Let’s start with what we know. We are half way through the season, with a points tally of 25 points from 23 games. We are placed 19th out of 24 teams, only three points better off than Dagenham & Redbridge, who are in the drop zone. Hartlepool may be somewhat further adrift, but they are not in an unrecoverable position. If we can double our points tally to 50 by then end of the season, we will probably (but not certainly) finish above the drop zone. Only a point or two more than that takes us well into the comfort zone. If we do not reach the 50 point mark for the season, then we are going to be in trouble to the last day – drop down to 46 and we can expect to play Conference next season.
Going beyond the points total, to the trends, and things look worse – we had a tremendous start to the season, unbeaten in the first six league games, with 14 of our points to date coming in those games. Any attempt to extrapolate to the end of the season based on stats that ignore those games leads only to one conclusion, and the five league (and one cup game) since Paul Buckle has taken over has not helped this – three draws and three defeats.
So results have not improved under new management, but the winds of change are clear for anyone to see. I do not know of anyone among the regular support who does not believe we are now playing better than we were in the last couple of months under Yates, (discounting the Swindon result as being an aberration during this period). Experienced players have found their position in the team under threat. Jason Taylor was dropped completely from the squad, and sent away to Northampton as soon as there was a chance to offload him. Byron Harrison has been dropped to the bench, and despite being our leading scoring this season and last, he has not taken to the field in the last two games even though we have lost both. Instead it is the youngsters who have come in – Omari Sterling-James, Zack Kotwica, Joe Hanks and Harry Williams have all been given a chance to shine and new or extended contracts meaning, they are all now committed to being with us next season. The other young professionals in the squad may feel that they have more of a chance now as well.
Players have also seen they need to show commitment to get on here. If I am to believe rumours I have heard, Raffaele de Vita was offered a fresh contract as well, but having not grasped in with both hands, found that it was not still there. I have also heard that Buckle demands much more than Yates during training, and not just from each player on their own account, he also expects the senior players to help the younger ones in improving their game. Whether this has counted against players such as Harrison and Jason Taylor is however no more than speculation by those passing on the rumours. So far, our manager has guarded against revealing such insights. He is too professional for that.
On the first day of the year, we have a surprising amount of transfer activity – with the departure of Jason Taylor, and three young Liverpool players coming in. Kevin Stewart appears to be the most experienced of the trio. He has been on the bench for Tottenham in three Europa League games, and has started four times on loan for Crewe Alexandra. Lloyd Jones has apparently been on the bench for Liverpool in one Premier League game, at Fulham in May 2013 – but has yet to make his first team debut. He has played for both England and Wales at under-19 level (if Soccerway is accurate on this) and for Wales U-17, (born in Plymouth). Jack Dunn has also played for England’s younger age teams, I have even seen him briefly in action when he came on as a substitute for an England U-19 side at Preston in May 2012. (As it happens, Luke Garbutt was originally selected in the same squad, but withdrew to play for us in the play off final at Wembley. All three of our new players already had squad numbers at Liverpool (41-Dunn, 51-Jones, 55-Stewart).
The result of these signings is that our already young squad is getting even younger. I would not be at all surprised if someone calculated this as the youngest ever team we have fielded – especially as the two oldest players at the club, Elliott (36) and Matt Taylor (32) are both missing through injury. The fact that all the changes today have been loans is generally forced as full transfers cannot be registered until Saturday morning. I thought they could play on Saturday (with the exception of teams who are playing in the FA Cup, who can only use players registered by lunchtime Friday). As such, it is less than clear whether Jason Taylor has left for good, or if this is a short or long term loan. The first tweet from the club said he was “leaving on a permanent basis”, but the news report later referred to it as a loan. The Liverpool trio have all signed on loan forms with an initial one month period. With the exception of Kevin Stewart, these can be youth loans, which would allow the players to spend all of the half season with us, while still having the flexibility to return to Liverpool on demand. They can even play some non-first team games, or attend training at Liverpool and then return to us afterwards. Stewart is too old to be on a youth loan, so is either limited to 93 days, or needs to sign a longer deal before the transfer window closes.
I would expect all three of our new faces to be in the 18 on Saturday, but I cannot even speculate over who will start and who will be on the bench. I doubt if Paul Buckle himself knew the answer to this before the first training session today. It will also be interesting to see where this leaves those youngsters promoted into the squad in the last few games, and of course where all this leaves the other players whose future has been questioned. As Williams was preferred to Harrison last week, will Harrison be dropped from the 18 this time?
While the sudden throughput in players, which may well not be terminating this week – the window runs to the first Monday in February after all, this is certainly an interesting time to be a Cheltenham fan – and I do not mean this in the way of the (fictional) Chinese curse. We have no choice but to wait and see what the team looks like on Saturday, and by the end of the month, it could well change significantly again.
I admit to having some worry over loan signings. Our support has shown itself to be a little uncertain about loans, especially when they play a few games and then return to their clubs. It is true that some of the loan players have not been up to the task, or did not appear to put their heart into playing for Cheltenham. However, some of the more successful loans, (such as Garbutt and Butland) have made such an impression that they have been followed by our fans as their careers develop. My worry also harks back to those six good games at the start of the season. Our early season form owed something at least to loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter and I felt that we never found adequate replacements when they were recalled by their clubs. This was at least a contribution to Yates’ departure in November. Let us hope that Buckle has made agreements that suit us as much as they suit Liverpool in bringing these players on board.
If Buckle has got this right, then there is no reason why we should not climb back up to at least mid-table obscurity. If it is wrong, then there is not even much point in calling for another change in manager. We have chosen our steed for the second half of the season, and changing again before running the course is not likely to bring relief. One way or another, January 1st 2015 may turn out to be one of the most significant dates without even a game for Cheltenham