Sunday, 21 February 2016

History boys

LET'S get this out of the way straight away. The free-kick was absolutely hilarious. But we all know it wasn't the most important thing which happened at Prenton Park yesterday.
We witnessed history. No other Cheltenham Town team in the 129-year history of our club has done what this squad has managed to do (and no, I don't mean completely cock up a free-kick, which has now been watched 7 million-plus times on Vine, and rising).
It is a fantastic achievement and one that deserves to be celebrated and hopefully not overshadowed by a viral set-piece routine.
21 games unbeaten, six straight wins, three straight clean sheets, 14 wins in 16 games. In any other season we'd be over the hill and far away from the rest, trying to work out in which game it would all be done and dusted.
The fact that we are not is down to that lot from up the hill, and you have to say fair play to them. Even when they went one down on Saturday, there was a sense of inevitability that they would turn it round.
They did, and then all we had to worry about was whether we would hold out for the win. We did, so as you were with 12 games left.
On the way up, I'd have been happy with a draw, as I saw this as, on paper, one of the toughest games we had left to play.
But if this is one of the toughest, then we have nothing to fear from other upcoming 'tricky looking on paper' away trips to Braintree, Wrexham or Eastleigh.
Tranmere were fourth at the start of play, but trailed us by 21 points. That gap is now 24 points.
To put that chasm into context, top side Leicester have 53 points in the Premier League. 24 points behind them would be 29 points, and Bournemouth, in 15th, have 28.
That shows how fantastic we have been, so maybe the lesson for me is that I need to have more confidence in my team...! A classic case of worrying more about Tranmere's reputation as a 'big' club in this league than what they were actually fielding against us.
Unchanged team, unchanged bench showed Gary Johnson's confidence in his team and, as we seem to have done so often on the road, we made a magnificent start.
As Danny Wright left Michael Ihiekwe on his backside, the result was inevitable, and in went Danny's 21st of the season, his eighth in six games, and 11th in the last 11. Flames.
I had confidence this time... confidence that he wasn't going to miss.
The only surprise after this was that we didn't score any more, as Tranmere seemed to be doing their best to help us.
They had a strange reluctance to close us down at all, leaving James Rowe and James Dayton loads of time and space to run at them, and Asa Hall and Kyle Storer were left free to win the ball and pick passes out at will.
Many of the Tranmere side have big reputations at this level and above - people like Michael Higdon, Jeff Hughes and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, but all three of them looked to have their best years (and trim waistlines) well behind them.
It was all too easy for us, in the first half especially, and crosses and long balls up to Higdon were their only tactic, with Dillon Phillips having a couple of saves to make.
I actually felt a bit sorry for James Norwood. The poor guy was having to run his socks off, simply because the majority of those around him simply couldn't run.
Their immobility was summed up by a loose ball in the first half which Taylor-Fletcher and George McLennan went for. It was about an 80-20 in favour of the Tranmere man, but George won it easily.
The fact George won it so easily was also symptomatic of our players' fantastic attitude and work rate.
Defending from the front, led by Wright and Dan Holman, and closing down in midfield from Hall, Storer, Rowe and Dayton kept the pressure off our back four and kept Tranmere at arms length.
Rowe and Dayton especially were outstanding. They were a constant threat and have added a different dimension to us in recent games.
In the second half, Wright and Holman (with an audacious 25-yard lob-shot-chip sort of thing) had other chances to score and Tranmere became slightly more dangerous when they bought some players who could actually run on to the field, especially Adam Mekki.
Even the loss of Jack Barthram through injury couldn't derail us, as Jordan Cranston slotted in seamlessly, as players have done all over the pitch of late.
We saw the game out well, and the players fully deserve their place in the record books. Now all we have to hope is that they get the league title they deserve as well in 12 games time.
The players deserve it, but so do the fans. Saturday's support at Prenton Park was just fantastic - the noisiest and best following I can remember in a long time. Non-stop singing, and 300 sounded like 3000, easily drowning out the 5000-odd home fans.
