Monday, 12 November 2007

Down With The Stiffs

I’m not sure if it was the euphoria of three wins on the spin, guilt over my miserable failure to date to get to an away game (a run which will continue through the Preston game as that’s the next scheduled Lyon weekend), the fact that for the first time in a couple of weeks I feel OK (after cold etc exacerbated by rainy nights in Amsterdam – no, the trip was work-related), or just the attraction of being able to write total nonsense about a game with little fear of contradiction. But I felt an overwhelming desire to go and watch the reserves turn over the Palace stiffs, to get a feel for how some of the players that are bound to be called upon at some point are shaping up.

This desire did ease a little when I realised that reserve games are being played at Gravesend & Northfleet. But after a quick check it seemed the journey could be done by train in less than an hour – and it’s an easy way to notch up another ground at which I’ve seen Charlton play (and one which some fellow Addicks who tot up these things may struggle to match).

I don’t have particularly good memories of Gravesend. (Yes, I know that to go to the game you get the train to Northfleet; I’ve just been there for Christ sake. It’s a little poetic licence to use an anecdote or two – and let’s face it nobody on this planet, even those who currently reside there, can have any recollections of Northfleet. I’m a city dweller and don’t trust places without copious street lighting or with these dinky little stations that still give you the impression you’ve landed in the middle of nowhere. Taxi mate? There’ll be one along next week.)

I lived there for a few years after my parents decided that the fresher air away from London would be better for my father and my sister’s asthma (they were wrong). My abiding memory is that in the sprawling semi-circular avenue in which we lived every house had a front garden. Every front garden was a lawn. Except one. Ours. Ours had rose bushes. Now I don’t remember the thought process that led up to the events of the afternoon in question (I was too young for it to have been alcohol). But suffice to say that my heroic levelling of the rose bushes (aided by my toy rifle) was matched by a smack of the belt from my father for every rose left lying on the ground. I’d have made a fortune in compensation today.

More recently trips to Gravesend (and Gillingham) have not been voluntary. You know the score. Trashed in town, just make the last train back. Your conscious as the train pulls out of Lewisham but are desperately hanging on, knowing that there’s just a couple of minutes to go. Then you come too with a jolt and immediately realise something is wrong. The train doors open and there’s the sign: ‘Welcome to Gravesend’.

So going to Gravesend has become associated for me with ‘please rewind my life’. Maybe in the future there will be a good reason to go back there. I just can’t for the life of me imagine what it could be. Maybe just to tear down that bloody sign.

The line-up as announced was Elliot in goal, Sankofa and Solly as the full-backs, Bougherra and Aswad Thomas in central defence, the returning Matt Holland and Racon in central midfield, Wagstaff and Lozano-Calderon on the flanks, and Varney and McLeod as the front two.

Mixed team for my purposes. Where were McCarthy and Moutaouakil, two players that I most wanted to see, or even Christensen? The first two both last appeared for the second-string at the end of October against QPR, missing the following game against Watford. Are they injured? I haven’t seen any announcement to that effect. I was particularly keen to see how McCarthy was getting on, even in a meaningless match (no, CAFC website, reserve matches do not make amends for anything). I’m still inclined to assume that Pardew expected him to be his general in defence, but so far he has looked error-prone and rusty. I wanted to see if he was knuckling under and waiting for his chance or sulking. Yassin we all expect to see back in the first-team sooner or later, so I just wanted to see whether he looks fully fit.

No matter. With a spine of Bougherra, Holland, Racon, Varney and McLeod most if not all of us were assuming that the team would have too much for Palace reserves (too much indeed for any side that they could put out). It just didn’t turn out that way. I’m not a regular watcher of reserves games, so this may have been a classic. But I doubt it. It was a mishmash of poor passes and incoherent play which had 0-0 written all over it well before the final whistle.

Charlton too often relied on a long ball forward in the expectation that a Palace defender would make a mistake or Varney would flick on to McLeod or vice versa. The trouble was when it worked for Varney he blew two one-on-ones – the first early in the game he shot at the keeper, the second late on saw him with a long run in and an embarrassing failure to even get in a shot – and when McLeod found himself in good positions he had run offside.

I had hoped for a little chemistry between the two. It was more like magnetism of the wrong sort. I don’t think they even looked at each other during the game, let alone talked. And both looked miserable and low on confidence. Come on guys. It’s only a reserves game, you don’t have a real match for another couple of weeks. What’s wrong with some evidence that you are doing something you like? These are at present our only two striker options if Iwelumo is not available. I know you shouldn’t draw strong conclusions from a run-out for the stiffs on a cold November evening. But it wasn’t inspiring.

Bougherra dealt comfortably with what came his way. Sankofa had a couple of iffy moments early on but otherwise was sound if not spectacular (there was no sign of him getting forward). Racon looked a cut above the others in midfield without really imposing himself on the game. Matty Holland? He looked like, well, just what you’d expect. He lasted an hour before giving way to Arter. Another couple of run-outs and Holland should be ready to do a job once more.

The game became more interesting once Arter had come on and Uchechi had replaced Lozano-Calderon on the left wing. They added greater urgency going forward – but at the same time the Palace midfield found it a lot easier to run past Arter than they had Holland and for a period it was like QPR all over again. Palace had three or four shots which went narrowly wide or were saved by Elliot in a short spell. The just left Varney’s late fluff and widespread groans from the shivering support when it was announced that there were three additional minutes to play (yes, everything's still coming in threes - and we're back down to third).

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