With the half-way point of the season upon us, Cheltenham Town are positioned 12th in the SkyBet League 2 table after a campaign that can be best described as ‘mercurial’.
The Robins season is epitomised by their opening game, in which Burton Albion came back from 2-0 down to claim a share of the point against Mark Yates’ men – ability and potential within the squad is undeniable, but a lack of perseverance and consistency the key weaknesses.
A lack of stability particularly early on in the season has compounded this problem, with the departure of fans’ favourite Billy Jones just one of a number of controversial episodes engendering volatility both on and off the pitch.
After a difficult start to the season, alleviated only by a memorable Capital One Cup tie against West Ham United, the Robins quickly plummeted in the table, often proving to be the masters of their own downfall, with individual errors weekly occurrences. Confidence on the terraces soon decline, with the absence of veteran defender Steve Elliott and striker Jamie Cureton compounding our problems, as Yates’ men conceded 12 goals in four games between August and September, collecting just two points along the way.
As October came, the improvement in the form of midfielders Jason Taylor and loanee David Noble saw Cheltenham Town register more points, as Cureton marked his return from injury with his 250th goal defeating Dagenham and Redbridge. Yet again, however, such victories were cancelled out by more defensive errors, as the Robins were pegged back from winning decisions to be defeated by Rochdale and held to a point by Northampton Town.
Formation soon became the fiercely debated topic amongst supporters, as Mark Yates’ favoured midfield diamond proved inconsistent in effectiveness, leading some to infer a stagnation in his managerial style. Humiliation against non-league Tamworth in the F.A. Cup led to some calling for change at the top; however the defeat has ultimately been a turning point.
The November ruby revival was gradual, as Elliott returned to the starting XI to oversee successive clean sheets against Newport County and Bristol Rovers. This renewed defensive stability was to the detriment of the Robins’ attacking prowess, as both games ended goalless; however positive change was clearly in motion. The emergence of December saw draws turn into victory, as Yates’ men defeated Morecambe, Fleetwood and Exeter to enter the top half of the table for the first time and go 11 games unbeaten.
Despite not losing since mid-October, the Robins have suffered from the same problem evident on the very first day of the season; a lack of consistency. Only once this season have Yates’ men secured back-to-back victories, whilst supporters have only enjoyed three home wins all term. Fragility is also still evident, typified by defeat against a wily Mansfield side in the final game of 2013, and a 2-1 loss at Burton in the first of 2014.
Due to our troubled start, change seemed unavoidable in January; however few would have expected fans’ favourite Keith Lowe and captain Russell Penn to both be York City players by January. Although the two will be greatly missed, Mark Yates’ ability to now bring new blood into the club should help to eradicate the aforementioned stagnation.
The funds raised by the sale of these two players have already been put to good use, with the extension of David Noble’s loan from Rotherham until the end of the season bringing vital stability to the Robins squad, with the former Arsenal man ‘flavour of the month’ at Whaddon Road. Furthermore, exciting loanees Kemar Roofe and Michael Ihekwe (from West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers respectively) add flair and new options to a side with plenty of potential.
This does not look to be the end of our transfer activity, with reports of former Leeds United man Ryan Hall believed to be close to a move to Gloucestershire generating plenty of excitement on supporter’s forums. Looking already to the summer, it would also seem imperative that we extend the contracts of coveted ‘keeper Scott Brown, Portuguese hit Sido Jombati, and effervescent winger Jermaine McGlashan, who will unquestionable attract interest from other clubs.
The foundations of a very strong squad are now firmly place, with confidence slowly coursing back into the veins of us Cheltenham Town supporters. In Scott Brown we have arguably the best ‘keeper in the division, one of the best gaol scorers in the country in Jamie Cureton, a defensive rock in Steve Elliott, and plenty of grit and determination thanks to the likes of Jason Taylor and David Noble.
The key now for Mark Yates is to harness the respective attributes of his players, decide on a best XI and the way they are going to play, before applying it. As supporters we need to keep the faith in the Robins, and as a club try and attract more locals to games.
In the last two seasons, Yates’ sides have experienced impressive form in the autumn, before tailing off somewhat in the New Year. This time, things could well happen the other way round. With the play-offs looking the most realistic means of promotion, the Robins are poised perfectly to climb the table, now just six points away from the top seven. It is paramount that Mark Yates uses available funds appropriately, with the addition of quality, especially going forward, likely to make the difference for the Robins.
The Robins have definitely undergone the revival, now we must go one step further, and as players, staff and supporters launch an offensive on SkyBet League Two. Our season is a marathon not a sprint, but at some point we are going to have to pull away from the pack.
In the words of popular author J.K. Rowling: “We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.”
Come on you Robins!
Written by Peter Fielding, We Are Going Up’s Cheltenham Town Blogger
Peter tweets at @PeterJFielding