12:32 15 February 2012
By James Brown
Until very recently it was thought that Cheltenham Town Football Club was founded in 1892.
However, recent evidence points to the origins being five years earlier when Mr Albert Close White returned to his native Cheltenham from college in London to take up a teaching post. While away on his studies Mr White discovered the game of association football and he is now credited with being the first person to introduce the sport to the town of Cheltenham. Trials were held at the East Glos Cricket Ground in 1887 and the club was born.
The club went on to spend its first three decades in local football, where a number of championships and cup wins were celebrated. The team played at three grounds within half a mile of their current home, namely Agg-Gardner's Recreation Ground, Whaddon Lane and Carter's Field. The most notable players during this time included Gloucestershire cricketers Charles Barnett and Gilbert Jessop; and Mr Phil Bach, who later played for Sunderland and became one of only two players to graduate from Cheltenham Town before going on to play for the full England team.
1930 - 1935
The early 1930's were a time of immense importance in the club's history. In 1932 the club (which had now switched from ruby shirts to red and white shirts, gaining the nickname "the Robins") moved to their current home at Whaddon Road. The playing arm of the operation turned professional and joined the Birmingham Combination. In 1933-34 Carlisle United were beaten in the FA Cup Second Round and over 10,000 were present for the Third Round tie against Second Division Blackpool. The match was played at the now demolished Cheltenham Athletic Ground and Blackpool won 3-1.
1935 - 1982
In 1935 Cheltenham Town began a 50 year spell in the Southern League and lining up for them was Tim Ward, later of Derby County and the only other Cheltenham player to progress to the full England team. After World War Two Peter Goring was the star centre-forward and he later played in the First Division for Arsenal. Success in the Southern League didn't arrive until the mid 1950's when, under the managership of Arch Anderson, the Robins achieved six consecutive top six placings and were runners-up to Guildford City in 1955-56. Notable players during this period were Peter Rushworth (transferred to Leicester City), Roy Shiner (to Huddersfield Town) and Joe Hyde (local boy who played 450 games at centre-half). The Southern League Cup was won with a 4-1 aggregate victory over Gravesend & Northfleet in 1957-58 but four years later the team was relegated to the Southern League First Division for the first time. Cheltenham stayed at this level for just two years and, after four moderate seasons in the Premier Division, achieved fourth place in 1967-68 under the managership of Bob Etheridge. They finished only four points behind champions Chelmsford City and the team included Ron Radford, scorer of one of the most famous FA Cup goals for Hereford against Newcastle United in 1970.
Hopes were high for season 1968-69 but they were sadly dashed as relegation was suffered on goal average by 0.002 of a goal. The Southern League Cup final was reached but this ended in a 1-0 aggregate win for Cambridge United. Cheltenham finished third three times in the Southern League First Division North before returning to the Premier in 1977. After two seasons at this level the team narrowly failed to qualify for the inaugural season of the Alliance Premier League (now Football Conference). During the 1970s two locally based players made an indelible mark on the club. Roger Thorndale made a club record 702 appearances and Dave Lewis bagged 273 goals. Managers during this period included former England winger Terry Paine MBE but it was Alan Wood who started the club back on the road to the top of non-league football when his team won the Southern League Midland Division title in 1982-83.
1983 - 1995
John Murphy took over two years later and his first full season was one of great success. Cheltenham Town became Southern League champions, Southern League Cup runners-up (losing to Fisher Athletic 6-2 on aggregate) and Southern League Merit Cup winners. The result was promotion to the Football Conference. Seven seasons in the top flight of non-league football followed, during which time the club made two appearances in the FA Cup First Round and two appearances in the FA Trophy Quarter Finals. A number of quality players were signed in this period including Brett Angell (later of Everton and Sunderland), Peter Shearer (later of Birmingham City) and Andy Gray (now Sky Sports!). Midfielder Steve Brooks was the first player to score for Cheltenham in the higher division and also the first player to gain international recognition for the England semi-professional team when he appeared against Wales in 1988.
