Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Missed opportunity

At around 1.30 on Saturday, I stuck a microphone under Mark Yates' nose, and asked him what his team was for the afternoon's game.
The last thing I was expecting him to say was that he had left out Alan Bennett, Kaid Mohamed and Jermaine McGlashan, so the next question was whether they were injured or not.
No, was the reply. Okay then gaffer.
Bennett was left out in favour of Keith Lowe, because Mark felt we have been letting in too many goals. You can't argue with that statement - it's true, but dropping the skipper is not normally the solution to a problem like that.
We know that Yatesy was looking for defensive cover, believed to be Jamaal Lascelles of Nottingham Forest, recommended apparently by some bloke called Cotterill.
The dropping of Bennett suggests that, had he managed to secure the deal, the new man would have started, but the move still remains undone and so it was a chance for the ever-willing, and usually reliable Bilston Beckenbauer to step in alongside Steve Elliott.
Keith managed to throw in one of his customary stepovers and a Cruyff turn, and turned in one of his usual seven-out-of-10 displays - and that change was seven minutes and a poorly-defended free-kick away from working.
The omission of Mohamed and McGlashan was explained by the manager stating that he didn't feel his wide men had done as well as he would have liked lately.
He also wanted to play two up front, and so it was a narrow 4-1-3-2 system which took the field, but a starting team shorn of width and pace.
Shaun Harrad was back in the side, and with Jeff Goulding alongside him - a partnership we haven't seen much of, but which I felt could be a successful one... but not in this system.
The first half was a mess. Both teams were playing the same formation, neither side could keep the ball or string three passes together, and there wasn't mauch in the way of goalmouth action.
Marlon Pack, who in many peoples' eyes has not hit the heights of last season, was the only one of our front six to get us on the front foot - the rest of them looked lethargic and we never looked like breaking them down.
The second half started in the same vein, and it was case of waiting for the changes to come, which they did midway through, and Mo and Jermaine came on for Jeff and Darren Carter.
Mo went down the middle and Jermaine on to the right, and straight away it was as if someone had attached a set of jump leads to the entire side as we came to life.
We got the goal with a fabulous finish from Shaun, in what was his first shot of the game, and there looked like being only one winner, until a catalogue of errors gifted York an equaliser.
From a corner, Billy Jones, instead of curing one of his wicked balls into the box, played it to the edge of the area for some reason, and Jamal Fyfield broke away.
He was chased and challenged by Marlon, who I thought won the ball, but the referee gave a free-kick and even more inexplicably booked Marlon for the tackle.
But free-kick or not, we should have defended it better. It ricocheted about in the box and Jason Walker put it in, and with that went two points.
Defeats for Rotherham, Bradford and Fleetwood, and a win for Port Vale over Gillingham in the meeting of the top two rubbed salt into that wound - and those two points dropped took on more significance.
We hadn't looked in much trouble - I can only remember one save from Browny, when he came off his line to block from Walker, but we struggled at the other end.
Marlon was the pick of our midfield, but Russ Penn was ineffective as he had to drift wide and nominally provide some width, which is not his strong point at all.
Darren started well and faded, before coming off, and Jake Taylor was largely ineffective, which he has been in a number of his games - in fact it seems to be either feast or famine with him.
He was excellent at Northampton, and at Hereford in the Cup replay, and had a great game, scoring a great goal against Wycombe. Those games aside, I am afraid he has been decidedly average, or worse.
I must confess I wonder if we let the wrong Reading loanee go, and whether we would have been better off keeping Lawson D'Ath, and sending Jake back... we only saw Lawson for about 155 minutes over three games, but I liked the look of him.
Largely though, our efforts going forward were like running through treacle. That was of no benefot to the front two, and we were able to learn nothing at all about their merits as a partnership.
Shaun didn't have a shot of note until his goal, and only had one more afterwards, which was brilliantly saved by Michael Ingham.
Much of the post-match flak has fallen on Jeff, whose substitution was ridiculously cheered by some fans. I never have, or will, see the sense in that.
I appreciate that fans have favourite players and others they don't rate as highly - I do as well, but I will never understand why supporters have to boo some of their own players and even cheer when they are taken off. I can't think of anything that is more demotivating.
