Saturday, 31 January 2015

Not Even A Scrappy Win

Let's perhaps start by trying just to summarise the game, then look at some of the points of note (for me). For any team that's not won in the league for not much short of three months, to be 1-0 up going into stoppage time and not seeing it out hurts (and the points we've not won/given up at home in the final minutes this season continue to mount). Get off the pitch with a scrappy victory and at least there's something to build on. We didn't manage that - indeed, we were only still level thanks to what has to go down as one of the best saves I've seen in years. Not winning means we go home with other things in our head, including what has to be a first: a manager/head coach in his first game in charge at The Valley listening to choruses of 'you don't know what you're doing'. There was no evidence today that he does, or if he does that the players are ready to listen.

The team contained no real surprises, the only change from the encouraging draw at Wolves being Wiggins returning for Fox. That meant Harriott and Vetokele continuing up front, Buyens and Veljkovic in central midfield, with Cousins and Gudmundsson occupying the wide berths. On the bench Watt was joined by newcomer LePoint.

It's hard to say which team was happier to be level at the break, with a certain symmetry to the play. They hit the post early on, as a cross from the left was diverted back towards goal only to come back off the woodwork. We hit the post, as one of the few moments of quality saw the ball played in and after a penalty appeal it broke to Gudmundsson, who put in a crafty effort to wrongfoot their keeper only for it - like theirs - to be an inch or so away from breaking the deadlock. There were other moments, including a Bikey-Amougou effort from a corner that we've seen work before. But by and large it was awful fare from two teams short on confidence and ambition.

For us, Cousins put in more of a shift than most, Gudmundsson still looked like he knows how to play the game, and Veljkovic was doing what he was brought in to do. Otherwise everyone was going through the motions. Defenders defended when necessary, midfielders passed the ball with no real intent, and the forwards ran around without much supply or support. I had the feeling through the half that if Rotherham had a real idea of how fragile we were if we went behind they might have shown more ambition themselves, but for whatever reason they didn't. The play was largely mundane, with both sides seeming to hope that something might be produced by somebody else: perhaps forgivable for the away side (but an opportunity missed) but for us you just wondered where the spark would come from.

Nothing changed after the break. Again there were occasional moments in a game in which the first goal was becoming increasingly important. They made a change - and after the hour we made one two, in response to the fans starting to call for Watt, on the grounds that things can only get better if he comes on. When he was brought on for Vetokele - who to be fair was having as little success as Harriott and everyone else - the crowd expressed their displeasure (and Igor seemed none too pleased either).

Watt does have something about him and he was instrumental in almost breaking the deadlock, turning inside on the edge of the box instead of shooting and opening up the space. His effort was blocked, with appeals for a penalty, as was the follow-up shot. Then, to maintain the equilibrium, they had a loud appeal for a penalty (from their players and fans) as the ball was played to the far post and diverted behind. I didn't see anything - and neither did the ref, which is all that matters.

That moment over, the game seemed to be headed for 0-0 as neither side seemed capable of breaking down the other, neither side dominated possession, and both teams seemed content to either nick it or play it out for the draw. They made two more changes, we brought on LePoint for Veljkovic, presumably to give more of an attacking impetus as the game entered the last 10 minutes.

And glory be, with the clock ticking down, we scored. It would be nice to say that we turned up the heat, put them under pressure, and got our reward. The truth is the goal came pretty much out of the blue, with a first effort from Gudmundsson blocked but Cousins following up to drive in the loose ball.

One up with less than 10 minutes to play and it really was a case of just playing it out, against opponents that after having hit the woodwork in the early minutes had given no indication of being likely to score. But not surprisingly the emphasis was on them to change things - and they did, having nothing to lose. Balls were played into our box rather quicker and to better effect. With a few minutes left on the clock one cross was met with a header down and for all the world it was a goal. Dmitrovic dived to his left and somehow turned it around for a corner. Again, on first sight it was one of the best saves I've seen for years.

Having had that escape, surely we see the game out. Gomez came on for Harriott, slotting in in front of the defence to help to seal things up, especially as LePoint was proving remarkably adept at giving the ball way. Four minutes of stoppage time were signalled (basically the six substitutions and the obligatory extra minute) and as we started the first another ball in was this time met by one of their guys who steered it into the bottom corner. The final couple of minutes were played out with them pleased to have got level and us unable to produce a final flurry. Even Bikey didn't bother to go up front.

