Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Last throw of the dice

EVERY March, punters converge on Cheltenham for four days of the best racing in the world, hoping to strike it lucky - and very few succeed.
Just down the road however, Cheltenham Town's board of directors have, unfortunately, been on a long losing streak - each favourite they have backed in the recent past either tailing off after a promising start, or falling at the first.
Now they have emptied their pockets and come up with their last bits of loose change.
One final gamble, one last spin of the wheel hoping to hit the jackpot and to try to save Cheltenham Town from falling into the abyss.
At the end of August, we came back from a 0-0 draw at Morecambe sat on top of League Two with four wins from six games.
Mark Yates, the second longest serving manager in the Football League, was at the helm. We were held up in the game as a model of stability.
Since he left in November, there have now three incumbents of the hotseat, with one lasting 79 days, and another a mere 45, before this latest move.
That tally of victories has doubled since August, ‘aided’ by the services of 41 players and now four managers along the way.
Those four wins in August are now a godsend. Let alone Gary Johnson, without them we'd be needing so many snookers we would need Joe Johnson to get us out of trouble.
Under Russ Milton, Steve Elliott, Steve Book and Jamie Victory, the club was getting its identity back after the turmoil of Paul Buckle's tenure.
Everyone is finally pulling in the same direction, getting behind men they know had the club’s best interests at heart.
But despite their best efforts - and they are not to blame for what they inherited - the wins were not coming.
Those encouraging away draws at Newport and Portsmouth were not followed up in the Devon double against Exeter and Plymouth, and things hit rock bottom, 92nd out of 92.
So now Paul Baker and the board feel it’s time to spin the wheel again. One final gamble to try and save that precious Football League status.
If Johnson fails, they will be castigated for leaving it too late, slamming the door after the horse has bolted. If it succeeds, the cries will be ‘why wasn’t he brought in earlier’.
I am uneasy about it. I feel sorry for Russ, Jamie and the two Steves and desperately wanted them to see the job through and keep us in the league.
But putting sentiment aside, Johnson’s appointment is a chance Baker clearly feels he and the board had to take - and it could be a defining one for his chairmanship after 16 rollercoaster years.
They feel obviously that they have to do everything in their power to preserve the club’s status, and anyone of a Cheltenham Town persuasion has to hope this favourite comes romping past the winning post.
Johnson has to find a formula from a group of players which three managers have so far failed to do, and find it fast. He can’t change them now - this is what he must work with.
He has seven cup finals starting at York on Friday to get us above that line, and we have to hope he succeeds as the alternative is not a pleasant thought at all.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

It's the hope that kills you

After two highly-promising away games which should have yielded more than two draws, hopes were high going into the Exeter clash that we could get that much-needed win.
But instead of building on what we had started at Newport and Portsmouth, we took another massive backward step and the inconsistency which has blighted us for as long as I can remember reared its ugly head again.
Once again, Trevor Carson was not ridiculously overworked. The same had been the case at Newport and Portsmouth, but like those two sides Exeter didn't have to work hard for their goals.
Our ratio of goals conceded to opposition chances created has been far too high and if we do end up in the Conference that will be one of the big reasons why.
We have been a soft touch defensively, and it is almost becoming too late to rectify it. The stats show we had more goal attempts and corners than Exeter.
Teams don't have to work hard to score against us, and at the other end we haven't created enough opportunities or taken anough of the ones we have made to make up for these deficiencies, and that pure economics means you will be in trouble.
And we are. Big trouble. It's made even worse by Hartlepool's resurgence, and now it becomes two from four, with them, York, Tranmere and ourselves in the mix go down.
That is only because York conceded a last-minute equaliser, otherwise they would just about be out of it, and I think we can forget about Carlisle, Oxford or Cambridge being dragged down into the mix now.
This performance was a relegation display. It was lethargic and lacking in energy in key areas, and a promising first five minutes and a head of steam in injury time was never going to be enough.
With Troy Brown banned, Matt Taylor came back in, but he always looked shaky. He is clearly not fit and the decision to give him a two-year contract last summer looks more and more crazy as he surely won't stay fit to see it out.
Will Packwood, after two superb games on the road, looked to have caught the jitters from Taylor and his decision to go for the same ball as Craig Braham-Barrett cost us the first goal.
It was another goal down our left-hand side. This has now happened for a season and three-quarters and is the most baffling thing that we have done nothing about that position.
Braham-Barrett has somehow played practically every game for the past two seasons, and, bar a good spell of form for a few weeks when we played three at the back, he has cost us goals.
Left-back seems to be a position we cannot get right. Danny Andrew and Billy Jones also struggled at times, but I'd have either of them in the side now.
