Friday, 26 April 2013

Holding out for a hero

Paul Connor.
Steve Guinan.
Two names from the recent Cheltenham Town past who would not feature too highly in those 'best ever XIs' that we all like to pick from time to time, usually after about five pints.
But they are heroes. Players whose names will always crop up when we sit down and look back to those memorable games or days in our history.
Who could forget Connor, much derided by fans back then, swooping like a predator to hammer in that winner against Doncaster to keep us in League One.
We had got there thanks to Guinan - brilliant with his back to goal, but not so great when he turned the other way. Yes it was a cross, but who cares - I still remember the hangover.
So will one of our current crop be the hero tomorrow? Or will we find that hero some 150 miles north at the New York Stadium?
We need to, as we all know that things are not in our hands.
Two more oft-derided names from our past could come back and give us that shove we need back up the ladder - Jeff Goulding and Craig Reid.
Goulding, often mercurial and inspirational, and very definitely frustrating - the true definition of a Marmite footballer, could be the man, as could Reid, a finisher not given enough of a chance in my view.
It's all down to who handles the pressure. 99 times out of 100, Rotherham will win tomorrow (apparently the bookies rate it at about 69 times out 100, but you get the gist), and book their place in League One, and we will face the lottery again.
But there is that one chance. Aldershot are practically doomed. They have to go there and win - they will be going for it, but in turn that will leave them vulnerable.
And what about this for another scenario - Andy Scott, the former Rotherham manager, going back to his old club and scuppering their promotion chances. The plot thickens...
With the recent run of games we have had, I think we have done well to take it to the last day.
After the Gillingham win, we had to go to Exeter and put an end to their play-off chances, which we managed to do.
Last Saturday was hell for me. It was the first game I have missed all season, and I was at my Mum's 80th birthday party trying desperately to be nice to relatives I haven't seen since I was in shorts while being more bothered about events in Devon.
Thank goodness for Twitter, that's all I can say. I couldn't be rude enough to walk around in headphones with the radio commentary on, so that's what I had to rely on.
When news came in of Russ's goal, my son and I let out a little cheer, but as full-time approached I had a speech to make so it was few minutes after the final whistle that I found out  we had hung on.
I am assuming we hung on, anyway. I have no clue how comfortable or otherwise it was, and to be honest I don't care. 1-0, take that and on we go to tomorrow.
I get the feeling that most people are resigned to the play-offs, and if things go out way tomorrow, that will be a massive bonus. I have no problem with that - that's the way I am looking at it.
Rotherham should beat Aldershot. But we have to make sure our attitude is right and that we are in a position to take advantage if they lose.
There would be nothing worse than Goulding or Reid nicking a 1-0 at the New York, only for us to draw or lose - that would be gut-wrenching, and might also be a big confidence knock for the play-offs.
The picture is clouded even more by the fact that Bradford are our most likely play-off opponents. We could play Northampton, but the permutations gave me a headache when I tried to work them out.
So the most likely scenario is three games in eight days against Bradford.
They have secured their play-off spot, and rumblings are that Phil Parkinson might rest a few tomorrow to keep them fresh for Thursday and next Sunday.
We don't have that luxury for two reasons - one - our squad is not big enough anyway, and two - we still have that bigger prize dangling like a tantalising carrot.
As Mark Yates has said, we can't worry about Rotherham, we have to take care of ourselves and do our job properly.
If things are going well, then, and only then, we can take stock of what is happening at the other game.
If they are 3-0 up, then we might be able to give a few a breather ready for the semis.
If they are 3-0 down, then we could be getting ready for a party.
It is good news to see the seats sold out, and with the Bradford contingent also coming down in numbers, it is odds on for 5000-plus crowd tomorrow.
That can only be good for our lads, who deserve that backing. I am hoping for the same noise as we had against Gillingham, even with there being no pantomime villain to boo and hiss at.
That game showed that our crowd can be noisy and hostile when they want to be, and it spurred our team on, so let's have more of the same please.
We fans have a big part to play in what happens to our club over the next 48 hours, or the next three weeks or so.
In the manner of Connor and Guinan, there could be another hero waiting to be crowned...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

One Hec of a header...

