Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Alarm bells

Before heading to Exeter last night, I watched the National League highlights.
It brought back memories of last season - places like Guiseley, Woking and Braintree... but also made me think how much I don't want to go back to that in a hurry.
10 days or so ago, as the final whistle blew on the Mansfield game, it didn't seem that we would have to worry about that.
Three wins and a draw, 10 points from 12 and no goals conceded had lifted us into a position of relative safety - probably the most secure position we had been in for a while.
Then we lost at Doncaster on Saturday - I wasn't there, so have only seen brief highlights and on paper there is no disgrace in that outcome.
Any reward from that trip would have been a bonus, and the main thing was that the gap to the bottom two remained the same.
But the Exeter display got the alarm bells ringing a lot louder. Now we really do have to worry again in earnest about Solihull, Sutton and Maidstone.
They are a good side. Lively, with a quick tempo, two decent forwards - but it was our failure to compete which was the worrying thing.
We started poorly, and could have been behind in the opening seconds, but seemed to stabilise it a bit only to give the penalty away.
At first sight it looked stonewall, and there weren't many complaints and to be honest we deserved to be behind - but Barthram's chance could have thrown us a lifeline.
But it summed the night up. He looked to be on the corner of the six-yard box, in space, chested it down nicely - then hit the corner flag when it seemed certain the net would bulge.
We quickly went two down and then (unluckily) three - and from then on we went downhill. Second best all over the field, no real challenges and no signs at all of getting back into the game.
We showed brief signs of life but it was too little too late and overall it was a throwback to two seasons ago.
It was more surprising as this group of players have rarely let us down in this manner.
Of the 13 outfield players we saw, only Onariase in my view was anywhere near doing himself justice.
Boyle was a miss as the back three had to shuffle around a bit, but they didn't get much protection from those ahead of them.
Cranston had a difficult night from the off. Exeter seemed to target him with two or three combining down his flank at will.
Winchester and O'Shaughnessy tried to help him out but that merely left us short-handed elsewhere and constantly on the back foot.
Last night showed me how costly the Storer red card and suspension are - whether you blame him for the tackle or the referee/Steve Evans/anyone else for the decision
Without him - or any sort of midfield 'enforcer' - there was nothing much in the way of protection to the back three, who were left exposed.
It makes the timing of the decision to send Hall to York for a month more bemusing - I feel he would have been ideal in this situation, but we can't bring him back until just before the Barnet game.
It will be interesting to see what happens there. He has played three games, so could slot in - if the manager decides to go that way. Personally, I'd have him back here and in the team.
Pell, Winchester and Dayton also struggled to get us moving forward, as the final ball to the front two was pretty much non-existent. I felt sorry for Waters and Wootton as they had nothing to go on.
They have not had a sniff for three games - and suddenly we barely look like scoring a goal.
Winchester was the best of the midfield trio in my view, and I was a bit bemused by the decision to take him off and introduce Rowe.
Munns came on and was bright in those last 15 minutes and he might be worth a shot for a start on Saturday.
Our best first half outlet was Barthram, who at times had ridiculous amounts of space down the right - but such was the decision making we failed to give him the ball enough. When we did, he forced a rare save from Bobby Olejnik.
When Exeter came forward, their crossing was dangerous and their set-pieces caused problems. Ours did not - bar one in the 85th minute from Dayton which Wright nearly got on the end of.
Apart from that, when we, albeit rarely, got into a good position, our crosses hit the first defender or didn't even get that far. The corners weren't much better.
Our first three corners were taken by three different players - and we need to improve them, especially with the height we have in the side and the dangers we have posed this season when we get them right.
No matter who the personnel are, we seem to have a tendency to allow sides to get crosses into our box too easily, especially away from home.
We can be a soft touch on the road - last night, Yeovil, Hartlepool, Crewe, Cambridge to name a few - and it needs to be addressed as we can't go to Barnet, Wycombe and Crawley and play like that, or we'll get nothing.
Not just this season, but going back several years. It's something we need to cut out and tighten up on.
I think it is a bit simplistic to say that the absence of the manager for two games has seen the wheels fall off a bit. It won't have helped obviously, but I don't see it as the root cause of the two defeats.
Gary will have been involved somehow in the set up for these last two games. I am sure the team selections, tactics and set-up will have been at least run past him, although Russ will obviously have decided the subs etc as the games went on.
But it's not Russ's fault that Davis switched off for Doncaster's first goal, that Rowe stood and watched after losing the ball for the second, and that we turned in a powder-puff display last night.
That's down to the players and we need to start digging in. Other teams are doing it and they are getting results - Newport, Crewe, Accrington - all picking up points with the latter now in 16th and virtually free of danger.
If complacency has set in, then it needs to be banished again, and fast, as last night's was a 2014-5-style performance, and we will have a 2014-5 result f we carry on like this.
Back then, we thought Hartlepool were doomed but they rose up, rolled their sleeves up and got out of it, sending us down.
Newport were doomed two weeks ago, now after two wins on the road they might be doing a Hartlepool, so we need to sort ourselves out. Fast.


