Football: Good bet in champion stakes

Cheltenham is synonymous with racing. But football may soon be on the map. FIRST NIGHT CHELTENHAM TOWN
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It seemed a suitable setting in which to check out some form. With the long ridge of Cleeve Hill in the background, the clear favourites were preparing for action at Cheltenham. It was not to be the best of nights for them. But the odds remain stacked on them getting past the post in first place. The smart money says that, come May, Cheltenham will be on the sporting map as a Football League town as well as a horseracing Mecca.

Steve Hearle, whose turf accounting business can be found in Portland Place, is offering odds of 2-5 that Whaddon Road will stage Third Division football next season and odds of 1-2 that Istabraq will stage a repeat win in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse on Tuesday. "Let's hope Istabraq wins it that clearly and we do exactly the same," Steve Cotterill, the manager of Cheltenham Town, said. "But we still have some difficult games ahead of us. There are no easy games in the Conference."

That became clear to the 3,341 of us in attendance at Whaddon Road on Tuesday night. With four of his key players injured, Cotterill's team were held 2-2 by a bullish young Hereford United side. With four games in hand on Kettering, though, and three points to make up on the one club above them in the Conference table, Cheltenham remain on course for the big step Hereford took after their FA Cup heroics in 1972.

"Ronnie Radford!" Tom McNeil exclaimed amid pre-match ruminations in the Robins' Nest, the snug bar in the main stand at Whaddon Road. "Now he was a great player. Very strong. Wing-half. He could play full-back too. He was a big favourite here."

McNeil has spent 61 of his 67 years watching non-League journeymen come and go at Cheltenham. His father, Tom senior, once an inside-left at Liverpool, played for the Robins in the 1930s. Ronnie Radford had two spells with the club. The afternoon before he whacked his wonder goal for Hereford against Newcastle at Edgar Street he was hammering nails into the roof of a new house in Cheltenham.

McNeil spends much of his time on the rooves at Whaddon Road, tending to the cleaning and tidying duties he has performed voluntarily for "donkey's years". He has watched many a Cheltenham team play like donkeys too. "We've had some real downers over the years," he said. "I've sat in here many a time and thought, `Are we ever going to get anywhere?' We've had crowds of 200 and we've been down to the Midland Division of the Southern League.

"To get into the Football League would be the culmination of all my dreams. I'm trying not to think about it, to be honest. These last two years have been a fairytale, really. Steve Cotterill has been terrific, the best thing that's ever happened to Cheltenham Town. He's a wonderful manager. He's got something about him that gets the best out of players."

He certainly has. Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival may have its Gold Cup but Cheltenham's football club would seem to have a manager with a Midas touch. It is a wonder the FA Trophy Cotterill lifted at Wembley last May, as the youngest manager to lead out a team beneath the Twin Towers, did not turn from silver to gold.

In two years and two months as manager of his home-town club, he has dragged Cheltenham from the bootlaces of the Dr Martens League almost to the foot of the Football League. His Robins were runners-up to Halifax in the Conference last season, held Reading in the third round of the FA Cup and beat Southport in front of 18,000 Cheltonians in the Trophy final at Wembley. This season they have suffered just four defeats, one of them to Lincoln City, 1-0, in the first round of the FA Cup.

"Since we appointed Steve we haven't looked back," Paul Baker, the chairman of the Cheltenham board, reflected over half-time coffee. "He's a very strong character. Very single-minded. Very focused. Very ambitious."

Whatever Cheltenham Town's fate, Cotterill, at 34, seems destined for the Football League. A striker with Wimbledon in his playing days, he has clearly brought the spirit of the Crazy Gang and the nous of his backroom teachers at the Dons - Don Howe, Bobby Gould, Ray Harford and Joe Kinnear - with him into his management career. That much was obvious when Jamie Victory, an impressive left-sided midfielder, shot Cheltenham into a 39th-minute lead on Tuesday. Cotterill was not celebrating. He was admonishing his defenders for a moment of laxity that was repeated a minute later. Granted the freedom of Whaddon Road, Christian Roberts blasted a gift- wrapped equaliser for Hereford.

Cheltenham's class was clear to see when they regained the lead on the hour, Victory and Neil Grayson combining to set up John Brough for as finely crafted a goal as you could wish to behold anywhere on the football map. The Robins, though, were prone to defensive fluttering all night and dropped two points when they got into a flap while attempting, without success, to clear an injury-time corner.

Cotterill's face was thunder as he made the short walk along the ash- track to the dressing-room. He was still smouldering in the corridor a quarter of an hour later. "My feelings?" he said. "I should think they're quite obvious to you, to be honest." One of the local reporters was given even shorter shrift when he asked for a quote. "How about `Shite! Crap! Terrible!' " came the reply.

It did not make pretty copy but it was noteworthy nevertheless. It showed that Cheltenham Town have a manager who cares. They have a manager with a burgeoning reputation too. Cotterill's Whaddon Road record is not the only success on his managerial CV. He has also guided Sligo Rovers to their highest ever placing in the League of Ireland and into the Uefa Cup.

"What kind of a manager is he?" the veteran Clive Walker pondered after his 20-minute cameo on the right wing for the Robins. "He's demanding. He sticks to his principles. He has his own way of playing. He knows what he wants and he gets the best out of the players.

"The club have made big strides on the pitch with him in the last two years. They've also made big strides off the pitch with the chairman, Paul Baker. If we win the Conference they're going to give it a damn good crack in the Football League. And fair play to them. They're nice people. They've gone about it the right way."

They have indeed. Baker and his fellow directors have built a sound commercial base, backing Cotterill's judgement with pounds 100,000 in spending money and investing pounds 240,000 in making Whaddon Road a venue of Football League standard. "We've got an A grading now," the Cheltenham chairman said. "So if we do win the Conference this year we'll take our place in the Third Division without having to spend very much money at all on the ground.

"It's been great for the town. We boast the racecourse and the Gold Cup and all that. We've got the rally. We've got an excellent cricket festival. We've got super literary and music festivals. And alongside that we've got a great football team now."

Cheltenham has Gustav Holst's birthplace too - in Clarence Road. Two streets away, in Whaddon Road, you could say the locals are over the moon, if not one of the planets.