Saturday, 28 February 2015

What A Difference Goals Make

There were enough games between November and Norwich when the abiding thought was 'we didn't score/take our chances, so we can't complain'. Today's game, if we didn't know it before, was about chances being taken - and really having two forwards capable of scoring, which shifts the balance completely. On the balance of play and chances this was not a 3-0 game. Huddersfield had enough opportunities for the result to have been very different, but they failed in front of goal (and when they didn't Henderson was there to pull off an outstanding save at 2-0) and we scored when it mattered, including a third to kill off the game that was entirely of Watt's making. What a difference goalscorers make.

Let's deal with Sir Chris first, because this was a special occasion. Exactly why the club opted to have so few turnstiles open for the East Stand when everyone knew the attendance beggars belief. I only got in after the game had started, along with many others. So be it. The tribute was decent and I hope heartfelt for him too. But once done there was a game to be played.

The team lined up much as expected (given the continuing absence of Jackson and Wiggins) other than that Gomez was given his chance in central defence alongside Johnson (ahead of Bikey-Amougou and Onyewu), with Ben Haim apparently injured. Cousins returned from injury with Wilson back on the bench, after the apparently unsuccessful experiment of him in central midfield. It was to be 4-4-2 against 4-4-2.

Huddersfield probably shaded the first 10 minutes or so in terms of possession, but there wasn't much in it as both sides probed without grabbing the game by the throat. We looked rather more mobile going forward, with the front two and Bulot and Berg Gudmundsson linking up well, they had the physical presence and threat of Miller (but the rather less threatening Vaughan alongside him). It was nip and tuck and as the game progressed the first goal increased in importance. We fashioned probably the better of the chances, with two falling to Vetokele. Good play down the left saw the ball squared and passed on to him, but having to turn back in on his left side his shot was weak, while another decent opportunity also went begging. Watt looked a constant threat, showing an ability to fashion something out of nothing and keeping their defence on the back foot. At the other end the occasional mistake (a misplaced pass by Fox and a misdirected header by Gomez, plus a couple of misjudged attempts to head clear by Johnson) stretched us, with some decisive blocks put in, and Miller was able to turn inside the box and almost get a decisive effort in.

However, heading towards half-time neither goalkeeper had been called into serious action. That all changed when we won a free kick outside the box, in a position that was very nicely set up for Gudmundsson. Far enough out to get over the wall and under the bar, central enough to go either side. He didn't disappoint, curling it over their defensive line and away from their keeper into the left corner of the net. It was a situation that called for precision and he delivered just that.

Not long after they had a free-kick in a not dissimilar situation but failed to clear the wall. Another effort from them went just wide of the post, while the moment when they put the ball in the net was always a foul on Henderson. So at the break we were ahead but the game looked like it could still go either way.

It turned very much in our favour not long into the second half. Another move fashioned down the left saw us choose good passes in a tight situation and the ball moved on across the box to find Watt in space and he provided the finish. That stung Huddersfield into accepting that there wasn't a great deal for them to lose by sitting back - and they enjoyed probably their best period of the game. Gudmundsson seemed to have picked up a knock and was replaced by Wilson, and for a while they looked the more likely, without seemingly having the cutting edge to convert the chances.

They did fashion one: a ball into the box and a smart effort low to Henderson's left. But he stuck out a strong arm and turned it around for a corner. It was an excellent and decisive save. They get one back then, with fresh legs on the pitch, and the game's back in the balance. Instead being kept out seemed to sap them a little, and we - or rather Watt - put the game to bed with about 20 minutes left.

It was a routine pass to a forward outside the box with his back to goal, nothing obvious on. But he turned it past one defender and with the space opened up hit crisply into the bottom right of the net. A goal, like the other two, of real quality, which contrasted with Huddersfield's efforts in the final third (Henderson's save excepted).

The final 15 minutes or so were something of a stroll. Diarra came on for Bulot, presumably to shore things up, with Cousins going wide left, then Eagles came on for Watt, who may have been a little miffed at being denied the opportunity of a hat-trick but had previously picked up a knock. The only other change I might have considered would have been taking off Gomez, not for a bad game but just because he had picked up a yellow and committed a few fouls after that. It would have been silly for him to get a second yellow in a game that was by then won. Huddersfield, genuinely mid-table, were never going to come back from three down and the real interest in the final stages was in how well Diarra would shape up and whether Eagles would be able to beat their keeper with shots from the space he enjoyed. There was also a splendid save by their keeper from a Wilson effort from close range, followed by a Buyens effort deflected wide (if I'm honest I can't remember whether we were two or three up by then).

We deserved the win because on balance we had the better chances and took some of them. Just how the game might have gone if they had scored first, or if Henderson hadn't pulled off the save at 2-0, will forever be just conjecture. All that was left was to applaud Sir Chris off the pitch, give the players the applause they too deserved, and bask in the position of being some 11 points now above the third relegation place. If someone had suggested to me after the Norwich game that we would be in this position, after three 3-0 victories out of four, I would have suggested they needed their bumps felt.

