Sunday, 29 November 2015

Halfway to redemption

After the despair of relegation last May, everyone associated with Cheltenham Town FC, board, management, players or fans, could have done one of two things.
We could all have collectively given up - just felt sorry for ourselves and accepted life back in the non-League ranks as our lot for the next few years.
"It's a hard league to get out of..." was a mantra we heard a lot before quoting teams like Luton who took a few seasons to get back up... Even Bristol Rovers needed the play-offs etc etc...
Or we could have done the opposite - taken it on the chin and then decided that we were going to have a right good go and try to get back into the 92 club again, and that it could be done at the first go.
Happily, we have chosen the latter option, and at the halfway mark things couldn't really be going any better could they?.
Only two defeats in 23 games, an average of two points and two goals a game, a healthy goal difference and a one-point lead at the top of the table, which, deep down, I cannot imagine many of us would really have expected back in August.
I fully admit I certainly didn't expect it. Of course I hoped we would be in this position, but back in August I would have bitten your hand off for us to be in or around the top five at this point.
Pre-season, many of the so-called pundits had written us off, one saying we had a good manager but a mid-table squad, and that we'd finish 11th. The first bit was right at least.
Since day one, Gary Johnson has not sugar-coated anything. "We have to win the league" he has said, over and over again.
That keeps up the pressure on himself and he has done the same with the squad, who have reacted positively to it. Very rarely has he come out for a post-match interview and been totally satisfied with what he has seen.
He always wants more, always says there is more to come from the players - all of which bodes well for the remaining 23 games.
So far, the players have delivered every time their manager has asked them to, and every time there has been some pressure on them.
Saturday was another case in point. Now we are top, we are there to be shot at and many of the sides immediately below us had what looked like very winnable games.
We faced an Aldershot side not in great form but still a tricky proposition, and we ground it out. A solid, resolute 2-0 win away from home in tricky, windy conditions.
It was just the sort of result and performance that helps you to win leagues.
Going back to 1998-9, I recall Steve Cotterill's side winning these sort of games at Southport, Morecambe and Hereford on their way to the title.
We got our goals, and then defended superbly with Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow outstanding again as Aldershot had a few corners and threw men forward to try to break us down - to no avail.
Right through the team we were outstanding, with Dillon Phillips again making some fine saves as once again he shows what a great signing he has been.
Rob Dickie and George McLennan continue to grow at this level with every game, and our midfield powerhouses Kyle Storer and Harry Pell seem to get stronger week after week -  even a haircut can't quell Pell's powers. He has been immense in the last few games.
Jack Munns' goals and assists are vital, while loanee Ryan Jennings came in and fitted in straight away with good strong running with the ball, and some really good defensive work when needed.
Billy Waters and Danny Wright worked hard and then Andrija Novakovich showed he will be an asset when he came on and could have gone away with two goals but for the woodwork.
Those players who haven't been able to break into the side on a regular basis also played their part with Asa Hall and James Rowe allowing Waters and Munns a rest and helping to shore things up at the death.
That's the value of a decent squad, and strength in depth - having players like Hall and Rowe who can do a job when necessary, and players like Jennings and Novakovich being identified by the Johnson family scouting system as youngsters who can come in and make an impact.
Add to that the injured pair of Jack Barthram and James Dayton, and we have a very strong squad - evidenced further by the fact that we can let our third-choice right-back Lee Vaughan go to Tranmere, where he gets straight into the their side and helps them to a clean sheet.
 If we let the likes of Hall and Rowe go I believe they too would walk into any other team in this league.
We have real spirit here, a close-knit group united behind their manager with one aim in mind, to get this club back on its feet again and back in the Football League.
That had been a big part of why we have got into this position. Add to that consistency of selection as we have managed to get the spine of the squad - Phillips, Downes, Parslow, Storer, Pell, Wright - onto the field together to start every match bar one (Pell's one-match suspension). Added to that Munns has played a part in every game as had Barthram before Saturday.
Downes has also come through a long period on four bookings. The final whistle on Saturday means he has passed through the amnesty now and wouldn't
The goals have been spread around as well - so when a player has gone through a little barren patch as, for instance, Danny Wright is at the moment (eight league games without a goal), others have stepped up like Waters has of late, and Pell with his free-kicks.
We haven't been relying on one player for goals, everyone has chipped in, so we have got to 46 league goals, the joint highest so far, without anyone hitting double figures (who says you need a 20-goal striker...).
But we can't rest on our laurels as we know the job is only half done.
