Thursday, 28 February 2013

Fleetwood frustration

IF you are looking for something to take your frustration out on after a point at Highbury which should have been three, don't blame Mark Yates, or the player who didn't track Junior Brown's run for their undeserved equaliser.
Blame the motorway network of England, notably the M6, M1 and M42. It's all their fault.
Because, for the past 13 months, since we won 3-1 at Macclesfield to go top of League Two on January 28, 2012, once we have negotiated the obligatory queue near Walsall's Banks's Stadium, or driven past Birmingham Airport on the M42, we can wave goodbye to a three-point haul.
Since that day at the Moss Rose, we have gone past the second city 12 times, and not come back down again with a win.
We lost at the end of last season at Morecambe, Shrewsbury, Rotherham and Crewe, and this season we came home empty-handed from Bradford, Chesterfield, Rotherham and Rochdale, and last night's point is added to draws at York, Morecambe and Accrington.
We still have Burton and Port Vale to go to this season...
In the same period, when we have gone to away games in the south, east or west, we have won at Dagenham and Plymouth last season, and this time around at Aldershot, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Northampton and Southend - that's seven wins, and you can add a play-off semi win at Torquay to that.
We have drawn four times, at Hereford last season and this campaign at Wycombe, Torquay and Gillingham, with defeats in the south at Crawley, Swindon,Southend last season and Dagenham and Oxford this time. You can add Wembley to that if you like...
But in contrast to those last 11 trips north of the second city, we could not have done much more to take the much-needed victory, however yet again the performance and outcome once again summed up the curate's egg of a team we are.
At Accrington, we were largely sterile and came away fortunate to take a point at a side fighting for their lives. Three days later, we have gone to play a side sitting just below us in the table, turned in, I feel, our most complete display of the campaign, and came home with the same reward.
After the game last weekend, and given the performances from some players in most of the games since the turn of the year, Mark Yates had no alternative but to shake up the side.
There have been players on the bench who deserved their chance to start simply because they could not have done any worse than those who had started in recent games.
Both of the wide players had done a fine job to play themselves out of the side, while Sam Deering, Russ Penn and Darren Carter had to come in.
Yates also saved himself the problem of which of his five central midfielders to drop by simply playing all of them - and reverting to the 4-2-3-1 system which served us well for most of last term (except we went north of Birmingham late in the campaign... ok, you've got the picture).
Since the arrival of Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, and with Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy also at his disposal, he had been more keen than ever to play two up front, the theory being that it would maximise the goalscoring potential of this quartet.
But in recent games with two up front (bar the games we won, against Southend and Torquay) we have looked toothless - I grant that has not always been the fault of the forwards, but also down to the lack of service and support they have had from the midfield, and especially the wide men.
Benson was chosen as the one up front, and I was also pleased to see Billy Jones back in the starting line-up, both for the balance his natural left-footedness gives us and also for the added threat of his set-pieces.
Keith Lowe kept his place at right-back, and this wasn't a total surprise to me - although subsequently it seems Sido missed the bus, and would have started otherwise. Silly Sido!
Despite that, and I can't put my finger on why, but I don't think Sido has been the same player this season as the one who burst on the scene so well last season.
He doesn't seem as confident as he was, looks more prone to errors and his body language is not what it was. I am not blaming it on him growing his hair - whether it is the hernia op still bothering him, or there are other factors, I am not sure, but something doesn't seem right to me.
Keith has overall been more solid and reliable when he has been in the side, so I think Mark made the right call with playing Billy and the Bilston Beckenbauer - whatever the mitigating circumstances were.
So would the system work? Would we look more dangerous, more fluent, more cohesive, more compact and most crucially of all, would we carry more of a goal threat despite only fielding Benson up front?
The answer was yes in all cases - and that is why only coming away with a draw was so frustrating, and ultimately felt like a defeat.
On paper, a draw at a Fleetwood side who, like us, have been up there challenging all season and have a strong, powerful squad looks a decent result.
But in the position we find ourselves in looking at the table, and when you have gone up there, dominated, gone in front and then only come away with yet another draw, it is maddening.
Right from the off, we were on the front foot. Fleetwood never had time to settle, and were into our stride straight away.
The catalyst for the performance, especially in the first half, was Deering. He was like a little dynamo, a non-stop bundle of energy, and Fleetwood's midfield and back four did not know how to handle him.
He was playing in the role we have seen him be so effective for in his Barnet days against us - the performances which made me so pleased when we signed him.
Sam would pop up in the middle, then burst down the right, then the left. He was always available and all of his touches were telling. He didn't waste much possession throughout.
He gave Benson the support he needed, and linked up well constantly with Penn, Pack, Carter and Taylor to leave Fleetwood chasing shadows.
It was testament to our dominance that Steven Gillespie, after about 20 minutes, was pulled back to play as a midfielder to try and quell our superiority in that area. It didn't work.
We carried on in the same vein, and Pack got the goal we deserved, a superb volley after Lowe's long throw came out to him, about 20 yards out.
It makes it four goals in four games for Marlon, and maintains the monopoly he and Benson have on our goals in recent matches - they have scored our last six between them.
We could have been out of sight by half-time. Scott Davies saved from Deering and Taylor shot over, while we had a couple of close squeaks from corners, with Lowe getting on the end of a couple as he has done to good effect all season.
Scott Brown was a spectator, bar a shot from Gillespie right at the end of the half, and it was no surprise when Jon 'The Beast' Parkin came on at the break, replacing Jean-Michel Fontaine, who rivals Gary Kenneth of Bristol Rovers for the 'Worst Player To Play Against Us This Season' award.
But the pattern did not really change noticeably after the break. We were still making the running, winning the second balls, passing the ball well and creating opportunities. Nothing clear-cut, but still opportunities.
While Deering had been our star of the first half, that mantle passed to Taylor in the second. Possibly realising the lack of threat from their midfield, he took the bull by the horns and showed that he can play a bit, and that he is not just a 'break it up and give it to the passer' type of player.
Fleetwood threatened a bit more when Junior Brown came on, and he gave Carter and Jones down our left-hand side a bit more to think about.
One of them, and my money is on Carter, lost him at the crucial moment from a short corner (needlessly given away after a poor ball out of defence by Lowe) - and that few slack seconds was all it took to undo the other 94 minutes and 55 seconds of good work and endeavour.
It did allow us to hear the strains of Captain Pugwash and watch a large dancing cod on the big screen, but I would happily have forgone that 'pleasure' for the three points we deserved.
Their tails were up after that, and I was surprised not to see Jamille Matt come on. I was expecting a direct assault with balls slung into our box, but after a five-minute wobble we settled back to how we were and would have won it but for a superb reflex save from Davies from Benson, after he was set up by, yes, Deering.
But we had to 'settle' for a draw, and so we sit seventh, and are, for the first time in a while, more than one win away from the automatic slot, but the same number of points clear of the side now in eighth - Fleetwood. 23 points gone from winning positions. Grrrrr...
I maintain my earlier feeling that the top two are out of reach, despite their defeats this midweek. If we want to get into that third slot, I feel (for starters) that we have to take six points from AFC Wimbledon and Chesterfield at home in the next two games, and then get at least a draw at Burton - who have won their last eight home games, and seem to be the form side of the top half.
But now Yatesy has yet another dilemma.
He played 4-4-2 to try to get us more of a goal threat. It hasn't worked. He then went back to his tried and tested, with the 4-2-3-1 which did so well last year, and got our best performance of the season.
It sounds perverse to say we were more dangerous and threatening with no orthodox wide players and one out-and-out striker on the pitch, than we had been with two wingers and two forwards with tried and tested records at this level, but that was the case.
Now we come home again, and face a side battling for their lives at the bottom, like Aldershot were. Against them, we played 4-4-2 and struggled as they were happy to sit deep and forced us to go direct, playing into their hands.
If he sticks with the same formation from Tuesday, I can hear the moans already, which, if we don't win, will only get louder.
'We have to play two strikers at home'.
'Playing 4-5-1 at home is negative.'
'We need to play wingers and get at them down the flanks.'
'Shaun Harrad is our top scorer, why is he sat on the bench.'
All valid arguments. However, fielding two strikers at home hasn't worked by and large, and the wingers have largely been ineffective in recent games, home and away. They have been nullified far too easily, and had little effect on the game - at Accrington, we may as well have had nine men.
With 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1, whatever you want to call it) we were far from negative on Tuesday, and some of our best displays at home last season used that very formation.
Shaun Harrad hasn't scored for five games - but in mitigation he hasn't started in those games as he paid for the price for the Dagenham debacle.
Harrad has been the 'scapegoat' for a few inept team displays this season. But Benson did nothing wrong on Tuesday, and showed he can play that lone role effectively - given the right support.
Of the midfield five, Carter was the weakest link, but he still had a very effective game going forward, the downside being his set-piece marking. Along with the other four, he doesn't deserve to be dropped.
Defensively, we were sound. The full-backs were good going forward and provided the support and some good crosses on Tuesday, while Michael Hector and Steve Elliott were very solid. I would say Tuesday was Hector's best game.
They deserved the clean sheet, but didn't get it, and we have still not had a shut-out since Hector joined us - his seven games has seen us let in one goal six times, and the two at Accrington - I am not solely blaming him for that by the way!
It is difficult to make a case for any of the 11 which started on Tuesday to lose their place - and of those sat on the bench, only Harrad or Byron Harrison (against his old club) possibly have a strong case to come back in, not necessarily on their own form or the lack of form of those ahead of them in the side, but more for the inclination to play two forwards at home.
Some will note that I have not included Darryl Duffy in that equation. That is simply because it seems at the moment that Darryl is (rightly or wrongly) fourth in line in the manager's thinking, and would not get in ahead of Harrad or Harrison alongside Benson.
Personally, I would resist the thoughts of a change and give the vote of confidence to those who gave us a new vitality and spark on Tuesday night. For the first time this season, we rediscovered the style of last season.
I would urge people to take the blinkers off, and look beyond the number of strikers. Focus instead on the tempo we played at, and the quality we showed on Tuesday, and hope that we could replicate it.
I know that replicating it has been the problem. Frequently when Yatesy has kept the same side, a good performance has been followed up by a mediocre one. This lack of consistency has to change, or our season will peter out.
It's now, or never.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Too quick on the draw

