A Top-Half Finish is a Realistic and Achievable Ambition - Notes for Cheltenham Town
Monday, 21st Feb 2022 15:00 by TomTheWriter
Cheltenham Town visit Portman Road for the second of consecutive home games and TomTheWriter assesses the mood in the opposition camp.
With seven wins from his first 10 games as manager, including four home wins out of four, Kieran McKenna’s Ipswich have closed the gap on the play-offs to four points.
Their Tuesday opponents, Cheltenham Town, are fresh from a back-and-forth battle with Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park, which ultimately ended in a 5-5 draw.
This season, Alfie May has been imperious in front of goal, Matty Blair has offered width and creativity from the right with Mattie Pollock proving to be an excellent replacement for Ben Tozer at the back.
“Think he got it wrong with the starting midfield but we looked a completely different team in the second half”, “Michael Duff is the best manager in League One. He will be worth 10-15 points extra to any team”, “Sounds like Michael is getting a bit hacked off now with the lack of success.”
Cheltenham Town boss Duff is seen as one of the most talented young managers in football with his success and style putting him on the wish list of clubs higher up the ladder.
“Duff will know what the minimum needed in League One is in terms of fitness”, “Is it too soon for Duff to be considered for the Burnley job? What sort of level of manager could Burnley hope to attract?”, “I think they wouldn’t risk Duff until they are in the Championship.”
Given the impressive job he has been doing since taking charge at Cheltenham in September 2018, there have been rumours that Duff, a defender with the Robins between 1996 and 2004, will eventually make the move to Burnley, where he spent 12 years as a player and was an academy coach before his move to Whaddon Road, in the future, depending on the status of current Clarets manager Sean Dyche.
The State of Play
“Calling it now. We will sneak in to the League One play-offs next season”, “Big summer ahead to get there though. Main thing is to hang on to the manager, keep Michael Duff in charge and we could have a decent go. Other than one or two teams it seems a pretty even division all the way down”, “I like the optimism but I'd feel a top-half finish is a realistic and achievable ambition.”
As it stands, the Robins find themselves in 15th place in League One with nine wins, 13 draws and 10 defeats from their 32 games.
“If we stay in League One for the next five years I will be delighted. As long as the board make the necessary improvements to the club infrastructure”, “Our first ambition as a club should always be how can we continue to progress and not go backwards”, “What a difference a week makes.”
Cheltenham sit six places and 11 points behind the Blues heading into the fixture on Tuesday with a victory over the visitors likely to see Town further close the gap on the play-offs.
Currently, in the Cheltenham squad they have a strong selection of midfielders to choose from with the arrivals of Aaron Ramsey and Charlie Colkett in January adding to their impressive ranks
Their weakest position looks to be goalkeeper with Scott Flinders and Owen Evans having featured in almost equal measure up to now.
Robins fans have found a lot to be positive about this season regarding their squad.
“You have to play to players' strengths and not their weaknesses and choose tactics accordingly”, “Going from strength to strength, this has been a momentous year for the club”, “It is obvious Elliot Bonds has strength and can distribute the ball.”
However, on the other hand, they have found a few things to be negative about. “Our current biggest weakness is pace between the centre-backs and wing-backs”, “Maybe some players are really good lower league players but have a weakness in one area that would be quickly exposed at a higher level”, “We end up with some weak youth loans.”
Wycombe Wanderers 5-5 Cheltenham Town
“What a game, what a team. Wycombe devastating in clusters like their demolition job [3-1] at ours earlier in the season, but we had the guts and quality to come back twice”, “Not many teams will get a point at Wycombe. Not many teams will ever score five there. Doubt any other players will net four”, “Well that was… something. Battered them second half apart from 60 seconds of madness.”
“Great comeback. We didn’t fanny about at the back as much second half and moved it forward a bit sharper. Well done lads”, “I wouldn't have taken it at the start, but I'll take the 5-5 draw”, “We want six!”
On Saturday afternoon, Cheltenham travelled to Wycombe Wanderers expecting a tough game and came away with five goals but still without the three points, while Alfie May netted four times for the Robins.
Cheltenham Town 2-0 Fleetwood Town
“Battering them and finally taking some chances when we're on top”, “Remarkably straightforward game. Fleetwood extremely poor side”, “Wishful thinking maybe but if we could break our transfer record to get [Callum] Wright here permanently I'd love it.”
“Fleetwood have been on a similar run to us before today, not many defeats but too many draws. They were dreadful today though, as easy as any win we had in League Two last year”, “Good performance from Ben Williams today. Cracking cross by Pollock for the second goal. And good work by Alfie on the first”, “Great result. Back to back wins.”
The week before, Cheltenham hosted a Fleetwood Town side who have been falling away from the mid-table pack in recent weeks. Goals from May and Charlie Raglan secured an important three points for the Robins.
