Sunday, 29 November 2015

Halfway to redemption

After the despair of relegation last May, everyone associated with Cheltenham Town FC, board, management, players or fans, could have done one of two things.
We could all have collectively given up - just felt sorry for ourselves and accepted life back in the non-League ranks as our lot for the next few years.
"It's a hard league to get out of..." was a mantra we heard a lot before quoting teams like Luton who took a few seasons to get back up... Even Bristol Rovers needed the play-offs etc etc...
Or we could have done the opposite - taken it on the chin and then decided that we were going to have a right good go and try to get back into the 92 club again, and that it could be done at the first go.
Happily, we have chosen the latter option, and at the halfway mark things couldn't really be going any better could they?.
Only two defeats in 23 games, an average of two points and two goals a game, a healthy goal difference and a one-point lead at the top of the table, which, deep down, I cannot imagine many of us would really have expected back in August.
I fully admit I certainly didn't expect it. Of course I hoped we would be in this position, but back in August I would have bitten your hand off for us to be in or around the top five at this point.
Pre-season, many of the so-called pundits had written us off, one saying we had a good manager but a mid-table squad, and that we'd finish 11th. The first bit was right at least.
Since day one, Gary Johnson has not sugar-coated anything. "We have to win the league" he has said, over and over again.
That keeps up the pressure on himself and he has done the same with the squad, who have reacted positively to it. Very rarely has he come out for a post-match interview and been totally satisfied with what he has seen.
He always wants more, always says there is more to come from the players - all of which bodes well for the remaining 23 games.
So far, the players have delivered every time their manager has asked them to, and every time there has been some pressure on them.
Saturday was another case in point. Now we are top, we are there to be shot at and many of the sides immediately below us had what looked like very winnable games.
We faced an Aldershot side not in great form but still a tricky proposition, and we ground it out. A solid, resolute 2-0 win away from home in tricky, windy conditions.
It was just the sort of result and performance that helps you to win leagues.
Going back to 1998-9, I recall Steve Cotterill's side winning these sort of games at Southport, Morecambe and Hereford on their way to the title.
We got our goals, and then defended superbly with Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow outstanding again as Aldershot had a few corners and threw men forward to try to break us down - to no avail.
Right through the team we were outstanding, with Dillon Phillips again making some fine saves as once again he shows what a great signing he has been.
Rob Dickie and George McLennan continue to grow at this level with every game, and our midfield powerhouses Kyle Storer and Harry Pell seem to get stronger week after week -  even a haircut can't quell Pell's powers. He has been immense in the last few games.
Jack Munns' goals and assists are vital, while loanee Ryan Jennings came in and fitted in straight away with good strong running with the ball, and some really good defensive work when needed.
Billy Waters and Danny Wright worked hard and then Andrija Novakovich showed he will be an asset when he came on and could have gone away with two goals but for the woodwork.
Those players who haven't been able to break into the side on a regular basis also played their part with Asa Hall and James Rowe allowing Waters and Munns a rest and helping to shore things up at the death.
That's the value of a decent squad, and strength in depth - having players like Hall and Rowe who can do a job when necessary, and players like Jennings and Novakovich being identified by the Johnson family scouting system as youngsters who can come in and make an impact.
Add to that the injured pair of Jack Barthram and James Dayton, and we have a very strong squad - evidenced further by the fact that we can let our third-choice right-back Lee Vaughan go to Tranmere, where he gets straight into the their side and helps them to a clean sheet.
 If we let the likes of Hall and Rowe go I believe they too would walk into any other team in this league.
We have real spirit here, a close-knit group united behind their manager with one aim in mind, to get this club back on its feet again and back in the Football League.
That had been a big part of why we have got into this position. Add to that consistency of selection as we have managed to get the spine of the squad - Phillips, Downes, Parslow, Storer, Pell, Wright - onto the field together to start every match bar one (Pell's one-match suspension). Added to that Munns has played a part in every game as had Barthram before Saturday.
Downes has also come through a long period on four bookings. The final whistle on Saturday means he has passed through the amnesty now and wouldn't
The goals have been spread around as well - so when a player has gone through a little barren patch as, for instance, Danny Wright is at the moment (eight league games without a goal), others have stepped up like Waters has of late, and Pell with his free-kicks.
We haven't been relying on one player for goals, everyone has chipped in, so we have got to 46 league goals, the joint highest so far, without anyone hitting double figures (who says you need a 20-goal striker...).
But we can't rest on our laurels as we know the job is only half done.
December starts with an important game as we host Chester while our nearest two rivals play in the FA Cup, as do fifth-placed Eastleigh - so it's a big chance to open up a bit of leeway between us and the rest.
It's in our hands now - we have done the groundwork, and now it's time to take advantage.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Calm before the storm

TWO games, nine goals, none conceded and key players given a rest - things couldn't be much better in the world of CTFC at the moment.
After seeing off Guiseley 5-0, the trip to Southport could have been a rude awakening, especially when we arrived in Merseyside to be greeted by strong winds and driving rain.
So what do you need in those conditions? Yes, a nice early goal to settle you down. Okay then, let's go and get three.
Harry Pell's free kick started it off - 'hit and hope' he said afterwards while claiming he hits them like Roberto Carlos on the training ground. It skidded through a non-existent wall into the corner.
Then it was enter Billy Waters with two goals in seven minutes. Yes, he was helped by hapless defending - but still produced two decent finishes.
Four goals in two games, and nine in 10 starts for a confident-looking Billy now... he's our leading scorer in league games, the talk of a loan striker has gone quiet, and no-one is talking too much any more about missing Amari Morgan-Smith's presence.
Like Guiseley then, where we got two in the first eight minutes, the game was practically won when Billy's second hit the net.
Southport had a go - they had 10 corners in the first half and Dillon Phillips had to make a couple of decent saves, but we also had power to add and looked dangerous every time we attacked.
At 3-0 up though, any problems were likely to be of our own making. Phillips rather naively got himself a yellow card after some nonsense at a corner.
Gary Johnson on the touchline was going ballistic at him - keeping our cool was paramount as the result really was not in danger.
Once Daniel Parslow had added the fourth the sting had well and truly gone out of the game with 37 minutes still remaining. From then on it was like a training exercise.
It was time to rest the skipper - sensible management with him on four bookings, and I haven't heard a reception for a player coming off like the one Aaron Downes got for a long while.
We saw Ryan Jennings for his debut. I thought he looked bright and on this view looks to have something to offer. The only small blot on the day was James Dayton's hamstring pull.
All in all, these have been two ruthless wins. No mercy, go out there and kill the game off as quickly as you can.
After the game at Hartlepool, Gary Johnson had said he wanted more ruthlessness. At Victoria Park, we had openings but failed to capitalise. These two games have put that right.
Pell said afterwards he felt we took our foot off the gas at Southport. That's hardly surprising - it's human nature to relax a bit when you feel the job is done.
So here we are - top of the table by a point, second-highest goalscorers, the fewest defeats, the tightest defence and the largest goal difference.
You really can't ask for more than that after 21 games - also, we are unbeaten for eight league games, the longest stretch in the division.
So we are in decent shape going into Saturday's second meeting with our nearest challengers Forest Green Rovers.
I know it's only November and (cliche alert) nothing is won in November, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal game and a pivotal weekend in the season.
Not only do we lock horns with FGR knowing that a win could out us four points ahead of them, but Eastleigh in third also host Grimsby in fourth with those two both needing a win to stay on our coat-tails.
A handy little gap has opened up behind us and FGR - five points separating second and third although Eastleigh do have a game in hand.
This weekend is also the last chance we have to dent Forest Green's hopes ourselves - after this weekend we are in the hands of others to knock them out of their stride, as long as we can keep getting results of course.
Another factor is our upcoming fixture list. After this weekend, we have a few games against sides in the bottom half of the table - we play the sides in 14th, 13th, 19th, 23rd, 21st, 23rd again and 20th.
So we (on paper) have a chance to get some points on the board and maybe open a further gap on the chasing pack - but so do Rovers.
Their games after this weekend see them take on teams currently sitting in 19th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 21st again, and 16th in the coming weeks - and they will have a game in hand on us as they still have the FA Cup to play, which has cancelled their game at 22nd-placed Southport on December 5.
So both of us have favourable games in the coming weeks - which only serves to show that they probably won't be shaken off any time soon and serves to make this weekend's game even more important for both sides.
They will want to get back in front of us and put the pressure back on us - especially for the Chester game on December 5 when they will fall a game behind us.
For us, there is the chance to keep top spot, get four points ahead of them, maybe have the chance to render that game in hand almost irrelevant, and also get further ahead of the other chasers.
Put it this way - I really don't think a draw suits either side.
Naturally, the excitement is mounting ahead of the game which, even I - despite my traditional feeling that Gloucester City remain our one and only true 'local derby' rivals - unfortunately have to bill as a derby game.
It is a great shame though that we are playing it in November. Had this game been played in April with the sides in first and second place, we could have been looking at a 6,000-plus crowd - maybe even a sell-out.
A Twitter question went out on Sunday asking about the last 'top v second' game to be played at Whaddon Road. Thoughts went back to March 1999 when we were second and hosted leaders Kettering, beating them 3-0 to go top on the way to promotion in front of a 5,202 attendance.
Personally, I don't think the crowd on Saturday will get to that figure - I hope it does, as the team deserves all the backing it gets.
But it seems (from what their club itself are saying) they are only likely to bring around 6-700 for the game, which isn't all ticket for them.
Assuming that is 700, to get the attendance to 4,000 we would need 3,300 fans in home areas - which is 1,100 home supporters more than came to the Guiseley match last Tuesday.
Not wanting to sound like Delia, but come on you floating fans... come on you fans who turned your backs over the past two seasons... let's be having ya!!!
I think 4,000-plus would be a decent attendance figure. I am told that seats are selling very well with only singles available in many T&B Stand blocks. Great news.
It's been difficult not to get carried away with things over recent weeks and with the recent run of results, especially the last two.
We all know it won't decide anything conclusively but a win on Saturday might make even the most sceptical of fans believe that we can pull this bounceback thing off.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

We're halfway there (nearly...)

