Sunday 23 December 2007

No Pain, No Gain

At last a laugh out of yesterday’s apology of a football match. According to a Teamtalk report Danny Mills was sent off “apparently for speaking out of turn”. Silly boy. Obviously he should have put his hand up and asked the ref for permission to speak, or waited until Forlan had said his piece before interrupting what was obviously a lively and informed exchange of opinions. Is getting sent off for speaking out of turn more forgivable than getting a straight red for being unable to shut up? Or was it a case of taking the two-match ban to get through to the new year?

Well, there’s nothing else to laugh about. I just can’t make sense out of our season, even allowing for the lottery that is The Championship. With another new team I had thought we would take time to gel, that we would need to be patient, but that as the players got used to each other we would steadily improve. That we found ourselves in second place going into October – and playing some decent stuff, with a squad that looked well-rounded, had cover in all key positions, and was a cut above those around us – was most satisfactory. It looked as though the players had more in them and that, while it was unlikely we would run away with the division, automatic promotion was a realistic expectation.

Instead, even leaving the Hull game aside, since the break after the Barnsley game we have gone backwards. There have been some good performances, especially away from home, some good spells, some good moments. But overall its been very patchy, with no sign of late that we are a better bet to go up than any number of teams around us. I may be over-reacting; after all, we were a win away from going top a week ago and we’re still in a play-off position. But I think, for a number of reasons, we have rather come off the rails.

The statistics are informative. The Hull game was the first we have drawn since that Barnsley game. Of the 13 games since that break (seven at home) we’ve won six and lost six, picking up 19 points. The relative absence of draws has helped the points return, but it’s no more than top 10 form at best. In the first 10 games we won five, drew four and lost just one. We picked up 19 points from these games too, but perhaps just as important during that spell the opposition picked up seven points against us in 10 games; since then the team we’ve played have secured 19 points in 13 games. And in the post-Barnsley games we’ve conceded 17 goals – despite a run of four clean sheets. We’ve scored 17 as well – against 16 in the first 10. The figures alone indicate that we have gone backwards.

Why? There’s no single reason of course. But try these for size. First, losing games has become more of a habit, almost accepted as part and parcel of this division. Second, we had a swagger early in the season. Maybe it was just arrogance, but the team looked as if it expected to win games – and perhaps more important some teams were scared of us. Some upped their game against us, to beat one of the (relative) ‘big boys’, but others were a little intimidated and went for damage-limitation. It might have been the Plymouth and QPR home games that burst that little bubble. Nobody's scared of us now.

Third, the simple relentless grind of Championship fixtures seems to have taken its toll on the players. Of course it’s the same for everyone, but apart from Iwelumo and McCarthy how many of the others have experience of playing a full season at this level? We’ve lost some of our aura and we’re not going to get it back; we are learning that we are in the mix along with many other clubs.

Fourth, as a result of injuries, suspensions and players not matching up to expectations we have not been able to develop reliable partnerships in key areas. We have undoubtedly been unlucky with injuries, while three sendings off haven’t helped either. Losing Moutaouakil was a blow, even though until Saturday Mills had been a real bonus, but Gibbs/Thatcher/Basey getting injured, with the result that Powell has had to play far more games than he can cope with, plus disruptions on the right side, have worked against a settled defence. In the centre McCarthy started poorly, leaving Fortune and Bougherra as first choice. This was not a pairing that looked comfortable, so in came Sodje. If he does go back to Reading we are back to the other three, with the way looking clear for McCarthy to partner either Fortune or Bougherra, unless Semedo gets converted back to being a central defender. He is after all still described as a central defender on the website.

Up front losing Todorov for the season looks even worse in retrospect than it did at the time. Varney and McLeod have not as yet looked worth the money we paid for them; I hope both will still come good. The result has been no reliable partner for Iwelumo, virtually ruling out 4-4-2 even if we wanted to play it. Varney has done his best work outside the box, McLeod looks as if he needs more time to develop, and Dickson is as yet untested for us.

And let’s not pretend that the midfield has been functioning as it could do. Reid is the enigma as ever. We rely on him for creativity but he simply doesn’t have the pace to work well out wide, especially if the opposition set out to crowd him out of the game; and if he plays inside it doesn’t seem to work with Zhi or Ambrose. Holland does a job, so did Semedo before him. But Zhi doesn’t look convincing to me as one of a two-man central midfield. Should we play him in the hole – or Reid or Ambrose? As for the wide men, Sam has not looked the same player since his suspension. Thomas has looked much better after a problematic start. But even though just about every one else has scored for us so far Thomas and Sam have had 23 starts between them – and no goals.

Well, at least Weaver has been ever-present in the league. And he has produced some decisive saves which have won us points. It is increasingly obvious that teams we play against know he can’t deal with crosses, so its up to the rest of the defence to compensate.

Any football team that hopes to win something has to have some idea of its best combinations in key areas. The fact is we have not rotated players to show the strength in depth of our squad; we have alternated because of injuries, suspensions and poor form.

So what do we do about it? It’s increasingly clear that we’re not going to be able to sign a high-profile striker, ie Leeta or Zamora, in January, with Reading seemingly wanting 5m. I’m assuming we just don’t have the resources. Should we try to buy Mills? That’s down to Pardew and the figures of course. But do we want to end up with a defence of Weaver, Mills, McCarthy and Thatcher? If we have to buy defensive cast-offs, there are 91 other teams in the league with better defensive records than Man City (OK that was a dig). Trouble is I have no idea how bad Yassin’s injury is. Sankofa can come in. Mills let himself and everyone else down badly on Saturday and he’s too old to learn from mistakes.

All of this does beg the question – one which I would not have seriously considered early in the season - whether we should try to get promoted this season. The team we have would get slaughtered in the Premiership and I’m assuming there wouldn’t be that much money for new players. It would be a case of taking the cash and looking to rebound, while us supporters get used to being humiliated week in, week out. For the good of the club of course I want us to get promoted this season. But there is an argument in favour of us giving up on this one and going for next season.

What could be the nucleus of a team to get promoted next season? Randolph, Moutaouakil, Sankofa, Semedo, Basey, Zhi, Racon, Sam, Thomas, Dickson, Varney, McLeod, plus maybe Thomas (the defender), Arter and others, and the experience of Reid, Ambrose, Iwelumo, and Weaver, maybe Todorov as well. Whether Powell and Holland have another season in them would remain to be seen.

I’m not trying to make a case for just throwing in the youngsters or for giving up on this season (yet). Rather what is becoming apparent is that if we want to go back up this time we probably need to spend more money in January than we have, to get a forward to deliver quick results. Nobody can complain about the backing that the board has given to managers over the past 18 months and to demand more is unrealistic (although I do feel that the club is falling down in not commenting on the issue of fresh financing with the release of the accounts). But faint heart never won fair lady and blowing a little more money in the vain hope of making the play-offs and possibly squeezing through isn’t being decisive. If it’s to be no money spent and let Mills go back so be it.

A friend recently posted a comment to the effect that he wanted us to win this league but not get promoted. I’m not with him yet as I really don’t enjoy this league at all. The goal – as outlined by Richard Murray – is being in the Premiership with a ground capacity that enables us to compete. It’s just about how to get there. We have the manager we want, we have a board we trust, and we have the nucleus of a team that can get better. Maybe that team will flourish without the pressure of trying to chase promotion this season. To go straight back up we needed most things to go our way; instead we’ve been unlucky. If the end result is taking it on the chin this year and building for next, then getting promoted with a developing team that could compete in the Premiership, having to put up with one more year of playing at Selhurst Park is maybe a price worth paying. No pain no gain.

Saturday 22 December 2007

Bye Danny

Be in no doubt, this was worse than anything that has gone before. Hull are a pub team and showed such little ambition that they should have been sent back home with nothing. As it was we were worse and it was only their ineptitude that prevented them from winning, despite the assistance they received from a gormless display by Danny Mills. We had one saving grace: it was surprising, given the news in the days before the game, to see Zhi, Ambrose and Iwelumo all make the starting line-up. Presumably they didn’t train much during the past week, so maybe they have some excuse.

