It’s time to dust off your banana suits, cowboy hats and ponchos as it’s fancy dress time again with another football league season drawing to a close. The last few weeks have been beyond nerve racking but with our league status now secured, for the first time this season Robins fans can relax and enjoy a game with no pressure on our players shoulders.
The last match of a league campaign can be absolutely pivotal for some but for the third consecutive year, the result on match-day 46 will have nothing riding on it for Cheltenham Town.
We’ve had a relegation conga at AFC Wimbledon, a promotion party at Macclesfield and now a survival celebration at Portsmouth. But that is in no way indicative of what has been riding on the other 45 matches during the course of the last three seasons.
The 2016/17 campaign has been eventful to say the least. Hopes were high at the start of the season and many even tipped Cheltenham for back to back promotions, but despite an encouraging start we began to struggle and soon ended up in a relegation battle.
Nonetheless, the players responded. After a busy January transfer window a combination of the old and the new helped the club get over the line to safety, even when circumstances were not in our favour.
Gary Johnson’s absence due to heart surgery since early March did not distract the players from their duty and now along with the team’s fortune, the gaffer is recovering well.
But the supporters have also played an important part. Attendances have steadily improved and that includes an increasing number of supporters travelling to away games, the 12th man initiative last weekend was a fantastic idea and fully paid off in getting the fans through the gates to see us to safety.
Another great success was the crowd funding campaign, and as a result we will now have a brand spanking new scoreboard for next season, hopefully that won’t be the only thing to look forward to in 2017/18 as the club looks to push for a higher league finish on a more adequate playing surface.
There have been complaints about our pitch all season, but in the end it almost worked to our advantage in grinding out vital home wins over Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Morecambe and Hartlepool.
With tenants Gloucester City moving to Evesham next year, the grass will certainly be greener for Cheltenham Town.
So from a supporters perspective, who and what have been the stand out achievements and players in this dramatic campaign? Here are a few of my thoughts.
Game of the season- Crewe 1-4 Cheltenham
In terms of importance, many of the last few matches would take this accolade but in terms of quality, few would have expected our best performance to come in an FA Cup first round replay away from home.
In the middle of a busy schedule of League Two fixtures, Cheltenham Town faced a trip up the M6 on a chilly Tuesday evening after holding on to draw 1-1 with Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup first round.
What followed was nothing short of spectacular, after an uninspiring opening few months of the season, the Robins blew Crewe away as goals from Harry Pell, Jack Barthram, Billy Waters and a belter from Dan Holman helped us romp through to the second round.
In truth Gary Johnson’s side could have scored 10, it was a fantastic night for the travelling 150 or so away supporters and a rare treat in a season of very few away triumphs.
Player of the season- Billy Waters
Choosing Billy is a no brainer really. The 22 year-old excelled in stepping up to the Football League, incredible considering he was a substitute for the majority of the National League title winning campaign.
Waters was a worthy winner of the majority of individual awards on the final home game of the season, including players’ player and fans’ player of the season. He netted 16 goals as club top scorer but it’s not just his exploits in front of goal that have earned him praise.
The former Crewe youth product seems to have a tireless work rate and his stamina and commitment was second to none in helping keep Cheltenham in the EFL. I think I can speak for every Robins fan when I say he deserves to be awarded a new contract extension!
Moment of the season- Cheltenham Town 2-1 Grimsby Town
For some reason, there seems to be a rivalry between Cheltenham Town and Grimsby Town. The 2006 play-off final victory in Cardiff for Cheltenham was at the Mariners expense and ever since there has been a grudge between the two sides.
It all flared up last season when Grimsby were one of the teams challenging Cheltenham for the National League title, the club from Cleethorpes eventually joined the Robins in promotion to the Football League after two hotly contested televised matches.
Cheltenham did the league double over Grimsby last year and the outcome was repeated this season. After consecutive 1-0 victories at Blundell Park, Gary Johnson’s team needed another Easter Monday victory over the Mariners in their penultimate home game of this season.
The Robins delivered and in particular Harry Pell stood out against his former club, scoring a long range screamer and then celebrating in front of the travelling Grimsby fans who had been giving him some stick on social media. It was a wonderful sight for Cheltenham fans who not only enjoyed an important three points but also had the bragging rights.
It was sweet for Pell too, some would call that Karma.
Signing of the season- Scott Brown
This was really hard to call as many of the January signings made a big difference to our plight. But in terms of match winning displays, it’s hard to argue against the fact that cult hero Scott Brown was pivotal in keeping us up.
After keeping a clean sheet against us for Wycombe in December, Brown re-joined Cheltenham Town on loan in January for the first time since leaving in the summer of 2014.
The 32 year-old stopper made crucial penalty saves against Leyton Orient and Morecambe, as well as keeping Cheltenham in matches on numerous occasions with some brilliant stops.
Brown is a fan favourite and will no doubt be one of the first players Gary Johnson will be looking to re-sign next season, his experience, ability and knowledge of the club would no doubt increase our chances of a successful campaign in 2017/18.
With a busy summer of player recruitment ahead, it’s time to say goodbye to some of our champions. Stalwarts Dan Parslow, Asa Hall and Amari Morgan-Smith departed for York City in January and it’s unlikely that they will return. More are set to inevitably follow, and regardless of some performances this term, all deserve and will receive a warm ovation from the large contingent of travelling CTFC fans this weekend.
I fully expect Gary Johnson and his coaching staff to box clever in the transfer market, and hopefully we can surprise a few with some knock out blows next season.
On top of those coming in, the likes of Billy Waters, Kyle Storer, Danny Wright and Aaron Downes are absolute musts for offering new contracts. With Will Boyle, Harry Pell, Carl Winchester and Dan Holman already signed on for another year, the spine of our team is already starting to take shape.
The benefits of survival couldn’t be put more into perspective as Saturday’s trip to Portsmouth will highlight. As a result of finishing above that dreaded dotted line, the players and supporters can enjoy trips to stadiums like Fratton Park in Portsmouth rather than the likes of Nethermoor Park in Guiseley.
We all love non-league football and it’s where the roots of our club lie but Cheltenham Town FC have established themselves as a Football League club since the 21st century, and after a couple of rollercoaster seasons, it’s great to be back to where we belong!