Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Reffing hell

Getting back from the game last night, I sat down as I usually do to write this blog - then gave up.
I decided that it would be better to give myself 24 hours' reflection on the night's events, and try to rationalise things in the cold light of day.
After the game, the talking point was the actions of one man, James Linington, who got as hostile a reaction from the Whaddon Road crowd as I can remember in recent times.
Many of his decisions were bizarre to say the least - but I am not convinced that he was the central figure and the main reason for our second successive 1-0 defeat.
His performance has taken the heat off another man who was probably more culpable, and whose actions changed the game more than Mr Linington's whistle (or lack of it) did.
That man, of course, is Jason Taylor. His reaction to Conor Clifford's tackle ultimately cost us the game. Not Mr Linington's increasingly eccentric decisions.
For the 38 minutes before that incident, it was an even game.  It was bubbling up into a decent contest, both sides had chances and it could have gone either way.
After the red card, we were on the back foot, and Southend were always going to be the more likely winners, as things transpired.
We know Taylor is a combustible character, never far from confrontation in a game. This season he has been a revelation - the enforcer we have been missing with tough tackles and good distribution.
The misfit has become an integral part of the side, and there is no doubt we will miss him for the next three games.
I hope that the lay-off will see him just have a little think to himself and realise he cannot go around like a bull in a china shop every time he is challenged. Yes, we want you to compete, but there is a line to be drawn.
Clifford's tackle was not the best. He had just come on and wasn't up to the pace of the game but still he was late, but the challenge was nowhere near as bad as Jon Meades' leg breaker for Oxford recently.
Meades got a deserved red, but only after Taylor had responded like a bucking bronco to the tackle.
It does no good,  and, after getting a ticking off from Mark Yates after the reaction to that incident, which he got yellow for and could also have been red, he has paid the ultimate price for a second offence. He hasn't learned from that perceived let-off.
Now (if he wasn't already) he will be a marked man. Footballers are not stupid - they will see that and think right, we can wind him up. Referees will know as well, and will already have the Cheltenham number 25 marked down as one to keep an eye on.
But for the reaction, I am sure Clifford would have got a yellow. He didn't, as Taylor's reaction took over the referee's thinking. As Yates said afterwards, JT gave the official the chance to send him off.
It's our first red card for nearly two years, and the criticism has been levelled at us of being too nice. This season, we had committed 85 fouls before this game, the fourth-highest in the league.
Not too nice any more maybe. And Taylor had made 13 fouls ahead of this game, with only three L2 players having made more (top of the pile was a certain Mr A Akinfenwa, by the way).
There is competing, and there is competing. You have to stay on the right side of the line. Yes, we want the team to show some battling qualities, but picking up red cards is not going to do us any favours.
I will, however, mention the reaction of the Southend players. It is, I'm afraid, typical of the game these days as they all descend on the incident - including, for some reason, goalkeeper Daniel Bentley from 80 yards away. I hate to see it, but they wanted to make sure the referee got the message.
He did, and from then on we were left up against it.
The first half was a decent watch. I thought Southend passed it nicely, but we kept them at arms' length with our usual good shape and pressing.
Southend were clever - they looked to use Myles Weston and Kevan Hurst as wide as they could, looking to pen in Craig Braham-Barrett and Jordan Wynter, making them defend - not their strongest suits.
They were quick to shift the ball from side to side but we mostly coped with it, and tried to break when we could, but didn't create too much bar a Wynter shot and a couple of half-chances from set-pieces.
Yates had put Omari Sterling-James in for his first start in an advanced role in the midfield three, trying to take up pace in the pocket behind the front two, and he was just growing into the game when Taylor was dismissed.
That changed his role immediately, and he was eventually replaced by Joe Hanks - a switch I thought might have even been made at half-time.
Up front, John Marquis worked hard as he has in every game, but got little or no change from Mr Linington or the Southend centre-halves - and he wasn't helped either by his partner.
It was another off-colour night for Byron Harrison, and I would say that bar Tranmere and Bury, that has been the norm for last season's leading scorer in this campaign.
Last season's leading scorer. He has, I'm afraid, looked anything but that this season, and last night's display was the worst of the season so far from him.
He was left out on Saturday, supposedly as a kick up the backside as Marquis and Koby Arthur deserved their starts. The kick clearly didn't work.
We need more from him. We need the unplayable Byron we saw at times last season, not the lacksadaisical Byron, who gives up lost causes, plays lazy passes and allows centre-halves to bully him and have an easy ride.
In the second half especially we needed him. We were on the back foot, under the cosh, so we needed a presence, a target higher up the pitch to hang on to the ball, relieve the pressure and maybe set up the odd counter attack.
Marquis tried his best to do that, but was soon walking a tightrope as he was entrapped in a losing battle against the referee, and so ultimately we had no reprieve from the yellow and black tide.
It was inevitable they would score and only brave blocks, good goalkeeping and poor finishing prevented them doing so, and we never looked like taking an unlikely point.
The red card had thrown the game plan away. OSJ was sacrificed for Hanks to give a bit more stability and ball-winning presence in midfield, and Wynter pushed up as we effectively played 4-3-2 then at the end tried 3-3-3, but all to no avail.
The positives to be drawn were two-fold - again the attitude of most players was spot on, commitment, bodies on the line, and the other was the crowd sticking with the team, albeit against the referee as well.
Ah yes, the referee. I must come back to him. As I said above, I thought he had little choice with the red card, and arguably so got the big decision of the game right.
But there were others he was way off kilter with. Binnom-Williams got a yellow for a tackle which looked high and late. That could have been Mr Linington's opportunity to even things up, but he didn't take it.
Then a great tackle by Steve Elliott where he won the ball, penalised. Failure to stop the game for a Marquis head injury, then doing so for a Luke Prosser one as we had a three on two 20 yards from goal, and then the most farcical of all, the Marquis yellow card after Bentley knocked his own player Prosser over.
As the game wore on, and especially after the Southend goal, he lost the plot more and more, and was allegedly given a 45-minute plus grilling from the assessor post-match, whatever good that will do.
But ultimately, I don't feel he didn't cost us the match. One of our players did that himself I'm afraid, and it only adds to the problems for Yates and his team-mates ahead of Saturday's game.
It is  typical of how quickly things can turn round. 10 days ago, we came back from Morecambe with a decent point, unbeaten in six games and a confident-looking squad full of options.
Now two defeats later, we have gone three games without a goal, and the squad again looks a bit thin.
There will be no Taylor for three games, Lee Vaughan's injury seems to be dragging on longer than we envisaged, and Asa Hall has almost become the forgotten man while a big-impact loanee has been called back - and then not even making the bench for his parent club.
Yates might get another body in by the Dagenham game at the weekend, when you know that You-Know-Who will come back and get his customary goal.
I think the manager has to at least consider a change of system to get the impetus back.
Maybe it's time to give the 4-3-3 a whirl on Saturday with maybe Steve Elliott being given a breather.
I'd be tempted to try this: Carson; Vaughan, Brown, Taylor, CBB; Richards, Hanks, Wynter; OSJ, Marquis, Haworth (assuming Vaughan is fit of course).


