THE National Game Awards Team of the Year didn’t exist this time 12 months ago. The side who have conquered all before them were just scribbles on a pad belonging to brothers Gary and Pete Johnson.
Cheltenham Town’s sibling team-stitchers had a big decision to make last May. The Robins had just been relegated back into Non-League football and, after going down without a whimper, it was stick or twist time.
Do they keep faith with players who got the club in this mess, try and find some belief, tweak the team and hope things improve and they redeem themselves at a lower level? Or do they start from scratch and run with the idea that there’s no relegation hangover hovering above with a new breed who won’t have the burden of righting a wrong on their shoulders.
The Johnsons went for the bold approach and bused in a totally new squad, with a fresh attitude and new hope – just the long-term injured Asa Hall remained. It was time for change and how it worked.
“We had 11 debuts on day one but we kept that team together for 10 or 11 games at the start of the season,” said Pete, the club’s head of recruitment and in charge of identifying the talent the club should sign.
Last summer, he should have put in for overtime.
“We knew the dressing room was going to be perfect and every time I mentioned another player to my brother he would check his Twitter, make sure he didn’t like a drink too much or had been in trouble.
“We were aware it would be a case of extremes, either success or absolute failure. Had we not gone up we probably would have lost our academy and might have had to go part-time, meaning people would have lost their jobs.
“The threat of that didn’t make it any easier to win the league but my brother and I felt quite confident we could get a team together.
“We actually got rid of everyone – Asa Hall was the only one we kept, because he’d been injured all year, and he’s done really well – so we brought in 20 players.
“The pressure was on but we got a real good group of lads together. Character was the first box to tick more than anything and football was the second. We wanted proven Non-League players that were hungry but we also got a lot of youngsters in.”
Cheltenham’s fantastic player finder will have a little less work to do this summer but says the pressure is on to get the signings right – because they want another stab at promotion.
“Gary has his ideas and so do I,” he adds. “It won’t be a case of finding a whole new team but we’ve got to make sure the players we do sign this summer and the right ones and that we’re ready to have another go in August.
“We’re not consolidating, that’s not in the DNA for me and my brother. If we can, we want to be promoted.”