Sunday, 29 June 2014

Devils And Dust

I had no plans to scribble anything about the World Cup. It’s not as if there’s a lack of it. But what a night! If Camus was looking for any fresh evidence to support his comments about football, morality and life he need only rerun the two games. First we had Brazil and Chile tearing into each other, in the best possible way, in the most breathless first half of a game I can remember, followed by Chile coming within the width of the woodwork from winning the game in extra-time and then from extending the penalty shoot-out. Similarities with England’s exits against Argentina and Germany (with the exception that we knew then that penalties would end in our tears), but I don’t think that any team can leave a tournament with more hard-won pride and respect.

Then we were served up ‘good versus evil’. Like everyone else I was rooting for Colombia, preferably by a few clear goals with Uruguay ending the game with six or seven on the pitch. I thought the final 20 minutes were fascinating, to see how the Uruguay players would respond to the gradual ebbing away of their hopes, already feeling that the world was against them. Basically I was waiting for it all to kick off. But – with the exception of one moment which seemed to pass without comment, when a Uruguayan player trying to get the ball for a free-kick kicked a lump out of the Colombian and surely should have seen red – they instead kept their cool and continued to strive nobly to get back into the game. One more goal for Colombia and/or one flare-up and it might have been different, but instead Uruguay went out with their dignity (on the pitch at least) intact.

We’re brought up to believe in ‘goodies’ and ‘badies’; the latter are the ones with the black hats in the movies. By the time you’re a wizened old git like me you know that nothing’s that simple. We all contain the seeds of both and in certain circumstances veer towards one or the other. I have my heroes: Wellington, De Gaulle, Camus etc. But I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that they didn’t have their own particular foibles (flaws if you like), weren’t people of their time, and didn’t say or do things that we would consider reprehensible. The Catholic church (and most religions) would have it differently; saints and sinners. As ideals, goals to work towards, the approach can be useful (just as it would, in my opinion, be far more useful to define human qualities that we as a nation aspire to rather than trying to pretend that there are ‘British values’, which surprisingly all turn out to be positive when put down on paper). I wouldn’t mind betting that Mother Theresa had a few less than saintly tendencies, none of which should seriously detract from her legacy.

I don’t blame Suarez (ha, spelt it correctly this time) for coming out with a line that just might have got him off the hook. Whether or not his ban is excessive or too lenient, the Fifa judgement amounts to branding him a liar. We all know that there’s no media-led vendetta against him. It’s just easier to believe in that rather than the alternative, that Suarez let down his team and his country, that the hero under pressure was found wanting and to be less than perfect. What is more shameful is the attitude of other vested interests: Liverpool looking to escape the consequences (whether in terms of the transfer fee or his availability) of Suarez’s actions as if they are being punished for something that doesn’t involve them (when they signed him they bought the whole package), the same for the Uruguay squad and management. They are only focused on their material interests. How can Suarez ‘fess up’ and try to deal with his problems on the pitch when all around him – and his entire nation - want him to serve their needs. Keep thinking of Cool Hand Luke’s howl of anguish: ‘stop feeding off me’.

If Suarez goes to Spain the Premiership will be a poorer place. Like other footballing geniuses he can do things that take your breath away. His movement for both goals against England was simply wonderful. He just isn’t Mother Theresa (or perhaps in a sense he is). I’ll never know what it feels like to have the expectations of a nation on your shoulders, how you cope if you blow it or how you feel if you succeed (Andy Murray etc). Let’s just be kinder when it’s the former and share the joy when the latter and accept it all as part of the game. People may think that Neymar’s reaction at the end of the shoot-out last night was a bit over-the-top. He’d only scored a penalty after all. But it was more than that. Five didn’t convert their spot-kicks but they weren’t the player set up to be the hero or the villain, Neymar was and he succeeded.

The post-match commentary on the box tended to focus on Brazil’s shortcomings to date, but if I were a gambling man I’d now get to the bookies (I’m old enough to think in those terms rather than click a button) and put on a double: Brazil to beat Colombia at 4/5 on and Brazil to win the World Cup at 5/2 (or 13/5). This is football of course and perhaps Colombia will be 4-0 up in the first 20 minutes; and there is a doubt over Neymar’s fitness. But I suspect that last night will lift the shackles from Brazil, that for the first time they will now believe that the tournament is theirs to win rather than the focus being on a fear of failure. Last night was their crucible. Colombia have made history already by making the quarter-finals for the first time and gave indications in the second half of their game that, notwithstanding the quality they have, mentally they have now won their competition. I could of course be wrong, but that’s all betting is: finding those moments when the odds look attractive enough.