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A one-man team?

I have taken a bit of flak on Twitter over the past couple of days.
Nothing new there... but my crime this time seems to have been the temerity to suggest that maybe we are not a one-man team whose promising start to the season is about to crumble around our ears with the loss of one player.
Yes, Koby Arthur had done very well for us. Extremely well, as the return of four league and cup goals shows.  I am not denying that. But he hasn't done it alone, and is not singularly responsible for us sitting fifth in the table.
As I have stated before, that is the risk you take with a loan player. You cannot pin all your hopes to them as they will be here one minute, gone the next...
A run of injuries at his host club, and that is that, cheerio and thanks very much. Yes, he might go back and only sit on the bench for Birmingham. They 'own' him and can do what they like with him.
But let's face it - he only sat on the bench for us a lot of the time,didn't he?
He did not win us points single-handedly. It wasn't a Billy The Fish-style effort, where, like the Viz character, he took on the other team on his own with no help from anyone else?
The platform which allowed to come on and score that winner against Hartlepool, for example, was set up by the 11 who started the game.
Apparently, according to some Tweeters, without him, we now possess 'no goal threat'. Strange then that in our games so far we have had 91 shots on goal, 43 of them on target. Koby has not had all of those, has he?
Other players have also got into the positions to trouble the opposition, but yes, on most occasions without that key ingredient of actually putting the round thing in the onion bag.
Some of that has been through wasteful finishing, and Koby is included in that. Some of it has been through good opposition defending and excellent goalkeeping - Barry Roche and Mark Tyler having won man of the match awards in the last two games shows that we have been a constant danger the opposition.
So I feel to suggest Koby is the only goal threat we have is, in my view, doing a disservice to the rest of our players. I just wish people would have more faith in them.
It's time for Byron Harrison to rediscover the 15-goal touch from last season, and it would be a very opportune moment for Terry Gornell's goal drought to end. John Marquis needs to add goals to his hard work and channel chasing.
The midfield need to help out, although Joe Hanks,  Jordan Wynter and Matt Richards are off the mark,  and those three centre-halves of ours need to find their range from set-pieces - although so far the woodwork and defenders on the line have stopped them doing so.
I just feel that to put too much emphasis on Koby's goals does not pay enough credit to the part others have played in our excellent start.
Yes, we are told that goals win games - but you don't get the chance to score them without saves like Trevor Carson's, good defending like Troy Brown's, Steve Elliott's and Matt Taylor's and crunching tackles like Jason Taylor's - or tactical changes and the right substitutions like Mark Yates' and Shaun North's (most of the time).
Someone called the rest of our players 'poor' and 'bang average' - if a team sitting fifth in the table is that bad with one defeat in seven games, then I am not sure what that says for the rest of the division.
What he was however was a game changer, an impact player, and he had that key ingredient of pace, and that is where his absence will be felt  - unless others step up to take up that mantle.
We might now see what Omari Sterling-James can do, or it might open a door for Andy Haworth, or give Wynter a different role.
OSJ played a big part in the Tranmere fightback, while Haworth was effective in the JPT against Oxford when, after starting at wing-back, he moved into that role just behind the forwards.
I also think Wynter, with his pace and energy, could also be used as someone to stretch tired defences - not right up front, but getting the ball in the pocket and running at a tired defence, much like Morecambe did against us in the second half at the Globe and caused us problems.
It is worth noting that in the last four leagues games, Yates and North have had to change the system to get a result. It worked at Tranmere and against Hartlepool, but not so much at Morecambe or Luton.
Luton was interesting as he started with Koby, and from what I was told that the introduction of Harrison at the break was what made the difference this time, with a good second-half display which had everything bar a goal or two.
Now Yates and North have to find a different way of changing it, and it will be interesting to see what they do tonight.
I suspect we will start with the 3-5-2, with Harrison and Marquis in attack, with other decisions hinging on whether Lee Vaughan comes back in.
If he does, then it is Hanks or Wynter for a midfield place, and if he doesn't that Wynter fills in and Hanks gets the midfield spot.
That gives the option then to change to the 4-3-1-2 later on, losing a centre-half and giving OSJ, Wynter or maybe Haworth an opportunity to be the game-changer.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Another learning curve

