melees and scrambles from the left-back's pinpoint deliveries.
It was to Burton's credit that we did not create much from open play, bar a Russ Penn header in the first half and a shot from the same player in the second which the keeper saved well.
Burton learned their lesson from last season when Jermaine McGlashan ripped them to pieces and they went through three left-backs in the game at Whaddon.
They doubled up on him straight away and kept him quiet, and on the other side Kaid Mohamed was also largely ineffective - and again to their credit Burton forced them to frequently switch flanks to find more joy on the other side.
I felt Zebroski was an effective spearhead with good movement and justified his selection even before grabbing the goal, which was his fourth of the season.
Zander Diamond and Marcus Holness looked very strong at the back for Burton - and they seem to have a much better backbone, while Anthony O'Connor did well at right back, and Nathan Stanton likewise on the left side.
In our midfield, Russ Penn was exceptional against his old club and should have got the man of the match award. He was taken off - somewhat strangely in my view, but he had run his legs off for 77 minutes.
Darren Carter and Marlon Pack started the game well, but then seemed to fade a bit, and seemed to drop a bit too deep, leaving a gap between the back six and front four in the second half.
One of them at least needs to push 10-15 yards further up the pitch, as they can be too close to the centre halves - maybe Carter should get up with Penn and leave Pack deeper - effectively making us into a 4-1-4-1 system with the wingers pushing on.
Defensively, we looked sound for most of the game. Elliott and Bennett carried on where they left off at Gillingham, and largely kept Calvin Zola quiet.
The only real chances he had were gifted to him by lax passing further up the field - Mo made one error which ended with a shot into the side netting, and we had an escape with Matthew Paterson's offside goal just before half-time.
Like us, they had a potent corner-taking weapon in Chris Palmer and his deliveries posed a few problems for Scott Brown - but he didn't really have a difficult save to make until the dying seconds.
I have mentioned Jones' fantastic set-piece deliveries, but he was defensively sound as was Sido Jombati on the other side, and both of them had more joy going forward than our orthodox wide men.
It is a fourth clean sheet in a row, and keeps up Benno's unbeaten record this season - played 11, won seven drawn four is the skipper's record in the side this season.
It wasn't a surprise to see Mo taken off, but it was to see Jeff Goulding come on first. I thought Shaun Harrad might have got the nod, but then he did replace Penn later on.
My only thought can be was that Yatesy was looking for Jeff's guile and touch to find a way to unlock Burton, but neither of them were particularly effective when they came on.
Zeb's winner now makes it 11 goals between our four forwards. When you consider that Tom Pope has 17 on his own for Port Vale, that one consistent reliable goalscorer does seem to be our slight Achilles heel.
Some fans are crying out for two up front, especially at home. But our current system suits the players we have - go to 4-4-2 and we have seen plenty of times that we are left too open - and then which midfielder would be left out?
It couldn't be wither of the wide men or you cut off the service to front two, so one of Penn, Carter or Pack would therefore have to be sacrificed. A big decision.
So another win, one defeat in 12, four successive clean sheets, level on points with second-placed Port Vale - yet the view of many is that we are not playing as well as we did last season.
But we are finding ways to win games, and have looked a tight, well-drilled unit in recent games, even though we are not firing on all cylinders in the final third.
Next stop Rotherham and the delightful Mr Evans, on the back of a 5-0 defeat he described as the worst performance by a team he has managed. That will be fun, then...

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Not green around the Gills

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

Monday, 5 November 2012

I would love it if we beat them...

In October 2007, when John Ward walked out on Cheltenham Town after the defeat at Port Vale, I was the sports editor of the Gloucestershire Echo.
That night was a busy, and a memorable one. I left the office at 4am after re-arranging the paper to get news of the exit, reaction and a match report on the Vale loss into the paper.
Nights like that were why I loved doing that job, and why I wish I was still doing it.
The following morning, we sat down and came up with a list of other potential candidates for the job, aside from the man left in caretaker charge, Keith Downing.
