Friday, 14 March 2014

Two points on the road

IT is a microcosm of Cheltenham Town's season that we should come back after a week on the road with two points out of six, and be left wanting more.
The width of a post was all that is separating us from a maximum haul  - and then we would be sitting in 10th place, three points off the play-offs, with these two home games to come.
Could be, if only, what if... Story of the season, but the truth is we are 14th - equi-distant between 7th and 23rd, the ultimate mid-table side, and exactly where we deserve to be on performances and results.
Portsmouth was always going to be a stern test, one of the biggest of the season, even more so when they cut the prices and packed the place out with nearly 17,000 home fans.
Mental strength is something which has been lacking at times this season, and this was going to be another examination for it - and we passed with flying colours.
The 4-2-3-1 system employed in recent weeks has served us well - we have looked more resilient, harder to break down, and better balanced with outlets down both flanks.
That was the case at Fratton Park, especially in the first half, when we put in what I thought was one of the best 45 minutes of the season.
The stats post-match said we didn't have a shot on target which was strange to me as Jermaine McGlashan and Terry Gornell both forced saves from Trevor Carson with shots that definitely would have gone in, and then there was Ashley Vincent's piledriver off the post.
Although we could not keep up that attacking momentum in the second half, we still looked relatively comfortable, leaving the home crowd frustrated.
Led by Troy Brown, we turned in an excellent defensive performance. Having seen Portsmouth play on TV at Chesterfield six days before our game there, the threats were going to come from Ricky Holmes and Jed Wallace down the flanks.
That put pressure on Michael Ihiekwe and Sido Jombati in the full-back areas, and they passed the test with flying colours, and Holmes and Wallace were kept very quiet.
In front of the them, Sam Deering and Matt Richards put in a good shift as we saw little of Wes Fogden and the formidable Toumani Diagouraga in the Pompey midfield.
Those six did a great job of nullifying the Portsmouth threat, and Scott Brown barely had a worthwile save to make - it was just a shame that we could not have taken one of those first-half opportunities and nicked the points.
Deering buzzed around but was let down once or twice by his decision-making with the final ball, but he competed superbly well against Diagouraga, a complete opposite to Sam in height and build.
We were not overawed by the occasion and surroundings, and we kept our shape and discipline well, and although we could not create anything in the second half, we dug in.
In the first half, Vincent, McGlashan and Gornell were a good outlet, but in the second half they couldn't get the same freedom - but it would have been a travesty if we had lost the game.
To be honest, that didn't look like happening bar that crazy little melee right at the end, and a point was what we deserved.
And so it was on to the Kassam, and after a nice new ground to visit, we had to go to a soulless three sided bowl where our 200-odd fans easily made more noise than the 4,000-odd home fans who bothered to turn up.
It was no real surprise that we were unchanged. The only switch I might have considered was Jamie Cureton for Byron Harrison, but that was only down to Byron's largely anonymous game at Fratton.
We found things a little bit more problematic here defensively, especially Ihiekwe, who was posed problems by James Constable laying a strange left-wing-cum-sort-of-striker role, coming in from out wide to attack far-post crosses.
He should have scored with two first-half headers but missed them both, and we rode our luck a bit when Dean Smalley got through and a terrible touch allowed Scott Brown to come off his line and block.
We didn't create anything of note in the first half, bar a trio of long shots, but we did cause ourselves a few problems by over-playing in our own half and occasionally putting people in trouble.
Another issue was the lack of movement in the final third. On several occasions, Deering or Richards had the ball 30-35 yards from goal, and there was no movement from the four ahead of them.
They were constantly static - in a straight line, with none of them making a little run, offering themselves for a short pass, or trying to spin off a defender into some space.
As the first hour of the game came and went, we started to look leggy, and it was no surprise when Cureton and David Noble were introduced, or that Harrison and Vincent, the most anonymous pair on the night, we given the hook.
The fresh legs, especially Cureton's, gave us a lift, and while it as good to see Noble on the field he did look ring-rusty, which is hardly a shock after his long lay-off.
We fell behind, but were a bit unfortunate. The 'playing someone into trouble' bug struck though as Richards gave the ball to Elliott, and his clearance hit Ryan Williams, who controlled the ricochet, and then, to be fair to him, produced a decent finish.
