Friday, 30 November 2012

Regrets? I've Had A Few

I have been trying to pin down the definitive reason for my not making the trip for tomorrow afternoon’s game. My French partner Suzanne is in London for the weekend and, while she was willing, I was hesitant. We do have a little family duty to perform, which offers a decent enough excuse. But ultimately it’s because I swore I would never visit the New Den (and also pledged ‘never again’ for Selhurst Park). I spent many of my formative years in Bermondsey (I may not have been the only Addick in SE1 but was the only one at Galleywall Road Junior School) and went to more than my fair share of games against Millwall, while also having a ringside seat to watch the Saturday evening street mayhem which in the 1960s/70s followed many home games. Like getting caned at school, it may (or may not) have been character-building; I just don’t feel inclined to repeat the experience.

I do nevertheless feel more than a twinge of guilt at not being there, to add to the necessary support - and, as after Kim Grant in the snow, I will regret not having been there to witness the triumph. Non, je ne regrette rien (which for the record is a love song; Piaf doesn’t sing about an attitude to life but rather that she doesn’t regret anything and wouldn’t change anything because everything has led her to where she is now, with the man of her dreams; I might suggest to Suzanne while she is here that she must feel the same way, but this probably hinges on whether I overcook the veal steak tonight).

ith the surprisingly early return of Kermorgant, seemingly Haynes and Wilson being close to being available, but understandable doubts about Fuller being fit after the strain of his wonder-strike, I’m not going to speculate about what 11 might take to the pitch. With Morrison unavailable (of all the games to miss!) presumably Taylor or Dervite will partner Cort. Injuries aside (Wiggins, Evina, Wilson, plus Taylor) and stop-gaps at full-back (Kerkar and Morrison), the defence this season has pretty much picked itself. Clearly the same can’t be said about the midfield or attack, which raises the question of just which combinations might work best in the event that all the players are available.

I may be outdated, but I do still think in terms of partnerships, or at least combinations, in all the key areas. At present, we have four main forwards - Kermorgant, Hulse, Fuller and Haynes – all of whom present a good case for inclusion (when was the last time we had four forwards all of whom scored the last time they started?) and a fifth – Wright-Phillips – who was expected to be the focal point of our attack this season. There’s also Cook. It is an abundance of riches but with no clear first-choice options. Kermorgant’s ability in the air and the intelligence of his work stand out, but so do Fuller’s ability to hold the ball and use it to good effect, Hulse’s goals-per-game ratio, and the fact that Haynes is the one with the pace (as well as having scored three games in a row). The classic combination would point to Haynes plus one of the other three, based on whichever works best in training. Sometimes partnerships do just click. I can’t help salivating at the possibility of Haynes getting on the end of Kermorgant’s flicks, but where does that leave the others?

Midfield is if anything even more complicated, this time because nobody has made the case for being a shoo-in. When it comes to the wide positions, my liking is for one outright winger (Kerkar or Green) and one more defensive-minded (Jackson or Wilson); I remember thinking that Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell were an optimum combination (before the latter came off the rails and went on to become associated with the wrong part of SE London). Of course that’s not set in stone, depending on the opposition, while there’s Wagstaff and Pritchard available too. Kerkar had a poor game on Tuesday and has I think yet to show what he can really do, Green is undoubtedly the best crosser of the ball we have (and can chip in with goals). Add in the fact that Pritchard and Jackson have been playing both out wide and in the centre, and we have options aplenty, just no clear Plan A.

In central midfield, you choose two from Jackson, Stephens, Pritchard, Dervite, Jonsson and of course Frimpong. Frimpong has started the two games for which he’s been available, but who is his best partner? Stephens is our main play-maker, while Jackson is our captain (and leading scorer).

It would be nice to provide some answers, or at least stronger opinions. But I’m happy to leave it all to Sir Chris and to back whatever choices he goes with, which is another way of saying I really don’t know. What should work to our advantage is the fact that available options means competition for places. In any event, the pasta and veal isn’t going to cook itself and I have to get to the shop with my winning euromillions lottery ticket before they close. Otherwise Suzanne will have something to regret.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Best Team Always Wins

I’m a simple soul, easily made happy. I’ll take playing badly and winning over anything other than playing well and winning. Every day of the week. And we all know we didn’t play well. For much of the first half and much of the second, Peterborough were more fluid, cohesive and created the better openings, while we played like a team of strangers, which is not surprising as the front two and the central midfield pairing will never before have started a game together. In our defence, they didn’t score when on top, we went ahead with something completely out of the blue, but once we did they showed why they are struggling as their response to going behind was poor. They looked like a team used to losing and our second – which crowned the return of Kermorgant – gave a result that was no reflection of the game but left me, that simple soul, happy enough.

