Sunday, 30 August 2015


Let me start by saying that I wasn't at Torquay today - I spent the afternoon with my girlfriend and my kids at Cattle Country in Berkeley with the commentary on the radio - and loved every minute of it.
So therefore I can't tell you if it was sending-off or not - but I can still tell you even without having been at Plainmoor that to play for 83 minutes with 10 men and come away with our biggest away win in three and a half years is absolutely fantastic.
Not since we went to Dagenham and won 5-0 in February 2012 have we won so convincingly on the road -but seldom in our history can we have won so well with a numerical disadvantage for most of the game.
That's only our second win on the road in 2015 and our first in 14 matches - we haven't taken maximum points since Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart's goals at Oxford in January.
It was a brilliant and much-deserved reward for the 277 who did make the trip - the vast majority of whom go absolutely everywhere and haven't had much to shout about over the past two seasons. They came over loud and clear on the radio and deserve all the credit in the world for sticking by the club. This one is for you lot.
Finally, they seem to have the team their loyalty over these recent dark times merits - one that matches their passion and players who appear to want to put shifts in for the club and its' fans.
In the five matches before today, we have seen work-rate, backbone, resilience and commitment, words which were alien to the vast majority of players last season, and the one before that.
Today's result under those circumstances only reinforces that further, and will send a message out around the league that we are a team which means business.
It should bring bundles of confidence and belief to everyone - directors, manager, players and fans - let's face it, if a 3-0 win with 10 men can't do that, then nothing will.
So far, we have dominated without winning against Lincoln and Aldershot, ground down a stubborn Southport and then hit back from behind against Chester and Barrow.
It was that never-say-die attitude from the latter two games which obviously came to the fore again today.
Past CTFC sides would have folded after the red card - even one of the best sides we have had in recent times did just that at Southend a few years back.
That Southend team are a better side by far than this Torquay one, but even so let's take absolutely nothing away from our win at all
To go away and win 3-0 with 10 men for 83 minutes is simply stunning.
This result might just dispel a few doubts that some CTFC fans have had about this team being capable of challenging at the top this season.
With results like this, we clearly are. This team is clearly made of a much better material than most of the ones which have gone before, definitely in the very recent past.
In the opening five games, we have especially seen the quality of Kyle Storer, Jack Munns, Aaron Downes, Jack Barthram, Daniel Parslow and Amari Morgan-Smith, while Danny Wright has led the line superbly. But all of them have played their part.
I have seen criticism of Wright for his failure to get on the scoresheet until now despite his hard work in every game. For that reason I was especially delighted to hear his two goals go in.
He has deserved them for his performances up to now - a number nine who is prepared to put a shift in is a refreshing and welcome sight. Not since Neil Grayson have we had a consistent hard worker leading the line.
So that's Wright, Storer, Downes and Morgan-Smith all with two goals each now - Munns and Dickie (who looks another decent Johnson signing) also on target, so six scorers of our 10 goals - another good sign in my view as it means goals are being spread round the side.
I know some fans want to see a 20-goal striker - but these are few and far between anyway and it can't always be good to rely too much on one player for goals.
That one player could get injured, or sold, or lose form - so for me it's always healthy to see a number of players weighing in with the goals.
There is still a long way to go but it is great to see smiles back on people's faces and such positivity coursing through the club as we get ready for the BT Sport TV cameras to roll into town on Monday.
We go into the game with confidence and belief, unbeaten in six games against a side who have won their last five. Two in form sides, on a Bank Holiday, on live TV. What more do you want? Should be a cracker!
At the moment, it's not just the players in the side displaying great confidence. It was great to see four loanees score seven goals between them this weekend - Harry Williams with three and Bobbie Dale two for Farnborough, Zack Kotwica one for Cirencester and Joe Hanks one for Gloucester.
There has been a lot of talk about these four players, as well as James Bowen, being sent out and whether it's the right decision.
My view is that at the moment it is, as they need regular games. With only five subs, there is less chance for them to be in the squad.
