Sunday, 12 February 2012

Here we go again...

It's getting to be a common routine now - going to Edgar Street hoping this is going to be the year we finally win there, and come away with a 1-1 draw, muttering 'maybe next year' in a rueful manner.
This is the third year in a row we have come away with that result - but this is the first of the three where I felt that we did not deserve any better.
After the game, Mark Yates said it was a good point - and in some ways it was, after the first half performance, which was ragged, and as bad a 45 minutes as we have put in all season.
It cannot be a coincidence that it came with a change in formation to 4-4-2 - remember we played that in the first half against Plymouth and struggled, we played it at Wimbledon and struggled - and there has to be a worry here that the players we have cannot mould into that formation.
Marlon Pack and Luke Summerfield were bullied out of it in the first half, lacking the physicality to compete with Hereford's three-man midfield, and putting us on the back foot - Russ Penn's competitiveness was sorely missed.
Hereford were direct, and Delroy Facey was a good target man, giving Keith Lowe especially a very torrid time - that game was just made for Steve Elliott.
In a nutshell then, we are badly missing Elliott and Penn. Alan Bennett looks a different player with Elliott alongside him - just more assured and confident.
The skipper has been superb, but has made a few errors recently as he has had to take on the 'lead' role in the central defensive partnership usually assumed by Elliott - Steve is the dominant man, the one who wins the first header nine times out of 10 and without him there, Alan is having to try to take on the role and is uncomfortable with it.
In midfield, Penn is the driving force. He is the one who sets the tone with his energetic runs and strong tackling, and without him there our midfield looks rather limp, I'm afraid.
We know Mark is looking for players - and the top of his list, if Penn and Elliott are out for a while - has to be a dominant centre-half and midfield Russ Penn clone.
Add to that a striker with some power and pace to really ruffle defences up, and Darryl Duffy and Jimmy Spencer, for all their effort and work-rate, don't have the capabilities to do that.
Remember at Bristol Rovers, Duffy had Rickie Lambert alongside him and thrived. That's the sort of player we need.
Basically, the spine of the team needs bolstering.
Elliott we are told will be back in a week or two, while Penn was on the bench but did not come on and did not participate in the post-match running on the pitch with the other substitutes and unused reserves.
This suggests that he is more injured than we have thought, or that Mark and the backroom team are just trying to wrap him in cotton wool. As he was on the bench, I suspect the latter is closer to the truth.
With Russ out, Mark went for 4-4-2. In hindsight, I felt that was the wrong decision and I would have used Junior Smikle in that role as happened at Macclesfield and kept with the same formation.
Mark after the game said he felt that to say we were outbattled in the first half was wrong, but we didn't win enough headers around the pitch. I felt outbattled was the right way to describe it.
Hereford just seemed to want it more, and, as they usually do against us, they raised their game and got the boost of the Facey goal.
It was probably the worst goal we have conceded all season, coming from a hopeful diagonal punt from the left-back and Facey couldn't believe he was left alone to head past a helpless Scott Brown.
Watching the highlights, Lowe and Bennett both seem to commit the cardinal sin of leaving to to each other, then both appeal for a non-existent offside.
Summerfield then kicked one off the line, and maybe the biggest bonus of that first half was that it ended with us only 1-0 down. It could have been worse.
Mark must have had words in the dressing room, and in the second half we were much better.
It was important that we got back into the game quickly as the longer it went at 1-0 the more confident and determined Hereford would become, and it was a great cross from Jermaine McGlashan and a good header from Kaid Mohamed.
Kaid had been moved into what is now known as 'the Penn role' and we looked much better and more comfortable playing that way.
We had territory and pressure in our favour and Kaid had a chance cleared off the line, but as with Hereford in the first half, we didn't test their goalkeeper enough - Adam Bartlett did not have a save to make.
Facey had gone off after an hour and that was a bonus for us and Keith Lowe in particular, and we left our changes late.
I was disappointed to see McGlashan go off as the left-back was on a yellow card and we had also just brought Jeff Goulding - the nearest we have to a target man - on and he then ended up playing on the left wing. Just seemed a bit strange to me.
Tom Barkhuizen's late chance was a let off for us - I expected him to score, but to be honest neither side deserved to win, and a draw was right over the 90 minutes.
I have not read the Nest forum, but did speak to fans afterwards and disappointment was the order of the day, and not to end the hoodoo there was disappointing.
But on the positive side we responded well to a below-par first half performance and came back to get a point against a determined, physical side.
If that game had been at Accrington or Macclesfield, I wonder if the reaction from fans would have been the same as it has been since yesterday - or whether the fact that it was against Hereford makes it more exaggerated.
After all the pre-match nonsense I have seen on the Nest, Facebook and Twitter about us going there to 'smash them', 'hammer the scum' and rubbish like that, maybe some people were left with some egg on their faces and feeling a bit silly. I don't know.
Yes, we want to beat Hereford. I would have loved to see us beat Hereford and lay the jinx at last, but we didn't play well, and I would rather credit Hereford for stopping us in the first half, maybe acknowledge a tactical mistake and admit we didn't deserve any more than we got.
Hereford held Crawley at home, and got a draw at Swindon. Anyone can slip up anywhere.
I certainly won't be blaming the cold weather, the pitch or our defenders having the sun in their eyes. At Crawley, we were beaten by the better side on a pitch that was the same for both sides in weather that was the same for both sides. Same as yesterday.
We have to be able to adapt to conditions and weather. That's what good sides do and for the last 6 months we have shown we are good side.
 A defeat at Crawley and a draw at Hereford does not mean the wheels are falling off. We are still top of the league, with 17 games to go.
Yes, we might not have hit the pre-Christmas heights recently, but we play Torquay at home on Tuesday night, a side who have been flying recently and are now only three points behind us and it would be good to see a decent crowd getting behind the side and being that 12th man.
This is when the team needs the fans.
Swindon play Crawley the same night, so someone will drop points there and Southend go to Gillingham  tomorrow, and it would be nice to see their slide continue to maybe see one of the top six start to slip away.
It's not all about one game. Overall, after 29 games, a one point lead at the top of the table and being 13 points clear of the side in 8th place is more than any Cheltenham fan would have expected in August, isn't it?
Don't panic!