Team selection was again surprising. We are all delighted that Yan is back, but a starting place was asking a lot after his time out – and tough on Hulse who after scoring dropped to the bench. With Seaborne available again Kerkar moved forward and that meant Stephens taking a rest, with Jackson moving inside to partner Frimpong. He did (in my view) have a subdued game on Saturday, but the downside was yet another change. Perhaps Sir Chris was looking at weaknesses in their side and opted for more of a long ball approach; perhaps the absence of movement and lack of understanding between players resulted in balls hit forward when no other option was available, with Kerkar and Pritchard having moments but not really influencing the game from the wide positions.

The game began brightly enough as Kermorgant announced his return with a shot on the turn that brought out a decent save, while what has to be said was Kerkar’s one material contribution to the game was a delightful ball along the line which resulted in a cross that Jackson headed wide. But as on Saturday we were also uncertain at the back early on, with Hamer failing to deal with a couple of balls into the box and uncertainty in midfield leading to a number of set pieces which with more accuracy Peterborough could have scored from. After the early flurries from both teams, the game deteriorated as we struggled to make anything happen and they failed to turn promising moments into anything tangible. For the neutral, it was not pretty stuff.

I can’t remember incidents of note in the latter stages of the first half, except for Morrison taking a yellow for the team after we were left exposed again (does that mean a suspension for Millwall?). Fuller was having a frustrating time as the ref failed to decide in his favour on a number of challenges, Kermorgant looked understandably rusty, nothing was coming down the flanks, while Frimpong and Jackson were being outpassed and outrun.

The second half seemed to be shaping up much as the first. Early on Kermorgant was nearly played in but couldn’t find the space in the box for the shot, then Pritchard got on the end of a cross only for his effort to hit the outside of the post. This flurry over, Peterborough took control of the game and had the period when they could well have won the game. They passed and moved better than us and especially ran straight through our midfield. They had a corner and we lazily left two against one, which led to a shot which bounced back off the post. A few minutes later we were caught in the same fashion. Hamer pulled off one very good and a few other routine saves. The game was more than slipping away from us as they came to realise it was there for the taking. If they’d scored then, it probably would have been curtains.

Something had to change and Frimpong, who had been far less assured than on Saturday, departed, with Green coming on and Pritchard moving inside. But that change didn’t explain what happened next. Fuller’s frustration seemed to be steadily mounting (and the crowd weren’t far behind, taking it out on a ref who was booed off at the break having done nothing wrong that I saw), so he decided to score. There was really nothing much on, but from a distance out he simply hit a beauty of a shot into the roof of the net, giving their keeper no chance. There’s a part in a Flashman novel where he describes fluking a hat-trick in a cricket match and then feigning injury to make sure nothing could detract from the glory. I don’t say that Fuller’s shot was a fluke (it wasn’t, it was superb), or that the knock he took in taking it was feigning injury (it wasn’t), but it was like showing what you can do and then retiring to the applause. He went off to be replaced by Hulse.

Peterborough must have been exasperated, but instead of responding positively their heads dropped. They may complain about the outcome of the game, but would be better of looking at why. We didn’t really play any better, but rounded things off with a goal that – as on Saturday – showed how simple it can be when you do things well. The ball was worked out to Green, he took it on and sent in a delightful cross. Both Hulse and Kermorgant closed in on it and for an instant it looked as though the former would divert it wide of the latter and we’d blown it. Instead it held up and Yan was able to slide the ball in.

That just left time for Kermorgant to take his own round of applause, with Jonsson coming on for the final few minutes, and for Peterborough to stew in their own juices until the ref put them out of their misery. I thought before Saturday that four points from the two home games would be a satisfactory return; just how we fashioned that combination from a game we should have won and one we could well have lost is just another footnote in a season.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6/10. One good save, but the early problems with balls into the box can’t be overlooked, especially after seeing the highlights from Saturday.

Solly – 8/10. No complaints at all, good game and no adverse reaction to the penalty on Saturday.

Seaborne – 7/10. First time I’ve seen him, decent enough game in defence but not a lot worked down the left side for us going forward after one or two moments in the first half.

Morrison – 8/10. I thought he was excellent in holding together a defence that was put under a lot of pressure by the failings of those in front of them.

Cort – 7/10. One bad error in the first half, but otherwise fine in clearing and blocking what came his way.

Pritchard – 6/10. Some moments wide right but not enough, almost scored with a good header, then switched inside to reasonable effect.

Jackson – 5/10. They went through our midfield far too easily and when we were in possession the passing and movement were inadequate. Hope it’s more a case of unfamiliar partners.

