Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It's now or never

SIXTEEN years ago tonight, the impossible happened.
I say impossible, as I had spent most of the previous 19 years without even giving a thought to Cheltenham Town being a Football League club as I went to places like Sutton Coldfield and Oldbury United on a Saturday afternoon.
For most of that time, success was an FA Cup run - getting to the fourth qualifying round maybe, or maybe through a few rounds of the FA Trophy... and , of course, six points a season against Gloucester City.
I remember when we played Weymouth in the FA Cup fourth qualifying round. That big club Weymouth of the Alliance Premier League, and all the talk pre-match was whether the crowd would be over 1,000.
Yes. Really - and that was the way I thought it was always going to be.
But then a manager came along who believed that seemingly-impossible dream could happen and wanted to make it a reality.
He was helped by a group of players who believed in him, and ran through brick walls for him, and backed by a chairman who bought into his single-mindedness, and a set of fans all pulling the same way.
So it is hard to contemplate that in three days time it could all be over, and those 16 years could be consigned to a bygone era in our club's history.
This really is it. Defeat on Saturday and a win for Hartlepool, and it's all over. All we can hope to do is take it to the last game and try to do the business at AFC Wimbledon on the final day.
A friend said to me the other day that I 'have been up and down like a tart's knickers' about our situation, and he is right.
One minute I sit there and think we'll be fine. We will rise to the occasion on Saturday and get something to keep it alive. The next, I encounter some sort of grim reality and post the directions to Bromley on Twitter as surely Hartlepool will sweep Exeter aside and Shrewsbury will be gunning to seal their promotion and finish us off.
Lots of straws have been clutched at. We are the only team of the bottom three to have won a game in the last five.  This is Exeter's final shot at an outside chance of sneaking into the play-offs, so they have to go to Pools and win. Shrewsbury only need a draw really, so they might be a bit relaxed... and so on.
Then there are the injuries. What chance of Will Packwood, Danny Haynes, Wes Burns and co rising Lazarus-like from the treatment table in time for Saturday? Come on Wesso, work your magic.
The optimism glass was about two-thirds full after Cambridge, but Northampton drained it a fair bit, I have to admit.
It really was such a disappointment after the magnificent display and it's hard to compute how 10 of the same players can produce two Jekyll and Hyde displays within days of each other.
But maybe it isn't - and is another example of why we find ourselves in this predicament, be it a lack of mental strength or simple desire to want to go out there and reproduce what went before.
Yes, the injury to Danny Haynes was a blow, but while he was a star against Cambridge, many of the others also hit the heights, only to plumb the depths again days later.
They can do it. They proved it. So they shouldn't be surprised at the backlash when they drop those standards again.
With Haynes out, it was surely a toss-up between Omari Sterling-James and Shaq McDonald for his place against Northampton right? Errrrr, no.
I must admit to being stunned when I placed the microphone under Gary Johnson's nose and heard him utter the words 'Kane' and 'Ferdinand' when I asked him who was going to replace Danny. Never saw that one coming, and I don't think the others who were listening to Gary speak did either.
And I'm afraid this one won't go down in the annals of great managerial masterstrokes. Instead, it ranks alongside Mark Yates' dropping of Russ Penn at Wembley and playing CBB as a right-back at Tamworth. I am sure you can think of others... Gavin Caines on the right wing, Lee Ridley and Andy Lindegaard as wingers...
Ferdinand was hauled off after 29 minutes and was frankly lucky to have lasted that long. The display summed up his Cheltenham Town career, which spanned all four managers, 17 games and is thankfully now over. Not before time - his stay should have ended when Mark Yates left.
He will deservedly be consigned to the list of the poorest loans we have had, joining luminaries such as Andy Smith, Peter Hynes, Rob Elvins, Lee Lucas, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, Tom Denton and Kiernan Hughes-Mason and Toby Ajala, who never even made it to the pitch. Again, I am sure you can nominate others from the huge list of fill-ins we have had to endure.
Shaq McDonald and Pablo Mills have also been packed off home.
Shaq was a strange one from the start I felt - when he came I didn't think we needed another forward (a centre-back, or even a left-back was more pressing) and he just seemed too small and lightweight, as he showed against Wycombe when he never affected the game.
That display seemed to sway Gary's mind when it came to the Northampton selection, and, let's face it, if Kane Ferdinand is being picked ahead of you, then the writing is on the wall.
Even more so when the early change was made, and Joe Hanks was the replacement, and not Shaq. At first Hanks was deployed in a narrow three with Matt Richards dropping deeper, but eventually as a right-winger in a 4-4-2 ahead of Shaq.
Ferdinand and then Hanks were also preferred to Omari - again that is not saying much for his standing under Gary, although it could just be that Gary doesn't feel Omari is a winger, believing he is better centrally, in that 'number 10' role.
