Wednesday, 26 March 2014


I wasn't going to write a blog on last night's game, then I came home and clicked through my Twitter timeline and changed my mind.
The reaction to the defeat was, in many cases, over the top, and a complete over-reaction in my view. It just mirrored what has been happening all season.
Recurring uses of the word 'disaster' and describing the campaign as 'the worst in the club's history', which doesn't completely fit in with what I have seen over the past eight months.
I am not kidding myself into thinking this has been a wonderful season - it hasn't. But it certainly hasn't been the unmitigated disaster some would lead you to believe it has.
It is not a disaster. A plane disappearing, and crashing with the loss of 200-plus people as we have seen in the Far East is a disaster. A football club losing a few games is nowhere near that.
The worst season we could have in our history would result in us losing our league status, going into administration, or suffering huge financial issues. None of those things have happened, even if the doom-mongers would have you believe it could still happen in the next few weeks.
All we have done this season is reverted back to our natural level in the footballing pecking order after two seasons of over-achievement - a mid-table team, financed by a mid-table budget, watched by mid-table crowds.
Last night we came up against a confident side, on a 22-game unbeaten run, with some top-quality players on decent money.
Paddy Madden cost £300,000 - just under a third of our wages budget - and won't be on peanuts having come from a team two divisions higher. Gary McSheffrey once cost £4million and I am sure has not gone to Scunthorpe for the fun of it, while David Syers has also left a club two divisions higher for Glanford Park.
It is a simple fact that we cannot compete with that sort of financial clout.
Good luck to them if they can sustain it, and continue financing it, but last night, for the first 45 minutes, we competed with them on the pitch.
Then one silly free-kick given away, and a half-chance seized upon in the box by an in-form striker, and we were chasing the game. Then another unnecessary free-kick and some poor marking gave him another goal.
The penalty gave us an opportunity, but it was missed - good save in my view, rather than poor penalty - and after that we looked deflated, bereft of confidence, and Scunthorpe showed us how a team closes a game out when they are 2-0 down midway through the second half.
We never looked like getting back into it, and so now we have seven games left of a season which I think we all just want to see the back of.
As usual, the accusations were of a lack of effort, and the players not trying, not caring, not being bothered etc. It is all too easy to throw barbs like that about, but I don't agree with them. Only the players know how hard they try, and how much effort they put in.
I thought the effort and commitment was there, but we are simply not good enough, and were beaten by a better side, with better players.
If you think they don't care by the way, if you get the chance to see Sido's post-match interview, do so. Hopefully Jon Palmer will put it up as a video in the next few days - it is worth a listen.
And of course the defeat brought back once again to the fore the names of Russ Penn and Keith Lowe, mainly because we lost and York have moved into the play-off places.
I have to say I am finding it all very tiresome now. They have gone. They wanted to go and we need to move on.
Believe it or not, we lost matches while Penn and Lowe were here. We dropped points from winning positions with them in the side (just as many as we have this season).
Penn was not in the side at times this season on merit. He admitted it himself. Lowe, in all of his time here, was never a long-term first-choice player at right back or centre-half.
They were good players (as were Pack, Summerfield, Bennett and all the others who crop up with monotonous regularity after a poor result) but they are not here now. It's the way football goes, players come and go .
Penn and Lowe are not the sole reason for York hitting a good run of form, and their departures are not the sole reason why we are not in the hunt for the play-offs. We weren't in that hunt when they were here.
We will finish somewhere between 11th and 17th - disappointing given the heights of the past two seasons, but not a complete and utter disaster. Ask Torquay, Northampton, Portsmouth, Wycombe and Bury if they would swap places with us. I am sure they would.
This is only the third season in 15 League campaigns that we have been in this position, floating along in mid-table with nothing to play for.
The other campaigns have seen us challenging in some way shape or form for the play-offs, trying to stay in the division above, or staving off the drop in Mark Yates' first half-season, so I don't think we have had it that bad overall, for a club of our size.
Yes, our size. Face facts, we are not a big club, however much some like to massage their ego by suggesting we are. The middle of League Two is our rightful standing in life.
This season never got started. If I sat down and wrote a book about our League campaigns, this one would have a pretty short chapter. It will be forgotten quickly.
Whether it be poor recruitment, managerial tactics and organisation, players not performing, individual mistakes or a combination of all four, it will be glossed over.
Those things were not a huge problem for the large part of the previous two seasons, as most of the time we were playing some good football and winning games. This season we haven't done enough of either.
The problem is that the mindset of the fans has changed. The supporters who were once just happy to be in the Football League now want more, and after nearly getting it for the past two seasons, the bar has been raised.
Mid-table in League Two is not what they want. The club has competed for the past two seasons against the bigger-money sides like Scunthorpe, but it hasn't happened this season, so many of them have turned their backs, which is their right of course, but which I find a huge disappointment.
Look around. Portsmouth, Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Hereford. Five clubs who have all played at the two highest levels of the Football League in the past 30-40 years, and have since slipped down. Their supporters have stuck by them, through thick and thin.
Isn't that what being a football fan is all about? Sticking by your side through thick and thin? Maybe I am just being old-fashioned, but I thought it was, rather than chucking in the towel during a sticky patch.
I know that the entertainment value, especially in home games, this season has been negligible. People pay a lot of money for football these days, not just here but all across the leagues, but they haven't had the rewards for that this season.
I am not criticising those who turn up every week and those who will be on the road to Hartlepool. They deserve a lot of plaudits for their loyalty, especially this season as it has not been an easy watch.
But their number is diminishing, and that trend will ultimately cause the club big problems, and will eventually lessen our ability to compete at this level - which is exactly the reason some have given for turning their backs.
You cannot force people to come, and people can spend their money the way they choose. But it is disappointing to see people giving up on the club after one middle-of-the-road season.
