Wednesday, 4 March 2015

One step forward... two back

COME on, nobody thought it was going to be easy did they?
After the euphoria of Saturday, a fine performance on the field and terrific support and enthusiasm off it, there was great optimism for the long trip up the M6 to Carlisle.
We were coming off the win over Tranmere; they had lost four in a row, and their local paper had tales of behind the scenes issues.
There was no getting away from the importance of the game. A win would have put us four points ahead of the Cumbrians with a better goal difference, and the atmosphere was tense among the home fans.
If we could have made a decent start as we had on Saturday, put them under some pressure and maybe nicked a goal, the crowd may have turned on their team. But it never happened.
Unfortunately it was a bit of a 'Southern softie' performance from us - one that we have seen a little too often on the road, especially when we have gone up North, and when the weather is a little wild.
There was no surprise when Russell Milton chose an unchanged side - but we never got anywhere near the heights of Saturday's performance and that has been such a frustrating thing about us over the past two seasons or so.
We never seem to be able to back up a good performance with another when the side is unchanged. It is a real dilemma why the same 11 players can produce such chalk and cheese displays within four days.
I am sure there is something in the theory that players like Matt Sparrow, Shaun Harrad, Pablo Mills and Eliot Richards have not played as many games in quick succession recently. But they are experienced enough and should be able to cope with it - but they were part of a below-par display.
So, we are back to square one again. After climbing up to 21st, we have dropped back down to 23rd, and the sides above us are becoming more and more spread out.
Carlisle had the benefit of the wind in the first half, and they used it well, but we never got to grips with it, in a mirror image of the conditions and way we coped with them at Hartlepool in another crucial match.
The home side adopted a very direct approach, and twice in the early stages our centre-halves let long balls bounce, then struggled to deal with them and we nearly paid for it. We would have done but for Trevor Carson's saves.
Our midfield, having been the bedrock of Saturday's win, never got going. The direct approach from Carlisle bypassed them, and they could not get involved to the same extent as they had at the weekend. They couldn't dictate the game.
So with them coming out second best, our forward players also struggled to get into the game. Shaun Harrad was isolated while Burns and Eliot Richards were largely anonymous as we couldn't make use of the wide pitch.
The main threats to both goals in the first half came from set-pieces. Carlisle's corner routine was clever - all their attacking players in the six-yard box would then run out in different directions making it hard for us to pick them up.
From free-kicks too they were dangerous, and that is how the goal came. A deep kick to the far post took Carson out of the equation and it was headed back across for Charlie Wyke to bundle in. A scruffy-looking goal which settled ultimately a scruffy-looking game.
We only really had once chance in the first half - a Troy Brown header straight at the keeper from a Matt Richards free kick in a carbon copy of Saturday's second goal.
Other than that, we didn't create anything. We had some promising positions, but were thwarted by poor passing, poor decision-making or a lack of support arriving quick enough for the player in possession.
I was hoping for better in the second half. We would have the wind with us, and I was looking for us to get on the front foot and try to exploit the conditions.
But again, it never happened. Carlisle defended very well, and we were never able to get a head of steam up, or really put them under concerted pressure.
We had two chances, with then both falling to Matt Taylor, who had one shot cleared off the line, and then , right at the end, put a free header well wide.
It summed our night up really. Close but no cigar, without ever really having the conviction to go and make something happen.
We just seemed tentative, and let's face it Carlisle were not a great side at all and even a performance somewhere near Saturday's would have been enough to get something out of the game.
But we allowed them to play their game as they wanted to - direct in the first half, containing in the second, and stopping the game at regular intervals by winning free-kicks as we fell into their trap.
While we dictated things and 'managed' the game well on Saturday, we conceded that last night and fell into Carlisle's trap and paid a heavy penalty for it.
Russ made a quick change in the second half, putting on Mathieu Manset for Eliot Richards, and it seemed a sensible change with Harrad being isolated, Richards struggling and the need for a bigger target up there.
That is just the job I envisaged him playing when we brought him here - with the conditions, we needed to be direct and look to hit him and see if we could play off him.
Since he has come here, he hasn't looked very fit, but Russ said Manset has been impressive in training and those performances have been asking Russ to be pick him.
As far as the result goes, it didn't work but after 10 minutes or so to get used to the pace of the game, I thought he had an effect, and gave us a bit more threat.
The ball stuck when it went up to him, and he made a couple of runs which finally had the Carlisle back-four back-pedalling after they had enjoyed a pretty comfortable ride all night, one of which ended with Harrad scuffing a shot wide.
Harrad playing up on his own is not the best option for an away game in conditions like we came up against here and it might well be that we have to look at other systems in games like this in the coming weeks.
Carlisle managed to negate Burns and Richards, and took a grip on the midfield, and that was it - we were stopped from playing completely - we need to have a Plan B, and Manset or Denny Johnstone might be it.
Mills was taken off after being booked for a tackle which another referee might have sent him off for - it wasn't the best challenge and the Carlisle side were not happy with it, and it was a chance for Jordan Wynter to come on and he didn't do too badly when he came on.
But no Cheltenham player can say they performed well. The whole back four looked jittery and failed to deal with Wyke and Steven Rigg, or with Anthony Sweeney and David Amoo out wide.
In midfield, Anthony Griffith had a decent game, and the Carlisle midfield overshadowed ours, and our wide men never got the better of their full-backs, leaving Harrad isolated and unable to get any change out of Troy Archibald-Henville and Sean O'Hanlon.
So disappointing all round in a big and important game, as we were at Hartlepool and again at Dagenham, and let us hope that these games are not the ones which cost us in the long run.
But we have to stay positive, and move on to the Mansfield game, which like Tranmere last week now takes on must-win status once again.
Mansfield will feel a win at our place this weekend will almost make them safe. so they will have a big incentive.
I was hoping that we would have been aiming to get to 40 points on Saturday, but we need the win to put the pressure on those sides above us and look to get back out of the bottom two.
We have 12 games left. Four wins, four draws and four defeats would get us to 50 - will that be enough?
Maybe... maybe not - but we need to keep the positivity up, keep the support up from last weekend and repeat that on Saturday. We saw the effect it had last week.
We all knew that last week's win didn't mean it was going to be automatically plain sailing from here on in -  but we need to make sure this was just a blip.