Fan’s View 23/24 – No.41: Cheltenham at home

Article by Paul Beasley Monday, March 11th, 2024  

FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.41: CHELTENHAM AT HOME

Fans Forum

I attended the Fan’s Forum last Thursday. I came away with a feeling of positivity but know there’s such a long way to go yet. It was quite professional and with some very well-articulated questions and points of view. With reference to the new stadium one of the most apposite comments I heard was an aside: “the devil is in the detail”. And we don’t know the detail yet because it hasn’t been agreed.

Our fans have the right to ask questions of our owners but whatever they think of them it should not be forgotten that they are covering our losses. The accounts to y/e 30 June 2022 showed a loss of £4m. I suspect the figures for y/e 2023, which will be released in a couple of weeks, will be higher and probably higher still for this season.

The more of us who buy season tickets or pay match by match, the lower those losses will be but that obviously is linked to the product on offer. Some will turn up no matter what. Others won’t.

Price of Football

Before I left on Saturday I listened to a recent episode of this podcast. Kieran Maguire always rounds off at the end by thanking listeners for tuning in but this one was a bit different in a very sobering fashion. He said he’d been going to Brighton games home and away for over 40 years with his “very dear friend Julie” and she had been “so so excited about the prospect of going to Rome” to watch her team. She never misses a match. But two weeks ago she was diagnosed with cancer of the spine, has to use a brace and can’t go. He then said something I think we can all relate to: “Football is all about relationships and experiences. Yes you can bitch about the players. Yes you can bitch about the manager but it’s all about the people you go to football with”. And this: “Make the most of every match you attend”.  Something to think about from time to time I’d say.

OXFORD UNITED 2 CHELTENHAM TOWN 1

Make no mistake this was another poor showing from the Yellows.

Perhaps the visitors would have been better if they’d had some fit strikers but on this showing it’s not difficult to see why they are strong candidates for the drop. Yet we still struggled to get this win. In the end it was deserved because our players have more class than theirs and on a couple of brief occasions this shone through to get us two goals and therefore three points. But it wasn’t convincing in the least and certainly has not made me more confident that we will make sixth spot than I was before kick-off.

Rarely in home games do we grasp the initiative from the outset and get our opponents on the back foot. Why is this? A mindset we can’t shake off? A tactic? The other team just don’t let us do so? Or could it be that as we usually kick towards the open end in the first half it’s nigh on impossible to get motivated. A plain wooden fence hardly gets pulses racing. The sooner we’re offski the better.

In the first half everything we know is wrong and needs addressing was out there again and not addressed in the least. Possession football at the back, no distance at all from our own goal. Slow, slow and then slower still. Instead of considering this as the first building block to getting the ball forward, all thought seemed to be on our keeper.  Must get the ball back to Cumming, must get the ball back to Cumming and repeat.

It was boring. The dial registering the level of entertainment was set at about zero.

When we weren’t knocking it about aimlessly at the back the other thing we did was just play a long ball forward with little rhyme or reason with possession then ceded. Even when it did look like we might be attempting to find a teammate those long passes just weren’t accurate. We didn’t attempt to construct attacks by passing along the ground and working the ball through the midfield and then into the final third. With the talent we have we should be able to do this I would have thought.

Plenty of players were having dodgy games. Fin Stevens at right back which was a huge disappointment as he’d played so well at Fratton Park. Marcus McGuane and Ruben Rodrigues. Do they ever move the ball on quickly first time? How often did they hang on to it and turn into trouble, which they may or may not have got out of, but should never have got into in the first place?

Owen Dale, who ended up with the man of the match award, didn’t have the greatest of first halves. His touch wasn’t there and he wasn’t bursting past red shirts but probably not all down to him because no-one was creating much for anyone else.

Cameron Brannagan was doing the work of two or three men. At times he must despair of what’s (not) going on around him.

The quality of this fare was so low it was quite pitiful at times. Neither keeper was really being tested. We did register a few shots but they were hardly worthy of the name.

Time wasting was the main tactic of the Robins. The length of time taken to get the ball back live after a stoppage was right up there with the very worst.  Referee Marc Edwards had the occasional word but did nothing meaningful to get the game moving. The logic of having spare balls at the side of the pitch is to reduce delays. Oxford born Luke Southwood in the Cheltenham goal seemed to have a blind spot when it came to utilising these spares, being intent on retrieving the one that had gone out of play.

Given how little actual football we’d had I was expecting more than three minutes to be tacked onto the end of the first half. My brother’s view was that this was more than enough because the game had been so terrible. I definitely wanted more because in the five minutes before the board was held up we noticeably improved.

