Sunday, 4 January 2015

Calm down, calm down...

For the past six games, Cheltenham Town fans have had three words ringing in their heads non-stop - January transfer window.
That mantra has been repeated ad nauseum in the hope that it would miraculously rescue our season as Paul Buckle would be able to weave some magic.
He didn't waste his time with Jason Taylor being shipped off to Northampton with three Liverpool youngsters coming down to bolster our ranks.
On the subject of Taylor, I am not sad to see him go. He had a few good games for us, especially at the start of this season, but not enough to justify the very decent wage I am told he was on, and to be transfer-listed by two managers, including the one who signed him, says it all really.
The signing of the three Liverpool lads was definitely a gamble. All three have been doing well in their under 21 side but that is very different to the hurly-burly of League Two.
And it is more loan signings. Not all fans, myself included, are entirely happy with that due to the short-term nature and detrimental effect on our own young players.
Much of my own unhappiness about that has been down to the quality of the player coming in. Players like Kemar Roofe, Jake Taylor, Lee Lucas and the easily forgettable Billy Daniels in my view did nothing that Harry Williams or Joe Hanks could not have done at the time.
The likes of Jack Butland and Luke Garbutt had that little bit of extra quality which we didn't have at the time - and that is what Paul Buckle would have been hoping for when he asked Liverpool's Academy director Alex Inglethorpe for Lloyd Jones, Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart.
The other difference now is that I feel Buckle trusts our own young players more than Mark Yates did and will be using them alongside this trio - not to replace them.
I know that Williams, Zack Kotwica and Jack Deaman were dropped to the bench yesterday, but I am talking long-term.
He has just given Kotwica, Hanks, Williams and Omari Sterling-James new contracts - and I fully expect deals for Deaman, James Bowen and Bobbie Dale to follow, so he isn't going to suddenly sideline them all now having given them a chance recently - they will come in and out of the side as time goes on.
The fact that all three of the loanees come from the same club also makes some sense - they can help each other settle in and are not total strangers on the field either.
It wasn't a total surprise to see them all in the side yesterday. Buckle has identified that the spine of the side needs a bit more energy in it and that's what he got, especially from Dunn and Stewart.
But the side was always going to take some time to settle in, and we struggled in the opening 35 minutes.
Our passing was ragged and we gave the ball away far too easily in the opening stages.
I am sure there were some nerves out there as Jones got himself an early booking and Trevor Carson made an early save while we struggled with the movement from Oxford's front three, especially Danny Hylton when he dropped deeper.
We struggled to create anything with Terry Gornell unable to hold the ball up, while Sterling-James, so lively last Sunday, was totally anonymous.
Oxford were getting in too easily down our flanks, as Matt Richards was looking lost on the left-hand side and he and OSJ were giving little help to the full-backs.
We looked a bit unbalanced as Buckle tried to shoe-horn three central midfielders in Richards, Stewart and Kane Ferdinand into a 4-4-2. It didn't work and he may need to take the bull by the horns and leave one of them out.
As the half wore on, an Oxford goal was definitely on the cards as we were very much second best. It came when Stewart lost the ball high up the field and they broke through us too easily.
The front three worked it well between them for Wes Burns' header, but we had five defenders in the box when the cross came in and the header was won. Not the best defending.
So no clean sheet again - and that will be Paul Buckle's next big aim for Hartlepool next weekend as we made it seven games in a row under his management conceding one goal each.
So we were right behind the eight-ball. Not playing well and deservedly a goal down, and needing to score twice to get that much-needed win... and let's face it scoring twice is not something we have done much.
And then it happened.
After 40 minutes of no attacking threat whatsoever, Lee Vaughan laid the ball up to Dunn on the right side of the box. One left-foot touch, and bang with his right and the ball was past Ryan Clarke before he knew it.
That is what we have been missing. That's why Buckle brought these lads in as Dunn produced something out of nothing. It wasn't even a half-chance.
But it was the spark and it got even better when Stewart got the second a few minutes later from our first corner of the game.
I was about to berate Richards in commentary for playing a short corner but then it came to Stewart and his shot found the corner after a piece of goalkeeping Clarke will not want to see too often.
Yes, it was fortunate. Yes, we went off at half-time wearing masks and sombreros after stealing a 2-1 lead but we have earned that luck in recent weeks when things haven't always gone our way.
The second half saw Buckle change the formation to a 4-3-1-2 / 4-1-3-2, making us much narrower and it worked better, while we were keeping better tabs on their dangerman Hylton.
The disappointing OSJ was rightly taken off with Hanks coming on and that shored us up even more as Hanks played on the right of the three, doing well in the latter stages with his composed passing and breaking up the play.
They had to chase the game, and we were going to chances on the break by using the pace of Dunn to stretch their defence and he came close to a couple more goals, once when he rounded the keeper and once when he fought off two defenders and shot wide.
