Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A month of destiny

AND so it can begin - the January transfer window of 2015, possibly the most important four weeks we have faced in our Football League existence.
By the time the final whistle goes at Dagenham on January 31, it is anyone's guess what our team will look like, but we can probably guess a few names which won't be in it.
We know Jason Taylor is one - even with five players out injured, the manager preferred to give a squad number and seat on the bench to second-year scholar Danny Reynolds on Sunday.
And another of them will surely be Byron Harrison. Since he came here in the 2013 transfer window, he has divided opinion as much as many other players before and since.
He scored one goal in the half-season after he arrived, then 15 last season and has seven this, so in a team which hasn't been prolific at all, he has carried the main goal threat.
Yet at Exeter on Friday with us chasing the game at 1-0 down, 18-year-old Harry Williams was sent on. On Sunday, in the same situation, another 18-year-old, Bobbie Dale, got the nod.
Those decisions were explained away by talk of work ethic, and the youngsters deserving their places on merit by their performances in training.
Basically, the manager has decided he is lazy, and it seems that it will take something akin to an earthquake for him to put Harrison on the field.
Six months ago Byron swept the board at the player of the year awards - yet I am sure his detractors in the stands and on the terraces will be saying 'at last.'
However I suspect even his harshest critics were calling for Harrison's introduction on Sunday. I am not, by and large, a critic of his but I was among them - but Paul Buckle will clearly not be moved, and that surely sounds the death knell for Byron at this club.
It's a brave decision - the manager of a team without a league win for two months, with only two senior recognised strikers leaving its leading scorer on the bench two games running when they need a goal.
It might have been designed to give Byron a kick up the backside, but I don't think Byron is the kind of character to respond to that.
He needs to be loved, have an arm put round his shoulder, and Buckle isn't going to do that. His mind is made up, and that's it.
His teams are based on work ethic, attitude and pulling together. If you aren't going to buy into that then you are gone. No second chances.
Brave, or foolhardy - but it proves once again that Buckle is going to do things his way whether we as fans or the players like it or not, whoever they are - young first year pro or higher-earning senior players - and he will back himself to get it right, and presumably (and hopefully) able to find a better replacement.
His words are confident too - and for the most part I like the way he talks. Straight to the point, always upbeat, always enthusiastic.
Those who criticised Mark Yates for his dour interview demeanour should be pleased. I for one am always interested to hear what he has to say.
While we might not always agree with what he says and does, we have to put our faith in him to do something this month with his wheeling and dealing, and improve the results on the field.
In between the speculation about who will come in and who will go out, we have some big games.
Trips to Oxford, Hartlepool and Dagenham, all in the bottom nine with us, and home games against Morecambe and Luton - a set of games we need to get some points from.
After the game on Sunday, I came away disappointed that we did not get what I felt we deserved, which was at least a point.
I was upbeat about the performance - I felt we had more spark and energy about us than we have for several weeks. Compared to the performances at the end of Yates' reign, I thought we were much better.
But we lost - and that is the bottom line for many, hence the surprising amount of negativity I read after the game. There were many saying it wasn't an improved or encouraging display at all, as we lost the game.
I woke up on Sunday to tweets saying we were going to get 'hammered', 'embarrassed', 'stuffed' and all other similar adjectives, and then since the game I have seen comments that we were terrible, that we'd be better off under Yatesy and that Buckle should go.
Yes, seriously. People are entitled to their own opinions, but some of them have been completely knee-jerk.
I don't think there is any question that the performances have improved since we lost 5-1 at Stevenage and 4-1 to Wycombe in Yates' last two games, and also since Buckle's early games. I felt yesterday was light years better than Dover, for instance.
Improved performances yes, but three 1-1 draws and three 1-0 losses are the bottom line, and I am not kidding myself that we don't need to get wins and clean sheets on the board, as we do.
But I am not panicking about it. Yet.
There is still half a season left to get those wins and clean sheets, and the manager at the very least deserves the breathing space of a transfer window to finally put his mark on the squad... come back to me on January 31 and we'll see where we are then.
We lost on Sunday as we switched off for a few seconds and let Adam Chapman have the space to find Chris Zebroski, who was then allowed to turn too easily and fire in a super shot into the corner - then before and after that we failed to show enough ruthlessness in front of goal to finish the chances we created.
Aside from the goal, I didn't think Trevor Carson had much to do. After the opening 10-15 minutes, Jack Deaman and Troy Brown looked pretty solid to me, coping well with Zebroski and Rene Howe when he came on, while Lee Vaughan had one of his best games for us - both defensively and going forward and Craig Braham-Barrett maintained his consistent form.
In midfield I thought Matt Richards and Kane Ferdinand were good - remember the problems we have had finding a 'two' to play in midfield in recent times - and I felt they kept us on the front foot.
Omari Sterling-James was undoubtedly the star of the show. He was irrepressible - getting the ball, running at people, taking them on and having the confidence to try his luck, and he was unlucky with a couple of efforts, one over the bar and one beaten away by the keeper.
His display shows the benefits of trusting the younger players at the club, something Yatesy never seemed to want to do. OSJ was, along with Koby Arthur, the catalyst of the comeback win at Tranmere, but was then sparsely used until now.
He was so dangerous in the first half that Newport changed their system from 3-5-2 in the first half to 4-4-2 to try and negate his influence - a massive compliment to Omari and to our overall display.
Overall, Newport had six players booked, which was another indicator into how hard they had to battle and what they had to do to stop us - and most of those yellows were for fouls on Omari.
The rest were for fouls on Harry Williams, who in my view got a long-overdue first start of the season and got better and better as the game went on.
He started the game right up front alongside Terry Gornell and didn't find it easy against the physicality of Ismail Yakubu and Darren Jones in the first half.
Yet after the break he dropped off 10-15 yards deeper and I thought he began to have a real impact on the game, drawing fouls and setting up situations for us - and I am convinced he was taken out at the end and we should have had a penalty.
Zack was slightly disappointing as, like at Exeter, I wanted him to take on his full-back more. When he got the ball he looked to either dribble or pass inside instead of trying to commit his man down the outside - I'd like him to be a bit braver.
