Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The big picture

AS we approach October, we could so easily be sat top of the table - which I feel would have been remarkable given the massive summer of change we saw.
So therefore the loss of five points late in the games against Forest Green and Tranmere, while disappointing, is not really the end of the world.
I suspect many Robins fans heading up the hill to Nailsworth would have taken a point at 7.45pm last Tuesday, even if it was then a bit difficult to swallow two hours later.
I didn't feel we played that well at the New Lawn, especially in the first half.
I felt we were too deep in midfield for most of the game, which left Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith isolated, and we struggled to get much going.
On the plus side, we probably created three decent chances and took two of them - the other being the AMS chance which was saved by Maxted, who also blocked Jack Barthram's follow-up.
We did most of the defending, Dillon Phillips was the busier keeper, so all in all maybe a point wasn't that bad after all.
Yes, we could have gone top, taken the bragging rights, called ourselves the county's number one team again, whatever... but we did none of the above, so we can try again in November.
Then it was on Tranmere, and once again in hindsight it was a chance missed.
Once again we could have ended the afternoon top of the league as other results more or less went in the right direction for us, but we couldn't take advantage of it.
With Harry Pell banned, Gary Johnson had to make one change and Asa Hall was the natural replacement. He did well enough - but the gaffer decided to go further.
The two Jacks, Munns and Barthram, were rested for James Rowe and Lee Vaughan and in hindsight I didn't feel those changes were as successful, and were unnecessary.
It seemed a strange decision from the manager, who has preached consistency all season and looked to make as few changes as he can, then opts to rest two players,
Saying that, I was pleased to see Rowe given a chance to start as he has done well from the bench in little cameos, but he didn't take the opportunity. After a promising start he faded quickly out of the game and it just passed him by.
Vaughan and Barthram both give energy down that right-hand side, and Vaughan got into a number of good positions again but I feel Barthram's supply is more consistent - although Vaughan did supply a cross for our one decent chance, Wright's header which was saved.
All in all, the game was very tight with both teams more or less cancelling each other out. It was a bit of a non-event, with few clear-cut chances and neither goalkeeper kept busy.
From early on, it was either a 0-0 draw or was going to be 1-0 either way. The smart money would have been 0-0 as neither side did enough.
AMS rightly had a goal ruled out for offside, and then when he went through and seemed to be fouled, I thought the highlights showed him simply losing his balance and if there was contact with the defender it wasn't intentional.
Tranmere's stall was well set out in the second half as their keeper took longer and longer over goal-kicks and clearly they would have been delighted with 0-0,
It was going that way and makes the sucker punch goal even more disappointing - but I am going to stay positive and look at the bigger picture.
We made 17 (I think...I lose count...) signings in the summer and I admit to surprise at how quickly it has knitted together.
It could so easily have gone the other way and let's be honest about it - not many of the so-called pundits had us in their favoured challengers at the top.
But all the indications are that we are going to be in the mix for the top five, and maybe also for the top one as we reach the quarter of the season stage.
We have seen good performances, resilient performances, battling performances, committed performances and some not-so-good performances which have still brought some reward.
We have lost two games, both to goals scored after the 90th minute of the game and the whole mentality around the club has changed for the better. And yes, it needed to.
Now we head into another congested month with six league games - five against sides in the top 10 - and our foray into the FA Cup, which, as we know well, is financially important.
After Halifax on Saturday, we play Braintree (9th), Gateshead (2nd), Bromley (4th, and flying), Eastleigh (10th) and Grimsby (7th). A big month.
By the time we leave Blundell Park, we will have played 19 league games - and we will be remarkably nearly halfway through the campaign after three months.
A good month will really set us up for an assault on the title. A less good one might leave us fighting it out for the play-offs - yes, I feel it might be that pivotal so soon.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Case for the defence

After the game yesterday, I stuck a microphone under Steve Book's nose to get a few thoughts from him ahead of Tuesday's game at Forest Green.
