For just the third time in 24 seasons, and the first since 2005, Aldershot Town started their season with a defeat. Their 2-1 home loss to Gateshead was a far-from-ideal way to start under Barry Smith, but they get an immediate chance to bounce back with a midweek trip to relegated Cheltenham Town. BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison previews the action.
As the saying goes, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. It wasn’t just the fact that, for the third consecutive season, the Shots lost 2-1 at home to Gateshead, but how they lost. The hosts had the better of the first half at the EBB Stadium, taking the lead through Rhys Browne, who had another effort saved by Heed goalkeeper Sam Russell. Dan Walker came close with a couple of long-range efforts as the home side played some impressive, high-tempo football. However, the visitors improved after the break and, with Aldershot Town defending set pieces poorly all afternoon, substitute Ryan Bowman was able to capitalise on some sloppy defending twice in three minutes to give Gateshead all three points. It was a late collapse that was all too familiar from last season.
Despite the Shots having the thirteenth-best defensive record in the Conference last season, Saturday afternoon continued another worrying trend. Since the 2-0 home win over Nuneaton Town on 15 November, Aldershot Town have only kept two clean sheets in 27 league games: the 0-0 draw at Macclesfield in March and the 2-0 win over Torquay United on Easter Monday. With goals at a premium, this is an area that needs dramatic improvement. The Club’s away form could also do with a boost, having won just two and lost five of their nine fixtures on the road in 2015. Overall, last season’s away record saw Aldershot Town record six wins, eleven defeats and 24 points from their 23 games.
Tuesday sees Cheltenham play their first non-league game at Whaddon Road since 1 May 1999. Last season’s relegation ended a highly successful sixteen-year tenure in the Football League, which saw two promotions to the third tier in 2001-02 and 2005-06, leading to a total of four seasons in League One. That the Robins also had League Two Play-Off defeats as recently as 2011-12 and 2012-13, under the leadership of Mark Yates, shows how surprising the Gloucestershire side’s demise has been. Yates started last season in charge of the Club, before his sacking last November, but none of Paul Buckle, Russell Milton (caretaker) and Gary Johnson (who took over on 30 March) could arrest the slump.
The Robins actually led the division after four wins and two draws from their first six games, but they then won just five of their last forty league fixtures. They eventually finished with 41 points, four points behind 22nd-placed Hartlepool United. Only bottom side Tranmere Rovers had a worse home record than the Robins’ total of 23 points from 23 games, whilst only Mansfield Town and Hartlepool United scored fewer than their forty league goals. Defensively, they had the fifth-worst goals against record in League Two and they only managed five league clean sheets all season. Of the eight occasions when the Shots conceded three goals in league games in 2014-15, six were away from North-East Hampshire.
Cheltenham Town played out a 1-1 draw at Lincoln City on Saturday with a starting eleven comprising wholly of debutants, a Robins’ record. Johnson told the Gloucestershire Echo last month: “I wasn’t sure that we would be able to have changed as much as we have because we didn’t have a big budget, although it was a competitive one… The club has a good reputation; I have a good reputation and the players we have brought in too. When I brought the first few in, a lot of others thought ‘aye, aye, Cheltenham are giving it a go’. The board have been great, I have pushed and pushed and I’m still pushing…. The board have allowed me to go over budget by bringing in these players.”
Seven of Barry Smith’s new signings started on Saturday, with a further two coming off the bench in the final ten minutes. In fact, it was the same eleven that started against Wycombe Wanderers in the final pre-season outing. Undoubtedly the most impressive was former Charlton Athletic winger Rhys Browne, with the nineteen year-old crowning his first-ever senior club appearance with the goal that opened the scoring. Fellow forwards Dan Walker and Matthew Barnes-Homer, former loanees Jim Stevenson and Tom Richards, plus centre-backs Luke Oliver and Omar Beckles also featured from the outset, whilst defender Jack Saville and striker Charlie Walker made their debuts as substitutes. They’ll all be hoping to feature in their first win of the season on Tuesday night.
Smith will continue to be without two key defenders, with Joe Oastler and Sean McGinty both unavailable. Oastler has only played once since Valentine’s Day because of an ankle injury, whilst McGinty suffered a broken metatarsal in the pre-season win over Basingstoke Town. However, defensive cover has arrived in the form of nineteen year-old Preston North End left-back Nick Anderton, who arrived on a 28-day loan on Monday.