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

False dawns?

COMING back from Luton a fortnight ago, all seemed rosy in the Cheltenham Town garden.
We’d seen a vibrant away performance, full of resilience, commitment and determination capped off with a much-needed victory.
The new signings were bedding in nicely it seemed, and this was the start of the upturn.
But it seems to have been a false dawn.
We’ve had a few of those this season - performances where we think the penny has dropped, everything has clicked and we are on our way.
The Crewe cup replay was one -  that was followed by a good display against Portsmouth but then a flat showing against a ridiculously out-of-form Colchester.
And that has been the story - one of inconsistency and an inability to string a series of performances together and to get a run of wins to put breathing space between us and the trap door.
Tuesday’s game at Stevenage followed a worrying pattern away from home - with that Luton win being the exception.
Cambridge, Hartlepool, Yeovil and Notts County all spring to mind as away performances where we have rolled over far too easily.
At Broadhall Way, things started brightly - then the penalty award affected us badly and we retreated into our shells allowing Stevenage to wrest the initiative.
A poor second goal conceded after half-time - again from a set-piece which is becoming an ever-more worrying trend -  left us a mountain to climb.
Even the red card for Charlie Lee failed to help as we failed to take advantage - it was too easy for Stevenage to set their two banks of four up and keep us at bay.
Kyle Wootton’s goal should have signalled a bombardment for the last 10 minutes, but it never materialised and so it was another miserable away day.
It was made worse by two late goals apiece for Notts County and Leyton Orient - but we can’t go desperately hoping for favours from others.
We are in charge of our own destiny, and it’s looking like a mini-league of six with fourth place of higher the aim.
Saturday’s home game against Yeovil is followed by a massive game at Leyton Orient, and points on the board are crucial now.
Gary Johnson has called for the players to do more - and they need to, but he also needs to look at himself.
The travelling fans’ reaction to Billy Waters’ withdrawal on Tuesday was stark.
Yes, Billy didn’t have the greatest game, but is he being played to his strengths?
Is our 12-goal leading scorer and fox-in-the-box poacher being best used when he plays out on the right - and was it the right decision to take him off when you need a goal and are chasing the game?
Nothing against James Dayton - another player I feel has been under-used lately – but the answer has to be no.
Waters  needs to go back up front with Wootton, who has worked hard with little support in the last few games, and got two goals from half-chances and his own anticipation.
Carl Winchester has shown he has good ability on the ball, but needs to stay in a central role so he can affect the game - but I feel our midfield needs some steel in it.
In those away defeats especially, teams have been able to break on us too easily and quickly and a Kyle Storer or Asa Hall type sat in front of the back four could be the way forward to break things up and free Winchester and Harry Pell to drive us forward.
Jordan Cranston’s two-match ban will allow Liam Davis free rein down the left hand side.
He looks a class act and has the ability to deliver dangerous crosses and decent set-pieces.
On the other side, Jack Barthram needs to play.
He was outstanding at Luton but was benched at Notts County and out of the 18 at Stevenage - a strange decision as I feel he gives a different dimension going forward and offers that width down the right.
He and Davis are our best wing-back options if we are going to use the 3-5-2 system, which has brought us the most success this season and is, I feel, the way to go from now.