They talk of a lack of investment. The board invest what they can, they invest back in the money which comes through the gates. That money goes down, the less gets invested, the lower the budget becomes, the harder it becomes to compete. You cannot spend what you don't have, and I do not get why people expect the club to do so. Speculate to accumulate, boom or bust, is the road to ruin.
Fans all over football want more all the time. If their club finishes 12th, it should have been 11th. If they win 2-0, it should have been three.
There is no bottomless pit of money. The board cannot keep putting in money and finding funds that are not there, that is a simple fact of economics. Financial fair play rules will hopefully stop clubs spending money they don't have in the future.
The board have done a fantastic job over the past 15 years in looking after the club, improving the ground and steering through some sticky waters, but now they face a vicious circle, which the sacking of a manager or the shipping out of a bunch of players this summer is not going to solve.
I wish I had the answer, but it is not a change of chairman or a new board. The succession to Paul Baker is the biggest decision this club will make in the coming years.
Get that one wrong, and this season could pale into insignificance compared to what might be over the horizon - ask Notts County, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Wrexham, Hereford or Coventry City fans about having the wrong people in charge. It's the old mantra - be careful what you wish for.
Sack the manager. That always seems to be the solution. Torquay did that. So did Northampton. And Portsmouth. They are in the bottom three, and may wonder if the change has been worth it.
It is not a magic wand for success. Sometimes it can give the club a lift for a few weeks (Crystal Palace for instance - but they have faltered again) but rarely can it bring a massive change. Scunthorpe are an exception, rather than the norm.
Mark Yates came into the club when it was at a low ebb, saved us from the drop, stabilised us and then nearly took us up. Nearly. This season has been unable to sustain that challenge for whatever reasons, but I think he deserves the chance to see if he can re-ignite it.
This summer (and the first 10-15 games of next season) is massive for him. For two years he got his recruitment right, and was rewarded with two play-off campaigns. Last summer he got it wrong, as has been proved, so he has to find that magic formula again.
I'd by lying if I said next season doesn't worry me a bit with some strong teams coming up from the Conference, again with big crowds and financial power which will make League Two stronger, but after what he did over his first three seasons here overall, he deserves that chance to take on that challenge, in my view.
Cut the prices, they say. That is no magic wand that automatically bring more people through the gates. We did that against Southend a few years back after the first game was abandoned, and the crowd of 2,229 was one of the lowest in our League history. Last night's was, by the way, our second-worst of the season.
The £1 for students offer against Bury was not a great success. The club are trying, with free football for under 11s, and other incentives, but the bottom line seems to be that people are not interested.
Same goes for the Trust, who get negligible support from people wanting to join, or get involved in the running and staging of events. These people work very hard but get little or no backing from the rest of our fanbase and deserve better.
Why not join it? The Trust is one of the biggest shareholders in the club, and the best way the fans will get a say in the club, by hopefully one day getting a seat on the board. Yet the membership is about 120. Poor.
Entertainment or results is something that forever crops up. In my view, results are the more important. A season of scrappy 1-0 wins wouldn't be good to watch, but you would get promoted.
It is no good playing tippy-tappy football and not winning matches, as you will get relegated.
Scunthorpe were not spectacular last night, but they got the job done. No flair, no frills. Just a well-drilled side who put in the perfect away performance. Solid at the back and ruthless up front - putting away their only two on-target efforts. We all aspire to that, but we are short of it at the moment.
People also say 'we were told we'd be going for the play-offs'. Yes, that was the aim. Of course it was, but things don't always work out.
I am sure Torquay, Northampton and Portsmouth didn't tell their fans in pre-season that they aim to be in the relegation fight. Every club has aspirations, but they won't be met every season, it's a fact of life.
'The club promises us big signings to make us buy season tickets - they never happen'. This is another frequent complaint.
This summer, we signed Jamie Cureton, one of the biggest 'names' the club has had in its history. It hasn't worked out.
 Last night, Scunthorpe's two goals was scored by Sam Winnall, a player freed by Wolves after loan spells with Burton, Hereford, Inverness and Shrewsbury (scoring nine goals in total, in 33 games), taking his tally for the season to 21.
Imagine if this summer we signed Winnall, and Cureton had gone to Scunthorpe. "Why have we got a Wolves reject". "He is just a kid, we need experience". "His record isn't very good". "We should have signed Cureton".
All signings are a gamble. Cureton could have come here and scored 21 goals, and Winnall could have struggled. Nothing is ever certain.
Big names and huge salaries are not a guarantee of success. We could sack Mark Yates tomorrow, and appoint Robbie Fowler as our manager. Crowds might go up for a few weeks, but we would probably end up in the Conference.
There is no easy answer. I wish I could find it.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


After a night's sleep, I still haven't got my head around yesterday's mad happenings at Kingsmeadow.
For 95 and a half of the 99 minutes, it was the perfect away performance - we controlled the game, were solid at the back, dangerous up front and running the midfield.
But for three minutes and a second or two in the sixth minute of injury time, we were a shambles, and those were the minutes which ultimately decided the game.
For a side to fold as we did from such a position of strength was a shambles - and showed the lack of backbone which crops up every now and then.
Some will compare it to Chesterfield the other week - but they were ruthless finishes against a quality side - this was a collapse against a side who had barely had a shot of note all afternoon, and had been second best.
Others will cite a lack of leaders on the pitch, and use it to once again bring up the departures of Russ Penn and Keith Lowe, and before that Alan Bennett - but we have seen similar collapses with them on the field in the past, with 4-1 losses at Rochdale and Chesterfield, and the game earlier this season at Bury coming to mind.
It was just spineless, and I am afraid even those who have the biggest agenda against the manager cannot put this one at his door. He had set the players up perfectly, got the selection and tactics spot on and could not have done any more. His players let him down.
