Friday, 1 February 2013

What a night...

I don't know about you, but as I sit here to start this blog at 12.30am after the most turbulent transfer window in Cheltenham Town's league history, my head is spinning.
For Whaddon Road, read Piccadilly Circus. Players coming in and going out like wildfire.
There is only one place to start - with our captain, our leader, Alan Bennett.
I was there at Wembley when he spoke after the play-off final defeat to Ian Randall and Jon Palmer. I have never, in more than 20 years of reporting, seen a man so utterly broken by the result of a football match.
That man literally ran through brick walls for this football club. He played 73 matches, and every single one was 90 minutes of full-blooded commitment.
His partnership with Steve Elliott deserves to go down in club folklore. In my book, it is up there with the best central defensive partnership we have had in my time watching the club - Chris Banks and Mark Freeman.
Last season, they were imperious, at times unbeatable - but taking away the sentiment, in this campaign you have to say this has not always been the case.
At the start of the season, Bennett was injured, and Harry Hooman came in, performing well early on alongside Elliott and winning the player of the month for August.
Bennett came back after home horrors against Southend and Accrington, and things went well until his last-gasp rush of blood against Fleetwood earned a three-match ban.
That did not endear him to the manager, I would suggest. Then came that run of away day nightmares.
Some of the goals we have conceded at Chesterfield, Rotherham and Rochdale, and (even though they were ruthless) in the Everton cup tie were poor.
It is now increasingly evident that the game at Rochdale was a watershed. Whether there were words exchanged after that game we will never know, but he rumour mill suggests there was.
Something had to change, and, rightly or wrongly, Bennett seems to have been the fall guy for those losses.
Before the game with York, I spoke to Mark Yates, asked his team and Bennett was not in it. Dropped.
We drew that game with Keith Lowe coming in, and clean sheets against Morecambe and Rochdale followed. We drew all three matches, but the defence were not to blame for that. The change had done its job, and for Bennett, the writing was on the wall.
Yates made no secret of the fact that he was going to look for defensive cover in January. Both Bennett and Elliott are 30-plus, both are out of contract in the summer, and both were bound to pick up niggles in the coming months. In other words, they were not guaranteed to be first choice.
Elliott has played every game bar two (the MK Dons and Yate cup ties) this season, which is testament to how well he is managed by Yates and Ian Weston. You can guarantee he will not play all of the last 18 games - but with Bennett's departure, he now becomes the key man in the defence, the new leader back there.
I also feel Yates has reservations about Keith Lowe as a long-term central defender, seeing him more as cover for both Sido Jombati and the centre-halves. In my view, right-back is his best position.
Luke McCullough came in before the Rochdale game, but it was the arrival of Michael Hector that really threw the cat among the pigeons.
McCullough is 18, and a novice, but highly-rated at Manchester United, which, let's face it, is not somewhere you are signed up unless you have some sort of ability (okay, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi... but you get my drift). His profile on the United website suggests they rate him highly and he is on course to be a Northern Ireland international one day. This is the next stage of his education.
Hector, at 20, has experience at this level and above with Shrewsbury, Barnet and latterly Aldershot. Feedback from fans of those clubs has been mixed since his arrival, but he is more first-team ready than McCullough, but I can see both getting plenty of game time.
They are here for a month to begin with, but that will surely be extended to three if they perform in the coming weeks.
So with all that, Bennett was not going to be guaranteed a place. Leaving sentiment aside, with his contract coming up for renewal, and at 31 years of age his departure had a touch of inevitability about it.
He needs to be playing every week, and has opted (whether through his own choice or with a gentle prod) to end his time with us and move on.
But it is a sad end for a really likeable bloke and a top player. Personally, I won't forget when I took my kids to the shop in the Regent Arcade and he spoke to them for ages, and that was typical of him.
He was not just a great player and leader on the pitch. Off it, he was the same, a tremendous ambassador and figurehead for the club, and a great role model.
Every interview he gave was honest and to the point. No cliches, no bull. Put a microphone under his nose, even after the heaviest defeat and the worst performances, there would be no excuses. Any club which signs him will not regret it.
If that wasn't enough, we have also said farewell to Jeff Goulding, and if I am honest this came as more of a surprise.
Goulding is one of those players who divides terrace opinion (especially after 'gesture-gate' at Wycombe in September), but I was a fan.
I thought he was a clever player, had a good footballing brain, and had the ability to conjure a goal from nothing. His goal against Barnet in November to pull a win out of the fire was sublime.
His partnership with Wes Thomas was a prolific one during a season of transition, and although he was not among the goals as much after Thomas left, I felt he still made a contribution.
His 18 league goals for us leave his level with Thomas and Tony Naylor at 11th equal of our all-time goalscorers list since 1999, and he made his fair share of goals as well.
In my view, he was unfairly castigated for his performance in the play-off final. He hit the bar and I felt he worked hard that day, but many fans wanted their favourite Darryl Duffy to play instead, so Jeff copped most of the flak.
Mark Yates showed a lot of faith in Goulding. He often picked him to play on his own up front, and turned to him late in games if he wanted to change things, either playing him up top, or just in behind the front two.