DURING yesterday's radio commentary, I said it was hard to fathom how Accrington were where they are in League Two, given their performance.
A texter then replied by saying it is equally hard, on our performances lately, to fathom out how we are in the top seven... and it is getting harder to argue with that as every week goes on.
If you are a promotion-chasing side, games against teams in the bottom half, at places like Dagenham and Accrington, and at home to Aldershot, have to be won.
That is where teams show their superiority, show their class and show why they deserve to be in the top echelons of the division.
We have taken two points out of nine from those games - and that, in a nutshell, is why our top three bid is faltering, if it hasn't already disappeared.
Since the turn of the year, we have won two games out of 10, lost two and drawn six. Those six draws have been a mix of us losing points after being in front and gaining them from falling behind.
Saturday's game at the Crown was a case of doing both - being in front, falling behind, then coming back to grab a draw. Not promotion form.
Those 10 games in 2013 have seen us score nine goals, and concede nine, and we have become a difficult side to watch - at no time have we looked like going out and imposing our authority on any side, be they at the top or the bottom.
Those nine goals have been shared by four players - Harrad and Pack have three each, Benson two and Lowe one. Hardly prolific!
Let's not kid ourselves. Over the 90 minutes yesterday, we were lucky to get a point.
Scott Brown made three excellent saves in the first half, Stanley missed another great chance and plenty of dangerous crosses went into our box.
At the other end, we got a fortunate penalty but Paul Rachubka did not have a save to make in the 90 minutes as our two shots on target in the game both went in. Not promotion form.
As with several other games recently, we seemed incapable of producing any concerted threat in the final third, while coming under a lot of pressure ourselves. Unless this is rectified, we are going nowhere.
There has been criticism since the end of the game for the decision to leave Shaun Harrad on the bench, and play Byron Harrison - but we could have had Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao up front and they would have been passengers yesterday.
Forwards thrive on service, and different forwards like varying forms of service. Some want crosses in the box to get on the end of, others want to play off the shoulder of the last defender.
At the moment, our forwards are getting nothing. They are being short-changed. Most of the time they are being asked to make something of balls slung down the channels, asking them to chase and create something themselves, or throat-high 'deliveries' aimed at them, as they have a centre-half breathing down their throat.
I was critical of Jermaine McGlashan's end product last week, and both he and Kaid Mohamed were nothing but passengers for their time on the field yesterday.
McGlashan had two early runs, both of which ended with crosses, and  a shot over the bar early in the second half, but that was that from him. He got an early knock, and Sam Deering was ready to come on - and to be honest the change should have happened.
McGlashan was not in the game at all after that, and offered nothing, with Mohamed equally anonymous, so when they came off on the hour it was hardly the biggest shock. In hindsight, I would have removed them at half-time.
As well as offering nothing in attack, they also failed to offer any help or protection to the full backs, Leaving Keith Lowe and Sido Jombati hung out to dry on the flanks.
Rommy Boco and Laurence Wilson had licence to attack at will, with full-backs Michael Liddle and Nicky Hunt doubling up, so constantly Keith and Sido found themselves with a losing two-on-one battle to fight.
In addition, James Beattie was using his experience to work across the line, popping up on the left or right at will to make life even harder four our overworked back four.
So it was no surprise to see cross after cross coming into our box, and Steve Elliott and Michael Hector did a sterling job to clear most of them, and the usual three versus two discrepancy in central midfield was also leaving them with a spare man, who could almost shoot on will.
An Accrington fan told us at half-time that it was the best 45 minutes they had produced all season. Good for them, but it shows how much we had let them play, and not imposed ourselves at all.
Bar the penalty, which came when Harrison did well to control a diagonal ball and saw the run of Jason Taylor, who was challenged, the only other first half chance we created was when a Brown clearance was flicked on by Benson for Harrison, who shot wide when he should at least have hit the target.
That was it as far as a threat on the Stanley goal went in the first half. Not promotion form.
The second half started the same way, and the introduction of Darren Carter and Deering made us look a better side, as we went to a diamond.
Soon after the changes were made we conceded a second goal from a set-piece with Beattie's deflected shot, and so it really was roll your sleeves up time.
It is not promotion form to play for 25 minutes, and scrape a point against a side with one win in 2013, and Pack's close-range header was welcome, as a point was better than nothing as it was more than we deserved over the whole game
Deering's introduction gave us a bit more energy. He made some good runs into the channels and looked to get behind the full-backs.
Deering also set up the disallowed offside goal which Benson finished superbly well, and he managed to find pockets of space, and it will only add to the clamour for some fans bemused at his lack of games to see him in the starting line-up on Tuesday night.
The same will go for Carter, whose free-kick  (won by Deering) led to Pack's equaliser, and the other thing he did was show a willingness to have a shot, which seemed sadly lacking elsewhere.
As well as poor service, we seem to have a mental block on having a shot. 
A look at our shots stats this season shows Pack and Harrad top with 37 shots on goal apiece. McGlashan and Mo have had 32 each and Carter 31. Harrad tops the on-target shots list with 20.
But put that into context with the rest of League Two. Bobby Grant of Rochdale tops the list with 95 shots, Tom Pope and Britt Assombalonga have both had 77. 
Grant, Pope and Jamie Cureton have hit the target more than 50 times, while Assombalonga nd Nakhi Wells have hit the target more than our top shot-taker.
It's not hard to see, therefore, why we are struggling to score goals and put teams away.
The draw also takes to 21 the number of points we have lost from winning positions, the highest tally in the division.
We have lost from winning positions three times, at Rotherham, when Lowe scored in the first minute and we  conceded straight away, at Bradford with Pack's penalty and at home to Southend, when McGlashan put us in front before we forgot how to defend from set-pieces.
Leads have become draws at home to Fleetwood (last minute goal), Bristol Rovers (last minute goal), York (late goal), Port Vale (we led for six minutes) and away at Torquay and now Accrington. In both of those games, we led 1-0 and trailed 2-1 before equalising.
That can be tempered slightly by the 11 points we have gained from losing positions. Twice we have won from behind, at Northampton and at home to Plymouth, while draws have been gained at Wycombe (should have won...), Aldershot at home, and the games against Torquay away, Fleetwood at home (one down, 2-1 up before their leveller) and Accrington.
But that is still a net loss of 10 points overall - if we had them, we would be a point off top spot, so there have been plenty of missed opportunities. All ifs and buts, could haves and should haves though.
A contrast to last season shows how costly the draws have been. At this point 12 months ago, we had played two games less, yet had six more points and sat in second place.
Our home and away records were identical - both reading won nine, drawn three, lost four - so we had lost the same number of games then as we have now, eight, but drawn six times compared to this season's 12.
So what now?
Well, You can forget Gillingham and Port Vale I think - they are away and gone for the top two places and are showing no signs of any chinks in their armour.
So, we are in a mini-league of, I would say, seven or eight clubs. Ourselves, Burton, Rotherham, Northampton, Southend, Exeter and Fleetwood for one automatic and four play-off spots - and, with games in hand, Bradford are out of it either.
I cannot see anyone doing a Crewe from last season and emerging out of the pack into the play-offs. I think the teams I have mentioned above will be fighting it out.
Bar Southend, we have all those sides to play, Rotherham, Northampton and Bradford at home, and Burton, Exeter and Fleetwood away. Last season we fell short in late season games against the teams around us, We cannot afford to do the same again.
The current form table does not bode well for us, as over the last eight games we are 11th, and only Southend and Fleetwood of our rivals are in a worse trot than us.
I desperately want to be positive, but it is difficult at the moment. We need a complete sea change in our approach to games and Yatesy needs to find the right formula to make us a threat to teams. Fast.
The first of our 'mini-league' games is on Tuesday at Fleetwood, and Yatesy has some decisions to make.
He is caught between the desire to give us a goal threat by playing two up front, and the need to keep us solid and secure at the back.
In addition, if we were to play the 4-2-3-1, then McGlashan and Mohamed would nominally provide the width and the pace, but neither, in my view, currently justify their place in the side on form.
Harrison is the only one of our forwards who is happy in a lone striker role, yet Benson and Harrad are the two with goals in recent games, so would logically pose the bigger threat.
Defensively, I would restore the usual status quo with Sido at right back and Billy Jones on the left. Nothing against Keith Lowe, but I just feel we look better with that, the players seem more comfortable with it and we get Billy's set-pieces back.
I would play a diamond, with Taylor sitting deep, Marlon and either Penn, and Deering behind Benson and Harrad.
Fleetwood have two players banned, including the niggly Jamie McGuire, who got Alan Bennett sent off at Whaddon.
But they have a decent squad - yesterday at Aldershot they had their £250,000 signing Jamille Matt, Steve Gillespie and Jon Parkin on the bench, while there was no Junior Brown, a massive threat at Whaddon Road earlier in the season, not even in the 18.
We followed a disappointing result at Dagenham with a fine win at Southend - let's hope we can do it again...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Too few Shots