I can't talk too much about the events at the Kennel today as I wasn't able to make the trip to that delightful Bedfordshire town so beloved of those who hail from the same town as me.
This wasn't some sort of protest because of who the opposition were. It was just the mere fact that I wanted to spend some quality time with my children, and having some fun at the swimming pool was much more appealing than spending an afternoon in Luton.
As it turned out, the unbeaten record went, and it seems from what I have seen on Twitter and gleaned from texts and phone calls since the game, another League Two goalkeeper, the second in a row, has a man of the match award to take home thanks to us not being able to take our chances.
We conceded the only goal to a header, which surprises me given the strength up to now of our back three in that department.
We started Koby Arthur, as so many fans had been asking for, seemingly to use his pace against the immobile Steve McNulty, then I have been told we didn't really make the best use it, and played to his strengths rather than our own.
It appears too that a half-time change with Byron Harrison coming on was pro-active, It is good to see the manager not waiting and waiting to make these changes as he has in the past, but instead acting quickly.
But I am pleased that the vast majority of tweets and texts remain positive despite the defeat, and that, despite the setback, may continue to be encouraged by the performance and believe we can respond.
That is the key now - how do we respond? That horrible and made-up word 'bouncebackability' has just appeared on my Twitter timeline, and however much I loathe it, it is now what we wait to see from the team.
This will be another learning curve for our new team, and we will learn a bit more about them in the next week, with two home games against Southend and Dagenham.
After six games which, on paper, were not really against teams I thought would be right up at the top this season (Bury, Accrington, Carlisle, Tranmere, Hartlepool, Morecambe) the next eight, starting with Luton, are against sides who I felt pre-season would at least have the play-offs in their thoughts.
The next seven opponents now are perennial challengers Southend, Dagenham - who can beat anyone on their day, current leaders Burton who look pretty strong, AFC Wimbledon with their in-form forwards, much-changed and much-fancied Shrewsbury, dark horses Northampton and well-supported Plymouth.
All tough games in their own way. So maybe by the end of October when the FA Cup comes along, we really will be able to make some more forthright judgments on this team and in which direction we might be going.
Up to now, in seven games, we have let in only four goals now, which is hugely encouraging. Only Burton have conceded less. Last season, we gave some real gifts to the opposition, but this time around we have really tightened up.
The three at the back has helped that solidity, with Matt Taylor proving so far to be a good signing and an excellent leader, while Troy Brown and Steve Elliott have also more than played their part in that.
That solidity has also been backed up in midfield, especially by Jason Taylor and Matt Richards, and even when we have come under real pressure (Bury at times, periods of the Carlisle home game and the second half at Morecambe in the games I have seen) we have resisted it well and mostly kept teams at arms' length.
One of the major issues for me this season was going to be creativity. We have a lot of 'solid' players, hard workers, but would we be able to create enough chances to keep us in games, and win them
So far, this has been an emphatic yes, but the main problem now is that we have not taken enough of them.
A quick tot-up from the stats on the match reports of the BBC website tells me that we have had 91 shots on goal in our seven league games, and 43 of them have been on target.
Tranmere, for instance, we had 21 shots and 12 on target, and at Morecambe 18 shots and seven on target. Today's stats were 15 shots and four on target.
We have only scored seven times (only six teams have scored less). This means we need about six on target shots to score a goal - an average which we need to cut down a bit. Surely it signals that someone is going to get a pasting from us soon - just such a shame it wasn't today.
I am told by the club's video analyst Craig Cope that, before today's game, we had had more shots on target than any other team in League Two (39) and had actually had more shots on target than off - before today it was 39 on and 37 off from 76 shots.
Yet more evidence that we need to be more ruthless in the final third and make the most of these promising situations we find ourselves in.
But I am sure that Mark Yates, while rueing the fact that these chances are going begging, will be happy that we are creating them and getting into decent positions. For now at least - if it carries on however I am sure the frustrations will grow larger.
It will be interesting soon to see what Yates does about the loan signings he has.
Jordan Wynter was signed on August 22, so his first month will seemingly end after the Dagenham game next weekend, and by that time Asa Hall might be close to a return to training.
Wynter is on a youth loan as he is under 21 years old, but reaches that milestone in November, when we will then be able to sign him on a proper loan for 93 days (until January) if we want to, while John Marquis signed on August 28, and can only stay for a maximum of 93 days (which by my calculations is November 29), with his first month ending after Burton if I have worked it out right - so there will soon be some decisions to make.
Both have had an impact, with Wynter scoring the winner at Tranmere and Marquis making a difference to our attacking options, as it stands at the moment I think Yates will be wanting to keep them both on.
Overall, despite defeat today, things stay in a positive vein, with an interesting few weeks ahead, and even a visit from the TV cameras to come...


