Friday, 30 August 2013

A great night and no Hammering

When a lower-league club goes to visit a Premiership side on their own ground, I ask for three things - a respectable performance, a good day out for the fans and no (pardon the pun) hammering.
We got all three on Tuesday night at the Boleyn Ground - only the most churlish fan would criticise any part of our display, the fans made great noise and did themselves great credit and we ran them close - closer than some of the national papers have given us credit for.
West Ham are a 'proper' football club - they have a rich heritage which they celebrate and embrace superbly - 'Moore than a football club' is the branding around the ground, and I was sat five seats away from World Cup 1966 legend Martin Peters.
It was all a bit different from Accrington three days before, but having laid the foundations there we carried on in the same vein.
I thought Yatesy picked the right team - solidity and shape was the priority, with Jermaine McGlashan back in the side and the enforced change at the back with Ryan Inniss in for his debut with Troy Brown injured.
Since the game, I have seen a few critical posts about Brown's displays so far, which I find very surprising indeed. I don't think he has done anything wrong at all, and he and Steve Elliott look to be forming a good partnership.
I know we have let 10 goals in and Accrington was our first shut-out, but I can't think of any of those 10 goals which were Troy's fault - in fact I would say the centre-backs have been let down by other areas of the side and other people not doing their jobs properly.
Any worries about his loss were, however, swept away by young Inniss's display. If he was nervous or overawed in any way by the surroundings at the Boleyn, he didn't show it.
Steve Elliott, Jason Taylor and Keith Lowe deserve some credit for that, as they were in his ear throughout the game, talking him through it with advice, and the odd rebuke if he needed it as well.
Troy is out for two to three weeks, so Ryan will play at Gigg Lane tomorrow, and I have no worries about that after Tuesday's showing - hopefully now he has played in front of 23,000-odd EastEnders, some 3,000 Northerners won't faze him at all.
It said a lot for him that I asked Mark Yates afterwards if he thought of putting Keith Lowe across and bringing back Sido. A firm 'no' was the reply - 'Sido needs to sit out a few games' he added.
Keith Lowe's form in the past two games will only serve to extend that exile to the bench, while on the other side Craig Braham-Barrett, up against Joe Cole and then Stewart Downing, did very little wrong.
Yates interview here
I also spoke to Ryan afterwards and he was very level-headed, even about the elbow he got in the first 10-15 minutes, which knocked him out briefly and saw his eyelid glued back together. He took that in his stride as well... early days, but we might have a player here.
Elsewhere, they say a week is a long time in football. Before the game at Accrington, Jason Taylor was, for some, persona non grata... painted as an impatient moaner who couldn't handle being on the bench and wanted to get on the first train out as soon as he couldn't get a game.
Two games later, he has almost become undroppable, brining solidity into the side, scoring the goal to bring our first win and being one of the driving forces on Tuesday.
His mere presence seems to have lifted Russ Penn and Matt Richards, given them a new freedom to be offensive without worrying about the opposition breaking on us if they were caught upfield and lost possession, or directed a wayward pass.
It is almost a mirror of last season. Then, the Marlon Pack-Darren Carter dynamic was a bit open in a 4-4-2. The last two games may just have proved that the same is the case for Penn and Richards in that system.
So from being on the bench and disconcerted by it, Taylor has been transformed. We have seen the Taylor I thought we were getting when Rotherham dispensed with him, but we only saw fleetingly last season. Hope he keeps it up.
The main thing about the game was that were not overawed. We didn't sit off and show them respect, as we may have dobe against Spurs and Everton. We got in their faces - but players like Taylor, Penn and Richards are not going to do anything else!
Alou Diarra knows all about Jason Taylor now - but I hope he recovers from the injury which will put him out for the season.
I was surprised when West Ham lined up with only Ricardo Vaz Te up front, and bar one free-kick saved by Scott Brown they had very little threat.
We looked comfortable and deserved to be level at the break, but Vaz Te's free-kick was a bit special. Surprising then to find out that Big Sam was yelling from the sideline asking why he stepping up to take it. That soon stopped...!
The arrival of Momo Diame for Diarra changed the whole tempo of the West Ham performance. The lethargy went and he was the hub for everything.
It also pushed Ravel Morrison a bit further forward, and those two were a problem for the last hour, helped by Razvan Rat and Downing when he came on, troubling us down the flanks.
The second goal, 41 seconds into the second half saw a great piece of skill by Downing to lay it off to Morrison, who sent Penn and Inniss one way and shot home right into the corner (think a less pectacular version of Nick Powell losing Alan Bennett at Wembley).
I worried for us then. There was the possibility we could get over-run, and for a few minutes it seemed like wave after wave of claret and blue was coming at us.
Then came the penalty, right out of nothing. A punt upfield, Jermaine moved Terry Gornell out of the way and was cleaned up by the keeper. Good refereeing to see if the ball would go in, then he gave the penalty, and Matt Richards stuck it away.
After that, West Ham had more chances, Browny made some saves, they hit the bar, Ryan Inniss cleared off the line - but we had opportunities, a Penn shot was close, Zack Kotwica came on and sliced one wide and shot wide near the end, and Byron Harrison had a couple of openings.
My heart says we deserved extra time, but my head feels they could have had more goals - but it doesn't stop me being proud of how the team performed overall.
But now the million-dollar question. Can we do the same at Bury, and places like it, on a regular basis? We will soon find out, starting tomorrow!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Crowning glory

When Jon Palmer sits down to write the next volume of 'CTFC's Greatest 50 Matches' the chances are that this visit to the Crown Ground will not figure too highly.
In fact, it would probably struggle to make the greatest 500 - however in a few months time it could be looked back on as one of the most valuable.
That first league win of the season is always a landmark - the sooner you get it the better and there is that little sigh of relief all round when it finally does come.
