Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Kids Are Out - But Not Down

So it ends at the quarter-final stage. An interesting contrast of styles and attitudes saw Sunderland’s youth team – which looked suspiciously full of journeymen veterans – claim a spot in the semis against Man City with a last-minute winner after the Addicks had levelled at 1-1. It was rough justice on Charlton, who had the chances to win the game and deserved at least to take the game to extra-time. But it wasn’t daylight robbery, with Sunderland as expected proving a very different kettle of fish to Sheff Utd and Swindon, just part of the learning process.

It was the same line-up for Charlton’s youths as in the previous two cup games. But something was different this time around. We weren’t 4-0 up after 20 minutes, were having to work harder than in previous games to gain and keep possession, and were up against opponents who meant business. Given the size and strength of them it was clear they couldn’t mean anything else. And with Waghorn up front Sunderland seemed confident that they could keep it tight and sooner or later he would make something happen. For their part Charlton soon moved Jonjo Shelvey inside, with Scott Wagstaff occupying the right side of midfield. And with Danny Uchechi tending to play up front alongside Ben Godfrey it was more a straight 4-4-2 than the previous more fluid system of Uchechi, Wagstaff, Shelvey and Rashid Yussuff playing off and around Godfrey.

It all added up to a cagey first half with few chances. Although Charlton enjoyed a majority of possession the best chances fell to Sunderland. A free header from a set piece and a break through the centre which saw a shot hit the outside of the post. However, just before the break Charlton showed what they could do as some lovely interplay on the edge of the box orchestrated by Uchechi created the space for Godfrey to have the shot which the keeper saved. But whereas in previous rounds Charlton were creating moments and chances like this at will, this time it took 44 minutes to create one.

If anything Sunderland tightened up further after half-time – and put a premium on keeping possession. That put pressure on Charlton when they finally won the ball back and for a while we seemed to be retreating into a shell, having to rely more on long balls forward which were meat and drink to the Sunderland defenders. It wasn’t a great surprise when they took the lead, after about 54 minutes. Sam Long seemed to have won the ball on the left and looked to me to have been pulled back, which allowed them to regain possession, the ball put in across the face of the goal to an incoming forward to score. It was probably Waghorn.

However, the goal galvanised Charlton, who realised they had to go out and chase the game. Alexander Stavrinou, impressive again as the holding midfielder, was sacrificed, with Ruairi Harkin coming on to play wide left, Yussuff moving inside. The tempo increased and they started to cause Sunderland problems, with Uchechi usually at the centre of things. After around 63 minutes we had our reward. Uchechi I think squared the ball and Yussuff drilled it low into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. Sunderland were flustered and just a minute later the ball fell kindly for Godfrey but his shot cannoned back off the same post that Sunderland had hit in the first half.

Whether through fatigue or Sunderland upping their game we seemed to drift back into our shell, with thoughts turning to extra time. Sunderland worked very hard at keeping the ball and protecting their back four and slowly regained the upper hand. They seldom looked like scoring, but Waghorn was doing enough to unsettle our defence with his pace. We started to threaten only sporadically again – although there was still time for us to hit the post again.

Callum O’Shea came on for Godfrey and extra-time loomed. Then some hesitation on the left side saw Sunderland gain possession in a dangerous area, the ball played inside, and a curled lob over Joe Woolley and we were out. Rough justice but we were looking tired towards the end.

So it goes. Good luck to Sunderland, who were well organised, compact, and professional – in the good and bad senses of the word. The ref was keen to let the game flow in the first half and to keep his card in his pocket (which was good news for Shelvey after one tackle), but Sunderland were not above leaving their foot in once or twice to let our lads know what’s what. And the training when it comes to arguing with the ref, contesting decisions etc obviously starts early up in the north-east. In the end they just proved stronger than us.

That said, I’d prefer to see our youth team playing the adventurous football that they do than focusing on organisation and strength. Sunderland played like a third division side comprising 40-year-olds. Waghorn obviously gives them something extra (although for the most part during the game Yao Mambo and Rhys Coleman handled him well), but without him they would have been pedestrian. By contrast Charlton can point to any number of the team as capable of continuing to develop and improve – from an already very high level. I think I’ll hang on to the team sheet and see in 10 years which of the players from both sides go on to make the grade in the top two divisions. I don’t mind making a bet with any Sunderland supporter that there will be more of ours that do than theirs.

Which ones of the Charlton team make it and which ones don’t is not for me to speculate on. And I'm not going to give individual ratings (although it is worth saying that the one in the starting eleven not already mentioned, Chris Solly, had a good shout to be man of the match). But whether by luck or judgement we have a crop of youngsters capable of going a long way in the game. That’s more important than who won on the night.

32 Moral High Ground, Cloud Cuckoo Land

Well, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. On Saturday, while the England rugby team were royally plucking, stuffing and parboiling the Gallic coq (it’s OK, she’ll never read this – and if she does I’ll say something is being lost in translation), Lyon-Ducherre failed to see off AS Beaune, having to settle for a 0-0 draw at home. I haven’t been able to source a full match report, but have no doubt that some of the decisions by the ref were diabolical.

At least the rugby ensured bragging rights remain in London for the foreseeable future. I just always feel more comfortable inhabiting the moral high ground, especially when your partner arrives in London from Lyon with the full backing of an extended family and work colleagues in anticipation of a French rout of Les Rosbif. A rousing rendition of Les Marseilles was the closest she came to enjoying Saturday evening. Well, except for one moment. One that serves as a reminder that just when you think everything’s going fine …

I’m not noted for my culinary skills. Never have been. So the recent excursion into cooking various dishes when my partner Suzanne visits London is a new departure. Suffice to say that this time around the lamb shank was, after about eight hours in the oven, near perfect. And things were going so well (OK, the wine was flowing into my system at the required rate) that I decided to check out whether I could make a crème brulee. Normally that would equate to buying the things ready-made and shoving them under a grill. But with the honour of England at stake I checked out a recipe and decided to give it a go. It ain’t that difficult, just eggs, cream, sugar and vanilla pods.

What they failed to add in the recipe I saw was that during the final stage of preparation you need to avoid acting like an idiot. So when two crème brulees were under the grill at maximum heat to caramelise the sugar topping what you don’t do in order to check whether the topping is ready is to stick your finger into it. And when howling in pain you extract said finger coated in highly adhesive burning sugar to stop the pain you don’t bite off the sugar – as that will leave you with a burnt mouth to go along with your burnt finger. It all happened so fast.

There is of course still an element of being shell-shocked. Blackpool did look lively going forward at The Valley. It just doesn’t need to be said again that at this stage of the season tripping up away against the likes of Scunthorpe and Blackpool, also Sheff Wed, is not compatible with getting promoted. Neither are the public criticisms of players delivered by Pardew welcomed. He seemed to suggest that because he had said the same to their faces it’s OK. It isn’t. What did these comments actually achieve? This isn’t to jump on any bandwagon of criticism of Pardew. It’s just to say that everyone makes mistakes and airing these comments was in my view an error of judgement.

I feel a little silly now that it was only a few weeks ago that we were discussing how many points might be required to get an automatic promotion spot. Clearly it’s still not impossible for us to still get a top-two place. It’s just that we now need to go on the sort of run that only settled and confident teams are capable of. If the players can do this it would be a remarkable testimony to their character and ability. For the time being it’s a case of looking no further than each game ahead and doing our best to win it.