We knew it was going to be difficult, with a team racked by injuries and a suspension up against a highly motivated team nursing a sense of grievance from the match earlier in the season. That is no excuse for an inability to show basic skills and to work to create space. The 11 we put out I believed were better players than that. Maybe I’ve been wrong. Far too often players were static rather than working to create space. Too many players just failed to perform. We had one attempt on target in 90 minutes, if we leave aside their goalkeeper’s only save (from a bad defensive back-header). The one, which was the goal, was the result of an awful piece of defending.

To recap on the game, the high point was Bryan Hughes taking a corner in the first half, to a mix of polite applause and boos (why on earth boo him? He wasn’t the best player we have had but never gave less than his best and we let him go). He managed to pass the ball out for a goal kick. There was a spell of maybe 10 minutes during the first half when we looked as though we were causing them problems. But it came to nothing. And just when you thought 0-0 at half-time was no disaster a clearance rebounded off Chris Powell to their guy, who finished with ease.

By that time Sodje had gone off injured, to be replaced by McCarthy. He managed to argue with Weaver and Powell, but maybe he was right on both counts. McCarthy actually went on to be one of the better performers. The second substitution came at half time, with Sam – who had been poor, beaten to the ball and seemingly intimidated by their antics – replaced by McLeod, with Ambrose moving back out wide. After looking so effective in the hole against Ipswich he had lapsed back to being peripheral in this game. Nothing much changed with him out wide, with McLeod doing nothing to suggest that he deserves a run in the team (or indeed that he should have been given the nod over Dickson).

The second half became a slugging match between two bad teams. We contrived an equaliser as a free kick was floated in after their entire back line pushed up and then retreated, with Bougherra putting the loose ball into the net. If it had been scored against us Pardew would rightly have been tearing his hair out. We didn’t look like scoring and Hull managed to avoid winning with a Keystone Cops moment towards the end when a procession of their players lined up to miss in front of goal.

In between came Mills’ sending off. Any hope of an onslaught towards the end went with him. You’d need to see the video replays to see whether he had been elbowed, punched etc in any number of incidents. Whatever. He ended up getting booked, along with a Hull player, for carrying on a verbal fued. And the ref finally tired of his language (I assume) and gave him either a second yellow or a straight red. It was totally brainless and cost us dear, reminiscent of Thatcher’s dismissal at Blackburn last season. At half-time a friend had said we will be the team to get a player sent off and we thought Mills could lose it. He managed to set dismissed not for decking one of their players but because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. If it’s a three-match ban he has presumably played his last game for us. Did he think a sending off and I can have Christmas and New Year with the family before leaving Charlton? It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

After that getting away with a draw was a bonus. Hull deserved nothing. Even against 10 men they wasted time and failed to take advantage of a totally disjointed opposition. The fact that they are mid-table is a savage indictment of the lack of quality in this division. But if we play like that for the rest of the season it’s going to be horrible watching. The January window is open soon and suddenly Song looks not so much a good move as a necessity.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 5/10. A couple of good saves, but it’s becoming monotonous. Hull knew he wouldn’t come for crosses, so they were able to drop them a couple of yards off the line. It could have cost us dear.

Mills: 1/10. Just no excuse. If you wanted to give us a reason to say goodbye Danny you just did.

Powell: 6/10. Less tested than against Ipswich and West Brom. Substituted late on for Semedo.

Sodje: 6/10. Didn’t last long enough to get a proper rating.

Bougherra: 7/10. Didn’t look totally convincing, but scored a goal and helped restrict Hull in the second half.

McCarthy: 7/10. Perhaps the only bright spot in that he came on and looked as if he could play a role in the rest of the season.

Thomas: 7/10. Flattered to deceive sometimes, but at least he looked as if he could deliver.

Holland: 6/10. Not bad, not great. No lack of effort.

Zhi: 4/10. Others disagreed with me, but I thought he looked a liability as one of a central midfield two. Lost the ball going forward too often. He may have not been fully fit.

Sam: 4/10. Very poor first half, no complaints about being replaced at half-time.

Ambrose: 5/10. As with Zhi might not have been fully fit. But didn’t threaten in the hole or out wide in the second half.

Iwelumo: 7/10. Struggled manfully with little support and no decent service, but looked as though the ankle was giving out again.

McLeod: 5/10. Disappointing. Did nothing of note and annoyed me by losing the ball and then standing and watching after we regained possession.

Semedo: 6/10. Didn’t look comfortable at left-back. Not really his fault.

Friday 21 December 2007

It's Really Not My Fault

Let’s get this straight from the start. This isn’t my fault. I’m not guilty, blameless, not responsible, clean-handed, above reproach. I have nothing to declare, nothing to confess, am stainless, and have clean hands. I am not the culprit.

All right, it is my fault. But only to the extent that Adam took a dirty great bite out of the apple after Eve shoved it in his face.

Yes, Suzanne, I did say that your relatives and friends were welcome to stay at my place if they visited London. They are welcome. All of them. Any time. Without exception. But I didn’t actually issue an invitation. They asked if they could come for New Year. They asked you, not me. You sorted it out. I didn’t even talk to them. You arranged that one of your nieces and her friend, both aged 20, would stay at my place for two nights while you are here for the festivities.

Yes, I have been making jokes with friends about having to share my one-bedroom flat over New Year with three French women. Ha ha. Tough work, but somebody’s got to do it. I can play Rene the café owner and everything else takes care of itself.

No, I didn’t arrange for airport workers to decide to go on strike. I’m aware that your niece and her friend, living in Lille, will come by train and have no problems. They are turning up. And that this time you were planning to fly to London from Lyon and may have problems which prevent you from coming. I didn’t plan it. It just happened.

Isn’t it enough that I no longer think of my distant cousin and West Brom with any affection? I don’t deserve flak for this. God works in mysterious ways, as they say.

There’s only one problem. I only bought two tickets for the New Year’s Day extravaganza that is Charlton v Colchester. I expected to take you to the match. If you can’t make it to London how can I decide which of the two that are now going to be here gets to go to the game? Well, I suppose we will have a couple of days together to decide. Maybe we can devise some competition to decide who wins the prize.

(As this is the festive season there will be no prizes for anyone suggesting that the winner will be the one who doesn’t have to go with me to the game.)

Thursday 20 December 2007

Thin On The Ground

Injuries, suspension and a game that nobody really wants, interrupting as it does the Xmas preparations. I hope the players that are able to go out on Saturday afternoon have a better attitude than me. I want to meet up with friends, have some drinks and food, exchange Christmas cards with robins on the front, have a drink after the game, and then get back home to continue the celebrations. Oh, and a victory and three points against naff opposition if you please. Don’t care about the performance.

The fact that it’s so obviously a banana skin waiting to happen should in theory help us to avoid one. We will be putting out a patched-up side against what we regard as lesser opposition. They will still be seething about our victory on their turf and will probably be highly motivated (at least their fans will be – check out the nonsense posted on their websites about Charlton’s ‘disgraceful antics’), even though Hull already appear primed for mid-table mediocrity for this season at least. The fact that we as supporters might not be fully up for it is no excuse for the players. They’re paid to play football. So whatever side takes the field the first priority is that they’re up for a contest.

Let’s recap on the injury list. To the ones already known – Thatcher, Gibbs, Basey, Todorov – it seems we have to add Reid (for 6-8 weeks according to the club site), Zhi and Ambrose, with Varney and Iwelumo doubtful and Fortune still suspended. That’s 10 outfield players. On the plus side we will have Mills and Sam back available. And in light of the injury list just about everyone else comes into contention: Yassin, McCarthy, Semedo, Racon, McLeod, possibly Thomas, even Wright.

