Sunday, 23 February 2014

Newport state of mind is good!

"We are going to get hammered"
"I am going for a 4-0 defeat"
"Can't see us scoring, a thrashing is on the cards"
Just three of the pessismistic tweets and Facebook posts I saw ahead of yesterday's game at Rodney Parade - even the old guy we spoke to after parking the car told us to expect a stuffing.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find him later on to get his post-match views on the result, but suffice to say I think the outcome was a pleasant surprise for all of us with a ruby persuasion.
I must confess when I saw the team sheet, even my eternal optimism took a knock - a debut for Mitch Brundle alongside another relatively inexperienced player in Michael Ihiekwe, the selection of Sam Deering and Matt Richards as a holding pair which didn't fill me with confidence either, and the emergence of Ashley Vincent from the ice box after injury and 40 minutes in training on Friday.
It almost seemed to smack of a bit of desperation - but with David Noble and Troy Brown out, I'm not sure Mark Yates really had much choice, given that the players left on the bench, Jason Taylor, Lee Lucas, Jamie Cureton and Sido Jombati, didn't tear up any trees in our last outings, and none of them can really argue that they deserved a place.
The selection also brings Sido's long-term future into sharp focus. Ihiekwe has played recently at right-back, now Yates picked a teenager with no league experience to play there, out of position, ahead of Sido.
His contract is up, so are we seeing the possible death throes in the Cheltenham career of a terrace cult hero (although would he be that if his name was Sid Jones, and he came from Ledbury rather than Lisbon?)
Only time will tell, but more displays like we saw from Brundle yesterday and Sido will not get his place back in a hurry, and won't get the chance to show he deserves a new contract.
Newport's 3-5-2 system has proved awkward for many sides this season. Not many sides at our level play that way and it has been largely effective as their league position suggests.
But like us, their form has stunted of late, apart from the 3-2 home win over Oxford last Tuesday, which was their first win in seven, but the opening 15 minutes looked ominous.
They were attacking down the flanks, hitting our perceived weaknesses in debutant Brundle and Craig Braham-Barrett, but the crosses were eaten up by Ihiekwe and Steve Elliott. In all, they would put in 33 crosses, and our centre-halves must have won 90 per cent of them.
Brundle was not fazed by Andy Sandell's forays, likewise CBB by Robbie Wilmott, while Chris Zebroski and Rene Howe got no change from our centre-backs.
Zebroski was quite lively, but Howe was not. I don't want to hear any of our fans calling for us to sign him again!!
In midfield, Deering and Richards gradually warmed to their task despite occasionally having to drop deeper to help out the back four, while further forward the pace of Vincent and Jermaine McGlashan eventually had a telling effect.
McGlashan, whose crossing (or the lack of it) has been a long-held bugbear of mine and many others, had already out one great ball in which nearly found Terry Gornell, was at least five yards behind Andy Hughes when Matt Richards played a ball down the right-hand channel.
By the time he reached the pass, McGlashan was two or three yards ahead, and sent a ball into Vincent's path and it went in off some part of his anatomy.
The finish won't win any awards for prettiness, but it was priceless. We had weathered the storm, and scored the perfect counter-attack goal, ended our scoring drought and given ourselves something to protect.
And protect it we did, and more easily than I thought we would.
I expected the Alamo. We got crosses, they had territory but our defensive shape and organisation was superb.
We didn't drop deeper than the 18-yard line and compressed the space well, asking them to come through the middle, which they couldn't, or get round behind us, which they couldn't.
Scott Brown had no serious saves to make in the game, testament to the back four in front of him, and the industry of the two holding midfielders in front of them, plus the outlets we had in the perpetual motion of Gornell, McGlashan, who worked hard defensively as ever, the busy Vincent for an hour, then his replacement Sido and Byron Harrison, who ploughed a lone furrow and ran his heart out while harassing their back three all game.
We might had ridden our luck at times with balls flashing across our box and being desperately cleared anywhere at times, but that matters little. When Sam Deering is winning headers on the edge of your penalty area, you know it's going to be your day.
