Sunday, 28 September 2014

All we are saying is...

Another day, another blank - and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out why things have gone slightly awry in recent weeks.
Since that heady day at Tranmere on August 27, two goals in six games or 540 minutes or nine hours of football, coming in the 87th and 90th minutes, both from substitutes - and not including stoppage time.
And it is not for the want of chances - look at Morecambe and Luton, where their goalkeepers were man of the match, look at Dagenham, again the goalkeeper made good saves and the bar was hit twice.
Once again, yesterday on our second-half performance, we could have nicked something.
That we didn't was down to one thing - killer instinct in the final third. That real desire to want to get in there and make something happen. We didn't have that.
Yes, we huffed and puffed, put balls in the box, and caused a bit of panic for Burton and their supporters, who were delighted to hang on for a 1-0.
But did we really look like scoring a goal? No, not really.
As usual, the ball bobbled about in the box a lot, and wouldn't quite fall right for us, or a Burton boot or head got there first and was happy to whack it anywhere.
However, that is where you need that desire. That desire to put your body on the line, go in where it hurts, yes, you might injure yourself but you might also get that goal to get a point or a win for your team.
I'm afraid none of our players were willing to do that at times. That was typified when Steve Elliott had a late header blocked. The ball bounced out and for a split second there was a chance for someone to get in for the rebound.
Nobody did. Nobody in red and white reacted and once again a Burton size 9 hammered the ball away. Oh for a Neil Grayson and his weekly bang on the head.
As the manager said afterwards, we needed someone to take the bull by the horns and make something happen in there - to risk that injury, put their body on the line for the team.
They have done it in other areas of the field this season, so why are we not seeing it in that most vital of places - that place where games can be won and lost - the opposition's penalty area.
We were behind to Stuart Beavon's fine finish, and deservedly so, after a first half 'performance' which was comfortably the worst 45 minutes we have put in all season and the first time we have seen echoes of last season.
The 3-5-2 was back - but Burton got straight on the front foot. They were direct, and physical, two things which we could just not cope with at all.
They played diagonal balls to the flanks, and our lack of physicality all over the field was evident, especially in midfield, where Paul Black, Matt Richards and Joe Hanks were swamped, and up front, where Byron Harrison and John Marquis gave no resistance to Burton's strong centre-backs.
Lucas Akins out wide was having a field day, although kudos to Craig Braham-Barrett for sticking at the task, and the movement of Beavon and Adam McGurk was just too slick and clever for our midfield and was just about coped with by our back three.
They, along with Trevor Carson, were the reason why we were still in the game at half-time, thanks to saves, interceptions, tackles and timely blocks. If we had gone in three or four down we could not have complained. In some areas, we had simply not turned up.
But one pleasing aspect of this season has been the manager's willingness to make tweaks and changes earlier.
In the past, we have been left frustrated when a system which many of us can see is not working, or where certain players look uncomfortable has been left, often until it is an unretrievable situation, but this season that has largely not been the case.
For all the virtues of the 3-5-2 system, and how much it has made us a more solid side, it is noticeable that more often than not, Yates and North have had to change it to either get a win in a tight game, or chase a game or try, as yesterday, to unsuccessfully retrieve a losing position.
The formation has made us solid, yes, but a bit toothless at times. Tranmere was the most stark example of that, and again yesterday, 3-5-2 by the end of the game had become 3-4-3 and it nearly paid off.
Black was the fall guy this time, and rightly so I'm afraid. He looks a good footballer, but in no way shape or form is he a midfield player. He looked totally lost in that first half and I hope for his sake that we don't see him in that role again.
Not his fault - he was asked to play the role but it simply didn't work, and it wasn't really a surprise to see him come off, with Terry Gornell coming on.
He brought his usual qualities - work-rate being top of that list and his energy seemed to spark everyone else back into life a bit, and the second half was much improved. It wasn't difficult to make an improvement from the opening 45, but even so, it was good to see us give it a go.
Richards more than anyone typified the change in our performance. At half-time, he was heading for a four or five out of 10 - if that. He gave the ball away several times, and copped some stick from me for his 'effort' to tackle Alex McDonald as he set up another wave of Burton attacks.
But in the second half he was probably our best player, and did as much as anyone to prompt our second-half 'recovery' even if he couldn't help to get us a point.
He and Hanks looked much better in a two-man midfield, and Hanks had our best chances of the game, prompting saves from Jon McLaughlin in both halves.
We were crying out for Jason Taylor, especially in the first 45, and that makes his stupid red card even more annoying. With him and Asa Hall coming back soon (maybe he will play some of the game in the reserves on Tuesday?) we should have real midfield competition.
There is still talk of Jordan Wynter coming back - but with Richards, Taylor, Hanks and Hall, I am not sure we need him - and, let's face it, other parts of the team have a greater priority.
But we can't keep on relying on loan signings to bale us out. Sooner or later, the players we have here need to live up to that responsibility.
Harrison, insipid in the first half, was the same as everyone else, better in the second - but once again did not have a clear-cut, goalscoring opportunity. Ditto Marquis, whose overall display was the most disappointing of his spell with us.
The closest Harrison came was when Lee Vaughan put a great ball across and Harrison and Gornell both slid in but, typifying our 'nearly' performance, failed to get there by inches for the final touch.
Harrison is the one who, more than anyone, has had the bulk of the criticism.
I have seen fans saying he isn't interested or committed but I think that is unfair. I don't doubt his effort, but he needs to do more where it counts. He needs to compete better against centre-halves, and start busting a gut to get into goalscoring positions.
