Saturday, 31 August 2013

Victory - And That's All That Matters

I suspect most of us set out today with a sense of trepidation. A defence shipping goals, strong opponents in good form, the bookies making Leicester favourites to win, and not a cloud in the sky to help us out (‘game abandoned’ would have to come from an unlikelier source today). What this all forgets is the footballing gods. We always beat Leicester, and Kermorgant always scores the winner. Why did we ever doubt it?

There were decisions for Sir Chris and his staff to make before the game. Would the switch to 5-3-2 in midweek – which produced apparently a better showing but still saw us shipping three goals – be retained? And just who would get the nod –and why? In the event, we kept the formation, with the absence of Solly bound to fuel rumours that, as Voice of the Valley indicated, a major sale is on the cards. Hamer in goal, Cort, Morrison and Dervite as the central three in defence, Wilson and Wiggins the wing-backs, Stephens, Jackson and Pritchard in central midfield, and Kermorgant and Church up front.

Given that we’d conceded three in half an hour against Doncaster, and three in midweek against Huddersfield in midweek, the relief in the first half was that Leicester didn’t  fashion a chance of note. The best they managed was a poor header at the far post. I’d have settled for that. They did probe, and occasionally looked threatening, but they didn’t turn that into chances. By contrast, we had a major weapon: they had no idea how to defend set pieces. So while much of the game was enjoyable and well contested, we carried the greater threat.

The fact that Scheichel couldn’t command his area was apparent from a ball into the box, which he flapped at, resulting in a corner. From that corner the ball was placed a couple of yards off the goal-line and instead of him claiming it Morrison headed into the net. It was one of the simplest set-piece goals you could wish to see. A couple of minutes later they had a long throw into the box which Hamer made a pigs ear of, but the ball was cleared. It seemed at the time like their keeper screwed up and we scored, ours did too but nothing resulted.

That flurry aside, for the neutral in the first half there wasn’t much to write about. Stephens pulled the strings for us – leaving aside the fact that he completely blew a free kick in a decent position - we contained them well, and had exploited our major advantage. It looked if not comfortable reasonably assured. But at the break you felt that the referee’s inclination to flash cards rather than warnings (three yellows in the first half) and the prospect that their manager would have given then a fairly rough time for their failure to fashion chances might both produce a different second period. Both did and the second half saw more chances – at both ends – and a possibly decisive red card. It was also notable that the ref somehow found reason to find two minutes of stoppage time when the trainer hadn’t been on the pitch and no substitutions were made. Why?

Circumstances were to result in a much livelier second half, in terms of chances. That was mixed for us, as basically we just wanted to win the game by seeing out another 45 minutes in the same fashion. The first 10 minutes of the second period said a lot about why we’ve conceded goals too easily this season. Twice they broke forward and all our defenders went towards the ball, leaving their other forward in acres of space. Hamer saved well the first time and somehow we cleared the second, only for the game to be pulled back for something, presumably something said, and their guy was shown a second yellow and a red. Don’t ask me what was the exact reason, but from being under pressure we were given a lifeline.

It got better shortly afterwards as another set piece for us saw Kermorgant peel away to the far post and head strongly into the net. Good movement, great header, but what on earth were Leicester doing? If you can’t defend set pieces you have problems.

Now we’re 2-0 up against 10 men and, with just one point on the board, all we want is the game to be over. That creates pressure of its own and we committed the cardinal sin of letting them back in the game. It was a reasonably well-worked goal, if one against us is possible, and served as a reminder that if the game was played in our half they were still a threat, 10 men or not.

We needed to keep possession, make the extra man count, and see it out. We did manage it, in a got fashion. It would have been a great deal more comfortable with a third goal, but whereas Schemeichel might have problems with crosses when it comes to stopping shots/headers he has certain skills. He pulled off what I have to say I thought at the time was the best save I’ve ever seen in live play, a blinding stop with a strong hand from an effort which I was convinced was a nailed-on goal. He also spread himself to save another effort. As a result we were unable to put the game to bed and had to endure the final 10 minutes or so, with by now Gower and Cousins having replaced Jackson and Stephens, then Pigott replacing Church. It should have been 10 minutes or so, but this time around the announcement was six minutes of stoppage time. Six subs, OK, a bit of time-wasting. But again the trainer hadn’t been on the pitch. Where does six minutes come from?