DON'T worry, I'm not about to launch into Bon Jovi - trust me you really wouldn't want to hear that...
It has been difficult not to walk around with a satisfied grin since the final whistle last night signalled our move to top spot in the National League.
But while it's nice to be there and yes, I am enjoying it as much as anyone else, it is important to remember that nothing is won yet.
As my first question to Gary Johnson post-match said, it was just about the perfect night against Guiseley, one of those which that well-known lager company might have had in mind when they dreamed up their adverts.
Two early goals, an injury to the opposition centre-half, then a bit of cruise control through the rest of the first half (getting a bit sloppy at times maybe, but we'll let them off just this once).
That was followed by a red card within two minutes of the re-start, a third goal just to make sure, a chance to rest your two central midfield workhorses, then a couple more goals to add a bit more gloss and send us all home happy.
Added to that were the goings-on in three games being played in the Kent and Greater London area, all of which ended with decent enough results for us as Forest Green were held and the teams immediately below us, Dover and Bromley, were beaten at home.
All very satisfactory, and keeping us on schedule for Gary's 'two points a game' target - 20 games, 40 points, after we had previously had 20 after 10 games.
Even the goals for column is almost playing ball, with 39 at the moment - only one away from two goals a game - statistics which really lay bare just how bad last season really was.
Now I don't want to hark back to those dark days too much, suffice to say that a point and a goal at Haig Avenue on Saturday will match our points and goal tallies from the whole of that wretched campaign.
More vindication then for Gary's summer recruitment, and also yet another sad indictment on the previous two close seasons.
Gary has proven that, if you know where to look and do your due diligence, the players are out there, and they don't demand a king's ransom. Let's remember his budget is somewhere around two-thirds of what the previous manager-but-two-or-three-I've-lost-count started last season with.
He has also proved that you can mould a new group of players into a close-knit group, who are motivated, care about the club they are playing for and want to do well for themselves, their manager and the supporters.
But that's enough about what went before. We know it was terrible, we know that's the reason why we are striving to get back up and keep our club on an even keel.
It's time to look forward to the next 26 games, which, if we can carry on with Gary's twin targets, really can take us to where we want to be.
This group really are responding to what Gary is demanding of them. They are listening and he comes across as a man not easily satisfied. Even after wins he has come out afterwards and asked for, nay demanded, more from them.
The players have taken it on board and they have stepped it up when needed - last night being an example.
After the Hartlepool game, Gary had a little go at a few. I suspect behind closed doors one or two got a bit more of a rocket. It certainly worked.
That's a sign that the players respect their manager and believe in what he is trying to do and in what he tells them.
He rewards them with (in the main) a consistency of selection which is paying off with results.
Five players - Dillon Phillips, Kyle Storer, Aaron Downes, Daniel Parslow and Danny Wright, have started all 20 league games.
One, Harry Pell, only missed a game due to his five bookings while Jack Munns and Jack Barthram, have started 18 and come on in the other two.
Amari Morgan-Smith started the first 18 games before his injury, Billy Waters has featured in 18 games (9 starts, 9 sub), George McLennan has missed three games due to his suspension, Rob Dickie has started the last 15 after signing for us.
So that's a core group of only 12 players, with Asa Hall, Lee Vaughan, James Rowe and now James Dayton added on, who have got us into this position.
Yes, we have been lucky with injuries up to now, but they have all stepped up when needed.
Of the five ever-presents, Phillips, Storer, Downes and Wright have been the real spine of the team - but what about Daniel Parslow? He's quietly got on with it, turned in consistent seven-out-of-10 performances and been a bit of an unsung hero.
Pell has come into his own since moving more centrally, while Munns, with six goals and officially nine (but I'd say he's got more than that) assists has shown his value regularly.
Barthram has been another consistent man, and made a few goals - even if he seems destined never to score one himself, while Morgan-Smith, pre-injury, has been a good foil for Wright and come up with some crucial goals.
Waters has seven goals in nine starts - enough said - and the young defenders McLennan and Dickie seem to be getting better and better.
McLennan had a rough spell after coming back from his ban but has come through it and been impressive lately and Dickie also looks to have a good future with his trademark surging runs out of defence.
Hall and Rowe have a goal apiece now and showed on Tuesday what good strength in depth we have got in the midfield area - I'm convinced they'd walk into most teams at this level, as probably would Vaughan.
Dayton made his first start on Tuesday but while he may not have had too much an impact, has shown with his cameos from the bench that he can be an asset - there is more to come I think over the second half of the season, if he stays beyond January.
But despite their good performances up to now, Gary wants to add - no resting on his laurels. A loan striker for competition while Amari is out is being hunted, the mere thought of which seems to have perked Billy Waters up - last night's display from him was just the sort of reaction you want.
How much more Gary can do after December 31 depends on a few factors.
Will Charlton let Phillips stay? Please let that be a yes...! Will Dayton's stay be extended?
What of the loanees, especially the ones he doesn't appear to want, who are seemingly Jack Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence, will they be moved on or paid up?
Harry Williams, Joe Hanks, Bobbie Dale (currently injured), James Bowen, Zack Kotwica and Adam Page, what of them? More loan action, or a chance in the squad? Will some of them get a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season?
I personally hope some of them get that opportunity and take it, but I have to be honest and say I am becoming increasingly unsure about whether that chance is going to materialise.
Take Williams for example. He is back at the club from Farnborough where he has scored something like 25 goals in all games.
He was an option for the bench on Tuesday given our shortage of attacking options - yet was overlooked and we went with two right-backs and two midfielders plus Rhys Lovett. I really hope that's not a signal of where Gary is going with that group of players.
Before the Guiseley game, Gary said of Williams: "If I pick him it's because I think it's right, and if I don't it's because I don't think it's right just yet." He wasn't picked, so it's obviously not right yet. The question is will it ever be?
Can Eliot Richards come back from his illness and make an impact? It certainly seems that Gary wants to give him the chance to do so, maybe even before Christmas. It would be like a new signing and could save us looking elsewhere in January.
Finally, has Jordan Wynter got a future here when he is over his injury? - there has to be a doubt about that given our midfield resources.
All these questions which need answering before Gary can really look at what he wants in January to add to that core group he has, which has done so well.
If he can move some of the unwanted ones on he might have some breathing space - whatever way those questions are answered it seems that some serious wheeling and dealing might be in store.
Fir now though, back to the present - and we are embarking now on a very important period which we have to take advantage of - and also keep on schedule with what Gary wants.
This upcoming run of 10 games could prove pivotal to our hopes of a quick bounce-back as many of them look winnable on paper - and realistically they are the games which title-challengers should be winning.
Of the 10, eight are against teams currently in the bottom half. The other two are, of course, the re-match with Forest Green a week on Saturday, and what is currently scheduled to be our 30th game, at Dover on January 23.
The others are trips to Southport, Aldershot, Kidderminster and Boreham Wood, and home games against Chester, Altrincham, Torquay and Kidderminster.
Six of those games are against the current bottom six - so these are the games we have to really take advantage of, maybe open up a gap at the top and look to give ourselves a real springboard for the final push.
We're (nearly) halfway there but the real fight is only just beginning.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Time to believe?

FRIDAY night's hike up to Cleethorpes was built up as the big test for Cheltenham Town's title credentials.
A 5,000-plus crowd, under the lights in front of the TV cameras against a side unbeaten in 11 games with only one home defeat all season.
So - having come through it with a 1-0 win, what now? Is it now time to start believing that this team is the real deal, and can challenge for, if not win, this league?
Yes, I believe it is.
If we can go to Grimsby and win there we have to believe we can win anywhere as I don't see many bigger tests than this in the league.
Looking at the table, we have drawn at Forest Green, beaten Dover and Wrexham, won at Bromley, drawn with Eastleigh, Gateshead, Braintree and Lincoln, and now won at Grimsby.
The home defeat against Tranmere is the only blip against teams in the top half - and you have to honest and say there is very little to fear from what we have seen from the sides being laid out as title challengers.
We have been better than most of them and more than matched the others, including Tranmere.
Personally, I have earmarked Grimsby as the team to beat. My feeling since the start of the season has been that a team which finishes above Grimsby will win the league or go very close.
In the first half on Friday, we started well enough, and looked confident on the ball, but gradually got pushed back and allowed their wide men too much freedom.
Our wing-backs were pushing on and allowing too much space in behind and about half-an-hour in we could have paid for it as we were second best.
The penalty-which-should-have-been and Dillon Phillips' save from Danny East were big alarm bells - but the switch to 4-4-2 paid off for us.
That formation has been a worry for me in the past - mainly because of our right-hand side with Rob Dickie having looked uncomfortable before at right-back and Jack Barthram not looking convincing as a right winger.
Also on the left  we don't have a natural wide man, with Jack Munns having to perform that role - and that system has a 'square peg' look about it.
I feel that playing 3-5-2 suits the players we have... but this time it worked a treat- as we matched them up and went on to prove that overall, man for man, we have better players.
Nowhere else was that shown up better for me than in central midfield, where I felt Kyle Storer and Harry Pell took the game by the scruff of the neck against Craig Disley and Craig Clay over the last hour - and especially in the second half.
The switch also took their wide men out of the game with Dickie and George McLennan having excellent second-halves.
We stopped the supply to them and in doing so negated the threat of Omar Bogle and Padraig Amond after the break.
Amond was denied by Phillips right at the end of the first half but that was it as far as direct saves for Phillips - Disley's shot over the bar was their only real threat after the interval.
We grew into the game the longer it went on with every single player displaying the work-rate and commitment which has typified our season.
This is despite all the travelling of recent weeks - Halifax, Bromley, Havant, Gateshead, Cleethorpes - a lot of miles on the motorway network - and the extra game we had in midweek.
It's prompted a few worries about fitness, and whether our small squad could cope, but by the end of the game we looked the fresher side, and I was impressed with the calmness we showed in seeing the game out.
After Aaron Downes' brilliantly-taken goal we 'managed' the rest of the game very well indeed, led by Downes and the unsung hero alongside him, Daniel Parslow.
Downes quite rightly got all the plaudits post-match but Parslow deserves a few as well as he has been a very consistent performer this season alongside the Silver Fox (copyright H Pell, 2015).
As soon as Grimsby took Bogle off I was confident we would see the game out - it seemed a strange move to me, almost a concession that the game was up.
We could have had more goals - there were a couple of times where a shot was on instead of a pass, Billy Waters and Danny Wright got into good positions but maybe took the wrong decision.
On the subject of those two, Wright had a frustrating first-half but a much better second (along with a few of his team-mates!) but I felt Waters was always lively.
Having watched the game 'lie' and then sat through the TV re-run, the BT pundit Adam Virgo was always picking him out for praise saying he was making intelligent runs and getting into good positions.
I do think we missed Amari Morgan-Smith's extra physicality at times against two big centre-backs as it left Wright to take on the brunt of that side of things, but Waters did worry the Grimsby defence in a different way by running at them and with his trickery.
The partnership between him and Wright still needs some work - there were times when Wright flicked on or looked to hold the ball up and Waters was not close enough to him to take advantage but they will have a few weeks until Amari is fit again to work on that.
But maybe that's just nit-picking as it truly was a superb win and one which puts a marker down - not only for us but for the rest of the league.
It was a very important win too with a lot of teams behind us winning on Saturday - indeed the defeats for Grimsby and Tranmere (1-0 defeat at home to Dover) have dropped them to ninth and 10th. That's how tight it is.
Importantly, they are now seven points behind us - a useful cushion even at this time of the season.
It's still very congested behind us - a sign maybe that these teams are all much of a muchness and can all beat each other... which could play into our hands if we can keep picking up points and start to pull away from the pack.
I am convinced we have what it takes to win this league. If we do, then an October Friday night in Cleethorpes will go down as one of the key reasons why.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Never say die