My side for Saturday: Brown; Onariase, Boyle, O’Shaughnessy; Barthram, Storer/Hall, Pell, Winchester, Davis; Waters, Wootton.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Upgrades

ON Saturday morning I need to change my mobile phone.
I've had it for two years.  It's been a faithful servant but now it's showing signs of wear and tear, the screen is a bit cracked and it could do with freshening up.
When the time comes, I'll say thank you to it and move on to something new in the hope of a better future.
The same could be said for our January transfer window.
Our squad on  December 31 had served us well but needed an upgrade - and now as we sit here on February 2, the first impressions are favourable.
In goal we had Russ Griffiths. He started well enough but tailed off as the weeks went on, a few errors sapping his confidence.
Now we have Scott Brown. His last two displays, at Crewe and Luton, show that the experience and shot stopping skills are a big plus - even if he still doesn't always command his box from set-pieces.
In front of him, Easah Suliman, who has just turned 19, went back to Villa having never really looked ready for League football.
In has come Alex Pike, who is 20 next week and does look ready being a year ahead of Suliman. He looks a good athlete, a common theme in the players who have arrived this month.
On the other side is the latest acquisition, Liam Davis.  Good experience behind him,  he is well known to Gary and his brother, who had a wide smile on his face after Tuesday night's win.
He says there is another 10 per cent of fitness to come. After a debut as good as he had (forget the own goal) I can't wait for that.
I especially liked the way he glided past people and took us up the field quickly - a big factor inot how we counter attacked so effectively at Luton.
He has taken James Jennings' squad place, and his is a move we just have to chalk down as one that just never worked out. We haven't had many of those that I can remember down the years.  These things happen.
Into central defence and we have lost Rob Dickie, a great performer last season who maybe didn't hit the same heights this time - which could partly because put down to the fact that the team as a whole was struggling.
In addition we have seen Daniel Parslow head to York on loan. A true colossus last season,  players' player of the year and someone who we will always hold dear. That rendition of his song in the WR bar post-Halifax won't be forgotten quickly.
Replacing  them are Will Boyle and Manny Onariase,  who have settled in very well already.
Boyle looks a terrific signing.  Good leadership qualities,  organisational ability, an old head on young shoulders - all adds up to me as future captain material.
If anything he is (and I hate to say it) a real Aaron Downes replacement - and it really does look like we might not see the silver fox on the field very much, if at all, from now on.
But he has a role in Boyle's development which can only be good thing.
Onariase made a nervy start but seems to have settled down well. Athletic and quick, he's just what the doctor ordered.
His distribution might need work and his heading sometimes might bring back memories of the ultimate 50p head, Drissa Diallo, but he was excellent against Plymouth and Luton.
Midfield saw Danny Whitehead head off after a very undistinguished stay, and in came Carl Winchester, who looks like another fine acquisition.
He is one of those players who always seems to have space and time on the ball - and that pass to Jack Barthram on Tuesday showed his undoubted quality.
Further forward, out of the club have gone Jonny Smith and Koby Arthur.
Smith showed odd glimpses of promise, but I'm afraid Arthur did not.
There was great excitement when he returned after what he did in his first spell,  but there was no repeat. Think Medy Elito's second spell,  and you get the idea.
Diego de Girolamo has already shown his worth with the hat-trick against Leicester and goal against Accrington with the promise of more to come.
At the top end of the side, we have seen Amari Morgan-Smith join Parslow in York as injuries have restricted his game time.
Another champion, no one will forget that goal against Wrexham.
In has come Kyle Wootton, who has already played his part with a fine display at Luton in a tough position to play, a lone striker.
I thought he held the ball up well and was the outlet we needed with good runs and strength - not to mention the delicate touch to set up Billy Waters' goal.
His arrival will take some of the workload away from  Danny Wright - as well as his place in the team from time to time no doubt.
So all in all, and nothing  against the guys who have left, but I feel we have had an upgrade.
All of the arrivals look to be athletic and mobile, the team has had an injection  of pace and most of the performances have been promising.
That was topped off at Luton and that fantastic win showed the options and flexibility Gary now has at his disposal.
A first look at the team shrieked a defensive 541 going for a 0-0 but turned into a counter attacking formation which worked with devastating effect.
The squad looks so much stronger, shown by the bench on Tuesday, with Storer, Munns,  Wright, Holman,  Waters and de Girolamo on it.
Add to that Hall, Dayton and Downes, and there is real  competiton and real options and, after Tuesday, real optimism that we can head in the right direction.
January was a crucial month off the field as we needed to upgrade, now February is crucial with games against sides in and around us, but I feel we go into them invigorated and in better shape than we were a month ago.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A crucial period

