Sunday, 18 March 2012

Grounded by the Gills

So, is it Cheltenham 'til I die, or Cheltenham until we lose a few games?
For some Rubies 'fans' it seems it is the latter, as judging by the fallout from yesterday's defeat, I could be forgiven for thinking we are heading to the Blue Square Premier, not sitting in fifth place, three points from the top three.
That's the bigger picture, and in some quarters we are not allowed to look at that. That's showing a small-club mentality, not showing any ambition, etc etc.
But what has suddenly given us the God-given right to expect our club to be in the top seven even?
The last two seasons have seen us in the bottom seven, so any improvement on that should surely be applauded - but perspective seems a dirty word.
It's instant success or nothing. Gradual improvement is not allowed it seems.
We have become greedy all of a sudden. A few months in the top three, couple of weeks at the top, and we are the finished article. Anything less than that is deemed to be failure, a disaster, a poor season. Do me a favour.
In July, most CTFC fans living on planet Earth would have snapped your hands off at the offer of a top-10 finish. Now, even a finish in the top 7 is being deemed as unacceptable in some quarters, it would appear.
Yes, it is disappointing if we miss out on the top three after the position we were in. But it's not all over yet - we are still in there and can still achieve.
Apparently some Swindon fans were calling for Di Canio's head after they lost at Crewe yesterday. What is going on? Do managers now have to win every single game or they are now looking after their shoulders after one or two defeats?
We were poor yesterday, very poor in the second half especially, gave away three poor goals and didn't look like winning the game.
For the first 40 minutes, neither side did much though - Gillingham had come for a point, when they were given the first goal, they could hardly believe their luck and that was that.
There were boos after the game, as expected with the fickle breed of football fan around today. Mark Yates reacted to it, although the cupped-hand gesture was I suspect more to do with his frustration at the lack of atmosphere as he alluded to afterwards (bar the Wymans' usual sterling efforts).
It was a bit of a Delia moment - he was saying let's be 'aving you, let's have some noise. Ill-advised yes, but spur of the moment and in the frustration of seeing his side turn in their worst display of the season.
Yes, people pay their money, they can react as they want and if they want to boo fine - if it makes you feel better. But does it help? Will it make the team play better next time? No on both counts.
I have avoided the Nest. A few hours eavesdropping conversations, sat in the pub and looking at Twitter has been enough to see me lose the will to live a few times.
Some of the opinions and reasoning for the defeat yesterday have been laughable.
Someone blamed the races. The players were seen up there every day apparently, drinking heavily every day. They went on Tuesday afternoon, having trained in the morning, and not drinking. Chalk that one off.
Next, it was down to the reaction of Pack and Garbutt to coming off. They were playing poorly, and deserved the hook. If they are upset, then good. Sulk if you want, then put it right on Tuesday, if you are still in the side.
There were the usual ones... 'the players don't care', 'they think they are better than they are', 'Yates has lost the dressing room' (what does that mean by the way...?), 'Yates isn't up to it' (same players and manager who were 'up to it' three months ago however... no problem when we were winning at Oxford, Rovers etc, and beating Southend, Crawley etc). All to be expected.
Apparently Marlon Pack/Luke Summerfield/Luke Garbutt/Jimmy Spencer don't care because they know they are leaving in the summer. Maybe they are, but you would have thought that a promotion on their playing CV would be more attractive to a new club than missing out. Garbutt and Spencer were still leaving in the summer when we were in form two months ago...
So, a lot of straw clutching and knee jerk stuff going on.
What we do have is a squad in urgent need of bolstering. Gillingham had eight players out banned or injured yesterday and were able to cope with it. We have a crisis like that and we wouldn't be able to put 11 out.
Besides the 16 in the squad yesterday, we have Harry Hooman, Bags Graham and Scott Brown. Take away the three loanees, and we have 16 players of our own.
Most of the other sides in the top seven have double that - Swindon could probably field a side made up of players Di Canio has fallen out with or discarded after a few games to bring someone else in.
He and Steve Evans are almost playing Football Manager. I want player X, and bingo, terms are agreed and there he is. For other teams, like us, it's not that easy.
Money talks and they have plenty of it, hence why they can get players like Alexander, Clarke and Benson.
Yes, Yatesy has been trying to bring players in, but he doesn't have that money, and so has to be more selective. If we were down at the bottom, we would have had someone in by now - anyone, a kid probably.
But Mark wants better than he has. Last season, in the squad we had then, it wasn't difficult to find better than we had. This season, the quest to find better than we have becomes harder.
He went down the 'anyone will do' route with Bobby Reid and Marlon Jackson earlier in the season, but now he needs someone to make an instant impact.
He knows he needs a target man. Marc Richards would be great, but Port Vale aren't going to let their top scorer go unless their administrators say they have to, while they are still on the precipice. They lost defender Lee Collins to Barnsley last week which I suspect gave them some breathing space.
Izale McLeod? Yes, right. Barnet are two points off the drop zone so they will let their top scorer go, won't they? Meanwhile, in the real world...
Alan Connell or Mehdi Kerrouche at Swindon are two more names - and I can see Mr Di Canio letting another team in the promotion shake-up have one of his players. Not.