Gornell was his usual hard-working self. His touch was good, hold-up play usually adequate - but he lacked the ruthlessness in front of goal in hitting the post with one chance in the first minute or two and spurning a decent one-on-one.
I liked our positivity though. We kept going, had good 'legs', good energy and I thought we created as many chances as we have in any game for a while, and considering we had five players out - four injured and one in the ice box - it was a creditable, encouraging performance.
We didn't fold, as might have done on other occasions with the team we had out, and as we have done with a far more experienced line-up. Buckle said post-match we 'will not fold' under him. We'll see about that, but on this occasion we didn't.
I thought we took the game to Newport and they had to work hard to keep us out, resorting to fouls and picking up six bookings in doing so. It wasn't a stroll for them and they needed all their resilience to see it through.
But we still lost, I hear you cry. Yes. I know that. I saw the game too.  Despite that, I am reserving the right to be encouraged by what I have seen, and to feel that the overall display was better than we have seen lately and tells me we are improving.
The decision of Buckle to put the youngsters in was justified and long overdue, especially after the display of Omari, and Williams in the second half, and we finished the game with a front four of three teenagers in Dale, Williams and Kotwica and 21 year old Omari.
The average age of the starting team was 23.5 with only Matt Richards over 30, and he only reached that landmark on Boxing Day - all encouraging for me to see such a young team give it such a good go against a team with only two defeats in 19 games.
But we still lost. Yes, okay. I hear you. And we haven't won yet under Buckle - but I don't understand how people can have been expecting a sudden, and massive improvement from a team with no confidence or belief, which lost 5-1 and 4-1 in successive weeks before he came in, transforming overnight to a free-flowing team banging in the goals for fun.
In the whole of 2004, we have only scored 42 goals in the league, so we are not suddenly going to bang them in for fun, hence why keeping them out is so important.
Surely the progress was always going to be gradual? Surely he had to try to stem the flow of goals as a priority? I know he hasn't had a clean sheet yet on his watch, but six goals conceded in six games is an improvement on nine in two. Even my dodgy maths confirms that.
In my view, we were always limping through until January while Buckle assessed the squad he had inherited, hoping to pick up what points we could, then get an injection of players and form in January when the window is open.
As far as I am concerned, Buckle's job really starts now, as he has six games with his hands more or less tied by having a squad of players which is not his own.
It's like moving into a new house and not feeling it is yours until you have changed the curtains or covered up that horrible brown wallpaper in the hallway - he now has the chance to put his own impression on things in earnest with a coat of magnolia here and there or a nice Venetian blind in the bathroom.
By that Dagenham game on January 31, he won't be able to hide behind the 'squad he inherited'. The decision on Taylor and the almost-certain demise of Harrison along with some others maybe - Andy Haworth? Paul Black? - means that he will be overhauling it so it won't be the squad he inherited by then, it will be the squad he wants and will rely on until May - so no excuses and the improvement will need to have started by then to steer us away from trouble.
We won't have Asa Hall unfortunately, as he needs surgery and will be out for six more weeks. I am one of the rare breed who have seen him play a League game for us - most of the away fans missed it as they got the the Bury game late by which time he had already gone off.
I feel very sorry for him. I am sure there are those out there labelling him a sicknote as if he is enjoying himself spending six months not playing football having joined a new club. It sounds a horrible injury and I am sure he hasn't been having fun sat around watching when he wants to impress first Yates and now Buckle.
On the incoming side, I don't think we will have to wait long for a new arrival - I wouldn't be surprised if there was one new face at least in the squad for Oxford. Buckle doesn't seem like the kind of guy to muck about.
I understand a winger will coming in, and I am hoping for at least one striker and maybe also a central midfielder, depending on whether he wants to keep Kane Ferdinand or not. A centre-back might also have to be considered if Matt Taylor and Steve Elliott are out for a while, but I suspect they'll both be back by the end of January.
Raffa de Vita's departure has cleared some money, and my educated guess would be that Taylor and Harrison are close to the top of our highest earners' list, so more cash for wages freed up if they go.
We are three points away from the bottom two, but I am not worrying yet. The glass is going to remain half full and will be re-assessed on January 31.
2014 was a forgettable year in the history of CTFC, but 2015 needs to start with a bang to make us all breathe a little easier.
We all want this club to thrive, and to stay in the Football League, so we should all wish Paul Buckle the best of luck in the month ahead.
He will, and already has I suspect, made decisions which we don't all agree with, but he is the manager and that isn't going to change for a while so I just think we have to put our trust in him and hope he makes the right decisions.
The consequences if he doesn't are too horrible to contemplate, so let's just hope he gets us moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Boxing Day blues

IT is inevitable when we lose a game that fans are not going to be happy, but I must admit I was surprised at the level of negativity after yesterday's game.
It seems that every time we lose a game, the players are immediately not good enough, or not trying hard enough, or don't care enough, and every defeat immediately means we are spiralling towards relegation.
We need a win. we all know that, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work that one out.
Paul Buckle needs a win, as with each draw and defeat it is harder for him to hide behind the 'I inherited a squad with no confidence or belief' mantra that he has used up to now.
Yesterday's game was decided by a scuffed cross-cum-sort-of-shot which came off Jack Deaman's studs and rolled past Trevor Carson. That was it. It could easily have ended 0-0 as neither goalkeeper was exactly overworked.
I had no qualms with the players' effort and commitment. They tried their best, but we lacked quality in the top third of the field when it mattered most, and didn't make the most of some good situations.
I appreciate the manager's positivity, and we did look more dynamic at times, but as for him describing it as our best performance under him... hmm. Not sure on that one.
Trev definitely had a bit more to do than James Hamon in the Exeter goal, but compare it to games like Oxford, when he was man of the match and earned us a point, his workload wasn't high.
So again we looked solid enough. We'd started with the 4-5-1 but had to change it when Joe Hanks went off - and actually I felt that almost worked in our favour a bit as we had to be a bit more positive.
There has been a massive clamour for Zack Kotwica to start games, and he practically started this one as he was on the pitch eight minutes in.
Going forward, he was positive - getting the ball and trying to run with it. Yes, there was the occasional blind alley when he got a bit stuck and lost the ball, but he set up a couple of promising situations which ultimately fizzled out.