“I bet Flinders would love to be playing a week Saturday at Rotherham. It’s his hometown club!”, “Perhaps someone could ask Duff why Flinders has been demoted”, “To be fair and honest, I was one (of no doubt many) who suggested it may be time for Flinders to be dropped.”
Experienced goalkeeper Flinders has featured on 21 occasions this season, but hasn’t played in the last 12 games. has been on the bench each week but may be in for a recall after the 5-5 draw against Wycombe.
“Anybody else think Owen Evans’s positioning for free-kicks could be better?”, “He's not the tallest of keepers so he does have to be pretty spot on with his positioning, but I’m not sure he could have done too much more with either of those on that front”, “Not convinced as yet he is better than Flinders (who I can see leaving in the summer), but Evans has youth on his side.”
Evans arrived in the summer to replace Josh Griffiths whose loan spell from West Brom ended after their promotion. Has started the last 12 games, but has conceded more goals per game than Flinders.
“The back three look more solid defensively with [William] Boyle and Raglan back there with Pollock”, “He has made some suspect tactical choices, for example sticking Raglan up front”, “Felt sorry for Raglan, he had a solid game but someone had to make way for Boyle.”
One third of the solid back three in League Two last season, Raglan has missed a lot of games this year due to injury. However, he has featured in the 14 matches, scoring once. Likely to start on Tuesday.
“If he signs another contract then he will definitely be heading toward legend territory, but one would argue that he has spent a lot of time injured”, “On the other hand, Boyle was a bit lucky not to be sent off”, “That was 100 per cent a foul on Boyle especially if we base it on the ref’s free-kick decisions so far this half.”
Another third of that structurally impressive defence, Boyle’s goal threat has been limited this season due to injury, having returned in January after a three-month absence. Another likely to start in the back three on Tuesday.
“Oh dear, I’ve just heard the words that worry me. [Lewis] Freestone is coming on”, “My guess would be Freestone to come in although there's always [Reece] Hutchinson as an option”, “I think Duff said he saw Freestone as a centre-half which is why he signed two left-backs.”
Originally viewed as a back-up option, Freestone has been involved heavily this season due to the injuries to Raglan and Boyle. Comfortable at the left centre-back spot, currently biding his time after their returns.
“The first cross from [Ben] Williams in the first half was screaming to be nodded into the net”, “Williams went down with cramp after the second goal. No choice but to sub him off”, “Neither were keen to stay and with Williams we replaced [Chris] Hussey with a better player with both League One and Championship experience.”
One of eight new signings made by Duff in January, Williams arrived on a permanent deal from Barnsley. Had the misfortune of being sent off on his debut, but has improved since.
“Didn’t see the need to take Hutchinson off either who was looking solid”, “To be fair Hutchinson hasn't played a game in over six months so he can be a bit rusty”, “Have to say Hutchinson has looked very poor. Hopefully just confidence and/or nerves but I think he has only made two passes to a red shirt.”
Previously of Burton Albion, Hutchinson joined Cheltenham in the winter window after his release from the Brewers back in the summer. Capable of playing at left midfield and as a centre-back, Hutchinson adds some much-needed depth to their defence.
“Excellent news! Player of the season so far Sean Long”, “Well deserved. Suspect he's still seen as backup to Blair and Raglan but his consistency and versatility have been so important last couple of seasons”, “Should be at right-back with Blair moved forward when Boyle is fit.”
Versatile defender Long has featured the most of any defender this season, covering at both centre-back and right midfield. Looks to be at his best as a right centre-back in the 3-5-2, but is an adequate replacement for Blair if he is unavailable.
“Will probably be back in the middle when Boyle goes”, “Sean has been very consistent all season probably a 7/10 every game”, “Probably our most reliable and consistent player. Nice guy too, as he happily chatted to me when I bumped into a few players in Sainsbury's the other year.”
Hasn’t featured in the last five games, currently dealing with a groin injury that has kept him out of games since the end of January. Rumoured to be close to a return to the squad, so will be 50/50 for Tuesday night.
“Pollock has done a magnificent job in replacing Ben [Hamer] and I’m sure he’ll go on to have a successful career”, “Love reading the praise for Mattie Pollock. He has been truly outstanding this season”, “That was so poor from Pollock closing down that ball.”
Young defender Pollock was snapped up by Cheltenham in the summer on loan from Watford and has been impressive in the heart of the defence. Has missed a few games here and there, but looks to be fully fit right now.
“Pollock, Raglan and Boyle would be a very strong back three”, “Pollock has been immense in Boyle’s absence but still so young so it can’t all sit on his shoulders”, “[Ellis] Chapman and Blair are both suspect and yet Pollock gets dropped. Some bizarre tactics recently.”
