The Insight: Cheltenham Town’s incredible turnaround under Darrell Clarke

 | March 01 | 

7 mins read

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Cheltenham Town host Burton Albion in League One at the Completely-Suzuki Stadium on Saturday afternoon (15:00), looking to continue one of the great comeback stories to come from the Football League in 2023-24.

The Robins' struggles were the talk of the EFL back in September. They had started the season in horrific form under Wade Elliott, taking just one point from their first eight games and failing to score a single goal in that time.

Cheltenham Town Markets

  • Cheltenham to be relegated @ 11/5
  • Cheltenham to beat Burton Albion @ 8/11

Elliott had been dealt a bad hand in the summer after guiding the club to 16th in 2022-23, one position lower than their highest finish in the Football League with Michael Duff the previous year.  He had to deal with the departure to Charlton Athletic of star striker Alfie May, who had scored 20 times in the league last year and almost 40% of the club’s goals since their promotion to the third tier.

The Robins had also lost their director of football, head of recruitment and first-team analyst to league rivals Shrewsbury Town just weeks into the summer window. One would’ve expected a drop-off on the footballing front but not quite like this.

Elliott was swiftly removed from his position and experienced third-tier coach Darrell Clarke came in to replace him but the club’s record stretched to 11 games without a win or a goal, the latter being an unwanted Football League record.

With just one point, no goals and a negative goal difference of 19 from just under 25% of the campaign, Clarke certainly had his work cut out for him.

When a new head coach is appointed, usually the brief involves keeping the team in the division or getting them promoted. The first was of course going to be number one for Clarke, but what was the most pressing directive for the former Port Vale boss was to “score a goal”, as Clarke told Sky Sports back in November.

As soon as he stepped through the door, the 46-year-old was confident he could turn the club’s fortunes around as miracle work was not unfamiliar to him. In his last post at Port Vale, he inherited a side which had won three of their last 18, nine points above the relegation zone, and there was a real concern that they could drop out of the Football League entirely. Within 15 months they were celebrating promotion to League One.

The Robins finally grabbed their first goal of the season when they held promotion-chasing Derby County to a 1-1 draw at the Completely-Suzuki Stadium. Striker Rob Street’s first-half strike came as a huge sigh of relief to everyone associated with the club, and that was just an amuse-bouche for what Clarke was going to offer the survival mission in GL52.

Cheltenham to be relegated at 11/5

The first win came soon after, with the two-week international break coming at the perfect time for Clarke and his squad. They returned to action with a 1-0 victory at home to Cambridge United. The players had been given a lift and it rubbed off on the crowd, with everyone believing they had a chance, even though there was still a long way to go.

Clarke made sure not to deviate too much from what had been going on before him. He maintained the flexible 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 system that Elliott had been using, albeit with a more direct approach with regards to attacking.

He has been aided by some familiar faces in Cheltenham’s ranks helping to get his ideas across to the rest of the squad. Liam Sercombe and Matty Taylor used to play for Clarke at Bristol Rovers, while he took George Lloyd on loan from the Robins while he was Port Vale boss.

Lloyd wasn’t the only face from the Valiants with whom Clarke was reunited at Cheltenham as November saw him bring in midfielder Tom Pett on a short-term deal, which was later extended until the end of the season in January.

It was from his lips that you understood the respect Clarke has earned in the game. Pett told Sky Sports in November that he came to the Robins for “peanuts”. 

“It was the opportunity to play League One football and for him.

"I knew what the gaffer would be like as soon as he took over. The first day I was here, he was the loudest and chirpiest, and he'll always be like that.

"The squad thrive off that, and you wouldn't have known coming into the building where they were in the league." 

Pett was not the last old acquaintance to join Clarke in Gloucestershire as fellow midfielder Liam Kinsella, who had worked with Clarke at Walsall, came aboard in January from League Two outfit Swindon Town.

The former Republic of Ireland U21 international described Clarke as a “fantastic manager” and “one of the best” he’s worked under, further adding to the way Clarke connects with the players under his management.

With five months in the post, the hard work overseen by Clarke can now be seen in the league table. They may still be in the relegation zone (21st) but they are just three points behind Reading, as well as boasting two games in hand on most teams in the division. 

Before last week’s draw at Wigan Athletic, Cheltenham went on a three-game winning run which saw Clarke defeat his former employers Port Vale, who are one place below the Robins, for the second time this season.

Those three games account for a third of the victories that his side have picked up this term. Six in total have come on home soil, showing that he has made the Completely-Suzuki Stadium a much more difficult place to visit since September. In that time they have taken some huge scalps in top-10 sides Portsmouth, Oxford United and Blackpool. What adds to this is that they have only been beaten there three times since Clarke’s arrival.

In the 23 matches that he has taken charge of, his side have amassed 32 points (nine wins, five draws, nine losses). And if we were going off the league table since he was appointed, Cheltenham would be sat 14th, nine points above the drop zone in what would be the club’s best-ever finish in the Football League.

Cheltenham to win at 8/11

During this time, they have managed to rack up 28 goals with the same number conceded. They have outscored seven teams under Clarke. And what’s more impressive is that he has managed to bring their goal difference down to -17, which is better than five other teams in the third tier.

Now more than ever there is a belief that Cheltenham can stave off the drop, especially with two games in hand, at home to bottom side Carlisle United and away to Burton (17th).

What Clarke has managed with this group in five months is extraordinary, and if he can steer them to safety it will surpass his survival job at Vale Park.

If they can keep up the form that they’ve been in under his stewardship, they should really have no issues in pulling off the Great Escape and maintaining their League One status for a record fourth-straight year.

If the Port Vale survival mastermind can conjure up the same effect at Cheltenham this year, there is little doubt over Clarke's status as League One's outstanding manager of the season. And with plenty of games still left to go, you have to believe that he can get them over the white line.

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