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Bringing some sunshine

As every game passes, and we keep up this unexpected unbeaten record, and with it this promising start to the season, the more people start asking how long it can go on for.
I have been telling myself not to get carried away. Let's face it, it is inevitable we will lose at some point and then we will really learn about the character of this team.
I just hope people don't over-react when that day does come and return to last season's negative mindset.
I do get the impression still that some are waiting for the bubble to burst and we all know that five games into the league season is not the time to be calling this team play-off or promotion candidates, or to be making wild guesses about where we might end up - good or bad.
We have seen promising starts before, been flirting with top spot at various times in recent seasons only to see it all ebb away disappointingly.
This is still a new squad, very much an unknown quantity, but the early signs are promising. However, that is all it is. Early signs.
Already they have surprised us with resilence, commitment, determination and some quality at times, especially on the road at Bury and Tranmere.
We have also seen that the squad might have more depth than we initially thought after the JPT win over Oxford in the week, achieved without key men Lee Vaughan, Steve Elliott, Matt Richards and Byron Harrison in the starting line-up.
So this was another test against a Morecambe side who like us had made a decent start and would be full of confidence as they were coming off a good JPT win at Fleetwood.
They are always tough to beat the Globe, but we too could go into the game with confidence after our last few weeks, and as it turned out we did learn a little bit more about this squad of players.
Without Vaughan, we switched Jordan Wynter to right back with Joe Hanks coming back into midfield and John Marquis given the nod ahead of Terry Gornell up front.
It was the side I would have chosen and the first hour was up there with the best we have seen from the team this season.
Once again, we were led by Craig Braham-Barrett, who was having a lot of joy down that left-hand side, and could have bagged a couple of goals himself as well as setting some up for others.
He was linking well with Marquis, who overshadowed Byron Harrison performance-wise up front and was a right-royal pain for Morecambe defence - just the sort of front man we have been crying out for.
There are comparisons to Neil Grayson with the non-stop work-rate, chasing of lost-causes and all-round physicality, but also he is a Jimmy Spencer-type with his 'edge' and the walking of the disciplinary tightrope at times, which eventually led to a booking.
Byron however does need to step up. At times, he was effective, but at others he was brushed off the ball too easily. He doesn't seem to share the confidence of his team-mates at the moment.
Whether he is not fully fit, or whether he just needs to get himself a goal I don't know, but with Koby Arthur and Gornell sat on the bench wanting to get into the side, he needs to buck it up a bit.
Hanks slotted seamlessly back into midfield, and in that first hour Joe, Jason Taylor and Matt Richards bossed it. Taylor was breaking the play up, and Richards and Hanks were distributing the second balls with authority, mainly to Wynter and Braham-Barrett, who were delivering better crosses than in recent games.
What Hanks also brings to the side is another set-piece option, and he delivered some great ones. Steve Elliott and Matt Taylor got on the end of a couple of them, but headed over.
As the half went on, we got more confident, and at times there was even a bit of a swagger about us. I am not going to claim we were up there with that autumn of 2011 when we were steamrollering sides.
That sort of authority is still a way away I think. But there was some great passing a moving stuff in that opening hour - my favourite bit was a one-two between Wynter and Hanks, which led to a backheel from Hanks to set Wynter away, and a cross which set up another chance.
Such was the domination that the BBC 5 Live reporter's notes at half-time, on a divided page of an A4 pad, had one line for a Morecambe corner, and a whole page full of chances and remarks for us.
So that was the only drawback - that we hadn't taken at least one chance. A Morecambe fan I spoke to at half-time said we deserved to be at least two up, and that ruthlessness in front of goal is something we need to find.
In most games this season, we have created chances - 12 on target shots at Tranmere but no goals until the 67th minute, for instance - and not taking them will, sooner or later, come back and bite us on the backside.
The fact we were not out of sight was a combination of great saves from Barry Roche, especially from Braham-Barrett and Marquis and in the second half from Richards and Taylor - but also some wastefulness with the Elliott and Taylor headers and a weak Harrison effort when he was in on goal.
After the break, I was waiting for the Morecambe rally and it came from the hour mark onwards after Jim Bentley put Paul Mullin on and they went a bit more direct to ask more questions of us.
So it was now that we were going to learn even more about our team. We came under the cosh, with Morecambe now effectively playing 4-2-4 and we coped with it.
Just about, and it was a bit hairy at times, but we coped with it.
Morecambe stopped Braham-Barrett's supply, won the battles in midfield which we had dominated for an hour, and asked questions of our back three with Mullin, Jack Redshaw, Jamie Devitt (and sub Padraig Amond when he came on for Devitt) along with Kevin Ellison all dropping off at times, and running at us.
Redshaw and Mullin especially were a threat, and although we had to block the odd shot and saw a few go wide or over, Trevor Carson still only really had one save to make, from an Ellison free-kick.
We needed to change it somehow, and I have to say I didn't agree completely with Yates' substitutions.
I appreciate that Arthur and Omari Sterling-James have been effective off the bench and that Yates wants to be positive and win the game. I have no problem with that but their arrival did nothing to stem the tide.
In fact, it partly helped it as the withdrawal of Harrison - although he wasn't having his best game - meant we had no real pivot in the side to use as some sort of target and hold the ball up.
OSJ didn't get into the game at all and I wonder whether Andy Haworth might have been a better change - not so positive I know, but he might have given us a bit more in those closing stages.
But we kept Morecambe at bay, and took the point. Another of those games, much like the Carlisle one, that we would have lost last season.
However, let's be honest about it. We should have won, and we need to start taking these chances, and while three clean sheets in a row and only three goals conceded in six league games is great, we have only scored seven times.
All the neat build-up play is all well and good, but it is not so great if there is no end product to it, so that is now the coaching staff's job to try and get that ruthless streak.
We are looking solid and organised, and the back three gives us a decent backbone to work from, so now the forwards (Harrison especially) need to fire if we are to start grinding out wins.
The wing-backs and midfield are doing their part, and those pre-season worries that we wouldn't create very much seem unfounded.
But is it a bit of a nit-picking moan of mine perhaps. The point will prove to be a good one I am sure and Morecambe are usually a tough nut to crack at the Globe.
A win would, I think, really have made League Two at large sit up and take notice, and we have to maybe stop being happy with a point from games like this, and be disappointed that we didn't have all three.
We'd have taken a point at 9.30am as we left home, but at 5pm we know we missed a chance to make it five wins from six.
It is a constant frustration of fans that we don't get the recognition and credit many feel we should get.
Maybe it is typical of this that we go top of the table for less than 24 hours on the day with no Football League Show, while Burton get a game on Sky in which to return to the summit.
But I am not really worried about that, or about losing top spot. Let Burton have it (for now anyway !!).
They can have the early pressure. They can be the ones everyone wants to shoot at.
For now I am happy to keep my feet on the ground, and stay under the radar and hopefully just continue to be surprised by this team and squad we have.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A mad month...