As far as getting in the play-offs is concerned, the history lesson I embarked on previously concluded that: in the past 10 years the lowest points total for getting sixth place is 73 and the highest 76 – ie a very tight range. The downside of a tight division in which a relatively low points total can get you promoted has to be a risk that a bunch of teams competing for a top-six finish will produce a relatively high sixth-place points total. To reach 73 points we would need to get 21 points from our remaining 12 games, which implies winning perhaps six and getting three draws. That has to be considered bare minimum.

I can’t yet get excited thinking about the play-offs. For now it’s still the possibility of automatic promotion that is the focus. I may be living in cloud cuckoo land, but it’s served me well over the years. And I don’t want to dwell yet on whether we are good enough to go up, who we might meet in the play-offs, how the squad would need to be rationalised if we stay down etc. If it comes to it I’m confident we’ll be up for the fight. But I still feel emotionally drained every time I think about a trip to Wembley.

Work commitments mean that not only will I miss the trip to Sheffield on Saturday but I’ll also be absent for the Bristol City game. So it’s a case of off to see the kids tonight to hopefully cheer them into the semis before taking leave of absence. Just behave yourselves while I’ve gone and look after the place. Two games. Six points. Easy peasy. Back on track. Ship stabilised. Onwards and upwards. Dispatched from 32 Moral High Ground, Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Much Ado About Absolutely Nothing

I remember being taught when young if you have nothing to say, or if you have something to say but don’t know how to say it, keep it buttoned. Didn’t follow the advice then and haven’t since. I’m tired, hungover and bored. Come to think of it that’s pretty much how this blog started. So let’s just see where this one goes. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for any insight. There isn’t any; if there ever was.

I’m still recovering from an evening’s entertainment watching Lyon get cruelly robbed by Man Utd’s late equaliser (more accurately, I’m recovering from the botched recovery from that night). I may have decided on following Lyon’s ‘other team’, Lyon-Ducherre, but personal considerations and a touch of expediency mean I’m still rooting for OL. And I still can’t watch Tevez play football without seething at the injustice of what happened last season. At least we’ve settled on a song for my new second team. As La Duche sounds to me suspiciously like a douche, perhaps it’s appropriate to coopt Edith’s classic and sing ‘non, nous ne lavons rien’. I’m just not entirely convinced that the other supporters will embrace the idea of a daft Englishman singing a bastardisation of an anthem, one which they could misinterpret as an insult.

In any event, I’m not sure when I can make it to my first Lyon-Ducherre game. They do play at home this weekend, against AS Beaune (a team which in other circumstances would have my full support, given languid afternoons strolling around the caves and winebars of that town). There’s an away game on 8 March then a home game on 15 March, against SA Thiers. I haven’t yet been told when I’m next off to Lyon (these things are effectively decided by the power that is). It could be early April – which might coincide with a home game against Echirolles FA. We’re away at Plymouth that weekend. Maybe that’s one we need to gear ourselves up for. So maybe La Duche and Edith will have to wait a while longer.

I’m not going to be taking up Pardew’s offer of a day by the seaside this weekend. Lyon is coming to London for a visit planned some time ago. In keeping with the recent tradition, I shall be cooking a lamb shank through Saturday. This is the sort of meal that ticks all my boxes. Half-an-hour’s work slicing and dicing and then shove it in an oven for as long as possible, while pretending to be a chef and downing enough pastis and red wine to prepare for the evening’s England v France rugby match. There’s even the prospect of a celebration cognac to round off the day.

I shall of course be on tenterhooks through the afternoon. Everyone knows it is a game we have to win. So no comments from me on the team, tactics etc, just a hearty vote of confidence in Pardew and the boys along with my note excusing me from making the trip. The best way to enjoy Blackpool is a coach trip home feeling smug. So make sure you have one.

There were a couple of excursions to Blackpool during my university years, usually to celebrate post-exams time (although being sensible and having chosen philosophy as a degree course we usually didn’t have exams, we just went along for the celebrations). My recollection of the place is rather soured by having been a loose part in a love triangle which involved a fellow student breaking off her engagement to her partner who had come along for the trip. The difficult mood was not helped by a pub entertainer calling on all those in the audience with personal problems to talk to the barman. I do recall we left in a hurry after one of our number confided in the bar staff that he had a particularly difficult problem, namely paying for the drinks we were consuming.

My mood of late has not been helped by the impression I should be tilting at more windmills. Standing on the station platform waiting for a train and what do you get? ‘Please be reminded that Blackheath station is a non-smoking area; you are not allowed to smoke …’ followed shortly after by ‘do not leave bags unattended; any unattended bags will be removed’ and then ‘stand away from the edge of the platform, the next train will not stop here’. Was it always like this? I expected an announcement giving me permission to blow my nose.

I was a little surprised at the negative reaction of some comments after the Watford game. Having seen the goals it’s clear we were indeed robbed. Who knows how the game would have finished up if we had held it at 2-1 for a while – and if the ref had not developed severe myopia as Shittu engaged in a one-sided wrestling match with Fortune. Even with the draw if someone had said that it would be two wins and a draw from home games against Stoke, Palace and Watford we would have taken it without hesitation. By the same token if someone had said one point from away games against Scunthorpe and Sheff Wed we would have been less than happy. Earlier this season we couldn’t beat the better teams but put away those near the bottom and were picking up more wins away than at home. These trends have reversed of late, just adding to the confusion that is this season.

The club meanwhile continues to make progressive and encouraging moves, including the tie-up with Shandong Luneng. Given the way the association with Inter went a few years back nobody is getting too excited. But it would be daft not to look to take advantage of the Zhi connection. The problem seems to be diverting the attention of the Chinese sovereign wealth funds away from Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and others and towards an ambitious, well-run London football team with a devoted following. There’s still a lot to be cheerful about when it comes to supporting Charlton. It’s just that at the moment everything will seem like a consolation prize if we don’t get promoted. Three points and I'm happy again.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

High Fives For The Kids

If proof were needed that the youth team’s 6-0 demolition of Sheff Utd in the previous round was no flash in the pan we just had it. Swindon, conquerors of Middlesbrough last time out, were brushed aside within half an hour. The final score of 5-1 to the Addicks didn’t flatter them at all. The foot came off the gas after they went 4-0 up inside 30 minutes and, while Swindon stuck to their task, it had become a stroll in the park – if that doesn’t create the wrong image on a bloody cold February night. (The photo by the way is a scenic rendition entitled Moon Over The Valley In A Floodlit Game In February.)

The Charlton line-up for the game was the same as against Sheffield. And it was soon clear that the passing game and the pace and movement of the team collectively going forward would be too much for Swindon to handle – as long as superiority could be translated into goals. Didn’t take long for that question to be answered either. On seven minutes a break down the right by Danny Uchechi – who was my man of the match as Swindon just couldn’t contain him – saw his shot parried and fall to the onrushing Jonjo Shelvey who made no mistake.

Every time Charlton worked the ball through midfield or down the flanks they looked threatening and nobody was surprised when on 18 minutes a cross from the right saw a defender slide in Shittu-style to slice the ball goalwards. This time it came back off the bar – to the onrushing Shelvey who made no mistake. The third duly followed on 24 minutes, with Scott Wagstaff running on to a through ball and chipping over the keeper. And on 26 minutes it was four as Ben Godfrey followed up a shot from Selvey palmed out by the keeper.

