Sunday, 24 July 2011

Calendar Girls

As we wait for the identity of the new striker(s) to be brought in – unless it is felt that Williams, Poppo and possibly Euell can do the necessary to support Hayes and Wright-Phillips – we can only fondly recall the days when speculation over our moves would make the BBC and other sites and we could ponder the merits of possible options. I assume that on Tuesday at least those attending will get the chance to see how the current only available front two shape up together. In the interim, with all the comings and goings since May, it’s perhaps about time for a belated thumbnail personal assessment of those that have moved on – in part to cover for an inability to predict who might still be coming in and also to make a belated plea for the club, if it is intent on recycling entire teams each season, to stop the practise of issuing a calendar for the year ahead in December.

I realise the commercial motivation, but some of us have birthdays in August and a summer 12-month calendar would at least have some shelf-life. As it is, since May I’ve had to stare at the unfortunately crocked Fortune paired with Doherty, followed by a month of pondering the uncertainty of Dailly’s position. There’s only a few days left of Benson and Sodje (one on the point of going and one who left before his time on the wall came due), after which I’ll have Llera (effectively gone) and Mambo (hopefully coming to the fore this season as it’s time), then a month of Worner (gone without troubling the scoreboard as they say). October will bring to the fore Fry and McCormack (both departed), before Solly and Anyinsah (gone) in November. At least December will have Elliot in splendid isolation for a month. (For the record, January featured Martin and Abbott, February Wagstaff and Reid, March the combination of Racon and Semedo, and April Jackson and Francis.) I doubt that it’s going to have much resale value on ebay come January, although for the truly sad there might be interest in assessing whether any other club calendar, ever, has featured such a low combined total of games. Reality is I’m the sad one as I tend to keep these things.

So, here we go, loosely in order of positions:

Worner – what’s there to say? Parkinson obviously saw potential in him, but Powell and presumably others didn’t, presumably after the three-game spell he had in goal in March (whether that just coincided with or was instrumental in that bad patch is uncertain).

Jenkinson – Got the boos late last season for his poorly-advised decision to leave us for Arsenal, but that’s done now. Seems he was instrumental in us getting the best possible deal, and around £1m for a kid just coming through has helped to fund the restructuring. Good luck to him now.

Francis – Of course he is back in the fold and may remain so (if he does still end up at Bournemouth or somewhere else we will need a replacement). I thought last season he was a better player than some others did. He wasn’t great, his crossing often disappointed, but I really struggle to see why many fans turned against him, to the extent where one admittedly bad mistake seemed to virtually end his Charlton career. We were shopping in the bargain basement a year ago and only four players had more starts for us last season.

Youga – Does anyone know if he’s done enough to be offered something (and while we’re dealing with uncertainties, what’s happened with Alonso)? Here too the signing of two new left-backs suggests not. I don’t think there’s any doubt that were it not for injury he would have been a fixture in the team; he brought attacking flair and had the added advantage for me of maintaining the French connection. If he’s fit I wouldn’t be surprised to see even a Championship team take a punt on him (if not, if he heads back to France maybe there’s a spot at Lyon Duchere?).

Fortune – Can’t say for sure we’ve seen the last of him; if he gets fit by the end of the year I guess there’s always the chance we’d offer him a short-term deal as cover. We know what he will forever be remembered for; it might not be enough for true Charlton legend status but ... oh hell, of course it is (just as Kitson earnt his place in our hearts).

Llera – Some have commented that his mistakes always seemed to be picked on more than those of others. For me, the problem was less about mistakes but his reaction to them. He often seemed to go to pieces. I shall always remember with affection his first appearance at Welling. We’d been told about his ability to spread the play, but nobody had told him the pitch was a postage stamp and his first efforts sailed over the stands. When he was good he looked imperious (and was always a threat from set pieces), but Parkinson gave up on him and Powell clearly thought he couldn’t be relied on. Goes with best wishes but no regrets (at least until the first howlers from Taylor/Morrison).

Semedo – From player of the season to the exit door (a bit like Parkinson’s November manager of the month). Never any doubting his commitment and ability to do a job, but given the limited nature of that job needed either a 4-5-1 formation or an exceptionally good player alongside him in a central two. Assured of a warm welcome when he comes back with Sheff Wed, but here too no regrets from me that last season’s failed midfield has been cleared out.