I enjoyed Saturday's win. A lot. I am not ashamed to admit it, but I broke the protocol.
As soon as the whistle went, off came the headphones, down went the mic, and I allowed myself three or four fistpumps. Not very professional, but there you go.
It wasn't just because of the bloke in the away dugout and how he took my football club to the brink - it was also about the bloke in our dugout and his players showing they were not the pushovers some of us thought they were seven days before.
It was also about the fans, who came out in good numbers and yes, gave you-know-who some verbals but more importantly, also raised the noise for their team and made for a cracking atmosphere. So, can we hear you every week??
But anyway, back to him - let's get this out of the way and then talk about what really matters, our team, our players and our prospects for the next two games.

Martin Allen and I having
our post-match chat
We had a brief chat after the game, and as it turns out it seems this blog might have been read a few times down there in Kent over the course of this season...
Mr Allen was coming out of the away dugout where he had been conducting his post-match interview, and Jon Palmer, Peter Matthews and myself were waiting to talk to Michael Hector, Scott Brown and Russ Penn about our win.
He spotted us, and (grinning from ear to ear I hasten to add) he said: "Mark Halliwell - you've been writing some things about me, haven't you, you naughty boy...."
"You've read them then Martin," I replied. "Yes," he said.
"What did you think?"
He thought for a second, and said: "Some of it was correct. Some of it was unfair I thought, and some I wish you'd rung and had a conversation about."
Not really the idea when you are writing a blog, I thought, and I said: "Would you have told me about it all?"
"Not really as I signed a piece of paper when I left so I can't talk about it, but it will all be in my book," to which I replied "I look forward to reading it." He offered his hand, so I shook it.
My next thought was firstly that if he signed a confidentiality agreement what would the point have been in me phoning him, and also how he could conceivably write a book about it... but there you go.
He then went on to say he had a 's..t team' when he was with us. No s..t Sherlock. It's taken us the past three years to recover from it, and Saturday's win was cathartic as it got over the obstacle of him coming back here and also showed in spades what a better club we are now.
Mr Allen's record in the away dugout at Whaddon is now played two, lost two, scored nought, conceded six, and he finished by saying "Your team played bloody well today though." For once, how right he was.
Whether it was all another of his PR stunts, or a series soundbites to try and appease our fans into giving him an easier ride, his pre-match admission that he made mistakes and did not do a good job when he was here was also good to hear.
It was never going to stop the abuse he got, and, let's face it, he deserved it. But I was glad that it did not go on and on throughout the match, and that the fans listened to Mark Yates' call to channel the noise towards those in ruby.
But Saturday was not all about him. It was our last chance to stay in the top-three chase. Lose, and we could forget it, draw and it was probably the end of the line, but win and it was still very much on.
Our 18-match home record on the line against a promoted side, beaten once away from home, and hoping to be crowned champions, backed by 1400 fans and with our supporters having a pantomime villain to hiss and boo at. It all added up to a cracker, and that's what we got.
I thought it was the best game I have seen all season, and it was definitely our best 90 minutes.
After the Home Park shambles, we looked like a team on a mission. Our players were fired up, as if they knew how much this meant to the fans, and that they knew this was the last-chance saloon.
Four changes... The grit of Russ Penn and Jason Taylor, the steadiness of the boyhood Gillingham fan Billy Jones, and the directness of Kaid Mohamed all thrown back in.
You could see why Gillingham have been hard to beat away. The imposing figure of Nelson in goal, two decent full-backs in Martin and Fish; Barrett's experience at the back. Then, on the counter, Whelpdale and Lee supporting the target man in Kedwell and the elusive Burton.
The first half was pretty nip and tuck. We struggled to get behind them as Martin was coping with McGlashan and Fish doing the same with Mo.
Only once did it happen, when Pack put a fantastic pass - probably the ball of the season - between Barrett and Martin, McGlashan got on to it and sent a ball across the six-yard box which no one could convert.
Most of our efforts were from long-range, Taylor having the best, forcing Nelson to push it away, while at the other end a Kedwell overhead kick was tipped over by Brown.
Nelson went into the game with 18 clean sheets to Brown's 16, so it was never going to be a 4-4 draw - a one-goal game was always likely.
