The Changing of the Guard

When the change came, it was quick. It is easy to guess how the process went, even if at least one press statement (given b Paul Baker on Monday) confused the issues.

Those members of the board that were at last Saturday’s game will almost certainly have decided there and then that things were not right, and at least considered at that point that it was time to change. I believe most of the board attend most of the home games, so discussion will have been occurring straight away.

If you decide to change manager in mid-season, there are two basic ways to go about it – either you sack the incumbent, appoint a caretaker and then open up the position for applications, or you quietly approach someone and have an basic agreement in place before the sacking. There is a slightly confused variant of this, when the chosen replacement is working for another club – as you cannot formerly approach a club while your old manager is still in place, as any leak would make his position untenable.

In the past, Cheltenham have taken all available approaches. After bringing us into the league, and winning promotion to the third tier, Steve Cotterill left at the end of the season, giving the club plenty of time. They went for the option referred to be many as “cheap”, appointing Graham Allner who was already on the coaching staff. Allner was given the very difficult job of keeping the team at their highest ever level, but did not have the playing staff to achieve this. I was never one of the anti-Allner brigade, and would happily have kept him through the season, even if it ended in relegation. Considering criticism of later managers, he did at least try to have us playing in expansive, entertaining style that mirrored his successes in non-League football without mirroring the results.

When Allner was sacked, we took several weeks contemplating his successor, ending with a short list that was heavily leaked, (not that I can now remember all the names). I do remember saying that while some candidates would be an interesting risk (was Luther Blissett interviewed?), one was guaranteed to result in our relegation. Clearly my words were not heeded. We employed the one man I thought certain to lead us back to the fourth tier, Bobby Gould. I believe rumours that he was also a cheap option, having agreed to work to the end of his first season for free to be true. Even so, for his second season he had a contract.

The Gould tenure was less than a year, and in the end he did not wait to be pushed. For this we should always be grateful, and I know that Gould is always welcomed back to visit the club. Having led us to relegation (that was expected anyway), the lack of improvement in the lower division was always going to account for him. With a resignation, you cannot have the new man in place directly. As I recall it, Gould left the club immediately after the home defeat by Rochdale on 18 October 2003. John Ward arrived just under three weeks later.

Ward always had his critics. Even in his promotion winning season, some supporters were critical of dour defensive displays, and this did not improve after promotion. We reached our highest ever league position under Ward’s management while many complained about the football being dour. I personally always felt Ward was doing a good job, and I was hopeful that he could build the club and finally start brining youth players through the system and into the team. At the start of the 2007-8 season, results were worse and we looked as if we had gone backwards. Ward finally resigned in October, and many felt it was time, although I was disappointed as I thought things would pick up. As with the appointment of Allner, we took the option of promoting from within. Before Keith Downing took the reins, he had a month as caretaker. If a caretaker manager has a period of time to make his case irresistible to the directors, then Downing was a surprise choice. His five matches as caretaker involved two defeats and two draws, with the solitary win coming in the much maligned JPT Trophy game at Swindon. He was still appointed at the start of November and finally delivered a league win at the end of the month, (prior to which we had fell to Brighton at the Withdean in both the JPT Trophy and the FA Cup). However, the fact his first win was at home to Leeds United did remove some of the doubts about his ability. Without doubt, our best match under Downing was the tremendous 2-1 win at Leeds on a Tuesday night some months later. We eventually secured safety by beating Doncaster on the last day of the season. This result also consigned Doncaster to the play offs (they finished two points behind Nottingham Forest), although that displeasure would have been alleviated by beating Leeds United in the play off final.

The first six matches of 2008-9 produced just one win and no draws, and on no less than four occasions we had four goals put past us. Downing’s sacking was practically inevitable, and came after a soggy Friday night in Hartlepool. Martin Allen was considered a favourite candidate by many supporters before Downing was appointed. This time there was no delay, and Allen was installed before the weekend was complete. The rest of the season was something of a roller coaster, before a final drop to relegation, while our squad always appeared to be on a carousel, with more comings and goings than ever seen before at the club. By the end of the season, the squad numbers of new players had to be defined by those numbers we could add to the shirts (I believe we run out of 2s and 4s). We had more loan players than it was permissible to play, and each newcomer was treated like a child’s fresh toy – great for the first days and then discarded for something else new and shiny. Allen assured us that some of the loan players were given free of charge. Others have assured me that this was either untrue, or did not include massively inflated expense payments. Eventually the board came to their senses, saw the bills and decided that we just could not afford the squad we had. So as the transfer window approached, we had to offload whoever we could to offset the expenses. It is worth noting that Lloyd Owusu was one of those who left and he scored seven goals for Brighton after departing. Had he scored those seven for us (in the right games), it is just conceivable that we could have avoided relegation.

Although we won the opening game of 2009-10, we soon started to falter, and after thirteen league games, we had just three wins, compared to five defeats. Poor, but not disastrous, the results were combined with several disciplinary offences to put Allen on “gardening leave”. This led to a long and protracted exit, with John Schofield as caretaker manager for eight league, and one FA Cup match, with just one highlight, (5-1 at home to Barnet). Eventually, a compromise was reached where Allen left, and this left the way open for another popular choice.