As for Pablo, he started superbly against Tranmere, but as the weeks have gone on his influence has waned, culminating at York, where he looked slow, unfit and immobile compared to two blokes they had called Penn and Summerfield, who I am sure I know from somewhere.
That seemed to mark his card, and it was telling how Jack Deaman was preferred to Pablo in the 18 against Stevenage, started ahead of him against Wycombe and came on against Northampton.
At Northampton, we were okay in the first half. Just okay as we weren't under any great pressure, but, unlike Cambridge, created precious little ourselves.
Mathieu Manset was making a pain of himself and getting stick from the crowd, which in itself told me he was doing something right, but wasn't able to turn good approach play and strength into anything tangible.
The second half was very poor indeed, bar Hanks' shot against the bar (yet another 'if only' moment...) and a Manset volley at the keeper in the last minute we showed absolutely nothing.
Northampton were ruthless twice on the counter-attack and it was refreshing to hear Gary pulling no punches about the performance and not coming out with platitudes and letting the players off the hook.
And so now we come to Shrewsbury, and thanks to Hartlepool and Tranmere being as inept as we are it's not all over yet - but this is the first time when it could be at 5pm Saturday.
I'd love to see a full ground. Unfortunately, the match was designated as a premium game before the season started, and before we knew about the situation we are in.
Shrewsbury have sold their 1,700 tickets as they anticipate a promotion party, and have paid the premium prices, and I am not sure on the rules - but I am slightly disappointed that we haven't cut the prices somewhere along the line.
I know that cutting the prices doesn't guarantee that people will flock along, but at least it would be an attempt, an incentive to tempt people in. A sign that the club is at least trying.
There has been no tubthumping this week, nothing to try and drum up some support and enthusiasm for this game, which is - let's face it - the biggest we have had for a while. It's just as important as any big Cup tie or play-off game.
We need to try to re-create the spirit and atmosphere of the escape against Doncaster in 2008 or that night 16 years ago today when this rollercoaster adventure began.
The club have asked for messages from fans to be put on the players' dressing room pegs before the game.
I can see what they are trying to do here - get the fans involved, try to get the message through to the players how much it means to us to get out of trouble and keep this club in the League.
But they shouldn't need to be told. They should know that anyway. They should know that too often this season they have let the fans down, especially those who have gone up and down the country in hope every other week.
They should know they are playing for people's livelihoods, not just their own. People who have worked harder than they ever have in their lives to put this football club where it is now and kept it there for 16 years.
They should be sat there thinking 'I don't want to be recorded as one of the players who got this club relegated from the league'
I won't lie, I am looking forward to the time in two games' time when this season is over and I won't have to see some of these players pull on a CTFC shirt again.
I am fed up to the back teeth with watching some of them but we have to pin our faith in them for the next 180-odd minutes and hope they can pull something out of the bag. Hope is all we can do now.
What would my message to them be? It would be quite simple. I'd tell them to watch these two videos...

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Rising to the occasion

AS I walked down Whaddon Road at around 6.45pm last night, I had that horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
This was it. The point of no return. Basically, it was win this, or we are off to Woking.
One hour and about 80 seconds later, and we were on our way, and boy, does it feel good.
As I sat down to start the commentary, I made a list of names. It said Packwood. Burns. Wynter. Hanks. Ferdinand. Hall. E Richards.
Seven players injured, ill or unavailable - and at least three of those would definitely have been in the starting line-up, with one or two others having an outside squeak.
We were down to the bare bones, the final 17 left standing, and looking at the side I had my concerns about it - notably the pairing in centre midfield of the two Matts, Richards and Sparrow, where my worry was mobility and also numbers - we can never make a 4-4-2 work... can we?
How would Shaun Harrad and Mathieu Manset link up? Would Danny Haynes be a bit lost on the right wing? Could Matt Taylor and Troy Brown deal with their two big centre-forwards? All of those questions ended up being answered positively.
We got off to a flyer. Haynes fed Harrad and he finished superbly. That was the Shaun Harrad of old, almost without thinking he drilled it into the net.
Haynes should have added a second, and then I started wondering where this had been for the past few barren months.
But there were lingering doubts. We had seen this before. A false dawn shot down in flames, and after seeing only four wins in 38 games it was hardly surprising if there were a few nerves about.
Zack Kotwica's run and cross-shot which hit the post was put in by Mathieu Manset. Offside. Well, the assistant thought so, but Craig Cope's charge to show the referee the footage at half-time would assume the opposite.
Should we have had a penalty for handball? Gary Johnson's touchline exclamations would suggest so - and with the luck we have been getting recently you could be excused for sitting back and waiting for the bite on the backside to arrive.
It duly did, courtesy of Ryan Bird's equaliser. Trevor Carson probably won't be too proud about it, and unfortunately the assistant was up with play this time, unlike his mate at Wycombe on Saturday, and flagged for the goal.
Now usually that is the sign for the tide to turn, maybe a few heads to drop and for another goal to follow quickly afterwards. But not this time.
