Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cheltenham Town - defying the odds since 1999

I am not a betting man.
My only foray into the betting market comes for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National, and even then I am useless. I would never bet on the Boat Race as I would always pick the wrong one.
But I had a check on the betting sites for the relegation odds, and found exactly what I expected - Cheltenham Town are just about everyone's tip for the drop.
Take your pick from 11-4, 100-30 or 3-1 among the 10 or 11 firms I checked.
No surprise there. Well, we've proved them wrong before, so we will just have to go out and do it all again.
I have also been checking the blogs and previews doing the rounds - and yes, you guessed it, most place us in the bottom two.
So what do our fans think? I made a Twitter appeal for a straw poll, asking a few fellow Rubies where the realistically thought we could finish. Here's what they said:

Steve Burns: I think we'll finish top 5. Very optimistic about this season.
Simon Gardiner:  I think we could genuinely surprise this season. 9th.
Healer: 14th
Richard Preen: I will be disappointed if we don't get top 10 and think the play-offs are realistic
Tarquin Symonds: I would like to think we have the squad to sustain a top 6 finish. Need to get off to a good start though.
James Baker: 12th to 15th - nice and comfortable in mid table.....
CJS: 14th - and would be pleased with it
Barbara Curtis: 7th place. Wish for better but better to be sensible and not overstretch.
Ian Pain: with what I have seen to date I think we will improve on last year and flirt with a final play off spot. Realistically 10th
Lord Richard: a hard one .. Realistically happy with 15th-16th.
Laurence Horton: realistically...at best, 10; at worst 17th again. Feeling optimistic though for a good season. All depends on the home form.
James Gwyer: I'm going with mid table, possibly pushing for the play offs.
Mark Hitchman: Very strong league this year, think we'll just fall short of play offs. 9th.
8.6 Seconds: 10th

So there you are - a polarisation of opinions from top five to 16th - meaning no one in this small straw poll is worried about the threat of relegation, rightly so I feel after the signings we have made this summer.
But as one of the tweeters above mentioned, it is a very tough league on paper and I am going to go through each side and assess how I think they will fare - leaving Cheltenham until last.

AFC Wimbledon
A little bit of an unknown quantity. Yes, it's a great story how they were formed in the Combined Counties League and have come all the way to the Football League, and I am delighted they have made it (especially at Luton's expense). They have lost Danny Kedwell, their main source of goals last season, but have replaced him with Jack Midson, a CTFC target who should get amongst the goals. Relegation won't be a worry for them, but I can't see them troubling the top spots.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety.

Accrington Stanley
Had a fantastic season last term as John Coleman carried on his record of finishing higher in the league every season since he took charge. However, I can see that record coming to an end in this campaign. They have lost Terry Gornell to Shrewsbury and Sean McConville to Stockport, while Jimmy Ryan has gone to Scunthorpe, and despite signing experience in Kevin McIntyre and Danny Coid, I can't see them hitting anywhere near the heights of last season.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six.

Aldershot Town
Not sure what to make of Aldershot, as Dean Holdsworth embarks on his first full season in charge. He has made use of his non-League knowledge to pick up some potential bargains, but my worry for them is who will score the goals. They have ex-Tamworth man Alex Rodman and Bradley Bubb from Farnborough and if they can step up they should be OK. They are tough to break down, and will be skippered by our ex-loanee Darren Jones.
CTC Prediction: Bubbling under.

Barnet
Managed to stay up at the death thanks to Lincoln's slide and I suspect they will be down there again. But they have Izale McLeod, Steve Kabba and new signing Jason Price - so you would think goals will not be a problem. But they have lost Joe Devera to Swindon and so the problem may be stopping them at the other end. So new goalkeeper Dean Brill might have to have a good season to stave off trouble.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six.

Bradford City
With the size of their crowds, Bradford should not be in the division, but their money troubles and some poor managerial appointments have kept them down here. But there is nothing to suggest Peter Jackson will be able to take them out, having lost some good players due to financial constraints, notably Gareth Evans to Rotherham. Guy Branston, from Torquay, will be a key man at the back, but I cannot see him leading them to glory.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety.

Bristol Rovers
After a disastrous four-manager campaign last season, Paul Buckle has come from Torquay and simply HAS to get them promoted. They have spent big money for this division and their board and supporters will not accept anything else but a top three finish. The arrival of players like Scott Bevan, Matt Harrold, Chris Zebroski, Craig Stanley, Joe Anyinsah and Adam Virgo should make it happen.
CTC Prediction: Top three.

