Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The price isn't right

THE cost of football is a hot topic at the moment, with social media full of people telling us they can get a season ticket at Borussia Dortmund cheaper than a cup of tea at Boston United.
Or something like that.
The bottom line is that football in this country is too expensive, across the board.
Premier League clubs will tell us they are justified in charging the prices they do as people are paying it - many of them have waiting lists for season tickets running into the thousands, so maybe they don't charge enough - but as long as people are prepared to pay the prices, the clubs will continue to charge them.
So high prices are not exclusive to Cheltenham Town, but every empty seat or space on the terraces at ours and other lower division grounds show that football at our level is too expensive.
But it is a vicious circle. Clubs at our level rely much more on ticket money for their very existence than the Premier League bigwigs - who could probably let everyone in free every week and still make a huge profit.
That reliance on gate money is why, more often than not, the eventual league table mirrors the average number of people coming through the turnstiles every other week.
Gate money is cash flow, gate money determines the quality of players the manager can go and get, the size of the squad he has at his disposal, and it pays the bills.
Hence why clubs like ours put so much stock on the sale of season tickets every summer, and look to reward those loyal fans who dig into their pockets every June or July for another year of hope.
Over the years, they haven't done too badly compared to some clubs, with Cup runs ending in games with Premier League sides and play-off finals.
Last season was a barren one for home regulars with few victories and several insipid performances, but this year has, so far, been an improvement.
These regulars are the lifeblood of clubs like ours. They are a big part of why we survive every year, and how we have managed to sustain the miracle of League football at Whaddon for the past 15 years as others, bigger clubs than us, have fallen through the trap door.
And it is those regulars who are, therefore, I think fully entitled to be miffed at the prices for next weekend's FA Cup tie with Swindon Town.
The game is not covered by the £250-£400 they shelled out at the start of the season, so they have to make the decision whether they go or not - and the price rise also dissuades any floating fans thinking of a day out.
The club introduced so-called 'premium games' a few seasons ago to maximise revenue from those fixtures where clubs will bring bigger away followings - Plymouth, Torquay, Exeter, Oxford, the Bristol clubs, Newport, Hereford, Northampton and Portsmouth are the usual suspects.
In usual circumstances, the club's reasoning (rightly I think) is that these games should not affect home fans too much as the vast majority of those who will come will be season ticket holders, so won't incur that cost.
But this time they will.
The Northampton game two weeks ago was a premium game, and the home share of the gate was below 2,000 - but there was also a clash with the races so it is difficult to say that the premium status was totally to blame for that.
I understand that the FA Cup represents unbudgeted revenue for the club - a bonus source of cash. I also get that any gate money is shared (I think) 45-45-10 between the two clubs and the FA, so that also affects any money the club will make. We are also not the favourites, so we can't be sure that the £18,000 prize money will come our way.
The chairman said last week that there is no money in the pot for any potential team strengthening in January, and that the FA Cup is therefore vital. We saw what happens when Cup cash doesn't materialise all too clearly after the Tamworth defeat last year - it resulted in Russ Penn's sale to York.
Add to that the fact that both sides have to agree - so Swindon fans also unhappy at the prices should maybe ask their club why they agreed to it ... bearing in mind they charge more for home games at the County Ground.
I feel that to have put the prices up sends out the message that making a profit comes above respecting and rewarding the loyalty of supporters who dig into their pockets every summer, and many of whom also dig deep to travel the country supporting the club.
It is ironic also that these prices were announced a day or so after Mansfield revealed their offer of tickets for £7 when we go up there in December, if they are bought in advance.
So what should the club have done? Cutting the prices would not automatically fill the ground - I remember a game against Southend a few years ago which had to be played again after the floodlights failed... we cut the prices in half and got our lowest crowd of the season.
But look what happened against Bristol City in the JPT - £12 for a ticket, and on live TV, yet the crowd on a Wednesday night was 3,599, almost unheard of for a tie in that competition. Yes there was the Cotterill factor, but the size of the crowd surprised me.
Personally, I think £15 to stand and £20 to sit would have reasonable. I don't feel that to cut the prices to the JPT levels would have been right, and at £15/£20 I think we would have got 4-4,500 people in the ground.
I worry that the pricing structure for this tie will put people off and that we might struggle to get 3,000 in the ground - even if Swindon bring 1,000 with them (and I feel that may be doubtful due to the pricing).
I know that I will be waiting eagerly for the attendance figure that day.
Then there is the question of what happens if we win, and get through to round three and pull out a plum tie against, for example, Villa at home. What happens to the pricing then? Having set this precedent with the first round tie, where does the club go with prices for a big third round tie?
Of course, the difference is that I suspect people would not baulk at paying a higher price than usual to see Villa or another Premier League club here - but I don't blame them for being unhappy at paying it for a first round game against Swindon Town.
Of course I hope they still come on down - but this time I feel the price isn't right.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

A Tuesday triumph

TUESDAY night away games haven't been a major source of joy in recent seasons for Cheltenham Town fans in recent seasons.
They usually end in some form of disappointment followed by a long trudge down some black motorway for hours on end and then a long, miserable day at work.
So when you get a performance like the one we saw at the Abbey on Tuesday night, topped off with the result, it makes it one to savour even more.
I can't remember when I have enjoyed more a 19-hour day at work, on the motorways, in a freezing cold football ground, and back on the motorways again, safe in the knowledge that three very satisfying points were tucked away in the back pocket.
Our team started the season with a determined, hard-working, committed win at Bury, where we stood up like men to what was thrown at us and came away with a win which has proved since to be a terrific result.
We have seen hard work and commitment for the vast majority of the games since then, with the standards only dropping rarely, but last night really did see us return to those heights again - especially in the second half.
