Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hall's well that ends well

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

Sunday, 31 January 2016

All fine and Dan-dy

ANOTHER eventful week came to a close on a high note with our best performance for several games, with more evidence that our January recruitment looks to be spot on.
After the high of that amazing finish at Dover last week, which kept us in top spot, we then lost it again on Tuesday with Forest Green's late show at Southport.
Saturday was the first occasion we had played at the same time as FGR this year, and we went into the game without our midfield driving force Harry Pell, banned, and having lost Aaron Downes as well we would be testing our strength in depth.
Pell's replacement was Asa Hall, moving forward from his centre-half outing at Dover, with new boy Cameron Burgess being Daniel Parslow's latest partner - the third man to fill that role since Downes went off at Boreham Wood, Cian Harries being the other.
But Gary Johnson opted to make two more changes leaving Kyle Storer as the only midfield survivor from the Crabble - James Rowe and James Dayton being given starts ahead of Jack Munns and Billy Waters, both of whom I feel have looked in need of a rest and can't really complain at coming out of the side.
So therefore we were relegating 19 goals and numerous assists to the bench - not a bad couple of weapons to have up your sleeve.
Alongside them was our newest and most under-the-radar recruit, left-back Jordan Cranston from Gateshead.
He only know himself he might be coming here on Friday evening and it wasn't all sorted out until 10.45 on Saturday morning, 15 minutes to spare for the deadline, enabling him to sit on the bench.
It is quite a statement from us to pay a fee for a player (my fading and not always accurate memory believes the last time we did that was for Byron Harrison, three years ago today) and also to give him an 18-month contract, meaning at least he and Pell will be here for pre-season training next July.
As for the fee, it's down as one of these annoying undisclosed ones, but a stab in the dark from me would guess at around £10,000, maybe just effectively buying out the last six months of his Gateshead contract.
I wasn't at the away game at the International Stadium in October, but saw his free-kick goal on TV and all who were up there seem happy enough with the signing.
But it was a surprise, and I hope in some ways that it doesn't signal bad news for George McLennan, who I feel has been one of the (many) consistently good performers this season in a position we have found notoriously difficult to fill, probably since Jamie Victory retired.
Now with McLennan and Cranston, we have healthy competition there but Cranston might have a job on to oust George from first choice. You could say Gary has himself in a bit of a Cranston pickle (copyright James Young, Gloucestershire Echo).
When he came on for the last quarter of the game, Cranston played further forward on the left and that might be an option, to give us some balance, and a bit more solidity especially in tough away games (like Barrow next week, maybe?).
Bromley are a big, uncompromising side, and the first 20 minutes was pretty uninspiring as we looked to get to grips with that - but once we went in front it all changed.
And what a goal it was. In the blink of an eye, Dan Holman introduced himself and showed exactly why Gary Johnson and his brother Peter had him top of their target list.
The ball came to him, back to goal, on the edge of the box and in a split-second he turned and smashed the ball into the corner of the net.
Five minutes later, he'd bagged another, cutting in from the left and driving it across the keeper and also effectively killed the game as a contest.
We finished the half superbly, and could have had more goals. Hall sent a shot wide, Danny Wright had one saved and Holman was inches from bagging his hat-trick.
It had also sent us top in the live table with FGR being held at that stage by Macclesfield, and also opened up more of a cushion on Grimsby, trailing at Gateshead.
The confidence was flowing through us and Wright's header from James Rowe's corner made it three, and the afternoon was now really an opportunity to boost the goal difference.
We added one more with a goal with owed much to the other side of Holman's game - work-rate.
He charged a clearance down, kept it in the pulled it back for Rowe, who picked out Wright for a finish so simple he almost looked embarrassed.
A 4-0 advantage, and Forest Green were now trailing as were Grimsby, so this was turning into the perfect day.
Some of the gloss came off with a Bromley consolation and a late FGR turnround (and second successive injury time winner), but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Holman was the brightest spot of all with his two goals, but there were good performances all round the pitch.
Storer was immense in midfield, and the three players who came into the side around him certainly didn't weaken it in any way.
Hall was his usual efficient self, with Dayton and Rowe both had, I felt, their biggest impact in a game so far.
Dayton put some decent balls in and gave us an outlet and natural width, while I felt Rowe brought some real quality and set two goals up for Wright.
At the back, Burgess settled in very well. He adopted a sensible safety-first approach to everything he did, winning his fair share of headers and came close to a goal in a very promising debut.
There is no doubt he will be the first choice now with Harries as the back-up and Hall as the more emergency back-up, so we are well stocked there - and don't forget Rob Dickie will be back, hopefully in a month or so.
Hall, incidentally, ended up at right back after Jack Barthram went off. He really is turning into Mr Utility.
Up front, Wright now has 17 goals in total and four in two games, with the signs of a very useful partnership with Holman. And let's not write off Waters and his 11 goals, and there's also Amari Morgan-Smith on the brink of his return too. Also decent strength here.
Storer, Pell, Hall, Rowe and Munns, with Dayton as a wide option, give us midfield options which are more than match for anyone in this league, as are the full-backs Barthram, McLennan and Cranston in front of the superb Dillon Phillips.
So the January recruitment (assuming there won't be any more arrivals) looks to have left us in good stead for the last 16 games.
We have put ourselves in a great position in the first two thirds of the campaign, and now hope to continue the momentum for this run-in.
If we do carry on the form we have shown, keeping up our points per game ratio, we are on course to get to 101 points, but now we go into what could be a pivotal February.
We have home games with Welling, Kidderminster and Gateshead, and trips (tricky on paper) to Barrow and Tranmere.
FGR have only one home game and four away trips, which will clear the current discrepancy in their remaining home and away games and Grimsby have two homes and three aways.
But they are still in the Trophy, and further progress from them and others could see games moved in the coming weeks and months (our game with Gateshead on February 27 being one of them).
Lots of ifs buts and maybes to come, but I believe our recruitment this month means we have the squad to cope with it and have shown we are more than up for the fight.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Comebacks and supersubs

