Don’t Speak too Soon

..for the wheel’s steel in spin. As the poet said back in the sixties.

So writing a blog before the transfer day is complete is certainly speaking too soon. There are plenty of suggestions that Cheltenham will sign more players in the four hours between writing these first sentences and the deadline tonight. AT 23.00, the ball is in play, but the wheel will spin for another three months until the season ends on May 2nd.

I made the obvious comment on Saturday – either our results improve, or we get relegated. It is not a comment that required an incredible amount of intelligence to make. Our last 18 league matches (if I have done my sums correctly) have resulted in 15 points. I have chosen that figure as there are 18 more to play, and 15 more points would take us to 45. Teams that finish a league-2 season on 45 points tend to get relegated. The fact that so far, Buckle’s record is worse than Yates’ is another factor that makes us fear that our stay in the League will be for 16 seasons only.

Still, I am going to make a much bolder prediction here. If we know our fate before the final day of the season, then it will be good news, not bad! What I mean by that is quite simple, I believe that our results will be good enough to leave our fate in the balance on the final day. I am not however going as far as to say it will not be in the lap of the gods. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we are hoping for Terry Gornell to come good for his new club on the final day and score the goal that puts Mansfield down.

When Buckle joined the club as manager, everyone hoped for “new manager bounce”, a brief spell of improved results as the players show the new man they are worth their place. This did not happen, although as the stattos have pointed out, few managers have managed the bounce at Cheltenham.

Until the New Year, Buckle had his hands tied – no new signings could be made, and he contented himself with giving young players a run out, and then signing them to 18 month contracts. Come the New Year, the new broom had the chance to sweep – and within days we had change. Jason Taylor was packed off to Northampton, while three more kids entered the fray from Liverpool, no less. The scouser revolution started well, as despite going a goal down we actually won the first match of the year, with two of the new players scoring. To date, it remains our best result under Buckle. Since then we have seen the departure of another player considered to be a “non trier”, in Byron Harrison. Also out of the door were Paul Black and Adam Powell. Black was thought not to be what we needed – I do not think anyone has said he failed to put the effort in when called upon, while Powell never made it into the league. One more loan player was signed in Jake Gray from Palace, while Kane Ferdinand’s loan was extended to the end of the season. This meant we had five loan players on the books, even if only one was a long term deal. The entrance of the loan players also changed the ball game for the home grown youngsters who had been their chance. Hanks and Kotwica have been in and out, Williams has found his chances limited, while players like Bowen are just hoping to get back to the bench! At least they all know they have a year to get themselves into the team.

As results after the Oxford match did not keep up the pace, there has been some frustration both with the manager himself, and with the lack of further movement. Confusion reigned by varying comments coming out of the club, casting doubt on our ability to sign players, and then suggesting money was available again. Buckle himself appeared to be frustrated by this inconsistency, and by at least one player not signing. He was also reported to change his mind at least once, with Moke set to sign, but then remaining in the Conference.

If we had hope that we could let things ride with the squad, this was blown away at Dagenham. Buckle’s claims to a team that was more defensively resolute than that of his predecessor were shown up by the Dagger’s strike force. In a match reminiscent of many of Yates’ failures, our defence (and in particular the full backs) failed, while the midfield was disjointed and failed to either protect the defenders, or to link the play and set up our singular forward. In particular, criticism had to be fired at the manager for playing Lloyd Jones at right back throughout, despite having two alternatives on the bench. One of these is the out of favour Vaughan (who has surprised me so far tonight by remaining a Cheltenham player), while the other is new signing Berry (ostensibly, Vaughan’s replacement at right back). To make matters worse, one of the Liverpudlians, Stewart was missing through injury, while Dunn – possibly the only bright spark for Cheltenham in the game was injured late on. Fortunately, we were allowed to say to Liverpool, “we have broken them”, and send them back. We therefore were exempted from paying further for their services even if Liverpool did not redeem the guarantees and send us replacements.

A team can play up to five loan players at any one time. While it may be foolish to have more on your books (as happened when Allen was manager), loans have the advantage of allowing us players for a fraction of their full wage, so we give experience to young Liverpool and Palace players who we could not afford to take on at full wage. Loans also afford us the chance to look at players who may become permanent signings later. IN the past, Grant McCann and Marlon Pack first entered the team in this way. Some rumours suggested John Marquis might have become available, but we did not pursue this one.

As a player can get injured at any time, the loan deals for Stewart and Dunn currently appear as better value on our books than the full time signing of Asa Hall, still waiting for the 9th minute of his Cheltenham playing career. Let us hope to see him again, maybe in six week’s time?