Racon – When we played 4-5-1 and passed and moved he was instrumental in it all. When it was 4-4-2 he simply didn’t have the strength or outright ability to compete, even with his minder Semedo, with his tackling often a liability. I hope he goes on to find a decent club after the one he’s gone to.

McCormack – Might be argued that he didn’t get the chance to really show us what he could do. But that wouldn’t be correct. He did get the chances and what he showed wasn’t good enough. Seemed the sort of player that needed to be (and was used to being) the boss in midfield but singularly failed to play effectively with Racon while his pairing with Semedo (which was first choice at the start of the season) was too limited.

Reid – For me the biggest disappointment of last season. Getting him on a free seemed a real coup at the time, but just didn’t cut the mustard, for whatever reason. Started the first six games of the season but proved entirely peripheral after that. A waste of potential is never that; if you don’t fulfil your potential it was never really there. Time for Reid to prove (somewhere else) that he has what it takes.

Anyinsah – Just too injury-prone. Often looked as though he would make the best partner for Wright-Phillips, but there was never the possibility of finding out.

Benson – In the circumstances we were in, he was a decent (and necessary) signing. Took a while to get going, but had a purple patch with six goals in five games (and eight in 13). Once Wright-Phillips was bought he had to adapt to being more of a target man and that’s not really his strength. Clearly had his limitations, and perhaps lacked the real strut and self-confidence that a really good finisher needs.

Stewart/Parrett/Nouble/Eccleston/Bessone – Of the loan signings now departed, Stewart seemed to be using us to put himself in the shop window and our signings mean he isn’t returning. Whether he finds a club above our status remains to be seen. Three others go back to their Premiership clubs with thanks but only one regret from me – that we sadly underutilised Eccleston. He may have been a bit cocky, but he has pace and ability, even playing him wide right. Bessone brought a touch of flair with him, but he came to us short of match fitness and struggled with injuries. I’ve no idea if we ever tried to get him on a permanent basis, but with Wiggins and Evina brought in we’ve clearly seen the last of him.

Dailly – I’ve kept the best to last; and at the moment we still don’t know if he’s staying or going. I’m not privy to the talks, the money etc. But I can’t help thinking that his eventual decision will be more down to whether he wants at least one more season as a lynchpin somewhere else or whether he is ready to be used more sparingly – and perhaps ease his way into a training/management role. Perhaps he’s the sort of player who needs to be totally involved (anyone who has the clash of heads that he had – which echoed around the ground – just before half-time in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game and comes out for the second half, before later discovering a cracked eye socket, clearly has a screw loose). I actually hope he ends up doing what’s best for him in that respect. He’s been nothing but a model professional and an outstanding player, somebody whose intelligence and understanding of the game shone through even in his programme notes. Time catches up with everyone (except me) and only he can decide if the legs are up to another full season.

It goes without saying that best wishes go to the youngsters released. But they, like most of the above, are history now, for us at least. And let’s face it recent history hasn’t been glorious. For those lucky enough to be able to attend the Tuesday friendly, these are the comments of a Dutch colleague:

From 1983 to 1990, FC Den Bosch were consistently in the first division (eredivisie) but have always struggled to get to the top ranks. In the 1990s, the team struggled to raise enough money as the team attracted less visitors. The club has even been forced to sell players with very good potential for almost nothing to other teams in the Netherlands. Ruud van Nistelrooy started his career there (he played four years in the main team of Den Bosch) and was sold in 1998 for 650,000 guilders (EUR 300,000) to SC Heerenveen. One year later, Heerenveen sold him for 12 million guilders (EUR 5.4 mln - a record amount for a football player at that time) to PSV, after it turned out that he was brilliant on the pitch in the first division. Since the 1990s, FC Den Bosch have been promoted to the first division four times (in 1993, 2000, 2002 and 2005), only to get relegated the next year (ed – shades of a certain Palace here?). The team usually play in the top ranks of the second division and every year they have reasonable chances to get promoted to the first division (OK, not like Palace), but never make much of an impression there.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sun, Bars and Seamless Links

Starting off I’m struggling to find a Charlton angle - or just a seamless link to matters Charlton - with this one. But on the grounds that no issues/events are completely unconnected, I’m confident that if I rabbit on long enough the necessary will reveal itself; just a question of whether anyone else will be able to spot the join when it comes.

