Monday, 14 April 2014

Which way is the beach...?

So now it is pretty much official - the season is over with four games to go, and we can get the travel brochures out.
The weather is telling us that at least, and there wasn't much at St James' Park on Saturday to persuade us that these last 360 minutes (plus stoppage time...) is going to be much other than a last chance for those without contracts for next season to change the manager's mind, bar a total collapse in form and some freak results below us.
By far the best part of Saturday was the debut of Harry Williams. Overdue in some eyes, including mine, after 38 goals at 'junior' levels this season and a succession of underwhelming loanees in his position in the side.
He didn't have to come in and rip trees up immediately. All I was looking for him to do was not to look out of place - the rabbit in the headlights effect (copyright Bagasan Graham, Swindon, March 2012).
I think he passed that test. He got involved, tried to keep it simple, made some good runs off the ball without getting the pass he should have, and without being spectacular, played his part in the side calmly and effectively.
I think the manager did the right thing, taking him off after an hour, and I now hope that he will keep his place on Friday and beyond, rather than giving Billy Daniels some time to get match practice for a side he won't give two hoots about in a few weeks' time.
It is good to see a truly local boy in CTFC colours. Cheltenham-born, a former Southside Tiger and Balcarras boy who has come up through the Academy all the way to the first team.
I am prepared to be corrected, but I can only think of Martin Devaney as another Cheltenham-born player who has played League football for us, as Dave Bird, Zack Kotwica and Joe Hanks were all born at the other end of the Golden Valley.
In these days where fans say there is a lack of connectivity with the side, to see players like Harry come through can only be a good thing - but only if they are good enough. It cannot be done for the sake of it.
But I don't think Yatesy is the sort of manager to do that. He will not put young players in unless he feels they deserve to be there on merit, so let's hope Harry can go on from here.
We started the game slowly, and were deservedly behind. Neither full-back covered themselves in glory defensively all game.
Exeter's threat came from out wide, and was always present. We never clamped down it with the restored CBB saved by his pace on more than one occasion, and Sido forced to resort to needless fouls with monotonous regularity which only served to put more pressure on our goal.
Neither of these two have contracts. This display won't have done them any favours on that front, and I am sure there will be better full-backs going spare in the summer meat market.
I know. There is a better right back playing in the centre of York's defence. Please. Let's not go down that road again...
Steve Elliott was back in central defence and had a very good game alongside Troy Brown. Apart from the messy Exeter goal, they looked pretty much untroubled, and I think Steve's presence just calms everyone down - including Scott Brown.
I wish Steve was 25, not 35. He is a true warrior, and one of the few players (if not the only one) who would want next to you in a battle - someone who would go through brick walls.
It seems inevitable he will go, and he has looked his age at times this season - but I wish we could keep him here somehow.
Coaching and playing the odd game, helping out the young centre-halves in the Academy maybe? I don't know, but it will be a shame to see him go. I am glad I have got his white shirt!
We struggled early on in midfield, until David Noble got hold of the game after the Exeter goal, and he ran the show until half-time.
That again has re-ignited an argument. Do we try and sign him for next season, and try to build a team round him?
I still say no. This is based on two things - money (I have no idea what he is on at Rotherham and would ask as a wage, yet I think he will be too expensive) and injury record.
He looks brittle, and we need players who will give value for money, ie the potential to play 35-40 games a season, and on the evidence we have seen we probably will not get that from Noble.
I can imagine the 'sicknote' barbs on everyone's favourite internet forum if he signs and then spends a lot of time in Ian Weston's company. Not worth the risk in my view - good player that he is.
What Noble's impact on Saturday added to the collapse against Southend after he went off does tell us however is that we need a 'passer' in the team - a quarterback to dictate things.
Matt Richards is certainly not that, and neither is Jason Taylor. Add that to the shopping list Mark...
Up front we had the same old problem - lack of service - so fair play to Byron Harrison for making a silk purse from a sow's ear with a goal from not even a half-chance.
That's 15 now, 13 in the League (all single goals) without penalties. A very good effort, only bettered by Sam Winnall (22), Scott Hogan (17) and Reuben Reid (16), and matched by Rhys Murphy, Luke James and Jonjo O'Toole.
As I said last time, in a mediocre side who barely creates a chance, he deserves a lot of credit. His job is to score goals, and he has done just that, and even if a lot of his performances are languid and bordering on the lazy, I have decided my player of the year vote will go to either him or Scott Brown.
Why? Because those two are the reasons why we are not right in the mire - without Byron's goals and Scott's saves we could be Torquay right now.
Byron played alongside Jamie Cureton, who also got little to work with, but while Byron took his quarter-chance, Jamie badly missed his more clear-cut one.
After the game he was brutally honest about that and the other chances he has missed. Not good enough basically, should have scored them, and can therefore understand why he has not started as many games as he would like. If only all players were as honest and self-critical as that. He knows he won't be here next year.
Zack Kotwica will be and he had a bright little cameo, coming as close as he has ever done to his first senior goal - denied by a good save from the goalkeeper.
It may be a little galling for Zack to see his mate Harry beat him to a starting role, but I hope it happens for Zack in the next four games. I think he has earned it on merit.
Finally to two more players who are out of contract. One, Jermaine McGlashan, who everyone seems resigned to losing, and who some will miss and others are not really fussed either way.
I am in the latter category, and Saturday was more evidence for that feeling, as Jermaine did his usual thing of getting into promising positions then failing to make the most of them, either by trying and failing to win a free-kick or corner, or by failing to produce a decent cross. He should have got a penalty though, when he was tripped and then bizarrely failed to appeal for it in any way shape or form.
Finally, Sam Deering. He has never scored for Cheltenham and after coming on for Williams had a chance right at the death which summed up a) why he will be leaving and b) why he will never score a goal for us.
I am still having nightmares about that miss. Before my knees gave in, I was a very average Sunday League striker turned even more average central defender, yet I think I would (just about) have backed myself to score.
Sam had done well along with Byron to carve out the chance, and all he had to do was slip it into the corner. I bet he has done it in training hundreds of times, but he basically passed it to the keeper.
It could yet be a pivotal moment. It gave Exeter a tiny bit more breathing space above the bottom two. If they stay up by a point, or on goal difference the drinks in Devon are on Sammy.
It has also stopped us from being to able to say we are safe with any real clarity.
I think we are, given the amount of traffic between us and the bottom two and the fact that many of those below us will take points off each other (Wycombe, for instance, have Northampton, Torquay and Bristol Rovers still to play), but it would have been nice to be a little more free from nagging doubts.
As I said at the top, some freak results and four defeats for us would be needed to make it happen, and even I am not that pessimistic.
Just roll on May 3 at 5pm, when I can down a few ciders (no doubt in the company of some mad Norwegians) and try to forget that season 2013-14 ever happened.