Player Ratings:

Henderson:  9/10. Mostly routine saves, a couple of dodgy moments clearing the ball and one dropped cross, but that superb save was as important as any of the goals.

Solly:  8/10. Solid game, nothing dramatic going forward but not necessary today.

Fox: 7/10. Generally played well, encouraging. Occasional error in posession and notable that once he was very easily brushed off the ball against a physically stronger opponent.

Gomez:  7/10. Also not error-free and was on the edge having picked up a yellow, but for a guy playing his first game in central defence for the first team also encouraging.

Johnson:  7/10. Some errors judging the flight of the ball to get headers away, but able to lead the defence and generally assured, despite the threat of Miller.

Berg Gudmundsson: 7/10. The decisive strike of the first half, didn't last long into the second.

Cousins: 7/10. Calm in regaining and in possession, decent enough game.

Buyens: 7/10. He has been off the pace of late and today wasn't perfect, but he made his contribution.

Bulot: 7/10. Seemed to have problems early on keeping his feet, but showed enough to justify his retention in the side after the poor Norwich game.

Vetokele: 7/10. Always a threat but today didn't manage to convert the two decent chances that came his way in the first half.

Watt:  9/10. Two goals, almost a third (when their keeper was nearly caught out at his near post), and clearly making a very big difference to the team.

Subs:  Wilson (7/10 - nothing dramatic but at least wasn't expected to play a central role); Diarra (7/10 - came on when the game was won); Eagles (7/10 - ditto, but both look capable of making material contributions to the rest of the season).

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Real Reason For Regret

All of us have our general and particular reasons for penning thoroughly deserved tributes to Sir Chris ahead of tomorrow's reunion (and no, the tributes aren't going to affect what we hope happens on the pitch). Unlike Chicago Addick, who seems to have holidayed with him, I can't say I ever really met the guy, unless you include shaking his hand (and Keith Jones') at the bash in town to celebrate the Championship title. But perhaps there's one personal reason over and above all the others regarding his departure that still causes me sorrow and regret.

If Powell had remained our manager and led us to inevitable Champions League glory, I might have been able to get a bucketload on ebay for the (by then vintage) signed photo of him walking out of the tunnel which I bought on a club auction. So Chris, spare a thought for me and let me live in the hope of salvaging something from my investment, just don't sign anything (except contract extensions) from now on. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A (One-Sided) Account Of My Meeting With KM&RD

This is an account of a meeting that I had with Katrien Miere and Roland Duchatelet. Of course it only took place in my head, so I am unable to fill in the answers to the questions put to them.

"Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, I am confident it will be constructive as all parties share the same objective of doing what is best for Charlton and seeing the club succeed. Before we begin, I'm sure we'd all like to put on record our congratulations to the team for the excellent result at Wigan and hope for the same at Derby on Tuesday.

As an introduction, I'd suggest from this side of the table that opinion among supporters is divided. Some are happy to accept the way the club is run by you both and to focus on the positives (the pitch, the stadium, the financial survival of the club, and the fact that the consortium approach and investment has enabled us to bring in players of the quality that might otherwise not have been possible). Some are alienated by the consortium model per se, preferring to support a club (in whatever division) which strives only for its own success, are exasperated by what we have seen of your style of management of the club, and would favour your departure, whatever the consequences. (Please be assured that these fans too are driven by what they believe to be in the best interests of the club and their goals as supporters, I have seen absolutely no evidence of any less worthy motives.) Most, I believe, are somewhere in between but will sooner or later move into one of the two camps.

As I see it, the objective of this meeting is to see if there are any reassurances you can provide on issues of concern, and perhaps modifications of style and approach which you may be prepared to make, in order to increase the chances of more supporters choosing the former rather than the latter. Given that the latter would almost certainly lead to revenue losses for the club, I am assuming that you are keen for that to be avoided (and that agreeing to this meeting is a reflection of that).

1.  Relations with supporters. KM has stated (and I assume RD is in agreement) that you wish to be open and honest in communicating with supporters, and that the Fans Forum, together with VIP and other Q&As, is the best way to engage with them. Would you be prepared to consider modifying this approach, in particular agreeing to the Trust's request for consultation, given that the Trust has built an extensive membership and, although in its infancy, can reasonably claim to be the best mouthpiece for supporters?

2.  Related to this, do you believe that in general you can benefit from the input of supporters on issues a little weightier than the availability of Bovril, or do you believe that supporters should just support and can have no opinion/advice that might help inform your decisions?