We had started well, gone in front with a Matt Richards strike which will definitely be in the top three of our goal of the season award (and maybe the top one) and then had to dig in as Cambridge changed their system and got a goal back.
There were some panicky clearances, niggly fouls and silly yellow cards for dissent (one of which means John Marquis won't play on Saturday) but there were no individual errors, no heads dropping, no goals in clusters condemning us to a miserable trip home.
What there was at half-time as the teams walked off was a helping hand from the opposition manager, who handed our manager and players just the incentive we needed to galvanise us into a winning performance.
Richard Money's decision to label us a 'non-league team with a non-league manager' was made more bizarre by the fact that he had to change his team's system to combat our start and to get his team a foothold in the game.
Then having fallen behind again, he was forced to make three substitutions to try to rescue the game and ended the game with his goalkeeper in our box - not once, but twice - such was the desperation.
So if we are the non-league team he claims, then what does that make his team - the one we beat?
To be honest, they are pretty good, especially Ryan Donaldson in midfield, and the front two Kwesi Appiah and Tom Elliott, with that trio comparing favourably with other attacking trios in League Two.
But I would rather concentrate on our performance, and the huge amount of heart it gave me to see us play as well as we did on a tough assignment, on a freezing cold gale-force night.
I was pleased we went back to the the 3-5-2 with Joe Hanks back in the side, and also pleased about the front two - Terry Gornell was a no-brainer selection after Saturday, and Marquis was there on a rotational basis with the manager going for his work-rate.
We just look better with that extra man in midfield. I felt Richards and Jason Taylor struggled on Saturday and it gives them both a bit more freedom - Richards to calm everything down (I am sure he was calm about beating two players in our box in the 94th minute...!) , and Taylor to break the play up and set up attacks as he did superbly for the winner.
Hanks played a key role in the win as he was deployed to mark Donaldson in the second half as the midfielder had been key to Cambridge's good spell for the last 25 minutes of the first half.
Yates and Shaun North told him to drop deeper and follow Donaldson and he did the job superbly as the player was pretty much nullified, and the effectiveness of that move was not only a good tactical move but also a massive feather in Hanks' cap.
For a 19-year-old making his eighth league start to be able to show such discipline in carrying out what proved to be a vital task was hugely encouraging - and also shows that the management team trust him.
I would have expected them to want Taylor to do that job but they gave it to Hanks and he did it to the letter.
But he was backed up by everyone around him. Gornell and Marquis did the perfect front two role of running the channels,chasing lost causes and squeezing up on defenders, putting in a superb shift.
That was shown in the second half when Marquis nearly intercepted a backpass, and when it was played forward, Richards and Taylor, hunting as a pack, came close to nicking the ball back when it went forward.
At the back, after a sometimes-shaky first half with too many fouls and some heart-in-mouth moments,we were superb - bodies on the line and some strong performances.
Jack Deaman came in for Matt Taylor and again did all that was asked of him, his highlight being a superbly-timed last-man tackle on Tom Elliott - had he got it wrong it was a penalty and most likely a red card as well.
He got clattered in one penalty-area moment, as did Steve Elliott, but they were back out there quickly, shrugging it all off and really giving it everything.
Every headed clearance, tackle and interception was greeted by claps on the back and clenched fists from those around them in red and white - there was true unity and determination out there.
If that Shrewsbury post-match inquest was meant to galvanise people and to say 'look - we are not going back to last season's bad habits' then it has worked.
Two wins and five goals since then are testament to that, and anyone doubting if these players are giving their all for club and shirt and fans then you should watch that second half performance and the subsequent squad huddle and then you should be in no doubt.
With Matt Taylor out,Trevor Carson was given the armband and that proved to be the right decision as his sheer single-mindedness seemed to rub off on everyone.
I saw him leaping around his penalty area when Gornell (of course it is his goal!) scored the winner, and he was slapping people on the back constantly in the latter stages and at the final whistle was straight over to the fans and gave his gloves away.
Even though we are only a third of the way into the season, I think Carson is already proving to be one of Yatesy's best signings.
I loved Scott Brown. He was a good League Two keeper and I was worried about us replacing him adequately - but I am going to say it... I think Carson is better.
He made a match-winning save at 2-1 and is so commanding of his area, his handling is secure and his distribution and quick-thinking has already brought us two goals.
Add to that his on-field attitude and the way he talks off the field, for example his interview at Shrewsbury and the guy is a winner and it seems to be rubbing off on others.
Even the manager. He seems a lot happier generally. We have seen more smiles from him, even when the results might have dropped off before these last two games, and he definitely won the mind-games battle here.
He hasn't always done that (Steve Evans on that frozen night at Crawley for instance) but he 'owned' Money on this occasion and it's good to hear him use phrases like "I'm sticking up for my club" - that's what we want to hear.
Results like this - an away win without your captain in tricky conditions - will only make him happier and increase the belief in the squad.
But (yes, there is always a but) there are still issues around the balance of the squad.
Playing three at the back suits us, but when a centre-half goes down and you only have four, you are on a knife-edge. Paul Black is now the only alternative for that role, and he has played there for 45 minutes in the JPT.
I am sure Yates would not, if he could help it, want to change it to a flat back four.
Our bench on Tuesday had Andy Haworth, Omari Sterling-James, Raffa de Vita and Eusebio on it. Add Zack Kotwica and Harry Williams to that and you have six players who could play either as a 'number 10' behind a front man or pair or maybe out wide in a 4-4-2 or as part of a front three supporting a lone forward.
But we don't play that system - so apart from the odd few minutes off the bench, it is hard to see where these players are going to fit in.
For example, OSJ and de Vita have contracts until January, and it may be a straight fight between them for a contract to allow Yates to have breathing space to maybe strengthen another area.
Haworth is another who seems to be the odd man out - I wonder if he could soon be looking for some loan football as Gornell asked for.