If you’ve been struggling through the cloud and rain of the past few days, spare a thought for those of us who took the option for a sun break. For some it involved nipping over to Spain for a couple of workouts and some team-bonding; for me it was a case of my partner Suzanne having a family party on France’s national day in Crest, just south of Valence. This provided the opportunity for a little exploration of the region, or rather selected parts. And you can hardly blame me. I don’t pretend to be a wine expert (more a consumer than a connoisseur), but a seminal moment was some years back in a good bar du vin in Lyon. I outlined as best I could what I like and the obliging gentlemen came back with a glass and said ‘try zis’. I quickly realised I could spend the rest of my life happily swimming in the glass’ contents. It was a St Joseph.

The reputation here of the wines of the Rhone Valley have not surprisingly been harmed by the propensity of the French over the years to offload on us trucks of cheap Cotes du Rhone that they wouldn’t willingly touch themselves. But when the northern part of the area offers St Joseph, Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas (which I was not previously familiar with but took the opportunity to sample and tuck away a couple of bottles for the future) I’m not sure there’s a better concentration of desirable options anywhere else on the planet, at least not for someone who to date hasn’t managed to acquire a taste for the subtlety of a Bourgogne or the wallet for good Bordeaux. That said, I’ve bought quite indifferent bottles of St Joseph in London and having seen some of the vinyards you can understand why. Dotted on the hillside it would seem that the variations in sunshine and rain can result in ordinary years (the woman in one cave responsible for selling the stuff visibly turned up her nose at the 2008 vintage, which was correctly set at half the price of a 2009 or 2007), while the different terroirs of the various producers deliver different variations of flavour despite the pure Syrah origins. I’m just going to have to do a lot more serious (practical) research; but I’m learning and am full of enthusiasm.

By spending a little time in the area I managed to unearth the best bar in the world – and the best school. Taking a leaf from the French, who are nothing if not sneaky when it comes to hiding their true assets, I’m not going to state where the bar is. As the picture shows, it appears nondescript, but when I asked for a glass of red wine the response was ‘we only serve St Joseph’. I’m not sure I will ever find a bar to compete. And just along the road was the Ecole St Joseph. The mind boggles as to what the curriculum entails. A bit of colouring and spelling then off for the day’s tastings of vintages. Pre-Thatcher English schooling gave me curdled milk.

So, we now know where to find the best bar and best school in the world. But do we yet know if we have the best team in League One? Clearly at least not yet, but it is possible this will prove to be the case. I don’t think anyone would have made such a claim a year ago. At the Welling game a fellow Addick was sounding quite downbeat on the signings made by Sir Chris, seemingly on the grounds that they were players largely drawn from our current peers rather than attracted away from a higher level and that they pointed to a standard playing formation rather than the adoption of a Barcelona approach (or more realistically Brighton). I often have my rose-tinted glasses on (La Vie en Rose once more) but I don’t agree. For me there’s a good balance among the incoming of youth and experience and the indication that we will play a consistent and increasingly familiar (for the players) 4-4-2 week in, week out, with the emphasis on tempo, fitness and balance. Then it’s about getting the best partnerships in the key areas and ensuring we have sufficient cover.

It might be argued that we have lost players to either teams in the top two divisions (Racon, Jenkinson, quite possibly Llera and Reid, along with the loanees returning to Premiership clubs – Parrett, Nouble, Eccleston) or those around us (Semedo, Anyinsah, still possibly it seems Francis). At face value that might suggest a loss of (relative) quality. Fact is they didn’t work out for us in the way we’d hoped and while the process isn’t complete – and can’t be until we know what will happen with Francis, McCormack, Dailly et al and whether there will be further additions – it seems to me on the admittedly thin evidence so far that a number of those brought in are on an improving path with a good attitude. It’s a bit unfair on the two, but I remember being struck by the programme notes early last season from Benson and Abbot. The former mentioned that as a trained accountant he had a career to fall back on if it didn’t work out in football, while the latter acknowledged his journeyman status (adding that he thought he’d always done a good job for his many clubs, except Swansea). We’ve already heard rather more ambitious comments from the new batch.