One of those 'football' words which pops up constantly - usually when a team is performing badly and the fans claim to have a lot of it while the players have none whatsoever.
A few months ago, we certainly wouldn't have seen goalkeepers leaping around the penalty area to celebrate a last-minute winner (not that we were likely to see many of them!!!) and fans waiting for the manager's fist-pump on the final whistle.
At Bromley last night, one of our directors turned to me at half-time and said: "It's an absolute miracle how Gary Johnson has put together this squad on our budget." It's hard to disagree.
I don't think even the most optimistic of CTFC fans would have expected 17 new signings to gel together almost instantly into a squad playing decent football, winning games and with a really good team spirit. In some ways it is a miracle.
They care. They want to do well for the club, for the fans and for each other, and it shows in their performances and in the way they go about things on the pitch.
Going into last night's game at Bromley, there seemed to be a bit of extra pressure on us.
Saturday's game at Gateshead, which I missed as I was on dad duties, was followed by what I felt was a fair smattering of social media negativity.
There were gripes about missed chances, with Amari Morgan-Smith especially in the firing line, worries that we had only won one game in five, and fears that Forest Green were heading over the hill again while those beneath us were bunching up.
I thought a lot of it was over the top. All strikers miss chances, and Amari is not the only culprit. He has also won us games, Wrexham being a case in point with a spectacular goal.
Yes, after Gateshead we had won one in five - but we'd only lost one in five too, had one defeat in nine, and two defeats in 16. We were sitting second in the table with one of the best goal-scoring records and the second-tightest defence in the league. Statistics can be turned any way you fancy.
Yes, FGR were five points clear. Earlier in the season they were nine clear, but were reeled in and briefly overtaken. Five points is not a terminal lead, with 30 games left.
And yes, the table is very tight, but everyone seems to be beating everyone else around and about us, and I am sure a few teams will slowly drop away to leave a pack of real title challengers - which hopefully we will be part of.
I'd seen Bromley dubbed as a 'must-win' game, seen pleas that the system needed to be changed (10 days after that system saw us win 7-1 away from home...) and that we urgently needed new players to add to the squad.
Gary Johnson soon put paid to the latter before the game. I'm happy with my squad and my subs, and won't be calling any loanees back.  That cleared that up then.
At 9.45pm last night those concerns about the system and personnel seemed to have been quelled once more - and in any case we are over budget, so we can forget any embellishments to the squad unless we have a decent FA Cup run, while the loanees who are in Gary's plans are playing regularly and scoring goals. If they came back they'd not be guaranteed a bench seat and might get no action at all.
Last night was a fantastic night - one of the best away days in a while and one of those we will look back on in future years.
It showed once again just what a resilient and spirited lot we have got in red and white (or purple). They don't give up.
We saw it against Barrow, when we dragged ourselves to victory. We saw it against Braintree, where we salvaged a point at the death and could have won it, and we saw it again last night. Just don't leave before the end or you will miss something!
It was a rocky old road though. In the first 20 minutes, we could have conceded five or six times.
For the first time in a long time - maybe even all season - we looked defensively dodgy.
The movement of the Bromley front four was causing us big problems in the back three and we were struggling to cope. Only Dillon Phillips (three or four times), the post and one bad miss by the league's top scorer Moses Emmanuel kept it at 0-0.
However we weathered that storm and as the half wore on we took control more and more, without really creating a clear chance - the best being Aaron Downes' header from a corner which was saved.
After the break, we were clearly the better side. Whether it was the part-time v full-time thing I don't know, but we seemed to gradually wear Bromley down.
Their only real chance in the second half bar their penalty was Emmanuel's shot brilliantly saved again by Phillips, but as the game went into the final 15 minutes at 0-0 it was still on a knife-edge.
I mentioned earlier about some fans' concerns over AMS and there has been a clamour for Billy Waters to start up front with Danny Wright.
But Billy's impact from the bench might be working against him on that front - and he came up trumps again with the opening goal, making it three in four games after coming on.
He seems to be an instinctive finisher - the poacher - fox in the box, call it what you will.
That can be useful late in games against tiring defences and sides we have struggled to break down - like Braintree and like Bromley, who has been stubborn and defended well in that second half when we put a lot of corners into their box.
Gary seems to like having him up his sleeve - but another goal isn't going to stop the fans' clamour for him to be given a go from the start. We'll see on that one.
All that remained after that was to see the game out, but it looked like we had shot ourselves in the foot when the penalty was conceded.
It was a penalty, as clear-cut as you can get. As soon as Anthony Cook burst past George McLennan I was saying to myself 'don't dive in... be careful... don't foul...' Ah. Too late.
Another draw then, we thought. But again we reckoned without the fantastic never-say-die spirit of those in purple.
Asa Hall said afterwards that he asked the referee how long was left. He was told six minutes, and they all looked at other and said 'right, let's go and get another one.' What an attitude!
No settling for a draw, no hunched shoulders, no feeling sorry for themselves. No capitulations like we have seen from previous Cheltenham sides after late setbacks - just a determination to go up the other end and win it. It's so refreshing.
And how fantastic was it to see Asa lash in that winner after his terrible year of injuries? What a great moment for a player who has never moaned about his lot, whether it be injury or not being in the starting 11.
I do wonder what a fit Asa Hall would have been able to do last season, considering the bunch of miscreants we had loitering our midfield for much of the season - but it's too late for that now.
Then we got the bonus. At the same time Asa's shot hit the net, Eastleigh got a winner against FGR and the 'terminal' five-point gap was down to two, and we also opened a three-point cushion on Dover in third. Happy days! How thing change in the blink of an eye.
So the perfect response to our perceived little 'blip' of only one win in five and two draws which could've or should've been wins. Now on we go to a little crop of three more tricky games.
Eastleigh at home is up first, a side with wins over Wrexham, Tranmere and FGR in recent weeks, who might have a new manager installed by Saturday - if it's not Chris Todd though he's very unlucky.
Then it's a trip to Havant and Waterlooville in the Cup, a big game for its' financial implications, and we hope Charlton and Reading give the green light and let Phillips and Rob Dickie play.
Finally in October it's a trip to Grimsby, fast emerging as real contenders after a good run of form and matching our seven-goal haul against poor old Halifax.
They don't get any easier - but this squad seem to take them in their stride and let's just hope that continues.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The big picture