Burton Albion
Another side who flirted with danger last season, for whom I cannot see much improvement this time. They are still struggling to replace Shaun Harrad, and I cannot see our ex-striker Justin Richards being the answer. They have also lost Russ Penn to us and goalkeeper Adam Ledzgins to Derby. Paul Peschisolido has a big job on.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six

Crawley Town
With the two 'M's behind them - momentum and money - League One is the only place I can see them ending up. I know they have the most odious manager in the division, but he has decent players from goalkeeper Michael Kuipers through the spine to Hope Akpan from Everton, to a forward quartet of Matt Tubbs, John Akinde, Tyrone Barnett and the man nabbed from us, Wes Thomas, that just spells goals. Not sure if they will win the title, but they will go straight up.
CTC Prediction: Top three

Crewe Alexandra
Ripped us to bits at Gresty Road a few months ago, but the two hat-trick men, Joel Grant and Clayton Donaldson, have both gone, to Wycombe and Brentford. That puts the onus on Shaun Miller, in my book one of the division's best players, to take on the goalscoring. They have not always been the best at the back, and that may be an Achilles heel and stop them troubling the top seven.
CTC Prediction: Bubbling under.

Dagenham and Redbridge
Came back down after one season in League One, and I can't see them getting back there. Ex-CTFC loanee Medy Elito is one of their signings, and they have added experience with Kevin Maher in midfield and Richard Rose at the back, but I don't think it will be enough for them to make a challenge. But in John Still they have one of the wiliest managers in the division and must be respected.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety.

Gillingham
Improved after a poor start last season and went close to going up. Andy Hessenthaler (a Watford FC legend...) has signed Danny Kedwell from AFC Wimbledon and the prolific Adam Birchall from Dover, although the latter will miss six months with a knee injury, to replace Bayo Akinfenwa and Cody McDonald's goals. Other good signings like Andy Frampton, Chris Whelpdale and Charlie Lee will give them a solid look.
CTC Prediction: Play-offs

Hereford United
Like us, their main problem last season was winning games at home. Manager Jamie Pitman has tried to strengthen their spine with defender Stefan Stam, midfielder Harry Pell (superb in their win at WR last season) and striker Delroy Facey. But I cannot see them escaping from the struggle zone as they will be too reliant on Stuart Fleetwood for goals and Adam Bartlett for saves. Pitman faces a tough season.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six.

Macclesfield Town
Along with ourselves, the bookies have Macc as the other drop favourites and they might have this one right. They have lost their two best players - Tyrone Barnett to Crawley and Hamza Bencherif, who for some reason joined Martin Allen at Notts County. They still have the likes of Emile Sinclair and Colin Daniel ( who is out for the first month at least) but it won't be enough, I fear.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six.

Morecambe
The Shrimps are another team who I fear may face a battle. They seem to have gone for the cheap option with Jim Bentley as manager to replace Sammy McIlroy and new arrivals Nick Fenton and Kevin Ellison will be key for them, as will the goals of Phil Jevons and new arrival from Oldham, Lewis Alessandra. I don't think they will finish in the bottom two, but they won't be much higher than that.
CTC Prediction: Bottom six.

Northampton Town
Another team with a big budget and a chairman who wants promotion yesterday. Unfortunately, he has decided that Gary Johnson is the manager to provide it for him, and I fear that may be his undoing. Johnson has re-signed Bayo Akinfenwa and hopes to get the best out of Shaun Harrad, while Michael Jacobs is one of the best young talents in the division. He has also signed Jake Robinson from Shrewsbury via Torquay, but I cannot see them maintaining a top-seven challenge.
CTC Prediction: Bubbling under

Oxford United
Another side who appear to have pushed the boat out this season in an attempt to escape the division. Players such as Michael Duberry, Liam Davis (from Northampton, good player in my book), John-Paul Pittman, Peter Leven (from MK Dons), Andy Whing and  Deane Smalley have come in, all with experience from a higher level and it will be a big surprise if they are not right up there.
CTC Prediction: Play-offs

Plymouth Argyle
With all their financial problems, there is no real telling what the season holds for Argyle. Peter Reid has lost a lot of experienced players and we have benefitted with Luke Summerfield's arrival today. But he has ex-Wales international Carl Fletcher and Northern Ireland's Warren Feeney up front as well as Frenchman Romain Larrieu in goal. So even with their financial millstone, I can see a season of stablilty, on the field at least, which will be welcomed at Home Park.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety

Port Vale
Last season started well until Micky Adams left, then Jim Gannon's arrival saw things implode spectacularly. Our 1-0 win there was Gannon's first game and they were shouting for his removal then! Now Adams is back, but is battling against off-field strife with fans disgruntled with the board. After Justin Richards' departure for Burton, Tom Pope has arrived from Rotherham to join Marc Richards and Louis Dodds up front. I see a season similar to the last one for them - just underneath the top seven.
CTC Prediction: Bubbling under.