ONE weekend, two late away team comebacks both inspired by supersubs - that's a quick way to sum up my weekend.
It started at 5.24am on Saturday morning, when I left Cheltenham to make my way to the big game at the Crabble... and yes, I know it didn't kick off for another 30-odd hours.
In between, there was a cross-Channel trip and a tour round Lille to find some watering holes before the first game of the weekend, the Ligue I game between Lille and Troyes.
The space-age Stade Pierre Mauroy is an impressive arena. The roof was closed, and the pitch was terrible (and they don't share the ground...) and the seats were half empty.
Lille started the game 14th, while Troyes are bottom, without a win all season, and for the opening 77 minutes of the game you could see why.
It was a pretty terrible 77 minutes. Lille led with a penalty but their fans got ever more frustrated as they couldn't see off the strugglers.
Then it was enter supersub number one. Babacar Gueye lumbered on and totally changed the game.
First, a nod down for Jeremy Cabot to fire in via the post. That increased the home fans' frustration, which reached fever pitch when Gueye crossed for Cabot to volley home brilliantly.
When Jessy Pi (disppointingly not wearing number 3.14 on his shirt) headed a third for Troyes after 85 minutes after Gueye's brilliant run to the near post left him in acres of space, the fun really started.
The home fans cheered the goal, and were giving the Troyes players an 'ole' with every touch and booing their own players.
On the final whistle, any attempt by the home players to applaud the fans was met with loud jeers, so they gave up and trooped off as the Troyes players celebrated with their (very) small pocket of away fans.
Attention then turned to Sunday's game at the Crabble. First, we had to hope the ferries were back to normal after Saturday's problems - then had to hope the fog which obscured our view of the white cliffs as we approached dear old Blighty wouldn't cause an issue.
Both were successfully overcome, as was a lack of headphones and microphones in our radio kit box, thanks to BT Sport for lending us some spare ones, so it was all systems go.
When the teamsheets arrived, there was no surprise at seeing Dan Holman's name in the starting XI but there was more eyebrows raised by Asa Hall's name on there as Daniel Parslow's defensive partner.
Dover play an almost unique 5-2-3 system. Their three central defenders are strong and did a good containing job on Danny Wright and Holman (for 88 minutes anyway... more of which later).
Up front, Ricky Modeste and Ricky Miller were always dangerous and gave Parslow and Hall plenty of problems.
Modeste was especially impressive, and I thought George McLennan had a good battle with him. There has been a lot of talk about Parslow being an unsung hero, but McLennan has also gone under the radar.
Considering he is only 20, I think he has a decent future ahead of him and is on the right tack for a good career.
There is no question however that we were second best. Dover had most of the possession and territory in the game but I can only remember Dillon Phillips having two saves to make - the header from Parkinson in the first half and the one from Modeste in the second.
That second save was superb - and it looked to me like he thought it had gone in as he kicked the post after making it in seeming frustration before realising it was a corner.
It takes something special to beat Dillon, and Nick Deverdics provided it. What a strike it was - but Dillon nealy saved it as he got a hand to it as it went in off the bar.
Deverdics practically ran to Calais in celebration, but what I thought was great was our players' reaction. They got the ball back, put it on the spot and were ready to go as Dover ambled back from their celebrations.
The social media reaction was quick in coming, and predictably hysterical and knee-jerk. A joke, we were a load of c**p, as bad as last season, bunch of bottlers... I can just about understand the frustration but much of it was plain ridiculous. Meanwhile, the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester City fans lapped it all up.