AS we approach October, we could so easily be sat top of the table - which I feel would have been remarkable given the massive summer of change we saw.
So therefore the loss of five points late in the games against Forest Green and Tranmere, while disappointing, is not really the end of the world.
I suspect many Robins fans heading up the hill to Nailsworth would have taken a point at 7.45pm last Tuesday, even if it was then a bit difficult to swallow two hours later.
I didn't feel we played that well at the New Lawn, especially in the first half.
I felt we were too deep in midfield for most of the game, which left Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith isolated, and we struggled to get much going.
On the plus side, we probably created three decent chances and took two of them - the other being the AMS chance which was saved by Maxted, who also blocked Jack Barthram's follow-up.
We did most of the defending, Dillon Phillips was the busier keeper, so all in all maybe a point wasn't that bad after all.
Yes, we could have gone top, taken the bragging rights, called ourselves the county's number one team again, whatever... but we did none of the above, so we can try again in November.
Then it was on Tranmere, and once again in hindsight it was a chance missed.
Once again we could have ended the afternoon top of the league as other results more or less went in the right direction for us, but we couldn't take advantage of it.
With Harry Pell banned, Gary Johnson had to make one change and Asa Hall was the natural replacement. He did well enough - but the gaffer decided to go further.
The two Jacks, Munns and Barthram, were rested for James Rowe and Lee Vaughan and in hindsight I didn't feel those changes were as successful, and were unnecessary.
It seemed a strange decision from the manager, who has preached consistency all season and looked to make as few changes as he can, then opts to rest two players,
Saying that, I was pleased to see Rowe given a chance to start as he has done well from the bench in little cameos, but he didn't take the opportunity. After a promising start he faded quickly out of the game and it just passed him by.
Vaughan and Barthram both give energy down that right-hand side, and Vaughan got into a number of good positions again but I feel Barthram's supply is more consistent - although Vaughan did supply a cross for our one decent chance, Wright's header which was saved.
All in all, the game was very tight with both teams more or less cancelling each other out. It was a bit of a non-event, with few clear-cut chances and neither goalkeeper kept busy.
From early on, it was either a 0-0 draw or was going to be 1-0 either way. The smart money would have been 0-0 as neither side did enough.
AMS rightly had a goal ruled out for offside, and then when he went through and seemed to be fouled, I thought the highlights showed him simply losing his balance and if there was contact with the defender it wasn't intentional.
Tranmere's stall was well set out in the second half as their keeper took longer and longer over goal-kicks and clearly they would have been delighted with 0-0,
It was going that way and makes the sucker punch goal even more disappointing - but I am going to stay positive and look at the bigger picture.
We made 17 (I think...I lose count...) signings in the summer and I admit to surprise at how quickly it has knitted together.
It could so easily have gone the other way and let's be honest about it - not many of the so-called pundits had us in their favoured challengers at the top.
But all the indications are that we are going to be in the mix for the top five, and maybe also for the top one as we reach the quarter of the season stage.
We have seen good performances, resilient performances, battling performances, committed performances and some not-so-good performances which have still brought some reward.
We have lost two games, both to goals scored after the 90th minute of the game and the whole mentality around the club has changed for the better. And yes, it needed to.
Now we head into another congested month with six league games - five against sides in the top 10 - and our foray into the FA Cup, which, as we know well, is financially important.
After Halifax on Saturday, we play Braintree (9th), Gateshead (2nd), Bromley (4th, and flying), Eastleigh (10th) and Grimsby (7th). A big month.
By the time we leave Blundell Park, we will have played 19 league games - and we will be remarkably nearly halfway through the campaign after three months.
A good month will really set us up for an assault on the title. A less good one might leave us fighting it out for the play-offs - yes, I feel it might be that pivotal so soon.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Case for the defence

After the game yesterday, I stuck a microphone under Steve Book's nose to get a few thoughts from him ahead of Tuesday's game at Forest Green.
Interviewing Booky is always an 'interesting' experience - but he came out with one pearl of wisdom which cannot be denied.
'Goals win you games, but clean sheets win you leagues,' he said - and that certainly seems to be ringing true as far as we are concerned at the moment.
Last season we didn't keep a clean sheet for 27 games between August and February. Look where that got us.
Already we have kept five clean sheets in 11 games this time round, and that has matched the total in league games in the whole of last season. We sit in second place with the best defensive record in the VNL.
The manner of the victory at Woking yesterday was almost Cotterill-esque - and yes, I know that is high praise indeed.
Under Cotterill, we would frequently go away and dig out victories, keeping a clean sheet and getting a goal in each half to almost steamroller the opposition.
There was a little bit of that in the manner of yesterday's win.
Gary Johnson made two changes from the Macclesfield victory, breaking the old cardinal sin of changing a winning team.
His explanation was that George McLennan was always coming back in, and then Jack Barthram edged Lee Vaughan out because he has trained and played more.
Jack Munns' return for Billy Waters was almost erring on the side of caution - playing a more orthodox midfield player instead of a midfield-forward.
He got both decisions right. The game plan worked to a tee.
McLennan had a very good game against the tricky Bruno Andrade, who was Woking's most potent threat down the right-hand side, while Munns' set-pieces caused problems and brought us our goal.
Before Saturday, Woking had five wins out of five at home, and in John Goddard they had a seven-goal player in prime form.
But he never had a shot, and was taken off before the end - in fact so effective was our back three and full-backs that Dillon Phillips never had a serious save to make all game.
In front of him, our back three were superb. Aaron Downes carried on what he has been doing all season, heading everything that comes his way, and throwing his body on the line when needed.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow is quietly efficient. Remember that this guy has played 300 games in League Two and the VNL. He is a no frills player - just gets on with his job and is doing it very well.
Rob Dickie seems to grow in stature and the games go by. After his goalscoring debut, he looked a little out of his comfort zone at right-back and the return to a back three has suited him.
He had another assured game and is growing in confidence - he likes to bring the ball out from the back and is a threat at set-pieces. He headed one great chance over and nearly got on to the end of another.
Those three and the confident Phillips behind them, backed up by the wing-backs and with Kyle Storer hoovering everything up in front of them is providing a very solid base for us.
I can't think of any time during the game that I felt uncomfortable, and that we were going to concede. The only worry was that we might not get a goal as we had created some good chances.
Danny Wright missed a couple in the first half, shooting wide from one and having a header very well saved, and there was also Dickie's headed chance.
Then in the second, Morgan-Smith had an opportunity before the goal finally did come.
Maybe not surprisingly, it was from a set-piece.
One of the best things about this season so far has been the threat from corners and free-kicks and with the height we have in the side from Downes, Parslow, Dickie, Wright, Morgan-Smith, Harry Pell and (if he's not taking them) Storer, it's hardly a shock.
More and more, other sides know we are a threat and the managers mention it frequently - but they seem powerless to do much about it. This time Wright got on to the end of Munns' corner and the ball ended up in the net.
Cole got a hand to it, and someone got a touch, whether it was a defender or Morgan-Smith, but I think it had already gone in so from my point of view it's five for the season for Wright.
After that goal, we went into fully-fledged strangle mode. Despite Craig Braham-Barrett trying his luck from 30 yards Woking never really had much of a look in.
We kept them very much at arm's length and I felt we closed the game out very comfortably and it was a fully-merited victory.
As Booky said, clean sheets win leagues. So does grinding out results at difficult places to win like Woking. It wasn't always pretty, but it was effective and that's another big test passed for this team, and number one of Gary Johnson's two 'cup finals' won.
The second looms large down the A46 on Tuesday, and a win could send us to the top of the table. No pressure then.
There is no doubt that we go into the game with the momentum - five wins out of six means we are top of the VNL current form table.
After their blistering start Forest Green have now lost two in a row and they have influential midfielder Rob Sinclair suspended as well.
Following the Dover game, when they were nine points head of us, there didn't seem much of a chance that we would go there with the chance to overtake them at the top.
It just goes to show that you can't count chickens too early - and the same will be the case if we go there and beat them at the New Lawn.
It will certainly be a big psychological blow to go up there and win, but it's just another three points towards where we want to be - and even if we don't get the win we've only had a quarter of the season so far.
 Another big game and another big test - but our team have passed them all so far and I have every confidence they can take this one in their stride as well.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Home comforts