We did see it out and the victory is massive. The mood of late has been downbeat, for reasons on and off the pitch, and grabbing three points from a game that the bookies had us down to lose feels just fine. It wasn’t perfect, don’t ask me exactly why their guy was sent off, and things could have turned out differently. But getting that first victory on the board is massive. Can we play them every week?

Player Ratings:

Hamer: 7/10 – Deserves praise for his saves early in the second half when the game was in the balance; but flapped at a throw-in which might have cost us in the first.

Wilson: 7/10. Decent enough game. If Solly’s going we’re going to need him as wing-back or outright full-back.

Morrison: 8/10. Give the guy the credit. He looked poor against Doncaster but rallied today, scored, and kept them at bay. As a response to a bad performance that’s just what you want.

Cort: 7/10. Concentrated on the basics and did them well. The defence today protected Hamer well.

Dervite: 7/10. He too did the basics well – and that’s what we needed.

Wiggins: 8/10. Some interceptions today were superb and cut out dangerous moments. Still seems to be finding his way back to form but this was progress.

Jackson: 7/10. Not especially influential – and did fail to convert a decent chance by shooting over the bar. But steady and reliable.

Stephens:  8/10. In this formation he had the chance to shine and did what was needed, keeping the game ticking over and picking decent passes. Definitely encouraging.

Pritchard: 7/10. Excellent work rate, always involved. Perhaps didn’t always convert good positions into something better going forward.

Church: 7/10. Impressive again with his movement and ability to fashion chances. Worked hard.

Kermorgant: 7/10. Of course he scored the winner again against Leicster. Might have had more but for Schmeichel.

Subs:  Gower (7/10 – came on to refresh midfield when we just wanted to see the game out and did well enough); Cousins (7/10 – much the same); Pigott (7/10 – only on for stoppage time).

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Defence Let Off The Hook

When you boldly venture from the pub to the ground for your first real game of the season, you have fairly clear objectives in easy order: a win, a clean sheet, some entertainment. We got the entertainment, in a fashion somewhat unexpected, but not the first two priorities. Given that when the game was suspended we were 0-3 down and howling for more rain, but when it was formally called off it was 1-3 at half-time against 10 men, like last Saturday, it could have been better – and it could have been a good deal worse.

Let’s start with the decisions taken by the referee. After the game I think I was more sympathetic than most. He tried all he could to provide an opportunity for the game to be concluded. The fact that at 0-3 he would have had every Doncaster player and staff member shouting in his ear that they had no problems with the conditions, and at the same time everyone with a Charlton association howling for it to be called off (and, like me, offering to pour more buckets of water on the pitch) can’t have been easy. There was no water visible on the surface, but buckets of it just below, which made most passes and tackles difficult to make and predict. The fact that we’d got back into the game, and they had a guy sent off, perhaps made it easier for him, as did the fact that there’s no way another 45 minutes could have been completed. He called it off when there was no realistic prospect of things getting better, every chance of them getting worse, and in addition to a sizeable element of farce danger to the players. So show him some sympathy.

Now to the less savoury aspects of the 45 minutes that we saw. Our defending, individually and collectively. None of the goals they scored could be attributed to the conditions (indeed, they would probably have scored their second sooner had it not been for the conditions). Every ball they played forward looked capable of producing something, especially the set pieces, when they knew what they were going to do and we were guessing. We’ve conceded two against Bournemouth, two against Barnsley, one against Middlesbrough, and three in 45 minutes against Doncaster. I can’t comment on what’s gone before, but today it was rank. If we don’t get this sorted out, and quick, we are in trouble.