I wasn't going to write any more blogs after we won the title last season - going out at the top if you like - but just when you all thought you'd got away with it this current situation has prompted me to hit the keyboard again. Sorry about that!
I for one didn't expect us to be in this situation, and I don't think I was alone.
We were meant to ride on a large wave of momentum, sweeping League Two before us, our team of champions striding on to further glories, on an unstoppable tide.
Maybe the expectations were too high, but that's what was supposed to happen, with Holman and Wright banging them in, Storer and Pell tackling everything that moves and Downes and Parslow keeping strikers at bay for fun. Just like last season, eh?
Only it hasn't worked out like that. At all.
I actually don't think we started too badly. We seemed to be feeling our way into the level, but, somewhat ironically since our best performance of the season at Crewe, the wheels have started falling off.
Against some of the better sides, we've done quite well. A draw at Carlisle - yes, we were battered, but were seconds from a win, and a last-minute loss at Plymouth when we played pretty well, for instance.
But there has been a lot of dross lately. the last 45 minutes at Sutton (so I am told), one and three-quarter games against Colchester, Barnet, the first half against Wycombe.
So we sit 23rd, and results and tables don't lie even if overall we might not think we are the second-worst team in the division, the hard facts say that we are, and we need to dig ourselves out of it.
January is always a big month, with the window and having made a bit of a Horlicks of recruitment in the summer as it has transpired, it becomes even bigger.
By the end of February, we will play many of the sides around us in the bottom half of the table again, including Accrington, Crewe, Newport, Notts County and Stevenage, so by the time the National Hunt Festival takes over the town, we'll have a better idea of where we stand.

The manager
Any manager with his team in 23rd place, having won four games out of 23, could really have no argument if their job was under question.
That Gary Johnson's isn't, or at least doesn't seem to be, is only because of the miracle he performed last season to sign 18 players in no time and win the National League by 10 points.
He opted - and the vast majority of fans had no issue with this as they chanted 'sign them on' after chairing them off the pitch last April - to put his trust in his championship-winning squad, bar one, who opted to leave of his own volition.
No problem with that. But what he failed to do was supplement it with players capable of making the squad stronger and ready for the demands of the higher level.
Of the six loans he brought in, four (Smith, Suliman, Whitehead and Arthur) were abject failures.
Then, having been able to get Dillon Phillips back, Russell Griffiths was recruited, and having started promisingly saw his form become erratic and now he has gone too.
Only Rob Dickie, tried and trusted last season, was anywhere near a success, but he hasn't hit the heights of last season, like many of those around him.
The other summer arrival was James Jennings, who played twice early on before being loaned to Morecambe - a quick admission that the move had not worked out.
Alex Cooper's arrival and four-minute appearance only served to sum the season's recruitment up really - from the sublime to the poor in a matter of months.
From early in the season, Johnson has criticised the players for their inability to make the step up to the level - even after they played heroically at Carlisle and nearly won the game, he was critical, which surprised me.
Some of it has been justified at times, but some of it has also been over the top - and I can see the argument from some fans that this deflates confidence - and also seems to be the manager deflecting the criticism away from himself.
There is no doubt he is feeling the pressure - he has in recent weeks picked fights with the Echo over the transfer window poll and over speculation stories about signings and departures, saying there is a 'mole' in the camp.
I am not sure I would go picking fights with people when I've won four games out of 23 - I'd want these people nominally on my side in tough times like this.
In his defence, he has not been helped by injuries and suspensions right from the off - Storer's eight games to start with, then an injury,and then three more on top, Pell's red card and numerous bookings (he's out of the next two), Holman's injury, Hall missing longish-term, Dayton only being able to play one game then missing the next two, play one, miss two - not a help to consistency.
Only Pell and Waters have shown anything like the consistent form they did last season, and it's no coincidence that these two have played practically every game they have been available for.
But others have been chopped and changed (or had to be with knocks or bans) and some, I'm afraid, have looked light years away from last season's performances.
Whether some have had a fair crack of the whip or been played in their best positions is open to debate. I know many fans have sympathy for Barthram, and I for one think our top scorer Waters is wasted on the right wing and if Morgan-Smith is going to play, play him through the middle, not wide left as we saw on Monday.
Unfortunately, some fans have turned on a few of the players they were chairing off the pitch as 'heroes'and 'legends' a matter of months ago, and also singing songs in the club bar with - a massive shame, but I'm afraid that is the way things seem to be these days.
We have been told by many to forget last season's title win and concentrate on the here and now. OK. The here and now is four wins in 23 games. So there is a dilemma.
Gary and his brother Pete have formulated the January transfer window plans with the board, so I see it as inconceivable that a change is being mooted in the short-term at least (although the talk of a two-year contract has gone quiet).
If, by the end of February, when we have played our nearest rivals and the window is closed, things haven't improved, what then?
Do you stick or twist? Stick with the manager who the players know, who has signed them all and should know them inside or out, or twist and bring someone in blind, with no power to change anything (bar free agents) if he comes in and doesn't fancy the group he has got to work with?
We went down the twist road very frequently in 2014-15 and it didn't work. My gut feeling as it stands now is that we won't do that again.

