Stop comparing the Champions with the class of 2014/15

When Cheltenham beat Lincoln 3-1 back in April to secure their thirtieth league win of a title winning season, not many of us thought that eight months down the line we’d have only registered another three league wins.

Clearly, this campaign has not gone to plan. Actually that’s an understatement. It’s been completely shite going from winning every week to losing 3-0 at home to Colchester.

Last season seems like an eternity ago, and memories of the painful relegation that preceded it are still fresh. The Robins’ sudden loss of form in recent weeks seems to be opening old wounds, and while it’s simple to draw parallels with 2014/15, this is something we should avoid.

In 2014/15 we went from top of the league after six games to 23rd after 46. But that season, Cheltenham did NOT enter the relegation spots until the 14th of February. Even more unbelievable, is the fact that whilst Paul B*ckle was in charge, Town did not spend a single day in the drop zone. Crazy, but true.

That term, we were sliding fast and nothing could stop us.

This time things are different.

We may find ourselves in the drop zone after three shocking performances, but this time the only way is up. We know that the summer recruitment was crap. We know that the scrapping of the emergency loan system has hurt us. Gary Johnson knows all this too. But we must be careful of huge upheaval.

Some players will need to be moved on, and unfortunately some may not be good enough for league football. But this is still a team that’s won more games than it’s lost, all be it most of them at a lower standard. I firmly believe that it all started going wrong for Mark Yates when the likes of Alan Bennett and Russ Penn were moved on. The 2011/12 team were a superb side on their day, and they were broken up far too quickly.

 

Cheltenham Town v Lincoln City - Vanarama Football Conference League

The dismantling of Yates’ play-off final team, and the experience of 2014/15 should have taught us that changing half the squad or switching managers mid-season is very rarely in the best interests of the club. Anybody even thinking about Johnson’s future must have a very, very short memory.

Three league defeats in a row and I’ve seen people talking about holding off contract talks and actually considering the manager’s future.

It’s fickle and it’s embarrassing.

History is not repeating itself. Until the recent run of defeats, in 46 National League games and 17 League Two games this season, Cheltenham suffered back to back defeats only ONCE. That was down to GJ.

All is still to play for this season. Two years ago we were rotten to the core, that’s no longer the case. There’s no need for a full scale clear out. There’s no need for people to start pointing fingers, and there’s certainly no need to panic.

You don’t get relegated in December.

After 20 games in 2014/15 Hartlepool had just 12 points. As we know to our expense they survived.

After 20 games in 2015/16 Yeovil had only chalked up 11, and they too survived.

Dagenham and Plymouth both had 13 points at this stage in 2011/12… you get the idea.

In fact, in the last five League Two seasons, the only team that’s reached 18 points after 20 games and been relegated was Torquay in 2013/14.

Dropping out of the Football League may still be a raw memory for some, but don’t compare this Robins outfit with the class of 2014/15. That shit shower doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Champions.

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England: Fear, failure and the future

I’ve seen some dreadful football matches in my time. Lots of them in fact. I’ve felt play-off final heartache, I’ve felt despair as my hometown club stumbled to the most dismal of Football League relegations, and I’ve felt the grim realisation that the Tuesday night trek to Scunthorpe might not have been such a good idea after all. But I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as disheartened about football as I did on Monday night.

My initial reaction was one of utter disbelief. We’ve all seen shite performances from a sports team, but what was happening was so ridiculous, so unbelievable, that I fully expected to wake up in a cold sweat at any moment. These are professional athletes – who despite what some will tell you are actually pretty skilled – and here they were, shuffling around the pitch like a post-apocalyptic zombie XI.

Roy Hodgson had said England weren’t afraid of anyone, but who was he kidding? This lot messed up a dream start against Iceland and then the fear set in. They were crippled by fear. Paralysed by it. Even watching on TV 800 miles away the fear was palpable. The fear of what was to come. The fear of the inevitable savaging they would receive and the fear of the consequences. Even Wayne Rooney, a man who has played at the highest level since he was 17, who is our record goal scorer and who has delivered on the biggest stages, was struck down. I honestly felt sad watching him, unable to perform the most basic of tasks, like an ageing dog that no longer has the energy to chase that stick he so wants.