The game had barely begun when a throw to them on the right side was delivered to one of their front two, in acres of space. It was on Wiggins’ side, but is it his job to pick up the guy behind him? He crossed, they scored simply. Second goal saw a ball across the box which, fortunately for us, stuck in the area instead of going to their guy to score. Hamer hoofed it away, only for the ball to be played forward again, Morrison to throw his arm up for an offside that never was, and for it to go wide, ball in again and a simply conversion from their big centre-forward. Goal three was a corner played to the back of the box, to a guy with nobody around him, allowing him to put in a forceful header which was parried but rebounded off one of theirs into the net. Unlucky perhaps, but who was picking up the first guy?

Add in the fact that other set pieces saw their guys set up prepared plays and came close to scoring more, with us chasing shadows, and you had what amounted to chaos in defence.

At the other end things were a good deal better. We forced three excellent saves from their keeper and looked capable of scoring, helped by the movement of Church and the perseverance of Kermorgant. With Gower winning his fair share of tackles and Cousins looking accomplished, plus Harriott’s pace, there was every reason to believe that we’d get some on the scoresheet. But if you’re shipping goals at the back it just doesn’t mean that much. Fact is we were 0-3 down when the game was suspended and at that point all we wanted was the clouds to open.

The 18 minutes after the break to complete the first half saw Church convert a loose ball in the box to give us hope, then their guy put in the sort of five minutes that must make any manager despair. You’re well up away from home, look capable of scoring more, so the priority has to be not to let the opposition back in. Instead he clattered into the back of Kermorgant (and then possibly kicked the ball away) to pick up a yellow, then minutes later got involved in a water-induced scrap to get a merited second. Muppet.

The positives today were Church and Cousins. But if we continue to defend in today’s fashion, we’re in trouble. I can’t pinpoint the reason, that’s for Sir Chris and his staff. But forget the idea that the conditions were to blame. Defend like that and you lose. Period.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Those Were Franco's Days

‘The season starts now’ seems to be the mantra. Fine by me, given that I’ve missed all the games in anger to date, having opted to swan around parts of Italy in the sun for the past couple of weeks. So it begins with one point on the board rather than the tally I was hoping for; clearly it could have been worse, but not by much: no clean sheets, injuries, red card, and a decidedly downbeat tone to the updates I was getting from fellow Addicks watching the Middlesbrough game.

It’s a bit incongruous to pass any sort of comment on games I’ve not been around to see (and I only managed last night to catch the Barnsley highlights). But from a distance the disappointing start to the season doesn’t seem to be entirely without possible reason. We spent the pre-season friendlies largely playing with one up front, by default, then bring in two new forwards shortly before the opening game, with little time for all to get acquainted. Add in the disruption to midfield from the Pritchard sending off and the injury to Jackson (and now seemingly Stephens on the sidelines) and it’s not surprising we’re not yet firing on all cylinders. When that happens, the focus surely has to be on ensuring that nothing is given away at the back and for me to date the disappointment has been in conceding four against Bournemouth and Barnsley.

Early days, but no question that there’s pressure on us this Saturday. A failure to beat Doncaster at home would compound concerns about a repeat of our home form for much of last season and, with Leicester and Watford coming up after that, a sticky start could turn into something more serious. (Of course after that it’s the Spanners, a game that my French partner Suzanne will be able to attend; surprised to see last night a certain Nicky Bailey featuring for them, but I guess needs must; will we have time to rewrite the song? Nice to see we’ve been allocated 4,000 tickets for Huddersfield away in the Capital One Cup, may not need more I’d guess – perhaps the club can arrange a special award for anyone who travels twice to Huddersfield for midweek games in the space of a couple of weeks.)

There’s going to be uncertainty about possible further goings and comings before the transfer window shuts, which will be an additional factor working against getting a settled team. In the interim, there’s work to be done by Sir Chris and his staff in getting the team selection for Doncaster right, with questions in all areas (except goalkeeper of course): does Dervitte’s performance at Barnsley merit a rest? What four in midfield might be available (and is Cousins ready for a start)? And will Church stay in ahead of Sordell (that one does seem straightforward for now)? Victory and a clean sheet if you please.