What do we know? The defence just about picks itself: Weaver in goal, Mills at right-back, Powell on the left, with Sodje and Bougherra in the centre. In midfield you can pencil in Holland but all else depends on the formation and whether Iwelumo and/or Varney are available. It’s hard to see us playing 4-4-2 unless they both are fit – and if both are out McLeod could find himself the lone forward in a 4-5-1. If it’s one forward then Thomas and Sam would have to start on the flanks, with Racon and Semedo possibly starting. We don’t have anyone obvious to play in the hole (Reid, Zhi, Ambrose). An alternative would involve Yassin playing wide right, especially if there are any doubts about Sam returning to the fight against Hull. If we start with two forwards the midfield four would seem to be Holland, Semedo/Racon, Thomas, Sam/Yassin.

In a previous post I did question the perceived wisdom that without Reid we would struggle. But this did assume we would have Zhi and Ambrose available, with the addition of Racon capable of making us play at a higher tempo and with greater drive. There is obviously a danger that on Saturday at least we will be short of creativity. A good deal then rests on the wide players to provide the spark, especially if McLeod finds himself thrust into the spotlight.

There’s not a great deal of point in outlining a possible team for Saturday given the injury doubts, especially the forwards (and as at the time of writing the club website has withdrawn the report on injuries). Maybe its just best to list the probable 16 to be involved: Weaver, Mills, Powell, Sodje, Bougherra, Holland, Thomas, Sam, McLeod, Semedo, Racon, Yassin, Randolph, McCarthy. OK, that’s 14. If Iwelumo and Varney are both out I’m taking my boots along just in case.

From other blogs it would seem that we will try to get Song back on loan from Arsenal. That looked like a good move before Reid’s injury, although I still hope Racon gets (and takes) his chance. It would also seem sensible to try to extend Mills’ loan to the end of the season as the reports suggest. That does, however, raise the question of whether we would try to buy him if Man City say ‘no’. With Yassin and Sankofa available at right-back it’s down to resources. The priority is another striker (especially if Dickson swans off for the Africa Cup) and if to get him we have to pass on Mills I think that would make sense. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Saturday 15 December 2007

Sum Of The Parts

Ouch. If there’s one thing I hate more than being robbed blind by a gutless referee and/or the woodwork it’s losing a game and having no real complaints. Actually there is. It’s losing a game having seen the ref bottle his one real decision, one which could have turned the game, and nevertheless having no real complaints.

I don’t care about the platitudes, or the fact that West Brom looked to me like the best team we will play this season. Good game, credit to The Championship and all that, both sides depleted by injuries and suspensions. We lost. Overall it’s not a disaster. But there were enough chances going begging for both teams to feel they could have won with something to spare, we get back to 2-2 and can't close out the game, and the fact is that every goal was a defensive disaster which better teams would avoid. They were missing key players and their sum of the parts proved better than ours.

The team? Well, with Yassin seemingly injured Semedo went to right-back, with Chris Powell having recovered sufficiently to take his place on the left. Bougherra came in as expected for Fortune, while Thomas took his place on the left and Reid moved back into the centre, Ambrose moving back out the right (having enjoyed his most effective game so far this season behind Iwelumo). It was 4-5-1 with Holland providing the defensive protection and Reid and Zhi hoping to get forward.

What were the problems? Semedo looked decidedly uncomfortable at right-back, with the pace out wide causing him problems. Powell I thought was targeted by Ipswich last week and was tested this time as well, on the ground and in the air. Weaver doesn’t dominate his area. All of these factors West Brom played on. They had done their homework – and our shortfalls led to goals. So did theirs.

1-0. Thomas does down the left and gets the better of their right-back. But having shown Thomas the outside their defender allowed him to check back, even though he should have known that Thomas would not have relied on his left foot. Good cross, good header from Iwelumo. But surely their manager would have told their right-back just don't let him check back on to his right foot.

1-1. West Brom showed that if you stand off them they can play through you. Three passes and with each one our defender was a few yards away from their player. It looked like a good goal for the purists, it was a bad one for us to concede as we sat and watched them play.

1-2. Gera had the beating of Powell in the air through the game. Hoist the ball in that area and watch him get on the end of it. Weaver didn’t come for a long ball to the far post and Gera scored.

2-2. Good work by Varney (on as a sub) and the pullback left McLeod to put in a shot that their keeper should have saved. He didn’t.

2-3. Gera had the beating of Powell in the air through the game. Hoist the ball in that area and watch him get on the end of it. Weaver didn’t come for a long ball to the far post and Gera scored.

2-4. Corner. Scramble. Kevin Phillips scored.

In between Zhi was played through on their goal and was clipped from behind. It was either a yellow for Zhi for diving or a free kick for us just outside the box and a red card for their defender. The ref waved play on. I thought it was a foul, which would have left us playing against 10 men. Varney missed a great chance. And we could easily have conceded more. West Brom’s movement and tempo were better than ours. It was a game we could have avoided losing, might even have won, but can have no complaints about losing. It should serve as a wake-up call to get better.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 5/10. Made saves but West Brom exposed his inability to dominate his box. He flapped at one that nearly cost us a goal and didn’t come for either of the two balls to the far post that Gera scored from.

Semedo: 5/10. Looked uncomfortable and was eventually moved back into midfield as Sankofa came on for Reid.

Powell: 5/10. Two high balls and two goals. Some redress with one cleared off the line. But West Brom did their homework and tested Sir Chris.

Bougherra: 6/10. Nothing terrible, but there’s some collective responsibility.

Sodje: 6/10. As above.

Thomas: 7/10. Had the beating of his defender and with more support could have been a match-winner.

Holland: 6/10. With five in midfield West Brom still managed to play through us. Not a bad game.

Reid: 6/10. Some good moments, nearly a great goal. But he too must take some of the blame for their ability to run through us.

Zhi: 6/10. Anonymous in the first half, featured more in the second. It was his burst through that should have changed the game.

Ambrose: 5/10. Back out wide and back looking peripheral. Pardew pulled out a tactical plum last week against Ipswich, but accommodating Thomas and Reid meant a wide role and a poor game.

Iwelumo: 8/10. Took his chance well and worked effectively before an ankle injury meant substitution before half-time.

Subs: Sankofa/McLeod/Varney: Sankofa looked more comfortable at right-back than Semedo. Varney was lively but missed a sitter. McLeod scored but still looks unconvincing.

Ref: 0/10. One decision to make and he blows it.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Bravo OL

Bravo OL. Manifique. Apologies in the highly unlikely event that any Rangers supporter ever stumbles across this, but what a delight it was to see the mighty Olympic Lyonnais secure their rightful place in the final stages of the Champions League. Not for them the miserable consolation of the Uefa Cup (who wants a losers’ cup?); it’s onwards to glory in Moscow in May, where Lyon will finally be recognised as the very epicentre of footballing excellence, good taste, intelligence, beauty, wonderful food and wine, and the art of purchasing shoes.

There, Suzanne, will that do? Can we now dispense with any further suggestion of punishment for the absurd idea, put in a previous post purely for poetic licence, that I might ever have thought of any other woman for a nanosecond, even when I was 10 years old (does it help to repair my tattered standing in your eyes that when I was 10 I thought of just about every woman on the planet? No, I guess not). Or before then for that matter, just in case there was any doubt. On Saturday afternoon I shall think of nothing but you. OK, I will give some thought to how Charlton are faring against West Brom. So there is an element of sharing. But that’s all.

On Lyon, it really is remarkable how some ‘pundits’ can make their living out of commenting on football and be so obviously ignorant of what goes on outside of their immediate universe. On the Beeb on Saturday they talked about whether Rangers could ‘do it’ and the consensus was ‘of course’. Mark Lawrenson, with remarkable insight, drew our attention to the seemingly little-known fact that Rangers had won 3-0 in Lyon, so why can’t they win at Ibrox? Had anyone bothered to check, Lyon had what was by their standards a very poor start to the season, with a new manager and some new players. For a while they weren’t even top of the French league. Rangers played them during this period. Over the past couple of months Lyon’s form has improved considerably.