Marquis' loan ends at the end of November, and he will then go back and could not return until January if Yates wanted to try and get him then - so he will have to decide soon if he wants to look for another forward then or stick with what he has until after Christmas.
But before all that, another toughie at Plymouth and then on Monday the FA Cup draw - and that could be pivotal to Yates' hopes of answering the little questions I have posed above...

Monday, 20 October 2014

Turning point?

THOSE who are of a certain vintage will know all about Sir Alex Ferguson's 'Mark Robins moment'.
It came early in his Old Trafford reign, when there was a bit of pressure on and Robins scored an FA Cup goal at Nottingham Forest which folklore has since decreed more or less saved his job - and we all know what happened after that.
While Mark Yates' future was never going to hinge directly on Saturday's game, there was no doubt that the pressure was beginning to rise, so after 62 minutes when Kaid Mohamed's shot hit the post, the relief would have been palpable.
That chance, after a lovely passing move, came as Northampton were on top, having started the second half well with an equaliser and another chance which Trevor Carson saved well.
Had we gone 2-1 down, there is no telling what might have happened to our confidence levels, and so the win was even more of a relief.
Of course, having established the two-goal cushion, we had to make it difficult for ourselves, but after that it was pretty plain sailing - made even easier for us by Northampton chucking Ryan Cresswell up front and lumping balls into our box.
But Saturday might not only be a turning point for the manager - it could also be a watershed day for Terry Gornell.
He scored twice, could have had four, and fully deserved his man-of-the-match award - and I hope now it puts paid to talk of him wanting to leave. I think it has in the manager's eyes as if he scores goals he won't be left out.
Anyone who saw his post-match interview here will have seen (about 4' 30" in) that Terry doesn't think I am "in his corner."
Nice to know you read this nonsense Terry - and well done for shoving my words back at me. Long may it continue because if you are scoring goals, you keep your place, and the team is winning. That way, we are all happy.
He was deployed in a 3-4-3 formation - a brave move by Yates and one which showed just how important the result was. He sent out a system to go and win the game and deserved the rewards from that.
However, it did have its' drawbacks. I didn't feel that we were able to get Eusebio on the ball enough, as he was stuck out wide trying to get into the game.
When he did get the ball at his feet he only has one thing in his mind - running at people, causing havoc and trying to get a shot away, and you could see the problems he was causing by the free-kicks he won.
Terry revelled in it though, and so did Byron Harrison, who although he didn't score definitely put a shift in, something he has been accused by many of not doing every time he has gone out there.
He was dropping deep, winning the ball, shrugging off defenders, laying off great passes and also getting in the box to be a threat - everything we want from him, so let's hope this is a turning point game for him as well.
In midfield, Matt Richards and Jason Taylor were therefore deployed as a pair - and we have never had much success with a two-man central midfield, and here again the results were mixed.
The effort was there as it always is with these two, but they did struggle at times I felt. Taylor hasn't quite hit the heights yet he was achieving before his ban, and Richards' biggest effect on the game was his set-pieces.
The deliveries were mixed, but they were always a danger. All three of our goals came from them, and more often than not we won the first header from corners and free-kicks as Northampton struggled to cope with them.
That was part of the reason for Chris Wilder's post-match incandescence with his own team, apparent from the shouting and swearing coming from the dressing room, along with a penalty they felt they should have had in the first half, the non-award leaving him irate and in the stands for the second half.
The game followed a little of the pattern from Shrewsbury - a tight first half, the better chances falling to us, and us taking the lead - this time however just before, rather than just after the interval..
Then again like at the Greenhous, we had a poor spell - conceded, and could have fallen behind with Mo's golden chance (he was lively when he came on, incidentally).
As I said above, that was the turning point. It jolted us back to life, and those two quick goals for Gornell and John Marquis finished it off, but we could have done without that late alarm of Northampton's second goal.
It would have been nice to have kept the two-goal margin and get a comfortable win - something we haven't done very often.
In fact, we have won by a two-goal margin or more four times in 81 league games since January 2013 - at home to Rotherham and Morecambe and away at Fleetwood and Mansfield.
Saturday was also the first time we have scored three at home since that Morecambe game on October 22 last year.
That was Gornell's last league goal before Saturday's brace... which was the first by a Cheltenham player at home since Jermaine McGlashan against Portsmouth on September 7 last year.
Anyway, enough of the stats and now on to two very tough away games, Cambridge and Plymouth.
They will be made more difficult without our skipper Matt Taylor, whom we might not see now until December-time.
So enter Jack Deaman for his big chance, as I cannot see the manager changing the 3-4-3 tomorrow.
Even though we are away at a pretty free-scoring side, they also concede a few, and our front players seem to have their confidence back.
Deaman has not let us down so far and I have no worries about him going in there with Steve Elliott and Troy Brown for the next few games.
Beyond that, I can't see any changes tomorrow - he can't change the front three and I wouldn't see Richards and Jason Taylor being broken up.
So the only question is who the captain will be - and isn't it refreshing to have a few candidates for it, rather than one obvious choice?
Trevor Carson, after his impassioned interview at Shrewsbury, would be a good alternative, while Lee Vaughan wore the band in pre-season.
Steve Elliott is an obvious candidate, as is Matt Richards, and what about Jason Taylor, whose heart is very much on his sleeve?
Whoever gets the nod has big shoes to fill as Matt Taylor has been very effective and a good leader this season, and will be a big miss in the weeks ahead.
Saturday's game was hopefully a turning point, not just for the manager and for Terry, but for everyone, and we can enter these two away games with more belief and confidence.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Alarm bells...?

AMID all the concern over our lack of goals in recent games, one fact, possibly more important than that, seemed to be overlooked.
However, after yesterday's self-inflicted defeat at Shrewsbury, it has been brought back into sharp focus - the fact that we have now gone seven league games without a win has almost crept up on us unannounced.
