Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It's now or never

SIXTEEN years ago tonight, the impossible happened.
I say impossible, as I had spent most of the previous 19 years without even giving a thought to Cheltenham Town being a Football League club as I went to places like Sutton Coldfield and Oldbury United on a Saturday afternoon.
For most of that time, success was an FA Cup run - getting to the fourth qualifying round maybe, or maybe through a few rounds of the FA Trophy... and , of course, six points a season against Gloucester City.
I remember when we played Weymouth in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round. That big club Weymouth of the Alliance Premier League, and all the talk pre-match was whether the crowd would be over 1,000.
Yes. Really - and that was the way I thought it was always going to be.
But then a manager came along who believed that seemingly-impossible dream could happen and wanted to make it a reality.
He was helped by a group of players who believed in him, and ran through brick walls for him, and backed by a chairman who bought into his single-mindedness, and a set of fans all pulling the same way.
So it is hard to contemplate that in three days time it could all be over, and those 16 years could be consigned to a bygone era in our club's history.
This really is it. Defeat on Saturday and a win for Hartlepool, and it's all over. All we can hope to do is take it to the last game and try to do the business at AFC Wimbledon on the final day.
A friend said to me the other day that I 'have been up and down like a tart's knickers' about our situation, and he is right.
One minute I sit there and think we'll be fine. We will rise to the occasion on Saturday and get something to keep it alive. The next, I encounter some sort of grim reality and post the directions to Bromley on Twitter as surely Hartlepool will sweep Exeter aside and Shrewsbury will be gunning to seal their promotion and finish us off.
Lots of straws have been clutched at. We are the only team of the bottom three to have won a game in the last five.  This is Exeter's final shot at an outside chance of sneaking into the play-offs, so they have to go to Pools and win. Shrewsbury only need a draw really, so they might be a bit relaxed... and so on.
Then there are the injuries. What chance of Will Packwood, Danny Haynes, Wes Burns and co rising Lazarus-like from the treatment table in time for Saturday? Come on Wesso, work your magic.
The optimism glass was about two-thirds full after Cambridge, but Northampton drained it a fair bit, I have to admit.
It really was such a disappointment after the magnificent display and it's hard to compute how 10 of the same players can produce two Jekyll and Hyde displays within days of each other.
But maybe it isn't - and is another example of why we find ourselves in this predicament, be it a lack of mental strength or simple desire to want to go out there and reproduce what went before.
Yes, the injury to Danny Haynes was a blow, but while he was a star against Cambridge, many of the others also hit the heights, only to plumb the depths again days later.
They can do it. They proved it. So they shouldn't be surprised at the backlash when they drop those standards again.
With Haynes out, it was surely a toss-up between Omari Sterling-James and Shaq McDonald for his place against Northampton right? Errrrr, no.
I must admit to being stunned when I placed the microphone under Gary Johnson's nose and heard him utter the words 'Kane' and 'Ferdinand' when I asked him who was going to replace Danny. Never saw that one coming, and I don't think the others who were listening to Gary speak did either.
And I'm afraid this one won't go down in the annals of great managerial masterstrokes. Instead, it ranks alongside Mark Yates' dropping of Russ Penn at Wembley and playing CBB as a right-back at Tamworth. I am sure you can think of others... Gavin Caines on the right wing, Lee Ridley and Andy Lindegaard as wingers...
Ferdinand was hauled off after 29 minutes and was frankly lucky to have lasted that long. The display summed up his Cheltenham Town career, which spanned all four managers, 17 games and is thankfully now over. Not before time - his stay should have ended when Mark Yates left.
He will deservedly be consigned to the list of the poorest loans we have had, joining luminaries such as Andy Smith, Peter Hynes, Rob Elvins, Lee Lucas, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Tom Denton and Kiernan Hughes-Mason and Toby Ajala, who never even made it to the pitch. Again, I am sure you can nominate others from the huge list of fill-ins we have had to endure.
Shaq McDonald and Pablo Mills have also been packed off home.
Shaq was a strange one from the start I felt - when he came I didn't think we needed another forward (a centre-back, or even a left-back was more pressing) and he just seemed too small and lightweight, as he showed against Wycombe when he never affected the game.
That display seemed to sway Gary's mind when it came to the Northampton selection, and, let's face it, if Kane Ferdinand is being picked ahead of you, then the writing is on the wall.
Even more so when the early change was made, and Joe Hanks was the replacement, and not Shaq. At first Hanks was deployed in a narrow three with Matt Richards dropping deeper, but eventually as a right-winger in a 4-4-2 ahead of Shaq.
Ferdinand and then Hanks were also preferred to Omari - again that is not saying much for his standing under Gary, although it could just be that Gary doesn't feel Omari is a winger, believing he is better centrally, in that 'number 10' role.
As for Pablo, he started superbly against Tranmere, but as the weeks have gone on his influence has waned, culminating at York, where he looked slow, unfit and immobile compared to two blokes they had called Penn and Summerfield, who I am sure I know from somewhere.
That seemed to mark his card, and it was telling how Jack Deaman was preferred to Pablo in the 18 against Stevenage, started ahead of him against Wycombe and came on against Northampton.
At Northampton, we were okay in the first half. Just okay as we weren't under any great pressure, but, unlike Cambridge, created precious little ourselves.
Mathieu Manset was making a pain of himself and getting stick from the crowd, which in itself told me he was doing something right, but wasn't able to turn good approach play and strength into anything tangible.
The second half was very poor indeed, bar Hanks' shot against the bar (yet another 'if only' moment...) and a Manset volley at the keeper in the last minute we showed absolutely nothing.
Northampton were ruthless twice on the counter-attack and it was refreshing to hear Gary pulling no punches about the performance and not coming out with platitudes and letting the players off the hook.
And so now we come to Shrewsbury, and thanks to Hartlepool and Tranmere being as inept as we are it's not all over yet - but this is the first time when it could be at 5pm Saturday.
I'd love to see a full ground. Unfortunately, the match was designated as a premium game before the season started, and before we knew about the situation we are in.
Shrewsbury have sold their 1,700 tickets as they anticipate a promotion party, and have paid the premium prices, and I am not sure on the rules - but I am slightly disappointed that we haven't cut the prices somewhere along the line.
I know that cutting the prices doesn't guarantee that people will flock along, but at least it would be an attempt, an incentive to tempt people in. A sign that the club is at least trying.
There has been no tubthumping this week, nothing to try and drum up some support and enthusiasm for this game, which is - let's face it - the biggest we have had for a while. It's just as important as any big Cup tie or play-off game.
We need to try to re-create the spirit and atmosphere of the escape against Doncaster in 2008 or that night 16 years ago today when this rollercoaster adventure began.
The club have asked for messages from fans to be put on the players' dressing room pegs before the game.
I can see what they are trying to do here - get the fans involved, try to get the message through to the players how much it means to us to get out of trouble and keep this club in the League.
But they shouldn't need to be told. They should know that anyway. They should know that too often this season they have let the fans down, especially those who have gone up and down the country in hope every other week.
They should know they are playing for people's livelihoods, not just their own. People who have worked harder than they ever have in their lives to put this football club where it is now and kept it there for 16 years.
They should be sat there thinking 'I don't want to be recorded as one of the players who got this club relegated from the league'
I won't lie, I am looking forward to the time in two games' time when this season is over and I won't have to see some of these players pull on a CTFC shirt again.
I am fed up to the back teeth with watching some of them but we have to pin our faith in them for the next 180-odd minutes and hope they can pull something out of the bag. Hope is all we can do now.
What would my message to them be? It would be quite simple. I'd tell them to watch these two videos...