It baffles me that neither Mark Yates or Paul Buckle tried Paul Black in what was his most natural position while he was at the club, and that he was then allowed to leave. Surely he could not have been any worse? Surely it was at least worth trying?
Black must have been so downhearted that he wasn't able to get a go there, and was left to play his four games for us as a central midfielder (where he had never played before) or on the left of a back three (where he had never played before). Ridiculous.
It's the kind of decision that could send us to Braintree next season and are endemic of the poor decisions that have made at all levels of the club in the last few years.
Anyway. No use crying over that spilt milk now, although you do wonder how many goals might have been prevented had we tried an alternative.
In midfield, Pablo Mills put in a determined display as ever, while Matt Richards was again one of our better players, but Matt Sparrow has just dropped off recently after a really promising start.
He was lucky to avoid a red card just after Exeter's first goal - his challenge was a very poor one as I was expecting him to go, and he never really got to grips with the game.
Several times he had the ball in promising positions but then gave a poor pass or made the wrong choice and it was no real surprise when he got the hook.
The same can be said for Danny Haynes, who I don't feel would have been in the side had Eliot Richards been fit. Like at Portsmouth in midweek, he was largely anonymous and, considering his higher-league pedigree, I expect more from him.
Once again, our main threat was Wes Burns, and he nearly gave us the ideal start, and Haynes needs to learn from his urgency when he has the ball.
At times, Haynes had a chance to break quickly, but didn't move it swiftly enough as Burns did, and we squandered a few promising situations.
Too often we made it too easy for Exeter, especially after they scored. We allowed them to win too many second balls, and they were able to dictate the tempo of the game and control it - something we have not been able to do when we have got ahead in games, hence why we have lost leads so often.
I have some sympathy for Shaun Harrad. He has spent the majority of his return to the club with his back to goal being buffeted by centre-backs without much help from referees or team-mates. He has worked hard with little reward.
At half-time we crying out for changes, but I felt Russ Milton left it a bit late. I'd have made the substitutions he eventually made about 10-15 minutes earlier, and the switch to three at the back and pushing Burns more central with Harrad had an effect.
It made the failure of Mathieu Manset to negotiate the M5 closure all the more annoying as he would have been an asset in that mini-Alamo.
We looked more dangerous, but then Trevor Carson's error to put us 2-0 down left us with too much to do - or it should have done as we then ridiculously created enough chances to win the game in stoppage time after a ludicrous own goal gave us some hope.
It's testament to our season and our predicament that we didn't take any of them.
Omari Sterling-James' shot was deflected wide. Burns shot over the bar. Harrad's golden chance put wide. Joe Hanks had an effort really well saved. Richards' shot was blocked on the line. Five great opportunities all created as we went a bit direct and caused a bit of panic.
The fact that we did that showed that we should have done that earlier and made the gift of the second goal all the more galling - but the bottom line is that we didn't deserve anything out of the game.
Next week, we go into the Plymouth game without Packwood and Burns, as well as still having Troy Brown banned. It's not an appetising prospect, but we really do need people to step up now.
Mills has to drop into centre back to deal with Reuben Reid and I would play three centre backs, bring Hanks into central midfield, and then perm two of Harrad, Haynes, Richards (if fit) and Manset up front.
But we need some grit and determination. We saw it at Newport and Portsmouth, but it was absent here.
If it isn't found again very quickly, and we continue to turn in displays like this one, then there is only one place we are heading.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Time to start winning

SINCE Russell Milton took the reins at Whaddon Road, everything has been positive.
The atmosphere has been better around the club, and the results, from the low base of the disastrous Paul Buckle era, have also seen an undoubted upturn, with one defeat in six games.
However, one crucial thing has not improved. The league table. It still makes worrying reading with the Robins below the dotted line of doom.
In isolation, draws at Newport and Portsmouth are good results. In a ‘normal’ season you would come away from those games thinking ‘fair enough, we’ll take that’ and move on.
This is not a ‘normal’ season however, and closer analysis reveals the continuation of a worrying Achilles heel which had set in long before Milton took charge -  the inability to hold on to a lead and grind out a priceless win or two.
Since the start of 2015, the Robins have led against Morecambe, Luton, Accrington, Mansfield, Newport and Portsmouth. All six games were drawn. That’s 12 points gone.
It’s not a new phenomenon. In Mark Yates’ two play-off seasons, chucking away leads cost us an automatic place in League One. Now it could be even more costly.
On May 2, these will be the games we will look back on ruefully and think ‘if only’.
