Sunday, 29 September 2013

When The Going Gets Tough ....

In early September, after beating Leicester, I rattled off something and gave it a headline of ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’. Fast forward a few weeks and that isn’t exactly a title likely to be repeated. One decent away draw followed by three defeats, each one in its way increasingly dispiriting. The Millwall game was notable only for how poorly we played (perhaps also for what was a miserable crowd for this fixture, of just short of 16,000). Until yesterday we could at least highlight the fact that each game we’d played had been decided by the odd goal (leaving aside the half-completed Doncaster game). Some fellow Addicks did drive up for the game and the reply to my text to them offering commiserations was ‘the day has had very little to recommend it’.

At least when it comes to Charlton I do (perhaps too often) try to accentuate the positive. Only two crumbs of comfort come to mind. First, we know that we we’re likely to struggle if we’re without key players and being without four for yesterday at least (Solly, Jackson, Kermorgant and Cort) didn’t inspire confidence before the start. They will come back and we will improve with them. Second (and this may be clutching at straws), at the end of September last season we were 19th and hardly pulling up trees (of course we’d beaten Leicester but had only two wins from the first eight games); by early November we were 21st and about to take on Cardiff at home, with just one win (and four defeats) out of seven at home. Finishing ninth (and strongly) did put a gloss on a season which with seven or eight games left could have ended with us going back down.

Of course it’s different this time around. Last season we were finding our feet back in The Championship and progressing. But let’s not forget the mood going into that Cardiff game – and especially after 20 minutes. The crowd were instrumental in the turnaround that night – and that backing in turn is due in no small part to support for Sir Chris. Anyone daft enough to want him to be replaced should seriously ask themselves why – and perhaps more important why they think that such a change would lead to something better.

I’ve seen comments on pieces from other bloggers expressing surprise that the fans haven’t been much more vocal in their criticism of the board/owners. But what do we (collectively) do? Start singing ‘sack the board’? We know full well that we lose money and are reliant on the cheques being written. It may well be that the owners have had enough and want to sell; if so, the idea touted around of a price tag of around 40m, however structured, is also plain daft. If they are still committed to the cause (which in loose terms can be stated as making us the premier team in Europe), and it really is the constraints of the FPL that are driving decisions on budgets, they would of course help their cause by communicating their intentions. Yes, Michael Slater has written in the programme, but we know he doesn’t really call the shots – and if it boils down to whether you believe the denials of any plans to sell or the sentiments expressed in The Voice of the Valley there can’t be any doubt as to who gets the nod from most fans (including me).

We know we have two tough home games coming up. The horror scenario involves first Andy Reid reminding us of what we once had, and then Ricardo Fuller reminding us of what we let go. The idea that if these games go badly Powell will be offered up as a sacrificial lamb still wouldn’t stack up. Instead any such move would be more likely to spark a proper revolt against the owners. What are the reasons for sacking a manager? Well, the expectation that another guy would do a better job with the available resources, even that the manager has lost the backing of the players, which amounts to the same thing. I can’t see the case for another manager doing a better job. The only thing that worries me is that there was a decidedly downbeat tone to Sir Chris’ comments after yesterday’s game. Hope it was just a case of immediate post-match disappointment and that he’s feeling better today.

When you’re in trouble you need unity and character, from the fans, the team, the management, and the board. In the past two seasons the team has demonstrated the character and commitment required, on many occasions; last season the fans stood up when it counted; and those who want a managerial change might like to listen again to Sir Chris’ speech after the final game. He, us and the team all need a lift and I for one want to walk away from the next two games proud of our team, even if we don’t get the results. That requires the team, whoever turns out, showing character and collective resolve. Those qualities were missing against Millwall and we need to get them installed again, quickly.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Bad Day All Round

Some matches you get something you don’t deserve, sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green. Today we got what we deserved. That’s not to say a very ordinary Millwall team were worthy winners. A fair-minded neutral might give them some credit for their defensive work, but no more. They adopted a ‘shoot on sight’ policy in the first half and eventually it paid off by means of a deflection. Having got their goal they were not surprisingly content to keep things very tight, but their second-half chances were almost the equal of ours and saw out the game with relative ease. More generally, their midfield play was more controlled, better organised and more purposeful than ours, with Bailey looking ponderous and limited but still having a better grasp on the play than our guys, by keeping things moving and providing an effective barrier in front of defence. That they rarely (if at all) rose above the mundane says a lot about the quality of our play.