It was also brilliant to see Harry Pell, Aaron Downes and Amari Morgan-Smith in there leading the songs with the chairman as well - more evidence if it were needed of the togetherness at the club from top to bottom.
That has to be another major factor in this run and title challenge, the unity has been great to see. Long may it continue - you certainly wouldn't have seen many players from the last few seasons getting such a warm welcome in the away end...!
It's just been a remarkable run and season - just bear in mind too that the two games we lost were both decided by stoppage time winners. Without them, we could be The Invincibles!
Talking of stoppage time goals, our main title rivals have now salvaged seven points of late. As I said above, they deserve credit for not giving up and we did the same of course in several games, but we could so easily be 11 points clear now...
Ifs buts and maybes though. We remain in the driving seat, and the pressure is on FGR to keep up with us, to keep winning and to stay in touch.
It's proved too much for Grimsby and the others who have fallen by the wayside and now we know the VNL title is coming to Gloucestershire. All we need to know now is what colours the ribbons will be...

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Breathing space

RIGHT - that's the first objective of the season successfully completed, now that we are safe from relegation and the thought of a wet Tuesday at Gainsborough Trinity.
So now we are free to concentrate on completing the second objective, securing that league title and automatic promotion.
After the late show at Barrow, we had on paper two favourable home games against Welling and Kidderminster, knowing that we would be four points clear at the top if we came through them.
Welling were a bit of an unknown quantity really. No real 'star' players in their side and the only team we hadn't played yet, which seems strange two-thirds of the way into the campaign.
It was one of those games where you felt the win would come, but where an early goal would be needed, otherwise they would be happy to park the bus and frustrate as the game went on.
Danny Wright's header provided it from a terrific Jordan Cranston cross, which hopefully is a good portent of what is to come from our newest recruit.
He had come in for George McLennan, which was harsh on George I thought, but he was back against Kidderminster and the two will be competing now for that left-back berth.
How nice it is to have two decent players to potentially fill that role, with little to seperate them it seems, which hasn't been the case in more recent times. Shame we didn't have either of them a season or two earlier...
After Wright's goal, I thought the floodgates would open as to be honest Welling were as poor as anything we have come across all season.
Their goalkeeper was the main reason we didn't get more than two as he made several fantastic saves, while our defence and Dillon Phillips had as quiet a day as they have enjoyed all season.
Dan Holman got the second, probably the easiest goal he will score, and that was just about that.
The only downer was the injury to Harry Pell, which I must admit seemed pretty innocuous at the time. No-one even appealed for a foul and there was no urgency from anyone to knock the ball out of play.
In real time, it didn't even look a foul to me, and I thought the tackler had won the ball, and only when Pell stayed down and was obviously hurt did doubts appear about that first impression.
Later it became obvious it was a poor tackle, a penalty and arguably a red card, while Pell takes possession of the special ankle boot now Amari Morgan-Smith has vacated it.
So we still sat a point clear going into the Kidderminster game, which, being our game in hand on Forest Green, had a little bit of extra pressure on it.
Despite their league position, they had given us a tough game on Boxing Day and came to Whaddon having won three games in a row, including wins over Eastleigh and Macclesfield.
Add to that the invented 'rivalry' many fans have tried and keep trying to stoke up between the clubs and there were plenty of ingredients for a decent game.
In the first half it wasn't that - it was frenetic, physical and scrappy (not helped by an inadequate refereeing performance), and I have since seen many fans being critical of what they perceived to be an overly direct approach from us, including some sour-grapes comments from the Kidderminster manager.
Yes, we were quite direct, probably more so than usual - but I thought it was a deliberate tactic to get the ball into the channels and to get the Kidderminster defence turned, exposing what may be a lack of pace with Kelvin Langmead and Keith Lowe in the centre.
But to be honest I don't really care how we play. At this stage and in the position we are in, all that matters is results and we all want to end the 46 games with more points than anyone else.
So does it matter how we get them? Not to me it doesn't. If lots of long balls are needed to win games and secure the title, bring them on.
I thought the first half was just two sides being pretty cagey, not wanting to give anything away and almost feeling each other out.
