After just 12 matches of the 2023/24 League One season, Cheltenham Town looked down and out before Darrell Clarke stepped in.
Just two points and one goal from the opening 12 fixtures left the Robins cut adrift at the bottom of the League One table and nine points from safety. No team has made a worse start to the League One season since Bolton in 2019/20 – but even they had four draws and two goals to show at the same stage.
In came Clarke at the start of October to try and bring some stability after Wade Elliott left the club by mutual consent on September 20.
Since Clarke’s arrival, Cheltenham have given themselves a fighting chance of completing one of the EFL’s greatest survival campaigns.
But, even though the Robins have made exceptional progress under their new manager’s stewardship, avoiding the drop remains a mammoth task. The Gloucestershire side have 23 points, remain eight points from safety and face 18 crucial fixtures to save their League One status.
Improvements Under Darrell Clarke
Clarke’s return of 1.22 points per game from 18 matches has helped Cheltenham to close the gap on their relegation rivals.
Immediately, improvements were noticeable in the Robins’ new approach. Seven points from Clarke’s first five matches showed a remarkable impact, which led to the Cheltenham boss’ nomination as October League One Manager of the Month.
Clarke made few tactical tweaks in terms of formation. The 46-year-old has generally stuck to a 3-4-3 system away and a 3-5-2 setup at the Completely- Suzuki Stadium, also used by Elliott in the season’s early stages.
A settled centred back pairing of Lewis Freestone and Curtis Davies, often partnered by the now-injured Owen Bevan or Ben Williams, has provided solid building blocks. Such foundations are crucial for any side battling the drop.
It was no surprise to see Cheltenham go from shipping 20 goals in their opening 12 matches to leaking just nine in their next 12 under Clarke. Key to this upturn was the combination of Freestone and Davies, who have been central to such backline improvements.
Adding goals was clearly another priority for Clarke, and he has often relied on his forward players to produce in the final third.
The Cheltenham boss gave his forward players a new lease of life soon after his arrival. After failing to score a record-equalling opening 11 league matches, strike partners Will Goodwin and Rob Street combined in a hard-fought 1-1 home draw with Derby in October.
This goal led to a subsequent glut from the Robins’ forward players as Street provided two assists in the next two matches, while Liam Sercombe and Goodwin got off the mark in a 1-0 win over Cambridge and a narrow 3-2 loss at Blackpool.
Goodwin and Sercombe kicked on since opening their accounts in October, with the duo contributing 13 of the Robins’ 21 goals this season.
Both have notched at vital times for Clarke’s side too. Goodwin added vital goals in a 2-0 win over Oxford and a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers. Sercombe has also struck three match-winners for the season and is the club’s top scorer with seven.
However, Goodwin’s departure to Oxford was a major blow for Clarke and the Robins. Cheltenham’s return of just two goals scored since the 21-year-old departed has given Clarke a new dilemma for the run-in to address swiftly.
Can Clarke Lead Cheltenham to Safety?
Clarke has brought a belief to a Cheltenham side that was on its haunches in early October. The team continues to improve, and the Robins have become a tough-to-beat outfit in League One.
Although, Clarke’s immediate task will be to arrest the slide of three consecutive League One losses. Narrow defeats at promotion-chasing Bolton (1-0) and Derby (2-1) can perhaps be forgiven. But a 3-1 home loss to Wycombe are matches that Cheltenham must be winning.
One of the main areas Clarke will need to address is in attack. Without Goodwin and the injured Rob Street, Clarke will now rely heavily on top-scorer Sercombe for goals.
The 46-year-old also has George Lloyd and Aidan Keena at his disposal. Yet the duo have underperformed, with Lloyd netting twice in 15 matches and Keena failing to score in 26 games.
Clarke applied his quality to get better output from improvement from Goodwin and Street earlier in the campaign. Doing the same with Lloyd and Keena will be a bigger task, yet it will be crucial as a solid core can only provide so much in a relegation battle.
The additional experience Matty Taylor – brought in from Forest Green in the winter window – may relieve some goalscoring pressure, as the Robins will need an alternative goal source other than Sercombe for a successful run-in.
Clarke deserves plaudits for his job so far at the Completely- Suzuki Stadium. He has added stability to a side that was shipping goals and scoring few and has elevated the game of many in his squad.
Yet there is still plenty to play for, and Cheltenham can ill-afford many more defeats.
Working in the Robins’ favour are potentially crucial home matches. In their final nine home fixtures, Cheltenham face five teams currently in the bottom half of League One. In addition, relegation rivals Port Vale and Carlisle also head to Gloucestershire in potential six-pointers.
If Clarke can get a tune out of his side (or more specifically, his strikers) for the final push of the season, Cheltenham could complete one of the greatest League One escapes.