Cheltenham Town secured an impressive result against Salford City after a very professional performance at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
Two first half goals from Sean Long and Liam Sercombe took the game beyond Salford’s grasp and put the home side in contol.
The robins sat off in the second half and allowed Salford to take the majority of possession, but limited them to very few shots.
Here’s what manager Michael Duff had to say after another crucial victory that keeps Cheltenham top of the league…
You’ve been a big fan of Salford City this season. Does that make this one of your best wins of the campaign?
It was a good performance and a good result. They are a good team, they have a good manager and the players they are able to bring off the bench are top quality so we knew we’d have to be good today. After Tuesday, we were disappointed with our performance but not as much as some people made out that we should be. If you look at the chances, we had plenty more than them. When the players are properly tuned in and play the way we want them too, it’s great. We gave up the ball a bit more than we usually do today in a conscious attempt to prevent the game being opened up and to bank up a bit. Our second goal came from exactly that where we were sat back and then managed to hit them on the counter. Even in the second half they had all of the ball, but we had the two or three biggest chances of the half so it looked a little more like ‘us’ today.
Were you working on anything particular with the substitutes?
We don’t get much time. We spend 10 minutes walking through a bit of shape. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything, but it’s about allowing certain players to have the ball and then when they reach a certain area of the pitch, we press them. We thought before the game that if we were able to pinch the ball off them, we’d be able to hit them on the counter. Being at home, it is quite difficult to pull off that sort of game plan because the onus is on you, but we decided to flip it a bit in response to the quality that they possess.
They had a lot of the ball but Josh Griffiths had very little to do in goal.
That’s exactly what I mean. We dropped off them, the players blocked off the passing lanes and the back five didn’t sit too deep. There’s always the chance that when you set the team up to sit off a bit, the players automatically just play deep and nobody ever presses them, but today there was good pressure and we restricted them in the first half to long straight balls that went out of play. They had a few big men up top which caused a few problems but we weren’t troubled much in terms of shots on goal.
In the last couple of seasons it’s fifteen games lost in total, but when you play again after a loss it’s played 15, won 10, drawn four and lost one. That’s a good stat, isn’t it?
The character in the group speaks for itself. People will get emotional now because after games we’re often either brilliant or the worst team in the world. The group know where we’re at. The group know what is expected of them. I said to the players just before the end of the game to enjoy each other’s company because that’s what happens when everyone is focused and tuned in. The most used word after Tuesday was focus and I thought we looked exactly that today. We just need to keep churning it out. It isn’t even a cliché as we say it because we mean it. It’s the same thing for the second half as we were two-nil up and the message wasn’t to just sit back and defend, it was to try and win the half, and I think we had the best chances.
Is it a welcome break this week in the context of the last six weeks?
For sure. For the last few weeks and months, it’s been Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. The players know that they have a day off on Monday, but we actually have a coaching meeting on Tuesday, so if I can remember any, I’ll try and get the team to work on a few things that I think we could improve.
How do you see the league now?
Tight. The big boys are coming, I think it’s fair to say. The big teams are all starting to put runs together. We can’t affect anyone else. I say it because I believe it, but our points total is the only thing that will decide where we are. The players don’t need to worry about results, they need to worry about performances. My job is to worry about results, theirs is to worry about their performance. Most of the time when they deliver that and are focused like they were today, and it’s not always the case and it’s hard to have that focus all the time because of the relentlessness of the league, but that’s how we are working.
Another goal from a long throw, how difficult are they to defend?
It’s better than a corner because of the trajectory that you can get on throws. It’s definitely tough. We got hurt by one on Tuesday. We’re glad to have players that are willing to go and win the ball, which we did brilliantly today. I think it was Longy [Sean Long] who got the right side of his man. It creates panic as well because teams know it’s coming in, so there’s automatically a feeling of jitteriness. It’s just so hard to defend because of the flight that is coming in at. Corners come in from the ground and have curl or whip, but these come in like tracer bullets. One of the things that we decided at the end of last season was that it was probably criminal that we didn’t make the most of it.
You got stopped at this stage last season. You thought that you would have been able to go on and get promoted. Is this now a chance to prove exactly that?
I think that was slightly different last year because it’s harder to put a run together this year. Ultimately, we are managing it at the moment, but it’s hard to go into every game with the relentlessness of the league and without the intensity from fans. It’s tight. There’s a lot more teams involved this year than there was last. There probably was a top four last season, of which we were one, but unfortunately it was us who missed out. The spaces between the top three or four and then eighth and ninth were a lot bigger than they are now. It’s going to be tough. It is an opportunity though. Like I say, there’s no reason to worry about results, just worry about each half. If you don’t win one, win the next one and if you win enough, you’ll get the job done.
Gary Neville, who was here today, described you as the best team he’d seen in League Two after the away game earlier this season, do you think he saw a different side to you this time?
Yeah, we weren’t expansive today but that was deliberate. We almost didn’t want to turn it into a football match if that makes sense. We wanted to hit them on the counter for two reasons. A) we thought we could hurt them, and b) It helped us block the passing lanes and things because they have good players. But the league is so indifferent. If you watched Barrow, you’d be thinking ‘how the hell are they top of the league?,’ but we’ve been good against Salford twice so we’re probably a good team in his eyes. If you go and ask a Barrow fan, they’ll probably say we’re useless.
How’s Ben Tozer? He took a whack at the end.
He’s fine. Longy took a whack too, but that’s what’s needed to win a game of football. Don’t take them for granted. Don’t be complacent with them. People have come in with cuts, bruises and lungs coming out their mouths almost because people are absolutely out on their feet. You have to do it again now, to win another game, that’s the challenge.
Scott Flinders will be coming in for Josh Griffiths next week away at Morecambe. Is there anything you can do to prepare him?
He’s played 500 games and he won’t need any motivation or cajoling. I generally leave the goalies to Booky (Steve Book) anyway. He’s a solid citizen in terms of his personality and how he is around the group. He’s been good for Josh too. I know he’ll want to be playing, but Josh has been excellent, didn’t do anything wrong today. Probably speaks for himself that he has an England call-up. It’s an opportunity for Scott, so hopefully he can come in, same as everyone else, everyone will be used. Hopefully he can be as good as he was against Carlisle.
That’s 17 clean sheets now for Josh, the highest in the division
Yes, I think we’ve just overtaken Salford. I said it the other night, the most frustrating thing is the amount of goals we’ve conceded. We have conceded far too many goals, twos and threes, which is a bug bear of mine, but we’ll be trying to keep a few more clean sheets.