One name stood out on that list we drew up - Martin Allen.
He was available as he had just left Leicester after only four games in charge, his dad used to manage the club, he had done well at Barnet and Brentford - he seemed an ideal candidate.
I phoned him up to sound him out. He said he couldn't talk about it as he was still negotiating a settlement from Leicester - but reading between the lines, he was interested.
I then wrote a piece for the paper championing him for the job. Looking back, it is the one article in 20-plus years of journalism that I regret sitting down to write.
We also ran a online poll. About 80 per cent of those who voted (about 1,000) plumped for Allen to get the job. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and as we know, Keith Downing got the nod this time.
He was too much of a gentleman to ever say it to me, but I don't think he really forgave me for writing that piece - effectively I was saying he should not be given the job.
But he was, and when we beat Doncaster to stay up in League One, I sought him out in the Nest bar, apologised for writing that piece, and thanked him for keeping us up.
The start of the 2008-9 season was a difficult one. We conceded four goals against Northampton on the opening day, then at home to Leicester, at Oldham, and finally - fatally for Keith - at Hartlepool on a Friday night.
I recall seeing him walking across the Victoria Park pitch after that game, looking a haunted figure. It was also the night Michael Townsend became embroiled in an argument with fans at the final whistle.
Myself and some friends were in Edinburgh the following day, watching Hibs play Dundee United. In the pub before the game, the news came through that Keith had gone. It wasn't a great surprise.
Post-match, in the same pub, we got the news that Allen had been appointed as the new manager. That was more of a surprise - not in the person who was appointed, but more with the speed it was done.
Paul Baker described him as the fans' choice, citing the Echo poll from a year before. Hard though it may be now, it is difficult to argue with the chairman's assessment.
None of us had any idea of the rollercoaster which we had just boarded.
We knew Allen was eccentric in his methods, as there had been stories from Barnet and Brentford.
The 'Mad Dog' moniker should have been a warning for us, and you are left to wonder now if we investigated why he left Leicester so abruptly.
The gimmicks started almost straight away - at his press conference, the phone rang halfway through, and we were told it was Gary Johnson confirming the loan signing of Scott Murray (a deal which Keith Downing had already put in motion, but Allen hijacked and tried to take the credit for).
Then the press corps were marched outside, and Allen had photos taken by a sign saying 'Safety Officer'. Apparently that was him. He was going to take us to safety. Right...
Murray's arrival was the first of a ridiculous stream of arrivals. Loan signing after loan signing after loan signing came in.
We could only play five in the matchday squad of 18, and at one point we had nine of them on the books.
In the meantime, the players he inherited at the club were marginalised, transfer-listed, alienated, discarded.
There were substitutions 15 or 20 minutes into games, four or five team and positional changes from match to match, players being transfer-listed one day and then taken off the list the next, and staff members (notably Bob Bloomer) were summarily dispensed with.
Players were selected for a game or two, talked up by the manager, and then dropped just as quickly, and some of these loans were not cheap, despite the manager alleging that they were 'free'.
Some of them were good players - James Wesolowski (before he got injured at Tranmere), Murray and Ian Westlake were three I can recall - others were not... Tom Denton, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and Johnny Hayes particularly spring to mind from the pit of mediocrity.
As well as the loans, we had the likes of Elvis Hammond, Barry Hayles and Darren Kenton arriving as he carried on trying to ship out more of the players he inherited.
Townsend went to Barnet, Allen wanted Shane Duff to go to Northampton, and Lloyd Owusu had to be shipped off to Brighton, and he also blooded several youth teamers long before they were ready. Some of them were out of their depth and never recovered.
Tales emerged that the dressing room atmosphere was not the best - on the terraces and elsewhere within the club it wasn't much better either.
Results were shocking - after a 2-1 win at Orient in December, we didn't win for 16 games.