Frimpong – 6/10. No coordination with those around him and seemed less influential than on Saturday. Perhaps tonight’s problems were more about combinations than individuals.

Kerkar – 4/10. I’ve been a fan of his to date and think there’s a good deal more to come. But to say he was anonymous in the second half is something of an understatement. Truly disappointing game.

Fuller – 7/10. Would have been much less as tonight it wasn’t working for him as the ref just didn’t buy the complaining. But what can you say about that shot? In one flash it turned a game that was more than going against us.

Kermorgant – 8/10. In rational terms, the mark is generous as he and Fuller showed no signs of a partnership made in heaven, he struggled to get into the game especially in the first half, and looked rusty. But as the game progressed the intelligence of his work (the way he looks around him before challenging for a ball to see what sort of contribution is best) came through, and he scored. If the programme is correct and his family were there to watch him, he has to get the man of the match. We can be rational next time.

Subs – Green (7/10: as on Saturday showed others again how to cross the ball; and this time it was converted); Hulse (7/10 – very unlucky to be dropped/rested after scoring and the effort when he came on was to be applauded); Jonsson (ah come on, he was only on the pitch for a couple of minutes).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Embracing Uncertainty

Aside from the loss of two points that were within our grasp, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Saturday was that we are left in limbo. We all crave certainty – and I’m starting to get the impression that this division just doesn’t offer any.

Did Cardiff mark a real turning point? Would it come to mark the end of our poor home form? And would three straight wins herald a more settled side? All Saturday ended up offering was more questions. Fresh injuries meant enforced changes to the side, the sending off changed the pattern of the game, and a draw meant the verdict on home form has to be on hold. Instead of four in a row, possibly twelfth in the league, three points off a play-off spot with another home game coming up, we have to look down as well as up (and on that front I’m as confused as Sir Chris indicated in his recent comments). A bloody penalty with a couple of minutes left. (For the record, having seen the BBC highlights Hamer would have been docked another point for his role in the build-up to the penalty, while I can’t believe that I attributed Fuller’s part in our goal to Solly; I really must start taking notes.)

We are getting used to the fact that in this league, this season, and at this stage of the game any team can beat any other, home or away. One indication of how competitive it is comes from the spread of points per game from top to bottom. In the Championship, with no outright duffers and no clearly superior sides (if Palace can go top anyone can), the spread of points is 24 from 18 games, ie 1.33 per game. The figure for the Premiership is 2.0, making it by a distance the least competitive of the four divisions (that for League One is 1.50 while for League Two it is only 1.30). Perhaps that’s a reflection of the teams relegated from the Premiership last season not exactly setting the division on fire, but when Bristol City can turn over Middlesbrough on their own patch all things are possible, including losing at home to the bottom side.

Maybe the Championship can be looked at from two different angles. It’s a bit like purgatory (were such a thing to exist) as you are just one good season away from the promised land – or a bad one away from the hell that is League One. Just about all the teams have either had a recent taste of the Premiership, or feel that they really should be there (the possible exceptions being Peterborough, Bristol City, Millwall and Palace). The alternative view – which doesn’t come naturally to a born pessimist – is that the Championship is the best fun to be had, if you can embrace uncertainty. I don’t think we can yet as the idea of returning quickly to where we just came from is too horrible to contemplate; but perhaps we will learn to love it.

I suspect that at this stage of the season the division will start to really shape up as the better teams benefit more often from the narrow margins that determine most games and as the mental side of things – winning mentalities and expectations – become more important. A team that thinks of itself as mid-table perhaps won’t stretch itself quite so far; one with a top-six finish being the expectation (or at least the clear measure of success and failure) may end up winning games they have no right to. With the loan window shut and another seven games before the end of the year (and the January window opening), this is perhaps the period which defines each team’s season.

That for me exacerbates the annoyance at the loss of two points on Saturday – and makes the Peterborough game crucial (well, at least until the one after). Lose it and Cardiff becomes the exception rather than the rule; win it and we’re at least still heading in the right direction. I don’t believe in either, but given a choice between heaven and hell it isn’t saying much to vote for the former.

