Sunday 26 July 2015

Chalk and cheese

AS you would hope given the name which has been inflicted on our home ground this season, it was good to see a world of smiles on most supporters' faces after Saturday's game.
I really enjoyed our performance of high-energy pressing and passing, work-rate and commitment. As one person said afterwards 'more football in 90 minutes than we have seen in the past two seasons'. A tad harsh maybe, but I get where they are coming from.
But we do have to be careful. It's pre-season, and we have played this high-tempo passing game on a nice lush green carpet. As everyone knows the real test is whether it can be done on a wet Tuesday in Stoke. Or Bromley in our case.
However it is hard not to get carried away. Having seen player after player let us down with insipid, uncaring performances and terrible body language over the past two seasons, it's hard not to latch on to this group, who have been prepared to throw themselves into 50-50s in late July.
None of this means we are going to walk the league and have promotion sorted out by Easter but it's hard not to raise expectations on the evidence of these five games so far.
It's only pre-season. Down the road, we have seen Forest Green lose 1-0 to Brimscombe and draw 0-0 with Slimbridge. We're not writing off their promotion hopes on that basis, so equally we are not talking ours up too much on the basis of our results.
But I get the feeling these players will still be winning 50-50s in late April. They seem to have that mentality, and the youthful enthusiasm of players like Billy Waters, Jack Munns, George McLennan and Jack Barthram is infectious.
Having interviewed a few of the new boys, they seem like decent blokes. They talk well and sensibly, they seem to want to be here and want to play for the manager and the club. All very positive.
Cirencester, Weston and Evesham were the 'bedding in' games. 45 minutes to an hour each, resulting in three wins, 13 goals nicely spread around and the green shoots of a team coming together.
Then Sheffield United, more good signs and a defeat to two last-minute goals before Saturday's game with Bristol Rovers - the real pre-season benchmark against the team who have just done what we want to do, getting their place back in the Football League a season after dropping through the trapdoor.
And we passed the test. A 2-1 result which flattered them, and it's their manager who goes away with more problems than ours.
On the evidence so far, you have to say Gary Johnson has had a good summer. All of his new arrivals have shown up well at different times in the pre-season programme.
Dillon Phillips seems to be growing in confidence - his penalty save at the weekend will be a massive fillip, while I am sure Calum Kitscha will be a more than adequate back-up.
Barthram and McLennan look to be good athletes; getting up and down their flanks and both have stopped crosses at various times - a positive improvement on what went before.
Aaron Downes looks a real leader. A 'head it and kick it' centre-back in the Mark Freeman mould, he may find himself beaten for pace at times but he has half-a-yard in his head and looks more than adequate for the level we are at.
His partner remains uncertain. It may be the mythical loan centre-back who is still backed by GJ to arrive before Lincoln, or it may be the triallist Danny Parslow, who the manager wants and who, after playing all four games thus far, will be getting the understanding with Downes already.
He has experience at this level and looks a 'steady Eddie' as well as having a bit of versatility in that he can also play at right-back. There won't be any complaints here if he ends up signing.
Our midfield has looked really strong, and even the return of the diamond has not incurred too much negative feedback from fans - simply because it seems we can now play it properly and are making it work.
Kyle Storer is perfect for the sitting role. No frills at all, breaking it up, winning tackles and letting the three ahead of him loose, while Harry Pell is the driving force we have been missing for so long - arguably since the Penn-Pack-Summerfield trio was broken up.
The guy is a beast. He is the one who sets the tone for the all-action, all-commitment, high-tempo game. All arms and legs and energy, he doesn't let up for the time he is out there and gives us real strength and bite which we haven't had since the sale of Penn.
The we have the little guys, Munns and Waters. In recent times, CTFC has had a few little guys on their books with varying degrees of success - think back to the two Simons, Cooper and Brain, then loanees like Jake Taylor and Kemar Roofe, and then Sam Deering.
Some were better than others, some gave no end-product at all in terms of goals or assists, but these two look like they will deliver on the evidence so far.
Munns can take a set-piece which beats the first man for starters. His corners have landed on the right heads in the penalty area and he has buzzed around like a little pest.
Waters looks a real find. Of all the new arrivals, he is the one who has really shone up in all five games and his performance against Rovers was dazzling. Quick feet, pace, skill and two different goals - a poached effort and a decisive finish. We'll let him off the penalty this time.
Also it's been great to see Asa Hall back. He needs to build up fitness, but he seems pain-free and has come through a few 50-50s unscathed, so another plus.
Midfield options is not something we are short of. Let's not forget Joe Hanks, who has shone up in his games so far, and there's also Jordan Wynter (if the manager wants to keep him around - and I must admit I am not sure he does) and the triallist James Rowe looked a neat and tidy player with an impressive display in the 'number 10' role against Rovers, and is one the manager does want to keep around.
Last but not least of the new boys is Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith. In the three games they played together, the combination play was coming along, and AMS helped himself to four goals and Wright a couple, so already they are getting that confidence up.
Wright is the target man, he seems decent at holding things up and bringing others into play around him, and will be an aerial threat in the box, maybe without bundles of pace.
AMS seems to have that pace as well as power and there seems to be a partnership developing.
There was the worry that we were maybe light in the striker department, but Waters' display up there on Saturday is the absence of AMS might put that to bed, and we also have Harry Williams and Bobbie Dale - plus - hopefully - Eliot Richards may be back to play a part at some point having tweeted that he has now finished his chemotherapy.
Some players may fall by the wayside, either permanently or temporarily. Lee Vaughan has shown his usual good attitude in pre-season, which has been acknowledged by the manager, but he is a high-earner which is essentially why he is available for transfer. The same may happen to Hall and Wynter for those same economic reasons.
It is hard to see Jack Deaman getting a look in, while Zack Kotwica's game for Evesham on Saturday and the diamond system which is working well without natural wide players may suggest he will be looking elsewhere for regular games, maybe joining Adam Page, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence out on loan somewhere.
With only five subs in the VNL, we have a need for less players in the squad, and already the team to play at Lincoln is, I would suggest, pretty close to being known, with Downes' central defensive partner the only real doubt.
It is odds on that we will go to Sincil Bank with 11 debutants; Phillips, Barthram, Downes, McLennan, Storer, Pell, Munns, Waters, Wright and AMS being 10 of them. The loan centre-back or Parslow will surely be debutant player number 11.
The bench will see Kitscha, Vaughan (if fit by then), Parslow or the loanee, Hanks, Hall, maybe Rowe if GJ is able to sign him, Wynter if he is still here, ditto Kotwica, Williams and Dale fighting it out for a seat.
So it really has been all change, and you have to say on the evidence that we have seen so far, overwhelmingly for the better.
To give an idea of just how much change we have seen, I'll leave you with this.
On July 25 2014, we drew 1-1 at Bath City on a baking hot day, and used 19 players, while two more were unused subs.
None of the players who figured in that game played on Saturday, although Joe Hanks, who played for 20 minutes at Bath, was on the bench, as was Bobbie Dale, an unused sub in both games.

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