Home comforts are taking Robins towards safety
Jon Palmer assesses the main talking points from Cheltenham Town’s 1-0 victory over Port Vale
» Home form transformed since season’s lowest point
When Cheltenham Town went down 2-0 to Stevenage at the Jonny-rocks Stadium on October 27, they looked every bit a relegation team.
But only one defeat (excluding shootouts) in the subsequent 15 matches on their own pitch looks to have saved the season.
Michael Duff’s side have won four in a row at home and have not conceded in the last three, giving them an 11 point advantage over 23rd placed Macclesfield Town with 12 matches remaining.
They are two points better off than they were at the same stage last term and in with a chance of finishing in their highest position since 2012/13.
The playing budget should have been competitive enough to avoid a battle against the drop, but Duff has turned things around admirably after a hugely challenging start to his senior managerial career.
» Luke Varney continues to make the difference
Duff’s first signing as Cheltenham boss was free agent Varney, who had been turned down by several other clubs in the summer due to his age.
His 10th goal of the season was enough to sink a Port Vale team who are now only three points above the relegation zone themselves.
The 36-year-old had already forced ex-robins goalkeeper Scott Brown into an outstanding save with a 10th minute header after Ryan Broom’s cross from the right.
Varney was also closest to making it 2-0 when he met a Chris Hussey freekick in the 57th minute, but volleyed it over the bar, when he knows he should have used his head.
His acrobatic effort sparked the comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Macclesfield Town and he also netted the only goal against Yeovil Town.
He has been a superb signing and aside from his goals, it is his attitude and all-round enthusiasm for the game which makes him an even more valuable presence in the changing room.
» Skipper vital to improved defensive record
As 1-0 wins go, this was just about as comfortable as it could have been.
Vale had a goal disallowed in the 22nd minute and Cristian Montano headed just wide in first half stoppage time.
But in the second half Scott Flinders was well protected, although he did have to punch one dangerous cross to safety and claim a couple of others under pressure from Tom Pope.
Ex-vale defender Charlie Raglan and Will Boyle both performed well either side of Ben Tozer, a revelation in the middle of the back three since coming in against Arsenal Under-21s in the match immediately after the Stevenage defeat.
He started the season in the centre of midfield and was used to much derision as an emergency striker by Gary Johnson in the second half against Carlisle United on August 18.
But his current role seems to suit him perfectly, making use of his aerial ability, composure on the ball and organisational skills.
There have been times this season when Cheltenham have looked chaotic defensively, but their rediscovered defensive solidity is certain to be put the test at Mansfield Town next week, but Tyler Walker, who scored both of the Stags’ goals in their 2-2 draw at Whaddon Road in November will miss out through suspension after a late red card in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Forest Green Rovers.
» Bench as strong as it has been all season
With Varney, Tyrone Barnett and Jordan Tillson back from minor injuries, Duff was able to name a strong bench, with Manny Duku, George Lloyd and Sean Long missing out on a place in the 18.
Barnett went on for Varney against his previous club in the 84th minute, with Chris Clements and Tillson both sent on in midfield to help shore things up during the final stages.
Rakish Bingham, Cameron Pring and Jordon Forster were the unused subs, and even without long-term absentees Nigel Atangana and Alex Addai, Duff is well covered in all areas for the final quarter of the campaign.
» The earlier safety is confirmed, the sooner planning can begin for 2019/20 Duff told his players on February 1 that no discussions would take place over new contracts until they had made absolutely sure they will be playing League Two football next season.
Survival was secured four weeks before the end of the season last year, fand Cheltenham only guaranteed safety on the penultimate Saturday in 2016/17, defeating Hartlepool United 1-0 on a nervy afternoon at Whaddon Road, with a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of champions Portsmouth a week later.
The earlier they can confirm their Football League status, the better for Duff, who has a summer of strengthening ahead as he plots a way to start looking up rather than nervously over their shoulders in his first full campaign in charge.
Cheltenham Town manager Michael Duff with skipper Ben Tozer