As we have turned up in the league, Lyon Duchere are I’m afraid to say stuttering. Seven wins and three draws from the first 10 games and a six-point lead at the top has become seven wins, three draws and two defeats as a 2-1 defeat at the weekend away at what were lowly Montceau has followed the home reverse against Villefranche. And with Villefranche thumping Belfort 4-1 at home, the lead for Duchere has been cut to two points (possibly one if Moulins win their game in hand). Time - as Michael Cain famously said in The Man Who Would Be King – to polish up your buttons and leathers, shove ramrods up your jacksie, and act bold. Same for us as for them.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Lack Of Precision Costs Us

It doesn’t need to be said that the outcome was frustrating. Ahead at home against 10 men with a few minutes left and when you don’t win you hardly go off dancing to the pub. If we’d seen out the game and taken a rather indifferent 1-0 win there would have been no complaints from me. We didn’t, so the focus has instead to be on the fact that we didn’t play well enough to merit all three points. There’s nothing wrong with possession football when you don’t need to chase the game. But there is when it’s done with insufficient purpose and not well enough. There was a lack of precision in passing and especially crossing through the afternoon and not doing things with sufficient pace and accuracy meant that, despite playing for over an hour with 10 men, Huddersfield were always in with a chance of taking something from the game. They deserve some credit for the way they played, but as demonstrated by our goal they should have been finished off. We didn’t produce enough of those moments of quality.

The line-up was surprising, the result apparently of injuries to Seaborne and Haynes. Fuller came in to partner Hulse up front, Stephens returned for Jonsson and was paired in central midfield with Frimpong, with Jackson moving back out left. With Kerkar in the starting X1 I must admit it took me a few minutes to work out who was missing. Turned out he dropped back to left-back to replace Seaborne, who seems to be following the pattern of ‘every Charlton full back except Solly gets injured’. The welcome news was Kermorgant taking a place on the bench.

With a changed midfield and back four, we began the game very shakily and were lucky not to pay for it. Huddersfield broke well and seemed to pick up on a makeshift left-back and a new guy in central midfield, driving forward with some intent. After a few minutes a squared ball presented their guy with a near open goal, only for him to balloon it over the bar, while Jackson managed to clear one off the line. At the other end, the lively Fuller created a decent chance all on his own, but having done the hard work put the shot narrowly wide of the far post. With these efforts, plus a couple of scrambles in their box, the real surprise was that after 15 minutes the game was still goalless.

Both teams then seemed to settle and the game quietened down. Fuller was causing them problems, but Hulse was struggling to get into the game and the threat down the flanks was only sporadic, while the midfield contest seemed finely balanced as Frimpong started to show what he could do by keeping things ticking over. However, the game changed after half an hour as Morrison won one challenge and went in full-blooded for the second one. Their guy was at least equally committed and clearly the ref must have seen him either off his feet or leading with his studs as with Morrison rolling over from the challenge the red card came out. I’d have to see it again to be sure. It seemed harsh (but welcome) but if he was off his feet he can have no complaints.

Not surprisingly the Huddersfield fans and players didn’t see it that way and for a while there was a danger of the ref deciding to even things up as their fans howled for every decision. Cort went up for a high ball and with their guy going down holding his head there were cries for another red, thankfully ignored. The ref did seem to be getting shacky, giving Pritchard a yellow for nothing (having correctly booked their guy previously for fouling Pritchard who would otherwise have gone clear on the edge of the box). At the same time Kerkar was getting away with blocking their guy down their right.

It was all a bit scrappy and a feature of the remainder of the first half was our poor deliveries into the box from a number of corners and free kicks. Having overhit one which sailed into the net against Cardiff, Stephens seemed to be trying to repeat the trick. One nearly worked, but mostly the balls in were easy pickings for their keeper, wasting good opportunities.

All square at the break. The fact is that the red card changed the game but not really the task in hand. Losing a forward just meant 4-4-1 for Huddersfield and, while their attacking threat was much curtailed, when we had the ball we were still facing two banks of four in front of us, with if anything less space than before as they understandably prioritised keeping their shape and getting behind the ball. There’s always a danger against 10 that the tempo drops and players drift into playing safe passes. It places an emphasis on precision – and through the afternoon we weren’t precise enough.

The first 10 minutes or so of the second half saw more of the same, with Huddersfield keeping their shape and us not doing enough to open them up. And then, when my thoughts were turning to substitutions to try to exploit the extra man, we produced the one moment of real quality. Solly on the edge of the box dummied had Pritchard outside him but first dummied beautifully to take out another defender before sliding it to Pritchard. He took it on, delivered the right hard, low cross, and Hulse was in the right place to plant it into the net. Simple when it’s done right.

The goal took the pressure off as Huddersfield made no change in formation; they still looked potentially dangerous, but with Cort and Morrison marking just one we were broadly in control. Knocking the ball around and going backwards is no bad thing in itself in these circumstances, but what was lacking was the other side of the coin, namely still looking to create as clearly another goal would have finished off the contest.

Frimpong picked up a knock and was replaced by Green, with Pritchard moving inside. And around that time the chance to kill the game finally arrived. The ref played a good advantage as Fuller took the ball on after a foul on someone and with players either side taking defenders away he jinked into the right position. But the shot went just wide of the post.