It does have to be pointed out that despite the addition of 13 new signings (including Sullivan returning on a permanent basis and Pope), the exit of an equal number (more if Dailly, Llera, McCormack and Francis) means we are no stronger in terms of actual numbers. But of those having departed, five were loan players. While we presumably avail ourselves of the odd loanee this season too, it is hard to see us depending on them to the extent we did last season (or the season before). Should help with consistency and continuity.

If you had to pick a team right now to kick things off, some things would seem clear. I don’t know which of Elliot or Sullivan will get the nod in goal, but at least we’re covered (barring any substance to the rumours that Elliot might not be happy if he begins as number two). Clearly right-back’s an area of uncertainty, with speculation of a new signing but Francis’ inability to agree terms with Bournemouth complicating things, with these rumours suggesting that Powell doesn’t want to rely just on Solly. Left-back seems a straight choice between Wiggins and Evina, presumably the former (with the latter perhaps cover for both left-back and wide-left); I haven’t seen any confirmation but presumably Youga isn’t coming back. Central defence is currently two from Morrison, Taylor and Doherty, with Dailly maybe still making up the numbers (and Mambo still developing).

The clean sweep approach to central midfield suggests that the two places will be contested by Alonso, Hollands, Stephens and Pritchard, with Izquierdo also a contender on the evidence to date. What I do like the look of is the prospect of Jackson and Green providing the width (with Wagstaff appearing for now to be the back-up, Harriot developing as well). One outright winger able to cross well and one more of an all-rounder, both capable of making a decent contribution to the goals tally. Does it carry echoes of Robinson and Newton (if not the old Man Utd combination of Coppell and Hill)?

The obvious problem is up front, ie what happens if Wright-Phillips gets injured? Hayes and Benson are shaping up as possible partners for him, but without BWP would we have the necessary cutting edge? Benson was brought in as the outright goalscorer but now seems to be being asked to operate as more the provider/target man, while it remains to be seen whether the trialist Williams will come on board. Again, its early days, but a Hayes-Benson partnership up front if Wright-Phillips is unavailable looks unlikely (and pertinently hasn’t been tried by Powell in the friendlies to date). If there’s one more important addition to come this would seem to be the area.

So now the sun is a distant memory, which for me means back to work and for the players a trip to Aldershot. The recently-confirmed replacement of Reading for the 26 July Valley friendly with FC Den Bosch would be an attractive prospect – had not various factors combined to ensure that next week will see me make a work-related trip abroad, to Amsterdam of all places. Reminds me of the only possible definitive proof of the existence of God (and his sense of humour), the true story of how some nuns in Ireland saved for years to fund a trip to Rome to see the Pope, only for it to turn out that the week they were so looking forward to was the one he spent visiting Ireland. He/she is said to move in mysterious ways.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

3-0 To The Second-Half Team

So, 3-0 to the second-half team. The complicated task of monitoring the teams was intensified by Welling selling out of programmes by the time we made it inside the ground but then made a little easier by Sir Chris’ decision to play two different teams – each a mix of the old and new – for the two halves. From my notes it seems we managed to identify eight or nine of both 11s, and I’m still waiting for the club site to sort out its link to the report on the game to fill in the gap, so this might be a work in progress, especially as one of the unidentifiables scored.

First-half team was Elliot in goal, Wiggins at left-back, Mambo partnering Morrison in central defence, Jackson and Wagstaff providing the midfield width, and I think Izquierdo and someone else in the centre, while Hayes made his debut up front alongside a lively but unidentified by me partner. The second saw Sullivan take over in goal, with I think trialist Andersen at left-back, Solly on the left, Doherty and Taylor in central defence. I think it was Hollands and Pritchard in central midfield, with Green wide-left and Benson alongside another guy.

The game itself saw Welling start brightly, hitting the bar and then their forward rounding Elliot before being crowded out. But aside from one bad slip from Morrison – which did coincide with a decent downpour - which nearly let in their guy. But that was as good as it got for them and their substitutions seemed to diminish their threat as the game went on. Jackson hit the bar from a free kick in the first half and one of a series of delightful crosses from Wiggins – which it has to be said contrasted with those that came in from Wagstaff on the other flank – saw Hayes decide to head back rather than go for goal. It might have been a reasonable decision, but you wondered whether the concept of not going for goal would have occurred to the absent Wright-Phillips.

