16 December ~ Cheltenham Town travel to Barnet tonight seeking a ninth consecutive away win. It is a sequence of results that has lifted the team into third position in League Two, approximately 21 places higher than many "experts" had predicted would be achieved come May. Local folk don't expect rapid change. It took almost 50 years for the team to venture as far as Birmingham for league matches. So after a few too many seasons battling relegation, it is more than a pleasant surprise to be celebrating the club's 125th year watching a team that is not just winning but doing so in style.
Manager Mark Yates can take much of the credit for the turnaround. Last week, while delivering his post-match interview with his usual peculiar technique of looking everywhere and yet nowhere, Yates offered the opinion that his group of players is better than Cheltenham's promotion-winning team of 2001-02. He should know, as he captained that team.
If the manager is seeking a comparison to a recent side, he would be better advised looking back to 1997-98. That season marked the club's return to the Conference, courtesy of Gresley Rovers playing at a venue that had the league's ground-graders reaching for their hard hats. The Non-League Club Directory, regarded as the fountain of all knowledge below League Two, curtly assessed Cheltenham's prospects as "survival will be a triumph".
Yet the 1997-98 season was characterised by a series of events, each new one bigger and better, that raised confidence to levels that regular Whaddon Road attendees were almost embarrassed to admit. We had a 4-0 demolition of eventual champions Halifax Town, an FA Cup third round appearance for the first time in 64 years, a 24-game unbeaten run and a season-ending first appearance at Wembley, defeating Southport in the FA Trophy final.
The 2011-12 season might just be following a similar pattern. Written off by outsiders and with their own fans hoping for a leisurely mid-table position, the team appears to be growing in confidence by the week. Fans have recently enjoyed a win over Crawley, an unexpected FA Cup run that takes Cheltenham to White Hart Lane in the third round, an extended sequence of away wins and a thoroughly convincing 3-0 win over leaders Southend last Saturday.
Individually, Yates' summer signings were sound but not especially noteworthy. His real skill lies not just in signing decent players, but in building a team. If a team is only as strong as its weakest parts, this can only be good news for Cheltenham fans as the weakest parts are looking pretty strong right now. Admittedly, some of the gaps have been plugged with loan players – including England Under-21 goalkeeper Jack Butland. With these deals soon to expire, Yates may find his days are occupied with the difficult task of signing suitable replacements if he is unable to extend the existing agreements.
January may also present some unwanted transfer speculation. Marlon Pack, a former Portsmouth player who was overlooked by Pompey when they couldn't fill their substitutes' bench, and Sido Jombati, a Portuguese recruit from Bath City, have both sparkled during the first half of the season. But with no pressing need to sell, Cheltenham fans can reasonably hope the club resists offers and lets the season reach its natural conclusion – whether that is promotion, the play-offs or slipping into mid-table to offer the experts some consolation. Mark Herron