I certainly don't believe it is Gary Johnson writing them off as not good enough. He has talked positively about them, and I feel if he didn't deem them to be good enough or without sufficient potential, he would have listed them as he did with Deaman, Sterling-James and co at the end of last season.
The club's outlook is currently short-term - we need to get promoted this season. If we don't go up,we should be seeing plenty of them next season as first-team mainstays
I have great sympathy for these five lads in particular. I feel Mark Yates treated them poorly as he had chances to use them and get them into the squad in the past and he just didn't trust them - instead he opted to bring in loanee after loanee.
A small minority of them were okay, granted. But you cannot tell me that players like Lee Lucas, Billy Daniels, Eusebio and co were any better than Hanks, Williams or Kotwica would have been at the time. I still feel Bowen would have done no worse than our left-back did in the last two seasons...
I feel other clubs and managers would have used them. Williams, for example, had something like 40 goals in reserve and youth football two seasons ago. Yates opted to ignore that and bring in stop-start loans who didn't care rather than using 'one of our own'and giving our academy a shot in the arm. Why have an academy if you aren't going to pay any attention to it?
Over these past two seasons, these five players have, in my view, been let down a bit, and have become victims of circumstances. Yates could have used them, then at the start of last season but he marginalised them. As we slid down the table and manager after manager came in, a relegation battle was then deemed not the time or place for them, despite Paul Buckle giving a few of them a run-out.
So now, Gary Johnson still doesn't feel they are ready for a 'promotion or bust' battle - and I am delighted to see them going out and scoring goals. Hopefully they can all come back in January (or even before) and play a part for us.
But with better development and more exposure to the first team, they would already be in our side, or we'd know by now if they were good enough or not, and one or two might have been let go.
We should not still be here needing to still know if they are good enough or not, as they are all around 19 or 20. I think they have all shown little signs and I really think it would be a crying shame if they were all simply allowed to slip away without being able to properly show what they can do.
My feeling is that if that happens, a few of them could turn out like Marley Watkins or Sam Foley - going away and having decent careers somewhere, when they should have fulfilled their potential here.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A point gained?

'WIN your home games, and draw your aways' is one of those little adages that pop up in football.
Barring the home draw with Aldershot, we are living up to that one quite nicely, and if we carry on doing it until late April, 22 wins and 24 draws will mean 90 points, and happy days.
Of course it won't happen... after all, we might win some aways instead of drawing them... but it's nice to still be one of six unbeaten sides in the VNL at this stage.
As each game goes by, we seem to be learning a little bit more about our newly-assembled team, and at Chester our new nugget was about having resilience and backbone.
For most of the first 45 minutes, we were second best. Passing and ball retention was sloppy, and Chester's better passing and incisive movement was causing problems.
We've seen halves like that before. In the past, when that has happened, we have often collapsed and ended up losing by three or four.
But we are gradually learning that this Cheltenham team is fashioned out of a better quality of steel than those that have gone before. I know - not difficult, but refreshing nonetheless.
Again in homage to those miserable times of the recent past we conceded an early goal, and I'm giving credit to Ross Hannah for a good finish.
You could quibble about Jack Munns needing to be stronger after losing a midfield 50-50 and ask whether Aaron Downes could have got a bit tighter, but sometimes you hold your hands up and acknowledge a well-taken goal, and I think this was one of those.
So we were behind for the first time, and it was time to see how we would react to it. At first the answer was not too well - we rocked a bit and Chester, not surprisingly, had their tails up and could have killed us off. Hannah himself could have had a hat-trick.
Some of our lads looked a bit nervy after that - cases in point were George McLennan's back pass which should have given Hannah a second goal, then Billy Waters' miss from under the bar which should have made it 1-1.
Unfortunately that seems to be summing up Waters' lot at the moment. He seems very off-colour and looks low on confidence.
His evening was ended early as Asa Hall came on and we looked more solid after that - I wouldn't be surprised to see him start on Saturday with Waters given a breather after four good bench cameos.
It was swift and decisive management from Gary Johnson. He didn't gloss over the subject after the game, saying he would not hesitate to do it again if players were not hitting their straps.