So come deadline day, Buckle knew that he had to make changes. The squad just could was not balanced enough to give us more than a thin chance of escaping the drop. The players here had been given the chance and found wanting. Whether this is the fault of the previous manager, the current manager, the players themselves or even the chairman is not really a point worth arguing. On transfer deadline day, it is too late to change the manager and still change the squad, or for a new chairman to come in and revitalise the budget. Only the playing squad can seriously be changed on this day.

I dislike the need to wheel and deal on this final day, and was more hopeful when Buckle tried to get his deals done earlier, but he had not addressed the problem with scoring goals, and even his sticky plaster (Dunn) which only partly addressed this has now come unstuck. With Stewart and Dunn back at Liverpool, we could sign two new loan players to bring the total back to five, and quickly moved to do so. Denny Johnstone (Birmingham) and Wes Burns (Bristol City) both coming in to bolster the attack. Meanwhile, the surviving member of the Liverpool triumvirate, Lloyd Jones confirmed an extension to his loan. Burns has scored three times this season, and two of them (once for Bristol City, once for Oxford) have been against us. I am not sure we should allow him back into defensive positions now.

The reports say that all the new loan deals are to the end of the season, but I note that they are all players under-21 years of age, so it is possible that they are in fact youth loans. Having five players on loan at the moment means we are limited in using the so called emergency loan system. If the loans are youth loans, rather than half season loans, then at least we are not committed to paying further if they turn out not to be the right moves, and we can try to plug the gap with emergency loans. We can, of course sign further emergency loans, but we cannot play more than five loan players in any one game. It would be interesting to see how we react to further injuries, but it is not something I hope is not an issue.

For the afternoon, we made two further changes, both up front – Terry Gornell has had his contract ended, and has moved to Accrington Stanley, while Eliot Richards arrives from Tranmere in a similar way. My reading of these deals is the players have accepted 18 month contracts, probably at slightly lower wages than they were on previously, while the settlement from their previous club means they are not financial inconvenienced in the first six months, they may even be better off short term. Gornell was out of contract at Cheltenham at the end of the season, and I would guess that Richards was as well at Tranmere, so the 18 month deals guarantee them another season as a professional footballer, (and if they can prove themselves, both have chances of lasting longer). During his stay at Cheltenham, I had always been impressed by Gornell’s work rate, and his apparent acceptance that he would have short runs in the squad and then be dropped quickly and without reason – but he is a striker, and he rarely got to score a goal. We need to try something different, and so does he. This is a move that may work out well for both parties. Eliot Richards is a player I know little about. He has played in 13 games for Tranmere this season (the last was in November). The 13 have been nine starts and four as substitute, and the only goal was against us, when we won 3-2 early in the season. Last season he played against us without scoring for both Exeter and Bristol Rovers, but did manage a double digit haul over the season.

A late signing, 75 minutes before the deadline is a player we know – Jordan Wynter returning from Bristol City. He was on loan earlier this season. At some stage I said that the only two players that quickened the blood when watching the game earlier in the season were Wynter and Arthur. Loan players who could do something unexpected with the ball. I was disappointed when Wynter was recalled by Bristol City, so naturally I welcome him back. He played six times for us earlier in the season, scoring in the same game as Richards, at Tranmere, and also played against us, for Bristol City in the JPT.

The club and echo twitter feeds seem to suggest that is our lot for the day, but that another player will sign tomorrow. Players may, of course sign outside the window if they are free agents. Hence we can assume the player in question has already made his settlement with another club.

I think this is the busiest any Cheltenham manager has been on deadline day since the current transfer rules have been in place, the team will look very different next Saturday to the one that played at the end of last year. The manager has been given enough leeway to manoeuvre, and the team is clearly now the Buckle team, rather than a Yates’ XI managed by Buckle.

The wheel is now in spin, and no doubt people will be speaking about where it will land even before Saturday’s game gives us the first clues. It is more than plausible that things may get worse before they get better, and it is possible that things do not get better at all. Either of these would cause some calls for the manager’s head. I personally do not believe that change for changes sake will make any difference in the next three months. This is Paul Buckle’s team, and it his job to make it work. There is hardly any scope to change the players again until the summer, (and we now have a remarkable number of players signed for next year, with the 18 month deals today, added to the youngsters given deals earlier). If Buckle has not built a foundation for the future in the last few days, and the walls come tumbling down, then even those star names of the Premier League would not be able to shore it up again.