My favourite goal to date remains Van Persie’s header rather than the wonderful strikes by Cahill and Rodriguez. Those shots were magnificent, superb technique and for pure aesthetical quality they top the Dutchman’s effort. It’s just that for me I see his goal as a masterpiece of improvisation. If there were the time to think it through, you could imagine an internal conversation: ‘my job is to put the ball in the net; it’s an unusual situation, I’m in the clear but the ball is coming towards me in the air; do I have the time to bring it down? No, the keeper’s off his line, if I can divert the ball over him and on target there’s a good chance of it going in’. To be able to sum up such a situation, come up with a solution, and execute it in the blink of an eye is football at its very best.

Friday, 27 June 2014

All Good Things Must End

The day that we feared, but which in our heart of hearts we knew was unavoidable, has indeed arrived. Tonight there’s no football on the box. Not a single bloody game. Get me hooked on three games a night, then confuse me a little with four games but only two capable of being watched live, then suddenly cold turkey. Rest day? Who organises these things? I don’t need a rest day, especially as it’s supposed to chuck down later on so chilling out on the heath with a bottle of red isn’t on the agenda. Whole bloody day to wait before normal service resumes; and one day it will all be over.

On other matters, I suspect I’m not the only one who had a double-take when seeing the reports that we’d splashed out EUR3m on Vetokele (assuming them to be true of course). Not on the grounds that we might have overpaid (I have no idea how good the guy is, hopefully he will prove the bargain of the season) but rather that one minute we’re failing to land a Barnsley striker apparently because of a failure to agree personal terms and watching Hamer and Dervite move on to take up better offers, all in line with the stated desire of getting the club to breakeven (or towards that goal) asap, the next we’re shelling out a sizeable sum. No contradiction of course – and hopefully the Trust and others will add questions about players contracts (ie the extent to which they may be required to move around the consortium) as and when the promised meetings actually take place – but strange nonetheless.

At this stage there’s no good reason not to take the signing, along with Duchatelet’s recent comments about building a team to compete in the Championship, at face value. I just hope that he and his people don’t get too formulaic when it comes to putting together a team. From things said/written plus the landing of Vetokele and the failure to sign O’Grady it’s tempting to believe that Duchatelet and his team of stats gnomes calculate what in their world a player should be worth (fees and wages) and, if the calculations say act, offer that – and walk away if those terms are not acceptable.

As a general principle that’s not necessarily wrong, but sometimes you need to pay more than the calculations suggest if that player is a missing part. In other words the player’s value to us might be greater than to others and greater than any stale calculation might produce. If you’ve just shelled out a relatively large sum on a forward and are looking for another you are presumably interested in someone that will help bring out the best in the first. If that means going a little further than you want to in order to land that player, it’s good sense to do so. Nothing has intrinsic value. I did once interview Jack Charlton who said he asked Sir Alf Ramsey why he picked him for England as he (Charlton) thought there were better centre-halves available. Seems Ramsey told him that he had the best defender in the world in Bobby Moore and needed a type of player alongside him and that Charlton was the best available of that type. That’s always been a lesson for me in how you build a team (I promise, no more old fogey anecdotes, at least not for now).

And I’m delighted that Morrison has decided to stay with us. He’s had my vote for player of the season for the past two campaigns (which is no slight on the actual recipients). Him staying will only strengthen us, without him we would have needed another leader for the defence. Wood’s decision to leave for Rotherham, following Dervite and Cort, obviously leaves us very thin in central defence, but nothing more on that front can be said until we see the cut of who comes in to replace them.

Confirmation of Poyet’s departure was of course the bad news of the week. Barring some unlikely statement from him to the contrary even I wouldn’t blame Duchatelet for that. This was a case of the legacy of the previous owners coming home to roost. Whether more could have been done earlier to tie him down is a moot point, but there’s no evidence to support any such thoughts. I suspect most of us thought from the moment that Buyens got on the eurostar that the club knew he was off, given the descriptions of the player coming in. Am curious though where this leaves Cousins. Some have criticised Sir Chris for not bringing Poyet in sooner, but I doubt that they were there on the training ground to make any such assessment. Powell gave him his debut and a chance when he felt Poyet was ready. To say he grabbed it with assurance is something of an understatement. But it wasn’t much before then that Cousins was getting the rave reviews as a defensive central midfielder. It’s not his fault that subsequently being played wide(ish) right left him peripheral. With Buyens coming in will Cousins be able to get back into the role that he was performing so well?