Interviewing Booky is always an 'interesting' experience - but he came out with one pearl of wisdom which cannot be denied.
'Goals win you games, but clean sheets win you leagues,' he said - and that certainly seems to be ringing true as far as we are concerned at the moment.
Last season we didn't keep a clean sheet for 27 games between August and February. Look where that got us.
Already we have kept five clean sheets in 11 games this time round, and that has matched the total in league games in the whole of last season. We sit in second place with the best defensive record in the VNL.
The manner of the victory at Woking yesterday was almost Cotterill-esque - and yes, I know that is high praise indeed.
Under Cotterill, we would frequently go away and dig out victories, keeping a clean sheet and getting a goal in each half to almost steamroller the opposition.
There was a little bit of that in the manner of yesterday's win.
Gary Johnson made two changes from the Macclesfield victory, breaking the old cardinal sin of changing a winning team.
His explanation was that George McLennan was always coming back in, and then Jack Barthram edged Lee Vaughan out because he has trained and played more.
Jack Munns' return for Billy Waters was almost erring on the side of caution - playing a more orthodox midfield player instead of a midfield-forward.
He got both decisions right. The game plan worked to a tee.
McLennan had a very good game against the tricky Bruno Andrade, who was Woking's most potent threat down the right-hand side, while Munns' set-pieces caused problems and brought us our goal.
Before Saturday, Woking had five wins out of five at home, and in John Goddard they had a seven-goal player in prime form.
But he never had a shot, and was taken off before the end - in fact so effective was our back three and full-backs that Dillon Phillips never had a serious save to make all game.
In front of him, our back three were superb. Aaron Downes carried on what he has been doing all season, heading everything that comes his way, and throwing his body on the line when needed.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow is quietly efficient. Remember that this guy has played 300 games in League Two and the VNL. He is a no frills player - just gets on with his job and is doing it very well.
Rob Dickie seems to grow in stature and the games go by. After his goalscoring debut, he looked a little out of his comfort zone at right-back and the return to a back three has suited him.
He had another assured game and is growing in confidence - he likes to bring the ball out from the back and is a threat at set-pieces. He headed one great chance over and nearly got on to the end of another.
Those three and the confident Phillips behind them, backed up by the wing-backs and with Kyle Storer hoovering everything up in front of them is providing a very solid base for us.
I can't think of any time during the game that I felt uncomfortable, and that we were going to concede. The only worry was that we might not get a goal as we had created some good chances.
Danny Wright missed a couple in the first half, shooting wide from one and having a header very well saved, and there was also Dickie's headed chance.
Then in the second, Morgan-Smith had an opportunity before the goal finally did come.
Maybe not surprisingly, it was from a set-piece.
One of the best things about this season so far has been the threat from corners and free-kicks and with the height we have in the side from Downes, Parslow, Dickie, Wright, Morgan-Smith, Harry Pell and (if he's not taking them) Storer, it's hardly a shock.
More and more, other sides know we are a threat and the managers mention it frequently - but they seem powerless to do much about it. This time Wright got on to the end of Munns' corner and the ball ended up in the net.
Cole got a hand to it, and someone got a touch, whether it was a defender or Morgan-Smith, but I think it had already gone in so from my point of view it's five for the season for Wright.
After that goal, we went into fully-fledged strangle mode. Despite Craig Braham-Barrett trying his luck from 30 yards Woking never really had much of a look in.
We kept them very much at arm's length and I felt we closed the game out very comfortably and it was a fully-merited victory.
As Booky said, clean sheets win leagues. So does grinding out results at difficult places to win like Woking. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective and that's another big test passed for this team, and number one of Gary Johnson's two 'cup finals' won.
The second looms large down the A46 on Tuesday, and a win could send us to the top of the table. No pressure then.
There is no doubt that we go into the game with the momentum - five wins out of six means we are top of the VNL current form table.
After their blistering start Forest Green have now lost two in a row and they have influential midfielder Rob Sinclair suspended as well.