The players trudged off The Valley pitch last time having lost to Brighton and that proved to be the last of Bob Peeters, once his birthday had passed. They were equally hangdog at the finish today. Overall it was a dire game between two poor teams. For them, probably a point gained in that they were behind going into stoppage time. If they'd lost, nobody to blame but themselves for their failure to realise how fragile we were. For us, no end to the poor run of form - and the disappointment of failing to build on the away point under a new head coach.

I watched Luzon during the first half in particular. He was very animated: shouting, waving his arms, calling for something. What was apparent (to me) was that nobody on the pitch seemed to be taking a blind bit of notice. After a while he sat down looking disgruntled with his arms folded. Things ain't right and we just have to wait and see who stays and who goes before the window closes. Whatever the line-up then, he'd better prove capable of galvanising them in a way that was not apparent today. Otherwise, standing now just six points above the final relegation spot, we are in real trouble.

No player ratings today, just (relatively) honourable mentions for Dmitrovic (for that wonderful save), Veljkovic (for doing what he is supposed to do to reasonable effect), Cousins (not just for the goal but for the effort shown, despite yet another player brought in to cover a position that is his best), and Gudmundsson (for continuing to do his stuff). For the others, let's see what the world looks like when the window closes, as after that it really is game on.

Friday, 23 January 2015

'The Dangling Conversation' Or A Mass Of Contradictions

Let's have another meander through our situation - hopefully to come up with something positive at the end of it (there's always a first time). Let's start with what we can agree on: an acceptance that all Addicks want the best for our club and that our owner does too, that all concerned have their foibles, strengths/weaknesses, sometimes make mistakes, that the chances of achieving our mutual goals are increased if we're all singing from the same sheet (on and off the pitch), and that not much in this life is perfect. Now for what divides us.

We are led to believe that Duchatelet has little or no understanding of what motivates supporters so, whether true or not, let's educate him. I generalise of course out of necessity, but I'd say we go out of habit, for the social side, for entertainment (ie just liking a game of football), and/or for a deeper commitment (no, it's not religion but shares some characteristics). The last is born out of the knowledge both that to truly enjoy the good times/moments you have to have an emotional attachment to the outcome, which also means risking a measure of self-generated misery over the bad times, and that there's a good deal involved with this that isn't entirely rational. We have disdain for Palace supporters, for obvious reasons, while knowing full well that in most cases but for factors beyond our control (location, family habits etc) we'd be among their number, and that, curious as it seems to say it, they are motivated by the same factors as us; just as we are justifiably proud of our club they inexplicably feel the same way.

So what do we want, what will satisfy our needs (to the extent that we are happy to continue to paying customers)? Of course Champions League would be nice, promotion would be very welcome, absent these entertaining/exciting football a bonus. At the other end of the scale staying in the Championship is the basic requirement, although for many of us relegation, while utterly appalling, wouldn't be the end of the world as far as continuing to support is concerned. In between, bottom line would be belief in progress, good reasons to believe that the future will be bright (in essence a paraphrasing of Sir Chris' end-of-season appeal to the previous owners, which fell on deaf ears), and evidence that the players and management are of the same mind and that this translates into the team giving their all on the pitch, which elicits a similar response from fans. Powell gave us that last one in spades. Add in one more 'wish', that at the least as paying customers our wishes and aspirations are treated with respect such that, whether or not we are, we do not feel like we're being taken as mugs.

While we may have delusions of grandeur, based on our past, catchment area etc, when sober we're not daft enough to think of promotion as any sort of right, that we might in any way 'belong' in the Premiership. Any new owner of any football club has a vision in mind, whether that is 'just' being the custodian for a period of time (and I raise a glass to them all), pouring in money to go for promotion for whatever reason, some personal objective, or to milk the thing for all its worth (of course in an ideal world this would be one criterion of the 'fit and proper person' test). I'd suggest that supporters are willing to make compromises if there are tangible benefits such that at least some of their desires are satisfied (eg a Man City-supporting friend of mine is prepared to live with his team being a branch of the Abu Dhabi marketing department).

So I'd also suggest that we have had - and still don't have - any issue with an owner prioritising financial stability, not promising an all-out drive for promotion etc. Not the root cause of the problem, but without that the focus falls on the other items on our wish list. In the early stages of the season, despite my lack of enthusiasm regarding other matters, I was at least content that Duchatelet and his people had assembled a squad that would probably be competitive enough in this division (as things stood not strong enough to go up but little risk of relegation) with a 'head coach' who was personable, intelligent, and seemingly committed to the cause. However, the owner's response to the wheels rather coming off is, I think, indicative.