It's been a long time since we have been able to use the phrase 'routine home victory' about a Cheltenham Town game, but it is the perfect way to describe the win over Macclesfield.
We saw an utterly dominant first half followed by a comfortable second, and all in all probably our most complete performance of the season so far - well, out of the eight games I have seen for definite.
There was no late drama and no need for comebacks - we just went out, imposed ourselves on the game from the off, went 2-0 up and saw the game through.
So that's five wins in a row now at home, all very different from the past two seasons (but let's face it, just about  everything around the club is different from the past two seasons...).
In fact we have now won as many home games as we did in the whole of last season - and that factoid tells its own tale.
The 3-5-2 seems to work. The players look at ease and comfortable in it and, for the most part, we have round pegs in round holes. It gives the team confidence and they can just go out and play.
Gary Johnson used this system when he won this league at Yeovil and I can see it becoming the norm for us now.
Rob Dickie looks happier as part of a back three than he did at right back. Ditto Harry Pell in a central midfield role rather than out on the right, and Billy Waters just behind the front two.
The team looked more fluid as they seamlessly carried on from the second half of the Dover win, which cheered me up in my sick bed last weekend, At 2-0 down I was reaching for more drugs to numb the pain.
The only slight square peg on Tuesday was Jack Barthram, retained down the left side, where he is nowhere near as effective, with Lee Vaughan keeping his place on the right after his half-time introduction against Dover and George McLennan sat on the bench after his ban.
Barthram had started the season superbly on the right and has not been able to replicate it down the left in the past four games.
I have nothing against Vaughan. He had a few dodgy games last season as did just about everyone else, but in some supporters' eyes he is 'damaged goods' having been a member of that relegation squad.
He does deserve credit for having not sulked after being transfer listed by Johnson, but instead deciding he would knuckle down, aim to change the manager's mind and show some determination to get back into the side.
It's that 'passion' and attitude which many fans love and can go wildly over the top about where he is concerned - he has become a cult hero to some simply for telling Paul Buckle where to go on the team coach at Southend.
He is proven at VNL level, and on Tuesday, he did perfectly well, giving the width and support when needed with the only drawback being the quality of his final ball.
So if Johnson wants to get his natural left footer in McLennan back down the left-hand side, he has a choice between Barthram and Vaughan to make as the season goes on. Interesting to see how that one goes.
You could see the determination throughout the team to start well on Tuesday and not fall into the trap of the previous three home games.
That tone was set by Pell and Kyle Storer, who took the game by the scruff of the neck from the off and everyone else fed off them. They were brilliant in the 60-odd minutes they played together.
Once again it was work rate which shone through and no one epitomises that more than Danny Wright. It's been said before and not only be me, but it's good to have a hard-working target man.
Amari Morgan-Smith isn't a slouch on the 'putting in a shift' front either, and they do complement each other well as a front pair.
Just behind them, Waters was buzzing around, looking confident again after his goals against Dover finally kick-started his season.
You look at that midfield trio of Storer, Pell and Waters and then see the trio on the bench - Jack Munns, James Rowe and Asa Hall - and realise how well stocked we are in that department. That's before adding Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks into that mix.
At the back, Dillon Phillips didn't have a save to make until just about half-time, because Dickie, Aaron Downes and Daniel Parslow provided a solid barrier.
The two goals we scored were further rubber-stamping of our danger from set-pieces - another refreshing change from the recent past.
No longer are our corners or free-kicks greeted by feelings of trepidation that we will concede a goal to a counter-attack - we actually now pose a real threat that we might score from them,
First we saw Storer's ball from the right headed in by Pell, and then Wright was on the end of 'The Weasel' - a Johnson training ground production which apparently has seen success in the past at Yeovil.
It involved a pass from Storer to find Waters, who had run along the edge of the box before feeding the pass to Wright, who, along with Morgan-Smith, had dropped out of the defensive wall, and he finished clinically.
All very clever and on this occasion it worked to a tee.
2-0 at half-time was the least we deserved and it allowed the second half to be much more comfortable. We could afford to drop a gear or two, and almost coast our way through it.
Macc were a bit more threatening but I never had a worry they were going to score, let alone do what we had done on Saturday and turn the game on its head.
Johnson had the chance to rest Pell and Waters and give Munns and Rowe 25 minutes each. Munns we know about, but I was again impressed by Rowe in his cameo.
He has energy about him and seems a very composed player with good passing range and quick feet - another clever footballer who adds to the ability in the squad.
McLennan was also brought on in the last 10 minutes and did a good job in that time - all in all, a highly satisfying night and a win reminiscent in some ways of the home wins under Steve Cotterill back in the Conference days - almost a steamroller performance.
So that is 10 games done now. We have six wins, three draws and one defeat, for 21 points - matching the 'two points per game' target.
We also have 18 goals, spread around nine different goalscorers. Wright has four, Morgan-Smith and Downes three, Storer and Waters two and there is one each for Munns, Parslow, Dickie and Pell.
That's almost at the 'two goals per game' target as well - and it is proving that we are scoring goals from everywhere in the side rather than being over-reliant on one or two players to get them.
We have also had eight ever-presents so far, Phillips, Barthram, Storer, Downes, Parslow, Pell, Wright and Morgan-Smith starting every game. This points at consistency of selection. Fingers crossed we won't be using 40-odd players in this campaign...
As the weeks go by, we see more and more evidence that this team and squad are the 'real deal'.
We have seen their work rate and commitment in spades. We have seen their resilience and spirit to come from behind and salvage draws and wins from losing situations. We have seen players with some backbone - putting their bodies on the line to protect our goal when we have come under pressure instead of collapsing like a pack of cards. Basically, they actually care.
It's all been a breath of fresh air and it's hard not to get carried away by it. These opening 10 games have been full of plusses and positives and all the signs are there that we will have a good fist at getting straight back up.
However, now we face two tough games on the road. First we go to Woking on Saturday, and they'll be cock-a-hoop after ending Forest Green's 100 per cent start, and then of course it's our trip over to Nailsworth.
Two cup finals, says Gary. He's not wrong. We go into them with good momentum after these two home wins and could really propel ourselves into the thick of things if we can come out unscathed.
But even if things don't go right in these two games, it wouldn't be the end of the world or any promotion hopes - I'd back this team to respond to it and come back stronger and there will still be a long, long way to go.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Not the end of the world

So we lost a game.
It was going to happen eventually, and defeat at Moss Lane does not spell the end of any hopes of success at the end of the season.
It doesn't mean we aren't going to win the league, or get to the play-offs - it simply means now we are going to find out a bit more about our team over these next two home games.
Yes it was disappointing to see the unbeaten record go, all the more galling that it happened in the 95th minute - and also coming as it did after a six-point Bank Holiday weekend which could have been brought to us by a well-known Danish lager.
But I didn't think we played that badly at Alty. It was one of those games where I think if we had got the first goal we would have gone on to win the game.
Unchanged team, and unchanged bench bar the back-up goalkeeper and we looked confident enough at the start.
We had a lot of the ball, I felt were winning our battles across the pitch and for most of the half we were the ones asking the questions in the final third.
However, one thing was missing - that killer pass, and that killer finish.
We didn't really have clear-cut chances, we had opportunities, and promising situations but were playing mostly 'in front' of Alty's defence and failed every time to test their goalkeeper.
Jack Munns, Harry Pell, Jack Barthram and, most costly of all, Danny Wright all got themselves into good areas in the first half but then wasted the final position, and eventually it came back to bite us.
I didn't feel we were especially threatened by Alty in the first half, bar one save from Dillon Phillips late on they had been kept at arm's length.
But the key moment was arguably Wright's second-half one on one. That miss seemed to deflate us a bit and at at the same time gave Alty a lift.
They got the goal, and for about five-10 minutes we looked a bit lost. I had that confidence that we would get a leveller, and sure enough it came with eight minutes left.
So now what were we going to get? Was it going to be a Chester - get back into the game and be happy enough with a point - or a Barrow - keep the momentum up and go for all three points?
Stick or twist - the perennial dilemma. Gary Johnson opted for twist. After all he has said we need to get promoted. We need to try to win the league.
Now we know that's the way it's going to be. We are going to try to win matches, and after all Altrincham away, despite their good home record against so-called fancied sides of late, is one of those games title challengers are expected to win.
On came Josh Cooke for Harry Pell, and with Billy Waters already on we had a lot of 'forward-thinking' players out there.
That was one of the things which eventually cost us with the winner. We lost the ball high up the field, and with so many players committed, they were able to break.
But then we made it all a bit too easy for them. Michael Rankine got to the byline too easily, and was under no pressure for the cross. Aaron Downes later admitted his culpability in letting this happen.
Then the cross wasn't cut out. The players in the middle appeared to be ball-watching and Sam Heathcote seemed to arrive completely unnoticed to convert the winner under no pressure at all.
A poor goal to concede, and a point lost, along with an opportunity to make up a bit of ground on those around us with the rest of the sides in the pack also having off-days.
All except one. Forest Green made it eight out of eight, and already have a seven-point advantage, and nine over us.
That doesn't mean anything is over however. Go back to 1998-9 - Rushden won their first seven, and we won the league. It can be done.
But if we are to start closing that gap we can't afford too many more Altrinchams. We need to start being more ruthless and kill teams off when we are on top like we were here.
However I must admit to a few worries about the balance of the side - and whether we are making the best of the players we have.
At the moment, we seem to have no width on the flanks. Partly that is down to Barthram having to play on the left, where I thought he looked lost at Alty, and both goals came down his channel.
On the right he is a massive asset, allied with George McLennan on the left, but Rob Dickie, good defender though he seems to be, didn't seem to carry that same threat going forward.
Downes and Daniel Parslow are solid, and Kyle Storer ahead of them is an effective buffer and ticks things over nicely.
Then we have Asa Hall, Munns and Pell. On Saturday with that trio and Storer we seemed to have a 'square' midfield, or a 'rhombus' as it was described by a press box colleague.
It is very narrow, and we seem intent on trying to pass 'through' teams, which all too often involves over-elaboration or players taking one too many touches and running into traffic or a blind alley.
Munns and Pell were especially guilty of that on Saturday, and it is Pell who I really feel this system does not get the best out of.
All too often he is left stuck out wide and cannot really drive at teams and get them on the back foot, as he did in pre-season to great effect. The one time he did it on Saturday, he cut in and fired a shot over the bar and I want to see more of that from him.
He's not a wide player and the problem is that maybe him and Munns want to do the same sort of job, as does Billy Waters, and they can't all do it.
On Saturday, I felt we were crying out for someone to go round the sides and get in behind Alty, get the defenders turning and get balls into the box, but had no-one to do it.
All too often it was left to either Wright or Amari Morgan-Smith to go wide and run the channels. Admirable though that is from a work-rate point of view, it lessens the target in the middle if the cross does come in.
That is unless the midfield runners break ranks - and if that goes wrong that we could be vulnerable to the counter-attack, as happened for the winner at Moss Lane.
So there are things for Gary to ponder, but let's not get too down. It's been a great start and these players have already proved they have some backbone and plenty of resilience.
Things just need a bit of fine tuning and I remain confident that we have not seen the best of this squad by a long way.
We knew there would be blips along the way, now we need to make sure that this is just a small one and make the most of these two upcoming home games.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Let me start by saying that I wasn't at Torquay today - I spent the afternoon with my girlfriend and my kids at Cattle Country in Berkeley with the commentary on the radio - and loved every minute of it.
So therefore I can't tell you if it was sending-off or not - but I can still tell you even without having been at Plainmoor that to play for 83 minutes with 10 men and come away with our biggest away win in three and a half years is absolutely fantastic.
Not since we went to Dagenham and won 5-0 in February 2012 have we won so convincingly on the road -but seldom in our history can we have won so well with a numerical disadvantage for most of the game.
That's only our second win on the road in 2015 and our first in 14 matches - we haven't taken maximum points since Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart's goals at Oxford in January.
It was a brilliant and much-deserved reward for the 277 who did make the trip - the vast majority of whom go absolutely everywhere and haven't had much to shout about over the past two seasons. They came over loud and clear on the radio and deserve all the credit in the world for sticking by the club. This one is for you lot.
Finally, they seem to have the team their loyalty over these recent dark times merits - one that matches their passion and players who appear to want to put shifts in for the club and its' fans.
In the five matches before today, we have seen work-rate, backbone, resilience and commitment, words which were alien to the vast majority of players last season, and the one before that.
Today's result under those circumstances only reinforces that further, and will send a message out around the league that we are a team which means business.
It should bring bundles of confidence and belief to everyone - directors, manager, players and fans - let's face it, if a 3-0 win with 10 men can't do that, then nothing will.
So far, we have dominated without winning against Lincoln and Aldershot, ground down a stubborn Southport and then hit back from behind against Chester and Barrow.
It was that never-say-die attitude from the latter two games which obviously came to the fore again today.
Past CTFC sides would have folded after the red card - even one of the best sides we have had in recent times did just that at Southend a few years back.
That Southend team are a better side by far than this Torquay one, but even so let's take absolutely nothing away from our win at all
To go away and win 3-0 with 10 men for 83 minutes is simply stunning.
This result might just dispel a few doubts that some CTFC fans have had about this team being capable of challenging at the top this season.
With results like this, we clearly are. This team is clearly made of a much better material than most of the ones which have gone before, definitely in the very recent past.
In the opening five games, we have especially seen the quality of Kyle Storer, Jack Munns, Aaron Downes, Jack Barthram, Daniel Parslow and Amari Morgan-Smith, while Danny Wright has led the line superbly. But all of them have played their part.
I have seen criticism of Wright for his failure to get on the scoresheet until now despite his hard work in every game. For that reason I was especially delighted to hear his two goals go in.
He has deserved them for his performances up to now - a number nine who is prepared to put a shift in is a refreshing and welcome sight. Not since Neil Grayson have we had a consistent hard worker leading the line.
So that's Wright, Storer, Downes and Morgan-Smith all with two goals each now - Munns and Dickie (who looks another decent Johnson signing) also on target, so six scorers of our 10 goals - another good sign in my view as it means goals are being spread round the side.
I know some fans want to see a 20-goal striker - but these are few and far between anyway and it can't always be good to rely too much on one player for goals.
That one player could get injured, or sold, or lose form - so for me it's always healthy to see a number of players weighing in with the goals.
There is still a long way to go but it is great to see smiles back on people's faces and such positivity coursing through the club as we get ready for the BT Sport TV cameras to roll into town on Monday.
We go into the game with confidence and belief, unbeaten in six games against a side who have won their last five. Two in form sides, on a Bank Holiday, on live TV. What more do you want? Should be a cracker!
At the moment, it's not just the players in the side displaying great confidence. It was great to see four loanees score seven goals between them this weekend - Harry Williams with three and Bobbie Dale two for Farnborough, Zack Kotwica one for Cirencester and Joe Hanks one for Gloucester.
There has been a lot of talk about these four players, as well as James Bowen, being sent out and whether it's the right decision.
My view is that at the moment it is, as they need regular games. With only five subs, there is less chance for them to be in the squad.
I certainly don't believe it is Gary Johnson writing them off as not good enough. He has talked positively about them, and I feel if he didn't deem them to be good enough or without sufficient potential, he would have listed them as he did with Deaman, Sterling-James and co at the end of last season.
The club's outlook is currently short-term - we need to get promoted this season. If we don't go up,we should be seeing plenty of them next season as first-team mainstays
I have great sympathy for these five lads in particular. I feel Mark Yates treated them poorly as he had chances to use them and get them into the squad in the past and he just didn't trust them - instead he opted to bring in loanee after loanee.
A small minority of them were okay, granted. But you cannot tell me that players like Lee Lucas, Billy Daniels, Eusebio and co were any better than Hanks, Williams or Kotwica would have been at the time. I still feel Bowen would have done no worse than our left-back did in the last two seasons...
I feel other clubs and managers would have used them. Williams, for example, had something like 40 goals in reserve and youth football two seasons ago. Yates opted to ignore that and bring in stop-start loans who didn't care rather than using 'one of our own'and giving our academy a shot in the arm. Why have an academy if you aren't going to pay any attention to it?
Over these past two seasons, these five players have, in my view, been let down a bit, and have become victims of circumstances. Yates could have used them, then at the start of last season but he marginalised them. As we slid down the table and manager after manager came in, a relegation battle was then deemed not the time or place for them, despite Paul Buckle giving a few of them a run-out.
So now, Gary Johnson still doesn't feel they are ready for a 'promotion or bust' battle - and I am delighted to see them going out and scoring goals. Hopefully they can all come back in January (or even before) and play a part for us.
But with better development and more exposure to the first team, they would already be in our side, or we'd know by now if they were good enough or not, and one or two might have been let go.
We should not still be here needing to still know if they are good enough or not, as they are all around 19 or 20. I think they have all shown little signs and I really think it would be a crying shame if they were all simply allowed to slip away without being able to properly show what they can do.
My feeling is that if that happens, a few of them could turn out like Marley Watkins or Sam Foley - going away and having decent careers somewhere, when they should have fulfilled their potential here.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A point gained?