That was effectively game over and not surprisingly the tempo dropped. And while not exactly rocked back on their heels Charlton did give Swindon a goal back with a moment that centre-back Yado Mambo and goalkeeper Joe Wooley will not care to remember. A cross from the left was deflected high in the air and confusion saw Mambo and Wooley in a muddle, the ball breaking to the Swindon forward to hit into an empty net.

The second half saw Charlton intent on not letting Swindon back into the game and any doubts about the outcome were dispelled on 56 minutes as Uchechi squared the ball to Wagstaff, who cut inside before coolly slotting the ball home from the edge of the area. The remainder of the match was played out in a relaxed fashion, with Mikkeo Rygaard-Jensen coming on for Uchechi, Callum O’Shea for Alexander Stavrinou (who had another quietly effective game in front of the back four), and Jack Clark for Sam Long. The only disappointment was that the lack of tension and the freezing cold worked against the crowd giving the team the rousing support that they deserved.

I don’t see enough of our youth team to suggest how far they can go – in this competition as a team and individually as players. The two matches I have watched have both been over well before half-time as Charlton simply overwhelmed the opposition with their passing and movement. I have yet to see them having to chase a game or even in a tight contest. Maybe that will come with Sunderland in the quarter-finals. But there really is a lot to like about the way they are playing. They create chances, the finishing is usually at least efficient, and they are able to switch positions with ease. The two full-backs, Long and Chris Solly, get forward quickly and are tenacious tacklers. Rhys Coleman looks unflustered while Mambo has the physical presence to overshadow most opponents. The defence did have some iffy moments tonight, but nothing to detract from the overall performance.

The heartbeat of the team comes from Wagstaff, Uchechi, Rashid Yussuff and Shelvey, while Godfrey fits in well with them as the more traditional forward. Tonight Uchechi was a constant tormentor of Swindon - as well as being involved in goals he had an overhead kick crash back off the bar and other shots - and as their midfield lacked the pace and ability to contain us they had to defend deeper, allowing us to pressure their defence. What do you say about a 5-1 win following a 6-0 triumph other than well done and look forward to watching them again in about a week’s time.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Good Does Not Always Prevail

As they reminded us in Apocalypse Now, good does not always prevail. And we didn’t today. Over the 90 minutes I don’t have the feeling that we were robbed, or that the referee cost us the game - which is not to say he had a good game; if it takes a ref 85 minutes before showing a card to a Watford player it’s fair to say he’s been lenient (OK, just crap). Watford were ugly, often if not nasty then brutish, but did more than us in the last 20 minutes, during which time they looked more likely to win it than us. But for a tremendous last-ditch block by Fortune they might have done.

Our sin was of course not being able to hold on to a two-goal lead. You don’t give a team like Watford any encouragement. The problem was maybe that the players at half-time felt like the fans (or at least me): 2-0 up, let’s get this game over and go home and celebrate. You had the feeling early in the second half that we weren’t attacking with the same intent, having carved Watford open a couple of times to establish the advantage. And having regrouped after conceding two in two minutes we didn’t seem to have the energy in the final phase to suggest that we could win the game. We failed to create a good chance in the second half and were restricted to a few shots and some threatening balls into the box which didn’t break our way.

It had all started so well. The same starting XI as against Sheff Wed and, while Watford ensured that much of the game was spent with the ball in the air, there were moments of pure class from us, most obviously the two goals. For the first a good ball in was flicked on by Gray, then helped on by Varney for the onrushing Ambrose to bury from short range. Watford couldn’t get a touch. And the second may have been an own-goal but it was such a wicked ball in from the right from Halford that the forward behind Shittu would surely have buried it. With Sam looking threatening, Gray having a much better game, and Ambrose having rediscovered how to take a corner things were looking good.

Watford offered little before the break and looked if not outclassed then at least incapable of matching us when we got it right. Youga was having a strange game, seemingly intent on showboating going forward and playing a succession of dubious balls forward but also making some key interceptions (and he did pick up after McCarthy put his arm around him and had a quiet word). A shot did come back off the post just before the break, but I thought we looked comfortable. Maybe the break encouraged such thoughts.

Their first goal was poor and Ambrose, possibly Youga as well, must shoulder a good deal of the blame. They were slow to close down their guy on the right edge of the area. He seemed to mishit a shot which bobbled towards the penalty spot, only to find a couple of Watford forwards who had held their ground (and didn’t look offside to me). We were rattled and Fortune conceded a corner. What happened then I’m not sure of. Some said that Shittu held down our defender before heading in. I’d need to see it again. The defence, including Weaver, seemed to freeze and the ball was headed in from close range.

Now we had to chase the game and failed to do so. Cook came on first for Ambrose and looked good to me. He delivered a number of superb crosses from the left and most of the time brought the ball forward with intent (he did get crowded out once or twice). Iwelumo and Thomas came on for Sam and Gray but didn’t really change the game. One day we will know why Thomas had to leave the field to replace his shorts. Watford were reasonably content to take the point, but as the clock wound down they were passing the ball much more than before and creating space as we seemed to tire. Zhi and Holland failed to hold them back and at the final whistle, while obviously disappointed at losing a 2-0 lead, there was the feeling that if the game had continued for much longer we would have lost. Booing the ref as he left the field is always fun – and he didn’t give us enough protection. But it wasn’t the key element.

Watford? You can’t really call them a yo-yo team. I quite like yo-yos and they have a purpose. Watford are more like a bad smell; you just don't want them around. I have nothing against them as a club but quite frankly they’re going nowhere. If they get promoted they will be an embarrassment (again). They are a long way short of having anything like the sort of quality that might survive in the top flight. I just don’t want to be in the same division as them. Their fans sang ‘we love you Watford’ and I don’t doubt that they do. There’s just nothing about their play for any neutral to love – and a lot to despise.

Dropping two crucial points is bound to have a deflating effect on the team and the fans. Thoughts are bound to turn again to having to settle for the play-offs. I guess it’s time to forget about such things and just concentrate on winning the next game. We probably now have to go on a run of three or four wins, maybe more. We can do it, but the two points not secured today mean no spring in the step. At least I’m going to win the lottery tonight.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Need to see their second again; he may have been at fault.

Halford: 8/10. Thought he had another splendid game.

Youga: 6/10. I’m not sure if he deserves a 9 or a 5. It was a peculiar performance and one that perhaps sheds light on why Pardew had to substitute him against Sheff Wed. First blot on his copybook as far as I’m concerned.

McCarthy: 9/10. I don’t think he was to blame for either goal and still has the defence operating far better as a unit than before.

Fortune: 8/10. Deserves a high rating for that late block after their forward had got the wrong side and looked about to score their winner.

Ambrose: 6/10. A very mixed bag. Good first half, scored a goal and seemed to have worked out how to deliver a corner. But disappeared in the second half and carries some of the blame for their first goal.

Holland: 7/10. No complaints once more. Did seem to tire towards the end.

Zhi: 6/10. Also tired towards the finish and I felt a few times didn’t want to take the responsibility when the ball dropped to him around their box.

Sam: 6/10. Looked dangerous in the first half and delivered some dangerous crosses. But faded in the second half.

Varney: 7/10. No lack of effort, but it just didn’t break for Luke today. Had a hand in the first goal.

Gray: 8/10. I thought he had a much better game than against Palace or Scunthorpe. Was more involved and linked play well. A goal would be nice.

Subs: Cook (8/10, looked lively), Iwelumo (6/10, did get brownie points for coming on and barging straight into Shittu), Thomas 6/10 (barely had the chance to get into the game).