By the time Deverdics scored, we'd made all three substitutions. James Rowe and Ryan Jennings had come on for Jack Munns and Billy Waters, neither of whom could complain at being replaced.
I was surprised at seeing Jennings come on ahead of James Dayton, but he didn't have to wait long as Jennings lasted around four minutes before going off again, injured. It remains to be seen whether we will see him again.
Dayton, as we later found out, was unwell, and looked extremely pale when he was interviewed after the game. But he produced the best impact in the 15 or so minutes he was on that we have seen from him.
There had been justifiable scepticism over the decision by Gary Johnson to extend his contract until the end of the season as he hadn't had the impact we had been looking for.
But on this occasion he certainly came up trumps, and in 17 games' time this 15 minute cameo could prove to be one of the pivotal periods of the season.
Firstly, he nipped in as Aswad Thomas (fresh from checking out the Craig Braham-Barrett manual of how not to play at left back) was dozing and was brought down for one of the most obvious penalties you will see all season.
Up stepped Danny Wright to put the penalty away. Never any doubt...
A point away from home after not playing well would have been satisfactory for me - but 55 seconds later we had nicked it with a good team goal.
Wright laid it off to Holman, who jinked through and was fouled. The ref played a decent advantage and Holman fed Dayton, whose shot-cross was parried out for Wright to tap in.
Scenes.
That's 15 goals now for Danny and he really has been a great focal point for us in this campaign, coming up trumps here after he had barely been given a kick or header all day by Dover's back three.
Dover had gone and we saw out the six added minutes with ease to take (let's face it) a real masks-and-sombreros victory. It did have a bit of a Nene Park 1999 feel about it all, but time will tell whether it all ends the same way.
Predictably, the same fans who minutes before had been slamming the squad and performance suddenly and very predictably exclaimed how they never doubted the spirit in the squad and hailed the players as heroes.
If you say so... oh how I love the fickleness of the modern football fan. At least it silenced the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester fans for a while.
But let's not kid ourselves. It was a smash and grab, and another example of us not playing as well as we can, but still getting the result.
That is down to spirit and determination, and not giving up. That is the mark of a team capable of being champions.
Holman's addition looks a good one. He fed on scraps at Dover and had probably one real sight of goal which was a shot on target which brought out a save, but had a big part in the winner.
He has clearly fitted in well as we saw during the post-match celebrations, where he was joining in the songs and conducting the fans. A decent enough start with the promise of more to come.
At the back, Asa Hall was a bright spot at centre-half but I am sure even he will admit he is not a long-term replacement for Aaron Downes. With a week or so until the deadline we need a more orthodox option.
Hall might be needed a bit further forward next Saturday as Harry Pell picked up his 10th booking and misses the next two games. It's a bit of a bonus that the first is tomorrow's Oxford City game, which he wouldn't have played in anyway.
The second will be the Bromley game next Saturday so that will leave a bit of a hole which Hall would be favourite to fill if he isn't needed at centre back again.
So back to the top we go (until Tuesday at least) and this win sends out another message to everyone that we are not bottlers or a joke at all - we are a real force to be reckoned with and can finish this job off.
I think the title is now a three-horse race and Grimsby and Forest Green will provide a very tough challenge, but all the evidence shows we are more than up for it.





