Sunday, 6 October 2013

Crunch time is coming

AS away performances go, overall this one wasn't the worst. But the result is all that counts.
Ifs, buts and maybes were a-plenty in a frustrating 90 minutes, however it only takes one look at the league table to show that the situation is now dire.
Managers always say they don't look at the table until 10 games have been played. It's not a pretty sight.
Nine points from 30 wasn't in the script. Only Accrington and Northampton sit below us, and among the teams also on nine or 10 points are Torquay, Bury and Plymouth... teams who have put 11 goals past us and count a win over us as just about their only bright spot so far.
Yesterday's game was one which I felt we deserved more from. We let the early goal in, which is now virtually a customary occurrence in a CTFC away game.
This time it took five minutes. A ball chipped in to the edge of our box, Deon Burton laid it off and Etienne Esajas had too much time and space to take it down and pick his spot.
After the late win last weekend, we went in with the same team. When we did that after West Ham and Accrington, they bombed the following game. This was not the same total debacle as those games were, but it was another loss.
We had started with a 4-1-4-1 system, Terry Gornell on the left, Byron Harrison on his own up front. That was thankfully abandoned quickly as Byron was isolated and Terry wasted, and we stayed in the game in the first half.
We didn't create much, but we stayed in the game, hung in there and didn't capitulate for a change.
But still we are unbalanced. It is like a broken record, I know, but the manager wants to shoe-horn Russ Penn, David Noble and Jason Taylor in the same side, while wanting to play 4-4-2.
You can't do both. He has to bite the bullet and leave one of them out.
He got flak for leaving Penn out against Pompey, so since then he has been in the side, but has been the one, more often than not, marginalised on the right-hand side.
Noble was a signing he wanted, so he wants him in the side. Taylor is seen as a security blanket, especially away from home, and played a big part in the two games we won.
He also knows he will get stick, as he did last season, for playing one up front, and on form at the moment he cannot leave two of Harrison, Gornell and Cureton out of the side.
But the second half display (especially after Noble came off and Cureton came on) showed that we need that balance in the side.
We pushed Scunthorpe back, negated them as an attacking force, and should have at least equalised.
We had a couple of scrambles from corners, McGlashan should arguably have had a penalty, as could Cureton, and then came the big moment - Harrison's good work setting up Cureton for a golden opportunity which he fired straight at the goalkeeper.
If that had gone in, I believe we would have got something, as we were on top at the point, and the home fans were most definitely restless.
But it didn't, and as we chased the game they started to pick us off in the last 15 minutes, missed a couple of sitters of their own and finally got a second in the six minutes of stoppage time.
So despite all that second-half effort and endeavour (with Penn and Taylor at heart of it, and with Harrison again putting in a good shift) we again ended up with nothing.
These early goals are killing us. Once again, we left ourselves a mountain to climb in the opening five minutes of the game.
You can't give teams a head start like we keep doing, and expect to get something out of the game.
It kills the game plan straight away, and inevitably heads go straight down when it keeps happening.
After that opening goal, I thought our defending was ok.
Wilson and Troy Brown struggled early on against Burton, but they got to grips with it. I felt Lowe and Richards were steady enough at full-back, Richards getting forward to good effect at times, and his set-piece delivery was better than in recent weeks.
The midfield only became effective when Penn was moved into the middle after Noble went off. Noble showed some flashy touches but largely flattered to deceive, got himself booked for a fourth game running, and was sacrificed for Cureton.
Penn and Taylor, while not having the creativity, have the drive and determination you need in the middle of the park, and they spurred us into life in that second half.
We went a bit more direct at times, and I felt we worried them a lot - Brian Laws admitted as much post-match - but despite a lot of possession that Cureton chance was the only time we really tested their goalkeeper.
But we couldn't keep up the intensity we showed for the first half-hour of the second half - that's when we needed to get that goal, when we were on top.
Gornell was replaced by Kotwica, the 17-year-old's first game for a while, but he was unable to really get into the pace of the game, and that change didn't work.
