Monday, 29 September 2008

Something Better Change

Powell, Fortune, Hughes (did he really get on for Hull at the weekend?), Rommadahl, Kitson, Todorov, Hales. Heroes all, even had they done only one thing in their Charlton careers. Let’s hope we add to the list tomorrow night. Because yet one more victory at Selhurst Park would go some way to easing the disappointment of Saturday. A bloody long way in fact. For me Fortune’s equaliser buried the ghost of the wilderness years, so there’s no bad feeling (and it’s a bloody game of football for crying out loud). Doesn’t mean we have to like them though.

It’s all Curbishley’s fault really. For most of my time following Charlton the top flight was a distant dream, with little realistic prospect of ever getting there. The magnificent sojourn under Lennine Lawrence was really the exception that proved the rule. It was great fun but never quite felt right; and it didn’t really count anyway because of where we were playing. But Curbishley raised our hopes and delivered, gave us a little time to get used to drinking at the top table. I miss it, for all the indecent squalor of the Premiership.

So something has to change, because, as has been pointed out, my liver can’t take the fall-out from perpetual disappointment. Either we have to get better playing as we are (that is a call for the manager, although sooner or later the Holland/Bailey central partnership and the choice of wide players will have to change), or we make changes soon, or I get used to watching a middling second-flight team all over again. I can’t rule out the last option but I just don’t feel ready for it (and in any event if we are to be mid-table it makes a case for bringing in the youngsters in order to develop for next season).

Pardew has hinted at changes, talking of some players chomping at the bit and suggesting that as we have options in midfield that might be where we adjust. However, at the risk of someone whose footballing career peaked at the age of 15 and six goals in three games for the school advising people who make a living out of the game, I think looking at midfield is the wrong starting point. It is indeed where we have options, but these options should be framed around what could be the best set-up for the team.

We are lacking in options up front, even with the return of Todorov. Basically, unless we play 4-5-1 (which at least at home we’re not going to) or employ Ambrose as a striker (which I can’t see working, although him playing in the hole is another matter), or wait for a return of McLeod, it’s Gray and Varney with Todorov and Dickson (respectively) as back-ups. I find it inconceivable that Gray and Todorov could play together, given their similar strengths and weaknesses, and hard to see how Varney and Dickson could form a partnership.

Consequently, in my view we have to accept that Gray/Todorov and Varney/Dickson will be in the starting line-up – and choose the style of play and midfield accordingly to get the best out of them. What was depressing on Saturday (albeit a reflection of Wednesday defending in depth) was seeing Todorov having to leap hopelessly for aimless balls forward. To my mind Gray is best employed – as indeed is Todorov - linking up play, while Varney’s strength is running into the channels and using pace to get on the end of intelligent passes.

By implication we need a midfield that has the pace and mobility to get forward and back as a unit and to be able to pass and move. It’s not Pardew’s fault that so far this season he has been unable to call on a player well suited to that set-up, ie Zheng Zhi. And I’m not convinced that we are best served by having Sam and Bouazza in the starting XI. Having two out-and-out wingers can narrow the space for Varney to run into (in turn creating space for mobile midfielders to run into). I wish the pair of them would study the contribution made in the last promotion season by Robinson and Newton. Both did more than their share of defensive work and get forward – and both scored goals. But then had out-and-out goalscorers in Mendonca and Hunt, which put an emphasis on getting good service to them in the box. This time around it is different. Given the forward combination we should be emphasising playing through midfield, not necessarily looking to shore up the middle (ie Holland and Bailey) and relying on wingers who together have not yet delivered the goods this season (not forgetting some excellent crosses from Sam and Bouazza’s goal against Reading).

