The renaissance of Cheltenham Town
Many teams in League Two claim to be overlooked, ignored by the media who focus on the bigger clubs in the division (read: the ones they’ve heard of) such as Bradford and Oxford.
However, in the world of the anonymous, some are more anonymous than others. Into this category Tim Nicholls would insert Cheltenham Town.
A vivid demonstration of this took place on a recent round of A Question Of Sport, where panelists were asked to name every football league club beginning with the letter ‘C’. Only one was not mentioned.
Against this background of anonymity, it is strange to talk about things happening quietly, as that is usually the case in this small corner of the global game. But if you look for it, a footballing revolution is taking place in the Cotswolds.
It seems hard to believe, but Cheltenham Town have been a League Club for 11 years.
Promoted as Conference Champions in 1999, Steve Cotterill oversaw the first three seasons, climaxing in a play-off final win over Rushden & Diamonds at the Millennium Stadium. Cotterill’s promotion-winning team was an ageing side though, and despite the best efforts of first Graham Allner, then Bobby Gould, the club was relegated after just one season at the higher level. Gould was to leave shortly into the following season, and John Ward took over.
A couple of years of rebuilding and Ward had built a young, hungry team. Another play-off win in Cardiff, this time over Grimsby, followed in 2006 and the Robins were once again playing in the third tier. However, talented young players playing for small clubs above their level tend to attract poachers. Grant McCann, Brian Wilson, Kayode Odejayi and Steven Gillespie were all sold for six-figure fees, and even Ward himself was tempted away by a bigger job at Carlisle.
The club managed two seasons of survival this time around, the first season even being the only team to do the double over Leeds United, but by the start of the 2007-08 season the effort of punching above their weight for so long had started to tell. Keith Downing was replaced with Martin Allen, following in his father’s footsteps as manager of Cheltenham, and the club spent big (by their standards) trying to cling on to the League One status, and the extra payments coming in the following season.
Many Cheltenham fans really don’t like to even think about the Allen era, though the word “disaster” sums it up fairly neatly. By Christmas 2009 he had departed, leaving the club a few places above relegation back to the Conference, and with what some Robins fans considered to be the worst collection of players (comparative to standard) seen at the club in 20 years.
At that point, former Robins captain Mark Yates was brought in from Kidderminster, and the club was stabilised for the remainder of the season, although relegation was still only avoided on the last day of the season.
Last summer was a big one for Yates. He decided to let many of the established first-teamers leave, and therefore was forced to build “his team” in one summer. It’s fair to say many fans were nervous about the upcoming campaign back then, with many of Yates’ signings being criticised.
Signings such as Keith Lowe, a player who when previously on loan at the club was a centre back playing poorly at full back, and had been in and out of the Hereford team in the meantime. Signings such as Wes Thomas, a Dagenham & Redbridge reserve, and Jeff Goulding, a striker who had scored just 4 goals in the previous two seasons at Bournemouth.
Together with players plucked from the non-league game it seemed a second successive season of struggle was on the cards, FourFourTwo predicted Cheltenham to finish in 22nd position, and while supporters hoped for better, the arguments against this prediction were hardly vociferous.
However, Lowe has been a revelation at full back this time around, and with constant threat in attack, not just from Thomas and Goulding in attack, but JJ Melligan, Junior Smikle, and Josh Low from midfield, things are definitely looking up at Whaddon Road.
Trips to Accrington and Aldershot (the settings for 4-goal thrashings last season) have yielded victories this time around, and the football on display has brought compliments from opposition managers, Kevin Dillon excepted, and supporters alike.
With the defensive weaknesses from the start of the season seemingly ironed out of late, Cheltenham now look capable of beating any team in the division, on any given day.
With 17 matches played, Yates’s side sit well-placed in 8th position, and had the 1-0 lead against Southend been converted into a win (the match was abandoned after 66mins due to floodlight failure), would be comfortably in the play-off zone. If key players avoid injury, and the club manage to ward off approaches from the bigger fish in the January window, Cheltenham could be looking at a 3rd appearance in the play-off final in 9 years.
And if – as rumours suggest – it is to be played in Cardiff, would anyone back against chants of “Cheltenhamshire” once again ringing out in the Land of Song?