CAST your minds back to August 2. We went up the road to Aggborough, and were swept limply aside 3-0 in a display which didn't have great portents for the upcoming season.
The manager was coming under even more scrutiny than he had been at the end of last season. Many fans left that game hoping that somewhere in League Two there were going to be two worse teams than us, and speculating on how long the manager was going to last.
His new signings were not being universally lauded after a patchy pre-season, with wistful memories of players like Brown, McGlashan, Bennett, Penn, Lowe, Duffy, Pack and Summerfield a irritatingly regular social media occurrence.
One player in particular looked certain to be on his way out - the transfer-listed misfit Jason Taylor.
He was substituted as a substitute in the dying embers of last season, then left out of the 18 a few times.
Then he was played at the heart of the new (and very ropey looking) back three at Kidderminster, and had a complete nightmare, surely playing his way out of the side... to the relief of the majority of CTFC fans.
It is now September 2. We are joint top of League Two, and over the first hurdle in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy - a rare occurrence. We have won three and drawn one of our four home games, keeping three clean sheets.
Away from home, we have won two games north of Birmingham, which hardly ever happens, including one from 2-0 down with a quarter of the game left, and were not disgraced in our only defeat at a Championship side in the League Cup.
The manager is in line for the League Two manager of the month award. One of his signings, Trevor Carson, is on the player of the month shortlist, and Jason Taylor, yes, that Jason Taylor, the transfer-listed misfit, was tonight substituted 20 minutes from the end of the game to a standing ovation with those much-loved former favourite players once again restored to the memory banks.
Strange, strange times.
Add to that the fact that Taylor and Craig Braham-Barrett, two players who last season were on the end of a constant barrage of criticism and ridicule from fans, have suddenly become key components and star performers in a tight, difficult-to-beat unit.
Meanwhile, our leading scorer, with four goals, is a five-foot-six-inch tall Ghanaian teenager, who wears pink boots, who has only started one match for us, and scored his last two goals with headers.
It's enough to have anyone reaching for the straitjackets.
But it really has been an amazing transformation, with a mad month topped off by tonight's stroll against Oxford.
And it was a stroll. Carson was barely tested bar a free-kick which flashed wide of his post, and, after a slightly sticky start it has to be said, we kept them at arm's length with comparative ease.
Yes, the red card for Jon Meades might have helped in the last 20 minutes, but we were deserved winners. Even with six changes from Saturday's win over Hartlepool.
Vaughan, Elliott, Richards, Gornell, Harrison and Wynter were either rested, benched or not allowed to become cup-tied. Step forward Haworth, Deaman, Hanks, Marquis, Arthur and Sterling-James, plus Black for a half in a planned change in place of Matt Taylor - and the changes were almost seamless.
In the back three, Deaman came in, and was understandably tentative to start with in an unnatural role on the left of the trio. After the break moving to the right and then to right-back, he looked more comfortable.
He also had a decent game at Brighton, and I have to say that I would not be worried about him stepping in if one of the front-line back three suffered a problem.
Then there is Black, who came on at half-time on the left of the three and slotted in well, staying in the centre when we changed to a defensive four late on, and I thought he looked comfortable. He looks a decent, ball-playing defender on this evidence.
Haworth was asked to replace Vaughan as the right wing-back and was steady enough, trying to get forward when he could, but looked better and happier after the break when he moved further forward, and ended the match as the 'number 10' in our 4-2-3-1.
Hanks we have seen a good deal of so far this season, and this was another decent performance, with a good range of passing and some excellent set-pieces, notably the corner for the first goal - another who slotted in seamlessly.
Starts for Sterling-James and Arthur were interesting, as we would find out whether they could sustain their performances for 90 minutes rather than a short cameo - and I thought, by and large, they did.
Arthur in the first half showed some good strength at times with his back to goal against big centre-backs and in the second was an available outlet before getting his now customary goal.
Sterling-James I thought buzzed around quite well, again always available, wanting to be involved with a decent engine. I wondered if he might only play for an hour, but he lasted the 90 quite well and that will do him good.
He and Arthur were a bit naive at times with their decision-making and dodgy at times with defensive duties, but they are young and learning, so that will come with the territory.
The final 'new starter' was Marquis, who was very impressive before being replaced late on by Gornell.
Chasing lost causes, pressing defenders, holding up the ball, and getting across his marker brilliantly at the front post to head our first goal made it a great night for the Millwall loanee.
He won a '30-70 against' ball to force the corner which eventually led to his goal, and is definitely a good acquisition - just a shame he is only going to be able to stay until around November 7 in his 93-day loan, so let's make the most of him.
I thought Oxford were poor. Yes, they, played the last 20 minutes with 10 men, we made them look poor before that. They passed the ball around very nicely at times, but most of the time they were about 35 yards or more from our goal, and posed little or no threat.
The BBC Oxford commentators on the gantry post-match were reading out tweet after tweet and text after text slagging off their performance, their manager and their players - and they were not happy.
Meades deserved his red card for a shocking over the top tackle, and it was good management from Yates to replace Jason Taylor (who could have gone himself for a silly reaction - but understandable given the leg-breaking challenge he received). Oxford were determined to wind him up - as was shown by a naughty Junior Brown tackle on him just after the dismissal, which again he reacted to.
After the red card, it was plain sailing. The confidence was oozing through us, and all that was missing from the night was a Terry Gornell goal.
We nearly got one, but had to settle instead for a Terry Gornell cross for a Koby Arthur goal. Another header. Almost on the same spot and into the same corner as the one he scored on Saturday. That'll do nicely, and we have booked our card in the draw on Soccer AM.
The madness goes on, as it seems now, from having what we thought was a decent-enough first 11 and seemingly not much below that, the manager apparently now would appear to have options coming out of his ears for Saturday's top-of-the-table bunfight at Morecambe (words I never thought I would type, number 1).
Trev's place seems safe enough I think... and surely he can't drop Roberto Carlos Craig Braham-Barrett (words I never thought I would type, number 2), and there might be a mass mutiny if the new fan's favourite Jason Taylor (words I never thought I would type, number 3) is left out on Saturday.
I expect Brown, Matt Taylor and Elliott are pretty much nailed on to be the back three, but Black and Deaman have shown themselves to be viable options should they be required.
Vaughan should come back in on the right, although he does have a slight knock to his foot I believe which was another reason to rest him tonight. So we will wait and see on that I guess - and I think Haworth was adequate enough to show that he could slot in there if needed.
The midfield choice is very interesting indeed. Taylor has to play (words I never thought I would type, number 4) and Richards will surely come back in too, but then what do you do? Restore the loanee Wynter with his athleticism and box-to-box energy, keep Hanks in there after another good display with his composed range of passing and the quality of his set-pieces, or does he unleash the unpredictability of Sterling-James again?
That area of the side is going to be even more of a contest for places when Asa Hall comes back.
Then there is up front. Harrison was rested tonight, and rightly so, so you have to assume he will start on Saturday.
Marquis's goal and lung-busting performance tonight must put him in pole position for a start ahead of the ever-willing and unlucky-in-front-of-goal Gornell to play alongside him.
Hang on a minute... what about the four-goal top-scorer in his pink boots? Surely you must find room for him? What? He's not an automatic choice and might have to go back on the bench? Blimey.
A month ago, after witnessing that worrying loss at Aggborough, Yatesy cannot have imagined that barely a month later he would have selection dilemmas and viable choices to make in almost every area of a side sitting joint top of the table, and playing with real confidence.
It's a great situation to be in, and long may it continue, because it is just great to see the whole club wearing a collective smile on its face again.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Top of the league? Well, almost...