For obvious reasons I tend to track Lyon’s performance rather more closely than most. But I don’t make my living out of commenting on football (just as well) and it’s not exactly difficult for those that do to keep tabs. Usually the inadequacies of the pundits are exposed when the BBC has to show interest in the early rounds of the FA Cup, with every effort made to suggest that a dire kickabout on a mudbath contained some quality and that the commentators have done more than rehearse their patronising clichés and read the notes prepared by their researchers on players they have never before come across. I have never heard anything worth listening to from Lawrenson in particular but at least he is only dull and uninformed; Garth Crookes seems so ill at ease and manic that he manages to make stating the bleedin’ obvious appear somehow akin to analysis. And while John Barnes may have displayed grace and artistry on the football pitch and the dance floor, put him in front of a camera and he’s more wooden than Pinnochio.

Clearly some take to the pundit role with more ease than others. While we stay on the theme of ex-Charlton players Gavin Peacock manages to sound coherent and insightful and appear relaxed, as do others. As in every organisation, sometimes you make an investment in an individual believing they will make the grade. And as in most organisations the BBC seems incapable of bringing itself to recognise that sometimes the investment was a mistake (just as a 10-year-old once made a poor emotional investment in a distant cousin – ha, it’s OK, Suzanne will not have bothered to read this far down; if she has it’s the kitchen for me, interspersed with frequent trips to the doghouse, over new year).

Thinking of Lyon provides a link into part three. I was coming over all statto at the weekend with a series of questions that only Colin Cameron might know the answer to (or care about the answers). First, when was the last time we conceded a penalty in three consecutive home games (at least it’s only three so far)? Second, with Holland and Ambrose scoring in the last couple of games we have now racked up no fewer than 11 goalscorers in the 21 league games so far this season (not including an own goal), so what is the highest number we have ever recorded over a full season and are we on course to top it? And third, returning to the international theme, has there been more than one former Charlton player who went on to play in the Brazilian league?

The final question was going to be the theme for a separate post, but life’s too short. I was looking to see where all the players we had last season have ended up. Of course we know where most of them are. But what about Gonzalo Sorondo and Omar Pouso? It seems that Pouso has disappeared back into Uruguay to play for C.A.Penarol. But Sorondo now seems to be plying his trade in Brazil, for Sport Club Internacional. According to Wikipedia, they play in red shirts and white shorts. So it must have been difficult for him to adjust to a kit that he has never performed in before.

So when the question comes up, which Charlton footballer went on to play in Brazil you know the answer (has there ever been another?). That in turn set me thinking about Charlton players who went on to star on the international stage. We’ve had our share of overseas players who were on their way down and/or returned to their native land to play. But ones who went on to better things abroad? I can only think of Eddie Firmani and Paul Elliott, Of course, if Sorondo goes on to star for Uruguay and to set the Brazilian league alight he could be added to the list (so could Diawara if he helps take Bordeaux to another level). But I don’t really think of him as a former Charlton player, more of a temporary enigma (why did we sign him? Why was he always injured? Why did we get rid of him – for nothing - when he was finally fit and when we ended up needing centre-backs?).

Monday 10 December 2007

We’ll Be Top At Five O’Clock

Yes, I know this is going to put the mockers on it, but its too late. I've already thought it - and as any good Christian knows that's bad enough. All that needs to happen is we beat West Brom and Watford lose to Plymouth – and we’ll be top at five o’clock. It’s been a while since we’ve had the possibility, so let me enjoy it while I can. I’ll enjoy the reality even more.

At the start of the season I thought West Brom would feature less at the top than last season, with no big new signings and a further year away from the top flight. Just goes to show what I know. As it is now, provided we end up Champions - and leaving aside the vain hope that Scunthorpe and Colchester get promoted with us (on the grounds that they should occupy two of the three relegation spots next season) - I hope they get the second spot. They play better football than Watford. And every time I think of West Brom I remember they used to be my second team.

The very good reason for this came in the form of a distant cousin from the Brummie branch of the family. No, we don’t like to talk about them (even less about the Welsh and Irish components – I am after all a typical Englishman) but for her I’d make an exception. For her I made the trip, with my father, to The Hawthorns to watch West Brom beat Arsenal 1-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup in early 1969. This was because, perhaps having sensed my adolescent lust following a rare visit from these relatives, my father promised me we’d go up to West Brom if we got them in the cup.

As it happened, having seen off Palace in that epic replay at Selhurst Park, we were narrowly edged out 2-0 by Arsenal only for the Gooners to get the Baggies in the next round, so we decided to go anyway (in the event West Brom won 1-0). I remember the Arsenal game as my uncle, an Arsenal fan (bloody hell, this is like exposing my entire family as a bunch of losers; thank heavens for my father and I for restoring some family honour), got us tickets in one of the posh (seated) stands. When Arsenal fluked their first I asked my father for permission to swear. I think he expected a quietly mumbled naughty word, not his son standing and shouting ‘f**k it’ at the top of his voice surrounded by celebrating Arsenal fans.

Bottom line is I have no bad memories of The Hawthorns. Even though my unrequited attentions still cause me pain, I console myself with the reminder that she was twice my age, which might have explained her poor judgement at the time. Come Saturday I will think fondly of her – and trust that when it’s all over I will still think fondly of that particular part of the county.

What is it about East Anglian managers? I thought Peter Grant (where is he now?) covered himself in shame by labelling Danny Mills a ‘cheat’ after the game earlier this season. Of all the things Mills could have been called after that one ‘cheat’ was about the least appropriate as he could easily have had one or more of their players sent off. Now we have Jim Magilton berating his players for Saturday’s performance, promising new signings in January (if he is given the money).

Hold on a sec Jim. I looked at one or two Ipswich sites before Saturday and the gist was that supporters were imploring him to go with two forwards from the start against us. And anybody who had done their homework would have known that we have a very poor record if we go behind at home, and that our defence is far from watertight. So what did you do Jim? Go with one up front and such limited ambition that Ipswich had no serious attempts on goal in the first 40 minutes. They were 2-0 down before a forced tactical change – which was greeted with ironic cheers by Ipswich fans - was made and 3-0 down at the break. And of the goals we scored only the second can have been said to have been a defensive howler: I have now seen the first in The Championship highlights and what a beauty it was; I could have sworn after the game on Saturday that our second came back off the post before Iwelumo put it in the net (there was obviously something a bit off with it; it seemed to have come off his shoulder); and while their defence was sloppy in allowing Reid to set up the third it was a super strike by Ambrose.

So who should really carry the can for the performance and result Jim? Is there perhaps an element of trying to divert attention from your tactical errors by blaming your players? If I was the guy putting cash into Ipswich I’d take a long, hard look at who I wanted to be spending it. As I’m not, and as I’m a Charlton fan, more power to your spending elbow. Having you in place and Bryan Robson at Sheff Utd could still prove our passport back to the top flight.

On the game, on second viewing the straight red did look a little harsh on Fortune. He clearly threw their guy to the ground but with no punch thrown. Their forward should be ashamed at himself for the writhing around clutching his face. I doubt there’s any mileage in appealing this decision but it looks worth it to me (I didn’t have a problem with us appealing against Sam’s sending off, only the stance we seemed to take when the appeal was overruled).

I should add that I agree completely with the sentiments expressed by Peter Varney in the Ipswich programme. I suspect a two-tier Premiership is the best way forward – or to put it another way it offers the best protection for a club like us as the top flight is reduced in size before too long. With luck it would dilute the financial consequences of being relegated from the first division, albeit by implication increasing the downside of being relegated from second to third. Still, if that helps push Palace to where they truly belong more power to it.

Saturday 8 December 2007


Don’t you just bloody hate these home wins. At least when we lose most of the fans have disappeared and you can hop on the first train down the line. Win and you get everyone (well, most) waiting to cheer them off the pitch, even without a Chris Powell leap of glory, and a queue to get away. Never mind, normal service will no doubt be resumed next time around.

There wasn’t anything normal about this game. When you run out the first 45 minutes 3-0 up at home against a team that has only mustered a couple of efforts on goal at the end you’re feeling pretty pleased with life. You kind of settle in for a low-key second half, something of a disappointment in that you tend not to bang in a few more. You don’t expect to get taken to the cleaners. (NB: don't panic, it's all right in the end.)