It seemed our luck was out as that happened seconds after Ryan Clarke somehow nudged a Cureton header onto the post from a superb Richards free-kick.
So we were behind with 15 minutes left, and more often than not that would be that, but we had a bit of luck of our own (or benefited from Cureton's 'fox in the box' tendencies, whichever is your viewpoint).
Zack Kotwica had a shot on goal, which didn't seem to have enough power to be going in, until Cureton got something on it and it looped in.
Exactly what that 'something' was is open to some conjecture, but we might well have got a point 'with a goal off someone's backside' - something we so often say we would settle for in these circumstances, but which rarely materialises. Until now.
So another hard-won point on the road, taking our overall record to 6-6-6, the ninth best in the league, and better than at this stage last year, when we were 5-7-7 from one more game.
The draw also means we have only lost two of our last 13 on our travels, not a bad record and testament to some newly-found resilience after those meek surrenders in Bury and Torquay back at the start of the season.
At home we are 4-8-5 ahead of this week's double-header (11-6-2 at this stage last season) so I am hardly telling anyone something they don't already know about why we are 14th in the table...
Six points from Torquay and Wycombe would take us to that pre-season nirvana of 50 points, and end once and for all any lingering worries about going down this season (and could re-ignite play-off talk for the super-positive...).
Four points would just about extinguish the relegation flames but any less would keep them fanned for a little bit longer as it would allow those below us to squeeze in even tighter, if that were possible in this concertina of a league.
Deering's injury which saw him replaced on Tuesday might keep him out, and I suspect Yates will want to try and fit Noble in somewhere.
Harrison's insipid pair of games will surely see him benched, but the lingering question is whether Cureton can play the lone role in the 4-2-3-1. He has yet to convince me he can.
These two are 'attitude games'. Torquay and Wycombe are scrapping for their lives (they are the two sides I tip for the drop) so we will have to match their determination, something we have not done in the past - think Accrington and Mansfield especially.
In between our two away games, I saw something to cheer an old traditionalist (or stick-in-the-mud, whichever you prefer) like me - a CTFC win over Gloucester City.
OK, so it wasn't at a packed Whaddon Road or Meadow Park/Horton Road on a Boxing Day or Easter Monday, it was a GFA Senior Cup game played on a freezing night in the wrong county at Evesham United FC in front of 97 people, but who cares? We beat them.
We beat them with our youth team, plus Joe Hanks and Ed Williams. They fielded a team with six players who started the win over Stockport 48 hours earlier, and the win was, for me, more evidence for the mooted Under 21/development team.
Hanks, Ed and Harry Williams, Adam Powell, Bobbie Dale, James Bowen, Spencer Hamilton, Harvey Rivers and Elliott Keightley all stood up well against experienced players and Dale and Powell scored well-taken goals to win us the game.
Centre-halves Keightley and Hamilton stood out for me against the experience of Charlie Griffin, while midfield trio Hanks, Powell and Harry Williams grew into the game and Dale worked hard on his own up front.
They won't all make it, but I hope we give a majority of them every chance to do so with regular games in this under-21 team, allied with loans at clubs like Gloucester, Weston, Bath and Worcester - a decent level where they will get a taste of 'proper' football.
Most of those I have named above have played for John Brough at Bishop's Cleeve this season, while Powell has been to Redditch and Harry Williams to Farnborough, while Hanks is going to play some games at Gloucester.
Decisions on them will be made soon, but having seen them play a lot there is some talent in there and I hope we don't make the same mistake we did with players like Sam Foley and Kieran Thomas in the past, by discarding them after investing years of coaching and development in them.
The recent forum with the chairman and board saw fans saying they want less loanees and more chances for our youngsters. We are told that this is the best crop we have had, and I would concur with that.
I know we won't and can't keep them all, but I hope some are given the chance to bridge the gap between promising youngsters and first-team opportunity in the coming seasons.
It is crucial for our club to start regularly producing young players of its own. The Duff brothers, Andy Gallinagh and David Bird are the only real successes, while people like Adam Connolly, Marley Watkins and Theo Lewis flitted around the side briefly.
Some others have gone elsewhere, notably the brothers Courtney and Tyrone Duffus, now both on professional contracts at Everton -  keep and eye on their progress as the further they go, the more money we get.
It is down to finance as it always is at this level, but we have an academy, and it's about time we used it.