Sunday, 17 January 2016

Priorities

THERE was a lot of conjecture in the run-up to Saturday's game at Oxford City regarding how seriously we should be taking the game.
It was mixed - there were those who couldn't really have cared less about the result, and were quite happy for us to get beaten.
They are the ones for whom the league is everything - we've got to go up, no distractions.
Then there were those who would like a trip to Wembley, want us to do the double, keep up the winning mentality and momentum etc etc.
Personally, I just see the Trophy as a bonus, if we do well in it, then fine, if we don't then I'm not going to cry over any spilt milk.
So I arrived at Oxford with an open mind, not minding whether we won or not, but came away feeling proud of the way our young team kept going and got another crack at it.
Gary Johnson's team selection was fascinating. I was expecting some young players to be given a run out, but not as many as we eventually got to see - ie all of our second year scholars, and a return from a long-term injury for Bobbie Dale.
He said that he simply could not risk any of his more 'senior' players, bar Jack Barthram who needed 90 minutes after his recent injury, and wide men James Dayton and Ryan Jennings, neither of whom did anything to convince me they deserve longer-term deals.
I had expected Asa Hall to get a game but Gary opted to go all out with the younger lads.
Twitter during the game was good fun as well. When we were 1-0 and 2-1 down, the 'league is everything' fans were practically celebrating, then reaching for the razor blades when we got our equalisers, but that was unfair on the young lads out there, who are playing for their careers.
Nobody was going to tell them to go out there and lose. They had a chance to impress Gary and Russ Milton and show that they might have a chance of making a career at the club.
Basically, it amounted to an unexpected 90-minute trial for them - even more so after Gary was unhappy with their performance in the Youth Cup defeat at Leicester.
Not many of the second years will have  faced a proper 'men's' team - although Niall Rowe and Lewis Thompson were on loan at Cinderford - and I thought by and large that they stood up to it well.
Right-back Jordan Lymn showed up well in the Youth Cup games I saw and did well again, while Niall Rowe won some good headers and scored an absolutely cracking goal.
In midfield Sam Mendes and James McCarthy kept going well and the latter delivered some decent set-pieces, while up front Thompson worked hard - it was just a shame he couldn't take that early chance which he rolled past the post.
Then from the bench we saw the massive Matt Bower, who won some good headers after he came on, Alex Dinsmore up front who, like Thompson, worked hard, and Karnell Chambers, who set up the second equaliser with a turn, run and cross which put the more senior wingers to shame.
They all played their part - and Gary might have seen something in a few of them, but I'm not going to say any of them definitely will or won't make it on the evidence of that 90 minutes on a bumpy pitch.
All I will say is that is good to see a manager willing to trust them and finally give young players a chance after certain previous managers didn't bother with them and have (in my view) let some talent criminally go to waste.
I suspect that Cameron Pring would have played as well but the BTEC graduate joined Bristol City on an 18-month pro-deal. He looked a good player in the Youth Cup games and it's a shame we couldn't keep him.
We can't compete that offer unfortunately - in our position we can't go around offering young players contracts until we know where are going to be next season, so good luck to him.
Luke Thomas is another who would certainly have played, but his move to Derby has ended that and will also show these lads what can be achieved, so good luck to him as well - hope he makes it and earns us more money. It's been a good week for our academy all in all.