So, the game. A combination of sloth, rain, reluctance to go to the pub before the game, and Network Southeast’s inability to deliver the 14.46 on time meant that by the time I took my seat we were winning 1-0. It was a cracking goal, I’m told. Certainly it set the game up for Darren Ambrose, who took up a position as the most advanced midfield player in what could only be described as a 4-1-3-1-1 formation. This involved Holland playing the holding role, Reid and Sam on the flanks, Zhi in central midfield and Ambrose in the hole behind Iwelumo, more advanced than Zhi. Don’t laugh. It worked.

There was bite in the tackle and with Ipswich lacking in ambition in the first half, and with us having taken the lead at the start, we dominated. We scored again – from a fluke. A corner came back off the far post and seemingly went in off Iwelumo. And then, just when you are ready to bask in 2-0 at the break we scored a beauty. A knock back to Ambrose and a crisp shot into the corner. The formation was working and Ambrose was inspired (the old club syndrome but also the fact that with a goal under his belt he had confidence). Ipswich by then had altered their set-up, bringing on Counago. But I remember thinking that I was most pleased that, despite their obvious targeting of Chris Powell, we had limited them to one half-chance (given offside) in the entire first half.

Now the plot started to unravel. Ipswich made a further change and as the match resumed hell opened up in a flurry of thunder and lightening. It was reasonable to suppose that they would throw caution to the wind as they had nothing to lose. What was disappointing was that we didn’t seem able to react, to take the heat out of the game, and suddenly we were being pulled apart.

I lost count of the number of chances they created. Nobody was surprised when the linesman gave them a penalty (more on linesmen later). If they had pulled it back to 3-1 early in the second half it’s a different game. But Weaver pulled off a splendid save – and we thought we had weathered the storm. Trouble is nobody had told Ipswich.

The next 20 minutes or so saw chances come and go at both ends. Iwelumo and Sodje both squandered free headers in the box, Holland had a superb drive turned onto the post by their keeper, while at the other end Ipswich hit the woodwork a couple of times and had a number of half-chances. Finally they scored. Finally we made a tactical change by bringing on Semedo to stiffen the midfield. At 3-1 up at home we didn’t need the game to be open. The change didn’t stop the flow of Ipswich chances, but it did reduce it.

On the break there were more opportunities to put the game to bed, but no more goals followed and it was with some sense of relief that we entered injury time, with Varney having come on and Bougherra to replace Powell after a clash of heads in the box. Mills, who had somehow once more contrived to annoy their players and supporters, had switched to the left but had no time to work out how to start a feud on the other side before the referee blew the whistle for full time – and Fortune decided to fell one of their forwards. Something had clearly been going on, but getting a straight red after the final whistle ain’t that bright.

Some plaudits. The referee was excellent, even to the extent of giving us a penalty only to change his mind after talking to his linesman. I still think it was a penalty and a red card, but I can’t find anyone else who agrees with me. It’s a bit much when the linesman at one end gives a penalty against us and the one at the other convinces the ref to change his mind and not give us one. But damn it they were probably right. And credit to Ipswich. They helped to make it a cracking game of football (don’t you just love it when you can be all nice after winning?)

Player ratings:

Weaver: 9/10. Superb. The penalty save was crucial, no chance with the goal.
Mills: 8/10. Oh Danny. This time he didn’t lose it, despite the provocation.
Powell: 5/10. Chris. You are a legend and we love you. Fact is Ipswich targeted him all game and he was beaten in the air and stretched on the ground. You deserve better, Sir Chris, and that’s not being asked to play so many games in such a short period of time.
Sodje: 6/10. The defence went from assured to mush in the second half. Did nothing obviously wrong (apart from missing a good chance) but there was a collective responsibility.
Fortune: 5/10. I thought he had an excellent first half and was raving about his composure. Fact is you can’t deck a player after the final whistle and get a three-match ban and expect a decent rating.
Holland: 8/10. Excellent. Semedo has done nothing wrong for us, but Holland demonstrates that he can do the same job and provide more.
Reid: 8/10. It’s a fine line for him as sometimes it works and sometimes not. But I thought he had a fine game and caused them all sorts of problems.
Zhi: 7/10. Effective, seemed almost relieved not to be on the end of chances in the box.
Ambrose: 9/10. My man of the match. He carried the ball superbly and scored two great goals (well, I saw one of them). Please keep doing it.
Iwelumo: 7/10. No shortage of effort; missed one good chance in the second half.

Positives? Three points, home win, super game. Negatives? Decimated defence for the next game. No Fortune, Mills and maybe Powell. Well, let’s worry about that tomorrow. And Sir Chris, I hope you’re feeling better. We missed your celebrations.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Can We Please Score First At Home

What can you do? I’ve become a convert to the idea of a mid-season break, provided we can choose when it happens. Now would be just fine. Instead we’ve got another two games in the week ahead, plus the utterly uninspiring knowledge that our cup exit will come at the hands of WBA. Could have been worse. A non-league team at home and we’d all have been reaching for the aspirins.

Today seems no better than yesterday. It’s been sunshine and showers in south London and every time I step out it switches to the latter. I found myself walking back after trying to vent frustrations in the gym in bright sunshine but getting drenched. It felt like I was carrying around my own personal raincloud. I keep trying to get that bloody awful song out of my head: ‘I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times …’ It’s not even appropriate. It starts with ‘don’t go changing trying to please me’. I wouldn’t mind us changing our home form at least. Maybe I can find something else more appropriate for my mood. Here we go, REM. ‘The world is collapsing around our heads …’

OK, we’ll have a better sense of perspective tomorrow and it’s no bad thing to wallow in it once in a while. Four defeats out of six at home is after all something we’ve not experienced for a while. I just wish I could watch a few full away games as I think this might help. But it’s off to Amsterdam tomorrow for a few days so a nice midweek trip to Wales will just have to wait.

Reason being I can’t help feeling that at home at least we’ve stopped playing football. Earlier in the season we might have been accused of over-elaborating, but recently at home we’ve become as route one as anyone else. We have the players in midfield to pass the ball around but lately we’ve abandoned movement and creating space for poor balls aimed at Iwelumo’s head.

This might be down to the way teams play against us when they come to The Valley. Most would be happy to depart with a point and are defensive from the start; if we give them goals they are even happier to just get men behind the ball. Even Sheff Utd did this. And breaking through a congested midfield and breaking down a packed defence is not our strength. We don’t have a real predator in the box, the quality of our crossing has not been good enough, and we haven’t made the most of our attacking set pieces.

In short, at home scoring first has become almost a necessity. Only once this season have we come from behind at home (and that was because Sheff Wed defended so poorly) and when we’ve scored first we’ve won three, drawn two, lost none (11 points out of a possible 15). And the two drawn games were only the result of late equalisers. When we’ve conceded first our record is won one, drawn none, lost four (three points out of 15).

I don’t pretend I know what the answer is. Perhaps we just have to accept that the greater space we get playing away suits us better; maybe we should have a Plan A and Plan B at home depending on whether we score first (although the switch to B at half-time against Sheff Utd didn’t work). Maybe we should just make bloody sure we don’t give away silly goals. After all, the six in two games involved two free kicks, a corner, two needless penalties, and a breakaway.

I see that Peter Varney in the Burnley programme repeated his support for the UEFA proposal to establish a quota of homegrown players within a first-team squad. And he outlined a perfectly coherent and well-argued case, based on a successful national side being good for our game, implying good for Charlton as attendances and merchandising might be boosted, and that a quota system would increase the flow of young English players coming through to play at the top level. I don’t agree with this, but that’s all it is: a difference of opinion.

