Sunday, 30 October 2011

Halting the Pilgrims' progress - just

I don't quite know where to start after that, if I am totally honest.
I think the best way to sum it up is that we got the win.
That's the most important thing after Tuesday's loss, and with their takeover all but done, it may be one of the last times Plymouth have to field such a young side.
But all credit to them, especially their centre halves Ben Gibson and Curtis Nelson, for constantly putting their bodies on the line and almost keeping us out.
Much was made of Argyle's young side, but remember also we have an 18 year old goalkeeper, our left back is 19, we ended the game with an 18 year old left winger, and our starting midfield pair are 20 and 23, while our 19 year old striker was banned, so it evens itself out.
However thanks to Darryl Duffy's accuracy and composure, first from the spot then from the rebound after Romain Larrieu saved his first effort, we got out of jail.
Mark Yates opted to change the formation which has been the bedrock of our successful October, mainly, I suspect, due to Jimmy Spencer's ban for five bookings.
Whether that means he doesn't feel Jeff Goulding or Duffy can play that lone-striker role, I don't know, but it also meant Russ Penn was relegated to the bench.
That left Marlon Pack and Luke Summerfield in midfield, and we saw in some of the early games when they were paired together that they don't really work as a duo, and we do miss Penn's energy and bite. A dilemma for Yates if he wants to persist with 4-4-2 - he has to bite the bullet and find his best pairing.
But the key to 4-4-2 is, I feel, the wide men, and neither of them contributed much to the game and were both rightly taken off.
The only time Josh Low played as an orthodox winger, he got in the cross which led to Goulding's amazing under-the-bar header over. Whether Duffy's effort was going in I don't know (he said afterwards he felt it would have hit the post) but what a howler.
Kaid on the other flank was just as poor. Never took on his man, didn't get a decent cross in, and so didn't give us an option.
They have both also developed his irritating habit of drifting infield when the full-backs come forward.
I don't know if this is tactical or not, but if so it needs to be stopped as it leaves Sido Jombati and Luke Garbutt with no option other than to sling a ball hopefully into the box, or to run down a blind alley, losing possession and leaving us short of cover.
Then, with Low and Mo in the middle, it just crowds things on the edge of the box when the ball is played in, leaving to over complication, and probably contributed to us failing to create much in the way of clear cut chances.
Contrast that with when Bags Graham came on - practically every time he got the ball he ran at his man, and there was a cross of some sort at the end of it, or we won a corner or throw from his efforts.
Yes, we know what Kaid and Josh can do on their day - but we need that 'day' to be every week, not just once in five or six games. If we are to maintain our start and get better, they have to be consistent. If they can't do that, then Mark has to change things.
Despite our territorial domination, I cannot remember us forcing Jake Cole, and then Larrieu into many saves, with many of our shots going wide or hitting flying white bodies.
Seconds after Goulding's miss, we fell behind with Jared Sims' header looking simple for Jack Butland, but it slipped from his hands and went in off Steve Elliott's toe. Imagine if Scott Brown had done that....
We huffed and puffed until half time without looking remotely like equalising, but I thought we were better after the break and it was almost constant camping in their half and seemed to be a matter of time before we scored.
Again though, there were few direct shots to test Cole and then Larrieu, while Butland kept us in it with a fantastic save in a rare Argyle break.
We got our lifeline with the penalty decision; I saw it live and thought penalty - then saw the Football League show and wasn't so sure, but after some shenanigans, Duffy put it away confidently.
Relief, but could we go on and win it?
Jamie Griffiths' rash challenge on Garbutt - who was then saved by Elliott from doing something silly in retaliation - helped our cause but still it seemed Argyle would hold out.
But up popped Duffy again. His first shot was saved brilliantly, but when it came back to him his aim was unerring in a crowded box, and we had our win. Just.
Now we go to Bradford, followed by the FA Cup. But after that comes a run of games which, I feel, will make or break our season.
Port Vale, Oxford, Southend, Barnet, Shrewsbury, Rotherham, Vale again and Crawley. All bar Barnet are in the mix, so by January 7, we might have a clearer picture of where we are going.

Jack Butland - Mixed bag, with one great save and one error which cost a goal. Not much else to do.
Sido Jombati - Man of the match. defended well, got forward well despite lack of support from his 'wide right' colleague.
Luke Garbutt - Steady game, again no support from his 'wide' colleague. Good free kicks and corners.
Steve Elliott - Mixed day for his 33rd birthday with an own goal, then winning the penalty and saved Luke Garbutt from trouble...
Alan Bennett - Usual consistent display. Nearly scored with a second half header and continues to impress me.
Josh Low - Another casual display. Kept drifting infield when we were looking for a wide option. Time for a 'rest'
Marlon Pack - Struggled I thought. Felt Carl Fletcher and Simon Walton won the battle with him and Summerfield.
Luke Summerfield - See above. Thought he was just trying too hard to impress against his former club.
Kaid Mohamed - See Josh Low. Little threat to his full back and offered little to the side.
Jeff Goulding - Disappointing display capped by his horrendous headed miss.
Darryl Duffy - Took his goals well and never stopped running and looking to give us a spark.

Russ Penn (for Josh Low 63) - Gave us much-needed bite and energy. Could have won another penalty late on and unlucky not to score but for a great save.
Bags Graham (for Kaid Mohamed 63) - Thought he was a breath of fresh air. Came on, stayed wide, and ran at players, looking to get crosses in. Not the finished article by any means, but why not give him a start??
Junior Smikle (for Luke Summerfield, 75) - Usual sub appearance, and usual effort and commitment. Also pushing for a start next week??