After our curate's egg of a start - Jekyll and Hyde against Burton, rousing against Crawley, beaten by the better side at Chesterfield and downright dismal for the most part against Plymouth, it was important to show some resolve, put down a marker and get that win on the board.
That's exactly what we did at the Crown. It wasn't pretty at all, we won't win any style or artistic impression points from the judges but that 'north of Birmingham' jinx was ended after 15 games.
Everything about the game was scruffy, right down to the winning goal, scored by Jason Taylor with a deflected right foot shot from a free-kick which wasn't a free-kick, which should have been cleared and wasn't.
Mark Yates got the selection and changes spot on in my view.
Keith Lowe in for the out of form and out of sorts Sido, Taylor for Jermaine McGlashan and Terry Gornell back for Byron Harrison - so not much width, not much flair - just dig in and grind it out.
The ploy was obvious from the off - keep it tight, and try to spring the pace of Gornell or Stevens Gillespie on the break. The first bit worked, but the second bit didn't.
Neither forward had a sniff of any decent service in the first half, but they joined in the work ethic, both dropping deep or pulling wide to give an option, but through the middle Stanley's centre-backs and two holding midfielders gave them no space at all.
Deering, Penn and Richards, with the added security blanket of Taylor behind them, had a bit more freedom to get forward and try to spring the forwards without the worry of a quick break opening us up if they lost possession.
As it was, they couldn't get the final ball right - and with Taylor scrapping away and the defence holding firm thanks to Brown and Elliott's best game as a pair and Lowe's positional sense, a 0-0 half-time score wasn't the biggest shock in the world.
Stanley were very poor. They worked hard, gave everything effort-wise, but had no quality - no player who could unlock our defence and make the difference for them.
Scott Brown didn't have a save to make all game - as clean sheet bonuses go, it was probably the easiest one he has ever earned, and the question was could we find a way to win the game.
We did, and after Taylor's goal, Deering could have had a second himself, or laid it on a plate for Taylor, but did neither - irrelevant in the end as it turned out.
Taylor typified the performance. Sleeves rolled up, sharp in the tackle, giving his all and roaring with delight (and no doubt pent-up frustration having been condemned to the bench) when his shot hit the net.
Elliott and Troy Brown were solid, Lowe and Braham-Barrett disciplined, Richards and Penn took their lead from Taylor, Deering was energetic to the last and Gornell and Gillespie battled away. Harrison, when he came on, barely had a touch but ran himself silly to defend from the front as we held our advantage.
That fact that we did that was a big relief. Accrington, on this viewing, will do well to escape the bottom two, and therefore it is definitely filed under 'places a team wanting to do well has to take three points from'.
Whether after this we will ultimately go on to 'do well' is still up for debate, but from little acorns giant oaks can grow, and this is a base to build from.
After the mess which the Plymouth game eventually became, we were never going to emerge seven days later having suddenly morphed into Barcelona -  this is a gradual process.
Having gone 18 months without success oop North, it would be one of the perverse things that happens in football for us to go and win again at Bury next weekend.
The shake up at the Shakers has seen 22 players arrive this summer, more than we have in our whole squad, so goodness knows that 11 we will face next weekend.
As to be expected maybe after such a big turnover, they have been a bit hit and miss so far. Miss would be a help on Saturday, but first, we have our big day out in the big smoke.
Upwards of 1,500 fans will be following our freshly-clad Whites to the Boleyn Ground for our Capital One Cup game with West Ham.
It still doesn't quite seem right that we made it past the first round. I can't remember the last time I saw us in the heady heights of round two.
I just hope we give a good impression of ourselves, and as we always say before games like this, you just never know... there will be an upset somewhere... if we play well and they have an off day... we must take our half-chances if they come along... etc etc
There couldn't be more of a contrast for tonight's game from last Saturday. The desolate, delapidated Crown only had 1,224 paying customers inside it on Saturday.
At least 200 more than that will be in the away end alone at the 'Academy of Football.'
But one thing I hope is the same is the level of resolve and effort from our players that we saw on Saturday - but with just a bit more quality. If we get that, anything can happen...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Outfought and outmuscled

No point in dressing it up - for the majority of the game we were second best and deserved exactly what we got.
As expected the reaction in some places has been knee jerk - tweets saying we will be lucky to stay up and even one or two putting in question the future of the manager have appeared on my timeline since 5pm yesterday.
Three games in is far too early for talk like that, and he will know more than anyone that things need to turn round - and quickly - but the games don't get any easier.
Difficult away trips to Accrington and Bury, then home games against Portsmouth and Oxford are on the horizon, but suddenly after a result and performance like this every game looks tough.
Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for everyone - management, players and supporters - that this will not be a cakewalk, we cannot just expect to turn up, win games and win promotion.
These things have to be earned by hard work and effort, and also by unity on and off the pitch, so this is not the time for panic and knee-jerk reactions.
The return of Steve Gillespie added to the pre-match optimism, and he was thrown straight in alongside Byron Harrison in the only change from the Chesterfield defeat.
The bench had no Billy Jones on it days after it emerged that he has asked for a loan move, but the other wantaway, Jason Taylor, was included as were two 17-year-olds in Bobbie Dale and Zack Kotwica.
I thought we started well - Gillespie had a good chance, then created another for himself, while Harrison had a header blocked, and it seemed only a matter of time before we went in front.
After the match, I spoke with a friend of mine who covers Plymouth, who told me that they had been very poor in the first two league games, and a goal for us would have (in his words) led to a three or four goal win.
As it was, the boot was on the other foot.
One side did get that all-important first goal, and it did cause the other's confidence to drain away before our eyes. Trouble is, Argyle scored it.
Yes, there was a handball in the build-up which the referee did not spot. He had a mixed afternoon, choosing not to book Curtis Nelson for ploughing through Jermaine McGlashan in the first 30 seconds, and Gillespie for later doing likewise to Neal Trotman.
