Monday, 20 October 2014

Turning point?

THOSE who are of a certain vintage will know all about Sir Alex Ferguson's 'Mark Robins moment'.
It came early in his Old Trafford reign, when there was a bit of pressure on and Robins scored an FA Cup goal at Nottingham Forest which folklore has since decreed more or less saved his job - and we all know what happened after that.
While Mark Yates' future was never going to hinge directly on Saturday's game, there was no doubt that the pressure was beginning to rise, so after 62 minutes when Kaid Mohamed's shot hit the post, the relief would have been palpable.
That chance, after a lovely passing move, came as Northampton were on top, having started the second half well with an equaliser and another chance which Trevor Carson saved well.
Had we gone 2-1 down, there is no telling what might have happened to our confidence levels, and so the win was even more of a relief.
Of course, having established the two-goal cushion, we had to make it difficult for ourselves, but after that it was pretty plain sailing - made even easier for us by Northampton chucking Ryan Cresswell up front and lumping balls into our box.
But Saturday might not only be a turning point for the manager - it could also be a watershed day for Terry Gornell.
He scored twice, could have had four, and fully deserved his man-of-the-match award - and I hope now it puts paid to talk of him wanting to leave. I think it has in the manager's eyes as if he scores goals he won't be left out.
Anyone who saw his post-match interview here will have seen (about 4' 30" in) that Terry doesn't think I am "in his corner."
Nice to know you read this nonsense Terry - and well done for shoving my words back at me. Long may it continue because if you are scoring goals, you keep your place, and the team is winning. That way, we are all happy.
He was deployed in a 3-4-3 formation - a brave move by Yates and one which showed just how important the result was. He sent out a system to go and win the game and deserved the rewards from that.
However, it did have its' drawbacks. I didn't feel that we were able to get Eusebio on the ball enough, as he was stuck out wide trying to get into the game.
When he did get the ball at his feet he only has one thing in his mind - running at people, causing havoc and trying to get a shot away, and you could see the problems he was causing by the free-kicks he won.
Terry revelled in it though, and so did Byron Harrison, who although he didn't score definitely put a shift in, something he has been accused by many of not doing every time he has gone out there.
He was dropping deep, winning the ball, shrugging off defenders, laying off great passes and also getting in the box to be a threat - everything we want from him, so let's hope this is a turning point game for him as well.
In midfield, Matt Richards and Jason Taylor were therefore deployed as a pair - and we have never had much success with a two-man central midfield, and here again the results were mixed.
The effort was there as it always is with these two, but they did struggle at times I felt. Taylor hasn't quite hit the heights yet he was achieving before his ban, and Richards' biggest effect on the game was his set-pieces.
The deliveries were mixed, but they were always a danger. All three of our goals came from them, and more often than not we won the first header from corners and free-kicks as Northampton struggled to cope with them.
That was part of the reason for Chris Wilder's post-match incandescence with his own team, apparent from the shouting and swearing coming from the dressing room, along with a penalty they felt they should have had in the first half, the non-award leaving him irate and in the stands for the second half.
The game followed a little of the pattern from Shrewsbury - a tight first half, the better chances falling to us, and us taking the lead - this time however just before, rather than just after the interval..
Then again like at the Greenhous, we had a poor spell - conceded, and could have fallen behind with Mo's golden chance (he was lively when he came on, incidentally).
As I said above, that was the turning point. It jolted us back to life, and those two quick goals for Gornell and John Marquis finished it off, but we could have done without that late alarm of Northampton's second goal.
It would have been nice to have kept the two-goal margin and get a comfortable win - something we haven't done very often.
In fact, we have won by a two-goal margin or more four times in 81 league games since January 2013 - at home to Rotherham and Morecambe and away at Fleetwood and Mansfield.
Saturday was also the first time we have scored three at home since that Morecambe game on October 22 last year.
That was Gornell's last league goal before Saturday's brace... which was the first by a Cheltenham player at home since Jermaine McGlashan against Portsmouth on September 7 last year.
Anyway, enough of the stats and now on to two very tough away games, Cambridge and Plymouth.
They will be made more difficult without our skipper Matt Taylor, whom we might not see now until December-time.
So enter Jack Deaman for his big chance, as I cannot see the manager changing the 3-4-3 tomorrow.
Even though we are away at a pretty free-scoring side, they also concede a few, and our front players seem to have their confidence back.
Deaman has not let us down so far and I have no worries about him going in there with Steve Elliott and Troy Brown for the next few games.
Beyond that, I can't see any changes tomorrow - he can't change the front three and I wouldn't see Richards and Jason Taylor being broken up.
So the only question is who the captain will be - and isn't it refreshing to have a few candidates for it, rather than one obvious choice?
Trevor Carson, after his impassioned interview at Shrewsbury, would be a good alternative, while Lee Vaughan wore the band in pre-season.
Steve Elliott is an obvious candidate, as is Matt Richards, and what about Jason Taylor, whose heart is very much on his sleeve?
Whoever gets the nod has big shoes to fill as Matt Taylor has been very effective and a good leader this season, and will be a big miss in the weeks ahead.
Saturday's game was hopefully a turning point, not just for the manager and for Terry, but for everyone, and we can enter these two away games with more belief and confidence.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Alarm bells...?

AMID all the concern over our lack of goals in recent games, one fact, possibly more important than that, seemed to be overlooked.
However, after yesterday's self-inflicted defeat at Shrewsbury, it has been brought back into sharp focus - the fact that we have now gone seven league games without a win has almost crept up on us unannounced.
It seems a long time now since that heady day at Tranmere, with four wins and a draw from our opening five games, as since then we have drawn three and lost four, and the alarm bells are starting to ring.
While the lack of goals has been an issue since Tranmere, it was joined yesterday by three things which were a feature of last season, and which we hoped were consigned to the past.
They are individual mistakes, conceding goals in clusters and losing points having been in the lead. These three things are a recipe for disaster.