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Derailed by the Railwaymen

Those of a certain vintage (like me) will remember the character from Monty Python's Flying Circus who would appear just as things were getting a bit too wacky.
It was played by Graham Chapman, dressed up a soldier, who would walk on randomly in the middle of a sketch, and announce 'Right, stop it now, it's getting a little bit silly.'
Tonight, that part was played by Dario Gradi, whose Crewe side decided that for Cheltenham to win six games in a row was just a plainly ridiculous thought, and that it should be stopped right away.
I felt after tonight that we did not deserve to win the game.
We were the better side in the first half, and but for Steve Phillips would have been ahead.
Then we gave the penalty away (more on that in a minute) and I felt Mark Yates got the substitution and subsequent formation and tactical decisions wrong, and we never looked like getting back into the game.
Apart from Scott Brown's enforced return, the rest of the 16-man squad was the same as Friday night's win at Accrington, and there could be no complaints about that decision.
That group of players had done the business in recent games, so vindicated Yates' decision to go with them again.
It started well, with Jimmy Spencer clearly wanting to prove a point after being hauled off at the Crown, and his early hold-up and link-up play was back to how it was at Bristol Rovers and Burton.
Russ Penn was making good runs and winning some decent tackles, with Luke Summerfield backing him up - but the wide men, Josh Low and Kaid Mohamed, did not come to the party at all.
They quickly developed the annoying habit of drifting infield, so when we had a promising position and a good tempo going, the move broke down as we had no-one offering a wide option.
When Low did get the ball, he was only able to cross from deep and that was meat and drink for Dugdale and Martin, or for Steve Phillips.
Phillips was the reason why we went in at 0-0, with great saves from Spencer and Summerfield and a good gather from Pack's shot through a ruck of players.
Once again, Crewe had done their homework. It is a sign of our progress that their system was set up to negate us, with Byron Moore sitting deep on Marlon Pack, while Antoni Sarcevic and Nick Powell set out to stop Garbutt and Jombati getting forward, and Low and Mohamed running from deep. It worked.
Pack had a very quiet night, Garbutt barely crossed the halfway line, and as I said earlier, Low and Mohamed were peripheral figures at best.
But after that bright first half, we never imposed ourselves on the second half in the same manner, and after the penalty we failed to react in a positive manner, as we did a few times last season, and in a way we thought was out of our system.
So to the penalty award. Firstly, we should have cleared the danger about three or four times before the ball came to Luke Murphy.
Then, when Murphy is facing out of the box, not posing too much danger, Jombati did not need to go through the back of him to get the ball, so it was a rash challenge, and gave the referee and his assistant the chance to give it.
Scott Brown had no chance - he did go the right way though - and from then on it was a test of our character, and we failed it.
We got involved in arguing about the penalty decision, then got wound up by the antics of some Crewe players trying to dive, especially Shaun Miller and Nick Powell, rather than just concentrating on getting back into a game we should have been winning comfortably by that stage.
Yates opted to throw Darryl Duffy and Jeff Goulding on, and decided to take off Mohamed and Penn. I think I would have left Mo on and taken off Low, and I thought Russ was slightly unlucky.
On performance, if you were taking a central midfielder off, then it would have had to be Pack, the most disappointing of the three on the night. Alternatively, he could have taken Spencer off and gone to a 4-4-2.
But we kept the same formation, with Duffy, our poacher, playing on the left wing, and Spencer, our hold up man, in central midfield, and we looked totally lost.
It was square pegs time, and it seemed like a panic change, which was a surprise as most things Yates has done recently have been decisive and well thought out. This change seemed a bit on the hoof - almost saying 'the fans will want strikers on, let's do that'.
Crewe had a few breaks, but we never tested Phillips and never created a clear cut chance. The ball didn't go wide and we started being too direct which was meat and drink for their back four.
Duffy was ineffective out wide, and was finally moved central, while Goulding never got going and then missed a glorious chance at the death. That summed up our night.
But let's put it in context. Our first defeat in seven games, and we still sit sixth in the table.
However, it was a shame that, when it seemed that the people of Cheltenham finally turned up, we were a bit flat again and dropped into some old habits, undone by wily Dario.
So Plymouth come to town on Saturday, and I wonder if the time will come to change personnel, and formation? We await with interest.

Player by player
Scott Brown: Back in the side, and secure on crossing and handling. Had few direct saves but beaten from the spot despite going the right way.
Sido Jombati: Rash challenge for the penalty. Still not totally convinced by him at right back as he looks to prone to mistakes.
Luke Garbutt: Unable to make great strides forward and had a few dicey defensive moments. Mixed free-kick and corner delivery.
Alan Bennett: Usual solid self at the back. Won most of his headers but got a booking for clash with Miller after he felt the forward dived.
Steve Elliott: Won headers and din't do much wrong at the back, but was done for pace a couple of times when caught upfield as we chased the game.
Josh Low: Very poor. Crosses disappointing, touch was casual and kept drifting inside off his wing. Place in doubt for the weekend I would think.
Marlon Pack: Closely marked in first half and subsequently unable to have an impact on the game. Quietest of the midfield trio.
Luke Summerfield: Probably our best player. Especially good in first half, and tried to provide a spark in the disappointing second half.
Russ Penn: Started well, looked to support Jimmy Spencer, but taken off after an hour, I felt slightly unluckily.
Kaid Mohamed: Frustrating performance. Never ran at defenders despite a few opportunities. Like Low, kept drifting inside, and kept cutting inside with ball rather than going at people.
Jimmy Spencer: Thought he was excellent in the first half and so unlucky not to score. Change of role on the hour then negated his influence on the game completely.

Darryl Duffy (for Kaid Mohamed 60): Started on the left wing, then moved central, but too late. Unable to impact on the game.
Jeff Goulding (for Russ Penn, 60): Thought he was poor. Touch was off, hold-up play weak and missed a golden chance at the end to get a draw.
Junior Smikle (for Josh Low, 87): Low should have come off earlier... but anyway Junior finally got his inevitable run-out, and came very close to scoring but for a last-ditch challenge.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Leaving Stanley flat