We stayed pretty resolute until half-time. Not exactly comfortable, but resolute enough - and with Hartlepool and Tranmere losing, there was a chance to be had. Probably the last one.
It was now or never - and we delivered.
The second half performance was the best 45 minutes I have seen from us in a league game since way back in August. I'd have to go back to Bury on the opening day, or the comeback at Tranmere, or the second half when we won at Cambridge to find anything close to matching it.
Having shown flashes in the first half of having the beating of his full-back, Danny Haynes led the way.
The tactic was simple from us - get the ball, and give it to Danny. He responded with pace on the flank and some decent deliveries. We knew there was a player in there and it was great to finally see it.
Having got his goal, Harrad looked to have a weight lifted off him and he and Manset were a constant threat.
This was the Manset I have wanted to see. He was winning flick-ons, holding the ball up and seeing defenders bump off him due to his strength. Agonisingly for him, as well as the offside decision he was inches from converting a cross on more than one occasion. He deserved a goal.
So did Haynes, and he got the crucial second one. After (shock, horror) a decent corner delivery from Sparrow and head across the box from Taylor he snapped up the chance to allay fears that our strong second-half start would not bear fruit.
At this point, with Pools and Tranmere still behind, we were out of the bottom two! Quick, end the season now...!
We were dominating, and Cambridge were by now much less of a threat as Richards and Sparrow had a grip of the midfield, Harrad and Manset were bullying the centre-backs and Haynes was running amok while Taylor and Brown had the front two under control.
But (yes, I know. There is always one of those) we needed that third goal.
Hang on. This is Cheltenham. We just don't score three goals in a game. Oh. Wait a minute, maybe we do as Sparrow rifled it in via a deflection.
3-1 was about right though given our second-half domination, and Cambridge were a beaten team. For once I wasn't sat there panicking we were going to chuck it away in the latter stages. It was a good feeling and very nice to hear Happiness again at the final whistle.
On Saturday, I saw a Cheltenham side at Wycombe who were going down with a whimper. There seemed to be no heart, no will, no desire to make a fight of it, as if they had accepted their fate.
This was the polar opposite. I saw players at the end - notably Taylor, Manset, Harrad and Haynes - who looked like they could barely stand, such was the effort they had put in over the 90 minutes.
That's all we ask for. That sort of effort - and you see what you can get from it. Finally we saw a Cheltenham side who looked like they wanted to be out there, who seemed to actually be enjoying themselves.
They deserved the ovation at the end, and it was great to see the Bristol Street Motors Stand rocking at the end, and all three sides of the ground on their feet.
But (yep, here we go again) it's not done of course, by any means. No laurels can yet be rested on. This will count for nothing if we return to the passive, flat displays at Northampton on Saturday.
Only three more displays with this intensity, this determination, this desire will do now. Standards have been set.
Hartlepool's equaliser which dropped us back below the line was only a minor setback as now, for once, maybe we are the side with the momentum.
This needs to be the catalyst now to go to Northampton with confidence and have a real go. The supporters who acclaimed last night's win deserve that, and they will expect it.
Maybe, just maybe, we can still do this...

Monday, 13 April 2015

A question of Trust

These are my personal views. People are free to make up their own minds and vote as they wish. This blog is not meant in any way to influence people's decisions in Thursday's votes, but is merely my opinion on the matters in hand. 

I WAS on the original steering committee for the Robins Trust when it was formed. Unfortunately due to work and family commitments at the time and since I have been unable to offer more help to the cause, much to my regret.
At those original meetings when the Trust was in its' embryonic stage, I made no secret of the fact why I was there and why I wanted to get involved.
I wanted a fans' representative on the board of directors, so we can get a proper say in how our club is run - a supporters' voice. That wish hasn't changed, and I hope that becomes a reality on Thursday.
Bryan Jacob was also at those meetings, and while I or no-one else can speak for him, I think we were all there for that same goal. I'd like to think he would want his money to bring about a fan-elected director.
I remember being knocked for six when I was told about Bryan's legacy being left, lock stock and barrel to the Trust. 
I knew then that the aim I had a decade ago was going to be fulfilled - despite what I feel is several moves of the goalposts by the board since those days.
The £100,000 threshold has always been a bugbear of mine. You are not telling me that every member of the current board has put that sum into the football club, but that's another story entirely.
My (maybe cynical I admit) feeling is that this sum was put there in the belief that the Trust would not achieve it - or would take a very long time indeed to do so - therefore now it has been achieved, my belief is that the fans must grasp it and take the opportunity.
Therefore it is disappointing to see that option C does not currently guarantee a fan-elected director despite the fact that the £50,000 investment would hit the £100,000 mark.
For what it is worth my vote will go to A or B (I am still undecided on which one) as those options will have that guarantee - but I can understand people being reticent about choosing one of those options.
