Sunday, 31 January 2016

All fine and Dan-dy

ANOTHER eventful week came to a close on a high note with our best performance for several games, with more evidence that our January recruitment looks to be spot on.
After the high of that amazing finish at Dover last week, which kept us in top spot, we then lost it again on Tuesday with Forest Green's late show at Southport.
Saturday was the first occasion we had played at the same time as FGR this year, and we went into the game without our midfield driving force Harry Pell, banned, and having lost Aaron Downes as well we would be testing our strength in depth.
Pell's replacement was Asa Hall, moving forward from his centre-half outing at Dover, with new boy Cameron Burgess being Daniel Parslow's latest partner - the third man to fill that role since Downes went off at Boreham Wood, Cian Harries being the other.
But Gary Johnson opted to make two more changes leaving Kyle Storer as the only midfield survivor from the Crabble - James Rowe and James Dayton being given starts ahead of Jack Munns and Billy Waters, both of whom I feel have looked in need of a rest and can't really complain at coming out of the side.
So therefore we were relegating 19 goals and numerous assists to the bench - not a bad couple of weapons to have up your sleeve.
Alongside them was our newest and most under-the-radar recruit, left-back Jordan Cranston from Gateshead.
He only know himself he might be coming here on Friday evening and it wasn't all sorted out until 10.45 on Saturday morning, 15 minutes to spare for the deadline, enabling him to sit on the bench.
It is quite a statement from us to pay a fee for a player (my fading and not always accurate memory believes the last time we did that was for Byron Harrison, three years ago today) and also to give him an 18-month contract, meaning at least he and Pell will be here for pre-season training next July.
As for the fee, it's down as one of these annoying undisclosed ones, but a stab in the dark from me would guess at around £10,000, maybe just effectively buying out the last six months of his Gateshead contract.
I wasn't at the away game at the International Stadium in October, but saw his free-kick goal on TV and all who were up there seem happy enough with the signing.
But it was a surprise, and I hope in some ways that it doesn't signal bad news for George McLennan, who I feel has been one of the (many) consistently good performers this season in a position we have found notoriously difficult to fill, probably since Jamie Victory retired.
Now with McLennan and Cranston, we have healthy competition there but Cranston might have a job on to oust George from first choice. You could say Gary has himself in a bit of a Cranston pickle (copyright James Young, Gloucestershire Echo).
When he came on for the last quarter of the game, Cranston played further forward on the left and that might be an option, to give us some balance, and a bit more solidity especially in tough away games (like Barrow next week, maybe?).
Bromley are a big, uncompromising side, and the first 20 minutes was pretty uninspiring as we looked to get to grips with that - but once we went in front it all changed.
And what a goal it was. In the blink of an eye, Dan Holman introduced himself and showed exactly why Gary Johnson and his brother Peter had him top of their target list.
The ball came to him, back to goal, on the edge of the box and in a split-second he turned and smashed the ball into the corner of the net.
Five minutes later, he'd bagged another, cutting in from the left and driving it across the keeper and also effectively killed the game as a contest.
We finished the half superbly, and could have had more goals. Hall sent a shot wide, Danny Wright had one saved and Holman was inches from bagging his hat-trick.
It had also sent us top in the live table with FGR being held at that stage by Macclesfield, and also opened up more of a cushion on Grimsby, trailing at Gateshead.
The confidence was flowing through us and Wright's header from James Rowe's corner made it three, and the afternoon was now really an opportunity to boost the goal difference.
We added one more with a goal with owed much to the other side of Holman's game - work-rate.
He charged a clearance down, kept it in the pulled it back for Rowe, who picked out Wright for a finish so simple he almost looked embarrassed.
A 4-0 advantage, and Forest Green were now trailing as were Grimsby, so this was turning into the perfect day.
Some of the gloss came off with a Bromley consolation and a late FGR turnround (and second successive injury time winner), but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Holman was the brightest spot of all with his two goals, but there were good performances all round the pitch.
Storer was immense in midfield, and the three players who came into the side around him certainly didn't weaken it in any way.
Hall was his usual efficient self, with Dayton and Rowe both had, I felt, their biggest impact in a game so far.
Dayton put some decent balls in and gave us an outlet and natural width, while I felt Rowe brought some real quality and set two goals up for Wright.