I even don’t mind acknowledging that Peeters came across well in his press interview. He seemed intelligent, sensible, grounded, and ambitious, actually answered questions rather than giving predictable, bland replies. At least he knows the score when it comes to what’s expected of him and how things will operate with the owner. A pleasing first impression.

Does this all sound that I’m going soft re Duchatelet, even perhaps warming to the ‘vision’? Not a bit of it. One of the problems of history is that for every true visionary (ie those that really thought out of the box and changed the world – and are remembered and revered for it) there are a million who believed themselves to be of the same ilk. Nobody remembers them. One of the problems of being opposed to our owner’s ‘vision’ for the club is that you lay yourself open to the charge of being resistant to change, stuck in your ways, refusing to embrace ‘new concepts’. I don’t believe that’s true, at least not in this case. The vision, as I understand it, simply has no appeal and involves too great a compromise of the club – and this coming from an open European federalist (with certain conditions). Rightly or wrongly I regard our club as degraded by being part of a consortium, the ultimate goal for which remains entirely open to speculation. It’s not (for me) the role that a football club serves. I have absolutely nothing against Ghoochannejhad; equally I am absolutely indifferent to the fact that he has played and scored in a World Cup. He is a loan player passing through.

So all good things comes to an end and one day the World Cup will be over (for the record I’m rooting for Colombia or Costa Rica but publicly am duty-bound to back France; I know which side my bread’s buttered). So eventually do bad things. One day Duchatelet will no longer own our club. Unless by then I’m kicking up daisies I’ll still be around, whatever state/division we are in.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Oh Eddie, Your Country Needed You

Oh, we can talk about and bemoan the fact that England don’t (yet) have the cohesion and precision in the final third or a defence that doesn’t cough up at least a few good chances against decent opposition. But if there’s one player we needed last night, who I’m sure would have made himself available if asked, it was the inestimable Eddie Youds. I could be wrong, but I very much doubt that Suarez would have enjoyed such a pain-free and ultimately rewarding evening if Eddie had been out there.

If the game is ultimately about playing to your strengths and doing your best to nullify the opposition’s strengths, there was surely a case (albeit one that doesn’t stand the test of the Corinthian spirit) for testing out that knee and the temperament early in the game, take a card for the team just to put in Soares’ head that when he gets the ball there might be more pain coming. But who in the England team was ready and willing to take the responsibility? I don’t care if Gerrard and Suarez are best buddies, a bit of roughing up in an unthreatening area might have helped the cause.

My favourite memory of Eddie (aside from the stories I was told by a mate who frequented a watering hole graced by his presence) was a home game against Arsenal at The Valley. Now I think most people would accept that Bergkamp could play a bit and that evening for the first 20 minutes or so of the game he led us a merry dance. Perhaps Eddie was a bit jaded, the bones creaking a bit, and nobody was cutting off the supply to Bergkamp. So it was time to put a stop to the nonsense. Stayed on his feet but a raking tackle from behind with what looked like a side order of studs down the back of the leg, followed by a shrug of indifference (that may be poetic license). Eddie got the appropriate lecture from the ref. Bergkamp lasted another five minutes or so before deciding this was a contest he didn’t have the appetite for and hobbled off. I don’t even remember the final score, but job done.

My French partner Suzanne will have none of this. She will still hear no criticism of Zidane for his head-butting of Materazzi, viewing his act as a noble response to unacceptable provocation rather than him having been conned into doing exactly what Materazzi wanted him to. Me? I don’t think I’m amoral but actually love the mental side of sport, the sledging in cricket, the way that Brian Moore used to wind up the French in every scrum. If an opponent has mental weaknesses they are there to be exploited in the same way as physical/technical deficiencies. It’s then up to the ref to decide whether the rules of the game have been breached (and if so to what extent).

All I can say in response to Suzanne’s moral outrage is let nobody pretend that the great Bobby Moore didn’t know about this side of the game and could take care of himself (and others when necessary). The facts that he also looked angelic and was a world-class defender helped his cause. Jack Charlton was just a little more obvious with his little book of names. Nobby Stiles I don’t think bothered to write them down as everyone was a legitimate target.