But this will not be an anti-officials tirade - we did enough to contribute to our own downfall here without their assistance, and it would also be churlish to Plymouth, who took their opportunities superbly when they came along.
The goal came from a cross from Rommy Boco, who found himself one-on-one with Sam Deering (I am still not sure where Sido was) which was headed against the bar by Reuben Reid, then the follow up was netted by Marvin Morgan.
Allegedly, we tried to sign Morgan in the summer. Shame we didn't succeed as he would have been perfect for us.
He and Reid bullied our central defenders all afternoon, and after Deering being unable to stop the cross, to then lose two headers in our own penalty area is nothing sort of criminal.
One header can be excused, but then to have reacted so slowly to the ball coming back off the bar is, I'm afraid, simply not good enough.
The second and third were fairly similar goals, in as much as they started on the Plymouth right, and saw crossfield balls smashed home with pretty much unstoppable shots from the left side of our penalty area.
Conor Hourihane fired home the second after Russ Penn misjudged a header which fell into his path, and under no pressure it has to be said, he drove it home.
That was the signal, I am afraid, for the confidence to drain away and a number of heads to drop.
The third goal started from our free-kick, and Sido and Troy Brown were caught upfield. A good advantage was played, and Reid's fabulous diagonal cross-field pass found Boco, and he again had time to steady himself and pick his spot.
So that was that. 37 minutes in and the long unbeaten run in the league at home was over almost in a heartbeat.
Ironically, Boco scored in a similar sort of defeat against Accrington last September. Then, like here, we never looked like getting back into the game, and from 2-0 down it was all a bit of a mess.
We resorted pretty quickly to hitting balls up to poor Harrison, and I felt sorry for him as he had no chance against Trotman and Guy Branston.
In midfield, Hourihane and Dominic Blizzard were more determined and calm in possession than Russ Penn and Matt Richards, who gave the ball away too much and were forced to hurry as they were under constant pressure from Argyle's pair.
Out wide, Alessandra and Boco, helped by Morgan and Reid when they used the channels, gave Jombati and Braham-Barrett and torrid time, not to mention Elliott and Brown's losing battle against the Argyle strikers.
Put simply, from 2-0 down we were simply second best all over the field. At 3-0 down, our last chance of getting anything came when McGlashan shot over in the first minute of the second half.
After Richards' goal, we never looked like pulling off a great comeback - at no time did we build up a head of steam and test Luke McCormick - Argyle were able to sit back comfortably and just soak up what we tried to throw at them.
Yates is to be commended for wanting to play 4-4-2, but he has to get the balance of the team right - and at the moment it is wrong.
McGlashan started on the left, where he and Braham-Barrett have, going forward, been very effective at times this season, but that leaves Deering on right and hence no natural width.
Kaid Mohamed was marmite for fans, but at least with him on the left and McGlashan on the right the team had some balance. Now it does not.
I am not lamenting his loss, but it was my theory at the time that Ashley Grimes was targetted for his role, and when he turned his car round, Ashley Vincent was the man earmarked.
Arriving late, so a lack of fitness, then the injuries to Gornell and Cureton have forced Yates to use him elsewhere, so in the opening games we had suffered from a lack of natural width on both sides.
Hence, we have relied a lot of Jombati and Braham-Barrett getting forward to provide it - and when that goes wrong, teams break on us quickly, players have a lot of space out wide and we are in trouble.
See Chesterfield's first last week - Gary Roberts breaking down Sido's flank, cutting in, and scoring.
Yesterday, Deering isolated against Boco, cross brings goal. Two crossfield balls to Sido's flank, Hourihane and Boco in space. Two goals.
The lack of balance is leaving too many gaps out wide, too many chances to pepper our box with crosses, and sooner or later the law of averages says a goal is going to happen.
Sam Deering is not a winger. His best role is behind the forward or two forwards, either in a 4-5-1 (that horrible formation which most CTFC fans perceive as negative and don't like us playing) or a 4-2-3-1 (another derivative of the above).
Once again, it seems that Yates wants to get Deering into the side and on his pre-season displays, he deserves to be there.
But by playing him on the wing, he is forcing the players into a system, as he did for spells last season, rather than the opposite - fitting the system around the players he has.
Deering doesn't look comfortable when asked to play there. He wants to be involved in the game, so he comes inside, and that too contributes to the space allowed out wide - this was prevalent at Chesterfield for Nathan Smith in the first half and Roberts, and again yesterday.
But neither full-back played well yesterday either. Jombati and Braham-Barrett were more effective coming forward than they were at what is their primary role - defending.
Everyone loves marauding full-backs - they seem the vogue in the game at present - but first and foremost they are defenders, and if they can't do the basics properly, they can become a problem.
Jombati was caught out of position upfield or was sucked into the middle too often, while Braham-Barrett remains very much a work in progress - and I am wondering if he was thrown in too early.
On the basis of displays like yesterday, and I would say in Sido's case at Chesterfield as well, I have some sympathy for Keith Lowe and Billy Jones being sidelined.
In Jones' case, as I mentioned in the last blog, it seems to be Yates has worries over him when faced by a pacy winger, but I have to admit his experience and better positional sense would give him the nod for me.
Also, we miss his crossing and set-piece ability. That is a secondary issue I know, but when you have aerial threats like Troy Brown, Elliott and Harrison in your side, you need consistent delivery, and he provides that.
I can understand him not being on the bench yesterday. This was a home game and you don't need three defenders on there - I don't see the decision being any more than that, no conspiracy theories.
But I do have worries longer-term over whether Braham-Barrett is ready for this step-up. I would love to be proved wrong of course - but remember he only has a contract until January 1 at the moment.
Sido is, of course, a cult hero, and burst on to the scene when he forced his way into the team, but I just feel over the past few months his form has declined from that consistent level he was hitting.
