Monday, 28 July 2014

Hot and cold Bath

A trip to Twerton Park is a good way to remind yourself how much progress CTFC has made as a club in the last 20-odd years.
Back then, Bath City were the sort of club which CTFC aspired to be - I remember Nick Gazzard scoring an equaliser for us there in the Conference under John Murphy's management, and then later there was a landmark FA Cup replay win at home in extra time under Chris Robinson after we drew down there.
Now, see also Hereford United and Worcester City - again clubs that we envied as great old non-League names, but which you go back to now and see grounds which have not been improved or even seen a lick of paint since we went there 20-odd years ago, and are all in desperate need of some TLC ... and Worcester's ground unfortunately is no more.
Saturday's second successive friendly visit to a fellow spa town or city was a hot one. It was warm enough for those of us on the terraces, so goodness knows what it was like for those out on the pitch.
Unfortunately, Bath's gaffer and CTFC legend Lee Howells was on holiday in the Algarve, I bet Twerton was warmer Arch.
In the run-up to the game, we finally (and thankfully) saw an end to the soap operas surrounding Jamie Cureton and Ashley Grimes, so the main focus for us was on our newest arrivals, our new skipper Matt Taylor, who arrived from Bradford and doesn't actually sign properly until next week, and loanee Koby Arthur from Birmingham City.
Taylor lined up in the first half alongside Troy Brown, with Arthur starting on the left as Mark Yates tried out a 4-4-2 system - something he has never managed to get right in the four-and-a-half years of his management, and there are no signs on this evidence that his new-look squad will change that formula.
Our first-half line-up was Carson; Vaughan, M Taylor, Brown, Black; Haworth, Richards, J Taylor, Arthur; Harrison, Gornell.
Both sides found it very tough in the heat, and struggled to create anything worthwhile. We had a lot of possession and got into some good positions in the final third, but failed to test the goalkeeper or really string much of any note together.
I thought Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell both had pretty poor halves, as did Andy Haworth, who was too keen to cut inside rather than trying to go past a man and deliver a cross of some sort (Yates later said he was struggling with a toe problem).
Koby Arthur, playing on the left, was in and out of things with some promising touches, and it was he and Paul Black who provided the two half-decent crosses we got in all half.
In midfield, I thought Richards and Jason Taylor did okay, and both have done well in pre-season overall so far in my view - but there is no doubt that we need that third player in there.
Defensively, Matt Taylor will need some time to bed in, but speaking to him afterwards he is clearly relishing the move and also ready to embrace the role as captain and leader of the side.
Both full-backs had some tricky moments defensively, Black being caught out by Ross Stearn for the Bath goal, and Lee Vaughan was caught napping by a free-kick move which should have brought a goal, but again both of them linked well going forward making good supporting runs without always getting the passes they maybe should have received.
The Bath front two gave Taylor and Troy Brown a few problems, but once again Trevor Carson was not forced into a save of any note, but might be disappointed with the City goal.
At half-time it was no surprise to see Harrison and Haworth come off as they had not been at the races, and also Steve Elliott given 45 minutes in place of Troy Brown, and it was also no shock that we changed the formation.
The line up was now: Carson; Vaughan, M Taylor, Elliott, Black; Richards, J Taylor, Curtis; Sterling-James, Arthur; Gornell.
It meant another chance for Joe Curtis, the triallist from Southampton, and a run-out for Omari Sterling-James, while Arthur moved to the right-hand side and Gornell was given a run down the middle.
We immediately looked a bit more lively, with Elliott bringing some stability at the back and Sterling-James injecting some impetus up front.
Some questions have been asked about Elliott and the assumption has been that he will now become a bit-part player behind Brown and Matt Taylor - but I wouldn't write him off just yet.
Yates was asked afterwards about playing three at the back - he didn't rule it out, but the manager has always favoured four at the back, so I wouldn't hold your breath over that one... but we have competition in that position.