Goalless at the break the second-half team began with a good deal more energy, which seemed to be down to the promptings of Hollands and the initial energy of Green, who was to provide a good deal of entertainment with his shooting, which ranged from the sublime to the awful. I didn’t really catch the first goal as it came from our guy robbing theirs of the ball and playing in an unidentified new boy to put it in the net. The second was as simple as it comes, with a corner seeing Taylor outjump and outmuscle their defenders and keeper to head it in. Then just as I was remarking to a friend that Green had faded after his bright start, he collected the ball and languidly sent it flying into the net from distance.

Game over and what did we learn? In terms of style of play, we put out two teams and both were straight 4-4-2, which left the impression that we’re not going to muck about with the system. We play this way and Plan B will involve changes of personnel, not formation. By mixing up the two teams we don’t know yet the key partnerships that Powell sees as first-choice, especially with Alonso not around yet and Wright-Phillips not playing. But reading between the lines – and ahead of further changes - I’d say if I had to pick a team to start the season we’re looking at Elliot and Sullivan scrapping it out to be number one in goal, with the former really the incumbent, Solly and Wiggins as the full-backs, Morrison or Doherty alongside Taylor or Dailly (if he signs), Jackson and Green out wide, Hollands and Alonso in central midfield, Hayes and Wright-Phillips up front. But that’s tentative at best, with no sign yet of Evina (unless he actually played) or Alonso (ditto).

Individually, for me Andersen impressed at left-back in the second half, but having signed Wiggins and Evina, and with Youga still a possibility, if that’s his position you wonder if that’s a priority for us (especially with Solly the only recognised right-back, in the absence of a name for the guy who played the first half). Hollands looked useful and made things happen, while Izquierdo in the first half (if it was him) impressed me by always seeming to look for something more than the safe ball. Hayes showed he knows his way around, but whether it’s a positive or a negative to see him make himself available for everything, including taking corners, remains to be seen. He and Benson did a passable impression of each other and as things stand the requirement of a centre-forward for us is to provide the best foil for Wright-Phillips. Neither is a real target man or especially physical, so how this pans out remains to be seen. And if the comparison is made on this game alone between Wagstaff and Green to play wide-right, Green clearly emerged the winner, not least because of Wagstaff’s crossing. Needs to work on it and continue to improve. With Green I doubt you have a lack of confidence, and if he can score goals regularly and provide the more genuine winger option with presumably Jackson on the other flank that looks good.

Best moment of the afternoon? Well, it ought to be Green’s strike for the third goal, but I’d give it to Sullivan’s auto-response to use conceding a free-kick. Standing behind his goal in the second half you realise he doesn’t stop shouting instructions to his defence or providing his assessment of situations, and a simple “fck off ref” might in another game have seen a yellow card produced but this time around just served as an amusing reminder where he came from.

I’ve had a final check on the club site and the link now works, so I can acknowledge that Taylor played the first half alongside Mambo, not Morrison, which means that Taylor made the howler and Morrison scored the goal; Warren played right-back in the first half, it was indeed Izquierdo alongside Stephens in central midfield, while Popo was the lively forward alongside Hayes. In the second, trialist Williams was alongside Benson and scored the first, while Davisson was the final missing player. But the wine’s out, England are still 1-1 against France in extra-time, and I’m far too lazy to make corrections.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Time Running Out

Oh, this just keeps getting better! Having resigned myself to the prospect that after Welling tomorrow it would be early September and the visit of Sheffield Wednesday before my season can begin (in terms of actually being there), with no sign of a replacement for the cancelled Reading friendly, I see today that game has been put back to the following Monday – when I will probably be making my regular work-related trip to Amsterdam. The chances of finding a bar there that might be screening the Wednesday game are remote (although I can go on a trawl of the centre to either be pleasantly surprised or sufficiently anaesthetised to compensate) and it means Exeter on 10 September being my first match in anger. Bloody marvellous (although some may wish to point out that it’s my decision to naff off on holidays for two weeks and to stick to certain resolutions, such as retaining my sense of purity by never actually stepping inside the New Den, having done my time in the old one).