It seems a long time now since that heady day at Tranmere, with four wins and a draw from our opening five games, as since then we have drawn three and lost four, and the alarm bells are starting to ring.
While the lack of goals has been an issue since Tranmere, it was joined yesterday by three things which were a feature of last season, and which we hoped were consigned to the past.
They are individual mistakes, conceding goals in clusters and losing points having been in the lead. These three things are a recipe for disaster.
Social media reaction to the defeat and performance has been pretty damning, labelling it terrible and accusing the players of lack of hunger or commitment, but I don't feel it was as bad as that.
I didn't have any issues with effort and commitment from any of the players, but some definitely had off-days and one or two struggled to get into the game and made errors at very crucial times.
The 3-5-2 had Jack Deaman keeping his place, with Troy Brown the odd one out, and new boy Eusebio given his chance alongside the Byron Harrison, under pressure for his lack of goals and lucky in many ways to get another chance.
The first half saw us have the better chances with the Shrewsbury goalkeeper busier than Trevor Carson.
He saved from Lee Vaughan in the first minute and his defenders helped out when we couldn't force a corner in at the near post, while Eusebio was causing a few problems.
The Portuguese teenager was full of tricks, showing a willingness to take people on - even if he did in equal measure show an unwillingness to look up and see if he had a pass on.
He also tried a comical dive in the penalty area which we would condemn if an opposition player did it, so we need to tell him to cut that out.
Eusebio had a couple of shots which went over and one which the keeper saved well, and a poor touch denied him a real chance after Harrison cut the ball back.
While Shrewsbury had a lot of possession and were winning the midfield battle with our old loanee James Wesolowski getting the better of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, I did not feel we were really threatened in the opening half.
They had a lot of the ball, but it was mostly in front of us and our back three were well organised, catching James Collins and Andy Mangan offside on numerous occasions.
With our lack of goals, and Shrewsbury having arguably a worse recent record with two goals in eight games, a 0-0 looked about right as neither side looked to have a great cutting edge.
But it could be said that two half-time substitutions changed the game.
Ours was enforced as Steve Elliott had been struggling after an impact with Collins seemed to leave him with a dead leg for about the last 10 minutes of the half, and Brown had to replace him.
Shrewsbury's was a tactical one, with the vastly-experienced Liam Lawrence coming on and he made a big impact for them.
But we got the perfect start. Carson made his first save of the game from Wesolowski after Lawrence played the first of many telling passes, then spotted Eusebio in space as he had for Koby Arthur's winner against Accrington.
He beat his man and this time got his head up sufficiently to spot Harrison in space. Byron has been criticised for his seeming failure to bust a gut to get into the box at the right times, but he did it this time and finished off the cross.
A welcome end to his long run without a goal, and the perfect start to the half. So now to settle down for a 10-15 minutes or so, frustrate the home crowd, and try to see out the game, and maybe nick a second against a side low on confidence in front of goal.
What we didn't want to do was to give them an instant reply, lift their confidence and get the crowd back on their side. But that's exactly what we did.
Brown was the guilty man for the equaliser with his first touch after coming on as he was caught dwelling on the ball by Wesolowski and the ball went through to Collins, who wasn't going to miss.
So now it was about mental strength - a test for the side to see how they would react... and we reacted by gifting them another goal.
This time Vaughan was the guilty man. Wesolowski got a cross in, a poor one, so Vaughan headed the ball straight back to him and he got another chance. He picked out Lawrence and his shot was diverted in by Mangan.
So from the perfect start to the half, it had turned into a deja vu from several games last season with the lead thrown away by terrible errors which had not reared their head until now.
The best thing about the 3-5-2 system had been the defensive solidity it brought - but now we are without a clean sheet since the 0-0 draw at Morecambe, having conceded one goal in the last five games before yesterday.
So we had to chase the game, and Yates had John Marquis ready to come on for a few minutes but by the time he could get him on the field the task was made harder by a third Shrewsbury goal - and another poor one.
We had plenty of players around Nat Knight-Percival as he headed it past Carson, but none of them made what you could call a real challenge, and that was 3-1, so the task was now even harder.
Marquis did come on after that goal, replacing Raffa de Vita, who had a very anonymous game as the more advanced of our midfield three.
He struggled to get into the game and has yet to make a real impact in any of the games he has had so far.
It is difficult to work out what his position is. He has played wide in a three, as a forward and as a 'number 10' and hasn't really looked suited to any of them.
He did his best work at Swindon as a left winger, but the 3-5-2 doesn't allow for wingers and so it is hard to see where he will fit in - it just seems that we have too many similar bits-and-pieces players with Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth also in this category.
After the third goal we looked very deflated and seemed to have a total lack of energy - it seemed that the Wednesday-Saturday turnaround which we are not used to took its toll on a few players.
Taylor and Richards both had off-days, and that, combined to de Vita's anonymity in the game, never allowed us to get a grip on midfield, with first Wesolowski and then Lawrence getting the upper hand in there.
Eusebio faded out of the game, and the defence had lost their confidence after giving three poor goals away.
We never looked like getting back into it. The best chance we had after the goal actually came at 2-1, Harrison turning a shot wide after Matt Taylor headed a cross down to him.
If he had taken that, it could have made a difference and given us an obvious lift, but instead we shot ourselves in the foot again and make a tough task almost impossible.
The worrying thing about the last 40 minutes or so was the echoes of last season which it brought to mind.
After the game, Carson came up a gave a very honest interview here which sums it all up pretty well.
There was also a debate in the dressing room - not from the manager ranting at the team, but from the players asking questions of each other.
This doesn't mean a massive fallout, but seems to mean players who are committed demanding more from each other and being highly frustrated at being let down by other around them, which I feel bodes well.