People will say it's his team, and his fault, but I don't go with that on this occasion as he could have done no more - no-one, not even the most ardent Dons fan, could have seen that coming.
First the good bit. Mark Yates shuffled the team around, and brought back the diamond. Not all thought that was the right decision and I certainly had my doubts about it, but it was working.
We got the perfect start with Troy Brown's header in the first five minutes - our 10th goal this season in the first 15 minutes of a league game.
But maybe we should have seen the omens coming, as this collapse means we have only won two of those games in which we have scored so early - away at Fleetwood and home to Exeter.
We looked confident though. David Noble's return was a welcome one, and he seemed to bring the best out of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, who won the battle in midfield and gave Byron Harrison and Jermaine McGlashan plenty to feed off.
We were as dangerous in the final third as we have been all season. McGlashan's pace and Harrison's willing running and hold-up play was too much for the Dons' back line and we were comfortable.
McGlashan should have had a goal in the first half, but when he got on the end of Harrison's perfect cut back five minutes into the second half, we were in cruise mode.
Remember this was a Dons side which has struggled to score goals recently. We haven't been prolific either, so to go into a 2-0 lead away from home (or in any game) is virtually unknown territory.
It should have been enough. Scott Brown had had little to do, the defence had dealt with what threat there was from front two Jack Midson and Charlie Wyke as the game entered its' final quarter.
Neal Ardley had used all three of his substitutes. Jake Nicholson had come on at half-time, then he put Chris Arthur on at left-back as McGlashan was having the other one on toast, and he threw on an extra forward in Danny Hylton.
He had to do something as the home fans were very restless, and all three of them had an impact, but only because we allowed them to.
McGlashan should have wrapped the game up with a chance similar to the one he missed in the first half. Once again he did Darren Jones for pace, but dragged his shot across the face of goal.
It shouldn't have mattered as we had that two-goal cushion - but it did.
Everyone knows that it is a dangerous lead. We should have closed the game out, and not given the home fans anything to cheer, and the home players anything to grasp on to.
But three minutes after that, we were behind.
The first two goals had an element of luck about them, but for both we allowed Midson too much space down our right-hand side.
The first ball in found Hylton, and his first touch looked to be going wide but went in off Sido. Midson's second pass was square to Nicholson on the edge of the box, and his shot hit Richards and wrong-footed Brown.
Two subs, two shots, two deflections, two goals. Yes, a stroke of luck for both, but they should not have been given the opportunities.
It got worse with the third goal. Barry Fuller's long ball, an unchallenged flick-on, and Hylton skipped through to score past our shell-shocked, static and square back four.
Our heads were mentally scrambled. That third goal, I am sure, was a direct result of the first two, which had left us with sagging shoulders and dropped heads.
The lead was gone in the blink of an eye, from a position of comfort to chasing the game, which, to be fair, we did as Taylor benefited from more Harrison spadework to score, thanks to a goalkeeping error (more of that later).
More stats - this is the only second time we have scored three goals in a league game this season, and only the fifth time we scored two goals in one half - we drew three of them 2-2, with Burton, York and Hartlepool at home, and beat Morecambe at home.
Three goals away from home has been a bigger rarity - Northampton away last season was the last time it happened in a league game, and before that you go back to Oxford and Bristol Rovers in the heady days of 2011-12, then at Macclesfield and we scored five at Dagenham. It also happened in the FA Cup at Luton.
One difference - we won all those games. We should have won this one as well and I am afraid the reason we did not is ultimately down to a player who has saved us single-handedly on many occasions.
Despite that, Scott Brown has his critics. Those who say he doesn't come off his line enough, and doesn't do enough to command his box.
They have a point to a certain extent, but I think Brown is in the top five goalkeepers in this division. It is rare when we have to say he is at fault for a goal, but this one is down to him.
It was a decent cross, but having decided to get something on it, he had to get there. He didn't. Wyke won the header and Midson had a tap-in.
It is ironic given his perceived failings, but I think if he had stayed on his line, I don't think the Dons would have scored. Wyke would have headed the ball across goal, but then Brown could just have plucked it out of the air, and we would have come away with a point.
There were six minutes added on, and my watch timed the goal going in at six minutes and seven seconds. The last kick - literally.
Not the reward we should have had after the performance for the vast majority of the game, but at least it would have been something.
The bottom line is we should have won the game. We deserved to win the game, and the lack of mental strength among the players is the reason we didn't win the game.
It is something the manager needs to address, as it is the fourth game we have lost this season from being in front, and add that to eight draws when we have been leading, that is 28 points given away.
28 points. With those, we would have 76 points and a comfortable lead at the top of the table. Think about that for a moment.
But if you think this is a problem just confined to this season, then think again. Our 28 points lost is the biggest number in the division - and we also held that record last season, yes - with the much-lamented and missed Penn, Lowe and Bennett in the squad.
Last season, we lost 26 points from winning positions - again we lost four games after we were winning, and we drew seven, so this is not a new issue.
That would have taken us up comfortably. Two seasons ago, we only gave 10 points away from winning positions, and gained 14. Again, those lost points would have taken us up.
But look at those last two seasons in particular - 54 points lost. Mind-blowing.
Most of those games have been when we have led by a goal, or ended up drawing a game from 2-0 up. The last time I can find a Cheltenham Town losing a game from two goals in front is August 21, 2010 when we led 3-1 at the Don Valley against Rotherham, and lost 6-4.
When Steve Cotterill looked to bring players in, he used to target two things - club captains and players-of-the-year - Neil Howarth and Mark Yates were players he brought in under that criteria as they were leaders.
Now Yates and Howarth need to take a leaf out of his book. On the field we need leadership, and we need players with mental strength, and that is partly where the summer recruitment needs to be focused.