The mark of a good side, so these pundits say, is to win ugly, and Friday's fare at the Crown Ground was about as ugly as you are going to get. With the exception of the pies anyway, more of which later.
I took the trip up on the supporters' bus, happily full and in good spirits as you would expect after a four-match winning run.
I didn't detect much in the way of complacency about this game, which was a good thing, as we endured a frustrating stop-start journey up the dear old M6, extending to four and half hours.
It meant there was no pint in the Crown for me, but my BBC Glos colleague Pete Matthews made it, and had the most expensive pint in there, for £2.40. Don't you love the North...
But I did arrive in time for some stereotypical Northern food (copyright Phil Ruck) and at £4.50 for meat and potato pie, chips and mushy peas, you couldn't go wrong.
The pie was the best of the season so far with good flaky pastry and decent filling, and the right temperature so my mouth was not like a blast furnace, perfect chips topped off with mushy peas.
In fact it was so good I went back for another helping, but the chips were cooking, so second time around it was just pie and peas. But just as excellent.
Unfortunately, then the football broke out to deny me the chance for thirds, and it was more like one of those soggy pre-packed pies with mushy pastry and artificial filling... not very appetising.
Accrington had done their homework and matched our formation with two sitting midfielders stopping Russ Penn getting forward and our wide men also being negated for much of the game.
They had the only decent chance of the first half with Jack Butland making a good save, but we hung in there and defended well without being able to get much going up front.
Jimmy Spencer was left isolated and without much of the ball to feet that he has had in previous games, and that may have led to the rash challenge on Kevin Long which ultimately changed the game.
It was right in front of our commentary position and was one of those where he caught the player just as he played the ball upfield.
The player stayed down and the Accy fans bayed for blood, but a yellow was right, even if the guy in front of us decided I was a 'knobhead' for saying so and had an animated conversation about it with Jon Palmer and James Brown afterwards. Chin up son.
Jimmy then commited another foul quickly after and had a chat with assistant about his decision to flag, and in an instant Jeff Goulding appeared on the touchline and Jimmy's evening was over.
It was another example of Mark Yates' more ruthless management style, and a very sensible decision. It was a tight game and a red card would have ended any hopes of us winning the game.
As it turned out, the substitution won us the game.
From our throw-in seconds later, the ball was lofted forward by Sido Jombati, and as Ian Dunbavin came out rashly, Jeff's first touch lobbed it over him and it bounced into the net.
44 minutes, perfect time to score, supersub,  we had weathered the storm, grabbed a goal with sucker punch.... roll out the cliches...
We started better in the second half and as the game wore on, Luke Summerfield and Marlon Pack became more influential.
We should definitely have had a penalty when Kaid Mohamed was fouled, and Russ put a shot into the side netting after Jeff ran 70 yards and gave him a perfect pass - that was Russ's last act as Junior Smikle came on and I thought we looked more dangerous going forward with him on the field.
Accrington tried to go more direct but Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett won everything, with Elliott outstanding at the back as that partnership continues to go from strength to strength.
The biggest compliment I can pay is that it could easily have been Chris Banks and Mark Freeman back there - I think they are on the way to becoming the best central defensive pair we have had since those legends.
Bennett plays the Banks role, organising, reading the game, sweeping up and bringing composure and leadership, while Elliott is Freeman, not always pretty, going to win that first ball, 100 per cent effort to go in where it hurts.
Accrington had one chance, a daisycutter which Jack Butland dealt with, but it was fairly comfortable as we made it five wins in a row, four of them away from home, and now go into two home games with Crewe and Plymouth.
They won't be easy - Crewe could be anything given our games with them down the years, while Plymouth have picked up and if their takeover happens finally they will come up in good heart.
Six points would be brilliant, but four would be a good return and keep the momentum going.
As someone tweeted to me after the game last night, we are halfway to avoiding relegation - that may sound a bit negative to some, but it is only October and we are only building foundations.

Player by player
Jack Butland - One superb save in the first half, but little else to do despite Stanley's possession. Otherwise just crosses and coming out to kick away danger.
Sido Jombati - Usual mix of good defending and heart in the mouth stuff but played his part by setting the goal up with a long ball for Jeff.
Luke Garbutt - Did well against Charlie Barnett on the right who was Stanley's best player. Another steady game.
Steve Elliott - Outstanding. Won just about every header and denied Stanley's forwards any space or time with perfectly-timed tackles.
Alan Bennett - See above. Nearly scored in the second half with a shot cleared off the line.
Josh Low - Quiet game. Struggled to get space and time out wide and only had sporadic influence on the game.
Marlon Pack - Quiet first half but grew in influence as the game wore on as he got more space with Stanley chasing the game.
Luke Summerfield - As above. Had to defend more in the first half but was able to get forward more after the break.
Russ Penn - Ineffective game as Stanley's two central midfielders denied him space and time to get forward and support Jimmy. Missed a golden chance before coming off.
Kaid Mohamed - As with Josh, only sporadically managed to get into the game. Should have been given a penalty after being fouled in the second half.
Jimmy Spencer - Isolated and frustrated in the first half, got a booking and was walking a tightrope, so good management by Mark Yates to take him off.

Jeff Goulding (for Spencer 44) - Perfect arrival, scoring with his first touch. Was more effective in holding the ball up and nearly set up a second goal.
Junior Smikle (for Penn 67) - Thought Junior did well and brought a bit of a spark when he came on with good runs and movement.
Keith Lowe (for Mohamed 90) - First touch was to head the ball 20 yards backwards, so not as good as Jeff's, but helped see out the result.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

One in the eye...