Poor decision-making at the top of the club has proved very costly and it looks like we will be paying the ultimate price - maybe as quickly as next Saturday at Northampton.
So I fully understand how fans have lost trust in Paul Baker and the board over the course, not only of this season but after the last couple as well, so I can understand their concerns over (as one fan put it to me) "Bryan's money disappearing into a black hole."
But the problem is that the club needs the money. My suspicion (and I stress this is a suspicion) is that the board (and although Paul Baker gets the flak, they are a board - he doesn't make all the decisions alone) have speculated slightly in the hope this money is coming as they try to help keep us up.
It looks like those efforts are all in vain, but they had to try all they could to give us the best chance. 
Other factors including their poor choices of, and too much loyalty to, managers in the recent past and how those managers have spent the funds the board has made available to them have also gone some way to putting us where we are.
So we have to be careful. While I don't blame fans for not having complete trust in the current board to use the money wisely (although I suspect it would mainly be used for paying wages and trying to put a half-decent team out next season) we have to balance that with wanting the club to survive in the medium and long term, and to try to compete at whatever level we are at.
Depriving the club of the money could threaten our survival and competitiveness.
In short, we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face. While the current board have let us down at times in the recent past, the bigger picture is that over 16 years they have rebuilt three sides of the ground, got us one of the best training facilities outside the top two divisions and stabilised us in the Football League (until now).
I know a lot of people want Paul Baker to stand down. But again we have to careful.
The problem is that there is, and never has been, a succession plan. There is nobody on the current board who seems to have the credentials to take the job on. If there was, they'd be doing it by now.
But people can go on too long - in the same way the Mark Yates was kept on last summer when he should have left. 
I don't enjoy seeing Paul Baker's chairmanship soured by recent events.  This is a man, remember, who has paid transfer fees (Steven Gillespie and Brian Wilson to name two) out of his own pocket, and bought a house so we could then knock it down to build the Hazlewoods Stand.
Things like that shouldn't be forgotten amid the broken promises about short-term loans, bold pronouncements about signings at season-ticket renewal time, appalling managerial appointments and crazy votes of confidence 24 hours before the axe fell on Mark Yates.
The last thing we need in the boardroom when we are about to drop out of the league is a vacuum. We have appeared to be a bit rudderless anyway in recent times, and this would only make it worse.
The board have done their best, and yes it might be time for some change, but we must be careful how radical that change is, especially if, as I think most of us expect now, we go down.
A boardroom vacuum could lead to freefall - Stockport come to mind, or an even worse scenario, Hereford United, and none of us want that to happen. Sometimes it is better the devil you know, whatever the perceived shortcomings.
But Paul Baker won't go on for ever. He doesn't want to for a start, but he won't just hand the club over to anyone, mainly for the reasons explained above.
He and the board have been accused of lacking ambition (I don't hold with this - they have always backed managers financially and tried to take the club as far as they can), and also not seeking or welcoming investment. But surely if it was there and (this is the crucial part) from the right people, they would have bitten their hands off? Of course they would.
An approach from the former Southampton owner Rupert Lowe is the one people talk about, but my understanding is that he wanted to buy the club completely. 100 per cent control. 
Who knows how that could have turned out - but I certainly would not be comfortable with anyone having autocratic control and being able to do whatever they wanted with no recourse.
We certainly wouldn't be getting fan-elected directors in that scenario.
We had Simon Keswick here. A combination of Martin Allen and fans on the forums demanding he used his fortune to fund their entertainment saw him withdraw again to the background. 
The mystery man in the Caymans put £500,000 in which - to their credit - the board used wisely, in dribs and drabs but that has now come to an end.
I constantly hear fans saying there must be loads of very rich people around this county who would get involved. Well, I don't exactly see them beating a path to Whaddon Road if they are out there.
Maybe they don't like football, or, if they are sensible businessmen, realise that a League Two/Conference football club would be the 'black hole' which the fan I mentioned earlier referred to.
We are where we are, and we have to try to make the best of it, and to carry on backing the football club we all support.
Thick and thin. That's what we signed up for when we started walking down the Whaddon Road.
Yes, it's thin at the moment. Probably the thinnest it has been for me in my 35 years but we can't turn our backs. If we go down, I know some will. 
I have constantly been staggered at the small number of members the Trust has compared to our average crowds. When I ask people why they aren't members, "what's the point" is the commonest answer. But my feeling is every CTFC fan should join. It's only £12 a year for goodness sake.
Thursday's vote can help us show that there is a point to being in the Trust. 
Supporters' Trusts, it seems, only come into their own when their football club is in some sort of danger, be that financial or from an asset-stripper in the boardroom, but this vote will give our Trust some leverage and a strong position in the club. We will potentially be one of the major shareholders.
There are two candidates for the fan-elected director - should the vote get that far, which I sincerely hope it will.
I must confess I don't know Mike Collins, and he seems to have good credentials, but I will be voting for Clive Gowing. I feel his hard work deserves to be rewarded with success in the vote on Thursday.
