Saturday, 31 December 2011

Half-term report

Well, what a first half of the season it has been to be a Cheltenham Town fan - made more exciting by the fact that it was so unexpected.
As usual, we were the bookies' favourites for the drop, and every newspaper going had us marked down as heading for the Blue Square Premier come next May.
The summer had been one of great change, with Alan Bennett, Russ Penn, Marlon Pack, Darryl Duffy, Kaid Mohamed, Sido Jombati and loanee Jimmy Spencer arriving, with the likes of Frankie Artus, Martin Riley and top scorer Wes Thomas heading out, joined during the early weeks of the season by Michael Pook, Kyle Haynes and Ethan Moore.
Pre-season wasn't exactly promising - we lost at Stourbridge and Newport and drew at Telford and Cirencester. The doom-mongers were having a field day.
A tepid start at Gillingham and a comprehensive Carling Cup defeat by MK Dons didn't exactly do much to change that mindset.
But home wins over Crawley and Swindon and a comeback victory at Northampton finally got the season up and running, and then came two more loanees, goalkeeper Jack Butland from Birmingham and Luke Garbutt from Everton.
However, the decision which really transformed the season came at Bristol Rovers at the start of October, when Mark Yates deployed three his central midfielders Pack, Penn and Summerfield together, dropped regular left-back Danny Andrew and let Kaid Mohamed loose to wreak havoc in a 3-1 win.
That was Sido Jombati's full debut at left back, but he was then swapped to the right in place of last season's player-of-the-year Keith Lowe with Luke Garbutt coming in to left-back, and the team never looked back.
Since that Rovers game, Cheltenham have lost twice - to Crewe and Barnet in the JPT, drawn twice, at Barnet in the League and at home to Shrewsbury, and won the rest of their games, some in great style.
It has been an amazing transformation, and with 46 points from 23 games, the foundations have been laid.
If I am being honest, I have not seen anyone for us to fear, and we just need to repeat what we have done in the opening half of the campaign.