Defensively he needs to improve, as one slack pass cost Craig Braham-Barrett a booking, and he needs to have the confidence to beat players and get to the byline. He did it once, beating Scott Bennett, but then the cross was disappointing.
And that was the problem. With him on the left, Omari Sterling-James in the middle and Raffa de Vita out right, while Matt Richards and Kane Ferdinand sat a bit deeper, we carried a threat, and there was some energy in the team.
I thought the Exeter back four didn't look comfortable when we ran at them and we did have some good possession high up the field, with runners available.
But the killer touch, that bit of ruthlessness, was missing. The crossing was appalling - I don't think we beat the first man at all on probably six or even occasions in the first half, and so all that good work had gone to waste.
Terry Gornell worked his socks off. I thought he held the ball up as well as he could and looked to bring others into play, but then the others didn't return the compliment by giving him some quality balls into the box.
It would have needed to be real quality though. Terry found himself outnumbered all the time by four defenders, so the balls into the box would have needed to be absolutely perfect for him to make anything of them.
A corner which Troy Brown had headed off the line was the closest we came, along with a good opening for Richards, which he scuffed well wide from the edge of the box when Gornell had found him in space after running the channel.
A fifth successive 0-0 scoreline at half-time was another positive for the manager, who is trying to build a solid base and add the rest later.
Having lost Hanks, to then lose Matt Taylor as well was something he could have done without, but Deaman came in and I thought did ok after taking a little time to settle in. You can't blame him for a deflection as he was trying to clear the ball.
With the experience of Clinton Morrison and the good movement around him from Nichols, Nicholls, Sercombe and Harley, Exeter had a lot of possession in our half - but their tendency to over-play, take that one extra pass when a shot was on, played into our hands a bit in that first half as we did have chances to break - but wasted them.
After the break however, we didn't get those chances. We were pegged back a bit more with Kotwica and Sterling-James out of the game for long periods.
Omari had moved to the right by now with de Vita pulled inside, and I didn't think that worked as Omari was definitely more effective centrally. A winger he isn't in my view as he, like Kotwica at times, doesn't seem to have the belief to beat a man and get a good cross in.
We created very little in the second half and didn't seem to have the same energy. CBB got to the by-line once and with four waiting in the box his pull-back went back 30 yards to de Vita whose shot was blocked. That summed it up really.
After the goal, Buckle had a problem. with two players off injured, his capacity for change was limited, and in commentary I figured his only real choice was Byron Harrison for one of the central trio (Richards, de Vita, Ferdinand) and to go 4-4-2.
So it was a surprise to see Harry Williams come on. Nothing against Harry as people know I want to see him and our young boys get a chance, but that move speaks volumes for Buckle and what he expects from his players.
I asked him afterwards why he went for Harry over Byron. and his reply was that he sees the players every day of the week, and that his work ethic was good which he is looking for.
Reading between the lines, that suggests Byron's has not been, so sitting on the bench will hopefully be a kick up the backside for him - and I guess the same has to be said for Jason Taylor and Paul Black, who were again conspicuous by their absence from the 18.
My gut feeling however, is that those last two may well be chiselled out of the ice box and brought back in the fold tomorrow, as we are really down to the bare bones now.
Hanks must be doubtful, Taylor is out, Steve Elliott too I am guessing, while Asa Hall is probably still two weeks away...
There will also be no Raffa de Vita as his short-term deal is not being extended. I am not overly gutted by this as I don't think he did enough for us, but for now it does leave us short-handed.
I am sure now however that he has left the club that history will be re-written. He will immediately be raised to some form of iconic God-like status and put forward for sainthood as happens with every departing player, but I have no arguments with this decision at all.
The manager has to free some money up, and this is an opportunity to do so and gives him a bit more breathing pace for the coming few weeks.
We all know we need some new recruits, and we have to hope the manager will be able to find some and improve us - but anyone expecting a radical overhaul will be disappointed.
With his selections so far, players like Andy Haworth, Taylor and Black would probably be allowed to go if someone wanted to take them. If. Big if I suspect.
But that's the only way they will go ahead of the summer as we won't be paying them off.
He needs a strong centre-forward - a Ben Burgess type suited to the lone role would be nice, someone who could turn a cross or pass which is not perfect into a goal, or a decent chance. They are few or far between, and expensive.
Another central midfielder too - a box-to-box man with some real energy.
A winger who can cross a ball? No. He has enough wingers. They just need to learn to cross.
With Taylor out and Elliott not fit yet, a central defender might come into the equation as we have none if Brown or Deaman go down as well.
I cannot see us bringing in permanent signings - if we do they will only get, I think, deals until the summer. I think we will be looking at six-month loans. That will disappoint people I know, but that's the way I see it.
It is a pivotal transfer window. Every window is important, but this one has extra significance with us sitting 18th and six points off the bottom two.
This is Buckle's time to really start earning his corn having been bumbling along with the unbalanced demotivated players he was left by the previous manager.
The fixtures in January include trips to Hartlepool and Dagenham, which are firmly in the 'must not lose' category.
Not until we make our way back from Essex on January 31 will we have a real idea of what lies in store for the last three months of the season.
Hopefully, our squad will have a slightly different look to it, and our points tally will be a fair bit healthier.
Otherwise, it will be a real battle ahead.

Monday, 22 December 2014

All the threes...

Three games
Three goals for
Three goals against
Three draws
Three points
That's the sum of Paul Buckle's opening trio of league games.
Solid and unspectacular it has been, but I don't think there is any question that we have improved on where we were when he came in.
I know we haven't won a game yet, but we haven't lost one, and we haven't crumbled - instead we have shown a backbone and a bit of resilience that was missing in the Stevenage and Wycombe games.
We don't look like being rolled over easily, we have defended a lot better and all over the field the work ethic has been much improved from the last weeks of Mark Yates' reign.
There are no excuses either. It's not going to change overnight, he says. We won't suddenly go from losing 4-1 and 5-1 to winning games in style, he says - yet I get the feeling some fans expect us to.
He has to put foundations into place and that has to start from the back with us not conceding shedloads of goals. There is no other option.