At the back, Burgess settled in very well. He adopted a sensible safety-first approach to everything he did, winning his fair share of headers and came close to a goal in a very promising debut.
There is no doubt he will be the first choice now with Harries as the back-up and Hall as the more emergency back-up, so we are well stocked there - and don't forget Rob Dickie will be back, hopefully in a month or so.
Hall, incidentally, ended up at right back after Jack Barthram went off. He really is turning into Mr Utility.
Up front, Wright now has 17 goals in total and four in two games, with the signs of a very useful partnership with Holman. And let's not write off Waters and his 11 goals, and there's also Amari Morgan-Smith on the brink of his return too. Also decent strength here.
Storer, Pell, Hall, Rowe and Munns, with Dayton as a wide option, give us midfield options which are more than match for anyone in this league, as are the full-backs Barthram, McLennan and Cranston in front of the superb Dillon Phillips.
So the January recruitment (assuming there won't be any more arrivals) looks to have left us in good stead for the last 16 games.
We have put ourselves in a great position in the first two thirds of the campaign, and now hope to continue the momentum for this run-in.
If we do carry on the form we have shown, keeping up our points per game ratio, we are on course to get to 101 points, but now we go into what could be a pivotal February.
We have home games with Welling, Kidderminster and Gateshead, and trips (tricky on paper) to Barrow and Tranmere.
FGR have only one home game and four away trips, which will clear the current discrepancy in their remaining home and away games and Grimsby have two homes and three aways.
But they are still in the Trophy, and further progress from them and others could see games moved in the coming weeks and months (our game with Gateshead on February 27 being one of them).
Lots of ifs buts and maybes to come, but I believe our recruitment this month means we have the squad to cope with it and have shown we are more than up for the fight.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Comebacks and supersubs

ONE weekend, two late away team comebacks both inspired by supersubs - that's a quick way to sum up my weekend.
It started at 5.24am on Saturday morning, when I left Cheltenham to make my way to the big game at the Crabble... and yes, I know it didn't kick off for another 30-odd hours.
In between, there was a cross-Channel trip and a tour round Lille to find some watering holes before the first game of the weekend, the Ligue I game between Lille and Troyes.
The space-age Stade Pierre Mauroy is an impressive arena. The roof was closed, and the pitch was terrible (and they don't share the ground...) and the seats were half empty.
Lille started the game 14th, while Troyes are bottom, without a win all season, and for the opening 77 minutes of the game you could see why.
It was a pretty terrible 77 minutes. Lille led with a penalty but their fans got ever more frustrated as they couldn't see off the strugglers.
Then it was enter supersub number one. Babacar Gueye lumbered on and totally changed the game.
First, a nod down for Jeremy Cabot to fire in via the post. That increased the home fans' frustration, which reached fever pitch when Gueye crossed for Cabot to volley home brilliantly.
When Jessy Pi (disppointingly not wearing number 3.14 on his shirt) headed a third for Troyes after 85 minutes after Gueye's brilliant run to the near post left him in acres of space, the fun really started.
The home fans cheered the goal, and were giving the Troyes players an 'ole' with every touch and booing their own players.
On the final whistle, any attempt by the home players to applaud the fans was met with loud jeers, so they gave up and trooped off as the Troyes players celebrated with their (very) small pocket of away fans.
Attention then turned to Sunday's game at the Crabble. First, we had to hope the ferries were back to normal after Saturday's problems - then had to hope the fog which obscured our view of the white cliffs as we approached dear old Blighty wouldn't cause an issue.
Both were successfully overcome, as was a lack of headphones and microphones in our radio kit box, thanks to BT Sport for lending us some spare ones, so it was all systems go.
When the teamsheets arrived, there was no surprise at seeing Dan Holman's name in the starting XI but there was more eyebrows raised by Asa Hall's name on there as Daniel Parslow's defensive partner.
Dover play an almost unique 5-2-3 system. Their three central defenders are strong and did a good containing job on Danny Wright and Holman (for 88 minutes anyway... more of which later).
Up front, Ricky Modeste and Ricky Miller were always dangerous and gave Parslow and Hall plenty of problems.
Modeste was especially impressive, and I thought George McLennan had a good battle with him. There has been a lot of talk about Parslow being an unsung hero, but McLennan has also gone under the radar.
