Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The dust settles...

So that was January, and it was just another run-of-the-mill month in the life of Cheltenham Town FC.
On the pitch it went from good at Oxford, to terrible at Hartlepool, so-so against Morecambe, a bit better against Luton, then plumbed the depths again at Dagenham.
Off the pitch however, it hasn't been dull with the ins and outs happening with ridiculous regularity - I think it is eight in and eight out, but I might have lost count somewhere, it has been that crazy.
So Paul Buckle has done his wheeling and dealing and all in all done it pretty well, so much so that Saturday's team against Burton looks certain to include more players that he signed than he inherited.
Therefore, it is time for the excuses to stop. No more bleating about the poor team/squad that was here when he came in.
Many of them have gone, and of those left, he has given new contracts to a few and the others will most likely be gone by May, no matter what division we end up in, and lot of them won't be missed.
Paul, it is now your team, and it is time for you to take full responsibility for how it performs, rather than blaming your predecessor or how tough the job is etc etc etc. It is down to you now.
I wasn't at Dagenham but it seems from what I have been told that we gave away a stupid penalty, got back into the game, and then once we were 2-1 down we were never going to get back into the game.
In other words, a pattern we have seen a number of times in so-called 'pivotal' games under this manager and the one before, and similar to the Hartlepool game a few weeks back.
Some have told me they didn't question the effort, but others say we threw the towel in. I have only seen the goals so can't judge on that one. But a few things stood out.
First, no-one reacting to the penalty save bar, belatedly, Matt Taylor, then Trevor Carson seemed to be beaten from an angle at his near post.
The second was a good hit by Ashley Hemmings, but poor defending down our right hand side, and again, Carson beaten at his near post.
Then the third, more poor defending down our right. Then Troy Brown is given the runaround and for the third time, Carson is beaten at his near post.
From those highlights, it all looked too easy, and again we seemed to roll over in a powder-puff manner.
Again, the supporters who travelled were let down, and tales of players smiling and laughing as they left the field didn't do anything to lighten their mood.
That is something Buckle still needs to do - get that connectivity, and I think it would be a very good idea if he did a Fans' Forum or something like that in the not too distant future (he missed the chance in Woodall Services the other week...).
Team-wise my only surprise was Lloyd Jones staying at right-back after Durrell Berry's signing, with him being on the bench, alongside another out-and-out right back in Lee Vaughan.
My only explanation is that he wanted to keep (as much as he could) the Luton side together, but playing an out-of-position centre-back at right-back with two established right-backs on the bench was a strange one.
We have been a soft touch for too long, and players like Matt Richards, Troy Brown and Craig Braham-Barrett have been constants in many of the worst capitulations - so it doesn't surprise me greatly to see them copping most of the flak.
They are senior players now. We have a very young squad and these are the kinds of players who should be leading, setting the examples to these youngsters, but they are too often the ones being pointed at when things go wrong. I'd be stunned if any of that trio are here next August.
As Monday came around, we had seen Jason Taylor, Raffa de Vita, Adam Powell, Andy Haworth, Paul Black and Byron Harrison leave, with their destinations ranging from Dingwall to Atlanta, via Barrow and Northampton.
In had come the Liverpool loan trio Jones, Jack Dunn and Kev Stewart, Jake Gray from Crystal Palace and Durrell Berry came in from Torquay.
So the foundations were there, and the final day of the window was then going to round it off.
While many clubs higher up the ladders tried and failed to do most of the deals they wanted, we had no such luck. In (by Tuesday morning) came five more, and out went (by Tuesday afternoon) another two.
So it was overall 10 players coming in, while eight went out - but it actually balances out at eight in, eight out due to the injuries to Dunn and Stewart which cut their stays short.
Those setbacks - and they are big blows as those two have been excellent for us -  changed the deadline day priorities, as deals were sorted to keep all three Liverpool boys for the season. Now Jones is here on his own for the rest of the campaign.
That freed up a couple of loan slots - and they were used up quickly with the arrivals of Denny Johnstone and Wes Burns from Birmingham and Bristol City.
Johnstone started at Celtic and has played at age group levels for Scotland, and headed to Birmingham last summer, and has scored goals recently on loan at Macclesfield.
He looks to have some physicality about him, which we could do with. He has been given Byron's number 9 shirt, and seems to have been highly rated by Neil Lennon when he was in charge at Celtic.
We know all about Burns - he scored against us for Bristol City and in our win at Oxford, from where Steve Cotterill called him back and sent him to us - possibly with a parting shot in his ear  from the gaffer to tell him to get some goals and keep his club in the Football League... no pressure then Wes!