How long must we wait before we can start wondering whether this team could really surprise us this season?
Maybe not after five games. But 10? 15? Who knows - but at the moment let's try not to get carried away, but just enjoy a refreshing start to the season which - come on, hand on heart - none of us really expected.
I will happily admit that I didn't and I am enjoying being proved wrong at the moment, and while the editor of Four Four Two magazine might not be sacking his League Two pundit just yet, it's nice to be at least preparing the recipe for some humble pie.
If we were called AFC Cheltenham Town, we could claim to be top of the league, but because Burton Albion come before us alphabetically, they get that pressure. For the moment at least...
Today's win over Hartlepool was, especially in the second half, as one-sided a 1-0 win as you could ever hope to see, and had we won by three or four, there could have been few complaints.
But we found the goal, from our modern-day Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer (or David Fairclough for those of us from an older vintage... kids, look him up on Google) Koby Arthur, and the irony was not lost on me that probably the smallest guy on the pitch scored with a fantastic header to win us the game.
Once again, it was credit to the manager and his staff for making the changes, and timing them in such a way as well to give them time enough to make that impact, but all over the pitch, we have players showing real commitment and work-rate.
They are being used in a system which they seem to understand, and which seems to be a good fit for the personnel we have. Overall, there seems to be a method and pattern to what we are trying to do that didn't seem evident last season.
I don't think I was alone in wondering about whether the loss of players like Scott Brown, Jamie Cureton and Jermaine McGlashan would have a big effect on our prospects, and whether the 'young and hungry' mantra would be a sensible way to go. Seems to be panning out okay so far.
Off the field, the manager seems refreshed and enthused - whether that is down the one-year (almost 'last chance') contract and the necessity for a good start, or whether Shaun North's arrival has helped to lift the standard of coaching and organisation is open to conjecture, Maybe a bit of both - but whatever it is, long may it continue.
There is also a Plan B, and even a Plan C - flexibility and options within the squad which is working so far.
And the feelgood factor is filtering through to the terraces - the crowd was 400 up on the Carlisle game with 100 or so less away fans - and the Wymans' resurrection in the Paddock has been another positive.
The noise in the ground and among the away support has lifted in encouragement and volume and this can only be helping the team.
Our biggest enemy today could have been complacency. This could have been viewed as one of those 'turn-up-and-win' afternoons which we have seen go wrong in the past.
But if a team cannot get confidence from a comeback result like the one last week at Tranmere, it's never going to happen and we were up and at it from the off.
I thought it was good management to start the same 11 which began the Tranmere game - I can understand the terrace clamour for Arthur to start, or for the loanee John Marquis to be thrown straight in, but it's a nice choice for the manager to have and I thought he made the right call.
Terry Gornell would have been the one whose place was seemingly most at risk from Marquis' arrival or Arthur's impact after his long goal drought, but once again, having been given the vote of confidence, his work-rate could not be questioned.
But once again he left the field after his hard-working hour with his famine going on, but again having done everything but score - and I was delighted to hear a really good ovation for him when he came off. He deserved it.
Once again, his shots were blocked or deflected, or he just delayed for that vital split-second. He hit the outside of the goal frame and had one cleared off the line. When it isn't going for you, it really isn't - but you wonder whether that might be his last chance for a while.
That is not only because Arthur is knocking on the door, but also because Marquis made a very good impact as his replacement.
His work ethic is equal to Terry's, with that willingness to run the channels, but he looks a bigger threat aerially, and also more of a 'target' player with more body strength to hold the ball up.
Like Terry, he was really unlucky not to score a couple of times, with the post and then the bar via a good save from Scott Flinders denying him, and there is no doubt that he looks a decent acquisition on this evidence.
Alongside them, until Arthur came on with 12 minutes to go, was Byron Harrison, and he again was a pain in the backside for the Hartlepool defence all afternoon.
He might not have been our most potent goal threat, but his control, touch, movement and hold-up play was excellent, and allowed Gornell and Marquis to flit around him to good effect.
It follows on from last week's display, where he had a direct hand in all three goals and drew praise from Rob Edwards, and any scouts from a club looking for a number nine would not fail to be impressed by him - and we have to hope they don't dip their toes in the water and I really hope the club are actively looking at trying to extend his contract.