Clive is the man who has done more than most to bring us to this stage. He is the one out there in all weathers selling raffle tickets. He has arranged the yearly hospital visit where players give presents to the sick children at Christmas, putting the club and Trust at the heart of the community.
I know he would do his utmost to ensure Bryan's legacy was put to good use for the sake of the football club we all support.
As fans we have the chance now to have a bigger say in the club than we have ever had, and at the highest level possible. We can't throw it away.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

45 seconds of hope

The ridiculous stats which tell the underlying tale of this most rancid of seasons keep on stacking up.
Four wins in 37 league games, one in the last 18, one clean sheet since early September, and - most crazily of all - we have had more managers than league wins since October 21.
Yet still we are not cut adrift and already resigned to our fate. We have a chance of staying up, if only a mathematical one as even the biggest optimists among our fans would have to say they can't see it happening.
I spoke to several of the away contingent after the game yesterday - yet due to a level of incompetence which matched a lot of our defending yesterday and over this season as a whole you'll have to take my word for it as there is, I am afraid, no recorded evidence to support this.
None of them thought we were going to stay up. Several of them may have had a little drink or two, which is probably the best way to be when watching us at the moment. That way you might wake up the next day and not actually remember it.
Most of them belied a lack of blood, sweat and tears amongst the players. A lack of desire, lack of will, and lack of fight. Gutless and no passion were other words and phrases cropping up. So while we are mathematically able to dig ourselves out, I would hesitate to say we are still in there fighting to stay up.
Gary Johnson's post-match interview pretty much summed it up - it was the equivalent of a cricket captain saying his team can't bat, can't bowl or can't field.
He knows. He is not stupid. He has been round the block enough times to know he basically has nothing to work with.
They might try their best - and the worrying thing is that I believe the majority of them are - but he knows that they are simply not good enough - and the fact that we aren't already cut adrift is down more to how equally bad the other sides around us are than anything else.
I didn't hear it, but those who went to the press room at Wycombe at half-time could hear his raised voice tearing a strip off the team.
But that's a bit like a father berating their child for not being able to run the 100 metres in 10 seconds - they simply don't have the tools for the job they are being asked to do.
Johnson also summed it up when he said "we have to hope there are two teams worse than us." That, basically, is all we can cling to for these last four games.
Trouble is, that involves us having to collect some points, and actually winning at least two of these last four games.
I didn't see the game against Stevenage but was told we weren't completely terrible and Johnson made a couple of changes with Will Packwood injured and Joe Hanks left out for Jack Deaman and Matt Sparrow.
Deaman, having given the penalty away on Monday, was the surprise choice ahead of the more experienced Pablo Mills and Matt Taylor.
Mills looked horribly unfit and immobile at York on Good Friday, and it seems Johnson isn't a fan. Taylor hadn't been in the 18 on Monday after family-wedding-gate saw him miss training on Easter Saturday.
On that subject, I assume the club knew about this and had sanctioned it a long time ago, before Johnson arrived. Yet it doesn't send out a very good message when your club captain chooses a family wedding over a training session when his club is five games from relegation. All in it together? It makes you wonder a bit where his priorities are.
That's my view on it anyway - and reading between the lines, I would deduce that Johnson wasn't happy about it at all as Taylor wasn't in the 18 on Monday and was overlooked yesterday until the 77th minute.
After his mistake on Monday, Deaman not surprisingly looked nervous and picked up a fourth-minute booking, and after several nervous moments was lucky not to pick up a second one for a late challenge on the Wycombe keeper near half-time.
The fact that he came out for the second half owed more to the fact that we had already lost Wes Burns and Jordan Wynter to injuries in the first half than anything else.
Burns rolled his ankle from the free-kick after Deaman's booking and tried to run it off,and Wynter crocked himself and Wycombe's Joe Jacobsen in a full-blooded 50-50 challenge.
Danny Haynes replaced Burns and I had expected to see Shaun Harrad take Wynter's place, but instead it was Durrell Berry who got the nod, which led to Lee Vaughan being used as a right winger. An interesting move...
We hadn't troubled Wycombe going forward, and had kept them out - just - until first-half stoppage time although an earlier Nico Yennaris shot hit the bar and clearly to my eyes bounced down and crossed the line before bouncing out again. No goal-line technology here and the assistant was nowhere near being up with play, so we got away with one.
Trevor Carson had made one fine stop but couldn't keep out Aaron Pierre's shot through a ruck of players who were left prostrate on the floor as the shot weaved its' way in.
So we needed a goal. It was difficult to see where one was going to come from as we hadn't seen one from one of our own players since Packwood's header at Portsmouth.
The it happened. A miracle... and from the most unlikely of sources, with Berry firing into the corner. I must admit it took me totally by surprise when it nestled in the net.
After the 'over-the-line' shot escape and then that equaliser out of absolutely nothing, I did wonder at the moment if we were going to get that bit of luck we needed.