Social media reaction to the defeat and performance has been pretty damning, labelling it terrible and accusing the players of lack of hunger or commitment, but I don't feel it was as bad as that.
I didn't have any issues with effort and commitment from any of the players, but some definitely had off-days and one or two struggled to get into the game and made errors at very crucial times.
The 3-5-2 had Jack Deaman keeping his place, with Troy Brown the odd one out, and new boy Eusebio given his chance alongside the Byron Harrison, under pressure for his lack of goals and lucky in many ways to get another chance.
The first half saw us have the better chances with the Shrewsbury goalkeeper busier than Trevor Carson.
He saved from Lee Vaughan in the first minute and his defenders helped out when we couldn't force a corner in at the near post, while Eusebio was causing a few problems.
The Portuguese teenager was full of tricks, showing a willingness to take people on - even if he did in equal measure show an unwillingness to look up and see if he had a pass on.
He also tried a comical dive in the penalty area which we would condemn if an opposition player did it, so we need to tell him to cut that out.
Eusebio had a couple of shots which went over and one which the keeper saved well, and a poor touch denied him a real chance after Harrison cut the ball back.
While Shrewsbury had a lot of possession and were winning the midfield battle with our old loanee James Wesolowski getting the better of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, I did not feel we were really threatened in the opening half.
They had a lot of the ball, but it was mostly in front of us and our back three were well organised, catching James Collins and Andy Mangan offside on numerous occasions.
With our lack of goals, and Shrewsbury having arguably a worse recent record with two goals in eight games, a 0-0 looked about right as neither side looked to have a great cutting edge.
But it could be said that two half-time substitutions changed the game.
Ours was enforced as Steve Elliott had been struggling after an impact with Collins seemed to leave him with a dead leg for about the last 10 minutes of the half, and Brown had to replace him.
Shrewsbury's was a tactical one, with the vastly-experienced Liam Lawrence coming on and he made a big impact for them.
But we got the perfect start. Carson made his first save of the game from Wesolowski after Lawrence played the first of many telling passes, then spotted Eusebio in space as he had for Koby Arthur's winner against Accrington.
He beat his man and this time got his head up sufficiently to spot Harrison in space. Byron has been criticised for his seeming failure to bust a gut to get into the box at the right times, but he did it this time and finished off the cross.
A welcome end to his long run without a goal, and the perfect start to the half. So now to settle down for a 10-15 minutes or so, frustrate the home crowd, and try to see out the game, and maybe nick a second against a side low on confidence in front of goal.
What we didn't want to do was to give them an instant reply, lift their confidence and get the crowd back on their side. But that's exactly what we did.
Brown was the guilty man for the equaliser with his first touch after coming on as he was caught dwelling on the ball by Wesolowski and the ball went through to Collins, who wasn't going to miss.
So now it was about mental strength - a test for the side to see how they would react... and we reacted by gifting them another goal.
This time Vaughan was the guilty man. Wesolowski got a cross in, a poor one, so Vaughan headed the ball straight back to him and he got another chance. He picked out Lawrence and his shot was diverted in by Mangan.
So from the perfect start to the half, it had turned into a deja vu from several games last season with the lead thrown away by terrible errors which had not reared their head until now.
The best thing about the 3-5-2 system had been the defensive solidity it brought - but now we are without a clean sheet since the 0-0 draw at Morecambe, having conceded one goal in the last five games before yesterday.
So we had to chase the game, and Yates had John Marquis ready to come on for a few minutes but by the time he could get him on the field the task was made harder by a third Shrewsbury goal - and another poor one.
We had plenty of players around Nat Knight-Percival as he headed it past Carson, but none of them made what you could call a real challenge, and that was 3-1, so the task was now even harder.
Marquis did come on after that goal, replacing Raffa de Vita, who had a very anonymous game as the more advanced of our midfield three.
He struggled to get into the game and has yet to make a real impact in any of the games he has had so far.
It is difficult to work out what his position is. He has played wide in a three, as a forward and as a 'number 10' and hasn't really looked suited to any of them.
He did his best work at Swindon as a left winger, but the 3-5-2 doesn't allow for wingers and so it is hard to see where he will fit in - it just seems that we have too many similar bits-and-pieces players with Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth also in this category.
After the third goal we looked very deflated and seemed to have a total lack of energy - it seemed that the Wednesday-Saturday turnaround which we are not used to took its toll on a few players.
Taylor and Richards both had off-days, and that, combined to de Vita's anonymity in the game, never allowed us to get a grip on midfield, with first Wesolowski and then Lawrence getting the upper hand in there.
Eusebio faded out of the game, and the defence had lost their confidence after giving three poor goals away.
We never looked like getting back into it. The best chance we had after the goal actually came at 2-1, Harrison turning a shot wide after Matt Taylor headed a cross down to him.
If he had taken that, it could have made a difference and given us an obvious lift, but instead we shot ourselves in the foot again and make a tough task almost impossible.
The worrying thing about the last 40 minutes or so was the echoes of last season which it brought to mind.
After the game, Carson came up a gave a very honest interview here which sums it all up pretty well.
There was also a debate in the dressing room - not from the manager ranting at the team, but from the players asking questions of each other.
This doesn't mean a massive fallout, but seems to mean players who are committed demanding more from each other and being highly frustrated at being let down by other around them, which I feel bodes well.
We have been told we have a close-knit squad and I don't see the harm in the odd raised voice in there between them.
I think it shows a squad who want to succeed and are equally as frustrated when some drop the standards they set early in the season as we are as supporters.
As Carson said, people have to realise that this is eight without a win (including Bristol City) and things are not as rosy as they were a few weeks ago.
So once again the manager has a job on, and the pressure will begin to rise on him again.
After 12 games, our record is now 4-4-4, with a goal difference of minus one, so we couldn't be any more mid-table if we tried - and the table in now starting to settle down.