Sunday, 6 April 2014

An all too familiar story

Spineless, gutless, pathetic, unacceptable, bottle-job - pick your phrase or adjective of choice, as they are all an accurate description of our second-half 'performance' yesterday.
An all too familiar tale, a Ground hog Day of our season, and I am among the many who have had a gutful of it now.
Like the manager, I just want this season finished. Five more games, 450 minutes plus stoppage time - let's get it done and then move on to watching cricket and getting some sun (hopefully...).
The first half yesterday was - in the context of this season's home displays - not bad.
We looked as confident as we have on our own soil, I thought we passed the ball well, the movement was good, and the tempo was decent.
The downside was that once again we didn't create very much. The goal was all Byron's work, seizing on a loose ball on the edge of the box and smashing it low into the net.
Aside from that, we were tidy enough between the two penalty boxes, I thought David Noble, Sam Deering and Matt Richards had the best of the midfield tussles, and we were the better side.
Only just it has to be said, as Southend had the better chances - Scott Brown made two good saves, and down our left-hand side, we gave them far too much room.
Time after time, Kevan Hurst, John White or Michael Timlin had far too much space on that flank. Sido was being sucked inside and often Richards was left isolated against one of those three players and crosses were coming into our box.
It is a problem we constantly have. We simply never seem to be able to stop crosses. Every team we come against seems to have an outlet down one side of our defence or the other, and it puts us under pressure all the time.
Conversely, we don't seem to have that threat. Jermaine McGlashan barely got into the game, and when he did, the crosses were non-existent. He wasn't the only culprit on that front - when Mitch Brundle, or Deering, Richards, Jombati (or anyone) got into a promising position, there was no telling cross, no final ball of any significance at all.
I feel sorry for Byron. That goal yesterday was his first real shot on goal for three or four games. Some will say that is partly his fault, and that he can be lazy. He can, yes, but equally he cannot do it all himself, can he?
The goal yesterday was his 12th in the League, all 'single goals (he hasn't got two in one league game, but his other two were in one game - Crawley in the League Cup) - and in a side like we have had this season which doesn't score many goals, isn't free flowing and barely creates a chance, that is a very decent effort.
We are getting into player of the year territory, and that goal tally should get Byron high up in the voting, but I don't think it will as he is yet another 'Marmite' player with the fans.
Although surely the fact we now hold up players who were criticised severely when they were here as Messiahs the time has surely come to appreciate players like Byron and his contribution. He is a striker, a number nine, and is there to score goals.
That is his job, and he has delivered, and in a side which has produced a lot of pretty insipid stuff all season.
His goal yesterday was a rare moment of quality at Whaddon - but was then followed by 45 minutes of the most dreadful stuff we have seen.
The loss of Noble didn't help. He had been quietly influential in the first half, and to lose him so quickly in the second was undoubtedly a blow.
But we were winning the match, and the loss of one player should not totally disrupt the rhythm of a team, and should not lead to such a pathetic, spineless display.
Someone else should have put their hand up and taken on his mantle - Richards, Deering, Jason Taylor or Billy Daniels especially, but none of them did that. They all hid.
We should have been confident. On the front foot after a good half, and buoyed by getting a goal right at the end of the half - but it seemed to have exactly the opposite effect.
We barely strung three passes together, and gifted Southend two goals to add to the annals of easy goals we have let in this season - a very long list.
Phil Brown deserves some credit for the two changes he made, but the warning signs were there, even in that first half.
Scott Brown made those two saves, and an even better one which led to the long throw we conceded from. He did nothing wrong, but once again he was let down by the players in front of him.
Weak minds, said the manager afterwards. Spot on, weak defending, powder puff stuff in our own box, and a player in Barry Corr who showed more desire, and wanted to get to the ball, wanted to score a goal more than our gutless players wanted to clear the ball away.
It was no shock when we conceded again, a free kick to us was cleared, it was no shock that one of our players didn't win the second ball (we stopped doing that at half time, but haven't won many of them since about 2011) and two passes later it was in our net.
I am not sure where Sido had disappeared to, but Hurst had all the time he wanted to run down his channel to score.
After that, Southend had the easiest 23-minute procession to go away with the points. We didn't test the goalkeeper, never looked like equalising, and seemed to be almost going through the motions.
Only one ball in from Zack Kotwica which caused a little scramble - that was it as far as any nominal threat on the Southend goal in that last quarter of the game.
Kotwica had come on as one of two late changes, with Jamie Cureton replacing Daniels, who was totally and utterly ineffective - as poor an individual performance as I have seen all season.
So, once again, the question has to be asked - why is he here?
Hours before our defeat, the youth team beat Bournemouth 5-2, with Harry Williams scoring a hat-trick. He plays as an attacking midfielder, the position Daniels was apparently filling yesterday.
Those goals took Harry's tally for the season to 38 in youth league, Cup and reserve team matches, which must make him one of the leading youth level goalscorers in the country.
Yet we haven't seen him in our team bar a short spell against Morecambe, and instead we are helping a player who has a long-term contract at a team in a league above get some match fitness.
I think that is very wrong, and what message does that send out to people like Harry, Joe Hanks, James Bowen, Bobbie Dale and Adam Powell? Play as well as you like in our youth teams, and impress when you go out on loan, but I am going to bring in a loanee who is a year older than you to do a job which you might be able to do.
