Friday, 28 December 2012

Zeroes to heroes

As we ran out on Wednesday to face Wycombe, the big question on everyone's lips was how would we react to Friday's debacle at Rochdale.
The answer was in emphatic style with our biggest win and most dominant performance of the season so far.
We had drawn at Adams Park earlier in the season in a game which saw us dominate almost as much as we did on Boxing Day, but without that cutting edge - a similar problem which had afflicted us against Port Vale in our last home game.
After the Spotland shambles, and Mark Yates' post-match rant, the number of changes to the side was going to be interesting, and Yatesy opted to make only three.
He had taken Marlon Pack and Shaun Harrad off at half-time, so it was not a surprise to see those two handed a seat in the dugout.
The other casualty was Chris Zebroski, slightly surprisingly in my opinion, as I thought he was one of the outfield players to have put in a decent(ish) shift.
Jermaine McGlashan and the front two of Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy came in, and I thought that was rough on Lawson D'Ath and Sam Deering - whose whereabouts were a mystery as he didn't even make the 18.
The luckiest man to be out there in my view was Jake Taylor, who, after a decent display at Northampton and an even better one at Hereford, had been utterly anonymous at Rochdale.
We started tentatively, but gradually got on top of the game, and from about the 15th minute I felt it was a matter of time before we took control of the game.
We had a couple of close calls and were denied a couple of times by the offside flag, and I must admit I was getting a bit anxious that we needed to get that goal quickly, then two came.
The first was smashed in first time by Taylor, a couple of minutes after he and Jermaine had switched wings, and came after a flowing move, with the Reading loanee hitting it first time inside the keeper's near post.
Sido made the second with a good cross, and Jeff watched it all the way on to his head and was able to direct it perfectly into the corner.
As far as I was concerned, that was just about that for the points.
Wycombe had barely threatened outside the first five minutes, and were as poor a side as we have played this season - but I would prefer to give our lads the credit for an excellent performance than allowing Wycombe's failings to detract from it.
They had three players banned and nine players injured, with another going off at half-time, but we were ruthless and didn't let up in the second half.
Jake made a goal for Darryl with a perfect cross stood up nicely for a far-post header, then Darren Carter picked out Jermaine for a close-range finish.
Darren nearly scored the goal of the season with a volley which the Wycombe keeper Jordan Archer pushed  aside and we had other chances to put more gloss on the scoreline.
We were even able to give Lawson a 20-minute run-out, with Kaid Mohamed came back from injury.
The team had the redemption they needed after Friday's letdown, Yatesy's changes were vindicated and it was almost the perfect afternoon.
Gillingham's defeat allowed us to close within three points of top spot, and also took us past that significant 40-point barrier to start the second half of the season in decent style.
All in all, it was four days to sum up the inconsistency of our side - a team which can lose six games with a combined goal difference of minus 15, conceding 22 goals, yet also have the most clean sheets in the division.
For the manager, he would have been especially pleased to see Jeff and Darryl both score after giving them a rare chance to start the game.
Jeff has started three league games, and now has three league goals, and Darryl has two goals in two starts, and the pair of them worked well together after being given a chance to start, having spent most of the time this season making cameos from the bench.
Jeff was an effective target and used his intelligent touches to good effect, while Darryl worked the channels well. They were backed up by Jake and Darren, and the team's driving force, Russ Penn.
In one move, Russ won three sliding tackles in a row without getting back to his feet, and that typifies his importance to the team, and why he has to be the first name on the teamsheet every week when he is fit.
We don't have another player like him and it would be nice if the FA Cup money was partly used on someone who can give him some support in that role.
So Jeff, Darryl and Jake especially put their hands up when it was needed and have given the manager more headaches ahead of Bristol Rovers' visit tomorrow, another game which, on paper, we should be looking to win.
We know the back five will be the same, as we have no real options there bar the Bilston Beckenbauer himself, Keith Lowe, and this again may be somewhere to strengthen after next Tuesday.
And surely Jeff and Darryl will get another chance - although Zebs may get a chance as we know he likes to play well and score against his former club, especially one with fans who will give him a warm welcome...!
So once again, the focus will fall on to the midfield, and I wonder if we will again play a 4-4-2 tomorrow. I hope so, as we have to set the tempo.
Much of that focus will fall on Marlon Pack, who, having been the hub of the side for so long, now finds himself maybe not a first-choice.
It seems to be becoming more evident that he and Darren are not suited to playing together, and if we are to play 4-4-2, it had to be one of them and Russ - with Darren the man in possession.
Marlon has not found his best form consistently this season after the highs of the previous campaign - yet we must remember he is only 21 years old.
Of our contracted players (excluding loans) only Harry Hooman, Sam Deering and Bagasan Graham are younger - and he has nearly racked up 100 starts for us during his loan and permanent stay.
He is still learning. It is a bit much, I feel, to expect a 21-year-old to consistently run the game - if he could do that he would not have been let go by Portsmouth and would be playing at a higher level than this.