I think it’s too simple just to conclude that we were poor. Breaking it down, up front Pigott was made to look like a raw recruit, in sharp comparison with the combative, astute and experienced Kermorgant, who we obviously missed badly. Church had a decent game and was for a long period the only bright spark, but didn’t take the one good chance we fashioned in the second half. At the back, we were seldom troubled and those involved, including Wood who was sacrificed to change the formation and especially Morrison, who ended the game up front, played well enough (although Hamer’s distribution alternated between the excellent and the horrible – and nearly costly).

For me, the real problem was the central midfield three, individually and collectively. Far too often the ball was given away cheaply, the passes that found their man were usually too slow and a little misplaced, and worst of all when a pass was made far too little was done to support the guy with the ball. Millwall were able to crowd the guy with the ball and win back possession far too often. Pritchard was the main culprit in that it was often him getting outmuscled by much bigger guys; but the fault was collective as nothing was done to get around the problem, to get closer to the man in possession and give him an out. We didn’t learn the lesson and it cost us, as Pritchard was crowded out and their guy’s harmless shot took the deflection for the goal. Stephens, Pritchard and Jackson need to work as a unit for the formation to work and today at least they singularly didn’t. Others may focus on the ineffective knocking around of the ball at the back, but in large part that arose because balls hoofed up to Pigott were getting us nowhere and those in midfield stood and watched instead of working to make space to enable us to move forward.

It all added up to a poor game between two struggling teams decided by a fluke, in front of what for a Charlton v Millwall game looked like a poor crowd. If that sounds to some like sour grapes, let me add that if we play to that standard for the rest of the season we will almost certainly be relegated. Today we fell short on quality; without quality we fell short on determination and drive.  

The main news on arrival was that Kermorgant was still out and that Sir Chris had given Pigott the nod to play up front with Church instead of Sordell – or any change of formation. With Solly and Cort still unavailable, and the Gower/Cousins midfield pairing seemingly remaining second choice, the rest of the team more or less picked itself.

The early exchanges were inconclusive, with both teams struggling to put together anything meaningful. Bailey’s last kick at The Valley had been a penalty miss and there was some amusement that his first in this game was a truly naff shot. We weren’t being threatened at the back (except for when Hamer almost managed to give the ball to their forward, once near the goal-line and once from a kick out) but weren’t posing them any problems either.

Our first-half attacking threat amounted to one decent moment, when a Wiggins cross seemed set to be converted at the far post only for a Millwall defender to get a touch to divert it behind for a corner. Otherwise there was a bit of trickery around the box from Pigott, a move involving Jackson, and that was it as far as I can remember. At the break their keeper hadn’t had to make a save. At the other end, aside from a couple of fairly routine saves from shots outside the box, Hamer was comfortable too – until the deflected shot, which gave him no chance.

The debate at the break was whether changes needed to be made then, or to give it 10 or 15 minutes more. We actually started the second half a bit brighter and Stephens had a decent half-chance on the edge of the box but couldn’t get over the ball to get the strike on target. But before long the game settled back into the previous pattern. The first change saw Stewart come on for Wood, in a switch to 4-4-2, with Pritchard moving wider to the right. Millwall also made a change and for a 10-minute period they had a couple of half-chances that might have made the game safe.

Stewart did look lively and threatening, but the quality of service to him and to the front two remained well below what is required. So on came Sordell for Pigott and Harriott for Pritchard, to give us two outright wingers and fresh legs up front. And we did, finally, manage to fashion a proper chance, from a move which was in stark contrast to the rest of the game. Good, slick interchange involving Sordell ended with Church being played in on the left side of the box. You could see the intent: curl it around the keeper into the net. But the shot was badly underhit and easily smothered. After we’d won possession in midfield Harriott had a run in space, but his attempted pass was also too weak and the moment went. Having spent most of the game unable to create decent openings, when they came we failed to take them.