Player by player
Scott Brown - Left exposed for the goal, but didn't have many shots to save, just one by his post in the second half.
Sido Jombati - Steady enough game. Defended well in the first half and looked to get forward in the second, but crosses were disappointing.
Luke Garbutt - Same as Sido really. End product from crosses and free-kicks not as good as it has been recently.
Keith Lowe - All at sea against Facey in the first half, but a bit happier in the second when Facey went off, including one amazing Cruyff turn...
Alan Bennett - Doesn't seem the confident player he was before Christmas without Steve Eliott alongside him.
Marlon Pack - Gone off the boil recently. But remember - he is only 20 years old and is still a great talent. He will be back.
Luke Summerfield - Looks unable to play in a two-man midfield. Seemed to struggle but was in the right place clear off the line.
Jermaine McGlashan - Shame he was taken off as he could have unlocked them. Great cross for goal and work-rate was good throughout.
Kaid Mohamed - Good header for the goal and was the man most likely to win it in his central role. But offered little in the first half.
Darryl Duffy - Struggled to make headway against Townsend and Green. Needs some more power alongside him to help him thrive.
Jimmy Spencer - Anonymous afternoon I'm afraid but did well to help set the goal up. Got frustrated and was easily dealt with by Hereford.

Substitutes
Jeff Goulding (for Darryl Duffy 83) - Tried to get involved, but bizarrely ended up on the left wing.
Junior Smikle (for Jermaine McGlashan 86) - Busy as usual, had half-chance but didn't pull the trigger.
Josh Low (for Jimmy Spencer 90) - Barely touched the ball.