Friday, 15 February 2008

Done Moping, Bring 'Em On

Well, that’s enough moping; we’ve got a game to win tomorrow. The results on Saturday and in midweek have had a sobering effect, but I don’t think we should be throwing in the towel yet on a top-two spot – and we’re in no position to think that a play-off place is in the bag and that we can coast through the rest of the season. Wednesday and Thursday were about regrouping, today we’re girding our loins again and tomorrow we explode and destroy Watford. Bloody hell, what was in that breakfast cereal?

Maybe we had been lulled into a false sense of security as the perversity of this division encouraged us to believe that every other team would remain inconsistent and that as we got our act together the quality would rise to the top. After all, on the drive up to Scunthorpe we were discussing that three points in the bag plus a couple of favourable results for others would mean that we could go into the Palace game knowing a win would see us top the league, at least for a day. And we’ve been within touching distance of the summit at other times (was it only me that kept screaming at the big screen during the West Brom game when the commentator kept saying that the Baggies would go top if they won – we would have gone top if we’d won). So finding ourselves six points off the pace and having to overhaul at least three of the four teams above us - and a game less to do it - did have a sobering effect.

For what it’s worth we doing some points totals forecasts for those around us I had assumed midweek wins for Stoke, Watford and Bristol City. I had also pencilled in a win for West Brom. What hurt was Stoke nearly blowing a three-goal lead, Watford winning with 10 men, and Bristol City doing what we singularly failed to do at Scunthorpe. And of course us not winning. Disappointing for sure, but clearly it could have been worse. I didn’t see the game, but it’s reasonable to suppose that the changes at the back encouraged a little caution. This is not to say that those who came (Fortune for Bougherra, Semedo for Youga at half-time, and Halford playing only his second game) played badly; its rather that the alterations can work against the team functioning smoothly.

A while back I suggested that we might need to win two out of three through to the end of the season to get a top-two spot. We managed that with the Stoke, Scunthorpe, Palace batch. A draw against Sheff Wed implies a need to beat Watford and Blackpool. Pivotal games both: the first as it’s the third of five at home against our rivals and we need to keep the run going; the second as we haven’t won away for six games and need to do so. A tall order – but by no means impossible. And if we do win both games the league table would look very different than at the moment (with the following batch of three games being away to Sheff Utd and home to Bristol City and Preston).

Let’s face it, we owe Watford one, not just for the good of football but because our failure to put them away last season and this has had a big impact on our standing. Last season at The Valley we were poor in a game that was there for the taking (but which if Watford had a decent striker we could easily have lost) and at Vicarage Road a daft game saw us put out a makeshift defence to go 2-0 down, only to get level and blow the chance to win it in the last minute. This season’s game saw us dominate Watford without putting them away. A combination of poor finishing and a lapse in defence (see also Scunthorpe) nearly saw us lose, with only a goalkeeping gaffe saving us. It was a game we should have won by a couple of goals; as it was the match seems to have become a part of Watford’s rehabilitation. So, there’s a lot to put straight.

There are some selection issues for Pardew. I would expect Bougherra if fit to come back in for Fortune; there’s no doubt about Youga keeping his place. Which two from Ambrose, Sam, Cook and Thomas for the wide spots? I haven’t seen enough of Cook (OK, let’s face it I’ve no idea how good he is) to venture an opinion. And what front two combination? I would suggest that much depends on whether Pardew feels a need for Iwelumo’s presence to bolster the defence at set pieces. Just a suggestion, but it’s worth remembering that the team has functioned well with Varney and McLeod up front, given their pace and movement. McLeod doesn’t really merit a starting place, but as in rowing sometimes the boat goes faster with an unlikely combination. Gray hasn’t set the team alight as yet.

Again, it isn’t time yet to settle for a play-off place. It’s time to be bold. If we end up in the play-offs so be it, we’ll bellow all the way through another Wembley triumph. If we miss out on the play-offs we’ll look forward to running away with the league next season. But these are the consolation prizes and we’re still going for gold. How many clichés can I get in? So, arise children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived; against us tyranny’s bloody standard is raised … to arms citizens, form in battalions, march, march .. let impure blood water our furrows. Sorry, I’ve gone all French again.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Bottom-Up Approach

Another contribution to the ‘how many points will we need to get automatic promotion’ debate, a debate which no doubt will continue to the last day. After the history lessons attempted by myself and others I thought we might try the bottom-up approach – ie taking a look at the fixtures each of the top five has left and a stab at their likely points return.

This is almost certainly a useless enterprise, given that as we’ve seen in this division every team is perfectly capable of beating every other. Predictions for individual matches are of little value and I’ve no doubt that my projected points totals will need revision before the night is out. There’s probably also a touch of bias in them as I have a soft spot for West Brom (the lingering result of a previously detailed adolescent infatuation), contempt for the football played by Stoke and Watford, and an assumption (hope?) that Bristol City won’t last the course.

When forecasting for individual games there is a tendency to underestimate the 'surprise' result, which in this context means the top-five teams losing against lower opposition. So projected points totals have a bias in favour of downward revision. But I am inclined to assume that as we get to the business end of the season the teams that have to win will be more likely to do so than during the first half of the season. That can’t be good for us when it comes to overturning a 4/5 points deficit in 15 games.

What might help us here is expectation levels: justified or not we would regard a play-off spot as a disappointment overall, so (probably) would West Brom and maybe Watford; Bristol City and Stoke may view a top-six finish as perfectly acceptable, whatever they say publicly. Also, in addition to the current top six there must be another eight or so still with a realistic chance of the play-offs, so when teams battling against relegation are added just about every game is a six-pointer. It will probably only be in the final five games of the season that there will be the opportunity to play teams with little or nothing to play for - even though some (Southampton, Barnsley, Palace) can already be identified.

Anyway, enough of the provisos:

Remaining fixtures (in order): Leicester (H), Charlton (A), Preston (H), Burnley (A), Norwich (H), Barnsley (H), Bristol City (A), Stoke (H), Plymouth (A), Hull (A), Coventry (H), WBA (A), Palace (H), Scunthorpe (H), Blackpool (A).
Breakdown: 15 games, 8 at home, 7 away, 4 against top-five rivals.
Prediction: 6 wins, 5 draws, 4 defeats = 23 points + 55 at present = final points total of 78.

West Brom:
Fixtures: Sheff Utd (H), Hull (H), Plymouth (H), Sheff Wed (A), Wolves (A), Palace (H), Leicester (H), Charlton (A), Colchester (H), Cardiff (A), Blackpool (A), Watford (H), Norwich (A), Southampton (H), QPR (A).
Breakdown: 15 games, 8 at home, 7 away, 2 against top-five rivals.
Prediction: 9 wins, 4 draws, 2 defeats = 31 points + 54 at present = final points total of 85.

Bristol City:
Fixtures: Scunthorpe (A), Palace (H), Colchester (A), Hull (H), Charlton (A), Leicester (A), Watford (H), Plymouth (H), Cardiff (A), Norwich (H), Southampton (A), Wolves (H), Stoke (A), Sheff Utd (A), Preston (H).
Breakdown: 15 games, 7 at home, 8 away, 3 against top-five rivals.
Prediction: 6 wins, five draws, 4 defeats = 23 points + 54 at present = final points total of 77.