At the start of the season, I divided the league into three sections of eight and of my predicted top eight sides, six of them are now in those places, the exceptions being Wycombe and Morecambe. Another of them were Northampton, in ninth.
I had us down to finish in the bottom section of eight, and if things carry on like this then that won't be far off the money either.
From a rosy start, Mark Yates now has a very important five games coming up, and he needs a win quickly to stop this rot, but none of them will be easy.
Northampton come to town on Saturday and they are never easy and have a few of our old boys in tow.
Then we go to Cambridge, who have surprised many and seem a very free-scoring outfit at home, having put five past Oxford on Saturday. That took their tally to 23, the best in the division.
After that is a trip to Plymouth, somewhere we never get much joy, and after that York come to town, in what will become a Russ Penn and Keith Lowe love-in in earnest if we still haven't got at least one win by then.
I had York in my top eight, but they sit 22nd and are the draw specialists with only one win so far in their 12 games
After those four games, comes the first round of the FA Cup, and Yates will be hoping for a favourable draw - although I am sure he thought he had that when Tamworth away came out this time last year. This is not the time to pull out Bristol City away.
These next five games are crucial for Yates' future. He needs to sit down and try to find a formula which works for the players. And fast.


Friday, 10 October 2014

No room for sentiment

FOOTBALL can be an unforgiving game - one minute you can be the hero, the next a complete zero.
That is even more so the case these days, with fans, media and chairmen adopting a much more short-termist mindset - Russ Wilcox's axing at Scunthorpe a few months after winning promotion and the League Two's manager of the year soon after a 28-match unbeaten run is an example of that.
It can also be a sentimental game. Fans grow attached to players and they would happily see them stick around for ever - you only need to see the reception Alan Bennett got the other week for an example of that, and he was only a CTFC player for 15 months.
Supporters want to see effort and commitment, and these are the players who are remembered and revered long after they have gone - even if they are not the most successful that we have had.
But you cannot keep players around on effort, work-rate and commitment alone. 
Effort and commitment should be a given anyway. Every player should be trying, for every minute of every game.
In the past, players like Josh Low have come in for flak, Matt Richards got it last season, and now it is Byron Harrison's turn, as they have all been perceived to not be trying, not giving 100 per cent, cruising through games, or just simply being lazy.
Every player has their off games. Yes, we need more from Byron, but this is the same Byron who scored 15 goals in our terrible side last season and who many of the fans now moaning about him voted as their player of the year a few months ago (me included...).
The reaction from a lot of fans to Terry Gornell being transfer-listed at his own request (remember - his own request) has not come as a great surprise to me.
A lot of fans are not happy at the thought of him going, with the reasoning largely being that he works hard, shows passion and is committed.
I would agree he does all those things, but it can only get you so far - you have to look at his record of five goals in all competitions, three in the league in 26 starts and 19 sub appearances. 
That has to be the bottom line, no matter how much running about he does, and how committed he is.
Sooner or later, you have to say enough is enough, this isn't working, and accept that it might be time to move on, and this is what Terry has seen fit to do by asking to go elsewhere.
I am sure that he is frustrated and thinks he should have had more game-time, and there will be those blaming Mark Yates, and claiming there has been a fall-out, as there seemingly has to have been with every player who leaves the club, or wants to.
Sometimes there has been, Darryl Duffy was one, Darren Carter I think another who didn't leave on the best of terms and had a parting shot. But not every time.
Yates has been undoubtedly been wrong on a few occasions to get rid of players - Bennett, Russ Penn and Keith Lowe are the ones who immediately spring to mind. But in Gornell's case, you have to go back to that goal record every time. It is all there in black and white.
Wednesday night's was his first goal in 352 days. 50 weeks. Almost a year. He is a forward. That cannot be acceptable as a reason to keep giving him chances.
He'll start scoring soon if we give him a run of games. So you keep him in the side, in the hope that his luck might change and he will go on a run. How long do you wait? How many chances do you give?
I am also reminded of what happens whenever we sign, or are about to sign a forward player.
What is the first thing that happens? Social media is full of posts detailing that player's past goalscoring records at his previous clubs, and giving opinions on it, good or bad.
So what would the reaction be if we were going to sign  a player whose recent record revealed three league goals in 45 games?  I can't believe many of our fans would be happy at the thought of signing him - yet many seem to want us to keep Gornell with that recent record.
If that three in 45 was Harrison's goal record, I doubt if there would be a Cheltenham fan wanting him to stay here. Because he is perceived not to be hard-working or committed, many fans would happily see him go it seems... even with his vastly superior goal record to Gornell.
I am sure there will be interest in Gornell. Teams up in his neck of the woods like Southport, Chester or Macclesfield - his former club Accrington maybe. We know he has turned one side down, believed to be a Conference side.
It would be even better would be if the transfer-listing had the same effect on him is it has on Jason Taylor - a player transformed this season. In fact, Taylor is officially still on the list, and when he went on it we were told another player might join him but it never happened. 
I wonder if that was Gornell. I cannot believe he has not been thinking about this for a while. I cannot see that he has scored on Wednesday, and gone into Yates on Thursday morning and said "see, told you I should be playing. I want to leave." This will have been brewing for a while.
Gornell may yet come back. A loan spell somewhere might revitalise him. It might see the loan system work in our favour for once, rather than the other way round, as it might play one of our players into form instead of us doing just that for other clubs.
But we have to be careful about letting him go out on loan, maybe until January for example, or we could have a problem in a few weeks time, as John Marquis' spell ends at the end of November and can't be extended any further.
So we could be left then with Harrison, Raffa de Vita and our newest recruit, Eusebio Bancessi as our forward options, unless of course Yates heads back to the loan market again... or wants to give Bobbie Dale a go.
My view of the loan market, especially the 'here today, gone tomorrow' short-term ones is well known, and again I am left disappointed to see us overlooking our own lads to bring in someone else's teenager.