We have seen glimpses of what Waters can do and I met a Crewe fan recently still furious that they let him go, and we need to find a way to get the best of him. It might be that he needs to be played further forward.
Witness his single-handed beating of Bristol Rovers playing as a forward, and I do just feel we need a little bit of a spark up front. He could be the one to provide it.
Definitely something for Gary Johnson to ponder, but all in all, I suspect he was quite pleased to get us in at half-time only one down. It could have been more and was comfortably our worst 45 of the season.
A fast start was imperative after the break, and a pretty comical (from a Chester perspective) and well-taken (from ours) goal was just the shot in the arm we needed.
Kyle Storer got it - our fourth different scorer in five games to keep up the 'goals being spread around the team' situation, once again something lacking in the recent past.
It was a nice finish and good to see him reacting so quickly in the box to punish the error decisively.
The rest of the half was like a basketball match. We attack, then you attack - either side could have won it - but I still felt we had the better of the clear-cut chances.
I point to Jon Worsnop's none-too-convincing decision to chest away a low, goalbound shot he could have held, Jack Barthram's fabulous mazy run before he hit the bar and Amari Morgan-Smith's header being tipped over.
At the other end, our defensive line held pretty firm.
The offside flag was our friend on occasions maybe. but we once again defended corners and long throws well as they went a bit more direct in the latter stages.
But the only real threats on goal were Hannah's shot which Dillon Phillips saved brilliantly and another shot wide as he tried a carbon copy of his goal.
As the early table shows however, with both teams on eight points and unbeaten Lincoln and Chester are no mugs and to have taken a point each from trips up there is a decent-enough return in my view.
Lincoln might have been two points lost after having the lead and seeing a few chances go begging, while this point was the total opposite - gained after an off-colour opening half.
Like Lincoln though, I can't see many sides going to Chester and getting much. They look a decent unit who played some nice stuff and on this showing will be top 10 at least, maybe even top five candidates with a good run.
We hope to be definite top five candidates at the very least, and I still haven't seen anything from us to change my view that we can be just that. I think there is more to come from us.
It was good to see some resilience and backbone, and things like seeing Morgan-Smith chasing down back-passes in the 90th minute, and midfielders squeezing up and forcing errors in the dying seconds make a refreshing change.
As I said at the start, draw your aways and win your homes - and this point needs to be backed up with three against Barrow on Saturday, as Andy Haworth and Ashley Grimes rock up at Whaddon (if Ashley makes it down the M6 this time...).
The Cumbrians have four points from four games, all garnered at home against Dover and Guiseley, while their two away trips have yielded four-goal defeats at Grimsby and Forest Green (albeit after two red cards).
Those away results point to the need for us to take the maximum dividend (four goals would be an added bonus...) as this one falls into the 'games that would-be promotion challengers should be winning' category.
That would mean nine points from five games, and would put us pretty near to that 'two points a game' target which has been oft-quoted as being necessary for a top-five slot.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Up and running

TWO games into Operation Bounceback, and although we had yet to taste defeat, it would be fair to say that we had yet to get the engine purring along nicely.
We had seen a couple of games which were similar in many ways - enough chances created in both to win, but which were not taken - this lack of a ruthless streak being a large factor (but by no means the only one) in why we were sat on two points and not six.
Southport on the other hand had one point, and no goals and are maybe not expected to pull up too many trees this season.
So, let's be honest, if we are going to show that we are the real deal and challenge near the top, these are the sort of games that need to be won - and, being greedy, won well to put a real marker down.
Yes folks, three games in and we were pretty much getting into the realms of the old 'must-win game'.
Gary Johnson didn't quite say as much in his pre-match chat, but his rhetoric was pleasing to hear - he is still looking for a few lads to step it up a bit, it's time to push on, and we need to start winning. No muddy waters there, the message was clear.
No excuses about a new team needing time to gel, or it's going to take time. He knows what is required this season and that even at this early stage we can't start lagging behind the pacesetters.
An unchanged team for the third game running wasn't a real surprise, and even my anorak-like brain can't remember the last time that happened. I know it wasn't last season for sure...