Oh come on, don't be silly. Those wistful notions where jolted back to a depressing normality about 45 seconds later. From the re-start, corner, centre half left free, header, 2-1 down. Head was back in hands.
So again, we needed a goal and Johnson has one change left. Right, he has Harrad there so Johnson can throw him on. He could take off Mathieu Manset, who was blowing a bit and hadn't been effective. Or Shaq McDonald, a peripheral figure. Or Lee Vaughan, being asked to play on the right wing.
Haynes could have moved out wide (although he wasn't that bad playing down the middle when he came on) and Harrad gone in up front, but no, Johnson simply swapped Deaman for Taylor.
Yes, Deaman was on a booking - but I didn't understand why, having rightly not made the change at half-time to keep the third change up his sleeve, he then made it at 2-1 down with 13 minutes to go when we needed a goal.
Yes, he could have got the second yellow in those last 13 minutes, but weighed up against the fact that we needed to try and get another forward on to get a goal I would say that was a risk worth taking.
We didn't really threaten for that equaliser, so it became five defeats in a row. With Carlisle winning and Hartlepool and Tranmere losing, the mini-league of four is now probably down to three now, with two going down.
That 'last chance' we seem to have had for the past few weeks now moves on to Cambridge at home on Tuesday, which becomes about the 20th 'must-win game' in a row. Our record in these must-wins so far isn't great, so I am not exactly holding my breath.
I can't see us having Burns and Wynter available, so the 11 Johnson chooses will be an interesting one. Surely Taylor will partner Troy Brown, Haynes might get the nod in place of Burns. Wynter's replacement? That's anybody's guess.
It's also anybody's guess how these last four games will pan out. While many of us may be resigned to what we think will happen, there is still, amazingly, a bit of hope to cling to.
That's what the heart is saying anyway. The head is telling a different story.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Time for a miracle

We have to believe. It is Easter - the time for miracles, and that is what we need now.
A few hours on from another limp defeat away at a relegation rival and the miserable run of form now sits at four wins in the last 35 games, one league clean sheet since August... the misery goes on.
On the way to York, just outside the city, we passed 'Buckles Inn' As if that wasn't bad enough, the song on the car radio at the time was Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over. I am not making it up. And I'm afraid it pretty much is.
That really didn't bode well, as so it proved, as for York, see also Hartlepool, Dagenham and Carlisle. Pivotal, must-win games where we simply haven't turned up, putting in limp performances and losing them all.
Again, especially in the second half yesterday, there seemed no desire from many players to roll up their sleeves and battle for every ball, every tackle, every header.
At 1-0 down in the 93rd minute, a ball went into the York box. Two York heads bust a gut to get there - not a sky blue shirt in sight, really wanting to win it.
That was a small microcosm of why we are in the situation we are in. You can change the manager as much as you like, but the bottom like is I don't think the players want it, and when that happens it is all over.
Which I think it pretty much is. Monday might be the last chance - a win against Stevenage and you never know, but can Gary Johnson really change the mindset among the squad in such a short space of time?
They have to want to change it themselves and I don't see any great appetite among them to do so.
To make a silk purse from a sow's ear, you need the sow's ear in the first place. I don't think we even have that.
We started the season with four wins and two draws. That is now how we need to end the season if we are to have a realistic chance of getting out of this.
Since those four wins and two draws, we have picked up 23 points out of a possible 102. Now we want 14 out of 18, which would get us to 51 points.
Even the biggest die-hard optimist would have to say this is unlikely. But we can point to Hartlepool, dead and buried a few weeks ago, now four wins and a draw and they have the momentum.
So it can be done. But I am afraid I just cannot see it from this group of players. I can't see the will amongst a group who know that at the end of the season they can just walk away.
They can just walk back to the clubs they have been loaned from, or go to their agents and find themselves another club, and wash their hands of it all. Continue their careers without a care in the world.
On May 2, for a lot of them, it won't be their problem any more. They can get on with their careers happy in the knowledge that they are still earning a decent wage.
Meanwhile, we are left to pick up the pieces of our shell of a football club. To try to pick our way through the ruins of what used to be a well-run football club, which three years ago had a promising future with an exciting group of players, playing good football, a fanbase which was starting to catch on again - but is now a complete basket case.
I don;t have the energy - yet - to go through in detail why this chaos has ensued. That is for the end of the season, wherever we end up. In short, there are many varied reasons for it.
It's not down to one person, it is a collective run of horrendous decisions and policies from people in the club from the top to bottom which have contributed to where we are now.
After last weekend's loss to Plymouth, we knew York was going to be the key game. The players had to be up for it. We had our two best loanees, Will Packwood and Wes Burns back.
But unfortunately, they can only fill two of the 11 places on the field. We need nine others to do their part as well, and the simple truth to me is that they are just not up to it.
