Sunday, 16 August 2015

Up and running

TWO games into Operation Bounceback, and although we had yet to taste defeat, it would be fair to say that we had yet to get the engine purring along nicely.
We had seen a couple of games which were similar in many ways - enough chances created in both to win, but which were not taken - this lack of a ruthless streak being a large factor (but by no means the only one) in why we were sat on two points and not six.
Southport on the other hand had one point, and no goals and are maybe not expected to pull up too many trees this season.
So, let's be honest, if we are going to show that we are the real deal and challenge near the top, these are the sort of games that need to be won - and, being greedy, won well to put a real marker down.
Yes folks, three games in and we were pretty much getting into the realms of the old 'must-win game'.
Gary Johnson didn't quite say as much in his pre-match chat, but his rhetoric was pleasing to hear - he is still looking for a few lads to step it up a bit, it's time to push on, and we need to start winning. No muddy waters there, the message was clear.
No excuses about a new team needing time to gel, or it's going to take time. He knows what is required this season and that even at this early stage we can't start lagging behind the pacesetters.
An unchanged team for the third game running wasn't a real surprise, and even my anorak-like brain can't remember the last time that happened. I know it wasn't last season for sure...
It's good for the continuity. As the games go on and these players play together, the partnerships around the field start to take root.
Downes and Parslow at the heart of the defence, Barthram and Pell down the right, McLennan and Munns or Waters down the left, Storer and three ahead of him, Wright and Morgan-Smith up front. All of them are starting to knit together and get that understanding going.
Things started well, as they had in the previous two games. We were on the front foot, asking the questions and refusing to be dazzled by Southport's decision to send their outfield players out dressed as 10 stewards in high-vis outfits.
But like on Tuesday the early goal wouldn't come. But unlike on Tuesday, where Aldershot looked to play a bit and tried to hit us on the break, Southport formed a flourescent wall in front of us designed to frustrate.
By half-time, we had almost hit double figures for corners, and taken our season's shot count past 30 - but with a return of only one goal to show for it.
During the break, I ventured down to the main bar to gauge some opinions. 'Always one too many passes - get more shots off early,' said one. 'Final ball poor' said another. 'Move the ball quicker - try to get in behind them' added a third.
So a mood of general frustration at a 0-0 scoreline - but the feeling that if we could uncork the bottle and get one goal that more would follow, and that much-wanted win would come.
And so it proved, corner number 11 landing on Downes' head - ironic given early-season worries about our own defending from set-pieces that one proved pivotal here.
All of a sudden, the mood lifted and a weight seemed to have been lifted from the whole ground.
Gary and Russell Milton were waving to the PRE and everything was rosy. Not for one minute after that goal did I think we were going to do anything other than win the game.
Two more goals made the scoreline about right. Overall I felt it was a 3-0 game. We had 22 shots in all and 17 corners.
On those stats it was a comfortable win, fully merited against a side who had one decent chance, Louis Almond's shot at 0-0 which was well saved by Dillon Phillips.
Morgan-Smith took his two goals superbly. The finish for the first was exquisite, a lovely dink which finally broke Southport's resistance.
His second - blow me down, another goal from a corner - was bravely taken, showing determination to get above the defender and win the header.
It's good to see him get up and running with a couple of goals - and probably kept him on the pitch as Josh Cooke was waiting to come on but Danny Wright came off instead.
Wright got a good ovation and was fully deserved as I felt he typified this team's attitude and high work ethic. He certainly puts a shift in, and it is nice to see a Cheltenham number 9 who is prepared to do that again. We've not seen that for a while...
Downes got the sponsors' man of the match vote again and after a clean sheet, goal and assist it's hard to quibble.
But after many games in the past two seasons which it seems to sponsors have had to draw the name out of a hat due to lack of candidates, it could have gone to a few this time.
Storer was again impressive, and has I feel been our best player over the three games combined so far. I like the unfussy way he just breaks things up and gets us moving again. He wins the ball back effectively and provides a good shield for the back four.
I also felt Parslow had an excellent game, his best for us so far. He reads the game well, as does Downes and I like the way they seem decisive with clearances - no fuss, if it needs to go, it goes.
Munns had given us real creativity, and has been involved in all four of our goals so far, scoring one, taking corners which lead to two others and with a slide-rule ball for the other one. A small midfielder in the mould of ones which have gone before - but this one seems to have end product.
In the system we play, the full-backs have a tough job. They need to be good athletes and get up and down their flank all game, defending and then providing much of the width.
I felt Barthram did it better than McLennan here but as we later discovered McLennan was feeling under the weather, he deserves credit for lasting as long as he did.
Waters came off early again, giving way to another good cameo from Asa Hall, and, having hit the heights in pre-season, especially against Bristol Rovers, Waters hasn't quite scaled them again in these last two home games.
We have seen flashes of it, but he has been overshadowed a bit by his little pal Munns, and I feel we need to find a way to get the best out of him as I feel he could really be a star for us.
In some ways I think the same goes for Pell, who, with his height and power, should really be our driving force. I felt at times on Saturday he was a little wasted out on the right, almost at times playing as a winger.
I'd like to see him maybe deployed more centrally, maybe with Munns and Waters either side of him so he can really get the ball and drive opponents back, with the trickery of the two little guys benefitting from his destructive work.
But it was a good performance and it was nice to see those slightly furrowed half-time brows replaced by full-time smiles - four points from two home games is sufficient and gets us moving in the right direction.
You can't argue with three goals, including that rarity for us of two from corners, and that even bigger rarity - a second successive clean sheet, for the first time since the start of last season, Hartlepool and Morecambe.
A look at the embryonic league table is interesting. Some patterns already seem to be forming for where teams may end up, even at this early stage.
Several of those teams who were perceived to be among the cream are already rising to the top - but as we painfully know from last season, let's remember that good starts are not necessarily a barometer for a successful campaign. Marathon, not a sprint.
At present Forest Green, Grimsby, Eastleigh, Tranmere and Wrexham occupy five of the top six places, with the other team in the top bracket being Chester, our opponents on Tuesday.
They have seven points from two 1-0 wins and a goalless draw, solid and unspectacular maybe.
Three clean sheets suggests they will be a tough nut to crack at the Deva, but we should be going there in confident mood, hopeful of getting something to keep us moving in the right direction.