Considering he is only 20, I think he has a decent future ahead of him and is on the right tack for a good career.
There is no question however that we were second best. Dover had most of the possession and territory in the game but I can only remember Dillon Phillips having two saves to make - the header from Parkinson in the first half and the one from Modeste in the second.
That second save was superb - and it looked to me like he thought it had gone in as he kicked the post after making it in seeming frustration before realising it was a corner.
It takes something special to beat Dillon, and Nick Deverdics provided it. What a strike it was - but Dillon nealy saved it as he got a hand to it as it went in off the bar.
Deverdics practically ran to Calais in celebration, but what I thought was great was our players' reaction. They got the ball back, put it on the spot and were ready to go as Dover ambled back from their celebrations.
The social media reaction was quick in coming, and predictably hysterical and knee-jerk. A joke, we were a load of c**p, as bad as last season, bunch of bottlers... I can just about understand the frustration but much of it was plain ridiculous. Meanwhile, the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester City fans lapped it all up.
By the time Deverdics scored, we'd made all three substitutions. James Rowe and Ryan Jennings had come on for Jack Munns and Billy Waters, neither of whom could complain at being replaced.
I was surprised at seeing Jennings come on ahead of James Dayton, but he didn't have to wait long as Jennings lasted around four minutes before going off again, injured. It remains to be seen whether we will see him again.
Dayton, as we later found out, was unwell, and looked extremely pale when he was interviewed after the game. But he produced the best impact in the 15 or so minutes he was on that we have seen from him.
There had been justifiable scepticism over the decision by Gary Johnson to extend his contract until the end of the season as he hadn't had the impact we had been looking for.
But on this occasion he certainly came up trumps, and in 17 games' time this 15 minute cameo could prove to be one of the pivotal periods of the season.
Firstly, he nipped in as Aswad Thomas (fresh from checking out the Craig Braham-Barrett manual of how not to play at left back) was dozing and was brought down for one of the most obvious penalties you will see all season.
Up stepped Danny Wright to put the penalty away. Never any doubt...
A point away from home after not playing well would have been satisfactory for me - but 55 seconds later we had nicked it with a good team goal.
Wright laid it off to Holman, who jinked through and was fouled. The ref played a decent advantage and Holman fed Dayton, whose shot-cross was parried out for Wright to tap in.
That's 15 goals now for Danny and he really has been a great focal point for us in this campaign, coming up trumps here after he had barely been given a kick or header all day by Dover's back three.
Dover had gone and we saw out the six added minutes with ease to take (let's face it) a real masks-and-sombreros victory. It did have a bit of a Nene Park 1999 feel about it all, but time will tell whether it all ends the same way.
Predictably, the same fans who minutes before had been slamming the squad and performance suddenly and very predictably exclaimed how they never doubted the spirit in the squad and hailed the players as heroes.
If you say so... oh how I love the fickleness of the modern football fan. At least it silenced the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester fans for a while.
But let's not kid ourselves. It was a smash and grab, and another example of us not playing as well as we can, but still getting the result.
That is down to spirit and determination, and not giving up. That is the mark of a team capable of being champions.
Holman's addition looks a good one. He fed on scraps at Dover and had probably one real sight of goal which was a shot on target which brought out a save, but had a big part in the winner.
He has clearly fitted in well as we saw during the post-match celebrations, where he was joining in the songs and conducting the fans. A decent enough start with the promise of more to come.
At the back, Asa Hall was a bright spot at centre-half but I am sure even he will admit he is not a long-term replacement for Aaron Downes. With a week or so until the deadline we need a more orthodox option.
Hall might be needed a bit further forward next Saturday as Harry Pell picked up his 10th booking and misses the next two games. It's a bit of a bonus that the first is tomorrow's Oxford City game, which he wouldn't have played in anyway.
The second will be the Bromley game next Saturday so that will leave a bit of a hole which Hall would be favourite to fill if he isn't needed at centre back again.
So back to the top we go (until Tuesday at least) and this win sends out another message to everyone that we are not bottlers or a joke at all - we are a real force to be reckoned with and can finish this job off.