We haven't had a clean sheet for 14 league games - since Morecambe - the longest run of anyone in the Football League, so it's not rocket science that he wants to address that as a priority.
In the last two games, we have conceded to a speculative long-range volley that goes in once out of, say, 20 attempts, and then to a deflected shot which went in off the bar.
Compared to some of the goals we were letting in against Stevenage and Wycombe, and in some games before that, it has to be considered as progress.
We were not exactly creating chance after chance in the last weeks of Mark Yates' reign so it is unreasonable to expect us to start doing so straightaway under Buckle.
Even more so with two senior out-and-out strikers at his disposal and that will have to be a priority for January - but we must not get carried away with the idea that this month ahead is going to suddenly turn our season around with some kind of magic wand. It won't.
He will look to add a few bodies, maybe three at the outside I would guess, but the bulk of the team will still be those who have been here all season.
It will be evolution, not revolution, so anyone expecting the solid, unspectacular stuff to magically disappear on January 3 will have to be disappointed I'm afraid. It will be a very gradual process.
There seems to be a perception somewhere that the manager has some sort of massive January pot of money to spend - a pot which Mark Yates wouldn't have had.
I don't think Yates can say he wasn't backed by the board - practically every time he went to them and asked for reinforcements, he was allowed.
Buckle has what little money there was from the FA Cup and a little bit more which seems to have been forthcoming from the mystery man who put in the 500k a few seasons ago.
And I also suspect that there might be a little suggestion from the board that a player or two going out might not be such a bad thing either.
Jason Taylor being left out for the last two games suggests he might be top of that list - but I don't forsee a queue of takers and I don't see us just deciding to hand him a wedge of cash to pack his bags. I hope not anyway.
The manager has seen Taylor in training every day, so seems to have made his mind up about him. It is a slight surprise to me I must admit, as if anyone in our team typifies solid and unspectacular, it's Jason Taylor.
Another who does that is his namesake Matt - and he was outstanding on Saturday. He won just about every header he competed for, put his body on the line a few times and put in a real captain's performance.
Portsmouth really came on strong in the second half, especially the first 25 minutes or so, but it was mainly down to him, backed up well it has to be said by Troy Brown, who kept their direct goal threats to a minimum despite their territorial superiority.
Did Trevor Carson really have that much to do? I can only remember one save - right at the very end by his near post. I know Paul Jones wasn't exactly heavily occupied either, and all in all I thought a draw was about right.
I felt the first half was even. They started well but I felt we finished the half stronger although neither side had really threatened a goal until Omari Sterling-James put us ahead.
Our formation screamed resilience as Lee Vaughan was back and Omari came in with Byron Harrison dropped and Terry Gornell up front on his own.
Slightly surprising, but it was the hard work of Terry ahead of the languidity of Byron. Terry got little change out of the Pompey defence and had a thankless task, but I thought he applied himself very well and put a good shift in.
Vaughan had an up and down game. He got himself into some good positions up the field but his crossing was poor - or there was never anyone to hit - and defensively he was found wanting at times.
Taylor was outstanding and Brown mostly solid, while Craig Braham-Barrett had another good game - one of his best I felt when playing in a flat back four - as we know he struggled in that system last season.
He didn't get forward as much as he has in previous games, but did set the goal up and kept up his high performance level this season.
Up against Jed Wallace early on, he looked after him well, so much so that Wallace switched wings late in the first half to try his luck against Vaughan.
There were still concerns about our midfield. Still we move the ball too slowly, still we tend to get caught upfield and lose the ball, exposing us to a counter attack, and the quality of our passing is not generally good enough and we turn over possession too easily at times.
Again it was disappointing to see Kane Ferdinand employed wide on the right, but I thought he had a better game, but again Raffa de Vita disappointed me.
He worked hard enough, but he doesn't impose himself on games enough for me. I am sure he is a player who can be effective for us, but the manager needs to find his best role - otherwise with a desire to bring players in and his deal ending, it may end up being bye bye and thanks.
Omari has his new deal safely tucked away, and celebrated it with a start, a very well-taken goal, and unfortunately what proved to be a very crucial miss as well.
He is a hard-working player, and for his size he isn't afraid to get himself stuck in and that attitude will endear him to the manager. He won two or three decent flick-ons against players four or five inches taller, and showed good body strength on occasions as well.
His goal showed a refreshing confidence. He was surrounded by a couple of players and could have taken the easy option of a lay-off, but decided to take the bull by the horns and got his rewards for it - just like Zack last week.
It was another example of a young player showing no fear and backing their ability, and I hope to see more of that. I won't criticise players for having a go - can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket, and I've seen too much shilly-shallying on the edge of the box this season - one more pass? No. Shoot!
Omari's new contract, and that for Zack Kotwica and Joe Hanks as well is a refreshing change from the usual policy of waiting and waiting until the summer, then scrambling around to get the players we want to keep to sign their deals.
I saw a report saying Hull were looking at Hanks the other day. I am always a little sceptical about these things, and suspect maybe an agent at work hoping to hurry a new contract along. Well done. It worked... not that Joe isn't a good player as he most certainly is and fully deserves the deal.
Good to see the club being pro-active, and good to see that Buckle seems serious about letting our young players develop. Those three aside, we have Harry Williams and Bobbie Dale on the bench, with Adam Powell and James Bowen waiting as well.
Harry has had a run-out and Bobbie was ready to come on right at the end at the weekend, and I hope their deals are next in line as we cannot just discard them.
Players do not develop at 18 - they can flourish later and we need to invest that time in them and not expect it all to happen straight away.
They all need gradual exposure to first-team football but the manager will need to be sensible and pragmatic with them. All I have been asking for is for them to have a chance - not just sidelined and told they aren't ready or aren't worth bothering about.
Further up the ladder, Harry Kane is 21 and only just establishing himself in Spurs' team after several loan moves, while Ryan Mason is 23 and has been a pro there since 2008 but only now is he getting his first-team chance after five loans.
We saw Jack Whatmough on Saturday. He is 18, and I am sure that if Pompey don't go up in the next season or two, he could well be off to a higher level. I thought he was quality, even if he does like like he should be hanging ten at Fistral beach.