They barely threatened us and we had the better chances, and I felt at half-time that we would go on and win the game.
We did of course with Wright and Holman on target again, a penalty and a header which crept into the corner after great work from James Rowe. Job done, another 2-0 win, and four points clear with 13 games to go.
So a club-record equalling 20 games unbeaten, 15 wins and five draws, five successive wins, nine wins in the last 10, 13 wins in the last 15... however you want to dress them up they are impressive stats.
Even more so when you take into account that the last five wins have been achieved without the skipper Aaron Downes, and several other mainstays haven't been there either, Jack Munns and Billy Waters on the bench, and Pell suspended, then benched and now injured.
To have maintained the run and momentum without those four, such important cogs for the first two-thirds of the season (in fact, with Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie also out that number rises to six), says much for Gary and Pete Johnson's recruitment and judgement of players and characters, and the attitude and desire of the players who have come in.
Few sides in this league could afford to lose or leave out players of that calibre and barely affect the quality of the team.
At the back, Cameron Burgess has just slotted in like he has always been there. He looks composed and doesn't seem to panic - a mature head on is 20-year-old shoulders.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow has taken on the mantle of the defensive leader seamlessly and continued in his unfussy, consistent way in Downes' absence. As it stands, he's still my player of the season... the others have 13 games to change my mind.
The two of them, plus Jack Barthram and the two left-backs mentioned earlier have kept chances down to a minimum, especially in the last two games, where Phillips has probably made two difficult saves at most in the 180 minutes.
In midfield, Asa Hall, James Dayton and James Rowe have all justified their selections and seem to be getting better game by game.
Hall was magnificent at centre-half at Dover and then came up trumps at Barrow, while Dayton did the trick at Dover and has looked dangerous at times in all the recent games.
Rowe has provided assists and moments of quality, like his cross for Holman against Kidderminster, and it is testament to all three that no-one has been clamouring for Munns, Waters and (before injury) Pell to come back in.
Gary Johnson's faith in Burgess, Hall, Rowe and Dayton has been repaid by their displays and it shows the depth of the squad - the latter trio's patience and positive attitude has been rewarded.
That brings me to the front two. Like our unbeaten run stats, their run of goals is impressive.
Holman has four in five for us (all at home...) while Wright, since an eight-game drought between scoring at Gateshead in October and at home to Chester in December, has 10 goals in 10 games, and seven in his last six.
He and Holman have 11 goals between them in their five games together, and after 90 minutes getting used to each other at Dover their partnership has blossomed.
It's a bit early to compare them to previous double acts, but the early signs are very promising indeed.
Holman's work rate is phenomenal. He doesn't seem to stop and never gives up on lost causes while always looking to fashion a chance to shoot. No wonder he has had more on-target shots than any other VNL forward.
Combining that with Wright's hold-up strength and willingness to run channels and get on the end of crosses, they seem to complement each other well.
Let's hope there is more to come from the Deadly Dans, starting on Saturday at Tranmere.
The trip to Prenton Park is, I believe one of the toughest games we have left, along with the trip to Wrexham and Grimsby at home - but with our current form we shouldn't be fearing anyone.
We have competition for places in all areas and confident players in form, so why can't we go up there and win, and set another record in this fantastic campaign?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hall's well that ends well

BARROW was the 'must-do' trip of the season for me - a new ground after the delights of the M6 ending in the 36-mile cul-de-sac to the Cumbrian coast.
In the end it was well worth the 6.30am fried breakfast, the diversion round the motorway closure which took us through the wilds of Cheshire and getting home just in time for Match of the Day.
And when we sit down at the end of April, hopefully with the championship trophy for company, we may well put this win down in the 'pivotal afternoon' category.
Having got back to somewhere near our best form last weekend against Bromley, Gary Johnson had several riddles to consider beforehand - Jordan Cranston or George McLennan at left back? Should Harry Pell come back after suspension? Should Jack Munns or Billy Waters force their way back in? Should he stick with Asa Hall, James Rowe and James Dayton?
