A tough situation has led to Leagues One and Two cancelled with promotion and relegation unfortunately decided with under ten games to go plus games in-hand. Relief to some but despair for others. Unfair? Or the fairest way to conclude the season? Fans from the automatics, the upcoming play-off hopefuls plus relegated Stevenage and Tranmere all have their own opinions.
Focusing on League Two, Swindon are celebrating the title, Crewe have defied expectations with a talented young squad and in just his first season Ryan Lowe has returned Plymouth to League One at the first attempt. For those who’ve missed out on automatic promotion or for Port Vale who could’ve made the play-offs, it is not knowing how the table could have finished that will be frustrating.
As a Cheltenham Town follower since the age of ten, I’ll never know if the 2019-20 season could have ended in automatic promotion or could have ended in a plummeting run of successive defeats with a play-off finish or even worse. Every supporter of every team is at a guess. If Cheltenham had finished in the top three would I be celebrating? Yes of course but at the expense of other’s frustration it wouldn’t feel right. What I can be certain of however is that whatever happens in the play-offs this week, there will be lots of supporters proud of what they’ve seen under Michael Duff.
Cast your mind back to the previous season and specifically the 15th September 2018. Since his first game in charge (a 0-0 draw at home to Crewe), Michael Duff began at a time when things looked precarious. If you remember the 2-0 defeat at home to Stevenage that season, you’ll know that things looked bleak. Away form wasn’t the best except for crucial wins against relegation-threatened teams but it was the turnaround at home that kept Cheltenham in League Two. After the Stevenage shambles there were sixteen home games to play – just one defeat against soon to be promoted Tranmere.
Home form from the 2018-19 season has led to where the club finds itself now. 2019-20 and just two defeats on home soil coupled with a vast improvement on the road has produced some excellent results. The best goal difference (+25) and fewest goals conceded in the league (27), Duff’s journey as a player turned manager alongside a team that has improved on the back of last season – they’ve been delightful to watch.
The opening day defeat to Leyton Orient and then Scunthorpe taking the lead in the first home game, it could give you the impression that it’s going to be another same old same old of a season. Think again! Brushing aside Scunthorpe 4-1, holding back local rivals Swindon to a 2-2 draw and scoring goals for fun in crucial games against pre-season favourites such as Salford, Bradford and Plymouth. I haven’t seen a fourth division Cheltenham Town similar to this in a long while! Not since the back-to-back play-off appearances in 2012 and 2013 have I seen a squad that has taken League Two by surprise.
And that leads me onto the players.
Charlie Raglan, who was signed permanently at the start of the season has been solid alongside Ben Tozer. Tozer’s experience has proved himself to be the perfect captain chipping in with crucial goals at the crucial moments and with Sean Long and Chris Hussey as arguably the best full-backs in the division, no wonder they’ve conceded the fewest goals.
Loanees Jacob Greaves, Max Sheaf and Jake Doyle-Hayes have been welcome additions when called upon plus Conor Thomas has run the midfield with Thomas as Mr Consistent at penalties. Ryan Broom has excelled from last season with some brilliant goals and assists plus a mention must go to goalkeeper Scott Flinders. He sadly broke his leg in January but he has been a superb addition to the club since 2017 making important saves in every game he’s played in. Yes he’s made a few mistakes but to be fair to Wigan loanee and Welsh U21 Owen Evans, his experience at Macclesfield previously has been the difference. He’s still made some decent saves at times when you need it most.
Reuben Reid returning from injury in recent months with important goals, the talisman Luke Varney and earlier goals from former loanee Gavin Reilly have produced a strong front-line. Injuries to Reid and Varney across the season were worrying but the individual skill of Alex Addai from the bench and let’s not forget Tahvon Campbell have been key.
The introduction of Alfie May in January has been a godsend. Six goals in twelve starts isn’t bad and my goodness doesn’t he run! Alfie May could score a hatrick and he’d keep on running and running and running! The energy, the work ethic and character he’s brought since the start of 2020 – why on earth did Doncaster not want him I’ll never know! What an excellent signing!
I’m glad that I’ve got some football to watch (English football to be specific and no disrespect to the Bundesliga!). It will be painful to watch with no crowd and for all four teams involved in the play-off lottery, it will also be gut-wrenching to possibly witness your team win promotion at an empty Wembley Stadium. It won’t feel the same if I see Cheltenham gain promotion to League One and I can’t be there to witness it. I am not alone and all fans are in the same boat, we’ve all got to manage the pain as much as we can bear.
Northampton Town are the opponents in the play-off semi-finals with the other two teams head-to-head being Colchester United and Exeter City. Without going into too much detail, this isn’t the first time Cheltenham have met Northampton in a League Two play-off semi after what was a worldie by Luke Guttridge in the second leg.
Focusing on this season, both meetings between the two have been tight. A 1-1 draw at Sixfields and a close 2-1 win for Cheltenham at Whaddon Road. The draw was both sides cancelling each other out but the win was an 85th minute winner from Luke Varney. What cannot be afforded is a bad start, which is exactly what happened in the home game. In both games, the two sides created decent chances and drew top notch saves from both goalkeepers, so it is difficult to call who’ll come out on top. All I can say is may the best team win!
One final point I’d like to make is my trajectory of following Cheltenham Town. My first-ever game was the League Two play-off final in 2006 – Steve Guinan’s winning goal against Grimsby Town at the Millennium Stadium. It feels a distant time now when I was ten and I remember the day partially through a good memory I suppose! John Ward took Cheltenham into the third division and it was the Coca-Cola Football League back then. I do hope that Michael Duff can do the same as Sky Bet League Two play-off champions.
No matter what happens, I’m proud to say I follow Cheltenham Town.
C’mon you Robins!