Four managers, 41 players, all the systems, tactics, team talks, arms round the shoulder, hairdryer rants, hours on the training ground, watching the bloody DVD over and over again, empty words in interviews, set-piece routines or pre-match warm-ups in the world cannot mask it.
Our players are not just good enough to stay in this division - and many of them don't have the will or desire to make that happen either. Bottom line.
I have seen fans since yesterday saying they were not trying. Problem is, I believe they were. They were doing their best - yet still they have come up short. So what does that tell you? Not good enough.
I believe they were trying, but as I said earlier at key times they simply didn't go that extra mile in the key moments, putting their bodies on the line to really dig in.
Again, we rolled over too easily. A soft touch. After going 1-0 down, as has so often been the case not just this season but for much of the last two as well, we never looked remotely like getting it back.
Small margins again, one header from a corner. See also Carlisle, not defending a free-kick. Also Portsmouth. Plymouth, letting a centre-half run 60 yards through the middle of us and play a straight ball to an unmarked centre-forward. I could go on, but it's just too depressing.
It was the supreme irony that the man we really needed was stood on the final whistle with a number 10 on his back, arms aloft. One of those ridiculous decisions I mentioned earlier. See also their number 15.
But those who have made those decisions have to live with what they have done, and some will, I am sure, pay for it and fall on their swords. But it will be too late by then, as the damage is done.
Damage to our football club, financially in the long-term, and in the short-term it will cost people their livelihoods - it will be inevitable that some hard-working people at the club will suffer, through no fault of their own, but because others have not done their jobs properly.
I hate being negative. It devastates me to say this but I just cannot see where the wins are going to come from to get us out of this, given what I have seen in the previous 40 games, and with this squad in the last three.
It may be the time of year for resurrection, but we need a full-blown miracle to turn this around now.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Last throw of the dice

EVERY March, punters converge on Cheltenham for four days of the best racing in the world, hoping to strike it lucky - and very few succeed.
Just down the road however, Cheltenham Town's board of directors have, unfortunately, been on a long losing streak - each favourite they have backed in the recent past either tailing off after a promising start, or falling at the first.
Now they have emptied their pockets and come up with their last bits of loose change.
One final gamble, one last spin of the wheel hoping to hit the jackpot and to try to save Cheltenham Town from falling into the abyss.
At the end of August, we came back from a 0-0 draw at Morecambe sat on top of League Two with four wins from six games.
Mark Yates, the second longest serving manager in the Football League, was at the helm. We were held up in the game as a model of stability.
Since he left in November, there have now three incumbents of the hotseat, with one lasting 79 days, and another a mere 45, before this latest move.
That tally of victories has doubled since August, ‘aided’ by the services of 41 players and now four managers along the way.
Those four wins in August are now a godsend. Let alone Gary Johnson, without them we'd be needing so many snookers we would need Joe Johnson to get us out of trouble.
Under Russ Milton, Steve Elliott, Steve Book and Jamie Victory, the club was getting its identity back after the turmoil of Paul Buckle's tenure.
Everyone is finally pulling in the same direction, getting behind men they know had the club’s best interests at heart.
But despite their best efforts - and they are not to blame for what they inherited - the wins were not coming.
Those encouraging away draws at Newport and Portsmouth were not followed up in the Devon double against Exeter and Plymouth, and things hit rock bottom, 92nd out of 92.
So now Paul Baker and the board feel it’s time to spin the wheel again. One final gamble to try and save that precious Football League status.
If Johnson fails, they will be castigated for leaving it too late, slamming the door after the horse has bolted. If it succeeds, the cries will be ‘why wasn’t he brought in earlier’.
I am uneasy about it. I feel sorry for Russ, Jamie and the two Steves and desperately wanted them to see the job through and keep us in the league.
But putting sentiment aside, Johnson’s appointment is a chance Baker clearly feels he and the board had to take - and it could be a defining one for his chairmanship after 16 rollercoaster years.
They feel obviously that they have to do everything in their power to preserve the club’s status, and anyone of a Cheltenham Town persuasion has to hope this favourite comes romping past the winning post.
Johnson has to find a formula from a group of players which three managers have so far failed to do, and find it fast. He can’t change them now - this is what he must work with.
He has seven cup finals starting at York on Friday to get us above that line, and we have to hope he succeeds as the alternative is not a pleasant thought at all.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

It's the hope that kills you

After two highly-promising away games which should have yielded more than two draws, hopes were high going into the Exeter clash that we could get that much-needed win.
But instead of building on what we had started at Newport and Portsmouth, we took another massive backward step and the inconsistency which has blighted us for as long as I can remember reared its ugly head again.
Once again, Trevor Carson was not ridiculously overworked. The same had been the case at Newport and Portsmouth, but like those two sides Exeter didn't have to work hard for their goals.
Our ratio of goals conceded to opposition chances created has been far too high and if we do end up in the Conference that will be one of the big reasons why.