We know these days that players have all the power and can bide their time over these things to take advantage of all the options, as we have seen from Brown and McGlashan amongst others in recent years, offered contracts and opting to exercise their right to go - but I do hope the club will start early with the attempts to keep Byron for longer.
Much of the service for that front pair came from Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett, and there is no doubt that the latter has been the revelation of the season.
After being roundly castigated last term, he once again turned in an excellent performance backing up last week's 'Roberto Carlos' display at Tranmere, being a huge threat going forward and - possibly more importantly - rock-solid defensively when he had to be.
His delivery from the left-hand side was as good as it has been, some wicked balls crying out for a touch, and he was always available as an outlet - as was Vaughan on the other side.
I felt at times Vaughan's passing was disappointing, but that's a small grumble - he too was a threat and looked to be positive, getting into the final third whenever he could.
For Craig Braham-Barrett, also read Jason Taylor. Another player who wasn't flavour of the month with the fans, and seemingly the manager as well, but is answering any critics he might have in spades at the moment.
In the first half, he was right at the hub of everything, almost the heartbeat of the side as everything was going through him. Three or four times, he broke up the play with strong tackles, and then kept it simple - looking for either of the wing-backs, or one of his midfield colleagues, not wasting many passes.
Also, for a player who doesn't seem to be the greatest natural athlete, he wasn't shy to close down any Pool player in possession, and even though he wasn't as prominent after the break, his influence was still important.
Much is made of the much-vaunted 2011-12 midfield trio of Pack, Penn and Summerfield, and how well they knitted together. Now, I am not actively comparing them to what we have now -  but we do have a decent little mix in there with Taylor, Matt Richards and Jordan Wynter.
There is the scrapper Taylor, the calming influence of Richards, who had another quietly effective game and has started the season very well, and the energy and box-to-box athleticism of Wynter.
Promising beginnings for those three, and with Joe Hanks' youthful enthusiasm and new-boy Asa Hall also keen to make an impact when he recovers from injury, we seem to have lots of options in there.
That leaves the back three, and they too, like the midfield, are knitting into a decent unit.
We know all about Steve Elliott's desire to run through brick walls, which shows little sign of abating.
Troy Brown looks a lot happier in a back three, and I thought today he was the pick of the trio, barely missing a header or a tackle all afternoon.
Matt Taylor definitely seems a top acquisition. No frills or fuss to his game, we know what we are going to get from him and he has done very little wrong in the five league games so far.
Today, the trio gave excellent protection to Trevor Carson, who had his quietest afternoon so far from the point of view of making saves, but was there when he had to be, patrolling his box with confidence once more and doing what he had to with the minimum of bother.
Marlon Harewood and Charlie Wyke were marshalled with little trouble, and that feeling that Hartlepool could pinch something as teams often do when being under the cosh so much was a really tiny worry.
Overall, our attitude was spot on. There was no complacency, and even when we got to those final stages, no panic, as the manager made the changes to personnel and system which deservedly paid off with Arthur's winner.
As it stands, we fully deserve to be unbeaten, and fully deserve to be where we are, and hopefully we can carry it on for as long as possible. Who would have thought that next Saturday's game at Morecambe would be a top-of-the-table clash...!
But, difficult as it is, I just feel we mustn't get carried away. We will lose eventually, and then we must not immediately go the other way and lose  all the positivity which has been built up.
Marquis seems to be the last piece of the outfield jigsaw, with Bobby Gould's grandson Matt likely to win a contract as our back-up keeper.
As long as teams stay away from Byron in the next 48 hours, I don't see any other business before the end of the deadline - unless we try to turn the loans for Wynter and Marquis into longer-term, window-to-window agreements.
If I understand things correctly, the pair are on monthly deals which can only last a maximum of 93 days.
Therefore, these would end in late October/early November - another drawback of the short-term loan agreement.
We could yet find ourselves short again unless we get other loans in after that time until January, or extend these two before Monday night, while our new super-sub Arthur and Omari Sterling-James, whose impact today was not as great as last Saturday, are here until January at least.
But let's leave those worries about whether they will stay or go back for another day, and just try to enjoy it for a while.
After a season of disappointment and disharmony, it's nice to see smiles back on faces and a positive air about the place again. Feet on the ground yes, but there's no harm in also having some optimistic thoughts, is there...?