There were stories of unconventional training methods, notably before the FA Cup replay at Doncaster where he allegedly had Lee Ridley throwing pieces of toast across for Ashley Vincent to head at a TV playing the part of a goal.
The story gets even more surreal when, after spotting Ridley was throwing the toast right handed, he was ordered to do it with his left, as he is left-footed. You just couldn't make it up. I am not.
It was gimmick after gimmick, signing after signing, and in the meantime our club was suffering, becoming more of a laughing stock from day to day.
There was the dressing down in the layby after the defeat at Hereford and fans being press-ganged into giving the team a pep talk...and don't even get me started on the dog or the increasingly tedious 'Martin's Message' appearing on the website or in our e-mail inbox every week.
After games, we never knew what to expect, and what mood he would be in. Wins could be followed by us being told the players were terrible and some of them would be transfer-listed - defeats by a staunch belief that his team was brilliant.
We were frequently admonished for 'negative questioning' - even on that run of winless games where there was absolutely nothing to be positive about, and at these press conferences, his 'stooge' Alistair Smith was a constant presence, for some reason or other. No-one really knew exactly why he was there or what his role was.
One thing we did know was that there would be at least four changes to the side and loan signing or two arriving in time for the next game.
We were careering back to League Two at express pace. The efforts of Ward and Downing in keeping us in League One were being wasted - as was the club's money.
It was being spent like water, so we were heading for administration as well.
Yes, the board can take some of the blame for allowing that to happen, and Paul Baker has subsequently acknowledged their culpability - but Allen is equally, if not more, to blame.
Every time a player came in, we were told by the manager that he was 'free'. No wages to pay, not costing us a penny. However, invoices for their wages would still come in...
More than half-century of players used in season 2008-9 is a stark statistic. No consistency in selection and low dressing room morale = relegation.
We even ran out of some numbers to print on the back of shirts. I think we got up to squad number 54 - it was an utter joke.
The start of the following season (after we had been told to expect a play-off/promotion challenge) was not much better, and after the 2-1 home defeat by Macclesfield he was gone, much to everyone's relief.
Any alleged off-field incidents are an aside. Woeful results on the pitch (13 wins in 61 games and 29 defeats) were sufficient for him to get the sack. If anything, he should have gone earlier.
Rumour has it that the board wanted to sack him after the 4-0 loss at Leicester in March 2009, but we had to put up with him for another seven months.
By the time he did go, we had only won three games on our return to League Two, Grimsby on the opening day, and at Bury and Rochdale, with last minute goals.
The low point was his penultimate game, the 4-0 defeat at Accrington. In my 32 years watching this club I have never seen a CTFC team surrender so meekly.
Poor Sam Cox ended up at centre-half on his only appearance for us - he is five foot six or seven - and that was the final straw for many... I have never heard or seen such venom thrown at a CTFC manager after a game as I did that day. That game sums up the disorganised chaos of the Allen era.
We were in a mess, and after John Schofield tried to steady the ship, Mark Yates came in to try to sort the shambles out.
This Christmas will be third anniversary of Yatesy's arrival, yet only now do you really feel that the club has come out of the other side.
The remainder of that season was spent making sure we didn't lose our league status, the second season was stabilisation as the financial position was worked on, last season was exceptional and this one has started well.
Only Scott Brown remains from the legions of players Allen used in his time here, and thankfully we have our club back now, and it is in a much healthier state on and off the field.
We have had a lucky escape.
Gillingham fans need to understand we are not jealous of their league position, and we have nothing against them as a club.
He has started well at Priestfield, but this is a man who brought our club to its knees, and nearly destroyed its whole fabric, and tried to ruin an ethos which took more than 120 years to establish.
The board were culpable for appointing him and for not saying 'no' to his ridiculous recruitment policy, but they soon realised the error of their ways and sought on a few occasions to cut things short.
Nothing Martin Allen did here was for the good of Cheltenham Town - it was all for the benefit of Martin Allen, his profile and his ego.
