Five months without a league goal – but hope is back at Cheltenham

Get us promoted. Keep us up. All managers know their first brief when they take over a new job. Few are as straightforward as the one Darrell Clarke received at Cheltenham.

“Score a goal,” he tells Sky Sports with a wry but honest smile. “We hadn’t done it all season! But we got one in the game against Derby, and then looked to keep building, and ticking things off as away we go.

The job Clarke took on was not for everyone. He inherited a side one game away from the longest scoreless run in Football League history, bottom of League One with one point from 10 games and seemingly heading straight for League Two.

“To almost give away a quarter of the season with nothing to show for it, virtually everybody was resigned to relegation at that point,” local journalist and Cheltenham fan Jon Palmer explains.

You don’t need to shy away from challenges to be put off. Robins legend Steve Cotterill, the first man to manage them in the Football League two decades ago, did exactly that. But Clarke, who had only left Port Vale in April, saw an opportunity in the crisis.

“There’s good people at this football club, it’s done well over the years and punched above its weight,” says Clarke. “I thought there was a chance to create history here – we’ve never stayed in League One for four seasons in a row.

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Local journalist and Cheltenham fan Jon Palmer explains how quickly the mood has changed around the club, after ‘virtually everybody’ was resigned to the Robins’ relegation after a poor opening 11 games

“That’s my task, I’ve got my teeth into it.”

Five weeks on, the prospect of the Robins making history for the second time this season – and for reasons they would much prefer – feels a lot more realistic than when he walked through the door.

“Clarke was the one man who hadn’t given up on the club staying up,” Palmer recalls. “He came straight in and said he hadn’t come in to be relegated.

“He’s been brilliant. He’s made a huge impact, picked everyone up and gave them a lot more belief.”

His first six league games have yielded eight points and seven goals. When Rob Street finally breached their scoring duck in that Derby match, Clarke’s second game, the manager pretended to faint on the sidelines.

A few fans might have feared doing the same at the speed of the turnaround. It could still be a new-manager bounce, but that would be to overlook the impact of that very conscious larger-than-life personality inside the manager’s office. He is a far cry from the quiet and considered Wade Elliott, who he replaced in late September.

“It’s a camp in very high spirits at the moment,” says Street. “All the boys have a real togetherness at the moment and are fighting to get out of the position we found ourselves in.

“The intensity on the training pitch has gone through the roof, we’ve come together and found a system and a style to play and have taken everything on a game-by-game basis.

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Clarke explains why he decided to join Cheltenham in such a perilous position and how he has gone about turning around their fortunes after a disastrous start to the season

“There’s no hiding the start to the season was difficult, but it’s a long old season and you play a lot of Saturday-Tuesdays, we knew we needed to keep going. Everyone knew it wasn’t acceptable, but it’s behind us now.”

Clarke is no stranger to turning clubs’ fortunes around. When he arrived at Port Vale they had only won three of their last 18 and were in danger of dropping out of the Football League altogether. Fifteen months later, he led them to promotion.

Even the Valiants still hit the back of the net occasionally though. Finding Cheltenham’s scoring boots was a new challenge altogether.

“It’s not rocket science at times,” Clarke smiles again, more than he might have before the goals started to flow. “You need a bit of luck, and the club certainly didn’t get much of that in the first quarter of the season.

“You’ve got to build resilience. I’m a resilient character myself, and you’re trying to build that in players to get over that adversity of everyone asking when Cheltenham were going to score a goal.

“It was in the newspapers, it was all anyone spoke about. It was the monkey off the back that we had to get rid of pretty quickly.

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Watch Cheltenham’s 1-1 draw with Wigan last Saturday – one of the Robins’ best performances of the season

“Now that’s gone, we can start looking towards winning more football matches. You have to win 15 games in League One to stay in the division.

“We’ve managed to win a couple so now we’re looking for at least another 13 wins, pick up points where we can and make sure we’re a match for anyone.”

Tactically, Clarke has largely stuck with the same formation as his predecessor, although Cheltenham’s style has become a little more direct.

The more notable change, beyond the goals, has come on the teamsheet. Of the six young loanees brought in last summer, only Owen Bevan still features.

He shone in last Saturday’s creditable draw with Wigan, perhaps their best performance of the season.

Experience is the order of the day. The arrival last month of 32-year-old Tom Pett, a Clarke veteran and his vice-captain at Vale Park, has added further to that, with the all-action midfielder the living embodiment of his manager’s demands.

“We didn’t have a player like him in the squad,” says Clarke. “The other boys look up to him in the changing room, and when you’re in a group in the bottom four you need more experienced players – and he’s one of them.”

Clarke’s character is further endorsed by the fact Pett has, in his manager’s words, signed on until January for “peanuts” to help the club’s resurgence, and further that he has no problem speaking openly of his desire for a longer deal.

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New Cheltenham midfielder Tom Pett tells Sky Sports why he was willing to play for ‘peanuts’, in the words of his manager, to reunite with Clarke

It’s not about the money for me,” he tells Sky Sports. “It was the opportunity to play League One football, and for him. It’s a great set of lads. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of ourselves, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

“I knew what the gaffer would be like as soon as he took over. The first day I was here, he was the loudest and chirpiest, and he’ll always be like that. The squad thrive off that, and you wouldn’t have known coming into the building where they were in the league.”

The reasons behind Cheltenham’s new-found hope do not rely solely on Clarke, but the hallmarks of his influence so far – and going forward, if they are to escape the drop – permeate throughout the club.

The man himself, though as confident in his own abilities as anyone, is well aware of the task still at hand to keep the club up despite his bright start.

“It’d probably be my biggest achievement,” he says. “We started with a quarter of the season gone and one point on the board, and we’re still playing massive catch-up.”

Even so, does he believe they will do it? “Without a shadow of a doubt,” Clarke replies, steely-eyed.

The way this man works, you know he means it. And that his players most certainly do too.

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