Some have suggested that, as his contract ends this summer, we should try and cash in this January - but I would venture that, given his form this season, there would not be many takers.
I would not be pleased to see us sell any of our players this January - I would rather we tried to secure some of them on new deals, including Marlon, who, if he signed for two more years, would still only be 23 at the end of that deal, and we would still retain his sell-on value.
I would also suggest that two years down the line we would have a more valuable player on our hands, with two more years experience and maybe, by that time, he would have played around 200 games for us.
In the second half of the season, Yatesy needs to find a way to get the best out of Marlon, and also has two other big riddles to solve.
The first is to find a consistent goalscorer. Of our current squad, 13 players have found the net in League games, with Darren, Shaun and Zeb all on five goals apiece as the leading scorers. Jeff, Keith, Jermaine and Mo all have three.
While it is great to have players all around the team chipping in, and we have scored in all but three of our 24 league games - but most other sides at the top of the table have one consistent, reliable goalscorer.
The second is to rediscover the formula away from home which served us well at the start of the season, but has deserted us recently.
I feel if Mark can answer those three questions, find some consistency and maybe bolster our numbers in January with another player or two, I feel we can be real candidates for the top three.
We have seen everyone now, and I have not seen any side to strike any real fear into us.
Rochdale, Chesterfield, Bradford and Rotherham were impressive on their own patch - partly down to our own failings - and the same can be said for Southend at Whaddon, and we have had to dig deep against some other sides to get the right results.
But we could easily have beaten the top two, Gillingham and Port Vale, and have (mostly) done the business when needed against those sides in the bottom half - our record against them is the best in the division.
At home, our record is the joint best in the division (with Bradford). We have lost once in 12 league and cup games on our own patch, and that was to Oxford with a second-string side out in the JPT.
This is the sort of record which can go a long way to keeping us in the promotion picture, and if we can get the away form back to how it was until mid-October, we could have a good 2013 ahead.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Shambles at Spotland

Since Mark Yates took over as manager three years ago, I have seen maybe 90 per cent of our games, and been present at the vast majority of his post-match interviews.
But I have never seen him as angry as he was after stomping up the Spotland stairs to talk to us after Friday night's game.
With good reason too. He felt let down by his players, along with everyone else of a Ruby persuasion who had the misfortune to witness one of the most limp Cheltenham performances of his reign.
Think 4-0 at Stevenage, 8-1 at Crewe. Yes, it was that bad.
While I was out Christmas shopping, I had at least four CTFC fans come up to me and ask the same question - was it as bad as it sounded on the radio? Yes it was. Worse, probably.
It ranks right up there on the abject scale, and refreshingly there were no excuses, no platitudes from the manager, he gave it out with both barrels.
I had gone up the M6 in an optimistic frame of mind, based on the 1-1 draw with Port Vale, which I thought was one of our best performances of the season, definitely our best at home.
We created more chances in the 90 minutes than we have in a game for a long time, and but for Darryl Duffy's late miss we would have taken the win we deserved.
Coming on the back of the win at Hereford and the feelgood factor around the upcoming Everton game, everything in the garden seemed rosy to me.
Rochdale weren't in great form, we seemed to be in a buoyant mood, and I was confident of a point of three coming our way. Oh well.
The team sheet wasn't a great surprise, with an unchanged 18 from that decent Vale performance, keeping the 4-4-2 and the narrow midfield which had worked well against Vale.
But this time it didn't work at all.
The writing was on the wall early on as Scott Brown had made about six fantastic saves before Rochdale scored, and seen a shot thud against his bar.
Bobby Grant and Ashley Grimes were rampant on the wings, and once again we were outnumbered in the centre, as we had been at Rotherham and Chesterfield. What is it with four-goal hammerings when we go north of Birmingham...?
As with those two sides, Rochdale had one player sitting and two running, with Grimes and Grant out wide.
Every time we lost the ball (which was often) they broke quickly, we lost the runners and were immediately in trouble.
With no natural width, when we did get forward, we were forced to play through the middle, meat and drink for the defenders and a barren night for Shaun Harrad (especially) and Chris Zebroski, who was probably the best of the outfield players.
Russ Penn and Jake Taylor were too often forced infield to help Marlon Pack and Darren Carter, so that gave Grimes and especially Grant free rein to isolate Sido Jombati and Billy Jones, both of whom had nights to forget.
Also throw into the mix Dele Adebola, who gave the perfect 'lone striker' performance, giving Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott arguably their most difficult time this season.
We never got to grips with him, or Rochdale, at all, and but for Browny we could have been looking at another Crewe result. Or worse.
The triple save he made early on was incredible, and Andrew Tutte was still shaking his head minutes after he turned his shot over the bar.
He blocked two one-on-ones from Adebola, the first after our defence was caught horrendously square, and it took three long-range efforts to beat him.
The goal we 'scored' summed up our performance to a tee - an utter mess.
I could see how cross Yatesy was from about the 10th minute in. He was gesticulating at his midfield especially and by the time half-time came he was incandescent.