But how did this happen? How was Rooney allowed to be left so exposed? A Belgian commentator remarked that during the second half, Hodgson resembled a cow in a field, watching a train go by with no clue what was going on. How perfect. Naively I have defended him in the past, I thought he’d picked a decent squad (see previous post) and I was convinced (wrongly) that he would come good. But during this tournament Hodgson has failed so spectacularly it’s become almost laughable. I could go on about the many decisions he’s got wrong but there’s no need. The man in charge resembled a learner driver with a very expensive car and no idea how to drive it.

People will blame the players, and they do deserve criticism. But moulding them into some sort of coherent unit is the manager’s job and he fucked it up in Brazil and he’s fucked it up in France. We had the Premier League’s top scorer, the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year in our squad.  A competent manager could have and should have got more from this squad.

I’ve always found a way to be positive about England and about the future, but I really am struggling this time. I do think we have talented players, but then we always have, and we’ve always found a way of imploding when the pressure is on. Will anything ever change? It’s so easy to become disillusioned, but there is always some hope, however faint and distant it may feel right now.

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England’s Euro 2016 squad: Credit to the Roy

Euro fever was raised from slightly, to moderately excited this week with the announcement of a 26 man provisional England squad. And inevitably, every Tom, Dick and Theo was on Roy Hodgson’s case quicker than Jamie Vardy to a free bar to criticise the list he’d drawn up.

Twitter had already conducted a training exercise in England squad outrage last week – the second most unproductive training exercise of the week – when some intellectually challenged Tweeters reacted angrily to a clearly photoshopped squad list. The silly sods even backed Luke Shaw in from 6/1 to EVS to make the plane.

When the non-digitally-tampered-with squad list finally did land it was a reasonably unsurprising one. Rob Wotton on Sky Sports News tried to beef up the drama by announcing each. individual. player. name. in a weird Jim White meets Gareth Gates sort of fashion, and the breaking news ticker ramped up into turbo mode to inform us that TOWNSEND IS IN THE SQUAD but it was hardly Walcott 2006 stuff.

But judging by the social media splutter fest and Twittercism that followed you’d have thought Roy had selected Ron Benson and Tony Hedges.

Case for the defence

One of Roy’s so called foolish blunders was his decision to name just seven defenders and only three recognised centre backs. Uber pundit Jamie Carragher called it a ‘risk’ whilst Twitter ‘experts’ could barely contain themselves. But are we really just one Chris Smalling hamstring away from ‘disaster’?

 

History suggests that even if Gary Cahill is two footed by Delle Alli in training, or if John Stones twists his ankle performing a Cruyff turn in his own six yard box, we will get by.

Euro 2012

John Terry: starts 4 – minutes played 360

Joleon Lescott: starts 4 (yes, really) – minutes played 360

Phil Jagielka: starts 0 – minutes played 0

Phil Jones: starts 0 – minutes played 0

Euro 2004

Sol Campbell: starts 4 – minutes played 360

John Terry: starts 3 – minutes played 270

Ledley King: starts 1 – minutes played 110 (20 as midfield sub)

Jamie Carragher: starts 0 – minutes played 0

Even in Brazil Cahill played every minute of all three games and Smalling and Jones only got minutes against Costa Rica because we’d already fucked it.

In fact, we regularly go through tournaments without using all of our defenders. This lot never kicked a ball:

2012 – Phils Jagielka and Jones

2010 – Stephen Warnock, Michael Dawson

2006 – Wayne Bridge

2004 – Wayne Bridge, Jamie Carragher.

Now apart from the grisly reminder that we actually took Stephen Warnock to a real life, serious World Cup, it’s pretty clear that a full compliment of defenders is rarely necessary. Imagine if when Wayne Rooney went down in 2004 clutching his big toe we’d had another attacking option to bring on and not Wayne Bridge sat there with splinters in his arse.

Another detail pundits seem to willingly skip over is that taking only seven defenders isn’t unusual. The difference being we usually take just one right back and have a Carragher or Jones that can provide cover. Judging by recent history, the ‘risk’ posed by taking three centre backs is a calculated one worth taking.