Now the guesswork: what does Duchatelet really want? We've been trying to pin this down from the start, not least as his answers have been confused: 'if not me, then who?', 'the community ...' (ie some version of philanthropy) etc. We've had a broad idea of the strategy: contain losses, draft in consortium players not needed at their club (and/or capable of filling a hole for us already filled elsewhere), promote youth, wait for other Championship clubs to suffer from the fair play rules. Forget for now the obvious flaws (including any understanding of the intangibles involved in team sports and how you achieve outperformance), it is at least a plan. But a plan can't be the actual motive, only a reflection.

From reading around a bit I thought one particular comment was insightful (although I can't vouch for its accuracy). This was that Duchatelet would be prepared to sell Standard Liege, if at a profit. Why is that so important? I'd venture it's because if he did sell them for a profit, he was right - and vice versa. We have been told that Duchatelet doesn't do failure; perhaps more accurate words would be that he is unable to contemplate failure. On this reading, the fact that the Belgian electorate (for all its disparate elements) didn't flock to his new party can be put down to the ideas it expressed were just ahead of their time - but weren't wrong and will be accepted sooner or later. Funding losses at various football clubs is a necessary evil to cover the period until the success of the strategy shines through - and in the interim if one or more clubs is sold for a profit (perhaps to turn to others) this is only further proof of the genius of the plan. Whatever happens cannot be the fault of the plan or the man whose plan it is.

In other words, to follow the argument, the real motivation may not be to make money out of football, but to be proven right (the measure of which is the making of money). Put simply, we are part of an experiment, the whim of a rich man. Of course that doesn't mean he's immoral or has an evil agenda, he perhaps genuinely believes that what he is doing is the right way and that, whatever the teething problems, his babies will ultimately benefit from loyally backing his every move.

So when the wheels came off rather of late, it wasn't because the opportunity wasn't taken to strengthen the team in the loan window, or heaven forbid that something's wrong with the plan. Must be down to a bit of temporary bad luck and perhaps the head coach losing the plot. So replace him, that'll do the trick for now. Who's around and available to take over the training? Done and dusted (now the work permit's in). Move on. Now what's this about the supporters not being happy? Just trust me, I know best, and keep turning up and singing 'Guy Luzon's red and white army'. What's this about some players not being happy with my choice? Doesn't matter, be ready to ship them out draft in some others.

Now just go back and see how this sits with supporters' aspirations. Just what is there to believe in? The answer from Duchatelet has to be, well Duchatelet. Believe in me because I know a good/excellent coach when I see one (all the evidence suggests he does not, having disposed of three to date), because I know how football should be played (ditto), and because my plan will succeed (let's be kind and say jury out).

Now all of this may be misguided. We then fall back on: if so, persuade us otherwise (if you place any value on the contribution that the fans make to a successful club), we do really want to believe. Our owner has in the past acknowledged that he is not always strong on communication, so perhaps that's not possible. I'd suggest that's another way to explain away any notion of failure: must have been an inability to properly get my message across rather than the message itself. Now any sensible businessperson knows his/her weaknesses and looks to bring in around others who can compensate. Meire may in other circumstances be a strong communicator (in addition no doubt to other admirable qualities), but it's not easy getting across to doubters the idea that all they should do is have faith. As we sit bottom of the form table we have head coaches who aren't allowed to manage (the degree of intervention in team selection, transfers etc remains an area of speculation), a CEO/board that I believe (but could be wrong) without true decision-making capabilities, uneasy supporters and, if the rumours are true, some unhappy players. Not my idea of unity.

I did at the start promise some sort of conclusion, ie where do we go from here/what happens next? Some things I'd rule out. I don't imagine Duchatelet is going to walk way; he cannot, that would be failure; he would (I'd imagine) be prepared to sell the club, if at a profit (success), but where any such purchaser willing to pay over the odds might come from I haven't a clue. Neither is the strategy going to change; it can't change because it's right.

So I'd suggest it all goes one of three ways. First, nothing off the pitch changes but Luzon manages to get a possibly reshaped squad into reasonable order and the results stabilise/improve and we see out the season without relegation. In that event, the owner will be happy enough and the supporters, to varying degrees, remain just that. Second, we fail on the pitch and get relegated. In that event the owner's not happy but will be content that it was all the fault of others, including supporters who didn't give him the backing they should and a head coach who will be shown the door; the supporters will be disgusted and season ticket renewals reflect this, but all to no practical avail. Third, there's a welcome effort on the part of the owner to at least adjust the approach, to reach out to supporters and by doing so acknowledge their role in the fortunes of the club, to acknowledge mistakes, to give reassurances over issues such as team selection and transfers (ie no interference), and to really take on board fans' opinions (on matters a little more important than what pies are on offer). 

