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.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Let me start by saying that I wasn't at Torquay today - I spent the afternoon with my girlfriend and my kids at Cattle Country in Berkeley with the commentary on the radio - and loved every minute of it.
So therefore I can't tell you if it was sending-off or not - but I can still tell you even without having been at Plainmoor that to play for 83 minutes with 10 men and come away with our biggest away win in three and a half years is absolutely fantastic.
Not since we went to Dagenham and won 5-0 in February 2012 have we won so convincingly on the road -but seldom in our history can we have won so well with a numerical disadvantage for most of the game.
That's only our second win on the road in 2015 and our first in 14 matches - we haven't taken maximum points since Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart's goals at Oxford in January.
It was a brilliant and much-deserved reward for the 277 who did make the trip - the vast majority of whom go absolutely everywhere and haven't had much to shout about over the past two seasons. They came over loud and clear on the radio and deserve all the credit in the world for sticking by the club. This one is for you lot.
Finally, they seem to have the team their loyalty over these recent dark times merits - one that matches their passion and players who appear to want to put shifts in for the club and its' fans.
In the five matches before today, we have seen work-rate, backbone, resilience and commitment, words which were alien to the vast majority of players last season, and the one before that.
Today's result under those circumstances only reinforces that further, and will send a message out around the league that we are a team which means business.
It should bring bundles of confidence and belief to everyone - directors, manager, players and fans - let's face it, if a 3-0 win with 10 men can't do that, then nothing will.
So far, we have dominated without winning against Lincoln and Aldershot, ground down a stubborn Southport and then hit back from behind against Chester and Barrow.
It was that never-say-die attitude from the latter two games which obviously came to the fore again today.
Past CTFC sides would have folded after the red card - even one of the best sides we have had in recent times did just that at Southend a few years back.
That Southend team are a better side by far than this Torquay one, but even so let's take absolutely nothing away from our win at all
To go away and win 3-0 with 10 men for 83 minutes is simply stunning.
This result might just dispel a few doubts that some CTFC fans have had about this team being capable of challenging at the top this season.
With results like this, we clearly are. This team is clearly made of a much better material than most of the ones which have gone before, definitely in the very recent past.
In the opening five games, we have especially seen the quality of Kyle Storer, Jack Munns, Aaron Downes, Jack Barthram, Daniel Parslow and Amari Morgan-Smith, while Danny Wright has led the line superbly. But all of them have played their part.
I have seen criticism of Wright for his failure to get on the scoresheet until now despite his hard work in every game. For that reason I was especially delighted to hear his two goals go in.
He has deserved them for his performances up to now - a number nine who is prepared to put a shift in is a refreshing and welcome sight. Not since Neil Grayson have we had a consistent hard worker leading the line.
So that's Wright, Storer, Downes and Morgan-Smith all with two goals each now - Munns and Dickie (who looks another decent Johnson signing) also on target, so six scorers of our 10 goals - another good sign in my view as it means goals are being spread round the side.
I know some fans want to see a 20-goal striker - but these are few and far between anyway and it can't always be good to rely too much on one player for goals.
That one player could get injured, or sold, or lose form - so for me it's always healthy to see a number of players weighing in with the goals.
There is still a long way to go but it is great to see smiles back on people's faces and such positivity coursing through the club as we get ready for the BT Sport TV cameras to roll into town on Monday.
We go into the game with confidence and belief, unbeaten in six games against a side who have won their last five. Two in form sides, on a Bank Holiday, on live TV. What more do you want? Should be a cracker!
At the moment, it's not just the players in the side displaying great confidence. It was great to see four loanees score seven goals between them this weekend - Harry Williams with three and Bobbie Dale two for Farnborough, Zack Kotwica one for Cirencester and Joe Hanks one for Gloucester.
There has been a lot of talk about these four players, as well as James Bowen, being sent out and whether it's the right decision.
My view is that at the moment it is, as they need regular games. With only five subs, there is less chance for them to be in the squad.
I certainly don't believe it is Gary Johnson writing them off as not good enough. He has talked positively about them, and I feel if he didn't deem them to be good enough or without sufficient potential, he would have listed them as he did with Deaman, Sterling-James and co at the end of last season.