The rest of the side was more 'senior' - Calum Kitscha in goal had no chance with Oxford's two goals and made one fantastic save, Cian Harries looked fine in his 45 minutes and Barthram had a decent game out of position at left-back.
Wide men Dayton and Jennings were hugely disappointing. This was a real chance for them, especially Dayton, whose deal is up after the Kidderminster game.
I have to say I've not seen anything in his time here which convinces me that he is worth a new deal, especially with our priority being to find an experienced defender. If Gary thinks he does he need a winger I think he can find better out there.
Jennings has had a few starts and flitted in and out of games but not really affected games. His loan is up at the end of the month and at the moment I am erring on the side of letting Wigan have him back.
Dale is the only one of the crop of youth graduates given deals by Mark Yates sill awaiting a decision on whether his contract will be renewed after this summer.
Like his pals Harry Williams, James Bowen, Joe Hanks and Zack Kotwica, I feel Dale has been extremely hard done by under previous managers who haven't given him an opportunity. He has always been a goalscorer, evidenced by his pre-season strike against Cardiff.
He has just come back from a long-term injury after scoring goals for Farnborough at the start of the season. After that, Dale will be happy to got through 90 minutes and put a good chance wide in the first half after a good solo run.
He was also given credit for the second equaliser after the game, but I'm not convinced - it was an own goal in my view.
A replay was meant to cause the postponement of the Kidderminster league game on Tuesday, until a little bit of fixture jiggery-pokery means we play both games on successive days.
So it will be an interesting week, and we are likely to get a look at just about every eligible player the club has at their disposal in these games - a rare opportunity.
Starting with the Kidderminster game, right back will be a blurry spot as Gary must decide whether to bring Barthram back in or to keep James Rowe there after he did well enough in the role at Boreham Wood.
The choice will of course be determined in part by how well Barthram came through Saturday's game and if there is any reaction after his injury.
Then up front Gary has a decision, revolving around whether he gives Dan Holman a first start. He was carrying an injury when he signed, but has been training and I assume he is fit.
The choice would probably come down to Holman or Billy Waters - but Gary could easily play them both, either side of Danny Wright in a 4-3-3, and leave Jennings out with Kyle Storer, Jack Munns and Harry Pell in midfield.
Alternatively, he could play a 4-4-2 with Waters or Jennings playing wide right and Holman paired with Wright, or Holman on the bench and Waters up front with Jennings wide right - this last one being the least likely in my view.
So a likely team could be: Phillips, Rowe/Barthram, Harries, Parslow, McLennan, Storer, Pell, Munns, Wright and two of Jennings, Holman and Waters, with a bench something like Kitscha, Hall, J Rowe/Barthram, Dayton and the odd one out from Jennings, Holman or Waters.
On Wednesday we can of course assume that none of the 11 starters will play a part, but the subs might, along with the lads who played at Oxford.
That would mean a squad of Kitscha, Lymn, Bower, N Rowe, McCarthy, Mendes, Dale, Thompson, Dinsmore, Chambers, Omari Sterling-James and the youth team keeper Bojan Tetek and I am assuming Tuesday's subs- remembering Holman is ineligible.
Left-back is a slight riddle with Barthram having played there on Saturday, but if he plays on Tuesday he won't play again on Wednesday, so there's a decision to make for Gary.
It promises to be a fascinating week. Tuesday is of course the more important of the two games and after Forest Green won on Saturday, victory against the league's bottom side is pretty imperative.
It is the priority, and Wednesday is a bonus game - but it's another chance for these young lads to prove they deserve a career with the club beyond this summer. So while some fans may not view it as important, these young lads certainly do.








