Cheltenham Town Season Preview: another dogfight?

It is fair to say that last season did not go quite as well as planned for Cheltenham. The dominant nature of their 15/16 National League title win raised hopes of another promotion push, but it soon became clear that the season would be about shutting the trap door behind them. Should we expect improvement this year, or does another dogfight await? Supporter Dan Clifford has his say…

Last season was hugely disappointing. It wasn’t at all what we had hoped for and we failed to build on the momentum of winning the National League. Our lack of recruitment and the decision to show loyalty to our title winning squad almost proved to be costly, had it not been for the arrivals of Scott Brown, Carl Winchester and Will Boyle in January, we could have found ourselves facing an immediate return to the National League.

There were lots of videos last season of fans staying behind after a home win to celebrate with the players and management. Is there more unity now than there was before Gary Johnson’s tenure?

The unity and togetherness of both the fans and players is something that has grown since Gary Johnson’s arrival. There’s a real team spirit and you can see that this group of players genuinely care about the club. It is a post-match ritual for Gary Johnson to come over and celebrate with the fans following a win, his passion and desire is something that resonates with the supporters. Fans have stuck by the team through hard times and following Johnson’s triple-heart bypass surgery in March, it was important that we all stuck together to help get us across the line and ensure our survival.

A lot of those wins came after January, thanks to impressive recruitment, rather than after August, when you’d stuck with largely the same squad. Was last season a lesson for the club to be proactive in the transfer market?

Lessons will definitely have been learnt from last summer. Gary Johnson wanted to give the title winners a crack at the Football League and I think they deserved that after what they had achieved. There have been seven arrivals so far and there seems to be a focus of quality over quantity. The club moved quickly to secure the services of Kevin Dawson, Nigel Atangana and Jamie Grimes which was encouraging. Most recently we have re-signed goalkeeper Jonathan Flatt on loan and defender Jordon Forster from Hibs. Fans have been frustrated over the lack of transfer activity over recent weeks but we have to have faith in Gary Johnson and trust him to assemble a squad capable of competing in this division. I am sure he has a few gems up his sleeve.

Today we completed our seventh signing of the summer. Mohamed Eisa, a young forward player who scored 57 goals over two seasons with Greenwich Borough in the Ryman League. This is an intriguing signing and it will be interesting to see how he deals with such a big step up.

One signing you made quickly this summer was Kevin Dawson. Do you think his experience will help younger wide men, such as Adam Page?

I was impressed with the signing of Kevin Dawson. He has bags of experience and is a versatile player. Dawson has worked under Gary Johnson previously at Yeovil and they have enjoyed a lot of success together. On social media Yeovil fans seemed disappointed to see Dawson leave the club and I think that speaks volumes. I think with Dawson’s experience he can definitely have a positive influence on the younger members of the squad including Adam Page, who has had an extremely tough year after suffering a serious knee injury.

Forward Billy Waters was among your busiest players last season but has left for Northampton. Will he be missed?

Losing Billy Waters was a big blow. Waters scored 16 goals last season and was voted the Players’ player of the season and Fans player of the season. He was one of the few positives to take from such a poor season. His tireless running and energy adhered himself to home supporters and I think it will be hard to replace him. It’s a shame that we couldn’t keep hold of Billy for another season but I don’t think anyone can begrudge him a chance to ply his trade in League One once again. There was bound to be interest in him after he won so many individual accolades. I’d like to wish him all the best at Northampton.

Danny Wright couldn’t get near his 15/16 form in a higher league last season while Dan Holman struggled with injury. What do you make of your options up top?

I am sure it was Gary Johnson’s priority to strengthen in this area. Danny Wright’s work rate is always unquestionable but I don’t really see him as a starter. He’s a good option to bring off the bench if we are in search of a goal and his physical presence will give defenders something to think about. Dan Holman’s 2016/17 season was largely affected by injury and we never got to see the best of him. Holman is unproven at this level but I think with a good pre-season behind him, he can show the form he showed in firing the club back into the Football League. New signing Jerell Sellars sounds like a promising, tricky young player too.

Having spent nine years with the club previously, Scott Brown said he ‘never felt like he was on loan’ at Whaddon Road. Are you sad not to get him back, or are you happy with the loan signing of Jonathan Flatt?

It was extremely disappointing that we were unable to sign Scott Brown permanently. Brown played a massive part in ensuring our Football League survival and he will always be a popular figure at the club. He always had time for the fans and would always give an honest assessment. Jonathan Flatt is no stranger to Robins fans having stepped in for the injured Dillon Phillips in our National League winning campaign. Flatt proved to be an able deputy and did a solid enough job when he was called upon. Hopefully he can step up to the mark again.

With the arrival of Jamie Grimes and Jordon Forster, you’ve now got five centre-backs who are generally good in the air but not the quickest. Is three-at-the-back a possibility?

I fully expect us to play with three at the back next season with Dawson and Cranston operating as wing-backs. Boyle, Grimes and Forster are all strong, physical centre backs and good in the air. Strikers who face them will definitely know they’ve been in a game against the uncompromising trio. I feel they give us a solid platform at the back and they will also pose a threat in the opposition’s area.

Left-back Jordan Cranston faced criticism from sections of your fans last season. Will he see his new one-year deal as a chance to convert his doubters?

Jordan Cranston has definitely been a scapegoat during his time here. Cranston made a promising start to the 2016/17 season, but as the season went by he found himself being caught out of position and he was making a number of errors. Many fans would have been pleased to see Cranston be released but Gary Johnson stuck by him and offered him a new one-year deal.  It would be nice to see Cranston prove his critics wrong and show us why Gary Johnson decided to show faith in him.

New signing Nigel Atangana is a ball-winner whereas the outgoing Jack Munns was more of a diminutive technician. Does Johnson seek a more powerful midfield?

It does seem that Gary Johnson is assembling a more physical squad this time around with plenty of height in the team. With a midfield consisting of the likes of Pell, Atangana and Kyle Storer I can’t see many teams bullying us off the park. There is a real physical presence throughout the spine of the team. My only concern is that we may be compromising on creativity for a more physical approach.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Mansfield and Luton are the bookies favourites and rightly so I believe considering the signings they have made so far. I would be surprised if they both aren’t challenging for automatic promotion. Lincoln City are my dark horses. After winning the National League and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals last season, I fancy them to have another impressive season. I can see them pushing for back to back promotions with a few more additions to their squad. I’m a big fan of the Cowley brothers and what they have achieved at Sincil Bank. They have really galvanised the club and they are back where they belong.

Where will you finish? We have to be annoying and remind you that you said top 10 last summer…

Obviously things didn’t quite go to plan. Player recruitment this summer is extremely important and I hope we have learnt lessons from last summer. It is still early days yet and with our squad far from complete it is hard to make a definitive prediction. As things stand, I think we will probably finish in the bottom half of the table. I would take a comfortable mid-table finish and I think most Robins fans would too. Prediction: 16-18th

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Waters and Brown will be big losses for Cheltenham. They should have the work ethic to beat the drop but without a reliable striker at this level, they may lack the ruthlessness to do much more. 20th

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