Friday, 15 February 2013

The road to redemption

Consistency.
The word every football fan quotes when their team is on a 'win one, lose one' run, and the word which you will hear every manager quote as a mantra at some point during the season.
As you go down the leagues, however, it is more and more difficult to find.
If you get all 11 players in your side performing at the same level week in, week out in League Two, then you are doing very well indeed, and will probably end up winning the League.
But it is like that 20-goal striker that every manager wants. The Holy Grail.
It is certainly true that Cheltenham Town have not had it to any real degree this season, and the last two games have summed it up perfectly.
Typical Cheltenham Town to put in a dismal show against a limited mid-table side, then go and grind out a superb win against a fellow promotion challenger.
I don't know about you, but I drove round the M25 from Dagenham in Saturday in a very grumpy mood, and wasn't looking forward at all to the return trip to Roots Hall three days later.
But by Tuesday night, the mood had changed, and I grinned my way back round the concrete jungle to my (very welcome) duvet. Hat on the side of my head - everything was alright with the world again.
Having failed to out-Dagenham Dagenham at Victoria Road, the trip a further 25 miles east was a chance for us fans to love our team again - for the players and manager to restore our waning faith. Job done...!
There were three changes, Sido was back for Billy Jones, Byron Harrison got his full debut in place of Shaun Harrad, and Kaid Mohamed was on the bench, Marlon Pack coming back in.
It left us with a lop-sided midfield, Russ Penn, Jason Taylor and Pack lining up with Jermaine McGlashan, but it worked - those first three in particular were all outstanding.
Southend had six players out, and one of their players had signed at 6pm and not met his team-mates before the kick-off - but that should not detract from our win... you know the saying, you can only beat what is in front of you.
The main interest was to see how the Benson-Harrison partnership would bed in. The answer was pretty well, for the 57 minutes they played together.
Both of them have decent touch, and I thought they linked up well together, especially for the chance which Harrison lifted over the bar in the first half.
McGlashan was also lively, and the three of them caused Southend's makeshift central defensive partnership  a lot of problems - we could have been out of sight at half-time.
Besides the two goals we scored, Harrison lifted his chance over, Penn hit the side netting and McGlashan nearly got on the end of a flowing move.
Yes, that's right - a flowing move. We had a few of them, compared to the stodge of Saturday.
The first goal was a penalty, stonewall when Penn was fouled, and Pack stepped up, cool as you like to put it away.
It is maybe simplistic to say that Marlon's return to the side made all the difference, but there is no doubt that his presence and ability on the ball played a big part in our improved display.
With Taylor and Penn around him taking care of the tackling and more defensive side of the game, Pack was able to do what he does best - get on the ball and spray the passes about.
It is a bonus to still have him with us, and it is good to know that we might have him here for another 14 games, rather than losing him to Swindon.
I know we are going to lose him at the end of the season - apparently Bournemouth, Derby and Charlton are now sniffing around - and if he plays 14 games like he did on Tuesday he will go with our blessing.
He knows as much as the rest of us that he hasn't hit the heights of last season, but these last two games have shown how important he is to us.
Without him on the field, we don't pass it. Simple as that. He sets our tempo and without him we just don't have the flair and creativity we need - look at how many chances we created on Tuesday with him compared to the games when he was not there. Not rocket science.
Mark Yates had to plan for life without him when it looked like he was on his way - but he must be secretly delighted that the move has gone up in smoke and Marlon will still be here.
Yes, it's not a long-term stay, but it's got to be all about the next 14 games, and we need our best players for those games.
Alongside him, Taylor and Penn ran, tackled and harried themselves into the ground, doing all Marlon's donkey work for him, which is how it should be I think.
Penn came off at the death for Sam Deering, and he could barely walk off the field, such was the effort and determination he had put into the game. He fizzed a shot from 25 yards just wide in the second half. That would have been icing on the cake.
Our second goal came out of absolutely nothing. Mark Yates said after the Torquay game that he wanted a striker to score from a bad back pass, and Paul Benson did just that.
Michael Spillane and Paul Smith left things to each other, and Benson got a toe in and poked it into the net. Not the most spectacular he will ever score, but a significant one as it got him off the mark for us and hopefully he can settle down properly and score a few more. No pressure Paul.
If Harrison had netted his chance in the first half, it would just have been the perfect evening, but he showed enough on his full debut to convince me that he will be an asset to us as we go forward.
He worked hard, showed good strength and touch in the air and on the floor, and was always available to either drive us forward or link the play with his back to goal.
He found the going harder later in the game after Benson had gone off, but it was his first start and I would out some of that down to tiredness, so early signs for me were encouraging overall.
When Benson went off, Mo came on, which I have to admit surprised me a little with Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy among the bench options.
Now I know that, at the moment, poor Mo is the target for the 'we have to have a player we blame for everything' brigade, and I thought Mo would come on into a five-man midfield, but he didn't, as he joined Harrison up front.
My assumption is that the idea was for Harrison to hold it up there, and for Mo to be the outlet with his pace to stretch a tiring defence for the last few minutes of the game. But it didn't really work, and we came under more pressure after the break.
That exposed the slight downside of the evening, the back four, were I did not feel we were not as secure as we have been in recent games.
Southend had a couple of first-half squeaks, with the lively Ben Reeves forcing Scott Brown into saves, and all night I didn't feel that Keith Lowe and Sido got tight enough to their wide men, Hurst and Mayor, while the full-backs Straker and Clohessy were allowed to get forward too much for my liking.
When Britt Assombalonga came on, Southend looked more dangerous, and he had a goal disallowed for offside after we went to sleep from a throw-in and he nearly capitalised on a mistake by Michael Hector, although Corr should have shot himself rather than trying to set his partner up.
We stood firm until giving away a poor goal in the 92nd minute, when a tame cross found Reeves and he found space to finish, but this time a late goal didn't matter.
But the fact that we still won the game doesn't take away the concern of letting in another late goal.
After other late strikes against Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Oxford and Fleetwood - not all of which proved costly in terms of dropping points - closing out a game to avoid nervy finishes would be nice!
We have dropped 19 points from winning positions this season, the most in the division -  yet another piece of evidence, if it were needed, of the inconsistent nature of our season.
So, optimism restored. We now go on to find three of our next four games are against teams in the bottom four, Aldershot, Accrington and AFC Wimbledon.
This should be a chance for us to go out there and take a real grip on third place, and send a statement out to the rest of the division. But this is Cheltenham Town, so don't bank on it.