Once again, if you want unity, be prepared to make the effort required to try to achieve it. In that event, the chances of the first outcome would, I believe, be greatly increased. 

Finally, when we talk about having/wanting our Charlton back, let's not lose sight of what we pride ourselves in off the pitch. I don't suggest for a minute that the supporter who reportedly questioned Meire on the way back from the Watford game behaved in any way inappropriately (all I have read says otherwise). Let's make sure that remains the case in the period ahead. Duchatelet has witnessed protests closer to home that seem to have gone well beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Nobody involved is evil and should of course be treated with respect. We're not babies who've had our toy taken away. Whatever happens in the remainder of the season we will all have the opportunity to assess what it means for us.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Actions, Consequences and Choices

First off, I didn't go to Watford on Saturday so can't comment on just how bad it was. I'd half-scribbled something on Friday but ran out of time; then, after news of the work permit farce and pretty clear evidence on Saturday that the morale of the players is at a very low ebb, couldn't for the life of me work out on Sunday anything meaningful to say/add to what others were outlining (which of course presupposes that sometimes I can). But in the harsh light of a cold Monday let's give it a go.

My first reaction to the outpouring of negativity is - allowing for the fact this followed an embarrassing rout - to wonder why people are surprised by the turn of events (I don't mean losing 0-5 on the pitch and the board not realising that Luzon would need a work permit). I've made no bones about my attitude towards the consortium model, for the compromise that it involves regarding a club's identity and purpose (for supporters) and for my perception of the chances of it succeeding, even in the broadest sense (let's define this as just progress). I've also been critical (and I hope I didn't go too far in this, it was never meant to be personal) of the stance and approach of our owner, albeit based solely on inference from personal experience (including having seen some succeed in one area and take from that the belief that they have the ability to succeed in others without any experience and understanding of the new area or recognition of the role that luck and circumstance usually play in success) and from what has been done and said; I've never met the man and he has never outlined publicly (to the best of my knowledge) why he wants to be involved in football, basically leaving us all to guess.

For some Addicks - and once more I'm not knocking this approach - none of this need matter as long as we're doing well/OK on the pitch, so by implication there's the possibility of an over-reaction when we are not. I just happen to think that some of the issues are related. Take for example the strength of the squad. Some have commented, with good reason, that an opportunity was missed during the loan window after a better than expected start to the season to strengthen in key areas (most obviously up front) to mount a real promotion challenge. A possibility perhaps (and Coquelin was brought in) but also a decision. Duchatelet has from the start made no secret of the intention to prioritise (relative) financial stability and I think made it know that if we were still around the play-off spots come January the balance could shift. So not surprising that caution/prudence prevailed; equally not surprising that at least some players may have been adversely affected by the lack of ambition.

The situation's obviously different now; and unlike last season there are no material cup revenues to help reduce losses. So while I hope to be pleasantly surprised, what grounds are there now for expecting significant net new money being invested in the squad during this transfer window? I'm assuming that changes will be made (the importance of January was after all cited as a factor in the dismissal of Peeters), but with Watt already brought in would expect departures too, for financial reasons. Whether or not we end the month looking stronger or weaker remains to be seen (in terms of track record the positive rebuilding of the squad in the summer has to be balanced by the - in just footballing terms - truly stupid changes last January). I do nevertheless just want this window over with asap so that this element of uncertainty can be put behind us and Luzon and the players can get on with turning things around.

Now try to see this all from a player's perspective. Never mind last January, the apparent indifference of the club when it came to dispensing with the services of the excellent Morrison at least from a distance gave the impression - rightly or wrongly - that loyalty and commitment to the club count for nothing. Last January we had the impression that any reasonable bid for any player would have been accepted (yes, the contract situation for a number of them was a material factor). This time around will it be any different? Of course it's nonsense to talk in terms of players as chattel (let alone in Cole-speak 'slaves'), given the money they are paid. But motivation and morale come down to fine margins and if a number of the current squad believe they will be obliged to pack their bags at the drop of a hat why go the extra yard/mile, especially if you think that some others aren't?

Again, it may only be when the window closes that we can really think about regrouping under a new head coach. We managed this last season as Riga followed Powell in largely ignoring the crop of loan signings and utilised the team spirit that Sir Chris had engineered, all of which reflected well on him and the players. Given our current league position, form, level of confidence etc, and at least rumours of unease over the choice of Peeters' replacement, character and commitment may well be tested again. We're not yet in an outright relegation struggle but clearly may soon be and - while it's at least premature - I can't help remembering Lennie Lawrence's explanation for relegation from the top flight, along the lines of only being able to go to the well so many times.