December starts with an important game as we host Chester while our nearest two rivals play in the FA Cup, as do fifth-placed Eastleigh - so it's a big chance to open up a bit of leeway between us and the rest.
It's in our hands now - we have done the groundwork, and now it's time to take advantage.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Calm before the storm

TWO games, nine goals, none conceded and key players given a rest - things couldn't be much better in the world of CTFC at the moment.
After seeing off Guiseley 5-0, the trip to Southport could have been a rude awakening, especially when we arrived in Merseyside to be greeted by strong winds and driving rain.
So what do you need in those conditions? Yes, a nice early goal to settle you down. Okay then, let's go and get three.
Harry Pell's free kick started it off - 'hit and hope' he said afterwards while claiming he hits them like Roberto Carlos on the training ground. It skidded through a non-existent wall into the corner.
Then it was enter Billy Waters with two goals in seven minutes. Yes, he was helped by hapless defending - but still produced two decent finishes.
Four goals in two games, and nine in 10 starts for a confident-looking Billy now... he's our leading scorer in league games, the talk of a loan striker has gone quiet, and no-one is talking too much any more about missing Amari Morgan-Smith's presence.
Like Guiseley then, where we got two in the first eight minutes, the game was practically won when Billy's second hit the net.
Southport had a go - they had 10 corners in the first half and Dillon Phillips had to make a couple of decent saves, but we also had power to add and looked dangerous every time we attacked.
At 3-0 up though, any problems were likely to be of our own making. Phillips rather naively got himself a yellow card after some nonsense at a corner.
Gary Johnson on the touchline was going ballistic at him - keeping our cool was paramount as the result really was not in danger.
Once Daniel Parslow had added the fourth the sting had well and truly gone out of the game with 37 minutes still remaining. From then on it was like a training exercise.
It was time to rest the skipper - sensible management with him on four bookings, and I haven't heard a reception for a player coming off like the one Aaron Downes got for a long while.
We saw Ryan Jennings for his debut. I thought he looked bright and on this view looks to have something to offer. The only small blot on the day was James Dayton's hamstring pull.
All in all, these have been two ruthless wins. No mercy, go out there and kill the game off as quickly as you can.
After the game at Hartlepool, Gary Johnson had said he wanted more ruthlessness. At Victoria Park, we had openings but failed to capitalise. These two games have put that right.
Pell said afterwards he felt we took our foot off the gas at Southport. That's hardly surprising - it's human nature to relax a bit when you feel the job is done.
So here we are - top of the table by a point, second-highest goalscorers, the fewest defeats, the tightest defence and the largest goal difference.
You really can't ask for more than that after 21 games - also, we are unbeaten for eight league games, the longest stretch in the division.
So we are in decent shape going into Saturday's second meeting with our nearest challengers Forest Green Rovers.
I know it's only November and (cliche alert) nothing is won in November, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal game and a pivotal weekend in the season.
Not only do we lock horns with FGR knowing that a win could out us four points ahead of them, but Eastleigh in third also host Grimsby in fourth with those two both needing a win to stay on our coat-tails.
A handy little gap has opened up behind us and FGR - five points separating second and third although Eastleigh do have a game in hand.
This weekend is also the last chance we have to dent Forest Green's hopes ourselves - after this weekend we are in the hands of others to knock them out of their stride, as long as we can keep getting results of course.
Another factor is our upcoming fixture list. After this weekend, we have a few games against sides in the bottom half of the table - we play the sides in 14th, 13th, 19th, 23rd, 21st, 23rd again and 20th.
So we (on paper) have a chance to get some points on the board and maybe open a further gap on the chasing pack - but so do Rovers.
Their games after this weekend see them take on teams currently sitting in 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 21st again, and 16th in the coming weeks - and they will have a game in hand on us as they still have the FA Cup to play, which has cancelled their game at 22nd-placed Southport on December 5.
So both of us have favourable games in the coming weeks - which only serves to show that they probably won't be shaken off any time soon and serves to make this weekend's game even more important for both sides.
They will want to get back in front of us and put the pressure back on us - especially for the Chester game on December 5 when they will fall a game behind us.
For us, there is the chance to keep top spot, get four points ahead of them, maybe have the chance to render that game in hand almost irrelevant, and also get further ahead of the other chasers.
Put it this way - I really don't think a draw suits either side.
Naturally, the excitement is mounting ahead of the game which, even I - despite my traditional feeling that Gloucester City remain our one and only true 'local derby' rivals - unfortunately have to bill as a derby game.