Even two or three of these draws turning into wins would have seen some valuable breathing space open up.
Now, the next two home games with Exeter and Plymouth plus that Good Friday cruncher at fellow battlers York loom large as games where at least two wins are needed.
No-one else is going to get us out of trouble. We have seen that starkly in recent weeks.
After the Newport game last Friday, the results of fellow strugglers 24 hours later could not have fallen better as Tranmere lost while York and Carlisle battled out a 0-0 draw.
Then on Tuesday night after the Pompey point, news of unlikely away wins for Carlisle, Tranmere and – most worryingly of all – Hartlepool took the gloss off things and returned the Robins below that fateful line.
A few weeks ago, the Pools needed snookers. Now they are back within touching distance, so from it being one team from four to go down with them, it is a five-team free-for-all with two to head off on that Vanarama tour.

Performances have been better in recent weeks - that is not in doubt. Now we need to see the maximum dividend for that improvement, starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

One step forward... two back

COME on, nobody thought it was going to be easy did they?
After the euphoria of Saturday, a fine performance on the field and terrific support and enthusiasm off it, there was great optimism for the long trip up the M6 to Carlisle.
We were coming off the win over Tranmere; they had lost four in a row, and their local paper had tales of behind the scenes issues.
There was no getting away from the importance of the game. A win would have put us four points ahead of the Cumbrians with a better goal difference, and the atmosphere was tense among the home fans.
If we could have made a decent start as we had on Saturday, put them under some pressure and maybe nicked a goal, the crowd may have turned on their team. But it never happened.
Unfortunately it was a bit of a 'Southern softie' performance from us - one that we have seen a little too often on the road, especially when we have gone up North, and when the weather is a little wild.
There was no surprise when Russell Milton chose an unchanged side - but we never got anywhere near the heights of Saturday's performance and that has been such a frustrating thing about us over the past two seasons or so.
We never seem to be able to back up a good performance with another when the side is unchanged. It is a real dilemma why the same 11 players can produce such chalk and cheese displays within four days.
I am sure there is something in the theory that players like Matt Sparrow, Shaun Harrad, Pablo Mills and Eliot Richards have not played as many games in quick succession recently. But they are experienced enough and should be able to cope with it - but they were part of a below-par display.
So, we are back to square one again. After climbing up to 21st, we have dropped back down to 23rd, and the sides above us are becoming more and more spread out.
Carlisle had the benefit of the wind in the first half, and they used it well, but we never got to grips with it, in a mirror image of the conditions and way we coped with them at Hartlepool in another crucial match.
The home side adopted a very direct approach, and twice in the early stages our centre-halves let long balls bounce, then struggled to deal with them and we nearly paid for it. We would have done but for Trevor Carson's saves.
Our midfield, having been the bedrock of Saturday's win, never got going. The direct approach from Carlisle bypassed them, and they could not get involved to the same extent as they had at the weekend. They couldn't dictate the game.
So with them coming out second best, our forward players also struggled to get into the game. Shaun Harrad was isolated while Burns and Eliot Richards were largely anonymous as we couldn't make use of the wide pitch.
The main threats to both goals in the first half came from set-pieces. Carlisle's corner routine was clever - all their attacking players in the six-yard box would then run out in different directions making it hard for us to pick them up.
From free-kicks too they were dangerous, and that is how the goal came. A deep kick to the far post took Carson out of the equation and it was headed back across for Charlie Wyke to bundle in. A scruffy-looking goal which settled ultimately a scruffy-looking game.
We only really had once chance in the first half - a Troy Brown header straight at the keeper from a Matt Richards free kick in a carbon copy of Saturday's second goal.
Other than that, we didn't create anything. We had some promising positions, but were thwarted by poor passing, poor decision-making or a lack of support arriving quick enough for the player in possession.
I was hoping for better in the second half. We would have the wind with us, and I was looking for us to get on the front foot and try to exploit the conditions.
But again, it never happened. Carlisle defended very well, and we were never able to get a head of steam up, or really put them under concerted pressure.
We had two chances, with then both falling to Matt Taylor, who had one shot cleared off the line, and then , right at the end, put a free header well wide.
It summed our night up really. Close but no cigar, without ever really having the conviction to go and make something happen.
We just seemed tentative, and let's face it Carlisle were not a great side at all and even a performance somewhere near Saturday's would have been enough to get something out of the game.
But we allowed them to play their game as they wanted to - direct in the first half, containing in the second, and stopping the game at regular intervals by winning free-kicks as we fell into their trap.
While we dictated things and 'managed' the game well on Saturday, we conceded that last night and fell into Carlisle's trap and paid a heavy penalty for it.