The chances are being created. I don't think he or Marquis can complain about lack of service as we have created plenty of opportunities this season. They are paid to get on the end of them and just need to start doing it.
We had all the play in the second half. Carson was a spectator, and the Burton fans around our commentary position in the second half were very anxious and started getting on their team's back - they were relieved with a 1-0 by the end.
Next up is Harrison's old club Wimbledon, and that should be the inspiration for him to start producing the form we saw at times last season.
But the manager will have a dilemma. Troy Brown is suspended after his fifth yellow card of the season, so will we stay with a 3-5-2 and bring Jack Deaman in for a league debut, or does he change it to a flat back four?
I'd be happier with a back three against Matt Tubbs and our friend Mr Akinfenwa, who will be after his customary goal against us.
But Yates has to think that we are at home, and need to be on the front foot and make the running, so he might opt for a more attacking formation.
We saw Raffaele de Vita for 10 minutes, and he looked fairly lively, setting up a chance for Hanks and forcing a good save himself right at the death.
He will get 90 minutes in the reserves on Tuesday and might be ready for a longer run-out next weekend - but I am not convinced he can fit into a 3-5-2, so a change to a 4-4-2, or 4-3-3 would suit him much better.
Despite our toothless September in front of goal, I don't think there is any doubt we are a better side overall that last season.
We just need someone to step up to the plate and want to score some goals. They are capable of it, but now it is time to deliver. Enough is enough.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Groundhog Day

"We are not putting away the chances we are making, and we are making chances, plenty of them."
The above is a comment from a Cheltenham Town manager - it could have been Mark Yates after many of our recent games, but it isn't.
This is an extract from the programme notes of Allan Grundy, taken from the programme of the first CTFC game I saw, a 3-2 FA Cup win over Forest Green Rovers on September 13, 1980.
At that time, we were bottom of the Southern League Premier Division table - we have moved on a bit since then, but the disease of not taking the chances when they come along is a recurring one it seems.
Once again, on Saturday against Dagenham and Redbridge, we had chances, didn't take them, and paid the price for it by only taking a point from the game.
John Marquis was denied by two great saves from the goalkeeper as we started the game superbly and finished it well - but lost our way in the middle.
Team-wise, we had Lee Vaughan back, so Jordan Wynter went back into midfield, where he is most at home after some awkward moments in recent games.
It turned out to be his last game for us - for the moment at least as I suspect he might well be back in the not too distant future. If he does come back, I hope he stays in midfield as he can do a job there.
But if he doesn't then fine - as we will have Jason Taylor and Asa Hall back from suspension and injury in the next couple of weeks, and it will also keep Joe Hanks involved.
Hanks was left on the bench, with what seemed a curious decision to use Paul Black in midfield for his first start on the left side of a three with Omari Sterling-James and Wynter alongside him and Matt Richards sitting, in the Taylor role.
When I saw Black in the side and no Steve Elliott, I thought we might be keeping the 3-5-2 with Black on the left of the back three, where he looked good for 45 minutes against Oxford and a role has played in the reserve side.
But no. Black is a decent player, no doubt about that, but I thought he looked a bit lost in there. I couldn't understand why he was there.
I am also not convinced about OSJ as a central midfield player. My main reservation on that front is his physicality, and I thought he struggled to impose himself on the Dagenham midfield trio of Labadie, Howell and Ogogo, who are a decent unit, and struggled to affect the game.
We did, however start well. We were moving the ball quickly, getting it wide, and creating chances, but as seems to be the pattern at the moment we can't take them.
But it tailed off as Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett were pegged back and we started to lose the second balls in midfield - and Byron Harrison's link-up with Marquis deteriorated.
They started well, but as the game wore on, Marquis was ploughing a lone furrow as Harrison turned in what became one of his more insipid performances.
While Marquis was busting a gut to give the centre-halves a tough time, and ended the game flat on his back in exhaustion, Harrison was, I'm afraid, once again a shadow of the player we know he can be.
That is the frustration. How many times do we have to say that Byron has the potential to be one of the best strikers at this level - but on this showing any scouts looking at him would have left long before the end crossing his name off their lists.
This has, I'm afraid, been the norm for most of the season. He was excellent in the comeback at Tranmere and apparently made a difference after coming on at Luton, but has not looked like adding to his one-yard tap in against Accrington - his only goal this season.
We need more from him. Marquis cannot do it all himself, but had to on Saturday, and with Terry Gornell looking so bereft of confidence it's not a surprise that Yates wants to use the loan market to pep up his attack.
That should be a wake-up call to Byron, as should the dropping at Luton, and the early hook on Saturday to be replaced by the non-scoring but harder working Gornell.
Maybe the arrival of Raffaele de Vita on a three-month deal will also be a hefty nudge for him, as although he is listed as a midfielder, he played up front for Swindon, and caused us problems. Once he is up to speed he might be a useful addition.
But Byron has scored every time he has played against Burton, but time will tell whether he gets the chance to add to that record this weekend or finds himself on the bench. On form, that is arguably where he should be.
While Yates' strikers stutter, we conceded to Jamie Cureton, who needed only one sniff of goal all game to find the target.
It doesn't help either when he let him go last summer and could have signed him back, and it was a shocker of a goal to let in too. A long hopeful ball, and Cureton outpaced Matt Taylor and lashed it in. We knew that lack of pace was a worry for our central defenders, and that was evident here.