Youngsters can flourish at this level and we need to make sure we benefit when they do come into full flower. Yes, we all want Zack to start every week, and I think under this manager his chance to do that will come, but we just need a bit of patience.
At least now they are being taken a little more seriously at first-team level, and that confidence being placed in them by Buckle and Rob Edwards is bearing fruit with the goals for Zack and Omari.
He will use them, and he will do so at the expense of more senior players. No more being picked on reputation as Jason Taylor and Byron Harrison have discovered recently, with Hanks and Omari dislodging them from the team.
He knows what he wants, and expects from his players and seems to have a plan. Work hard and show the right attitude and you will succeed. Otherwise it's cheerio. It's his way or the highway.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Rome wasn't built in a day

THERE is a lot of negativity and doubt around among the CTFC fanbase at the moment, and it's not hard to see why.
A few heavy defeats culminating in the Cup defeat to Dover sparked some good humour among the 155 in the away end at Field Mill, with chants like 'we're all going on a Vanarama tour'.
This is in contrast to our almost ridiculously upbeat new manager, who refuses to be browbeaten or downbeat about the task he has taken on, and it is refreshing to hear.
There is a little bit of the Martin Allen about him - 'I don't know Zack's surname' for instance - but in contrast to our last-but-one manager I believe he might actually know the location of the plot.
After last weekend, the teamsheet was always going to be the most interesting part of the afternoon in Nottinghamshire, and I have to admit to a feeling of frustration and disappointment at only one change - Joe Hanks for Jason Taylor. It prompted a bit of a rant on the radio.
Taylor was not in the 18 at all - 'tactical' was about the only explanation I could get from the manager post-match - and that can be taken one of two ways.
Either the manager deemed that Taylor was not on the bench as he did not believe he was a player who could come on and affect a game from the bench (and Paul Buckle did say when pressed that he went for a positive bench) or the conspiracy theory is that the toys left the pram when he was told he wasn't starting.
There is form for the latter, but it the omission does have to put his long-term future here in some doubt, so that is a situation to be monitored in the coming weeks.
Several others, notably Byron Harrison, Terry Gornell, Matt Richards and Raffa de Vita, were lucky to keep their places in my view, and it was very much a safety-first selection, a team designed to be solid, resilient and tough to crack.
But it was also a no-frills selection, not a team to spring forward on counter-attacks, or have any pacy outlets to threaten Mansfield too much.
The first half was curious affair. We came under a fair bit of pressure, notably through Junior Brown giving Jack Deaman a tough examination, but Trevor Carson was not unduly troubled bar one 25-yard skimmer he saved easily.
So that tells me we defended well. We did - bodies on the line, with one notable block from Troy Brown, strong aerial challenges, the best of which from Craig Braham-Barrett denied Vadane Oliver a far-post header.
We mostly kept our shape well, and the two wide men, Kane Ferdinand (disappointingly shunted out right again) and de Vita did their fair share to help out.
Going forward, we struggled to make much headway - yet had a few good and half-chances, with Dimitar Evtimov the busier goalkeeper, saving very well twice from Ferdinand and we also had a shot cleared off the line.
With de Vita and Ferdinand out wide, we never got behind them. Every time either of them had the chance, they disappointingly cut back inside and crossed from the corner of the penalty area or higher up the pitch.
That is where I would have wanted a 'natural' winger on the field, but it was clear that Buckle had taken the safety-first attitude.
I guess I can (grudgingly) understand that. He is looking at the 'slow-burn' scenario, almost inching us along until January, picking up what points he can until hopefully he can start to put his own mark on it.
Trying to stop the goals going in is clearly priority number one - the two games before he came in saw us ship nine, and we have let one in so far in each of his three games.
Success he calls it. I would say some small progress. Some short-term pain maybe, hopefully for long-term gain.
We went behind in what I would call bizarre circumstances. It was out of the blue when Oliver's shot span over Carson. He looked crestfallen but I am not convinced he really meant it.
It left Buckle with a dilemma, and he responded with finally deciding to see what was on his bench, with Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth coming on, and it was the end for de Vita and Richards.
At last. A chance for them to come out of the ice box, at the expense of two under-achievers.
The third change was the one which proved the most decisive - but (broken record alert) overall it shows that Buckle should show more trust in the fringe players and his youngsters.
To be honest, his squad is that thin at the moment that he has little alternative. He needs to realise though that he has more than 11 players to choose from.
The last change saw Zack Kotwica come on, and I have to admit surprise at seeing Harrison go off. I had expected it to be Gornell, but what it did mean that I finally had the sort of team and formation on the field that I wanted at the start.
Two wingers (three to be accurate).
Some youngsters on the field.
A bit of pace.
An outlet or two on the counter attack.
Kane Ferdinand in central midfield.
Some of the more senior under-achievers on the bench or the stand.
Thank you Mr Buckle. At last.
We finally had players on the field who could produce the unpredictable, something out of nothing - and one of them delivered in style with Kotwica's unstoppable shot.
It was good to see Zack have the confidence to have a crack in the 87th minute. It would have been easy to look for a pass, but no. It was good to see a young player like Zack take on that responsibility and he won the Lottery with a fantastic goal. No fear.
It got us the point we deserved. The point the manager deserved for his bold substitutions and brave decisions in who he left out, and who he dragged off.
I hope this goal will kick Zack on now. He needed to do something like this to remind us all of the potential he has, so let's hope this is a take-off point for him.
It might also convince the manager that he can trust his kids. You can win things with them. He does have alternatives. Have we seen the start of the changing of the guard?
Maybe. But let's not kid ourselves. It wasn't the greatest performance quality-wise, but we showed much more resilience and determination than we have in recent weeks. We have to carry on taking small steps, and this was another one.
There's no doubt we deserved something. We had 14 shots to Mansfield's five, and only allowed them two on target, one of which was the freakish goal. That says 'good defending' to me.
We know it's not going to happen overnight, so we have to take these small victories and little encouragements until the manager can get his re-building and re-moulding started in earnest.
He does have to be a bit careful as we are now only six points off the bottom two - but I like the manager's optimism, I like his uplifting interviews and I like what he has said so far.