It's a challenge, for Luzon, the players and the fans - and whatever sympathy there may be for the players in light of recent events that will only go so far if we continue to slide as we already have enough ability for that not to be the case; whether the players have the stomach for it remains to be seen and if they're found wanting on that front it will be unforgivable, irrespective. Nevertheless, it's a challenge that I'd suggest will have a greater chance of being met if the board/owner do more than pay lip-service to notions of unity, or rather accept that unity of purpose/pulling together on the part of all concerned is desirable and that achieving/sustaining it requires more than 'back me because I tell you to'.

Now I don't really trust people who say they never lie (just as I wouldn't have confidence in someone who has apparently never experienced failure). There are occasions when a small untruth is sensible and kind, when an outright whopper is the best (even in extremis the moral) alternative, and when not outlining the whole picture is appropriate - all of course provided the motivation is honourable rather than a (usually futile) attempt to paper over your own wrongdoings/shortcomings. But if you mislead your friends for no good reason something ain't right; time to question yourself and what was the purpose, perhaps to reassess whether the person/people involved are really friends as for sure at the least you are not valuing their opinions/feelings.

So first off, stop telling us what we 'must' accept or do. So far, Duchatelet has told us we must accept (to date only the possibility) of players being loaned to Standard Liege (those who are brought in but don't live up to expectations and get farmed out to other consortium clubs aren't really an issue). Now Meire tells us we must accept the ways and decisions of our owner. Now I've some sympathy for people making statements in English when it isn't their first language. Often when editing for a Dutch company what took time wasn't redoing work by people with poor command of English as you (usually) knew what they were trying to say. What took time was dealing with material written by Dutch colleagues whose English was excellent, as the words and phrases chosen just weren't quite right. But I can't forget that remark by Duchatelet about his football clubs being his 'babies' (we are not and never will be); it may have been off-the-cuff but does seem to be in line with the notion that children/babies should be seen and not heard. Use of the word 'must' only makes sense in a conditional phrase ('if you want to get better you must take this pill'). Otherwise the word is either insulting or makes the phrase plain wrong. It shouldn't need to be said that supporters as paying clients do not have to do anything, unless you define an Addick as someone who accepts all decisions of any owner without question (and ceases to be one when he/she does not).

Second, try to really understand why at least some supporters (never mind the players) are a tad uneasy and accept that it is in your best interests to improve the picture, first by accepting that some goodwill has been lost of late (face it, the world and his dog were assuming that Luzon was always going to replace Peeters). Duchatelet has described Luzon as an "extremely talented coach". Last February, in a club site piece confirming the offer of a new contract, he described Powell as an "extremely good coach", shortly before sacking him (a move which came shortly after Meire was promising to swing on the Bramall Lane crossbar with Sir Chris if we won that game). I couldn't be bothered to try to trawl through to see if something similar was said about Riga and Peeters, but you get the gist. Now I don't have the expertise to be able to spot a good civil engineer from a bad one, so wouldn't try (and would hesitate before buying a consortium of engineering companies with such a lack of understanding of what I was getting involved in). Suffice to say that if you have enjoyed the services of three extremely good coaches and dispensed with them in the space of 12 months, you might ask yourself whether some other problem is afoot, and might just accept an element of scepticism when number four is appointed for the 'long term'.

Third, if you value the club's support base (rather than view fans as a notch below the chattel that are players), in light of the above for crying out loud engage meaningfully with them. I don't mean staged interviews, even open day Q&As. I kept a printout of the March statement from Meire: "we understand the current requests for dialogue and are keen to meet with supporters to hear their views and discuss a shared vision for the future of this great club ... and be assured that we will be making plans to meet with as broad a spectrum of the fanbase as possible to ensure all supporters are represented". With the Trust recently releasing its appeal, I would ask does the board feel that the promises made in the March statement have been delivered on? And please explain how those March comments square with the recent reported quote from Meire that "he (Duchatelet) does it his way and they (the supporters) need to accept that" (which at least is refreshingly honest and does rather give more insight into the issue of what decision-making capacity Meire and the board really enjoy). Shared vision indeed.

Please note that there is no 'must' involved, simply some 'if .. thens', and the belief that things don't have to be this way. I may of course be just whistling in the wind. Our owner can choose to remain entirely distant, he can give the new head coach his full backing and sack him the next day etc. I do just wonder where the enjoyment for him comes from out of all this. Supporters groups (all of them) want nothing more than the best for the club, so where's the threat, other than the risk of some constructive criticism and some time taken? Unless of course there's nothing to be gained from talking to one's babies.