It's good for the continuity. As the games go on and these players play together, the partnerships around the field start to take root.
Downes and Parslow at the heart of the defence, Barthram and Pell down the right, McLennan and Munns or Waters down the left, Storer and three ahead of him, Wright and Morgan-Smith up front. All of them are starting to knit together and get that understanding going.
Things started well, as they had in the previous two games. We were on the front foot, asking the questions and refusing to be dazzled by Southport's decision to send their outfield players out dressed as 10 stewards in high-vis outfits.
But like on Tuesday the early goal wouldn't come. But unlike on Tuesday, where Aldershot looked to play a bit and tried to hit us on the break, Southport formed a flourescent wall in front of us designed to frustrate.
By half-time, we had almost hit double figures for corners, and taken our season's shot count past 30 - but with a return of only one goal to show for it.
During the break, I ventured down to the main bar to gauge some opinions. 'Always one too many passes - get more shots off early,' said one. 'Final ball poor' said another. 'Move the ball quicker - try to get in behind them' added a third.
So a mood of general frustration at a 0-0 scoreline - but the feeling that if we could uncork the bottle and get one goal that more would follow, and that much-wanted win would come.
And so it proved, corner number 11 landing on Downes' head - ironic given early-season worries about our own defending from set-pieces that one proved pivotal here.
All of a sudden, the mood lifted and a weight seemed to have been lifted from the whole ground.
Gary and Russell Milton were waving to the PRE and everything was rosy. Not for one minute after that goal did I think we were going to do anything other than win the game.
Two more goals made the scoreline about right. Overall I felt it was a 3-0 game. We had 22 shots in all and 17 corners.
On those stats it was a comfortable win, fully merited against a side who had one decent chance, Louis Almond's shot at 0-0 which was well saved by Dillon Phillips.
Morgan-Smith took his two goals superbly. The finish for the first was exquisite, a lovely dink which finally broke Southport's resistance.
His second - blow me down, another goal from a corner - was bravely taken, showing determination to get above the defender and win the header.
It's good to see him get up and running with a couple of goals - and probably kept him on the pitch as Josh Cooke was waiting to come on but Danny Wright came off instead.
Wright got a good ovation and was fully deserved as I felt he typified this team's attitude and high work ethic. He certainly puts a shift in, and it is nice to see a Cheltenham number 9 who is prepared to do that again. We've not seen that for a while...
Downes got the sponsors' man of the match vote again and after a clean sheet, goal and assist it's hard to quibble.
But after many games in the past two seasons which it seems to sponsors have had to draw the name out of a hat due to lack of candidates, it could have gone to a few this time.
Storer was again impressive, and has I feel been our best player over the three games combined so far. I like the unfussy way he just breaks things up and gets us moving again. He wins the ball back effectively and provides a good shield for the back four.
I also felt Parslow had an excellent game, his best for us so far. He reads the game well, as does Downes and I like the way they seem decisive with clearances - no fuss, if it needs to go, it goes.
Munns had given us real creativity, and has been involved in all four of our goals so far, scoring one, taking corners which lead to two others and with a slide-rule ball for the other one. A small midfielder in the mould of ones which have gone before - but this one seems to have end product.
In the system we play, the full-backs have a tough job. They need to be good athletes and get up and down their flank all game, defending and then providing much of the width.
I felt Barthram did it better than McLennan here but as we later discovered McLennan was feeling under the weather, he deserves credit for lasting as long as he did.
Waters came off early again, giving way to another good cameo from Asa Hall, and, having hit the heights in pre-season, especially against Bristol Rovers, Waters hasn't quite scaled them again in these last two home games.
We have seen flashes of it, but he has been overshadowed a bit by his little pal Munns, and I feel we need to find a way to get the best out of him as I feel he could really be a star for us.
In some ways I think the same goes for Pell, who, with his height and power, should really be our driving force. I felt at times on Saturday he was a little wasted out on the right, almost at times playing as a winger.
I'd like to see him maybe deployed more centrally, maybe with Munns and Waters either side of him so he can really get the ball and drive opponents back, with the trickery of the two little guys benefitting from his destructive work.