Mark Yates came in during December 2009, and did not make an immediate mark. We lost our first three home games under his management, while somehow being unbeaten in five away games over the period, (even if we only won once). The highlight was also away from home, the stunning 6-5 win at Burton, but home fans had at least one treat when Bury were disposed of by 5-2. The last trip of the season was a 5-0 defeat at Notts County, leaving us still vulnerable on the final day. We needed a point to be safe, but Grimsby needed three points and to make up a six goal deficit to condemn us to the Conference. In the end, we picked up our point, Grimsby lost 3-0 to go down while Barnet did overtake us on the last day to leave us 22nd in the table. The following season did not start badly, but ended up little better. We finished the season with thirteen wins and thirteen draws in the league, but only four of the wins game in the second half of the season. We finished five points clear of relegation, having basically secured our status with a win at Lincoln on Easter Monday. Lincoln went down with Stockport, we drew at Stockport on the final day. The poor second half of the season, and securing more points away from home were features of Yates’ time in charge. 2011-12 was, I felt, Yates’ best season. We got into the rhythm quickly, and were playing some really good football in the fall of 2011. We beat Tranmere and Luton, both away to set up a third round cup tie at Tottenham. However, Yates’ mid-season transfers do not seem the best in retrospect. If the playing strength was supposedly strengthened, the spirit of the team was not, and March in particular was unpleasant, without a win in seven games, and five on the trot without a goal. Still, we recovered and reached the play off final. The following season was a similar story – much better in the first half of the season than the second and play-off defeat, this time without the final itself.

Having reached the play-offs twice, there was an expectation last season that we could do it again. This was never realised, and we ended the season with 55 points, five ahead of the relegation zone, although as this included losing the last two, we generally always had enough in reserve to be safe. Still, it was the away games that kept us in the league. We picked up 24 home points, and we had only picked up 24 away, this would not have seen us safe. It is also notable that only 21 of the 55 points came in the second half of the season. While I did not feel Yates’ should have been sacked during this run, I did not think he should get his contract renewed. The board decided just to change to second in charge from Howarth to North, and to give Yates another year. For a brief moment, it looked like a good decision. We picked up 13 points from 5 league games in August. It soon became clear we were flattering to deceive. Most of the flair on the field came from loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter, both recalled to their parent clubs, while the defence lost its solid appearance with the injury of Matt Taylor, (with him, our defeats tended to be by single goals, without him, 3-0, 5-1 and 4-1). Only nine points from the last 13 games, and precious little for the home fans – just nine goals in nine home league games. At times we have played really well, but these times are few and far between. I will see the Cambridge and Swindon games as highlights of the season, however we finish. If we are to repeat our habit of not doing as well in the second half of the season as the first, we would need to go the next five league games unbeaten to have the safety margin we need, (with three wins minimum).

So come the end of the game, the board feel change is needed. I would imagine somewhere along the line, a quiet word with Shaun North comes up with the idea that Buckle is available, and of course that he would work with the existing staff. For those who do not know, Buckle worked with North at both Torquay and Bristol Rovers. It was not the most obvious of appointments, Buckle had moved to the United States with his wife, the sports presenter Rebecca Lowe. Reports say that he had a reasonable position as technical director of the Metropolitan Oval, a historic playing field which now acts as a USSF academy. International relationships are not easy (as I know from experience), so it comes as a surprise that he wants to return to UK management so soon.

There was no popular choice on the supporters’ forums this time. The change came quickly and Buckle’s name appeared to be leaked quite soon into the process. The oddest part of the process was Paul Baker’s press statement on Monday, which did not show confidence in Yates, but appeared to say that he was in the last chance saloon, rather than about to be kicked out from it. It was a strange statement to make when Baker must have already started talking to Buckle. Would he not have been better keeping quiet for the day? Buckle’s record in the past suggest that he will not be a bad appointment. He has been successful at Torquay, and had a good spell at Luton. Still, the appointment has immediately caused some criticism. This seems mainly based on his short (and unsuccessful) period at Bristol Rovers. Choosing Cheltenham is not the easiest of choices to make. We are not the highest of profile of clubs, but a failure here will be close to a death knell for his hopes of a long football league career. By the same argument, it will be interesting to see if Yates’ career in management progresses. The 18 league games this season will not be an overall plus on his CV, and he may well have been better leaving during, or at least at the end of last season.

I am more than hopeful that this appointment is at least a safe pair of hands, and that we can lose our fear of relegation. For this week only we get some idea as to whether Yates and his second in command saw eye to eye. I believe Yates would have kept to the 3-5-2 formation if possible, so if we start 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then surely this is a difference due to North. It is almost a relief that the closing of the “emergency” loan window comes quickly, and there will be no new signings now. This gives the new manager a serious chance to review the squad he has inherited before making changes. We know that if can get the best out of the group we currently have, as Yates has managed on too few occasions this season (Bury, Tranmere, Cambridge, Swindon), then the players can deliver. This is Buckle’s first priority. Clubs change managers at this stage of the season, because anything is still possible, and that is the case at Cheltenham. Automatic promotion is not impossible, the play offs certainly within reach, but we are also nowhere near safe from the drop, and many games like last week’s would make this seem the greater possibility.

Buckle is not starting with a blank canvass, but he still needs to make his mark, and to build confidence from the supporters, he needs to do it quickly.