No more arriving at 9.57am for a 10am start at training for instance. He has mentally noted the ones who are last in through the door. Coasting and comfort zones seem to be a thing of the past.
As do reputations. We got that point on Saturday without Taylor, Richards and Harrison on the pitch. They have some things to ponder as they go back into training this week.
I expect Lee Vaughan to come back in next weekend, but there are several places up for grabs this week - which is exactly how it should be. No one should feel safe.
Dropping Taylor and hooking Richards and Harrison shows that he isn't afraid of reputations and will not shirk any decisions - and maybe he does agree with some of the deficiencies as a few of us fans feel there are in the squad and team.
There may be slow progress on the pitch, but Buckle's tough-talking words and upbeat demeanour give me a little bit of optimism. January will be the first test to see if that is misguided or not.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Words are fine - but let's have action

AFTER Sunday's gutless surrender to Dover, it seems the reality has finally dawned on Paul Buckle.
But instead of hopping on a plane back to Mrs B in New York, instead he has been laying down the law it seems, with a lot of talk of all the players being on trial and having to prove themselves to him.
He shouldn't have to be telling them that. They should already know, and it should be a given that they go out and give it their all in training and games.
However, as we remember from the end of last season with not-trying-in-training-gate which came to light after we lost at Rochdale, players at this club have form for this sort of thing.
It seems that our players do constantly need to be told that they have to work hard and show commitment when they play for us, or they might find themselves out of a job pretty quickly.
Remember - only Trevor Carson, Matt Taylor, Lee Vaughan and Asa Hall know they will be in gainful employment after the end of the season.
It is telling then that two of them didn't play on Sunday, and the other two are just about the only ones from the seniors who can be excused too much blame for the Cup defeat.
The rest are out of contract and don't so far seem to be going the right way towards getting themselves a new one, either here or anywhere else.
This should be the time of year when they start raising their levels of performance. January is approaching, the time when they might get a move somewhere else, put themselves in the shop window or get the tap on the shoulder from the manager to talk about next year.
It is also good to hear from Troy Brown that the players heard the chants and boos from Sunday. That was the idea Troy. You were supposed to. Now pay attention to them and start performing.
I must say I like the cut of Buckle's jib so far. He seems to be saying all the right things, but the proof of the pudding will come as we see if he backs his words up with action.
He is still in his honeymoon period. He can't be expected to work miracles after two weeks, and after two pretty lame displays so far, can still hide behind the fact that he inherited this bunch and has to make the best of it.
But even so, he needs to start making his mark - and that starts with his team sheet on Saturday.
I don't want to pick up a team sheet at Field Mill at around 2.15pm and see an unchanged starting 11.
That would be tantamount to a vote of confidence for the shambles we saw on Sunday, and also tell those who are sat on the bench or in the stand that no matter how badly we play (if it is possible to play any worse than Sunday) that they will not get a look in.
Steve Elliott is not fit and Vaughan has one more game of his ban, so the back five will not be able to change.
In honesty though, they weren't the worst thing about Sunday, the terrible marking for the Dover winner aside. But defending has not been our strong point in the last few months.
We have now gone 13 league games without a clean sheet, since the 0-0 game at Morecambe, when we left the Globe joint top of the table. Yes. Joint top. Seems like a parallel universe.
Since then we have shut out Oxford in the JPT and Swindon in the FA Cup, but too many goals have gone past Carson in the league, despite his heroics in many of the games. He can't save everything.
But defending isn't just the job of that back four. Yes, some of the goals we have let in have been woeful - down the poor marking from set-pieces for instance.
Good defending also starts at the top of the pitch where forwards hold it up and provide an outlet, and that hasn't happened nearly enough.
It is also helped by the midfielders, breaking up play, tracking runners and covering whenever necessary. That hasn't happened nearly enough either. Too often we have been brushed aside too easily, caught beyond the ball or allowed shots from the edge of the box with no closing down.
We have been a soft touch. Too easy to pass through, and too easy to break down on the counter attack.
Buckle's first task on Saturday is, I feel, to give us more of a backbone and make us harder to beat, so my suggestion would be a 4-5-1 formation.
The three in midfield could be set up one of two ways, with one sitter and two further forward, or two players sitting deeper and one further up to support the front man.
If there is one sitter, I think that has to be Jason Taylor. Further forward, I want to see Kane Ferdinand moved more central, where he can be more effective.
Against us for Southend when they beat us 4-0 at Roots Hall (the night Sido was sent off) he scored and had an excellent game in a central role - yet since being here he has been shunted out wide.
It's the usual situation - either play him in his best role, or send him back to Peterborough. It is pointless to have him here and not use him to his maximum potential.
I'd also find a place alongside him for Joe Hanks as he has that energy to get up and down, can pick a pass and can also get into goalscoring positions - had he been in those situations Taylor found himself on Sunday, I'd have bet on at least one of them going in.
I don't think he has done much wrong this season. Remember he is only 19, and will make mistakes sometimes, but I don't feel he has deserved to be left out. He can also deliver a decent set-piece.
The other set-up in midfield could be two deeper and one further forward, and there could be a few combinations here.
He could play Taylor and Hanks deeper with Ferdinand ahead of them, or Ferdinand and Hanks deeper and then maybe use Harry Williams further up, off the front man.
Williams' best position is that 'number 10' role and that is where most of his goals at reserve and youth level have come, and he would make those runs into the box and get into goalscoring positions. Like Hanks, I feel he would have converted some of the chances that fell to Taylor last weekend.
As well as helping make us more solid, we need more goals from midfield and the likes of Ferdinand, Hanks and Williams are more than capable of providing them.
At this point, you may have noticed that Matt Richards has not been mentioned. That's because I feel he needs to step out of the team for the manager to try out other combinations. I don't feel he offers the steel, tackling ability or mobility that we need at the moment, and he doesn't move the ball quickly enough to raise the tempo.
We need some kind of spark in the team, and need to try to get some more pace and an attacking outlet in there, so we need to get our wingers out of the icebox and try to get some chalk on their boots.
We have four of them - Andy Haworth, Raffa de Vita, Zack Kotwica and Omari Sterling-James - and it's time they were used properly.