To follow the argument through, if we have Sam or Bouazza in the side, with Zhi or Ambrose – or both, if Zhi plays in the centre alongside Holland or Bailey – we need to look to full backs to get forward. This suggests Youga and Moutaouakil being first choice. Before the start of the season I thought they would be, allowing for the latter’s initial suspension, but I’m more sympathetic than some with Pardew for bringing in Cranie on loan, especially after the obvious shocker that Yassin had at Preston. However, to quote Fagin, I’m reviewing the situation (ie I’m changing my mind). If we have to play to a system that best utilises our strengths we have to accept some deficiencies. It’s not as if we’re running away with the league as it is.

I thought we had stumbled on this system last season, with the home games against Stoke and especially Palace. With the exception of the two centre-backs (who don’t really count in this context) and Halford we have all the players who embarrassed Palace that night with fast, attractive and intelligent football. I’d like to see more of that.

So, my possible altered line-up – not necessarily for the next game but through the season - would be: Weaver, Moutaouakil, Youga, Hudson, Primus, Holland/Bailey/Semedo, Zhi, Sam, Varney, Gray/Todorov, Ambrose. Subs: Elliot, Semedo/Holland/Bailey, Todorov, Shelvey, Dickson. But quite frankly I don’t care if we pick 11 Harry Cripps tomorrow night if they do the business.

At least I got one laugh on Saturday. I’m beginning to believe that your quality of life can be discerned by what you do on a Saturday morning. In my early years clearly Saturday morning was little different from any other morning. Then my parents bought a couple of shops and Saturdays turned into forced child labour (the only escape being The Valley). This drudgery continued with secondary school, which included Saturday mornings. Then there was university, where at least Saturday morning returned to being like any other (at least it did for philosophy students). This ushered in a golden age when Saturday mornings were spent sleeping it off, drinking more, sleeping, watching TV and other nefarious activities. More recently Saturday mornings have become a mad dash to try to do the urgent things, which if completed opened up the possibility of making a start on the endless list of ‘things which need to be done but are not urgent’. Something’s gone wrong somewhere.

So, this Saturday morning hell was a trip to the supermarket (I do manage to have all the tins of food run out at pretty much the same time; it’s an art perfected over the years). There really ought to be some sort of test for trolley usage at the entrance, with those failing having to take a learner course in the car park; along with a social skills test, ie planting in people’s heads the idea that dawdling in the middle of the aisle, leaving your trolley bang slap in the middle of said aile etc is not acceptable. (Actually my latest pet hate is those people on a train or bus who think it’s OK to take the seat on the outside so that – they hope – no-one can/will sit next to them; well, they didn’t pay for two seats so I try to take up the one next to them even if double seats are available elsewhere.)

Waiting at the check-out and a rather outsized and necessarily lycra-clad woman with a couple of brats behind started loading up her shopping. I kid you not she had the largest bag of really poor crisps that you could ever see, vast containers of Pepsi, other bottled/carbonated drinks, vast plastic loaves of break, and more sugar than Cuba produces in a year. She then turned to one of her offspring: ‘Kylie, go and get some low-fat butter’. I burst out laughing, but I don’t think the woman in question ever made the connection between this and her culinary preferences. One small moment of pleasure in an otherwise disappointing Saturday.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Another Reality Check

If Swansea was reassuring, Reading was inspirational, and Wolves was sobering, this was a fully-fledged reality check. We weren’t terrible, on another day we would have won comfortably. But neither were we robbed. We were pretty ordinary and with the breaks going against us lost to a pretty ordinary team, one which had two shots all game but which defended a lead quite comfortably for more than half the game. It was depressing, with any notion that The Valley can become a fortress for us this season quite frankly already out of the window.

Contrary to prior reports both Linvoy Primus and Martin Cranie were in the starting XI – although neither would finish the game. This limited any perceived need for further changes of personnel, with the shape of the team the same as for previous home games at least, with Andy Gray returning in a basic 4-4-2.

The first 20 minutes or so I thought were poor and shapeless, on the part of both teams. But we could have been 3-0 ahead. First, a Primus header from a corner came back off the inside of a post. Then rather surprisingly from a scramble from another corner the ball broke to Luke Varney and he scored – apparently, I thought the keeper had saved it until everyone wheeled away in triumph. Then came the incident that seemed almost irrelevant at the time but, just like our failure to score a second against Wolves, came back to bite us. Varney turned well in the box but instead of planting the ball into the bottom corner of the net he picked out the same spot as Primus. The rebound fell to Gray and instead of putting it into an empty net he blazed over the bar.