The back three of Pollock, Raglan and Boyle is Cheltenham’s ideal set-up, but the fans will not be happy with how they were breached quite easily on Saturday by Wycombe with numerous goals coming from simple mistakes and loose concentration at the back. An area to exploit?
“[Dan] Crowley should have played and playing [Liam] Sercombe and Chapman together do not work”, “I can’t believe how often Ellis Chapman loses concentration and gives possession away, he won’t reach his potential unless he sorts this out?”, “Sercombe and Chapman have run out of steam.”
Twenty-one-year-old midfielder Chapman was a key fixture for Cheltenham last season, but has found game-time hard to come by in the last few months due to injury. Looks to be a couple of weeks away from returning from a groin problem.
“Passing sideways or losing the ball and us getting hit on the counter. Agreed, although we have Conor Thomas for the latter”, “Thomas has a big impact on the overall team performance”, “Add a holding type midfielder instead who can add some steel in there as the last few games we have begun to look a bit powder puff without Conor Thomas.”
Another impressive midfielder out with an injury, Thomas had featured heavily this season up until four games ago, but hasn’t been in the squad since. Suffered a minor setback from his calf problem before the weekend.
“I didn't realise it had taken such a deflection off of Wright at the time, but the camera down the other end of the pitch showed it did”, “Wishful thinking maybe but if we could break our transfer record to get Wright here permanently I'd love it”, “Assuming Wright will be back at Leicester or a Championship club we will need to replace him.”
On loan from Leicester City, Wright has taken like a duck to water in this Cheltenham side with five goals and three assists to his name this season. Has started eight of the last nine games and looks likely to continue that on Tuesday.
“How good was [Elliot] Bonds again by the way? Been quality the last three-and-a-half games since coming on against Wigan”, “Can’t wait to see him next season after a summer in the gym and more pre-season preparation”, “I think we had our first shot of the match as Bonds dips one in from 25 yards.”
Once the forgotten man in the Cheltenham squad, Bonds has persevered and made himself untouchable in the Robins’ midfield this month. Has scored one goal in his last four games having previously been out on loan in non-league only a few months ago. Adds much-needed height to the midfield.
“I thought [Aaron] Ramsey was just getting into the game when he was taken off. Seems like at the moment he's a player who is good when his team is on top”, “Not a bad second half, Ramsey and [Kion] Etete made positive impressions”, “Hopefully Ramsey can provide that although I’m not sure where he fits or what formation he needs to get the best out of him.”
With one Aaron Ramsey on the move to Rangers, the other switched Aston Villa for Cheltenham on a six-month loan deal. One of the brightest prospects in Villa’s impressive academy, Ramsey has started the last three games, but is yet to make contribution goals-wise.
“Be interesting to see if we offer [Charlie] Colkett an extension as well”, “Colkett doesn't look match sharp or confident”, “Guess this is competition/cover for Sercombe - which would mean there’s competition for every place in the favoured formation.”
Once in the Chelsea academy, Colkett has spent the last four years of his career in Sweden with Ostersund, the side once managed to glory by Graham Potter. Colkett joined Cheltenham in January, but has only featured twice since his arrival.
“I like Blair a lot but he seems to be having confidence issues at the moment and is so negative on the ball and losing it a lot when he goes forward”, “Blair and Wright on the right hand side both feels like it hasn't clicked and yet we're getting also getting a lot of joy on that side”, “It would also be nice to see some pressure on Blair for the right side role too.”
At 34 games, Blair is the most used player this season by Michael Duff, nailing down the right midfield spot as his own. Has three goals and two assists for the season, but has the same number of yellow cards as he has goal contributions.
“The default sub moves of swapping Long across to push up Blair and buggering about the back four fails again”, “Williams’s chance should have been buried by Blair”, “We have been dangerous with Blair pushed up.”
His best attribute looks to be his consistency, ranking around the average rating for dribbles and shots on target percentage. Will be up against Dominic Thompson on Tuesday, so will be an interesting battle.
“We actually looked like a football side when Wright and Sercombe were introduced to the game but baffled why they started on the bench in the first place”, “Sercombe is becoming a liability this season. Not a League One player based on the latest showings”, “Liam Sercombe is an experienced player at this level and we are short of players and let us not doubt we are now in a relegation battle.”
Despite being only 31 years old, Sercombe is a veteran in a young midfield this season. Came off the bench on Saturday, with the new signings seeing him pushed out of the side in the last three games.
“We don't need the money so unless he does a Hussey keep him”, “Let him go, League One seems to be passing him by”, “Thought he had his strongest game for a while on Saturday (first half anyway) and no time to replace him.”
In the January window, Sercombe was linked heavily with a loan move to League Two side Bristol Rovers. However, he stuck with Cheltenham as he looks to help guide them back up the table and finish the season in an impressive fashion.