Nothing against Eusebio, he seems a good player, but why doesn't Terry's decision mean a chance for Harry Williams, Dale or Zack Kotwica?
We do need to be careful with the way we treat these lads. I would hope that the performances of Marley Watkins up at Inverness recently have given some food for thought.
I know people will say 'it's only Inverness' and 'Scottish football is crap anyway' but he has done well for himself and is an example of someone going away and showing signs of fulfilling the promise many fans thought he had - he wasn't given much of a chance and drifted away. Sam Foley is another who has come back via Newport to Yeovil.
Harry got 37 goals from midfield last season - so why haven't we seen him even on the bench in a side which has struggled to score goals? All this after he started three of our last four games last season, and in my view did not look out of place.
It just seems a perplexing decision to me. Now he is back at Evesham again. Good news for Paul Collicutt, but I am not sure if it's the right thing for Harry - surely he needs to be tested at a higher level (no disrespect to Evesham, but Harry scored four goals in his last spell, so surely he had proved he can do it there), or be on our bench getting game time.
Dale also scored regularly last season and got four this term in the reserves and has been on the bench, but that's it.
Kotwica has a couple of short run-outs, Adam Powell has not been seen at all, James Bowen on the bench once and Jamal Lawrence from the youth team twice.
But I wonder just how likely players like Bowen and Lawrence are to ever come on to the pitch, or if they are just filling the bench. I hope Yates is not just putting them there for lip service, to say to the board "see, I do care about our youngsters."
I would love to know what Russ Milton or Jamie Victory think if that were the case. If it is, what is the point of having an academy?
That would be dangling the carrot in front of them and giving them some false hope. Joe Hanks has proved that, given a chance, these lads are good enough to make an impact. But they need an opening.
I am slightly concerned therefore that the manager now seems to be contradicting the chairman's words from the summer that we were not going to use the loan market as much as we have before.
Expense, the short-termism, and the detachment from fans that these players can have as they are not ours and that they don't 'buy in' to things are the reasons he gave.
The bigger, younger, hungrier squad was also meant to be there as a comfort blanket to allow Yates more scope with injuries and suspensions, so he could use the young lads if senior ones went down.
Seems he didn't tell the manager all that though. Eusebio is now the fourth loanee in already, only 11 league games in - and I am pleased he said no to Jordan Wynter's return. I don't feel we need him.
The comments he has made in the Echo article here include a few confusing ones - he seems to say that it is okay to play this lad ahead of our own lads simply because he has been at Benfica and Wolves, and our lads need more development in senior football. Why can't they get that 'development' here with exposure to first-team football?
I am not saying we should be playing five or six of them from the start. But at least they should have the odd substitute appearance, and a start here and there. For example, why not have one or two on the bench on Wednesday and give them a go? 
We do have to be careful with them - Hanks has done well but showed signs of weariness recently so he might have to come out of the side, rest and go back in again later, but we also have to show them we believe in them and we really think they have a future here.
And it's not just the youngsters who get overtaken by the loanees. I can't believe Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth, to name two, are overly thrilled at another body arriving.
Another quote struck me from that article: "We have a few players up front who are a bit alike." 
Yates is right there - and I can't help feeling Eusebio only adds to de Vita, Sterling-James, Kotwica and Haworth in the players-who-can-play-wide-or-in-midfield-or-behind-the-striker category - and does the 3-5-2 allow for players who do that sort of job?



Thursday, 9 October 2014

We need to talk about Byron...

WE need to talk about Byron.
Last season, he was the shining light in a pool of mediocrity - 15 goals in a hugely disappointing campaign saw him deservedly fill his mantelpiece with the end-of-season awards.
He should, therefore, have been buoyed by that, and come into this season on the crest of a wave, ready to build on that success ... but it just hasn’t happened.
Ultimately, strikers - especially those wearing the number 9 on their back - are judged on goals and a return of one in 13 league and cup games (a one-yard tap-in) is simply not good enough - and that is before we even talk about the rest of his game.
In many games, he just hasn’t even looked like scoring, and has barely had a sight of goal.
We haven’t seen the Byron of last season - the one who bullied centre-halves, chased for everything, not giving defenders a quiet moment. He has been lethargic at times, and looked off the pace, barely busting a gut at times to get into the box.
On Wednesday, he competed better, but still, when he had laid the ball off or found himself in the channel, there wasn't that desire to make that telling run into the box and be there for a cross.
It was summed up in the first half when Aden Flint slipped and he got away. A confident player would have cut into the box and looked to get a shot away, but Byron was too slow, took too long and failed to make the most of an opening, which, against a side like Bristol City, isn't going to come along too often.
Yes, there have been signs of improvement in the last couple of games, but I think it may be too late to save his place in the side.
On Wednesday, he and Raffa de Vita came off early in the second half, and their replacements John Marquis and Terry Gornell produced just the sort of energy and workrate which fits in with the players around them.
So Mark Yates has a decision to make - and I think he has to give serious consideration to giving those two a go at Shrewsbury, with Byron being dropped.
He did seem to have a slight injury when he came off, Sky's coverage said it was a calf problem, and that might make Yates' mind up for him, to give Marquis and Gornell a go.
Not that those two have been prolific either. Marquis has one goal in nine games and Gornell’s header on Wednesday finally ended his 351-day goal drought.
Marquis has been a bit unlucky in front of goal. He has had more shots (21 before Wednesday) than any other Cheltenham player and eight on target - but he has to concentrate on that and stop fighting the referee every time he goes out there.
He is one game from a ban with four bookings already in nine games, with the one on Wednesday being totally unnecessary.
To his credit, Gornell has never shirked away during his drought. It can be easy for players to go into their shells but he has carried on working hard, got into the positions and his goal was the biggest positive from Wednesday night. I hope he kicks on from here.
But what all of our strikers also need is better quality from wide areas, as much of our crossing this season has been woeful.