I don't feel Keith Lowe has ever let us down, and I just wonder if a spell out of the side might recharge his batteries and give him a little thinking time to get back to those levels.
The uncertainty of the full-backs is not helping Brown and Elliott bed in as a partnership. Losing two headers in the box for the first goal won't have pleased them, but as a unit, 10 goals shipped in four games is a worry.
Coming on the back of last season's 20 clean sheets even more so, but with a four-man defence boasting two new members some bedding-in time is inevitable, but it cannot last any longer - two or three goals going in per game is not going to bring many wins.
We are also bedding in a new central midfield partnership, with Russ Penn and Matt Richards, but they were second-best yesterday against Hourihane and Blizzard, after also having problems against Chesterfield with Jimmy Ryan and Sam Morsy.
I am a massive Penn fan, he has run through brick walls for us, but he had a stinker yesterday. When your skipper does not play well, it does not augur well for the rest of the side.
Richards has been a good signing, and his passing is great, his free-kick was excellent - but he gave the ball away a fair few times also, and his movement of the ball can, at times, be too slow.
I still worry about the creativity in the middle of the park, but as I keep saying - this is early days and we have to hope things will click - or there may yet be a way back in for Jason Taylor.
Up front, I felt sorry for Harrison yesterday. Practically every ball he got was at chest or head high, or he was expected to perform miracles with his back to goal - not his game as we have seen in previous games.
I couldn't argue with the changes Yates made, he could only really bring on Kotwica, Vincent and young Dale given the way the game was going.
Two of them are 17 and it is not fair at all to blame them in any way for the result. I hope he keeps faith with them.
It was interesting to see Kotwica come on ahead of Vincent, showing how highly he is rated, and, at 3-1 down, there was nothing to lose in giving Dale a run-out.
So that was that - and we hope it was a blip... but was it?
I was sent a text today with our record in league games since the start of 2013. It is eight wins, 10 draws and nine defeats from 27 games.
That is not top-three form. It's not even play-off form. It is distinctly mid-table form.
So what now? Yates needs to think whether a change in system would suit the players he currently has at his disposal better - even if it means going back to the 4-5-1 to stiffen us up a bit.
He needs to look at the full-backs, and work out whether the overall balance of the side is right, especially in midfield, in order to give our forwards the best chance to perform, and he needs to fit the system around the players - and not vice versa.
The players need to look at themselves as well. There seems to be, at times, a fragility in mental strength when we concede the first goals in a game.
It was quite alarming to me how quickly the confidence went out of a few players when we went 2-0 down - there seemed to be a lack of fight from then on in a few cases.
Too often, there was no movement or players demanding the ball. When Argyle's midfield had the ball, they always had an option - but when ours had it, it was all too static, and therefore the tempo slowed down and we had to go backwards.
Some of them went into hiding, and a number of them need to step up. Too many have - on the whole - started the season disappointingly, and they are 'big' players for us, key players who need to get their form back, and fast.
Gornell and Cureton are out, we can't do anything about that, we have to get on with it, and other players should be saying 'this is my chance' but it isn't happening.
It is still August, so this is not the time to panic, but to pretend everything is rosy would be wrong.
There are concerns to address and time to turn things round, but that time is not infinite. Football fans have short memories, and two play-off campaigns, no matter how the club and squad has been turned around, will count for nothing if things do not pick up in the coming weeks.
A couple of three-goal home defeats last season were the signal for an unbeaten home run and we have to hope that lightning will strike twice again.
I still have confidence in the manager and players to forget this result and challenge at the right end of the table. Let's hope they can justify it.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

On the fringe

The hardest time for any footballer is when they are not playing.
All they can do is turn up for training, give it their all and hope to catch the manager's eye, and then get their name back in the side for the following Saturday.
For players, all it is about is being in that starting 11 at 3pm on a Saturday, or 7.45pm on a Tuesday, and if they are not for any period of time, then things can get difficult, and they can become unsettled.
On Tuesday at Seasons, we saw a few of those who have not featured in our manager's 11 thus far - notably Jason Taylor and Billy Jones.
Now, we have had it confirmed that Jones and Taylor have asked Mark Yates if they can go out on loan, news which has provoked a big debate on Twitter.
Some are condemning the players for a lack of loyalty, or the stomach to fight for their place, and others wondering if Yates has damaged morale.
The latter is not the case in my view. This is clearly the players' decision (or their agents).
Of course, we don't know what Yates has said to them, but for now clearly neither is first choice.
Players react to being out of the side in different ways - some really knuckle down and raise their game in training and reserve games to make it almost impossible for the manager to overlook them.
Some go the other way - almost giving up and being happy to take their not inconsiderable pay packet every month knowing that whatever they do they are unlikely to get a game.
Others seek to go out on loan, keen to keep playing, keep their match fitness up, and at the same time keep themselves in the shop window for a possible permanent move.
The latter is the line which Taylor and Jones have taken, and the response from fans seems to have been mainly one of condemnation - 'they weren't any good anyway' or 'babies throwing their toys out of the pram' are two Twitter quotes I have seen.
Some Twitterati have made the very valid point that both players are an injury or a suspension away from being back in the side, and have on that basis understandably given them stick for, seemingly, not wanting to wait around that long.
They have also cited the examples of Sam Deering and Keith Lowe, two players who have equally been on the fringes without (as far as we know anyway) 'rocking the boat' by asking to go on loan.
We know Darryl Duffy did, but his request was denied and it didn't do him much good in the long run, as he didn't earn his place back in the side and spent most of the remainder of the campaign on the bench.
Three games into the season does seem a bit quick to knock on the gaffer's door. But not all sides have their squads fully settled at the moment, and they have more chance of a loan move than they would in, say, November.
It is still the transfer window as well, so that also enhances their chances.