Apart from that, he was the Cureton we saw a lot last season. Isolated, frustrated and bereft of any decent sight of the goal.
We had defended well with Dagenham's only other chances all game being a looped deflection which Trevor Carson clawed away superbly and then the rebound which he saved with his feet.
As the time wore on, Yates had to change it, and here came the major positive of the game.
He turned to two young, local players who have come through our Academy. Our players, not loanees, and players who should be a part of our future.
Hanks continued his good season, and just brought some calmness to our midfield again, competing better with Dagenham's trio and eventually getting the equaliser.
The other was Zack Kotwica, making his first appearance of the campaign after being a regular squad member last season, when he made a lot of cameo entrances with varied degrees of success.
This time last season, he was the great hope, but didn't quite push on, but all credit to him for the way he came on and made a difference on Saturday, hitting the bar and always looking a threat.
Appearances like that are going to keep him around the squad and he will need to keep that level of performance up with the competition around for a place.
Wynter's departure and Taylor's ban should keep Kotwica involved, and maybe also Jamal Lawrence - another off the production line maybe, a wide man or forward with express pace inherited, maybe, from his famous uncle David who could certainly generate some of that from the Chapel End at Cheltenham College on many occasions.
I also want to see Harry Williams get a go. He has scored twice on loan at Evesham, and I have to say I feel he is a more natural fit than OSJ if we want to use an advanced midfield player to get beyond the forwards and to play in that pocket of space.
I think OSJ is an impact player. He performed that role superbly against Tranmere coming off the bench, and without Koby Arthur I feel OSJ is the man to do that role he has vacated.
I also hope there might be a role for Bobbie Dale - he has done well at Bath by all reports and a few games in Conference South will have done him the power of good.
Our youngsters, we are told, are a bright crop. In the not too distant future, how about a midfield of Adam Powell sitting behind Hanks and Williams, with Kotwica and Lawrence on the flanks supporting Dale? Wouldn't that be great?
It could happen - but only if the manager shows some trust in them.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Reffing hell

Getting back from the game last night, I sat down as I usually do to write this blog - then gave up.
I decided that it would be better to give myself 24 hours' reflection on the night's events, and try to rationalise things in the cold light of day.
After the game, the talking point was the actions of one man, James Linington, who got as hostile a reaction from the Whaddon Road crowd as I can remember in recent times.
Many of his decisions were bizarre to say the least - but I am not convinced that he was the central figure and the main reason for our second successive 1-0 defeat.
His performance has taken the heat off another man who was probably more culpable, and whose actions changed the game more than Mr Linington's whistle (or lack of it) did.
That man, of course, is Jason Taylor. His reaction to Conor Clifford's tackle ultimately cost us the game. Not Mr Linington's increasingly eccentric decisions.
For the 38 minutes before that incident, it was an even game.  It was bubbling up into a decent contest, both sides had chances and it could have gone either way.
After the red card, we were on the back foot, and Southend were always going to be the more likely winners, as things transpired.
We know Taylor is a combustible character, never far from confrontation in a game. This season he has been a revelation - the enforcer we have been missing with tough tackles and good distribution.
The misfit has become an integral part of the side, and there is no doubt we will miss him for the next three games.
I hope that the lay-off will see him just have a little think to himself and realise he cannot go around like a bull in a china shop every time he is challenged. Yes, we want you to compete, but there is a line to be drawn.
Clifford's tackle was not the best. He had just come on and wasn't up to the pace of the game but still he was late, but the challenge was nowhere near as bad as Jon Meades' leg breaker for Oxford recently.
Meades got a deserved red, but only after Taylor had responded like a bucking bronco to the tackle.
It does no good,  and, after getting a ticking off from Mark Yates after the reaction to that incident, which he got yellow for and could also have been red, he has paid the ultimate price for a second offence. He hasn't learned from that perceived let-off.
Now (if he wasn't already) he will be a marked man. Footballers are not stupid - they will see that and think right, we can wind him up. Referees will know as well, and will already have the Cheltenham number 25 marked down as one to keep an eye on.
But for the reaction, I am sure Clifford would have got a yellow. He didn't, as Taylor's reaction took over the referee's thinking. As Yates said afterwards, JT gave the official the chance to send him off.
It's our first red card for nearly two years, and the criticism has been levelled at us of being too nice. This season, we had committed 85 fouls before this game, the fourth-highest in the league.
Not too nice any more maybe. And Taylor had made 13 fouls ahead of this game, with only three L2 players having made more (top of the pile was a certain Mr A Akinfenwa, by the way).
There is competing, and there is competing. You have to stay on the right side of the line. Yes, we want the team to show some battling qualities, but picking up red cards is not going to do us any favours.
I will, however, mention the reaction of the Southend players. It is, I'm afraid, typical of the game these days as they all descend on the incident - including, for some reason, goalkeeper Daniel Bentley from 80 yards away. I hate to see it, but they wanted to make sure the referee got the message.
He did, and from then on we were left up against it.
The first half was a decent watch. I thought Southend passed it nicely, but we kept them at arms' length with our usual good shape and pressing.
Southend were clever - they looked to use Myles Weston and Kevan Hurst as wide as they could, looking to pen in Craig Braham-Barrett and Jordan Wynter, making them defend - not their strongest suits.
They were quick to shift the ball from side to side but we mostly coped with it, and tried to break when we could, but didn't create too much bar a Wynter shot and a couple of half-chances from set-pieces.