Sheff Wed had done absolutely nothing in the game so far. But then a certain Wade Small picked up the ball and decided that if the defence is flat and you run at an angle you can slice through it. He did, running from around the centre-spot to the edge of the area without a real tackle, before scoring with aplomb. Having seen that, a few minutes later Marcus Tudgay decided to do something similar. I don’t think Nicky Weaver had much chance with either shot, but how two players were allowed to slice through our midfield and defence will be something for the training ground on Monday.

It was a little stunning to be behind at the break, given the balance of play. It was less surprising to be behind at the final whistle. We did create some openings. Lloyd Sam, who had another mixed game, put in another couple of delightful crosses, Darren Ambrose came on - the formation in the second half seemed to fluctuate as Primus and Cranie departed for Ambrose and Basey after Svetoslav Todorov had come on for Gray - had for and had a couple of good shots (in between a poor free kick on the edge of the box). Varney nearly broke through, helped by Todorov’s passes. But overall we just didn’t do enough and seemed unable to up the pace. Wednesday were able to sit behind the ball and run the clock down reasonably comfortably.

There was a wonderful cameo moment in injury time. We won a corner and Weaver sneaked forward to add the extra body. It has to go down in footballing history as the most pointless foray forward by a goalkeeper. The corner curled out of play for a goal kick.

If the first didn’t, the second half highlighted our weaknesses. It wasn’t a game for Todorov to make an effective return, with Sheffield packing the space in front of their area, and we weren’t really able to shake things up. There wasn’t much of a plan B, although whether Primus and Cranie were unable to last 90 minutes and that curbed our options I’m not sure. We looked short of real quality against a team which had been given a chance and had taken it.

I was a little disappointed that Jose Semedo had not come into the team in place of the injured Jonathan Fortune. He has filled in as a defensive midfielder and full-back and I thought this might be his chance. The case for Yassin Moutaouakil returning, despite defensive mistakes, is there, while Ambrose, Zheng Zhi and Jonjo Shelvey have to come into the picture. What has been a fairly settle side so far this season did not look impressive today. It’s up to Alan Pardew to decide whether the combinations can get better or whether there is a need for change. That’s what he’s paid for. Me? I’m off for more red wine in a desperate effort to forget.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. I wouldn’t blame him for either goal and apart from those two shots had nothing to do – except kick better than he did against Wolves.

Cranie – 6/10. Adequate but uninspiring. May have been carrying an injury.

Youga – 7/10. I’m not sure whether to give him 4 or 8. Much of what he tried did not come off, and he may have been partially culpable for their first goal at least. But he was trying through the game and nearly made things happen going forward.

Hudson: 7/10. Seemed in control through the game, but we conceded twice.

Primus: 6/10. Nice to see him back, apart from the fish factor, but didn’t last the game and his header came back off the post.

Bouazza: 4/10. Disappointing. After some good runs and crosses in the first half faded completely out of the game. Should have been taken off.

Holland: 6/10. As it says on the box. Dropped back to central defence and did all he could, to no avail.

Bailey: 6/10. Not bad, but not a great game either.

Sam: 6/10. Mixed. Seemed unable to create space or make himself available when he didn’t have the ball, but delivered crosses that could have turned the game.

Gray: 5/10. Well policed by their defence and missed a great chance. Disappointing.

Varney: 7/10. Gets a point for scoring and caused them problems. Just not enough of them.

Subs: Ambrose (looked lively, hope he can play a real role for us this season as he has something that few have at this level); Basey (was as anonymous as Bouazza); Todorov (not the best of games for his return, but great to see him back on the pitch).