Russ made a quick change in the second half, putting on Mathieu Manset for Eliot Richards, and it seemed a sensible change with Harrad being isolated, Richards struggling and the need for a bigger target up there.
That is just the job I envisaged him playing when we brought him here - with the conditions, we needed to be direct and look to hit him and see if we could play off him.
Since he has come here, he hasn't looked very fit, but Russ said Manset has been impressive in training and those performances have been asking Russ to be pick him.
As far as the result goes, it didn't work but after 10 minutes or so to get used to the pace of the game, I thought he had an effect, and gave us a bit more threat.
The ball stuck when it went up to him, and he made a couple of runs which finally had the Carlisle back-four back-pedalling after they had enjoyed a pretty comfortable ride all night, one of which ended with Harrad scuffing a shot wide.
Harrad playing up on his own is not the best option for an away game in conditions like we came up against here and it might well be that we have to look at other systems in games like this in the coming weeks.
Carlisle managed to negate Burns and Richards, and took a grip on the midfield, and that was it - we were stopped from playing completely - we need to have a Plan B, and Manset or Denny Johnstone might be it.
Mills was taken off after being booked for a tackle which another referee might have sent him off for - it wasn't the best challenge and the Carlisle side were not happy with it, and it was a chance for Jordan Wynter to come on and he didn't do too badly when he came on.
But no Cheltenham player can say they performed well. The whole back four looked jittery and failed to deal with Wyke and Steven Rigg, or with Anthony Sweeney and David Amoo out wide.
In midfield, Anthony Griffith had a decent game, and the Carlisle midfield overshadowed ours, and our wide men never got the better of their full-backs, leaving Harrad isolated and unable to get any change out of Troy Archibald-Henville and Sean O'Hanlon.
So disappointing all round in a big and important game, as we were at Hartlepool and again at Dagenham, and let us hope that these games are not the ones which cost us in the long run.
But we have to stay positive, and move on to the Mansfield game, which like Tranmere last week now takes on must-win status once again.
Mansfield will feel a win at our place this weekend will almost make them safe. so they will have a big incentive.
I was hoping that we would have been aiming to get to 40 points on Saturday, but we need the win to put the pressure on those sides above us and look to get back out of the bottom two.
We have 12 games left. Four wins, four draws and four defeats would get us to 50 - will that be enough?
Maybe... maybe not - but we need to keep the positivity up, keep the support up from last weekend and repeat that on Saturday. We saw the effect it had last week.
We all knew that last week's win didn't mean it was going to be automatically plain sailing from here on in -  but we need to make sure this was just a blip.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The feel good factor

MIDFIELD - that is usually where football matches are won and lost, and the axis on which successful teams are forged.
We have seen it down the years, how that 'engine room' can be so crucial.
I think back to Brian Hughes and Steve Brooks in the mid-80s, providing goals and flair, then Lee Howells, Dave Norton and some bloke called Milton in our Conference-winning side.
Also John Finnigan and Grant McCann in John Ward's play-off-winning team, and then the Marlon Pack, Russ Penn, Luke Summerfield triumverate which should have matched that feat.
All of those combinations had different attributes to bring - goals, energy, flair, mobility, tackling, playmaking - but they all dovetailed together and allowed the other parts of the team to function.
Since 2011-12 however, our midfield has been a bit of a mess.
Combinations have been tried, and they have all failed; loanee after loanee has come and gone.
We haven't been able to find that winning formula again, and it isn't a coincidence that we have struggled.
Playing 4-4-2 hasn't been possible, and we have seen the dreaded diamond come and go with 3-5-2 having the odd success, but nothing lasting.
Up at Accrington, Russ Milton opted for a 4-5-1, morphing into a 4-3-3 when we got forward. Matt Richards played as the deeper of the three, with Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks ahead of him, and we scrapped and battled to a 1-1 draw.
Richards did his job well, but Wynter and Hanks at times showed a bit of naivety, as you would expect of a (then) teenager in Hanks and a player in Wynter still relatively inexperienced in battles like the one at the Crown. Their time will come - they are both highly-promising players with big futures.
Fast forward eight days, and on Saturday Milton was able to field a midfield of Richards (409 league starts) and Matt Sparrow (353), with Pablo Mills (337) as their screen.
All 30-plus, all with more than 1,000 games between them under their belts - and boy, did that experience show.
Right from the off, Sparrow looked different class (and yes, I will overlook the dodgy back pass this time).
There was no hot potato, get rid of the ball anywhere stuff as we have seen too much of in the last two seasons.