Monday, 12 January 2015

More Questions Than Answers

For various reasons I'm a bit late coming to the party this time around. A good deal has been well written on other blogs and in the latest Voice of The Valley, so I can't avoid some repetition/variations on themes, only outline what I think and feel while trying not to go over too much old ground. I did try to make a virtue out of necessity and wait for possible news from the club today regarding Peeters' successor, but from the statement from Meire posted on the club site it doesn't seem that a decision has been made or is imminent.

Let's first look at the statement. Sacking Peeters was apparently a "very difficult decision to reach". Fair enough. "We had been very supportive of Bob until the very last moment" and "had not considered this option until after Saturday's game". Just who is 'we'? I'm assuming that any such decision was taken by Duchatelet alone, with unquantifiable input/advice from others. Are we are left to conclude that, just as Sir Chris might not have been sacked if Harriott had slotted home to put us one up at Bramall Lane and we ran out winners to get a Wembley semi-final, Peeters got his marching orders because Solly's shot hit the bar and came out rather than went in (and that out of kindness the owner/board waited until after his birthday before ushering him out)? Fine margins indeed.

My only take on the purely footballing merits of keeping/disposing of Peeters is that there's no question it's tough on him. Irrespective of the fact that he came across as intelligent and personable, he had us hit the ground running in a decent way in the first quarter of the campaign, helping to gel and largely new group and playing to a style. With a thin squad and a team that ended up falling short against stronger/quicker opponents who adapted to our strengths and weaknesses, form and performances have suffered from injuries (Solly's rehabilitation has been very welcome but he has had to miss games, Wiggins has been out, along with Henderson, Vetokele has been playing while less than match-fit, Moussa and Bulot have been largely absent), the unfortunate manner in which we were deprived of the excellent Coquelin, more recently suspensions (Buyens and Harriott), the fact that some youngsters have proven at least not yet up to the task (Pope, Fox and Piggott), and that to fill vacant slots some have been obliged to play out of their best position etc. I'd agree with his recent comment that early in the season the breaks generally went our way and more recently they haven't. Peeters can feel hard done by and I wish him all the best.

Against that, we don't know what goes on off the pitch on matchdays. I was struck by the contrast between the final periods of the games against Cardiff and Brighton. At the finish on Saturday we did look a sorry lot and if the players' arguments are proving to be worse than constructive debate aimed at resolving problems, and/or some have lost faith in Peeters and his methods/tactics, an argument for change can be made. 

The statement goes on to add that "with the January window open it is an important time of the season for the club". The would imply that the board/owner are looking at bringing in new players and no longer had faith in Peeters to get the best out of them (I'm assuming that he would have little or no input in actually choosing them). We shall see. Clearly the addition of Watt is a plus, although he didn't look to me like a natural partner for Vetokele (if that was the selection criterion rather than 'he is a forward surplus to requirements elsewhere in the consortium'). On the other side of the coin, we had two players on the pitch on Saturday (Wilson and Church) who if rumours are to be believed we would be willing to let go. Was that a factor in Wilson's poor display?

The rather curious ending to the statement is "we know how important it is to make sure this next appointment is the right one because I understand that this club needs and deserves a Head Coach who can plan and take charge for the long term". Is this heralding a change of tack from giving a guy a one-season stab and sacking him after 25 league games? Here too we shall see, but I'd be surprised. We have been told that Roland 'doesn't do failure' (except of course in Belgian politics), so someone else will always have to carry the can. Quite frankly I fail to see how any head coach can be expected to plan for the long term unless he has a fair degree of responsibility for choosing which players come in and which leave, to suit his style of play.  

I haven't been writing much this season, partly because of other commitments but also because I genuinely don't take any pleasure in being negative - or worse casual - about the club I support. I've pretty much kept to match reports and these have generally been, well, dull. I've realised that while writing them, but if I haven't felt the passion during a game it's not easy to fake it in the aftermath, whatever the result. One relevant notion I disagreed when previously expressed by others, including seemingly by Meire/Murray at the club open day, was that if we were doing well on the pitch 'casual' supporters who weren't turning up would probably return and by implication all would be well. No doubt that would apply to some - and no doubt its only a small number who haven't come this season as a result of their disgust at what was done in the second half of last season (I almost numbered among them). I happen to think we're not in a good enough position to be indifferent about losing either group, would benefit from their return, and that any owner who felt the same would have made an effort to communicate his/her goals and ambitions for the club; we were told from the start that communication isn't Duchatelet's strong point, so we I guess should not be surprised.