Sunday, 24 August 2014

Comeback kings

MARK Yates started the season as a man under pressure, and with plenty of critics among the CTFC supporter base.
A one-year contract instead of the two years he was initially offered, a new management team shorn of his faithful right-hand man Neil Howarth, and a new-look team assembled on a smaller budget all added up to a man in the (nearly) last-chance saloon, and needing a good start to the season.
His critics say he is tactically poor, cannot react during games and find a Plan B when things are not working, and either leaves his substitutions until its too late or when he does make them, he gets them wrong.
Not today. Today he spotted his tactical problem quickly, rectified it to great effect, and made two substitutions which turned the result in our favour in an amazing way - and he deserves all the credit for a victory which will live long in the memory.
As expected, loanee Jordan Wynter for Joe Hanks was our only change, as we kept the 3-5-2 system which has worked well so far - but we didn't get out of the blocks well.
Tranmere settled the quicker, and with Eliot Richards finding a lot of space between our midfield and back three, it wasn't really a surprise when he put them ahead.
It was a goal reminiscent of those we conceded last season - he got the ball 30 yards out and we didn't get close to him or put in any sort of tackle as he went through too easily to score.
Our midfield was all at sea, and there was a lot of finger-pointing going on. Troy Brown got a booking, we were giving away lots of unnecessary free-kicks and really struggling - so, to his credit, the manager changed it straight away.
From a narrow midfield trio with Wynter just ahead of Jason Taylor and Matt Richards, we went to a flatter three with Richards left, Taylor central and Wynter right.
This was to combat Eliot Richards' impact and to stop Jason Koumas getting on the ball, and it certainly worked. Yates said he should have started with that system, after a report on Tranmere's win at Wycombe, and took the blame for the opening goal.
Jason Taylor took over from Eliot Richards as the game's focal figure. He was breaking things up, and then spraying passes left right and centre.
Mainly left in fact, and mainly out to Craig Braham-Barrett, who was wreaking havoc down the left hand side.
Yes - you read that right. Jason Taylor spraying passes, and Craig Braham-Barrett wreaking havoc. They couldn't handle him, and he gave Danny Woodards a torrid time.
Taylor was also playing passes into the left channel for Terry Gornell to run on to, and the man back at his former club showed once again that when your luck is out, it is really out.
He sent a cross inches ahead of Wynter, then fired in a shot which hit Owain fon Williams, and was cleared away. He got free in the box several times, but either a last-ditch block denied him, or the ball would just not sit properly for him to have a shot.
We won six corners in a half-hour spell between the Tranmere goals and how on earth we failed to at least equalise I will never know. Even though they were winning, the home fans were getting very restless.
Then, as so often happens, we got caught on the break when Marc Laird fired the second on the stroke of half-time.
It looked like it was going to be one of those days - make all the chances and fail to take them, but then it was enter the manager again with a half-time change.
Off came Steve Elliott, and on came Omari Sterling-James for his league debut, just in behind Harrison and Gornell in a 4-3-1-2 system.
Elliott, as the manager revealed post-match, had been ill (and not told Yates he wasn't feeling well) and was sick at half-time, so off he came.
Straight away, Omari was a breath of fresh air. No rabbit-in-the-headlights fear from him - he was positive from the off.
We carried off where we left off. Braham-Barrett's efforts got the hapless Woodards the hook - and his replacement Danny Holmes' first action was to get a booking for hauling him down.
But when Omari's diving header hit the post and somehow stayed out we may as well have packed up and gone home. We could have been there until Christmas and not scored.
It seemed that the missed Accrington penalty and Billy Paynter's not-offside offside goal was coming home to roost sooner than we thought.
Then it changed - and again it was Omari who sparked it with a shot from the edge of the box which the keeper should have done better with, and Matt Richards picked up the pieces to score.
Then, after Omari's impact, it was Koby Arthur's turn. He'd come on for Gornell, and took Harrison's flick-on to smash home the equaliser.
There was no thinking about it - he just took it in his stride, and whack - his first two league goals haven't been bad efforts, and we weren't finished there.
Harrison found Richards, and his fabulous cross was asking to be finished off, and Wynter - who grew into the game as it went on and had an excellent second half - did just that with a great finish.
Maybe I should change my views on bringing in inexperienced short-term stop-gap loans...!!
Tranmere were shellshocked, and having made a second change between our first and second goals to take Eliot Richards off for the more defensive-minded James Rowe, their manager Rob Edwards only had one more weapon.
That was Kayode Odejayi, who was ineffective as they went more direct, but we never looked like losing our lead, and we certainly didn't deserve to. Justice, eventually, had been done.
After a season when we lost 37 points from winning positions, and only earned seven coming from behind showing little resilience at times, this was fantastic to see.
Effort, commitment, resilience, backbone, will to win, perseverance. Things which were missing at times last season, but which were there in spades today.
We had 21 shots in total. TWENTY ONE. Last season, we'd have taken five or six games to have that many. And 12 of them were on target - so don't let anyone tell you we didn't deserve to win this game.
I've been racking my brains to think of many comebacks from 2-0 down to win a game in recent times - it happened at Burton of course, in the 6-5 special, when we were two down at half-time, but I can't remember many more, so that's how special this was.
(UPDATE - Thanks to Dave Nelson on Twitter for remembering that we were 2-0 down at Northampton in December 2012 and came back to win 3-2 with Darryl Duffy's winner, and also 3-1 down at home to Crawley last season in the Capital One Cup, winning 4-3 in extra time)
No wonder the manager said this was one of the best moments he has had in charge of the club - and his celebration of the second goal was brilliant to see.
Ten points out of 12 and third in the table, with a great feelgood factor around. Smiles have come back, and while I am not getting carried away with things, with results and performances like this it would be great to think they are here to stay.
With a free week, the manager wants to complete his transfer business with another forward and a back-up keeper - but Emile Sinclair won't be coming after turning us down - and he scored today for Northampton. Oh well. Your loss Emile.
We want  people who want to play for our club, and who will show the enthusiasm and hunger to succeed and impress that we saw from Sterling-James and Arthur today - and people playing for the shirt with the commitment of people like Jason Taylor.
Hopefully Yates can find someone with those characteristics at the right price in the next week to complete the jigsaw and try to carry on the momentum.

My BBC Glos commentary of today's five goals here

Videos courtesy of hEaLeRCTFC

Omari's header which somehow stayed out here

Matt Richards' goal here

Jordan Wynter's goal here

Yates post match interview here