Sunday, 10 January 2016

Perspective

BEFORE I came to my senses I used to post on the Nest forum using the name 'Private Fraser' - the reason being that his Dad's Army catchphrase 'we're all doomed' seemed to sum up the feelings of most CTFC fans, for most of the time.
Now, after Saturday's goalless draw at Boreham Wood, I'm tempted to recall his Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard colleague Corporal  Jones' words... 'Don't panic'.
The result was not what most of us expected and the performance was not great. We all know that, as our last manager but one (or is it two? I lose count) would have said.
Gary Johnson's reaction afterwards summed it up well, but I feel some of the 'glass half empty' reactions to it have been over the top.
I regularly get pilloried for being 'negative' about CTFC.
I feel some of that stick is unfair - the last two seasons for example haven't given us much to be positive about after all - but such is the way of the modern football fan that every 'unexpected' result is met with, at times, a hysterical response.
It hasn't been the norm this season for us to be disappointed. In the past though, poor results have seen players and managers shrug their shoulders and give platitudes about 'going again' and 'watching the DVD'.
But not this crop - they are different. The sight of Kyle Storer on his haunches deep in thought after the game summed it up, as did Gary's response and the ashen faces trudging off the pitch.
It does matter to them that - in the context of this season - they have underperformed and not got the desired result and that is why I am not going to start getting all downhearted and starting to wonder if this is where the wheels start to come off.
I have trust in Gary to galvanise the squad and faith in the players to have the will to listen and put it right. In the past that trust has not been there. This group have earned that trust with their performances and attitude up to now.
However we all know that we aren't going to win every game, but we have gone 15 without defeat and only lost two in 28 so things are still looking rosy.
Our lead is now five points over Forest Green and eight over Grimsby, both having played a game less. It is 12 over Eastleigh who are two games behind.
Even if they win those games, they are still behind us. We remain in the driving seat, in control of the race for the title. It's all there for us.
I feel those three teams are the only ones who can challenge us. Others have dropped away, with the likes of Wrexham, Lincoln and Tranmere now too far back in my view.
There will be peaks and troughs, all sides will drop points when they aren't expected to as we did on Saturday. Grimsby did at home to Guiseley and Forest Green did at Torquay for instance.
If we aren't going to win every game, then neither are the other three, and from now on in, the most consistent side is the one which will win the title. Over the last 10 league games, that's us - we have 26 from the last 30 points, FGR have 20, Grimsby 23 and Eastleigh 21.
Two points a game was the target Gary set at the start of the season. We are four points in credit and maintaining that aim from now on in takes us to 96 points - 36 points out of 54, or 12 wins out of 18... with the goal difference advantage over FGR and Eastleigh as an added bonus.
To get to 97, Rovers will now need 42 points from a possible 57, Grimsby 45 from 57 and Eastleigh 49 from 60 - all tough asks in my view.
Points on the board and a good goal  difference put us in a strong position.
In addition, Eastleigh are still in the Cup and Trophy and their deteriorating pitch might also be a factor as the games pile up. Grimsby are still in the Trophy along with us, while only FGR have a clear run.
But Rovers and Grimsby only have eight home games left, with 11 aways, where neither of them have been so strong. Rovers are lying 12th in the 'away' league table (18 points from 36 on the road), and Grimsby eighth (21 from 36). We are top (29 from 42), and Eastleigh second (25 from 39).
We have nine to play at home and nine away, Eastleigh have 10 homes and 10 aways to play, but sit 10th in the 'home' league table, with a dodgy-looking pitch (even dodgier than ours, groundshare and all)..
FGR are top dogs at home (37 points from 45) and Grimsby second (31 from 45), having based their challenges on a strong home record. We are third having taken 31 from 42 at WR.
But it wasn't only the nature of the performance and the 0-0 result which caused a few to reach for the panic button after Saturday.
The other big factor was the sight of Aaron Downes hobbling off for the last few minutes to add to an injury list already including Amari  Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie.
The Downes-Dan Parslow axis has been massive for us this year but now it is up to someone else to step up.
Gary has said he wants to look for an experienced player to step in while the skipper is out, and that has again brought the name of Keith Lowe to the forefront.
Some have had objections, feeling he is a return to the 'bad old past' we are trying to forget, that he is too old (at 30 he is a year younger than Danny Wright), or that he has no pace - well, Downes isn't exactly Usain Bolt.
He never let us down in 111 games - a steady Parslow-like seven out of 10 every week. I don't have him tarred with the same brush as those who came after Yatesy let him go to York.
Keith played every game last season - mostly at centre-back - and 16 this season before new boss Jackie McNamara binned him.
He is the sort of player we need, now Gary needs to decide whether he is the answer or if he can find better elsewhere.
It's another January conundrum to add to Gary's wheeling and dealing which has already seen Dan Holman and Cian Harries arrive.
Holman on paper looks a good signing, 14 league goals for Woking and more shots on target than any other player in the VNL, while Harries looked composed enough in the time he was on the field.
Holman's arrival will give more options up front, allowing for a bit of rotation, and it was a shame he wasn't fit on Saturday as I thought Billy Waters and Danny Wright had off-days and it was crying out for freshening up.
Other decisions surround James Dayton's short-term deal, which ends on January 19, and Ryan Jennings, who is here until January 30.
Dayton had a game for Leyton Orient's reserves last week and it may be that the higher-priority need for a defender may end his stay with us. I must admit I haven't seen much from him - granted, he hasn't had starts and been forced to try and have an impact off the bench.
Gary has preferred Jennings in a starting role. I feel he hasn't pulled up many trees either and I think he needs to do more if the loan is to be extended further.
There are seven players he has already decided will be released in the summer, and he will be looking to move some of them off the wage bill early, while making decisions on other issues, such as the loan of Lee Vaughan at Tranmere.
The fun and games have started...