Fuller left the scene shortly after, with Kermorgant replacing him. Now it was just about seeing out the game. A final onslaught by Huddersfield was to be expected as they had nothing to lose, but there was no gung-ho approach. Instead they fashioned what for us proved to be a mad minute that cost us two points. One cross was almost converted, the next was somehow beaten out, but with the defence in some disarray their guy went over following a challenge by Solly and the penalty was awarded. Again, I’d have to see it again as it was all a bit of a mess, but there didn’t seem to be too many complaints from us (there seemed to be more intent to ensure that Solly wasn’t dismissed). Their guy scored.

That still left about six minutes including stoppage time and, with the ball not surprisingly going long, we did have two late chances. Two of ours went for a ball in the box and got in each other’s way, a header was just about beaten round the post by their keeper, and Pritchard almost bundled one in. But it wasn’t to be and there was no doubt who was celebrating at the finish.

Huddersfield will no doubt feel they deserved a point. If we’d played to a higher standard they wouldn’t have been in with the chance to take something from the game. We did see out a game 1-0 against 10 men against Burnley, but they still had chances. This time we didn’t keep a clean sheet and that makes the inability to create enough moments of quality to kill off the game my abiding concern.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6/10. Perhaps harsh, but the saves made were routine and that minute of madness when crosses weren’t dealt with cost us.

Solly – 7/10. Would have been my man of the match, for his role in our goal and inspired tackling in the second half. But it was his challenge for the penalty.

Kerkar – 6/10. I’m not going to give a bad mark to a guy playing out of position. Settled after an iffy start to the game, but just doesn’t look comfortable at the back – and we missed his threat further forward.

Morrison – 7/10. Solid, all-round performance, no complaints. Just would have been nice to see him and others carry the ball forward against 10 men (OK, he did carry it forward once against 11).

Cort – 7/10. No problem here either, but same point about helping out going forward. For most of the game – apart from the first 10 minutes - he and Morrison were comfortable but often marking space.

Pritchard – 6/10. Not a bad game, delivered the one quality ball into the box for the goal.

Frimpong – 7/10. Decent first game after rather confused start. Seems comfortable playing at a higher tempo than those around him, which may say more about them than him.

Stephens – 5/10. A little disappointing. He’s there to pull the strings and for the most part we were too slow and predictable. Also his crossing from set pieces was poor.

Jackson – 5/10. Unremarkable game. Why when against 10 men did we not move him back and Kerkar forward?

Fuller – 7/10. Nearly a very good game as he was a handful for them and created chances. Trouble is, two of the best came his way and he put both of them wide.

Hulse – 6/10. Largely anonymous in open play but was in the right place at the right time to score – and almost notched a second.

Subs – Green (6/10 – barely saw the ball having come on, but delivered one peach of a cross which almost produced a goal); Kermorgant (6/10 – came on for the last 10 minutes to help see out the game; barely featured if truth be told, but great to have him back in the fold).

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Good Luck Danny

Some rise and some fall. Jenkinson and Shelvey at least now have England shirts to compensate them for the pain of no longer playing for Charlton, but it seems Hollands has joined Wagstaff (plus Sullivan and Clark) in the ranks of those deemed surplus to requirements and/or in need of improvement if they are to thrive at Championship level. Wagstaff always looked like he needed to add to his game (some of the winger’s basics) to make the grade but does have time on his hands; Hollands is more disappointing in that last season he was more than one star among many. If I hadn’t voted for Morrison for Player of the Year I would have put my tick against his name (while being perfectly happy for Solly or Wiggins to get the award). He was steadfast, matched up with a string of partners through the campaign, and chipped in with goals. If he comes back to us stronger and with confidence rebuilt, terrific (and I see from the club site that Sir Chris is saying that he still has a future with us); if he doesn’t, I hope he thrives.

The writing was I guess on the wall when the entirely necessary drafting in of another full back, Seaborne, turned into a rather more surprising influx of three, including holding midfielder Johansson. I have noted that others’ match reports have sometimes flagged poor performances by Hollands which I confess I didn’t pick up on. Often I felt the midfield in general hadn’t functioned, not helped by a lack of movement around the players involved, but maybe I wasn’t focusing enough on why (or just suffered from the rose-tinted glasses that I'm happy to never entirely take off). If Powell doesn’t think that reuniting him and Stephens on a regular basis (perhaps with Dervite or Johansson just plonked in front of the defence) will work well enough, at least for now, that's fine by me.

Absent for now Kermorgant, Wiggins, Hollands, Wagstaff (although I see that he is apparently back at The Valley after not impressing at Orient) and with Wright-Phillips having to wait for another chance to prove he can be a 20-plus a season striker at Championship level, the tweaking of the squad that we were assuming during the summer has turned into something more revolutionary. Powell’s pre-season intention to try to have Plans B and C ready and available has been superseded by the injuries and what we are finding out about the squad at this level. We must be on Plan Q by now, with presumably R about to come into play at the weekend.