The club's outlook is currently short-term - we need to get promoted this season. If we don't go up,we should be seeing plenty of them next season as first-team mainstays
I have great sympathy for these five lads in particular. I feel Mark Yates treated them poorly as he had chances to use them and get them into the squad in the past and he just didn't trust them - instead he opted to bring in loanee after loanee.
A small minority of them were okay, granted. But you cannot tell me that players like Lee Lucas, Billy Daniels, Eusebio and co were any better than Hanks, Williams or Kotwica would have been at the time. I still feel Bowen would have done no worse than our left-back did in the last two seasons...
I feel other clubs and managers would have used them. Williams, for example, had something like 40 goals in reserve and youth football two seasons ago. Yates opted to ignore that and bring in stop-start loans who didn't care rather than using 'one of our own'and giving our academy a shot in the arm. Why have an academy if you aren't going to pay any attention to it?
Over these past two seasons, these five players have, in my view, been let down a bit, and have become victims of circumstances. Yates could have used them, then at the start of last season but he marginalised them. As we slid down the table and manager after manager came in, a relegation battle was then deemed not the time or place for them, despite Paul Buckle giving a few of them a run-out.
So now, Gary Johnson still doesn't feel they are ready for a 'promotion or bust' battle - and I am delighted to see them going out and scoring goals. Hopefully they can all come back in January (or even before) and play a part for us.
But with better development and more exposure to the first team, they would already be in our side, or we'd know by now if they were good enough or not, and one or two might have been let go.
We should not still be here needing to still know if they are good enough or not, as they are all around 19 or 20. I think they have all shown little signs and I really think it would be a crying shame if they were all simply allowed to slip away without being able to properly show what they can do.
My feeling is that if that happens, a few of them could turn out like Marley Watkins or Sam Foley - going away and having decent careers somewhere, when they should have fulfilled their potential here.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A point gained?

'WIN your home games, and draw your aways' is one of those little adages that pop up in football.
Barring the home draw with Aldershot, we are living up to that one quite nicely, and if we carry on doing it until late April, 22 wins and 24 draws will mean 90 points, and happy days.
Of course it won't happen... after all, we might win some aways instead of drawing them... but it's nice to still be one of six unbeaten sides in the VNL at this stage.
As each game goes by, we seem to be learning a little bit more about our newly-assembled team, and at Chester our new nugget was about having resilience and backbone.
For most of the first 45 minutes, we were second best. Passing and ball retention was sloppy, and Chester's better passing and incisive movement was causing problems.
We've seen halves like that before. In the past, when that has happened, we have often collapsed and ended up losing by three or four.
But we are gradually learning that this Cheltenham team is fashioned out of a better quality of steel than those that have gone before. I know - not difficult, but refreshing nonetheless.
Again in homage to those miserable times of the recent past we conceded an early goal, and I'm giving credit to Ross Hannah for a good finish.
You could quibble about Jack Munns needing to be stronger after losing a midfield 50-50 and ask whether Aaron Downes could have got a bit tighter, but sometimes you hold your hands up and acknowledge a well-taken goal, and I think this was one of those.
So we were behind for the first time, and it was time to see how we would react to it. At first the answer was not too well - we rocked a bit and Chester, not surprisingly, had their tails up and could have killed us off. Hannah himself could have had a hat-trick.
Some of our lads looked a bit nervy after that - cases in point were George McLennan's back pass which should have given Hannah a second goal, then Billy Waters' miss from under the bar which should have made it 1-1.
Unfortunately that seems to be summing up Waters' lot at the moment. He seems very off-colour and looks low on confidence.
His evening was ended early as Asa Hall came on and we looked more solid after that - I wouldn't be surprised to see him start on Saturday with Waters given a breather after four good bench cameos.
It was swift and decisive management from Gary Johnson. He didn't gloss over the subject after the game, saying he would not hesitate to do it again if players were not hitting their straps.
We have seen glimpses of what Waters can do and I met a Crewe fan recently still furious that they let him go, and we need to find a way to get the best of him. It might be that he needs to be played further forward.
Witness his single-handed beating of Bristol Rovers playing as a forward, and I do just feel we need a little bit of a spark up front. He could be the one to provide it.
Definitely something for Gary Johnson to ponder, but all in all, I suspect he was quite pleased to get us in at half-time only one down. It could have been more and was comfortably our worst 45 of the season.
A fast start was imperative after the break, and a pretty comical (from a Chester perspective) and well-taken (from ours) goal was just the shot in the arm we needed.