Monday, 22 September 2008

P7, W3, D1, L3 - L'Entente Cordial

Even after seven games the table doesn’t really lie, in England or in France. Well, arguably it doesn’t really lie after one game (unless of course Palace aren’t bottom). I think I’m trying to say (and contrary to popular belief these thoughts are not always influenced by wine or puff) that I don’t know whether to be pleased that we have made a reasonable start to the season or disappointed not to be topping the table. It’s always the latter of course, but a more sober assessment would be it could be worse, could be better. I just really don’t know what is realistic to expect for this season (and the confusion is compounded by having the same ambitions at the start of the season as Simon Jordan – namely to see Simon Jordan leave football). At the moment we really do have to take each game as it comes and see where we are as January approaches. Hopefully we will be there or thereabouts and maybe there will be the opportunity to use the window to better effect than last time around.

To accentuate the positive, I think the players to date deserve some credit for the attitude they have displayed, at least in the games I have seen (which admittedly amounts to a derisory two from seven). Holland and Bailey together don’t look like a dream team combination, but they do ensure no shortage of commitment, while Hudson has impressed with his leadership and ability. It’s all well and good for the club to talk of still having the ambition to return to the Premiership, but financial reality holds sway at the moment. The players who remain will be well aware that a real promotion drive is not compatible with selling anyone who attracted a decent offer and it was possible that heads would drop. The way that the players have responded should at least work against some of the direst predictions for the season coming to pass.

On the other side of the coin, we have not made the sort of start and don’t have the sort of resources that suggest we will be able to contest a top two place. Wolves and Birmingham are bound to falter at some point, and Stoke and Hull are a constant reminder that anything can happen. It’s just that for us to be fighting it out at the top would require everything clicking into place and most if not all players performing around their peak week in, week out. In part due to injuries the spine of the team is actually settled at the moment, with Hudson and Fortune in front of Weaver, Holland and Bailey in central midfield, and Gray and Varney first-choice up front. Add in regular appearances by Youga, now Cranie, and Bouazza and, even allowing for the changed formation on Saturday, you have a near complete starting team. What may prove key is when Zhi, Ambrose, Primus, Moutaouakil, Todorov, Dickson, Shelvey etc get their chances and how well they take them.

It is a squad which with all fit in total stands up well against most of the rest of the division but one which is still, in my opinion, disjointed as regards key combinations. This is still more a reflection of the past couple of seasons than starting with a blank sheet of paper. There is still no obvious style of play or strengths to play to. Of last season’s promoted teams, West Brom played good football and had a proven 20+ goals a season finisher at this level in Phillips. Stoke had a (horrible) style of play but also forwards capable of exploiting it. Hull had .... OK, here the line of argument breaks down, but you get the gist.

If someone asked me today what is our main strength I would struggle to answer. I had thought that with Youga and Moutaouakil plus Bouazza and Sam we would be strong on pace and movement, especially down the flanks, with Varney running the channels. Maybe this will still work out as players get used to each others’ strengths and weaknesses, but you have to deal with reality rather than hope and I think Pardew can be forgiven for bringing in Cranie as Moutaouakil has not started the season well. I really hope he responds well to being dropped and comes back stronger. Just as I hope that Todorov is back in contention at least before long – and that Dickson doesn’t suffer from not playing enough football.

My attendance record so far this season is indeed miserable. Away on holiday for Swansea (and Yeovil) and unable to get outside London due to a mix of work commitments (well, it is an interesting time for the financial sector) and the need to placate la belle France. I honestly don’t know where people find the time to get to away games. Only I have now been to an away game this season. Andrezieux-boutheon v Lyon Duchere.

What started as a light-hearted suggestion to my French partner, that to round off a week’s stay in Lyon we should take in a Duchere game, morphed into a concrete plan. The absence of rain clinched it (don’t ask about my powers of persuasion or what this says about my partner Suzanne), so the Saturday morning visit to the market was shortened (only one pastis) and we drove the 90 minutes or so from Lyon to the town of Andrezieux. Of the town I would say little. Apparently there is a castle but we didn’t see it. There was a tourist office, but even an industrial estate in France has one of them. Basically we arrived in time for the game and not much else, so we made our way to the Stade Roger Baudras, capacity 2,500, along with a few hundred village inhabitants. Well, it wasn’t much different from Scunthorpe really (see picture).