As it stands, they only want to go on loan. Neither have said they don't want to be here full time - just that they want to go and play some proper games for a month or so. Understandable in some ways, as we don't have regular reserve games.
We use loan signings ourselves to keep players fit for other clubs - why shouldn't some of them return the favour, and keep our players fit??
And if they get their wish, then it will be a chance for Joe Hanks, Ed Williams and co to get a look in on the bench.
Taylor, it is true, has found it tough. It is never easy for a player to come to a club in January and settle in straight away (see also Byron Harrison).
Our ex-striker Julian Alsop told me once that it takes at least six months to fully settle into a new club.
On that basis, you would expect to see the best of a player signed in January at the start of the following season, after that settling-in period and a full pre-season - but even then a manger can only pick 11 players, and so far Taylor and Jones have been sidelined.
With the departure of Marlon Pack and Darren Carter this summer, Taylor would have been expecting a big role this season, I am sure.
That has been thwarted by Matt Richards' arrival and a good pre-season from Deering, which pushed him into the forefront.
I was pleased when we signed Taylor as I have always been impressed with him when he has played against us. But he has not hit those heights consistently since he came here - maybe due to the settling-in period I mentioned above.
He has two years left on his contract, and I am sure he is quite high up in the wages pecking order, however, think back to how we got him.
Steve Evans decided he was not in his plans at Rotherham, and it didn't take long for him to pack his bags and move down South to Whaddon.
Taylor does not seem to be the sort of character to sit on the bench and bide his time. For him, it seems to be playing or nothing.
At 26, he should be at the peak of his career, and he clearly feels he cannot waste any time languishing on the bench, and in the reserves.
Billy Jones is four years older, at 30 and was first choice for much of last season, creating goals-a-plenty with his wicked left foot, but not always convincing with his defensive duties.
Jennison Myrie-Williams and Chris Hackett were two of the wingers who really gave him a hard time, and Yates opted to switch Sido Jombati to the left and bring in Keith Lowe.
Then, in the summer Craig Braham-Barrett arrived, and it was a big statement from Yates to throw in a 25-year-old loaned in from a Conference club without any league experience straight into the side ahead of Jones.
He clearly has some doubts about Jones defensively, and with CBB taking his spot, and so far performing adequately, the writing seems to be on the wall.
CBB is only on loan until January, but I would expect that move to become permanent fairly swiftly if CBB carries on playing and improving as he has so far.
Against Torquay on Tuesday, Jones' fine delivery was again evident with corners, free-kicks and whipped-in crosses creating chances for us (which were not taken) but his number one job is to be a defender and he hasn't always done that very well.
So while we are waiting for the next move on Taylor and Jones, we have gone back to 2008 with the very welcome return of our record signing Steve Gillespie.
It is an ironic situation. Like Taylor and Jones, Gillespie clearly wants to go and get some games under his belt, so he is in exactly the same boat, but will not get the same condemnation from our fans - instead a warm welcome back from fans who idolised him for his impact for us back then.
I wonder if the Fleetwood fans are viewing Gillespie in the same light as some of our fans are viewing Taylor and Jones - condemning him for wanting out after three games and not fighting for his place...?
Whether they are or not, we needed a new face with Jamie Cureton and Terry Gornell out, and now we can hope that the Gillespie who comes back here at 28 years old is the same one which left for that £400,000 fee in July 2008.
Like he has done with Steve Elliott, Ian Weston did a fantastic job of keeping Gillespie fit and firing back then - his hamstrings have a history of being decidedly dodgy as does his disciplinary record.
In his four years at Colchester, he started only 46 league games, and came off the bench 52 times, yet still scored 25 goals - testament if it were needed to his continuing eye for a goal - something we are in need of until Jamie and Terry are back at least.
At Fleetwood last season, Gilly started nine times and was a sub 13 times, netting four times - again a decent record.
He hasn't played any games this season - so he may have gone to his manager after three games, and asked for a loan move, and after a stumbling block last Friday (confirmed by CTFC media officer James Brown), he has got his wish, which is great news and I really look forward to seeing one of my favourite players back in CTFC colours again.
Roll on Saturday!!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sunk by the Spireites

Chesterfield away. Or in Cheltenham Town language, the closest you can get to a certain defeat.
Six previous visits, one draw and five defeats and last season we had our pants pulled down in rather embarrassing style... this time it just happened to our skipper here!!!
This time, overall I felt we deserved to lose the game, but only by a single goal - the second deflected goal of the game was a bit flattering and gave us no reward for an improved second-half display.
The build-up to the game was dominated by rumours that Steven Gillespie was coming back on loan, and would be on the bench at the Proact.
I was sent a message to that effect on Friday evening, and then received another from someone else saying the same  - and all the indications were that the deal was done.
But then as I arrived in Chesterfield came a message saying that it wasn't happening. Yatesy was - as to be expected - playing a straight bat Ian Bell would have been proud of post-match and no club officials would confirm or deny that any move had even been close.
So we fielded the same side which started against Crawley on Tuesday night, with one bench change, Ryan Inniss back in after Palace didn't want him involved in the Capital One Cup, replacing Joe Hanks.
But from the off we were finding it tough.
Chesterfield started on the front foot and never retreated from it, with a lot of possession, and good passing and movement.
At times, we were chasing shadows, and fell behind when Gary Roberts' shot was deflected over Scott Brown's dive.
In midfield, Sam Morsy and Jimmy Ryan were dominating Russ Penn and Matt Richards, while on the Chesterfield left, Roberts and Nathan Smith had the freedom of Derbyshire with Sido Jombati and Sam Deering struggling to keep them in check.
But despite that, and with a lot of crosses into our box, we were just about keeping them at arms' length.
Marc Richards had one header wide, and after his slightly fortunate goal, Roberts made a hash of two openings.
