It had been 171 days since our last home win, so you could say that a victory was very much due. What we couldn’t have expected was the line-up that would give us this long-awaited result. We are starting to learn a lot about our young Spanish manager and what level his standards will be for our football club. He certainly won’t stand for performances that aren’t up to scratch.
After the absolutely dire performance at Port Vale, most fans would have hoped for a few changes to freshen up the side, but nobody would have expected seven! Out went the entire back four, replaced by Matty Carson, Amadou Mbengue, Tyler Bindon and our new captain Nelson Abbey. Sam Hutchinson was dropped for Lewis Wing, Femi Azeez was benched for Mamadi Camara and Andy Carroll disappeared from the squad, as did Tom Holmes, with Caylan Vickers taking Carroll’s spot.
Not one of those replacements let us down. Every one of them, to a man, stepped up and showed us why they deserved that chance. And they took it, superbly.
Again, much like the win at Millwall in the Carabao Cup, these young lads (with the average age of 22.8!) had to prove that that result was not a fluke. But, clearly, Ruben Selles has instilled a belief in them that our previous manager could not even have the capacity to dream of.
Yes, it was only Cheltenham Town but there were a lot of demons to slay. No win in the aforementioned 171 days at home, hovering above the relegation zone already in the season, the cumulative pressure of some making their debuts, or even as captain, as was the case for (Lord) Nelson Abbey.
All things considered, that’s a lot of different elements to deal with. But, led by the imperious Abbey, we rarely looked in trouble. The captain put in a performance that fans can truly get behind. One of our own that barely put a foot wrong all night. If an error was made he had the pace to retrieve the situation. If one performance alone could encapsulate this win, it was Abbey’s.
Carson, in his home debut, delivered some wicked whipped crosses. Camara was bright and inventive, Vickers must be thrown into an ice bath for days as he would have been exhausted. He covered every blade of grass for over 100 minutes. Abbey’s counterpart in central defence, Bindon, looked like a fit and mobile Scott Dann if you squinted a bit. He was simply outstanding. At 18 years of age, nobody would have thought he was ready, but he put in a towering performance.
The other home debutant that would have gone under the radar would have been David Button, who was calm and assured, doing everything you want to guide a young back four. Kudos to that man, also.
What also made this a very pleasing performance is the freedom that they played with, especially in the first half when legs and minds were fresh. We saw a range of passing from Charlie Savage that was incisive and calm. Lewis Wing put in a shift replete with one devastating crunching tackle that almost injured himself! I could go on, as everyone had something to show for their efforts.
That new-found freedom was no more apparent than for Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan. Without Carroll to cajole and berate him for every error, Big Kelv shone. He seemed to be unshackled from the scrutiny of the former England striker being beside him. Maybe he was just happier with Cheeks (Caylan Vickers) buzzing around him instead of him doing the leg work for Carroll? Whatever the reasons were, he looked confident, happier and willing. Long may that continue.
The flipside to this glow-up of a report is that we faded in the second half, but that is still to be expected of these young men. The audible sighs from the crowd when changes were made said it all. Nobody wanted to see Tom McIntyre at left-back or Andy Yiadom taking the captain’s armband from Abbey; he didn’t deserve that. But if this is a baseline for our new future, then bring it on.
While they do have fresher legs than the players they replaced, the youngsters too are still behind in terms of the pre-season that time forgot. Whether they can do the same again against unbeaten Stevenage in a few short days’ time will be a tough ask. What has been demonstrated not once, but twice, is that the new batch can perform in isolation, but what about when it’s week in, week out and against better teams than Cheltenham? That will be the acid test.
That said, it’s a better problem to have than watching a tired, mentally shot unit shuffle around the pitch endlessly without any fun about them. Selles has already shown that he’s ruthless and won’t expect anything bar what he demands. It doesn’t matter if you’re club captain, two of our own or a player that’s been bought and sold for millions of pounds - if you’re not doing it or aren’t capable of doing it, then he’s not afraid to boot you out of the team or even the entire squad. When the performance is validated by the result, Selles has been vindicated by his bold decision making.
That’s what we want from a manager: someone to make these decisions and to trust their charges. The previous manager steadfastly refused to trust any of them and look how that worked out. Fans are more than happy to embrace these kinds of changes even if they take time to develop. All we want and crave is a team that plays with pride and will bust through walls for each other. They are already showing signs that they can and are easy on the eye in doing so.
Patience is key, but whisper it quietly, but we could be onto something pretty special.