Craig Braham-Barrett has been a player transformed this season, and he and Lee Vaughan have got into some great positions, but then failed to deliver the final cross consistently.
It is no coincidence that the one quality ball Braham-Barrett produced on Wednesday was despatched by Gornell - we need to see more of that.
Elsewhere, de Vita didn't look like he was comfortable playing as a central striker - yet he might still get a place in the side at Shrewsbury.
Joe Hanks, who has put in some great performances, has just looked a bit leggy in the last two games and may need a rest.
With Jason Taylor back to act as a security blanket from the back three, it gives the other two midfielders a bit of freedom, so Matt Richards and Hanks, de Vita or Andy Haworth, who also comes into consideration after a decent 25 minutes in midweek, can venture further forward to support the front two.
Much has been made of Cheltenham’s defensive solidarity this season - but there has not been a clean sheet now for six games, with one goal conceded in each of the last five league games.
That is brought even more into focus when your strikers are misfiring, so they need to get back to where they were at the start of the season.
But Mark Yates has a dilemma here too after Jack Deaman’s performances against AFC Wimbledon and Bristol City.
He has stepped up to the plate against Adebayo Akinfenwa and then Aaron Wilbraham, and so Yates has to decide between him and Troy Brown at the Greenhous Meadow.
Steve Elliott will come back as he gives the balance of a left-footer in that back three, and it would be harsh on Deaman to return him to the bench.
I have also got my concerns about Vaughan, who hasn't looked like the same player since coming back from his injury.
He started the season very well, but in recent games has just showed some signs of weakness defensively, and also not been as effective going forward.
I felt he struggled on Wednesday against Greg Cunningham, and you have to ask where he was when Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was left with about six months to pick out Wes Burns with his cross.
Ah yes. Burns. Not exactly the tallest player and you have ask why he was able to make that leap and get on the end of the cross with barely a challenge - comes back to that slight drop-off in defensive solidity I was talking about earlier.
That goal adds to the poor one we let in against AFC Wimbledon, and just sets a few little alarm bells ringing as by and large we haven't been conceding goals like that. Opponents have had to work harder to score against us.
But we also have to work harder to score against our opponents, and not all of our team have been doing that enough.
Also, as regular readers of this nonsense will know, I am a champion of our young players and I hope, if some of the seniors continue to underperform, that Yates will give them a go.
Bobbie Dale has come back from Bath and Harry Williams from Evesham where their loans were a bit hit and miss.
That wasn't their fault though - Dale started one game and Williams was his usual goalscoring self - but their stays were interrupted by the Bath and Evesham still being in the FA Cup and our wish not to have them cup-tied meant they were playing one game, missing one game and not getting that total run of games in the month they were there.
That is the risk you take by loaning players out to that level at this time of the season.
I understand that Cirencester want Dale, and were told they couldn't have him until after Wednesday's game - and then he wasn't in the 16 and could have gone to Ciren and probably would have got 90 minutes on Tuesday against Weymouth.
Surely that would have been more beneficial for him if were not going to use him on Wednesday rather than have him sitting in the stands?
Adam Powell is getting games at Cinderford and grabbed another goal on Tuesday, and while there may be reservations that they are playing at too low a level, game time is the most important thing for them.
We have seen that Yates is willing to put these lads on the bench, with our products Zack Kotwica, James Bowen and Jamal Lawrence sat there in recent games - but I still feel he needs to be bolder and give them that incentive - that reassurance that they are not just making up the numbers.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place

Well at least we scored a goal.
It wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, but when goals come along as often as I need a haircut, then you'll take it.
We didn't go on to win, but after a decent enough first-half display and a sterile one in the second-half, again we just have to be thankful for small mercies.
It was the first time this season we have dropped points after being in front - we lost 37 points like that last season remember, so there is a small mercy for you.
But after five without defeat, we have lurched and strained our way to six without a win, scoring two goals and letting in five.
A bright start to the season has polarised into an ordinary one, and the stats do speak for themselves - only bottom of the table Hartlepool have scored less goals than we have, and something needs to be done about it.
After the game, the manager said he is not panicking about the results or the lack of goals. That's fair enough I guess, but if it goes on for much longer then even he will have to be concerned about it.
He is right to say that we are making the chances. But they have to be taken. Sooner or later, patience has to run out. You have to say right, you've had enough chances. Time for someone else to get a go, or time to say right, we need to change the way we are playing.
But he has a dilemma. The 3-5-2 formation (or 3-4-3 as we played against AFCW) has made us solid at the back - but even that has slipped slightly of late as we have conceded one goal in each of our last five league games. Those clean sheets have suddenly become a little bit elusive.
We have won four games this season, and in only one of them, Bury away on the opening day, has the manager not had to change the system in order to bring about a result.
Most notably of course, he did it at Tranmere with Steve Elliott off at half-time and 3-5-2 became 4-3-1-2, but also against Accrington and Hartlepool at home, and he also did it in other games where we came out with a draw, Morecambe for instance, or to chase games in vain - Luton and Burton.
So yes, while the three at the back has been a success defensively, it is not a system where I can see us being really free-flowing and dominant against teams from an offensive point of view. We have done it in spells, but then been unable to prolong it for long periods of a game.
The manager is in a tricky position. He can't go to a flat back four as we would be too open. Plus, which centre-half (or two) get left out?
It would expose our full-backs Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett to their weakness - one-on-one defending. In this system, their strengths are to the fore - getting the ball, going forward and then hopefully providing a decent cross or two - but even they were pretty elusive yesterday as our delivery from wide areas was largely poor and occasionally dreadful.
Both of them got into great positions and on the whole failed to deliver - although Vaughan did set the goal up helped by a goalkeeping nightmare.
Matt Taylor snapped it up - our first goal in the first half of a league game since Byron Harrison's against Accrington in the second game of the season, and we should have gone on from there.
But it was the usual problem. Chances created and chances not taken, and in the end we were made to pay for it.
