It is actually more difficult to judge the team you are attached to, than those at a distance. By the end of the season, I will have seen something like 170 games, of which 37 (or if I’m lucky 38) will involve Cheltenham Town. At home, I have missed only a couple of midweek matches, while away I see about half the games.
So, looking at the season not quite in retrospect. What sort of season has it been? I have deliberately decided to write this before the final games, with the play off situation still in the balance. In many people’s minds these games are going to be the whole of the season, basically we are a success if we win promotion, and a failure if we do not. These are false arguments, our achievement this season is coming fifth in the league, aligned with a run to the third round of the FA Cup. The preliminary suggestions (as the final figures are not out until next spring) is that the books will again balance, and some surplus to remove historical debt from the club. This looks good for the future of the club, but many of the supporters do not care. Many would have us spending money that is not there in a bid to bring greater success to the club, pointing perhaps to Bradford City who publicly proclaimed they would have made a £600K loss for the season if it had not been for reaching the League Cup final. The downside of this is shown at Aldershot Town, who went into Administration within days of leaving the league. This is just 21 years since their predecessor failed to complete a Football League season, causing a new club to be formed with the “added” Town on the name. Its also worth noting that another former opponent of ours, Farnborough FC are also in trouble, and in their case after a change just six years ago which resulted in Farnborough coming out of the ashes of Farnborough Town. It is all too easy to joke that they will just restart with the Town suffix heading north to Farnborough from Aldershot again.
Anyway, let’s get back to the season where most people care about it. On the field. In simple terms, Cheltenham finished 5th out of 24 teams and entered the play offs. In straight economic terms, budgets follow average crowd figures. Cheltenham are 15th in the average attendances for the division, with 3253 seeing an average game at Cheltenham. If analysed closer, this figure is rather on the high side – the average gets boosted by a small number of good crowds, while rather too often the attendances sit below the 3000 mark. Still, however we show the figures, Cheltenham are in some way over achieving, as we have done for the majority of the seasons in our league career.
But yes, I digress again. Like a good politician I am shying away from the answer to the question, how did this team perform? I would have to say that on the whole, the season has been one of frustration. We get to see glimpses of what these players can achieve, and then they fail to achieve it. I do not think Cheltenham has ever had a more capable squad of players, but we seem incapable of proving this to be true. In the past, Cheltenham’s league squads have been based on a few players with genuine pedigree, bolstered by a number who are not even journeymen pro, but instead have a short professional career, dropping out of the football league as soon as they are released. If I was asked to show an example of this, I would mention Andy Gallinagh – who made something like 130 appearance in our colours, more than half of them in League-1. No insult meant, but Gallinagh is not a great defender, and when he looks back on his league career, he will probably see he did well to play that number of games, but the scouts were never queuing up to watch him, with lucrative promises of a career at a higher level.
The current squad does not have much in the way of Andy Gallinagh about it, our current players can all play the game, and do not have to rely on pure commitment and energy to hide the gaps in the capabilities, and they know it. Quite a few of our players are being watched by others in this division and in League-1. The majority would pick up another League club if released this summer. Now this is League-2. A footballer gets stuck in league-2 because he cannot perform to the highest level for more than 50 games a season, but suffers from a lack of consistency, and does not have as much ability as a higher level player. We now have, including loan players, about 18 of these typical league-2 players. You can often look at the team, and at the bench and see little or no difference in the quality. I mean how does Yates choose between Jason Taylor or Darren Carter? Both can do the job, and on a good day will do it – but both are capable of anonymous games where they hardly see the ball.
Alright then, the season in segments. We started well with seven points from 3 games, but then stumbled with the Accrington and Southend home games. What we did not know at the time was these would be our only home league defeats of the season. We then had our best run – the next 11 League game saw us lose only once (at Bradford), but we came back done suddenly with the heavy defeats at Rotherham and Chesterfield. This set us up for the two nervy FA Cup encounters with Hereford, which naturally we made a meal of. We then had some poor results in the run up to the Everton game, with only the Boxing day encounter with Wycombe brightening December. Unfortunately we lost the Bristol Rovers game to the weather, and it was only re-arranged after John Ward had come in to refloat the Gashead’s ship. The winter passed with a lot of draws and an embarrassingly poor defeat at Dagenham. There is no doubt that if the games in January and February were to be typical of the season, they we would not be thinking of promotion, direct or by the play offs. To me, this felt like a reality check – turning around the year in a promotion position just did not feel right, we did not appear to look like a promotion team, and we dropped down to the level this team should expect.
I think it turned back in our favour at Fleetwood, where we won a good point away to a team still in contention. Our next five home games were all won, although our form on the road was far from inspiring. I would say we were up to our average in this period. This certainly frustrates many of those fans writing on the message board, as this average kept on falling just short of that needed to get us into an automatic promotion place. In the end, that is where we finished, just short of an automatic promotion place.
I will not be disappointed if we miss out on promotion again. I do not feel we are really good enough to go up. Yates’ should feel it though as to a great extent it is his responsibility. He has been responsible for the signings, the contracts, for the balance of the team. He has been responsible for the constant chopping and changing between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, for the swapping in and out of equally culpable midfielders. I honestly think he needs to know exactly what plan A is. We should not make four or five changes to the team, and change the formation every time we lose a game. Instead we should have a plan A in formation and game plan and stick to it. To some extent this has been forced on us in the past, when we have not had too many options on the bench, whereas we now have the scope to change the midfield, and allow the forwards to come in and out of favour, and this has been overused.
Will others agree with me? Certainly the messages on the forum suggest a season that was somewhat worse than I have described. A place in the play offs should only be a disappointment if one felt the team was head and shoulders better than the rest, and should have easily won automatic promotion. Gillingham were clearly the best side in the division this season, but even they were not head and shoulders above the rest. I would be happy to congratulate them if it was not for their manager, who not only was an embarrassment to himself and the club during his time here, but still appears in the media to be on a trip of self-aggrandisement, and not capable of giving credit to his players, or to the budget his chairman has kindly provided. For just about any side short of Gillingham, the league was a close run affair, with even the eventually relegated sides capable of stealing points from those at the top. I always find it strange that people automatically claim the closeness of the division means it is lacking in quality, but such closeness can be achieved by the lower sides improving, as much as by the better sides failing. I do not think our team has dropped its playing quality from last season, and I believe the game played now is technically much better than it was during our first league seasons, (there is much less hoofball all around and far more reliance on passing). I think the efforts of the Football League to try and bring some order into the financial mess of the football league is beginning the bear fruit, and this is reducing the ability for teams to buy success on borrowed money, (it has not yet ended the excesses and we still need a stronger license based system).
I am not going through the squad, saying this played did well, and that one did not. We have no bad players in our squad, we have plenty of League-2 standard, and some capable of playing one step higher. All of our players are capable of bad days out, and the team dynamic is such that the whole team tends to have good or bad days, rather than individual players doing so. On occasions our manager has turned around a potential defeat with a substitution or two, but just as often we have lost concentration at the end and let in stupid goals. This is what you should expect outside the Premier League
A conclusion? I would say we have done as well as should have been expected, but we are a frustrating side to watch because just occasionally we reach heights, and then struggle to even glimpse where they have come from. Almost every player in our squad has been guilty of flattering to deceive in this way. A second run to the play offs has not exactly bought the fans out of the woodwork, and even if we reach Wembley, I doubt if it will be in front of record crowds. Still, overall and without waiting to find out how it finishes, I think this has been a good season.