Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Tuesday triumph

TUESDAY night away games haven't been a major source of joy in recent seasons for Cheltenham Town fans in recent seasons.
They usually end in some form of disappointment followed by a long trudge down some black motorway for hours on end and then a long, miserable day at work.
So when you get a performance like the one we saw at the Abbey on Tuesday night, topped off with the result, it makes it one to savour even more.
I can't remember when I have enjoyed more a 19-hour day at work, on the motorways, in a freezing cold football ground, and back on the motorways again, safe in the knowledge that three very satisfying points were tucked away in the back pocket.
Our team started the season with a determined, hard-working, committed win at Bury, where we stood up like men to what was thrown at us and came away with a win which has proved since to be a terrific result.
We have seen hard work and commitment for the vast majority of the games since then, with the standards only dropping rarely, but last night really did see us return to those heights again - especially in the second half.
We had started well, gone in front with a Matt Richards strike which will definitely be in the top three of our goal of the season award (and maybe the top one) and then had to dig in as Cambridge changed their system and got a goal back.
There were some panicky clearances, niggly fouls and silly yellow cards for dissent (one of which means John Marquis won't play on Saturday) but there were no individual errors, no heads dropping, no goals in clusters condemning us to a miserable trip home.
What there was at half-time as the teams walked off was a helping hand from the opposition manager, who handed our manager and players just the incentive we needed to galvanise us into a winning performance.
Richard Money's decision to label us a 'non-league team with a non-league manager' was made more bizarre by the fact that he had to change his team's system to combat our start and to get his team a foothold in the game.
Then having fallen behind again, he was forced to make three substitutions to try to rescue the game and ended the game with his goalkeeper in our box - not once, but twice - such was the desperation.
So if we are the non-league team he claims, then what does that make his team - the one we beat?
To be honest, they are pretty good, especially Ryan Donaldson in midfield, and the front two Kwesi Appiah and Tom Elliott, with that trio comparing favourably with other attacking trios in League Two.
But I would rather concentrate on our performance, and the huge amount of heart it gave me to see us play as well as we did on a tough assignment, on a freezing cold gale-force night.
I was pleased we went back to the the 3-5-2 with Joe Hanks back in the side, and also pleased about the front two - Terry Gornell was a no-brainer selection after Saturday, and Marquis was there on a rotational basis with the manager going for his work-rate.
We just look better with that extra man in midfield. I felt Richards and Jason Taylor struggled on Saturday and it gives them both a bit more freedom - Richards to calm everything down (I am sure he was calm about beating two players in our box in the 94th minute...!) , and Taylor to break the play up and set up attacks as he did superbly for the winner.
Hanks played a key role in the win as he was deployed to mark Donaldson in the second half as the midfielder had been key to Cambridge's good spell for the last 25 minutes of the first half.
Yates and Shaun North told him to drop deeper and follow Donaldson and he did the job superbly as the player was pretty much nullified, and the effectiveness of that move was not only a good tactical move but also a massive feather in Hanks' cap.
For a 19-year-old making his eighth league start to be able to show such discipline in carrying out what proved to be a vital task was hugely encouraging - and also shows that the management team trust him.
I would have expected them to want Taylor to do that job but they gave it to Hanks and he did it to the letter.
But he was backed up by everyone around him. Gornell and Marquis did the perfect front two role of running the channels,chasing lost causes and squeezing up on defenders, putting in a superb shift.
That was shown in the second half when Marquis nearly intercepted a backpass, and when it was played forward, Richards and Taylor, hunting as a pack, came close to nicking the ball back when it went forward.
At the back, after a sometimes-shaky first half with too many fouls and some heart-in-mouth moments,we were superb - bodies on the line and some strong performances.
Jack Deaman came in for Matt Taylor and again did all that was asked of him, his highlight being a superbly-timed last-man tackle on Tom Elliott - had he got it wrong it was a penalty and most likely a red card as well.
He got clattered in one penalty-area moment, as did Steve Elliott, but they were back out there quickly, shrugging it all off and really giving it everything.
Every headed clearance, tackle and interception was greeted by claps on the back and clenched fists from those around them in red and white - there was true unity and determination out there.
If that Shrewsbury post-match inquest was meant to galvanise people and to say 'look - we are not going back to last season's bad habits' then it has worked.
Two wins and five goals since then are testament to that, and anyone doubting if these players are giving their all for club and shirt and fans then you should watch that second half performance and the subsequent squad huddle and then you should be in no doubt.
With Matt Taylor out,Trevor Carson was given the armband and that proved to be the right decision as his sheer single-mindedness seemed to rub off on everyone.
I saw him leaping around his penalty area when Gornell (of course it is his goal!) scored the winner, and he was slapping people on the back constantly in the latter stages and at the final whistle was straight over to the fans and gave his gloves away.
Even though we are only a third of the way into the season, I think Carson is already proving to be one of Yatesy's best signings.
I loved Scott Brown. He was a good League Two keeper and I was worried about us replacing him adequately - but I am going to say it... I think Carson is better.
He made a match-winning save at 2-1 and is so commanding of his area, his handling is secure and his distribution and quick-thinking has already brought us two goals.
Add to that his on-field attitude and the way he talks off the field, for example his interview at Shrewsbury and the guy is a winner and it seems to be rubbing off on others.
Even the manager. He seems a lot happier generally. We have seen more smiles from him, even when the results might have dropped off before these last two games, and he definitely won the mind-games battle here.
He hasn't always done that (Steve Evans on that frozen night at Crawley for instance) but he 'owned' Money on this occasion and it's good to hear him use phrases like "I'm sticking up for my club" - that's what we want to hear.
Results like this - an away win without your captain in tricky conditions - will only make him happier and increase the belief in the squad.
But (yes, there is always a but) there are still issues around the balance of the squad.
Playing three at the back suits us, but when a centre-half goes down and you only have four, you are on a knife-edge. Paul Black is now the only alternative for that role, and he has played there for 45 minutes in the JPT.
I am sure Yates would not, if he could help it, want to change it to a flat back four.
Our bench on Tuesday had Andy Haworth, Omari Sterling-James, Raffa de Vita and Eusebio on it. Add Zack Kotwica and Harry Williams to that and you have six players who could play either as a 'number 10' behind a front man or pair or maybe out wide in a 4-4-2 or as part of a front three supporting a lone forward.
But we don't play that system - so apart from the odd few minutes off the bench, it is hard to see where these players are going to fit in.
For example, OSJ and de Vita have contracts until January, and it may be a straight fight between them for a contract to allow Yates to have breathing space to maybe strengthen another area.
Haworth is another who seems to be the odd man out - I wonder if he could soon be looking for some loan football as Gornell asked for.
Marquis' loan ends at the end of November, and he will then go back and could not return until January if Yates wanted to try and get him then - so he will have to decide soon if he wants to look for another forward then or stick with what he has until after Christmas.
But before all that, another toughie at Plymouth and then on Monday the FA Cup draw - and that could be pivotal to Yates' hopes of answering the little questions I have posed above...