Sunday, 29 November 2015

Halfway to redemption

After the despair of relegation last May, everyone associated with Cheltenham Town FC, board, management, players or fans, could have done one of two things.
We could all have collectively given up - just felt sorry for ourselves and accepted life back in the non-League ranks as our lot for the next few years.
"It's a hard league to get out of..." was a mantra we heard a lot before quoting teams like Luton who took a few seasons to get back up... Even Bristol Rovers needed the play-offs etc etc...
Or we could have done the opposite - taken it on the chin and then decided that we were going to have a right good go and try to get back into the 92 club again, and that it could be done at the first go.
Happily, we have chosen the latter option, and at the halfway mark things couldn't really be going any better could they?.
Only two defeats in 23 games, an average of two points and two goals a game, a healthy goal difference and a one-point lead at the top of the table, which, deep down, I cannot imagine many of us would really have expected back in August.
I fully admit I certainly didn't expect it. Of course I hoped we would be in this position, but back in August I would have bitten your hand off for us to be in or around the top five at this point.
Pre-season, many of the so-called pundits had written us off, one saying we had a good manager but a mid-table squad, and that we'd finish 11th. The first bit was right at least.
Since day one, Gary Johnson has not sugar-coated anything. "We have to win the league" he has said, over and over again.
That keeps up the pressure on himself and he has done the same with the squad, who have reacted positively to it. Very rarely has he come out for a post-match interview and been totally satisfied with what he has seen.
He always wants more, always says there is more to come from the players - all of which bodes well for the remaining 23 games.
So far, the players have delivered every time their manager has asked them to, and every time there has been some pressure on them.
Saturday was another case in point. Now we are top, we are there to be shot at and many of the sides immediately below us had what looked like very winnable games.
We faced an Aldershot side not in great form but still a tricky proposition, and we ground it out. A solid, resolute 2-0 win away from home in tricky, windy conditions.
It was just the sort of result and performance that helps you to win leagues.
Going back to 1998-9, I recall Steve Cotterill's side winning these sort of games at Southport, Morecambe and Hereford on their way to the title.
We got our goals, and then defended superbly with Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow outstanding again as Aldershot had a few corners and threw men forward to try to break us down - to no avail.
Right through the team we were outstanding, with Dillon Phillips again making some fine saves as once again he shows what a great signing he has been.
Rob Dickie and George McLennan continue to grow at this level with every game, and our midfield powerhouses Kyle Storer and Harry Pell seem to get stronger week after week -  even a haircut can't quell Pell's powers. He has been immense in the last few games.
Jack Munns' goals and assists are vital, while loanee Ryan Jennings came in and fitted in straight away with good strong running with the ball, and some really good defensive work when needed.
Billy Waters and Danny Wright worked hard and then Andrija Novakovich showed he will be an asset when he came on and could have gone away with two goals but for the woodwork.
Those players who haven't been able to break into the side on a regular basis also played their part with Asa Hall and James Rowe allowing Waters and Munns a rest and helping to shore things up at the death.
That's the value of a decent squad, and strength in depth - having players like Hall and Rowe who can do a job when necessary, and players like Jennings and Novakovich being identified by the Johnson family scouting system as youngsters who can come in and make an impact.
Add to that the injured pair of Jack Barthram and James Dayton, and we have a very strong squad - evidenced further by the fact that we can let our third-choice right-back Lee Vaughan go to Tranmere, where he gets straight into the their side and helps them to a clean sheet.
 If we let the likes of Hall and Rowe go I believe they too would walk into any other team in this league.
We have real spirit here, a close-knit group united behind their manager with one aim in mind, to get this club back on its feet again and back in the Football League.
That had been a big part of why we have got into this position. Add to that consistency of selection as we have managed to get the spine of the squad - Phillips, Downes, Parslow, Storer, Pell, Wright - onto the field together to start every match bar one (Pell's one-match suspension). Added to that Munns has played a part in every game as had Barthram before Saturday.
Downes has also come through a long period on four bookings. The final whistle on Saturday means he has passed through the amnesty now and wouldn't
The goals have been spread around as well - so when a player has gone through a little barren patch as, for instance, Danny Wright is at the moment (eight league games without a goal), others have stepped up like Waters has of late, and Pell with his free-kicks.
We haven't been relying on one player for goals, everyone has chipped in, so we have got to 46 league goals, the joint highest so far, without anyone hitting double figures (who says you need a 20-goal striker...).
But we can't rest on our laurels as we know the job is only half done.
December starts with an important game as we host Chester while our nearest two rivals play in the FA Cup, as do fifth-placed Eastleigh - so it's a big chance to open up a bit of leeway between us and the rest.
It's in our hands now - we have done the groundwork, and now it's time to take advantage.