Some fans thought it was great that he was appearing in the nationals and on Sky Sports a lot - but he never talked about Cheltenham Town, just about himself.
I was delighted when Bobby Gould resigned. He did the honourable thing and walked when he knew his time was up, but Allen had no honour and no class, he just carried on wrecking the club from within.
Gillingham fans - things are going well for you at the moment, so enjoy it while it lasts.
We thought things were rosy early on in Allen's reign here, but it quickly turned rotten (see also Leicester and Notts County).
That's why I want to win on Tuesday, as much as I have ever wanted to win a match... I would just love it.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Job done

Thank goodness that's over...
That was my abiding emotion after yesterday's game, as, when all is said and done, getting into the second round was all that mattered.
It wasn't about winning 6 or 7-0, or playing like Barcelona, it was about getting into the second round.
However, I must admit that having just watched the second round draw and seen us paired with Hereford United, our perennial bogey team. More of that later.
The Yate tie was a no-win situation for us - scrape through 1-0 and it would be deemed an embarrassment by some, win 8-0 and it would be 'so what, it was only Yate'. It was a day to win the game and move on.
That's what we did, and it gave Yatesy the opportunity to give one or two players a breather and allow others to stretch their legs after sitting on the bench or in the stand over recent weeks.
We got the perfect start in comical manner with Scott Thomas' second-minute own goal, and in games like this they say the early goal is what every team is looking for.
But you have to give credit to Yate for the way they responded to it - Tom Knighton hit the post and the full-back Jake Cox the bar with a free-kick which Scott Brown got a hand to.
I have seen a number of League v non-League ties, and on some occasions the non-Leaguers have come to spoil, and stop the pros in some 'agricultural' ways - but there was none of that yesterday.
Yate have some tidy players, left two up front all afternoon and passed the ball around nicely - no long-ball stuff, and battled away all afternoon.
The winger Matt Groves, Knighton up front and Danny Wring in midfield stood out for me, and their goalkeeper made some decent saves.
Yes, we could have scored more goals. Yes, some players were better than others, but winning the game was all that really mattered.
If we did have a problem during the game, it was over complication in the final third.
Especially in the first half, we got into good positions and players had worked a shooting chance, then chose a cross or a pull-back - or the opposite, shooting when team-mates were free.
Also, again, our quality in wide areas was found wanting - poor crosses, either under hit or over hit, letting us down on a few occasions.
In the end, 3-0 was about the right result. Yate's efforts didn't deserve a heavier defeat, and our performance didn't merit it either.
So what did we learn from our performance?
Defensively, not much. It was good to see Keith Lowe have another game, and a chance for Steve Elliott to sit out and come back fresh for Gillingham on Tuesday, and he has been ill anyway so no point in risking him.
In midfield, yesterday showed the importance of Marlon Pack to our team.
In the first half, we tried to play 4-4-2 with Lawson D'Ath and Russ Penn in the centre, Sam Deering and Kaid Mohamed out wide.
It didn't have the right balance for me, and we looked much happier when Marlon came on at half-time - but I do hope Lawson's knee injury isn't too bad, although he did tweet that he is unlikely to be fit for Tuesday.
Many fans have commented that Marlon hasn't been at his best this season. That may be true, but we don't have another player like him who can control a game.
He got a lot more space than he would in a League Two game, true. But he controls the tempo of our game and everything goes through him - he truly is our quarterback.
Up front is where we learnt the most.
We got to see all four of our strikers, but only one, Chris Zebroski, can came out of the game with credit.
Darryl Duffy looks a player badly shorn of confidence. He tries so hard, and I was willing him to get a goal or two yesterday.
But it is not happening for him, and the same has to be said for Jeff Goulding. He came on and played the central role, and had a golden chance to score.
That seemed to affect him, and there were a couple of crosses which flashed across the goal and were begging to be put away by him, and he failed to convert either. The second was a glaring chance.
Shaun Harrad hasn't scored since the Oxford game on September 18, and it looked like it yesterday. He has had an injury and been in and out of the side, but looked a bit off the pace yesterday.
