Monday, 19 January 2015

Paying the penalty

AFTER the game on Friday, I was asked whether the draw with Morecambe represented one point gained, or two points dropped.
It was a difficult question to answer, as our performance for an hour, having gone in front and had chances to kill the game off, would have made it two points dropped, but over the last 30 minutes, with the penalty save, equaliser and a great save from Trevor Carson, it was a point gained.
Following the meek surrender at Hartlepool, I wanted to see changes and was glad to see that they were bold ones. On the night, most of them were positive.
The biggest positive was Matt Taylor's return. Leadership, and the lack of it, has been an issue of late and we definitely look better and more solid with him in the side.
The decision to go back to three centre-halves was also a good one in my view - it helped bed Taylor back in, and gave Lloyd Jones someone with great experience alongside him to guide him through the game, and Troy Brown definitely looks happier with the skipper alongside him.
What it should have done is also help the full-backs. Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett, have, in my view, looked weak in recent weeks, so the hope was that three at the back would suit their games as it had in previous months.
It didn't work, and I thought both were disappointing again. They conceded a penalty each, and had problems defensively, especially Vaughan in the first half with most of Morecambe's attacks coming down his flank. He got caught sleeping a couple of times, and was lucky to get away with it.
Further forward, the axe fell on Matt Richards. As I said last week, he has been frustrating me more and more, and I was pleased to hear Paul Buckle's post-match comments about wanting more fight in his game, and more dynamism.
It gave Kane Ferdinand the chance to go more central with Kevin Stewart and it worked in the first hour. They were effective with the ball - but not so good without it as again at times we got caught high up the field and Morecambe had a few chances to break on us.
Further forward, Harry Williams, Omari Sterling-James and Jack Dunn gradually got on to the same wavelength as the half wore on and their pace was causing problems for Morecambe back three.
We got the penalty - ours was for my money the least clear-cut of the three - then Dunn had one kicked off the line and Williams another chance blocked when he was maybe a tad late in pulling the trigger, so we could have been further clear.
Morecambe had caused problems, one shot just went wide but others were from long distance and more wayward - I didn't feel their first-half chances were as clear-cut as ours.
The second half started superbly for us, with their keeper making great saves from Omari and Dunn, and a second goal seemed like it was certain to come.
But then I feel the manager made a mistake when he put Joe Hanks on for Harry Williams, as it totally killed our momentum.
I can see why he did it. He was worried about how much space Jamie Devitt was getting and wanted someone to shadow him  - remember the game at Cambridge when Hanks did a similar job on Ryan Donaldson which took him out of the game.
But we were in the ascendancy. What we were doing was working, so I didn't see the logic in changing it to start worrying about what Morecambe were doing. I feel it would have been better to keep it as it was and try to get the second goal, then maybe you have a look at shoring things up and seeing the game out.
Stewart lined up alongside Devitt for a couple of minutes afterwards, then Jim Bentley made a change, with an attacker replacing one of his wing-backs and went to 4-4-2.
That negated our change completely, and our midfield was never the same again in the match and Morecambe were able to press us backwards.
Dunn, who was not the same player after picking up a heavy knock and might have been taken off, and Omari became isolated as the link-man, Williams, was off the field.
Hanks looked lost, and seemed to be unsure of what role he was being asked to play. It was a muddled change, and disappointing to see us concede the initiative so freely.
Morecambe saw much more of the ball and posed a big threat. We started to give away far too many fouls around the box, and it was fortunate that Morecambe's long-range shooting was pretty terrible.
The first penalty was nailed on, and it was great save from Carson and an unbelievable miss from the rebound. At this point, you could have been forgiven that it was going to be our night.
Even more so when Carson made that save from Paul Mullin's header before the second penalty - one of those which is given these days even though the handball is not deliberate, as I was always taught it should be. Ho hum.
In it went, and to be fair it was just desserts for Morecambe, and over the 90 a draw was about right, disappointing though it was as this was a game I, and many others I am sure, had looked at as one we needed to win.
However, I was as encouraged by the first hour as I was frustrated by the last 30 minutes.
In the hour, we had energy, and some zip about us. We looked defensively happier with Taylor back, moved the ball quicker in midfield and had some pace in the final third.
But we needed that bit more ruthlessness. At least one of the Dunn clearance off the line, Williams chance and the Dunn and Omari efforts that were saved should have gone in.
We got into some good wide areas at times, but the crossing, as ever, was poor from the full-backs.
We were hoisting high crosses in for three small men - just senseless. We needed to drill balls across for them as the crosses were either gobbled up by the goalkeeper or easily cleared.
Consider also the more senior players who were not in the side through non-selection or injury, or on the bench - Richards, Andy Haworth, Paul Black, Asa Hall, Steve Elliott, Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell.
That represents a large chunk of the wage budget not in the starting 11, and so it's not easy to work out why Buckle is frustrated at the lack of flexibility with regards to bringing players in.
Three of those players were injured, and four left out (one on the bench), with Black now having left the club, and, in a disappointing move for the conspiracy theorists, he doesn't appear to have fallen out with anyone, including the manager.
In fact, he was waived a chunk of money to help the club out, and the manager has been been helping him to find a new club in the USA. All very amicable, and a decent gesture from Black to help the club out.
Brought in as competition for Braham-Barrett at left-back, he only started four games, two in central midfield against Dagenham and Burton and two on the left of a back three, against Swindon and at Stevenage, where he had a very difficult afternoon. He also came on in the JPT win over Oxford.
He never got to play as a left-back, his best position, mainly as Braham-Barrett had a good start to the season - but after the way CBB had played last season, having not displaced him at the start of the season I suspect he was never really going to.
Now James Bowen, who came on on Friday after CBB had a tight hamstring late on, will be the back-up in that position.
It remains to be seen how much, if any, that helps Buckle out with regards to bringing anyone in, but we can hope.
After the result on Friday, it was time to sit back and see what the others could do, and how much trouble we would find ourselves in by Saturday evening.
The answer is a bit more than we were, as the gap is now down to three points - the narrowest it has been up to now, after wins for Carlisle and Tranmere (who seem to be the side in form among the bottom bunch).
Oxford, York, Dagenham and Mansfield all lost, as did Hartlepool, but now, even though there are teams between us in 18th and Dagenham in 23rd, we are now within one set of unfavourable results of dropping in there.
I think we have improved under Buckle, but the bottom line is that we need to start winning games, and fast.
We could have won this one but the substitution he made played a big part in why we didn't, so now we go on to a tough one with Luton before a vital trip to Dagenham.