It wasn't quite on a par with the infamous Bagasan Graham change at Swindon, but what it does is open up once again the Ashley Vincent question.
We asked Mark Yates afterwards about using Zack ahead of Ashley, and the question was side-stepped neatly. He sees the pair in training and it is clear that he sees Zack as the better bet.
But if I were Ash, I would be banging the office door down and asking what is going on, as he has not been given a chance to show what he can do properly since coming back here.
We all know Mark wanted Ashley Grimes. He was earmarked for the left-sided role we are now having so many problems with, and the subsequent cold-shouldering of Vincent suggests he was a bit of a panic signing, or that Yates does not know where he is going to fit in.
Vincent wants to play down the middle, but he is not going to get in there ahead of Harrison, Cureton or Gornell as things stand.
But having played a lot down the left-hand side, he must surely be worth a go there in place of a central midfielder played out of position, and (with due respect to Zack, who has largely done well when he has come on) ahead of a 17-year old?
We don't see him in training however, and it can only be that the manager doesn't feel Ashley is showing enough at Seasons? Who knows, but it is surely worth a go?
With a squad of 19 (CBB being just about the only other available player bar the 18 we saw yesterday) Yates has not got many options available to him, and with the form as it is surely he has to explore all those available to him, and Vincent is the one he hasn't seen fit to use.
At the moment, it is a wasted signing .
It has to be said that Vincent has done little in the games in which he has seen action, but we know from experience that he is a player who needs a run of games to hit form. Coming off the bench every now and then is not going to bring the best out of him.
So on to Dagenham, the scene of one of our poorest performances of last season, when we lost 1-0 - but we cannot afford a repeat of that this time.
I am sure the manager is feeling the pressure - his reaction to Jamie's winner last weekend tells us that.
This time of year is not a good one for under-fire Cheltenham managers. Down the years, Jim Barron, John Ward, John Murphy, Keith Downing, Martin Allen and Bobby Gould have all moved on for various reasons between mid-September and late October.
The last of those resigned after a home game with Rochdale on October 18, 2003. In two weeks time 10 years and one day since that seminal afternoon, Rochdale come to town again.
That becomes a pivotal game for Yates' future, along with the Morecambe game the following Tuesday.
I am not an advocate of change for change's sake - I do not believe the grass will necessarily be greener on the other side, but it is seemingly inevitable that poor results against Rochdale and Morecambe will, I'm afraid, see a change of atmosphere in the home faithful.
Slowly, patience will be ebbing away further with fans, and then the board will have a tough decision to make.
Talk of the contract extension has gone very quiet, quite rightly, and I would say that if we get less than four points from those two home games, there is no question that doubts will be starting to creep in at board level - if they are not there already.
I don't believe the manager has 'lost the dressing room' - whatever that means. Our spirit and determination in that second half yesterday shows me that the players have not given up on him. However, I sense he is losing an increasing number of the supporters.
The squad is unbalanced, and he is the one who spent the budget on those players. They are his choices and he is the one who has to mould them into a winning unit. Time is running out for him to do it.
Poor appointments in the past leave me slightly anxious about what might happen if the board did decide Yates' time was up - but the board have to weigh that up against their deep-down confidence in his ability to turn it round and lift us out of trouble.
A sense of loyalty to someone who has served the club well as player and manager and a wish for stability is one thing, but relegation from the League is another, and that is where we could be heading if this slide carries on much longer.
It's not a tough choice, as the latter would be a disaster for the club and waste all the hard work of the last 14 years.
It's all very well to say 'it won't happen' but many clubs have said that on their way down, and some have never recovered - look at Stockport for example.
No side is 'too good to go down' and there is no doubt this squad is nowhere near showing the potential it has, and the manager and the players are equally culpable for that.
The board have given the manager all their backing. He has got a decent budget, and been able to bring in his choice of players, plus additional coaching assistance.
They have done all they can, and the manager, his staff and the players are the only ones who can find a solution, or the tipping point will come.
Yes, we have had Spurs, Everton, West Ham, and two successive play-off campaigns. But I am afraid that is the past, and this is the here and now.
It's crunch time.