Sunday, 23 March 2014

Speechless

After a night's sleep, I still haven't got my head around yesterday's mad happenings at Kingsmeadow.
For 95 and a half of the 99 minutes, it was the perfect away performance - we controlled the game, were solid at the back, dangerous up front and running the midfield.
But for three minutes and a second or two in the sixth minute of injury time, we were a shambles, and those were the minutes which ultimately decided the game.
For a side to fold as we did from such a position of strength was a shambles - and showed the lack of backbone which crops up every now and then.
Some will compare it to Chesterfield the other week - but they were ruthless finishes against a quality side - this was a collapse against a side who had barely had a shot of note all afternoon, and had been second best.
Others will cite a lack of leaders on the pitch, and use it to once again bring up the departures of Russ Penn and Keith Lowe, and before that Alan Bennett - but we have seen similar collapses with them on the field in the past, with 4-1 losses at Rochdale and Chesterfield, and the game earlier this season at Bury coming to mind.
It was just spineless, and I am afraid even those who have the biggest agenda against the manager cannot put this one at his door. He had set the players up perfectly, got the selection and tactics spot on and could not have done any more. His players let him down.
People will say it's his team, and his fault, but I don't go with that on this occasion as he could have done no more - no-one, not even the most ardent Dons fan, could have seen that coming.
First the good bit. Mark Yates shuffled the team around, and brought back the diamond. Not all thought that was the right decision and I certainly had my doubts about it, but it was working.
We got the perfect start with Troy Brown's header in the first five minutes - our 10th goal this season in the first 15 minutes of a league game.
But maybe we should have seen the omens coming, as this collapse means we have only won two of those games in which we have scored so early - away at Fleetwood and home to Exeter.
We looked confident though. David Noble's return was a welcome one, and he seemed to bring the best out of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, who won the battle in midfield and gave Byron Harrison and Jermaine McGlashan plenty to feed off.
We were as dangerous in the final third as we have been all season. McGlashan's pace and Harrison's willing running and hold-up play was too much for the Dons' back line and we were comfortable.
McGlashan should have had a goal in the first half, but when he got on the end of Harrison's perfect cut back five minutes into the second half, we were in cruise mode.
Remember this was a Dons side which has struggled to score goals recently. We haven't been prolific either, so to go into a 2-0 lead away from home (or in any game) is virtually unknown territory.
It should have been enough. Scott Brown had had little to do, the defence had dealt with what threat there was from front two Jack Midson and Charlie Wyke as the game entered its' final quarter.
Neal Ardley had used all three of his substitutes. Jake Nicholson had come on at half-time, then he put Chris Arthur on at left-back as McGlashan was having the other one on toast, and he threw on an extra forward in Danny Hylton.
He had to do something as the home fans were very restless, and all three of them had an impact, but only because we allowed them to.
McGlashan should have wrapped the game up with a chance similar to the one he missed in the first half. Once again he did Darren Jones for pace, but dragged his shot across the face of goal.
It shouldn't have mattered as we had that two-goal cushion - but it did.
Everyone knows that it is a dangerous lead. We should have closed the game out, and not given the home fans anything to cheer, and the home players anything to grasp on to.
But three minutes after that, we were behind.
The first two goals had an element of luck about them, but for both we allowed Midson too much space down our right-hand side.
The first ball in found Hylton, and his first touch looked to be going wide but went in off Sido. Midson's second pass was square to Nicholson on the edge of the box, and his shot hit Richards and wrong-footed Brown.
Two subs, two shots, two deflections, two goals. Yes, a stroke of luck for both, but they should not have been given the opportunities.
It got worse with the third goal. Barry Fuller's long ball, an unchallenged flick-on, and Hylton skipped through to score past our shell-shocked, static and square back four.
Our heads were mentally scrambled. That third goal, I am sure, was a direct result of the first two, which had left us with sagging shoulders and dropped heads.
The lead was gone in the blink of an eye, from a position of comfort to chasing the game, which, to be fair, we did as Taylor benefited from more Harrison spadework to score, thanks to a goalkeeping error (more of that later).
More stats - this is the only second time we have scored three goals in a league game this season, and only the fifth time we scored two goals in one half - we drew three of them 2-2, with Burton, York and Hartlepool at home, and beat Morecambe at home.
Three goals away from home has been a bigger rarity - Northampton away last season was the last time it happened in a league game, and before that you go back to Oxford and Bristol Rovers in the heady days of 2011-12, then at Macclesfield and we scored five at Dagenham. It also happened in the FA Cup at Luton.
One difference - we won all those games. We should have won this one as well and I am afraid the reason we did not is ultimately down to a player who has saved us single-handedly on many occasions.
Despite that, Scott Brown has his critics. Those who say he doesn't come off his line enough, and doesn't do enough to command his box.
They have a point to a certain extent, but I think Brown is in the top five goalkeepers in this division. It is rare when we have to say he is at fault for a goal, but this one is down to him.
It was a decent cross, but having decided to get something on it, he had to get there. He didn't. Wyke won the header and Midson had a tap-in.
It is ironic given his perceived failings, but I think if he had stayed on his line, I don't think the Dons would have scored. Wyke would have headed the ball across goal, but then Brown could just have plucked it out of the air, and we would have come away with a point.
There were six minutes added on, and my watch timed the goal going in at six minutes and seven seconds. The last kick - literally.
Not the reward we should have had after the performance for the vast majority of the game, but at least it would have been something.
The bottom line is we should have won the game. We deserved to win the game, and the lack of mental strength among the players is the reason we didn't win the game.
It is something the manager needs to address, as it is the fourth game we have lost this season from being in front, and add that to eight draws when we have been leading, that is 28 points given away.
28 points. With those, we would have 76 points and a comfortable lead at the top of the table. Think about that for a moment.
But if you think this is a problem just confined to this season, then think again. Our 28 points lost is the biggest number in the division - and we also held that record last season, yes - with the much-lamented and missed Penn, Lowe and Bennett in the squad.
Last season, we lost 26 points from winning positions - again we lost four games after we were winning, and we drew seven, so this is not a new issue.
That would have taken us up comfortably. Two seasons ago, we only gave 10 points away from winning positions, and gained 14. Again, those lost points would have taken us up.
But look at those last two seasons in particular - 54 points lost. Mind-blowing.
Most of those games have been when we have led by a goal, or ended up drawing a game from 2-0 up. The last time I can find a Cheltenham Town losing a game from two goals in front is August 21, 2010 when we led 3-1 at the Don Valley against Rotherham, and lost 6-4.
When Steve Cotterill looked to bring players in, he used to target two things - club captains and players-of-the-year - Neil Howarth and Mark Yates were players he brought in under that criteria as they were leaders.
Now Yates and Howarth need to take a leaf out of his book. On the field we need leadership, and we need players with mental strength, and that is partly where the summer recruitment needs to be focused.
We need some characters. Players who are going to fight all the way for the shirt, and put their bodies on the line. We had them in Penn, Lowe and Bennett, but the manager let them go, I hear some say, but the stats above show they too were part of teams which let games slip away.
It is not an easy solution, but one that needs to be found, or this club will never get out of League Two.