We began the season (or at least I did) thinking in terms of a solid, reliable defence, a reasonable if untested (at this level) midfield, and a bit short of quality back-up options up front. We now have a defence with enough options in the centre (Morrison, Cort, Taylor, Dervite) and at least now two full-backs. The two emergency options used at full-back against Middlesbrough and Cardiff (Kerkar and Morrison) can’t be said to have worked (which is no reflection on their abilities in their rightful positions), but in essence, with Hamer continuing to fend off Button, all that has changed now is Wiggins dropping out. It still looks like a better than average unit at Championship level, especially when Morrison is in the centre.

The midfield last season was more than adequate, but after our style of play became more basic (which is certainly not a criticism given the outcome) with the introduction of Kermorgant it was more functional than dynamic. If we didn’t blow them away early we tended to wear teams down, with the midfield not blessed with pace but usually winning the battles, getting the set pieces, and contributing more than a fair share of goals. I think it’s been apparent this season that more was needed. We have had options aplenty, just not yet a stable, successful combination (Dervite and Pritchard against Middlesbrough quickly became Jackson and Stephens against Cardiff). Basically Hollands is out, at least for a while, Wagstaff and Green are currently subs/squad players, Jackson has adapted back to a more central role to accommodate Kerkar (and without Wiggins to bomb past him Jackson wide-left has sometimes looked peripheral), Stephens is first-choice, and the wide-right slot seems to be taken up by Pritchard and Haynes. With Dervite/Johansson available as a holding player, we seem to have the numbers, with perhaps a need now for a more settled line-up to develop greater understanding.

The midfield choices and formation have been heavily influenced by the injuries to Kermorgant and Fuller (and before them Haynes and Cook). There’s no question that if it’s a lone striker its Hulse and that, with goals in consecutive games, Haynes is ahead of Wright-Phillips if it’s a front two. With Fuller back in contention, at least we’re back up to four or five – but with no reason to alter the current first-choice as Hulse provides a nice foil for Haynes. With another away game coming up, this does seem like a case of it not being broken so don’t fix it (injuries allowing).

My regular Amsterdam trip for work this week meant I missed the Bristol game and I won’t be able to get to Burnley either. I’m going to have to wait for the Huddersfield/Peterborough games to get my next fix, but there’s nothing especially wrong with that if we keep winning the games I don’t see and all I can look back on is the Cardiff match.

However, I am obliged to note that while our first back-to-back victories of the campaign have settled the post-Boro nerves my adopted French team, Lyon Duchere, suffered their first reversal of the season at the weekend. The first 10 games of the season produced seven wins (including one against PSG B) and three draws to give them a six-point lead at the top of CFA Groupe B even at this early stage. But a 0-1 home defeat to Villefranche, who move up to second, has trimmed it back to five. Villefranche made it out of CFA2 a year before Duchere and, much as I like the town, hopefully this result will just prove to be a blip in Duchere's drive to make it into National (effectively the third division). I’m already starting to look at the fixture list for early 2013 to time my next visit to Lyon. My partner Suzanne is better than me in the planning stakes and booked a while back for another couple of trips to London this year, including Xmas when hopefully our game against Ipswich will eradicate her memory of the Boro match.

If there's any benefit to be taken from that game it's that Suzanne was miserable for at least the 24 hours afterwards (before she headed back to France). I didn't think about it at the time, but I realise now that it amounts to proof positive that the lucky girl has become a true Addick.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Plaudits To The Crowd

I hope nobody expects a blow-by-blow account of tonight’s game; there had to be glasses afterwards. Let’s just summarise the main points. First, it was a triumph of character and determination. Second, we deserved it. Third, the crowd were magnificent. There was a realisation that out of necessity we were putting square pegs in round holes, perhaps even a thought that a message needed to be sent that Sir Chris has the backing of the fans, and the impact on the team was a true turning point. That and some iffy decisions by the officials, which in the end balanced out.

Faced with another selection poser, with Wilson and Evina out of the picture and Razak having been recalled, Powell opted to move Morrison to right-back, with Dervite dropping into the back four and Solly again switching flanks. Stephens was recalled to pair Jackson in the centre, with Pritchard and Kerkar providing the width and Haynes getting a start alongside Hulse. Against a fluid and confident Cardiff side, and on the back of another home reverse, it could have fallen apart – and nearly did.