October 14 is the 945th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.
As any decent history book will tell you, it was poor old King Harold who got one in the eye that day on Senlac Hill at the hands of the marauding invaders - tonight it was Cleveland Taylor's turn.
Now, poor old Clevey had said a few things about Russ Penn in the run up to the game, basically alluding that Penn had made an error in swapping Burton for Cheltenham, how Burton didn't miss him, and how their side were better off without him, and so on.
Sorry Clevers, think you might be a bit wrong there, me old son.
Put quite simply, bar a spell of about 10 minutes in the first half, we were superb from number 6 to 25, with our second half reminiscent of some of the displays under the new Nottingham Forest manager in days of old.
Apart from Mr Taylor's words of wisdom, the other sub-plot was apparently going to see Justin Richards add to his nine-goal tally.
Wrong again. Alan Bennett let him out of his sight once all night, and even then Jack Butland's chest got in the way, and Mr Richards disappeared back into Mr Bennett's pocket, where I believe he still resides.
I must confess I was wary about this game as Burton had not lost at home all season, scored in every game and seemed to be a team in form.
In the past when we have come up against teams like this away from home, we have under performed on the whole, and seen the end of a decent run - but maybe we should stop thinking about what has happened in the past and think positively about our team and realise just what exciting times could be on the horizon.
We sit third in the table, before games tomorrow which will, more than likely, see us drop down a few places, and while it is important not to get carried away and start making wild predictions, the evidence is there to see that we could be going places.
That is now four wins in a row. We haven't done that since a run under Keith Downing - who incidentally was in the crowd at the Pirelli, one of 55 scouts from various clubs, also including his WBA colleague Dean Kiely, Nigel Spink and Luke Summerfield's dad Kevin.
Three of those wins have been away from home, all three of them by two clear goals, and all as comfortable as that victory margin would suggest.
Unsurprisingly, Mark Yates kept the same outfield 10 from Saturday's win over Dagenham but restored Butland between the sticks, and I would imagine it was Butland who the majority of those scouts came to see.
I watched the first half with the Cheltenham fans in the seats and we witnessed what I thought was quite an even half.
Sido Jombati was denied by a superb save from their goalkeeper and we had most of the pressure, but towards the end of the half they came back into it, culminating in Butland's save from Richards, and one superb defensive header by Bennett.
After giving up on the long refreshment queue, I saw Scott Brown (who had also given up) and we both felt it was an even half, and that the game could be decided on one goal, a la Gillingham and Aldershot.
Now, both of those games fell the wrong way for us, but from the moment we stepped out, there was only one winner.
I managed to make my way in to join the fans behind the goal for the second half, and there was a superb turnout and fantastic noise throughout.
That noise was ramped up within a minute of the restart as we went in front with a goal which saw the ball go from centre circle to goal in four touches.
Marlon Pack played a superb ball to Luke Garbutt on the left, he controlled it and crossed to the far post, where Josh Low headed home. Yes, Josh Low. A header. These are indeed strange times.
Jimmy Spencer went close, as did Kaid Mohamed with a 35-yard howitzer that just went over and the Rubies seemed to be cutting through them at will.
Butland tipped a shot from Jimmy Phillips over, and from the corner we made it 2-0. Yes, the Burton corner.
Marlon Pack volleyed the clearance to Mohamed on the left wing, and he went off on one of his Bristol Rovers-style mazy runs, weaved his way to the byline and squared for Jimmy Spencer to score.
That takes his goal tally to five, the same as Darryl Duffy, with Jeff Goulding on four - so the strikers between them have one less than Mr Richards managed in his season with us.
Makes a bit of a mockery of the conversation I had with one fan before the season who told me our strikers wouldn't score enough goals...
Add to that the fact that Kaid and Josh Low have three apiece, while Marlon Pack has one and Luke Summerfield two, and it leaves Russ Penn of our first-choice midfield-striking options as the only one without a goal.
On the subject of Mr Penn, he came in for some rough treatment from his former club, and stood up to it well with no sign of reprisals, which clearly was the idea - get him riled as sent off. Sorry Mr Peschisolido, backfired on you that one.
After the second goal, Burton barely troubled us bar one brilliant Bennett tackle on Billy Kee and a Calvin Zola header which went wide.
It was as comfortable and nerveless a second half as I can remember since those days under Stevie C when we used to go to places like Hereford and Morecambe in the Conference and take home routine 2-0 wins.
We could have had more, notably a Goulding overhead kick which hit the bar, but let's not be greedy, eh?

Player by player
Jack Butland: Fabulous first-half save from Richards which turned the game back our way. Also tipped over in the second and made a good late stop from a deflected shot.
Sido Jombati: Nearly scored with a header and effective coming forward. Got booked (after a terrible Marlon Pack pass put him in trouble) and maybe should have been taken off but had a good game.
Luke Garbutt: Very impressive in defence and attack. Dealt well with Cleveland Taylor and set up Josh Low's goal with a sumptuous cross.
Alan Bennett: Just immense at the back all game. Kept Richards quiet, bar one lapse, and won every header, notably one brilliant first-half clearance, driving the team on and leading by example.
Steve Elliott: Backed up Benno superbly as he kept Zola quiet, barely losing a header to the giant striker. Had a shot saved in the first half and headed wide in the second.
Josh Low: Scored with a header, which is a rarity in itself. But had a good game, always a problem for his full-back.
Russ Penn: Glorious return to his old club, with a few big mouths silenced. Had a superb game in the face of some heavy treatment and helped us get the right result.
Luke Summerfield: Again showed he is the perfect foil for Penn and Pack. His industry allows them to play and tackle, while he mops up and keeps us ticking over.
Marlon Pack: Superb pass for first goal, and clearance started move for second. But overall, so high was the standard of the team's display, he was probably the least effective of the midfield three.
Kaid Mohamed: Struggled early on to get the better of Kevin Amankwaah, but got there in the end, with his superb run to create the second goal. Did some good defensive work too, supporting Luke Garbutt.
Jimmy Spencer: Excellent again and seems to relish the lone role in this system. Deserved his goal and now has scored in our last three league wins.

Junior Smikle (for Mohamed, 79): Came on as Mo got a knock for his habitual appearance, and was his usual busy self, nearly getting on the end of a good move.
Jeff Goulding (for Penn, 82): Hit the bar with an overhead kick and made a good clearing header from a Burton corner as we closed out the game.
Darryl Duffy (for Spencer, 89): Not much time to make an impact, but did almost set Junior up for a chance.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