It was a source of disappointment that Cheltenham never fulfilled their potential during their first spell in the Conference. Their highest finishing position was 11th before relegation was suffered in 1992. Upon returning to the Southern League Cheltenham finished runners-up three years running and third in 1995-96. In 1992-93 the FA Cup Second Round was reached for the first time since 1947; and in 1995 youth team product Christer Warren was sold to Southampton for a club record fee. Much of this success was achieved under the management of former Bristol Rovers defender Lindsay Parsons, who left to join Gillingham as Assistant Manager in the summer of 1995.
1996 - 1999
Season 1996-97 was an eventful one as the club took part in a neck-and-neck race with Gloucester City, Gresley Rovers and Halesowen Town for promotion. The pressure was intense at times and one casualty was manager Chris Robinson, who left the club in February. His place was taken by local man and former Cheltenham player Steve Cotterill, back in England after a spell in charge of Irish club Sligo Rovers. In the closing weeks Gresley Rovers pulled clear in the title race but as their ground was not up to Conference standard, Cheltenham faught off a stern challenge from fierce local rivals Gloucester City to gain promotion as runners-up.
Newly promoted to the Football Conference the following season, Cheltenham began the campaign with the modest ambition of retaining their status within the top tier of English non-league football. However, the season rapidly began to take shape with a run of 17 matches unbeaten, lifting the team into the top five and ultimately the runners-up position. An FA Cup run, which began in the First Qualifying Round, saw a thrilling 2-1 win over Tiverton Town in the First Round Proper and a replay success against Boreham Wood in Round Two. In the Third Round, which had been reached for only the second time in the club's history, First Division Reading were given more than one scare before finally winning 2-1 in a replay - only after Cheltenham had taken the lead at Whaddon Road and hit the post in the final minute at Elm Park.
On a proud night in March 1998 there were five Cheltenham Town players all representing England at the same time as Chris Banks, Jamie Victory, Dale Watkins, Neil Grayson and Lee Howells lined up for the England Semi-Professional team against Holland. In the FA Trophy the Robins negotiated a tricky series of matches before winning a nail-biting semi-final over two legs against Dover Athletic. The final at Wembley, although far from a classic, was a superb occasion for the 18,000 Cheltenham fans who made the journey. Jason Eaton scored the only goal to win the match and a crowd of more than 10,000 greeted the team as they made an open top bus journey around the town the following day.
In season 1998-99 Cheltenham Town enjoyed even more success. The team reached the semi-finals of both the FA Trophy and Endsleigh Trophy, although any disappointment at missing out on the finals was more than offset by league success. A run of 7 straight wins in August/September provided the platform, along with a 14 match unbeaten run, and from the beginning of September Cheltenham were never out of the top two in the league.
Wins over chief rivals Kettering Town and Rushden & Diamonds put the Robins in the driving seat and they sealed the title with a dramatic 3-2 win over Yeovil Town.
1999 - 2010
Cheltenham's first season in the Football League began inauspiciously but a tremendous run in the middle of the season brought the Robins to the verge of the play-off picture, only a 2-1 defeat at Southend on the last day of the season preventing them from qualifying at the first attempt.
Following a ninth place finish in season 2000-01, the next campaign provided even more amazing success. After a slow start to the season, the team went on a 16-match unbeaten run in the League with the 'Little and Large' striking partnership of Tony Naylor and Julian Alsop providing the goals. The team also enjoyed a record cup run to the fifth round, which included home wins over second division Oldham Athletic and first division Burnley.
The Robins needed only two points from their final two games to clinch automatic promotion but it was not to be and an appearance in the play-offs resulted. The semi-final brought a breathtaking penalty shoot-out win over Hartlepool and the final a memorable 3-1 victory over Rushden & Diamonds at the Millennium Stadium.