3.  Would you accept that on too many occasions (up to and including the appointment of our new head coach and the ill-judged stunt ahead of the Trust meeting) the club's PR has been dire, prompting some to conclude that supporters have been lied to? If yes, what do you intend to do to improve this area of communication (other than simply being content to admit to mistakes some time after the event)?

4.  The consortium model. Do you believe that it is possible, under any head coach, for a team comprising largely consortium players moved around and others drafted in on short-term contracts to perform better rather than worse than the sum of its parts? If no, what do you consider to be an optimum balance between, shall we say 'core players' and others?

5.  RD, you have said that Charlton fans must accept that players can be loaned to Standard Liege (or other consortium clubs). This has not happened so far . Could you elaborate on the possible circumstances under which this would happen? Related to this, do players contracts now include any clauses related to being loaned/sold to other consortium clubs, and are you able to confirm or deny any suggestion that Diego Poyet's decision to leave the club might have been influenced by any such clauses in the deal offered to him?

6.  Finances. Richard Murray said at the VIP meeting that RD has two real goals for Charlton: to go up and to break even. For the foreseeable future they are incompatible, as evidenced by the latest club accounts. Given this, and the undermining of your hopes that the Fair Play rules will create a more level playing-field in the Championship, what do you view as an acceptable and sustainable level of losses over the medium term?

6.  The role and behaviour of the owner. In response to a VIP meeting question, KM said that RD is a very busy, family man and that consequently it is not possible for him to attend many games or to have involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the club. That is accepted and understood. However, would you agree that having a remote owner but one who supporters believe (rightly or wrongly) takes all the key decisions (possibly more), one who is apparently consulted each day, causes problems for both the board and supporters? If yes, do you have any suggestions for improvement?

7.  Leading on from your answer, and the fact that the current situation gives rise to the belief of some that KM and the board are puppets, could you elaborate on the decision-making process when it comes to player transfers, choices of head coaches, and player selection? In particular, does the board have the capacity to make decisions in these areas or merely make recommendations to RD, and is the head coach entirely free to make team selections based solely on maximising our chances of getting a positive result?

8.  RD, your background is not in football, it has been said that you have no real love of the game and don't really understand what motivates supporters (please feel free to elaborate if you disagree). Why do you believe that you can tell who is and who is not a good head coach? And if your opinions are shaped by the advice of others, exactly who are they?

9.  It has been acknowledged by KM that mistakes (apparently we all make them) have been made. Do you feel that you have learnt from them to avoid them being repeated (and if so what)? And RD, in light of your experience since buying the club, do you believe that you have, or might consider, any alteration to your vision for the club when you bought it?

10.  RD, what do you personally hope to get out of your involvement in football?"

Absent an actual meeting with the Trust, answers please on a postcard.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Ball In Miere's Court After Trust Meeting

I wanted to take a bit of time after last night's Trust meeting to mull things over, get warm again, and to watch the video of the VIP meeting to compare/contrast. Those things have all been achieved. I don't want to give a detailed account of the Trust meeting as no doubt that is being put together by them (but would add that the way the event was arranged and handled only serves to demonstrate why the club should be fully embracing the organisation), rather to focus on a few issues/questions arising from both gatherings and to perhaps use them to suggest something positive.

Should Katrien Miere and/or Roland Duchatelet talk to the Trust, either as a one-off or on a regular basis? Her line from the VIP meeting is that she views the Fans Forum as the "best tool" for communicating with fans, along with VIP or open Q&As, and that any other approach is to favour some fans over others (while adding that she has had previous meetings with the Trust). She was adamant at the end of the VIP gathering that all dialogue should be through her as that is part of her job (ie don't think about trying to go direct to Roland or try to coopt Richard Murray).

So is the Fans Forum the best and sufficient structure for communication with the fans? After all, the Trust does have a representative. I can't comment on the workings of the Forum from a position of knowledge and I'm certainly not knocking it, or belittling the efforts of those involved (they give their time and experience for the good of the club), but would suggest that it is barely sufficient for normal circumstances and inadequate for the exceptional situation we find ourselves in (if the owner/board does not consider the situation exceptional they are simply turning a deaf ear to the many expressions of alienation, sticking to the head-in-the-sand 'oh well, if we do better on the pitch all will be well' line).

In its favour, the club on the site says that it encourages fans to contact representatives and to put themselves up for inclusion "if you are a member of a significant supporters group". Perhaps we as fans have not fully availed ourselves of these opportunities. Why not have a Royal Oak Group representative put him/herself forward for inclusion? And why not lobby the current representatives to get issues of real concern tabled at the next meeting (apparently scheduled for 2 April)? Such actions might either make the Forum a more active outlet for supporters or reveal more about its limitations (unfair I know but a glance at the minutes of the last meeting dealing with any other business concluded with a note that the East Stand keeps running out of Bovril).