An unforgettable day

On Friday night, Cheltenham go back to the Pirelli Stadium in Burton - scene of undoubtedly the most amazing game of football I have ever seen.
Cheltenham fans will talk fondly of the 2-1 comeback win over Rushden, that FA Trophy semi-final success against Dover, the 3-2 win over Yeovil and the play-off win over Rushden in Cardiff - but the events of Saturday March 13, 2010 will always be remembered.
My personal memories started earlier in that week, and the realisation that I was not going to go to the game. I was not needed for BBC summarising duties as Russ Milton sat alongside Pete Matthews that day - then the BBC's guru Ian Randall said him and his dad were going, so I got a lift with them.
There were 2,500 in the ground that day, and about 150-200 from Cheltenham, but the number of Cheltenham fans who claim to have there is probably about 5,000 at the last count...
Now, to get an idea of how crazy a game this was you have to remember just how abject we were in the first half.
Remember also that Josh Low went off in the 16th minute, Lee Ridley coming on, and we had re-jig ourselves, already a goal down with Shaun Harrad's stunning strike.
I remember he could have had another soon after, then did get a second after Michael Townsend gave away a penalty. Suffice to say, it wasn't Towner's best game in red and white...
At half-time, a few of our fans left for the pub, and I remember an animated conversation with Greg Parry about the attitude of our players, him saying they didn't care and me trying to be more measured. I think he had had a drink...
I don't know what Mark Yates said at half time. It bloody worked though - and he needs to bottle it.
Justin Richards pulled one back after David Hutton cut the ball back, then Medy Eilto scored an absolute screamer.
Follow this link to see that goal...
A few of our fans were watching on the TV in the bar under the stand as we came back to 2-2, and had returned to the terrace in time for Towner to score an own goal, and with 18 minutes left, Steve Kabba made it 4-2.
Well, that's that we thought, and I remember again the fans behind the goal getting very disgruntled after we had - as we thought at the time - wasted the efforts of coming back from 2-0 down.
With six minutes to go, Michael Pook scored with a free-kick, where I remember Jim Haggin and myself pointing at the massive space left by the keeper and the wall before Pooky put it right there - but Kabba made it 5-3 with five minutes left.
Surely game over.
87 minutes, and Pook's shot deflected over Artur Krysiak off Paul Boertien, then on 90 minutes Justin Richards struck again with a great finish after a 1-2 with Julian Alsop.
The big man landed on me as I headed for the front after that goal, and it had barely calmed down when this happened -
It was ridiculous, amazing, crazy - all of those words and more, and I will never forget it as long as I live.
We were six points above the drop zone after that win, and I am sure that this day, more than any other, was what kept us up.
I remember kicking a crash barrier very hard and hurting my foot, and then on returning to Cheltenham I was the first caller to talk to Alan Green on 6-0-6 that night - name checking the Cheltenham fans who left the game early. They know who they are...
Now we go back there again, and in those crazy ironies you get in football, Russ Penn, who lined up for Burton that day, will be in ruby this time, while our two-goal man Justin Richards will be wearing yellow and black.
Not many players from that day will be on either side - Scott Brown, Danny Andrew and Josh Low is about it for us, and maybe only Josh will start.
Tony James, Andy Corbett and Cleveland Taylor, who has left and come back again since that day, may line up for Burton, while Aaron Webster was on the bench.
But this is a big game - both sides have 20 points from 12 games, and an identical goal difference, so it should be another cracker.
So while our personnel may be different, let's hope some of that 2010 spirit is still there - maybe Yatesy should get Russ Penn to do the team talk and tell everyone how he felt after that game...

Monday, 10 October 2011

Daggers blunted by Robins - Brian Lancaster's view

Forget the scoreline of 2-1 and forget the fraught and nervy last 5 minutes of the match, a very poor Dagenham side was dominated by an effervescent Cheltenham team this afternoon. This game clearly demonstrates how far Cheltenham have improved this season, the midfield no longer needs padding out with honest but limited players and the bench offers real options not emergency measures. Our starting central midfield was comprised of Pack, Summerfield and Penn with Russell Penn playing in the advanced central role just behind the lone striker James Spencer. It appears that Russell Penn is a better footballer than he was first billed as. He has a good touch, a couple of tricks and decent strike. He is more than a chaser, tackler and 5 yard passer. His boundless energy and tenacity was evident and telling today. Today's star turn was Marlon Pack. He was a class above every other player on the pitch today. He showed calmness, vision, creativity, drive and desire (and loads of other positive stuff). Playing like that will get him noticed and inevitably lead to him being lured away from the Anti-Lock Brake Stadium (that is what ABS stands for isn't it?) Anyway, back to today's match and some detail. Strangely, Keith "Bilston Cafu" Low was dropped for Luke Garbutt and Duffy made way for a returning James Spencer. Spencer deserved a start again after his efforts in the heat at the Memorial Stadium last week. His surly, angry demeanour is a joy to behold (no sarcasm at all in that last sentence) - I wonder whether he does a Bob Taylor before kick-off? Maybe Low had a slight injury but it meant that Jombati moved over to right back and Garbutt played in his natural position of left back. Jombati played well at Bristol Rovers but I'm not sure I'd pick him over Keith Low as our starting right back. It has been evident in the last 2 league games that we have been working hard on the training ground for set pieces (2 goals came against Bristol Rovers from set pieces) and the opening Cheltenham goal came from a perfectly executed free kick from Pack which was headed back across the goal by Alan Bennett. The free-kick was from no more than 25 yards out and it was not unreasonable for the Dagenham defence to assume that Pack would have a direct effort on goal but instead he curled a ball onto the left hand edge of the 6 yard box for Alan Bennett to run onto and head back across the 'keeper into the right hand corner of the goal. Dagenham showed no signs of the creative spark that they so badly needed to equalise but just before half-time they did equalise. A mistake in the right back position, slack defending in and around the box and the failure of Scott Brown to either gather to clear out of danger a driven low cross lead to a simple equaliser for Dagenham. You will have to excuse the vagueness of this description as I was stood in the Prestbury Road end and the goal came at the Whaddon Road end. Cheltenham's second (and just reward) came from a counter-attack driven by a direct, driving run from Marlon Pack who almost fluffed his opportunity to release James Spencer. Pack momentarily appeared to have stood on the ball and somehow dug it out with the outside of his right foot to set up Spencer on the right hand corner of the 18 yard bow. Spencer took a touch to set himself and then got all of his laces through the ball to drive it high into the net despite a finger-tip touch from the Dagenham 'keeper. Dagenham tried to play like so many other limited Division 3 and 4 teams, play direct, busy football that relies on having an outfield 10 that are all at least 6 foot tall and physical. (See Stevenage, Southend, Accrington and Morecambe for prime examples). Dagenham failed as they do not possess the right kind of players to play this way and played with nerves and a lack of cohesion that belied their current form and league position. Dagenham threatened to commit the biggest crime since the Star Wars prequels in the last 5 minutes but the previously lacking quality and poise remained at the fore. In summary, Cheltenham tucked away an inferior side in an appealing and driven manner that makes performances like Hereford at home so hard to understand. Just a few moans to balance out the very positive and encouraging afternoon: - The referee allowed to many usual yellow card offences to go un-punished. I'm very much in the old school which wants to see full-blooded tackles and a flowing game and this referee tended towards this school. However, this frustrates suporters as they see no consistency from referee to referee. He allowed several cynical tackles from behind to go un-punished (with a yellow card) but as soon as a Dagenham player threw the ball away he got booked. Referee you are just embarrassing yourself and your profession with performances like these. - I'm still un-convinced that Mark Yates has a Plan B for when things go wrong on the pitch - or maybe the players are incapable of changing things when asked to do so? - If Kaid Mohammed had a first touch or was capable of looking up while running with the ball he would be a far better player but probably not at Cheltenham Town. - Steve Elliott worries me. He is so very basic and possesses the turning circle of an oil tanker. The sooner young Mr. Hooman can step up, the better. - The attendance of 2,814 was a worry. OK, so Dagenham brought no more than 100 but on the back of 2 very good victories the Gloucestershire public continued to stay away. Forget other matchday experience initiatives, people want to watch winners. Keep winning more than we lose at home and continue to play the kind of football we saw today and attendances should improve. On today's form, Pack, Penn and Garbutt alone were worth the ticket price.