Rotherham United
With their new stadium on the horizon, manager Andy Scott will be under some pressure to take the side back up. Much pre-season focus has been on Adam Le Fondre's future, and it seems he will at least start the season at the Don Valley. Chris Holroyd, Lewis Grabban and Gareth Evans have joined as well, so goals won't be a problem. That quartet should ensure the Millers will go close this term, but might have to use the play-offs to try and escape from the division.
CTC Prediction: Play-offs

Shrewsbury Town
Another club whose board and fans are demanding nothing else but promotion. They missed out last season, and have been active in the summer market with players like Terry Gornell, Marvin Morgan, Reuben Hazell, Joe Jacobson and Matt Richards joining young talent like Tom Bradshaw and Jon Taylor at the Greenhous Meadow. It's an impressive squad and should be good enough to make the leap.
CTC Prediction: Top three.

Southend United
A bit like Aldershot in that I can't work out what to make of them. If they come off, they will challenge, if not they will fade into the middle of the table. I can see them being a 15-15-16 team - inconsistent but able to beat anyone on their day. Paul Sturrock has landed Millwall legend Neil Harris, and he joins Liam Dickinson, Blair Sturrock and Barry Corr as striking options. Bilel Moshni is a solid defender and Ryan Hall a young talent but they will not have enough to worry the top.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety

Swindon Town
With Paolo Di Canio in charge, life won't be dull in Wiltshire. After last season's disaster, he has gutted the squad and brought in Italians, Algerians, Namibians, Ghanaians and Jonathan Smith, the ex-Forest Green midfielder from York City. So it will be a cosmopolitan squad, and they could take the division by storm. However, I think they will take some time to gel, and if Di Canio can stick it out I think they will be in the mix.
CTC Prediction: Play-offs

Torquay United
Went so close last season before going down to Stevenage in the play-off final, but it's difficult to see them going anywhere near that again. Paul Buckle's departure along with Guy Branston, Scott Bevan, Chris Zebroski, Jake Robinson and Craig Stanley, and don't see the likes of Robert Olejnik, Brian Saah and Taiwo Atieno filling the gap sufficently for manager Martin Ling.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety.

And finally...

Cheltenham Town
I can see our season hingeing on the success of three partnerships in the spine of the team. First, Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott at the back have to find a way to stop us leaking so many goals, especially from set-pieces and crosses (it's not all Scott Brown's fault...). They need to dominate back there, while the full-backs need to stop the crosses coming into the box so often, helped by the wide midfielders tracking back.
Then, in midfield, Russ Penn and Marlon Pack will be expected to add some steel which we badly missed last year, and some style to get us moving in the final third. Penn has already shown his box to box qualities, while Marlon will be our quarterback, the dictator of our play to make us tick. Luke Summerfield's arrival gives us, I feel, one of our best midfields since we joined the league.
Up front, it will be down to two of Jimmy Spencer, Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy to form a potent partnership. Duffy is more of a goal poacher, while we know Goulding is adept at linking the play and Jimmy Spencer looks a strong player who will work all day and run the channels well (I must say he looks older than 19!).
Elsewhere, we will need another consistent season from Keith Lowe, more progress defensively for Danny Andrew, without blunting his attacking worth, and more of Josh Low's game-running displays like we saw at Bury and Lincoln.
I hope Scott Brown has some competition for his place and shows improvement in dominating his area if he is to keep his place in the side while again displaying his strength in shot stopping.
For a change, we also have good strength in depth, with impact players such as Kaid Mohamed and Bagasan Graham, hungry youngsters like Sido Jombati, Kyle Haynes, Theo Lewis and Harry Hooman and the ever-reliable and hard-working David Bird, Andy Gallinagh and Junior Smikle all wanting a place in the side.
Of course there will be ups and downs, and we will have another rollercoaster season, but like those fans at the top of this piece I am not worried about the prospect of relegation this season.
I think we will see another season of gradual improvement - we might get excited about the play-offs at some point during the season, but I don't see us mounting any concerted challenge for the top seven.
CTC Prediction: Mid-table safety

So there you are - my neck is on the line ready to be shot at as we get ready for another season - a historic one as we don our new ruby kit to celebrate 125 years of Cheltenham Town. Scary to think I have been watching them for nearly a quarter of that time!
First stop Gillingham...