That’s the preamble out of the way. Now for the real reason for the post. Italy was of course a delight (even though most of the Barolo, Barbaresco etc ended up being left in Lyon), not least for the wonderful hospitality of the people we rented the second place from, in Piedmont. Turns out that the father of the woman who manages the renting, Franco Dassereto, played for Sampdoria for over 10 years, probably (if my maths are better than my Italian, which they have to be) through the 60s. I tried to ask him if he played with, or remembered, a certain Eddie Firmani, who left us to join Sampdoria in 1955 (before of course later returning as a player and then manager). But I’m not sure I managed to get the question across, and certainly didn’t understand the answer if there was one.

I’ve tried to check out Franco’s details with a little surfing; he’s listed on a couple of Sampdoria players sites but couldn’t discover more. But I feel I already have a clear picture of his career. When I asked him if he played attack, midfield or defence (more by sign language than anything else) there was a proud glint in his eye when he replied ‘defencione’. Great company and friendly as he undoubtedly is, you could just tell that he’d spent his time happily kicking lumps out of any opponent that had the temerity to approach the Sampdoria box with or without the ball. I don’t know what the Italian is for ‘ah, those were the days’ but like to think that’s what he added after a pause for thought.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Some Foreign Land

When you are away from a screen for most of a day (there are too many distractions on the Eurostar and TGV to get to Lyon, usually in the form of a bottle, to be bothering about staying connected) there’s that keen sense of anticipation when the next morning you check the club site. Is it Church, Fuller, Obika, Sordell – or all of them. And we’re still waiting. So be it. As tomorrow morning we head off to Italy (assuming I manage to squeeze all of my French partner Suzanne’s shoes into the car), to some way up another bloody mountain there are other things on my mind, such as will there be enough room for my spare pair of kacks alongside Suzanne’s kitchen sink and her other essentials. 
Travelling inevitably gets more difficult with each passing year, not so much because the bag over the shoulder seems heavier as one matures (it’s remotely possible I’ve matured a little from my teenage years but I certainly haven’t aged) but because the crankier you get the more situations arise to deepen the effect. Last time I took the train to Lyon, I went for an FT and bottle of water at the WH Smith’s shop inside the Eurostar terminal. It had a number of self-service terminals, a couple of cash tills, and two assistants. ‘I prefer to use the tills if you don’t mind’, says I. ‘Oh, we’re not using them today, but I can show you how to use the self-service’. ‘No thanks’. ‘Why not?’ ‘Ask me in six months when you don’t have a job any more’. This time around there was one assistant. ‘We’re not using the tills today because I’m on my own’. Enough said. As before I said no thanks and put the items back. 
I don’t think I’m just a Luddite, it’s about two things. First, shedding more jobs at this juncture for the economy isn’t great for the wider picture. Second, where is any incentive to comply with a change which I don’t want? Will I get through the process faster? No. Will my goods be cheaper as a result? Fat bloody chance. I could benefit indirectly if the brain-dead fund manager overseeing my hopelessly inadequate pension scheme has some retailers included, but for the time being at least I’ll take the chance. Simple enough trade-off, I avoid going into WH Smith’s (and will change supermarkets if the pressure to use self-service machines increases). 
If I’m cranky this morning it’s Suzanne’s fault. I arrived at Part-Dieu at 19.00 French time last night, replete from the wine, but she needed to work late. So I was obliged to have a second pastis in the bar while waiting to be picked up. And there’s no uplifting news from the club site as yet. 
The news that Button has gone and that Smith is deemed surplus to requirements is a little surprising but understandable. Button was given a chance last season and didn’t take it, can’t have been enamoured with the prospect of warming the bench for another season, and had the opportunity to drop down a flight but presumably be first choice. Good luck to him, and to Smith, they both have the time to rebuild. Presumably the club feels that Pope is ready to be called upon and I’d be inclined to agree with Wyn Grant about us always being able to do an emergency loan for another keeper if Hamer is out for a few weeks. I just hope that being the undisputed number one has a positive rather than negative effect on Hamer’s thinking as we certainly can’t afford him to be off song; he acknowledged last season that being dropped gave him a necessary kick up the backside. 