The game had barely begun before Cardiff conned the officials to take the lead. A corner was sent into the near post, but as it was taken Helguson shoved his marker out of the way. It was a blatant, deliberate, and practised foul, let go by an indifferent linesman and tolerant ref. Suddenly he was all alone to deflect the ball past Hamer. But the tone was set by the reaction of the crowd, even though it got worse before it got better. Another corner resulted in the ball going back and forth, hooked back from perhaps beyond the goal line (although this time you have to give the linesman the benefit of the doubt from being in a better position), and eventually falling to their guy. This time the defence looked calpable, having failed to deal with it, and suddenly we were 0-2 down.

At that point the crowd could easily have turned. The team seemed to expect it and heads looked like dropping. Instead the fans’ response was sustained singing for the team and for Powell. There might have been an air of desperation, but so what? It was true support when it was needed most. And at least it sent the message that they were in it with the players and, with Cardiff taking their foot off the pedal (it had for a while seemed so easy), the game turned, dramatically.

A neutral, even perhaps the Cardiff manager, might be inclined to suggest that we got back into it through a foul on their keeper. A ball in seemed to be his, but Hulse did the job that Helguson had done before and prevented him from getting it clear. The loose ball dropped to Jackson to finish off. And with Cardiff a little stunned we drew level before the break. Another corner and Jackson rose majestically (and seemingly unmarked) to head home.

At the break, what to think? We had been level at half-time against Middlesbrough and went on to lose 1-4. We knew that the team was patched up, that Cardiff going forward would cause problems for most teams in the league above, and that a point taken then might not have been a bad outcome. We also knew that sometimes, just sometimes, other qualities win out.

Enter Madam Fortune. Because when Stephens hit a free kick in from the left I hung my head and said he’d overhit it. What do I know? Their keeper had come off his line and ended up flapping at the ball as it sailed over him into the net. If he meant it I apologise. Long way to go in the game, but you could sense from their reaction that a game they thought was won had suddenly turned and the onus was on them to respond in the same way that we had. In that they failed as we showed that there’s ability too, alongside character.

I’m really not sure about the build-up to our third, but eventually the ball went into the box and Haynes seemed to be falling over. If he can score when falling down that’s fine with me. With Cardiff not quite sure how to react, we went on and scored again. This time the build-up was more measured and threatening, with a near miss followed by a good ball in and Hulse getting on the end of it.

5-2 and ecstasy. We’ve been deprived at home for a long time and the final whistle would have been welcomed. We didn’t switch off, but there followed a period when Cardiff might have got one back, only this time they didn’t get the breaks that others have had at The Valley. I even commented, going into a daft six minutes of stoppage time (we even had two at the end of the first half following no substitutions and one trainer’s appearance), that I felt comfortable. Not for long.

I don’t want to dwell on just how we conceded twice in stoppage time, or how we allowed a minute or two when they might have levelled. I just know it would have been somewhat hard to take had they equalised. They didn’t. The goals and the frantic final seconds took a bit of the gloss off what should have been a merited ovation at the end, with Sir Chris not milking it from the tunnel either. But I don’t care. We won a game tonight that at one point you probably could have got 20-1 against. Turning points only come with hindsight, but as a reminder of what it takes to win at this level – and what can be done when you have the crowd behind you – let’s enjoy it. I don’t even care that we sent Palace top.

Player ratings tonight would be inappropriate. Suffice to say that Jackson proved his worth with a couple of goals, Haynes showed Wright-Phillips what extra is needed at this level (and BWP when he came on seemed to realise it and put in a proper shift), and Hulse was superb. But any Man of the Match award goes to the crowd.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Unhappy Day

A train from Charlton to Blackheath doesn’t exactly give you time to work out a positive gloss on a 1-4 reversal at home. I’m not sure more time would provide answers, other than that when you play against a strong side and it’s 1-1 at the break you feel the next goal is vital. If you gift two in the first 15 minutes of the second period it’s probably game over. It was – and if the game had gone on longer it could have been worse; but for the post and Hamer’s saves it would have been. But the game was lost with their second and third goals. We’re left with BBC statistics showing one attempt on target out of eight for us, and eight out of 12 for them. Sobering stuff when it comes to relative quality, especially as on the balance of chances we had at least edged the first half.

The surprise was that there were changes to the line-up after away points at Leeds and Wolves. Seemingly Evina was injured and Sir Chris opted to move Kerkar to left-back, with Jackson operating ahead of him, and to bring in Wright-Phillips, in a 4-4-2 with Hulse up front, Solly and Wilson down the other flank, and Pritchard and Dervite in central midfield. Like most set-ups, it had pros and cons. In most areas we would be likely to lose the physical battles (perhaps we would have lost them against Middlesbrough whatever team we put out), but it offered possibilities.