Against it, look at the minutes of the April 2014 meeting, the first following the January transfer window debacle and the sacking of Chris Powell. The headings of the minutes read: 'season ticket update', 'Crossbars and Millennium Lounge packages for 2014/2015 season', 'The Valley pitch update', 'CAFC player', 'CAFC website', 'the club shop', 'group rail travel', 'Valley Express and Valley Away', 'Charlton Athletic museum update', 'Player of the year dinner', 'Fans Forum email address and communications received', and 'any other business'. All important ongoing issues, but I suspect hardly those that were paramount for fans at the time. Note also this from the September 2014 meeting minutes: "KM reiterated that this was a confidential meeting and that minutes would be published to reflect the discussions at said meeting. KM asked that until the minutes were published that this was not discussed on public forums or with anyone outside of this meeting". A forum is not a confidential meeting. 

In short, whether by accident or design the Fans Forum is not set up to provide true engagement with fans on anything other than day-to-day issues. Either change that or accept that it is not a sufficient tool for meaningful communication with the fans on issues that concern them. To pretend otherwise is either to be mistaken or to be willfully misleading. 

Do the VIP and other Q&As compensate for the shortfall? Sorry, but there's a world of difference between such events and structured, regular meetings at which proposals can be made, decisions taken or promised, progress monitored with accountability, and with no restrictions on the passing on of information to fans over what was discussed and said. The former, as with the VIP meeting, involves questions which can be answered fully when there is a desire to pass on information or side-stepped when there is not. The VIP meeting ended, not surprisingly, with no promises made on issues of concern (there were of course promises and information on some important matters such as training facilities, Academy status). There is absolutely no accountability involved.

The line that meetings with fans groups might favour some more than others is quite frankly absurd. It's a little like a prime minister/president declaring that he/she no longer wishes to hold cabinet meetings or attend parliament as that would amount to favouritism, instead opting to 'engage with' all voters equally. The analogy may not be exact as MPs are (usually) involved in the process of selection and themselves have a mandate. But I'd suggest that fans are stakeholders, given their contribution to paying the wages (yes, one outweighed by the owner's funding of the losses), and that groups such as the Trust have a form of mandate too, as last night fully demonstrated.

Are there issues to be discussed by the Trust and Miere which have not been adequately covered in the Fans Forum and the Q&As? Of course there are, and they relate to the owner (his strategy, vision, priorities, and involvement in key decisions), not Bovril. They would involve going over issues that Miere may feel have been dealt with, and/or would rather avoid, but that is part and parcel of meaningful engagement. The question I would have asked at the VIP meeting (with no expectation of an insightful answer) is just why does Duchatelet believe he knows who is and who isn't a good/excellent coach/manager (which of course would lead back to the issue of his involvement in head coach/transfer/team selection)? 

Is there a way forward on this issue? Yes, if Miere takes on board Von Clausewitz's advice on not confusing strength of character with stubbornness (as things stand, in addition to her telling us that we simply have to accept the way that Duchatelet does things we are also invited to simply 'have faith in her'). That last night's Trust meeting included an overwhelming show of support for continuing to try to engage meaningfully with the board. That in itself was an astounding display of restraint and common sense, supported by most of those who have already concluded that the chances of success are slim-to-non-existent. So, Ms Miere, surprise us! Take the positive decision to change tack and agree to the Trust's request for a(nother) meeting. I suspect you would receive more applause for that, for acknowledging a difficult situation - one which threatens to dent your ambitions for increasing the club's revenues streams in the years ahead - and acting to try to address it, than accusations of a U-turn. I hope the Trust is now preparing a renewed approach in the wake of the meeting.

I hope that Richard Murray will be encouraging her to take that approach, but would caution against the suggestions at last night's meeting that he might be utilised in support of the Trust. To be contacting him with that in mind would - irrespective of his opinions - put him in an invidious position and quite possibly end any influence he currently has. He is a member of the board and as such has responsibilities and duties (for the same reason I don't support calls for a reinstatement of a fans' director). Also, he stated at the VIP meeting that he believed Duchatelet to be a good long-term owner, adding that if he did not believe that/stopped believing it he would leave the board. Whether or not we agree with him, that has to be taken at face value.

What should the Trust do if there is stony silence? That's not an easy one as the Trust is constituted to represent Charlton fans, all of them. That for good reason includes everyone from those already in favour of whatever it takes to engineer a change of owner through to those backing Duchatelet's approach. And it is 'fully affiliated to and committed to the democratic principles set out by Supporters Direct, the umbrella organisation for Supporters' Trusts'. In other words it has no mandate for a campaign to oust our owner, unless and until its members (of which I am one) conclude that this is 'for the benefit of Charlton Athletic Football Club' (a bit like the ECB having no mandate for the sort of action needed to help avert crises but being able to act when there is a crisis).