Defence sorted (barring any departures), forwards awaited, but if there’s one area that could still use some adjustments it is midfield. Jackson, Gower, Hughes, Pritchard, Green, Harriott, Stephens, Hollands, Dervitte if needed, may not be a clear over-indulgence of personnel, especially if at the moment 4-5-1 is Plan A, B, C, D etc (Pigott may be pressing for a start alongside Kermorgant but if we started a game with both there’s no option for change on the bench); but I still feel that Stephens and Hollands either play or, like Button and Smith, look elsewhere. We are all led to believe that there are little or no funds available, so savings where possible are desirable. 
On that front, I have no criticism of the owners if they feel unable/unwilling to invest more in the team. I’m not writing the cheques. But if they do attract criticism they have only themselves to blame. It’s a by-product of their failure to communicate. It’s not enough to simply conclude that we have no money (or worse). We know we are significantly loss-making, so the owners’ decision is what level of losses are acceptable dependent on their ambitions and the confines of the new rules. The last statement of intent was along the lines of ‘we aim to take the club back to the Premiership’. Of course no timetable was, or could be, suggested. But does that goal still stand? If it does, how would it square with taking chances on Championship status by cutting the purse strings? My feeling is that the owners would get significant goodwill and support if they were open and honest about the financial planning and constraints rather than leaving up to supporters to draw inferences from activity (or lack of). But they have chosen to be secretive so cannot complain if these inferences are unfair (note: if shortly after this is published we’ve signed Messi please ignore the above).
So for good measure here’s another inference. There have been enough rumours of fresh investment (Turkey, Russia etc) and hints that investment would be welcomed – but an outright sale of the club not. Many moons ago I sold a company of mine to a moron. He planned to do a further deal or two and make a decent return out of his investment. Trouble was, each prospective deal fell flat because he was too greedy, treating the other side as an obviously inferior, stupid, exploitable bunch. The facts that they had made the money and were in a position to do deals, and that for any deal to succeed there needs to be upside for the other party too, didn’t seem to occur to him. I hope our owners do not share similar traits. Also, why opposition to an outright sale? First principle of even A-level Business Studies is that you never consider how much you have invested in a project when deciding whether to continue/change. If it makes sense to go on, fine; if circumstances have changed and a deal means you don’t recoup what you have spent, that’s fine too. 
Enough meandering. Suffice to say that when we take the field at Bournemouth there will be a small corner of northern Tuscany that is forever Charlton; when we take on Middlesbrough – and give Mobray the spanking that his silly comments after the last game deserve - that corner will have shifted to Piedmont; and when we are repeating last season’s performance at Barnsley it will be back in Lyon (ahead of the return to Blighty). Just where it will be when we take on Oxford in the Capital One cup has to be a matter of indifference, unless we change the habits of a lifetime and opt for a proper cup run. 
I guess the perhaps insensitive recent comments from a certain politician regarding the north-east and fracking might provide an opportunity for a little taunting from the Charlton crowd. Their fans must know that if fracking does take hold it will start in their area – and end eventually around Watford. But you really would think that a sensible politician would take the obvious opportunity to redress any impression that they don’t care about the country outside London and the South-East. I’m all in favour of one or two experimental fracking sites and, to prove that we’re not anti-outside London, the clear choice would be to nominate as the locations a couple of areas actually in London, places with no value, character, social contribution etc. Do I need to spell it out? Selhurst and Bermondsey perhaps? There would after all be nothing to lose and a good deal of potential gain (in the event either that the whole thing works and makes money or these areas disappear in a hole in the ground). Tough to choose between them though. Perhaps best to go with Selhurst as if the part of Bermondsey I’ve in mind was the one there would need to be some resources allocated to potential provisions for the local intelligentsia, to head off the risk that a sudden shortage of plumbers, electricians etc sends the costs of certain essentials in Blackheath through the roof. And the Old Kent Road and its surroundings could be too close for comfort; this isn’t so much Nambyism on my part, more like Nanma (not anywhere near my area).
Oh come on, of course these are cheap shots. No complaints please. I’m out of the country and probably incommunicado for a couple of weeks, unless we dip into some internet cafĂ©. I’ll be back when we’ve nine points on the board and every gripe I’ve ever had has been dealt with.