Steve Elliott and Troy Brown dealt well enough with the crosses, and despite the paucity of possession and those left-hand-side issues, I felt our shape was adequate and we were working hard to stay in the game.
There wasn't much to feed on for Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell, while Jermaine McGlashan was doing his best to provide an outlet and had a shot over the bar early on.
Harrison had our best chance of an equaliser in the first half when he robbed a defender and lifted the ball over Tommy Lee, but the shot lacked enough power to evade the sliding clearance of Ryan Edwards.
However hard we had worked though, we were second best in the first half - but still very much in the game if we could get into the game.
And we did - Penn and Richards were central to that, both getting more 'in the face' of Morsy and Ryan.
We were also helped by what I felt was a strange substitution by Chesterfield, with Tendayi Darikwa coming on for Nathan Smith.
This moved Richie Humphreys to left-back, but saved us from the marauding Smith, and we kept the threat down to more sporadic attacks and were able to get more possession, and with that a foothold in the game.
Troy Brown had a goal disallowed for offside, and Harrison nearly weaved his way through before Lee blocked his shot, while at the other end Scott Brown had to make a couple of decent saves to keep it at 1-0.
It was much more even after I felt we gave Chesterfield too much respect in the opening half. As well as Penn and Richards, Craig Braham-Barrett got to grips with things defensively and was a threat going forward as Smith had been in the opening 45.
He was unfortunate to get in the way of Eoin Doyle's 90th minute shot to divert it past Scott Brown to give Chesterfield the points and end any hopes we had of pinching something.
But the main blow was the loss of Terry Gornell, who had been excellent in the opening two games.
The good news was that he walked off, the bad news that we might not see him for a few weeks judging by a tweet he sent in response to my enquiry about the injury, where he said he hoped it wasn't too bad but should find out in the next few days, so watch this space.
I can't see him playing a part against Plymouth on Saturday, so that only accentuates the need for forward reinforcements, as we are now left with Harrison and Ashley Vincent.
Vincent came on for Gornell and again didn't look like a central striker to me - and also seemed short of some match fitness, so hopefully Tuesday's friendly with Torquay will provide the chance to get some form and fitness into him.
We do have another attacking option in the club's newest professional - 17-year-old Zack Kotwica, but fresh from signing his two-year deal I cannot see Yatesy throwing him in from the start just yet.
Kotwica came on late in Saturday's game and had a couple of decent runs at an experienced player in Drew Talbot, who got a booking for hauling him down and again Zack didn't look fazed by anything.
I know there is a clamour out there to see Zack from the start, but I remember the same (for want of a better word) hype around Marley Watkins, who was thrown in at a similar age amid similar high hopes.
It didn't work out for Marley, and this is at the back of my mind when it comes to Zack. He clearly has talent and is an exciting prospect, but Yatesy has to get the balance right, and do what is best for his development.
He clearly has faith in him, as we have seen him brought on in all three games, ahead of more experienced players and given him first a squad number and then a two-year contract a year ahead of schedule.
Us fans are excited about him, but we want him to be around for years, not five minutes, so I feel we need to be patient with Yatesy and Zack, and let him bed into the side slowly but surely.
Down the years, and at all levels, we have seen players burst on to the scene at a young age and cause a storm, but then disappear just as quickly.
We don't want that to happen to Zack. He seems like a level-headed lad, and people like Yatesy, Neil Howarth, Russ Milton and Jamie Victory will keep him grounded.
Back to the result, and I had low expectations for this game. Given our record up there and the squad Paul Cook has assembled, a draw would have been a great result.
It was also north of Birmingham, and everyone knows we don't win games when we go past the second city.
This makes it 15 trips up North without a positive result since we won 3-1 at Macclesfield in January 2012. A ridiculous stat, and one I hope we can put an end to at Accrington in a fortnight's time.
We could have pinched it, but the loss of Gornell and a bit of indecisiveness and lack of composure in front of goal when we got a half-chance proved costly.
We need a loan striker, ideally before Saturday, and the Gillespie talk indicates that Mark is trying to bring in someone with a bit of experience and a proven goal threat, which is needed as a stop-gap measure.
I knew this run of games at the start was tough, and there is no panic here, but for everyone's peace of mind we need to get that first league win on the board sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Creeping past Crawley

As far as Cheltenham Town fans are concerned, the League Cup in its various guises is just something that happens to other clubs.
It usually consists of that game, rather inconveniently chucked in after the first league game, usually at bloody Southend, and resulting in a defeat.
Not this time - although for most of the game it did seem that was going to be the way of it once again.
A goal down after chasing shadows for 20 minutes, then 3-1 down with 20 minutes left - it looked like this was going to be another fruitless League Cup campaign, but then, what a comeback!
And it is amazing that - a week after a performance rightly described as 'shocking' at Aggborough by Mark Yates after tonight's game - Byron Harrison was at the fore again.
Before Saturday's game he was a worry. Even more so maybe during and after Saturday's game, when Jamie Cureton's injury thrust him firmly into the limelight as the focal point of our attack.
But now, maybe, some of those worries have gone after a display which saw him win a penalty, then score the two goals which earned a victory which will go down as one of the best in our recent history.
The touch and finish for the winner was sublime - a stark and very welcome contrast from the frankly disinterested figure we saw ambling around Aggborough last week.
Credit for Mark and Neil Howarth - clearly someone has been in his ear after that game - and credit to Byron for listening to the management and acting on what they have said.
Now the test - more of the same, and consistently. That is always the difficult part, but after a sticky start last night, Byron bullied their centre-halves and got his rewards.
Centre-forwards are always enigmas. They are marmite men - think Spencer, Connor and Guinan from our recent past, players who have worn that number nine and not always realised their full potential.
Only Byron (with a bit of help from us fans) can make sure that he doesn't fall into that category.