'WIN your home games, and draw your aways' is one of those little adages that pop up in football.
Barring the home draw with Aldershot, we are living up to that one quite nicely, and if we carry on doing it until late April, 22 wins and 24 draws will mean 90 points, and happy days.
Of course it won't happen... after all, we might win some aways instead of drawing them... but it's nice to still be one of six unbeaten sides in the VNL at this stage.
As each game goes by, we seem to be learning a little bit more about our newly-assembled team, and at Chester our new nugget was about having resilience and backbone.
For most of the first 45 minutes, we were second best. Passing and ball retention was sloppy, and Chester's better passing and incisive movement was causing problems.
We've seen halves like that before. In the past, when that has happened, we have often collapsed and ended up losing by three or four.
But we are gradually learning that this Cheltenham team is fashioned out of a better quality of steel than those that have gone before. I know - not difficult, but refreshing nonetheless.
Again in homage to those miserable times of the recent past we conceded an early goal, and I'm giving credit to Ross Hannah for a good finish.
You could quibble about Jack Munns needing to be stronger after losing a midfield 50-50 and ask whether Aaron Downes could have got a bit tighter, but sometimes you hold your hands up and acknowledge a well-taken goal, and I think this was one of those.
So we were behind for the first time, and it was time to see how we would react to it. At first the answer was not too well - we rocked a bit and Chester, not surprisingly, had their tails up and could have killed us off. Hannah himself could have had a hat-trick.
Some of our lads looked a bit nervy after that - cases in point were George McLennan's back pass which should have given Hannah a second goal, then Billy Waters' miss from under the bar which should have made it 1-1.
Unfortunately that seems to be summing up Waters' lot at the moment. He seems very off-colour and looks low on confidence.
His evening was ended early as Asa Hall came on and we looked more solid after that - I wouldn't be surprised to see him start on Saturday with Waters given a breather after four good bench cameos.
It was swift and decisive management from Gary Johnson. He didn't gloss over the subject after the game, saying he would not hesitate to do it again if players were not hitting their straps.
We have seen glimpses of what Waters can do and I met a Crewe fan recently still furious that they let him go, and we need to find a way to get the best of him. It might be that he needs to be played further forward.
Witness his single-handed beating of Bristol Rovers playing as a forward, and I do just feel we need a little bit of a spark up front. He could be the one to provide it.
Definitely something for Gary Johnson to ponder, but all in all, I suspect he was quite pleased to get us in at half-time only one down. It could have been more and was comfortably our worst 45 of the season.
A fast start was imperative after the break, and a pretty comical (from a Chester perspective) and well-taken (from ours) goal was just the shot in the arm we needed.
Kyle Storer got it - our fourth different scorer in five games to keep up the 'goals being spread around the team' situation, once again something lacking in the recent past.
It was a nice finish and good to see him reacting so quickly in the box to punish the error decisively.
The rest of the half was like a basketball match. We attack, then you attack - either side could have won it - but I still felt we had the better of the clear-cut chances.
I point to Jon Worsnop's none-too-convincing decision to chest away a low, goalbound shot he could have held, Jack Barthram's fabulous mazy run before he hit the bar and Amari Morgan-Smith's header being tipped over.
At the other end, our defensive line held pretty firm.
The offside flag was our friend on occasions maybe. but we once again defended corners and long throws well as they went a bit more direct in the latter stages.
But the only real threats on goal were Hannah's shot which Dillon Phillips saved brilliantly and another shot wide as he tried a carbon copy of his goal.
As the early table shows however, with both teams on eight points and unbeaten Lincoln and Chester are no mugs and to have taken a point each from trips up there is a decent-enough return in my view.
Lincoln might have been two points lost after having the lead and seeing a few chances go begging, while this point was the total opposite - gained after an off-colour opening half.
Like Lincoln though, I can't see many sides going to Chester and getting much. They look a decent unit who played some nice stuff and on this showing will be top 10 at least, maybe even top five candidates with a good run.
We hope to be definite top five candidates at the very least, and I still haven't seen anything from us to change my view that we can be just that. I think there is more to come from us.
It was good to see some resilience and backbone, and things like seeing Morgan-Smith chasing down back-passes in the 90th minute, and midfielders squeezing up and forcing errors in the dying seconds make a refreshing change.
As I said at the start, draw your aways and win your homes - and this point needs to be backed up with three against Barrow on Saturday, as Andy Haworth and Ashley Grimes rock up at Whaddon (if Ashley makes it down the M6 this time...).
The Cumbrians have four points from four games, all garnered at home against Dover and Guiseley, while their two away trips have yielded four-goal defeats at Grimsby and Forest Green (albeit after two red cards).
Those away results point to the need for us to take the maximum dividend (four goals would be an added bonus...) as this one falls into the 'games that would-be promotion challengers should be winning' category.
That would mean nine points from five games, and would put us pretty near to that 'two points a game' target which has been oft-quoted as being necessary for a top-five slot.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Up and running