We might not have seriously threatened a second goal, bar the odd breakaway, but even as things got more and more desperate for Newport, we didn't buckle.
Our boys were mentally strong, put bodies on the line, and showed spirit and determination in spades. It was a welcome sight as that is something we haven't done enough this season.
We have folded too often like a pack of cards under the sort of pressure we came under here, but not this time.
Playing for the manager? Definitely. Playing for the shirt? No doubt about it. It is too easy to accuse players of not trying or not caring when they lose a game as limply as we did at Bristol Rovers last time out, so equally we need to give them credit this time round.
This group of players have had a lot of brickbats and negativity thrown at them this season (mostly deservedly) - so they deserve plaudits after this display.
What also pleased me was our 'game management'. We slowed things down, drew Newport into giving away niggly fouls, and frustrated them and their fans more and more as the game went on.
We were a bit clever - something other teams do to us all the time but an area in which we are often naive, but not this time.
Newport got more and more wound up. That was typified by Ryan Burge, another player we have tried to sign twice, but who was lucky to stay on the pitch after first leaving a foot in a late (or maybe even stamping) on Brundle, and having been booked for that then ploughed through Deering seconds later.
After seven without a win, and with confidence fragile in the dressing room and ebbing away rapidly on the terraces, this was a valuable three points.
Put it into perspective - that was the first League game this season in which Newport have failed to score. A top achievement for a back four which has never played together and, Elliott aside, had very little experience.
A check of the results which revealed wins for Bury, Wycombe, Accrington, Mansfield and Northampton, added to Bristol Rovers' victory on Friday, made it an even more important three points.
Defeat would have left us 20th, but as it is we are 15th and right in the middle of a clutch of clubs seperated by eight points from Newport in 8th to Wycombe in 22nd.
It is ridiculously tight. Above Newport is a seven-point gap to the play-off spots, and below Wycombe a five-point advantage over the bottom two, so we could still (realistically) finish anywhere between 8th and 24th.
There will be annoyance over missed opportunities in the games where we have thrown away leads to draw or lose - but we can't do anything about that now.
All we can do it try to play like we did yesterday for the majority of the remaining 15 games and it will be a lot nearer to 8th, but now we need to sort this home form out for the two games coming up with Chesterfield and Bury.
We have taken 17 points at home this season - about half as many as we had at this stage last season (33). Away, we have taken 22, two more than at a comparable stage 12 months ago.
Chesterfield will be tough, as will the trip to Oxford, but we have Bury, Torquay and Wycombe at home, alongside trips to Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon in the next month - all massive games against teams below us, and four of them in the bottom five.
I would go as far as to say those five games will decide which way we are heading so I'm not under any illusions that one win gets us out of the woods.
But yesterday has given me hope (once again) that we can move back in the right direction. Let's hope it's not a false dawn again.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Return of the ramblings!

Firstly, an apology for the lack of activity on this blog lately. My laptop broke, Christmas happened, then I moved house and Sky took eons to finally get round to setting up my broadband.
I know. More excuses than Mark Yates after a defeat.
It has nothing to do with our form or the general apathy which seems to have descended across the Theatre of Shattered Dreams in the last few months. Honest guv.
Anyway, since my last blog at the end of November, nothing much has changed really, has it?
We still can't win at home, people still want the manager sacked, many are still reminiscing about players who left two years ago and we've had a drop of rain.
I can understand the apathy and grumbles to a certain extent. We have been spoilt with two decent seasons, FA Cup glamour games, a Wembley trip and some decent football to watch.
But this season, we have had none of the above.
Home games have been difficult to watch, and when the vast majority of your fanbase only watches home games, then that is all they have to judge the team on, and if some of the games are as much fun as a three-hour trip to B&Q then it's not surprising the natives get restless.
The Captial One game with Crawley, JPT game with Plymouth and the games with Oxford and Portsmouth are just about it when it comes to games I can remember being anywhere near decent this season.