Two of them need to start. From a pace and spark point of view, that would be Zack and Omari - but you also have to counter that with the need to help the full-backs out defensively from time to time, and you might get more of that from Haworth and de Vita. So that is a dilemma for Buckle.
I'll throw in another two outside-chance alternatives. Craig Braham-Barrett was our best attacking threat last weekend getting down that left-hand side - so what about starting him wide left and slotting Paul Black in at left back? Or he could give James Bowen another go, either at left-back with CBB ahead or on the left hand side.
That leaves the one up, and it's a 50-50 selection here as we have been left with two senior forwards. I will never stop marvelling at the ineptitude of how that has been allowed to happen.
But hopefully that is something Buckle will rectify in January with the little bit of Cup money he has left, and if we are playing one up on Saturday it has to be Byron Harrison, who is the best of the two we have in that role - but it is vital that the advanced midfielder(s) and wide men get up in support.
So all in all, while he may not have the biggest squad, he does have alternatives which need to be explored in the light of Sunday's surrender. The status quo will not do.
Over to you Mr Buckle.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Dover and out

IN December 2009, Mark Yates inherited a mess of a football club, blighted by the Martin Allen era.
He stabilised it and came within a whisker of taking us into League One - in all honesty, he should have done it.
But now, five years later, we are back to square one again, with a new manager once again inheriting a disillusioned, demotivated, uninterested, low-quality squad of players with half a season to save our league status.
Let me say straight away that I am not including our crop of young players in this. They have been sidelined, under-used and mistrusted while a stream of loanees came in and largely made no impact at all.
But the senior players at the club are a disgrace, with only a few exceptions.
That spineless, pathetic 'performance' they put in yesterday let down everyone at Cheltenham Town FC. The chairman, board and especially the fans, who have again been betrayed.
For 18 months now they have been shortchanged by inept performances from players who will come and go without a care in the world from club to club, picking up their wages.
The fans, meanwhile, will still be here long after they have gone, but the harm of their ineptitude is being felt in falling season ticket sales, a falling number of floating fans, falling numbers wanting to travel away, and falling interest in the club in general.
Performances like this will only make the apathy set in further.
I am not in a position to preach to people about going to games. I am fortunate with my radio work that I don't spend my money on games. If I didn't do the radio work I have to admit I would be thinking twice about wanting to watch this bunch of players for much longer, so I don't blame anyone who is having those doubts.
My Twitter time line has been full of fans saying they are not going to Mansfield on Saturday, even at a cut price £7 a ticket. These people are the stalwarts. The regulars, who spend their hard-earned cash backing their club.
The next home game against Portsmouth is a premium game. The away fans may come in big numbers, but the floating fans without season tickets will not.
Who can blame them? They have had enough. Cheltenham fans never boo the team off. But they did this time, having started the second Connor Essam's goal went into the net eight minutes from time.
Our fans have been an unbelievably patient bunch, putting up with 18 months of rubbish. The previous manager and the players got an easy ride. On Sunday, the worm turned.
Not on the board, who have performed miracles for 15 years and recently made the change that the majority of them wanted.
Not on the manager. He has only just walked in the door. He is a human being after all, not a miracle worker. Even Pep Guardiola would struggle to make a silk purse out of what Paul Buckle has inherited.
But on the players. They have to take the rap for this one. No hiding place. This one is down to them.
The build-up to the game against Dover was all about one thing - just how much this match meant to the club, both on and off the field.
Financially it was crucial. I know some fans think the club is obsessed by money above all else, but I don't agree with that. At League Two level it is a hand-to-mouth operation. What comes in very quickly goes out again, so the chance to make some bonus funds is obviously going to be absolutely vital.
For Paul Buckle it mattered as well. He wants to make changes to the squad he has inherited, and a win could have given him scope to do that.
There should have been an incentive for the players. There are Man United, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal fans in the squad. A win and they could have been playing against those sides.
Some fans said they weren't bothered as a win would have meant some of them being replaced. Nonsense.
A win and good performance might have changed Paul Buckle's mind about them - especially with all but four of them looking at unemployment in June.
It matters to the fans as well. A Cup run boosts the whole club and the town. It increases interest, it motivates fans to come to games, re-awakes those fans who have drifted away.
The players should have needed no motivation. A home FA Cup tie against a Conference side with a massive third round carrot at stake, to make the club some much-needed cash and send the fans home happy for a change should be enough. But no. Obviously it wasn't.
As I write this, Dover have just drawn Crystal Palace. Good luck to them, as they fully deserved it. Hope it is on the TV then our players can watch it and see what they missed out on.
The trouble is that I doubt that most of them would care about that.
Our performance was absolutely pathetic - one of the worst I have seen since we joined the League. Dover were a well-organised, functional team with players who knew their jobs. They wanted to win more than we did, and they deserved to win. They scrapped for every ball and our players got what they deserved. Humiliation.
Buckle had little choice with his team, picking an unchanged 11.
There is part of the problem - no pressure on anyone for their place, so what incentive do they have to perform as they know they will play and take their money every week.
Take the front two for instance. What club at this level of football had only two out and out senior forwards at the club? Absolutely terrible planning.
Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell know that if we play two up front, they are going to play. So they can carry on giving us insipid, lazy performances.
They are not helped however by our one-paced midfield, where Matt Richards and Jason Taylor offered no mobility, pace or creativity whatsoever.
All over the field, the ball was treated one of two ways - like a hot potato to be got rid of as quickly as possible or as something to keep knocking sideways or backwards at a snail's pace while Dover were able to maintain their shape or press us back further and further.
Some players hid. They didn't want the ball at times and were happy just to move it on anywhere else so as not to take the responsibility in the hope that someone else would.
Kane Ferdinand and Raffa de Vita offered absolutely nothing at all. Ferdinand is a creative, central midfielder who can score goals. In his three games for us, he has been sidelined on the left or right totally unable to have any effect on the game whatsoever while our central midfielders amble around taking four or five touches to go sideways, or charge around like a bull in a china shop achieving not very much at all.
There is no spine to the team. There is half of one - Trevor Carson and Matt Taylor are at least something to work on, with Steve Elliott when he is fit to join them.