Zebroski was the only one to hit his straps and seemed to feed off the Gasheads among the Yate fans giving him the bird - maybe we should tell him we are playing his old club, or that the ground is full of Gasheads every week...!
He looked sharp, direct and dangerous, getting the third goal after he hit the bar, and seems to be the only one of our four strikers to be in any sort of form, which is a slight worry.
We had 24 shots, 13 on target and only scored three goals - those stats show a slight lack of ruthlessness.
Then an hour ago I sat down for the draw, and wanted a non-League side at home, but expected Carlisle, Southend or Gillingham away.
Happily they came out early, and then Cyrille Regis pulled out our home tie, and out came Hereford courtesy of John Wark.
What a belting tie. I know I wanted a non-League side, but have to admit I didn't want Hereford - we never beat them!
Not since 1999, the 'David Norton match' at Edgar Street have we done so. At home, it's 1969 since we saw them off.
Add the presence in their ranks of Andy Gallinagh, Junior Smikle, Michael Townsend and Marley Watkins, and it makes it a real cracker.
Let's hope this time we can do it. I am fed up with losing to them, or playing badly and drawing.
But that can wait - first we have Mr Allen's league leaders at Priestfield on Tuesday night, and yesterday has helped to sort out what team Yatesy should play
Steve Elliott will be back alongside Benno, Darren Carter is fit to come back in, Jermaine will slot in again, and Zeb has booked himself the lone striker role - no one who came in yesterday did enough to demand keeping their place.
My team would be Brown; Jombati, Elliott, Bennett, Jones; Pack, Carter; McGlashan, Penn, Mo; Zebroski.
It starts a big month which will also take in a meeting with the equally lovely Mr Evans in a couple of weeks, the potential chance to see Edgar Davids play at Whaddon, and will end with s crunch Cup tie with Hereford.
Life is never boring at Cheltenham Town...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

CTFC - the next generation

Over the past few days, I have had the chance to watch the CTFC under-18 side play twice - and on the evidence of the two matches our future is in good hands.
One of their number, Joe Hanks, made his first-team debut against Exeter last Saturday, by my reckoning the 17th 'home-grown' player to represent us in the Football League.
He was also the 180th player to don the red/ruby in those games since August 1999, so 17 home grown players in that number is almost one in 10.
But it must be said that the majority of them have started less than 10 games - only the Duff brothers, Dave Bird and Andy Gallinagh started more than 100 games, and behind them, Theo Lewis started 18 times.
After that, Adam Connolly, Michael Jackson, Gareth Hopkins, Marley Watkins, Kyle Haynes, Michael Wylde, Josh Emery, Jake Lee, Will Puddy, Jack Durrant and Luke Corbett made sporadic appearances down the years.
Others, notably Jamie Edge and Jamie Price, were snapped up by bigger clubs, and only recently brothers Courtney and Tyrone Duffus went to Everton.
But we have never managed to do a Crewe, and unearth a Nick Powell-type player - but the new Football League academy rules mean that sort of transfer may not happen again, and clubs like us may end up being short-changed if some of our youngsters are prised away.
In recent years, our managers have had different approaches to the youth set-up - some have embraced it and others largely ignored it, but with Joe Hanks being given a chance Mark Yates is definitely in the 'former' category.
A notable thing for me from the two games I saw is that Russ Milton's under-18s mirror the formation being used in the first team - 4-2-3-1 - and he also champions the same style of neat, passing football that the first team look to employ, so if these lads do progress it might smooth the transformation somewhat.
Academy manager Milton fully understands the ethos of the club, as does his head of coaching, some bloke called Jamie Victory. I think he also played a bit in the red and white.
We also have Keith Knight and Tommy Callinan coaching the under-16s, so there is some CTFC history entrenched in the system at the top echelons.