The main surprise was that it took Rochdale 38 minutes to score (all down to Browny) and we were within seconds of going in at half-time one down, but he stomped off down the tunnel.
He often gets flak from fans (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) over his substitutions, saying that he leaves it too late, and a half-time change, let alone two, is almost unheard of. That's how bad it was.
Jermaine McGlashan and Jeff Goulding came on for Marlon and Shaun - but to be honest any of the outfield 10 could have been in the firing line.
Jermaine gave Sido a bit more protection down the right hand side, but they still had carte blanche to attack poor Billy down the left and he had a torrid time of it.
We were gifted the own goal and missed another good chance from a corner and for a few fleeting minutes there was a small chance we could have got something from the game.
But that would have been an utter travesty and normality was resumed with Rochdale's third and fourth goals, another long-range effort where the player was waved through for a shot and a tap in after Grant was invited to cross and Adebola was the only one awake to the rebound.
By the time their fourth goal went in (20 minutes to go) Rochdale had had 19 shots on our goal. By the end, as they more or less took the foot off the gas and let up on us a bit, it went up to 22.
15 of those were on target, more evidence of how well Browny played. - for the goalkeeper to be man of the match in a 4-1 defeat shows just how abject the other 10 were.
Yatesy was right. They need that rocket up the backside, they need to be told that performances like that are not acceptable.
But Yatesy needs to hit that drawing board and find out why we have become a soft touch away from home.
Rotherham, Chesterfield, Rochdale. Three four-goal defeats on the road for side supposedly among the candidates for automatic promotion is just not good enough.
Look at the stats - first six away games, four goals conceded, and the next six 17 conceded - including a clean sheet at Gillingham.
Early in the season, we were resilient. Remember the games at Aldershot, York, Wycombe and AFC Wimbledon - two wins and two draws eked out with gritty, hard-working performances.
A sharp contrast to the last few (Northampton excepted) lazy, wafer-thin, and times gutless showings we have had to endure. It needs sorting.
I do not hold truck with those who say the squad is not as good as we think it is. It is good enough.
These players have performed well and shown guts and resilience as recently as the Northampton and Hereford games, where they dug in and showed the guts and desire to get the result when it mattered.
But then we get tame surrender like we saw at Spotland, and (to a slightly lesser extent at the New York and the Proact Stadiums) we are again left wondering whether our players really have the bottle and the desire to roll their sleeves up and achieve what we (and their manager) think they are capable of.
All over the field, it was powder-puff. It was weak. The passing was lackadaisical, complacent. The tackling was half-hearted, the closing down was lazy, the defending naive, or to quote the manager, like pansies.
The same team won't be sent out again on Boxing Day if we get to face Wycombe, or on Saturday against Bristol Rovers, that is for certain.
Some players deserve a chance, and some others deserve to sit in the dugout and think about how much they want to wear the ruby shirt.
Lawson D'Ath and Sam Deering are two players who surely must be given an opportunity to show what they can do.
D'Ath has not played since Yate because of his injury, and along with Deering must have been sat there on Friday wondering how on earth they were out of an 11 performing as woefully as ours did.
Keith Lowe is another knocking on the door, along with a fit-again Kaid Mohamed, and Yatesy has to shake it up, and send another message to the under-performers and the complacent that there is no such thing as an automatic place.
So all in all it was a low note on which to reach the halfway point of the league season, and after most of Saturday's games were washed out, we managed to stay in third place with a goal difference of zero...
We have won 11 , drawn six and lost six, with a real mixed bag of performances, but we are still in a good position with plenty to aim for in the New Year.
Yatesy has scope for January reinforcements with the FA Cup money, and we can  still achieve our dreams in 2013 - if performances like Friday's are quickly consigned to history.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Another year, another Premier League club...

So we did it.
13 years of hurt expunged at last, and when the big prize was at stake, our boys did not disappoint and delivered when it mattered most.
It was another superb show of character and resilience three days after our comeback at Northampton, and they have the reward and we have the match we all dreamed of, against Everton.
So one year to the day after the Ruby Army went to the Big Smoke to play the aristocrats of Tottenham Hotspur on their own patch, we welcome the might of Everton to our humble abode.
Heady days indeed, and it would be easy to get blase about occasions such as this, coming as it does on the back of games with Newcastle, Sunderland, Fulham, Stoke and that Spurs clash in recent years.
And to think that some of our fans moan that we get no luck with Cup draws...
We knew Hereford would not roll over. We were made to work for it, and to see some of our players gritting their teeth and playing through some hefty knocks, especially Darryl Duffy in extra time, also made light of those who say that on occasions some 'don't play for the shirt'. They certainly did last night.
My feelings after the game were twofold - excitement at the prospect of seeing Everton at our place and relief at finally seeing another win over Hereford after ... well, too bloomin' long.
After a day dominated by glances out of the window of my office to see if there was any fog coming in to scupper chances of the game going ahead, I got to Hereford just after 7pm and wondered what all the fuss had been about.
The pitch looked in excellent nick, there was no fog (yet) and the team sheet once again made interesting reading.