Defensively, we still looked a bit suspect and my feeling was that we were going to need a third as I wasn't confident we wouldn't keep Oxford out.
But Carson only had one real save to make in the second half, low down from Hylton, and although they had a few corners and put crosses in, most of the time we dealt with them pretty well.
We should have had that third goal, with Dunn's two chances and a fantastic Richards cross we didn't make the most of and a few other promising breaks.
Overall, the second half was a bit too open for my liking.
We played some good stuff after the break, although there were a few little scares. We rode our luck a bit throughout, but who cares - the final whistle was a welcome sound and we'll take the points thanks.
It was great to see nearly 500 make the trip and for most of the second half they were all I could hear in the Kassam. Their noise and passion may have been questioned in some quarters but it was in full evidence here.
The Oxford fans spent most of the time in the second half booing their side and calling for a penalty every time the ball went anywhere near our goal. They must be one of the most fickle set of fans in League Two - get on top of their side, and they don't take long to turn.
The arrival of the three Liverpool lads and the recent introduction of a few of our youngsters at the expense of under-achieving seniors seems to have brought about a new sense of enthusiasm among some fans who seemed to be losing heart.
I sensed it this week on social media in the run up to the game with the new arrivals persuading a few more to make the trip, and the result has justified their decision. Right lads, Hartlepool next week...?
The players and management acknowledged them before the game and it was good to see them do the same afterwards. We need to all pull in the same direction, after all.
Buckle will know that the performance wasn't perfect. He needs to look at the balance of midfield, and as I mentioned earlier might need to take a tough decision about leaving someone out of the side.
Of the three central midfielders, Richards was the poorest, while up front Gornell struggled to make a real impact and OSJ was nowhere near the same threat as he had been against Newport.
And then there is Byron. He was on the bench again, and that's where he stayed with Williams being used as the late replacement for Gornell - the third game running now that a teenager has been preferred to him when changes are made.
No mixed messages here. Surely if someone came along with a £10-15,000 bid or asked if they could negotiate some kind of swap deal then it would be seriously looked at.
The odds on Byron still being here on February 2 when the window shots must be narrowing by the day.
The three Liverpool lads got better as the game went on.
Jones started nervously, and got himself an early booking before going in for a couple of rash-looking challenges and not staying on his feet - but luckily Keith Hill had lost his cards by that point.
Like the rest of our back four, the movement of Hylton, Burns and Jamie Roberts caused him problems, but he looked more confident after the break and won some key headers.
Stewart recovered well after his loss of possession led to the Oxford goal. He said after the game that he has only been playing in central midfield for a matter of weeks having been a full-back for most of his career.
But he showed decent energy and got stuck in better than the more senior players around him as well as hitting the winning goal - so not a bad debut overall.
Dunn was the pick of the three. Again it was a slow start for him as we struggled to get the ball up front to any effect in the first half, but when he did get the ball, there was only one thing on his mind.
He was always looking to spin off his defender and use his pace and touch to create a chance, and that's what brought him his brilliantly-taken goal.
He seems to have that ability to create a goal out of nothing, and turn those half-chances we haven't been taking into goals, as he showed yesterday.
At Liverpool, he has had coaching from Robbie Fowler and learned from Michael Owen, while training with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. It would be difficult not to learn something from that lot.
That goal was the moment of the match and could turn out to be the spark we were looking for.
Alex Ferguson had his 'Mark Robins moment' at Nottingham Forest, and time will tell in the next few weeks or months whether this was Paul Buckle's 'Jack Dunn moment'.
Unlike Ferguson, Buckle's job wasn't in jeopardy as the guy has only just got here, but he definitely needed the win to finally lift off his Cheltenham career.
The victory was the reward for performances which have been getting better as the weeks have gone on, and there is no doubt that the work-rate is much improved.
The attitude in the second half was superb, with players showing good fitness and the desire to chase down lost causes to the end and scrap for every ball.
That's what we need to see every game in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully this will be the lift-off and that we can back it up with another good display in an important game at Hartlepool next week.
Buckle took a gamble on these three youngsters and has got an instant dividend from it, but I don't think the wheeling and dealing is over yet.
I still think we need another forward - more of a hold-up target man for Dunn, Gornell, Williams or Dale to play off - and if we are sticking with 4-4-2 we either need to use Zack or Andy Haworth down one side with OSJ on the other, or go and look for another wide man.
My understanding is that we were close to getting a left-sided player in before this weekend but the deal wasn't done, so clearly that is an area he wants to look at.
No-one is kidding themselves that this was the perfect performance and that we are the finished product, but it was a much-needed win, and a shot in the arm for everyone of a CTFC persuasion.
Now we need to build on it. We are not out of the woods yet of course after one win, but I believe the signs are there that we can climb the table.