The Wilshere conundrum

In England we love criticising our best players. Gazza, Shearer, Beckham, Rooney, Terry. The list goes on. We particularly like slating injury prone players as Daniel Sturridge has found out this season. The latest victim of this anti-injury-prone-talented-English-player campaign is Jack Wilshere.

 

Wilshere’s lack of football over the past year is seen as a justifiable reason not to take him. Mark Noble should be taken instead according to popular opinion. I like Noble, but he simply is not as good at playing football as Wilshere is. No other midfielder in our squad is as talented or influential as a fully fit Wilshere.

Who else can dictate the tempo, split an opposition defence with a surging dribble, dance around bamboozled defenders and slice a backline apart with a single pass? Henderson, no. Drinkwater, no. Delph, hell no. Milner, certainly not.

We’re far too quick to write players off in England. Wilshere bossed the best Barcelona midfield ever when he was only 19. It took us until about five years after Paul Scholes retired to figure out he was our best midfielder. Let’s not make the same mistake again with Wilshere. If the king of keep ball Xavi thinks the Arsenal man is ‘the future of English football’ then maybe Hodgson has indeed got this one right.

A more concerning issue is the role of Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool captain’s Steven Gerrard impersonation has not done him any favours this season and he’s even further behind Wilshere in terms of match fitness. And unlike Wilshere, the qualities Henderson offers can be replicated by Fabian Delph, and even more pertinently by Danny Drinkwater. I’d like to see Roy be bold with this one. Drinkwater should be selected over Henderson in the final 23.

A Rash decision?

I like Chris Sutton. Despite being a miserable git he generally comes out with some decent comment. Not this time. On a recent discussion on 5Live Sutton got himself more tangled than a drunk spider stumbling home to the wrong web.

‘Ridiculous’ he labelled the decision to take Marcus Rashford, instead calling for the inclusion of Jermain Defoe. Sutton’s reasoning for taking Defoe: the Sunderland man is in form and we’ve been taking the ‘tried and trusted’ for years and that hasn’t worked. Rashford tried and trusted?!

On the contrary Defoe travelled to both South Africa in 2010 and Poland/Ukraine in 2012. He did bag an important goal against Slovenia in 2010, but his impact in 2012 was minimal. Even Scott Parker was more influential. Defoe’s had a productive season; but Rashford represents the exciting, the unknown, and the unexposed. We simply don’t know how good he will be. He could be playing for Salford City in five years, or he could be England’s leading man. We’ve nothing to lose by letting him loose in a couple of friendlies. He won’t go to France anyway unless injury strikes.

Hodgson made his fair share of dodgy decisions during his England reign, but we should be giving him credit for picking a bold and adventurous squad. Let’s just count ourselves lucky he hasn’t picked Theo Walcott.

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Cheltenham finally lose at Eastleigh

Perspective

So it finally came to an end. 22 games, five months and 156 days without tasting league defeat is over. That’s a pretty good run whoever you are. Even the very best teams lose eventually.

After listening to Kyle Storer’s post match reaction you almost wonder whether the unbeaten run was playing on the minds of some of the players. Storer said that “the monkey is off our back a little bit now.” Was the pressure of not losing getting to a few? The fact we haven’t found the net in nearly three matches suggests that subconsciously the fear of losing may have been affecting one or two of the players. Something similar happened with Brighton in the Championship earlier this season.

The challenge for Gary Johnson now is to motivate the players for one final push. Having led from the front since mid-November, it would be understandable if pressure was starting to creep in. We’ve not gone more than two games without a win all season, let alone more than two without scoring, so all of a sudden Saturday becomes a big test of our team’s character and resolve. Welling are rock bottom of the form table without a win in 18 and no goals in their last five, so we’ll be expected to win and to win convincingly.

It’s definitely not time to panic. When we lost at home to Tranmere we responded with a 7-1 demolition of Halifax. A little perspective is needed to remind everybody what a cracking team we’ve become this season.

In the last 12 seasons of football at this level, only three other sides have bettered our 22 game unbeaten run.

Crawley – 30 games (10/11)

Fleetwood – 29 games (11/12)

Luton – 27 games (13/14)

All three of those sides went on to win the league.

