On the back of a dire performance against Plymouth Argyle, one would have been forgiven for fearing the worst when already promoted Gillingham came to the Abbey Business Stadium, knowing a win would secure the League Two title.
The game also marked the return of insidious former manager Martin Allen, who after a tempestuous reign in Gloucestershire left Cheltenham in 2009.
However, one ‘Hec’ of a header from a young Cheltenham centre-back secured all three points to keep Allen’s champagne on ice and keep the Robins’ promotion hopes alive.
Mark Yates responded to his side’s disappointing display at Plymouth with wholesale changes, restoring Billy Jones, Jason Taylor, Kaid Mohamed and Russell Penn to the starting XI at the expense of Keith Lowe, Darren Carter, Sam Deering and Paul Benson.
Enigmatic Allen left nothing to chance, ensuring the water-bottles were placed tactically around the pitch for his men, and that his supporters were suitably animated ahead of kick-off.
Despite taking the moral high ground in the build-up to the game, Allen received a suitably vociferous reception as he took his place in the dugout, with the Cheltenham faithful keen to expel four years of supressed anger towards him.
Yates’ changes paid dividends, as from the first minute the Robins showed more power and intensity, passing the ball with confidence against a potent Gillingham side. Yates’ five man midfield strangled the visitor’s ability to attack, with Jason Taylor’s enforcement complimenting Russell Penn’s tenacity in denying potent strikers Deon Burton and Danny Kedwell.
After Stroud-born Gills ‘keeper, Stuart Nelson’s audacious long range effort, the Robins had the preponderance of the early opportunities, with Byron Harrison and Marlon Pack missing early chances on goal.
Minutes later, a Pack through ball split the Gillingham defence setting up Jermaine McGlashan, whose cross flew agonisingly across an open goal. Allen’s men responded midway through first half, with ‘keeper Scott Brown saving smartly from a Kedwell overhead kick.
Despite a half-time stalemate, the match was far from lacklustre, with both sides knowing victory was achievable. As news filtered through that Rochdale were drawing with Port Vale, Allen was jumping for joy, celebrating an impending League title; maybe this arrogance was his downfall.
The second half was a continuation of the Robin’s first-class performance, as the intensifying optimism of the 3,500 home faithful began to inspire the players to go for the Gillingham jugular. More chances were squandered as a Russell Penn cross flew across an open goal, whilst minutes later Kaid Mohamed managed to bundle himself and not the ball into the back of the net! It looked like it wouldn’t be Cheltenham’s day in the final third, as a frustrated Michael Hector fired the ball into the net after an offside decision; a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Thanks to the determination of Russell Penn, the Robins won a 67th minute corner. From the resulting Billy Jones delivery, loan defender Michael Hector rose well to find the proverbial postage stamp in the top corner, to spark scenes of euphoria amongst the players and fans alike.
Martin Allen’s face of thunder was a sight worthy of any horror movie! Yates’ men continued to surge forward, with Byron Harrison leading the line admirably, pressurising every Gillingham defensive decision and his five supporting midfielders preventing the away side from moving past the half-way line. Scott Brown was forced into a comfortable save from an Adam Barrett header, before Chris Whelpdale shot relievingly past Scott Brown’s left post. Russell Penn could have deservedly added gloss to the victory in the dying seconds, as his shot was thwarted one-on-one by Stuart Nelson, but this would not hamper a famous Robins victory.
The main talking point of the game was always to be Martin Allen, who shook the hand of every Cheltenham Town player on the final whistle, knowing he can secure the League Two title next week.
Post-match reports suggest that some of his behaviour may have been more unsavoury, but the day should be remembered for a stellar Robins performance.
The noise from the Cheltenham fans was excellent and the players responded with a display to match, securing a play-off place for a second successive year. Third place is still a possibility, so it is imperative that Yates’ men emulate their impressive home performance at what he has called “The Abbey Business Stadium in Exeter” before playing Bradford on the final day of the season.
As supporters, it is our responsibility to give the players our full backing and support. Our fairy-tale revival since Martin Allen’s departure has been unforgettable; who knows what could happen in the final weeks of this season?
Come on you Robins!
Scott Brown - 7 - Despite some suspect kicking due to a foot injury, the popular vote for player of the season kept a clean sheet against a potent Gillingham strike-force.
Sido Jombati - 7 - A good display from the Portuguese live-wire.
Michael Hector - 8 - Another excellent performance from the young defender who is showing the maturity of someone much older. A deserved first Cheltenham goal and clean sheet.
Steve Elliott - 8 - Lead by example at the back, marshalling the defence superbly to ensure that all important clean sheet.
Billy Jones - 7 - Solid performance from the boyhood Gillingham fan who produced yet another assist for the goal.
Jermaine McGlashan - 8 - Much improved performance from McGlashan, who survived what looked more like an attempt to assault instead of tackle him from the Gillingham defence.
Marlon Pack - 8 - Superb display from the fans’ favourite who passed the ball fluently and was unlucky not to score a first-half free kick.
Jason Taylor - 8 - Taylor’s performances will never be glamorous, but he is a midfield grafter, who showed the tenacity and commitment to secure an important win.
Kaid Mohamed - 8 - Again a big improvement for ‘Mo’ who tied the Gillingham defence in knots with his effervescent play.
Russell Penn - 9 - Maybe I am biased, but Penn was outstanding. Our club captain optimised everything that was good about the performance and was instrumental in securing the win.
Byron Harrison - 8 - Really impressive performance from the big man, who is coming on in leaps and bounds. Deserved a goal in front of the home fans.