Kyle Storer got it - our fourth different scorer in five games to keep up the 'goals being spread around the team' situation, once again something lacking in the recent past.
It was a nice finish and good to see him reacting so quickly in the box to punish the error decisively.
The rest of the half was like a basketball match. We attack, then you attack - either side could have won it - but I still felt we had the better of the clear-cut chances.
I point to Jon Worsnop's none-too-convincing decision to chest away a low, goalbound shot he could have held, Jack Barthram's fabulous mazy run before he hit the bar and Amari Morgan-Smith's header being tipped over.
At the other end, our defensive line held pretty firm.
The offside flag was our friend on occasions maybe. but we once again defended corners and long throws well as they went a bit more direct in the latter stages.
But the only real threats on goal were Hannah's shot which Dillon Phillips saved brilliantly and another shot wide as he tried a carbon copy of his goal.
As the early table shows however, with both teams on eight points and unbeaten Lincoln and Chester are no mugs and to have taken a point each from trips up there is a decent-enough return in my view.
Lincoln might have been two points lost after having the lead and seeing a few chances go begging, while this point was the total opposite - gained after an off-colour opening half.
Like Lincoln though, I can't see many sides going to Chester and getting much. They look a decent unit who played some nice stuff and on this showing will be top 10 at least, maybe even top five candidates with a good run.
We hope to be definite top five candidates at the very least, and I still haven't seen anything from us to change my view that we can be just that. I think there is more to come from us.
It was good to see some resilience and backbone, and things like seeing Morgan-Smith chasing down back-passes in the 90th minute, and midfielders squeezing up and forcing errors in the dying seconds make a refreshing change.
As I said at the start, draw your aways and win your homes - and this point needs to be backed up with three against Barrow on Saturday, as Andy Haworth and Ashley Grimes rock up at Whaddon (if Ashley makes it down the M6 this time...).
The Cumbrians have four points from four games, all garnered at home against Dover and Guiseley, while their two away trips have yielded four-goal defeats at Grimsby and Forest Green (albeit after two red cards).
Those away results point to the need for us to take the maximum dividend (four goals would be an added bonus...) as this one falls into the 'games that would-be promotion challengers should be winning' category.
That would mean nine points from five games, and would put us pretty near to that 'two points a game' target which has been oft-quoted as being necessary for a top-five slot.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Up and running

TWO games into Operation Bounceback, and although we had yet to taste defeat, it would be fair to say that we had yet to get the engine purring along nicely.
We had seen a couple of games which were similar in many ways - enough chances created in both to win, but which were not taken - this lack of a ruthless streak being a large factor (but by no means the only one) in why we were sat on two points and not six.
Southport on the other hand had one point, and no goals and are maybe not expected to pull up too many trees this season.
So, let's be honest, if we are going to show that we are the real deal and challenge near the top, these are the sort of games that need to be won - and, being greedy, won well to put a real marker down.
Yes folks, three games in and we were pretty much getting into the realms of the old 'must-win game'.
Gary Johnson didn't quite say as much in his pre-match chat, but his rhetoric was pleasing to hear - he is still looking for a few lads to step it up a bit, it's time to push on, and we need to start winning. No muddy waters there, the message was clear.
No excuses about a new team needing time to gel, or it's going to take time. He knows what is required this season and that even at this early stage we can't start lagging behind the pacesetters.
An unchanged team for the third game running wasn't a real surprise, and even my anorak-like brain can't remember the last time that happened. I know it wasn't last season for sure...
It's good for the continuity. As the games go on and these players play together, the partnerships around the field start to take root.
Downes and Parslow at the heart of the defence, Barthram and Pell down the right, McLennan and Munns or Waters down the left, Storer and three ahead of him, Wright and Morgan-Smith up front. All of them are starting to knit together and get that understanding going.
Things started well, as they had in the previous two games. We were on the front foot, asking the questions and refusing to be dazzled by Southport's decision to send their outfield players out dressed as 10 stewards in high-vis outfits.
But like on Tuesday the early goal wouldn't come. But unlike on Tuesday, where Aldershot looked to play a bit and tried to hit us on the break, Southport formed a flourescent wall in front of us designed to frustrate.
By half-time, we had almost hit double figures for corners, and taken our season's shot count past 30 - but with a return of only one goal to show for it.