It was a shame that only 1,562 were there to see it - but I am sure that number will rise to about 10,000 in future years when CTFC fans sit in the pubs and bars of the town and talk about this - a real 'I was there' kind of night.
When Byron headed that equaliser and then hit the winner, it sounded like there were 10,000 in the ground (yes, I know it only holds 7,000 but you get the drift...) as the noise and atmosphere was fantastic. It was great to hear the place rocking.
Make no mistake - Crawley are a decent side. Some of their passing was crisp and accurate, their movement off the ball was sharp, and Nicky Adams took his two goals (especially the second) superbly well.
But our lads had spirit, character, desire, heart and commitment in spades, and displays like this augur well for the season ahead.
That was led from the front by Byron, but also typified by our midfield terriers Russ Penn and Matt Richards, who overcame Crawley's good start to stamp their authority on the game.
They are becoming a very strong partnership, with Penn's tenacity and Richards' comfort on the ball and range of passing complementing each other very well.
Alongside them, Sam Deering had another good game, his pass finding Harrison for the penalty challenge, a good cross providing Terry Gornell with a headed chance and then his corner for Harrison's equaliser rounding off a good night for him.
I also thought Jermaine McGlashan played well - more so when he moved over to the left where, once again, he and Craig Braham-Barrett showed very promising signs of an effective and hopefully productive partnership down that flank.
I have covered Harrison's performance extensively, and but for his goals, my man of the match would have been Terry Gornell.
He is not a player who has ever stood out in games when he played against us, despite a goal or two, but over the past two games he has impressed me immensely.
On Saturday, he linked the play well, and did the same last night with the added ingredient of being a real goal threat - the header he had saved straight after Crawley's opener, a couple of long-range efforts and the rebound after Penn hit the bar being close calls in addition to his goal.
His goal summed him up. He battled for a lost cause against Kyle McFadzean, won the ball, broke away and when the goalkeeper saved his first shot, he did not panic, stayed calm and slid home the rebound.
Much deserved, and I am sure a big relief to him to get his first CTFC goal on the board - and on the evidence of his first proper 210 minutes in our colours, there are more to come.
Despite their performances, I still think we are an out-and-out striker light. Ashley Vincent is not, and never will be, a central striker, and I still hope Yatesy will get a loan. Doesn't seem like he is a busting a gut to do so, however.
But (and yes, there has to be one of those) while it was fantastic to win the game, there are concerns defensively.
Troy Brown and Steve Elliott were again superb and very commanding in the air, but as a unit, after letting in two goals on Saturday, another three went in last night.
Some may feel I am nit-picking, but after so many clean sheets last season, our new-look back four is still bedding in.
CBB allowed the full back to get down the line a bit too easily for their opener, and then when he dug the cross out, Gary Alexander was not tracked and was able to dive in for the header.
For the second goal, we had chances to clear before Nicky Adams drilled his snapshot in, and for the third, Crawley were allowed to play a triangle on the edge of our box and Adams waltzed in to score.
Behind them, Scott Brown didn't have a chance with any of them, but did make two fantastic saves from Josh Simpson when he was called upon, maintaining his brilliance from last season.
In front of him, we have to tighten up. Yes, I know Crawley play a division higher, and we may not face the same quality every week, but we cannot afford to give two or three goals away every game.
A season of 4-3s might bring the crowds back, I am not sure mine or Mark Yates' blood pressure would survive it!
CBB is a left-footed Sido, and both will have their moments of brilliance, but both will no doubt give us the jitters as well.
Yatesy has decided for now that CBB is the man in possession and Billy Jones must wait for his chance to get back into the side, and that sort of competition can only be healthy.
On the evidence of the first two games, going forward CBB will be an asset but he looks a bit raw defensively and still needs work in that department.
Our new faces have settled in well, and made a big impact on the team - CBB, Troy Brown, Richards, Gornell and Cureton (in the 18 minutes he has played!). We are waiting for Ashley Vincent to join them, but he is a bit behind fitness-wise and will need time to get up to speed.
He got a few minutes last night and struggled to get into the game, but he will play his part.
Young Zack Kotwica was trusted again by Yatesy for the last 15 minutes or so and nearly got himself into a goalscoring position again.
Such promise, but that's all it is - let's hope he signs that contract and realises that potential with us.
But while we wait for that to happen, we can look forward to Thursday lunchtime's draw.
We could play any Premier League club not in Europe - so Liverpool, Villa, West Brom and West Ham could be on the agenda.
At just after 9pm last night, when Crawley's third goal went in, you'd have got good odds on us being in the draw - now let's hope it is kind.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Off and running

So there we go then, one down and 45 to go - and it certainly cannot be described as a boring start.
A (hopefully not too bad) injury, a penalty that was not given and one that wasn't that was (hope you are keeping up), some good debuts from our new boys, but, ultimately, two points dropped.
The team Yatesy picked didn't differ from the one which was expected - the 10 lads who were rested at Kidderminster on Tuesday plus Jermaine McGlashan, who had played an hour.
After a scare inside the first 20 seconds - I am still trying to work out how Alex McDonald missed, and also imagining the internet hell Jamie Cureton or Terry Gornell would be getting if the chance had fallen to them - we dominated the first half.
Matt Richards and Russ Penn were scrapping away to good effect in midfield, Gornell was linking the play superbly just behind Cureton, and we were getting joy down the left with McGlashan and Braham-Barrett's pace and overlaps causing problems.
It seemed inevitable that a goal would come, as the young Burton keeper Jordan Pickford, on his debut, looked extremely jittery.
The goal did come, partly thanks to those jitters as he made a right Horlicks of a long Scott Brown punt which nearly sailed over his head, but he clawed it back for Cureton to tap in.
Instant dividend for the poacher extraordinaire, but also the end of his afternoon, and the last we will see of him for about a month at least as he dislocated his shoulder.