Incidentally, those teams are three of only five to better our current points per game tally during the last 10 seasons. Here’s the full breakdown:

After 46 games:

Crawley – 2.28 (10/11)

Stevenage* – 2.25 (09/10)

Fleetwood – 2.24 (11/12)

Luton – 2.20 (13/14)

Aldershot – 2.20 (07/08)

*Stevenage tally after 44 games as Chester expelled from league

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

After 36 games:

Cheltenham 2.19 (15/16)

Forest Green 2.17 (15/16)

Before losing to Eastleigh we were operating at 2.26 PPG which is right up there with the best seen at this level in recent years. If it wasn’t for FGR we’d already have this title sewn up. It shows how impressive they’ve been this season that their current PPG tally would’ve been enough to have won the league comfortably in six of the last 11 years.

There are still 10 games to go and of course anything can happen. But any worries of a ‘March wobble’ need to be rationalised. We’ve lost just three games this season. Barnet lost 10 last year and still won the division. There is no reason to think our form will now fall off a cliff and with some tricky games out of the way and important players to return from injury, we have no excuse to be anything but overwhelmingly positive. Gary Johnson has done a superb job so far this season, trust in him to see it through. COYR.

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5 thoughts after Cheltenham Town’s National League draw with Braintree

Gamesmanship or well organised?

I can’t remember a team coming to Whaddon Road and being as irritating as Braintree were on Tuesday night. Their time wasting antics and park the bus mentality got worse and worse as the game progressed. In the second half in particular there was only one team trying to actually play football and win the game. Braintree’s anti-football consisted of defending their own six yard line and repeatedly hoofing clear, encouraging us to come and have a go at them. Some of the time wasting was embarrassing and the referee ought to have clamped down much sooner than he did. Why is it that a goalkeeper can only be booked for time wasting once the game has entered the final 10 minutes?

Having said that, part of me thinks their negative tactics should be applauded. They were extremely well organised, worked incredibly hard, and nearly did the ultimate job on us. And now we’ve hit the top of the league, we’ll have to get used to more and more teams coming to Whaddon Road and trying to shut the game down in this fashion.

Width and wingers

Much of our play during Tuesday night’s second half seemed to go through the middle of the pitch and this played into Braintree’s hands. I felt we looked best when we had Jack Barthram and George McLennan flying forward down the flanks and that the tactical switch when Barthram was subbed hindered us slightly.

Gary Johnson has put together an impressive squad, but one thing we are missing is genuine width. Harry Pell, Billy Waters and Jack Munns are all much more effective centrally, and some pace on the flanks could be just what we need when we’re struggling to break teams down in tight home games.

Risk of burnout?

Amari Morgan-Smith and Danny Wright have both been fantastic so far this season. Their energy and desire to run the channels is unbelievable, and they’ve both matched their work rate with a decent goal threat. However I think at some point soon they are going to need some help. A striker on the bench would have been useful last night and against Tranmere last week.

The other risk of having no back up striker is our front men running themselves into the ground. Since Josh Cooke returned to Swindon last month, Amari has played every minute of football and Wright has missed just eight. How long they will be able to keep up their current work rate when being asked to play every minute of every game is debatable, and Gary Johnson’s comments about wanting to strengthen the side means he probably recognises this.

Could a back up striker be what Cheltenham need?

Could a back up striker be what Cheltenham need?

Youth players

Which brings me on to the subject of youth players. If I were Harry Williams or Bobbie Dale I would be pretty upset to be honest. That Johnson prefers to have no striker on the bench must be dispiriting to the pair of them. He says they need to play games, but surely a spot on the bench for one of them wouldn’t be a bad move? I’m starting to fear now that Williams, Dale and even Joe Hanks might not ever make it here at CTFC. Even if they don’t, they only need to look at Sam Foley and Marley Watkins for encouragement.

‘Dodgy’ Dickie

And finally, a shoutout to Rob Dickie. When I first saw him play for us at right back I was not convinced, and unfairly labelled him ‘dodgy’ Dickie. But I take it all back. Ever since Woking away, I feel he’s been getting better and better. Without him I’m not so sure our three centre back system would work anywhere near as well as neither Aaron Downes or Danny Parslow can do what he can. Dickie has been reminiscent of Gerard Pique in recent weeks, happily running the ball out past the half way line and even taking on his man! He seems really comfortable in possession, can pick a pass and his moving out from the back helps create space further up the pitch.