If a team has gone 14 games unbeaten at home, and only lost one of their last eight games, you might think that that team's fans would be quite happy with their lot.
But this is Cheltenham Town, and (by and large) they are not. Despite those stats it's not exactly hard to see why.
I wrote about inconsistency last time out, and if the Dagenham and Southend games showed up the team's inability to string two decent results together, then this game only added to it.
We saw the inconsistency in two very differing halves. The first 45 minutes was a bit of a mess all round, and the second was one-way traffic, but without that killer instinct.
Anyway, back to the stats. Here's another.
Only three times this season have we managed back-to-back league wins - Morecambe and Bristol Rovers; Plymouth and Exeter; Barnet and Northampton.
Yet more evidence of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the team's form.
Even the manager knows it. We have scraped and scratched our way through the season.
But so has everyone else, and that is why we find ourselves sat fourth with 13 games to go, without playing like promotion contenders for any great spells of the campaign.
Pitching up at Whaddon on Saturday, to face the side in 23rd place, it was no surprise to hear all the talk was merely about how many we were going to win by.
Such is the rise in expectation - 3rd (as we were at kick-off) v 23rd. A must win - simple. So when it doesn't happen, it's no real surprise that the reaction is akin to a defeat.
As ever, some of it is hideously over the top - I even saw the first 'Yates is not the man to lead us to promotion' comment on the Nest. Hmm.
Very premature - but most of the other comments I have ready are understandable as it is only natural that the pessimists will have their day after results like this.
The team sheet was not a great surprise. No changes to the 11 which saw off Southend, the poorly Billy Jones coming off the bench in the only alteration to the 18.
It seemed a simple selection for the gaffer, but (not for the first time recently) he would be admitting he had got it wrong before the clock struck five.
The first half was Dagenham-esque. Aldershot need every point they can get, and were not simply going to roll over and kick their legs in the air, allowing us to walk all over them.
They would roll over. Frequently. Far too frequently in fact, using some slightly underhand ways of keeping the game very stop-start.
Referee Keith Hill booked four Shots and gave us plenty of free-kicks, penalising centre-halves Brown and Bradley for grappling with Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, but our delivery and decision-making from them was pretty woeful.
Marlon Pack tried a hugely-ambitious shot from one, as did Keith Lowe from another, but apart from that they were meat and drink for goalkeeper and defenders.
That was also true for the rest of our build-up stuff. It was too direct, too hurried and played into the hands of the visitors. Benson and Harrison never got a look-in.
Then we committed what even Neil Howarth described in his Echo column this week as 'the cardinal sin' - we let a goal in.
It summed up Aldershot's first-half display perfectly - a messy, scruffy, untidy goal.
A cross was skimmed off Hector's head to Vincenti, all alone at the far post as Lowe had been sucked inside. He mishit a pass to Danny Rose, who didn't connect that well with the finish either.
Lowe's free-kick and Michael Hector's early shot against the bar were it as far as a 'goal threat' came for us.
We had also seen Elliott limping from the first 15 minutes, yet it took until the 45th minute for Luke McCullough to come on, and we made another change at the break.
The 'lop-sided' midfield which did so well at Roots Hall had simply not worked. Aldershot were much more in our faces, less 'open' than Southend had been.
I suspect that midfield approach might work away or against the 'better' sides who want to play rather than frustrate and slow down (or just keep stopping) the game. We shall see if it returns at any stage soon, but the second half line-up gave us balance.
I am not sure Russ Penn was fully fit either. He didn't look on the pace to me, so, in the first 45, he and Jason Taylor couldn't give Marlon as much room to breathe as he had at Southend.
Kaid Mohamed looked eager from the off when he came on. He's had some stick for his on-off displays of late, but even his critics would have to admit he was more 'on' this time.
He got us on the front foot with a shot which goalkeeper Young had to finger-tip round the post, and seemed to bring us energy.
Although Aldershot eventually went down to 10 men, they should have done earlier when Herd appeared to kick out at Harrison off the ball. No one in officialdom saw it apparently although it happened about five yards from the fourth official.
It was a frustrating afternoon for Harrison, who never seemed to click with Benson in the same way as he had at Roots Hall. This was partly due to the poor service, but I also felt his movement was not the best and he seemed to be on his heels a lot.
It wasn't a surprise when Harrad came on, and like Mo and McCullough he had a positive impact on us.
He nearly created a goal for himself, and might have done had he hit it left-footed rather than trying to curl it with the outside of his right.
Aldershot were sat back for the second 45, and it was basically a game of attack v defence for the period - yet Mo's shot and a late skimming effort from Taylor where Young's only saves.
The goal came from an unexpected source. Not that the scorer, Benson, was unexpected, but the build-up was as I have been increasingly exasperated with our use of the long throw on a regular basis with very little reward, until now.
Hector's flick had led to a goal in the first-half and he repeated the dose for Benson to loop a superb header in for a second goal in two games.
Now surely we had to go on and win, even more so when Tonkin saw red, but to be honest they kept us out quite comfortably.
It never felt to me that we were going to go on and win it. Our quality from wide areas was poor, as it has been for much of the season, and we were never going to batter them down by going through the middle.
Jermaine McGlashan won his customary sponsors' man of the match award, and even tweeted later in an exchange with former team-mate Danny Hylton that he 'doesn't know why he always gets them'. Jermaine, I have to agree with you this time.
As a winger, his main job in the team is to provide width, beat a man, get to the by-line and get crosses in. He does the first two very well.
But how often does he get in that telling cross? Not enough in my book. Too often it hits the first man, or too often he gets into a good position then lays it off or goes down for a free-kick.
He is frighteningly quick, a great weapon to have, but he needs to work on the rest of the package. He needs better decision-making, crossing and also finishing as I don't think he scores enough goals.
Look at Mo - he got 11 goals last year and has six this. Jermaine has scored three this season and three (including his play-off pair) last term. Yes, he only came halfway through last season, but I still feel he underachieves in this department.
I know the argument - If he is crossing was consistent, and he scored more goals, he wouldn't be in League Two... but he is for now. If he could go up a notch in a few areas, then the clubs really would be sniffing after him, and we would have a real asset.
Pack was the fans' man of the match, and this was correct, as I felt he and Mo were the pair who spurred us on in that second half.
With Paolo di Canio's resignation, it seems that Marlon will now be here for the duration and the last two games show that we don't have anyone in the squad who can control a game like he can.
But even he couldn't pick the lock a second time, and so (despite coming from a goal down) it is another two points dropped, and an 11th draw of the season.
With the tougher tests to come, games like this one (and Saturday's at Accrington) have to be seen as victory opportunities. These are games where teams purporting to be promotion contenders need to show their mettle.
We came up short on Saturday, as we had at Dagenham. The failure to win games such as these could come back to haunt us. It certainly increases the pressure on those games against our fellow hopefuls that are on the horizon.
There were some small positives. McCullough's debut was largely encouraging. He looked decent in the air and tried to use the ball well with his feet.
However, playing for much of that half against Jeff Goulding as a lone striker is not the toughest test he will face in his career.
I doubt if we have had such a young central defensive partnership in a League game for a while, McCullough 19 and one day old, and 20-year-old Hector.
Benson has two in two, and took his header very well, and Marlon looks happier with life now, it seems, he knows what is happening between now and late April.
But we need to cut out a lot of the direct stuff. Distribution from the back has been poor for a few games now, and set-piece delivery on Saturday was pretty abysmal.
It didn't give the front two a chance at a time when they are still bedding into the club and we need a few more calm heads in the side to avoid the 'harum-scarum' panic which seems to set in occasionally.
Dagenham and Aldershot have been examples of poorer sides scrapping for what they can get, and dragging us down to their level. Accrington will be the same, and we have to rise above it. Easier said than done.
The pitch at the Crown Ground (or whatever it's called now) won't be great, I am sure. That can't be an excuse for us not going there to try to get the ball down and pass it, so the onus is on the manager not to 'get it wrong' this time.
We supporters have to try to keep our nerve. The big tests against every other team around us are still to come - but when teams at the bottom end are not beaten at home, it can be hard to keep the glass half full.
Tonight, we could be knocked down to sixth. But there's no panic - there will be many more twists and turns ahead. We just have to stay on the straight and narrow...