Now, I know Harry Williams is not the finished article, but surely that goal record alone deserves an opportunity in the side? Surely he deserves the chance to show what he can do? I will be very disappointed indeed if we don't see him, Zack and even Connor Roberts get at least one start in these last five meaningless games.
What have we got to lose? These players are meant to be the future, but unless they get a go, how are we meant to know if they are ever going to be good enough?
They will come in and make mistakes, but surely the fans will give them some leeway in these games, won't they? Surely fans will get behind players like that more than they will want to see players like Daniels, who frankly didn't look like he even wanted to be out there.
I know that has turned into a rant, and I know I champion these young players a lot, but if, as the chairman says money is going to be tight further down the line, then these players need to feel valued, not that they are banging their heads against a brick wall. We want them to be our future, not someone elses.
OK I feel better after that - now back to yesterday. The other substitution was Kotwica for Taylor - yes, Taylor, who had earlier come on for Noble. No injury, just the hook as we tried to chase the game.
Obviously, this has provoked a lot of debate, but I am siding with Mark Yates here.
He explained it that at 2-1 down, Taylor is not the sort of player who is going to get you back into the game, but is more the player we wanted at 1-0 (when he originally came on). I see that point, and it is a plausible reason for the change.
Taylor was also playing extremely poorly indeed, and therefore that is another reason why I have no issue with the change being made. The player understandably wasn't happy and gave Yatesy a volley before he sat down.
Yesterday's capitulation was the last chance for some players in my eyes.
Of those out of contract, I would not shed any tears if McGlashan, Deering and Jombati left.
McGlashan has six goals this season which is a decent return, but he does not make the most of his major asset, his pace. He beats players, leaves them for dust, but then what? Usually a cross which hits the first defender or doesn't even get that far. Not enough.
If he thinks he can get a contract higher up the leagues or in Scotland, then good luck to him. He might be a player who we miss further down the line, one of those who is appreciated more once he has gone, but I am prepared to take that chance.
Deering has played nearly 100 games for us in a central/attacking midfield role, and not scored a goal. His assists can be counted on two hands in that time, I would guess. Not good enough.
There is no faulting his effort. He is a 100 per cent man every time, rare in our current team, but looking busy and running around a lot isn't always enough. I was delighted when we signed him two years ago, but he hasn't been the player I hoped he would be.
Now Sido. A folk hero. Brilliant when he came into the side, now a mistake-prone shadow of that player. If his name was Simon Johnson, and he wasn't Portugese with an exotic name, he probably wouldn't be the cult figure he is. There is better out there I think, much as I love Sido.
Scott Brown is the only regularly-playing out of contract player I would keep. I hope Roberts and Hanks are also kept on if they want to stay, but that is about it.
I cannot see Cureton and Steve Elliott being here next season. Cureton has also not lived up to expectations, and Steve I am afraid has looked a bit leggy recently and it seems Old Father Time is catching up with him - but what a servant he has been. He will be missed if this is the end.
Vincent as well will go I think. After being ignored for whatever reason, he had a decent burst but has been out back in the ice box again. Same goes for everyone's favourite left-back CBB. Five more games sat on the bench, and then time to look for a new club.
Of the players under contract, I would not shed any tears if any clubs came along and wanted Taylor. He has never fitted in here.
I am not sure his heart was ever in it - after all he wanted a loan move a month after the season started when he wasn't getting in.
It is a shame as he was brilliant when I saw him for Rotherham - another of those players who looks excellent for other clubs, and a shadow of that player when he comes here (see also Deering, Richards, Gornell etc etc etc...).
I feel sorry for Gornell. I like him as a player, good, technical player, clever (but so was Jeff Goulding...!) and I don't feel he has been given a fair crack in his best position, up front.
The attacking midfield role was one which never suited him, but he tried his best. I want to see him where he was effective for Accrington and Shrewsbury in the past, scoring goals against us, through the middle as a forward. If Cureton is going, then don't use him - give Terry the nod instead. He will be here, after all.
So if Brown stays, we will have a 'spine' of him, Troy Brown, Richards and Harrison to build something around, which is something to start from, plus Gornell and Kotwica, assuming Taylor goes elsewhere.
I wouldn't sign Noble if he is available, as if these injuries are going to keep recurring we will not get value out of him, and there must be someone of quality out there in our budget who can do that job.
Same goes for Michael Ihiekwe, I wouldn't sign him. Mitch Brundle I might be tempted to have a gamble on - as I think he has done okay at right back in six of his seven games... but he is a centre-back really, so if we were to sign him, where do we play him?
The summer is massive for Yatesy (assuming he finally does sign this contract!). He has to get it right and then start next season on the front foot.
The pressure will be on him not only from the fans but also massively from the boardroom as well, as they know that turgid home performances like we have seen for the vast majority of this season have alienated a lot of fans who might not ever come back, and more may join them if it continues.
If it goes wrong, and, say, we are in the bottom half after 10-15 games, then that might be the end for him, and the board will be answering questions about why this much-protracted new contract was given in the first place as we have to pay compensation, which could have been saved etc etc.
But I am getting ahead of myself - let's cross that bridge if it happens - but let's hope it doesn't come to that.
In the meantime, let's just enjoy the last five games. Or at least try to...