In my last blog, I advocated one change, Marlon Pack for Keith Lowe, and Yatesy made one change, but opted for Jermaine McGlashan instead.
Seemed fair enough to me, as the midfield trio of Russ Penn, Jake Taylor and Darren Carter had done very little wrong at Sixfields and didn't deserve to be broken up, while Keith was always going to be unlucky as his inclusion at the weekend was to play a specific role.
Then came the conjecture over the formation. Would Zebroski be on the left in a 4-2-3-1? Would he play just behind Harrad in a 4-4-1-1? Neither. It was a nice, plain and simple 4-4-2.
I thought our players' attitude throughout the game was spot on.
We started well, positively, and looked to stop Hereford settling, and their players looked nervous early on.
They weren't helped by the loss of Ryan Bowman early on, as he was a threat in the first game and they didn't have the same sort of target up front to play off when he went off.
They were looking to get down the side of us with balls into the channel for Junior Smikle, Phil Marsh or Sam Clucas to get on to, but we dealt with it well for the most part.
Harry Pell was prominent again for them, but the presence of Russ in our midfield made a big difference and it was a good battle between the two.
We have seen in the past that 4-4-2 hasn't always worked for us, but I thought it did last night, because we had balance on the two flanks.
Jermaine on the right was complimented superbly by Jake on the left (and when they swapped flanks...) and I thought Jake was our best player over the 120 minutes.
Like at Sixfields on Saturday, Jake looked a lot happier in a wide position than he had in that central role.
He was direct when he got the ball in a wide position and frequently gave Russ and Darren an option then they looked to spread the play as well as testing his full-back with pace and trickery.
He looks a neat and tidy player and doesn't often waste possession, and over the last two games has, in my opinion, justified Yatesy's decision to bring him in.
As the board went up for three minutes of first-half Fergie time, I thought Martin Foyle would be the happier, as we had shaded the first 45, but no-one had really tested the goalkeepers.
That soon changed before the break, as two incidents in 60 seconds turned the tie our way.
First, a simply fabulous save by Scott Brown from Clucas. Somehow, Junior's cross got through to him at the far post, and from the replays Browny's weight looked to be going to his left but adjusted, got his right hand to it and turned it round for a corner. Stunning stuff.
Then came the penalty. Jermaine put on the afterburners to beat Gallers, then twisted and turned past him, burst into the box and went down.
Was it a penalty? In 'live' time I called it as a definite penalty and to be honest, having seen it lots of times on the highlights and slowed it down as well, I still go with that first opinion.
I think Gallers put his arm across and blocked him, and when that happens any player is going to go down.
The referee was in a good position and the reaction to the decision was interesting - five or six Hereford players complain, but Gallers doesn't move from the spot where the challenge is and stands with hands on hips.
That's a sign on a player who knows he is guilty, and Shaun Harrad kept his cool and smashed it in, and after a tight half we had our noses in front again - and as the cliche has it, the perfect time to score.
We know that Gallers can make rash challenges - remember Burton away when he got a red (later rescinded) and the second penalty we conceded on that horrific day at Crewe.
For his part, Jermaine didn't appeal for it, and spent the rest of the game being called a cheat by all the Hereford fans around our commentary position - led by many of the families of players who used to have their mortgages paid by our club. Disappointing, and unnecessary.
That goal meant the second half was 'contain and destroy' for the Rubies - keep it tight and look to nick another on the break. Well, that was the plan...
It was going OK for most of the half, and Yatesy must have been feeling fairly comfortable as Jermaine and Shaun were replaced by Marlon and Darryl, but then came the leveller.
It was a soft goal, no getting away from that.
Clucas had a lot of space on the right hand side, and arced the ball in. Think Steve Guinan in the 2006 play-off final - but Clucas' ball was not as powerful as that.
It dribbled into the box, and I was waiting for a big size nine from Benno or Steve Elliott to smash it away. It didn't come and the ball crept in.
Game on... The volume went up, and I really expected Hereford to try to press on.
They had brought on Marley Watkins to play up alongside Marsh, but those last 15 minutes showed their lack of a Plan B as they failed to build on their goal and seemed to settle for another half-hour. They got their wish.
Then, having played for extra time, Hereford were happy to settle for the penalty lottery, while to Yatesy's credit he told his players to go and win it.
We pushed forward in the first period, but Hereford were sat deep, on their 18-yard line, and we could not find a way through, but we carried that on in the last 15 minutes.
That effort was led by Zebs, who carried the fight to them, driving us on, backed up by Jake, who was still full of energy. Our fitness levels looked superior and we found that £200,000 goal.
It was a great cross from our assist machine Billy Jones, and a great header from sub Mo, making it five goals out of six with his head this season.
Mo had come on when Russ limped off eight minutes of the 90 to go, and I was a bit surprised. I had expected either Sam Deering or Lawson D'Ath to come on, more like for like, but Mo's introduction showed Yatesy wanted to go and win it and he was rewarded for that boldness.
