The mind can only begin to wonder about the kind of goal celebration Cheltenham Town have planned. Something flamboyant, a touch theatrical? A choreographed team move? Off-the-cuff or calculated? Or maybe the joy will be muted, more Shearer than Sturridge. Perhaps they are ready to unleash a self-deprecating routine when the moment finally arrives? After all, the players at League One’s bottom club have had almost five months to iron out the finer details. They have played more than 1,100 minutes since last scoring a goal.
The numbers make for grim reading: Cheltenham have scored three own goals but it is more than 18 hours since one of their players scored for them – more than 15 in the league after their failure to find the net in defeat at Lincoln last Saturday made it 10 straight games without a goal. They have more red cards (two) than goals and if Cheltenham do not end their barren run at home to Fleetwood on Tuesday, they will equal unwanted records: Coventry, in 1919-20, and Hartlepool United, in 1992-93, both went 11 league matches in a row without scoring.
Cheltenham have already set the record for the longest run without a goal at the start of a season; across 12 matches in all competitions. They have registered 81 shots, 23 of which were on target. And their top scorer is James Gibbons, the Bristol Rovers defender who inadvertently volleyed past his own goalkeeper in a 4-1 EFL Trophy victory last month. There is a danger Cheltenham, who recorded their best-ever league finish when they came 15th in the third tier last year, could make history for the wrong reasons. They will hope their goalless run is a distant memory by the time they host Derby on Saturday.
Ray Wintle, a longstanding Cheltenham season-ticket holder, estimates he is one of about 20 fans who have attended every league game this season. He was one of the 118 hardy supporters who travelled to Lincoln last weekend. “It was a big topic of conversation on the coach,” Wintle says of their goalscoring woes. “We were quite optimistic on the way up but when we came back to Whaddon Road we were a bit deflated. When it is such a long run you think: ‘When’s it going to turn?’ I was joking the other day: ‘I’ll be in the Guinness World Records soon.’ Cheltenham could set the record for not scoring a goal and I’ll set the record for sitting there watching it all unfold.”
A sense of humour is invaluable at times like these. Wintle has travelled countless miles in the hope of seeing his team find the net again. Their last goal was scored by Alfie May, against Charlton in the final game of last season. May scored 44% of Cheltenham’s goals last season and departed in the summer, for Charlton, as the club’s record scorer in the Football League. Aidan Keena, a club-record £100,000 buy from Sligo Rovers in January, and Rob Street, who signed from Crystal Palace, have endured frustrating starts. The on-loan Arsenal forward Nathan Butler-Oyedeji has also struggled to find the breakthrough.
“It is almost like they have forgotten how to score,” Wintle says. “But if you’re down on confidence, the last thing you want is someone to yell and shout at you, telling you that you’re useless. I don’t think anyone would respond well to that negative feedback. Even last Saturday I stayed until the end and clapped them off. I think you have to try to encourage them. We can all stand there and shout and boo but that is not going to achieve anything.”
In the league this season Cheltenham have scored none, conceded 17. The visit of Fleetwood, one place and four points above them in the table, already feels significant if they are not to get cut adrift. Fleetwood, who appointed Lee Johnson last month, earned their first win of the season last weekend and Cheltenham will hope the former Port Vale manager Darrell Clarke, who took training for the first time on Monday after succeeding Wade Elliott, can provide them with a similar uplift. Clarke watched Cheltenham’s defeat at Lincoln from the stands.
“It will have opened his eyes, no doubt,” Wintle says. “He has a good pedigree but it is going to be a really big ask to stay up this season.”
Cheltenham’s sole point and clean sheet this campaign came at leaders Portsmouth, a reminder of how unpredictable this all is. Perhaps on Tuesday the goals will begin to flow, though nobody is asking for that much.
“A 1-0 win would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Wintle says. “I don’t care how they do it. They can kick it in off someone’s backside, that will do. As long as it goes in, I won’t care.”