Thursday 30 June 2011

A deflating summer

Tomorrow, Cheltenham Town's players return to pre-season training. The 10-month slog starts here.
Among them, will be our two new faces, Russ Penn and Kaid Mohamed, our returning new face Marlon Pack and our young tyro Ethan Moore.
In May, we released Dan Lloyd-Weston, Martin Riley, Frankie Artus, JJ Melligan and Jake Lee, while Wes Thomas opted to increase his salary somewhat with a move to Crawley.
Add to that the position of Michael Pook, to all intents and purposes released, and more or less persona non grata, but still pulling in a decent wage given to him by the previous manager.
So that is six (and a half with Pook) players out, and, so far, four players in (one a youth team graduate).
So I think I am justified in calling 2011 a deflating summer. Another one.
It's not quite on a par with John Ward's summer of discontent when Lee Ridley arrived then we scrambled about to sign Andy Lindegaard, but forgive me if I don't get out the bunting.
Every summer the mantra is the same - there will be more players than ever looking for clubs this summer; there will be some real bargains out there; there will some top players up for grabs.
All that may be true - but they all go elsewhere.
They do that every summer as the same depressing pattern is repeated over and over again.
Cheltenham fans raise their hopes that this summer will be different - that the squad will look stronger come the start of pre-season than it did in May - but every summer that wish seems to be dashed.
I know that Mark Yates and Neil Howarth have been working tirelessly this summer talking to players and agents, but the cynic in me would suggest that the main reason Russ Penn signed for us as he has played for Mark before at Kidderminster.
Don't get me wrong though, I am delighted we got him.
My devil's advocate would suggest further that we got Marlon Pack solely because he was on loan with us - had that not happened, let's face it, no way would he have come to us. Same again, he is a great signing though.
But Kaid Mohamed is a gamble - probably a cheap one. A player who, at 26, is desperate for a shot at the Football League. Probably his last chance to make it.
Of course I hope he does well, and hope I end up eating my words, but I see him as a bigger gamble than Wes, as he is three years older and even less experienced at this level.
He might come off as Wes and Justin Richards (goals-wise if not attitude) did for Mark, and as James Constable and Matthew Barnes-Homer did for him at Kidderminster - but then again, he might not.
So here we sit, hours before pre-season, two players down on where we ended the season, and hoping that pre-season will see Mark pull some rabbits out of a hat.
I am sure there will be some triallists at Seasons hoping to catch Mark's eye, and already he has said that we are going to look at a couple of six-month loans - a sign, I am afraid, if we needed to be told, that Cheltenham Town cannot compete with their fellow League Two sides for experienced players.
Earlier this summer, I went through the retained lists and churned out a list of names who I felt represented the sort of players we needed.
There were about 60 or 70 names in that piece, we got one of them, Russ Penn.
Now, I don't know how many others we went for apart from two, Jack Midson, who ended up at AFC Wimbledon, and Ashley Grimes, who was too expensive and went to Rochdale in the league above, so fair enough.
Mark said in the Echo the other day that experience is the key to success in League Two - very true, but we can't afford any of it.
The players we had last season, the likes of Danny Andrew, Keith Lowe, Marlon Pack, Brian Smikle and Jeff Goulding, will come back more experienced - but they have not got five or six full seasons of League football behind them.
In most cases, last season was the first time they have played 30 or 40 games at this level.
Yes, we have Dave Bird, Steve Elliott and Andy Gallinagh, all with more than 100 games behind them.
A lot more in Bird and Elliott's case, but in an ideal world only Elliott would be classed as a first-team regular next season.
Scott Brown still does not have any competition for the goalkeeping spot, which I am sure will delight his legions of fans on the Whaddon Road terraces, we still don't have a partner for Elliott, no one to get down the flank, beat a man and whip in a cross, and no one to help Jeff Goulding stick them away.
It makes me laugh now when I think back to the play-off wins at the Millennium, when fans said we could establish ourselves in League One.
Back then, the board were castigated for not throwing money at it, for not spending big and trying to consolidate us at that level. Some still go back and point to that as the start of the problems.
Even now, I hear fans saying we should be competing with teams like Yeovil, with Rochdale, with Leyton Orient, all of whom have gone up and stayed there.
But when we were there the first time, we had an ageing team, lost our best-ever manager and could not build a new team overnight in our financial state.
The second time, we had to bust a gut for three seasons trying to chase an impossible dream.
John Ward and then Keith Downing performed heroics and ran themselves into the ground trying to keep us up - every week the players had to play at 120 per cent to scramble the points.
In Downing's case, three loans of Alex Russell, Richard Keogh and Steve Brooker (apparently at a combined £2000 a week) did the trick, but Keith was left drained and had nothing left to give the following season, hence our dreadful start.
Then we brought in the previous manager, threw money at him and nearly bankrupted ourselves, which has left us where are now, seemingly struggling to compete with teams like Hereford, Accrington, Barnet and Macclesfield.
So let's not run before we can walk - I'm afraid we have to forget promotion this season, forget the play-offs. 
As of now I would rip your hand off for 22nd - and it takes a lot for me, one of the most optimistic CTFC fans you will find, and frequently criticised for my 'rose-tinted' views, to write that.
I can't remember a League Two which has looked so strong on paper, and where clubs seem to have been pushing the boat out to assemble squads.
We don't have a boat to push out (maybe one of those £3.99 inflatable dinghys you get from the beach) - that is the reality, and that is what Cheltenham fans must wake up to.
What this summer has been is a big reality check to where Cheltenham Town stand in the pecking order of League football.
It has rammed home the message that we are not a big club in Football League terms as some fans bang on that we are. In fact, we are one of the smallest.
There are still fans of other clubs who forget we are even in the League - and once again we have to battle against the odds, as the bookies, for the umpteenth season in a row, have us as favourites for the drop.
I hope against hope we can prove them wrong once again, but I see this season shaping up to be probably the toughest we have had in our Football League adventure.
Good luck to Mark, Neil and the players - please prove me wrong.