Player by player
1 Scott Brown - A stop-start campaign as Jack Butland came in and ousted him from his regular place in goal. His performances have been the usual mix of great saves, hesitation at coming off his line, the odd spilled cross or shot, and only one real mistake, against MK Dons. With Butland's return, he has got his place back and I hope fans give him a chance and don't resort to 'Butland Would Have Saved That' syndrome every time he lets a goal in.
2 Keith Lowe - Player of the year last season, and deservedly so, but one of the high-profile casualties of the mid-season transformation. Played at centre-half in some JPT games and didn't let us down. A useful player to have around should injuries and suspensions kick in over the next few months.
3 Danny Andrew - Regular last season, now becoming something of a forgotten man as he cannot even get on the bench these days. I hope he still has a future at the club as he is an asset going forward and with his set-pieces but I suspect he may be a candidate for a loan deal this month.
4 Dave Bird - A great servant to the club, and in his testimonial year, but I am afraid it is hard to see a long-term future for him. Has hardly been seen in the side or on the bench and apparently did well while on loan at Kidderminster. Another loan deal in the offing.
5 Andy Gallinagh - Similar position to Birdy. Can't get a sniff of the first 16 and another seemingly without a long-term future at Whaddon. had a successful time at Bath and they want him back, and I suspect that will happen, or else he will go somewhere else.
6 Steve Elliott - One of the survivors of last season, but has been one of our best performers. Struggled at times last season and had fans doubting the merits of the signing. But having Alan Bennett alongside him has brought the best out of him.
7 Marlon Pack - The marquee signing of the summer as we snapped him up on a two-year contract, and could prove to be one of the best bits of business the club has ever done. He just oozes class and has at times run games on his own and now has four goals as well. Could earn the club a lot of money one day, but hopefully after he has taken us up.
8 Josh Low - A real curates egg of a player, who can either look fantastic or a liability, with seemingly no middle ground. At 32, another whose career seems to be coming to an end sooner rather than later as he has his career as a solicitor to fall back on. Hopefully he still has something to contribute this season.
9 Darryl Duffy - Arrived with something to prove as he seemed to have been written off at Bristol Rovers and elsewhere due to injuries. Has 11 goals despite having been in and out of the side and has helped fans forget about Wes Thomas. If he carries on, he will be a 20-goal striker this season.
10 Jeff Goulding - Another regular last season reduced to bit-part player this time around. Unfortunately for Jeff, the system we have been playing does not suit his strengths, and the goals from Duffy and Jimmy Spencer have not helped his cause either. Out of contract in the summer, so will hope to get a chance to stake his claim for a new one.
11 Junior Smikle - Yet another of last season's regulars now unable to get a start outside the JPT. Lost his record of playing in every game since arriving at the club when he didn't come on against Shrewsbury. Another who will want the chance to prove he is worth a new contract, but he never let us down.
12 Jack Butland - One day this lad will win full England caps, and we can say Cheltenham Town started it all. Eight clean sheets in 12 games - but was protected superbly by his defence and had very few actual saves to make in many of his games. But his confidence and domination of his box was a great morale booster to those around him. Would love him back in January, but can't see it happening.
14 Jimmy Spencer - Delighted we have got him for the season. Seven goals already and for a 19 year old he works so hard and shows great commitment every time he plays for us, which is all you can ask for. Great upper body strength which helps him against these big centre-halves and will be an asset in the second half of the season.
15 Alan Bennett - The leader and captain we were desperately missing last season. Has also brought the best out of Steve Elliott and, alongside Marlon Pack, is one of the best signings we have made for several years. A quality defender.
16 Russ Penn - Has brought drive, energy and commitment into our midfield, again something we were desperately in need of. His performances in that advanced role of the midfield trio have been crucial to our success and he was badly missed at Barnet when he was suspended.
17 Theo Lewis - Not got much of a look in this season, and another victim of the cut to five substitutes. Another player for whom it is difficult to forsee a future at the club past this summer, and I suspect Theo will be another candidate for a loan spell somewhere.
19 Luke Garbutt - Staying for another month, and would hope he can be here for the season. Was a bit surprised when we signed him, but has brought some quality to the back four, and also good going forward and from set-pieces.
21 Bagasan Graham - Impressed in pre-season and has done well in his cameo appearances and in the JPT. Looked a bit nervous on his full debut against Rotherham but is still learning and hope to see him make an impact in the run-in.
22 Sido Jombati - A revelation since coming from Bath - thanks to club legend Archie Howells from sending him our way. Well done to the club for getting him on a new contract pronto after some great displays. Earned his place in the side in October and has not looked back. Made the odd mistake, yes, but the plusses greatly outweigh the negatives and he is another who could go a long way.
23 Kaid Mohamed - Pace to die for but does not always use it as much as he could. Has definitely been better away from home (five of his six goals have come away from Whaddon Road) and is another integral part of how we play. Has definitely surprised me as I was unsure about him when we signed him having remembered his spell at Forest Green, but has won me over - despite his frustrating in-and-out performances.
24 Harry Hooman - Young defender who performed well in the JPT games and has been on the bench once or twice, coming on as a striker in one game! A good prospect for the future.
25 Luke Summerfield - Our bonus signing who has become an unsung hero. Was rated at £1.5million at one time while with Plymouth in the Championship, and hard to believe he is only 23. Some great performances and great goals in midfield for us and will continue to improve, and has become a great asset.
26 Bobby Reid - Loan signing who came on against Southend, looked quite lively, but has not been seen since.
27 Marlon Jackson - Another loanee, short appearance at Oxford, but that's it.

Mark Yates - Late last season, many fans were calling for his head. Now, seven months later, they are singing his praises. Some ruthless decisions in the summer, shrewd signings and more tough choices have turned it around in spectacular fashion. The signings of Butland, Spencer and Garbutt, the decision to bring Jombati into the side and the switch to a three-man midfield have been the biggest three factors which have seen us fly in the last few months. He has had some luck with how his signings and tactical decisions have come off, and the lack of injuries in the squad, but has deserved that with the hard work put in by him and his staff. The big test for him is now - to try to finish the job.