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Fish in Cheltenham
By: Andrew Doherty
I must confess that I know very little about Cheltenham, either as a place or in terms of football. Horse racing comes to mind in the same way that Grimsby conjures up a mental aroma of fish.
Cheltenham are doing well and would present a serious threat, I thought, as I set off on my own to the wild west of Whaddon Road. I'd been told their strikers are good and they've just signed a decent player in Gary Bradshaw, who used to score for fun when he played for North Ferriby United (OK, they're not AC Milan exactly). More importantly I wasn't sure what to expect from Mightier Mariners after our excellent run, terminated by a disappointing defeat by Wycombe last week to knock us off the top of the table. Still, my man in Grimsby and ex fellow resident of Blandsville-by-Basingstoke Andy Humberstone tells me that signs are good. And he means the football, not the chance of finding a mochiata accompaniment to a demi-baguette drizzled with feta cheese and soured chives in Freeman Street. There's more chance of getting heatstroke in Cleethorpes.
Unlike home night matches, which have provided me with some priceless and pulsating moments over the years, I've never had much luck with away matches under the floodlights over the years. Dismal losses to Swindon (0-2, 2003/4), Oxford (2-3, 1996/7), Wolves (1-2, 1991/2) and even Aldershot (2-4, 1977/8) are all testimony to abject failures that I have witnessed, offset slightly by a magnificent away goal League Cup victory against Aston Villa (1-1, 1991/2). So I expect we'll lose 0-1, I thought.
After an interminable journey through the des res of Cheltenham, I finally arrived at Whaddon Road. The journey took me past a mysterious sounding place called Cold Vlad, which sounded as if it should be in Siberia, not Gloucestershire. Not a fish shop in sight so far. I walked up Whaddon Road and lo ... a 'Fish Bar' loomed. Why do inland places have 'Fish Bars'? There's nothing vaguely exotic about the name. Surprisingly, the product was a marginal improvement on the usual batter and chips that you normally associate with 'Fish Bars', and at Â£3-10 it wasn't too bad for bandit country. As I walked back to the ground, I saw a coach belonging to Hunts of Alford ('The Spirit of Lincolnshire') advertising 'Door to Door Holidays'. Today's Door to Door Holiday took people from Lincolnshire to Cheltenham. Why go to Disneyland when Town are at Cheltenham?
Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandparents turned out in their red and white Cheltenham Town FC apparel. Suffering must be a family occasion in Cheltenham. 'I'm awfully sorry' apologised a gentleman marshalling his Cheltentots outside the ground as he stepped inadvertently into my path. He was wearing a Cheltenham Ladies top. Perhaps they do lead interesting lives here after all. This isn't Sheffield, that's for sure. I went into the ground early to soak up the gentility and sample the pristine toilets. This filled me with foreboding as from my experience, the more genteel a place, the harder edged are the home team. Definitely 0-1, I thought.
There were only three Town supporters there before me. I said hello, as people do in Lincolnshire. Surely there would be more. I noted that the lowest away attendance at Cheltenham this year was 112 (Boston). We waited in anticipation for our Door to Door Holiday experience to unfold. The pitch looked like a bowling green. Silky skills to match, chaps? It's a nice little ground, and will be even better when the digger behind the goal is replaced with a stand.
The teams were announced. No Bradshaw on the Cheltenham side. 30 or 40 Town fans were there by now, outnumbering the Cheltenham ones. Town looked extremely relaxed as they warmed up. Grits (sub tonight) even posed for a photo, endearing himself to everyone in the process. Credit to Cheltenham Town and their stewards for not getting snotty about supporters getting too close to their heroes. With five minutes to go, there were some 200 of us, and even the Cheltenham supporters had turned out, although bizarrely many of them were squashed into one corner of the ground like sheep in a pen.