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Over-reaction

I wasn't going to write a blog on last night's game, then I came home and clicked through my Twitter timeline and changed my mind.
The reaction to the defeat was, in many cases, over the top, and a complete over-reaction in my view. It just mirrored what has been happening all season.
Recurring uses of the word 'disaster' and describing the campaign as 'the worst in the club's history', which doesn't completely fit in with what I have seen over the past eight months.
I am not kidding myself into thinking this has been a wonderful season - it hasn't. But it certainly hasn't been the unmitigated disaster some would lead you to believe it has.
It is not a disaster. A plane disappearing, and crashing with the loss of 200-plus people as we have seen in the Far East is a disaster. A football club losing a few games is nowhere near that.
The worst season we could have in our history would result in us losing our league status, going into administration, or suffering huge financial issues. None of those things have happened, even if the doom-mongers would have you believe it could still happen in the next few weeks.
All we have done this season is reverted back to our natural level in the footballing pecking order after two seasons of over-achievement - a mid-table team, financed by a mid-table budget, watched by mid-table crowds.
Last night we came up against a confident side, on a 22-game unbeaten run, with some top-quality players on decent money.
Paddy Madden cost £300,000 - just under a third of our wages budget - and won't be on peanuts having come from a team two divisions higher. Gary McSheffrey once cost £4million and I am sure has not gone to Scunthorpe for the fun of it, while David Syers has also left a club two divisions higher for Glanford Park.
It is a simple fact that we cannot compete with that sort of financial clout.
Good luck to them if they can sustain it, and continue financing it, but last night, for the first 45 minutes, we competed with them on the pitch.
Then one silly free-kick given away, and a half-chance seized upon in the box by an in-form striker, and we were chasing the game. Then another unnecessary free-kick and some poor marking gave him another goal.
The penalty gave us an opportunity, but it was missed - good save in my view, rather than poor penalty - and after that we looked deflated, bereft of confidence, and Scunthorpe showed us how a team closes a game out when they are 2-0 down midway through the second half.
We never looked like getting back into it, and so now we have seven games left of a season which I think we all just want to see the back of.
As usual, the accusations were of a lack of effort, and the players not trying, not caring, not being bothered etc. It is all too easy to throw barbs like that about, but I don't agree with them. Only the players know how hard they try, and how much effort they put in.
I thought the effort and commitment was there, but we are simply not good enough, and were beaten by a better side, with better players.
If you think they don't care by the way, if you get the chance to see Sido's post-match interview, do so. Hopefully Jon Palmer will put it up as a video in the next few days - it is worth a listen.
And of course the defeat brought back once again to the fore the names of Russ Penn and Keith Lowe, mainly because we lost and York have moved into the play-off places.
I have to say I am finding it all very tiresome now. They have gone. They wanted to go and we need to move on.
Believe it or not, we lost matches while Penn and Lowe were here. We dropped points from winning positions with them in the side (just as many as we have this season).
Penn was not in the side at times this season on merit. He admitted it himself. Lowe, in all of his time here, was never a long-term first-choice player at right back or centre-half.
They were good players (as were Pack, Summerfield, Bennett and all the others who crop up with monotonous regularity after a poor result) but they are not here now. It's the way football goes, players come and go .
Penn and Lowe are not the sole reason for York hitting a good run of form, and their departures are not the sole reason why we are not in the hunt for the play-offs. We weren't in that hunt when they were here.
We will finish somewhere between 11th and 17th - disappointing given the heights of the past two seasons, but not a complete and utter disaster. Ask Torquay, Northampton, Portsmouth, Wycombe and Bury if they would swap places with us. I am sure they would.
This is only the third season in 15 League campaigns that we have been in this position, floating along in mid-table with nothing to play for.
The other campaigns have seen us challenging in some way shape or form for the play-offs, trying to stay in the division above, or staving off the drop in Mark Yates' first half-season, so I don't think we have had it that bad overall, for a club of our size.
Yes, our size. Face facts, we are not a big club, however much some like to massage their ego by suggesting we are. The middle of League Two is our rightful standing in life.
This season never got started. If I sat down and wrote a book about our League campaigns, this one would have a pretty short chapter. It will be forgotten quickly.
Whether it be poor recruitment, managerial tactics and organisation, players not performing, individual mistakes or a combination of all four, it will be glossed over.
Those things were not a huge problem for the large part of the previous two seasons, as most of the time we were playing some good football and winning games. This season we haven't done enough of either.
The problem is that the mindset of the fans has changed. The supporters who were once just happy to be in the Football League now want more, and after nearly getting it for the past two seasons, the bar has been raised.
Mid-table in League Two is not what they want. The club has competed for the past two seasons against the bigger-money sides like Scunthorpe, but it hasn't happened this season, so many of them have turned their backs, which is their right of course, but which I find a huge disappointment.
Look around. Portsmouth, Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Hereford. Five clubs who have all played at the two highest levels of the Football League in the past 30-40 years, and have since slipped down. Their supporters have stuck by them, through thick and thin.
Isn't that what being a football fan is all about? Sticking by your side through thick and thin? Maybe I am just being old-fashioned, but I thought it was, rather than chucking in the towel during a sticky patch.
I know that the entertainment value, especially in home games, this season has been negligible. People pay a lot of money for football these days, not just here but all across the leagues, but they haven't had the rewards for that this season.
I am not criticising those who turn up every week and those who will be on the road to Hartlepool. They deserve a lot of plaudits for their loyalty, especially this season as it has not been an easy watch.
But their number is diminishing, and that trend will ultimately cause the club big problems, and will eventually lessen our ability to compete at this level - which is exactly the reason some have given for turning their backs.
You cannot force people to come, and people can spend their money the way they choose. But it is disappointing to see people giving up on the club after one middle-of-the-road season.
They talk of a lack of investment. The board invest what they can, they invest back in the money which comes through the gates. That money goes down, the less gets invested, the lower the budget becomes, the harder it becomes to compete. You cannot spend what you don't have, and I do not get why people expect the club to do so. Speculate to accumulate, boom or bust, is the road to ruin.
Fans all over football want more all the time. If their club finishes 12th, it should have been 11th. If they win 2-0, it should have been three.
There is no bottomless pit of money. The board cannot keep putting in money and finding funds that are not there, that is a simple fact of economics. Financial fair play rules will hopefully stop clubs spending money they don't have in the future.
The board have done a fantastic job over the past 15 years in looking after the club, improving the ground and steering through some sticky waters, but now they face a vicious circle, which the sacking of a manager or the shipping out of a bunch of players this summer is not going to solve.
I wish I had the answer, but it is not a change of chairman or a new board. The succession to Paul Baker is the biggest decision this club will make in the coming years.
Get that one wrong, and this season could pale into insignificance compared to what might be over the horizon - ask Notts County, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Wrexham, Hereford or Coventry City fans about having the wrong people in charge. It's the old mantra - be careful what you wish for.
Sack the manager. That always seems to be the solution. Torquay did that. So did Northampton. And Portsmouth. They are in the bottom three, and may wonder if the change has been worth it.
It is not a magic wand for success. Sometimes it can give the club a lift for a few weeks (Crystal Palace for instance - but they have faltered again) but rarely can it bring a massive change. Scunthorpe are an exception, rather than the norm.
Mark Yates came into the club when it was at a low ebb, saved us from the drop, stabilised us and then nearly took us up. Nearly. This season has been unable to sustain that challenge for whatever reasons, but I think he deserves the chance to see if he can re-ignite it.
This summer (and the first 10-15 games of next season) is massive for him. For two years he got his recruitment right, and was rewarded with two play-off campaigns. Last summer he got it wrong, as has been proved, so he has to find that magic formula again.
I'd by lying if I said next season doesn't worry me a bit with some strong teams coming up from the Conference, again with big crowds and financial power which will make League Two stronger, but after what he did over his first three seasons here overall, he deserves that chance to take on that challenge, in my view.
Cut the prices, they say. That is no magic wand that automatically bring more people through the gates. We did that against Southend a few years back after the first game was abandoned, and the crowd of 2,229 was one of the lowest in our League history. Last night's was, by the way, our second-worst of the season.
The £1 for students offer against Bury was not a great success. The club are trying, with free football for under 11s, and other incentives, but the bottom line seems to be that people are not interested.
Same goes for the Trust, who get negligible support from people wanting to join, or get involved in the running and staging of events. These people work very hard but get little or no backing from the rest of our fanbase and deserve better.
Why not join it? The Trust is one of the biggest shareholders in the club, and the best way the fans will get a say in the club, by hopefully one day getting a seat on the board. Yet the membership is about 120. Poor.
Entertainment or results is something that forever crops up. In my view, results are the more important. A season of scrappy 1-0 wins wouldn't be good to watch, but you would get promoted.
It is no good playing tippy-tappy football and not winning matches, as you will get relegated.
Scunthorpe were not spectacular last night, but they got the job done. No flair, no frills. Just a well-drilled side who put in the perfect away performance. Solid at the back and ruthless up front - putting away their only two on-target efforts. We all aspire to that, but we are short of it at the moment.
People also say 'we were told we'd be going for the play-offs'. Yes, that was the aim. Of course it was, but things don't always work out.
I am sure Torquay, Northampton and Portsmouth didn't tell their fans in pre-season that they aim to be in the relegation fight. Every club has aspirations, but they won't be met every season, it's a fact of life.
'The club promises us big signings to make us buy season tickets - they never happen'. This is another frequent complaint.
This summer, we signed Jamie Cureton, one of the biggest 'names' the club has had in its history. It hasn't worked out.
 Last night, Scunthorpe's two goals was scored by Sam Winnall, a player freed by Wolves after loan spells with Burton, Hereford, Inverness and Shrewsbury (scoring nine goals in total, in 33 games), taking his tally for the season to 21.
Imagine if this summer we signed Winnall, and Cureton had gone to Scunthorpe. "Why have we got a Wolves reject". "He is just a kid, we need experience". "His record isn't very good". "We should have signed Cureton".
All signings are a gamble. Cureton could have come here and scored 21 goals, and Winnall could have struggled. Nothing is ever certain.
Big names and huge salaries are not a guarantee of success. We could sack Mark Yates tomorrow, and appoint Robbie Fowler as our manager. Crowds might go up for a few weeks, but we would probably end up in the Conference.
There is no easy answer. I wish I could find it.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Speechless