At the end of the season the five and a half year reign of Steve Cotterill finally came to an end when he joined first division Stoke City. The Board of directors moved quickly and maintained continuity by appointing from within and offering coach Graham Allner the position.
Unfortunately the 2002-03 season proved to be a disappointment as the Robins were rarely out of the bottom four in the table throughout. There were some memorable cup results with a 3-0 Worthington Cup success at Norwich City and a run to the third round of the FA Cup, but league form remained decidedly mixed. Graham Allner gave way to Bobby Gould in January and although there was an upturn in results, the team failed to avoid relegation back to Division Three by a margin of two points on the final day of the season.
Life back in the now newly named Coca-Cola League Two for the 2003-04 season did not prove to be easy for Bobby Gould's team despite him signing ex-West Brom legend Bob Taylor. The side could score goals but it was the fact that they were also leaking them at an alarming rate which eventually resulted in Gould tendering his resignation.
A few weeks later the experienced John Ward was appointed manager and the former Bristol Rovers and Bristol City boss immediately set out to steady the ship and secured the clubs position in League Two. Ward brought in ex-Hereford United and Wolves coach Keith Downing as his assistant manager and together they looked to build a successful team around a strong group of young players. Ward had a proven track record as a manager, particularly at clubs who needed to live life on a tight budget.
Following a couple of seasons of stabilising the club's position in League Two, success for the squad came in 2005-06. Although their place in the play-offs was not confirmed until the penultimate game of the season, there was a growing sense of what might be possible as the team embarked upon a tremendous run in the second half of the season. The campaign had brought several highlights over the course of its nine months including a 1-0 extra time defeat at the Stadium of Light against Premiership side Sunderland. In the LDV Vans Trophy the team reached the Southern area semi-final stage and in the FA Cup there was a run to the fourth round for only the second time in the club's history. The match was shown live on the BBC's Match of the Day as the Robins took on a Newcastle United team including former England striker Alan Shearer.
The play-offs paired Cheltenham against Wycombe Wanderers and a place in the final was secured after a 2-1 away win and a battling 0-0 draw at home. Steve Guinan's solitary goal at the Millennium Stadium was enough to defeat opponents Grimsby Town in the final and once again the Robins were up into League One. A second crack at level three was awaiting the Robins for season 2006-07, so too were the likes of twice European Cup winners Nottingham Forest and recent FA Cup finalists Millwall.
The transition from League Two to League One is a sizeable one but the Robins made a promising start in the first month. By the turn of the New Year it was clear that it might all end in tears once again but, despite losing two top players in Grant McCann and Brian Wilson during the January transfer window, the second half of the season turned into a relatively prosperous one.
Some strong performances against many of the higher placed teams in the division, particularly away from home, secured the Robins their place in League One for a second consecutive season. In doing so they also ensured that the once mighty Leeds United would be appearing at Whaddon Road during 2007-08.
The 2007/08 campaign brought about the usual highs and lows and even before a ball had been kicked the Robins were one of the favourites for the drop. By early October the pundits were already rubbing their hands as the side languished near the bottom of the division.
Boss John Ward had left the club to take up the managers job at Carlisle United and Cheltenham were well rooted in the bottom four. Ward's No.2, Keith Downing, was presented with the opportunity to revive the sides fortunes and he immediately set out on the challenge before him.
Despite there being little money available the side clearly needed an injection of both experience and quality. This came initially in the form of one, Alan Wright and the arrival of the ex-Villa and Blackburn full-back was certainly a bit of a coup for Downing. However, despite Wright's immense presence, by the end of the year the team were still in the bottom four and in grave danger of being cast adrift.
It took another inspired piece of wheeling and dealing on Downing's part, and, on the back of the success Championship side Bristol City were enjoying, he was able to secure the loan signings of Steve Brooker, recovering from injury and an out of favour Alex Russell.
Their impact was immediate and during both January and March 2008, team results were such that, Keith Downing was runner up in the League One 'manager of the month' competitions.