The fact that three home games are now written off for me did set me thinking as to whether if it was a purely monetary issue it was worth buying a season ticket or paying by game and waiting for the second-half ticket offers around the turn of the year. That actually encouraged me to look at the fixture list for the first time and realising how distorted it is. Because of the Carling Cup and the Mickey Mouse JPT I assume, perhaps other reasons (internationals?), we are scheduled to have five league games in August and September each, followed by six in October. Then it gets weird. Just three in November and only four in December (and just three home games in the two months). January and February see some return to normality, with five games in each month, but then seven in March (including four at home)! Throw in a few cancellations for bad weather and an FA Cup run (I know, but it’s always possible) and it has all the ingredients for a congestion disaster – and/or a repeat of last season when then too the games came thick and fast and we were on a dire run and unable to pause for breath. We will reach the end of December having played exactly half the season (23 games) or less (if there are postponements) in five months, then cram the second half (or more) into four.

I’m sure there are reasons for the season to be planned this way and it was probably the same last season and I didn't notice (we ended up playing just two league games in December). But I doubt they have a lot to do with the interests of the teams concerned – and their fans. To play seven serious games in two months at a time when the weather is likely to be no problem, then eight in one when there may well be a need to fit in games postponed in January-February, increasing the risk of games added in April (when there are five planned), seems to me from a purely footballing perspective plain daft. It risks turning the season into a patchy and inconclusive first half followed by a desperate slog to the finish, especially when injuries and suspensions are thrown in. But it’s only League One, so who cares?

I had a quick check on another team’s fixture list and it does seem it’s the same for everyone. The only problem for us is that not every club in this division is starting the campaign with a completely new team. It’s reasonable to suppose that it will take a bit of time for squad to gel and if this translates into a slow start in August-October the low number of games in November-December may not work to our advantage. It does also suggest that while the JPT is an irrelevance (I have no wish to go to Wembley to see us in that competition) Sir Chris may be well advised to treat it seriously as part of the team bonding process and as the players will be getting plenty of rest from league games prior to Christmas.

I was about to say it has been getting rather boring of late on the player front, with no new signings for a week (aside from the youngsters). But I had a quick check on the club site to make sure and I see that another centre-half has been added to the ranks, bringing the total to 11. That’s a nice round number, and the day’s not over yet. Welling is usually a challenge in terms of keeping track of who’s on the pitch and this time around it’s going to be near impossible. We could field a starting X1 containing no players on the books last season. I’m going to have to scribble a note to myself listing the new players to take along just to try to be able to avoid obvious howlers if there’s to be a post-match posting, although I hope nobody expects any real match report as for all its merits it is little more than a training session. At least with enough additions to choose from I’ve been assuming we won’t have repeats of previous years’ rabbits coming out of the hat (I remember Fortune surprising us all last time around by pulling on a Charlton shirt again), but I see from Chicago Addick’s latest post Jason Euell is training with us (as well as a German trialist).

We have also seen confirmation of the departure of others, including Semedo, Francis and Anyinsah to add to Racon, Reid et al (with rumours of McCormack also leaving). Seems Dailly’s future remains unclear, while the addition of Michael Morrison from Wednesday to add to Matt Taylor from Exeter suggests that even with Fortune out of the picture and Llera seemingly headed for pastures new he and Doherty go from first-choice partnership to back-ups if they stay.

As I’ve said before, I’m not the person to make any meaningful assessments of the new guys (other than to add that while my partner Suzanne’s normally good judgement seems to become rose-tinted when it comes to me, I’ve always had a certain inclination when watching someone make their Charlton debut to think we’ve got a world-beater on our hands). But the overall impression has to be that we’ve brought in a whole batch of players with years ahead of them and what looks like a good mix of experience at this level and potential to develop; and while gelling may be a problem, the clearing of the decks should mean a squad unencumbered by the baggage of the failure of recent years. It does all seem in keeping with Michael Slater’s stated goal of creating a team/squad ready to hold their own in The Championship if we can get promoted. And on that optimistic note I guess it’s time to stop quibbling about missing games and put that cheque in the post.