Why do I disagree? First, I don’t believe that the England set-up suffers from a lack of eligible Premiership players, or that the flow of young English players is drying up. Mr Varney did after all flag this up on a weekend when Match of the Day focused on the exploits of Young and Agbonlahor for Villa, plus Bentley knocking in two for Blackburn. What has changed from the past is that there are fewer Scottish and Irish players being brought in by the top-flight clubs (Liverpool used to thrive on them) and fewer lower league players being bought. I think other things being equal (management, tactical nous etc) England will end up with a better side selecting from 50 playing at the highest possible club level than 100+ under an artificial system to boost numbers. Players like Parker have not failed to become England regulars because of a lack of opportunity to come through (in Parker's case bad luck with injury and a poor choice of club have played their part).

If we want to complain about too few players what about those who have ‘retired’ from internationals to extend their club career? Carragher threw his toys out of the pram because he wasn’t getting picked; he would have been in the final qualifiers if available. And nobody questioned players like Scholes and Shearer when they decided they didn’t want to play for their country any more. I might support a rule which said that if an English player doesn’t make himself eligible to play for the national team he can’t play for his club either.

Mr Varney invited all fans to write down the number of English players starting in the Premiership and then those under 20 years of age. I wish I had the time. But even if the end result was none I would not see this as a good argument for introducing quotas. If it’s none, that’s just the way it is. The England team has not been a disaster in the past 10 years. Unlucky in major competitions – and even unlucky this time around with injuries to key players.

I would agree that our current system isn’t the best possible for the purposes of creating the best possible England team. Arguably France have benefited greatly from their best players getting bought and going overseas when they are good enough and creating the space for others to come through and gain experience. But to try to recreate such a set-up over here would cause more problems than it’s worth. The distortions have arisen because of TV money pouring into our game and clubs have responded in an appropriate fashion by buying the best available. There is, quite simply, no going back – unless and until the money dries up.

There are I’m sure deeper issues which help to shape our gut reactions. I feel far more upset at two Charlton home defeats than about whether England qualified for Euro 2008. I much prefer Premiership money to be spent on articulate, intelligent foreign players (OK, it’s a generalisation) than the morons that qualify for England (again, a generalisation).

Then again, my opinions are at least influenced by being a declared Francophile, someone in favour of deeper European integration, and someone who is bemused by talk of national characteristics (yes, of course being English means being fair, loyal, tolerant, brilliant, beautiful - in your dreams). I wish people would accept that EMU does not stand for European monetary union; it stands for economic and monetary union. To be strictly accurate you should refer to European EMU. Political and economic integration was always the goal. Just read the Treaty of Rome (no, we weren’t duped into joining what we believed was a free-trade agreement, that’s just a poor attempt by Eurosceptics to rewrite history).

For what it’s worth I would vote against the EU Constitution in a referendum – on the grounds that it does not go far enough and will prove unhelpful in the future as attempts at deepening integration are blocked by the idea that they are ‘unconstitutional’. I do believe that national governments are a relic from a bygone age – or at least will be before long – and that this is desirable as long as accompanied by a strengthening of regional powers. And no, we have not surrendered sovereignty. As long as there is a national parliament which has the power to vote to take the UK out of the EU you retain sovereignty. It may be the only job left for national governments.

By the same token I believe that some changes over the next 10 years will not be good for Charlton. It is almost inevitable that at some stage the size of the Premiership will be reduced, the only question being by how much. A fully-fledged European league is probably also only a matter of time. I hope we can manage such changes to our advantage rather than trying to hold the tide against them.

Saturday 1 December 2007

Tonight I Hate Three Gits

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first. I’m not even going to try a lame joke about positives. There weren’t any. Once more at home we’ve not played well enough to deserve to win, we fell foul of set-piece moves that were clearly worked out on the training ground and must have been tried in their previous games, suggesting poor planning, Burnley offered an unpleasant excess of aggression, and the officials were dreadful.

We didn’t lose this game because of the referee, Shoebridge, or his yellow assistant Evetts. But yellow was appropriate for them both, given two incidents in the first half.

Danny Mills became entangled with one of their number and tempers flared. But it seemed to be over when another Burnley player came in from behind and clearly kicked Mills. It was deliberate, premeditated and a sure-fire red card. It was right in our line of vision from the East Stand and in the line of vision of Mr Evetts. He ran onto the pitch, presumably to talk to the referee who may have missed the incident. But when he couldn’t get his attention he drifted back and said nothing. It was gutless.

Then just before the break came what proved to be the pivotal moment of the match as Iwelumo was grabbed in a headlock by the Burnley defender going for a high ball. It was right in front of the referee, who decided instead that Iwelumo, once he had broken free of the unwelcome embrace, went on to foul Kiraly.

If the officials had done their jobs we could have gone in at half-time at 2-2 and playing against 10 men. If there is a replay of the first incident and the Burnley player is given a retrospective red card I will feel even more steamed up over Evetts’ cowardice.

Now for us. After the defeat against Sheff Utd Pardew did change things around. Can’t say that before the game I liked the look of it, but let’s give it a go. Out went 4-5-1 in favour of 4-4-2 with what looked something like the most experienced 11 we could put out. Both wingers (Sam and Thomas) were dropped (I assume), with Sam on the bench, with Reid moving back out wide left and Ambrose on the right, while Holland replaced Semedo (also on the bench). Varney started, while Chris Powell came in for the injured Basey.

A midfield of Reid, Holland, Zhi and Ambrose. Three Premiership players and China’s captain. But on the downside there’s no genuine wingers and no pace. So it proved. Throughout the game we singularly failed to get in behind the Burnley defence or to stretch them. It meant poor service into Iwelumo and Varney – and it has to be said that Burnley’s method of dealing with Big Chris proved effective while Varney again came up short. He worked hard, had one strong shot in the second half, but overall our midfield didn’t produce enough and our front two didn’t make much of what came their way.

Of course we lost because we conceded goals. In the first 20 minutes Burnley won two free kicks in dangerous positions. Both decisions were harsh in my view. But first time around the ball was played in with pace and a Burnley player got to the ball first. A deft touch gave Weaver no chance. It was a training ground move and we should have been prepared for it. So they decided to do it again. Same type of ball in, same result. Just bloody awful.

We created little in the first half, just one decent move. Ambrose, who had a hit and miss game, went on a super run down the right and squared it on a plate for Zhi. For the second game running he missed a key chance, with his first touch letting him down this time. But at least we got back in the game as an indifferent cross was flicked on by a defender and Reid took it on the volley. The shot was simply unstoppable.

The game was still on at half time, the problem being that we weren’t playing well. And quite frankly nothing changed in the second half. We threatened a few times, had the ball in the net (with Iwelumo ruled offside), but at no time were coherent or able to really stretch their defence. Of course, they were content to get behind the ball and defend what they had. Who could blame them? Running the game out for a 2-1 win or at worst 2-2 was looking good for them. Then we decided to gift them a third. From a cross it was clear that Mills’ hand came up to the ball. I don’t know if he was pushed. If he wasn’t it was inexplicable. 3-1 and game over.

Sam, McLeod and Bougherra came on with little chance to change the game. The only thing of note there was booing when McLeod replaced Varney, possibly the first time a Pardew decision has not been accepted by some in the crowd.

I don’t want to try to draw any conclusions. There’s another two games coming up over the next week and I have no idea what formation and players Pardew will put out. What are our problems? First, after four clean sheets the defence has shipped six in two games, suggesting that the run of zeros was flattering; six conceded in six games is probably closer to reality. Second, we are still struggling to find the best combination in midfield – for a Plan A and a Plan B. Third, collectively our options up front look inadequate (I’m disappointed Dickson is staying at Gillingham but if Pardew thinks that’s best all round so be it). Apart from that we’re laughing.

This season is just proving impossible to make any sense of. We go on losing runs and winning runs – and don’t seem able to produce any consistency, or to be able to impose ourselves on teams. It’s not enough to say that’s just what this league is like. We aspire to be promoted, and believe we have a squad capable of achieving this – but have been turned over at home by Plymouth, QPR, Sheff Utd, and Burnley, while failing to beat Scunthorpe and Barnsley.

