Cheltenham is often referred to as a town of festivals. The racing in March, the cricket in July, as well as the cultural – music, jazz, literary and science, which are spread throughout the year. All are well supported.
It tends to take to take something out of the ordinary to get the town excited about football, but on Saturday probably the most controversial manager at Cheltenham in living memory returns to Whaddon Road for the first time. His appearance is a sub plot to an important fixture.
Martin Allen can point to the league table and say he is now a success, having guided Gillingham to promotion into League 1 at the first attempt. A victory on Saturday could see them win the League 2 championship. Cheltenham, for their part, just need to get over the line that will take them into the play offs. One more win should do it, but the Gills have lost only one away game in League 2 all season, and will be backed by 1,400 supporters from Kent. Gillingham Chairman Paul Scally said he appointed Allen because he wanted something different. Clearly that characteristic has fitted at Priestfield. It didn’t, spectacularly, at Cheltenham, and on Saturday some of the fans will no doubt fire the verbals at Allen with both barrels. It’s a good job he’s thick skinned.
Allen spent 15 months with Cheltenham, and was appointed in September 2008 after the team had started poorly in League 1. In radio terms, he was a “shock jock” – you never knew what was coming next. Not surprising, since “Mad Dog” was hardly a shrinking violet as a player either. Cheltenham was not a club that matched Allen’s image. Progress had been built with a stable board, and the manager who guided them to promotion in 2006 was John Ward, a genial veteran of the managerial school. Allen was out of work, and the board took a chance. It was a mistake.
Naturally, when a new manager arrives, directors want to be supportive. Allen’s answer to every problem seemed to be to sign another player. Regularly half the team was changed week to week. Not surprisingly, form remained poor. Barely six months after Allen arrived, Cheltenham Town FC was close to administration. The family silver had been sold, along with the box to keep it in. It was open house to other teams in terms of the squad to try and cut the wage bill. The inevitable relegation followed in a season where the club used 50 players. Only one is still at Cheltenham, and only three others are playing league football. Two of the rest have spent time in prison. Stories of Allen’s behaviour were rife – most of them apocryphal, but no smoke without fire, and all that. When one did surface about an incident outside a night club, Allen was placed on garden leave. There was no way back.
Allen built his managerial reputation at Barnet and Brentford, where he had pieced together teams which over-achieved on modest means. In Brentford’s case, they had reached the play offs, but not gone up. There were more resources at MK Dons, but the outcome was the same, where I personally saw a more limited but organised Shrewsbury Town team beat a side that looked like eleven individuals introduced to each other half an hour before kick off. Perhaps, at Gillingham, the penny has finally dropped. The scattergun selection approach is rife with risk. Gillingham’s goalkeeper has been ever present this season, and three of the back four have missed fewer than six matches each. It has proved a good base.
Allen’s replacement at Cheltenham, Mark Yates, is still in post. His length of service in the bottom two divisions is bettered by only three men (Paul Tisdale at Exeter, Chris Wilder at Oxford, and Greg Abbott at Carlisle). As a former player, his connection with the club – despite Allen’s father being in charge at Cheltenham in the 1970’s – proved a far better fit. Relegation out of the Football League was avoided on the final day in 2010, there was greater security in 2011, and in 2012 the team reached the play offs, only to lose to Crewe. Finally, with two lucrative FA Cup ties and a day at Wembley, some of the money shelled out by Allen has been recouped.
The road back to some sort of stability has been long. Allen has rebuilt his own reputation, and Cheltenham have come back from the financial precipice. On Saturday, Allen says he will respect the Cheltenham fans and keep a low profile. I doubt that will be possible. He probably knows the reception he’ll get. The only question is if he allows himself to celebrate on the pitch at the end if Gillingham win the title. Only Allen will know the answer to that one.
Picture : Copyright http://www.leftlion.co.ukAdvertisements