The loss of Martin before half-time was a plus for us as he was not only looking after McGlashan, but also getting forward well to back up Whelpdale and Lee on our right-hand side.
Frampton dropped into left-back and was nowhere near as effective, allowing McGlashan, Jombati and, at times, Penn to get more joy down that side.
We were the better side in the second half. Our midfield, with Penn a lionheart and Taylor (in his best game for us so far) a more than able lieutenant, was on top, and in Harrison we had a willing worker up front.
Nothing against Paul Benson, but Harrison is much more suited to that 'lone frontrunner' role.
He chased lost causes, won flick-ons, kept the centre-backs busy, was a target and outlet when we need one, and brought others into play. I can see why Yates was so keen to get him here and I am sure he will become a real asset to us.
I know he has only got one goal, and I know the jury is still out for those who judge strikers solely by how many goals they score whilst ignoring how hard they work, how they run the channels, how they bring others into the game, create space for runners, how they occupy defenders and all the other traits a good striker has, but I am convinced the goals will come for him.
There was another key figure in the game though. The referee. The Gills fans were not impressed, and their chant suggesting he was the man of the match, soon after Michael Hector was announced as the sponsors' choice, was good, sharp banter - and I have some sympathy.
Mr Allen was irate at a tackle by Mo on Charlie Lee, which left the Gills man down, and eventually forced him off. I thought it was a bit late, and Mo was lucky to get away with it, as was Penn for a challenge on Burton as he went through.
Also, Pack fired a free-kick into touch but was given another chance for an apparent rolling ball (how often are those brought back??), and when Brown made a hash of a clearance, he was let off the hook by an alleged foul by Burton.
No doubt in my mind that we did get the rub of the green from Mr Ward in that second half - but we've earned it over the course of the season...
The goal which decided it for us was a great header after Penn won a corner. Billy Jones did what he does best - fired the ball in to the near post, and Michael Hector did the rest, rising to find the postage stamp in the top corner. Unstoppable.
There were one or two little scares, notably Fish's cross-cum-shot which Brown tipped over, but otherwise Gillingham, even after going to 4-3-3, did not really threaten an equaliser, and but for Nelson's great block from Penn, we would have had a second.
I am going to give Nelson the credit for a good save rather than blame Russ for not scoring - and Mo deserves praise for a great run, and then looking up to see Russ and playing him in with a great pass.
Our win, and Port Vale's draw means we also stopped them taking the title, for now. So it prevented any worries about Mr Allen and his team celebrating on our pitch.
They will win the title, and good luck to them - over the course of the season they have been the best team, as the table shows - but we have taken four points from them, and kept two clean sheets.
That's more points than we took from York, or Accrington, or Dagenham, or Plymouth.
It just goes to highlight the inconsistency. No other team in League Two has lost less home games than our two, yet the away record is 11 points from 48.
One week we surrender meekly to a Plymouth team which could play Welling United next season, the next we play with pride, passion and drive against a Gillingham team, which might be facing Wolves.
That's why we are still sitting here chewing fingernails and pulling out what little hair we have left.
You cannot put your finger on it. Yates has been accused of picking the wrong team sometimes (but don't ask him about it in radio interviews...!!) but surely it has to be also down to the mindset of the players on occasions. The manager can only do so much.
Once they cross the white line and all that...
Whatever it is, we got it right on Saturday, and need to bottle it for Exeter next weekend, and then Bradford. Six points from those games and we might see Mr Allen back here again next season...
I won't be at Exeter, and am gutted to miss my first game of the season, but it's my Mum's 80th birthday, so that has to come first.
Instead of sitting next to Pete in the St James' Park commentary box, I will be talking with family members I haven't seen for years with the radio commentary in my ears, hoping that we keep the dream alive for that Bradford game, which, if results fall right, could end up being a top-three shoot-out. Now that would be special.
I've already booked May 2 off work for the play-off final first leg, but that is one day that I wouldn't mind making the trip up the M5 to Worcester for a day sat at my desk.
Oh - and Martin, hope you enjoyed reading this...!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Top three gone?

Three games to go, and after a topsy-turvy few weeks which has polarised our inconsistency perfectly even I - the eternal optimist - is ready to accept that automatic promotion has gone.