But it was a good performance and it was nice to see those slightly furrowed half-time brows replaced by full-time smiles - four points from two home games is sufficient and gets us moving in the right direction.
You can't argue with three goals, including that rarity for us of two from corners, and that even bigger rarity - a second successive clean sheet, for the first time since the start of last season, Hartlepool and Morecambe.
A look at the embryonic league table is interesting. Some patterns already seem to be forming for where teams may end up, even at this early stage.
Several of those teams who were perceived to be among the cream are already rising to the top - but as we painfully know from last season, let's remember that good starts are not necessarily a barometer for a successful campaign. Marathon, not a sprint.
At present Forest Green, Grimsby, Eastleigh, Tranmere and Wrexham occupy five of the top six places, with the other team in the top bracket being Chester, our opponents on Tuesday.
They have seven points from two 1-0 wins and a goalless draw, solid and unspectacular maybe.
Three clean sheets suggests they will be a tough nut to crack at the Deva, but we should be going there in confident mood, hopeful of getting something to keep us moving in the right direction.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Patience is a virtue

THE trend for football fans these days seems to be to have very short patience thresholds.
In this social media age,opinions are formed very quickly indeed (far too quickly for my liking). There is very little middle ground - managers and players are roundly condemned and written off before their summer sun tans have started to fade.
Witness Petr Cech after his error on his Arsenal debut - Twitter labelled him too old, over the hill etc. Also Christian Benteke is not worth his price tag according to some keyboard warriors by virtue of not scoring on his Liverpool debut at Stoke.
Instant success is what is needed, nay demanded, these days. No honeymoon period, no bedding in time. Produce results instantly, or face the flak.
Two draws in two games isn't what a lot of people were expecting. We all hoped for two wins, but if Premier League managers cannot bring in several new players and immediately click them together at the top level, then surely it is unrealistic for it to happen four levels below?
There have been plenty of positives - there is no doubting the commitment of our new team, also their work-rate and dedication to the cause.
We have created plenty of chances in the two games, enough to have won them both comfortably - a far cry from last season's struggles to make any impression in the final third. In time, I am sure those chances will be taken.
On Tuesday night for instance, three efforts against the woodwork, one off the line and two (correctly) disallowed for offside.
It was highly frustrating, and yes, with a bit more luck and ruthlessness we could be sat with six points at the top of the table, but this is still a work in progress.
We have seen some good individual performances. I have been impressed with Kyle Storer and Jack Munns in both games, Jack Barthram did well on Tuesday as did George McLennan on Saturday.
Others like Amari Morgan-Smith, Billy Waters and Harry Pell maybe yet haven't hit the heights, but we saw in pre-season that they have quality and will deliver as time goes on.
We have looked resilient - and shown we have a bit of a backbone. While the centre-backs may not be the quickest, they read the game well and their positioning has helped them out. They and others have put bodies on the line to protect our goal - a vast improvement on last season.
There have been downsides - defending from set-pieces at Lincoln cost us, but it improved on Tuesday night.
We've looked a bit open at times, our passing got sloppy and we have gone off the boil a bit in both second halves - but overall I feel there are more good signs than bad.
It is inconceivable to expect a whole new team of 11 players to click perfectly straight away. It would be fantastic if it did happen, but we have to give them some time.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Great expectations

AS I left Cheltenham at 9.30am on Saturday, I thought to myself that I would be happy to be returning 11 hours later with a draw from the tricky-looking trip to Lincoln.
In the event, I was left a little disappointed getting home after watching a bit of mixed bag display, with some good attacking play and suspect defending, and in the event we could have easily come home with an opening-day win.
But this is very much a work still in progress. We had 11 debutants put together over a hectic summer and only six pre-season weeks into their journey, but still bedding into the club and bonding together.
They faced a side somewhat direct and physical in their approach, and for the most part stood up to it and who knows - down the line this may prove to be a decent point as I can't see many sides going to Sincil Bank and winning. I see them as a top-half side.
But the expectations and pressure on us are great. Personally, I believe too great in some quarters as my feeling is that some supporters are expecting us to just walk the league.