It could well be a tough decision for the Trust whether to accept impotence and bide its time or to morph into a vehicle for outright opposition to Duchatelet. If (for good reason) it proves the former, I would expect those members who favour the latter to group together (if they have not already done so) with the clear objective of seeking out other interested parties prepared to make an offer for the club, in the belief that this is in the best interests of the club. In the interim, if there is no response from Miere in the wake of last night's meeting I would expect the Trust to withdraw from the Fans Forum and to adopt an approach of non-cooperation with her specifically, to the point of being in favour of her removal (and yes, I read the piece by Wendy Perfect in the latest Voice). The ball is in her court, I just hope she is aware (as she has to be if she watches the recording of the meeting) that for a significant number of fans it is getting close to breaking point and that inaction will speak for itself.

In the interim, personally it's a case of nothing off the pitch interfering with avoiding relegation and making decisions at the end of the season (ie whether or not to renew my season ticket, a decision that as before will not be down to which division we are in). That means giving Sir Chris the reception he deserves when he comes back to The Valley (barring exceptional cold I will be wearing my 'Chris Powell Charlton and England' T-shirt) but not using him as the fulcrum for any enduring protest that might affect the game.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Belated Thoughts On A Victory

There was a need yesterday to get away quickly to make it back, allow Suzanne three minutes to get changed, and get out again to catch a train into deepest, darkest Sussex for a mate's birthday bash. So no time for any match report from me. In any event, what is there to say after a win? Perhaps just the comparisons with Tuesday: better shape and player selection (helped by availability); better attitude (helped by not being behind at any stage and having taken the lead having something tangible to fight for); lower quality opposition (at least on the day Brentford were rather flat for a team in the top group); and perhaps most important a reminder that we have enough quality to compete in this league if all involved are deployed in their best positions and they are up for it.

Given that the team was - with the exception of Ben Haim getting the nod to partner Johnson instead of Bikey-Amougou and Bulot retained on the flank (rather than sort of in the hole) rather than Harriott coming in - the one that I would have gone with, I can hardly carp about the line-up. I don't claim much in the way of insight, some of the selection issues spoke for themselves: if Henderson was fit he had to come back in, if Johnson was ready for a start he had to play; and if Vetokele and Watt had not both started there would have been a case for doubting Luzon's sanity. But it was also key that Jackson and Cousins were paired in central midfield and Buyens dropped/rested. They helped to set the tone for the performance.

Taking the three units in turn, the defence was decent but I wouldn't go so far as to say sound, largely due (I think) to teething problems. Henderson's return clearly made a difference; he didn't have to make a serious save until we were 2-0 up but he was calm and assured and dealt effectively with high balls, lending confidence to those in front of him. Johnson did have a good game, as did Ben Haim, but a problem I thought might arise did, namely that on occasions both of them were looking to organise those around them, for example setting the line. That caused some confusion; there needs to be one clear leader. In the first half there was an awful moment when two (maybe three) defenders thought the other was going to clear and they were allowed back in. They score a silly goal then and the game might have been different. And just a special mention for Fox; being called on after only 20 minutes or so as Wiggins had to go off might have been more disruptive for us had he not done his job well.

The midfield four (which admittedly only lasted the first half) was effective and largely won the battles. Jackson's presence complemented Cousins' efforts, Bulot showed enough to suggest that his miserable first half against Norwich can be put to one side (and chipped in with the final goal of course, when it seemed that Brentford decided it wasn't worth chasing him as there was no difference between losing by two or three), while Berg Gudmundsson continued to impress and, while well set up, found a beautiful finish to open the scoring. What to make of Buyens in the second half? He has the ability to pick out a telling pass going forward when there's a bit of space and showed that a few times; against that he started poorly and at the end of the game seemed happy to just get back to the dressing room. I don't know if it's a confidence or an attitude/Luzon thing, but either way he can have no complaints about having been dropped and if he can find a way back to the performance level of early in the season still has a vital role to play (obviously, with Jackson at least doubtful for the immediate future it's a choice between him and LePoint to partner Cousins).

The stars of the show were undoubtedly the front two. They worked tirelessly, showed an ability to play together (most obviously in the fashion that Watt set up Igor for the second), and basically had the beating of their defence, which helped to keep them on the back foot. Not often we've been able to say that this season. Last year it was a case of keeping Vetokele wrapped in cotton wool either side of games, now we need both of them to stay fit and available.

The standard raised, seems a question of ensuring it isn't allowed to slip back again, especially as and when we fall behind in a game. Just no excuses if it does, irrespective of the eventual outcome of a match.