Nevertheless, loyal support was continually tested to the limit over the course of this campaign as the Robins attempted to compete with some of the country's more famously named teams. Without doubt the major highlight of it all was the league double over the once mighty Leeds United
Whilst performances had certainly improved under the reign of Keith Downing there were still to many inconsistencies and even when the team appeared to have secured their divisional safety, a month ahead of schedule, it still all went down to the wire. Only a final day nerve jangling victory over promotion seeking Doncaster Rovers, plus a helping hand from the league's administration rules, helped secure a third consecutive term in League One for Cheltenham Town.
Not for the want of trying ahead of the 2008/09 season, manager Keith Downing struggled to secure any meaningful new signings to add to his squad. Despite re-assurances from various club quarters most fans feared that this lack of fresh new faces would mean yet another year of the Robins attempting to punch above their weight at this level.
The doubters were not wrong and just six games into the season Cheltenham were rooted to the bottom of League One and already hot favourites for relegation.
Chairman Paul Baker and his Board acted swiftly to remove Keith Downing from his post and appointed the experienced Martin Allen to the Cheltenham Town managers hot seat. There was some history to this appointment as Allen's father had previously managed the club during the teams non-league days and he himself had watched the club as a boy.
Nevertheless, at this level there is always a certain amount of risk when taking on a new manager. Allen had been out of the management game for the entire year prior to this appointment, having last presided over the once mighty Leicester City. He was only at The Walkers Stadium for three months, most of which time was during the summer closed season. A fall out with the City chairman Milan Mandaric was enough to see Allen take a break from the game. He soon returned to football as manager of Cheltenham Town F.C.
This was never going to be an easy job, given the financial constraints, the position in the league and that we were between transfer windows. Nevertheless, Allen utilised the loan market with some gusto and by the end of the season the Robins had used a total of 54 players when naming a full matchday squad. That number includes a few substitutes who may not have been utilised during any fixture.
Despite all this Cheltenham still found themselves back in League Two and but for some timely injections of cash from the board, they also narrowly avoided the crisis of going into administration. But all was not totally lost at the end of this troubled season and the side staved off relegation for much longer than was expected of them with some spirited performances in the final few weeks.
Regardless of the position the team now found themselves in, the football being witnessed under Allen was far more exciting and there were one or two rising stars appearing on the horizon. Finally, as a supporter, whatever might have occured over the previous nine months the summer break would always bring you some hope.
By May 2009, Martin Allen was seemingly focused on building a young side that might prosper in League Two. He (Allen), was blessed with a good few contacts which could help in that re-building process. And, moreover, despite the challenge that the basement division was clearly going to pose to the club, after three seasons of being the clear underdogs in the third tier of the Football League, the very prospect of being one of the top teams in the league was an exciting one.
Despite a plucky start from the Robins at the start of the season their form dropped and things soon turned sour off the field with allegations being made about Martin Allen. Allen was placed on gardening leave in October whilst the club staged their own investigation into the allegations. Martin Allen was cleared of any wrongdoing but left the club by mutual consent in early December. John Schofield, who had acted as manager throughout Allen's gardening leave, continued his role as Caretaker manager whilst applications for the managers job were invited.