Yates had put Omari Sterling-James in for his first start in an advanced role in the midfield three, trying to take up pace in the pocket behind the front two, and he was just growing into the game when Taylor was dismissed.
That changed his role immediately, and he was eventually replaced by Joe Hanks - a switch I thought might have even been made at half-time.
Up front, John Marquis worked hard as he has in every game, but got little or no change from Mr Linington or the Southend centre-halves - and he wasn't helped either by his partner.
It was another off-colour night for Byron Harrison, and I would say that bar Tranmere and Bury, that has been the norm for last season's leading scorer in this campaign.
Last season's leading scorer. He has, I'm afraid, looked anything but that this season, and last night's display was the worst of the season so far from him.
He was left out on Saturday, supposedly as a kick up the backside as Marquis and Koby Arthur deserved their starts. The kick clearly didn't work.
We need more from him. We need the unplayable Byron we saw at times last season, not the lacksadaisical Byron, who gives up lost causes, plays lazy passes and allows centre-halves to bully him and have an easy ride.
In the second half especially we needed him. We were on the back foot, under the cosh, so we needed a presence, a target higher up the pitch to hang on to the ball, relieve the pressure and maybe set up the odd counter attack.
Marquis tried his best to do that, but was soon walking a tightrope as he was entrapped in a losing battle against the referee, and so ultimately we had no reprieve from the yellow and black tide.
It was inevitable they would score and only brave blocks, good goalkeeping and poor finishing prevented them doing so, and we never looked like taking an unlikely point.
The red card had thrown the game plan away. OSJ was sacrificed for Hanks to give a bit more stability and ball-winning presence in midfield, and Wynter pushed up as we effectively played 4-3-2 then at the end tried 3-3-3, but all to no avail.
The positives to be drawn were two-fold - again the attitude of most players was spot on, commitment, bodies on the line, and the other was the crowd sticking with the team, albeit against the referee as well.
Ah yes, the referee. I must come back to him. As I said above, I thought he had little choice with the red card, and arguably so got the big decision of the game right.
But there were others he was way off kilter with. Binnom-Williams got a yellow for a tackle which looked high and late. That could have been Mr Linington's opportunity to even things up, but he didn't take it.
Then a great tackle by Steve Elliott where he won the ball, penalised. Failure to stop the game for a Marquis head injury, then doing so for a Luke Prosser one as we had a three on two 20 yards from goal, and then the most farcical of all, the Marquis yellow card after Bentley knocked his own player Prosser over.
As the game wore on, and especially after the Southend goal, he lost the plot more and more, and was allegedly given a 45-minute plus grilling from the assessor post-match, whatever good that will do.
But ultimately, I don't feel he didn't cost us the match. One of our players did that himself I'm afraid, and it only adds to the problems for Yates and his team-mates ahead of Saturday's game.
It is  typical of how quickly things can turn round. 10 days ago, we came back from Morecambe with a decent point, unbeaten in six games and a confident-looking squad full of options.
Now two defeats later, we have gone three games without a goal, and the squad again looks a bit thin.
There will be no Taylor for three games, Lee Vaughan's injury seems to be dragging on longer than we envisaged, and Asa Hall has almost become the forgotten man while a big-impact loanee has been called back - and then not even making the bench for his parent club.
Yates might get another body in by the Dagenham game at the weekend, when you know that You-Know-Who will come back and get his customary goal.
I think the manager has to at least consider a change of system to get the impetus back.
Maybe it's time to give the 4-3-3 a whirl on Saturday with maybe Steve Elliott being given a breather.
I'd be tempted to try this: Carson; Vaughan, Brown, Taylor, CBB; Richards, Hanks, Wynter; OSJ, Marquis, Haworth (assuming Vaughan is fit of course).

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A one-man team?

I have taken a bit of flak on Twitter over the past couple of days.
Nothing new there... but my crime this time seems to have been the temerity to suggest that maybe we are not a one-man team whose promising start to the season is about to crumble around our ears with the loss of one player.
Yes, Koby Arthur had done very well for us. Extremely well, as the return of four league and cup goals shows.  I am not denying that. But he hasn't done it alone, and is not singularly responsible for us sitting fifth in the table.
As I have stated before, that is the risk you take with a loan player. You cannot pin all your hopes to them as they will be here one minute, gone the next...
A run of injuries at his host club, and that is that, cheerio and thanks very much. Yes, he might go back and only sit on the bench for Birmingham. They 'own' him and can do what they like with him.
But let's face it - he only sat on the bench for us a lot of the time,didn't he?
He did not win us points single-handedly. It wasn't a Billy The Fish-style effort, where, like the Viz character, he took on the other team on his own with no help from anyone else?
The platform which allowed to come on and score that winner against Hartlepool, for example, was set up by the 11 who started the game.
Apparently, according to some Tweeters, without him, we now possess 'no goal threat'. Strange then that in our games so far we have had 91 shots on goal, 43 of them on target. Koby has not had all of those, has he?
Other players have also got into the positions to trouble the opposition, but yes, on most occasions without that key ingredient of actually putting the round thing in the onion bag.
Some of that has been through wasteful finishing, and Koby is included in that. Some of it has been through good opposition defending and excellent goalkeeping - Barry Roche and Mark Tyler having won man of the match awards in the last two games shows that we have been a constant danger the opposition.
So I feel to suggest Koby is the only goal threat we have is, in my view, doing a disservice to the rest of our players. I just wish people would have more faith in them.