We have been told we have a close-knit squad and I don't see the harm in the odd raised voice in there between them.
I think it shows a squad who want to succeed and are equally as frustrated when some drop the standards they set early in the season as we are as supporters.
As Carson said, people have to realise that this is eight without a win (including Bristol City) and things are not as rosy as they were a few weeks ago.
So once again the manager has a job on, and the pressure will begin to rise on him again.
After 12 games, our record is now 4-4-4, with a goal difference of minus one, so we couldn't be any more mid-table if we tried - and the table in now starting to settle down.
At the start of the season, I divided the league into three sections of eight and of my predicted top eight sides, six of them are now in those places, the exceptions being Wycombe and Morecambe. Another of them were Northampton, in ninth.
I had us down to finish in the bottom section of eight, and if things carry on like this then that won't be far off the money either.
From a rosy start, Mark Yates now has a very important five games coming up, and he needs a win quickly to stop this rot, but none of them will be easy.
Northampton come to town on Saturday and they are never easy and have a few of our old boys in tow.
Then we go to Cambridge, who have surprised many and seem a very free-scoring outfit at home, having put five past Oxford on Saturday. That took their tally to 23, the best in the division.
After that is a trip to Plymouth, somewhere we never get much joy, and after that York come to town, in what will become a Russ Penn and Keith Lowe love-in in earnest if we still haven't got at least one win by then.
I had York in my top eight, but they sit 22nd and are the draw specialists with only one win so far in their 12 games
After those four games, comes the first round of the FA Cup, and Yates will be hoping for a favourable draw - although I am sure he thought he had that when Tamworth away came out this time last year. This is not the time to pull out Bristol City away.
These next five games are crucial for Yates' future. He needs to sit down and try to find a formula which works for the players. And fast.

Friday, 10 October 2014

No room for sentiment

FOOTBALL can be an unforgiving game - one minute you can be the hero, the next a complete zero.
That is even more so the case these days, with fans, media and chairmen adopting a much more short-termist mindset - Russ Wilcox's axing at Scunthorpe a few months after winning promotion and the League Two's manager of the year soon after a 28-match unbeaten run is an example of that.
It can also be a sentimental game. Fans grow attached to players and they would happily see them stick around for ever - you only need to see the reception Alan Bennett got the other week for an example of that, and he was only a CTFC player for 15 months.
Supporters want to see effort and commitment, and these are the players who are remembered and revered long after they have gone - even if they are not the most successful that we have had.
But you cannot keep players around on effort, work-rate and commitment alone. 
Effort and commitment should be a given anyway. Every player should be trying, for every minute of every game.
In the past, players like Josh Low have come in for flak, Matt Richards got it last season, and now it is Byron Harrison's turn, as they have all been perceived to not be trying, not giving 100 per cent, cruising through games, or just simply being lazy.
Every player has their off games. Yes, we need more from Byron, but this is the same Byron who scored 15 goals in our terrible side last season and who many of the fans now moaning about him voted as their player of the year a few months ago (me included...).
The reaction from a lot of fans to Terry Gornell being transfer-listed at his own request (remember - his own request) has not come as a great surprise to me.
A lot of fans are not happy at the thought of him going, with the reasoning largely being that he works hard, shows passion and is committed.
I would agree he does all those things, but it can only get you so far - you have to look at his record of five goals in all competitions, three in the league in 26 starts and 19 sub appearances. 
That has to be the bottom line, no matter how much running about he does, and how committed he is.
Sooner or later, you have to say enough is enough, this isn't working, and accept that it might be time to move on, and this is what Terry has seen fit to do by asking to go elsewhere.
I am sure that he is frustrated and thinks he should have had more game-time, and there will be those blaming Mark Yates, and claiming there has been a fall-out, as there seemingly has to have been with every player who leaves the club, or wants to.
Sometimes there has been, Darryl Duffy was one, Darren Carter I think another who didn't leave on the best of terms and had a parting shot. But not every time.
Yates has been undoubtedly been wrong on a few occasions to get rid of players - Bennett, Russ Penn and Keith Lowe are the ones who immediately spring to mind. But in Gornell's case, you have to go back to that goal record every time. It is all there in black and white.
Wednesday night's was his first goal in 352 days. 50 weeks. Almost a year. He is a forward. That cannot be acceptable as a reason to keep giving him chances.
He'll start scoring soon if we give him a run of games. So you keep him in the side, in the hope that his luck might change and he will go on a run. How long do you wait? How many chances do you give?
I am also reminded of what happens whenever we sign, or are about to sign a forward player.
What is the first thing that happens? Social media is full of posts detailing that player's past goalscoring records at his previous clubs, and giving opinions on it, good or bad.
So what would the reaction be if we were going to sign  a player whose recent record revealed three league goals in 45 games?  I can't believe many of our fans would be happy at the thought of signing him - yet many seem to want us to keep Gornell with that recent record.
If that three in 45 was Harrison's goal record, I doubt if there would be a Cheltenham fan wanting him to stay here. Because he is perceived not to be hard-working or committed, many fans would happily see him go it seems... even with his vastly superior goal record to Gornell.
I am sure there will be interest in Gornell. Teams up in his neck of the woods like Southport, Chester or Macclesfield - his former club Accrington maybe. We know he has turned one side down, believed to be a Conference side.
It would be even better would be if the transfer-listing had the same effect on him is it has on Jason Taylor - a player transformed this season. In fact, Taylor is officially still on the list, and when he went on it we were told another player might join him but it never happened. 
I wonder if that was Gornell. I cannot believe he has not been thinking about this for a while. I cannot see that he has scored on Wednesday, and gone into Yates on Thursday morning and said "see, told you I should be playing. I want to leave." This will have been brewing for a while.