After a night's sleep, I still haven't got my head around yesterday's mad happenings at Kingsmeadow.
For 95 and a half of the 99 minutes, it was the perfect away performance - we controlled the game, were solid at the back, dangerous up front and running the midfield.
But for three minutes and a second or two in the sixth minute of injury time, we were a shambles, and those were the minutes which ultimately decided the game.
For a side to fold as we did from such a position of strength was a shambles - and showed the lack of backbone which crops up every now and then.
Some will compare it to Chesterfield the other week - but they were ruthless finishes against a quality side - this was a collapse against a side who had barely had a shot of note all afternoon, and had been second best.
Others will cite a lack of leaders on the pitch, and use it to once again bring up the departures of Russ Penn and Keith Lowe, and before that Alan Bennett - but we have seen similar collapses with them on the field in the past, with 4-1 losses at Rochdale and Chesterfield, and the game earlier this season at Bury coming to mind.
It was just spineless, and I am afraid even those who have the biggest agenda against the manager cannot put this one at his door. He had set the players up perfectly, got the selection and tactics spot on and could not have done any more. His players let him down.
People will say it's his team, and his fault, but I don't go with that on this occasion as he could have done no more - no-one, not even the most ardent Dons fan, could have seen that coming.
First the good bit. Mark Yates shuffled the team around, and brought back the diamond. Not all thought that was the right decision and I certainly had my doubts about it, but it was working.
We got the perfect start with Troy Brown's header in the first five minutes - our 10th goal this season in the first 15 minutes of a league game.
But maybe we should have seen the omens coming, as this collapse means we have only won two of those games in which we have scored so early - away at Fleetwood and home to Exeter.
We looked confident though. David Noble's return was a welcome one, and he seemed to bring the best out of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, who won the battle in midfield and gave Byron Harrison and Jermaine McGlashan plenty to feed off.
We were as dangerous in the final third as we have been all season. McGlashan's pace and Harrison's willing running and hold-up play was too much for the Dons' back line and we were comfortable.
McGlashan should have had a goal in the first half, but when he got on the end of Harrison's perfect cut back five minutes into the second half, we were in cruise mode.
Remember this was a Dons side which has struggled to score goals recently. We haven't been prolific either, so to go into a 2-0 lead away from home (or in any game) is virtually unknown territory.
It should have been enough. Scott Brown had had little to do, the defence had dealt with what threat there was from front two Jack Midson and Charlie Wyke as the game entered its' final quarter.
Neal Ardley had used all three of his substitutes. Jake Nicholson had come on at half-time, then he put Chris Arthur on at left-back as McGlashan was having the other one on toast, and he threw on an extra forward in Danny Hylton.
He had to do something as the home fans were very restless, and all three of them had an impact, but only because we allowed them to.
McGlashan should have wrapped the game up with a chance similar to the one he missed in the first half. Once again he did Darren Jones for pace, but dragged his shot across the face of goal.
It shouldn't have mattered as we had that two-goal cushion - but it did.
Everyone knows that it is a dangerous lead. We should have closed the game out, and not given the home fans anything to cheer, and the home players anything to grasp on to.
But three minutes after that, we were behind.
The first two goals had an element of luck about them, but for both we allowed Midson too much space down our right-hand side.
The first ball in found Hylton, and his first touch looked to be going wide but went in off Sido. Midson's second pass was square to Nicholson on the edge of the box, and his shot hit Richards and wrong-footed Brown.
Two subs, two shots, two deflections, two goals. Yes, a stroke of luck for both, but they should not have been given the opportunities.
It got worse with the third goal. Barry Fuller's long ball, an unchallenged flick-on, and Hylton skipped through to score past our shell-shocked, static and square back four.
Our heads were mentally scrambled. That third goal, I am sure, was a direct result of the first two, which had left us with sagging shoulders and dropped heads.
The lead was gone in the blink of an eye, from a position of comfort to chasing the game, which, to be fair, we did as Taylor benefited from more Harrison spadework to score, thanks to a goalkeeping error (more of that later).
More stats - this is the only second time we have scored three goals in a league game this season, and only the fifth time we scored two goals in one half - we drew three of them 2-2, with Burton, York and Hartlepool at home, and beat Morecambe at home.
Three goals away from home has been a bigger rarity - Northampton away last season was the last time it happened in a league game, and before that you go back to Oxford and Bristol Rovers in the heady days of 2011-12, then at Macclesfield and we scored five at Dagenham. It also happened in the FA Cup at Luton.
One difference - we won all those games. We should have won this one as well and I am afraid the reason we did not is ultimately down to a player who has saved us single-handedly on many occasions.
Despite that, Scott Brown has his critics. Those who say he doesn't come off his line enough, and doesn't do enough to command his box.
They have a point to a certain extent, but I think Brown is in the top five goalkeepers in this division. It is rare when we have to say he is at fault for a goal, but this one is down to him.
It was a decent cross, but having decided to get something on it, he had to get there. He didn't. Wyke won the header and Midson had a tap-in.
It is ironic given his perceived failings, but I think if he had stayed on his line, I don't think the Dons would have scored. Wyke would have headed the ball across goal, but then Brown could just have plucked it out of the air, and we would have come away with a point.
There were six minutes added on, and my watch timed the goal going in at six minutes and seven seconds. The last kick - literally.
Not the reward we should have had after the performance for the vast majority of the game, but at least it would have been something.
The bottom line is we should have won the game. We deserved to win the game, and the lack of mental strength among the players is the reason we didn't win the game.
It is something the manager needs to address, as it is the fourth game we have lost this season from being in front, and add that to eight draws when we have been leading, that is 28 points given away.
28 points. With those, we would have 76 points and a comfortable lead at the top of the table. Think about that for a moment.
But if you think this is a problem just confined to this season, then think again. Our 28 points lost is the biggest number in the division - and we also held that record last season, yes - with the much-lamented and missed Penn, Lowe and Bennett in the squad.
Last season, we lost 26 points from winning positions - again we lost four games after we were winning, and we drew seven, so this is not a new issue.
That would have taken us up comfortably. Two seasons ago, we only gave 10 points away from winning positions, and gained 14. Again, those lost points would have taken us up.
But look at those last two seasons in particular - 54 points lost. Mind-blowing.
Most of those games have been when we have led by a goal, or ended up drawing a game from 2-0 up. The last time I can find a Cheltenham Town losing a game from two goals in front is August 21, 2010 when we led 3-1 at the Don Valley against Rotherham, and lost 6-4.
When Steve Cotterill looked to bring players in, he used to target two things - club captains and players-of-the-year - Neil Howarth and Mark Yates were players he brought in under that criteria as they were leaders.
Now Yates and Howarth need to take a leaf out of his book. On the field we need leadership, and we need players with mental strength, and that is partly where the summer recruitment needs to be focused.
We need some characters. Players who are going to fight all the way for the shirt, and put their bodies on the line. We had them in Penn, Lowe and Bennett, but the manager let them go, I hear some say, but the stats above show they too were part of teams which let games slip away.
It is not an easy solution, but one that needs to be found, or this club will never get out of League Two.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

So that's that then...