Daggers blunted by Rubies - Alun Parry's view

There are guest bloggers this week as I missed the Dagenham game. First, Alun Parry's take on the game...

This week has been a week of great optimism for Cheltenham. Three wins in a row for the second time this season and finally Mark Yates has got this team playing some real flowing attacking football. This is the kind of form that really gets on my nerves though as we did the exact same thing last year.  We go on a good run, get ourselves within striking distance of the play offs and then we have the inevitable fall away.  But for some reason this time I think it is going to be different and the performance against the Daggers backs this up.  It was a mixture of attacking flair and good old fashioned defensive grit, in many respects the perfect combination.  The team itself was actually a surprise because we were expecting a start for Duffy who was outstanding at Wycombe and for us to revert back to 4-4-2.  But Spencer got the nod up top and we stuck with Jombati and Garbutt at full back.  Summerfield deserved to keep his place in midfield and to be fair that was probably the reason Duffy did not get in.  It is very brave going 4-5-1 at home but Yates took a chance and it paid off.

The match itself was a game where Cheltenham exhibited an array of sporadic attacking football in what I think is Yates' preferred formation.  The 4-5-1 enables us to have an extra midfielder when defending, but it also releases the likes of Mohamed and Low to spring forward and help the striker up front.  Spencer was that lone striker but he worked the line and ran his socks off.  The game actually started on the scrappy side and Dagenham had the better of the possession with Cheltenham not getting that much of all the ball but that didn't stop Jimmy Spencer firing a shot wide via a deflection after a good move involving Penn and Low around the 15th minute mark.  At this point it was starting to get a little more open and it ended up with Gavin Tomlin striking the bar a few minutes later. Daggers were always going to dangerous with Tomlin and Scannell on the wings and it was evident to see.  Another reason why Yates stuck with Jombati/Garbutt was probably to nullify that threat due to their speed and athleticism.  After another period of about 10 minutes of good passing from both sides Daggers did have another chance but Troy Hewitt didn't strike an effort properly and it landed in Brown's arms.  It was then Cheltenham sparked into life and it came from an unlikely source.  After Pack was fouled 40 yards out on the right, Garbutt swung in a dangerous free kick and bennett connected with a clinical header into the far corner, the first goal he has scored for us and a perfect 30th birthday present.  We then dominated the play up to half time but were caught cold in the 45th minute when Scannell wriggled free of Jombati on the left and cut in.  His shot deflected off Bennett and landed at Jon Nurse feet who slotted it home.  A rare lapse in a half where we actually defended quite well.

The second half was more of the attacking flair I was talking about before.  Yates had them in at half time and was obviously disappointed with conceding so late into the first half.  You can only assume he expressed his wish for our midfield to stamp their authority on the game and for us to get forward more.  We needed to express ourselves more and one player that took this advice on board was Marlon Pack.  His range of passing was starting to get into full flow and he was pinging them all over the park now.  By the time the game was out it was very near to a 10/10 display and it had some fans around me agreeing that this guy is destined for better things.  We can only hope it is with us but we fear another Grant McCann situation where you know a player has the potential to go on up but does it without the team that has kick started his career.  49 minutes had elapsed when Spencer picked up the ball in his own half, he off loaded to Pack who carried it on about 20 yards and then slotted it back to Spencer weight perfect and he went on and fired it into the top right hand corner. Quality finish.  This was now 2-1 and cheltenham were starting to twist the knife, as the passing was getting too the point they were chasing shadows.  More chances for us came and went as flowing attacking football involving Mohamed/Low in-sued. This led onto a chance for Spencer who headed a cross into the top corner once again but credit to the Daggers keeper who made a fantastic finger tip save.  A Low chance mid half and then two Dagenham yellow cards later and we entered the final 15 minutes.  The usual part of the game Cheltenham get very nervy and usually defend too deep.  These old habits nearly cost us again when Tomlin got free again just inside the area and sent in a shot that Brown got finger tips too and deflected wide.  To be fair it was a great save and all credit to him because he is responding in the way we all hoped after being dropped for Jack Butland.  Brown has upped his game but you just get that horrible feeling a mistake is just around the corner. Maybe this corner will be after christmas though because if Butland has his loan extended by Birmingham City this week he will surely be back in goal.   He has also been helped with the Bennett/Elliott partnership at centre back which is really starting to flourish.  These 2 are full of the defensive grit we sorely missed from last season and this was fully on show in the last 10 minutes as they got in the way of virtually everything.  The Daggers did push on and were still dangerous but we dealt with the threats and after a few shots flew wide in stoppage time, the ref blew up.

The display from Cheltenham deserved the three points and it showed how far we have come in such a short space of time.  It was just about the right mix of attacking football and defensive grit.  A lot of changes were made in the summer but these are now starting to bear fruit as confidence grows with these kind of results.  We have learnt how to win dirty, we have learnt how to win scrappy and now we are learning how to win with some attacking fluency and flair......I will end by saying now watch us lose to Burton Friday with Justin Richards inevitably scoring in the process...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Unseating the Chairboys