Stats watch
Buckle's first eight league games have yielded seven points, with one win, four draws and three defeats, and we have scored six goals and conceded nine - one goal in seven of the games and two at Hartlepool.
It is clear that we have become more solid, as we let in 20 goals in Yates' last eight games - but we scored nine goals in those games, and also managed to take seven points, with two wins, a draw and five losses.
But how does Buckle's record over his first eight league games compare to previous Cheltenham managers in the Football League?
Yates, record in his first eight games after taking over from Martin Allen is ridiculously similar to Buckle's, and he took over in a very similar situation - a low-quality squad of senior players, low on confidence and on a poor run of results.
In fact, the only thing different between their records over eight games is that Yates' side scored one less goal - five - in his games, with a win, four draws and three defeats, letting in nine goals like Buckle, also for a return of seven points.
In between Yates and Allen, John Schofield managed us for nine games, he also won one, drew three and lost five for a return of six points - his win being 5-1 against Barnet.
Allen's performance as manager overall was not a success, but he is the only boss to win his first game in charge - that 2-1 success over Bristol Rovers.
After replacing Keith Downing, his first eight games overall yielded eight points - two wins, two draws and four defeats and there were 31 goals in those games, 13 for and 18 against with no clean sheets.
Downing, like Yates and Buckle, had one win, four draws and three defeats in his opening eight games, with eight goals scored and 13 conceded with one clean sheet - coming in his eighth game which was his only win... the unforgettable 1-0 success against Leeds.
John Ward lost his opener, 3-1 at Torquay, but he started with a return of nine points from eight games, two wins, three draws and three losses, with eight goals scored and 11 conceded.
Before Ward came Bobby Gould, who started off with two goalless draws before we beat Tranmere 3-1 for his only win in his opening eight games.
That was the only one, as he, like Buckle, Yates and Downing, has a 1-4-3 record to kick off with, with nine goals scored and 13 conceded.
Gould had replaced Graham Allner, who had a torrid start to life in charge with only three draws from his first eight games, and five defeats as we took on the League One challenge for the first time.
We scored six goals and let in 12, with his first win actually coming in game nine, when we beat Swindon 2-0 - although we did win 3-0 at Norwich in the League Cup, but this little study is all about league games.
Last - but no means least of course - we have Mr Cotterill. He lost his first two games in charge, which no manager has done since, against Sittingbourne and King's Lynn, but won the next three. His first eight brought four wins, a draw and three losses for 12 points, scoring 12 and letting in nine.
But this study is about the Football League - and there we took nine points from his (and the club's) opening league games, with three wins and five defeats. His 'goals for' tally of four is the lowest of any CTFC manager for their first eight FL games, and we conceded seven, which is fewer than anyone else.
His nine points from the first eight league games (that's 24 points remember...) is the joint best, with Ward. Then comes Allen with eight, while Buckle, Yates, Downing and Gould all got seven (with identical win-lose-draw records) and Allner three.
I think these statistics show that a change of manager is never the sign for a quick upturn in results, and therefore I do feel that some fans (especially those giving him a pathetic and very childish nickname on the forum) have expected too much too soon.
Even more so, that he has no real scope to make the changes he wants to, with all due respect to the loan lads I think he had more experience and some permanent arrivals in mind.
Clubs usually change their managers because they are not winning enough games - we have done that virtually every time (bar the Ward-Downing switch, and Cotterill-Allner) and the stats above show that is very rarely been a quick fix, more a long-term thing which takes time to settle down - and even then it has had varying degrees of success further down the line.
There is no guarantee, but just as we did when we changed Allen for Yates five years ago, we have to hope we get enough points in the remaining games to stay above the line, then maybe Buckle can finally put his stamp on things next summer.