But there was a silver lining. Enter Byron Harrison, much-maligned in pre-season (deservedly so in some cases), in dire need of a confidence boost. Here you go Byron, this is your chance, it's over to you.
I don't think I have ever wanted a CTFC player to score more than I did when Byron came on. I was willing him to get on the end of something, to answer his critics in the best way possible.
And so he did. He was there, in the right place at the right time, when McGlashan's shot rebounded to him.
Now Byron... head down... get a good contact... and in it went. Fantastic.
So 2-0 up and cruising. It could have been more. Gornell had two shots well saved by Pickford, then there was the moment when he went down in the box.
He was through. Would definitely have tested the keeper, but down he went. Penalty, surely. Nope... yellow card for diving!
It is the old question. Why would the forward go down in that situation, when he could score his first goal on his debut for his new club?
From my view, it looked like he was caught. The referee was behind it, on the edge of the box, and I can only think he didn't give it because of the 'way' Gornell fell over.
He did seem to stumble on his way down, but if you are tripped, you are tipped and it is a penalty, end of story.
It is a debate which will rage on and on, but no doubt that decision and the one in the other box on the stroke of half-time cost us. From 3-0 up and cruising, to 2-1 up and hanging on.
The other decision re-opens one of those great footballing cans of worms - the deliberate handball.
In recent years, the lines on this offence have become so blurred it is ridiculous. Some of the so-called handballs that are penalised can in no way be described as deliberate.
The Derby-Blackburn game on Sunday saw a player jump for a cross in front of a striker and nudge the ball away. Penalty, clear as day.
Saturday's one saw a cross flicked on into Russ Penn's hand from close range, with him having little or no opportunity to get it out of the way.
He didn't move his hand towards the ball deliberately - it was there, by his side, and the ball hit it. The referee was a good distance away, and didn't think about it, he just gave it.
Our lads didn't complain vehemently, not that it would have done any good either, and Billy Kee put the penalty away, and immediately changed the complexion of the game.
It definitely affected us, as we were a bit flat for the majority of the second half.
We stopped using the left-hand side, where CBB and McGlashan had a lot of joy in the first half, and instead tried to make inroads down the more clogged-up right, where we didn't have any natural width.
Sido Jombati and Sam Deering tried their best to provide it, but we had lost our grip on the game.
In midfield, Rory Delap came more to the fore and Burton looked dangerous on the break, as they changed to a 4-5-1 which caused us a few problems.
Set-pieces too were a an issue, with the Delap throws, some corners and free-kicks not always being defended well by us.
The equaliser came from a corner, as Delap used his nous to make an intelligent run and sidefoot into the net. Clever by him yes, but not great defending by us. No one seemed to track the run.
We had chances to win, with Deering hitting the bar, Harrison having a shot blocked and another effort saved, while CBB got the byline and pulled a cross back which evaded everyone.
But we didn't really stretch the young keeper in the second half, and while Scott Brown wasn't really tested either, of the two sides if I had to name a more likely winner from 2-2 onwards, it would not have been us.
Gary Rowett deserves credit for changing the formation, and stifling us effectively. But we have to find a way of overcoming things like that, a different way to play.
We have to get a bit mentally stronger and stop feeling sorry for ourselves if we concede a goal or decisions go against us.
Too often we have seen this trait - a bright start, get in front, then lose a goal in some fashion or other, and back into the shells we go, instead of staying on that front foot and carrying on what we had been doing.
There is the argument that Mark left the changes too late, in bringing on Ashley Vincent and the teenager Zack Kotwica, but it is a difficult balance.
Changes can be of benefit with fresh legs and impetus, but they can also disrupt the side as it takes time for players to bed in.
But looking at the bench on Saturday, it did not have the strength in depth and options that were there last season - no Carter, Harrad or Duffy to call on with their experience to change the game.
With Harrison on early, instead, it was two defenders (Lowe and Inniss), a defensive midfielder (Taylor) and the ones who came on, Vincent and Kotwica, who, with the game in the situation it was, were the only options.
Kotwica had a chance, and it was shame he couldn't keep it down, but that is the impetuosity of youth - he rather snatched at it and the chance was lost. But he will learn.
All in all, it was frustrating. There were plusses - CBB, Richards, Gornell and Troy Brown all had good debuts, Jamie got a goal, Byron got the lift he needed, and we saw young Zack for the first time.
But the bottom line is that we lost that lead, and ultimately the chance to get off to a flyer, and that's costly even at this ridiculously early stage as our starting games are, on paper, very tricky ones.
By the end of September, we play Burton, Chesterfield, Plymouth, Bury, Portsmouth and Oxford - all sides who have been mentioned as promotion candidates, so a good start is important.
While a draw is not a disaster, from 2-0 up we should have won the game, but a combination of the refereeing decisions, good tactical decisions by Burton and our inability to combat them ensured we didn't.
It is disappointing, therefore, to see comments flying around about a perceived use of 'hoofball' in the second half.
For some CTFC fans, this term seems to be a generic one, meaning 'we didn't win, and we struggled to break the opposition down, so we will say that we started playing a long ball game'. It always pops up after any defeat, or a draw at home like Saturday.
I didn't see much, if any, evidence of any 'long balls' on Saturday. This mythical 'hoofball' must seemingly apply to any pass which is more than a foot off the ground.
It seems that as soon as anyone tries to play a pass down the line, into a channel, or diagonally into a striker looking for a flick-on, hold-up or knockdown, this is immediately classed as us 'playing hoofball'.
Other clubs do it - the ball through from Burton to McDonald for his first minute chance was a 50-yard pass flicked on - so is that hoofball? Probably not, as we didn't do it...
But anyway... I felt the positives outweighed the negatives, and a draw with Burton at home, however much the circumstances may rankle now, will prove to be a decent result later on down the line.