That's unrealistic to me - I would see a play-off place as a great achievement.
There won't be many mugs in this league, and we will come up against tough sides who will be, like Lincoln were, somewhat uncompromising.
We had the better of the first half, no doubt about that. Beside Jack Munns' goal, Billy Waters and Harry Pell had one-on-one chances saved, and Munns looked to have been brought down in the box.
At any level, you have to take your chances - and as the game wore on there was that horrible inevitability in the pit of my stomach that we would be punished for it - and so it proved.
We looked very dangerous in that opening 45 minutes, with Pell, Munns and Waters combining well as they had in pre-season, while Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith worked hard, ran the channels effectively and stretched and troubled the Lincoln back four.
Their midfield holders, Matt Sparrow and Craig Stanley struggled to cope with them and it wasn't a real surprise when Munns scored.
But at the other end we had a few warnings. We knew all about Matt Rhead from his days at Mansfield and every time a long throw or corner came into our box he was a danger.
He put one header just wide and we were finding it difficult from set-plays as we had at times in pre-season - remember the goals conceded against Bristol Rovers and Cardiff.
It is an Achilles heel and something we need to try and stamp out as throughout the season teams will pick up on it, we will get plenty of bombardment and it could prove very costly.
But overall, I suspect Gary Johnson would have been happy at half-time. Even more so as we started the second half in the same vein and Morgan-Smith should have put us two up.
However then the game changed somewhat. Munns, Pell and Waters were well nullified by Lincoln, while I felt Wright and Morgan-Smith's effectiveness dimmed with the ball not sticking when it went up front, and coming straight back too easily.
The passing became a bit sloppy and we were very much on the back foot for the final half-hour or so as, instead of being comfortable as we could have been after the first-half chances, we were left clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Finally we cracked, and it was  a disappointing equaliser to concede. There were three or four players near Liam Hearn when he won the header - but none putting real pressure on him.
"Someone lost their man," said the manager. "We'll deal with it." I hope so Gary, I hope so.
We didn't create much in the second half - after Morgan-Smith's chance I can only remember a scuffed Waters shot in the dying seconds, so after we had the better of the first half, and Lincoln the better of the second and it was credit to Dillon Phillips for a couple of decent saves.
It's hard to complain with a 1-1 draw overall. It's not the win we had hoped for - but it is a start. A small base to try and build from.
Despite the disappointment of letting the lead slip, there were plusses. It was good to see the work-rate and commitment replicated from pre-season and I felt there were some promising individual performances.
Munns took his goal well, and Waters was a real threat in the first half, while Wright worked extremely hard.
On this showing, Kyle Storer showed me that he is going to be a very important cog for us as he did a lot of effective mopping up and I was also impressed with George McLennan at left-back.
Another plus was travelling support. 255 was a decent enough number, around the same levels as last year and it's good to see people sticking with the team on the road. I especially enjoyed watching the celebrations of Munns' goal - fans and players united - let's hope it stays that way through the inevitable ups and downs.
We did seem to tire towards the end, but that will happen given the intensity of the pressing game we are trying to play, and despite all the players we have on our books the squad does look a bit thin at present.
The 16 on duty at Sincil Bank more or less picked itself despite us having 27 players registered. Eight are on loan, two more injured and Eliot Richards hopefully on the road to full health again.
The JJ Hooper saga (handled correctly by Johnson in my view) was unfortunate in its' timing, and I doubt whether Bobbie Dale and Harry Williams would have been loaned out had that happened sooner - especially as Farnborough subsequently had their first three league games called off.
Adequate cover at centre back and centre forward are the main concerns going forward, but it is difficult to know how much room the manager has for manoeuvre in the coming weeks.
But for now, the focus is on two home games in the coming six days.
If we are going to make a push for that play-off place, even at this early stage you have to feel that Aldershot and Southport are the sort of teams you have to take points from on your own patch - four at the very minimum.
The onus will be on us to be on the front foot and to produce a performance like the first half on Saturday over the full 90 in both games as you can be sure these two sides will probably not be very adventurous in their approach.