I happen to think that the real enemy for a committed support isn't failure - of course when that comes we rant and rave at the injustice/stupidity of it all - but rather antipathy leading to indifference. Others have commented to similar effect, calling for something to believe in. I'm reminded (again) of that passage in A Man For All Seasons, when Sir Thomas More is cautioning his prospective son-in-law about the risks of cutting through every law in the land to get at the devil: when the devil turns on you where will you hide? Strip away key elements of what makes supporters believe (ie turn up and provide support) and you risk having little to protect you, especially if you are not willing to communicate with them, just as when a team risks losing a key strength (the character and commitment that Powell installed/oversaw/fostered and which Riga had the good sense to rely on) there had better be something else to fall back on.

For some - and I really don't knock this view - all will be well if we turn things around on the pitch under a new guy, perhaps with some additional players. As supporters, why should we care about anything else? Perhaps by contrast, I've said through the season to fellow Addicks that I would loathe it if we were in/around the play-off spots come January and a bucketload of consortium players were drafted in to support a push for promotion. Strange attitude perhaps and I guess it reflects my antipathy towards the consortium model for football clubs (let's not forget that we have been told that we must accept the possibility of the reverse regarding players being loaned out, depending on circumstances and the priorities of the consortium). I believe it involves too great a compromise.

I don't downplay the fact that Duchatelet funds the club, puts his own money into it - and don't have any reason to believe that there are some sinister motives involved. It is his club; just where we would be/go if he were to decide to sell up is entirely unpredictable. Fact is, for whatever real reasons, he decided to buy us, presumably well aware of the financial commitment that would probably involve.  

So why not see this as an opportunity? We didn't start off this season with strong hopes of a promotion challenge, we have good players, we are not at the foot of the table. As supporters I think we can all live with the prospect of remaining in the Championship for the foreseeable future and not carp (too much, too often) at an owner who puts (relative) financial stability above an all-out drive for the Premiership. We do, however, look for progression and improvement, plus ideally some clarity of purpose/goals, without which not many enterprises flourish.  

We will of course get pointers from the choice of the new head coach, how the players respond to him, and the squad at the end of January. I can't bring myself to put credence in the Curbs rumours; bringing him back would suggest a real Damascus moment (and would he really be prepared to take the post under similar constraints to those Peeters was ready to accept but Powell balked at?). But were that to happen I would, very happily, do a jig of delight on a rooftop and raise a glass to our owner. The return of Riga would prompt an only slightly modified reaction. If instead we are told, as last time around, that the appointment was made from a strong list of 'candidates' but coincidentally happens to be available and part of the network ....

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Dispiriting Ending To Poor Game

Solly's shot venomous bounces down from the crossbar the wrong side of the goal-line, just after we give away a soft goal. The rest, to paraphrase Bill Shankly, is gossip. Except there's always more to it, or more to be said. After a decidedly mundane first half, who (if anyone) scored first became increasingly important; and having gone behind our response was poor. Brighton had read the script and seen the formbook: Charlton aren't scoring many, seem low on confidence, so nick a goal and there's a fair chance of going away with the points, so play it pretty safe, get men behind the ball. They did that well enough, with their goal exposing shortcomings from balls from set-pieces to the far post, and in truth saw out the game quite comfortably. We ended a poor game badly.

What was worrying for me was the contrast between how we reacted against Cardiff, despite being down to 10 men, and how we responded today. A glance at the BBC stats suggests that we had 20 shots; but only five were on target, and with the exception of Solly's shot, a smothering of an opening for new-boy Watt, a bit of pinball in their box in the first half, and what seemed a reasonable shout for a penalty for handball, I can't remember us carving out decent opportunities. There were other moments, a few times when the ball didn't quite fall right. But Brighton had about the same number of real openings and while the game deserved a 0-0 - not least for the way both teams played in the first half, admittedly in difficult, blustery conditions - they scored and we didn't.

With the obviously welcome return of Wiggins the defence pretty much picked itself. Absent Buyens, Peeters went for a central midfield pairing of Jackson and Cousins, with Wilson and Gudmundsson taking the wide berths, Tucudean and Vetokele up front, and Watt starting on the bench. Against a team effectively playing one up front and packing midfield, it put a premium on working the flanks.

