Stacatto would be a good description of Cheltenham Town’s form this season. It really has been, as the musical term suggests, sharply fluctuating, and not necessarily between games. Saturday’s FA Cup defeat at Tamworth contained two halves which together made a performance that was not, as a whole, good enough to cope with a team from the lower reaches of the Skrill Premier. For the first time since becoming a Football League club, the Robins were eliminated by a team from the non-league ranks. Not, ordinarily, good news for the manager.
On Thursday, the Cheltenham Town Supporters Trust hold their AGM. After it, there is traditionally a “Fans Forum” where the chairman and the manager take questions. For the first time since Mark Yates’ appointment in 2009, there may be some real edge to what the supporters want to ask.
Inevitably, teams go through peaks and troughs and that can breed impatience among fans and directors alike. You only have to look at the managerial merry-go-round, which spins ever faster year on year.
After two seasons where they finished in the top seven, this is a trough for Cheltenham. I’m not into a “blame” culture, but try to analyse why the situation exists, and what the future may hold.
Yates’ case for the squad he assembled over the summer would be that after two “failures” – and I use the word in a relative sense – he needed to try something else, but when chairman Paul Baker has publicly said the average salary among the playing staff is higher than it has ever been, you have to ask if the budget split was spread widely enough.
On the opening day of the season, the squad of 21 included five players with no Football League experience, one of which was a loanee centre half. I suspect the money generated from the Capital One cup tie at West Ham has already gone on loans since then, and the squad still only has five specialist defenders. The promotion winning side Yates was part of in 2002 had eight (Howarth, M.Duff, Banks, Victory, Griffin, Hill, Brough and Walker).
As a result, given the variables of form and injuries, this Cheltenham squad has been spluttering along, with no level of consistency. The paucity of choice in the squad has forced Yates’ hand in selection, with formations driven by those available rather than the other way round. Some players have almost been impossible to drop because, simply, there was nobody else.
The defeat at The Lamb means there is now no windfall at the end of the FA Cup rainbow, and the concept of a play-off challenge would be seen by some fans as a pipe dream. It leaves the club with some interesting decisions to make.
In the trigger happy world of football management, Saturday’s defeat was badly timed. Here’s the equation. The season is going nowhere. The transfer window opens in January. The board want to see an improvement, so they change the manager before the window so the new man can do some deals and give the club a fresh imputus.
That’s what we see time and again across the country, but it assumes there is money available and – rather like the often quoted “manager has lost the dressing room” line – the board has lost faith in the manager.
At Cheltenham, I’m not sure there is currently what I would define as an appetite for change. An appetite for things to be better ? Yes, but not in a disruptive sense. Having had their fingers burned once in the Martin Allen era, I sense a prudence now.
This may be a season to accept consolidation. Don’t consider a vast overhaul of the squad in the January transfer window but instead, hard as it may be, accept that a mid table finish would be satisfactory. Only spend what is essential. Show some patience until next summer, when more than half the squad are out on contract and the balance can be changed.
Who changes it is another question. Yates had some sorting out to do when he arrived and it took two phases, in both 2010 and 2011, to make a significant improvement.
He probably didn’t see 2013 as any more than tinkering, but given how it is turning out, he now has to earn the right to change it again when the time comes. His history with the club will probably cut him more slack than others would be allowed, but that should not suggest complacency. He, and the players, have to roll up their sleeves and prove they have more in the locker.
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