TWO games into Operation Bounceback, and although we had yet to taste defeat, it would be fair to say that we had yet to get the engine purring along nicely.
We had seen a couple of games which were similar in many ways - enough chances created in both to win, but which were not taken - this lack of a ruthless streak being a large factor (but by no means the only one) in why we were sat on two points and not six.
Southport on the other hand had one point, and no goals and are maybe not expected to pull up too many trees this season.
So, let's be honest, if we are going to show that we are the real deal and challenge near the top, these are the sort of games that need to be won - and, being greedy, won well to put a real marker down.
Yes folks, three games in and we were pretty much getting into the realms of the old 'must-win game'.
Gary Johnson didn't quite say as much in his pre-match chat, but his rhetoric was pleasing to hear - he is still looking for a few lads to step it up a bit, it's time to push on, and we need to start winning. No muddy waters there, the message was clear.
No excuses about a new team needing time to gel, or it's going to take time. He knows what is required this season and that even at this early stage we can't start lagging behind the pacesetters.
An unchanged team for the third game running wasn't a real surprise, and even my anorak-like brain can't remember the last time that happened. I know it wasn't last season for sure...
It's good for the continuity. As the games go on and these players play together, the partnerships around the field start to take root.
Downes and Parslow at the heart of the defence, Barthram and Pell down the right, McLennan and Munns or Waters down the left, Storer and three ahead of him, Wright and Morgan-Smith up front. All of them are starting to knit together and get that understanding going.
Things started well, as they had in the previous two games. We were on the front foot, asking the questions and refusing to be dazzled by Southport's decision to send their outfield players out dressed as 10 stewards in high-vis outfits.
But like on Tuesday the early goal wouldn't come. But unlike on Tuesday, where Aldershot looked to play a bit and tried to hit us on the break, Southport formed a flourescent wall in front of us designed to frustrate.
By half-time, we had almost hit double figures for corners, and taken our season's shot count past 30 - but with a return of only one goal to show for it.
During the break, I ventured down to the main bar to gauge some opinions. 'Always one too many passes - get more shots off early,' said one. 'Final ball poor' said another. 'Move the ball quicker - try to get in behind them' added a third.
So a mood of general frustration at a 0-0 scoreline - but the feeling that if we could uncork the bottle and get one goal that more would follow, and that much-wanted win would come.
And so it proved, corner number 11 landing on Downes' head - ironic given early-season worries about our own defending from set-pieces that one proved pivotal here.
All of a sudden, the mood lifted and a weight seemed to have been lifted from the whole ground.
Gary and Russell Milton were waving to the PRE and everything was rosy. Not for one minute after that goal did I think we were going to do anything other than win the game.
Two more goals made the scoreline about right. Overall I felt it was a 3-0 game. We had 22 shots in all and 17 corners.
On those stats it was a comfortable win, fully merited against a side who had one decent chance, Louis Almond's shot at 0-0 which was well saved by Dillon Phillips.
Morgan-Smith took his two goals superbly. The finish for the first was exquisite, a lovely dink which finally broke Southport's resistance.
His second - blow me down, another goal from a corner - was bravely taken, showing determination to get above the defender and win the header.
It's good to see him get up and running with a couple of goals - and probably kept him on the pitch as Josh Cooke was waiting to come on but Danny Wright came off instead.
Wright got a good ovation and was fully deserved as I felt he typified this team's attitude and high work ethic. He certainly puts a shift in, and it is nice to see a Cheltenham number 9 who is prepared to do that again. We've not seen that for a while...
Downes got the sponsors' man of the match vote again and after a clean sheet, goal and assist it's hard to quibble.
But after many games in the past two seasons which it seems to sponsors have had to draw the name out of a hat due to lack of candidates, it could have gone to a few this time.
Storer was again impressive, and has I feel been our best player over the three games combined so far. I like the unfussy way he just breaks things up and gets us moving again. He wins the ball back effectively and provides a good shield for the back four.
I also felt Parslow had an excellent game, his best for us so far. He reads the game well, as does Downes and I like the way they seem decisive with clearances - no fuss, if it needs to go, it goes.
Munns had given us real creativity, and has been involved in all four of our goals so far, scoring one, taking corners which lead to two others and with a slide-rule ball for the other one. A small midfielder in the mould of ones which have gone before - but this one seems to have end product.
In the system we play, the full-backs have a tough job. They need to be good athletes and get up and down their flank all game, defending and then providing much of the width.
I felt Barthram did it better than McLennan here but as we later discovered McLennan was feeling under the weather, he deserves credit for lasting as long as he did.
Waters came off early again, giving way to another good cameo from Asa Hall, and, having hit the heights in pre-season, especially against Bristol Rovers, Waters hasn't quite scaled them again in these last two home games.
We have seen flashes of it, but he has been overshadowed a bit by his little pal Munns, and I feel we need to find a way to get the best out of him as I feel he could really be a star for us.
In some ways I think the same goes for Pell, who, with his height and power, should really be our driving force. I felt at times on Saturday he was a little wasted out on the right, almost at times playing as a winger.
I'd like to see him maybe deployed more centrally, maybe with Munns and Waters either side of him so he can really get the ball and drive opponents back, with the trickery of the two little guys benefitting from his destructive work.
But it was a good performance and it was nice to see those slightly furrowed half-time brows replaced by full-time smiles - four points from two home games is sufficient and gets us moving in the right direction.
You can't argue with three goals, including that rarity for us of two from corners, and that even bigger rarity - a second successive clean sheet, for the first time since the start of last season, Hartlepool and Morecambe.
A look at the embryonic league table is interesting. Some patterns already seem to be forming for where teams may end up, even at this early stage.
Several of those teams who were perceived to be among the cream are already rising to the top - but as we painfully know from last season, let's remember that good starts are not necessarily a barometer for a successful campaign. Marathon, not a sprint.
At present Forest Green, Grimsby, Eastleigh, Tranmere and Wrexham occupy five of the top six places, with the other team in the top bracket being Chester, our opponents on Tuesday.
They have seven points from two 1-0 wins and a goalless draw, solid and unspectacular maybe.
Three clean sheets suggests they will be a tough nut to crack at the Deva, but we should be going there in confident mood, hopeful of getting something to keep us moving in the right direction.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Patience is a virtue

THE trend for football fans these days seems to be to have very short patience thresholds.
In this social media age,opinions are formed very quickly indeed (far too quickly for my liking). There is very little middle ground - managers and players are roundly condemned and written off before their summer sun tans have started to fade.
Witness Petr Cech after his error on his Arsenal debut - Twitter labelled him too old, over the hill etc. Also Christian Benteke is not worth his price tag according to some keyboard warriors by virtue of not scoring on his Liverpool debut at Stoke.
Instant success is what is needed, nay demanded, these days. No honeymoon period, no bedding in time. Produce results instantly, or face the flak.
Two draws in two games isn't what a lot of people were expecting. We all hoped for two wins, but if Premier League managers cannot bring in several new players and immediately click them together at the top level, then surely it is unrealistic for it to happen four levels below?
There have been plenty of positives - there is no doubting the commitment of our new team, also their work-rate and dedication to the cause.
We have created plenty of chances in the two games, enough to have won them both comfortably - a far cry from last season's struggles to make any impression in the final third. In time, I am sure those chances will be taken.
On Tuesday night for instance, three efforts against the woodwork, one off the line and two (correctly) disallowed for offside.
It was highly frustrating, and yes, with a bit more luck and ruthlessness we could be sat with six points at the top of the table, but this is still a work in progress.
We have seen some good individual performances. I have been impressed with Kyle Storer and Jack Munns in both games, Jack Barthram did well on Tuesday as did George McLennan on Saturday.
Others like Amari Morgan-Smith, Billy Waters and Harry Pell maybe yet haven't hit the heights, but we saw in pre-season that they have quality and will deliver as time goes on.
We have looked resilient - and shown we have a bit of a backbone. While the centre-backs may not be the quickest, they read the game well and their positioning has helped them out. They and others have put bodies on the line to protect our goal - a vast improvement on last season.
There have been downsides - defending from set-pieces at Lincoln cost us, but it improved on Tuesday night.
We've looked a bit open at times, our passing got sloppy and we have gone off the boil a bit in both second halves - but overall I feel there are more good signs than bad.
It is inconceivable to expect a whole new team of 11 players to click perfectly straight away. It would be fantastic if it did happen, but we have to give them some time.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Great expectations