Knighty was there at Seasons joining me in freezing half to death last Friday afternoon while watching the League Cup game with Oxford, which was handy as he was able to mark my card about one or two of the players on show. Neil Howarth was also watching the game.
Hanks didn't play as he was 24 hours from his Exeter debut, and the side were edged out 1-0 in a tight game.
It was decided by a shot which slipped through goalkeeper Harvey Rivers' hands and was adjudged to have crossed the line.
As goal-line technology has not reached Seasons,  the assistant referee gave it.
Our lads had chances, and were helped by Oxford going down to 10 men, but couldn't get back on terms.
Four days later, it was the under-18s' big day - the start of the FA Youth Cup, and their chance to play at Whaddon Road, against Maidenhead in the first round proper.
Looking on their website pre-match, Maidenhead were unbeaten for 10 months, had conceded two goals this season, and beat Forest Green in the previous round.
Impressive - but our lads were 5-0 up at half-time, and despite Hanks missing a penalty, racked up an 8-0 win, playing some great football and doing a ruthless job on their opponents.
Of the starting 11 on show, only four - Hanks, goalkeeper Dale Reaney, defenders Keiran Thomas and Michael Gonzalo, are second year scholars, and so will learn their fate this summer.
The other seven, hat-trick heroes Bobbie Dale and Harry Williams, defenders Elliot Keightley and Spencer Hamilton, midfielder Adam Powell and flying wingers James Bowen and Zack Kotwica still have another year to progress and impress.
There were a number of scouts there - I was told that one had come to specifically watch one of our players, and some big clubs were represented, and our lads will definitely have impressed them.
Goalkeeper Reaney did not have much to do - one low down save and a late tip-round the post, and aside from conceding the goal against Oxford, Rivers looked a capable young keeper.
Full-backs Thomas and Keightley were both able to get forward in both games and did their defensive duties adequately.
Thomas (Pitbull to his mates... and boy, does he like a tackle) also found time to finish off a great move with a good finish for our fourth goal against Maidenhead.
He got an injury against Oxford and came off at half-time, his replacement Callum Marshall having a good second half, and also doing well as a sub against Maidnhead.
The centre-backs Hamilton and Gonzalo both looked comfortable with the ball at their feet, and weren't afraid to bring it out of defence rather than launch it, although both did play some nice cross-field balls in both games I saw.
Gonzalo also moved into midfield against Oxford and looked comfortable there as well, and, as the taller of the two, Hamilton did well in the air
Powell is a tall midfield player, must be 6ft 2 or so I would guess, and he had two good games, while Hanks was impressive against Maidenhead (we will forgive the missed penalty).
Harry Williams was my man of the match against Maidenhead, playing in the role behind striker Dale. He took his goals well, set up another and won the penalty which Hanks missed.
Maidenhead never got to grips with him at all, and he also did well against Oxford, where he played in the deeper role alongside Powell in Hanks' absence.
In both games I saw possibly the most impressive thing of all was our wide play, with Bowen and Kotwica.
Both looked very direct, tricky players, not afraid to take players on, and - as is key with wingers - also able to get quality crosses in.
In the first half against Maidenhead, Kotwica was virtually unplayable, twisting the poor left-back in knots before he went off injured. He was quieter after the break - but Bowen repeated the dose on the other flank.
Both gave good support to the lone striker - who was Dale against Maidenhead and Lewis Morana, a taller target man once on Exeter's books, against Oxford.
Morana battled away against two strong Oxford centre-backs with Dale coming on later and then starting against Maidenhead.
He linked well with Bowen, Kotwica and Harry Williams, and took his three goals well, showing a good poachers' instinct to seize on rebounds and take half-chances.
Against Oxford, Ed Williams (who scored a cracker in our pre-season game at Bishop's Cleeve) started behind the front man, and he replaced namesake Harry late on against Maidenhead and took up where he had left off, buzzing around, finding space and causing problems.
They now face AFC Wimbledon away in round two after this win, which shows that we might have some real promise for the future in our youth system.

For more information on our youth system, go to