Fixtures: Southampton (H), Scunthorpe (H), Ipswich (H), Preston (A), QPR (A), Burnley (H), Norwich (A), Watford (A), Blackpool (H), Sheff Wed (A), Palace (H), Coventry (A), Bristol City (H), Colchester (A), Leicester (H).
Breakdown: 15 games, 8 at home, 7 away, 2 against top-five rivals.
Prediction: 8 wins, 5 draws, 2 defeats = 29 points + 53 at present = final points total of 82.

I can’t bring myself to actually predict anything but a Charlton win for each game. So 95 points and a stroll to the title it is.

As things stand, leaving us aside I’m predicting West Brom to top the league with 85 points, followed by Stoke with 82, with Watford and Bristol City losing out. Again, these totals may well err on the high side, but the forecasts at least suggest that it is entirely possible for two teams other than us to top the 80-points mark.

Nobody will be surprised by the assumption that West Brom are our main rivals for the top spot; what is a little more surprising is to see such a high points total forecast for Stoke. But if you look at their fixture list it does look the most accommodating. Only two games against top-five rivals and a final few matches that all look winnable. May this prove to be the kiss of death for their chances, starting tonight.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Allez La Douch

As a life-long Francophile and one who enjoys regular trips to Lyon and elsewhere in France - indeed someone who some friends say is turning increasingly Gallic (the accordion and beret do count against me, although I haven’t yet perfected the shrug, I’m beginning to think that takes a lifetime) - I thought it would be good to cement what has been to date only a passing interest in French football. But I can’t help thinking I’ve just decided to make yet one more rod for my back.

(A digression. It made me laugh at the time. I was off to Lyon recently and went to buy a ticket to get to Stansted. Seeing my travel bag, the guy in the ticket office asked if I was going anywhere nice. ‘France’, I said. ‘Lovely country’, says he, ‘I especially like the Pyrenees and the area around Toulouse’. ‘I’m going to Lyon’. His face dropped a little, a frown developed, and he said, with no trace of irony, ‘blimey, they’re really French down there’. I loved it that the best insult he could find for the French is the degree to which they are French, and the implication that there might be some Platonic form of perfect 'Frenchness'.)

I have been to the Coeur de Gerland (50,000-plus capacity) to watch Olympique Lyonnais. Great fun it was too, especially the crowd in the ‘bad boys’ stand jumping up and down in unison while singing. For anyone who knows nothing about French football Lyon have become accustomed to running away with the title and regard it as pretty much their own; their main ambition now is to win the Champions League. I shall be cheering them on in the upcoming clash with Man Utd. They are rich, successful, stylish, with a strong following (and seemingly largely without the nasty element that follows Marseille or PSG), a superb ground, and every prospect of maintaining their dominant position (given the Champions League money inflow).

It should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it? All I need to do is cite Kelly Youga, formally adopt Lyon as my French football team, and bask in the reflected glory of following sure-fire winners. However, we’re not Charlton fans for nothing. Life was just not meant to be that easy. When driving back to Suzanne’s flat during a recent visit to Lyon I noticed we passed a football ground. I thought it was a local municipal stadium. ‘No’, she said, ‘it’s where Lyon-Duchere play.’

It seems that AS (Association Sportive) Lyon-Duchere was founded in 1964, by pied-noirs, the French-Algerians who were abandoned by De Gaulle. The rights and wrongs of the Algerian war of independence are not the subject of a frivolous blog post. Without wishing to sound glib about a horrible, bloody conflict sometimes you end up on the wrong side. I always favoured the Confederates in the American Civil War, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because they appeared from a distance to be the plucky underdog. Suffice to say the pied-noirs comprised some 10.4% of the Algerian population at the time of independence and were offered the choice by the new regime of ‘la valise ou le cercueil’ – literally the suitcase or the coffin. Most chose the former and nearly 1m left Algeria for France. Albert Camus, my adolescent hero (still a hero), who played in goal for Algeria, was a pied-noir.

Lyon is an affluent as well as beautiful city, one that has made great efforts over the past 10 years or so to improve its presentation and image. It is of course not without problems, but my limited impression is that it does not have the same tensions as Paris and even Marseilles. I was in the centre of Lyon last year when there was supposed to have been a ‘riot’ (if you read the papers). From what I saw youths were enjoying congregating and attracting attention, with the police a little jumpy in light of the very real protests in areas of Paris and other cities. But it was little more than showing off. My partner Suzanne lives in what would be considered by many a not very good area of Lyon. However, her flat, halfway up a tower block, has a balcony with fabulous views over the city and beyond, on a clear day, you sit back and look at the Alps. It’s not a bad way to pass a lazy afternoon. And I have never felt the slightest bit uneasy in the area (although this may have something to do with being mistaken for a plain-clothes policeman).

So I’m presented with a choice: formally adopt the champions of France or a run-down, non-descript team that has no chance of winning anything – but which was founded by the people of my hero, is located in the area where Suzanne lives, and which plucks all the other heartstrings. No contest really.

It seems that Lyon-Duchere’s finest hour came when in 1993 they won the French Third Divison. To take their rightful place in the second flight they needed to have professional status, which was denied them by the football authorities in France (I’m trying to find out why). This in turn led to their players occupying the French Federation in protest. What followed seems to have been an exodus of their best players and relegation in 1994/95. Then it was bankruptcy and liquidation in 1996. A new club was formed and Lyon-Duchere now ply their trade in the equivalent of the French fifth division (to put that in context Lyon’s reserves play in a higher league).

What else have I unearthed about Lyon-Duchere? It seems their nickname is La Douch, This might make sense, given their name, but I always thought a douche was a shower – or a more intimate wash. The dictionary definition in English is ‘jet of liquid directed on to or into the body’ or ‘a disagreeable surprise’. Wikopedia lists four ‘famous’ current players, none of whom I’ve heard of (and one’s claim to fame is to be a former Lyon B player). Of their all-time roll of honour I have heard of only one, Eric Abidal.

However, to any of you who might doubt the natural alliance of Charlton and La Douch scroll down the Wikopedia entry to reach ‘former coaches’. There is listed one Richard Ruffier. They might have spelt his name the French way, but it’s obvious who we’re talking about.

They play at the Stade de Balmont, which has a capacity of 5,600. Their colours are yellow and red. Not surprisingly their main rivals are OL – and according to some reports their superstar neighbours were not best pleased when La Douch were becoming popular in the early 1990s. And Lyon-Duchere have been in the news recently, having made it to the last 32 in the French cup. They have just played top-flight Lille and lost only 1-0. Last season they finished fourth in their league, listed as CFA2 Groupe D. I don’t know how they’re doing this season, but I intend to find out – and hopefully to provide regular updates, perhaps get to a match this season.

I can’t help thinking it’s a marriage made if not in heaven then somewhere else that provides evidence that god might not exist but does have a warped sense of humour.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Timing Is Everything: Have I Blown It?

At last it makes sense. I really struggled to understand why the club last season seemed so intent on getting relegated. It’s now obvious that Richard Murray and the board took serious offense at one of the attempted slights by a certain Simon Jordan and decided they needed to ‘have a word’. So they took the decision to nip back down to The Championship, put him and his rabble well and truly back in their place, and then return to where we belong. I appreciate that they cannot publicly confirm the strategy, but we all know the truth – which will be confirmed with our impending promotion.