I think the title is now a three-horse race and Grimsby and Forest Green will provide a very tough challenge, but all the evidence shows we are more than up for it.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


THERE was a lot of conjecture in the run-up to Saturday's game at Oxford City regarding how seriously we should be taking the game.
It was mixed - there were those who couldn't really have cared less about the result, and were quite happy for us to get beaten.
They are the ones for whom the league is everything - we've got to go up, no distractions.
Then there were those who would like a trip to Wembley, want us to do the double, keep up the winning mentality and momentum etc etc.
Personally, I just see the Trophy as a bonus, if we do well in it, then fine, if we don't then I'm not going to cry over any spilt milk.
So I arrived at Oxford with an open mind, not minding whether we won or not, but came away feeling proud of the way our young team kept going and got another crack at it.
Gary Johnson's team selection was fascinating. I was expecting some young players to be given a run out, but not as many as we eventually got to see - ie all of our second year scholars, and a return from a long-term injury for Bobbie Dale.
He said that he simply could not risk any of his more 'senior' players, bar Jack Barthram who needed 90 minutes after his recent injury, and wide men James Dayton and Ryan Jennings, neither of whom did anything to convince me they deserve longer-term deals.
I had expected Asa Hall to get a game but Gary opted to go all out with the younger lads.
Twitter during the game was good fun as well. When we were 1-0 and 2-1 down, the 'league is everything' fans were practically celebrating, then reaching for the razor blades when we got our equalisers, but that was unfair on the young lads out there, who are playing for their careers.
Nobody was going to tell them to go out there and lose. They had a chance to impress Gary and Russ Milton and show that they might have a chance of making a career at the club.
Basically, it amounted to an unexpected 90-minute trial for them - even more so after Gary was unhappy with their performance in the Youth Cup defeat at Leicester.
Not many of the second years will have  faced a proper 'men's' team - although Niall Rowe and Lewis Thompson were on loan at Cinderford - and I thought by and large that they stood up to it well.
Right-back Jordan Lymn showed up well in the Youth Cup games I saw and did well again, while Niall Rowe won some good headers and scored an absolutely cracking goal.
In midfield Sam Mendes and James McCarthy kept going well and the latter delivered some decent set-pieces, while up front Thompson worked hard - it was just a shame he couldn't take that early chance which he rolled past the post.
Then from the bench we saw the massive Matt Bower, who won some good headers after he came on, Alex Dinsmore up front who, like Thompson, worked hard, and Karnell Chambers, who set up the second equaliser with a turn, run and cross which put the more senior wingers to shame.
They all played their part - and Gary might have seen something in a few of them, but I'm not going to say any of them definitely will or won't make it on the evidence of that 90 minutes on a bumpy pitch.
All I will say is that is good to see a manager willing to trust them and finally give young players a chance after certain previous managers didn't bother with them and have (in my view) let some talent criminally go to waste.
I suspect that Cameron Pring would have played as well but the BTEC graduate joined Bristol City on an 18-month pro-deal. He looked a good player in the Youth Cup games and it's a shame we couldn't keep him.
We can't compete that offer unfortunately - in our position we can't go around offering young players contracts until we know where are going to be next season, so good luck to him.
Luke Thomas is another who would certainly have played, but his move to Derby has ended that and will also show these lads what can be achieved, so good luck to him as well - hope he makes it and earns us more money. It's been a good week for our academy all in all.
The rest of the side was more 'senior' - Calum Kitscha in goal had no chance with Oxford's two goals and made one fantastic save, Cian Harries looked fine in his 45 minutes and Barthram had a decent game out of position at left-back.
Wide men Dayton and Jennings were hugely disappointing. This was a real chance for them, especially Dayton, whose deal is up after the Kidderminster game.
I have to say I've not seen anything in his time here which convinces me that he is worth a new deal, especially with our priority being to find an experienced defender. If Gary thinks he does he need a winger I think he can find better out there.
Jennings has had a few starts and flitted in and out of games but not really affected games. His loan is up at the end of the month and at the moment I am erring on the side of letting Wigan have him back.
Dale is the only one of the crop of youth graduates given deals by Mark Yates sill awaiting a decision on whether his contract will be renewed after this summer.
Like his pals Harry Williams, James Bowen, Joe Hanks and Zack Kotwica, I feel Dale has been extremely hard done by under previous managers who haven't given him an opportunity. He has always been a goalscorer, evidenced by his pre-season strike against Cardiff.