Signing number three was a permanent one, and on an 18-month deal.
Eliot Richards is a player who has been linked with us practically ever since Buckle, and more importantly Rob Edwards, came to the club.
Buckle was his manager at Bristol Rovers, Edwards was with him at Exeter on a loan spell where he scored six times in 11 games, and then took him to Tranmere in Edwards' short spell as manager.
He scored one goal at Tranmere - against us of course - and he also netted at Whaddon for Rovers when they won 2-0 in January 2012... when we were top of League Two. How things change.
He has always been a decent-looking player when I have seen him but I get the feeling he hasn't quite filled his potential. He is relatively experienced at our level, and this could be his chance to settle down.
It is good to see him sign up for 18 months. To me that shows commitment, and he won't want to be playing Conference football next season...
Richards can play down the middle, but equally on the left, so is an option for that role in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 system.
So three forwards coming in meant that we were able to let Terry Gornell go back to Accrington on an 18-month deal, and his last six months here was cancelled.
Terry was a hard-working player and that got him the backing of the crowd, but the hard truth is that his goalscoring record was simply not good enough, and the move is better for everyone.
Then it all went quiet. I finished my day job at the Echo having been distracted by the comings and goings all day and went to help my colleague James Young for the graveyard shift.
We were promised two more arrivals. What... surely not? Five players in a day?
With Stewart going back, surely one would be have to be a midfielder. The other? a defender? No. We found out, was going to be a forward. Four forwards...!?!
News of the midfielder arrived at 9.45pm - and it was a familiar face in Jordan Wynter, a player who did well during his loan spell in those heady early weeks of the season, and who we managed to get on an 18-month, permanent deal.
That is good business to me, as he seems a strong, mobile player, and a good athlete.
We have seen he can get a goal or two and his height will be handy at set-pieces in both boxes, and I think he is a player we can improve, and he can become a good asset for us. Cheers again Cotts...
The final signing wasn't going to be concluded until Tuesday morning, and that meant he had to be a free agent, and so it was as Mathieu Manset signed a six-month deal (slightly disappointing, but if we stay up and he does well I'd hope we could extend it) after being freed by Walsall.
He is a player with a chequered history. He burst on the scene at Hereford, scored goals and went to Reading for a six-figure fee.
From there, he has played in Switzerland, China, Belgium, Carlisle, Coventry and Walsall in pretty quick succession without great success, and now he is here.
But he is a beast. A tank of a man who is just the sort of player we have been crying out for, and I think we could have an interesting time with this guy.
He is only 25, which I was surprised about, and I think we have signed an unpredictable talent, who is capable of brilliance and mediocrity in equal measure.
Having signed him, I admit to being slightly disappointed that Jack Dunn has had to go back, as I feel these two would wreak havoc, but now I feel we have a real forward threat, and the front end of the team has certainly been improved from where it was when Buckle arrived.
So the loan situation now is that we four season-long deals in Burns, Johnstone, Jones and Ferdinand, while Gray is here for an initial month, which ends after the Southend game next Tuesday.
That is the same day that the loan window re-opens - and the option is there to extend Gray's deal or send him back and leave a loan space open for someone else - maybe Stewart or Dunn if they are fit.
If that happens that would an interesting choice - would Buckle, having signed four forwards, bring Dunn back as a fifth striker option, or opt for Stewart to continue the drive he was bringing to our midfield.
It may have been seen as significant that his absence from the side was the only change between the Luton and Dagenham games - and he was outstanding against Luton.
The other alternative would be to look elsewhere in the side. Many would say he should sign a new left-back, and others would want a centre-half - especially after the news I have been hinting at as a possibility was finally confirmed... the departure of Steve Elliott.
He has been fantastic for this club over four and half years and 194 games, via White Hart Lane and Wembley - one of the best free-transfer pick-ups we have had in the Football League era.
He didn' t play under Buckle having been injured in the Wycombe game which ended Mark Yates' reign, and had a couple of setbacks in trying to come back from his knee injury.
In his interview today, he says he is between 7 and 10 days away from fitness - but clearly Buckle does not see him as part of his plans on the field.
In the long-term, you can't argue with the decision as Elliott is 36. Short-term however, in a relegation battle and team without a clean sheet in 23 games, I am surprised that Buckle doesn't feel he has a part to play in the coming weeks.
So if he isn't going to play, then you can understand him moving on as he says he thinks he has 18 months left on the field - and the bush telegraph tells me he could be heading off to play for Archie Howells at Bath when he is fit, which will be great for them.