It's time for Byron Harrison to rediscover the 15-goal touch from last season, and it would be a very opportune moment for Terry Gornell's goal drought to end. John Marquis needs to add goals to his hard work and channel chasing.
The midfield need to help out, although Joe Hanks,  Jordan Wynter and Matt Richards are off the mark,  and those three centre-halves of ours need to find their range from set-pieces - although so far the woodwork and defenders on the line have stopped them doing so.
I just feel that to put too much emphasis on Koby's goals does not pay enough credit to the part others have played in our excellent start.
Yes, we are told that goals win games - but you don't get the chance to score them without saves like Trevor Carson's, good defending like Troy Brown's, Steve Elliott's and Matt Taylor's and crunching tackles like Jason Taylor's - or tactical changes and the right substitutions like Mark Yates' and Shaun North's (most of the time).
Someone called the rest of our players 'poor' and 'bang average' - if a team sitting fifth in the table is that bad with one defeat in seven games, then I am not sure what that says for the rest of the division.
What he was however was a game changer, an impact player, and he had that key ingredient of pace, and that is where his absence will be felt  - unless others step up to take up that mantle.
We might now see what Omari Sterling-James can do, or it might open a door for Andy Haworth, or give Wynter a different role.
OSJ played a big part in the Tranmere fightback, while Haworth was effective in the JPT against Oxford when, after starting at wing-back, he moved into that role just behind the forwards.
I also think Wynter, with his pace and energy, could also be used as someone to stretch tired defences - not right up front, but getting the ball in the pocket and running at a tired defence, much like Morecambe did against us in the second half at the Globe and caused us problems.
It is worth noting that in the last four leagues games, Yates and North have had to change the system to get a result. It worked at Tranmere and against Hartlepool, but not so much at Morecambe or Luton.
Luton was interesting as he started with Koby, and from what I was told that the introduction of Harrison at the break was what made the difference this time, with a good second-half display which had everything bar a goal or two.
Now Yates and North have to find a different way of changing it, and it will be interesting to see what they do tonight.
I suspect we will start with the 3-5-2, with Harrison and Marquis in attack, with other decisions hinging on whether Lee Vaughan comes back in.
If he does, then it is Hanks or Wynter for a midfield place, and if he doesn't that Wynter fills in and Hanks gets the midfield spot.
That gives the option then to change to the 4-3-1-2 later on, losing a centre-half and giving OSJ, Wynter or maybe Haworth an opportunity to be the game-changer.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Another learning curve

I can't talk too much about the events at the Kennel today as I wasn't able to make the trip to that delightful Bedfordshire town so beloved of those who hail from the same town as me.
This wasn't some sort of protest because of who the opposition were. It was just the mere fact that I wanted to spend some quality time with my children, and having some fun at the swimming pool was much more appealing than spending an afternoon in Luton.
As it turned out, the unbeaten record went, and it seems from what I have seen on Twitter and gleaned from texts and phone calls since the game, another League Two goalkeeper, the second in a row, has a man of the match award to take home thanks to us not being able to take our chances.
We conceded the only goal to a header, which surprises me given the strength up to now of our back three in that department.
We started Koby Arthur, as so many fans had been asking for, seemingly to use his pace against the immobile Steve McNulty, then I have been told we didn't really make the best use it, and played to his strengths rather than our own.
It appears too that a half-time change with Byron Harrison coming on was pro-active, It is good to see the manager not waiting and waiting to make these changes as he has in the past, but instead acting quickly.
But I am pleased that the vast majority of tweets and texts remain positive despite the defeat, and that, despite the setback, may continue to be encouraged by the performance and believe we can respond.
That is the key now - how do we respond? That horrible and made-up word 'bouncebackability' has just appeared on my Twitter timeline, and however much I loathe it, it is now what we wait to see from the team.
This will be another learning curve for our new team, and we will learn a bit more about them in the next week, with two home games against Southend and Dagenham.
After six games which, on paper, were not really against teams I thought would be right up at the top this season (Bury, Accrington, Carlisle, Tranmere, Hartlepool, Morecambe) the next eight, starting with Luton, are against sides who I felt pre-season would at least have the play-offs in their thoughts.
The next seven opponents now are perennial challengers Southend, Dagenham - who can beat anyone on their day, current leaders Burton who look pretty strong, AFC Wimbledon with their in-form forwards, much-changed and much-fancied Shrewsbury, dark horses Northampton and well-supported Plymouth.
All tough games in their own way. So maybe by the end of October when the FA Cup comes along, we really will be able to make some more forthright judgments on this team and in which direction we might be going.
Up to now, in seven games, we have let in only four goals now, which is hugely encouraging. Only Burton have conceded less. Last season, we gave some real gifts to the opposition, but this time around we have really tightened up.
The three at the back has helped that solidity, with Matt Taylor proving so far to be a good signing and an excellent leader, while Troy Brown and Steve Elliott have also more than played their part in that.
That solidity has also been backed up in midfield, especially by Jason Taylor and Matt Richards, and even when we have come under real pressure (Bury at times, periods of the Carlisle home game and the second half at Morecambe in the games I have seen) we have resisted it well and mostly kept teams at arms' length.
One of the major issues for me this season was going to be creativity. We have a lot of 'solid' players, hard workers, but would we be able to create enough chances to keep us in games, and win them
So far, this has been an emphatic yes, but the main problem now is that we have not taken enough of them.