Following the Dover game, when they were nine points head of us, there didn't seem much of a chance that we would go there with the chance to overtake them at the top.
It just goes to show that you can't count chickens too early - and the same will be the case if we go there and beat them at the New Lawn.
It will certainly be a big psychological blow to go up there and win, but it's just another three points towards where we want to be - and even if we don't get the win we've only had a quarter of the season so far.
 Another big game and another big test - but our team have passed them all so far and I have every confidence they can take this one in their stride as well.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Home comforts

It's been a long time since we have been able to use the phrase 'routine home victory' about a Cheltenham Town game, but it is the perfect way to describe the win over Macclesfield.
We saw an utterly dominant first half followed by a comfortable second, and all in all probably our most complete performance of the season so far - well, out of the eight games I have seen for definite.
There was no late drama and no need for comebacks - we just went out, imposed ourselves on the game from the off, went 2-0 up and saw the game through.
So that's five wins in a row now at home, all very different from the past two seasons (but let's face it, just about  everything around the club is different from the past two seasons...).
In fact we have now won as many home games as we did in the whole of last season - and that factoid tells its own tale.
The 3-5-2 seems to work. The players look at ease and comfortable in it and, for the most part, we have round pegs in round holes. It gives the team confidence and they can just go out and play.
Gary Johnson used this system when he won this league at Yeovil and I can see it becoming the norm for us now.
Rob Dickie looks happier as part of a back three than he did at right back. Ditto Harry Pell in a central midfield role rather than out on the right, and Billy Waters just behind the front two.
The team looked more fluid as they seamlessly carried on from the second half of the Dover win, which cheered me up in my sick bed last weekend, At 2-0 down I was reaching for more drugs to numb the pain.
The only slight square peg on Tuesday was Jack Barthram, retained down the left side, where he is nowhere near as effective, with Lee Vaughan keeping his place on the right after his half-time introduction against Dover and George McLennan sat on the bench after his ban.
Barthram had started the season superbly on the right and has not been able to replicate it down the left in the past four games.
I have nothing against Vaughan. He had a few dodgy games last season as did just about everyone else, but in some supporters' eyes he is 'damaged goods' having been a member of that relegation squad.
He does deserve credit for having not sulked after being transfer listed by Johnson, but instead deciding he would knuckle down, aim to change the manager's mind and show some determination to get back into the side.
It's that 'passion' and attitude which many fans love and can go wildly over the top about where he is concerned - he has become a cult hero to some simply for telling Paul Buckle where to go on the team coach at Southend.
He is proven at VNL level, and on Tuesday, he did perfectly well, giving the width and support when needed with the only drawback being the quality of his final ball.
So if Johnson wants to get his natural left footer in McLennan back down the left-hand side, he has a choice between Barthram and Vaughan to make as the season goes on. Interesting to see how that one goes.
You could see the determination throughout the team to start well on Tuesday and not fall into the trap of the previous three home games.
That tone was set by Pell and Kyle Storer, who took the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and everyone else fed off them. They were brilliant in the 60-odd minutes they played together.
Once again it was work rate which shone through and no one epitomises that more than Danny Wright. It's been said before and not only be me, but it's good to have a hard-working target man.
Amari Morgan-Smith isn't a slouch on the 'putting in a shift' front either, and they do complement each other well as a front pair.
Just behind them, Waters was buzzing around, looking confident again after his goals against Dover finally kick-started his season.
You look at that midfield trio of Storer, Pell and Waters and then see the trio on the bench - Jack Munns, James Rowe and Asa Hall - and realise how well stocked we are in that department. That's before adding Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks into that mix.
At the back, Dillon Phillips didn't have a save to make until just about half-time, because Dickie, Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow provided a solid barrier.
The two goals we scored were further rubber-stamping of our danger from set-pieces - another refreshing change from the recent past.
No longer are our corners or free-kicks greeted by feelings of trepidation that we will concede a goal to a counter-attack - we actually now pose a real threat that we might score from them,
First we saw Storer's ball from the right headed in by Pell, and then Wright was on the end of 'The Weasel' - a Johnson training ground production which apparently has seen success in the past at Yeovil.