Meanwhile, we continue to wait. For (hopefully positive) outcomes regarding Morrison and Poyet and confirmation of new signings. And to the best of my knowledge we still wait for the board to deliver on its pledge to hold meetings with supporters groups. I hope that we won’t be informed (or just left to conclude) that ‘with pre-season coming up and so much to be done regarding player ins and outs there still just isn’t the time, even though we want to, even though we want to communicate, even though we so value the wonderful supporters of this great club …..’

Monday, 9 June 2014

Playing The Odds

Seems these days people can’t even pass comment on our unappealing new kit without being accused of being a Duchatelet apologist or a serial moaner, or even worse some sort of inane ‘glass half-full/half-empty sort of a bloke’. Perhaps best to stick to what we know and what from that we can reasonably infer. Suffice to say that the exceptional level of criticism of our new owner isn’t down to a number of us having some collective attack of the moaning minnies, it’s because what is happening is unprecedented, an experiment which may or may not work (even if we were able to agree on a definition of what constitutes it working from our perspective as fans). Perhaps that’s bound to polarise opinions.

We know that Bob Peeters is our new ‘head coach’. We all of course hope that he proves to be a blinding success, but let’s park that for a minute. None of us were surprised that the new guy is Belgian. So unless Duchatelet had some change of heart when it came to the terms offered to the head coach, ie dropping the elements that Sir Chris clearly found unacceptable, the appointment was a matter of selecting a Belgian prepared to accept these terms (on a one-year deal). I don’t know how many ‘candidates’ these parameters leave you with, but it isn’t being unduly negative to point out that the pool of talent meeting the criteria has to be significantly smaller than without such restrictions.

We know that Katrien Meire was quoted on the club site as saying that Jose Riga was a “very serious candidate” for the post but that “with a number of strong candidates we had a difficult decision to make to choose between them”. We also know that Peeters was quoted on the club site as saying that “the owner contacted me and asked if I was prepared to take the job”. The Red Robin rather beat me to it in highlighting what might appear to be something of a contradiction here. My dictionary definition of ‘candidate’ is “one who applies to be chosen for an office, position”. If we feed in what Alex Dyer said in his interview with the South London Press about how players since the takeover were selected, what is reasonable to infer is that aside from Riga all other ‘strong candidates’ were totally unaware that they were being ‘considered’. It’s reasonable to state that in the real world they were not candidates at all.

I have absolutely nothing against Belgians and really don’t care that Peeters played for Millwall. It isn’t a Dennis Wise situation. But to say that Peeters’ task looks a tough one isn’t being negative. He will have to get the full support of players old and new who will at least suspect that he didn’t choose to sign them and who may not have a free hand when it comes even to picking the team. I hope he has the character to achieve this.

I don’t mind admitting that, irrespective of the circumstances of his appointment, I did Riga a disservice in dismissing him as a ‘yes’ man when he came in. He did as good a job as anyone could have done, by harnessing the team spirit and by largely (but no, not completely) ignoring the players dumped on us in January. In her statement of thanks to Riga Meire noted that “he faced an extremely difficult job in keeping our club in the Championship, having to do so with a number of our young academy players”. Just how does that square with previous comments from the board to the effect that ‘we knew we had to strengthen the team in January’ and the fact that we sold three first-choice players that month? If the board want us to be positive can we please stop being fed obvious b/s.

For a sense of perspective on Riga, he didn’t ‘save us’ from relegation but made a very important contribution to that end, as did the players. Perhaps his best decision was to listen to Dyer (if the contents of his interview are to be believed, and I have absolutely no reason not to) saying that there was enough in the dressing room to avoid relegation and to make decisions that have ended up enhancing his personal reputation as a manager (it will be interesting to see how he fares at Blackpool, if that goes through). Whether these decisions – and a feeling that he was more his own man than I hastily concluded – ended up ruling him out of staying at Charlton only one person knows (and it isn’t Riga himself).

On the playing/staff front, we have seen Hamer and Dervite take up what were obviously better options for them than we put in front of them (they, along with the other departures – and of course the rightly revered Colin Powell – go with our best wishes). We wait to see whether Morrison and/or Poyet will stay. We’ve also seen enough reports/comments to suggest that an attempt to sign Barnsley’s O’Grady have foundered on wages. It’s not unreasonable to infer from this that, in line with the stated Duchatelet goal of getting us to (or as close as possible to) a breakeven financial position asap (and possibly linked to this the supposed vision that we are merely moving ahead of the curve when it comes to an FPR-driven adjustment in Championship finances) we are offering deals to players that compare poorly with at least the bulk of Championship teams, which at least suggests that as and when these players have alternatives they will be inclined to take them.