Friday, 15 February 2013

The road to redemption

The word every football fan quotes when their team is on a 'win one, lose one' run, and the word which you will hear every manager quote as a mantra at some point during the season.
As you go down the leagues, however, it is more and more difficult to find.
If you get all 11 players in your side performing at the same level week in, week out in League Two, then you are doing very well indeed, and will probably end up winning the League.
But it is like that 20-goal striker that every manager wants. The Holy Grail.
It is certainly true that Cheltenham Town have not had it to any real degree this season, and the last two games have summed it up perfectly.
Typical Cheltenham Town to put in a dismal show against a limited mid-table side, then go and grind out a superb win against a fellow promotion challenger.
I don't know about you, but I drove round the M25 from Dagenham in Saturday in a very grumpy mood, and wasn't looking forward at all to the return trip to Roots Hall three days later.
But by Tuesday night, the mood had changed, and I grinned my way back round the concrete jungle to my (very welcome) duvet. Hat on the side of my head - everything was alright with the world again.
Having failed to out-Dagenham Dagenham at Victoria Road, the trip a further 25 miles east was a chance for us fans to love our team again - for the players and manager to restore our waning faith. Job done...!
There were three changes, Sido was back for Billy Jones, Byron Harrison got his full debut in place of Shaun Harrad, and Kaid Mohamed was on the bench, Marlon Pack coming back in.
It left us with a lop-sided midfield, Russ Penn, Jason Taylor and Pack lining up with Jermaine McGlashan, but it worked - those first three in particular were all outstanding.
Southend had six players out, and one of their players had signed at 6pm and not met his team-mates before the kick-off - but that should not detract from our win... you know the saying, you can only beat what is in front of you.
The main interest was to see how the Benson-Harrison partnership would bed in. The answer was pretty well, for the 57 minutes they played together.
Both of them have decent touch, and I thought they linked up well together, especially for the chance which Harrison lifted over the bar in the first half.
McGlashan was also lively, and the three of them caused Southend's makeshift central defensive partnership  a lot of problems - we could have been out of sight at half-time.
Besides the two goals we scored, Harrison lifted his chance over, Penn hit the side netting and McGlashan nearly got on the end of a flowing move.
Yes, that's right - a flowing move. We had a few of them, compared to the stodge of Saturday.
The first goal was a penalty, stonewall when Penn was fouled, and Pack stepped up, cool as you like to put it away.
It is maybe simplistic to say that Marlon's return to the side made all the difference, but there is no doubt that his presence and ability on the ball played a big part in our improved display.
With Taylor and Penn around him taking care of the tackling and more defensive side of the game, Pack was able to do what he does best - get on the ball and spray the passes about.
It is a bonus to still have him with us, and it is good to know that we might have him here for another 14 games, rather than losing him to Swindon.
I know we are going to lose him at the end of the season - apparently Bournemouth, Derby and Charlton are now sniffing around - and if he plays 14 games like he did on Tuesday he will go with our blessing.
He knows as much as the rest of us that he hasn't hit the heights of last season, but these last two games have shown how important he is to us.
Without him on the field, we don't pass it. Simple as that. He sets our tempo and without him we just don't have the flair and creativity we need - look at how many chances we created on Tuesday with him compared to the games when he was not there. Not rocket science.
Mark Yates had to plan for life without him when it looked like he was on his way - but he must be secretly delighted that the move has gone up in smoke and Marlon will still be here.
Yes, it's not a long-term stay, but it's got to be all about the next 14 games, and we need our best players for those games.
Alongside him, Taylor and Penn ran, tackled and harried themselves into the ground, doing all Marlon's donkey work for him, which is how it should be I think.
Penn came off at the death for Sam Deering, and he could barely walk off the field, such was the effort and determination he had put into the game. He fizzed a shot from 25 yards just wide in the second half. That would have been icing on the cake.
Our second goal came out of absolutely nothing. Mark Yates said after the Torquay game that he wanted a striker to score from a bad back pass, and Paul Benson did just that.
Michael Spillane and Paul Smith left things to each other, and Benson got a toe in and poked it into the net. Not the most spectacular he will ever score, but a significant one as it got him off the mark for us and hopefully he can settle down properly and score a few more. No pressure Paul.
If Harrison had netted his chance in the first half, it would just have been the perfect evening, but he showed enough on his full debut to convince me that he will be an asset to us as we go forward.
He worked hard, showed good strength and touch in the air and on the floor, and was always available to either drive us forward or link the play with his back to goal.
He found the going harder later in the game after Benson had gone off, but it was his first start and I would out some of that down to tiredness, so early signs for me were encouraging overall.
When Benson went off, Mo came on, which I have to admit surprised me a little with Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy among the bench options.
Now I know that, at the moment, poor Mo is the target for the 'we have to have a player we blame for everything' brigade, and I thought Mo would come on into a five-man midfield, but he didn't, as he joined Harrison up front.
My assumption is that the idea was for Harrison to hold it up there, and for Mo to be the outlet with his pace to stretch a tiring defence for the last few minutes of the game. But it didn't really work, and we came under more pressure after the break.
That exposed the slight downside of the evening, the back four, were I did not feel we were not as secure as we have been in recent games.
Southend had a couple of first-half squeaks, with the lively Ben Reeves forcing Scott Brown into saves, and all night I didn't feel that Keith Lowe and Sido got tight enough to their wide men, Hurst and Mayor, while the full-backs Straker and Clohessy were allowed to get forward too much for my liking.
When Britt Assombalonga came on, Southend looked more dangerous, and he had a goal disallowed for offside after we went to sleep from a throw-in and he nearly capitalised on a mistake by Michael Hector, although Corr should have shot himself rather than trying to set his partner up.
We stood firm until giving away a poor goal in the 92nd minute, when a tame cross found Reeves and he found space to finish, but this time a late goal didn't matter.
But the fact that we still won the game doesn't take away the concern of letting in another late goal.
After other late strikes against Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Oxford and Fleetwood - not all of which proved costly in terms of dropping points - closing out a game to avoid nervy finishes would be nice!
We have dropped 19 points from winning positions this season, the most in the division -  yet another piece of evidence, if it were needed, of the inconsistent nature of our season.
So, optimism restored. We now go on to find three of our next four games are against teams in the bottom four, Aldershot, Accrington and AFC Wimbledon.
This should be a chance for us to go out there and take a real grip on third place, and send a statement out to the rest of the division. But this is Cheltenham Town, so don't bank on it.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Dagenham discontent