AS I left Cheltenham at 9.30am on Saturday, I thought to myself that I would be happy to be returning 11 hours later with a draw from the tricky-looking trip to Lincoln.
In the event, I was left a little disappointed getting home after watching a bit of mixed bag display, with some good attacking play and suspect defending, and in the event we could have easily come home with an opening-day win.
But this is very much a work still in progress. We had 11 debutants put together over a hectic summer and only six pre-season weeks into their journey, but still bedding into the club and bonding together.
They faced a side somewhat direct and physical in their approach, and for the most part stood up to it and who knows - down the line this may prove to be a decent point as I can't see many sides going to Sincil Bank and winning. I see them as a top-half side.
But the expectations and pressure on us are great. Personally, I believe too great in some quarters as my feeling is that some supporters are expecting us to just walk the league.
That's unrealistic to me - I would see a play-off place as a great achievement.
There won't be many mugs in this league, and we will come up against tough sides who will be, like Lincoln were, somewhat uncompromising.
We had the better of the first half, no doubt about that. Beside Jack Munns' goal, Billy Waters and Harry Pell had one-on-one chances saved, and Munns looked to have been brought down in the box.
At any level, you have to take your chances - and as the game wore on there was that horrible inevitability in the pit of my stomach that we would be punished for it - and so it proved.
We looked very dangerous in that opening 45 minutes, with Pell, Munns and Waters combining well as they had in pre-season, while Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith worked hard, ran the channels effectively and stretched and troubled the Lincoln back four.
Their midfield holders, Matt Sparrow and Craig Stanley struggled to cope with them and it wasn't a real surprise when Munns scored.
But at the other end we had a few warnings. We knew all about Matt Rhead from his days at Mansfield and every time a long throw or corner came into our box he was a danger.
He put one header just wide and we were finding it difficult from set-plays as we had at times in pre-season - remember the goals conceded against Bristol Rovers and Cardiff.
It is an Achilles heel and something we need to try and stamp out as throughout the season teams will pick up on it, we will get plenty of bombardment and it could prove very costly.
But overall, I suspect Gary Johnson would have been happy at half-time. Even more so as we started the second half in the same vein and Morgan-Smith should have put us two up.
However then the game changed somewhat. Munns, Pell and Waters were well nullified by Lincoln, while I felt Wright and Morgan-Smith's effectiveness dimmed with the ball not sticking when it went up front, and coming straight back too easily.
The passing became a bit sloppy and we were very much on the back foot for the final half-hour or so as, instead of being comfortable as we could have been after the first-half chances, we were left clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Finally we cracked, and it was  a disappointing equaliser to concede. There were three or four players near Liam Hearn when he won the header - but none putting real pressure on him.
"Someone lost their man," said the manager. "We'll deal with it." I hope so Gary, I hope so.
We didn't create much in the second half - after Morgan-Smith's chance I can only remember a scuffed Waters shot in the dying seconds, so after we had the better of the first half, and Lincoln the better of the second and it was credit to Dillon Phillips for a couple of decent saves.
It's hard to complain with a 1-1 draw overall. It's not the win we had hoped for - but it is a start. A small base to try and build from.
Despite the disappointment of letting the lead slip, there were plusses. It was good to see the work-rate and commitment replicated from pre-season and I felt there were some promising individual performances.
Munns took his goal well, and Waters was a real threat in the first half, while Wright worked extremely hard.
On this showing, Kyle Storer showed me that he is going to be a very important cog for us as he did a lot of effective mopping up and I was also impressed with George McLennan at left-back.
Another plus was travelling support. 255 was a decent enough number, around the same levels as last year and it's good to see people sticking with the team on the road. I especially enjoyed watching the celebrations of Munns' goal - fans and players united - let's hope it stays that way through the inevitable ups and downs.
We did seem to tire towards the end, but that will happen given the intensity of the pressing game we are trying to play, and despite all the players we have on our books the squad does look a bit thin at present.
The 16 on duty at Sincil Bank more or less picked itself despite us having 27 players registered. Eight are on loan, two more injured and Eliot Richards hopefully on the road to full health again.
The JJ Hooper saga (handled correctly by Johnson in my view) was unfortunate in its' timing, and I doubt whether Bobbie Dale and Harry Williams would have been loaned out had that happened sooner - especially as Farnborough subsequently had their first three league games called off.
Adequate cover at centre back and centre forward are the main concerns going forward, but it is difficult to know how much room the manager has for manoeuvre in the coming weeks.
But for now, the focus is on two home games in the coming six days.
If we are going to make a push for that play-off place, even at this early stage you have to feel that Aldershot and Southport are the sort of teams you have to take points from on your own patch - four at the very minimum.
The onus will be on us to be on the front foot and to produce a performance like the first half on Saturday over the full 90 in both games as you can be sure these two sides will probably not be very adventurous in their approach.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Chalk and cheese

AS you would hope given the name which has been inflicted on our home ground this season, it was good to see a world of smiles on most supporters' faces after Saturday's game.
I really enjoyed our performance of high-energy pressing and passing, work-rate and commitment. As one person said afterwards 'more football in 90 minutes than we have seen in the past two seasons'. A tad harsh maybe, but I get where they are coming from.
But we do have to be careful. It's pre-season, and we have played this high-tempo passing game on a nice lush green carpet. As everyone knows the real test is whether it can be done on a wet Tuesday in Stoke. Or Bromley in our case.
However it is hard not to get carried away. Having seen player after player let us down with insipid, uncaring performances and terrible body language over the past two seasons, it's hard not to latch on to this group, who have been prepared to throw themselves into 50-50s in late July.
None of this means we are going to walk the league and have promotion sorted out by Easter but it's hard not to raise expectations on the evidence of these five games so far.
It's only pre-season. Down the road, we have seen Forest Green lose 1-0 to Brimscombe and draw 0-0 with Slimbridge. We're not writing off their promotion hopes on that basis, so equally we are not talking ours up too much on the basis of our results.
But I get the feeling these players will still be winning 50-50s in late April. They seem to have that mentality, and the youthful enthusiasm of players like Billy Waters, Jack Munns, George McLennan and Jack Barthram is infectious.
Having interviewed a few of the new boys, they seem like decent blokes. They talk well and sensibly, they seem to want to be here and want to play for the manager and the club. All very positive.
Cirencester, Weston and Evesham were the 'bedding in' games. 45 minutes to an hour each, resulting in three wins, 13 goals nicely spread around and the green shoots of a team coming together.
Then Sheffield United, more good signs and a defeat to two last-minute goals before Saturday's game with Bristol Rovers - the real pre-season benchmark against the team who have just done what we want to do, getting their place back in the Football League a season after dropping through the trapdoor.
And we passed the test. A 2-1 result which flattered them, and it's their manager who goes away with more problems than ours.
On the evidence so far, you have to say Gary Johnson has had a good summer. All of his new arrivals have shown up well at different times in the pre-season programme.
Dillon Phillips seems to be growing in confidence - his penalty save at the weekend will be a massive fillip, while I am sure Calum Kitscha will be a more than adequate back-up.
Barthram and McLennan look to be good athletes; getting up and down their flanks and both have stopped crosses at various times - a positive improvement on what went before.
Aaron Downes looks a real leader. A 'head it and kick it' centre-back in the Mark Freeman mould, he may find himself beaten for pace at times but he has half-a-yard in his head and looks more than adequate for the level we are at.
His partner remains uncertain. It may be the mythical loan centre-back who is still backed by GJ to arrive before Lincoln, or it may be the triallist Danny Parslow, who the manager wants and who, after playing all four games thus far, will be getting the understanding with Downes already.
He has experience at this level and looks a 'steady Eddie' as well as having a bit of versatility in that he can also play at right-back. There won't be any complaints here if he ends up signing.
Our midfield has looked really strong, and even the return of the diamond has not incurred too much negative feedback from fans - simply because it seems we can now play it properly and are making it work.
Kyle Storer is perfect for the sitting role. No frills at all, breaking it up, winning tackles and letting the three ahead of him loose, while Harry Pell is the driving force we have been missing for so long - arguably since the Penn-Pack-Summerfield trio was broken up.
The guy is a beast. He is the one who sets the tone for the all-action, all-commitment, high-tempo game. All arms and legs and energy, he doesn't let up for the time he is out there and gives us real strength and bite which we haven't had since the sale of Penn.
The we have the little guys, Munns and Waters. In recent times, CTFC has had a few little guys on their books with varying degrees of success - think back to the two Simons, Cooper and Brain, then loanees like Jake Taylor and Kemar Roofe, and then Sam Deering.
Some were better than others, some gave no end-product at all in terms of goals or assists, but these two look like they will deliver on the evidence so far.
Munns can take a set-piece which beats the first man for starters. His corners have landed on the right heads in the penalty area and he has buzzed around like a little pest.
Waters looks a real find. Of all the new arrivals, he is the one who has really shone up in all five games and his performance against Rovers was dazzling. Quick feet, pace, skill and two different goals - a poached effort and a decisive finish. We'll let him off the penalty this time.
Also it's been great to see Asa Hall back. He needs to build up fitness, but he seems pain-free and has come through a few 50-50s unscathed, so another plus.
Midfield options is not something we are short of. Let's not forget Joe Hanks, who has shone up in his games so far, and there's also Jordan Wynter (if the manager wants to keep him around - and I must admit I am not sure he does) and the triallist James Rowe looked a neat and tidy player with an impressive display in the 'number 10' role against Rovers, and is one the manager does want to keep around.
Last but not least of the new boys is Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith. In the three games they played together, the combination play was coming along, and AMS helped himself to four goals and Wright a couple, so already they are getting that confidence up.
Wright is the target man, he seems decent at holding things up and bringing others into play around him, and will be an aerial threat in the box, maybe without bundles of pace.
AMS seems to have that pace as well as power and there seems to be a partnership developing.
There was the worry that we were maybe light in the striker department, but Waters' display up there on Saturday is the absence of AMS might put that to bed, and we also have Harry Williams and Bobbie Dale - plus - hopefully - Eliot Richards may be back to play a part at some point having tweeted that he has now finished his chemotherapy.
Some players may fall by the wayside, either permanently or temporarily. Lee Vaughan has shown his usual good attitude in pre-season, which has been acknowledged by the manager, but he is a high-earner which is essentially why he is available for transfer. The same may happen to Hall and Wynter for those same economic reasons.
It is hard to see Jack Deaman getting a look in, while Zack Kotwica's game for Evesham on Saturday and the diamond system which is working well without natural wide players may suggest he will be looking elsewhere for regular games, maybe joining Adam Page, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence out on loan somewhere.
With only five subs in the VNL, we have a need for less players in the squad, and already the team to play at Lincoln is, I would suggest, pretty close to being known, with Downes' central defensive partner the only real doubt.
It is odds on that we will go to Sincil Bank with 11 debutants; Phillips, Barthram, Downes, McLennan, Storer, Pell, Munns, Waters, Wright and AMS being 10 of them. The loan centre-back or Parslow will surely be debutant player number 11.
The bench will see Kitscha, Vaughan (if fit by then), Parslow or the loanee, Hanks, Hall, maybe Rowe if GJ is able to sign him, Wynter if he is still here, ditto Kotwica, Williams and Dale fighting it out for a seat.
So it really has been all change, and you have to say on the evidence that we have seen so far, overwhelmingly for the better.
To give an idea of just how much change we have seen, I'll leave you with this.
On July 25 2014, we drew 1-1 at Bath City on a baking hot day, and used 19 players, while two more were unused subs.
None of the players who figured in that game played on Saturday, although Joe Hanks, who played for 20 minutes at Bath, was on the bench, as was Bobbie Dale, an unused sub in both games.