He will also get a bit more coaching experience, and I'd love to see him come back here in some capacity in the future -  manager, assistant, coach or whatever. A great bloke and a great servant to CTFC.
So that was that, and what a rollercoaster - and now we have the squad for the coming crucial weeks, and the 18 games which will shape our club's future.
There are fans delighted with the business we have done - while some are concerned that the squad is too young, or that we should have addressed the defence with the lack of clean sheets.
I am happy enough. I understand the defensive concerns, and those worried about a perceived lack of experience - but I also believe there would have been criticism had we signed four 31-year-olds from those worried that we had signed old players who might get injured too easily. It's a no win.
I also get people saying the balance is skewed too far towards youth, and we need that experience. But Yates relied on experience, and that's where the rot which Buckle hasn't yet been able to arrest started off, so it's swings and roundabouts really.
Basically, we have signed players that we can afford given the money the manager has generated from the players he has moved on. That is the bottom line.
Yes, there are loans, but at least four of them are season-long, so there is a degree of permanence there and we will not be shuffling them about a month at a time.
Two signed on 18-month deals, both players in their early 20s, is decent business in my book, and the other on a six-month deal which gives both sides a chance to look at each other and see where we are come May.
On the defensive question, we now have more presence up front with the likes of Manset and Johnstone. Therefore, instead of the ball coming back constantly to put more pressure on our back-line, we now should have the tools to try and see the ball stick up front more often, and maybe give our defenders a bit of a breather.
'Defending from the front' is something we hear a lot about, but we simply haven't done that well enough for a long time, and I expect that to improve now with these additions, and with Wynter's help I expect us to compete a lot better in midfield.
I want to see either Berry or Vaughan (Berry I suspect) at right back from Saturday onwards and if Jones is to play then he should partner Matt Taylor, who, with Elliott gone, becomes even more a key figure.
We also need Carson to re-discover his from from the start of the season, and tighten up a bit, stamping out the little errors which have I feel crept in recently.
So we have had a lot of changes, and amazingly now the player still at the club who made his debut first is, would you believe, Joe Hanks, who played against Exeter in a 3-0 win in October 2012 - every other player at the club then has now left.
So if you are struggling to catch up, here is the squad:
Goalkeepers - Carson, Gould, Reynolds
Defenders - Vaughan, Berry, Deaman, Brown, Jones, Taylor, Braham-Barrett, Bowen
Midfielders - M Richards, Hanks, Ferdinand, Wynter, Gray, Sterling-James, Kotwica, Williams, Hall
Attackers - Manset, Johnstone, E Richards, Burns, Dale, Lawrence
With these arrivals I must confess I am looking forward to Saturday. I think Buckle has done as well as he could bringing these players in and trying to shuffle his pack.
Fans wanted new faces, they wanted the underachievers moved on, and that's what they have got, even if all the underachievers that many wanted out of the door haven't been moved on - yet.
As the manager said in his interview on Tuesday, we all have to unite and work together or the task will get harder.
If we are all pulling in the same direction, we have a chance to help get this club out of the mire. Some may have doubts about Buckle, but he is the man given the task of saving us and we should try to get behind him.
His team sheet and system will be interesting on Saturday, when Burton come to town - and he has real options.
Playing 4-4-2 we could field Carson; Berry, Taylor, Jones, Braham-Barrett; Gray, Ferdinand, Wynter, E Richards; Burns, Manset - subs could be Reynolds, Brown, Hanks, M Richards, Sterling-James, Kotwica, Johnstone.
That looks a solid side against a high-flying team, and the bench looks so much stronger than it has in recent games with real alternatives, and even has people like Deaman, Vaughan, Bowen and Williams outside the 18.
Alternatively, we could opt for a 4-3-3, with the same back five, Matt Richards, Ferdinand, Hanks and Wynter fighting it out to be a midfield three, and Eliot Richards left and Burns right either side of Johnstone or Manset.
You want 3-5-2? OK - Carson; Jones, Taylor, Brown; Berry, Wynter, Ferdinand, M Richards, Braham-Barrett; Burns, Manset is a possibility for that formation - or 3-4-3 losing a central midfielder, Matt Richards for instance, and putting an extra forward, probably Eliot Richards, in.
This has been the last throw of the dice, and we have to hope that it works. The situation is pretty grave with us 21st in the table, one of five sides on 30 points.
There are nine sides within five points of each other, and the bottom line is that we need to start winning very quickly, and these players need to hit the ground running and gel very quickly.
Crunch time starts now... and we would all take 22nd, wouldn't we?