Recently, we have brushed Rotherham aside, and battled past Northampton - two good results against rivals for a top-three place, where we looked like true candidates ... but then we have gone to Burton and started well before gifting them the points, doing the same at Port Vale after a stirring comeback.
But it was at Plymouth on Saturday where the door finally closed. As insipid a performance as we have seen all season, up there with the surrenders at Rochdale and Chesterfield and the slogfest at Dagenham for the moniker of 'worst display of the season'
However, Home Park is only one of the games we will look back on at the end of the season and say 'if only...'.
A look at the table sees Argyle, Accrington, Aldershot, York and Dagenham as five of the teams still looking over their shoulders, unable as yet to put away the directions to Braintree and Alfreton.
Since Christmas, we have played all five - Argyle, Accrington ad Dagenham away, and York and Aldershot at home, and picked up three points from 15. These are the 'if only' games.
Yes, I know if we win our last three games, we could still sneak in, but are there many out there who can see our Jekyll and Hyde side beating champions-elect Gillingham, a maverick Exeter who seem to have the deckchairs out already and a resurgent Bradford team who seem to be this season's Crewe? I don't think so.
I hate being negative about our chances. It is not in my mindset, and I would love to be sat here on April 28, extremely hung over eulogising about our season and hailing Yatesy and the players as heroes.
I know teams around us still have to play each other - but looking back at it we should not be in the position where we are relying on others for handouts.
I just can't see it - and, let's face it, does a frustratingly and at times ridiculously inconsistent team like we have really deserve that ultimate accolade of a top-three finish.
We have done half the job. An 18-match unbeaten home record is fantastic and has not got the credit it deserves, mainly because on the flip side our form away from home has been so dreadful.
Our home record is the third best in the division - away from home we sit 16th. On the road we have the same number of points (23) as the bottom two, York and Aldershot.
The first six away games brought three wins and three draws - since then, we have won two away games (Northampton and Southend) since October - in that time taking 11 points from a possible 48 on the road - won two, drawn five, lost nine.
I am not going to go into the whys and wherefores, wondering if it is all down to the manager's tactics and team selections, player mindsets, or blaming overnight stays, players missing team buses or whatever - but that is where the automatic promotion bus has been missed.
Our home record is better than last season's at the same point (13-6-2 compared to 11-5-5) but away from home we had a record of 9-3-9 at this point, compared to 5-8-9.
The overall points tally is the same - we also had 68 points at this time last season, but from one fewer game, and we are one place better off in the table this time around.
Is it a poorer league this season? Maybe, but I think it is a more even league. That is borne out by the scrap at the bottom, where the usual first target of 50 points for survival may not even be enough this time around.
Aldershot are bottom on 45, and Dagenham, who have 51, cannot yet consider themselves truly safe from the drop.
Going back through the teams I have seen, I cannot say there has been one or two really poor sides. Practically all of the sides we have played have been tough nuts to crack, or have played well against us, at least in patches of the game.
Wycombe in the two games we played them were probably the worst side, yet they sit happily in mid-table not going up or down.
It really has been a curate's egg of a season. From one week to the next, we have not known what we are going to get from our team - and even during matches a good start has turned into a dismal finish or vice versa.
The same side which battled its way to beat Northampton then surrendered meekly at Plymouth; a team which could have been four down at Vale then hit back to lead before giving it all away again. Is it any wonder fans and managers lose their rag sometimes...?
Overall is not automatic promotion credentials and is why we are looking at the play-off lottery once again as our salvation, unless we can win the last three...
One more win should be enough to cement us in that top seven. Of those outside the zone, Chesterfield and Exeter can get 72 points, Fleetwood and Southend 69, with us on 68, but if we get to 71 that should be that.
It goes without saying that Saturday would be the sweetest time to get that sorted. Yes, they are going to win the league and everyone's favourite former manager will win some silverware but it would be nice to end their long unbeaten away run.
I am not going back over why the Gillingham manager is not my cup of tea (I did that HERE) and I am sure our Radio Glos effects mic will be busy on Saturday but in all the willingness to give him some much deserved flak, I hope people remember our players need backing to win an important game.
We will need to go into the play-offs (if that's where we end up) with some momentum, and a win over the champions-elect would be a good way to start.