A friend today asked me how the locals reacted to two people sitting in the stand wearing La Duchere scarfs, one of whom seemed to be rather vocal in his criticism of the referee but not making any sense – there is a certain liberty in being able to call the referee a complete tosser (et al) in the full knowledge that he could hear every word as he strode off the pitch but didn’t understand one of them. The locals weren’t exactly hostile, but they were completely bemused. I might not have been the first Englishman to visit Andrezieux, but I’m pretty damn sure I was the first Englishman to visit the Stade Roger to watch Lyon Duchere.

Andrezieux seemed as if they expected to win against a team promoted to CFA proper last season, even though before the start Duchere were just above them in the league (fifth against sixth, after La Duch’s excellent start – which after five games had seen them in third place – had been compromised by a home defeat against Martigues the previous Saturday, 2-1 to a goal in injury time). However, Duchere’s better passing and movement saw them have the better of the first 20 minutes, without creating a clear chance. As the first half wore on the strength and size of the Andrezieux players – who clearly spend a fair proportion of their day in the fields – wore down La Duch, while the referee came into his own as a complete homer (I like to think I only shout at a referee because he deserves it; in this case there was no doubt). Having flourished yellow cards at Duchere players for very little and ignored a couple of bad fouls by Andrezieux, he saw his chance with a rash challenge in the box. There was never any doubt that he would give the penalty.

Last season the hero for Duchere had been their goalkeeper. And he duly dived to his right to save the spot kick. Three people in the stand stood and cheered (as by now we had been joined by the woman who had sold us the scarves at our previous game and who seems to be Duchere’s one travelling fan – a fact explained by the fact that her son plays no 11). Relief was tempered by the fact that Andrezieux were increasingly dangerous from set plays, a la Stoke. To be fair the free kick that crashed back off the bar was a superb curling shot. And the fact that Duchere wasted their best chance as a two-against-one breakaway came to naught.

Even at the break there was the chance to mingle with the locals; and although by the time we made it to the bar the red had run out there was a passable rose available. (Charlton please note, white wine just doesn’t do it for me and if a place like Andrezieux can manage to serve red in a glass at half-time surely we can manage something drinkable.)

The second half panned out much like the first, with Duchere starting well but again getting pegged back as their forwards were unable to hold the ball and the midfield was getting outmuscled. Andrezieux had a couple of good chances but missed and as the clock ran down it was clear that Duchere were happy with a goalless draw. Unfortunately it was not to be. In stopped time a corner led to an almighty scramble and eventually the ball found its way into the net. Barely time for the game to resume before the poseur of a ref blew for full time and danced off to whichever madam in the stands he was trying to impress.

It was tough on Duchere, especially having suffered a similar fate the previous week, but they showed enough to suggest that they will hold their own at this level. They have dropped back to eighth in the table with a record of three wins, one draw, three defeats ...... OK, this is getting spooky. What other team has begun the season with that record? Is there a higher power at work? If there is, the message to me is clear. I may not have turned out to be a Jonah for Lyon Duchere last season, but my recent record for away games – Sheff Utd the season before last, Scunthorpe last season, Andrezieux this season – suggests in the interest of all I should confine myself to London or Lyon.

All that was left for us was to decline the offer (this time around) of a post-match drink with the team and to drive back to Lyon for a date with a bouchon and a bottle of red. First up a fois gras so sauvage that it seemed they had just put their hand down its throat and pulled it out (ie a bit too runny, even for me) followed by a horse steak. I kid you not. Now where after a Charlton game can you get uncooked innards followed by a steak from an animal not normally eaten?