It involved a pass from Storer to find Waters, who had run along the edge of the box before feeding the pass to Wright, who, along with Morgan-Smith, had dropped out of the defensive wall, and he finished clinically.
All very clever and on this occasion it worked to a tee.
2-0 at half-time was the least we deserved and it allowed the second half to be much more comfortable. We could afford to drop a gear or two, and almost coast our way through it.
Macc were a bit more threatening but I never had a worry they were going to score, let alone do what we had done on Saturday and turn the game on its head.
Johnson had the chance to rest Pell and Waters and give Munns and Rowe 25 minutes each. Munns we know about, but I was again impressed by Rowe in his cameo.
He has energy about him and seems a very composed player with good passing range and quick feet - another clever footballer who adds to the ability in the squad.
McLennan was also brought on in the last 10 minutes and did a good job in that time - all in all, a highly satisfying night and a win reminiscent in some ways of the home wins under Steve Cotterill back in the Conference days - almost a steamroller performance.
So that is 10 games done now. We have six wins, three draws and one defeat, for 21 points - matching the 'two points per game' target.
We also have 18 goals, spread around nine different goalscorers. Wright has four, Morgan-Smith and Downes three, Storer and Waters two and there is one each for Munns, Parslow, Dickie and Pell.
That's almost at the 'two goals per game' target as well - and it is proving that we are scoring goals from everywhere in the side rather than being over-reliant on one or two players to get them.
We have also had eight ever-presents so far, Phillips, Barthram, Storer, Downes, Parslow, Pell, Wright and Morgan-Smith starting every game. This points at consistency of selection. Fingers crossed we won't be using 40-odd players in this campaign...
As the weeks go by, we see more and more evidence that this team and squad are the 'real deal'.
We have seen their work rate and commitment in spades. We have seen their resilience and spirit to come from behind and salvage draws and wins from losing situations. We have seen players with some backbone - putting their bodies on the line to protect our goal when we have come under pressure instead of collapsing like a pack of cards. Basically, they actually care.
It's all been a breath of fresh air and it's hard not to get carried away by it. These opening 10 games have been full of plusses and positives and all the signs are there that we will have a good fist at getting straight back up.
However, now we face two tough games on the road. First we go to Woking on Saturday, and they'll be cock-a-hoop after ending Forest Green's 100 per cent start, and then of course it's our trip over to Nailsworth.
Two cup finals, says Gary. He's not wrong. We go into them with good momentum after these two home wins and could really propel ourselves into the thick of things if we can come out unscathed.
But even if things don't go right in these two games, it wouldn't be the end of the world or any promotion hopes - I'd back this team to respond to it and come back stronger and there will still be a long, long way to go.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Not the end of the world

So we lost a game.
It was going to happen eventually, and defeat at Moss Lane does not spell the end of any hopes of success at the end of the season.
It doesn't mean we aren't going to win the league, or get to the play-offs - it simply means now we are going to find out a bit more about our team over these next two home games.
Yes it was disappointing to see the unbeaten record go, all the more galling that it happened in the 95th minute - and also coming as it did after a six-point Bank Holiday weekend which could have been brought to us by a well-known Danish lager.
But I didn't think we played that badly at Alty. It was one of those games where I think if we had got the first goal we would have gone on to win the game.
Unchanged team, and unchanged bench bar the back-up goalkeeper and we looked confident enough at the start.
We had a lot of the ball, I felt were winning our battles across the pitch and for most of the half we were the ones asking the questions in the final third.
However, one thing was missing - that killer pass, and that killer finish.
We didn't really have clear-cut chances, we had opportunities, and promising situations but were playing mostly 'in front' of Alty's defence and failed every time to test their goalkeeper.
Jack Munns, Harry Pell, Jack Barthram and, most costly of all, Danny Wright all got themselves into good areas in the first half but then wasted the final position, and eventually it came back to bite us.