“Perhaps Etete can learn from [Kyle] Vassell and [Andy] Williams when it comes to movement and dark arts”, “I would imagine we would let Williams go if someone came in for him”, “Williams was fed the ball eight yards out but mis-controlled.”
Another experienced option in the building for Cheltenham, Williams came off the bench on Saturday for his first appearance in six games. After the arrival of Etete and others, Williams has fallen down the pecking order.
“Regarding Etete, I said exactly the same to my mate at Wimbledon: We kept hoofing it up to him and he got nowhere near winning a header all game”, “Etete is absolute class. He can hold it up, flick it on, run at defenders and has great feet”, “With the ball at his feet, Etete is truly class.”
The scorer of the third Cheltenham game at the weekend, Etete has been really impressive for the Robins since his loan arrival from Tottenham, having spent the first half of the season at Northampton Town. Has one goal and two assists from six games.
“Welcome home Jamie”, “Strange. One of the injuries to Charlie [Brown] or Dan [Nlundulu] must be worse than first thought?”, “Local player Jamie Soule on loan from West Brom.”
Cheltenham-born Soule is yet to make his debut for the club, having been on the bench for all three of the games since his arrival. Spent time on loan at Barrow and Lincoln City over the last five years.
“We might not see him this season but, if he's out for most of the rest of this season, might we see Dan Nlundulu back next season?”, “Hopefully the injuries to Nlundulu isn't too serious as would love to see Etete and him leading the line”, “Might not see Dan again then. That’s a real shame as he showed the physicality up front we’ve often missed over the last few years.”
Started the season at Lincoln City, now Nlundulu is on loan from Southampton for the rest of the season. Scored in his second game, but suffered a hamstring injury at the beginning of February so will not feature on Tuesday.
“I notice he hasn't mentioned Charlie Brown once yet in his interviews. Seems to be the forgotten signing already!”, “Charlie Brown is gathering splinters while Alfie missed sitters”, “As for Charlie Brown, I'll judge him by how he does in a Cheltenham shirt.”
Ex-Ipswich academy product Brown joined MK Dons from Chelsea last season, but left after a year with the club to join Cheltenham Town. Has yet to feature for the Robins and is currently dealing with a groin injury.
“Good work by Alfie on the first - really quick feet and a solid strike, I think it caught the keeper slightly off-guard”, “With Etete and Alfie up front we need to keep it on the deck”, “Thought Alfie May’s work-rate was excellent.”
Star striker May was a key fixture for Cheltenham last season in their promotion run, scoring 12 goals in all competitions. This year, he has taken his game to another level with 18 goals from 38 games so far this season.
“Alfie fast becoming a bit of a hero”, “We kept going long ball to May on his own and couldn't retain possession”, “Delighted that Alfie is staying. I like a grafter who runs and runs for 90 minutes or so. He reminds me of Billy Waters, another favourite. Duff speaks highly of Alfie and continues to improve his performances. I am optimistic that his goal scoring tally will not disappoint.”
Picked up four goals on Saturday, and will be looking to be the first recognised striker to net against Ipswich Town since Kieran McKenna’s arrival, with the Town back three imperious against every frontman they have faced so far.
Cheltenham Town Fans on ITFC
“Ipswich have an illustrious past but I don't believe are widely considered a big club even in the Championship or even compared to Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday in this league. Bolton would probably also be similar or bigger than Ipswich”, “Just double-checked and Darren Drysdale was the ref who squared up to Ipswich's Alan Judge last year after booking him for simulation and Judge got stroppy about it”, “After the success of Duff and [Cambridge United boss Mark] Bonner teams are slowly waking up to the facts – Forest Green Rovers and Ipswich now both have managers recruited from top flight youth set-ups, like Duff was”, “Playing Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Ipswich and Sunderland is a whole different kettle to playing Portsmouth again having played them in a lower league.”
Last Time Out – Cheltenham Town 2-1 Ipswich Town
“Ipswich were unable to deal with crosses all game, which made it frustrating that we squandered so many, particularly in the first half”, “On balance, we deserved to win - we were almost dominant in the second half”, “Cracking result. Hopefully that will end the little old Cheltenham in League One nonsense.”
“Quality night and win which never really looked like coming especially in the first half. Having Ben Tozer [who soon after moved to Wrexham] in the back three makes us so much better at both ends of the pitch”, “Also the lad Ipswich just signed, Kyle Edwards, looks far too good for this level he glided past our players and looked a threat every time he had the ball, some signing that one on a free transfer”, “Completely overwhelmed in the first half, I really don’t know what happened to turn it around but you can’t beat a game under lights when we’re on form and attacking down the sunken corner by the singing section.”
Back in August, Ipswich Town headed to Cheltenham Town looking for their first win of the season after two defeats and a draw in three competitive games. Matt Penney’s strike opened the scoring for the Tractor Boys, before Paul Cook’s side crumbled to a 2-1 defeat.
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