Saturday, 13 September 2008

We Lost

And today’s annoying cliché is: goals change games. There were a lot of similarities with the game against Reading. The differences were the approach of the opposition – Wolves were determined and cohesive rather than the sulky, sullen appearance of a team which feels they should not be here – and the fact that last time around at home we scored when we needed to. At half-time I thought it was a case of next goal wins it (either we would score again and go on to win or Wolves would get back on level terms and be more likely to take the points). And in the second half we had a golden chance to take a 2-0 lead. We didn’t take it and paid the price. I’m not saying we would have won if Luke Varney had converted the chance, with Wolves having the lion’s share of possession through the game and always looking capable of scoring. Neither am I saying that we would have won if the referee had not given them a penalty. But it’s a percentages game, especially at this level.

The Charlton line-up was entirely predictable, with Martin Cranie coming in a right-back to replace Yassin Moutaouakil, who unfortunately after the Preston games seems to need a spell working on his game, with Kelly Youga returning at left-back and Lloyd Sam returning out right. The only mild surprise was no Zheng Zhi on the bench, with Darren Ambrose keeping his place there. And we were denied the opportunity of giving Chris Iwelumo a decent welcome back as a late injury saw him sit this one out.

The game started sluggishly, but soon sprang into life as a clearance fell over the shoulder of Nicky Bailey some distance outside their box. His controlled and powerful volley was a masterclass of technique. If their keeper hadn’t got a hand to it the decision for goal of the season would have already been done and dusted. He nearly repeated the trick a little later when from a decent position shot just wide with the keeper nowhere. And with Hameur Bouazza buzzing around and creating shooting opportunities it was looking promising.

However, Wolves are made of strong stuff, at least their midfield and attack are. Their defence looks far too ponderous to support a promotion bid, but you have to expose them first and we failed to do that consistently. Bailey and Matt Holland were gradually losing the central midfield battle, with Wolves Karl Henry starting to dictate the play and demonstrating an ability to go past players. And with Ebanks-Blake a constant threat we were being ground down, losing the physical battle, and surrendering possession too easily. That was down to not working hard enough when we had the ball and creating space. We started to look like the away team, relying on pace and breakaways.

A couple of half-chances for Wolves, a run through by Ebanks-Blake, and close to half-time a complete miskick in front of goal by Keogh and we had made it to the break still in front. But there was nothing comfortable about it, with Mark Hudson holding the back line together but Youga having an erratic game (some good things but some worrying errors too) and the midfield proving unable to hold the ball.

No matter, we were winning. Just a feeling that we needed another. Lloyd Sam had a mixed game, looking threatening at times but also a little rusty. But early in the second half he put in a peach of a cross from the right. We had claims for a penalty as Andy Gray appeared to be manhandled, but the ball went over him and his marker to Varney. A decent contact on target and the keeper would have had no chance. But Varney put it wide. It came to him quickly, but it should have been buried.

Not long after the referee gave a foul for a challenge on the edge of our area. Others thought our guy (Bailey or Holland) got the ball, but I thought it was a foul. We were still discussing the incident when the ball was played quickly and suddenly their guy got brought down (apparently). I’d have to see it all again to have a real opinion, but I can’t say it was a travesty. (In truth I thought the officials collectively had a good game; challenges by Sam and by Jonathan Fortune could have seen red cards delivered rather than yellow – yes, officials not sending off our players counts as a good display as far as I’m concerned – and in particular the linesman in front of us close to the North Stand was immaculate through the game.) Ebanks-Blake dispatched the penalty and the momentum was all with Wolves.

Echoes of Reading. Except that then after having been pegged back we scored. And then scored again. This time we didn’t really get a look-in. Alan Pardew decided it was time for some changes, which was a fair decision, but they didn’t work out. Sam was replaced by Grant Basey, with Bouazza switching to the right, while Dickson came on for Gray. I was surprised it wasn’t Ambrose coming on for Sam or Varney (not Gray) making way for Dickson (Gray and Dickson looks viable to me, not Varney and Dickson). But there you go.