Anyone who knows me or how reads these ramblings on a regular basis, knows I am a positive person when CTFC is concerned.
I try to look on the bright side, glass half full and all that, but after yesterday's display at Dagenham, I am struggling a bit.
I refrained from writing this on Saturday night in the hope that a night's sleep might put a different gloss on matters. It hasn't.
The performance was limp, toothless and hugely deflating. There was no craft or guile for much of the game, and it was a display sadly lacking in application, structure and at times, undoubtedly worst of all, desire.
Dagenham simply wanted it more. There were too many 50-50s and lost causes which were lost.
I had a pre-match debate with some fans about what team we might put out. Darren Carter might come in, we though - but who do you drop?
What about the full-backs - which two of Keith Lowe, Billy Jones and Sido Jombati would get the nod?
Sido was the odd man out, with the rest of the team kept the same, and one look at the stodgy pitch and dank conditions suggested that the retention of the Mitchell Brothers in central midfield was the right decision.
Dagenham is the sort of place that promotion contenders go and win. We did it this time last year, sweeping them aside 5-0 (I know their keeper was sent off, but we were dominant anyway) but at no stage did a repeat look likely.
You looked at the 11 which started and the bench, and thought, on paper, that we would have more than enough to go and win the game.
I would argue that the players on our bench would be first choices in most other League Two sides - definitely Dagenham's - yet the performance was woeful from start to finish.
We had one shot on target, and that came in the first 10 minutes. Paul Benson never looked like scoring against his old club, as he was served a diet of diagonal balls and hopeful punts which he and Shaun Harrad were never going to make anything out of.
I am struggling to work out what the game plan was. It seemed to be to try to play diagonal balls over the midfield into the channels. If that is what it was, it failed.
Our wide men were totally ineffective in the first half. Kaid Mohamed had one decent run which yielded a corner. That was one more than Jermaine McGlashan.
It is difficult to criticise the front two. You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear - and battling for high balls against two big centre-halves is not their game at all. It was pretty clueless stuff.
Jason Taylor and Russ Penn didn't get to see much of the ball on the floor, as it was going over their heads most of time - and Dagenham were adopting much the same tactic. It wasn't pretty stuff.
We seemed to have gone from one extreme to the other.
Supporters have said in the past that we have been guilty of overplaying - pass, pass, pass, trying to walk the ball in - this was the total opposite, looking to be very direct and get the ball forward as quickly as we could. Yates needs to find a happy medium.
At the back, we have stiffened up and are not the same soft touch on the road as we were before Christmas,  and in the first half Michael Hector and Steve Elliott were comfortable, bar one missed Hector header which forced Scott Brown to save well from Ben Strevens.
It was not a surprise to see Mark Yates make two early changes in the second half. It had been abject, and practically any of the outfield 10 could have got the hook.
McGlashan and Harrad were the fall guys, with Byron Harrison and Carter coming on, which meant a switch to the diamond, Mo going central, Carter and Penn either side and Taylor at the bottom.
But it didn't have time to settle as we conceded six minutes after the changes.
Hector has shown his composure several times, bringing the ball out to good effect in recent games, but on this occasion it didn't work.
He passed to Taylor, who (and this is something I didn't think I would be writing) was all to easily shrugged off the ball by Abu Ogogo, he drove on, squared the ball to Sam Williams, who had too much time to find Luke Howell for the finish. All too easy.
It could have been worse. Elliott made a hash of what should have been an easy clearance, and when Matt Saunders ran on to it, Elliott brought him down. Stonewall was my immediate thought from the view I had.
However, watching the Football League Show, it seemed that Elliott took his leg away before Saunders went over.
But Brown made a fantastic save from Williams' spot-kick, and followed it up with a couple of other good stops, so we were fortunate to still be in the game.
The third change saw Marlon Pack come on for Russ Penn.
A slightly controversial decision maybe with Pack's future still up in the air - but with his introduction, it was no coincidence that we finally started to pass the ball, and for the first time all afternoon we seemed to have any sort of threat of breaking Dagenham down.
I felt Harrison did well, he tried to hold the ball up and was moving across the line trying to stretch the centre-halves, but it was all too late, and we still failed to test Chris Lewington at all.
There was a frantic last minute or so when Browny went up front and won a header in the Dagenham box, and a ball flashed across the box which Hector could not turn in.
But an equaliser would have been undeserved, and the supporters who made the trip and made excellent noise all game deserved better. Much better.
Statistics can be manipulated to suit your purpose, so I will throw a few out there.
That was our first defeat since New Year's Day, ending a run of five games without defeat.
We have won one game in seven, and two wins in 10. We have scored four goals in seven games.
In those seven games we have conceded five goals.
We have not won away from home since November 8, at Northampton.
So while we have tightened up at the back, we have still not found the solution to being more threatening in the final third of the pitch, and to get the best out of Benson and Harrad.
To do that, we need creativity in our midfield, and Taylor and Penn together won't provide that (even less so if they are watching balls fly over their heads...).
It is a big dilemma for Mark Yates. We need to play two up front to have a goal threat. We need width in the side to get the crosses and service to that front two. We need both steel and creativity in the middle of the park to give them service and protect the back four.
We look better with three in midfield, yet we can't play that with two up front, without leaving ourselves open.
Three in midfield and two up front means we can't play two wide men - which (in theory) would cut the service to the front two.
The only way we can do that is to play three at the back and wing-backs in a 3-5-2 - but Yatesy has never done that and it would be a bit of a radical move to start playing it now.
I know he has not played as well as last season, but Pack showed on Saturday that he is our most creative player. I hope for all parties that the confusion is settled quickly and we know what is happening one way or the other.
After his cameo, I must admit I would not be terribly disappointed if we kept Marlon for the rest of the season - in 11 minutes on the pitch, he was our best outfield player. He was the only player all game who seemed capable of passing to another blue and black shirt. A damning indictment on the rest.
Overall, this was nowhere near the performance of a promotion contender, and once again you are left wondering how we are still right in the mix.
It is because no other team outside the top two has been on any consistent run of form.
We sit fifth, a point off third, yet three points off ninth. A clutch of teams are chasing what is probably now one automatic place - and of the top nine, we are in the worst run of form over the past eight games.
Seven of the top eight sit in the top nine of the form table, with Wycombe and Bristol Rovers also on a decent run. We are 15th. - link here
Slump, blip, whatever you want to call it, Yatesy needs to sort it quickly, and our players need to roll their sleeves up and show some backbone.
The board have invested heavily in the personnel Yatesy wanted for the last 18 games, and now the pressure is on him to find the right formula to get us back on track, and fast.
It takes time to bed in new players, but we haven't got time. Displays like this one add more credence to the argument that we have changed too much too quickly and the radical January changes were not needed.
We won't know the answer to that properly until the end of April, but  next we go on to Southend, hardly the sort of place you want to go to after such a poor, toothless display like this one.
I still shudder at last season's 4-0 defeat, and not just because of the tackle that got Sido sent off, and it wasn't Jack Butland's finest hour.
I won't be travelling to Roots Hall with much confidence I'm afraid. I would have taken four points from these two away games, now we desperately need three from this one.
However, over the past two seasons, our record against the teams around us has not been very good at all, especially away from home.
It needs to change, and fast.

I don't usually do player ratings, but have done some for this game...

Brown - two good saves and excellent pen save - 7
Lowe - Solid enough. Don't agree he was troubled all game by Elito, thought Medy was poor but had one run and cross. -6
Elliott - Gave the pen away, otherwise adequate display - 6
Hector - Won most headers, but missed one to allow Strevens a chance, and his poor pass led to the goal - 5
Jones - Had hands full with Saunders. Three good bits of defending in first half - 6
McGlashan - Anonymous. Never in the game - 4
Penn and Taylor - Spent most of the time watching the ball go over their heads. Surprisingly out battled in midfield - 5 each
Mohamed - Seems to be the scapegoat, but he wasn't the worst IMO. One good run, and then moved more central - 5
Benson and Harrad - No service, but did they hand on heart do the best they could? Not sure. - 5 each

Harrison - Thought he offered a bit more than Harrad, a bit more movement and mobility - 6
Carter - Took a knock and didn't really get involved too much - 5
Pack - Our best outfield player after being on the pitch 11 minutes. Only player to pass the ball all game - 7

Ref - No excuse for our display, but he wasn't great.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A bolt from the blue