When we got the lead in the last of those three added minutes I was then well pleased that time was just about up.  We needed to get into the changing rooms and reflect how lucky we were to be winning having played as we had.

The goal came after a Cheltenham clearance had gone right through to Jamie Cumming. He passed out to Ciaron Brown and six passes later the ball was in the net without a Cheltenham man touching it. So it can be done. Forward movement obviously helping. Others involved along with the scorer Josh Murphy were Stevens, Dale and Brannagan.

Murphy, who has been something of a standout recently, took it well but if I was a Cheltenham fan I’d likely be questioning whether Southwood should have done better. He’s possibly the best keeper with his feet I’ve seen at this level. Some of his clipped forward passes in the second half were way better than what his colleagues were coming up with but as far as basic goalkeeping went, opting to punch away some quite routine shots he faced was strange.

Was it too much to hope that we’d start the second half as we’d ended the first and soon sew things up? Yes of course it was. Just not our way.

The longer it went on the more I thought that we were going to **** things up. Clean sheets are a rarity. We’ve kept just one since 16 December. We’d let in two goals in each of the previous three matches. We were bound to concede. Others sat near me were of a like mind. My brother was one such person but he was equally convinced that we would score again and win 2-1. More optimistic than me I have to say.

Sure enough with ten minutes of the 90 left our lead was gone. Cheltenham had begun to come at us a bit more than they had done hitherto and must have thought why not give it a bit of a go as this lot we’re up against don’t seem to have the will nor nous to kill us off. And a bit of a go was all it took. We allowed them to easily retain possession from a throw which resulted in captain Sean Long getting in a cross from the by-line. Brown got his head on it but didn’t generate enough power to get any distance so it can hardly be called a clearance. Liam Kinsella then managed to touch the ball to Will Ferry who hit it first time with his left foot from nearly the same spot as that from which Murphy had registered earlier. Again I think there’s a question mark against the goalkeeping.

What were we expecting next? The way our men had let the game drift the more likely outcome was surely a win for our opponents.

Football is often predictable but just as often not. How many of our fans were expecting this set back, of our own making, to spring us into life?

At long last we really started to play with noticeable passion and desire. The crowd came alive. It’s not possible to fake these things whatever a club might wish of their supporters. Give them something to shout about and they will shout. Whether the shouting and singing is good or bad depends on what is happening on the field of play. This was now good noise, if a little desperate. Last chance saloon. If we couldn’t get three points against these who could we get three points against?

Immediately Southwood had to pull off a good save to keep out a powerful Greg Leigh header from a Brannagan corner. We were getting shots in that were blocked. More corners were being won. The pressure was building.  Teams like Cheltenham will make mistakes and eventually gift chances but time was running out.

Visiting defender Jack Shepherd had a ball played back to him that should have been easy to control or hacked away into the distance. He miscontrolled it allowing Rodrigues to gain possession. His pass to Will Goodwin was half cleared and ended up at Dale’s feet. Dale, with purposeful speed, headed for the by-line and this took him away from a sliding challenge. It looked like a valiant effort that was going to come to nothing but somehow he was able to clip a delightful cross beyond the back post when the ball looked odds on to go out of play. There was Leigh to power home with his head.

There was much celebrating in the East Stand but I was quite restrained in the SSU. Not because I don’t do leaping about in the expensive seats when the moment is right but because I knew we were still capable of cocking it up in the last minute and the added minutes and knowing that even if the win was to be ours we had not played well at all.

At the final whistle the best description was relief, nothing more. I didn’t feel the buzz I’d got a week earlier when we’d lost away to the league leaders.

At the end of the day though a win is a win. The team we’ve got our eyes on in sixth place, Stevenage, were also at home to a bottom four outfit but they could only draw with Fleetwood. This means that we’re now only a point behind Steve Evans’ team although they do still have a game in hand.

We also need to be looking over our shoulders. We gained two points on Blackpool and are three ahead of them with the same number of games played but their home draw was a creditable one against Portsmouth. Perhaps the biggest worry should be Lincoln. Now unbeaten in eleven and on Saturday they pulled off one of the L1 results of the season winning 5-1 at fifth placed Barnsley.

Form comes and goes though. After losing four in a row Peterborough have now won the next four.

I can’t see us catching anyone other than Stevenage and we’ve got to go some to keep the Imps behind us. Both these teams still have to visit the Kassam.