We need some characters. Players who are going to fight all the way for the shirt, and put their bodies on the line. We had them in Penn, Lowe and Bennett, but the manager let them go, I hear some say, but the stats above show they too were part of teams which let games slip away.
It is not an easy solution, but one that needs to be found, or this club will never get out of League Two.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

So that's that then...

Ah well, it was good while it lasted. Hope you enjoyed it.
What, I hear you ask...?
Those 11 brief, unforgettable, tantalising minutes when Cheltenham Town had a chance of getting into the play-offs.
Those 11 minutes between Byron Harrison's 68th minute goal, and Dean Morgan's 79th minute penalty, where there was that little crack of light into the promised land of the top seven before it was slammed shut again.
I know we can mathematically still make it. We are six points behind with nine games left, but take away the sentimentality and heart-ruling-the-head thinking and we all know it isn't going to happen.
We know it especially after this, another curates' egg of a performance, another to put into the 'sums up or season' bracket, and consign to the 'quickly forgotten as a spectacle' pile.
I thought we started off okay, lost our way for a bit, then got a bit better, and finally lost our way again. Seven months summed up again in 90 minutes, something we have seen far too often.
We are just not good enough. Not enough quality, not enough ruthlessness in key areas, not enough players who can change a game by taking it by the scruff of the neck and dominating it.
The effort is there. Troy Brown, Steve Elliott, Sam Deering and Terry Gornell epitomised that for me. Brown and Elliott are a decent pairing looking reasonably solid each game, Deering and Gornell both try very hard, but neither has the quality to really affect a game, and make tight encounter into a comfortable win.
I feel sorry for Gornell. I am a fan of his, like his work-rate and he has ability. But nothing is going his way. He needs a goal desperately, but I am not sure he is being helped his role in the system.
All of his career, he has played up front and now is being asked to do a different job which is alien to him, and while he does it wholeheartedly he must be frustrated when he looks 10-15 yards up the field and sees Jamie Cureton missing chances he must wish were falling to him. I am convinced that if he played further forward, Gornell would be a success.
Cureton has been a great player, and has a great goalscoring record, but we have not seen that.
We have not seen the 20-goal man from Exeter last season, we have not seen enough of the instinctive finisher and goal poacher from Bristol Rovers, Norwich, QPR and Reading.
Is that down to lack of service? Partly maybe.
But lack of service wasn't why he missed those golden chances at Scunthorpe, Tamworth and Northampton to name three, or why last night he found himself one on one with the last defender on three or four occasions but was easily dispossessed each time or why that late header from Deering's perfect cross was closer to the corner flag.
Have we expected too much? Maybe, but I think we are entitled to expect more of a player with his record and pedigree - but ultimately I am afraid we have another Bob Taylor scenario here, a player with past glories who has come here as he is heading down the other side of the hill.
It was always a gamble for us to put our goalscoring faith in the hands of a 38-year-old, but this is, I am afraid, like most of my gambles at the races last week. A loser.
Once again, it took a change up front to bring us a goal, and once again it was Byron who provided it. He has 13 goals now, a decent return in a struggling, mid-table side.
On the flanks, Ashley Vincent looked leggy. Seven games in a row after four or five months of nothing is taking its' toll, while Jermaine McGlashan had a wretched first half and improved slightly when the diamond came back and he moved more central. But only slightly.
Post-match he said there had been 'brief discussions' about a new contract and didn't want to talk about the situation. For someone who usually find it difficult to stop talking in interviews, this is very telling.
Everyone knows he won't be here next season. The club will try to keep him, but his agent is, I am sure, already hard at work, but judging on performances like last night will he be missed?
His pace will, but has there, over the past 100 or so games he has played for us, been enough end product?
He has undoubtedly won us matches down the years, but has he done it often enough?
I say no, in terms of goals and assists, and if he goes up a level to League One that is something he needs to work on if he doesn't want to join Kaid Mohamed in the 'quickly discarded' file.
I don't see him as someone like Martin Devaney or Marlon Pack - someone who will go on and forge a career higher up and play a decent number of games in League One or the Championship.
It was good to see David Noble again and he definitely brings a calm to us - although his introduction did mean we saw that diamond again. It is not a loved formation and is blamed by many for this season's travails.
Noble is not fully fit, and it showed at times. His passing though was good, bar one vital moment, when he gave the ball away in the lead up to the mess which resulted in the penalty.
Another interesting area at the moment is our full-back positions. At right-back, we have Mitch Brundle, who in his four games has played well in three of them and discovered he has a long throw into the bargain.
He has never played right back before, and has displaced another out-of-position loanee in Michael Ihiekwe, and has out-performed him with better distribution and better aerial ability.
Brundle, we are told, is effectively on trial with a view to next season, and on the evidence of three of his games so far might have a chance. I'd like to see him at centre-half though, if that is his number one position.
His introduction has shifted Sido Jombati to left back, and pushed CBB out (not before time, a large number of fans would say), and we have looked a bit more solid since that happened.
The club has an option for another year on CBB's deal, but his recent axing must mean the writing is on the wall there. As for Sido, he is still nowhere near the player who burst on the scene two years ago, and there is still a decision to made for me about whether he gets another contract.
In fact, Scott Brown is the only 'must-keep' player for me on the out of contract list. Jombati is 50-50, while I cannot see Deering, Elliott and Cureton being retained along with CBB.
I would keep Connor Roberts but he might want to go and find regular games somewhere and no-one could begrudge him that, while we haven't seen Joe Hanks or Ed Williams. I'd keep Joe, but think Ed will go.
Troy Brown, Jason Taylor, Matt Richards, Zack Kotwica, Harrison and Gornell have another year.