Tonight I hate three gits: Shoebridge, Evetts, and the Plymouth defender who took out Todorov. With Todorov out of the picture we just don’t look like the same outfit.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. No chance with the goals once more.
Mills: 5/10. Was looking like man-of-the-match but inexplicably gave away a penalty and seemed unbalanced after that (a little like against QPR after a bad mistake).
Powell: 6/10. Deserving of sympathy for having to come in after injury. Worked hard but looked rusty.
Fortune: 6/10. Looked OK for most of the game but don’t know who to blame for two headers from two set pieces.
Sodje: 6/10. Same as Fortune.
Reid: 5/10. Sorry Andy. Took the goal superbly but otherwise was crowded out and didn’t have the pace to get away from their players.
Holland: 6/10. Looked capable and did get on the end of one in the box. Just like it says on the packet.
Zhi: 5/10. Bad game. Missed a good chance.
Ambrose: 6/10. Did some good things and doesn’t deserve some of the stick he gets.
Iwelumo: 5/10. Repeatedly fouled and didn’t get the protection he deserved. But if I was a Burnley defender tonight I’d be telling myself ‘job well done’.
Varney: 5/10. Worked hard but no evidence of understanding with Iwelumo or suggestion that he would punish Burnley.

Friday 30 November 2007


Didn’t we all get sick of the Premiership? Prima donnas taking big wonga for little in return, a physical contact sport reduced to handbags at dawn as death-rolls were accompanied by impassioned pleas to the officials, almost inevitable defeats against the top four, never getting key decisions against ‘big clubs’, problems getting tickets for friends, boring lout managers who cease giving BBC interviews because they’re peeved, the corruption, the drive to sell shirts in Asia, being shunted around to accommodate TV listings, and the ever-growing realisation that given our resources, including ground capacity, one bad season and its out through the trap door.

So yes, bring on the Championship. Honesty on the pitch, proper football, referees prepared to let the game flow, Saturday afternoons, more chance for young players to come through, a division untainted by vulture capitalists with little or no interest in the game, the prospect of being at or around the top as we blow away these lesser teams, and the realistic expectation of going home happy more often than in the recent past.

Hold on a minute. It’s crap really, isn’t it? Championship players tend not to dive because they’re so bad at it (Gillespie and Thomas take a bow), referees and linesmen let games flow because they usually miss things, you just get a different class of investor in this league (of the spotty, spiv, wanabee variety), and while young players coming through the ranks is great there’s a difference between proving it in the top flight (aka Parker) and in this division (of course I hope Basey, Randolph and others go on to play in the Premiership – with us).

Once we’ve got past the not very convincing attempts at making the best of a bad break – and ignoring all the positives of being in the Premiership (the quality of the football, the heightened tension and sense of occasion, still inadequate but massively better media coverage) – we’re left with only two good (related) reasons for enjoying life more where we are now: the greater prospect of winning something (promotion) and of going home happy more often than not having seen Charlton win.

I was going to post something about games I’ve seen Charlton lose and didn’t care. But after much thought I’ve still only come up with one: Notts Forest away in our third year in the old Division One under Lennie. Having got into the play-offs in the last game of the regular season in our first year up, then having avoided the play-offs on the last day in the second, in the third we were safe with a game to spare. We travelled with a spring in our step and cheered and sang through a 4-0 defeat, much to the bemusement of the Forest supporters.

Of course there have been games which really didn’t matter (too many if we go back to the 70s and 80s). But I still cared about the result on the day. Only three other games come close: home to Sheff Wed when we were being relegated elsewhere; home to Ipswich when we celebrated going back up as champions (we lost 3-1) and Curbs’ last home game in charge against Blackburn (0-3). In all three cases the result was less important than the occasion (something lost on those who inexplicably left before the end of Curbs’ last home game). But I can’t say I just didn’t care as we were turned over on the pitch.

The moral of the story? Well, in an ideal world (and trying to remain broadly realistic) Charlton will be in the top half of the Premiership, at least occasionally qualifying for Europe (or threatening to do so) and with the possibility of a cup, and playing expansive, entertaining football, and with ground expansion going ahead. Of course the goal of being in the top half of the Premiership implies that you win more of your home games than you lose. And here’s the rub. I’ve never felt like crying into my wine when Charlton have won. Sometimes frustrated, exasperated, relieved, disappointed with the football served up. But always on balance happier, whether or not we’ve ground the opposition into the dirt or been hammered for 89 minutes and fluked a winner in the last minute.

Now the problem. Now I know nothing beats a good away win, even a creditable draw (3-3 versus Liverpool). And we take delight in our away victories, discussing why it is that sometimes our away record is superior. But for me time constraints and friends’ collective patter of tiny feet simply don’t allow many trips now. So my feelgood factor is heavily determined by the home games that I see.

One win in five at home has understandably left us feeling bad. Our home record in the nine league games to date is won four, drawn two and lost three. In other words, 44.4% of the time I have gone home whining about something but with a spring in my step, 22.2% of the time its been a case of should have been better, and 33.3% of the time its been reach for the bottle in despair.

How does this fit with recent seasons? In 2006/07 our home record was won 7, drew 5, lost 7, ie a win percentage of 36.8%. In 2005/06 it was 8-4-7 and a win percentage of 42.1%; in 2004/05 it was exactly the same; and in 2003/04 it was 7-6-6 and a percentage of 36.8% again. Not much difference really.

It gets worse. In the Premiership you did sometimes come away from a home defeat feeling that we were simply beaten by a better side and there wasn’t much we could do, or that a draw was a fair result and a point gained. In this league we, rightly or wrongly, expect to beat every other team at home and come away from a draw feeling depressed (of course in the light of day we acknowledge that there will be the occasional let-down).

If you feed this into the ‘post-game feelgood factor’, this season we have left the ground feeling happy some 44.4% of the time. Even last season the combined win/draw percentage was 63.2% (it just didn’t feel like it). In 2005/06, 2004/05 and 2004/05 it was the same – and in 2003/04 it reached 68.4%.

Of course, the happiness ratio should be lower as we didn’t enjoy every draw in the Premiership (although you would have to feed a premium back in for the last-day draw of the 2004/05 season). But sometimes the defeats were easier to bear - and at the very least it has to be said that the last remaining good reason for being in this division is going down the plughole.

So, I’ve had a look at the Championship, enjoyed some of its particular appeal. But I’ve had my fill. I miss the quality and the atmosphere, don’t like the frequency of games – and again I’m getting no feelgood factor benefit from being in this division. So, Pards and the board, I know you're doing your best and please accept that I will be a Charlton supporter for the rest of my life, come what may. But I’M A PREMIERSHIP SUPPORTER, GET ME OUT OF HERE.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

How The Other Half Live

This is of course a poor attempt to bury any reference to last night’s match – and to divert thoughts away from what we might need to do for Saturday. Well, in part at least.

It wasn’t easy going to France shortly after England’s inglorious exit from Euro 2008. I kept trying to turn conversations towards rugby, or even traditional French sports such as public sector strikes and torching cars. But it seemed that everyone, from the bus driver to the flight attendants, had a smug grin on their faces when my accent revealed my origins. ‘A ticket from Grenoble to Lyon? Ah, English, at least he won’t want tickets for football matches next year’. Ha ha. Now where did I put my Materazzi shirt?

So with the entente cordial a little strained, my partner Suzanne’s complaints were not well received. She is a little depressed as Lyon are having a poor season. They are only three points clear at the top of their league and if they lose away at Rangers they will go out of the Champions League (and into the Uefa Cup). The dissatisfaction of their fans with such a season of underperformance is apparent from the local papers.

The alliance is about to get a little more strained. Last night the exchanges went as follows: Suzanne texts she is in need of good news, how is it going for Charlton? It’s half-time and we’re losing. At the end, how was it? It was better at half-time. So, she asks, did Charlton’s French players have a bad game? Oh merde. Well, actually they haven’t played for us for a while. Voila! How do you expect to get promoted if you don’t have French players in your team? Do you know nothing of football? Well, I’m English …

So please Pards, if we’re going to get stuffed anyway can you pick Racon and Moutaouakil to help get one of the world’s worst football pundits off my back? If I can hear La Marseillaise ringing round The Valley (or David Essex’s Rock On for Therry and something based on the soundtrack for View To A Kill for Yassin) at least I can pass on any blame for defeat.