At the death there was a shot from Stewart saved at the near post, but even with Morrison pushed forward (making it effectively a 3-4-3) we couldn’t win the aerial duel where it mattered, while perhaps not surprisingly there wasn’t a great deal of coordination. The team left the pitch to boos and a worrying afternoon contained no positives for me. We had to eat it last season and have to do it again, the difference being this time around we played worse against what looked like a poorer Millwall.

There’s no obvious answer, other than of course the return of Kermorgant and having Solly and Cort available too. I just hope the players take a long look at their performances today and come to the fairly obvious conclusion that they need to, and can, perform much better. If not, we are truly in the merde.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6-10. Nothing more than routine saves, no chance with the goal, but while I’m usually reluctant to dock a keeper a point for distribution at least twice today his decisions with the ball almost cost us.

Wilson – 6/10. The starting formation requires a lot from the wing-backs, but whereas Wiggins did get involved going forward he didn’t feature, except for strangely ducking under a cross I thought he was set up for. Much more involved as an attacking threat when we brought on the two wingers.

Wiggins – 7/10. Decent enough game, at the back and going forward. Often given the ball only to find nobody within 15 yards or more to lend support.

Wood – 7/10. No complaints, did his job before being taken off to change the formation.

Morrison – 8/10. In a poor game for me he stood out, being dominant at the back (albeit not influential when playing centre-forward).

Dervite – 7/10. As for Wood, no complaints. Involved in a fair amount of the inconsequential square passes at the back, but again that seemed to reflect the lack of alternatives.

Jackson – 5/10. Often the talisman and a player who has turned games around. Didn’t happen today. The poor mark is also a reflection of the inability of the central three to control the game.

Stephens – 5/10. The 3-5-2 set-up is designed not least to accommodate him, to allow him to be the playmaker. There were some excellent passes, but he was invisible for the first period of the game, played some shocking passes, and missed from a decent position. Quite simply has to play better to deserve a starting place.

Pritchard – 5/10. Outmuscled and often pounced on by them as an opportunity to win the ball back. Didn’t feature going forward either.

Pigott – 5/10. No getting away from it, he was in their pocket. Threatened a couple of times, and kept going, but also misplaced passes and basically won nothing in the air.

Church – 7/10. Would have been a higher mark if he hadn’t failed to make the most of our best chance with a weak finish. Otherwise he was one of the few guys out there today who looked as if he knew what he was doing.

Subs – Stewart (7/10: clearly made a difference and gave us an attacking threat that was largely absent before; would have been nice if he’d rounded it off with a goal at the end); Sordell (7/10 – my first sight of him and it was fair enough, involved in our one good move); Harriott (6/10 – added to the threat going forward but did mess up his one good opening). 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Reasons To Be Cheerful

A (home) victory to send us into the international break, a transfer deadline day without the mooted sale of a key player to raise material funds (which does somewhat narrow the shortlist of potentials), plus what looks like a decent exchange to strengthen the side. The concerns don’t go away, but a number of them are greatly eased. I can’t remember the mood – judging by others’ posts and the comments of other Addicks - being as down as it was ahead of Saturday’s game, especially at this stage of the season (it would of course have been a good deal worse this long into the ‘Dowie season’ if we had an inkling of what lay ahead).

First and foremost, against Leicester there was nothing wrong with the team’s attitude, as underlined on the club site by Kermorgant. Concerns on that front have not surprisingly been aired, given the number of players out of contract at the end of this campaign and the possibility that uncertainty about the club’s finances and ambitions might be affecting performances on the pitch. Sir Chris talked about some soul-searching in the dressing room of late and perhaps that had the desired effect. It’s also reasonable to suggest that it’s no coincidence that our first victory of the season was also the first game that Jackson lasted a full 90 minutes (98 if the daft amount of stoppage time is added). I wouldn’t say he had an outstanding match, but every decent team needs a strong spine and ours runs through Hamer, Morrison, Jackson and Kermorgant.