It is a great shame though that we are playing it in November. Had this game been played in April with the sides in first and second place, we could have been looking at a 6,000-plus crowd - maybe even a sell-out.
A Twitter question went out on Sunday asking about the last 'top v second' game to be played at Whaddon Road. Thoughts went back to March 1999 when we were second and hosted leaders Kettering, beating them 3-0 to go top on the way to promotion in front of a 5,202 attendance.
Personally, I don't think the crowd on Saturday will get to that figure - I hope it does, as the team deserves all the backing it gets.
But it seems (from what their club itself are saying) they are only likely to bring around 6-700 for the game, which isn't all ticket for them.
Assuming that is 700, to get the attendance to 4,000 we would need 3,300 fans in home areas - which is 1,100 home supporters more than came to the Guiseley match last Tuesday.
Not wanting to sound like Delia, but come on you floating fans... come on you fans who turned your backs over the past two seasons... let's be having ya!!!
I think 4,000-plus would be a decent attendance figure. I am told that seats are selling very well with only singles available in many T&B Stand blocks. Great news.
It's been difficult not to get carried away with things over recent weeks and with the recent run of results, especially the last two.
We all know it won't decide anything conclusively but a win on Saturday might make even the most sceptical of fans believe that we can pull this bounceback thing off.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We're halfway there (nearly...)

DON'T worry, I'm not about to launch into Bon Jovi - trust me you really wouldn't want to hear that...
It has been difficult not to walk around with a satisfied grin since the final whistle last night signalled our move to top spot in the National League.
But while it's nice to be there and yes, I am enjoying it as much as anyone else, it is important to remember that nothing is won yet.
As my first question to Gary Johnson post-match said, it was just about the perfect night against Guiseley, one of those which that well-known lager company might have had in mind when they dreamed up their adverts.
Two early goals, an injury to the opposition centre-half, then a bit of cruise control through the rest of the first half (getting a bit sloppy at times maybe, but we'll let them off just this once).
That was followed by a red card within two minutes of the re-start, a third goal just to make sure, a chance to rest your two central midfield workhorses, then a couple more goals to add a bit more gloss and send us all home happy.
Added to that were the goings-on in three games being played in the Kent and Greater London area, all of which ended with decent enough results for us as Forest Green were held and the teams immediately below us, Dover and Bromley, were beaten at home.
All very satisfactory, and keeping us on schedule for Gary's 'two points a game' target - 20 games, 40 points, after we had previously had 20 after 10 games.
Even the goals for column is almost playing ball, with 39 at the moment - only one away from two goals a game - statistics which really lay bare just how bad last season really was.
Now I don't want to hark back to those dark days too much, suffice to say that a point and a goal at Haig Avenue on Saturday will match our points and goal tallies from the whole of that wretched campaign.
More vindication then for Gary's summer recruitment, and also yet another sad indictment on the previous two close seasons.
Gary has proven that, if you know where to look and do your due diligence, the players are out there, and they don't demand a king's ransom. Let's remember his budget is somewhere around two-thirds of what the previous manager-but-two-or-three-I've-lost-count started last season with.
He has also proved that you can mould a new group of players into a close-knit group, who are motivated, care about the club they are playing for and want to do well for themselves, their manager and the supporters.
But that's enough about what went before. We know it was terrible, we know that's the reason why we are striving to get back up and keep our club on an even keel.
It's time to look forward to the next 26 games, which, if we can carry on with Gary's twin targets, really can take us to where we want to be.
This group really are responding to what Gary is demanding of them. They are listening and he comes across as a man not easily satisfied. Even after wins he has come out afterwards and asked for, nay demanded, more from them.
The players have taken it on board and they have stepped it up when needed - last night being an example.
After the Hartlepool game, Gary had a little go at a few. I suspect behind closed doors one or two got a bit more of a rocket. It certainly worked.
That's a sign that the players respect their manager and believe in what he is trying to do and in what he tells them.
He rewards them with (in the main) a consistency of selection which is paying off with results.
Five players - Dillon Phillips, Kyle Storer, Aaron Downes, Daniel Parslow and Danny Wright, have started all 20 league games.
One, Harry Pell, only missed a game due to his five bookings while Jack Munns and Jack Barthram, have started 18 and come on in the other two.
Amari Morgan-Smith started the first 18 games before his injury, Billy Waters has featured in 18 games (9 starts, 9 sub), George McLennan has missed three games due to his suspension, Rob Dickie has started the last 15 after signing for us.