He cultivated the ball. Looked after it. And if he came under pressure, there was no panic at all. He would get himself of trouble with a pass almost every time.
Behind him was Mills. Not match fit apparently. Ok, like to see him when he is because the man was an absolute rock.
Nothing fancy here. Just get the ball and make a 10-15 yard pass. Forward to Sparrow or Richards, Right to Lee Vaughan, left to Craig Braham-Barrett, or backwards to Troy Brown, Matt Taylor or Trevor Carson.
It didn't matter where, but it found a red and white (or yellow) shirt, practically every time. No panic, no fuss.
Those two set the tone, and they allowed everyone around them to calm down. Yes there was pressure on the game, we needed the win badly, but the nous they brought transferred itself around the team.
Taylor and Brown were able to concentrate on their job, ie to stop Kayode Odejayi or Jordan Hugill. Vaughan and CBB could do likewise with Rory Donnelly or Jennison Myrie-Williams without feeling under a constant siege.
But the biggest change those two brought was in Matt Richards. I don't think many players have come in for as much flak as he has in recent times - some of it justified - but on Saturday he looked a different player.
He looked like a player who had seen a massive weight lifted off his shoulders.
No longer was it his sole responsibility to bring some calm into the middle of the park.
No longer did he feel he was fighting a sole battle to be the man to get us on the front foot.
He was finally able to take the shackles off and seemed to have some freedom to express himself properly and be the player he has wanted to be for two seasons.
In the second half especially, he was magnificent. As good as he has ever been in a red and white shirt - and he topped it off with a decent set-piece at long last, straight on to Troy Brown's head.
That capped off a better show from him as well. Troy and the skipper barely missed a header all afternoon.
The full backs were also full of confidence. Vaughan is like a man possessed at the moment, seemingly determined to take teams on almost single-handedly.
Some of his tackling on Saturday was ferocious and the way he has formed a partnership down our right-hand side with Wes Burns has been fantastic.
That is where most of our threat came from at Accrington and on Saturday, and they work together well in attack and defence. We haven't quite matched that down the left yet with Braham-Barrett and Eliot Richards, but there are small signs.
We know that CBB is not everyone's favourite, but was better on Saturday and it is to his credit that Myrie-Williams was very quiet and had to swap to Vaughan's side in a bid to get himself in the game.
As for Eliot Richards, he is growing on me. While Burns has taken all the plaudits for his performances - and rightly so - Eliot has also played his part.
He might not have scored yet or really made a game-changing impact, but he was quietly effective on Saturday with little bursts of pace and making himself available with little bits of link-up play - and he nearly got on the end of a goal-kick with a Robin van Persie-style flying header which would have brought the house down.
At the axis of the team was Shaun Harrad - and it is great to have him back. A natural goalscorer - probably one of the most natural we have had in recent years, and a penalty-box poacher who might just turn half-chances into goals.
In the first 20 minutes on Saturday, he was irrepressible as we shot out of the blocks. He was stretching their back line, and forced the own goal (sorry Hazza, you are not having that one!) and showed that he wants to make up for lost time.
Although he didn't carry on that energy, and it would have been some feat of he had done, he put in a real shift and deserved his ovation when he came off.
We looked like a team transformed with the injection of experience on the pitch and enthusiasm off it from the new management team.
But overall we are a club transformed. Saturday's win was only a small step, we have a long way to go still however the atmosphere is just fantastic.
The board have done their bit by sanctioning the new arrivals we desperately needed, and the sponsors weighed in with the free scarves and sticks.
The supporters have bought into it as well, and to have 2,700 of a crowd of just over 3,000 was a significant rise on the turnout for recent games. Long may it continue.
The atmosphere was brilliant. Noise, singing, standing ovations for players as they went off and everyone staying and applauding as one at the final whistle. Togetherness from the board down to the terraces.
Saturday showed just what can be achieved by everyone pulling together. That is what we did in 1999 when we got into the Football League in the first place. We pulled together to achieve a common goal.
Recreating that can get us out of this pickle we find ourselves in now. Disunity and petty infighting won't do us any good - that was sending us only one way.
But this needs to be a permanent mindset. Yes we will lose games, yes the club will do things we don't like or don't agree with, yes we will have players in the side who fans may not necessarily rate.
We can't go back to the old days of moaning and groaning and turning our backs on the team after a defeat or two. It is so counter-productive.
There might still be a rocky road ahead over the next 13 games, and I don't just mean the M6 to Carlisle later this afternoon.
We have to stick with it. Keep up this tide of optimism and passion which has been generated in recent weeks, then look to go into next season with this same mindset from the start. It's the only way our fantastic football club will thrive.