Many thanks to the controllers of the Championship highlights on ITV. By putting our game on towards the end of the round-up it’s just a little too late to go to the gym. Any excuse will do. One day I will get around to reading the instructions for the video but don’t count on it. And I wouldn’t have missed Warnock’s latest bleat for the world. How desperate is it to try to highlight some supposed handball by Magic, an incident that not one Charlton fan spotted on the night? It’s all very well having a manager who publicly at least defends everything to do with the club and the team and offers biased interpretations of events (including suggesting that Varney was the one guilty of a lunge despite his ending up needing lengthy teatment). Just don’t expect anyone else to take you seriously – and after a while, as Sheff Utd fans found out, it just gets boring.

To more serious matters, namely our chances of promotion – or more accurately what is required of us to ensure that we claim our rightful top-two finish. I suggested before that from now on we might need to win two in three to the end of the season, in order to accumulate the sort of points total that has in the past been needed to secure automatic promotion. New York Addick highlighted the strong possibility that this year could see an unusually low points total getting a top-two finish. May well be right, I just don’t want to rely on it. I’m still trying (not very hard, I’m not that sad) to get hold of a Championship table for say the end of December 2006 to see how many points the top two managed during the run-in as I suspect that they upped their points-per-game average as at the business end of the season the better teams come through.

For now at least I’m going with what I said before: getting second place with 80 points would be exceptional but not impossible, missing out with 85 would be unlucky. So our loose target might be considered 30 points from the remaining 15 games. What I should have added last time around is that the same sort of calculations apply for all the teams we are competing with, so there’s no cause to get depressed just because of what looks like a difficult points target to achieve.

At least with Stoke, Scunthorpe and Palarce we have met what might be the target to all but ensure promotion: winning two out of three. But yesterday’s results were not good for us. West Brom losing was an unexpected bonus, but we could reasonably have expected Stoke, Watford or Bristol City to drop points. I think it’s fair to say that if a team below us overtakes us we have no real chance of a top-two finish. So for our purposes we can forget about Ipswich, Palarce (certainly) and anyone else. That is not to say that these teams cannot get promoted, only that if they overtake us we will not be going up automatically as two teams are not going to overtake the current top four.

This means for our purposes it is down to two out of five for automatic promotion. We have to put aside, for the time being at least, the fact that we are better than the others, or the incongruity of seeing Watford, who were dire against us recently, topping the league (will we come to rue not having buried them?). Given their style of football, Watford and Stoke would not exactly grace the Premiership. But having spent years arguing that football is a meritocracy – usually after some imbibing and in the company of supporters of ‘big’ clubs – and that we were where we deserved to be (ie top 10 in The Premiership), it would be a touch hypocritical to argue that we should end above them. I’ve never been averse to the occasional bout of hypocracy, but (I hope) not usually in the sober, cold light of day.

I don’t think we’d complain if it ends up with us and West Brom getting the top two slots. That leaves Bristol City. Nobody saw them coming, other than those who have followed the career of their manager. I was tempted to write them off after we beat them away, with that result expected to burst their bubble. But it hasn’t happened and, despite a goal difference of 0, with 15 games to go they have as good a chance as anybody. I have mixed emotions about this. A number of friends live in Bristol and I used to go there regularly. Fortunately none of them know anything about football, so there are no bragging rights involved, but any thoughts of a soft spot go out of the window when I recall the delights of getting away from Ashton Gate wearing a Charlton scarf.

There’s one final factor which I forgot to mention. We need to secure automatic promotion before our final game, at home to Coventry. I hope Pardew is aware of this. This is not because there is any fear of the ‘Dowie factor’. Rather it is because I’m a plonker. My partner, Suzanne, has an as yet unredeemed birthday present from me, dating back to last July. I had the ingenious idea of giving her a voucher for an ice cream. It was tastefully done, translated into Italian, with flags and pictures, and printed on photo paper. The point is that she can decide when she wants to have her ice cream and in whichever European city she chooses.

Now there are two ways of looking at this present. Some may say it suggests I’m an incurable romantic to have dreamt up a unique (I think) and personal gift which would bring her such pleasure (yes, I know the idea that someone might enjoy a weekend away with yours truly is a little strange, but that’s the French for you). The more cynical might instead applaud my initiative for delivering a birthday present that amounts to a piece of paper – and still win copious brownie points. After all, chances are we would have gone away somewhere for a long weekend, so what’s been lost?

Anyway, with the next birthday not that far off Suzanne decided it would be Rome and it would be either the first or the second weekend in May. Now she’s usually very good with these things. She likes to book ahead for breaks/holidays – and says she derives pleasure from knowing that they are in the bag and can be anticipated (as is so often the case anticipation being better than reality). Leave it up to me and it’ll be decided the week before and I won’t think about it until I’m on the way to the station. So having had my instructions I dutifully went off and booked flights for Rome – for the first weekend in May. I just didn’t check.

Now in my years of following Charlton I think I’ve been there for all the big ones, including home to Preston (promotion), home to Bolton (avoid relegation), Carlisle away (promotion), St Andrews (play-off final), Chelsea away (avoiding the play-offs), Portsmouth at The Valley, Wembley for the play-off final (I did miss the Ipswich game that sent us to Wembley). The idea that we could get promoted on the last day of the season, at home, and I’m not there is, for me, unthinkable. But then reneging on a weekend in Rome and a birthday present that has been some 10 months pending might just cost me.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

A Class Apart

Congratulations to all those who got their reports up last night. For me it was a case of the warm and open embrace of your friendly local pub and Nepalese proving too tempting. There are twinges around the temples this morning, but nothing much to work against the smug grin I’m going to carry on my face for some time to come. We didn’t just beat them, we totally outclassed them. Maybe, just maybe, we will never play them again.

Hope you slept well, Luke. You should have done. Whatever turns your Charlton career take you cannot lose your place in the pantheon of true legends. Your name has already been carved in that special piece of stone alongside those of Killer, Powell, Kitson, Rommadahl, Fortune, Todorov and others. Just sit back and bask in the glory, at least until Tuesday night and Sheffield Wednesday.

So, the game. Greg Halford came in for Yassin Moutaouakil, adding solidity at the back but understandably not as influential going forward. Given that the defence was solid through the game, with Weaver having only one or two innocuous shots to deal with, you can’t argue with the move. Palace seemed to target Kelly Youga. Just why wasn’t clear as he dealt superbly with everything thrown at him. McCarthy had another storming game, while Bougherra was also impressive. Collectively the defence is looking better than at any other stage through this season. This may not be saying that much, and after all it was only Palace. But with Fortune, Sodje, Semedo, Monteiro, Basey, Powell, and Moutaouakil all available it’s looking much better, primarily because of McCarthy’s transformation.

Through the first half we probed and tested Palace, playing good stuff at times and carving out a few good chances. All that was missing was the goal. The moment should have come after splending work down the right and a great ball into Gray, who looked set to open his account only for their keeper to pull off a tremendous save. Otherwise the shooting was indifferent, the crosses once more lacking in quality (those from Youga excepted), but no questioning which was the better team.

The only spell of the game when we were in a little bother came just after half-time as Palace changed their formation with a substitution (it’s Saturday morning and I just don’t care who it was; their team comprises an endless supply of mediocrity so the name is of no significance). It took us maybe 10 minutes for normal service to be resumed. It was just more of the same, the only nagging doubt being whether we would turn superiority into goals.