One or two of them could be made available, who knows for example if Taylor would want to stay if he isn't going to get games, but these players will form the basis of  the summer rebuilding job.
With nine games left, and mid-table mediocrity all we have to play for now, I want to see Zack given some starts, and maybe the odd run-out for some other youngsters.
There is one other thing that we definitely needs resolving, and very quickly please - the manager's contract.
If he is going to stay on, then can we please just get it signed, and be done with it, so we can all move on. If he isn't going to sign it, then let's just say so and give someone else these last few games in charge to bring down a very welcome curtain on this difficult and ultimately forgettable season.

Monday, 17 March 2014

We couldn't... could we?

During the half-time break on Saturday, I walked along the main stand with my son, and down the stairs into the bar.
Along the way, I saw lots of head-scratching and finger-pointing, and was stopped twice to ask how many times I had been tempted to swear during the opening 45 minutes of commentary.
The answer is quite a few, but I had managed to bite my tongue in what was probably the worst halves we have seen this season. And, yes, it has some competition.
It was truly dire. Gutless and passionless, with no desire, will to win any 50-50s, no passing ability or real commitment. I don't think we put together more than three passes in one go, and it was a mirror of the games with Accrington and Mansfield - where we think it is acceptable to just turn up and win.
When they play like this, you can understand why this group of players is so unloved.
Torquay passed around us with ease, and with some more cutting edge up front they could have been ahead, and we would have had no complaints about that.
Mitch Brundle and Ashley Vincent, who was the only player to actually be positive and look confident when he got the ball at his feet, can be excepted from the brickbats, and none of the other outfield players could have had a grievance if they had been hooked off.
The midfield was a mess. Sam Deering, Matt Richards and Terry Gornell were dominated easily, and there was none of the excellent and combative stuff we had seen from them at Portsmouth and Oxford.
I don't know what was said in the dressing room at half-time, but I hope they all got a rocket, as performances like that 45 minutes are exactly why there is so much apathy about, and why the crowds are at the level they are.
Fans are being short-changed by it and although it is a results business ultimately, halves like that will not bring the lost fans and the floating fans back.
After that shambles however, it was to their credit that they put it right after the break, helped in no small part by a quick substitution, with Byron Harrison replacing Gornell.
We all know how frustrating Byron can be. It was no surprise he was benched after two anonymous games at Portsmouth and Oxford, when we saw the languid, at times lazy, at times lethargic Byron.
But this time we saw the effervescent, pain-in-the-backside-for-defenders, holding the ball up, running the channels and working hard Byron - the one we wish we could see all the time.
From the moment he went on, we looked a different side. We had a focal point up front, a pivot to play off, and someone, finally, to pose a concerted threat to a Torquay defence which had been given an easy ride, bar one Jamie Cureton shot which was saved.
It is so frustrating for us - but imagine how Mark Yates must feel, not knowing which Byron is going to turn up, and knowing that, nine times out of 10, he is going to have to make a substitution before the team can look like posing any kind of attacking threat, as he has had to in the last two games.
Chances are Byron will now start tomorrow against Wycombe. Which one will we see...?
After bringing on Byron, Yates then turned to trying to sort our midfield out. David Noble made his second cameo appearance, and the decision who to take off was a flip-of-the-coin job as Richards and Deering had been equally bad.
Heads for Deering, tails for Richards. It was heads, so off came Deering. A good decision as it turned out, with Richards breaking his open-play duck with a nice finish - redeeming himself for an otherwise off-colour display.
The goal was made by a superb piece of skill by Vincent, which forced a defender to give a throw away, and then a long-throw from Vincent (no, I didn't even know he was capable of it either) which fell to Richards' feet after Harrison caused chaos.
It was interesting to see that with Harrison on the field with Cureton, we moved to play a 4-4-2, the formation we never seem to be able to play. We did the same on Tuesday at Oxford - and maybe with Noble back in the side, we can play it.
Besides the goal, Harrison and Troy Brown headed over, and bar one shot which Scott Brown saved near the end, we never looked like relinquishing the lead.
Brundle had an excellent game, and in his three games has looked good twice - the other game being Chesterfield, when he wasn't alone in looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
And it was good to see the crowd top 3,000, and I was also pleased to hear some good noise from the LMI stand in the second half - despite all the trials and tribulations, and, frankly, despite some of the rubbish served up at home the crowd has, by and large, stuck by the side.
Yes, there have been boos after poor halves and poor performances and results, that is going to happen, and at times this season has been justified.
This time, we have to just sit back and say a win is a win. It wasn't pretty at all. Sometimes it doesn't matter how you win, as long as you do.
Now, ahead of tomorrow's game with Wycombe, we find ourselves in 11th place, five points off seventh, with this game in hand to play. Madness.
A win tomorrow will be our third in a row at home, after we had previously won three out of 16 at home.
It is bonkers, and further sums the division up that Southend, with six draws and four defeats in their last 10 games, are still in the zone. Above them are Oxford, who looked no great shakes against us, and have two wins in 10.
York are the team on the surge (unbeaten in eight), and Plymouth have climbed up also, but - ridiculous as it may sound - a win tomorrow and we are there as well.
Here's a few stats - in our last 10 games are won three, drawn five, lost two. Away from home we have lost two in 13 (Burton and Bristol Rovers).
In our last eight games, we have four clean sheets, and conceded one goal in three of the others. The eighth game was that mad seven minutes against Chesterfield, which in the grand scheme of things hasn't proved too costly for us.
So we have, that game aside, become more difficult to beat, more solid and resilient - at the right time of the season. Unspectacular and difficult to watch still, but definitely on the whole tougher to break down.
We have some tough games left. Three of the current top seven, Scunthorpe, Southend and Fleetwood, still have to come to us. We still have to go to Rochdale, and the side who sit just above us, Hartlepool.