Ah well, it was good while it lasted. Hope you enjoyed it.
What, I hear you ask...?
Those 11 brief, unforgettable, tantalising minutes when Cheltenham Town had a chance of getting into the play-offs.
Those 11 minutes between Byron Harrison's 68th minute goal, and Dean Morgan's 79th minute penalty, where there was that little crack of light into the promised land of the top seven before it was slammed shut again.
I know we can mathematically still make it. We are six points behind with nine games left, but take away the sentimentality and heart-ruling-the-head thinking and we all know it isn't going to happen.
We know it especially after this, another curates' egg of a performance, another to put into the 'sums up or season' bracket, and consign to the 'quickly forgotten as a spectacle' pile.
I thought we started off okay, lost our way for a bit, then got a bit better, and finally lost our way again. Seven months summed up again in 90 minutes, something we have seen far too often.
We are just not good enough. Not enough quality, not enough ruthlessness in key areas, not enough players who can change a game by taking it by the scruff of the neck and dominating it.
The effort is there. Troy Brown, Steve Elliott, Sam Deering and Terry Gornell epitomised that for me. Brown and Elliott are a decent pairing looking reasonably solid each game, Deering and Gornell both try very hard, but neither has the quality to really affect a game, and make tight encounter into a comfortable win.
I feel sorry for Gornell. I am a fan of his, like his work-rate and he has ability. But nothing is going his way. He needs a goal desperately, but I am not sure he is being helped his role in the system.
All of his career, he has played up front and now is being asked to do a different job which is alien to him, and while he does it wholeheartedly he must be frustrated when he looks 10-15 yards up the field and sees Jamie Cureton missing chances he must wish were falling to him. I am convinced that if he played further forward, Gornell would be a success.
Cureton has been a great player, and has a great goalscoring record, but we have not seen that.
We have not seen the 20-goal man from Exeter last season, we have not seen enough of the instinctive finisher and goal poacher from Bristol Rovers, Norwich, QPR and Reading.
Is that down to lack of service? Partly maybe.
But lack of service wasn't why he missed those golden chances at Scunthorpe, Tamworth and Northampton to name three, or why last night he found himself one on one with the last defender on three or four occasions but was easily dispossessed each time or why that late header from Deering's perfect cross was closer to the corner flag.
Have we expected too much? Maybe, but I think we are entitled to expect more of a player with his record and pedigree - but ultimately I am afraid we have another Bob Taylor scenario here, a player with past glories who has come here as he is heading down the other side of the hill.
It was always a gamble for us to put our goalscoring faith in the hands of a 38-year-old, but this is, I am afraid, like most of my gambles at the races last week. A loser.
Once again, it took a change up front to bring us a goal, and once again it was Byron who provided it. He has 13 goals now, a decent return in a struggling, mid-table side.
On the flanks, Ashley Vincent looked leggy. Seven games in a row after four or five months of nothing is taking its' toll, while Jermaine McGlashan had a wretched first half and improved slightly when the diamond came back and he moved more central. But only slightly.
Post-match he said there had been 'brief discussions' about a new contract and didn't want to talk about the situation. For someone who usually find it difficult to stop talking in interviews, this is very telling.
Everyone knows he won't be here next season. The club will try to keep him, but his agent is, I am sure, already hard at work, but judging on performances like last night will he be missed?
His pace will, but has there, over the past 100 or so games he has played for us, been enough end product?
He has undoubtedly won us matches down the years, but has he done it often enough?
I say no, in terms of goals and assists, and if he goes up a level to League One that is something he needs to work on if he doesn't want to join Kaid Mohamed in the 'quickly discarded' file.
I don't see him as someone like Martin Devaney or Marlon Pack - someone who will go on and forge a career higher up and play a decent number of games in League One or the Championship.
It was good to see David Noble again and he definitely brings a calm to us - although his introduction did mean we saw that diamond again. It is not a loved formation and is blamed by many for this season's travails.
Noble is not fully fit, and it showed at times. His passing though was good, bar one vital moment, when he gave the ball away in the lead up to the mess which resulted in the penalty.
Another interesting area at the moment is our full-back positions. At right-back, we have Mitch Brundle, who in his four games has played well in three of them and discovered he has a long throw into the bargain.
He has never played right back before, and has displaced another out-of-position loanee in Michael Ihiekwe, and has out-performed him with better distribution and better aerial ability.
Brundle, we are told, is effectively on trial with a view to next season, and on the evidence of three of his games so far might have a chance. I'd like to see him at centre-half though, if that is his number one position.
His introduction has shifted Sido Jombati to left back, and pushed CBB out (not before time, a large number of fans would say), and we have looked a bit more solid since that happened.
The club has an option for another year on CBB's deal, but his recent axing must mean the writing is on the wall there. As for Sido, he is still nowhere near the player who burst on the scene two years ago, and there is still a decision to made for me about whether he gets another contract.
In fact, Scott Brown is the only 'must-keep' player for me on the out of contract list. Jombati is 50-50, while I cannot see Deering, Elliott and Cureton being retained along with CBB.
I would keep Connor Roberts but he might want to go and find regular games somewhere and no-one could begrudge him that, while we haven't seen Joe Hanks or Ed Williams. I'd keep Joe, but think Ed will go.
Troy Brown, Jason Taylor, Matt Richards, Zack Kotwica, Harrison and Gornell have another year.
One or two of them could be made available, who knows for example if Taylor would want to stay if he isn't going to get games, but these players will form the basis of  the summer rebuilding job.
With nine games left, and mid-table mediocrity all we have to play for now, I want to see Zack given some starts, and maybe the odd run-out for some other youngsters.
There is one other thing that we definitely needs resolving, and very quickly please - the manager's contract.
If he is going to stay on, then can we please just get it signed, and be done with it, so we can all move on. If he isn't going to sign it, then let's just say so and give someone else these last few games in charge to bring down a very welcome curtain on this difficult and ultimately forgettable season.

Monday, 17 March 2014

We couldn't... could we?