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Cheltenham in good form ahead of trips to Woking and Forest Green

It’s a strange feeling turning up to Whaddon Road these days and actually expecting to win. Tuesday night’s comfortable 2-0 victory over Macclesfield means that we now have as many home wins half way through September as we have achieved in each of the last two seasons.

Our fifth success from six home games in this campaign was a routine win, but one that Gary Johnson will have been very pleased with. In games against Barrow, Wrexham and Dover we have gone behind and made life difficult for ourselves, but there was never any danger of that against an ordinary Macclesfield side.

We controlled this game from start to finish. We were first to every ball and we looked quick and powerful. Kyle Storer and Harry Pell dominated the midfield, Lee Vaughan and Jack Barthram provided width, and the work rate of our two strikers was excellent. Give me Danny Wright over Byron Harrison any day.

And the biggest positive is that it feels like this Cheltenham side can still improve. There was some very nice one touch football at times in the second half, and plenty of through balls that didn’t quite reach their targets. If we are to believe that Gary Johnson has now found his favoured formation, then I think our performances could yet get better, and at some point this season we could put four or five past someone.

Another big positive is how set pieces have become a huge part of our game this season. In the past, a corner would usually be followed by loud groans from the crowd as it was inevitably headed away by the first man or badly over hit. When we get a corner now, it’s more surprising if one of our players doesn’t get on the end of it! We’ve scored 18 goals so far, and a third have been from either corners or free kicks. I don’t know the stats, but there can’t be many other teams in the National League operating with that kind of threat.

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Set pieces could well be crucial over the next week. Saturday’s trip to Woking now looks really exciting after they became the first team to take points off Forest Green this season. The Cardinals have won five out of five at the Kingfield Stadium, keeping three clean sheets in the process, so the result we get there could tell us a lot about how far this group can go. We have the second best defence in the league, and Woking have the joint second best attack, and it’s third v fourth, so I’m sure it will be a tight game.

Of course it’s still early days, and many will say we shouldn’t get carried away. But I disagree. We’ve been through some crap over the last year or two, let’s enjoy the good times while they last. I can’t see many taking points off us at Whaddon Road this season, and if we can avoid defeat or better in our next two away games, then that should tell us whether we should be aiming towards the top, or the top five come next May.

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Cheltenham Town thoughts on the eve of 2015/16 National League season

I never thought I’d say it, but I’ve enjoyed not having to worry about Cheltenham Town for a couple of months. Most football supporters enjoy a short break from the game. Many will declare about a week after the season has finished how they are already buzzing for it to start again. Maybe in the past I’ve fallen into that category.

But not this summer.

After the absolute shit storm we weathered every week last time around, and a relegation that despite its inevitability, seemed to take forever to actually happen, I’ve never been so happy to forget about football for a bit.

I’ve not been to a single pre-season game this summer, I’ve withdrawn from the Twitter debates, and – although I’ve kept a watchful eye on the latest news coming out of the club – I’ve enjoyed keeping a distance from CTFC this summer.

Everybody will have their own opinions on this, but I’ve never been one to religiously attend pre-season matches or take any notice of their results.

Sure, it’s important to have a good pre-season – by bringing in the right personnel, doing the right work behind the scenes and on the training pitch – but the reality is that none of us will know whether Gary Johnson really is the messiah or his squad are the chosen ones until at least ten games in.

It would appear on paper that he’s recruited well, and you’d certainly expect us to be competitive, but history tells us that this league is extremely difficult, and that Bristol Rovers’ immediate #bounceback last season was a one off rather than the norm.

I’m not trying to dampen expectations, or put a downer on things, I just think that pre-season results as an indicator of form are about as useful as a chocolate teapot. I vaguely remember us not having a great time of it in the 2011/12 pre-season and we all know how that campaign turned out.

After my break from all things CTFC this summer, I am now looking forward to things getting underway and feel refreshed and ready for what will hopefully be a more enjoyable season. I’ve got a good feeling about tomorrow, but like a boxer getting back into the ring after being knocked out in his last fight, I’m wary about getting over excited.

It could all go tits up in less time than it takes Stuart Broad to pick off the Aussie top order. But let’s hope it doesn’t.

COYR

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