A quick tot-up from the stats on the match reports of the BBC website tells me that we have had 91 shots on goal in our seven league games, and 43 of them have been on target.
Tranmere, for instance, we had 21 shots and 12 on target, and at Morecambe 18 shots and seven on target. Today's stats were 15 shots and four on target.
We have only scored seven times (only six teams have scored less). This means we need about six on target shots to score a goal - an average which we need to cut down a bit. Surely it signals that someone is going to get a pasting from us soon - just such a shame it wasn't today.
I am told by the club's video analyst Craig Cope that, before today's game, we had had more shots on target than any other team in League Two (39) and had actually had more shots on target than off - before today it was 39 on and 37 off from 76 shots.
Yet more evidence that we need to be more ruthless in the final third and make the most of these promising situations we find ourselves in.
But I am sure that Mark Yates, while rueing the fact that these chances are going begging, will be happy that we are creating them and getting into decent positions. For now at least - if it carries on however I am sure the frustrations will grow larger.
It will be interesting soon to see what Yates does about the loan signings he has.
Jordan Wynter was signed on August 22, so his first month will seemingly end after the Dagenham game next weekend, and by that time Asa Hall might be close to a return to training.
Wynter is on a youth loan as he is under 21 years old, but reaches that milestone in November, when we will then be able to sign him on a proper loan for 93 days (until January) if we want to, while John Marquis signed on August 28, and can only stay for a maximum of 93 days (which by my calculations is November 29), with his first month ending after Burton if I have worked it out right - so there will soon be some decisions to make.
Both have had an impact, with Wynter scoring the winner at Tranmere and Marquis making a difference to our attacking options, as it stands at the moment I think Yates will be wanting to keep them both on.
Overall, despite defeat today, things stay in a positive vein, with an interesting few weeks ahead, and even a visit from the TV cameras to come...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Bringing some sunshine

As every game passes, and we keep up this unexpected unbeaten record, and with it this promising start to the season, the more people start asking how long it can go on for.
I have been telling myself not to get carried away. Let's face it, it is inevitable we will lose at some point and then we will really learn about the character of this team.
I just hope people don't over-react when that day does come and return to last season's negative mindset.
I do get the impression still that some are waiting for the bubble to burst and we all know that five games into the league season is not the time to be calling this team play-off or promotion candidates, or to be making wild guesses about where we might end up - good or bad.
We have seen promising starts before, been flirting with top spot at various times in recent seasons only to see it all ebb away disappointingly.
This is still a new squad, very much an unknown quantity, but the early signs are promising. However, that is all it is. Early signs.
Already they have surprised us with resilence, commitment, determination and some quality at times, especially on the road at Bury and Tranmere.
We have also seen that the squad might have more depth than we initially thought after the JPT win over Oxford in the week, achieved without key men Lee Vaughan, Steve Elliott, Matt Richards and Byron Harrison in the starting line-up.
So this was another test against a Morecambe side who like us had made a decent start and would be full of confidence as they were coming off a good JPT win at Fleetwood.
They are always tough to beat the Globe, but we too could go into the game with confidence after our last few weeks, and as it turned out we did learn a little bit more about this squad of players.
Without Vaughan, we switched Jordan Wynter to right back with Joe Hanks coming back into midfield and John Marquis given the nod ahead of Terry Gornell up front.
It was the side I would have chosen and the first hour was up there with the best we have seen from the team this season.
Once again, we were led by Craig Braham-Barrett, who was having a lot of joy down that left-hand side, and could have bagged a couple of goals himself as well as setting some up for others.
He was linking well with Marquis, who overshadowed Byron Harrison performance-wise up front and was a right-royal pain for Morecambe defence - just the sort of front man we have been crying out for.
There are comparisons to Neil Grayson with the non-stop work-rate, chasing of lost-causes and all-round physicality, but also he is a Jimmy Spencer-type with his 'edge' and the walking of the disciplinary tightrope at times, which eventually led to a booking.
Byron however does need to step up. At times, he was effective, but at others he was brushed off the ball too easily. He doesn't seem to share the confidence of his team-mates at the moment.
Whether he is not fully fit, or whether he just needs to get himself a goal I don't know, but with Koby Arthur and Gornell sat on the bench wanting to get into the side, he needs to buck it up a bit.
Hanks slotted seamlessly back into midfield, and in that first hour Joe, Jason Taylor and Matt Richards bossed it. Taylor was breaking the play up, and Richards and Hanks were distributing the second balls with authority, mainly to Wynter and Braham-Barrett, who were delivering better crosses than in recent games.
What Hanks also brings to the side is another set-piece option, and he delivered some great ones. Steve Elliott and Matt Taylor got on the end of a couple of them, but headed over.
As the half went on, we got more confident, and at times there was even a bit of a swagger about us. I am not going to claim we were up there with that autumn of 2011 when we were steamrollering sides.
That sort of authority is still a way away I think. But there was some great passing a moving stuff in that opening hour - my favourite bit was a one-two between Wynter and Hanks, which led to a backheel from Hanks to set Wynter away, and a cross which set up another chance.
Such was the domination that the BBC 5 Live reporter's notes at half-time, on a divided page of an A4 pad, had one line for a Morecambe corner, and a whole page full of chances and remarks for us.
So that was the only drawback - that we hadn't taken at least one chance. A Morecambe fan I spoke to at half-time said we deserved to be at least two up, and that ruthlessness in front of goal is something we need to find.