You can add Jack Deaman to that, and he came on for Taylor after an hour, and limped off again with a flea in his ear from the manager, who told him off for playing a similar pass to the one which cost a goal at Leamington and ended up taking a knock on his ankle. Sounds harsh, but he has to learn, said the manager afterwards, and he is right.
That meant Craig Braham-Barrett ended the game at centre-half. I am not sure if he has played 20 games there before but let's just hope it was an emergency never to be repeated.
He will play in his regular left-back slot on Tuesday after Black got the 90 there on Saturday and he got better as the game went on and that battle may be too close to call for Bury in two weeks - however I know which of the two most CTFC fans would pick.
Vaughan also got the 90 and also improved as things wore on. There were no alarms for Carson in the second half as we defended a lot better.
We were also better in midfield with Joe Hanks getting 20 minutes in place of Jason Taylor, and while Curtis was again neat and tidy as he had been at Leamington, he doesn't give us anything different to what we could get from Hanks or Harry Williams, and remember we also have Asa Hall, who again missed the game to protect his sore Achilles.
Further forward, the undoubted star was Sterling-James. From the time he came on, his mindset was positive. Get the ball, run at people, and try to make things happen. A real breath of fresh air.
After the game, Yates said he has to be in his thinking for throwing in at Bury, and it is hard to argue against that, as he has shown more than Haworth, more than  Zack Kotwica and more than Gornell in that 'wide forward' role. Arthur may yet come forward to stake a claim, but Sterling-James has to be in pole position.
Kotwica replaced Arthur and was unable to make an impact, and I have to admit to having concerns at his progress.
This time last year, he was the breath of fresh air. He earned himself a place in the first-team squad and had the odd promising cameo, but seems to have flatlined over the last few months of last season and into the start of this one. There is no doubt that this is a big season for him - we know there is talent there but he needs to start showing it, or he faces being overtaken by Arthur and Sterling-James for a place in the squad.
Gornell is another enigma who might find himself as an odd man out. He has looked a bit of a fish out of water in the 'wide' role, as he did last season when played deeper behind the front man in a 4-2-3-1.
He hasn't scored a league goal since October 22, and hasn't often looked like doing so, and he failed to shine in the half-hour he got through the middle on Saturday, before triallist Rakish Bingham replaced him.
Not that Bingham did much better, and, like Curtis, I would not be looking any further at either of them - however a tweet on Sunday from Bingham said: "No better feeling than having a manager who believes in you" and has added to the riddle.
We will find out their futures ahead of Tuesday's game with Bristol City, but with 22 players signed on now, a central midfielder, a forward and a back-up keeper are the final pieces of the jigsaw.
Gornell and Bingham's displays showed for me that we definitely need another forward as otherwise we have an over-reliance on Byron Harrison.
The Shortwood forward Duncan Culley was on trial, and has now had a game for Oxford, scoring in a 10-1 win at Abingdon (who play one level below Shortwood, at the same level as Brimscombe, against whom Culley scored four for Shortwood the other day).
The Oxford trial re-iginited the debate that we didn't give him enough time to impress. But how much time is enough? He trained with us for two weeks and had two 45-minute run-outs, against Evesham and Wolves.
That, for me, is enough time for Yates, Shaun North and the staff to assess him. It was enough time for them to decide that Sterling-James deserved a contract. Same goes for Deaman.
I suspect that had Culley just gone back to Shortwood and not had that game for Oxford the other day then the debate would not have re-surfaced. As far as I am concerned, we looked at him, gave him a go and decided he wasn't right for us. It will be interesting to see what level he lands up at, but I do find it interesting that no Conference Premier, North or Southern Prem sides have had a look at him yet.
Elsewhere, I am glad we still want another midfielder - I'd like one who would be more creative, and attacking in mindset, keen to get beyond the forwards, making runs into the box and with an eye for goal (not too much to ask then...!) and although Matt Taylor has played in goal in an FA Trophy final, he is not Trevor Carson's back-up, so a decision needs to be made about that role as well.