We have been a soft touch defensively, and it is almost becoming too late to rectify it. The stats show we had more goal attempts and corners than Exeter.
Teams don't have to work hard to score against us, and at the other end we haven't created enough opportunities or taken anough of the ones we have made to make up for these deficiencies, and that pure economics means you will be in trouble.
And we are. Big trouble. It's made even worse by Hartlepool's resurgence, and now it becomes two from four, with them, York, Tranmere and ourselves in the mix go down.
That is only because York conceded a last-minute equaliser, otherwise they would just about be out of it, and I think we can forget about Carlisle, Oxford or Cambridge being dragged down into the mix now.
This performance was a relegation display. It was lethargic and lacking in energy in key areas, and a promising first five minutes and a head of steam in injury time was never going to be enough.
With Troy Brown banned, Matt Taylor came back in, but he always looked shaky. He is clearly not fit and the decision to give him a two-year contract last summer looks more and more crazy as he surely won't stay fit to see it out.
Will Packwood, after two superb games on the road, looked to have caught the jitters from Taylor and his decision to go for the same ball as Craig Braham-Barrett cost us the first goal.
It was another goal down our left-hand side. This has now happened for a season and three-quarters and is the most baffling thing that we have done nothing about that position.
Braham-Barrett has somehow played practically every game for the past two seasons, and, bar a good spell of form for a few weeks when we played three at the back, he has cost us goals.
Left-back seems to be a position we cannot get right. Danny Andrew and Billy Jones also struggled at times, but I'd have either of them in the side now.
It baffles me that neither Mark Yates or Paul Buckle tried Paul Black in what was his most natural position while he was at the club, and that he was then allowed to leave. Surely he could not have been any worse? Surely it was at least worth trying?
Black must have been so downhearted that he wasn't able to get a go there, and was left to play his four games for us as a central midfielder (where he had never played before) or on the left of a back three (where he had never played before). Ridiculous.
It's the kind of decision that could send us to Braintree next season and are endemic of the poor decisions that have made at all levels of the club in the last few years.
Anyway. No use crying over that spilt milk now, although you do wonder how many goals might have been prevented had we tried an alternative.
In midfield, Pablo Mills put in a determined display as ever, while Matt Richards was again one of our better players, but Matt Sparrow has just dropped off recently after a really promising start.
He was lucky to avoid a red card just after Exeter's first goal - his challenge was a very poor one as I was expecting him to go, and he never really got to grips with the game.
Several times he had the ball in promising positions but then gave a poor pass or made the wrong choice and it was no real surprise when he got the hook.
The same can be said for Danny Haynes, who I don't feel would have been in the side had Eliot Richards been fit. Like at Portsmouth in midweek, he was largely anonymous and, considering his higher-league pedigree, I expect more from him.
Once again, our main threat was Wes Burns, and he nearly gave us the ideal start, and Haynes needs to learn from his urgency when he has the ball.
At times, Haynes had a chance to break quickly, but didn't move it swiftly enough as Burns did, and we squandered a few promising situations.
Too often we made it too easy for Exeter, especially after they scored. We allowed them to win too many second balls, and they were able to dictate the tempo of the game and control it - something we have not been able to do when we have got ahead in games, hence why we have lost leads so often.
I have some sympathy for Shaun Harrad. He has spent the majority of his return to the club with his back to goal being buffeted by centre-backs without much help from referees or team-mates. He has worked hard with little reward.
At half-time we crying out for changes, but I felt Russ Milton left it a bit late. I'd have made the substitutions he eventually made about 10-15 minutes earlier, and the switch to three at the back and pushing Burns more central with Harrad had an effect.
It made the failure of Mathieu Manset to negotiate the M5 closure all the more annoying as he would have been an asset in that mini-Alamo.
We looked more dangerous, but then Trevor Carson's error to put us 2-0 down left us with too much to do - or it should have done as we then ridiculously created enough chances to win the game in stoppage time after a ludicrous own goal gave us some hope.
It's testament to our season and our predicament that we didn't take any of them.
Omari Sterling-James' shot was deflected wide. Burns shot over the bar. Harrad's golden chance put wide. Joe Hanks had an effort really well saved. Richards' shot was blocked on the line. Five great opportunities all created as we went a bit direct and caused a bit of panic.
The fact that we did that showed that we should have done that earlier and made the gift of the second goal all the more galling - but the bottom line is that we didn't deserve anything out of the game.
Next week, we go into the Plymouth game without Packwood and Burns, as well as still having Troy Brown banned. It's not an appetising prospect, but we really do need people to step up now.
Mills has to drop into centre back to deal with Reuben Reid and I would play three centre backs, bring Hanks into central midfield, and then perm two of Harrad, Haynes, Richards (if fit) and Manset up front.
But we need some grit and determination. We saw it at Newport and Portsmouth, but it was absent here.
If it isn't found again very quickly, and we continue to turn in displays like this one, then there is only one place we are heading.