In most games this season, we have created chances - 12 on target shots at Tranmere but no goals until the 67th minute, for instance - and not taking them will, sooner or later, come back and bite us on the backside.
The fact we were not out of sight was a combination of great saves from Barry Roche, especially from Braham-Barrett and Marquis and in the second half from Richards and Taylor - but also some wastefulness with the Elliott and Taylor headers and a weak Harrison effort when he was in on goal.
After the break, I was waiting for the Morecambe rally and it came from the hour mark onwards after Jim Bentley put Paul Mullin on and they went a bit more direct to ask more questions of us.
So it was now that we were going to learn even more about our team. We came under the cosh, with Morecambe now effectively playing 4-2-4 and we coped with it.
Just about, and it was a bit hairy at times, but we coped with it.
Morecambe stopped Braham-Barrett's supply, won the battles in midfield which we had dominated for an hour, and asked questions of our back three with Mullin, Jack Redshaw, Jamie Devitt (and sub Padraig Amond when he came on for Devitt) along with Kevin Ellison all dropping off at times, and running at us.
Redshaw and Mullin especially were a threat, and although we had to block the odd shot and saw a few go wide or over, Trevor Carson still only really had one save to make, from an Ellison free-kick.
We needed to change it somehow, and I have to say I didn't agree completely with Yates' substitutions.
I appreciate that Arthur and Omari Sterling-James have been effective off the bench and that Yates wants to be positive and win the game. I have no problem with that but their arrival did nothing to stem the tide.
In fact, it partly helped it as the withdrawal of Harrison - although he wasn't having his best game - meant we had no real pivot in the side to use as some sort of target and hold the ball up.
OSJ didn't get into the game at all and I wonder whether Andy Haworth might have been a better change - not so positive I know, but he might have given us a bit more in those closing stages.
But we kept Morecambe at bay, and took the point. Another of those games, much like the Carlisle one, that we would have lost last season.
However, let's be honest about it. We should have won, and we need to start taking these chances, and while three clean sheets in a row and only three goals conceded in six league games is great, we have only scored seven times.
All the neat build-up play is all well and good, but it is not so great if there is no end product to it, so that is now the coaching staff's job to try and get that ruthless streak.
We are looking solid and organised, and the back three gives us a decent backbone to work from, so now the forwards (Harrison especially) need to fire if we are to start grinding out wins.
The wing-backs and midfield are doing their part, and those pre-season worries that we wouldn't create very much seem unfounded.
But is it a bit of a nit-picking moan of mine perhaps. The point will prove to be a good one I am sure and Morecambe are usually a tough nut to crack at the Globe.
A win would, I think, really have made League Two at large sit up and take notice, and we have to maybe stop being happy with a point from games like this, and be disappointed that we didn't have all three.
We'd have taken a point at 9.30am as we left home, but at 5pm we know we missed a chance to make it five wins from six.
It is a constant frustration of fans that we don't get the recognition and credit many feel we should get.
Maybe it is typical of this that we go top of the table for less than 24 hours on the day with no Football League Show, while Burton get a game on Sky in which to return to the summit.
But I am not really worried about that, or about losing top spot. Let Burton have it (for now anyway !!).
They can have the early pressure. They can be the ones everyone wants to shoot at.
For now I am happy to keep my feet on the ground, and stay under the radar and hopefully just continue to be surprised by this team and squad we have.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A mad month...

CAST your minds back to August 2. We went up the road to Aggborough, and were swept limply aside 3-0 in a display which didn't have great portents for the upcoming season.
The manager was coming under even more scrutiny than he had been at the end of last season. Many fans left that game hoping that somewhere in League Two there were going to be two worse teams than us, and speculating on how long the manager was going to last.
His new signings were not being universally lauded after a patchy pre-season, with wistful memories of players like Brown, McGlashan, Bennett, Penn, Lowe, Duffy, Pack and Summerfield a irritatingly regular social media occurrence.
One player in particular looked certain to be on his way out - the transfer-listed misfit Jason Taylor.
He was substituted as a substitute in the dying embers of last season, then left out of the 18 a few times.
Then he was played at the heart of the new (and very ropey looking) back three at Kidderminster, and had a complete nightmare, surely playing his way out of the side... to the relief of the majority of CTFC fans.
It is now September 2. We are joint top of League Two, and over the first hurdle in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy - a rare occurrence. We have won three and drawn one of our four home games, keeping three clean sheets.
Away from home, we have won two games north of Birmingham, which hardly ever happens, including one from 2-0 down with a quarter of the game left, and were not disgraced in our only defeat at a Championship side in the League Cup.
The manager is in line for the League Two manager of the month award. One of his signings, Trevor Carson, is on the player of the month shortlist, and Jason Taylor, yes, that Jason Taylor, the transfer-listed misfit, was tonight substituted 20 minutes from the end of the game to a standing ovation with those much-loved former favourite players once again restored to the memory banks.
Strange, strange times.
Add to that the fact that Taylor and Craig Braham-Barrett, two players who last season were on the end of a constant barrage of criticism and ridicule from fans, have suddenly become key components and star performers in a tight, difficult-to-beat unit.
Meanwhile, our leading scorer, with four goals, is a five-foot-six-inch tall Ghanaian teenager, who wears pink boots, who has only started one match for us, and scored his last two goals with headers.
It's enough to have anyone reaching for the straitjackets.
But it really has been an amazing transformation, with a mad month topped off by tonight's stroll against Oxford.
And it was a stroll. Carson was barely tested bar a free-kick which flashed wide of his post, and, after a slightly sticky start it has to be said, we kept them at arm's length with comparative ease.
