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Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Downing still learning the ropes

By Pete Oliver

Keith Downing
Keith Downing joined Cheltenham as John Ward's assistant (Getty)

Cheltenham Town boss Keith Downing admits that his first season in management has been a steep learning curve.

Untried as a number one, Downing was handed the reins at Whaddon Road last October when the vastly experienced John Ward left to join Carlisle United.

With Cheltenham struggling to get over a slow start which had left them near the foot of League One, it was sink or swim time for the former Wolves midfielder.

And if he manages to keep the Robins up (they are currently seven points clear of trouble with eight games left), then he will be deemed to have swum.

He told BBC Sport: "It's been a very difficult year and a big transition with John going.

"Carlisle had shown an interest in him earlier. And I was a little surprised by the timing of it but I understood John's position.

"I threw my hat into the ring and then it took a month for the board to work out that I was going to get it full-time.

Thankfully for the Robins, Downing has proved a quick learner.

"It's been tough and it's been a massive learning curve for six or seven months but I have enjoyed it."

It will be a fantastic achievement if we survive

Keith Downing

Downing added: "It's been a challenge and a good starting position for managing a football club, which is something I've always sought.

"That's why I joined with John three or four years ago, to get that experience. I have put my own personality into it but there are similar traits to John."

Ward's track record of success with York, Bristol City and then Cheltenham made him a good example to follow after the pair had previously worked together on the coaching staff at Wolves.

Molineux had also given Downing a solid coaching background through his contact with Graham Taylor, Colin Lee, Dave Jones and Graham Turner, under whom he started the cross-over from player to coach at Hereford United.

"You get a lot of experience and knowledge working with these people and I still sometimes draw on that now by speaking to them," said the 42-year-old former Wolves favourite.

Alex Russell
Experienced loanees like Alex Russell have done a job (Getty)

Experience has also been key to Cheltenham's revival on the pitch with Downing quick to bolster the club's playing ranks with some proven performers since his appointment.

"We had been weakened in the summer when one or two experienced players left, like JJ Melligan, Kayode Odejayi and Craig Armstrong and with Jamie Victory retiring it added to that.

"We were a bit short of experience and know-how and when John left my main aim was to get some of that."

Former Aston Villa and Blackburn full-back Alan Wright, 36, was among the first to arrive, along with Charlton midfielder Dean Sinclair on loan.

Armstrong returned to the club more recently, while Downing has continued to work the loan market well, relying heavily on a good relationship with neighbours Bristol City.

"The loan players have all bought into the culture, which is down to the present squad accepting them.


"One thing we have got is a strong bond and a good spirit of togetherness which we have managed to keep," Downing said.

Cheltenham were still in the bottom two at the turn of the year but since then have put together an impressive run with just five defeats in 16 games.

Five goals in six matches from on-loan Bristol City striker Steve Brooker were a big help and his recall to Ashton Gate is a blow. But Cheltenham, helped by wins over Leeds and Bristol Rovers in their last two games, have opened up a significant gap above the relegation places and Downing is close to achieving a notable first goal.

He added: "We are under no illusions. We have got the smallest budget in the league and when you are competing with Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Swansea it's a tall order to stay with it.

"What we have is a homely club, a good spirit, a good togetherness and some very hard-working players.

"It's a massive challenge for us but everybody is buying into it. We have got to prove people wrong and do what people don't expect us to, and that's stay up."

Whaddon Road
Gates at Whaddon Road have hovered around the 3,500 mark

Last season, 12 months on from winning promotion via the League Two play-offs for a second time in four years, Cheltenham also beat relegation with a late run to safety.

However, Downing does not want that to be the limit of the ambitions for a club which acquired League status in 1999.

"I am quite ambitious myself and I don't want to do that every year," he said. "Certainly we want to survive this year and then if we can over the next year or two push on, if that's possible.

"The board has done well to put us where we are and to try and take another step is difficult with average gates of around 3,500. The revenue is not coming in.

"I understand the board's dilemma. They can't throw money at it."

Downing's solution will be to try and push home Cheltenham's geographical advantage, near enough to Bristol and the Midlands clubs to offer promising players the chance of first-team football on loan.

First, though, he must complete his short-term plan and make sure that League One status is maintained.

"We have proved over the last year or so that we can compete and it will be a fantastic achievement if we survive," Downing added.

"With eight games and seven weeks to go we have to make sure we keep the scoreboard ticking over. Looking at it 51 points might see us safe, although you never know because in the past 52 points has gone down.

"It's a difficult challenge but the last two wins have been good for our confidence and we have to try and take that forward."

see also
Johnson recalls striker Brooker
18 Mar 08 |  Bristol City
Cheltenham name Downing as boss
02 Nov 07 |  Cheltenham Town
Downing to deputise for boss Ward
17 Nov 06 |  Cheltenham Town

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