Just as a win doesn't mean suddenly we're safe and all is well, neither does it mean that the Trust's gathering on Wednesday evening loses any significance. I'll be there, not with the expectation of some definitive plan of action emerging capable of influencing the actions and 'strategy' of our owner but with the hope that a demonstration of the Trust's ability to provide a forum for constructive criticism just might incline the owner/board to consider that true engagement with fans groups can have a positive and mutually-beneficial effect. It is up to us and the Trust to demonstrate the first, then over to the owner/board for a positive reaction. We can only lead the horse to water. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Season Starts Now

I don't often indulge in 'this is the team I'd pick for Saturday/rest of the season' as we can have no idea what goes on through the week off the pitch (who is carrying knocks/who's been hitting the bottle etc) and because having never earned a crust in the game I'm usually happy to defer to those who do. But there's an exception to every rule (like Palace surviving a season in the Premiership).

Start by acknowledging the situation: we are fully embroiled in a relegation fight, with no cushion; we have a 16-game mini-season to play starting now, one which includes away trips to the three teams currently occupying the relegation places. Forget the form table, forget when it was since we last won, the season starts now with a clean slate. No points targets for survival (yet). For me this also means no thoughts of player rotation (other than necessary rests), no thoughts of 'this formation for this game, try something different next time' (and it goes without saying no input on team selection from anyone not there every day); we need clarity and yes, if you like, back to basics. Decide on a first-choice line-up, tell those not in it - including those who perhaps expected to be shipped out on deadline day - to be ready to play their part - and if their reaction is poor tell them to get lost unless and until the attitude changes for the better.

Also accept certain other realities. The head coach is one that few supporters would have put at the top of their list to replace Peeters, the owner and the board's attitude to engagement with the fans inspire shall we say mixed emotions; but they are in situ and every Charlton fan wants to avoid a return to the third-tier. This means for Luzon accepting that your only chance of love/appreciation is to replicate what Riga achieved last season. You can't rely on the fans to inspire the players at present, but you put out a side with purpose and commitment and they will respond positively. Don't feed them BS, we all know that last night's first-half showing was shockingly dire and that you can't realistically expect to give a decent team a two-goal start, or to feel disappointed to lose by the odd goal when your team has coughed up enough chances for them to have doubled their goal tally.

So to the team. We don't have a forward capable of playing on his own, nor do we have a midfield combination that suggests we'd benefit from a five-man set-up, and the time isn't right for trying five at the back. So it is 4-4-2. If Henderson is fit, he comes back, asap. He looked assured before his injury, Dmitrovic looks a decent keeper but with some doubts about dealing with high balls, Etheridge has had his chance for now. Solly and Wiggins are the first-choice full-backs, with Gomez and Fox/Wilson their back-ups.

Central defence is less easy, largely because we've no idea whether Johnson is sharp enough to start a game. If he is, he comes in (of course in an ideal world Morrison would still be here). The assuredness of Ben Haim and Bikey-Amougou in the first half of the season has gone, Onyewu by all accounts didn't take his opportunity at Middlesbrough. If Johnson is ready, the choice to partner him is just which of the other three complements him best (and on that front I really can't say). It's a gamble on his preparedness and sharpness, but it's also time for a change. Norwich were decent enough last night but that doesn't explain the number of chances we let them in for. Johnson describes himself as a leader, and a defence has only one real leader/organiser on the pitch. That suggests to me that for now Ben Haim may be the one to give way and for Bikey to get fully focused on the job in hand.

The midfield four for me is perhaps surprisingly straightforward, assuming that Veljkovic is out of the picture for now. Jackson and Cousins aren't a perfect combination but with Buyens now looking a pale shadow of the cultured and effective player of earlier in the season (I was only mildly surprised last night that he didn't pick up a second yellow) and is due a rest; whether it's fatigue or mental attitude I don't care, at the moment he's not doing the job. We know that Cousins' best position is central midfield and we know that Jackson will give his all, and probably chip in a goal or two. Plus the emphasis has to be on protecting the defence and clean sheets. Berg Gudmundsson continues to impress me, even though last night wasn't one of his more effective games. He does need to increase his defensive workrate and with him on one side we need outright pace on the other, which of course means Harriott, with Wilson available for fresh legs.

I don't think anyone questions the front two pairing. Again, not an ideal combination for the long term, but last night Vetokele and Watt together showed that they can work together, make chances for each other, and unsettle defences. I'm disappointed that Ahearne-Grant came into the picture and disappeared from it so quickly. I don't know where he stands now, but absent a loan signing he and Church are my back-ups. Church is a decent player, just not a prolific goalscorer. Starting with both Vetokele and Watt means not much in the way of a Plan B, but we simply don't have that luxury.

Who are the spare parts? Bulot blotted his copybook last night with a poor display (which begs the question regarding the thinking behind his selection), LePoint I simply have no idea about, Moussa remains sidelined.