Yes, the red card for Jon Meades might have helped in the last 20 minutes, but we were deserved winners. Even with six changes from Saturday's win over Hartlepool.
Vaughan, Elliott, Richards, Gornell, Harrison and Wynter were either rested, benched or not allowed to become cup-tied. Step forward Haworth, Deaman, Hanks, Marquis, Arthur and Sterling-James, plus Black for a half in a planned change in place of Matt Taylor - and the changes were almost seamless.
In the back three, Deaman came in, and was understandably tentative to start with in an unnatural role on the left of the trio. After the break moving to the right and then to right-back, he looked more comfortable.
He also had a decent game at Brighton, and I have to say that I would not be worried about him stepping in if one of the front-line back three suffered a problem.
Then there is Black, who came on at half-time on the left of the three and slotted in well, staying in the centre when we changed to a defensive four late on, and I thought he looked comfortable. He looks a decent, ball-playing defender on this evidence.
Haworth was asked to replace Vaughan as the right wing-back and was steady enough, trying to get forward when he could, but looked better and happier after the break when he moved further forward, and ended the match as the 'number 10' in our 4-2-3-1.
Hanks we have seen a good deal of so far this season, and this was another decent performance, with a good range of passing and some excellent set-pieces, notably the corner for the first goal - another who slotted in seamlessly.
Starts for Sterling-James and Arthur were interesting, as we would find out whether they could sustain their performances for 90 minutes rather than a short cameo - and I thought, by and large, they did.
Arthur in the first half showed some good strength at times with his back to goal against big centre-backs and in the second was an available outlet before getting his now customary goal.
Sterling-James I thought buzzed around quite well, again always available, wanting to be involved with a decent engine. I wondered if he might only play for an hour, but he lasted the 90 quite well and that will do him good.
He and Arthur were a bit naive at times with their decision-making and dodgy at times with defensive duties, but they are young and learning, so that will come with the territory.
The final 'new starter' was Marquis, who was very impressive before being replaced late on by Gornell.
Chasing lost causes, pressing defenders, holding up the ball, and getting across his marker brilliantly at the front post to head our first goal made it a great night for the Millwall loanee.
He won a '30-70 against' ball to force the corner which eventually led to his goal, and is definitely a good acquisition - just a shame he is only going to be able to stay until around November 7 in his 93-day loan, so let's make the most of him.
I thought Oxford were poor. Yes, they, played the last 20 minutes with 10 men, we made them look poor before that. They passed the ball around very nicely at times, but most of the time they were about 35 yards or more from our goal, and posed little or no threat.
The BBC Oxford commentators on the gantry post-match were reading out tweet after tweet and text after text slagging off their performance, their manager and their players - and they were not happy.
Meades deserved his red card for a shocking over the top tackle, and it was good management from Yates to replace Jason Taylor (who could have gone himself for a silly reaction - but understandable given the leg-breaking challenge he received). Oxford were determined to wind him up - as was shown by a naughty Junior Brown tackle on him just after the dismissal, which again he reacted to.
After the red card, it was plain sailing. The confidence was oozing through us, and all that was missing from the night was a Terry Gornell goal.
We nearly got one, but had to settle instead for a Terry Gornell cross for a Koby Arthur goal. Another header. Almost on the same spot and into the same corner as the one he scored on Saturday. That'll do nicely, and we have booked our card in the draw on Soccer AM.
The madness goes on, as it seems now, from having what we thought was a decent-enough first 11 and seemingly not much below that, the manager apparently now would appear to have options coming out of his ears for Saturday's top-of-the-table bunfight at Morecambe (words I never thought I would type, number 1).
Trev's place seems safe enough I think... and surely he can't drop Roberto Carlos Craig Braham-Barrett (words I never thought I would type, number 2), and there might be a mass mutiny if the new fan's favourite Jason Taylor (words I never thought I would type, number 3) is left out on Saturday.
I expect Brown, Matt Taylor and Elliott are pretty much nailed on to be the back three, but Black and Deaman have shown themselves to be viable options should they be required.
Vaughan should come back in on the right, although he does have a slight knock to his foot I believe which was another reason to rest him tonight. So we will wait and see on that I guess - and I think Haworth was adequate enough to show that he could slot in there if needed.
The midfield choice is very interesting indeed. Taylor has to play (words I never thought I would type, number 4) and Richards will surely come back in too, but then what do you do? Restore the loanee Wynter with his athleticism and box-to-box energy, keep Hanks in there after another good display with his composed range of passing and the quality of his set-pieces, or does he unleash the unpredictability of Sterling-James again?
That area of the side is going to be even more of a contest for places when Asa Hall comes back.
Then there is up front. Harrison was rested tonight, and rightly so, so you have to assume he will start on Saturday.
Marquis's goal and lung-busting performance tonight must put him in pole position for a start ahead of the ever-willing and unlucky-in-front-of-goal Gornell to play alongside him.
Hang on a minute... what about the four-goal top-scorer in his pink boots? Surely you must find room for him? What? He's not an automatic choice and might have to go back on the bench? Blimey.
A month ago, after witnessing that worrying loss at Aggborough, Yatesy cannot have imagined that barely a month later he would have selection dilemmas and viable choices to make in almost every area of a side sitting joint top of the table, and playing with real confidence.
It's a great situation to be in, and long may it continue, because it is just great to see the whole club wearing a collective smile on its face again.