During the half-time break on Saturday, I walked along the main stand with my son, and down the stairs into the bar.
Along the way, I saw lots of head-scratching and finger-pointing, and was stopped twice to ask how many times I had been tempted to swear during the opening 45 minutes of commentary.
The answer is quite a few, but I had managed to bite my tongue in what was probably the worst halves we have seen this season. And, yes, it has some competition.
It was truly dire. Gutless and passionless, with no desire, will to win any 50-50s, no passing ability or real commitment. I don't think we put together more than three passes in one go, and it was a mirror of the games with Accrington and Mansfield - where we think it is acceptable to just turn up and win.
When they play like this, you can understand why this group of players is so unloved.
Torquay passed around us with ease, and with some more cutting edge up front they could have been ahead, and we would have had no complaints about that.
Mitch Brundle and Ashley Vincent, who was the only player to actually be positive and look confident when he got the ball at his feet, can be excepted from the brickbats, and none of the other outfield players could have had a grievance if they had been hooked off.
The midfield was a mess. Sam Deering, Matt Richards and Terry Gornell were dominated easily, and there was none of the excellent and combative stuff we had seen from them at Portsmouth and Oxford.
I don't know what was said in the dressing room at half-time, but I hope they all got a rocket, as performances like that 45 minutes are exactly why there is so much apathy about, and why the crowds are at the level they are.
Fans are being short-changed by it and although it is a results business ultimately, halves like that will not bring the lost fans and the floating fans back.
After that shambles however, it was to their credit that they put it right after the break, helped in no small part by a quick substitution, with Byron Harrison replacing Gornell.
We all know how frustrating Byron can be. It was no surprise he was benched after two anonymous games at Portsmouth and Oxford, when we saw the languid, at times lazy, at times lethargic Byron.
But this time we saw the effervescent, pain-in-the-backside-for-defenders, holding the ball up, running the channels and working hard Byron - the one we wish we could see all the time.
From the moment he went on, we looked a different side. We had a focal point up front, a pivot to play off, and someone, finally, to pose a concerted threat to a Torquay defence which had been given an easy ride, bar one Jamie Cureton shot which was saved.
It is so frustrating for us - but imagine how Mark Yates must feel, not knowing which Byron is going to turn up, and knowing that, nine times out of 10, he is going to have to make a substitution before the team can look like posing any kind of attacking threat, as he has had to in the last two games.
Chances are Byron will now start tomorrow against Wycombe. Which one will we see...?
After bringing on Byron, Yates then turned to trying to sort our midfield out. David Noble made his second cameo appearance, and the decision who to take off was a flip-of-the-coin job as Richards and Deering had been equally bad.
Heads for Deering, tails for Richards. It was heads, so off came Deering. A good decision as it turned out, with Richards breaking his open-play duck with a nice finish - redeeming himself for an otherwise off-colour display.
The goal was made by a superb piece of skill by Vincent, which forced a defender to give a throw away, and then a long-throw from Vincent (no, I didn't even know he was capable of it either) which fell to Richards' feet after Harrison caused chaos.
It was interesting to see that with Harrison on the field with Cureton, we moved to play a 4-4-2, the formation we never seem to be able to play. We did the same on Tuesday at Oxford - and maybe with Noble back in the side, we can play it.
Besides the goal, Harrison and Troy Brown headed over, and bar one shot which Scott Brown saved near the end, we never looked like relinquishing the lead.
Brundle had an excellent game, and in his three games has looked good twice - the other game being Chesterfield, when he wasn't alone in looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
And it was good to see the crowd top 3,000, and I was also pleased to hear some good noise from the LMI stand in the second half - despite all the trials and tribulations, and, frankly, despite some of the rubbish served up at home the crowd has, by and large, stuck by the side.
Yes, there have been boos after poor halves and poor performances and results, that is going to happen, and at times this season has been justified.
This time, we have to just sit back and say a win is a win. It wasn't pretty at all. Sometimes it doesn't matter how you win, as long as you do.
Now, ahead of tomorrow's game with Wycombe, we find ourselves in 11th place, five points off seventh, with this game in hand to play. Madness.
A win tomorrow will be our third in a row at home, after we had previously won three out of 16 at home.
It is bonkers, and further sums the division up that Southend, with six draws and four defeats in their last 10 games, are still in the zone. Above them are Oxford, who looked no great shakes against us, and have two wins in 10.
York are the team on the surge (unbeaten in eight), and Plymouth have climbed up also, but - ridiculous as it may sound - a win tomorrow and we are there as well.
Here's a few stats - in our last 10 games are won three, drawn five, lost two. Away from home we have lost two in 13 (Burton and Bristol Rovers).
In our last eight games, we have four clean sheets, and conceded one goal in three of the others. The eighth game was that mad seven minutes against Chesterfield, which in the grand scheme of things hasn't proved too costly for us.
So we have, that game aside, become more difficult to beat, more solid and resilient - at the right time of the season. Unspectacular and difficult to watch still, but definitely on the whole tougher to break down.
We have some tough games left. Three of the current top seven, Scunthorpe, Southend and Fleetwood, still have to come to us. We still have to go to Rochdale, and the side who sit just above us, Hartlepool.
Yet it really would be the supreme irony, wouldn't it, it this squad, this largely disregarded, derided mish-mash of a group of players, could succeed where the still heralded Pack-Penn-Summerfield-Bennett axis failed, and went all the way.
It is still a huge outside bet, but stranger things have happened. Crewe and Bradford were huge outside bets in the last two seasons, and they came through the pack with late momentum, sneaking into the top seven at the very end of the 46 games, and then went all the way.
What this side has in its' favour is the lack of expectation, eroded by inconsistency and performances like Saturday's first 45 minutes.
For the past two seasons, we were always in the mix, and could (no, should) have finished in the top three.
This time, no one, maybe outside that dressing room, thinks it is going to happen. I certainly don't, but as the table stands ahead of tomorrow's game, it cannot be definitely ruled out.
In public, the manager is targeting eighth. In private, I bet he isn't.
But anyway, that's enough optimism. If we lose tomorrow, we will be looking over our shoulders again, and this talk of the top seven can be canned.
However, if we win...
No, surely not. It couldn't happen. Could it?