So for me it's: Henderson/Dmitrovic, Solly, Wiggins, Johnson, Bikey-Amougou, Berg Gudmundsson, Jackson, Cousins, Harriott, Vetokele and Watt; subs: Dmitrovic/Etheridge, Gomez, Ben Haim/Onyewu, Wilson, Buyens/Bulot/LePoint, Church, Ahearne-Grant.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

No Great Escape

This was going to be a pretty easy - if depressing - match report to write at half-time, but what to make of it now that it's over? Perhaps the appropriate cliche is that goals change games. As we moved towards the break it was a case of for crying out loud if we can get somehow back in only one down when it could so easily have been more at least there's a chance of regrouping, and we let in another. At the start of the second a third for Norwich and complete embarrassment would have been on the cards, but you just never know; one back and the game changes. We get one back, somehow we draw level, and Norwich are left shaking their heads in disbelief, having slipped too far into the comfort zone and risking throwing away points that were theirs for the taking. But we didn't have it in us to go on and win the game (perhaps if we'd been attacking the Covered End in the second half there would have been that extra momentum), or to see it out, and ended up coughing up another chance for their replacement forward to nod home.

Perhaps stick to the facts as I remember them and see if it makes sense at the end. We lined up with a return to the assumed first-choice defence, with Bikey-Amougou and Wiggins returning. Jackson was fit enough to start alongside Buyens in central midfield, with Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson either side, with the returning Bulot given a rare start to play sort of in the hole/sort of up front with Vetokele, with Watt dropping back to the bench and Church, having started on Saturday, left out of the picture. It meant five changes from the Saturday line-up and a formation which, with only one outright forward, put something of an emphasis on not conceding first.

We were bright enough in the opening stages without looking threatening, but before long Norwich got into their stride and began to control possession and alarming gaps at the back started to appear. We had a warning when a ball across from their right side suddenly saw Solly outnumbered four-to-one, only for the opportunity to be squandered. That proved to be only a temporary reprieve as after about 15 minutes Solly was guilty of getting caught in possession going forward. We were caught out of position and a ball squared to a guy unmarked inside the area was slotted home. All rather too easy after the initial error.

The following 25 minutes were a sorry tale of us increasingly unable to retain possession or to get anything moving going forward, with Bulot providing no meaningful support for Vetokele, and Norwich looking more than capable of adding to their lead. There was one moment of promise when Igor seemed to have timed a run well and was picked out in space to bear down on goal, only for the linesman to flag him offside. I'd have to see it again to be sure, but I'd put money on it being a poor decision as it wasn't Vetokele in an offside position. That aside, we failed to trouble their defence and again, the hope was that Norwich wouldn't put the game to bed before half-time. They continued to threaten but we were just about holding on, albeit with the mood ever more restless. But then more uncertainty on the ball in the middle of the park and this time their guy was sent through with only Dmitrovic to beat and with the ball sitting up nicely for him he chipped the keeper to give them a cushion and to spark understandable dissent from the crowd.

Any number of changes might have been made at the break, but Luzon settled on just the one, taking off the ineffective Bulot for Watt. It didn't make an immediate difference, as Norwich began the second half pretty much still in control and more likely to add to their lead than be pegged back. Who knows what would have happened if they had scored a third, but they were so comfortable that they did relax and probably became just a tad over-confident.

Watt at least gave them something to think about by on his own dancing through three or four before being dispossessed; he had to try his luck as nobody in a red shirt was getting close to him. Perhaps spurred on by that, amazingly with our first serious threat we were back in it. Vetokele played in Watt to run through and he calmly stroked the ball past the keeper. Quite simple, not rocket science, but decent movement and the right pass played, followed by a good finish.

Encouragement at least and perhaps the promise of more as another attacking substitution was made. Jackson, who had provided a damn site more metal through the game than Buyens but was perhaps going to struggle to last the full game, came off and Harriott came on, to play on the wing as Cousins moved inside. And glory be it was only another few minutes and we were level. This time, having won possession in the middle of the park, good choices were again made as Cousins and Harriott combined and when the ball was squared Igor connected. For a moment from the East Stand it seemed it might not have gone in, but seems the ball rebounded from the stantion and all was well. Two forwards converting decent chances, two guys obviously in need of a goal.

Still another 20 minutes or so to go and now Norwich have to go out and win again a game that for so long had been in their pocket. To be fair to them, they steadied the ship, made a change up front to bring on Jerome to give them more of a physical presence in our box, and we seemed caught between going for a truly amazing victory and trying to hold what we had. Perhaps surprisingly, as the game entered the final 10 minutes, we didn't make use of a third possible change, just to get on another pair of fresh legs. Instead Norwich had moments from set pieces, with Dmitrovic not always strong when punching clear or attempting to catch high balls, a dreadful appeal for a penalty rightly rejected (but not punished with an appropriate yellow), and then scored another simple goal. Decent move down their left, ball into the box, Jerome heads home without either of our central defenders getting close to it.

