Sunday, 1 November 2015

Time to believe?

FRIDAY night's hike up to Cleethorpes was built up as the big test for Cheltenham Town's title credentials.
A 5,000-plus crowd, under the lights in front of the TV cameras against a side unbeaten in 11 games with only one home defeat all season.
So - having come through it with a 1-0 win, what now? Is it now time to start believing that this team is the real deal, and can challenge for, if not win, this league?
Yes, I believe it is.
If we can go to Grimsby and win there we have to believe we can win anywhere as I don't see many bigger tests than this in the league.
Looking at the table, we have drawn at Forest Green, beaten Dover and Wrexham, won at Bromley, drawn with Eastleigh, Gateshead, Braintree and Lincoln, and now won at Grimsby.
The home defeat against Tranmere is the only blip against teams in the top half - and you have to honest and say there is very little to fear from what we have seen from the sides being laid out as title challengers.
We have been better than most of them and more than matched the others, including Tranmere.
Personally, I have earmarked Grimsby as the team to beat. My feeling since the start of the season has been that a team which finishes above Grimsby will win the league or go very close.
In the first half on Friday, we started well enough, and looked confident on the ball, but gradually got pushed back and allowed their wide men too much freedom.
Our wing-backs were pushing on and allowing too much space in behind and about half-an-hour in we could have paid for it as we were second best.
The penalty-which-should-have-been and Dillon Phillips' save from Danny East were big alarm bells - but the switch to 4-4-2 paid off for us.
That formation has been a worry for me in the past - mainly because of our right-hand side with Rob Dickie having looked uncomfortable before at right-back and Jack Barthram not looking convincing as a right winger.
Also on the left  we don't have a natural wide man, with Jack Munns having to perform that role - and that system has a 'square peg' look about it.
I feel that playing 3-5-2 suits the players we have... but this time it worked a treat- as we matched them up and went on to prove that overall, man for man, we have better players.
Nowhere else was that shown up better for me than in central midfield, where I felt Kyle Storer and Harry Pell took the game by the scruff of the neck against Craig Disley and Craig Clay over the last hour - and especially in the second half.
The switch also took their wide men out of the game with Dickie and George McLennan having excellent second-halves.
We stopped the supply to them and in doing so negated the threat of Omar Bogle and Padraig Amond after the break.
Amond was denied by Phillips right at the end of the first half but that was it as far as direct saves for Phillips - Disley's shot over the bar was their only real threat after the interval.
We grew into the game the longer it went on with every single player displaying the work-rate and commitment which has typified our season.
This is despite all the travelling of recent weeks - Halifax, Bromley, Havant, Gateshead, Cleethorpes - a lot of miles on the motorway network - and the extra game we had in midweek.
It's prompted a few worries about fitness, and whether our small squad could cope, but by the end of the game we looked the fresher side, and I was impressed with the calmness we showed in seeing the game out.
After Aaron Downes' brilliantly-taken goal we 'managed' the rest of the game very well indeed, led by Downes and the unsung hero alongside him, Daniel Parslow.
Downes quite rightly got all the plaudits post-match but Parslow deserves a few as well as he has been a very consistent performer this season alongside the Silver Fox (copyright H Pell, 2015).
As soon as Grimsby took Bogle off I was confident we would see the game out - it seemed a strange move to me, almost a concession that the game was up.
We could have had more goals - there were a couple of times where a shot was on instead of a pass, Billy Waters and Danny Wright got into good positions but maybe took the wrong decision.
On the subject of those two, Wright had a frustrating first-half but a much better second (along with a few of his team-mates!) but I felt Waters was always lively.
Having watched the game 'lie' and then sat through the TV re-run, the BT pundit Adam Virgo was always picking him out for praise saying he was making intelligent runs and getting into good positions.
I do think we missed Amari Morgan-Smith's extra physicality at times against two big centre-backs as it left Wright to take on the brunt of that side of things, but Waters did worry the Grimsby defence in a different way by running at them and with his trickery.
The partnership between him and Wright still needs some work - there were times when Wright flicked on or looked to hold the ball up and Waters was not close enough to him to take advantage but they will have a few weeks until Amari is fit again to work on that.
But maybe that's just nit-picking as it truly was a superb win and one which puts a marker down - not only for us but for the rest of the league.
It was a very important win too with a lot of teams behind us winning on Saturday - indeed the defeats for Grimsby and Tranmere (1-0 defeat at home to Dover) have dropped them to ninth and 10th. That's how tight it is.
Importantly, they are now seven points behind us - a useful cushion even at this time of the season.
It's still very congested behind us - a sign maybe that these teams are all much of a muchness and can all beat each other... which could play into our hands if we can keep picking up points and start to pull away from the pack.
I am convinced we have what it takes to win this league. If we do, then an October Friday night in Cleethorpes will go down as one of the key reasons why.