Robins reliant on Thomas
Besides horse-racing, Cheltenham is probably most synonymous with Cheltenham Ladies’ College. On the evidence of yesterday’s display at the Kassam Stadium, there’s nothing genteel or ladylike about the way the town’s football team approaches a tackle, though Wes Thomas’ goal suggested a player who’s been to finishing school. Latching onto a quick free-kick that sailed over the head of his dozy marker, Thomas lofted a perfect lob over the advancing Ryan Clarke, forcing Oxford’s ‘keeper into a pirouette and frantic scramble back towards his net – which is where both he and the ball ended up in an undignified heap.
Thomas was the Robins’ chief goal threat throughout, committing defenders and going close with a self-fashioned chance late on. By that point, though, he’d already spurned a more straightforward opportunity to add to his tally for the season. When Brian Smikle was clumsily fouled by Anthony Tomkin, Thomas stepped up to take the spot-kick – only for Clarke to exact a measure of revenge, embarrassing him by saving easily.
As Cheltenham bounced back from Tuesday’s hugely disappointing home defeat by then bottom-of-the-table club Lincoln, the other player in red and white to catch the eye was Marlon Pack – perhaps not surprising, as the midfielder has been borrowed for the season from Championship side Portsmouth. While others clogging up the central area of the pitch seemed more intent on playing head tennis, putting together significantly more impressive rallies than Andy Murray mustered this morning, Pack exhibited a calm assurance beyond his tender years, almost Scholes-esque in the way he pulled strings and picked passes to left and right.
Cheltenham’s main Achilles heel was in the wide areas – despite Oxford lining up with a narrow 4-3-3 formation. The onus was on the home side’s full backs, Tonkin and Damien Batt, to provide width and both did so with aplomb. Batt raided incisively down the right, particularly in the first half, and supplied the cross from which striker Tom Craddock equalised with a sprawling header from point-blank range.
If Craddock and James Constable were otherwise just about contained by the Robins’ defence, then manager Mark Yates will have been concerned by the impact of skillful substitute Alfie Potter. Darling of the home crowd, the player whose name is a throwback to an era of Brylcreem, balls made of lead and barging ‘keepers into the net instantly discomforted Cheltenham by exploiting space in front of the back four and, with fleet-of-foot runs and intelligent probing, doing more than most to try to inspire Oxford to victory.
A draw was a fair result, though, and homeward-bound Town fans will have been hoping that their top scorer’s powers of persuasion are enough to convince his partner to relocate along the M4 – and that someone can teach him the basics of the offside rule. I know a couple of people in need of gainful employment who might be up for the job, though Thomas may have to dress up in drag first.