Yet it really would be the supreme irony, wouldn't it, it this squad, this largely disregarded, derided mish-mash of a group of players, could succeed where the still heralded Pack-Penn-Summerfield-Bennett axis failed, and went all the way.
It is still a huge outside bet, but stranger things have happened. Crewe and Bradford were huge outside bets in the last two seasons, and they came through the pack with late momentum, sneaking into the top seven at the very end of the 46 games, and then went all the way.
What this side has in its' favour is the lack of expectation, eroded by inconsistency and performances like Saturday's first 45 minutes.
For the past two seasons, we were always in the mix, and could (no, should) have finished in the top three.
This time, no one, maybe outside that dressing room, thinks it is going to happen. I certainly don't, but as the table stands ahead of tomorrow's game, it cannot be definitely ruled out.
In public, the manager is targeting eighth. In private, I bet he isn't.
But anyway, that's enough optimism. If we lose tomorrow, we will be looking over our shoulders again, and this talk of the top seven can be canned.
However, if we win...
No, surely not. It couldn't happen. Could it?

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two points on the road

IT is a microcosm of Cheltenham Town's season that we should come back after a week on the road with two points out of six, and be left wanting more.
The width of a post was all that is separating us from a maximum haul  - and then we would be sitting in 10th place, three points off the play-offs, with these two home games to come.
Could be, if only, what if... Story of the season, but the truth is we are 14th - equi-distant between 7th and 23rd, the ultimate mid-table side, and exactly where we deserve to be on performances and results.
Portsmouth was always going to be a stern test, one of the biggest of the season, even more so when they cut the prices and packed the place out with nearly 17,000 home fans.
Mental strength is something which has been lacking at times this season, and this was going to be another examination for it - and we passed with flying colours.
The 4-2-3-1 system employed in recent weeks has served us well - we have looked more resilient, harder to break down, and better balanced with outlets down both flanks.
That was the case at Fratton Park, especially in the first half, when we put in what I thought was one of the best 45 minutes of the season.
The stats post-match said we didn't have a shot on target which was strange to me as Jermaine McGlashan and Terry Gornell both forced saves from Trevor Carson with shots that definitely would have gone in, and then there was Ashley Vincent's piledriver off the post.
Although we could not keep up that attacking momentum in the second half, we still looked relatively comfortable, leaving the home crowd frustrated.
Led by Troy Brown, we turned in an excellent defensive performance. Having seen Portsmouth play on TV at Chesterfield six days before our game there, the threats were going to come from Ricky Holmes and Jed Wallace down the flanks.
That put pressure on Michael Ihiekwe and Sido Jombati in the full-back areas, and they passed the test with flying colours, and Holmes and Wallace were kept very quiet.
In front of the them, Sam Deering and Matt Richards put in a good shift as we saw little of Wes Fogden and the formidable Toumani Diagouraga in the Pompey midfield.
Those six did a great job of nullifying the Portsmouth threat, and Scott Brown barely had a worthwile save to make - it was just a shame that we could not have taken one of those first-half opportunities and nicked the points.
Deering buzzed around but was let down once or twice by his decision-making with the final ball, but he competed superbly well against Diagouraga, a complete opposite to Sam in height and build.
We were not overawed by the occasion and surroundings, and we kept our shape and discipline well, and although we could not create anything in the second half, we dug in.
In the first half, Vincent, McGlashan and Gornell were a good outlet, but in the second half they couldn't get the same freedom - but it would have been a travesty if we had lost the game.
To be honest, that didn't look like happening bar that crazy little melee right at the end, and a point was what we deserved.
And so it was on to the Kassam, and after a nice new ground to visit, we had to go to a soulless three sided bowl where our 200-odd fans easily made more noise than the 4,000-odd home fans who bothered to turn up.
It was no real surprise that we were unchanged. The only switch I might have considered was Jamie Cureton for Byron Harrison, but that was only down to Byron's largely anonymous game at Fratton.
We found things a little bit more problematic here defensively, especially Ihiekwe, who was posed problems by James Constable laying a strange left-wing-cum-sort-of-striker role, coming in from out wide to attack far-post crosses.
He should have scored with two first-half headers but missed them both, and we rode our luck a bit when Dean Smalley got through and a terrible touch allowed Scott Brown to come off his line and block.
We didn't create anything of note in the first half, bar a trio of long shots, but we did cause ourselves a few problems by over-playing in our own half and occasionally putting people in trouble.
Another issue was the lack of movement in the final third. On several occasions, Deering or Richards had the ball 30-35 yards from goal, and there was no movement from the four ahead of them.
They were constantly static - in a straight line, with none of them making a little run, offering themselves for a short pass, or trying to spin off a defender into some space.
As the first hour of the game came and went, we started to look leggy, and it was no surprise when Cureton and David Noble were introduced, or that Harrison and Vincent, the most anonymous pair on the night, we given the hook.
The fresh legs, especially Cureton's, gave us a lift, and while it as good to see Noble on the field he did look ring-rusty, which is hardly a shock after his long lay-off.
We fell behind, but were a bit unfortunate. The 'playing someone into trouble' bug struck though as Richards gave the ball to Elliott, and his clearance hit Ryan Williams, who controlled the ricochet, and then, to be fair to him, produced a decent finish.
It seemed our luck was out as that happened seconds after Ryan Clarke somehow nudged a Cureton header onto the post from a superb Richards free-kick.
So we were behind with 15 minutes left, and more often than not that would be that, but we had a bit of luck of our own (or benefited from Cureton's 'fox in the box' tendencies, whichever is your viewpoint).
Zack Kotwica had a shot on goal, which didn't seem to have enough power to be going in, until Cureton got something on it and it looped in.