I wouldn't like to be the player he does eventually bring in - that person is on a hiding to nothing I'm afraid.
If they don't come in and score goals straight away or make a difference, they will get absolutely slaughtered. Good luck.
We have a squad which, at the moment, has lost confidence and several key players who have gone off the boil - Alan Bennett, Luke Summerfield, Kaid Mohamed, Luke Garbutt to name but four who are not the same players we saw before Christmas.
Dips in form are the be expected. With the size of the squad, it is more difficult to take them out of the side, although the latter three have all been 'rested' over the past month.
These are League Two players. If they were able to perform consistently at the same level for a 46-game season they wouldn't be playing for us.
Also, we have started giving terrible goals away. The three at Morecambe, the winner at Swindon, the first two yesterday. Terrible goals - and that has to be the main reason for the dip in form, as keeping clean sheets means, more often than not, that you win games.
It is heresy to criticise Jack Butland, but yesterday he looked like what he is - an inexperienced 19-year-old goalkeeper.
When he came into the side first time, he was playing behind a confident defence, now that same defence looks like a bunch of strangers thrown together for the first time.
It's the same five people as looked imperious against Oxford, Burton, Rovers, Southend, Macclesfield, Bradford back in the Autumn. Now they look nervy and edgy any time a diagonal ball, hopeful punt or cross comes anywhere near them.
A massive conundrum for Mark Yates to consider - in some ways, Butland's return, rather than bolstering us, has almost de-stabilised us a bit.
It seems amazing that the same side which performed so well at Swindon last week (but remember, the bottom line was that we lost that game, no matter how well we performed between the two penalty areas) can turn in such a limp display seven days later.
So, all in all, the team is struggling. So what should the fans do? Sit there in silence and only make any noise when a pass is misplaced, or a shot goes wide? Unfortunately, by and large it seems that way.
I know - the fans react to what they are seeing on the pitch. Did the Morecambe fans do that when their side started badly the other week? No - they sang and chanted to get behind their team, and helped them come back to win (helped a bit by our terrible defending...)
There weren't many of them, but they made some great noise at the Globe, and their players fed off it. On a bigger note, what about those Bilbao fans at Old Trafford? Great noise and lifted their team.
If the atmosphere is flat, my take is that the team will be flat. Yes, they motivate themselves for the game, but that can only take you so far - the team will be up for it, but surely the fans should be up for it as well?
Before the game yesterday, a few people came up to me and said 'we'll lose today'. Great attitude. To be honest, why bother coming? So you can then turn around afterwards and say 'see, I was right, they are crap, told you?' Is at all about points-scoring and ego rather than actually wanting the players and team to succeed?
If I was cynical, I would actually say there are some fans who are actually pleased when we lose so they can then brag on the Internet or to their mates that they were right all along. I hope I am wrong but I do wonder sometimes....
Talking of crowds, yesterday's figure was 3,137 - now, as we are still in a position to be challenging for the top three, I had a look back at the two seasons when we made the play offs and compare figures.
In March 2002, before we won at the Millennium against Rushden, we played Rochdale on March 23, and the crowd was 4,643, and the following Tuesday 5,013 saw Nathan Tyson's winner against Kidderminster. Then 5,546 saw John Brough's winner against Hull and 7,013 the last home game against Oxford.
John Ward's team in 2005-6 had crowds of 3,447, 3,525, 3,518 and 4,518 for the last four home league games, so that's an alarming drop already and our last four games won't be more than that.
There seems to be no signs of a late-season bump in crowds and the current run of three defeats will only suggest further that some fans are losing confidence in the team's ability to stay the course.
Let's hope they are wrong.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Looked shaky to me, and not the super-confident youngster of three or four months ago. Kicking was very poor. If Scott Brown had conceded those three goals...
Sido Jombati - Probably our best player but still gave away the first goal and lucky not to give a penalty away in the second half.
Luke Garbutt - Right off the boil. Free-kicks and delivery from wide areas was poor and seems to have hit 'the wall'.
Alan Bennett - Gone is the supremely-confident skipper of a few weeks ago. Has become shaky and error-prone. Needs to attack the ball again rather than letting it bounce.
Steve Elliott - Steady enough as usual but got sucked in a few times due to errors from players around him.
Marlon Pack - Thought he was ineffective and rightly taken off when he got frustrated and booked. Gillingham sat a player on him and gave him no time. Needs to deal with that.
Luke Summerfield - Form has dipped alarmingly, Not winning second balls or making those runs and getting into pockets of space as he was a few games ago.
Russ Penn - Not as bad as the other two but not the driving enforcer or recent months. Didn't make supporting runs and tackling lacked usual bite.
Kaid Mohamed - Totally ineffective. Has lost confidence completely. Never looked like beating a man and touch was dire.
Jermaine McGlashan - Flattered to deceive. Got into some good positions, but crossing was poor - however, didn't have may targets to aim for...
Darryl Duffy - Worked hard as usual but with no service or support whatsoever.

Substitutes
Josh Low (for Kaid Mohamed 57) - A spent force I am afraid. Has had some good games for us, but sadly looks like his days at this level are over.
Jimmy Spencer (for Marlon Pack 57) - Usual effort, but fighting a lost cause.
Jeff Goulding (for Luke Garbutt 75) - No impact at all.