John Marquis missed the best one after a decent move but hit it at the keeper, Harrison put a header over then Raffa de Vita had a good opening but hit a defender and not the net.
Harrison has come in for all the flak, but I thought he was better yesterday. Neal Ardley said after the game that he was a handful, and he did at least have a chance or two to score.
But one goal in 11 league games is simply not good enough, and that's the bottom line. He is in the team to provide goals and he isn't doing it.
Marquis has been brought in to do the same, and he doesn't have a league goal yet, while Terry Gornell's drought has now reached 348 days.
There is no easy solution but we cannot keep relying on loan players. We can't keep bringing in X player or Y player. We are paying these players decent wages and they need to start taking more responsibility.
You could see the lack of confidence around the box - not just from Harrison or Marquis but all over the side.
There is no doubting that the effort and commitment continues to be there - much more than last season - but a few times we got into a position 20 or so yards out but no one took the bull by the horns with a shot. It was always one more pass, moving the onus on to someone else and eventually losing the chance - just grow a pair... have a shot!
Decision-making was scrambled at times. We'd take that extra pass when it wasn't needed, or we'd not make the right pass when it was screaming out - an example of that was Terry Gornell shooting with Vaughan having half of the pitch to himself and screaming for it over to his right.
After being in front and wasting more chances, the goal we gave away was sloppy. A corner headed back to the taker, then no reaction to the second cross and a centre-half had time to take a touch and score.
That gave Wimbledon belief and they were the more likely in the second half - which overall was pretty turgid as we created nothing and they had two chances, both from the same bloke. Yes. Him.
Big Bayo has scored as many league goals against us in 15 games as our whole team has scored this season, and once again, as we do nearly every time we play against him, we looked scared stiff of him.
He is a clever player. Straight away, he latched himself on to Jack Deaman (who, considering the quality of strikers he was up against had a decent league debut) and he kept dropping deep to win little flick-ons and to try and link the play.
His task was made easier however by our total lack of physicality in midfield. Joe Hanks has been excellent this season but this was on off-day for him, and Matt Richards was also below par.
Both were brushed aside all too easily, not just by Bayo but by Dannie Bulman and Sammy Moore, and the ball retention and speed of passing was very poor.
Richards was the main culprit, being turned so easily by Bayo as he set off for the chance at the end which he thankfully put wide as we were waiting for the net to bulge and on another occasion finding himself as last man but dallying in possession with easy passing options available and nearly costing us a goal.
In normal circumstances, he or Hanks (or both) would have been hauled off, but with Jason Taylor, Asa Hall and now Paul Black all missing there were no alternatives available.
Taylor is thankfully back on Wednesday, and we have missed him, but Hall's 'four to six week' injury from Bury is looking like more of a three-month one. Apparently he is 10-12 days from even being back on the training ground - and that is before he has played a reserve game. Very frustrating for us, and no doubt him as well.
The difference between the halves was, at times, startling. The first-half tempo was good, as was the passing and moving, typified by the move for the Marquis chance which he missed as he linked well with Harrison, made a good run then should have scored.
In the second half there was no tempo and the movement was terrible. I saw a tweet after the game from one of our fans that described it as 'football with the handbrake on' and that summed it up pretty well.
The substitutes, Gornell and Zack Kotwica, were unable to make any impact after replacing Marquis and de Vita, who flitted in and out in the first half then disappeared in the second, and by the end of the game we looked like a side with four senior players out.
There were plusses - Trevor Carson continues to impress with handling, command of his area and distribution all excellent, Deaman's debut was promising with some excellent long passing setting up chances and he relished the battle with Akinfenwa and Tubbs. I think we have four centre-halves who are not the worst at this level.
Another plus was four Academy products in the 18 - Hanks in the starting line-up and Kotwica, James Bowen and Jamal Lawrence on the bench and that has to be a good thing.
Elsewhere, Harry Williams and Adam Powell scored for Evesham and Cinderford respectively while Bobbie Dale has had games at Bath but is now back and could go out again - Cirencester's manager Brian Hughes is looking for a loan striker but I'd rather see these guys given a go ahead of more loanees.
Just what do we have to lose? Williams is best in a 'number 10' role and has an eye for goal, while Dale has netted a few in the reserve games so far.
Could they do any worse than our misfiring front men? No. And at least they are our own players and we aren't using loans which could be here today, gone tomorrow and not give a monkeys about our club. Give them a go, I say.
At the end of August, we looked a confident side who were creating chances and playing with freedom. Now, at the start of October, a lot of that seems to have evaporated and we look tentative, nervous and short of confidence.
One loan player being recalled by his club cannot be used as the sole reason or excuse for that. Yes, Koby Arthur had a big impact, especially with his goals and energy, but he spent a lot of his time here on the bench, and we were still playing fluently in games without him on the pitch.
We need someone else to step up and take that mantle, and fast, or a promising start will continue to ebb away.



Sunday, 28 September 2014

All we are saying is...

Another day, another blank - and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out why things have gone slightly awry in recent weeks.
Since that heady day at Tranmere on August 27, two goals in six games or 540 minutes or nine hours of football, coming in the 87th and 90th minutes, both from substitutes - and not including stoppage time.
And it is not for the want of chances - look at Morecambe and Luton, where their goalkeepers were man of the match, look at Dagenham, again the goalkeeper made good saves and the bar was hit twice.
Once again, yesterday on our second-half performance, we could have nicked something.
That we didn't was down to one thing - killer instinct in the final third. That real desire to want to get in there and make something happen. We didn't have that.
Yes, we huffed and puffed, put balls in the box, and caused a bit of panic for Burton and their supporters, who were delighted to hang on for a 1-0.
But did we really look like scoring a goal? No, not really.
As usual, the ball bobbled about in the box a lot, and wouldn't quite fall right for us, or a Burton boot or head got there first and was happy to whack it anywhere.
However, that is where you need that desire. That desire to put your body on the line, go in where it hurts, yes, you might injure yourself but you might also get that goal to get a point or a win for your team.