On the 22nd December 2009 Cheltenham Town announced that former player Mark Yates would become the new manager of the Robins. John Schofield, who had been in the running for the job, was named as assistant manager. The appointment ended Mark's four year reign at Kidderminster Harriers but gave him the ideal opportunity to prove himself at Football League level. Mark wasn't the only former Robin that made his return though. Neil Howarth was named as first team coach in what the Robins faithful hoped would be a fresh start for Cheltenham Town Football Club. Mark Yates started to rebuild the club and grabbed his first win as manager over Dagenham & Redbridge away from home on Monday 28 December. The next few months were difficult but the Robins were showing signs of improvement but it was one day in particular that will be looked back upon as perhaps the turning point. Cheltenham took on Burton Albion on Saturday 13 March 2010 looking for an all important three points. The first half proved to be one of the more dismal points of the season with Burton finding themselves 2-0 up and firmly in control but the second half produced a spectacle worth of Cheltenham Town folklore. Goals from Justin Richards and Medy Elito in the first ten minutes pulled Cheltenham level before Burton scored again to make it 3-2. The hosts made it 4-2 through Steve Kabba on 72 minutes and the game was thought to be over but a Michael Pook freekick gave Cheltenham hope on 84 minutes but, once again, the Robins were pegged back by Steve Kabba five minutes from time and made the score 5-3. What happened next was beyond belief with Cheltenham rallying and scoring three goals in the dying minutes of the game (Michael Pook (2) & Justin Richards) to win 6-5. The celebrations were wild and Mark Yates hoped the win would fuel a relegation survival campaign.
14 points and an unbeaten run of six games finally sealed survival for Cheltenham Town and Mark Yates had completed his initial challenge.
2010-11 provided many memorable moments and Cheltenham Town were flying high just after Christmas sitting in the play-off spots of League Two. Impressive wins over both Bradford and Crewe during the first half of the campaign had built up much enthusiasm about the Robins and their possible promotion hopes but a run of bad form throughout February and March saw Cheltenham tumble down the league and into the relegation mire.
Players such as Wesley Thomas and Marlon Pack (loan) were driving the team on but a relatively small squad were showing cracks and the Robins found themselves in deep trouble leading to a Easter clash with Lincoln never to forget. On Monday 25 April, Cheltenham Town and Lincoln City went head to head at Sincil Bank knowing the loser would be facing possible relegation. A goalless first half saw nerves double across the whole stadium but it was left to the cool and composed Josh Low to lift spirits and give Cheltenham the shot in the arm they desperately needed. Dave Bird's cross was met by the bullet header of Low to make it 1-0 and the win was sealed when Danny Andrew whipped a superb freekick into the back of the net for 2-0. Cheltenham went on to survive leaving Lincoln to drop into non-league.
Off the field Cheltenham Town had stabilised under Mark Yates and financial profit was music to the ears of the Cheltenham faithful. This turnaround enabled Mark Yates to build a much stronger team in the summer of 2011 with the likes of Marlon Pack, Alan Bennett, Sido Jombati, Luke Summerfield and Darryl Duffy all joining the club. There was a quiet confidence around the corridors of Cheltenham Town with the club approaching it's 125th year of existence. The club reverted back to it's traditional colour of Ruby and started work on what would prove to be a memorable season.
A slow but decent start to the season saw Cheltenham hovering around a predicted mid-table position but a superb run of form from the start of October to 21st January saw the Robins defeated just once in league competition. Bristol Rovers finally ended that impressive form but the Robins had found themselves amongst the top dogs chasing promotion. During that remarkable run of form there had been FA Cup wins over both Tranmere and Luton which set up a first ever clash with Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the FA Cup. Over 5,000 supporters travelled to White Hart Lane to watch their team give a solid effort against the Premiership giants. The result was a 3-0 defeat but a good performance built more confidence ahead of the second half of the season.
Unfortunately Cheltenham's form did drop off in February and Mark Yates saw his side drop out of the automatic promotion race without a single win in March. A late surge in April confirmed the club's involvement in the play-offs however with Torquay United providing the opposition in the semi-finals. This was the club's third play-off campaign since promotion to the Football League back in 1999 and they drew first blood in the first leg with a solid 2-0 win at Whaddon Road. A 2-1 win in the second leg (and a heroic goalkeeping performance from Scott Brown) booked a Wembley final for the Cheltenham's 125th year of existence. It had been the first vist to the new Wembley Stadium for Cheltenham Town but it was a disappointing day with Crewe Alexandra running out 2-0 victors. The scoreline could have been so different with a little more luck but Cheltenham ended 2011-12 with their heads held high knowing they had come a long way over the last few seasons.