Sunday, 29 November 2015

Halfway to redemption

After the despair of relegation last May, everyone associated with Cheltenham Town FC, board, management, players or fans, could have done one of two things.
We could all have collectively given up - just felt sorry for ourselves and accepted life back in the non-League ranks as our lot for the next few years.
"It's a hard league to get out of..." was a mantra we heard a lot before quoting teams like Luton who took a few seasons to get back up... Even Bristol Rovers needed the play-offs etc etc...
Or we could have done the opposite - taken it on the chin and then decided that we were going to have a right good go and try to get back into the 92 club again, and that it could be done at the first go.
Happily, we have chosen the latter option, and at the halfway mark things couldn't really be going any better could they?.
Only two defeats in 23 games, an average of two points and two goals a game, a healthy goal difference and a one-point lead at the top of the table, which, deep down, I cannot imagine many of us would really have expected back in August.
I fully admit I certainly didn't expect it. Of course I hoped we would be in this position, but back in August I would have bitten your hand off for us to be in or around the top five at this point.
Pre-season, many of the so-called pundits had written us off, one saying we had a good manager but a mid-table squad, and that we'd finish 11th. The first bit was right at least.
Since day one, Gary Johnson has not sugar-coated anything. "We have to win the league" he has said, over and over again.
That keeps up the pressure on himself and he has done the same with the squad, who have reacted positively to it. Very rarely has he come out for a post-match interview and been totally satisfied with what he has seen.
He always wants more, always says there is more to come from the players - all of which bodes well for the remaining 23 games.
So far, the players have delivered every time their manager has asked them to, and every time there has been some pressure on them.
Saturday was another case in point. Now we are top, we are there to be shot at and many of the sides immediately below us had what looked like very winnable games.
We faced an Aldershot side not in great form but still a tricky proposition, and we ground it out. A solid, resolute 2-0 win away from home in tricky, windy conditions.
It was just the sort of result and performance that helps you to win leagues.
Going back to 1998-9, I recall Steve Cotterill's side winning these sort of games at Southport, Morecambe and Hereford on their way to the title.
We got our goals, and then defended superbly with Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow outstanding again as Aldershot had a few corners and threw men forward to try to break us down - to no avail.
Right through the team we were outstanding, with Dillon Phillips again making some fine saves as once again he shows what a great signing he has been.
Rob Dickie and George McLennan continue to grow at this level with every game, and our midfield powerhouses Kyle Storer and Harry Pell seem to get stronger week after week -  even a haircut can't quell Pell's powers. He has been immense in the last few games.
Jack Munns' goals and assists are vital, while loanee Ryan Jennings came in and fitted in straight away with good strong running with the ball, and some really good defensive work when needed.
Billy Waters and Danny Wright worked hard and then Andrija Novakovich showed he will be an asset when he came on and could have gone away with two goals but for the woodwork.
Those players who haven't been able to break into the side on a regular basis also played their part with Asa Hall and James Rowe allowing Waters and Munns a rest and helping to shore things up at the death.
That's the value of a decent squad, and strength in depth - having players like Hall and Rowe who can do a job when necessary, and players like Jennings and Novakovich being identified by the Johnson family scouting system as youngsters who can come in and make an impact.
Add to that the injured pair of Jack Barthram and James Dayton, and we have a very strong squad - evidenced further by the fact that we can let our third-choice right-back Lee Vaughan go to Tranmere, where he gets straight into the their side and helps them to a clean sheet.
 If we let the likes of Hall and Rowe go I believe they too would walk into any other team in this league.
We have real spirit here, a close-knit group united behind their manager with one aim in mind, to get this club back on its feet again and back in the Football League.
That had been a big part of why we have got into this position. Add to that consistency of selection as we have managed to get the spine of the squad - Phillips, Downes, Parslow, Storer, Pell, Wright - onto the field together to start every match bar one (Pell's one-match suspension). Added to that Munns has played a part in every game as had Barthram before Saturday.
Downes has also come through a long period on four bookings. The final whistle on Saturday means he has passed through the amnesty now and wouldn't
The goals have been spread around as well - so when a player has gone through a little barren patch as, for instance, Danny Wright is at the moment (eight league games without a goal), others have stepped up like Waters has of late, and Pell with his free-kicks.
We haven't been relying on one player for goals, everyone has chipped in, so we have got to 46 league goals, the joint highest so far, without anyone hitting double figures (who says you need a 20-goal striker...).
But we can't rest on our laurels as we know the job is only half done.
December starts with an important game as we host Chester while our nearest two rivals play in the FA Cup, as do fifth-placed Eastleigh - so it's a big chance to open up a bit of leeway between us and the rest.
It's in our hands now - we have done the groundwork, and now it's time to take advantage.