The breakthrough, when it came, was pleasantly simple. A quickly taken free kick, a flick on, and suddenly Varney running on to the ball challenged by a defender. From where we were sitting in the East Stand it wasn’t clear that he was in a great position. So when the net billowed it was all the sweeter. After that it was a case of keeping it tight at the back and surely we’d be able to exploit the space on the breakaway. And so it proved, with Varney cutting in from the left to bury the second. Iwelumo, McLeod and Semedo were able to come on and enjoy the moment, with Varney denied his hat-trick but able to milk the applause with a late substitution. Well earned.

With the defence currently in good order, what were the negatives on the night? Ambrose and Sam were not entirely convincing. Ambrose is frustrating, great ability and good moments but poor deliveries again from set pieces and the basic problems of not being fast enough to go past people or strong enough to hold off opponents. Sam, who was ineffective against Scunthorpe, also had good moments, but he didn’t make the most of some of the positions he got himself into – and his shooting was poor. Thomas and now Cook are the alternatives or back-ups, with Thomas not available last night. At least with four in the frame, plus Varney capable of playing wide, there is sufficient cover.

Up front the jury is still out on Gray. He had an OK night, not a great one. Maybe he just needs a little more time to get used to the new surroundings. After all, Varney didn’t set the world alight at the start of his Charlton career. He has now.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Could be given a 10. Had next to nothing to do but takes some credit for being a part of a better organised defence.

Halford: 8/10. Impressive debut. Whether he makes the position his own over Moutaouakil remains to be seen.

Youga: 9/10. He was about to get my man of the match before Varney’s contributions. Was put under pressure and coped splendidly and often got forward to good effect.

McCarthy: 9/10. No more needs to be said.

Bougherra: 8/10. As above. Quietly effective.

Ambrose: 6/10. Could do better, especially with the set-pieces, but played his part.

Holland: 8/10. Another good game.

Zhi: 8/10. Showed no signs of being exhausted after his midweek exersions for China. Just failed to bury the third in the last minute.

Sam: 6/10. As with Ambrose, could do better but looked dangerous through the game.

Gray: 7/10. Not entirely convincing yet, but let’s keep the faith. Was very unlucky not to have opened his account in the first half.

Varney: 11/10. Thank you Luke. And my local Nepalese restaurant thanks you.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Better Late Than Never

Having suffered recently at the hands of Scunthorpe, I feel entitled to a little revenge, however petty and small-minded. As they say, it’s best eaten cold; and it’s better late than never. So I’m grateful to a friend for highlighting the following, courtesy of Wikopedia:

“In 1996 there was controversy when AOL’s obscenity filter (among others) refused to accept the name of the town. Some online forums display the name as S****horpe, while would display it as Scoonthorpe. This situation is known in the computing world as the Scunthorpe Problem..

In 2007 a senior manager at a local employer, Nisa-Today, made remarks about the town which brought criticism from residents. John Baines, senior trading controller for the company, made the comments at a trade conference where he said one of the town's major industries was 'handbag theft', that local women wear 'mattresses on their backs in case they meet someone they know' and that if you wanted to 'know what Scunthorpe looked like in the 1970s...go there today'. The comments were published online by the trade journal Off-Licence News and reprinted in the Scunthorpe Telegraph. Mr Baines later apologised if his remarks caused any offence and that they were meant in a light-hearted manner.

In 1981 the comedian and writer Spike Milligan published a book Spike Milligan, Indefinite Articles and Scunthorpe. The inclusion of the town's name in a comedy book caused much anger in the area to which Milligan replied, "We should like the people of Scunthorpe to know that the references to Scunthorpe are nothing personal. It is a joke, as is Scunthorpe".

Saturday, 2 February 2008

After The Lord Mayor's Show

Merde. All thoughts of driving ahead into the top two spots with strong momentum behind us on the backburner again. This was a bad one to lose. Suffice to say Scunthorpe are not a good team and we failed to put them away, then gave them something to cling on to. It just shouldn’t have happened. All we needed to do was score first and we probably would have won comfortably. We didn’t and paid the price.

To me the game turned on two key moments. First, early in the second half Thomas got to the byline and put in a great cross, low and hard. Gray was on hand to put the ball in the net, only for the linesman to flag for offside. I’ve no idea if it was the correct decision, but assuming it was it was criminal to have strayed offside when he could see Thomas’ run and what he needed to do. Second, a troubling cross from their right went across the goal and the danger seemed to have passed. Moutaouakil at the far post swivelled to hook the ball clear, only to make a complete hash and instead, while he was pirouetting, the ball dribbled back to around the penalty spot to their forward who duly scored.

The team showed one change from Stoke, with Varney replacing Iwelumo alongside Gray. With less need for another tall guy to defend and with Varney capable of making the runs around Gray it looked like a good selection. But on a difficult surface (Varney and Weaver were to nearly injure themselves losing their footing), with the pitch so narrow as to limit space to run into, we struggled to get a passing game going and to dominate midfield. We didn’t start quickly and failed to raise the tempo. Unlike Stoke, who were prepared to sit behind the ball, giving Holland and Zhi the space to move around and make passes, Scunthorpe harried our defenders and in midfield, with the result that there were more balls lofted forward, which gave Gray and Varney little to work with.

It all made for a dire first half which produced only one real chance: a free header in the box for them. We had a couple of shots from outside the area but nothing more. Otherwise all that was notable was the dreadful quality of the set pieces, by both sides. Scunthorpe had two free kicks in dangerous positions and wasted them. We had corners which routinely failed to get past the first defender, plus a training ground routing from a free kick which saw Ambrose pass the ball to a defender. And the referee was in keeping with the football, failing to control the game and making bad decisions. The result was an increasingly fractious game as the players realised they could con him into decisions. Not surprisingly the home team had the better of this.

Thomas replaced an ineffective Sam at half-time, with Ambrose switching to the right, and we looked more dangerous. It was in this first 15-minute spell that we should have put the game to bed. We were starting to find space and a strangely subdued home support seemed to prepare for a defeat. Instead we didn’t score. Iwelumo came on for Varney, which seemed a little strange as Gray was having a poor game and with Varney you always have the option of him going wide. Maybe he was feeling his first-half tumble. There was still the feeling that at some point we would get it together, score, and run out the game.

Instead we gifted them their goal. The return of Moutaouakil has been very welcome. But he was at least partially to blame for Watford’s goal, having gone to sleep at a key moment, and he has to carry the can for this one. And it gave Scunthorpe hope that this might be their day. They offered little in attack before and after the goal, although one of their subs caused some problems and our defence was never entirely settled. The pitch caused havoc with Weaver’s kicking, Bougherra seemed to have been elbowed in the face in the first half and was a little unsteady thereafter. But McCarthy was generally in command and Youga, having started the game by taking a throw-in and giving it straight to a Scunthorpe player, as if he had forgotten the switch, showed them what they were missing.

The sending-off didn’t really change the game. They were chasing every ball doggedly in any event and were not surprisingly ready to timewaste and disrupt any flow to the game. McLeod came on as a late gamble, with Moutaouakil giving way, and in the last five minutes we created two or three opportunities that should have been taken. It just wasn’t to be. And no, Andy Reid would not have made any difference, even if fit, except that the set-pieces would have been better (they couldn’t have been worse).

All very disappointing. It seems that away from home we’re reluctant to take the game by the scruff of the neck. The relatively cautious approach can work if we score first, but leaves us hostage to fortune, especially against teams ready to fight for everything. After our impressive away form in the first half of the season we now haven’t won in five (three draws, two defeats) and have only scored three goals. The rest of the season may be down to key home games, but not if we don’t start winning some away games.