Gornell may yet come back. A loan spell somewhere might revitalise him. It might see the loan system work in our favour for once, rather than the other way round, as it might play one of our players into form instead of us doing just that for other clubs.
But we have to be careful about letting him go out on loan, maybe until January for example, or we could have a problem in a few weeks time, as John Marquis' spell ends at the end of November and can't be extended any further.
So we could be left then with Harrison, Raffa de Vita and our newest recruit, Eusebio Bancessi as our forward options, unless of course Yates heads back to the loan market again... or wants to give Bobbie Dale a go.
My view of the loan market, especially the 'here today, gone tomorrow' short-term ones is well known, and again I am left disappointed to see us overlooking our own lads to bring in someone else's teenager.
Nothing against Eusebio, he seems a good player, but why doesn't Terry's decision mean a chance for Harry Williams, Dale or Zack Kotwica?
We do need to be careful with the way we treat these lads. I would hope that the performances of Marley Watkins up at Inverness recently have given some food for thought.
I know people will say 'it's only Inverness' and 'Scottish football is crap anyway' but he has done well for himself and is an example of someone going away and showing signs of fulfilling the promise many fans thought he had - he wasn't given much of a chance and drifted away. Sam Foley is another who has come back via Newport to Yeovil.
Harry got 37 goals from midfield last season - so why haven't we seen him even on the bench in a side which has struggled to score goals? All this after he started three of our last four games last season, and in my view did not look out of place.
It just seems a perplexing decision to me. Now he is back at Evesham again. Good news for Paul Collicutt, but I am not sure if it's the right thing for Harry - surely he needs to be tested at a higher level (no disrespect to Evesham, but Harry scored four goals in his last spell, so surely he had proved he can do it there), or be on our bench getting game time.
Dale also scored regularly last season and got four this term in the reserves and has been on the bench, but that's it.
Kotwica has a couple of short run-outs, Adam Powell has not been seen at all, James Bowen on the bench once and Jamal Lawrence from the youth team twice.
But I wonder just how likely players like Bowen and Lawrence are to ever come on to the pitch, or if they are just filling the bench. I hope Yates is not just putting them there for lip service, to say to the board "see, I do care about our youngsters."
I would love to know what Russ Milton or Jamie Victory think if that were the case. If it is, what is the point of having an academy?
That would be dangling the carrot in front of them and giving them some false hope. Joe Hanks has proved that, given a chance, these lads are good enough to make an impact. But they need an opening.
I am slightly concerned therefore that the manager now seems to be contradicting the chairman's words from the summer that we were not going to use the loan market as much as we have before.
Expense, the short-termism, and the detachment from fans that these players can have as they are not ours and that they don't 'buy in' to things are the reasons he gave.
The bigger, younger, hungrier squad was also meant to be there as a comfort blanket to allow Yates more scope with injuries and suspensions, so he could use the young lads if senior ones went down.
Seems he didn't tell the manager all that though. Eusebio is now the fourth loanee in already, only 11 league games in - and I am pleased he said no to Jordan Wynter's return. I don't feel we need him.
The comments he has made in the Echo article here include a few confusing ones - he seems to say that it is okay to play this lad ahead of our own lads simply because he has been at Benfica and Wolves, and our lads need more development in senior football. Why can't they get that 'development' here with exposure to first-team football?
I am not saying we should be playing five or six of them from the start. But at least they should have the odd substitute appearance, and a start here and there. For example, why not have one or two on the bench on Wednesday and give them a go? 
We do have to be careful with them - Hanks has done well but showed signs of weariness recently so he might have to come out of the side, rest and go back in again later, but we also have to show them we believe in them and we really think they have a future here.
And it's not just the youngsters who get overtaken by the loanees. I can't believe Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth, to name two, are overly thrilled at another body arriving.
Another quote struck me from that article: "We have a few players up front who are a bit alike." 
Yates is right there - and I can't help feeling Eusebio only adds to de Vita, Sterling-James, Kotwica and Haworth in the players-who-can-play-wide-or-in-midfield-or-behind-the-striker category - and does the 3-5-2 allow for players who do that sort of job?

Thursday, 9 October 2014

We need to talk about Byron...

WE need to talk about Byron.
Last season, he was the shining light in a pool of mediocrity - 15 goals in a hugely disappointing campaign saw him deservedly fill his mantelpiece with the end-of-season awards.
He should, therefore, have been buoyed by that, and come into this season on the crest of a wave, ready to build on that success ... but it just hasn’t happened.
Ultimately, strikers - especially those wearing the number 9 on their back - are judged on goals and a return of one in 13 league and cup games (a one-yard tap-in) is simply not good enough - and that is before we even talk about the rest of his game.
In many games, he just hasn’t even looked like scoring, and has barely had a sight of goal.
We haven’t seen the Byron of last season - the one who bullied centre-halves, chased for everything, not giving defenders a quiet moment. He has been lethargic at times, and looked off the pace, barely busting a gut at times to get into the box.
On Wednesday, he competed better, but still, when he had laid the ball off or found himself in the channel, there wasn't that desire to make that telling run into the box and be there for a cross.
It was summed up in the first half when Aden Flint slipped and he got away. A confident player would have cut into the box and looked to get a shot away, but Byron was too slow, took too long and failed to make the most of an opening, which, against a side like Bristol City, isn't going to come along too often.
Yes, there have been signs of improvement in the last couple of games, but I think it may be too late to save his place in the side.
On Wednesday, he and Raffa de Vita came off early in the second half, and their replacements John Marquis and Terry Gornell produced just the sort of energy and workrate which fits in with the players around them.
So Mark Yates has a decision to make - and I think he has to give serious consideration to giving those two a go at Shrewsbury, with Byron being dropped.
He did seem to have a slight injury when he came off, Sky's coverage said it was a calf problem, and that might make Yates' mind up for him, to give Marquis and Gornell a go.