The window - 'we need experience'
So January is here and the rumour mill (or the mole in the camp...) is being racheted up to full speed.
We've had two loanees arrive already replacing two of the five who have left, and if Dickie is allowed to stay we will have four (assuming the Scott Brown return happens).
Only five can be played at one time, so we await one more - and the manager has told us he hopes for three more arrivals at least before Accrington on the 12th (or maybe Leicester on the 10th).
Some of them will see us take over their contracts from other clubs - ie they probably expire in the summer, or maybe the one after that.
The main cry from fans has been for league experience - especially after neither of the two latest loan signings has very much.
I get that. But go back to 2014-15 (sorry, I know it's painful) and look at the experience we had then. Pablo Mills. Matt Sparrow. Danny Haynes. Kane Ferdinand. Mathieu Manset. All experienced at League Two level and above. All transferred at one time or another for massive fees. All utterly useless.
If anything, the arrivals who actually did anything decent were by and large the younger ones - Jack Dunn, Wes Burns - so experience is not the be all and end all.
Yes it can help, and no we don't have much actual League Two experience at the moment - the back five on Monday of Dickie, Onariase, O'Shaughnessy and Cranston, with Griffiths behind it for instance.
I feel we must guard against bringing in experience just for the sake of it. I am sure Gary will have learned from seeing what the 1,000-game-plus quintet - I am sure he'll never forget Ferdinand's 27 minutes at Northampton.
We need a mix. Experience yes, journeymen picked up because no-one else wants them, no.
Some young, energetic legs combined with some nous, but above all more mobility, and more pace all around the team.
Onariase and de Girolamo will, I feel, help to provide that as they settle in. Onariase looked more promising as the game wore on, while de Girolamo looked much happier once Wright was on the pitch.
I'd like to see a big, mobile forward come in, the ilk of Akinde and Ikpeazu, who have impressed me more than any other forward this year. I know... there are 50-odd other clubs looking for that sort of player.
We need some natural width. If you are playing 4-4-2, you can't have Waters and Morgan-Smith as your wide men - they are not wingers and they looked lost on Monday. It was two players wasted (no fault of theirs).
I also feel we need an enforcer in midfield. Someone happy to sit and break things up allowing Pell and others to go foraging for the ball (while hopefully avoiding yellow cards...). This is where I feel Hall has been a miss in the squad. He has good experience at League level and can play that role happily.
Also we need people who can cross a ball. Friday and Monday were so frustrating when Cranston and Dickie especially got into great positions and crosses hit the first man.
Holman, Wright and co are not going to get into goalscoring positions if the ball is not coming anywhere near them, and we don't seem to be able to score 'easy' goals. If they can take good set-pieces all the better. Ours have been abject of late.
It's a big shopping list, maybe bigger than we are going to end up with, but let's hope the Johnson boys can spot the special offers before anyone else does and get them in the basket.