The season has developed not necessarily to our advantage. I didn’t actually see the Burnley or Ipswich games. From the reports it seems clear that the performances were substantially better than against Preston, which shouldn’t be completely ignored as the players have shown they have the necessary pride and commitment. No goals, no points, and the loss of the place we had virtual squatters rights on tell their own story. But at least expectations have indeed been adjusted. Squeezing into the play-offs would now be seen as a bonus rather than the consolation prize it has appeared through the season (arrogant, Premiership-wannabees that we are).
Confidence among the players must be low – and surely it isn’t going to be helped if players go out on the pitch on Friday and expect to be booed from the first misplaced pass. For crying out loud can we please play a part in helping to maximise our chances of winning, against a team which may itself have surprisingly fallen away of late but which is bound to be scenting blood? This means not just not booing but also singing from the start. The crowd has been up for some games, most obviously Palace, but they have been few and far between. Of course it’s a chicken and egg argument about what happens on the pitch influencing the crowd. But we’re not impartial observers. I’m not in the least bit interested in leaving the ground listening to ‘told you we’d lose, why are we still playing X when he’s rubbish, I’ve got a right to voice my opinion’. The crowd does influence the outcome so can we please play our part in trying to make it a positive one.
We do have to hope that Pardew will stumble on a combination of the talents available that works in the seven (hopefully 10) games left. I’m always reluctant to make any suggestions regarding what this might be as I’m quite ready to accept that Pardew will have forgotten more about football over a cup of cocoa than I will ever know (this is of course penned through gritted teeth because there’s a part of every supporter that just can’t accept such common sense). Also, we are not close enough to the players or see them in training to see who is working well, who is up for the fight, what partnerships seem to be gelling etc.
It may be rather late in the day to be having a discussion about our best starting X1, but there we are. We haven’t had a settled team all season and, with Halford, Cook, Sinclair and Lita having come in we’re not going to in what’s left. It goes without saying that the successful teams are those which play to their strengths, including having an established style of play (even if, like Watford and Stoke, its awful to have to watch). To do that you have to know what they are. So are there any lessons to be learnt from our inconsistency – both in terms of results and team selection – through the season? Maybe. Bear with me in the following ramble as there may be a conclusion.
I’m sure from what he said and from our squad that Pardew believed that with Reid, Ambrose, Thomas, Sam, Holland and Zheng to call on midfield would be our strength, with lingering Premiership quality. And after a stuttering start there were reasons to believe that this would prove to be the case. However, with Holland injured it didn’t gel as well as it might have done – which was no fault of the excellent Semedo. Accommodating Reid and Ambrose in a four-man midfield left us short of pace and zip, Zeng struggled to have an influence, while too often we looked to Reid to deliver something special. At that time it wasn’t clear if Iwelumo and Varney would deliver the goals, with Todorov being used sparingly and McLeod not making an instant impression. And with McCarthy starting his Charlton career like Bambi on ice and Fortune and Bougherra not looking a comfortable combination, the defence was shipping goals.
Nevertheless, despite the disappointment of being held at home by Barnsley, going into the international break we had good reason to be cheerful (had we but known it then). Todorov was adding class, we were in second place with a newly constructed team which would only get better. There was a swagger about some of our play then, and an element of fear in our opponents.
However, the goals, which at no stage exactly flowed, dried up and Todorov was taken out. With McLeod struggling, Varney not scoring goals, and Dickson scoring elsewhere – and just as important the midfield not contributing – we had the experiment of Iwelumo on his own up front and Reid, Zheng and Ambrose trying their luck in the hole, all with mixed results. The bonus was that, with Sodje coming in and Mills producing some stirring displays, the defence, for a while, was tighter. But that all fell apart with home defeats to Sheff Utd and Burnley and, although there were some good performances/results (not least home to Ipswich), for me the season hit rock bottom against Hull as with Reid lost to injury we appeared clueless, a performance not matched until Preston.
It took us a while to work out that without Reid we needed to have a different approach, especially as Dickson was out of the equation almost as soon as he had returned. I really thought we found it for a while, due to two developments. First, the defence was transformed – not just as a defensive unit but as an integral part of a more fluid style of play. Youga came back from loan and was a revelation, Moutaouakil returned after Mills imploded, while McCarthy got back in the side and provided the leadership we so badly lacked. He and Bougherra formed what still looks to me like our best central pairing. Second, Varney and McLeod in tandem up front provided the necessary pace and movement. McLeod didn’t justify a place on the grounds of his finishing, but in combination with Youga and Moutaouakil the emphasis was on pace.
It seemed to me to work. The movement allowed Zheng to come into his own, with Holland providing the anchor. We had devised a way of playing without Reid which got the best out of some key players. I thought Gray coming in could be the final piece in the jigsaw. Instead it has been disruptive as he has needed time to settle in – and because for some reason Pardew saw him and Iwelumo as the initial combination.
All too soon it was over. Moutaouakil’s mistake against Scunthorpe cost him his place (I think he was also culpable for Watford’s goal in the away game, so for me it wasn’t just one mistake) and more recently Youga seems to have lost it. I have no idea why. In comes Halford and then Bougherra gets injured, so in comes Fortune. Youga is dropped and Thatcher is back. The defence is transformed again. For the better? At the same time Cook, Sinclair and Lita join the ranks. Is it any wonder that the players against Preston seemed to have no idea what sort of system they were supposed to be playing?
So, the lessons. Ideally we would have a settled spine to the team. We don’t (let's accept that Pardew has been unlucky with injuries at key times). Neither do we have obvious players/strengths that should dictate the way we play. In my opinion Pardew has to look at the squad and decide what the structure and style of play should be and choose the players accordingly, all the way through the team, not just in attack. If we’re going to play with pace and movement then it has to be Moutaouakil and Youga back in, with Varney and Gray starting up front. If we want to be more direct and see Lita as the man to score the goals we need, partner him with Iwelumo and try to ensure the wingers supply the goods, which probably means no place for Ambrose.
It’s just not good enough to suggest that this is our best player in this position, decide maybe seven or eight on that basis, then fill in the rest. It may well not be the best combination – and at worst the players can end up not knowing how they’re supposed to play (Preston). Of course we need to be able to change the system if things aren’t working out. That’s what subs are for.
Don’t forget Pards. You will be performing for a discerning audience on Friday as Suzanne will be over from France. I can’t believe that I didn’t know until a couple of days ago that Leonard Cohen is coming to town. I nearly didn’t manage to get a ticket for the London performance. But even better he is going to do one night in Lyon. I hope to take that one in as well. Come on, watching Leonard with Suzanne in tow. How can it not happen? This did actually spark an exchange with a friend over tickets as I suggested us going to Lyon and that before the concert Suzanne could take us down to her place near the river (well, she doesn’t actually have one, but there are two rivers in Lyon and you’re never that far away). He inquired whether that meant he could spend the night beside her. Maybe I should take the Sisters of Mercy path instead. Suzanne does have four after all. But then we weren’t lovers like that – and besides it would still be all right (his words, not mine).
When you get to this stage of life music and concerts can be about filling in gaps, as with laudable exceptions most new music is a poor rehash of old ideas. (Old fart or what?) So please Charlton, I’ve seen us play in this league for many years, I’ve seen us play in the league below. But I haven’t been to the new Wembley yet.