Exactly what that 'something' was is open to some conjecture, but we might well have got a point 'with a goal off someone's backside' - something we so often say we would settle for in these circumstances, but which rarely materialises. Until now.
So another hard-won point on the road, taking our overall record to 6-6-6, the ninth best in the league, and better than at this stage last year, when we were 5-7-7 from one more game.
The draw also means we have only lost two of our last 13 on our travels, not a bad record and testament to some newly-found resilience after those meek surrenders in Bury and Torquay back at the start of the season.
At home we are 4-8-5 ahead of this week's double-header (11-6-2 at this stage last season) so I am hardly telling anyone something they don't already know about why we are 14th in the table...
Six points from Torquay and Wycombe would take us to that pre-season nirvana of 50 points, and end once and for all any lingering worries about going down this season (and could re-ignite play-off talk for the super-positive...).
Four points would just about extinguish the relegation flames but any less would keep them fanned for a little bit longer as it would allow those below us to squeeze in even tighter, if that were possible in this concertina of a league.
Deering's injury which saw him replaced on Tuesday might keep him out, and I suspect Yates will want to try and fit Noble in somewhere.
Harrison's insipid pair of games will surely see him benched, but the lingering question is whether Cureton can play the lone role in the 4-2-3-1. He has yet to convince me he can.
These two are 'attitude games'. Torquay and Wycombe are scrapping for their lives (they are the two sides I tip for the drop) so we will have to match their determination, something we have not done in the past - think Accrington and Mansfield especially.
In between our two away games, I saw something to cheer an old traditionalist (or stick-in-the-mud, whichever you prefer) like me - a CTFC win over Gloucester City.
OK, so it wasn't at a packed Whaddon Road or Meadow Park/Horton Road on a Boxing Day or Easter Monday, it was a GFA Senior Cup game played on a freezing night in the wrong county at Evesham United FC in front of 97 people, but who cares? We beat them.
We beat them with our youth team, plus Joe Hanks and Ed Williams. They fielded a team with six players who started the win over Stockport 48 hours earlier, and the win was, for me, more evidence for the mooted Under 21/development team.
Hanks, Ed and Harry Williams, Adam Powell, Bobbie Dale, James Bowen, Spencer Hamilton, Harvey Rivers and Elliott Keightley all stood up well against experienced players and Dale and Powell scored well-taken goals to win us the game.
Centre-halves Keightley and Hamilton stood out for me against the experience of Charlie Griffin, while midfield trio Hanks, Powell and Harry Williams grew into the game and Dale worked hard on his own up front.
They won't all make it, but I hope we give a majority of them every chance to do so with regular games in this under-21 team, allied with loans at clubs like Gloucester, Weston, Bath and Worcester - a decent level where they will get a taste of 'proper' football.
Most of those I have named above have played for John Brough at Bishop's Cleeve this season, while Powell has been to Redditch and Harry Williams to Farnborough, while Hanks is going to play some games at Gloucester.
Decisions on them will be made soon, but having seen them play a lot there is some talent in there and I hope we don't make the same mistake we did with players like Sam Foley and Kieran Thomas in the past, by discarding them after investing years of coaching and development in them.
The recent forum with the chairman and board saw fans saying they want less loanees and more chances for our youngsters. We are told that this is the best crop we have had, and I would concur with that.
I know we won't and can't keep them all, but I hope some are given the chance to bridge the gap between promising youngsters and first-team opportunity in the coming seasons.
It is crucial for our club to start regularly producing young players of its own. The Duff brothers, Andy Gallinagh and David Bird are the only real successes, while people like Adam Connolly, Marley Watkins and Theo Lewis flitted around the side briefly.
Some others have gone elsewhere, notably the brothers Courtney and Tyrone Duffus, now both on professional contracts at Everton -  keep and eye on their progress as the further they go, the more money we get.
It is down to finance as it always is at this level, but we have an academy, and it's about time we used it.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Confidence holds the key

Confidence is a much-used word in football - and in the last two home games we have seen just what an effect it can have on results and performances.
Against Chesterfield, we displayed a distinct lack of it at both ends of the pitch, and carried that on against Bury - until the final 10 minutes after Byron Harrison's winner, when it looked as though a massive weight had come off our collective shoulders.
Going into that Chesterfield game off the back of that fine, and unexpected win at Newport, we should have been exuding confidence.
As we have said so often this season, it was no surprise that we went out with the same side - after all they deserved that after the clean sheet and battling qualities we had seen at Rodney Parade.
For the first 20 minutes, we gave as good as we got again, had a half-chance or two, and could have gone in front, but then we were blown away in a mad seven minutes.
Three of the four goals we superb finishes, but could all have been prevented. The first saw Tommy Lee's clearance bounce over Sam Deering for Gary Roberts to cross and Dan Gardner to smash it in.
The second and third were our errors, giving the ball away and being punished, while the fourth was poor marking from a corner.
Aside from that, it wasn't our worst performance of the season and didn't really deserve all the criticism it got over social media, with maybe a few looking at the result rather than the overall performance.
We have played a lot worse at home - Accrington, Mansfield, Plymouth to name three games - but this brought the low confidence strikingly back into view. Terry Gornell could have had a hat-trick, Jermaine McGlashan had a decent chance or two - yet that tentativeness in replicating the ruthless finishing we saw at the other end and in the decision-making of picking the right pass at the right time to set up a better-placed team-mate made all the difference.
Defensively, the same back four looked a shadow of what we saw at Newport, but it was a different approach from Chesterfield.
At Newport, they had 33 crosses to deal with. Meat and drink for Michael Ihiekwe and Steve Elliott, and easier for Mitch Brundle and Craig Braham-Barrett to support them and tidy up when needed.
Chesterfield were different. They looked to play through us, using excellent movement, especially with Ollie Banks, Roberts, Gardner and Eoin Doyle, to pull us out of shape and exploit the space.