A cross from the right to the far post and Nicky Weaver seemed indecisive. I thought he could have come for it but didn’t. Having switched wings Bouazza was absent in defence on that side. And we conceded a soft goal. Once behind we seldom looked as if we could turn things around and Wolves scored a third, with Henry carving through midfield and a splendid save by Weaver falling to someone on a gold shirt. All that was left was to cheer Michael Gray coming on as substitute and think of better days.

It was a game we could have won, but you can’t say we deserved to win it. If we had taken the points it would have been a steal – but if we had gone 2-0 up who can tell how the game would have panned out? On the balance of play and chances Wolves were worthy winners. It’s just that they are not world-beaters. That’s what still hurts.

The worrying things for me were that Holland and Bailey were outmuscled and outpaced in central midfield. They looked good together against Reading and maybe against most teams they will be effective. Maybe there is a case for Zhi and/or Ambrose coming into the equation. Also, it is adventurous but can we play both Sam and Bouazza? Ditto re Zhi, Ambrose, and Jonjo Shelvey. Is Cranie a right-back or a central defender filling in? With Linvoy Primus finally arriving (after all the fuss until December) presumably he will take his place alongside Hudson when ready. But we still have work to do finding the right blend in front of them – and perhaps selecting teams to do a job in particular games. We waited until Wolves had equalised before trying to address problems.

Oh, crap. It’s one game. We have two more coming up next week. On another day we would have won. Three or four points from the next two games and things look differently. It just hurts (for me) that at the end of the game one club looked as if it was expecting to mount a promotion challenge, the other looked like it hoped it would.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 6/10. Not obviously to blame, but seemed a little hesitant through the afternoon. Forget about the poor kicking, it’s irrelevant.

Cranie: 7/10. Looked accomplished in defence but seldom got forward. Looks more like a (possibly very good) centre-half in waiting than a right back.

Youga: 6/10. He can do better. In the first half in particular he was erratic and nearly cost us with a couple of bad mistakes. I had hoped that he and Yassin would be cornerstones of our team – and our style of play – this season. But so far it’s not working out.

Hudson: 8/10. My man-of-the-match this time. Strong and composed.

Fortune: 6/10. Would have had a better mark had it not been for a mistake in the first half that almost saw Ebanks-Blake run through to score. I think he could play with Primus, but we have chosen Hudson. So if Primus is ready it looks like Fortune will be back on the bench.

Bouazza: 7/10. Had a very good first half but seldom threatened in the second.

Holland: 6/10. He and Bailey looked excellent against Reading. Today they were exposed for lack of muscle and lack of pace and mobility. Maybe they won’t come up against better central midfielders than those of Wolves, but today they were, together, second-best.

Bailey: 7/10. As for Holland – except he gets another point for a truly splendid goal.

Sam: 6/10. Mixed. Almost won us the game with that cross in the second half, but could have seen red for a rash lunge in the first half.

Gray: 7/10. I thought he had an excellent first half, but as we lost midfield became isolated and less effective as we kept looking for the ball over the top.

Varney: 6/10. Less would be unfair. But, come on Luke. Bury the chance when it comes. You are a forward and you get judged on these things, not your workrate.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Bullshit Detector

I don’t remember having wandered into any of the coffee shops in Amsterdam during the past few days (although just walking down some of the streets and breathing the air can be enough). But I can’t come up with any other explanation on my return to the UK that everyone is suddenly talking, well absolute bollocks.

Sarah Palin. Actually we’d better include John McCain, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden; oh, and just about every US citizen who has stood for public office in living memory. Come to think of it, as this particular piece of nonsense is usually greeting with wild cheers across the nation, it applies to most citizens of the USA. It is of course the statement that the USA is the ‘greatest nation on earth’. Sorry guys, it isn’t.