I'm afraid none of our players were willing to do that at times. That was typified when Steve Elliott had a late header blocked. The ball bounced out and for a split second there was a chance for someone to get in for the rebound.
Nobody did. Nobody in red and white reacted and once again a Burton size 9 hammered the ball away. Oh for a Neil Grayson and his weekly bang on the head.
As the manager said afterwards, we needed someone to take the bull by the horns and make something happen in there - to risk that injury, put their body on the line for the team.
They have done it in other areas of the field this season, so why are we not seeing it in that most vital of places - that place where games can be won and lost - the opposition's penalty area.
We were behind to Stuart Beavon's fine finish, and deservedly so, after a first half 'performance' which was comfortably the worst 45 minutes we have put in all season and the first time we have seen echoes of last season.
The 3-5-2 was back - but Burton got straight on the front foot. They were direct, and physical, two things which we could just not cope with at all.
They played diagonal balls to the flanks, and our lack of physicality all over the field was evident, especially in midfield, where Paul Black, Matt Richards and Joe Hanks were swamped, and up front, where Byron Harrison and John Marquis gave no resistance to Burton's strong centre-backs.
Lucas Akins out wide was having a field day, although kudos to Craig Braham-Barrett for sticking at the task, and the movement of Beavon and Adam McGurk was just too slick and clever for our midfield and was just about coped with by our back three.
They, along with Trevor Carson, were the reason why we were still in the game at half-time, thanks to saves, interceptions, tackles and timely blocks. If we had gone in three or four down we could not have complained. In some areas, we had simply not turned up.
But one pleasing aspect of this season has been the manager's willingness to make tweaks and changes earlier.
In the past, we have been left frustrated when a system which many of us can see is not working, or where certain players look uncomfortable has been left, often until it is an unretrievable situation, but this season that has largely not been the case.
For all the virtues of the 3-5-2 system, and how much it has made us a more solid side, it is noticeable that more often than not, Yates and North have had to change it to either get a win in a tight game, or chase a game or try, as yesterday, to unsuccessfully retrieve a losing position.
The formation has made us solid, yes, but a bit toothless at times. Tranmere was the most stark example of that, and again yesterday, 3-5-2 by the end of the game had become 3-4-3 and it nearly paid off.
Black was the fall guy this time, and rightly so I'm afraid. He looks a good footballer, but in no way shape or form is he a midfield player. He looked totally lost in that first half and I hope for his sake that we don't see him in that role again.
Not his fault - he was asked to play the role but it simply didn't work, and it wasn't really a surprise to see him come off, with Terry Gornell coming on.
He brought his usual qualities - work-rate being top of that list and his energy seemed to spark everyone else back into life a bit, and the second half was much improved. It wasn't difficult to make an improvement from the opening 45, but even so, it was good to see us give it a go.
Richards more than anyone typified the change in our performance. At half-time, he was heading for a four or five out of 10 - if that. He gave the ball away several times, and copped some stick from me for his 'effort' to tackle Alex McDonald as he set up another wave of Burton attacks.
But in the second half he was probably our best player, and did as much as anyone to prompt our second-half 'recovery' even if he couldn't help to get us a point.
He and Hanks looked much better in a two-man midfield, and Hanks had our best chances of the game, prompting saves from Jon McLaughlin in both halves.
We were crying out for Jason Taylor, especially in the first 45, and that makes his stupid red card even more annoying. With him and Asa Hall coming back soon (maybe he will play some of the game in the reserves on Tuesday?) we should have real midfield competition.
There is still talk of Jordan Wynter coming back - but with Richards, Taylor, Hanks and Hall, I am not sure we need him - and, let's face it, other parts of the team have a greater priority.
But we can't keep on relying on loan signings to bale us out. Sooner or later, the players we have here need to live up to that responsibility.
Harrison, insipid in the first half, was the same as everyone else, better in the second - but once again did not have a clear-cut, goalscoring opportunity. Ditto Marquis, whose overall display was the most disappointing of his spell with us.
The closest Harrison came was when Lee Vaughan put a great ball across and Harrison and Gornell both slid in but, typifying our 'nearly' performance, failed to get there by inches for the final touch.
Harrison is the one who, more than anyone, has had the bulk of the criticism.
I have seen fans saying he isn't interested or committed but I think that is unfair. I don't doubt his effort, but he needs to do more where it counts. He needs to compete better against centre-halves, and start busting a gut to get into goalscoring positions.
The chances are being created. I don't think he or Marquis can complain about lack of service as we have created plenty of opportunities this season. They are paid to get on the end of them and just need to start doing it.
We had all the play in the second half. Carson was a spectator, and the Burton fans around our commentary position in the second half were very anxious and started getting on their team's back - they were relieved with a 1-0 by the end.
Next up is Harrison's old club Wimbledon, and that should be the inspiration for him to start producing the form we saw at times last season.
But the manager will have a dilemma. Troy Brown is suspended after his fifth yellow card of the season, so will we stay with a 3-5-2 and bring Jack Deaman in for a league debut, or does he change it to a flat back four?
I'd be happier with a back three against Matt Tubbs and our friend Mr Akinfenwa, who will be after his customary goal against us.
But Yates has to think that we are at home, and need to be on the front foot and make the running, so he might opt for a more attacking formation.
We saw Raffaele de Vita for 10 minutes, and he looked fairly lively, setting up a chance for Hanks and forcing a good save himself right at the death.
He will get 90 minutes in the reserves on Tuesday and might be ready for a longer run-out next weekend - but I am not convinced he can fit into a 3-5-2, so a change to a 4-4-2, or 4-3-3 would suit him much better.
Despite our toothless September in front of goal, I don't think there is any doubt we are a better side overall that last season.
We just need someone to step up to the plate and want to score some goals. They are capable of it, but now it is time to deliver. Enough is enough.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Groundhog Day

"We are not putting away the chances we are making, and we are making chances, plenty of them."