I thought Pell would come back in as he has been such an integral figure this season, but in the event he was on the bench as Gary Johnson opted for the same side.
That decision was vindicated in an opening half hour which was ridiculously one-sided.
Barrow manager Paul Cox decided to play a 3-5-2 system for the first time this season, and as tactical decisions go it wasn't one of his best.
His players looked very uncomfortable and we tore into them, with Jack Barthram and Dayton down the right and McLennan and Rowe down the right having a field day.
Danny Wright scored a very well-taken goal and could have had a second, then Dan Holman had a shot blocked and Rowe's follow-up was saved.
Every time we went forward we were dangerous, and Barrow just looked clueless, but we didn't take sufficient advantage with some poor final balls and a little bit of over-elaboration.
It reminded me of the first half-hour at Southport when we took them to bits and led 3-0, but this time we let Barrow off the hook. We should have been at least three up again.
That was compounded by the missed penalty. It was stonewall as Barthram was felled, and Wright did the same stuttering run-up as Dover but went for the other corner and Joel Dixon saved it.
That, and Cox's double substitution, was the signal for us to lose our way.
Suddenly, from a position of power where we could have been out of sight, we looked jittery and nervous for whatever reason.
Between the penalty and Asa Hall's winner I can't remember us having a chance of note as Barrow were able to contain us with ease.
They had a lot of territory but Dillon Phillips barely had a save to make, yet as time wore on with us only having that one-goal lead the nerves were growing.
We lost Barthram at half-time with Hall dropping to right-back and I thought Pell coming on would really drive us on and help us take a grip on things.
It didn't happen. We were unable to get anything going in a curious turnaround to the afternoon as Wright and Holman became pretty anonymous and all the odds were on a Barrow goal.
It came when a corner was poorly defended, hit Simon Grand and went in. Things were anything but Grand at this point.
Last season and in campaigns before that we would have crumbled. That equaliser would have been followed by another goal.
But we know this team is different. We've seen it several times this season - home games against Barrow and Braintree, and away at Bromley and Dover spring to mind especially.
Games where we have gone behind or been pegged back late, then dug our way out of it with a draw or a win - and this was to be another example.
And just like at Bromley, it was Hall who was in the right place to smash in the winner.
It's been a remarkable few weeks for him. A bit-part player for most of the season, he's now starred at centre-half and in centre-midfield, then filled in at right-back and scored Saturday's winner.
It's another example of 'squad' players putting their hands up, as Rowe and Dayton also played their part again, and as it stands, former regulars like Munns and Waters have a real battle on to get back into the side.
Unthinkable a few weeks ago, but that's how it should be. No-one has a divine right to be in the side.
The bench, with Munns, Waters, Pell and Cranston on it was extremely strong. 25 goals between them and lots of assists - real options to change things if needed.
Cranston came on for Rowe, and interestingly it was he who went to left-back with McLennan pushed forward, and then being replaced by Waters - maybe Gary just taking a chance to see Cranston in his regular position.
Add to those options the soon-to-be-back Amari Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie and hopefully by the end of February we should be well prepared for the final countdown.
Speaking of which, as the weeks go on it is looking more and more like us and Forest Green going head to head.
We took top spot again, by a point with a game in hand, after they drew at Wrexham, with their third '90 plus something' goal in successive games - strikes that have yielded five points by earning wins against Southport and Macclesfield before Saturday's draw.
Without them we'd be six points clear with a game in hand - but before we call them 'lucky' let's remember we've done the same at those games I mentioned earlier - Braintree, Bromley, Dover and now twice against Barrow... results that we called 'resilient' or 'spirited'. Swings and roundabouts.
It's what good teams do. They keep going to the end and don't chuck in the towel - and that's what both sides are going to do in the title race by the looks of it.
We now have home games with Welling and Kidderminster coming up - the latter being our game in hand, with three of Rovers' next four games being away.
They have trips to Halifax and Guiseley and then they end February at Barrow. Let's hope Paul Cox doesn't decide to play 3-5-2 that day, shall we...?