The Johnstone's Paint Trophy can often feel like taking a step back into the land that time forgot.
For some unknown reason, I arrived at Adams Park at 5.15pm for a 7.30pm kick off, and was practically the first person there. Don't ask.
Even the Wycombe manager Gary Waddock wasn't there by then - he arrived just after me, and was also the last person I saw before I left at about 10.30pm, but he had lost the cheery smile he had on his face a few hours before... and I am not surprised.
The game had a similar pattern to Saturday's game at Bristol Rovers - we were under the cosh a bit for the first 15 minutes or so, then gradually wore Wycombe down with three well-taken and well-worked goals.
We could have been two down, but Scott Brown made a superb point-blank save from Kevin Betsy and the same player then missed an absolute sitter.
Both of the chances were fashioned by Kadeem Harris, who gave debutant Luke Garbutt an uncomfortable start, but the Everton loanee won the battle in the end, and looks a promising player. Another one.
Gradually we felt our way into the game but didn't create many chances until the 34th minute, but Jeff Goulding won't want to see his attempted chip, which didn't get off the ground and rather embarrassingly became a back pass for Nikki Bull.
Just as Darryl Duffy came on two minutes later, I was starting my first update for Radio Glos - by the end of the update I was proclaiming Duffy's fantastic goal.
He ran on, Sido took a throw, Jeff flicked it on, and Darryl smashed it in. It was as quick as that, and the CTFC fans around the press box went mad, and were heard all over the West country!
Scott Rendell sent a header wide soon after, but we came out after half-time and totally dominated the game.
Junior Smikle, whose finishing can often be flaky to say the least, added the second within five minutes of the re-start as he played a one-two with Darryl and smashed home.
He nearly headed home Bags' cross seconds later and it seemed that it would be plain sailing from then on.
But Wycombe made a triple change and got one back through Betsy and that of course got their tails up with Brown making a quite brilliant save from Ben Strevens.
He seemed to be going the wrong way and twisted back to keep the header out one-handed - drawing an extra cheer when the Cheltenham fans saw the save replayed on the big screen in the corner of Adams Park.
It would have been an utter travesty if Wycombe had got it back to 2-2, and that was just about their last chance.
Marlon Pack burst through two challenges with his usual shoulder-drop and hip-swivel and after Bull saved the first shot Darryl put away the second. Thank you and goodnight.
Jeff Goulding could have added a fourth, as could Marlon and then Danny Andrew at the end, but everyone knows we just settle for winning away games 3-1 at the moment. Anything else is just greedy.
The Wycombe keeper Nikki Bull was not impressed with his own team's performance, as he tweeted: "They say that things have to get worse b4 they get better so hoping last nite was our Rock Bottom Made Cheltenham look a Premier League side"
Not quite Premier League yet Nikki, but we will settle for the Area Quarter-finals, and we are in the hat on Saturday to face either Southend, Brentford, Swindon, Bournemouth, Oxford, Barnet or AFC Wimbledon, the other Southern sides left in.
Once again, we showed the potential in our squad, making six changes and seamlessly being able to play the same system and the same brand of football we did at the Mem last Saturday.
It shows that Mark Yates has probably got 19 or 20 players he could put in his first-choice 11 and emphasises the headache he must have choosing a 16 every week.
But that is a good thing and something we have not had for a very long time - if ever since we have been a Football League side - did Steve Cotterill or John Ward have this much depth? I would doubt it.
Remember, Russ Penn, Josh Low, Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett got the night off.
Players like Harry Hooman, Bags Graham, Junior Smikle and Luke Garbutt, plus the likes of David Bird, Theo Lewis and the on-loan pair Andy Gallinagh and Kyle Haynes all want a regular game too. 
But I would rather have that than an 11 which picks itself and a bench which would not change anything, which has been the case far too often down the years.
Performances like the two we have seen in the past four days raise expectations. Let's hope this squad can deliver.

Player by player
Scott Brown: Back in the side with Jack Butland out, and did little wrong. One slightly hairy moment, but two brilliant saves, one in the third minute and one from Ben Strevens at 2-1 which was stunning.
Sido Jombati: Not as impressive as he was at left back on Saturday, and was beaten easily by teenager Jordan Ibe to set up Wycombe's goal.
Harry Hooman: Another assured display and helped keep Elliott Benyon and Scott Rendell quiet. Distribution is good and cool under pressure.
Keith Lowe: Moved the centre-back and took it in his stride. Couple of storming forward runs and even had a 25-yard shot just over the bar.
Luke Garbutt: Grew in confidence as the game went on, Kadeem Harris gave him something to think about early on but he dealt with it.
Junior Smikle: Busy performance and took his goal well after a one-two with Darryl Duffy. Always involved and always working.
Marlon Pack: Ran the game. Pinged passes back and forth all game and set up Darryl Duffy's second goal with a great run past two players.
Luke Summerfield: Carried on from Saturday's man of the match display with another effective game. Happy to play second fiddle to Marlon.
Bagasan Graham: Luke Luke Garbutt, grew in confidence as the game went on.  Couple of good runs and crosses which re-affirm his promise.
Jeff Goulding: Given captain's armband and a new deeper role. Justified both with a good display, linking play well and nearly scoring with a late header. Less said about attempted first-half chip the better, however...
Jimmy Spencer: Busy cameo appearance in lone striker role before giving way and being overshadowed by Darryl's performance. Might miss out Saturday.
Darryl Duffy (for Spencer, 36 mins): Not a bad first touch - and never looked back. Made Smikle's goal and showed persistence for his second. Deserved a hat-trick. Five goals, all away from home!
Theo Lewis (for Marlon Pack, 78 mins): Came on to give Marlon a rest after our third goal and helped shore things up.
Danny Andrew (for Bagasan Graham 88 mins): Brought on to play left wing, and nearly set up and scored a goal in the time he was on the pitch.

It's not bad to be able to make six changes and still turn in a superb performance against a League One side, albeit a struggling one. Plenty of players put their hands up and sent a message to the manager, especially Darryl Duffy and Junior Smikle, I thought. Confident full debuts for Bags Graham and Luke Garbutt and more evidence of Harry Hooman's promise. Credit to Scott Brown too for two fantastic saves - it can't have been easy for him in recent weeks. Great support as well, massive credit to those who made the trip.

We gave a goal away. That's all.