It was a fabulous moment. Mo was engulfed by the fans at the Blackfriars End (who were brilliant and very loud all night by the way) and that goal is another to go down in club folklore - think Eaton at Wembley, Grayson at Rushden, Duff against Yeovil, Kay at Chester, Guinan at Cardiff, Connor v Doncaster, and so on...
Finally, Hereford showed some urgency, but we closed the game out, and now we can look forward to another fabulous occasion at Whaddon, and a financial shot in the arm.
I spoke to the chairman after the game, and he said Yatesy can come and knock on his door and expect a more favourable response - but I hope fans don't expect a massive spending spree.
I am sure the Cup cash will allow Yatesy some room to move in January and strengthen his squad, but I am sure the board will also use some of the money to stash away for a rainy day - things are rosy at the moment, but you never what is lurking round the corner.
But that is for the future. Now we can look forward to Everton at home. That's the sort of game which as recently as 20 years ago was a potential massive pre-season friendly or (as it once was) a testimonial match.
We will have a full ground once again, and the chance to showcase our club on national TV, and, closer to home, get the chance to show the town and the county what a fabulous club and a good team we have got.
It will almost be a 'free' 90 minutes for us. No pressure, no expectation, with the hope that we go out and do ourselves justice on the big stage, and give them a decent game.
I am not saying we should be in awe of them and just limply roll over, but realistically nine times out of 10 Everton should win the game, whatever team David Moyes puts out.
All I want our players to do is to show people what we are capable of and walk off with no regrets and our heads held high, whatever the outcome.
Remember, in the grand scheme of things, promotion has to be the priority, and the cash from games like this can only help us.
The ticket policy has been announced, and I think the club have got it spot on, rewarding first the 'active loyalty' of season ticket holders, Travel Club, Robins Trust, club, 500 club, Ruby and Platinum members, while also giving the more occasional watchers a chance with the stubs from the Barnet and Hereford games, and Vale this weekend.
The prices are right as well, set at the same level as Newcastle six years ago, so the club deserve credit for resisting the temptation to raise a quick buck with higher prices.
For the players, it gives them the incentive to end the year on a high and book their place in the side on January 7, and with the competition in the squad as it is now, there aren't many certain of their places outside the goalkeeper and back four, although I am sure Connor Roberts would love the chance to play his old club...
Marlon's situation sums up that statement - before Northampton, he was an automatic choice, but after two games on the bench, like the others, he will have to fight for his place thanks to the form of those who came in over the last 210 minutes.
We have five games between now and Everton, starting with Port Vale on Saturday, a straight shoot-out for second in the table, and we seemed to come away from Edgar Street with some walking wounded.
Jermaine got a knock from Gallers' naughty-looking off-the-ball challenge soon after the penalty, while Russ limped off after a tackle Yatesy wasn't happy with, and Darryl was poleaxed just before our winner (Gallers again) and tweeted a picture of a pretty swollen and gashed ankle.
Far from ideal before an important game like this one, but with that Cup carrot in the back of their minds, there will be no shortage of players wanting to get in on the act if those three don't make it.
Post-match, Yatesy said he wants 15 points between now and Everton, with Vale, Rochdale, Wycombe, Bristol Rovers and Oxford on the agenda.
Fighting talk, and the timing was ideal. It is just the sort of call to keep the players on their toes.
They know there won't be any dreaming about the Cup allowed around Seasons over Christmas - but there will be plenty of that for us fans as the countdown to January 7 gathers pace.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Comeback kings

Even the manager admitted it in his post-match interview.
"I thought we were going to get a tanking," he said to me when summing up the opening 20 minutes of a game which started on a low and ended on a massive high.
After recent games, Monday's draw with Hereford in particular, the team selection was brought into sharp focus, and when the sheet was put in front of me our tactical set-up wasn't immediately clear.
Sido Jombati was back - but Keith Lowe was still in the side.
Marlon Pack and Jermaine McGlashan on the bench, Chris Zebroski back in along with Russ Penn.
So, was it 4-2-3-1 as usual with Sido wide right and Zebs on the left?
Or three centre halves to combat Adebayo Akinfenwa, with Sido and Billy Jones providing the width as wing-backs? That would have been a risk - a formation I cannot recall us ever playing under Yatesy.
As it turned out, it was flat back four, with Keith about five yards in front of them, with Russ, Jake Taylor and Darren Carter as the middle trio and two up front, Zebs and Shaun Harrad.
Yes, two up front...
My assumption was that Pack and McGlashan were left out with an eye on Tuesday's Cup replay as they have four bookings each - but Yatesy said afterwards he would always have played that formation. Hmm. Maybe.
But saying the system didn't work at first was an understatement.
The scoreboard clock had barely ticked round a minute when Emyr Huws was allowed to get down the left side of the box and pulled back for Bayo to score all too easily.
It was rather similar to the Hereford goal on Monday, when Ryan Bowman was allowed to make a similar run and provide a similar cross before Josh O'Keefe's equaliser.
Yatesy mentioned two things in pre-match interview as the things to look out for - Bayo was one, and long throws were the second - 13 minutes in we found out why.