He has just come back from a long-term injury after scoring goals for Farnborough at the start of the season. After that, Dale will be happy to got through 90 minutes and put a good chance wide in the first half after a good solo run.
He was also given credit for the second equaliser after the game, but I'm not convinced - it was an own goal in my view.
A replay was meant to cause the postponement of the Kidderminster league game on Tuesday, until a little bit of fixture jiggery-pokery means we play both games on successive days.
So it will be an interesting week, and we are likely to get a look at just about every eligible player the club has at their disposal in these games - a rare opportunity.
Starting with the Kidderminster game, right back will be a blurry spot as Gary must decide whether to bring Barthram back in or to keep James Rowe there after he did well enough in the role at Boreham Wood.
The choice will of course be determined in part by how well Barthram came through Saturday's game and if there is any reaction after his injury.
Then up front Gary has a decision, revolving around whether he gives Dan Holman a first start. He was carrying an injury when he signed, but has been training and I assume he is fit.
The choice would probably come down to Holman or Billy Waters - but Gary could easily play them both, either side of Danny Wright in a 4-3-3, and leave Jennings out with Kyle Storer, Jack Munns and Harry Pell in midfield.
Alternatively, he could play a 4-4-2 with Waters or Jennings playing wide right and Holman paired with Wright, or Holman on the bench and Waters up front with Jennings wide right - this last one being the least likely in my view.
So a likely team could be: Phillips, Rowe/Barthram, Harries, Parslow, McLennan, Storer, Pell, Munns, Wright and two of Jennings, Holman and Waters, with a bench something like Kitscha, Hall, J Rowe/Barthram, Dayton and the odd one out from Jennings, Holman or Waters.
On Wednesday we can of course assume that none of the 11 starters will play a part, but the subs might, along with the lads who played at Oxford.
That would mean a squad of Kitscha, Lymn, Bower, N Rowe, McCarthy, Mendes, Dale, Thompson, Dinsmore, Chambers, Omari Sterling-James and the youth team keeper Bojan Tetek and I am assuming Tuesday's subs- remembering Holman is ineligible.
Left-back is a slight riddle with Barthram having played there on Saturday, but if he plays on Tuesday he won't play again on Wednesday, so there's a decision to make for Gary.
It promises to be a fascinating week. Tuesday is of course the more important of the two games and after Forest Green won on Saturday, victory against the league's bottom side is pretty imperative.
It is the priority, and Wednesday is a bonus game - but it's another chance for these young lads to prove they deserve a career with the club beyond this summer. So while some fans may not view it as important, these young lads certainly do.

Sunday, 10 January 2016


BEFORE I came to my senses I used to post on the Nest forum using the name 'Private Fraser' - the reason being that his Dad's Army catchphrase 'we're all doomed' seemed to sum up the feelings of most CTFC fans, for most of the time.
Now, after Saturday's goalless draw at Boreham Wood, I'm tempted to recall his Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard colleague Corporal  Jones' words... 'Don't panic'.
The result was not what most of us expected and the performance was not great. We all know that, as our last manager but one (or is it two? I lose count) would have said.
Gary Johnson's reaction afterwards summed it up well, but I feel some of the 'glass half empty' reactions to it have been over the top.
I regularly get pilloried for being 'negative' about CTFC.
I feel some of that stick is unfair - the last two seasons for example haven't given us much to be positive about after all - but such is the way of the modern football fan that every 'unexpected' result is met with, at times, a hysterical response.
It hasn't been the norm this season for us to be disappointed. In the past though, poor results have seen players and managers shrug their shoulders and give platitudes about 'going again' and 'watching the DVD'.
But not this crop - they are different. The sight of Kyle Storer on his haunches deep in thought after the game summed it up, as did Gary's response and the ashen faces trudging off the pitch.
It does matter to them that - in the context of this season - they have underperformed and not got the desired result and that is why I am not going to start getting all downhearted and starting to wonder if this is where the wheels start to come off.
I have trust in Gary to galvanise the squad and faith in the players to have the will to listen and put it right. In the past that trust has not been there. This group have earned that trust with their performances and attitude up to now.