But with the arrival of Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, he is another player who would have found his path to the team (and even the bench) blocked, and so, with his contract running down, he too has opted for pastures new, and good luck to him.
I thought he might go out on loan, but if I am honest, I had expected Duffy to go before Goulding, as he had been the one making the noises about a loan move earlier this season.
But funnily enough, I see Duffy actually benefitting from the changes in our front line, and getting more game time, as the arrival of Benson and Harrison could bring out the best in him.
Benson is the player every Cheltenham fan wanted. We all saw the impact he had on Swindon's promotion push last season, and we all hope he can do the same for us.
He is not your typical target man, but every time I have seen him play it is his movement and awareness, and his knack of turning even a half-chance in to a goal which has impressed me.
He and Harrison will give our attack a line-leader, and a focal point for Duffy or Shaun Harrad to play off and hopefully he can really bring the best out of whichever he is paired with. We now have two target men, Benson and Harrison, and two poachers, Duffy and Harrad.
So what of Harrison? He scored twice against us in the 4-0 debacle at Stevenage, and was then AFC Wimbledon's record signing, and although he wasn't prolific at the start of his time there (it took him 13 games to score), he has eight goals in 21 league games this season - which is two more than our current leading league goalscorer, Shaun Harrad.
He has been a long-term target of Yates, who has once again persevered and finally got his man.
I thought he had a good game against us at Kingsmeadow in October, scoring late on and also hitting the bar, but like Benson he impressed me with his movement and running in the channels as well as his threat in the box.
At 25, he is also at a good age to develop further in his time with us, and I think we now have overall a much better balanced choice of strikers, and also a more potent quartet for the coming games.
But they will only be potent if the midfield get the supply right - and there will be a new look there as well (hope you are all keeping up...)
I think Jason Taylor is a fantastic signing. When I heard he was coming here I was absolutely stunned, and you cannot blame Yatesy for grabbing the chance when it came along.
At (just) 26, he has 200-plus games at this level and a promotion from this division in the bag. He is hard as nails, the real midfield 'enforcer' we have been missing since, well, since Yatesy retired...
For once, I applaud the madness of Steve Evans. Taylor has been a regular practically all season, and the fans there say he has been their player of the season. If Evans doesn't want him, I'll gladly have him.
Some Cheltenham fans I have spoken to said they didn't notice him when we played against him. Exactly. He does the stuff you won't notice. The dirty work which allows players like Darren Carter and Marlon Pack to play. Just the kind of player every successful team has in their ranks.
That brings me to Marlon Pack. Last season, he was the jewel in our crown, but this season it doesn't seem to have happened for him.
Second-season syndrome, or teams working him out, I don't know, but if the move to Swindon comes off he will still be missed and remembered as a top player.
It is a credit to him that we often forget he is only 21 years old, and for most weeks of the season the youngest player in our starting XI. That's how good he has been for us.
I can understand the club taking the Swindon offer, it it is finally ratified. There is no guarantee Pack would sign a new contract this summer, and if he was to go we would be relying on the tribunal lottery to determine a compensation fee for him, so £100,000 represents a good return in my book.
It would also bring Luke Rooney in our direction - another player I have liked when he played against us for Gillingham and Swindon.
I have felt for a while that we needed a left footed version of Jermaine McGlashan, and in Rooney we would have a pretty good version of that. He also knows Paul Benson's game well, so there are many reasons to suggest this move will be a good one if it does come off as I hope it does.
The thought of McGlashan and Rooney on the wings, feeding Benson, Harrison, Harrad and Duffy with Taylor and Carter behind is quite a mouth watering one. And don't forget Russ Penn or Kaid Mohamed...
But (yes, there is always one of those) my only niggling worry is making so many changes at this time of the season, and how quickly it will all gel together.
We cannot expect to turn up on Saturday against Torquay and for everyone to click straight away and we turn it on like Barca. Doesn't happen... but Yatesy will need to find that formula as the top three is still up for grabs.
No club is really putting their hand up and saying 'we want that place'. With the statements we have made in the past few days with the investments in the squad, the pressure will be ratcheted up on Yates to deliver.
He knows that.
The board are to be heartily applauded for their backing. No lack of ambition here any more, no 'little old Cheltenham', no 'going with what we have got'.
Fans wanted exciting signings. They wanted a sign that the board were as keen as they are to see the club grasp the nettle and look to go forward.
The board have speculated. Not stupidly as in the past, but with a modicum of balancing the books. These are calculated risks, there is a mixture of short and long-term thinking.
Players come and go, that is the game. While it is sad to see people like Benno, Jeff and Marlon depart, we look to the new era of players like Taylor and Harrison with optimism and excitement.
I can't wait for Saturday. I have no clue what the starting team is going to be -  just hope Yatesy does.
In his three years here, he has probably never had a harder team to pick. I don't envy him.
It is 2.15am, and I feel like a kid in a sweetshop after today.
Up to now, we Cheltenham fans thought the transfer window was something that just happened to other clubs... not this time.