First Half. 7.45 - time for the gentilities to end, as our men in blue came out and prepared themselves for kick-off. The game started. Town started by demonstrating their passing ability without achieving anything. Newey, whose high punts make me wonder if he's looking for a career as a kicker in American Football, floated a pinpoint pass across field to the right, but this led to nothing. A foul on Parky resulted in...nothing, but it's early days. The ball went back to Mildy, a poor clearance, Town under pressure but Cheltenham were kept out. A high tackle by Whittle in Town's half served to proved the skill of our man Macca, as for the zillionth time in his career, he anticipated well and cut out the opposition threat. A quick corner on 7 minutes showed the invention of this Cheltenham team and nearly caught our heroes napping, but Mildy palmed the ball away and the follow-up was blocked. Ex Mariner Craig Armstrong attempted a shot from long range and succeeded in giving away a throw-in. In spite of this it was clear that Cheltenham were lively and not to be taken lightly. On 11 minutes a cross came in from Newey, the Cheltenham defender fumbled - handball! The referee did not give a penalty. In any case Gary Jones wasted no time and showed lightening reflexes, shooting at goal before belting the return just over the bar. Encouraging signs. On 12 Kala-la-la was unmelodiously robbed in midfield but Odejayi put in a weak shot for Cheltenham. Soon after, Reddy almost put Parky through. My impression so far was that it was a bit kick and rush with a tendency to prefer the long ball, but there was plenty of movement and the passing was good.
As I was reflecting on the performance, in front of me our loanee Simon Francis slotted an exquisite ball on 15 minutes for Bolland to run onto and slot it under the keeper's body ... 1- 0! As is often the case after a goal, the opposition came back, and the dangerous Odejayi was put through for Cheltenham. One on one, but Mildy used his position and body to push him wide, before the ball was hustled away by a determined defence. Another close shave on 18 minutes, but the offside flag went up. Back down the other end again and a foul on Gary Jones earned us a free kick 20 yards out. Town were playing with some confidence and authority. A Newey curler earned us a corner. On 20, Cheltenham's pantomime hate-figure Armstrong flattening the impressive Francis, but the referee decided on a policy of no action. 'Stick to horse racing', Mr. Armstrong was advised a Grimbarian crowd participant, somewhat enigmatically.
On 25 minutes, another Cheltenham attack proved to be a vehicle for Rob Jones to demonstrate his skill and render the attack harmless. Francis tried another through ball on 28, this time to Reddy, who could only get in a long-range, weak effort. On 29, it was Macca's turn to be flattened. Worrying moments, but our very own iron-man ran it off. On 30 we saw more skill from the increasingly impressive Francis who beat two defenders before putting in a dangerous cross - 'sign him up' exhorted the Grimsby hordes. The cross was scrambled clear. The pattern of the game repeated itself as the ball came back down the Town end and Cheltenham earned a corner. No power in the header - our rock-solid defence made sure of it. The tackling on both sides was determined but fair. On 33, Cheltenham won a free kick but made a hash of a pre-planned set piece. Cheltenham had another chance on 37, when McCann sold a dummy before curling the ball just over. We were holding them and doing it well, but Cheltenham look very dangerous. Determination by Parky got us upfield and Francis won a throw-in, but the ball was soon back in Town's half. A quick break up the right earned Cheltenham a corner. That man Jones cleared the ball, which came back but was safely gathered by Mildy. Town's turn to attack now, but Gary Jones could only manage a weak shot. Moments later Reddy was put through and forced the Cheltenham goalie into a fingertipped save but no-one was there to follow it up. Back up field and Cheltenham wasted a chance, before a Newey ball led to a Francis turn. Panic in Cheltenham's defence and a corner to Town, but it was too late because the half was over.
The verdict so far: Town were playing with confidence and passing well. The defensive plan to shut down the two Cheltenham strikers was effective. Cheltenham looked fast and dangerous, which was a concern, but so far, so good! This has been a riveting game so far with both sides playing attacking football.
The report continues in the Second Half.
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