Defeats like These

If you are going to support a lower league football team, you need to be able to accept the losses, the abject failure of your team to even perform on the stage. There is no team in the lower divisions that this does not apply to, although most fans do not see beyond the failings of their own favourites. Frankly, I consider the imperfections of the team to be one of the features of support at this level. By being so very poor one week, we make the successes (when they come) all the more satisfying. For the many Manchester City fans in the city centre as we passed through, today’s win was merely run of the mill. The result was the one they expected and was satisfactory, but not a highlight of the season.

I stay in a flat just under an hour by tram from Bury FC, I left the flat at 11 in the morning, and returned at 11 in the evening. All in all, I had a good day out, even if the football was not so great.

This is, however a football blog – so I need to talk about Football, about Cheltenham Town and what the team is getting wrong at the moment. That we had a good start was down in part to good luck. McGlashan made a good run down the right, and played the ball in to Gornell. Gornell’s shot was from an angle and from the replay I have now seen was going wide before Proctor got his foot in the wrong place to turn it in.

After that it all went wrong very quickly indeed. The problems started with Craig Braham-Barrett getting injured. He tried to carry on, but could not, while our defence did not react to his plight. As it happened the ball did not reach the back four, Mayor had enough space to get his shot away from a midfield position. My immediate reaction from behind the goal was disappointment that Brown had not managed to get to the ball, as I have become used to him diving to turn this type of shot wide. In this, I am probably expecting too much of the keeper. With the scores level, it can only be said we defended like schoolboys for a few minutes, the second was a simple undefended header from a corner. It was one of those corners where all the players grouped in one spot before the ball came in, and then the attackers broke in different directions as the ball was kicked. The referee had to warn the players before the corner as the defenders were trying to block the run to the near post, but it was the player who fell back to the far post that lost his man. The third was even worse as we had a man out on the wing, but allowed space to pick out the cross. Elliott’s reaction after the ball went in showed that he thought that even then he should have been first to the ball

After that, things settled down. The fourth goal did not come until nearly an hour later, and here we can be considered as victims of circumstance. Inniss took a knock and was struggling to get back into position when the cross came in. At the time, Bury still had two men up front and this left Taylor trying to mark two men and gave Reindorf an open invitation. We had offered enough threat in the second half that immediately after the goal Bury went to a 4-5-1 formation to try and shore themselves up defensively.

So my thoughts on individual players and the various units. In goal, Brown continues to be a great shop stopper, and he is rarely out of position. From behind the goal in the first half though, I was concerned that he seemed passive between times. A good goalkeeper is always also a general, and is the captain of the defence regardless of who the team captain is. A good goalkeeper must be continually telling his defenders where the threats are and where he wants them to be. It is the same criticism often made of Shane Higgs and perhaps the reason why his career stalled after he left the club.

On to the defence, and I do have a problem trying to work out what the problems are. I do not think any of our defenders are poor players, but there is something amiss with the unit. The co-ordination between the players does not seem to be right. Elliott and Lowe, the most experienced of our defenders, both came up short when they might have prevented the second and third goals, but generally the problem seems to be they do not know when to commit, and when to track back. When tracking back, they give too much space to the attacking player. The objective in tracking back is supposed to be the denial of space and options and we do neither. The disruption to our defence after Elliott went off left us in disarray up until the break, and it is a surprise we did not concede one or two more in the last part of the first half. As our tallest player, Inniss is in the habit of careering up the field at the slightest provocation, in the hope that he can help the attack, but this left Taylor looking very much out of place as the stand in player. To give the players credit, this was put right at half time – Inniss did not go AWOL, and Taylor adapted to his role.