  1. Good blog mate. Hard to see past a season of struggle. I have faith in Yates to progress us, but at a slow rate. I see this as year 2 in the 5 year rebuilding of a football club. I would take 22nd with perhaps a few more permanent pieces of the jigsaw fitted in time for pre-season 2012. 12 months ago we had nothing, now we have a small platform. It will be hard work, especially as many of our supporters will again be unrealistic in their expectations. I use that term diplomatically but I'm sure to be more emotive when discussing verbally. Not many people would be surprised if we were relegated. It's up to us to upset the apple cart a bit.



  2. To be honest Mark, I think you're being a bit premature calling it a 'deflating summer' when there is over a month to go before the start of the season. CTFC look like they need a goalie, a CB, a winger and a striker. Considering that two of these are likely to be loanees, I think there is a good chance that Yates will find a couple of players to bring in.

    The three new players we have signed look like they will improve the squad, which is all you can ask for really. It may be true that Penn only signed cos he knows Yates, and pack only signed cos he was on loan here last season...but what on earth is wrong with that?! Any little edge that we can use to our advantage in attracting players can only be a good thing, and these are certainly better reasons for signing than the amount of money they will be paid (are you listening Mr Thomas?!).

    Without significant investment in the club, we will always struggle to offer anything like the sort of wages that are being offered now. The financial situation in the club has improved, but ultimately seems to be the same as last year. The fact that Yates was able to offer £10k for the Newport County CB was seen as an exciting development! The fact that it was dismissed as a joke offer says a lot.

    It seems likely that we will continue to mainly attract the sort of players who are unfancied by other clubs - players with points to prove, grateful to be given the chance to play regularly and impress. If they have the sort of impact that Thomas and Goulding had then that would be very good.

    But ultimately, as long as they work hard and fight harder, you cannot ask for much more. We need to become a niggly team once more, one that other teams do not look forwrad to playing. And if we can find some goals along the way, then we might surprise a few people.

    I remain cautiously optimistic that we will still be in League 2 come the end of the season - and that has to be the aim. No more pipe dreams about promotion or play-offs. I think we will be a better team next year - but we will also be facing a lot more stronger teams.

    This is not a time for pessimism - not with over a month to go until the start of the season.


  3. Steve Elliot would not be my first choice, i think he makes many mistakes that people overlook because of his 'experience'. He's half decent in the air, but on the floor he's suspect. When he takes free kicks in our own half, i cringe. A good player makes you feel comfortable; eg. Pack. But as mentioned above, we can't afford much better and i agree L2 looks a bloody toughie this year.