That, like the parameters restricting the choice of a new head coach, restricts the available pool of talent that we can compete for. The pool of course may end up being big enough to produce at least a competitive Championship team/squad. The signing of Zak Ansah may prove to be a case in point. I hope so.

All of this isn’t being unduly negative, as the result of some personal bias (anyone who actually did their homework on this blog – and I wouldn’t advocate it as I trust we all have far better things to do with our time – would find criticism from me of people leaving early, booing, howling at every misplaced pass etc and of me for giving far too generous player ratings as I just want them to be worldbeaters). As an Englishman (and Briton/European) and a football fan of course I’m looking forward to the World Cup. Weeks of solid footie on the box, bring it on. As for England, there are good grounds for optimism regarding prospects over the next four years, given plenty of developing talent, and of course I hope we do well in Brazil. Just suffice to say I’d want substantially better odds than 25/1 to put money on us to win the thing as just about every material factor argues against such an outcome. Can we win it? Of course it’s possible. Just highly unlikely – and believe it or not the outcome won’t be influenced by our level of optimism/pessimism pre-tournament. Equally, if I were a Derby fan I’d probably still be feeling gutted over the Championship play-off final but by now thoughts might be turning to the fact that there’s every reason to believe they will be there or thereabouts at the end of next season and that if promoted at the end of it they will probably be in better shape to compete in the Premiership than if they went up.

Bookies aren’t risk-takers; they only set the odds and offset in a fashion that delivers acceptable returns. Before Peeters’ appointment I printed out a few bits with a view to a post and never got around to it. One was that PaddyPower had us at 40/1 to win the Championship, on a par with Sheff Wed, Brentford and Birmingham and shorter odds than Millwall, Blackpool and Huddersfield (Rotherham hadn’t made it into the Championship then). SkyBet had us at 40/1 (only Blackpool at 66/1 were longer odds), and on 14/1 to get promotion (here too only Blackpool had longer odds). For relegation SkyBet had us at 9/4, the same as Millwall and Huddersfield (Blackpool were 13/8). Since then nothing has shifted. SkyBet has us joint-third favourites for relegation (with Huddersfield and Millwall with Blackpool and Rotherham the shorter odds).

The point isn’t that the bookies are geniuses and we’re sure to be headed for another relegation struggle, but rather that there isn’t, as yet, good reason to believe this won’t be the case. Peeters may prove to be an outstanding manager, we may retain the waverers and sign a clutch of good new players and have a great season. I hope for these things, but right now the evidence to support such hopes is absent.

Something else still absent. Lest it be forgotten, in late March Meire said in a ‘message to Charlton fans’ that “since we arrived at the club in January we understood the importance of interaction with Charlton supporters”, that “we (the board) are keen to meet with supporters to hear their views and discuss a shared vision for the future of this great club”, but also that “it is currently an extremely busy time”. I may have missed something, there may be efforts underway behind the scenes to convene meetings of which I am unaware. Otherwise each passing day without the convening of meetings – most obviously with the Trust but also other groupings, including the Royal Oak Group – only pushes us further in the direction of concluding that genuine communication to address fans’ concerns isn’t just not a priority but rather an unwanted inconvenience. No amount of staged interviews will suffice.

Finally (I’ve left this to last to ensure that anyone wishing to object had first to suffer the ramblings above), to those who feel qualified to cast judgement on who is and who is not an Addick, I’d like to state another two facts. First, I’ve been a Charlton supporter all my conscious life and nothing will change that, yet I don’t think for a moment that gives me any reason to talk in terms of who is or is not an Addick. Second, some supporters, however many (clearly I am one of them), felt disgusted and alienated by what has happened since the takeover.

We need more Addicks, not less. I’m tempted to think (not on the basis of any evidence it’s true) that one factor behind the previous owners’ evaporation of commitment to us was disappointment over the crowd size on our return to the Championship. We averaged 17,485 in the promotion season (with a high of 26,749). In the first year back in the Championship we managed an average of 18,499, despite higher away support and more attractive fixtures. Last season we averaged 16,134 (with a top attendance of 23,600), or 59.5% of capacity. I can’t say whether the new season ticket pricing arrangements will be the answer, but any efforts to increase attendance are to be welcomed (we can’t ignore the possible impact on floating fans of West Ham’s move). I just wonder why as things stand such efforts are not extended to address other facts.