A plum FA Cup tie away at Tottenham Hotspur, an unbeaten run away from home and whispers of a promotion push – when did all start going so right for Cheltenham Town? From the dark months of the Martin Allen era which saw the manager leave under a cloud after unproven accusations of racism levelled at him by a nightclub bouncer and a precarious escape from the drop zone the Robins (or the Rubies are they are known this season due to their special 125th anniversary kit) have had a remarkable change in fortunes both on and off the pitch. Where a couple of seasons ago the Robins were in the red, struggling financially, worrying about the ground and the future and recording losses of £826,898 (in 2009) they are now in a position where chairman Paul Baker was able to report that the club should record a small profit in the next year – a week before they were awarded the FA Cup pay-day against Spurs. With the club’s all time record of eight wins away from home on the trot recently matched and nestled comfortably in third place in League 2 it all seems to be going right for Cheltenham Town.
So how has a club which was precariously close to administration developed a golden touch in such short space of time? It’s not all down to luck – prudent signings, canny deals and a new approach have helped the Gloucestershire-based side improve their fortunes dramatically. Let’s hark back to the Allen era, a time most Cheltenham fans have now blocked from their memories, he arrived with a fanfare and the pre-written mythology of his Dad Dennis’ spell in charge back in the 70s. Hopes were high. Then things all started to go wrong. The entire team was put up for sale, staff weren’t getting paid, Allen (for once) put his money where his mouth was and did a sponsored bike ride to boost the club coffers, rumours of imminent administration were rife – Cheltenham dropped like a stone to the bottom of the table and dropped down into League Two. Allen started making the headlines for the wrong reasons – getting banned from a bar in the town centre for dropping his trousers in front of drinkers on a night out to ‘celebrate’ the end of the season.
Then in October 2009 Allen was suspended after he was accused of racially abusing a bouncer at a nightclub. he remained on gardening leave until December of that year when it was announced he had left the club, despite no charges being brought against him. The day Allen was suspended, Cheltenham lost 4-0 at home in the county cup to historic rivals Gloucester City and many felt the club was at its lowest ebb. Allen signed an expensive succession of loan players, using 52 players over the course of the club’s last season in League One, and sucked the budget dry without reaping any reward. Fans ruefully remember Allen’s bizarre habit of changing the starting line-up on a whim and failing to maintain any shred of continuity as the team floundered, conceding more than 100 goals in the 2008/9 season.
Mark Yates, along with his assistant Neil Howarth, left Kidderminster Harriers to enter the chaos Allen left in his wake at Whaddon Road, inheriting a highly paid but underperforming squad. Cheltenham escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth that season, finishing 22nd and Yates began the task of reshaping the team. In his first full season, coinciding with a revamp of the changing rooms at the ground, Yates had his own spring clean binning off eight players and bringing in new faces. But at the same time chairman Baker was forced to slash the budget in a bid to balance the books, so last season Cheltenham also floundered, finishing 17th after a bright start.
They were fifth in the league at the turn of the year, but slumped badly – so this year in pre-season they were every pundit’s candidate for the drop. But the off-the-field stability has come into play and the Robins have been able to up their spending a little – Yates has spent wisely, bringing in young players who are hungry for games, as opposed to some of the more established names who have previously worn the red and white stripes who seemed more interested in their next pay cheque than the results. Alan Bennett, Russ Penn, Luke Summerfield and Marlon Pack have established themselves as the heart of the squad and Yates has gambled on the likes of Sido Jombati (signed from Bath) and Kaid Mohamed, Jombati has thrived and has been rewarded with an enhanced contract, Mohamed is yet to shine as bright but both players have coped with the step up. A key factor has been tightening up at the back, rising starlet Jack Butland has been a great loan signing in goal.
Without any drama Cheltenham have quietly got on with the job in hand, winning games, picking up points and, perhaps mindful of the horrendous goal difference from a few years back, they’ve conceded very few goals. A significant factor in the improved financial fortunes has got to be the ground-share arrangement which sees Gloucester City call the Abbey Business Stadium ‘home’ for the princely sum of around £45k a year. It’s not a massive amount by any stretch but it is guaranteed income and when you add in the fact that the Gloucester games see a high bar take and the additional revenue from hospitality and the deal has become too good to refuse. There was much moaning from Cheltenham fans over the state of the pitch last year but that owed more to the big freeze than the style of play from either team, so far this season it has remained a lush green carpet – the envy of League Two and the Conference North. But another element is undoubtedly the sensible approach to signing players – making them prove themselves before they are handed a big contract. Jombati’s new two-year deal has come after the young defender proved himself worthy of it, Baker telling the fans forum: “It is important now that because the club is in a stronger position, we need to hold onto our better players.”
It will be interesting to see how the inevitable FA Cup wedge will be spent. For the past 18 months or so, there has been talk of Cheltenham leaving the Abbey Business Stadium and moving to new ground up the road at the racecourse. It’s all been costed and considered for a 8,000 – 10,000 capacity stadium but Baker seemed to be moving away from the idea at a recent fans forum. To some it seems daft for the club, which can’t fill its current ground to move to a new, bigger ground, at a glance the gains would seem to be more for the Racecourse and the Jockey Club than the football club. As their tenants will tell them the planning process is hardly an easy path to stroll along either. Plan B would see the old main stand revamped. Baker had promised Yates a bit more in the kitty for January last month which suggests that a budget boost has already been accounted for so it seems likely that ground developments, either at Whaddon or further afield will be on the cards. When the pundits start on about the magic of the cup come January 7th, Baker may well consider his club’s current fortunes owe more to hard work than good luck.