I didn't feel we were especially threatened by Alty in the first half, bar one save from Dillon Phillips late on they had been kept at arm's length.
But the key moment was arguably Wright's second-half one on one. That miss seemed to deflate us a bit and at at the same time gave Alty a lift.
They got the goal, and for about five-10 minutes we looked a bit lost. I had that confidence that we would get a leveller, and sure enough it came with eight minutes left.
So now what were we going to get? Was it going to be a Chester - get back into the game and be happy enough with a point - or a Barrow - keep the momentum up and go for all three points?
Stick or twist - the perennial dilemma. Gary Johnson opted for twist. After all he has said we need to get promoted. We need to try to win the league.
Now we know that's the way it's going to be. We are going to try to win matches, and after all Altrincham away, despite their good home record against so-called fancied sides of late, is one of those games title challengers are expected to win.
On came Josh Cooke for Harry Pell, and with Billy Waters already on we had a lot of 'forward-thinking' players out there.
That was one of the things which eventually cost us with the winner. We lost the ball high up the field, and with so many players committed, they were able to break.
But then we made it all a bit too easy for them. Michael Rankine got to the byline too easily, and was under no pressure for the cross. Aaron Downes later admitted his culpability in letting this happen.
Then the cross wasn't cut out. The players in the middle appeared to be ball-watching and Sam Heathcote seemed to arrive completely unnoticed to convert the winner under no pressure at all.
A poor goal to concede, and a point lost, along with an opportunity to make up a bit of ground on those around us with the rest of the sides in the pack also having off-days.
All except one. Forest Green made it eight out of eight, and already have a seven-point advantage, and nine over us.
That doesn't mean anything is over however. Go back to 1998-9 - Rushden won their first seven, and we won the league. It can be done.
But if we are to start closing that gap we can't afford too many more Altrinchams. We need to start being more ruthless and kill teams off when we are on top like we were here.
However I must admit to a few worries about the balance of the side - and whether we are making the best of the players we have.
At the moment, we seem to have no width on the flanks. Partly that is down to Barthram having to play on the left, where I thought he looked lost at Alty, and both goals came down his channel.
On the right he is a massive asset, allied with George McLennan on the left, but Rob Dickie, good defender though he seems to be, didn't seem to carry that same threat going forward.
Downes and Daniel Parslow are solid, and Kyle Storer ahead of them is an effective buffer and ticks things over nicely.
Then we have Asa Hall, Munns and Pell. On Saturday with that trio and Storer we seemed to have a 'square' midfield, or a 'rhombus' as it was described by a press box colleague.
It is very narrow, and we seem intent on trying to pass 'through' teams, which all too often involves over-elaboration or players taking one too many touches and running into traffic or a blind alley.
Munns and Pell were especially guilty of that on Saturday, and it is Pell who I really feel this system does not get the best out of.
All too often he is left stuck out wide and cannot really drive at teams and get them on the back foot, as he did in pre-season to great effect. The one time he did it on Saturday, he cut in and fired a shot over the bar and I want to see more of that from him.
He's not a wide player and the problem is that maybe him and Munns want to do the same sort of job, as does Billy Waters, and they can't all do it.
On Saturday, I felt we were crying out for someone to go round the sides and get in behind Alty, get the defenders turning and get balls into the box, but had no-one to do it.
All too often it was left to either Wright or Amari Morgan-Smith to go wide and run the channels. Admirable though that is from a work-rate point of view, it lessens the target in the middle if the cross does come in.
That is unless the midfield runners break ranks - and if that goes wrong that we could be vulnerable to the counter-attack, as happened for the winner at Moss Lane.
So there are things for Gary to ponder, but let's not get too down. It's been a great start and these players have already proved they have some backbone and plenty of resilience.
Things just need a bit of fine tuning and I remain confident that we have not seen the best of this squad by a long way.
We knew there would be blips along the way, now we need to make sure that this is just a small one and make the most of these two upcoming home games.