Sunday, 15 November 2015

Calm before the storm

TWO games, nine goals, none conceded and key players given a rest - things couldn't be much better in the world of CTFC at the moment.
After seeing off Guiseley 5-0, the trip to Southport could have been a rude awakening, especially when we arrived in Merseyside to be greeted by strong winds and driving rain.
So what do you need in those conditions? Yes, a nice early goal to settle you down. Okay then, let's go and get three.
Harry Pell's free kick started it off - 'hit and hope' he said afterwards while claiming he hits them like Roberto Carlos on the training ground. It skidded through a non-existent wall into the corner.
Then it was enter Billy Waters with two goals in seven minutes. Yes, he was helped by hapless defending - but still produced two decent finishes.
Four goals in two games, and nine in 10 starts for a confident-looking Billy now... he's our leading scorer in league games, the talk of a loan striker has gone quiet, and no-one is talking too much any more about missing Amari Morgan-Smith's presence.
Like Guiseley then, where we got two in the first eight minutes, the game was practically won when Billy's second hit the net.
Southport had a go - they had 10 corners in the first half and Dillon Phillips had to make a couple of decent saves, but we also had power to add and looked dangerous every time we attacked.
At 3-0 up though, any problems were likely to be of our own making. Phillips rather naively got himself a yellow card after some nonsense at a corner.
Gary Johnson on the touchline was going ballistic at him - keeping our cool was paramount as the result really was not in danger.
Once Daniel Parslow had added the fourth the sting had well and truly gone out of the game with 37 minutes still remaining. From then on it was like a training exercise.
It was time to rest the skipper - sensible management with him on four bookings, and I haven't heard a reception for a player coming off like the one Aaron Downes got for a long while.
We saw Ryan Jennings for his debut. I thought he looked bright and on this view looks to have something to offer. The only small blot on the day was James Dayton's hamstring pull.
All in all, these have been two ruthless wins. No mercy, go out there and kill the game off as quickly as you can.
After the game at Hartlepool, Gary Johnson had said he wanted more ruthlessness. At Victoria Park, we had openings but failed to capitalise. These two games have put that right.
Pell said afterwards he felt we took our foot off the gas at Southport. That's hardly surprising - it's human nature to relax a bit when you feel the job is done.
So here we are - top of the table by a point, second-highest goalscorers, the fewest defeats, the tightest defence and the largest goal difference.
You really can't ask for more than that after 21 games - also, we are unbeaten for eight league games, the longest stretch in the division.
So we are in decent shape going into Saturday's second meeting with our nearest challengers Forest Green Rovers.
I know it's only November and (cliche alert) nothing is won in November, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal game and a pivotal weekend in the season.
Not only do we lock horns with FGR knowing that a win could out us four points ahead of them, but Eastleigh in third also host Grimsby in fourth with those two both needing a win to stay on our coat-tails.
A handy little gap has opened up behind us and FGR - five points separating second and third although Eastleigh do have a game in hand.
This weekend is also the last chance we have to dent Forest Green's hopes ourselves - after this weekend we are in the hands of others to knock them out of their stride, as long as we can keep getting results of course.
Another factor is our upcoming fixture list. After this weekend, we have a few games against sides in the bottom half of the table - we play the sides in 14th, 13th, 19th, 23rd, 21st, 23rd again and 20th.
So we (on paper) have a chance to get some points on the board and maybe open a further gap on the chasing pack - but so do Rovers.
Their games after this weekend see them take on teams currently sitting in 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 21st again, and 16th in the coming weeks - and they will have a game in hand on us as they still have the FA Cup to play, which has cancelled their game at 22nd-placed Southport on December 5.
So both of us have favourable games in the coming weeks - which only serves to show that they probably won't be shaken off any time soon and serves to make this weekend's game even more important for both sides.
They will want to get back in front of us and put the pressure back on us - especially for the Chester game on December 5 when they will fall a game behind us.
For us, there is the chance to keep top spot, get four points ahead of them, maybe have the chance to render that game in hand almost irrelevant, and also get further ahead of the other chasers.
Put it this way - I really don't think a draw suits either side.
Naturally, the excitement is mounting ahead of the game which, even I - despite my traditional feeling that Gloucester City remain our one and only true 'local derby' rivals - unfortunately have to bill as a derby game.
It is a great shame though that we are playing it in November. Had this game been played in April with the sides in first and second place, we could have been looking at a 6,000-plus crowd - maybe even a sell-out.
A Twitter question went out on Sunday asking about the last 'top v second' game to be played at Whaddon Road. Thoughts went back to March 1999 when we were second and hosted leaders Kettering, beating them 3-0 to go top on the way to promotion in front of a 5,202 attendance.
Personally, I don't think the crowd on Saturday will get to that figure - I hope it does, as the team deserves all the backing it gets.
But it seems (from what their club itself are saying) they are only likely to bring around 6-700 for the game, which isn't all ticket for them.
Assuming that is 700, to get the attendance to 4,000 we would need 3,300 fans in home areas - which is 1,100 home supporters more than came to the Guiseley match last Tuesday.
Not wanting to sound like Delia, but come on you floating fans... come on you fans who turned your backs over the past two seasons... let's be having ya!!!
I think 4,000-plus would be a decent attendance figure. I am told that seats are selling very well with only singles available in many T&B Stand blocks. Great news.
It's been difficult not to get carried away with things over recent weeks and with the recent run of results, especially the last two.
We all know it won't decide anything conclusively but a win on Saturday might make even the most sceptical of fans believe that we can pull this bounceback thing off.