Some of the comments on social media and forums since the game about Jeff have been pretty laughable. One said he shouldn't ever wear a Cheltenham shirt again, another said he doesn'tput the effort in. Good grief.
Jeff appears to have become this season's scapegoat, taking on that unwanted mantle from the likes of Danny Andrew, Junior Smikle and Josh Low.
With some fans I am afraid he is on a losing wicket the minute he steps on the pitch - a few have made their mind up and won't be swayed no matter what.
But he spent most of the game on Saturday having the ball fired at him head high for him to try and either control, or flick on. Those flicks he did win (not many I admit against their big centre-backs) were ineffective as Shaun is not the quickest.
Jeff is not and never has been a target man. Play the ball to his feet and might create something, as he has in the past - especially his sublime late winner against Barnet - or put a cross in and he might get on the end of it, as he did against Wycombe.
He also had to try and run the channels as there was no natural width in the side while he was out there, and it was a bit of a thankless task.
Of our three strikers, he is the only one of the three who can create something from nothing, as he did against Barnet, with his lobbed winner at Accrington last year and (nearly) in the play-off final when he smashed a 35-yarder against the bar.
The other two, Shaun and Darryl Duffy, are finishers. Penalty box players who play off the shoulder of the central defenders, and that system on Saturday did not play to Shaun's strengths, while Darryl didn't get on. None of them have much natural pace.
Jeff has three goals in five League starts, Darryl two in three starts and Shaun's goal on Saturday makes it six in 15 League starts. That was his first in the League since September.
Chris Zebroski had five in 19 starts before he left, and all three of those remaining have decent records.
But they have been chopped and changed, none of them having what could be a proper run in the side of late. No chance to get into a groove, as strikers need. No opportunity to build up some confidence and sharpness.
For example, Darryl and Jeff started against Wycombe, both scored, and stayed in the side against Oxford, but the side as a whole didn't perform, and Darryl missed out against Everton.
Shaun had that run at the start of the season, and it worked as he scored five goals by mid-September in a seven-game spell, but since then they have all suffered from the decision to play one man up front.
Zeb was the only one of them who was really comfortable with that - Jeff, Shaun and Darryl are not comfortable with that physical battle with centre-halves - they need someone next to them to win that battle and make them some space and some chances.
That 'someone' could yet be Paul Benson, the Swindon striker who has confirmed there is an offer on the table.
He could be the man we need to bring the best out of Shaun, Darryl and Jeff, as I think he could play up front with any one of the three (and probably Mo as well, as I thought he did well up there when he came on) - but as long as we can get the service right, and play with some proper width.
If he comes, Benson might be the regular, reliable goalscorer we need, or might help one of the other three take on that role.
We have had them fleetingly in the past - Gillespie, Odejayi, Thomas, Richards - but constantly suffered from losing them, either being sold or leaving when their contracts expire.
Jon Palmer wrote a piece in the Echo here http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/Cheltenham-Town-Questions-mount-tinker-man-Yates/story-17852492-detail/story.html which was spot on - talking about the team's search for consistency being hampered by constant changes in the personnel and system.
I was told a stat after the match that we have only picked the same starting team for two games running seven times this season (York was our 32nd game) and never for three matches in a row , and in our last four games we have used four different systems.
These are League Two players. They need to be comfortable in a system, like they were during that great run last season, and it seems that it is taking Yatesy longer this season to find that formula that works.
As Jon alluded to in the piece I have linked to, in order to get consistency on the pitch, you need to try and get consistency in selection, and system.
Despite that, we are still right in the mix, sitting fifth, two places and two points behind third-placed Exeter having played two games less. Our famed goal difference even compares well with Exeter, and Rotherham, who are fourth on goal difference.
I am told a lot that this squad is not as good as last season's, yet we are still as high up in the table and competing with teams with much bigger budgets than ours.
Fleetwood have just spent £300,000 on a striker. Rotherham continue to sign players like water, Port Vale have landed the not cheap Lee Hughes, yet we are still in there fighting with these sides who all carry much bigger and more expensive squads than ours.
However, with a squad of 19, including youth teamer Joe Hanks, and with Bags and Danny on loan in addition to that, we need the FA Cup money to go on some reinforcements.
By the time we head up the M6 at Morecambe, we could have one or two new faces on the bus - fingers crossed...