After every game that is drawn or lost, practically every fan plays the blame game.
Whose fault was it? The striker who missed that gilt-edged chance? the midfielder who missed that tackle? the defender who didn't close down the space or allowed the man to turn, or get that crucial header in?.
Or was it the goalkeeper, who could have done better? or the manager's poor tactics or ill-timed substitutions? Possibly, but in these situations I am afraid it inevitably comes down to one man. The referee.
Since Oliver Norburn's 94th-minute-plus-a-few-seconds equaliser last night, David Phillips is the man many fans were blaming.
Now, I must admit I wasn't keeping a stopwatch on the game, and it did feel a lot longer than four minutes after the board went up when Norburn smashed his one-in-a-million strike into the top corner.
But those I have spoken to who did time it varied between 10 and 20 seconds over the four minutes - which, in any case, is always announced as a minimum time. The BBC text commentary said it was 17 seconds over.
Okay say the critics... but how did he arrive at the four minutes? Six subs at 30 seconds each makes up three of them, a couple of bookings and a bit of timewasting here and there answers that one.
I will accept that maybe we sat a bit too deep in the last few minutes and invited some pressure - but we had dealt with it comfortably.
We had held Rovers comfortably at arms length - almost - but I just feel that sometimes you cannot legislate for someone hitting a worldie strike like that. We just have to take it on the chin, and move on.
I know, it hurts. I know it sticks in the craw to see their players and fans jumping up and down on our pitch and in our stands
But if we had gone to the Mem, and Russ Penn had smacked one in from miles out in the last minute, I hardly think we would have reacted quietly, would we?
So we have to allow them their few minutes in the sun, and I take it as a compliment that they wildly celebrate a (let's face it) lucky equaliser against a club dismissed before the game as 'tinpot'.
All we heard in the build-up was how the fans from their 'massive' club were going to take our ground over, invade the home ends etc etc.
So to see them all leaping around as if they had just won the league thanks to a lucky last-gasp strike that Oliver Norburn will never repeat as long as he lives means we must be doing something right.
Even Norburn said he only shot as a last resort because he thought the referee would have blown had he passed or slung in a cross.
Scott Brown said he never sniffed it. "I just waved it by," he said ruefully as he came off after the warm down. In a post-match conversation, Neil Howarth and Marcus Stewart were just collectively shaking their heads at it. Russ Milton also agreed it was a worldie.
But when all is said and done, even though there was little we could have done about it, it's another late goal conceded; another two points snatched away (I will refrain from saying dropped, or thrown away as I don't feel we did anything wrong to lose them).
We were seconds away from a four-point cushion in third, seconds away from going into two tricky trips to the far east in a very chipper mood indeed.
Anyway, enough about the last kick of the game, what about all the ones which went before...?
There were no complaints about the starting side - the same as Saturday. With Connor Roberts away with Wales under-21 (he came on for the last 15 minutes as they beat Iceland 3-0 at Llanelli) Marlon Pack was back on the bench, but Billy Jones was still not fit enough to come back in.
In the build-up to the game, some of our fans on the Nest and on Twitter said they didn't want Marlon to be in the squad. One or two described him as an 'average' player' and others said 'we didn't need him anymore'.
I find this absolutely unbelievable.
I was also told that he doesn't care about the club any more because he thinks he is leaving. He won't try from now on if he has to stay as he won't be signing a new contract anyway and will go in the summer, so Yatesy shouldn't play him any more. More nonsense. Of course he should use him if he stays here.
He had got his head round the fact that he was off to Swindon, had said his goodbyes, and that was that - but then the move was on hold and he is back with us.
I had a brief chat with Marlon after the game and can only sympathise for him in the situation he is in. He cares about this club and loves playing for us, and if he ends up staying I have no doubt that he will give his best.
But it is a difficult situation for him as he has gone from being an automatic choice to being fourth in line for a central midfield place, all through no fault of his own, but just because Yatesy had to start planning for him not to be here.
He is a confident young man, and I could tell by talking to him that he is in a state of flux. He said that he was nervous about coming into training at the start of the week - amazing for someone who is always at the forefront of the dressing room and Twitter banter, and a popular guy among the squad.
He has been an automatic choice for us for the two and a half seasons he has been here, and for the majority of those games has been in sparkling form, and scored some fantastic goals - especially the one which took us to Wembley.
It is the fickle side of football I despise. The side which automatically turns players who deign to leave your club to try to prove themselves at a higher level into public enemy number one.
As far as I am concerned, if he does go, I say good luck to him, and we will lose one of the most talented young players ever to play for our club. Until he goes, he is our player and I will back him 100 per cent.
Sorry, I digress.
Saturday's performance had been hugely encouraging, given the changes made in the week running up to the game, and I was confident we could keep up the same level, or go higher last night.
But in the first 20 minutes, Rovers were the better side, and Scott Brown had to make two good saves.
Jonjo O'Toole was finding too much space, Joe Anyinsah was troubling Sido Jombati and our central midfielders Jason Taylor and Russ Penn were second best to Norburn and Seanan Clucas.
Michael Hector and Steve Elliott were busy, and we were struggling to get a foothold in the game.
But as the half went on, I felt we grew into the game more and more, but we were struggling still to get good service to Paul Benson and Shaun Harrad.
With grafters and ball winners in Taylor and Penn (aka the Dogs of War or The Mitchell Brothers...) in the centre of midfield, we do lose some creativity. It is therefore almost inevitable that we are going to be more direct.
Couple that with the fact that the wide men, Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed, were nowhere near as effective last night and were not allowed the same space as they were afforded on Saturday.
John Ward knew McGlashan was a potential problem, so he played Danny Woodards, a defender usually, further forward to combat him, and it worked.
That is the problem for McGlashan nowadays. Opposition managers know he is a massive threat, so they are hatching ploys to stop him - it is down to Yatesy and McGlashan himself to find a way around these traps.
Mo, on Saturday, had his best game for a while and he was not as good last night. It will be interesting to see what happens with these two if Luke Rooney does arrive - maybe in time for Dagenham.
With Darren Carter fit again as well, Yatesy has a central midfield dilemma. Carter, with his passing vision and energy, could be the man to get the supply lines working properly to Benson and Harrad in the areas they want them.
But that would mean losing one of Penn (now the team's captain) or Taylor (a new signing who does not seem shy in geeing up and giving his team-mates a rocket). Good luck with that decision, gaffer.
We don't want to go back to three in midfield on a regular basis. One of Benson or Harrad would surely be sacrificed - although I can see us doing that at Southend next Tuesday.
Benson has been brought in to help get goals and to get the best out of Harrad, which it has done so far with two goals in two games, and the Bury loan man does look a more confident and happier figure.
Benson hasn't scored himself yet, or really had a clear look at goal, but there are signs of a good link-up between the two, although Benson's first touch was not as good against Rovers as it had been on his debut - although too many balls were played down the centre.
It was meat and drink for the centre-halves - when we played the ball for one of them to run the channels, we had a bit more success.
At the other end, after those two early Brown saves, we weren't really threatened directly until about 20 minutes from time when Brown saved from O'Toole.
Hector and Elliott were excellent, backed up by another impressive display from Keith Lowe and a steady Sido display, who improved after his shaky start.
After the away-day horror at Spotland, our last seven league games have seen us only let four goals in- last night's wonder goal, a penalty, Brown's error on Saturday and York's late strike.
But there is another dilemma here for the gaffer - Billy Jones will be fit soon, and Yatesy must decide whether to bring him back, and decide whether his natural left-footedness and set-piece ability is more worthy of a place than either Sido or the new fast-emerging cult hero that is Keith Lowe, who has now played the last five games.
As the second half wore on last night, the time had come for substitutions, and the first one was Carter for Harrad. Subsequently I was told that the striker had a slight knock, and I called the change 'negative' in the radio commentary - striker off, midfielder on.
I would have preferred to have seen Darryl Duffy come on to maintain the same formation, and with 17 minutes to go, it seemed a bit early to try and keep what we had, at 1-0.
It was inevitable that we would defend a bit deeper and ask Carter and Mohamed, along with Benson to relieve any pressure we came under.
Benson was then taken off 10 minutes from time and replaced by Harrison, whose task was to try to hold the ball up front, which he did well on a couple of occasions.
Disappointingly though, I see some fans have been all too quick to write Harrison off already. This is on the basis of some AFC Wimbledon fans calling him 'lazy' when he was signed, and two appearances from the bench, totalling 25 minutes.
They have come within four days of him joining a new club, in which I suspect he has had no more than two training sessions. Even by CTFC fans' standards, that is knee jerk. In this social media world, it appears that it has to be instant success, or instant criticism, but he is here for two and a half years, not two games.
I will just note that Benson has played 157 minutes without a goal, or barely had a sniff on goal, yet has not come in for the same flak... that has been blamed by the same fans on a lack of service.
The final change was Sam Deering for Mo, and I had no problem with that as we were keeping them at arms length, and I was confident we would see the game out and take the win.
But I reckoned without Mr Norburn's howitzer, and so instead of two successive wins, we are looking at a record of four draws and a win in our last five league games.
No defeats is a plus, but we could have won all four of those draws - Mo's chances and the penalty we were denied at Morecambe; half-chances against Rochdale; a poorly-conceded equaliser against York and last night's late twist. Eight points gone... we could be sat in second on 57 points looking down at the rest.
All ifs and buts.
Back to reality, and in recent games and despite the personnel turnover, we have tightened up again at the back, with Hector the most impressive of the new arrivals.
Now we need to click into gear at the other end, find that ruthless streak and turn these draws into wins.
Three of the next four are winnable - Dagenham, Aldershot and Accrington, while Southend away is always tricky. You feel that we cannot afford another four draws...