During the break, I ventured down to the main bar to gauge some opinions. 'Always one too many passes - get more shots off early,' said one. 'Final ball poor' said another. 'Move the ball quicker - try to get in behind them' added a third.
So a mood of general frustration at a 0-0 scoreline - but the feeling that if we could uncork the bottle and get one goal that more would follow, and that much-wanted win would come.
And so it proved, corner number 11 landing on Downes' head - ironic given early-season worries about our own defending from set-pieces that one proved pivotal here.
All of a sudden, the mood lifted and a weight seemed to have been lifted from the whole ground.
Gary and Russell Milton were waving to the PRE and everything was rosy. Not for one minute after that goal did I think we were going to do anything other than win the game.
Two more goals made the scoreline about right. Overall I felt it was a 3-0 game. We had 22 shots in all and 17 corners.
On those stats it was a comfortable win, fully merited against a side who had one decent chance, Louis Almond's shot at 0-0 which was well saved by Dillon Phillips.
Morgan-Smith took his two goals superbly. The finish for the first was exquisite, a lovely dink which finally broke Southport's resistance.
His second - blow me down, another goal from a corner - was bravely taken, showing determination to get above the defender and win the header.
It's good to see him get up and running with a couple of goals - and probably kept him on the pitch as Josh Cooke was waiting to come on but Danny Wright came off instead.
Wright got a good ovation and was fully deserved as I felt he typified this team's attitude and high work ethic. He certainly puts a shift in, and it is nice to see a Cheltenham number 9 who is prepared to do that again. We've not seen that for a while...
Downes got the sponsors' man of the match vote again and after a clean sheet, goal and assist it's hard to quibble.
But after many games in the past two seasons which it seems to sponsors have had to draw the name out of a hat due to lack of candidates, it could have gone to a few this time.
Storer was again impressive, and has I feel been our best player over the three games combined so far. I like the unfussy way he just breaks things up and gets us moving again. He wins the ball back effectively and provides a good shield for the back four.
I also felt Parslow had an excellent game, his best for us so far. He reads the game well, as does Downes and I like the way they seem decisive with clearances - no fuss, if it needs to go, it goes.
Munns had given us real creativity, and has been involved in all four of our goals so far, scoring one, taking corners which lead to two others and with a slide-rule ball for the other one. A small midfielder in the mould of ones which have gone before - but this one seems to have end product.
In the system we play, the full-backs have a tough job. They need to be good athletes and get up and down their flank all game, defending and then providing much of the width.
I felt Barthram did it better than McLennan here but as we later discovered McLennan was feeling under the weather, he deserves credit for lasting as long as he did.
Waters came off early again, giving way to another good cameo from Asa Hall, and, having hit the heights in pre-season, especially against Bristol Rovers, Waters hasn't quite scaled them again in these last two home games.
We have seen flashes of it, but he has been overshadowed a bit by his little pal Munns, and I feel we need to find a way to get the best out of him as I feel he could really be a star for us.
In some ways I think the same goes for Pell, who, with his height and power, should really be our driving force. I felt at times on Saturday he was a little wasted out on the right, almost at times playing as a winger.
I'd like to see him maybe deployed more centrally, maybe with Munns and Waters either side of him so he can really get the ball and drive opponents back, with the trickery of the two little guys benefitting from his destructive work.
But it was a good performance and it was nice to see those slightly furrowed half-time brows replaced by full-time smiles - four points from two home games is sufficient and gets us moving in the right direction.
You can't argue with three goals, including that rarity for us of two from corners, and that even bigger rarity - a second successive clean sheet, for the first time since the start of last season, Hartlepool and Morecambe.
A look at the embryonic league table is interesting. Some patterns already seem to be forming for where teams may end up, even at this early stage.
Several of those teams who were perceived to be among the cream are already rising to the top - but as we painfully know from last season, let's remember that good starts are not necessarily a barometer for a successful campaign. Marathon, not a sprint.
At present Forest Green, Grimsby, Eastleigh, Tranmere and Wrexham occupy five of the top six places, with the other team in the top bracket being Chester, our opponents on Tuesday.
They have seven points from two 1-0 wins and a goalless draw, solid and unspectacular maybe.
Three clean sheets suggests they will be a tough nut to crack at the Deva, but we should be going there in confident mood, hopeful of getting something to keep us moving in the right direction.