The first half saw both teams content to knock it around to no great effect, with more misplaced passes and poor control of the ball than the conditions could justify and neither side looking as though they had the pace or invention to catch the other out on any break. They tested us out wide, but Wiggins and Solly dealt with those threats well enough. What did cause us concern were set-pieces. First, Etheridge came for what looked like a routine catch only to spill it, resulting in a little chaos as Bikey Amougou opted against hoofing the loose ball clear. Then in a taste of things to come one corner to the far post picked out an unmarked guy who headed back across goal. For us, Tucudean and Vetokele both struggled to hold the ball up against bigger and more numerous opponents, Gudmundsson down the left looked promising, but Wilson was having, well, a mare, with none of the marauding surges forward that we associate him with. With Jackson and Cousins naturally defensive, it all added up to stalemate.

I can't say whether our penalty appeal for handball was a good one (the ball was the other side of the pitch at the other end), but it was a more vociferous shout from the players than usual. The game badly needed a goal to shake the teams out of their overly-cautious approach, so I'd have given it in any event. There was a set-piece squared well across the box for Jackson, who just failed to get on the end of it, one ball in that was knocked on for a half-shot that Wilson then tried to help on its way, and one genuine opportunity when Vetokele had space but couldn't get the pass through to Tucudean, who in any event had criminally strayed offside. But at the break it was a case of expecting things to get better attacking the Covered End, although as the teams came out we did have the news that Jackson had picked up a knock. Gomez came on, with Solly moving into central midfield alongside Cousins.

Chances did indeed start to materialise in the second half. Brighton out of the blue found a guy in space going into the box, only for Etheridge to come out and smother well, and then the second one to our far post eluded everyone but their guy who headed tamely into Etheridge's hands. We made our next change, with Tucudean seemingly about to be replaced by Watt in any event but going down with an injury and limping off. And he almost scored with his first touches in a Charlton shirt, turning his marker inside the box only for his effort from a tight angle to be pushed aside by their keeper. Given that there were players available for one squared across the box, seemed a fair indication that his first instinct is to go for goal, no bad thing in a forward.

After about an hour the decisive minute arrived. Solly latched on to a loose ball outside their box and beat their keeper all ends up with a wicked shot, only for it to crash down from the bar and get cleared. As they went forward Bikey took one out. The free-kick was curled to the far post, Etheridge came off his line for it but failed to get a hand on the ball, leaving their guy with the simple task of heading in from about a yard off the line.

So be it, still plenty of time. But obviously a need to up the tempo and start putting them under some pressure, especially as they were even more likely to be content to sit back when out of possession, and to get Watt and Vetokele into the game. Instead I think we made a third change too soon. Peeters brought on Church for Wilson, making it a sort of front three with Church central, Igor pushed wider left, and Gudmundsson moving inside. With central midfield already disrupted by Jackson's departure, we increasingly looked - not surprisingly - as if we were having to make it up as we went along.

There were moments in the closing stages when we threatened, but I can't recall a real chance, even as late on we threw caution to the wind and put Bikey up front. Don't ask me what the formation was by then, it was just a case of getting it into the danger area and hoping something would fall. It didn't, and at the finish it looked like a pretty dispirited set of players trudging off.

Player Ratings:

Etheridge: 5/10. Has to be deemed calpable for their goal, coming for a cross that he failed to get to. One decent second-half save to block a one-on-one but also that spilled cross in the first half.

Solly:  8/10. Nothing wrong defensively, kept things ticking over when moved into central midfield, and was a whisker away from firing us ahead (and however the game actually finished, if that had gone in it could have been a very different result).

Wiggins:  8/10. Slotted back in to very good effect and pretty much blocked out the threat on his flank.

Ben Haim: 7/10. No complaints, generally effective despite the obvious difficulty of judging high balls in the wind.

Bikey Amougou: 6/10. Just seemed to me a bit out of sorts today, reflected in some decidedly sloppy passes, but still iconic.

Wilson: 5/10. He had a poor game, period. It was an opportunity for him to show what he can do in the more advanced wide position and he didn't take it.

Jackson:  7/10. Nothing dramatic from him in the first half, but as ever a calming influence.

Cousins:  8/10. Doing what he does best, providing good cover in the central position, reading the game well to make timely interceptions.

Gudmundsson:  7/10. No decisive impact today but always looked as though he might make one.

Tucudean:  5/10. Unfortunately ineffective, and straying offside when in a position to be played through by Vetokele seemed very poor.

Vetokele:  6/10. For the first time he looked like a guy in need of a goal. Struggled in the first half and later when in a front three.

Subs:  Gomez (8/10 - thought he was excellent, not least going forward); Watt (7/10 - does seem to have something about him, wish he'd been given more time to operate alongside Igor); Church (7/10 - decent enough, just not convinced that the change in formation to bring him on was the best call).