Monday, 4 February 2013

A new dawn

After a week full of surprises, there seemed to be a mix of enthusiasm and slight trepidation around Whaddon Road as we all waited to see how our new-look side would mix together.
The squad list on the back of the programme made for interesting reading as it summed up the hectic ins and outs of the previous 72 hours perfectly.
Alan Bennett and Jeff Goulding had been removed, as had Marlon Pack - even though he remains our player and could be back in training later today.
We had a number 28 in Luke Rooney, who has been training with us, but isn't quite our player, but there was no Byron Harrison - testament to how late his deal was completed. He had not trained with his new team-mates before taking his seat on the bench.
The build-up to the game has a first day of the season feel about it - three debutants in the starting line-up meant it could have been August all over again, and it does feel like a new dawn.
Mark Yates brought in three of his new faces, giving the team a new-look spine with Michael Hector alongside Steve Elliott, Jason Taylor in central midfield and Paul Benson up front.
Hector's arrival would have meant a harsh axe for Keith Lowe, but the Bilston Beckenbauer was reprieved by Billy Jones dropping out with a slight injury - the first league game he has missed since he came to the club.
Benson nearly got off to a dream start with a goal in the first three minutes, but was denied by an offside flag as Shaun Harrad tapped the ball over the line.
You could see almost straight away though what Benson is going to bring to us in the coming 17 games.
He linked up well with Harrad almost straight away. His flick-ons had some direction to them, and when the ball went into his feet, chest or head, it stuck.
More often than not, the first touch was cushioned well, or found another ruby shirt, although both he and Harrad didn't get much change out of Aaron Downes and Brian Saah when we took a more aerial route.
The decision to pair Jason Taylor with Russ Penn in midfield was an interesting one. However, with Darren Carter not quite fit, and Marlon Pack in his state of cryogenic limbo, there wasn't much option.
The fear was that there were two grafters in there and no ball-players, and over the 90 minutes it seemed to work.
There were a few times when I feared Torquay's three men in the middle were getting the upper hand, then Taylor and Penn would win a couple of second balls, or one of them would snap in and win a 30-70 tackle, and any worries were dispelled.
I thought Taylor really came into his own in the second half, as he grew into the game, and nothing I saw on Saturday changed my view that he will be a big player for us.
So with Benson giving us a focal point up front, and Taylor shoring things up in midfield, the final debutant Hector arguably had the biggest shoes to fill, those of Alan Bennett, alongside Steve Elliott.
He seemed a bit (understandably) nervous to start with, but I can't recall him missing too many (if any) headers, he nearly scored a goal and was only beaten once by Rene Howe, who was denied by Scott Brown's only real save of the whole game, so I don't think we could have asked for any more from him.
The Chris Banks-style chest down and 30-yard surge to the halfway line in the first half was a particular highlight, so it was a solid start for him.
With Jones out, Sido Jombati switched to the left with Keith Lowe on the right, and it gave us a solid-looking back-line with all four good in the air andable to cover well when necessary.
The other big question to answer was, with Jones or Pack in the squad, who was going to take the set-pieces. Kaid Mohamed got the nod, and overall I thought he did a good job with them.
In fact, I thought Mo was our top performer in the first half, hopefully fired up by the possibility that Rooney could arrive and challenge him for a place in the side.
He outshone Jermaine McGlashan in the opening 45 minutes, with McGlashan's erratic crossing to the fore again on a day when, with Benson in the side, I was praying for him the get that part of his game right.
Mo's free-kick should have been headed in by Lowe, who grazed it wide, then his corner was thumped in by the goalscoring secret weapon for his fifth of the season.
We deserved the half-time lead, and we doubled it pretty quickly with a smart finish from Harrad, as he turned his defender and fired across Michael Poke into the far corner.
Harrad was booked for lifting his shirt to reveal a message to his auntie who has been diagnosed with cancer. Referee Carl Berry booked him - correct by the letter of the law but still a ridiculous rule.
It was also an answer to one of his critics sat just behind our commentary gantry in the main stand who had berated him only a few seconds earlier... ah the fickle football fan...
That was the signal for us to move up a notch. Taylor and Penn took a grip of things, backed up by Mohamed and the more effective McGlashan, and we should have moved out of sight.
At 2-0, that next goal is always the important one, and with Howe in their side, the threat was always there of a goal from a rare attack.
Mohamed missed a golden chance, heading wide from a Harrad cross. He fired a free-kick just wide, then Penn was denied a rare goal from a long-range shot after Poke pushed the ball on to the bar.
After Benson and Harrad had been replaced by Byron Harrison and Darryl Duffy, the latter had a golden chance from a poor back-pass but put it wide.
We created more chances and openings in that second half than in the previous four league games put together - yet despite our domination there was just that nagging fear...
Torquay could not have complained if we had been been four or five up - but we spent the last two minutes and the five minutes of stoppage time living on our nerves after Howe got a goal back.
It was down to something that has become a rarity this season - a Scott Brown mistake. The shot seemed tame enough but it seemed to spin away from his grasp and roll over the line.
It was, therefore, credit to Browny that he then made a superb catch from a corner deep into stoppage time, and happily we managed to close out the game.
But that goal and the slightly nervy end to the game should not be allowed to take the gloss off the performance, which was one of the best for a long time.
Several players raised their game in the knowledge that there are players behind them eyeing their place in the side - which is just what we are looking for.
Lowe and Mohamed were top of that list, and they were the stand-outs for me, although fans' favourite McGlashan got the two man-of-the-match awards... hmm...
Harrad looked a lot happier with Benson alongside him and that is a partnership worth persevering with. I can see Duffy being more effective alongside Benson, and Harrison too when he finds his feet.
I have seen some criticism of Harrison's performance - but that takes 'knee jerk' to a new level given that he had not trained with anyone before the game and only met the rest of the squad an hour or so before kick-off.
Penn and Taylor were a solid-looking double act, and we have a lot of options across the midfield with Darren Carter and Sam Deering also in the mix.
We could still add Marlon Pack to that as Mark Yates said afterwards that he remains our player and could yet be involved on Tuesday against Bristol Rovers... and Luke Rooney might be our player by next weekend when the loan window re-opens.
This week has seen a real evolution of our squad and seems to have given us a bit more steel all over the pitch. That is what we will need over the last 17 games, starting on Tuesday against John Ward's resurgent Gas.
This was a hugely encouraging start to our mini-season, and a first step towards vindicating some of the ruthless decisions Mark Yates has made over recent days and weeks.
We are back up in third, and we have ended that run of no wins in four games, and stopped the winless run in 2013 - another win on Tuesday could get some momentum going.

Friday, 1 February 2013

What a night...

