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


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.