Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 17th; W 13 / D 12 / L 21 / F 67 / A 73 / Pts 51
A strange campaign for Gary Johnson’s men. The goals of Mo Eisa, a predatory striker plucked from relative obscurity at Greenwich Borough, proved to be one of the stories of 2017/2018. The creativity of Harry Pell and several others ensured he always had a reliable supply of chances to make the most of, but the problem was keeping them out at the other end. The Robins conceded three or more times in a match on 10 separate occasions, hampering their efforts to attain a comfortable mid-table position. Several fallow, winless periods marked the season, despite their collective potency. Additionally, only once did they manage to put together a sequence of wins, and the last four games all ended in defeat, giving a more lop-sided complexion to proceedings than ought to have been the case.
Top Goalscorer: Mo Eisa (23 goals in 45 starts/3,758 minutes)
Top Creator: Harry Pell (5 assists in 32 starts/2,914 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Gary Johnson; never a particularly successful player, the father of Bristol City head coach Lee built up a business that mixed the sport and holidays together. He studied for his badges for six years, before assuming a post at Newmarket Town in 1986. He came to greater prominence as assistant to John Beck at Cambridge United in the early 90s, being a key man in their rise from the fourth to the second tier. He took over permanently in 1993, moving to Kettering Town two years later. Most intriguingly, he was the Latvia boss from 1999 to 2001, overseeing their respectable Euro 2000 qualification campaign, finishing with a positive goal difference and a mere four points from a play-off spot.
Arguably, Johnson’s most successful period as a manager was his first stint with Yeovil Town, taking them from the doldrums of the then-Conference to the ‘old’ Division Two in the space of three seasons, which included winning the fifth tier championship by a margin of 17 points, only missing out on the play-offs by goal difference in the second term, then becoming title winners once more, amassing 90 points.
Bristol City came calling in 2005, and he quickly steadied the ship, taking them from 22nd to 9th in the first campaign, then securing runners-up spot and automatic promotion on the final day of 2006/2007. Remarkably, he almost took them to the Premier League, only missing out in the play-off final to Hull City. His fortunes waned in short interludes at both Peterborough United and Northampton Town, and these were measured in months.
He returned to Huish Park in 2012, masterminding their promotion to the Championship, which remains the highest league The Glovers have ever been in. In an ultra-competitive division, he couldn’t keep his charges up, winning just eight matches. The rot didn’t end there, and he was relieved of his duties in February 2015, not long before they suffered a double relegation, both occasions finishing bottom of the pile.
Although Cheltenham didn’t escape the same fate upon his appointment, he was kept on, and won an instant return to the EFL, winning the National League and racking up over 100 points. Easily the most experienced manager in League Two, he’ll be hoping to use that to his advantage, particularly in tight encounters.
Ins: Alex Addai (Mertsham), Ryan Broom (Bristol Rovers), Chris Hussey (Sheffield United), Tom Smith (Swindon Town), Conor Thomas (ATK), Sean Long (Lincoln City), Johnny Mullins (Luton Town), Ben Tozer (Newport County), Josh Debayo (Leicester City U23s), Manny Duku (Hayes & Yeading United) & Jacob Maddox (Chelsea U23s on loan).
Outs: Mo Eisa (Bristol City), Harry Pell (Colchester United), Josh Thomas (Gloucester City), Dan Holman (free agent), Danny Wright (Solihull Moors), Jamie Grimes (Macclesfield Town), Jerrell Sellars (Östersunds), Jordan Cranston (Morecambe), Sanmi Odelusi (Halifax Town), Carl Winchester (Forest Green Rovers), Aaron Downes (retired), Adam Page (free agent), Jaanai Gordon (free agent) & Brian Graham (Ross County).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Goalkeeper Scott Flinders is a little on the slow side to move off his line, and this is an area that could be identified as a weak link. That said, he is a competent shot-stopper, and is one of the more willing custodians in the fourth tier to come up for corners late in the game, when things are desperate.
Captain Johnny Mullins should bring with him from Luton Town an assuredness to the backline that was lacking in 2017/2018. Excellent in the air and a warrior on the ground, that combination will help The Robins from giving away both goals and chances quite as readily. He’ll take William Boyle under his care, coaching him through some of the hairier situations they’ll come up against. As a duo, they will make forwards work hard for openings.
The full-backs on the flanks should be more expansive this time round. Chris Hussey’s reputation precedes him when it comes to roving into the final third, and both his crossing and delivery from set pieces are normally outstanding. His main weakness is his defensive positioning, but there’s reason to believe that the conservative look of the likely midfield trio will act as a countermeasure to that shortcoming. Ryan Broom will have it out with Sean Long for the slot on the right; the former is the mirror of Hussey in his movements, the latter a more pragmatic, safety-first defender.
Nigel Atangana is another in the XI who’ll take few prisoners, being the bulwark between the lines and an intimidating physical presence. He, along with his teammates in the centre of the park, will look to recycle the ball out wide when they win it back. Ben Tozer gets plenty of purchase on his long throws, and his propensity to sit deep will make it harder for opponents to break Cheltenham down through the middle, forcing them into the wider spaces. Conor Thomas might be the only one of the three who’ll burst forward with any regularity, supporting Manny Duku in periods when The Robins can retain the ball in the channels to provide another body to aim for in the penalty area.
Liam McAlinden won’t hug the touchline, drifting inside but still favouring his left peg, to support the lone striker; this also allows for the characteristics of Hussey to come to the fore, most evidenced in his overlapping runs. McAlinden is a goal threat, and will be helped by the positivity of Jacob Maddox on the opposite side, who’ll need to prove he can use his passing and movement on and off the ball in a senior environment and retain his effectiveness. The aforementioned Duku is,one of only two strikers on the books, and won’t have the luxury of time to set down a marker, but like Eisa and Gold Omotayo at Bury, is another non-league prospect in his early-to-mid-20s, who could well make a mockery of the giant step up from Hayes & Yeading, basing his play on stealing half a yard of space with his back to goal, and more crucially, making quick decisions when he does have the ball at his feet.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry; both the board and Johnson will have foreseen and prepared for the sale of Eisa long before it came. Whilst there’s just a week remaining in the permanent transfer window, Robins fans can still expect at least one more striker to come in, particularly as the sale of Brian Graham was sanctioned earlier today. They should concede fewer goals in 2018/2019, but the lack of depth in attacking areas could be a big issue, even if the manager is able to reinvest most of the transfer fee received for Eisa in further recruits. I don’t see them troubling the top half of the table, but they should remain an exciting side to watch when on their game.