Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We're halfway there (nearly...)

DON'T worry, I'm not about to launch into Bon Jovi - trust me you really wouldn't want to hear that...
It has been difficult not to walk around with a satisfied grin since the final whistle last night signalled our move to top spot in the National League.
But while it's nice to be there and yes, I am enjoying it as much as anyone else, it is important to remember that nothing is won yet.
As my first question to Gary Johnson post-match said, it was just about the perfect night against Guiseley, one of those which that well-known lager company might have had in mind when they dreamed up their adverts.
Two early goals, an injury to the opposition centre-half, then a bit of cruise control through the rest of the first half (getting a bit sloppy at times maybe, but we'll let them off just this once).
That was followed by a red card within two minutes of the re-start, a third goal just to make sure, a chance to rest your two central midfield workhorses, then a couple more goals to add a bit more gloss and send us all home happy.
Added to that were the goings-on in three games being played in the Kent and Greater London area, all of which ended with decent enough results for us as Forest Green were held and the teams immediately below us, Dover and Bromley, were beaten at home.
All very satisfactory, and keeping us on schedule for Gary's 'two points a game' target - 20 games, 40 points, after we had previously had 20 after 10 games.
Even the goals for column is almost playing ball, with 39 at the moment - only one away from two goals a game - statistics which really lay bare just how bad last season really was.
Now I don't want to hark back to those dark days too much, suffice to say that a point and a goal at Haig Avenue on Saturday will match our points and goal tallies from the whole of that wretched campaign.
More vindication then for Gary's summer recruitment, and also yet another sad indictment on the previous two close seasons.
Gary has proven that, if you know where to look and do your due diligence, the players are out there, and they don't demand a king's ransom. Let's remember his budget is somewhere around two-thirds of what the previous manager-but-two-or-three-I've-lost-count started last season with.
He has also proved that you can mould a new group of players into a close-knit group, who are motivated, care about the club they are playing for and want to do well for themselves, their manager and the supporters.
But that's enough about what went before. We know it was terrible, we know that's the reason why we are striving to get back up and keep our club on an even keel.
It's time to look forward to the next 26 games, which, if we can carry on with Gary's twin targets, really can take us to where we want to be.
This group really are responding to what Gary is demanding of them. They are listening and he comes across as a man not easily satisfied. Even after wins he has come out afterwards and asked for, nay demanded, more from them.
The players have taken it on board and they have stepped it up when needed - last night being an example.
After the Hartlepool game, Gary had a little go at a few. I suspect behind closed doors one or two got a bit more of a rocket. It certainly worked.
That's a sign that the players respect their manager and believe in what he is trying to do and in what he tells them.
He rewards them with (in the main) a consistency of selection which is paying off with results.
Five players - Dillon Phillips, Kyle Storer, Aaron Downes, Daniel Parslow and Danny Wright, have started all 20 league games.
One, Harry Pell, only missed a game due to his five bookings while Jack Munns and Jack Barthram, have started 18 and come on in the other two.
Amari Morgan-Smith started the first 18 games before his injury, Billy Waters has featured in 18 games (9 starts, 9 sub), George McLennan has missed three games due to his suspension, Rob Dickie has started the last 15 after signing for us.
So that's a core group of only 12 players, with Asa Hall, Lee Vaughan, James Rowe and now James Dayton added on, who have got us into this position.
Yes, we have been lucky with injuries up to now, but they have all stepped up when needed.
Of the five ever-presents, Phillips, Storer, Downes and Wright have been the real spine of the team - but what about Daniel Parslow? He's quietly got on with it, turned in consistent seven-out-of-10 performances and been a bit of an unsung hero.
Pell has come into his own since moving more centrally, while Munns, with six goals and officially nine (but I'd say he's got more than that) assists has shown his value regularly.
Barthram has been another consistent man, and made a few goals - even if he seems destined never to score one himself, while Morgan-Smith, pre-injury, has been a good foil for Wright and come up with some crucial goals.
Waters has seven goals in nine starts - enough said - and the young defenders McLennan and Dickie seem to be getting better and better.
McLennan had a rough spell after coming back from his ban but has come through it and been impressive lately and Dickie also looks to have a good future with his trademark surging runs out of defence.
Hall and Rowe have a goal apiece now and showed on Tuesday what good strength in depth we have got in the midfield area - I'm convinced they'd walk into most teams at this level, as probably would Vaughan.
Dayton made his first start on Tuesday but while he may not have had too much an impact, has shown with his cameos from the bench that he can be an asset - there is more to come I think over the second half of the season, if he stays beyond January.
But despite their good performances up to now, Gary wants to add - no resting on his laurels. A loan striker for competition while Amari is out is being hunted, the mere thought of which seems to have perked Billy Waters up - last night's display from him was just the sort of reaction you want.
How much more Gary can do after December 31 depends on a few factors.
Will Charlton let Phillips stay? Please let that be a yes...! Will Dayton's stay be extended?
What of the loanees, especially the ones he doesn't appear to want, who are seemingly Jack Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence, will they be moved on or paid up?
Harry Williams, Joe Hanks, Bobbie Dale (currently injured), James Bowen, Zack Kotwica and Adam Page, what of them? More loan action, or a chance in the squad? Will some of them get a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season?
I personally hope some of them get that opportunity and take it, but I have to be honest and say I am becoming increasingly unsure about whether that chance is going to materialise.
Take Williams for example. He is back at the club from Farnborough where he has scored something like 25 goals in all games.
He was an option for the bench on Tuesday given our shortage of attacking options - yet was overlooked and we went with two right-backs and two midfielders plus Rhys Lovett. I really hope that's not a signal of where Gary is going with that group of players.
Before the Guiseley game, Gary said of Williams: "If I pick him it's because I think it's right, and if I don't it's because I don't think it's right just yet." He wasn't picked, so it's obviously not right yet. The question is will it ever be?
Can Eliot Richards come back from his illness and make an impact? It certainly seems that Gary wants to give him the chance to do so, maybe even before Christmas. It would be like a new signing and could save us looking elsewhere in January.
Finally, has Jordan Wynter got a future here when he is over his injury? - there has to be a doubt about that given our midfield resources.
All these questions which need answering before Gary can really look at what he wants in January to add to that core group he has, which has done so well.
If he can move some of the unwanted ones on he might have some breathing space - whatever way those questions are answered it seems that some serious wheeling and dealing might be in store.
Fir now though, back to the present - and we are embarking now on a very important period which we have to take advantage of - and also keep on schedule with what Gary wants.
This upcoming run of 10 games could prove pivotal to our hopes of a quick bounce-back as many of them look winnable on paper - and realistically they are the games which title-challengers should be winning.
Of the 10, eight are against teams currently in the bottom half. The other two are, of course, the re-match with Forest Green a week on Saturday, and what is currently scheduled to be our 30th game, at Dover on January 23.
The others are trips to Southport, Aldershot, Kidderminster and Boreham Wood, and home games against Chester, Altrincham, Torquay and Kidderminster.
Six of those games are against the current bottom six - so these are the games we have to really take advantage of, maybe open up a gap at the top and look to give ourselves a real springboard for the final push.
We're (nearly) halfway there but the real fight is only just beginning.