Ben Tozer launched a bomb in, Scott Brown couldn't get through the melee to grab it, it skimmed off Alan Bennet's head, hit Billy on the leg and bounced in.
Two down, and we were a bit of a shambles, to be honest.
The new formation was not working, Bayo was winning everything, Hackett and Demontagnac were cauting problems, we were second best in midfield and our front two were making no impression.
Lewis Hornby nearly scored from 50 yards with an effort which nearly caught Browny off guard, and he had to backpedal to claw it out. That would have put the tin hat on the opening spell.
With great honesty, the manager admitted he thought he had picked the wrong team, and was asking Neil his view on possible changes. It was that bad.
But we weathered that early storm, and to our credit didn't cave in completely as we could have done, and have done in some previous away games.
The catalyst for me was Zebroski, who started working the line well and giving Clarke Carlisle and Kelvin Langmead more to think about, while at the other end we got to grips with Bayo and kept him quiet for the last 20 minutes of the first half.
Our first goal was similar to theirs, Zebs showed great energy to burst down the left, beat a couple of players and cut back for Carter, who had made a god run himself to apply the finish.
Carter has come in for a lot of flak lately, along with Pack, but looked a lot happier in a more advanced role and was able to have a big influence on the game.
Post-match he said to me that he loves that role, and has played it for most of his career, so let's hope he stays in that role if it means we will get the best out of him.
Two minutes later we were level and it was another delivery from Billy - great free-kick, and a super header from Zebs, glancing in off the post.
For the rest of the half, we were the better side. We looked to have better energy, kept the ball better, defended the long-throw bombs better and kept Bayo out of the game.
But it was no surprise to see Northampton come out firing after the break, and once again we had to dig in.
We didn't have many chances - Harrad had one which he put wide, and a cross from Sido flashed through the box
Most of the half was spent defending long balls and more bombs into the box.
We had a bit of luck - Bayo hit the bar, Browny made a good save and Ben Harding missed a very good chance, but we came up with a bit of class to win it.
Carter started it by winning the ball and then producing a superb pass for Darryl Duffy, and it was a great finish, off the shoulder of the defender and arrowing it into the corner.
That was his first goal since March in the League, but his fifth in three games against Northampton. Can we play you every week...
Coming as it did days after he revealed he has had three loan requests turned down by Yatesy, it just adds another sub plot to the question of who plays up front for us.
Taking in the Barnet, Hereford and Northampton games, all four of our strikers have scored a goal each.
Darryl's celebration afterwards maybe summed up his mood - subdued, but maybe happy inside to have  made a point to the gaffer - but as he admitted himself after the game he is not suited to the lone forward role Yatesy wants to employ in the 4-2-3-1.
Getting physical with centre-halves is not his game, but get him in the channels, running off the shoulder of defenders on to passes like Carter's and he can be deadly.
Arguably though, he might not have even been on the pitch had Jeff Goulding been fit to travel, as Yatesy has susally used Jeff ahead of Darryl...
But in the system we played on Saturday, a 4-1-3-2 becoming a diamond, maybe playing off Zebroski or Goulding, I am sure Darryl would be effective. Not sure him and Harrad would work, as they are  too similar.
If it is two up front, it has to be one of Zeb and Jeff with one of Darryl and Shaun.
Yatesy will be delighted to see the strikers all scoring, and it only gives him even more options, as does the sight of his midfield yesterday showing such good energy and creativity, without Marlon and Jermaine.
I thought Jake Taylor looked happier on the left hand side and he was, as he has been in the last two games, neat and tidy, while Russ gave us what we knew we would get, competitiveness and the ability to get up and down the pitch between the two boxes.
Carter just looked happier - able to affect the game more, as he could leave the tackling to Keith and Russ and concentrate on making us more potent in the final third. Scoring one and making one and almost putting another cross on Harrad's toe just before half-time showed he did just that.
So, despite the start of the game, a great result, made even more important as the League Two fixture list this weekend showed many of the top half playing, and therefore taking points off each other.
It opens up our three-point gap on fourth place, and brings us a point behind Port Vale in second ahead of the game with them on Saturday.
But first, to Tuesday, and the small matter of that £200,000 match up the road at Edgar Street.
After 20 minutes, it looked as if we were going to go there on the back of a third hiding away from home, and needing to pick ourselves off the floor.
But now the opposite is the case. We go there confident, with the spring back in our step, and the manager has plenty of questions to ponder.
The changes and substitutions had the desired effect as some players took their chance, and showed they can be effective in different roles. They also showed some much-needed backbone.
Do Marlon and Jermaine come back in? Does Keith stay in his enforcer role? Does Darren play more advanced again? Is there a place for Mo on the left? One up front, or two? Does Darryl get a start...
My preference would be to play the same system as we did yesterday, and only make one change, Marlon for Keith Lowe.
He could play as the deep midfielder, and try to run the game, it would keep Darren further up the field, and leave Russ and Jake to nominally provide the width - but with Sido and Billy able to push up and support them.