Another excellent away performance, with the attitude of those brought into the side spot on, as was that of those asked to play a second game in four days. It shows the close-knit spirit of the side, and good to see Alan Bennett there supporting the team against his old club - and on his birthday too. A favourable draw in the area quarter-finals is needed now.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Putting out the Gas

When I saw the team sheet at the Mem at around 2.20pm this afternoon, I was worried.
For the life of me, I could not work out why Mark Yates had picked the team he had - especially why Kaid Mohamed had kept his place and why Jimmy Spencer was playing as the lone striker.
The Cheltenham fans I texted the team to could not work it out either - one replying that it was a 'terrible team selection aimed at damage limitation'.
All week before the game, fans I had spoken to and tweeted agreed that Kaid should have out of the side, and either Junior Smikle or Bagasan Graham in, and that Darryl Duffy should be in the side somewhere.
On the Radio Glos commentary, Pete Matthews and I debated it for the first 15 minutes of the game, saying it wasn't working, and how Mark had got it wrong.
Shows what we know. Egg on the face, humble pie, whatever - we'll take all of it, turn round and say well done Yatesy, you got it absolutely spot on.
As away performances go, it was superb. I have not seen us play as well as that and win as comfortably as that away from home for a long time. Today's performance, would, I think, have beaten any side in League Two.
Yes, Rovers were poor, but let's not have that detracting from our display. Let's give our team some much-deserved credit, and the same to the manager who made some brave calls.
He made the decision to drop Danny Andrew from the 16 completely - a player who has played just about every game for a season and a third, and bring in Sido Jombati for his first start - and he was excellent.
He made the decision to keep Kaid in the side, when the majority of fans would happily have seen him left out - and he scored a fantastic goal, and many of us thought wrongly that he added a second later.
He made the decision to play Jimmy Spencer up front on his own, and he was tireless and held play up superbly, being credited with that third goal, it seems after Kaid's flick hit him in the chest and went in.
It wasn't a surprise that he played the three central midfield players - that seemed on the cards from the moment Luke Summerfield didn't play in the reserves on Tuesday, and that decision paid off as well.
I thought Summerfield was superb, and my man-of-the-match. He broke up so much play in midfield and then made great runs and what a fantastic strike for what will become known as the Olympiakos goal after Neil Howarth saw the set-piece move in their Champions League game with Arsenal, hence the big celebration with Neil after it came off.
Summerfield's display was backed up by the energetic Russ Penn, the more advanced of the midfield trio and the quietly effective Marlon Pack. They bossed the midfield totally.
Sido's pace negated the threat of Mustapha Carayol out wide to such an extent that he went off at half-time, and Keith Lowe did the same with Joe Anyinsah.
Rovers' efforts to take advantage of what they saw as a lack of pace in our defence was a failure as Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott were immense and then coped with a different threat when Matt Harrold came on.
Kaid and Josh Low were an outlet on the wings and Spencer a good target down the middle as it all came together perfectly.
We were on the back foot for about 15 minutes, and Chris Zebroski looked lively - but that was it as far as Rovers' threat.
Jack Butland hardly had a save to make all game, and was beaten by a deflected shot through a crowd of players which he could not have seen until very late indeed.
By then, we were three up and they were all fantastically worked and superbly taken goals.
Kaid got the first after a corner was cleared and played into Jimmy's feet, he laid off to Kaid, just inside OUR half, and he weaved his way through to finish superbly. A stunning run and a cool finish.
The second goal was even better, a corner from Marlon into the edge of the box and Luke ran onto it and smashed it into the top corner. A great set-piece and a thumping finish.
That was half-time, and I was a bit worried they would come out strongly and if they got one it would be one of those away games we have seen before where we are hanging on grimly and defending deeper and deeper.
But no - two minutes after the break and we got the third. It was also from a corner, Marlon playing it into the near post, and Kaid flicked it goalwards - we thought straight in, but Yatesy said afterwards it hit Jimmy and it's his goal. Fair enough, as he deserved a goal.
They got their goal back and put a bit of pressure on, but when Wayne Brown was carried off (the second stretcher case of the day) and they had to play with 10 as they had made three changes, that was that. Game over.
So that means we have now beaten Crawley, Swindon and Bristol Rovers this season - arguably three of the automatic promotion favourites at the start of the season.
Add that to a win at Northampton, a place not many sides go and take the points, and a decent draw at Torquay, it makes you wonder why we are only 11th in the table.
Results like Gillingham, Aldershot and AFC Wimbledon are especially frustrating after a display like today's, because it shows the potential we have when the players get it right - but if our players performed like today all the time, they wouldn't be League Two players.
Imagine if we had beaten Hereford 3-1 and drawn 0-0 with Rovers - people would say that's two good results, but it was the other way round, so the reaction has been different.
We were organised, committed and clinical today, and as someone rightly said to me after the game, this win was all about attitude. Ours was spot on, there's was not.
Mark Yates made the changes, the players bought into it and made the changes work with their performance.
Let's not have any more of this 'they don't care' or 'they don't listen to the manager' nonsense, I think playing the way they did today in 80-degree heat and the reaction afterwards showed quite clearly that they do on both counts.

Player by player
Jack Butland: Not many saves of note to make as Rovers were so poor in attack and we defended so well. Beaten by long-range, deflected shot through crowd of players.
Keith Lowe: Did well against Chris Zebroski and then Joe Anyinsah and got forward as much as he could. Usual solid display.
Sido Jombati: Replaced the dropped Danny Andrew and did not look out of place. Pace an asset against Carayol and played some good balls forward late on. Can be pleased with his first start.
Alan Bennett: The more I see him play the more I like him. Doesn't get flustered and just gets the job done.
Steve Elliott: Great reception from Gas fans and by the end most will be asking why they let him go. Barely put a foot wrong all afternoon.
Josh Low: Much improved display, was a good outlet wide on the right and set up a few counter-attacks and had a few shots wide or saved.
Russ Penn: All-action performance as the more advanced of our central midfielders. Made some great runs but went off after getting a slight knock.
Marlon Pack: Quietly effective performance. Two corners set up goals and was happy to play a lesser role while Penn and Summerfield ran the game.
Luke Summerfield: Superb performance, and showed why we signed him. Won just about every tackle, broke play up on countless occasions and scored a superb goal.
Kaid Mohamed: Answered his critics (me included) in fine style. Fabulous run and finish for the first goal and  ran himself to exhaustion by the end.
Jimmy Spencer: Another player who was a surprise selection but justified inclusion with a great lone striker display capped with a goal.
Junior Smikle (for Penn 65): I thought he did well when he came on, carrying on from where Russ left off with great energy, tackling and some intelligent off the ball runs.
Jeff Goulding (for Spencer 70): Again, picked up the mantle from Jimmy and did well. Nearly scored, only denied by a superb save from Scott Bevan.
Darryl Duffy (for Mohamed 90): Only on for a few minutes.

Positives: The whole team performance. The manager got his team selection and tactics absolutely spot on, and the team responded superbly.

Negatives: None at all.

Summary: Fantastic performance, great goals and great noise and support from the terraces - all made for a perfect day.