The above is a comment from a Cheltenham Town manager - it could have been Mark Yates after many of our recent games, but it isn't.
This is an extract from the programme notes of Allan Grundy, taken from the programme of the first CTFC game I saw, a 3-2 FA Cup win over Forest Green Rovers on September 13, 1980.
At that time, we were bottom of the Southern League Premier Division table - we have moved on a bit since then, but the disease of not taking the chances when they come along is a recurring one it seems.
Once again, on Saturday against Dagenham and Redbridge, we had chances, didn't take them, and paid the price for it by only taking a point from the game.
John Marquis was denied by two great saves from the goalkeeper as we started the game superbly and finished it well - but lost our way in the middle.
Team-wise, we had Lee Vaughan back, so Jordan Wynter went back into midfield, where he is most at home after some awkward moments in recent games.
It turned out to be his last game for us - for the moment at least as I suspect he might well be back in the not too distant future. If he does come back, I hope he stays in midfield as he can do a job there.
But if he doesn't then fine - as we will have Jason Taylor and Asa Hall back from suspension and injury in the next couple of weeks, and it will also keep Joe Hanks involved.
Hanks was left on the bench, with what seemed a curious decision to use Paul Black in midfield for his first start on the left side of a three with Omari Sterling-James and Wynter alongside him and Matt Richards sitting, in the Taylor role.
When I saw Black in the side and no Steve Elliott, I thought we might be keeping the 3-5-2 with Black on the left of the back three, where he looked good for 45 minutes against Oxford and a role has played in the reserve side.
But no. Black is a decent player, no doubt about that, but I thought he looked a bit lost in there. I couldn't understand why he was there.
I am also not convinced about OSJ as a central midfield player. My main reservation on that front is his physicality, and I thought he struggled to impose himself on the Dagenham midfield trio of Labadie, Howell and Ogogo, who are a decent unit, and struggled to affect the game.
We did, however start well. We were moving the ball quickly, getting it wide, and creating chances, but as seems to be the pattern at the moment we can't take them.
But it tailed off as Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett were pegged back and we started to lose the second balls in midfield - and Byron Harrison's link-up with Marquis deteriorated.
They started well, but as the game wore on, Marquis was ploughing a lone furrow as Harrison turned in what became one of his more insipid performances.
While Marquis was busting a gut to give the centre-halves a tough time, and ended the game flat on his back in exhaustion, Harrison was, I'm afraid, once again a shadow of the player we know he can be.
That is the frustration. How many times do we have to say that Byron has the potential to be one of the best strikers at this level - but on this showing any scouts looking at him would have left long before the end crossing his name off their lists.
This has, I'm afraid, been the norm for most of the season. He was excellent in the comeback at Tranmere and apparently made a difference after coming on at Luton, but has not looked like adding to his one-yard tap in against Accrington - his only goal this season.
We need more from him. Marquis cannot do it all himself, but had to on Saturday, and with Terry Gornell looking so bereft of confidence it's not a surprise that Yates wants to use the loan market to pep up his attack.
That should be a wake-up call to Byron, as should the dropping at Luton, and the early hook on Saturday to be replaced by the non-scoring but harder working Gornell.
Maybe the arrival of Raffaele de Vita on a three-month deal will also be a hefty nudge for him, as although he is listed as a midfielder, he played up front for Swindon, and caused us problems. Once he is up to speed he might be a useful addition.
But Byron has scored every time he has played against Burton, but time will tell whether he gets the chance to add to that record this weekend or finds himself on the bench. On form, that is arguably where he should be.
While Yates' strikers stutter, we conceded to Jamie Cureton, who needed only one sniff of goal all game to find the target.
It doesn't help either when he let him go last summer and could have signed him back, and it was a shocker of a goal to let in too. A long hopeful ball, and Cureton outpaced Matt Taylor and lashed it in. We knew that lack of pace was a worry for our central defenders, and that was evident here.
Apart from that, he was the Cureton we saw a lot last season. Isolated, frustrated and bereft of any decent sight of the goal.
We had defended well with Dagenham's only other chances all game being a looped deflection which Trevor Carson clawed away superbly and then the rebound which he saved with his feet.
As the time wore on, Yates had to change it, and here came the major positive of the game.
He turned to two young, local players who have come through our Academy. Our players, not loanees, and players who should be a part of our future.
Hanks continued his good season, and just brought some calmness to our midfield again, competing better with Dagenham's trio and eventually getting the equaliser.
The other was Zack Kotwica, making his first appearance of the campaign after being a regular squad member last season, when he made a lot of cameo entrances with varied degrees of success.
This time last season, he was the great hope, but didn't quite push on, but all credit to him for the way he came on and made a difference on Saturday, hitting the bar and always looking a threat.
Appearances like that are going to keep him around the squad and he will need to keep that level of performance up with the competition around for a place.
Wynter's departure and Taylor's ban should keep Kotwica involved, and maybe also Jamal Lawrence - another off the production line maybe, a wide man or forward with express pace inherited, maybe, from his famous uncle David who could certainly generate some of that from the Chapel End at Cheltenham College on many occasions.
I also want to see Harry Williams get a go. He has scored twice on loan at Evesham, and I have to say I feel he is a more natural fit than OSJ if we want to use an advanced midfield player to get beyond the forwards and to play in that pocket of space.
I think OSJ is an impact player. He performed that role superbly against Tranmere coming off the bench, and without Koby Arthur I feel OSJ is the man to do that role he has vacated.
I also hope there might be a role for Bobbie Dale - he has done well at Bath by all reports and a few games in Conference South will have done him the power of good.
Our youngsters, we are told, are a bright crop. In the not too distant future, how about a midfield of Adam Powell sitting behind Hanks and Williams, with Kotwica and Lawrence on the flanks supporting Dale? Wouldn't that be great?
It could happen - but only if the manager shows some trust in them.