Is a Sense of Pragmatism Creeping in at Cheltenham?
I fell a little for Cheltenham last season. Whether it was their spunky burgundy kit; the thought that I’d personally discovered their terrific central midfielder Marlon Pack; the wonderful Kemble Brewery Inn around the corner from Whaddon Road; or the impression that manager Mark Yates had transformed the Robins into a side punching well above their weight, I’m not sure. But I was smitten.
I saw them twice, in October and on the final day of the season in a dead rubber after they’d already qualified for the play-offs. Therefore, two markedly different teams lined up, the latter a second string in which the likes of Steve Elliott, Alan Bennett and the now departed Luke Summerfield were all rested.
Yet on both occasions I was impressed, mightily, as the Robins ran out 2-1 winners twice in a row. Here was a youthful, attacking squad, with a seasonal average home attendance of just 3,424, knocking it about and looking dangerous, with or without their key cogs.
Ahead of a follow-up visit to the spa town last week, however, I was left wondering whether my view had changed. Sitting comfortably as they were in the top 7 of League 2, perhaps it was because they were now a known quantity; perhaps it was down to that syndrome which results in supporters holding disdain for the smaller clubs once they begin to threaten the natural order (see Phil Brown’s Hull City).
Either way, approaching Gloucestershire’s premier footballing hub, I was far less sentimental than I perhaps might have been. It was time to see these charlies taken down a peg or two.
The team looked fairly familiar, with the majority of their top, top players – Pack, Elliott, Bennett and Jermaine McGlashan – all still in situ. Yet, with lower league journeyman Chris Zebroski spearheading a new(ish)-look attack, supported by loan signing Shaun Harrad on the left and the unfortunate Darren Carter in a deep-lying holding midfield role, there was enough change to force minor intrigue as to whether the Robins would retain their free-flowing style of last season.
90 minutes later and I was left questioning myself; was this side ever one which had flown freely? This was, after all, a side that had included Ben Burgess in the latter part of last season and so constant was the direct play to lone man Zebroski; so graceless the humping and thumping from centre backs Elliott and Bennett that I wondered whether manager Yates had somehow misled me into thinking that this was a team that was trying to play football in ‘the right way’.
That’s not to say that there weren’t positives. Zebroski was effective and unlucky not to score on the night; McGlashan was a menacing threat, his pace and acute sense of balance offering the Robins an outlet throughout in much the same way that Aaron Lennon does for Spurs at a higher level. In an attacking midfield position, Pack showed as much willingness and drive as he had on my first sighting a year earlier.
And the bench suggested real depth; Keith Lowe, Sam Deering, Daryl Duffy, Jeff Goulding and Kaid Mohamed all more than capable performers in League 2. Indeed, it was the double substitution of Mohamed and Duffy that perhaps made the difference, the former heading home the winner in a closely fought 2-1 victory.
But, in the same way as I’d arrived, I trudged back to my hotel with a sense of disappointment. Yes, my team had been beaten, again, but this time round I didn’t at least have the consolation that we’d lost to a better, more deserving side.
That’s half to do with the strides made by my team – a much trickier opposition that that of a year previous – but I can’t help but think that this season’s Cheltenham are a more cynical team or – if you like – weather-beaten by their loss to Crewe, a truly free flowing side, in May’s play-off final.
But then, who can blame them? Results are paramount and, with a tight budget (the Robins and Alex could barely muster 24,000 for their Wembley date), it’s no surprise that the football is veering towards the more direct end of the spectrum at Whaddon Road. Best enjoy it while it lasts and all that. Or is that me falling victim to that aforementioned syndrome?