I don't know about you, but as I sit here to start this blog at 12.30am after the most turbulent transfer window in Cheltenham Town's league history, my head is spinning.
For Whaddon Road, read Piccadilly Circus. Players coming in and going out like wildfire.
There is only one place to start - with our captain, our leader, Alan Bennett.
I was there at Wembley when he spoke after the play-off final defeat to Ian Randall and Jon Palmer. I have never, in more than 20 years of reporting, seen a man so utterly broken by the result of a football match.
That man literally ran through brick walls for this football club. He played 73 matches, and every single one was 90 minutes of full-blooded commitment.
His partnership with Steve Elliott deserves to go down in club folklore. In my book, it is up there with the best central defensive partnership we have had in my time watching the club - Chris Banks and Mark Freeman.
Last season, they were imperious, at times unbeatable - but taking away the sentiment, in this campaign you have to say this has not always been the case.
At the start of the season, Bennett was injured, and Harry Hooman came in, performing well early on alongside Elliott and winning the player of the month for August.
Bennett came back after home horrors against Southend and Accrington, and things went well until his last-gasp rush of blood against Fleetwood earned a three-match ban.
That did not endear him to the manager, I would suggest. Then came that run of away day nightmares.
Some of the goals we have conceded at Chesterfield, Rotherham and Rochdale, and (even though they were ruthless) in the Everton cup tie were poor.
It is now increasingly evident that the game at Rochdale was a watershed. Whether there were words exchanged after that game we will never know, but he rumour mill suggests there was.
Something had to change, and, rightly or wrongly, Bennett seems to have been the fall guy for those losses.
Before the game with York, I spoke to Mark Yates, asked his team and Bennett was not in it. Dropped.
We drew that game with Keith Lowe coming in, and clean sheets against Morecambe and Rochdale followed. We drew all three matches, but the defence were not to blame for that. The change had done its job, and for Bennett, the writing was on the wall.
Yates made no secret of the fact that he was going to look for defensive cover in January. Both Bennett and Elliott are 30-plus, both are out of contract in the summer, and both were bound to pick up niggles in the coming months. In other words, they were not guaranteed to be first choice.
Elliott has played every game bar two (the MK Dons and Yate cup ties) this season, which is testament to how well he is managed by Yates and Ian Weston. You can guarantee he will not play all of the last 18 games - but with Bennett's departure, he now becomes the key man in the defence, the new leader back there.
I also feel Yates has reservations about Keith Lowe as a long-term central defender, seeing him more as cover for both Sido Jombati and the centre-halves. In my view, right-back is his best position.
Luke McCullough came in before the Rochdale game, but it was the arrival of Michael Hector that really threw the cat among the pigeons.
McCullough is 18, and a novice, but highly-rated at Manchester United, which, let's face it, is not somewhere you are signed up unless you have some sort of ability (okay, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi... but you get my drift). His profile on the United website suggests they rate him highly and he is on course to be a Northern Ireland international one day. This is the next stage of his education.
Hector, at 20, has experience at this level and above with Shrewsbury, Barnet and latterly Aldershot. Feedback from fans of those clubs has been mixed since his arrival, but he is more first-team ready than McCullough, but I can see both getting plenty of game time.
They are here for a month to begin with, but that will surely be extended to three if they perform in the coming weeks.
So with all that, Bennett was not going to be guaranteed a place. Leaving sentiment aside, with his contract coming up for renewal, and at 31 years of age his departure had a touch of inevitability about it.
He needs to be playing every week, and has opted (whether through his own choice or with a gentle prod) to end his time with us and move on.
But it is a sad end for a really likeable bloke and a top player. Personally, I won't forget when I took my kids to the shop in the Regent Arcade and he spoke to them for ages, and that was typical of him.
He was not just a great player and leader on the pitch. Off it, he was the same, a tremendous ambassador and figurehead for the club, and a great role model.
Every interview he gave was honest and to the point. No cliches, no bull. Put a microphone under his nose, even after the heaviest defeat and the worst performances, there would be no excuses. Any club which signs him will not regret it.
If that wasn't enough, we have also said farewell to Jeff Goulding, and if I am honest this came as more of a surprise.
Goulding is one of those players who divides terrace opinion (especially after 'gesture-gate' at Wycombe in September), but I was a fan.
I thought he was a clever player, had a good footballing brain, and had the ability to conjure a goal from nothing. His goal against Barnet in November to pull a win out of the fire was sublime.
His partnership with Wes Thomas was a prolific one during a season of transition, and although he was not among the goals as much after Thomas left, I felt he still made a contribution.
His 18 league goals for us leave his level with Thomas and Tony Naylor at 11th equal of our all-time goalscorers list since 1999, and he made his fair share of goals as well.
In my view, he was unfairly castigated for his performance in the play-off final. He hit the bar and I felt he worked hard that day, but many fans wanted their favourite Darryl Duffy to play instead, so Jeff copped most of the flak.
Mark Yates showed a lot of faith in Goulding. He often picked him to play on his own up front, and turned to him late in games if he wanted to change things, either playing him up top, or just in behind the front two.
But with the arrival of Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, he is another player who would have found his path to the team (and even the bench) blocked, and so, with his contract running down, he too has opted for pastures new, and good luck to him.
I thought he might go out on loan, but if I am honest, I had expected Duffy to go before Goulding, as he had been the one making the noises about a loan move earlier this season.
But funnily enough, I see Duffy actually benefitting from the changes in our front line, and getting more game time, as the arrival of Benson and Harrison could bring out the best in him.
Benson is the player every Cheltenham fan wanted. We all saw the impact he had on Swindon's promotion push last season, and we all hope he can do the same for us.
He is not your typical target man, but every time I have seen him play it is his movement and awareness, and his knack of turning even a half-chance in to a goal which has impressed me.
He and Harrison will give our attack a line-leader, and a focal point for Duffy or Shaun Harrad to play off and hopefully he can really bring the best out of whichever he is paired with. We now have two target men, Benson and Harrison, and two poachers, Duffy and Harrad.
So what of Harrison? He scored twice against us in the 4-0 debacle at Stevenage, and was then AFC Wimbledon's record signing, and although he wasn't prolific at the start of his time there (it took him 13 games to score), he has eight goals in 21 league games this season - which is two more than our current leading league goalscorer, Shaun Harrad.
He has been a long-term target of Yates, who has once again persevered and finally got his man.
I thought he had a good game against us at Kingsmeadow in October, scoring late on and also hitting the bar, but like Benson he impressed me with his movement and running in the channels as well as his threat in the box.
At 25, he is also at a good age to develop further in his time with us, and I think we now have overall a much better balanced choice of strikers, and also a more potent quartet for the coming games.
But they will only be potent if the midfield get the supply right - and there will be a new look there as well (hope you are all keeping up...)
I think Jason Taylor is a fantastic signing. When I heard he was coming here I was absolutely stunned, and you cannot blame Yatesy for grabbing the chance when it came along.
At (just) 26, he has 200-plus games at this level and a promotion from this division in the bag. He is hard as nails, the real midfield 'enforcer' we have been missing since, well, since Yatesy retired...
For once, I applaud the madness of Steve Evans. Taylor has been a regular practically all season, and the fans there say he has been their player of the season. If Evans doesn't want him, I'll gladly have him.
Some Cheltenham fans I have spoken to said they didn't notice him when we played against him. Exactly. He does the stuff you won't notice. The dirty work which allows players like Darren Carter and Marlon Pack to play. Just the kind of player every successful team has in their ranks.
That brings me to Marlon Pack. Last season, he was the jewel in our crown, but this season it doesn't seem to have happened for him.
Second-season syndrome, or teams working him out, I don't know, but if the move to Swindon comes off he will still be missed and remembered as a top player.
It is a credit to him that we often forget he is only 21 years old, and for most weeks of the season the youngest player in our starting XI. That's how good he has been for us.
I can understand the club taking the Swindon offer, it it is finally ratified. There is no guarantee Pack would sign a new contract this summer, and if he was to go we would be relying on the tribunal lottery to determine a compensation fee for him, so £100,000 represents a good return in my book.
It would also bring Luke Rooney in our direction - another player I have liked when he played against us for Gillingham and Swindon.
I have felt for a while that we needed a left footed version of Jermaine McGlashan, and in Rooney we would have a pretty good version of that. He also knows Paul Benson's game well, so there are many reasons to suggest this move will be a good one if it does come off as I hope it does.
The thought of McGlashan and Rooney on the wings, feeding Benson, Harrison, Harrad and Duffy with Taylor and Carter behind is quite a mouth watering one. And don't forget Russ Penn or Kaid Mohamed...
But (yes, there is always one of those) my only niggling worry is making so many changes at this time of the season, and how quickly it will all gel together.
We cannot expect to turn up on Saturday against Torquay and for everyone to click straight away and we turn it on like Barca. Doesn't happen... but Yatesy will need to find that formula as the top three is still up for grabs.
No club is really putting their hand up and saying 'we want that place'. With the statements we have made in the past few days with the investments in the squad, the pressure will be ratcheted up on Yates to deliver.
He knows that.
The board are to be heartily applauded for their backing. No lack of ambition here any more, no 'little old Cheltenham', no 'going with what we have got'.
Fans wanted exciting signings. They wanted a sign that the board were as keen as they are to see the club grasp the nettle and look to go forward.
The board have speculated. Not stupidly as in the past, but with a modicum of balancing the books. These are calculated risks, there is a mixture of short and long-term thinking.
Players come and go, that is the game. While it is sad to see people like Benno, Jeff and Marlon depart, we look to the new era of players like Taylor and Harrison with optimism and excitement.
I can't wait for Saturday. I have no clue what the starting team is going to be -  just hope Yatesy does.
In his three years here, he has probably never had a harder team to pick. I don't envy him.
It is 2.15am, and I feel like a kid in a sweetshop after today.
Up to now, we Cheltenham fans thought the transfer window was something that just happened to other clubs... not this time.