One game at a time it is though so for now ignore those fixtures and concentrate on Bolton away on Tuesday night. They’re very much going for one of the two automatic promotion slots but their current form is no better than ours with just five points gathered from the last five games.

All to play for.

Cheltenham Town Financial Analysis by Colin Barson

Cheltenham are another club who publish only abbreviated “small company” accounts, so once again we don’t have much of the information that I usually like to benchmark, as you can see from the Financial Analysis table below.

However, I’ve taken a departure from the norm for this one and used some figures from the 2021/2022 season SCMP Benchmarking Report. So, what is SCMP I hear you ask? It stands for Salary Cost Management Protocol and is a mechanism whereby the EFL can (try to!!!) control club spending, particularly on wages, in Leagues One and Two. It is a confidential report, into which clubs feed their financial projections for both income and expenditure, and is sent to each club, once the EFL have all of the information, usually in November each year. Each club is given a random identification number and is told what its own number is, but nobody else’s. This is so that, although clubs can see the income and expenditure of other clubs, they, in theory, don’t know who’s who. What really happens is that the little rascals phone around and say “We’re number x, what number are you?” and eventually they have the whole jigsaw put together. As it’s a confidential report, I clearly shouldn’t have a copy, but a friend who was in a prominent position at an EFL club (not OUFC) let me have a copy. I obviously can’t and won’t divulge who, as there are repercussions for clubs who transgress, so I’d appreciate it if readers didn’t speculate online who it might be.

So, let’s look at what we do know about Cheltenham, and their finances, before we go onto the weird and wonderful world of SCMP. I’m guilty of still thinking of Cheltenham as being non-league newcomers to the EFL, so was surprised, when I checked, to see that they joined the League 25 years ago and have spent most of that time in League Two, dropping out of the EFL for one season in 2015/2016. This season is only their 7th at the third level, and their highest ever finish is 15th. So, it’s no surprise that their attendances are at the lower end for League One, with their 4,485 average last season being 21st out of 24. In fact, it’s their second highest average ever, and their average since entering the League is only 3,673.

Notwithstanding that, they do appear to be a fairly well-run club, showing a profit for the year ended 30 June 2022 of £728,491. They had cash in bank of just over £2m at the year end, which was 5th highest of the 23 clubs to report it, and a positive equity of £2.1m, 8th highest of 23. Furthermore they have already published their 2023 accounts (take note OUFC) so we are able to have a brief look at their more up to date numbers, unlike those of OUFC, despite some naughty person daring to ask the club for some of this information at the recent Fans Forum! Although their 2023 figures show a modest loss of approx. £380,000 the club managed to buy their training ground at the beginning of the period, giving them ownership for the first time ever. They paid £1.2m for the 22-acre facility, using a bank loan of £500,000 over 15 years, and their own capital for the rest. They don’t own the Johnny Rocks Wham Suzuki Cherry Red Stadium, or whatever they call Whaddon Road these days, but instead lease it from Cheltenham Borough Council. That lease is a 99-year lease, with 80 years to run, and appears to only cost the club about £36,000 per annum. I can only presume there wasn’t a Friends of Whaddon Road group around to badger the council when that was agreed. How dare a local authority agree to help those nasty football types!

Now onto SCMP. It is a bit of a weird formula that is used, whereby certain income is taken into account, and 60% of that income is allowed to be spent on wages. Wages in this instance is playing staff wages, not including Under 21 players, nor any contribution made towards the wages of players out on loan by the loaning club. Any players that are loaned in by a club are charged at the amount the loaning club is paying. The allowable income toward wages is match income, commercial income, EFL and TV income, and hospitality and conferencing. Any income received from player trading, gifts, and equity payments from owners are classified as Football Fortune, and 100% of these amounts are taken into account toward wages. SCMP used to be an advisory structure, but in 2011 sanctions were brought in for clubs who breached the rules. It will surprise nobody that the first club to be sanctioned under these regulations was Swindon Town.

In both income and expenditure Cheltenham come 23rd out of 24. The low wages spending probably explains, together with their low stadium rent, why the club are able to run fairly sustainably at this level given their relatively modest status. With that modest status comes modest expectations I expect, meaning they’re probably just happy to be here rather than running up huge debts chasing promotion.

To finish with, obviously OUFC feature in this report. I’ll do a more comprehensive analysis on our finances at the end of the season, but for now I’ll leave you with this. In a League that included Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth, Charlton Athletic, a big spending Wigan Athletic, Plymouth Argyle, Bolton Wanderers, Rotherham United among others, we had the 6th highest wage bill.

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