Not that those two have been prolific either. Marquis has one goal in nine games and Gornell’s header on Wednesday finally ended his 351-day goal drought.
Marquis has been a bit unlucky in front of goal. He has had more shots (21 before Wednesday) than any other Cheltenham player and eight on target - but he has to concentrate on that and stop fighting the referee every time he goes out there.
He is one game from a ban with four bookings already in nine games, with the one on Wednesday being totally unnecessary.
To his credit, Gornell has never shirked away during his drought. It can be easy for players to go into their shells but he has carried on working hard, got into the positions and his goal was the biggest positive from Wednesday night. I hope he kicks on from here.
But what all of our strikers also need is better quality from wide areas, as much of our crossing this season has been woeful.
Craig Braham-Barrett has been a player transformed this season, and he and Lee Vaughan have got into some great positions, but then failed to deliver the final cross consistently.
It is no coincidence that the one quality ball Braham-Barrett produced on Wednesday was despatched by Gornell - we need to see more of that.
Elsewhere, de Vita didn't look like he was comfortable playing as a central striker - yet he might still get a place in the side at Shrewsbury.
Joe Hanks, who has put in some great performances, has just looked a bit leggy in the last two games and may need a rest.
With Jason Taylor back to act as a security blanket from the back three, it gives the other two midfielders a bit of freedom, so Matt Richards and Hanks, de Vita or Andy Haworth, who also comes into consideration after a decent 25 minutes in midweek, can venture further forward to support the front two.
Much has been made of Cheltenham’s defensive solidarity this season - but there has not been a clean sheet now for six games, with one goal conceded in each of the last five league games.
That is brought even more into focus when your strikers are misfiring, so they need to get back to where they were at the start of the season.
But Mark Yates has a dilemma here too after Jack Deaman’s performances against AFC Wimbledon and Bristol City.
He has stepped up to the plate against Adebayo Akinfenwa and then Aaron Wilbraham, and so Yates has to decide between him and Troy Brown at the Greenhous Meadow.
Steve Elliott will come back as he gives the balance of a left-footer in that back three, and it would be harsh on Deaman to return him to the bench.
I have also got my concerns about Vaughan, who hasn't looked like the same player since coming back from his injury.
He started the season very well, but in recent games has just showed some signs of weakness defensively, and also not been as effective going forward.
I felt he struggled on Wednesday against Greg Cunningham, and you have to ask where he was when Jay Emmanuel-Thomas was left with about six months to pick out Wes Burns with his cross.
Ah yes. Burns. Not exactly the tallest player and you have ask why he was able to make that leap and get on the end of the cross with barely a challenge - comes back to that slight drop-off in defensive solidity I was talking about earlier.
That goal adds to the poor one we let in against AFC Wimbledon, and just sets a few little alarm bells ringing as by and large we haven't been conceding goals like that. Opponents have had to work harder to score against us.
But we also have to work harder to score against our opponents, and not all of our team have been doing that enough.
Also, as regular readers of this nonsense will know, I am a champion of our young players and I hope, if some of the seniors continue to underperform, that Yates will give them a go.
Bobbie Dale has come back from Bath and Harry Williams from Evesham where their loans were a bit hit and miss.
That wasn't their fault though - Dale started one game and Williams was his usual goalscoring self - but their stays were interrupted by the Bath and Evesham still being in the FA Cup and our wish not to have them cup-tied meant they were playing one game, missing one game and not getting that total run of games in the month they were there.
That is the risk you take by loaning players out to that level at this time of the season.
I understand that Cirencester want Dale, and were told they couldn't have him until after Wednesday's game - and then he wasn't in the 16 and could have gone to Ciren and probably would have got 90 minutes on Tuesday against Weymouth.
Surely that would have been more beneficial for him if were not going to use him on Wednesday rather than have him sitting in the stands?
Adam Powell is getting games at Cinderford and grabbed another goal on Tuesday, and while there may be reservations that they are playing at too low a level, game time is the most important thing for them.
We have seen that Yates is willing to put these lads on the bench, with our products Zack Kotwica, James Bowen and Jamal Lawrence sat there in recent games - but I still feel he needs to be bolder and give them that incentive - that reassurance that they are not just making up the numbers.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place

Well at least we scored a goal.
It wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, but when goals come along as often as I need a haircut, then you'll take it.
We didn't go on to win, but after a decent enough first-half display and a sterile one in the second-half, again we just have to be thankful for small mercies.
It was the first time this season we have dropped points after being in front - we lost 37 points like that last season remember, so there is a small mercy for you.
But after five without defeat, we have lurched and strained our way to six without a win, scoring two goals and letting in five.
A bright start to the season has polarised into an ordinary one, and the stats do speak for themselves - only bottom of the table Hartlepool have scored less goals than we have, and something needs to be done about it.
After the game, the manager said he is not panicking about the results or the lack of goals. That's fair enough I guess, but if it goes on for much longer then even he will have to be concerned about it.
He is right to say that we are making the chances. But they have to be taken. Sooner or later, patience has to run out. You have to say right, you've had enough chances. Time for someone else to get a go, or time to say right, we need to change the way we are playing.
But he has a dilemma. The 3-5-2 formation (or 3-4-3 as we played against AFCW) has made us solid at the back - but even that has slipped slightly of late as we have conceded one goal in each of our last five league games. Those clean sheets have suddenly become a little bit elusive.
We have won four games this season, and in only one of them, Bury away on the opening day, has the manager not had to change the system in order to bring about a result.
Most notably of course, he did it at Tranmere with Steve Elliott off at half-time and 3-5-2 became 4-3-1-2, but also against Accrington and Hartlepool at home, and he also did it in other games where we came out with a draw, Morecambe for instance, or to chase games in vain - Luton and Burton.