However we all know that we aren't going to win every game, but we have gone 15 without defeat and only lost two in 28 so things are still looking rosy.
Our lead is now five points over Forest Green and eight over Grimsby, both having played a game less. It is 12 over Eastleigh who are two games behind.
Even if they win those games, they are still behind us. We remain in the driving seat, in control of the race for the title. It's all there for us.
I feel those three teams are the only ones who can challenge us. Others have dropped away, with the likes of Wrexham, Lincoln and Tranmere now too far back in my view.
There will be peaks and troughs, all sides will drop points when they aren't expected to as we did on Saturday. Grimsby did at home to Guiseley and Forest Green did at Torquay for instance.
If we aren't going to win every game, then neither are the other three, and from now on in, the most consistent side is the one which will win the title. Over the last 10 league games, that's us - we have 26 from the last 30 points, FGR have 20, Grimsby 23 and Eastleigh 21.
Two points a game was the target Gary set at the start of the season. We are four points in credit and maintaining that aim from now on in takes us to 96 points - 36 points out of 54, or 12 wins out of 18... with the goal difference advantage over FGR and Eastleigh as an added bonus.
To get to 97, Rovers will now need 42 points from a possible 57, Grimsby 45 from 57 and Eastleigh 49 from 60 - all tough asks in my view.
Points on the board and a good goal  difference put us in a strong position.
In addition, Eastleigh are still in the Cup and Trophy and their deteriorating pitch might also be a factor as the games pile up. Grimsby are still in the Trophy along with us, while only FGR have a clear run.
But Rovers and Grimsby only have eight home games left, with 11 aways, where neither of them have been so strong. Rovers are lying 12th in the 'away' league table (18 points from 36 on the road), and Grimsby eighth (21 from 36). We are top (29 from 42), and Eastleigh second (25 from 39).
We have nine to play at home and nine away, Eastleigh have 10 homes and 10 aways to play, but sit 10th in the 'home' league table, with a dodgy-looking pitch (even dodgier than ours, groundshare and all)..
FGR are top dogs at home (37 points from 45) and Grimsby second (31 from 45), having based their challenges on a strong home record. We are third having taken 31 from 42 at WR.
But it wasn't only the nature of the performance and the 0-0 result which caused a few to reach for the panic button after Saturday.
The other big factor was the sight of Aaron Downes hobbling off for the last few minutes to add to an injury list already including Amari  Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie.
The Downes-Dan Parslow axis has been massive for us this year but now it is up to someone else to step up.
Gary has said he wants to look for an experienced player to step in while the skipper is out, and that has again brought the name of Keith Lowe to the forefront.
Some have had objections, feeling he is a return to the 'bad old past' we are trying to forget, that he is too old (at 30 he is a year younger than Danny Wright), or that he has no pace - well, Downes isn't exactly Usain Bolt.
He never let us down in 111 games - a steady Parslow-like seven out of 10 every week. I don't have him tarred with the same brush as those who came after Yatesy let him go to York.
Keith played every game last season - mostly at centre-back - and 16 this season before new boss Jackie McNamara binned him.
He is the sort of player we need, now Gary needs to decide whether he is the answer or if he can find better elsewhere.
It's another January conundrum to add to Gary's wheeling and dealing which has already seen Dan Holman and Cian Harries arrive.
Holman on paper looks a good signing, 14 league goals for Woking and more shots on target than any other player in the VNL, while Harries looked composed enough in the time he was on the field.
Holman's arrival will give more options up front, allowing for a bit of rotation, and it was a shame he wasn't fit on Saturday as I thought Billy Waters and Danny Wright had off-days and it was crying out for freshening up.
Other decisions surround James Dayton's short-term deal, which ends on January 19, and Ryan Jennings, who is here until January 30.
Dayton had a game for Leyton Orient's reserves last week and it may be that the higher-priority need for a defender may end his stay with us. I must admit I haven't seen much from him - granted, he hasn't had starts and been forced to try and have an impact off the bench.
Gary has preferred Jennings in a starting role. I feel he hasn't pulled up many trees either and I think he needs to do more if the loan is to be extended further.
There are seven players he has already decided will be released in the summer, and he will be looking to move some of them off the wage bill early, while making decisions on other issues, such as the loan of Lee Vaughan at Tranmere.
The fun and games have started...