Robhino. We thought that drama queen Ronaldo (‘he dives to the left, he dives to the right ...’) had taken the biscuit with his allusion to being treated like a slave, before that Ashley Cole with his account of how stunned he was with the (seemingly miserly) weekly pay offered by Arsenal in a new contract. Now we have a Brazilian, one who has just shunned Chelsea and Champions League participation for a stint with perennial losers, defending his actions by saying “I think that only someone who suffered as I suffered at Real Madrid may have something to say on this”. You don’t even need to pose the rhetorical question of just how he suffered. The guy just doesn’t know what planet he’s on. He should fit in well at Man City.

Unfortunately the prize has to be awarded to our very own Steve Waggott. And he was doing so well when talking about our decision not to sell/inability to offload for the right price Zheng Zhi. He was honest in acknowledging that there had been the very real prospect of him being sold to West Brom (although it would have been very strange to have said anything else) and understandably focused on the upside, namely the prospect of a very good and possibly influential player staying with us (well, at least until January). According to the Charlton email, Waggott went on to say that “I think what this instance shows is that we were only prepared to let players leave if it was the right deal for the club, and the player in question ... the deal for ZiZi wasn't right, and we're delighted he's still a Charlton player”. All good stuff. Unfortunately he then added “... particularly because he loves the club so much."

Now keeping Zhi clearly does increase the chances of us being in contention in the months ahead (always assuming that the club hadn’t been about to use the money on someone else). And given that he will still be a saleable commodity come January it doesn’t look like a big financial gamble to hold onto him for now at least – assuming he is up for the fight. I’m glad he’s not been sold – and I hope he goes on to have a long and successful stay with us (ie he oversees our entry to the Champions League within five years – well, everyone apparently has to have ambitions, even West Ham). Also, I hope he has some affection for our club, feelings which could deepen over time. But please do not expect us to think that he loves the club, let alone loving it ‘so much’.

There is no danger of Zhi being booed for almost leaving. We’re not so daft as to not know the score. To the best of my knowledge he’s not openly thrown his toys out of the pram and demanded a move. The picture does change if he were to say that he doesn’t want to play for Charlton, but I think generally the supporters have appreciated his efforts, even his absences, and would have understood if he had been sold. But if there’s one thing that would incline me towards howling derision at the mention of his name it is, I’m afraid, our chief executive’s misguided attempt to talk total bollocks to us.

Maybe in today’s parlance and standards Zhi does indeed love Charlton. At the recent meeting Richard Murray talked of Andy Reid having a real affection for the club, to the extent that he would have stayed if we had matched the wages that Sunderland were offering. At least that notion only prompts a wry smile. It’s just that I thought (hoped?) we were a little above that artificial badge-kissing, ‘love the club’ garbage. Sorry Steve, we just don’t need it. If Zhi loves us it will show on the pitch.

At the same time the prize for honesty and sticking to principles in a corrupt industry goes to ... Alan Curbishley. Walking away from a job at a Premiership club, even one which bought itself out of relegation, without (I assume) any pay-off takes some doing. Anyone watching him being interviewed could tell that he wasn’t having fun (although to be fair indications that Curbs is having fun always did seem hard to discern) and he seems to have just decided that enough is enough. Compare and contrast with the way that Sven Goran Ericksson, Claudio Ranieri and others put their self-respect in their back pockets and stayed at clubs when they knew it was only a case of negotiating their pay-off. I’m not blaming them for acting that way (heaven knows I would have done), only applauding someone prepared to take the high road and not try to squeeze every penny out of every situation. It’s a good reminder that life really is too short.

So, will Alan Pardew be checking Murray’s mobile phone records today? I hope not. It is not inconceivable that Curbs will return one day, but there’s a time for everything and this isn’t it (even leaving aside the cost of such a change). Nevertheless, it is strange how the balance shifts. Not long ago our assumption would have been Pardew leaving to manage a team higher up the pecking order. His stock now is such that I can’t imagine a Premiership team having him top of their list. This is not to suggest that he won’t end up back in the Premiership, with or without us. Rather it is to say that what Pardew achieves/doesn’t achieve with us this year is just as important for his own future as for that of the club. That’s usually a happy coincidence of interest.