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two points on the road

IT is a microcosm of Cheltenham Town's season that we should come back after a week on the road with two points out of six, and be left wanting more.
The width of a post was all that is separating us from a maximum haul  - and then we would be sitting in 10th place, three points off the play-offs, with these two home games to come.
Could be, if only, what if... Story of the season, but the truth is we are 14th - equi-distant between 7th and 23rd, the ultimate mid-table side, and exactly where we deserve to be on performances and results.
Portsmouth was always going to be a stern test, one of the biggest of the season, even more so when they cut the prices and packed the place out with nearly 17,000 home fans.
Mental strength is something which has been lacking at times this season, and this was going to be another examination for it - and we passed with flying colours.
The 4-2-3-1 system employed in recent weeks has served us well - we have looked more resilient, harder to break down, and better balanced with outlets down both flanks.
That was the case at Fratton Park, especially in the first half, when we put in what I thought was one of the best 45 minutes of the season.
The stats post-match said we didn't have a shot on target which was strange to me as Jermaine McGlashan and Terry Gornell both forced saves from Trevor Carson with shots that definitely would have gone in, and then there was Ashley Vincent's piledriver off the post.
Although we could not keep up that attacking momentum in the second half, we still looked relatively comfortable, leaving the home crowd frustrated.
Led by Troy Brown, we turned in an excellent defensive performance. Having seen Portsmouth play on TV at Chesterfield six days before our game there, the threats were going to come from Ricky Holmes and Jed Wallace down the flanks.
That put pressure on Michael Ihiekwe and Sido Jombati in the full-back areas, and they passed the test with flying colours, and Holmes and Wallace were kept very quiet.
In front of the them, Sam Deering and Matt Richards put in a good shift as we saw little of Wes Fogden and the formidable Toumani Diagouraga in the Pompey midfield.
Those six did a great job of nullifying the Portsmouth threat, and Scott Brown barely had a worthwile save to make - it was just a shame that we could not have taken one of those first-half opportunities and nicked the points.
Deering buzzed around but was let down once or twice by his decision-making with the final ball, but he competed superbly well against Diagouraga, a complete opposite to Sam in height and build.
We were not overawed by the occasion and surroundings, and we kept our shape and discipline well, and although we could not create anything in the second half, we dug in.
In the first half, Vincent, McGlashan and Gornell were a good outlet, but in the second half they couldn't get the same freedom - but it would have been a travesty if we had lost the game.
To be honest, that didn't look like happening bar that crazy little melee right at the end, and a point was what we deserved.
And so it was on to the Kassam, and after a nice new ground to visit, we had to go to a soulless three sided bowl where our 200-odd fans easily made more noise than the 4,000-odd home fans who bothered to turn up.
It was no real surprise that we were unchanged. The only switch I might have considered was Jamie Cureton for Byron Harrison, but that was only down to Byron's largely anonymous game at Fratton.
We found things a little bit more problematic here defensively, especially Ihiekwe, who was posed problems by James Constable laying a strange left-wing-cum-sort-of-striker role, coming in from out wide to attack far-post crosses.
He should have scored with two first-half headers but missed them both, and we rode our luck a bit when Dean Smalley got through and a terrible touch allowed Scott Brown to come off his line and block.
We didn't create anything of note in the first half, bar a trio of long shots, but we did cause ourselves a few problems by over-playing in our own half and occasionally putting people in trouble.
Another issue was the lack of movement in the final third. On several occasions, Deering or Richards had the ball 30-35 yards from goal, and there was no movement from the four ahead of them.
They were constantly static - in a straight line, with none of them making a little run, offering themselves for a short pass, or trying to spin off a defender into some space.
As the first hour of the game came and went, we started to look leggy, and it was no surprise when Cureton and David Noble were introduced, or that Harrison and Vincent, the most anonymous pair on the night, we given the hook.
The fresh legs, especially Cureton's, gave us a lift, and while it as good to see Noble on the field he did look ring-rusty, which is hardly a shock after his long lay-off.
We fell behind, but were a bit unfortunate. The 'playing someone into trouble' bug struck though as Richards gave the ball to Elliott, and his clearance hit Ryan Williams, who controlled the ricochet, and then, to be fair to him, produced a decent finish.
It seemed our luck was out as that happened seconds after Ryan Clarke somehow nudged a Cureton header onto the post from a superb Richards free-kick.
So we were behind with 15 minutes left, and more often than not that would be that, but we had a bit of luck of our own (or benefited from Cureton's 'fox in the box' tendencies, whichever is your viewpoint).
Zack Kotwica had a shot on goal, which didn't seem to have enough power to be going in, until Cureton got something on it and it looped in.
Exactly what that 'something' was is open to some conjecture, but we might well have got a point 'with a goal off someone's backside' - something we so often say we would settle for in these circumstances, but which rarely materialises. Until now.
So another hard-won point on the road, taking our overall record to 6-6-6, the ninth best in the league, and better than at this stage last year, when we were 5-7-7 from one more game.
The draw also means we have only lost two of our last 13 on our travels, not a bad record and testament to some newly-found resilience after those meek surrenders in Bury and Torquay back at the start of the season.
At home we are 4-8-5 ahead of this week's double-header (11-6-2 at this stage last season) so I am hardly telling anyone something they don't already know about why we are 14th in the table...
Six points from Torquay and Wycombe would take us to that pre-season nirvana of 50 points, and end once and for all any lingering worries about going down this season (and could re-ignite play-off talk for the super-positive...).
Four points would just about extinguish the relegation flames but any less would keep them fanned for a little bit longer as it would allow those below us to squeeze in even tighter, if that were possible in this concertina of a league.
Deering's injury which saw him replaced on Tuesday might keep him out, and I suspect Yates will want to try and fit Noble in somewhere.
Harrison's insipid pair of games will surely see him benched, but the lingering question is whether Cureton can play the lone role in the 4-2-3-1. He has yet to convince me he can.
These two are 'attitude games'. Torquay and Wycombe are scrapping for their lives (they are the two sides I tip for the drop) so we will have to match their determination, something we have not done in the past - think Accrington and Mansfield especially.
In between our two away games, I saw something to cheer an old traditionalist (or stick-in-the-mud, whichever you prefer) like me - a CTFC win over Gloucester City.
OK, so it wasn't at a packed Whaddon Road or Meadow Park/Horton Road on a Boxing Day or Easter Monday, it was a GFA Senior Cup game played on a freezing night in the wrong county at Evesham United FC in front of 97 people, but who cares? We beat them.
We beat them with our youth team, plus Joe Hanks and Ed Williams. They fielded a team with six players who started the win over Stockport 48 hours earlier, and the win was, for me, more evidence for the mooted Under 21/development team.
Hanks, Ed and Harry Williams, Adam Powell, Bobbie Dale, James Bowen, Spencer Hamilton, Harvey Rivers and Elliott Keightley all stood up well against experienced players and Dale and Powell scored well-taken goals to win us the game.
Centre-halves Keightley and Hamilton stood out for me against the experience of Charlie Griffin, while midfield trio Hanks, Powell and Harry Williams grew into the game and Dale worked hard on his own up front.
They won't all make it, but I hope we give a majority of them every chance to do so with regular games in this under-21 team, allied with loans at clubs like Gloucester, Weston, Bath and Worcester - a decent level where they will get a taste of 'proper' football.
Most of those I have named above have played for John Brough at Bishop's Cleeve this season, while Powell has been to Redditch and Harry Williams to Farnborough, while Hanks is going to play some games at Gloucester.
Decisions on them will be made soon, but having seen them play a lot there is some talent in there and I hope we don't make the same mistake we did with players like Sam Foley and Kieran Thomas in the past, by discarding them after investing years of coaching and development in them.
The recent forum with the chairman and board saw fans saying they want less loanees and more chances for our youngsters. We are told that this is the best crop we have had, and I would concur with that.
I know we won't and can't keep them all, but I hope some are given the chance to bridge the gap between promising youngsters and first-team opportunity in the coming seasons.
It is crucial for our club to start regularly producing young players of its own. The Duff brothers, Andy Gallinagh and David Bird are the only real successes, while people like Adam Connolly, Marley Watkins and Theo Lewis flitted around the side briefly.
Some others have gone elsewhere, notably the brothers Courtney and Tyrone Duffus, now both on professional contracts at Everton -  keep and eye on their progress as the further they go, the more money we get.
It is down to finance as it always is at this level, but we have an academy, and it's about time we used it.