So that's a core group of only 12 players, with Asa Hall, Lee Vaughan, James Rowe and now James Dayton added on, who have got us into this position.
Yes, we have been lucky with injuries up to now, but they have all stepped up when needed.
Of the five ever-presents, Phillips, Storer, Downes and Wright have been the real spine of the team - but what about Daniel Parslow? He's quietly got on with it, turned in consistent seven-out-of-10 performances and been a bit of an unsung hero.
Pell has come into his own since moving more centrally, while Munns, with six goals and officially nine (but I'd say he's got more than that) assists has shown his value regularly.
Barthram has been another consistent man, and made a few goals - even if he seems destined never to score one himself, while Morgan-Smith, pre-injury, has been a good foil for Wright and come up with some crucial goals.
Waters has seven goals in nine starts - enough said - and the young defenders McLennan and Dickie seem to be getting better and better.
McLennan had a rough spell after coming back from his ban but has come through it and been impressive lately and Dickie also looks to have a good future with his trademark surging runs out of defence.
Hall and Rowe have a goal apiece now and showed on Tuesday what good strength in depth we have got in the midfield area - I'm convinced they'd walk into most teams at this level, as probably would Vaughan.
Dayton made his first start on Tuesday but while he may not have had too much an impact, has shown with his cameos from the bench that he can be an asset - there is more to come I think over the second half of the season, if he stays beyond January.
But despite their good performances up to now, Gary wants to add - no resting on his laurels. A loan striker for competition while Amari is out is being hunted, the mere thought of which seems to have perked Billy Waters up - last night's display from him was just the sort of reaction you want.
How much more Gary can do after December 31 depends on a few factors.
Will Charlton let Phillips stay? Please let that be a yes...! Will Dayton's stay be extended?
What of the loanees, especially the ones he doesn't appear to want, who are seemingly Jack Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence, will they be moved on or paid up?
Harry Williams, Joe Hanks, Bobbie Dale (currently injured), James Bowen, Zack Kotwica and Adam Page, what of them? More loan action, or a chance in the squad? Will some of them get a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season?
I personally hope some of them get that opportunity and take it, but I have to be honest and say I am becoming increasingly unsure about whether that chance is going to materialise.
Take Williams for example. He is back at the club from Farnborough where he has scored something like 25 goals in all games.
He was an option for the bench on Tuesday given our shortage of attacking options - yet was overlooked and we went with two right-backs and two midfielders plus Rhys Lovett. I really hope that's not a signal of where Gary is going with that group of players.
Before the Guiseley game, Gary said of Williams: "If I pick him it's because I think it's right, and if I don't it's because I don't think it's right just yet." He wasn't picked, so it's obviously not right yet. The question is will it ever be?
Can Eliot Richards come back from his illness and make an impact? It certainly seems that Gary wants to give him the chance to do so, maybe even before Christmas. It would be like a new signing and could save us looking elsewhere in January.
Finally, has Jordan Wynter got a future here when he is over his injury? - there has to be a doubt about that given our midfield resources.
All these questions which need answering before Gary can really look at what he wants in January to add to that core group he has, which has done so well.
If he can move some of the unwanted ones on he might have some breathing space - whatever way those questions are answered it seems that some serious wheeling and dealing might be in store.
Fir now though, back to the present - and we are embarking now on a very important period which we have to take advantage of - and also keep on schedule with what Gary wants.
This upcoming run of 10 games could prove pivotal to our hopes of a quick bounce-back as many of them look winnable on paper - and realistically they are the games which title-challengers should be winning.
Of the 10, eight are against teams currently in the bottom half. The other two are, of course, the re-match with Forest Green a week on Saturday, and what is currently scheduled to be our 30th game, at Dover on January 23.
The others are trips to Southport, Aldershot, Kidderminster and Boreham Wood, and home games against Chester, Altrincham, Torquay and Kidderminster.
Six of those games are against the current bottom six - so these are the games we have to really take advantage of, maybe open up a gap at the top and look to give ourselves a real springboard for the final push.
We're (nearly) halfway there but the real fight is only just beginning.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Time to believe?

FRIDAY night's hike up to Cleethorpes was built up as the big test for Cheltenham Town's title credentials.
A 5,000-plus crowd, under the lights in front of the TV cameras against a side unbeaten in 11 games with only one home defeat all season.
So - having come through it with a 1-0 win, what now? Is it now time to start believing that this team is the real deal, and can challenge for, if not win, this league?