The change in formation has clearly helped, especially given Solly’s absence (with what now seems to be a genuine niggle rather than the pre-transfer tactical injury we had feared). I thought Stephens looked much more assured in a five-man midfield. There’s plenty of work still to be done at the back as the coordination was sometimes off. Sometimes two of the three centre-backs were jumping for the same ball and, potentially more costly, when Leicester had their two moments when players broke through all our defenders were drawn to the ball, with nobody trying to cover the spare man (the result of which was one Hamer one-on-one save and one spurious appeal for a penalty, to which the ref correctly responded to by issuing the second yellow).

Seems like some more practise with the system and better communication is needed, but we didn’t see the howlers that Doncaster benefited from. The conditions there were presumably a factor, but belatedly getting the Middlesbrough programme I was struck by Hamer commenting that Bournemouth scored from a short corner that they’d tried a couple of times before and that we should have been alert to it; sleeping at the back against Doncaster saw their forward left alone to pick up a throw (to cross for their first) and a guy unmarked from a corner to send in a free header (which led to their third). The ‘sins’ on Saturday seemed to be the result of over-enthusiasm rather than being asleep, which has to be the lesser of two evils.

The shipping out on loan of Hollands and Green do smack of bon voyage rather than au revoir. Good luck to both of them if they don’t return (ideally both will have outstanding success and come back raring to go). Their departures, temporary or not, do mark a further distancing from the promotion team/squad and I guess a natural evolution. Powell talked early last season about the players finding their feet in the higher division, but of the 33 with squad numbers listed for the first home game of the last campaign some 13 have now left us (for the record Taylor, Green, Haynes, Wright-Phillips, Wagstaff, Kerkar, Sullivan, Mambo, Bover, Hollands, Smith, Hayes and Clarke); the total would be 14 if you include Button, who came and went in the interim. Of the other 20, however, no less than 10 featured in Saturday’s starting X1 (the only addition being Church), while all bar Hughes, Cook, Osborne and Azeez have been in the matchday squad, with the other new additions being Gower, Wood and Sordell. Now we add the name of Stewart, who hopefully will prove to be a star.

The simple fact that nobody was sold on deadline day is in itself reassuring, although of course that begs the question of whether there were offers on the table. Selling Kermorgant would have been just criminal, horribly destabilising; selling Solly would have been a big loss but as others have suggested more understandable if the price was right (Wyn Grant has cited sources as indicating that Solly has signed a new contract, although given that the club has announced Pigott agreeing a new deal and has made no announcement re Solly this has to remain unconfirmed). All conjecture now, at least until January. Perhaps the Voice of the Valley piece on the mooted club sale document had the desired effect in convincing the owners that they needed to avoid a major sale at this juncture to strengthen the board’s claims that no such plans have been put forward.

The owners have only themselves to blame for such idle thoughts, given their decision to remain annonymous/silent. Its wishful thinking to imagine that concerns on that front will be eased – barring news of some Sheff Utd-style new investor. We have to look to VotV to keep up the pressure, plus the CAST to work to improve relations between the board/owners and the fans (can they claim the credit for red wine appearing in the East Stand bar? If so, they have my thanks, just as the club will have my money; just please change the sign saying ‘beer only’ for some queues to ‘booze only’ as it gets a little confusing for us simple wine drinkers). I just wonder if I’m the only sceptic who feels that the new ‘fair play’ rules will be repeatedly used, by many clubs, as a smokescreen. Any accountant worth his/her salt should be able to drive a coach and horses through much of the restrictions.

On the CAST front, of course I’ve signed the petition for getting The Valley to be designated an asset of community value. But I can’t help feeling that the relevant legislation (apparently contained in the Localism Act) might be – indeed should be – a double-edged sword. If places such as The Valley are (understandably and quite correctly) designated ACVs, it is only a natural counter-balance to assume that the legislation also allows for some places to be designated LCVs (liabilities of community value). Surely there should be scope for fans to campaign for the removal of unwanted local eyesores in the hope that by being designated LCVs the chances of their being demolished asap would be increased. I can, just off the top of my head, think of two perfectly suitable ‘stadiums’ not too far away.