Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Home comforts

It's been a long time since we have been able to use the phrase 'routine home victory' about a Cheltenham Town game, but it is the perfect way to describe the win over Macclesfield.
We saw an utterly dominant first half followed by a comfortable second, and all in all probably our most complete performance of the season so far - well, out of the eight games I have seen for definite.
There was no late drama and no need for comebacks - we just went out, imposed ourselves on the game from the off, went 2-0 up and saw the game through.
So that's five wins in a row now at home, all very different from the past two seasons (but let's face it, just about  everything around the club is different from the past two seasons...).
In fact we have now won as many home games as we did in the whole of last season - and that factoid tells its own tale.
The 3-5-2 seems to work. The players look at ease and comfortable in it and, for the most part, we have round pegs in round holes. It gives the team confidence and they can just go out and play.
Gary Johnson used this system when he won this league at Yeovil and I can see it becoming the norm for us now.
Rob Dickie looks happier as part of a back three than he did at right back. Ditto Harry Pell in a central midfield role rather than out on the right, and Billy Waters just behind the front two.
The team looked more fluid as they seamlessly carried on from the second half of the Dover win, which cheered me up in my sick bed last weekend, At 2-0 down I was reaching for more drugs to numb the pain.
The only slight square peg on Tuesday was Jack Barthram, retained down the left side, where he is nowhere near as effective, with Lee Vaughan keeping his place on the right after his half-time introduction against Dover and George McLennan sat on the bench after his ban.
Barthram had started the season superbly on the right and has not been able to replicate it down the left in the past four games.
I have nothing against Vaughan. He had a few dodgy games last season as did just about everyone else, but in some supporters' eyes he is 'damaged goods' having been a member of that relegation squad.
He does deserve credit for having not sulked after being transfer listed by Johnson, but instead deciding he would knuckle down, aim to change the manager's mind and show some determination to get back into the side.
It's that 'passion' and attitude which many fans love and can go wildly over the top about where he is concerned - he has become a cult hero to some simply for telling Paul Buckle where to go on the team coach at Southend.
He is proven at VNL level, and on Tuesday, he did perfectly well, giving the width and support when needed with the only drawback being the quality of his final ball.
So if Johnson wants to get his natural left footer in McLennan back down the left-hand side, he has a choice between Barthram and Vaughan to make as the season goes on. Interesting to see how that one goes.
You could see the determination throughout the team to start well on Tuesday and not fall into the trap of the previous three home games.
That tone was set by Pell and Kyle Storer, who took the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and everyone else fed off them. They were brilliant in the 60-odd minutes they played together.
Once again it was work rate which shone through and no one epitomises that more than Danny Wright. It's been said before and not only be me, but it's good to have a hard-working target man.
Amari Morgan-Smith isn't a slouch on the 'putting in a shift' front either, and they do complement each other well as a front pair.
Just behind them, Waters was buzzing around, looking confident again after his goals against Dover finally kick-started his season.
You look at that midfield trio of Storer, Pell and Waters and then see the trio on the bench - Jack Munns, James Rowe and Asa Hall - and realise how well stocked we are in that department. That's before adding Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks into that mix.
At the back, Dillon Phillips didn't have a save to make until just about half-time, because Dickie, Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow provided a solid barrier.
The two goals we scored were further rubber-stamping of our danger from set-pieces - another refreshing change from the recent past.
No longer are our corners or free-kicks greeted by feelings of trepidation that we will concede a goal to a counter-attack - we actually now pose a real threat that we might score from them,
First we saw Storer's ball from the right headed in by Pell, and then Wright was on the end of 'The Weasel' - a Johnson training ground production which apparently has seen success in the past at Yeovil.
It involved a pass from Storer to find Waters, who had run along the edge of the box before feeding the pass to Wright, who, along with Morgan-Smith, had dropped out of the defensive wall, and he finished clinically.
All very clever and on this occasion it worked to a tee.
2-0 at half-time was the least we deserved and it allowed the second half to be much more comfortable. We could afford to drop a gear or two, and almost coast our way through it.
Macc were a bit more threatening but I never had a worry they were going to score, let alone do what we had done on Saturday and turn the game on its head.
Johnson had the chance to rest Pell and Waters and give Munns and Rowe 25 minutes each. Munns we know about, but I was again impressed by Rowe in his cameo.
He has energy about him and seems a very composed player with good passing range and quick feet - another clever footballer who adds to the ability in the squad.
McLennan was also brought on in the last 10 minutes and did a good job in that time - all in all, a highly satisfying night and a win reminiscent in some ways of the home wins under Steve Cotterill back in the Conference days - almost a steamroller performance.
So that is 10 games done now. We have six wins, three draws and one defeat, for 21 points - matching the 'two points per game' target.
We also have 18 goals, spread around nine different goalscorers. Wright has four, Morgan-Smith and Downes three, Storer and Waters two and there is one each for Munns, Parslow, Dickie and Pell.
That's almost at the 'two goals per game' target as well - and it is proving that we are scoring goals from everywhere in the side rather than being over-reliant on one or two players to get them.
We have also had eight ever-presents so far, Phillips, Barthram, Storer, Downes, Parslow, Pell, Wright and Morgan-Smith starting every game. This points at consistency of selection. Fingers crossed we won't be using 40-odd players in this campaign...
As the weeks go by, we see more and more evidence that this team and squad are the 'real deal'.
We have seen their work rate and commitment in spades. We have seen their resilience and spirit to come from behind and salvage draws and wins from losing situations. We have seen players with some backbone - putting their bodies on the line to protect our goal when we have come under pressure instead of collapsing like a pack of cards. Basically, they actually care.
It's all been a breath of fresh air and it's hard not to get carried away by it. These opening 10 games have been full of plusses and positives and all the signs are there that we will have a good fist at getting straight back up.
However, now we face two tough games on the road. First we go to Woking on Saturday, and they'll be cock-a-hoop after ending Forest Green's 100 per cent start, and then of course it's our trip over to Nailsworth.
Two cup finals, says Gary. He's not wrong. We go into them with good momentum after these two home wins and could really propel ourselves into the thick of things if we can come out unscathed.
But even if things don't go right in these two games, it wouldn't be the end of the world or any promotion hopes - I'd back this team to respond to it and come back stronger and there will still be a long, long way to go.