We need Russ in there to combat Harry Pell, and I would fancy Sido to come out on top in a battle with Sam Clucas
I would also keep the two up front, and I think Zebs and Shaun put in a great shift on Saturday after a slow start and deserve the chance to keep their partnership going.
So my team would be (4-1-3-2): Brown, Jombati, Bennett, Elliott, Jones; Pack; Penn, Carter, Taylor; Zebroski, Harrad.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Same old story...

And so it goes on...
The saga of when Cheltenham Town will beat Hereford United moves on to Edgar Street next Tuesday after we threw away our first chance to do it.
We actually got in front this time, something we have not managed to do much against our friends from up the road in the recent past, but then failed to finish the job off.
We let them back into it, surrendered the initiative then lacked the nous to kill them off when they sat back and invited us on to them.
For all the possession we had after the break, two shots, one corner and never getting behind them to put in a decent cross is not good enough.
Credit to Hereford - as usual against us, they raised their game, and fully deserved their draw for their resilience, commitment and shape.
In Harry Pell, they had what we were lacking - a driving force in their midfield. His enthusiasm, tackling and non-stop work ethic epitomised what Hereford were all about. A bit like Luke Summerfield did for us last season.
We have someone who can do that , but he was sat on our bench, Russ Penn. Once again it was a surprise to see him there, while the Marlon Pack-Darren Carter dynamic once again showed why it doesn't work for me.
We started the game well - just as I had wanted us to, setting the tempo, getting out of the blocks well, passing, pressing and not allowing Hereford to settle.
The ball was going out wide, where Jermaine McGlashan gave Joe Heath a torrid opening 20 minutes, while Kaid Mohamed was keeping Andy Gallinagh on his toes and forcing Junior Smikle to come back and double up.
We got the goal from a nice move. Pack to McGlashan, nice low ball and Shaun Harrad flicked it in. But that was the only time we got in behind them, and gave Harrad the kind of service he so obviously thrives on.
They gradually worked out how to stop McGlashan, who hardly got a kick in the second half before being taken off, and we seemed to lack the nous or the invention to break them down. They also doubled up on Mo and he couldn't affect the game too much - although he did have our second half shots and showed a bit more drive in the second half than several others.
We had lots of the ball, lots of passing, but it was sideways and backwards. Then after 10-15 passes, impatience would kick in, and someone would try the 'Hollywood' pass, and that would be that.
Much of the criticism for this has fallen on Marlon Pack, as he is usually the man who tries these 'eye of a needle' passes. More often than not, they came off last season. This season they have, on the whole, not.
I feel some of the flak heading his way is a bit harsh. He isn't totally blameless, but he must share the rap with those around him, as a lack of movement, intelligent runs and inflexibility left us looking toothless and predictable.
We know he hasn't hit the heights of last season, and I will put that down to the breaking up of the partnership he built with Penn and Summerfield.
He hasn't got the same understanding going with Carter, while Penn has been in and out of the side, so they haven't been able to build that continuity.
We also have to remember he is still only 21 years old. In some ways, I think we fans expect too much of him - we think he is going to go out there and win matches on his own sometimes.
If he could do that, he would not have been released by a Championship club, and now plying his trade in League Two.
On Monday, we were set up with Pack and Carter deep, and Jake Taylor nominally the man to help out Harrad.
Unfortunately, this transpired to leave a 30-yard gap between Pack/Carter and Taylor, so there was little or no link-up play, bar the move for the goal.
Contrast that with Hereford, who had Pell and Will Evans hunting in packs, linking with Sam Clucas coming off the left flank, Junior Smikle off the right and Josh O'Keefe dropping deep - with no massive gaps.
They were able to exploit the space we were leaving them as the first half wore on, and benefited from our lax attitude to tackling at times, notable when Clucas ran in off his flank about 25 yards and fed Pell, whose shot just went over the post-bar angle.
The five of them worked together - our midfield seemed to be in two seperate unites, Pack and Carter in one, McGlashan, Taylor and Mo in the other.
Pack should be our quarterback. He should dictate the way we play, but at the moment he can't seem to do that in our system, or with the personnel we are using.
Whether that means a change in tactics, maybe to 4-1-4-1 with Pack behind a flat four, in a 'free' role where he could affect the game more, or whether Yatesy might revisit the 'diamond' with Marlon at the base of it... who knows?
Mark certainly has the options to shuffle about and refresh his midfield, with Pack, Carter, Taylor, Lawson D'Ath, Penn and Deering to choose from now in central areas.
Many fans want Mark to play 4-4-2 - but I am not convinced we have the correct balance in the squad to make it work. Look at the Accrington home game...
This is not based on the middle pairing - of those six mentioned above, there must be two who would dovetail nicely in the centre - but it is out wide that I would worry more, especially on the left.
This is because Mo is not an out-and-out winger like Jermaine. We have seen that he does not always have the discipline to keep the shape, as he likes to flit into the middle and across the line to the right, and this could leave us lopsided at times.