We had five minutes of stoppage time but we failed to muster another serious attempt on their goal in what remained. Most games that have five goals and only one between them can be described as thrillers, but this one wasn't. Through the entire game I doubt that anyone there thought other than that Norwich were the better team, or at the finish that we were in any way robbed. The surprise was that we got back into it as two well-worked chances were both taken, by two players who did emerge with credit. To then lose was in a way cruel, but given the way we had failed to protect the back four and the way that through the game that back four had failed to prevent chances it was hardly robbery.

When the dust settles we are left with just the facts: another defeat, a team that doesn't really know how to play together, a disparate group of players low on confidence and with apparently variable motivation, and time running out to turn things around as we edge closer to a relegation spot. We avoided humiliation but came close. We lost because we conceded three and, but for wasteful finishing on their part and complacency, it could have been more. Just who and where to lay the blame isn't so easy as it smacked of a collective failure; undoubtedly some players had awful games, some just made mistakes. It needs sorting and quickly.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Support Or Don't Support The Trust, Drop The Silly Labels

I'm not sure I've ever been more disappointed as an Addick than after reading some of the comments in response to posts following the Trust's latest statement. That some feel free to label fellow supporters 'xenophobic' or 'anti-social' for expressing their views is groundless and insulting. If someone wants to label me xenophobic, I'd only ask on what basis? I don't think I am, I hope I'm not, but I'm happy to consider any evidence to the contrary. And why focus on the fact that our owner is Belgian? Perhaps if there was a word in the dictionary for an irrational hatred of people called Roland we'd get labelled as that too.

For the record, I think the Trust should be applauded for its efforts to engage constructively with the club, feel that it's response to those efforts being rebuffed it reasonable, and hope to attend the flagged meeting. I don't feel inclined to attach any label to those Addicks who may disagree; they are free not to be members, not to attend, not to read this blog etc. Nobody's pretending that the Trust is some sole representative body of supporters and the only group the board might engage with. But I'd challenge anyone to provide any evidence to suggest that the Trust - and other supporters groups - don't have at heart the best interests of the club and merely highlight again the March 2014 statement from the board. That began with "since we arrived at the club in January, we understood the importance of interaction with Charlton supporters". Is that still the case?

There is at least a certain clarity in Ms Meire's recent statement to the effect that Charlton supporters simply have to accept Mr Duchatelet's way of doing things. That, and the response to the Trust, at least makes it clear that there is no point in discussions. As there is no chance of any change in approach, any meetings are really just a waste of time. I don't agree, and believe that a different attitude would have material benefits for the club, but there we are.

So, as from the start of this adventure, supporters are left with choices of how to react. None of us (truly, none of us) wants to see us fail on or off the pitch. And all of us are aware that the chances of success (ie avoiding relegation) are increased if The Valley is packed to the rafters by people urging on the team. The simple fact is that at present that's not the case - and I doubt that simply the board and/or some fans just saying turn up and support, or you're not real fans, will do the trick. A half-empty Valley and some supporters willing more to just go away as 'we' don't want you just doesn't make sense, if you have the best interests of the club at heart.

To those still critical of the alienated, I'd just ask what has changed over the past year or so? Have a number of Charlton fans (however many) suddenly become xenophobic/anti-social, or had such latent tendencies suddenly exposed? I don't think so. All that has changed is the ownership of the club, which nobody denies has brought some benefits (although I've yet to see any actual evidence to support the claim that we were headed for administration under the previous owners; in the merde with owners not prepared to put in a bob more than was absolutely necessary before they could sell us on for sure, but that's not the same thing). We all welcomed Duchatelet when he arrived, but as the nature of his 'strategy' unfolded some of us, based on personal experience and personal motivation for being a supporter, balked at the implications, with alienation compounded by the 'take it or leave it' attitude of the board.

Some may well feel that the fact that I stayed away from some games last season in the wake of Powell's sacking means I'm not an Addick. Fine, I just don't agree; I know why I didn't go and make no apology. I happen to think that all concerned - including those who didn't renew season tickets for this season, those saying that they don't intend to renew for next season, and those prepared to back the owner - are all Addicks and deserve no other label. (For the record, I did have to laugh at the 'bring your loved one to The Valley for Valentine's Day' appeal on the club site; my loved one halfway through the Rotherham game asked me if I'd got her a ticket for Brentford, as she will be here again, adding that if not don't bother. Now she's not a die-hard Addick but for all the time I've been with her she's enjoyed going with me to games - and I know for a fact she's not xenophobic or anti-social.)

So what to do? Everyone makes their own decision, for their own reasons. We stayed up last season with no thanks to the owner/board but due to the character of the players that Powell had brought in and Riga's ability to recognise and utilise that. I'm looking for a repeat performance from the players that we have now. If they show the level of commitment on the pitch that the team did a year ago they deserve our support, for our mutual benefit. So I'll be there cheering - while intending to go to the Trust meeting. I see no contradiction in that and if some think it's a bit rich coming from me, tough. Give me any label you want, I know the ones that apply.