There were patches in other games - first halves against Burton and Hartlepool, second half against Morecambe and Jamie Cureton's winner against Wimbledon, but otherwise not a lot.
Away from home, we have been better, in most cases showing good resilience and commitment, but three league wins in 15 home games is not going to get a team anywhere.
At the moment, it is getting us to 15th place, and has more of us looking over at shoulders at what is behind us, than upwards at where we hoped we would be.
But while I can understand the frustration and annoyance of some, I do feel some of the reaction has been over the top.
I have seen this season labelled a 'disaster'. A bit strong. Ask Northampton about their season. I would say that is the definition of a disaster -play off final to bottom of the table via a change of manager and huge player turnover. Ordinary yes, a disaster? Not for me.
The season has also been labelled 'the worst in living memory'. Come on. That's just being silly. Martin Allen anyone? Going further back, Ally Robertson? This is mild, believe me!
However, I come at this from a slightly different perspective. I spent 20-odd years dreaming of CTFC reaching the Football League, watching plenty of terrible defeats along the way, and never thinking it would ever happen.
In my 20s, Cheltenham reaching the final qualifying round of the FA Cup and having 1,000 people in the ground was a huge success. When you can remember a 4-1 defeat at Sutton Coldfield Town, a draw at Plymouth Argyle or a home defeat by Mansfield Town doesn't become the worst result in the world.
Fans in their 20s now have only seen seasons with either a promotion fight or a relegation battle, chances of games at Wembley or the Mill Stad and some decent Cup runs. A run-of-the-mill mid-table season is not in their script.
That doesn't mean I want to see the team and club go forward, of course I do. But I do feel people need to get a bit of perspective sometimes, and remember where we have come from. Non-league is not a dirty word. The club was not founded in 1999.
We have to acknowledge where we have come from, and make sure we don't go back there again - too many people have worked too hard for it all to be thrown away.
I also saw a comment on Facebook that someone would be happy to see us go back to the Conference. Great. Let's give up now then shall we? I would suspect that the person who wrote that wouldn't be there to see it if it did happen.
It's no surprise that the crowds are falling after those home performances, and by the ridiculously high prices for football (not just at CTFC but across the whole of the game), and I have seen people saying they are not coming again as the club isn't going anywhere and shows no ambition.
But that is a vicious circle. Fans turn their backs on the club, and the progress is stunted as less money comes in, the budget is cut, and the chance of bringing in better players diminshes.
Paul Baker and co don't have bottomless pockets and cannot just subsidise everyone's entertainment for ever, and if crowds keep going down, the club will struggle and eventually we will be relegated.
But no one can hold a gun to fans' heads and force them to part with their money and come through the turnstiles. It is an eternal question which doesn't seem to have a solution.
No ambition. A constant barb thrown at the board and the club, which I think is unfair.
15 years in the Football League where many others who have won the Conference before and since have gone by the wayside, and others who have dropped out have struggled to come back shows in my view how well the board have looked after the club.
Three sides of the ground transformed from the decrepit mess it had become in the late 90s, and a club run along family lines controlled prudently by a board who actually care about it rather than using it as a cash cow or as something to asset strip is a good thing I feel.
Take a look around.
Scarborough, Rushden, Halifax, Chester, Stockport. Clubs who have all gone bust and re-formed or struggled financially since dropping out of the league, unable to maintain the momentum.
Cambridge, Wrexham, Grimsby, Luton, Aldershot. All down in the Conference, and none finding it easy to find a way back, and again beset by ground woes, boardroom battles or financial problems
Mansfield, Torquay, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Exeter all went down, re-grouped and eventually found a way back.
Successes like Yeovil and to a slightly lesser extent Wycombe, are few. There have been those helped by money like Crawley and Stevenage, but I don't want us to go the way of those clubs I listed first, or struggle like my second list.
Fans bemoaning our perceived lack of ambition look at Yeovil. They were always a big fish in non-League, probably the biggest of all. We were not. They always had huge crowds, we did not.