As you’d expect from a team that suffered relegation last year, Gary Johnson has overseen a massive overhaul of the playing staff. Fourteen players have arrived at Whaddon Road, whilst the majority of last’s season squad have left. The Robins’ two top scorers last season – Byron Harrison (seven goals) and Terry Gornell (five goals) – actually left in the January transfer window, joining Chesterfield and Accrington Stanley respectively. Over the summer, ever-present goalkeeper Trevor Carson left for Hartlepool United, whilst former Shot Troy Brown (Exeter City), Matt Taylor (Newport County) and Matt Richards (Dagenham & Redbridge) have also stayed in the Football League. Winger Andy Haworth has moved to Barrow, left-back Craig Braham-Barrett has joined National League South side Ebbsfleet United and right-back Lee Vaughan remains at the club, but is on the transfer list, alongside striker Omari Sterling-James. Other players of note to have stayed with the Robins are midfielders Asa Hall (sixteen appearances for Aldershot Town at the end of the 2012-13 relegation season) and Joe Hanks, plus the former Bristol Rovers striker Eliot Richards.
The Cheltenham Town manager has looked to address the problems upfront with the signings of Danny Wright (ten goals last season for Gateshead, plus four for Kidderminster Harriers), Billy Waters (Crewe Alexandra), Amari Morgan-Smith (Oldham Athletic, eleven goals for Kidderminster Harriers in 2013-14) and Josh Cooke, who’s on loan from Swindon Town until January. There have also been a trio of good midfield captures in the form of Kyle Storer (who split last season between Kidderminster Harriers and Wrexham), Harry Pell (Eastleigh) and former Shots loanee Jack Munns (Charlton Athletic), whilst James Rowe has arrived after leaving Tranmere Rovers in February. Johnson’s summer signings have also included three goalkeepers: Dillon Phillips (on loan from Charlton Athletic until 2 January), Calum Kitscha (Hayes & Yeading United) and Rhys Lovett (Rochdale), although the latter has gone out on loan. There’s plenty of experience in the defensive captures of Aaron Downes, who is the new skipper and scored seven goals for Torquay United last season, and Danny Parslow, who signed from York City, but spent most of the 2014-15 campaign on loan at Grimsby Town. Young full-backs George McLennan (Reading) and Jack Barthram (Swindon Town) should also feature prominently this season.
Lee Vaughan, who will miss the game with a hamstring injury, is the only injury doubt for Cheltenham Town for the visit of the Shots.
Tuesday night’s game marks the ninth time that Aldershot Town have faced the Robins, all in League Two, with the Shots winning four, losing three and drawing one. The tie occurred in the last fixture between the two clubs at Whaddon Road in February 2013. Loanee Danny Rose gave the visitors the lead before Paul Benson notched the equaliser prior to Anthony Tonkin’s red card. Shaun Harrad scored the only goal for the Robins in the reverse fixture in August 2012.
The Shots actually won on their first two trips to Whaddon Road, both by two goals to one. The first, in April 2010, saw Dean Morgan’s famous late winner in the season Aldershot Town reached the League Two play-offs, whilst goals from Anthony Charles and Peter Vincenti secured all three points for the North-East Hampshire side in March 2011. However, goals from Luke Summerfield and Kaid Mohamed gave Cheltenham a 2-0 win in January 2012. Cheltenham Town also faced the old Aldershot FC in a FA Cup First Round tie in November 1946, with the Shots winning at home by four goals to two.
If he features at Cheltenham, Phil Smith will make his 200th National League appearance.
The man in the middle on Tuesday evening is Brett Huxtable from Devon, who took charge of two Shots games last season – the 3-1 home win over Dover Athletic on 3 March and the victory by the same scoreline at Forest Green Rovers on Good Friday. Last season, he oversaw eighteen Conference fixtures, showing 45 yellow cards and four red cards.
BBC Surrey’s Gavin Denison and Rob Worrall of the Aldershot Town media team will be covering the game on Tuesday evening. Tune in to the BBC Sport website from 7.35pm for full match commentary.
You can also contact us throughout the evening via Twitter. Tweet your predictions and thoughts on the game to @bbcsurreysport and @GavinDenison