Yes, I believe it is.
If we can go to Grimsby and win there we have to believe we can win anywhere as I don't see many bigger tests than this in the league.
Looking at the table, we have drawn at Forest Green, beaten Dover and Wrexham, won at Bromley, drawn with Eastleigh, Gateshead, Braintree and Lincoln, and now won at Grimsby.
The home defeat against Tranmere is the only blip against teams in the top half - and you have to honest and say there is very little to fear from what we have seen from the sides being laid out as title challengers.
We have been better than most of them and more than matched the others, including Tranmere.
Personally, I have earmarked Grimsby as the team to beat. My feeling since the start of the season has been that a team which finishes above Grimsby will win the league or go very close.
In the first half on Friday, we started well enough, and looked confident on the ball, but gradually got pushed back and allowed their wide men too much freedom.
Our wing-backs were pushing on and allowing too much space in behind and about half-an-hour in we could have paid for it as we were second best.
The penalty-which-should-have-been and Dillon Phillips' save from Danny East were big alarm bells - but the switch to 4-4-2 paid off for us.
That formation has been a worry for me in the past - mainly because of our right-hand side with Rob Dickie having looked uncomfortable before at right-back and Jack Barthram not looking convincing as a right winger.
Also on the left  we don't have a natural wide man, with Jack Munns having to perform that role - and that system has a 'square peg' look about it.
I feel that playing 3-5-2 suits the players we have... but this time it worked a treat- as we matched them up and went on to prove that overall, man for man, we have better players.
Nowhere else was that shown up better for me than in central midfield, where I felt Kyle Storer and Harry Pell took the game by the scruff of the neck against Craig Disley and Craig Clay over the last hour - and especially in the second half.
The switch also took their wide men out of the game with Dickie and George McLennan having excellent second-halves.
We stopped the supply to them and in doing so negated the threat of Omar Bogle and Padraig Amond after the break.
Amond was denied by Phillips right at the end of the first half but that was it as far as direct saves for Phillips - Disley's shot over the bar was their only real threat after the interval.
We grew into the game the longer it went on with every single player displaying the work-rate and commitment which has typified our season.
This is despite all the travelling of recent weeks - Halifax, Bromley, Havant, Gateshead, Cleethorpes - a lot of miles on the motorway network - and the extra game we had in midweek.
It's prompted a few worries about fitness, and whether our small squad could cope, but by the end of the game we looked the fresher side, and I was impressed with the calmness we showed in seeing the game out.
After Aaron Downes' brilliantly-taken goal we 'managed' the rest of the game very well indeed, led by Downes and the unsung hero alongside him, Daniel Parslow.
Downes quite rightly got all the plaudits post-match but Parslow deserves a few as well as he has been a very consistent performer this season alongside the Silver Fox (copyright H Pell, 2015).
As soon as Grimsby took Bogle off I was confident we would see the game out - it seemed a strange move to me, almost a concession that the game was up.
We could have had more goals - there were a couple of times where a shot was on instead of a pass, Billy Waters and Danny Wright got into good positions but maybe took the wrong decision.
On the subject of those two, Wright had a frustrating first-half but a much better second (along with a few of his team-mates!) but I felt Waters was always lively.
Having watched the game 'lie' and then sat through the TV re-run, the BT pundit Adam Virgo was always picking him out for praise saying he was making intelligent runs and getting into good positions.
I do think we missed Amari Morgan-Smith's extra physicality at times against two big centre-backs as it left Wright to take on the brunt of that side of things, but Waters did worry the Grimsby defence in a different way by running at them and with his trickery.
The partnership between him and Wright still needs some work - there were times when Wright flicked on or looked to hold the ball up and Waters was not close enough to him to take advantage but they will have a few weeks until Amari is fit again to work on that.
But maybe that's just nit-picking as it truly was a superb win and one which puts a marker down - not only for us but for the rest of the league.
It was a very important win too with a lot of teams behind us winning on Saturday - indeed the defeats for Grimsby and Tranmere (1-0 defeat at home to Dover) have dropped them to ninth and 10th. That's how tight it is.
Importantly, they are now seven points behind us - a useful cushion even at this time of the season.
It's still very congested behind us - a sign maybe that these teams are all much of a muchness and can all beat each other... which could play into our hands if we can keep picking up points and start to pull away from the pack.
I am convinced we have what it takes to win this league. If we do, then an October Friday night in Cleethorpes will go down as one of the key reasons why.