So yes, while the three at the back has been a success defensively, it is not a system where I can see us being really free-flowing and dominant against teams from an offensive point of view. We have done it in spells, but then been unable to prolong it for long periods of a game.
The manager is in a tricky position. He can't go to a flat back four as we would be too open. Plus, which centre-half (or two) get left out?
It would expose our full-backs Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett to their weakness - one-on-one defending. In this system, their strengths are to the fore - getting the ball, going forward and then hopefully providing a decent cross or two - but even they were pretty elusive yesterday as our delivery from wide areas was largely poor and occasionally dreadful.
Both of them got into great positions and on the whole failed to deliver - although Vaughan did set the goal up helped by a goalkeeping nightmare.
Matt Taylor snapped it up - our first goal in the first half of a league game since Byron Harrison's against Accrington in the second game of the season, and we should have gone on from there.
But it was the usual problem. Chances created and chances not taken, and in the end we were made to pay for it.
John Marquis missed the best one after a decent move but hit it at the keeper, Harrison put a header over then Raffa de Vita had a good opening but hit a defender and not the net.
Harrison has come in for all the flak, but I thought he was better yesterday. Neal Ardley said after the game that he was a handful, and he did at least have a chance or two to score.
But one goal in 11 league games is simply not good enough, and that's the bottom line. He is in the team to provide goals and he isn't doing it.
Marquis has been brought in to do the same, and he doesn't have a league goal yet, while Terry Gornell's drought has now reached 348 days.
There is no easy solution but we cannot keep relying on loan players. We can't keep bringing in X player or Y player. We are paying these players decent wages and they need to start taking more responsibility.
You could see the lack of confidence around the box - not just from Harrison or Marquis but all over the side.
There is no doubting that the effort and commitment continues to be there - much more than last season - but a few times we got into a position 20 or so yards out but no one took the bull by the horns with a shot. It was always one more pass, moving the onus on to someone else and eventually losing the chance - just grow a pair... have a shot!
Decision-making was scrambled at times. We'd take that extra pass when it wasn't needed, or we'd not make the right pass when it was screaming out - an example of that was Terry Gornell shooting with Vaughan having half of the pitch to himself and screaming for it over to his right.
After being in front and wasting more chances, the goal we gave away was sloppy. A corner headed back to the taker, then no reaction to the second cross and a centre-half had time to take a touch and score.
That gave Wimbledon belief and they were the more likely in the second half - which overall was pretty turgid as we created nothing and they had two chances, both from the same bloke. Yes. Him.
Big Bayo has scored as many league goals against us in 15 games as our whole team has scored this season, and once again, as we do nearly every time we play against him, we looked scared stiff of him.
He is a clever player. Straight away, he latched himself on to Jack Deaman (who, considering the quality of strikers he was up against had a decent league debut) and he kept dropping deep to win little flick-ons and to try and link the play.
His task was made easier however by our total lack of physicality in midfield. Joe Hanks has been excellent this season but this was on off-day for him, and Matt Richards was also below par.
Both were brushed aside all too easily, not just by Bayo but by Dannie Bulman and Sammy Moore, and the ball retention and speed of passing was very poor.
Richards was the main culprit, being turned so easily by Bayo as he set off for the chance at the end which he thankfully put wide as we were waiting for the net to bulge and on another occasion finding himself as last man but dallying in possession with easy passing options available and nearly costing us a goal.
In normal circumstances, he or Hanks (or both) would have been hauled off, but with Jason Taylor, Asa Hall and now Paul Black all missing there were no alternatives available.
Taylor is thankfully back on Wednesday, and we have missed him, but Hall's 'four to six week' injury from Bury is looking like more of a three-month one. Apparently he is 10-12 days from even being back on the training ground - and that is before he has played a reserve game. Very frustrating for us, and no doubt him as well.
The difference between the halves was, at times, startling. The first-half tempo was good, as was the passing and moving, typified by the move for the Marquis chance which he missed as he linked well with Harrison, made a good run then should have scored.
In the second half there was no tempo and the movement was terrible. I saw a tweet after the game from one of our fans that described it as 'football with the handbrake on' and that summed it up pretty well.
The substitutes, Gornell and Zack Kotwica, were unable to make any impact after replacing Marquis and de Vita, who flitted in and out in the first half then disappeared in the second, and by the end of the game we looked like a side with four senior players out.
There were plusses - Trevor Carson continues to impress with handling, command of his area and distribution all excellent, Deaman's debut was promising with some excellent long passing setting up chances and he relished the battle with Akinfenwa and Tubbs. I think we have four centre-halves who are not the worst at this level.
Another plus was four Academy products in the 18 - Hanks in the starting line-up and Kotwica, James Bowen and Jamal Lawrence on the bench and that has to be a good thing.
Elsewhere, Harry Williams and Adam Powell scored for Evesham and Cinderford respectively while Bobbie Dale has had games at Bath but is now back and could go out again - Cirencester's manager Brian Hughes is looking for a loan striker but I'd rather see these guys given a go ahead of more loanees.
Just what do we have to lose? Williams is best in a 'number 10' role and has an eye for goal, while Dale has netted a few in the reserve games so far.
Could they do any worse than our misfiring front men? No. And at least they are our own players and we aren't using loans which could be here today, gone tomorrow and not give a monkeys about our club. Give them a go, I say.
At the end of August, we looked a confident side who were creating chances and playing with freedom. Now, at the start of October, a lot of that seems to have evaporated and we look tentative, nervous and short of confidence.
One loan player being recalled by his club cannot be used as the sole reason or excuse for that. Yes, Koby Arthur had a big impact, especially with his goals and energy, but he spent a lot of his time here on the bench, and we were still playing fluently in games without him on the pitch.
We need someone else to step up and take that mantle, and fast, or a promising start will continue to ebb away.