If it is hard to be definitively critical of the defence, it is easy to lay into the midfield, (ask Plymouth). They are just too damn pretty. When I was a teenager supporting Hillingdon, we had a season with Barry Fry as manager. Fry was a great character and had time for the fans. He would have referred to our midfield as playing “tippy tappy” football. Too many short passes that lead nowhere. It is not of course the short passes themselves that are the problem, it is the short passes that go astray that are the problem. Far too frequently we are playing passes that are all too predictable, all too easy to read. Our opponents rarely need to put a tackle in – if they track back and harry our midfielders then sooner or later we will give them the ball. When our midfield gets it right, we can be a joy to watch, fluid football carrying the ball from one end of the field to the other in a matter of seconds, but all too often we get it wrong.

Worse than this, we have been found out. Word has gone out on the division’s scouting networks that Cheltenham have a soft centre, and teams like Plymouth exploit this by “bullying” us. Bury did not even have to bully – we were so out of sorts in midfield that they just had to wait for the gifts to come their way.

As for the attack, for 18 minutes this season – I thought Yates’ had found the right pairing for our attack, and then we scored! Gornell as the hold-up man, and Cureton as the “nippy” one who gets the goals. What could go wrong? The answer is that one could get injured in scoring the first goal, and the other in the following game. Gornell is back now, and we have the irrepressible Gillespie on loan, but despite bringing him in, Yates seems to be determined to ignore Gillespie. Instead when we switched to 4-4-2 against Bury, we brought on the enigma that is Byron Harrison. Harrison was determined to show both what he can do right, and what he cannot do right. He reads the game to perfection. Time after time in the second half he was in the perfect position to receive the pass. Now despite my comments above, we actually made a fair number of these passes successfully – especially in the first half hour of the second period. What happened next sums up Harrison, at times it appears that he is about to trip over his own legs, and more often than not he is shaping up to play the ball with one foot when the ball just so happens to canon off his other leg. Players like Harrison have short periods in the season when things go right and for a brief period they look like the real deal. Harrison had a good game against us at Kingsmeadow last season, and based on that alone he looked like a good signing – but at the time we had Duffy, Harrad and Benson in the squad, all more likely to actually score goals. I now think Harrison is desperate to repay the faith that Yates has shown in him, but the harder he tries, the more things go wrong for him.

So the managerial team, Yates and Howarth. Are they still the men for the job? There seems to be a game being played on the robins nest forum at the moment, (and for a good period of last season as well), where someone criticises Yates and basically says that his time has come – but then refuses to back the judgement by actually saying it is time for Yates to leave. Others have realised how important the second in charge is, and would keep Yates but drop Howarth. I do not believe any of the supporters making such pronouncements know what the Yates-Howarth dynamic is? Still, I think they need to do something to freshen up their approach. I wonder if bringing in a sports psychiatrist or motivational expect for a short period could help? Of course, what has happened in the past couple of weeks is not really different to mid-table periods in last two seasons, so I have no reason not to think things will get fixed and we may still make the play offs. After all, the players appear to be good enough even if the team is not.

The thing with our current management is that they believe in the team, and are not looking to get out for the next better offer. I believe the vast majority of League-2 managers are charlatans who will do little to move the team forward. The chances of Kevin Blackwell still being at Bury this time next season are poor. Either he will continue to get results at Bury, in which case his agent will be rushing his c.v. to every League-1 or Championship vacancy, or he will struggle and get the sack in quick order. Middle way managers who stay at a single club for even as much as three seasons are a rarity. Over the last season, Yates has managed to provide us with steady football that has overachieved in comparison to the budget (which is still no better than half way down this division, no matter what others may say). In each of his seasons, we have had matches such as Plymouth and Bury, (think March 2012, or Accrington, Rotherham and Chesterfield last term). We have lost to teams we should not been losing to, or lost badly without competing. As yet, I have not seen anything to suggest that this season will be any different. We will have good days when things go right, and we will have poor days when we get stuffed out of sight. I do not know if this season’s team will reach the play offs again, but I am not panicking about the risk of finishing at the wrong end.

Those who are satisfied with a team that despite lapses, ends the season at the right end of the table should be satisfied with the status quo (at least for now). Those who expect their team to win every game should defect immediately to support one of the Manchester clubs (and I do not mean Bury).