Look at the other big non-League fish before promotion came in - among them Enfield, Altrincham, Runcorn, Telford United, Wealdstone, Maidstone, Worcester City, Nuneaton Borough. Only Maidstone went into the League, lasted a season and went bust. The others have got nowhere near, and some have also gone bust, reformed and now play at a lower level. Only Nuneaton are in the Conference Premier.
Speculate to accumulate. That is another favourite phrase of the 'no ambition' shouters. But what that really means is spend money you do not have.
We tried that, and nearly went into adminstration. Most of the clubs I have listed above also tried it, and it got them precisely nowhere. It doesn't work.
However, all across the world of football these days there is an aura of short-termism, which I am not totally comfortable with.
A few poor results, and the season tickets are being lobbed on to the pitch, the forums are in overdrive, the radio phone-ins are jammed and fans turn their backs on clubs.
I saw a tweet from a Northampton fan after Chris Wilder had been in charge for two games, which said he 'had not made any difference, the results were still the same'. That was after they drew with us and lost at home to Plymouth. No patience whatsoever. Two games!!!
It is all about success right here, right now. Draws? Pah. Not good enough. Defeats? unthinkable. It has to be win, win, win, and they can't be scruffy 1-0s either. They have to done with style or the knives come out.
I call it the Sky factor. The top games are hyped up to such an extent it is ridiculous, and I laugh at the tweets during a big Premier League TV game labelling it as 'boring' or 'dull' if it doesn't finish 3-3 or if there are no goals by about the 20th minute.
I see that mentality permeating down to our level to an extent - I think some turn up to games expecting, nay demanding, a victory and a goal-fest or to see us play like Barcelona. It's never going to happen, so why expect it? But some do expect it, and turn their backs when they are disappointed.
Football is an entertainment industry, but the bottom line is, and always will be, the results, and this season they have not been good enough.
A lot of players have not performed to the reputation they arrived with, the manager has made mistakes in his recruitment of players and his tactics, and that combination has seen the season fail to gain any momentum.
We just have to hope we can scrape enough points together and then re-group in the summer.
Many of this unloved group of players won't be here, but some of the more unloved among them, Jason Taylor, Byron Harrison, Matt Richards to name but three, will be.
Terry Gornell, Zack Kotwica and Troy Brown also have contracts for another season, Craig Braham-Barrett might, and of the rest only Scott Brown, Sido Jombati and Jermaine McGlashan might get the chance of another.
So it will be a re-build job, and I think we got a clue of how that might be done with the announcement of a development under-21 side next season - which I am very pleased about.
Zack has had a few chances, but Joe Hanks and Ed Williams have not - yet must have some potential to have been given a deal, and after years spent investing time into their development, to cast them aside without seeing if there is a nugget there seems wasteful to me.
Add them to the crop of second-year scholars (players like Harry Williams, Bobbie Dale, Spencer Hamilton, Elliott Keightley. Adam Powell and Harvey Rivers) who seem to be the best prospects we have had for a long time, then the move makes sense and will bridge the gap to the first team, and finally we might see a conveyor belt of talent coming through as clubs at our level need.
It might also stop our extensive use of loans, which have been productive in previous seasons with the likes of Jack Butland, Luke Garbutt and Michael Hector, but have not had the same impact this time round.
My theory on that one goes back to the FA Cup defeat at Tamworth, which is the pivotal result of our season.
That game killed our campaign stone dead as it ended any hopes of extra finance, and also led to the contentious exits of Keith Lowe and Russ Penn in order to find those funds to shake the squad up.
It is my hope that now this under-21 side is being put in place, we will try out our own youngsters and see what they can do, rather than help out other clubs by being a nursery for their kids.
That might happen later this season if we can cobble a few wins together in the next few weeks and just give ourselves a bit more breathing space, but I wouldn't be throwing the likes of Zack in just yet.
All in all, much to ponder in the coming weeks, and months until April, when, hopefully, we can build for another Football League campaign.
Maybe it is all the ruby's fault. Ah well, the red and white stripes are back next year, so watch us fly!