I felt sorry for Brundle - he is not the first player this season to have been given the runaround by Roberts, and he won't be the last, but was a rabbit caught in the headlights on occasions.
Braham-Barrett had a tough time against Gardner, and also had Tendayi Darikwa joining in from right-back.
They were not helped by our midfield two, especially in the first half, sitting deep and not pushing out to put pressure on the ball.
I am not sure if that was the game plan for Deering and Matt Richards to give Sam Morsy and Jimmy Ryan that space to dictate the tempo of the game and switch the ball to left and right, but that is what they were allowed to do.
They got a but closer to them in the second half, and hey presto the Chesterfield pair's influence was diminished and we were able to come into the game more.
The cynics will say that Chesterfield sat back with a four-goal lead and the game in the bag - that is true to an extent but we did show a bit of spine and pride and I am sure the pan was not for us to get a goal back, and for Lee to have to make saves from McGlashan and Ashley Vincent which, had those chances gone in, could have made the last few minutes more interesting.
But the damage had been done, and it was interesting to see Portsmouth's approach in their Sky game with Chesterfield on Monday.
They got in their faces, with Toumani Diagouraga especially prominent in this, and their 4-1-4-1 system worked well to nullify the midfield two who got free rein at our place, and also the threats out wide from Roberts and Gardner.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if we had taken that approach from the start... I am not saying we would have won the game but we might have made it a bit more competitive.
That result led to a 'clear the air' meeting on Wednesday and it seems some home truths were said from both sides. That is a good thing, and I hope it goes some way to dispelling these claims of players not caring.
We had Troy Brown in our commentary box for the Chesterfield game, and he was literally kicking and heading every ball. My arm is still sore as he grabbed it every time we went near the Chesterfield penalty area! He certainly cares.
Thankfully for my arm he was back in the side for the Bury game, and it was clear to see where Mark Yates felt the problems were from the Chesterfield loss - the full-back positions, with Ihiekwe and Sido coming in for Brundle and CBB.
We have used eight different centre-halves this season, and have also had five right-backs (Sido, Lowe, Ihiekwe, Brundle and unforgettably CBB at Tamworth) while CBB, Sido and Matt Richards have played at left-back. Is it any wonder we haven't kept 20 clean sheets this time round?
Sido's up-and-down form has caused a problem at right-back, while we have barely had a solid left-back since Jamie Victory retired (with a nod to Alan Wright and Billy Jones as the closest we have come).
The midfield five stayed the same against Bury, but again I didn't feel Deering and Richards did a good enough pressing job on their opposite numbers, with Andrew Tutte and especially Danny Mayor able to find some space and get on the front foot.
I am sure I was not the only one fearing the worst when they went in front - Danny Nardiello did very well, but the simplicity with which he skipped round Elliott was worrying, and only served as more evidence that Father Time may be catching up with Steve and this will unfortunately be the last season for a great servant to this club.
But the response was heartening. A quick equaliser, and a good finish from Ash for a second in three games. Like a new signing... and asking questions about what he could have done had he been used more earlier in the season, but that is water under the bridge now.
His presence in the side on that left side has finally given us the balance we have been crying out for all season, and gives us a threat from both sides of the pitch at last.
I am not convinced at all by Deering and Richards as a midfield two, and hopefully the sight of David Noble warming up before the Bury game means we will see him on Saturday at some point.
I like Gornell in that attacking midfielder role. I am sure he would rather be right up top with Jamie Cureton or Harrison, but he has the work rate to get up in support when needed (as he showed against Chesterfield with a hat-trick of great chances) and also to help out the others.
McGlashan set the winner up again, and it was almost a carbon copy of the Newport winner - Jermaine skinning his full-back, knocking a decent ball over, and Harrison going in where it hurts to score.
Byron made a difference when he came on. Jamie Cureton had, again, been pretty anonymous I am afraid. He links the play well occasionally, but does not provide a real focal point up front as that lone striker. The ball does not stick, and he does not provide that outlet we need.
There is no question in my mind that the signing has been a disappointment.
Whether that is because we haven't played to his strengths at all times is open for debate, and I see that view to an extent, but he cannot expect it all on a plate - I think his work-rate has been wanting at times, and although he has scored some well-taken and opprtunist goals, he has definitely missed some chances that should have been taken given his record and reputation.
After Byron's goal, we looked a different team immediately. The confidence shift was remarkable.
Gone were the slumped shoulders and bowed heads I had seen for the previous 80 minutes. Players were suddenly standing tall, with chests pumped out.
Gone was the listless lack of movement and urgency and it was replaced by quick tempo, passing and everyone suddenly wanting the ball rather than hiding away or treating it like a hot potato.
Bury never looked like getting an equaliser. They were pressed back and we could have had another goal or two in those last 10 minutes.
It was a fleeting glimpse of what we might have expected to see this season from this squad of players, and only served to provide more frustration at the way this campaign has turned out.
Byron's goal was a crucial one too in the bigger picture. As the only team to win in the bottom half of the table, we went up four places, and broke through that psychological 40-point barrier.
We can't be complacent yet, but it gives us some little breathing space as we go on to Portsmouth, a much-awaited game all season, and a big test against a side in decent form and coming off the back of that useful point at Chesterfield.
It was another sign of the ridiculous nature of League Two that their point at the Proact moved them up four places in the table.
They looked a very decent side when they drew 2-2 here earlier in the season, and we are expecting to face a 15,000 crowd at Fratton, so hopefully that confidence we showed in the closing stages on Saturday can be carried forward.
We cannot afford to be tentative like we were against Chesterfield. We need to take a leaf from Pompey's own book from Monday night and get in their faces on Saturday and try to silence that crowd early, that represents our best chance.