One saving grace is that the journey was much shorter than I had anticipated. So as on Tuesday night there’s a bloody big glass of wine with my name on it. Just that this time it’s to drown the sorrows. Well, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. I just hope he’s in a very giving mood come next Friday.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Difficult to rate as I don’t think he had a save to make. Kicking was strangely awry but I think that was the pitch.

Moutaouakil: 5/10. Has to take the rap for a dreadful mistake which cost us at least a point.

Youga: 8/10. Another very good game, worked well with Thomas down the left side in the second half.

McCarthy: 8/10. Commanding and effective.

Bougherra: 7/10. Unsettled by the elbowing incident and a little uncertain at times in the second half, but really Scunthorpe’s attack was kept under control.

Holland: 6/10. Less visible than against Stoke. Still worked tirelessly but was harried throughout by scrappers.

Zhi: 6/10. As with Holland, not given the time and space as he was against Stoke.

Sam: 5/10. Did little in the first half and was subbed.

Ambrose: 6/10. A little unfair, but he took the corners and free kicks and they were nearly all wasted.

Gray: 6/10. Ineffective and should have stayed onside to put us ahead. I hope he’s better than this.

Varney: 7/10. Worked hard but didn’t really look like scoring.

Subs: Thomas (8/10 – made a difference and was behind our better moments in the second half); Iwelumo (7/10 – it was his sort of game and we were more threatening after he came on); McLeod (only on for the last few minutes).

Friday, 1 February 2008

Head Or Heart For Promotion?

After all the fun and games of transfer deadline day (I’m actually more disappointed over the fact that we were unable to top up the coffers by getting money for Marcus Bent or Amady Faye - if they had been sold on we might have been able to resist Sunderland’s offer for Reid – as well as the news about Chris Dickson) I thought it was time to do some work on the numbers, the sort of post that others do so well. Or to put it another way, this sort of thing takes a little time rather than the rambled, unconnected stuff that comes more naturally to the fundamentally bone idle (a club that I’m proud to belong to). So, on the basis of Championship tables for the past 10 years, what do we need from the remaining 17 games to get promoted, one way or another? Of course, past performance is not a guaranteed pointer to the future, but crystal balls aside it’s the only guide we have.

Champions: In the 10 years three teams have managed to top 100 points: Reading, Fulham and Sunderland (who might have been a little peeved during 1998/99 having been trounced in the play-off final the previous season). The lowest points total for the champions is 88 (last season as it happens), so that’s realistically the bare minimum to get the pot. The average number of points is 97 and the overall spread 88-105. In five of the 10 years the champions have had 94 points or less (lies, damned lies … of course that means in five of the 10 years more have been required, but let’s not lose the train of thought). Nobody looks like running away with it this season and it’s likely to stay tight at the top. So 90 could well be enough and the way things are shaping up 95 would be virtually assured of getting top spot.

Runners-Up: The points spread here is 86-92, which is relatively narrow. It doesn’t seem to make any difference for this spot whether one team runs away with the league. Arguably it’s more important to look at the total for third place, to see what you can be confident you need to clear. That range is 79-90, although if you exclude Sunderland in 1997/98, who were just edged out for an automatic spot with three teams getting 90+ points (and who went on to be trounced in the play-off final) the upper end drops to 87. So 90 points would be pretty safe for an automatic spot (again, perhaps as champions). Getting second place with 80 points would be exceptional but not impossible, missing out with 85 would be unlucky. So I’m inclined to assume that 85 is the target for second spot.

Play-Offs: Very tight range here. In the 10 years the lowest points total for getting sixth place is 73 and the highest 76. There seems to be consistency such that getting 75 points ought to be enough to enter the lottery, while anything below 70 is virtually assured of missing out.

We have 47 points from 29 games. That average extended over a full season would leave us with 75 points (74.55 for fellow pedants), ie pretty confident of making the play-offs but probably some way off the top two spots. That might seem strange as we are at the moment only four points (and a bucketload of goals, making it 4.5 really) from the top. West Brom, with 51 points from 29 games, would seem to be on course to win the league with only 81 points, which would fly in the face of the evidence of previous seasons.

Maybe this season will be the most competitive in recent history and these stats will not apply (I don’t have the time to go back through league tables for 10 years for this stage of the season and do the comparisons). But it’s more likely that the best teams will come through in the run-in and more points per game will be secured by those which end up getting promoted than they have to date. Overall it looks to me like more evidence to suggest that 90 points would be safe for automatic promotion and that 85 could well be enough.

I’m inclined to assume that our points per game average will be higher over the remainder of the season than to date. After all, our performance has not been consistent so far. There was the ‘false dawn’ period of the first nine games (up to Hull away and an international break). We secured 18 points, ie an average of two per game and pointing to a season’s total of 92. Arguably since then we have been in relative decline and holding on to a play-off spot by our fingernails. Some 20 games have produced only 29 points, an average of 1.45 per game and only 67 points over a full season. Even if you extend this average to the end of the season and include the better start you arrive at a points total of 72. That could be enough for the play-offs but would be more likely to produce the heartache of seventh spot – and that’s reserved for Palace.

However, we are playing better now, the team spirit is good, and we have a better strike force than at any time since Todorov was injured. I’m inclined to assume that over the remaining 17 games we will match our points return of the first nine, ie two per game. That’s not going to be easy, given the tough home games we have. But these are the ones we need to win, or at worst sometimes not lose. If we manage that we would end with 81 points, clearly good for the play-offs but maybe not enough for an automatic spot (no team has gone up from this division in the past 10 years with less than 86).

What has to be factored in here is the effect of us beating those around us at home. It does drive home the point, if it needed to be, that our season stands or falls on these home games, which is why Stoke was such a big game. But having what amount to four more cup ties at home and a couple away is a double-edged sword. It gives us a greater opportunity to move into the top two if we win these games. By the same token poor returns from these games and we’re all but out of the running for automatic promotion.

Let’s take another route. What of the remaining fixtures? Away from home we play, in order, Scunthorpe, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackpool, Sheffield United, Burnley, Ipswich, Plymouth, QPR and Barnsley. There are bound to be hiccups, but you have to say that each game is winnable. From the nine games we should be targeting a return of at least 18 points, which would mean winning five, drawing three, and losing just one. It’s a tall order, but to go up automatically that’s the sort of return that will be required.

The eight remaining home games are Palace, Watford, Bristol City, Preston, West Brom, Wolves, Southampton and Coventry. To get at least 16 points from these games we would need to win at least four, probably at least five. Five wins and two draws, with one defeat would give a return of 17 points. To get an automatic spot that’s probably the bare requirement.

We have a maximum points total of 98 if we win all 17 games. If 85 is the target for automatic promotion (again, every team in the top two in the past 10 years has managed more than 85, so this is the minimum to aim for) we need 38 points from 17 games, ie an average of more than two points per game but with not much in it. That means winning perhaps 11 games and drawing five, with only one defeat (or of course 12 wins and at least two draws). To get 90 points and be fairly sure of a top-two finish clearly requires 43 points, which would mean winning 13 and drawing four, with no defeats.

Basically, to have a good chance of automatic promotion it’s not a case of us winning every other game; we have to win two out of three. The season could end with low (by recent standards) points totals for those promoted, with a number of clubs in the frame until the end. But we can’t rely on that. The head says the play-offs but everything else says we can do it – and that it all really started against Stoke.