But further forward there is nothing.
Craig Braham-Barrett was picked out after the game by Gary Lineker as just about our only decent outfield player yesterday, and at least he has some pace and energy. No one else does.
His runs and attempts to get behind the Dover wall was the only time we looked vaguely like doing anything - but then the delivery was a let down, or the finishing from the pull-backs and crosses was powder puff.
No ruthlessness, no real Neil Grayson-like desire to throw themselves in and maybe (heaven forbid) hurt themselves to try and score that goal. Jason Taylor could have had a hat-trick with shots from around the box. None of them hit the target.
We have a lack of pace, mobility, energy and quality in the squad. Too many of them are in the comfort zone, going through the motions as they know the squad is so unbalanced and small that their places are not at threat.
I am sick and tired of watching us get an attacking throw in and seeing four or five players just stood around waiting for the ball. No movement, no quick runs, no desire to make something of it.
Same goes for corners and free kicks. Let's just put it in there and see what happens.
When a player does actually go down the flank, time after time a cross comes in with maybe one player in the box against three or four defenders. No midfield or wide players busting a gut to get into the box.
Dover had a cruise. They played very often six at the back, and we never really looked threatening for any length of time. Their impressive forward players Payne and Murphy ran all afternoon and put a real shift in causing our defenders a lot of problems. Ours never got in behind their wall.
We were bullied. Again. I got fed up of hearing Mark Yates saying we were bullied and outfought.
It happened time after time after time. And it happened again here.
No backbone. No physicality. No fight for the ball. No challenges for headers in midfield. I don't think we have won a second ball in midfield since Steve Cotterill left. Doesn't feel like it anyway.
I would be quite happy not to see some of our senior players wear the shirt again as I honestly feel that some of them don't deserve to. They are short-changing the fans and the club, those who have put their trust in them and who pay their wages.
Paul Baker today has told Paul Buckle he will be able to make changes in January, so unfortunately we have this lot to put up with for at least another four games until that process can start.
But yesterday's spineless shambles has lessened that ability, so he might have to manufacture some more ways of bringing people in. He will have to be more ruthless than he might otherwise have been.
For a start, he will probably have to think long and hard about the futures of de Vita and Omari Sterling-James, who are on short-term deals.
I would let de Vita go as I really do not think he has done anything. OSJ would be a bit more unlucky as he has shown flashes of what he can do - but like so many others has been overlooked and not used in his best role.
Andy Haworth is another who has been under-utilised and it is no surprise that he has asked to go out on loan. If he is not going to be used, then try to find a club for him. Otherwise, give him a chance.
Talking of a chance, he needs to trust our youngsters. I would rather see Zack Kotwica, Bobbie Dale, Harry Williams, Adam Powell and co given a proper run out. At least they might actually care and actually want to be out there, play for the shirt and play for the fans.
But as we know, they have been mistrusted and under-used and I hope that doesn't continue and I hope the manager does not carry on introducing loanee after loanee to further stunt their progress in the hope of a quick fix.
I have done a bit of research and found that Mark Yates signed 41 loanees in his time as manager (and then add the four he inherited from John Schofield).
Of those 41, only 11 started more than 10 games (Luke Garbutt, Jimmy Spencer, Jack Butland, Marlon Pack, Matt Thornhill, Medy Elito, Paul Benson, Shaun Harrad, Michael Hector, Michael Ihiekwe and Matt Green) - and I would class only seven of his loanees as anywhere near a success.
Those seven are Koby Arthur, Hector, Pack, Butland, Garbutt, Spencer, and Ben Burgess. The other 34 offered various things from the odd good thing (Shaun Harrad for instance) to absolutely nothing (Billy Daniels or Lee Lucas anyone?).
It is no coincidence that five of those seven were here for a decent amount of time, while Burgess started nine games and only Koby Arthur of the short-termers was any sort of a hit (he only started twice).
It must dishearten Russ Milton and Jamie Victory to see player after player come in as they work hard to develop young players then see those efforts given little more than lip service further up. This has to stop.
Kotwica has been the biggest loser. He has only started two games and made 26 subsititute appearances in the last two seasons. No wonder he seems to have flatlined. Having fast-tracked him with a contract before his scholarship ended, we did not build on his early impact in the side. We stunted it.
Joe Hanks too - two games in two seasons while the likes of Kemar Roofe, Daniels, Lucas and co took his place in the side. Then he gets a few games, scores twice from midfield and is rewarded by being back on the bench again.
And Harry Williams. 38 goals at all levels last season from midfield, and a couple of starts (almost token) at the end of the season, then nothing until the last five minutes on Saturday. It seems now that Buckle believes he is a striker as he came on up front.
James Bowen came in at Stevenage and was just about the only success, but then was discarded again.
Adam Powell can actually pass and Bobbie Dale knows where the goal is, which many of our players cannot or do not.
Other clubs at our level do not treat their young players like this. Oxford for instance gave James Roberts a three-year contract and have given him a run in the team, and he has scored goals. He is 18, as are most of our youngsters.
Northampton too. Ivan Toney is also 18. He has been a regular, scored goals and nearly signed for Wolves recently for £500,000. The rewards of giving youngsters a chance.
See Exeter too. Two of their lads are in the England under-20s squad.
We have had some decent enough youngsters in the past but we have discarded them all too quickly without really seeing if they are good enough.
Some of the current crop might unfortunately go the same way and we could have to sit back see them develop elsewhere like Sam Foley, an "injury-prone midfielder" who is now scoring goals in League One for Yeovil, or Marley Watkins, an "inconsistent winger who runs up blind alleys" who is now starring in Scotland for Inverness and on the verge of the full Welsh squad.
Players develop at different paces and we need to try to give these lads the best chance of doing so and also make sure we benefit from it and that starts with giving them exposure to first-team football.
It is always a risk giving young players a go, but what does Buckle have to lose? He has just taken over so he isn't going to get the sack and he just needs to take the plunge.
It's a scrap now. 27 games to save our League status, and get 27 points at least to get past the 50 mark.
I am not sure whether a lot of our players are up for the scrap - I'll take 22nd now.