After the game, I asked Mark Yates what was happening about reserve team and/or under 21 football for our younger players, and found out we are not joining a league.
We had the chance to, but it seems the travelling to places like Crawley, Brighton, Orient and Gillingham was prohibitive, which, although disappointing, you can fully understand for a logisitical and financial point of view.
So therefore we are back to organising games ourselves for our fringe and young players and I really hope it happens on a regular basis - it has to, or these players are just going to stagnate.
Let's face it, the club does not have a great record of bringing young players through to the first team. Until they are 18/19, yes, we produce them, but then we don't seem to be able to get them to kick on and really flourish.
We see promise, as we have done with Zack and Joe Hanks, but these two in particular, and behind them Bobbie Dale, Adam Powell, James Bowen and Harry Williams all need to be nurtured, have coaching time invested in them and given the best possible chance to show what they can do.
I think Shaun North's arrival is key in that. He has worked with under-21 sides and he will be the man, it seems, charged with their development and bringing the best out of them.
However, I was a bit disappointed to find out that Powell, Bowen and Williams did not go to Devon with the rest of the squad. Dale did go, but I suspect that is only because we are a forward short at the moment.
I am guessing that is why he was on the bench at Bath as well, while the others were not involved, and I hope that is not a precedent for those four - that we are creating a squad divide there by saying I am working with these 18 and you four go over there, and therefore they are going to be 'lost' in the same way that Ed Williams was last year.
If there is not going to be some sort of regular football for them, they we need to get them games somewhere - but only if that is going to be at a decent level.
No disrespect here to the likes of Cinderford and Cleeve, but we need to getting them games higher up, to really test their mettle against ex-pros and young players like themselves who have come out of league clubs.
Somewhere like Cirencester, Evesham, and, as has been mooted after we signed Sterling-James, Redditch United in the Southern Premier is the lowest level we should be looking at to get them game-time if needed.
Ideally, I would want to see them them playing in the Conference North or South at places like Worcester, Gloucester, Oxford City, Leamington, Solihull Moors, Bath or Weston-super-Mare, so if we need them in the first team they have some sort of sharpness and have not just been putting cones out for a few months.
Another key factor is that Yates needs to trust them. I hope he has told them that there are first-team chances for them if we get a few injuries or suspensions and does not go cap in hand to the board for a short-term stop-gap loan player.
I don't think Harry Williams looked out of place in the run-outs he had towards the end of last season, and I would much rather see them given a chance. OK, it might be a bit sink or swim for them to start with, but unless they are given that chance, how will we know what they can do?
The point of having a bigger squad was, I thought, to avoid the need for these loans and I would hope, by the end of the season, that all four of these younger players have at least come of the bench somewhere and started the odd game here and there as well - maybe a target of 10 combined start/sub appearances each - so we can really judge their potential.
Young players are the way to go for this club. They are the ones who will save and potentially earn us some money down the line so we need to make sure we give them the best possible chance to shine.
But for the whole squad, the crunch time is now coming. Bury is less that two weeks away, and with the squad about 90 per cent complete now, these last three friendlies, with Bristol City, Kidderminster and Redditch, take on a bigger significance as players jostle for positions.
Having 22 players means, for the first time in a long time, there is real competition in all areas. I would say at this stage you can pencil in Trevor Carson, Matt Taylor, Matt Richards, Lee Vaughan and Byron Harrison for Gigg Lane, but the other six starting places are still very much up for grabs for whoever wants to put a marker down.
Jason Taylor and Asa Hall are the favourites to edge out Joe Hanks for two midfield roles, unless a new arrival comes in to join that fight.
The Braham-Barrett/Black tussle is hard to call, along with the choice between Elliott and Brown at centre-half then you have Sterling-James, Arthur, Haworth, Gornell and Kotwica (if he improves) vying for two wider roles, with another forward maybe to come and join the party, so there is still plenty for Yates and his staff to ponder.
The starting line-ups for the next two friendlies in particular could be interesting and give us a few more clues...