Indeed, with Dervite having an impressive first-half, and Pritchard and BWP winning balls they had no right to, we managed to disrupt their play and cause them some problems. An early chance was headed over by Pritchard and the mood turned positive after 10 minutes when we took the lead. It was a mistake from them as their guy was robbed of possession, but once Hulse was played in he steadied himself and scored from the edge of the box. Well taken, encouraging. We just didn’t know then that it was as good as it was to get.

Boro seemed to take a while to get into their stride and weren’t causing us serious problems, but the equaliser followed before too long. They got a free kick and you have to say it was an absolute pearl of a delivery in, curled from the right side and inviting someone to get on the end of it. Somebody did and gave Hamer no chance with the header. OK, not a disaster, we were still in the game. And while Boro were more composed than us through the remainder of the first half we created half-chances that could have seen us take the lead. One in particular was a cross which beat their keeper and seemed to have Cort on the end of it. Something happened to the header, but as the ref gave a goal-kick it may have been diverted wide by one of ours.

At the break you had the feeling that Boro were more likely than us to win the game, and that it could prove to be a case of men against boys, but we were in it with chances. Wilson had taken a knock late on and it was clear that he couldn’t run, so it was no surprise to see a change. Powell went for Stephens, with Pritchard moving out wide. He started with a superb pass, followed it with one into touch, and then came the mistake that cost us. I thought it was a poor Stephens pass that was intercepted, although a fellow Addick says it was Morrison. Either way, with us caught on the back foot the ball was played through to their guy to score with relative ease.

That made it tough, and within 10 minutes the game was beyond us. It was a soft goal, just a ball played up, flicked on, and a guy in space running on to score. I’m not sure where to apportion the blame, but the fact is they didn’t have to work hard to score it. I thought after we went 2-1 down Kerkar should have been moved back up ahead of Jackson, but even at 3-1 nothing happened. And we waited a further 10 minutes to make changes. These involved Wright-Phillips leaving the scene (he’d struggled to make an impact, but when you’re trying to get back into a game at home you need goals), to be replaced by Haynes, and Cort replaced by Cook, with Dervite dropping back into the back four, leaving Pritchard to move back inside again. I don’t know the thinking behind Cort going off, but again when you need goals he’s more likely than others to get one from a set piece. So arguably two goal threats had departed.

It didn’t get better (which is no real comment on Haynes or Cook). Instead our heads had dropped collectively and we were beginning to unravel, badly. Boro had the game won and went on to hit the inside of the post, Hamer saved well, but the fourth came just on 90 minutes as a ball across the box was tapped in at the far side. Stoppage time was only going to bring another for them, so the final whistle was something of a relief, even for me.

There’s no question now that home form is a crisis, not a problem. Boro were strong and full of confidence after recent results, but they’re not that good. Strong and – perhaps the key difference – finished well and punished our mistakes. We got worse as the game went on, albeit a reflection of the goals scored. Cardiff come on Tuesday night and the pressure is really on. The mistakes have to disappear and perhaps we have to decide in advance just what we focus on. The reversion today to 4-4-2 left us undecided and we lost. Badly. Suzanne is not happy and I’m not best pleased either.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. No chance with the goals, dealt well with high balls, and pulled off a couple of decent saves towards the end.

Solly – 6/10. Nothing obviously wrong defensively, but once Wilson left the scene the threat down that flank disappeared.

Kerkar – 6/10. Stood up well in the first half, but too often in the second found himself having to do a winger’s job.

Morrison – 6/10. Not sure whether to dock him or Stephens the point for the pass that led to their crucial second goal. Seemed fine as usual, but we conceded four goals.

Cort – 6/10. Surprised he was taken off, but may have been struggling against the movement that led to their second and third goals.

Wilson – 7/10. Seemed effective and nearly got in one before being clattered and leaving the scene.

Dervite – 7/10. Was impressive in the first half, looked like a quality footballer capable of different roles. Less visible in the second and then dropped back into defence.

Pritchard – 5/10. Did some good things, ended up playing in the centre, out wide, then back centrally, but at the end of the day the contribution wasn’t effective enough.

Jackson – 5/10. Worked hard enough. Free kick that went just over in the first half, but overall not influential. Just don’t understand why he and Kerkar didn’t switch when we needed more attacking threat.

Hulse – 7/10. Tough game against big, strong and experienced centre-backs, but has to get a mark for taking his chance. Let’s see against lesser opposition.

Wright-Phillips – 5/10. His game isn’t about holding the ball well away from the box and nothing we did inside their box came off.

Subs – Stephens (6/10 – unless it was his pass for their second goal); Cook (6/10 – game was over before he and Haynes came on); Haynes (6/10).