Many of those wanting 4-4-2 automatically think it would lead to us scoring more goals. They look at the '2' and think this means attack after attack, but neglect the effect that can have on the rest of the team
We didn't play 4-4-2 for much of last season and scored plenty of goals - not many were complaining about us playing one up front when we were on that good run last Autumn.
The other second-half disappointment from Monday was when we made the changes. Our shape didn't seem to change at all.
Penn, Sam Deering and Jeff Goulding came on, but we didn't commit any more men forward - there didn't seem to be any increase in urgency or, most disappointingly, desire to assert the authority given to us by the possession we had, take the game by the scruff of the neck and really put pressure on Hereford.
They spent most of the half with nine behind the ball, but did have one or two dangerous breaks, only testing Browny once with an Evans long shot which he tipped over.
A draw was fine for them - they were delighted to take us back to Edgar Street and have another go at us, but we should not have settled for it as we seemed to do - we had to go out and try to win the game but seemed to be lacking the energy and the impetus to do so.
So now we go to Edgar Street on Tuesday, in a match which could be worth about £200,000 to the winners. Not much pressure then.
Hereford will have to come out, and the onus will be on them this time to try to win the game, and hopefully we can take advantage of that and book that TV date with Everton.
First though, and arguably more important, is the trip to Northampton on Saturday, and another clash with a certain Mr Akinfenwa...

Sunday, 2 December 2012


If - a small and sometimes insignificant word, but in this case, the only one that matters.
Yesterday was the FA Cup third round draw, usually the most exciting day of the footballing calendar, and the balls fell in our favour with a potential home game with Premier League giants Everton.
If we do something we have not done since 1999, not done at home since 1969 and not done in the FA Cup since 1946 - beat Hereford United.
So that is why, for now, I am trying not to get myself excited at the possibility of Marouane Fellaini's afro doing battle with Marlon Pack in the heart of the midfield at Whaddon Road in January.
That lot from about 30 miles away have to be dealt with first.
Some fans are already getting excited judging by my Twitter feed since about 3pm today. Fine - but I would rather wait until 9.45pm tomorrow, and if we have done the job, then I will join in the fun.
But what an incentive it is.
Think back to that trip to Chester. We knew Newcastle were waiting for us - yet also remember that miserable trip to Doncaster, and how we had to watch them play Aston Villa rather than us.
So we have seen it from both sides - but all this potential draw does is increase the pressure on both sides.
For Hereford, a game at home to a Premier League side means a full house at Edgar Street, more much-needed money for their survival, and - 99 per cent certain - TV revenue as well.
So if they weren't already chomping at the bit for the game, they certainly will be now.
For us, the same is true, a capacity crowd, once again you would imagine the TV companies being interested, so it would give Mark Yates some cash to spend in January in the same way that the Spurs game facilitated the arrival of Jermaine McGlashan earlier this year.
It would also raise the profile of the club once again at a time when it is desperately needed, and if (that word again) we can get through tomorrow night it will be a massive shot in the arm.
I was nervous enough before this draw, and all it has done it made those butterflies about 1000 times worse.
Whaddon Road should be packed tomorrow night as all those scrambling around for a big-match ticket in the event of a game with Everton.
If it doesn't come off, they can always come to Southend instead with the rest of us - but with any luck we will have the moaning about Johnny Come Lately's getting tickets while those who have watched the club for years do not.
Although how that happens when we get home crowds of less than 3000 and the ground holds 7000 I can't quite work out, but once again we will cross that bridge - if it happens.
First though, Hereford, and that record.
It has to end soon, and I am heartily sick and tired of getting my hopes up when we play them only to be well and truly let down by an inept performance.
At home, I remember in despair watching John Brough scoring the winner in a Conference game, Waide Fairhurst's two goals and a couple of rockets from Sam Hewson after we led 2-1 and Ian Westlake smacked a free kick against the post.
At Edgar Street, since that horrible day when David Norton was spat on as we won 2-0 in the Conference back in 1999, we suffered that 3-0 loss when Steve Guinan played like a man possessed and Shane Higgs made a monumental error.
That then led to Martin Allen's team coach hairdryer on the way home, and has been followed by a lot of 1-1 draws, but still we have not grabbed that victory.
Hereford will be a team on a mission, desperate for the cash and with nothing to lose.
Some of their former CTFC contingent, Marley Watkins and Michael Townsend, are injured and likely to miss the game. Marley has tweeted as much.
But that leaves Junior Smikle and Andy Gallinagh, two of the most whole-hearted players to wear the red and white in recent seasons, and Marlon Jackson, who only played 20 minutes for us anyway.
It's all about attitude and desire. Our players have to put the potential draw out of their mind and go out and play like the team we know they can be.
We are the favourites and we should win, if the mindset is right. The fans need to do their part as well, as there will be 1300 Hereford fans in the Hazlewoods and In2Print shouting their lungs out as they always do.
It's all set up for a cracker tomorrow night, and could pave the way for another great day in our club's recent history.
If not, I'll see you all at Roots Hall.