In truth the entente cordial has never been stronger. I managed to ferret out a delightful glass of St Nicolas de la Vallee last Friday night. Had to buy a bottle to drink while watching the BBC text page update every two minutes during the Preston game (and while the rabbit’s liver was being delicately fried and diced). Clearly it worked. And what started as my punishment for rugby triumphalism, having to cook a meal to a traditional French recipe, has morphed into Suzanne delivering up splendid French cooking when I am in France and me concocting the best of British when she is here. Blimey, how did she fall for that one? I get Lapin Chasseur and Bresse chicken a la crème; she gets toad in the hole and a takeaway byriani.

Actually I’ve been saving up the toad in the hole as it’s not easy to explain the concept to the French: take the traditional British banger (no, its not actually a sausage as you understand it) and drop it into a tray full of batter mix, put in the oven and wait. What is zis battermix? Well, its actually what we cover our fish in as well before we drop them into a vat of boiling fat. Nouvelle cuisine eat your heart out (don’t tell the French that as they probably would).

She’s going to be over for new year and the Colchester home game. Poor girl just doesn’t know what lies ahead. Just make sure Pards that Therry and Yassin are in the picture by then as if they’re not you’ll hear it from the stands.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

And So It Goes

So, bad day at the office after four on the spin or something more serious? Well, a bit of the former and bit more of the latter. It was a reminder that we're not yet at least the finished article. We didn’t play well enough on the night to win, that much was clear. On another night it could have turned out differently. But that's always the case - and if you look convincing for just two 15-minute spells, with key players misfiring, and fail to put away your chances during them a half-decent side will probably turn you over. And Sheff Utd were a decent side. They avoided serious mistakes and in Beattie and Gillespie (when he wasn’t hurling himself to the floor) had the two best players on the ball, Reid included.

The game? We played pretty well in the first 15 minutes without really dominating, with a Sodje header from a corner a good chance spurned. After that we went flat and the players started to look like they were going through the motions. Sheffield didn’t look as though they had the pace or the ambition to go ahead, but were then gifted the lead as a decent cross looked like being converted before a desperate shove by Thomas. Nobody really questioned it was a penalty, or doubted that Beattie would put it away.

Semedo and Sam were withdrawn at half-time. The former had done nothing wrong but it was a reasonable decision to see if Holland could give us as much cover and more drive; the latter had had a poor game, failing to get any change out of their full-back, and a switch to 4-4-2 with Varney come on was worth trying. It didn’t look like that for a while, with Sheffield looking untroubled. But the game kicked into life as Thomas went on a fine run and fed the ball inside the box to Zhi, whose square ball led to a superb save by Kenny. There followed the miss of the match as the ball was laid on for Zhi, who tried to do too much and saw his shot graze the bar.

Another half-chance was wasted and that was that. Beattie won a throw he had no right to. A corner resulted and after a poor defensive header sent the ball back up in the air the ball was somehow put in the net. For a minute or so there was confusion as the ref seemed to have disallowed it; certainly Mills, by now covering at left-back after Basey went off injured, thought some crime had been committed. We didn’t look like coming back from 2-0 and the third was just rubbing it in. Cue mass exodus; but I stayed to the death. You just can’t not applaud Holland for taking it on the chin and doing the rounds in front of the remaining fans.

The positives? I managed to get a 54 back without having to walk too far; it's not too cold and there's a glass of acceptable if not awe-inspiring red to hand. OK, Thomas was lively and a threat all night; pity about the push for the penalty (maybe it had to be done to avoid a goal but you expect a bit more subtlety from a professional). Bougherra and Mills looked like our best attacking options towards the end, but by then the game was up. For the most part the defence played well enough; give credit to Sheffield for taking their chances when they came – I don’t think they missed a good opportunity.

The negatives? Reid was lacklustre and had no great influence on the game. This has happened before, but the management need to take a good look at how many games he is capable of playing in a short period of time. We can’t say he played poorly because he was tired; maybe he just had an off night. But it needs to be looked at. Sam came up against good defenders and looked poor.

For me there were two key weaknesses on the night. First, once more the central midfield trio failed to control the game (when we had five in midfield). It is crazy when you play this system for players to get isolated. But that’s what happened. Zhi and Reid seemed too eager to get forward quickly, rather than working forward as a unit and breaking forward. The result was often Semedo and the back four having to work the ball around before an inevitable long ball as there was no real outlet, especially with Sam not offering an option on the right.

Second, we were unable to play at a tempo necessary to stretch a team like Sheff Utd. They were hard (but by no means dirty), well-organised, and came with a game-plan: keep it tight and rely on a breakaway or set pieces. Once they were in front they were happy to keep players behind the ball. Once they were 2-0 up they were content just to defend their penalty area. We needed to take the game by the scruff of the neck in the first half, before we went behind. Instead, after a lively start we seemed to think that it would come sooner or later. Instead we found ourselves chasing the game.

Overall I’m going to sit on the fence: because that’s just where I want to be after a defeat. It's not the time for perspective. We seem to look poor against strong teams if we go behind and have to chase the game. We don’t have a ‘fox in the box’ to really worry the opposition when they defend in numbers, nor do we look especially dangerous from set pieces (especially when Reid gets his radar wrong as he did tonight). We have limitations. But on another night … if Zhi had put the chance away and made it 1-1 I think we could have had a cracking last 20 minutes. But forget it Zhi. It was a chance, it was missed. Move on.

As a friend said, if we can just keep winning four in a row and lose the fifth for the rest of the season we will be all right. So, can we please start another run on Saturday. Just get over it and win. We’re not going to learn much against Burnley (I assume they’re poor and that we will win, but for all I know they’re Croatia). Then there’s another game on Tuesday, and another the following Saturday. That’s five in 14 days. That’s the Championship for you. How does the song go? 'And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes; but where it's going, no-one knows'.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. No chance with the goals; unconvincing with some crosses.
Mills: 8/10. He’s a one-off; I don’t know what displeased him for their second goal, but he wouldn’t let it go. Classic.
Basey: 7/10. Gillespie got the better of him once or twice, but still encouraging.
Fortune: 7/10. A reasonable game.
Sodje: 7/10. Ditto, but he missed the chance early in the game and it might have been his header up in the air that led to their second (sorry if it wasn’t).
Semedo: 7/10. Did nothing wrong, unfortunate to be substituted but it was a risk worth taking by Pardew.
Reid: 5/10. A disappointing night.
Zhi: 5/10. Missed the key - but not the only - chance.
Sam: 5/10. Disappointing.
Thomas: 7/10. Was instrumental in our best moments.
Iwelumo: 6/10. Tried manfully but with little change from good defenders.
Subs: Varney 5/10 (again did his best work outside the box); Bougherra 7/10 (got forward to good effect); Holland 7/10 (welcome back).
Ref: 9/10. Kept his card in his pocket and let a well-contested game flow.

Defining Moments

I really love it when we get positive: four wins, four clean sheets, and forecasts of a good win against Sheff Utd tonight. But usually I find its better if I don’t join in. So for the record I will not be unduly upset if we come away with a draw (provided of course this is not from 4-0 up with five minutes to go). Four points from tonight and Burnley on Saturday would be fine (and should be sufficient to make Pardew a shoo-in for an overdue manager of the month; seems he is on the shortlist: is there really a published shortlist for this? I know we’re sad …).

Its possible that I just don’t believe that we are so good at the moment as to deliver five wins in a row. Yes, things are moving along well, but no, everything isn’t perfect. Yes, the defence is looking much better of late, but please don’t tell me that four games and none conceded hasn't involved an element of luck. Of course I hope it holds, I just wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t, especially with that poseur Beattie around.

As others have hinted, but we don’t want to shout too loud for obvious reasons, I feel that Warnock hasn’t had the credit he deserved for taking Sheff Utd to the Premiership and almost keeping them up. He clearly operated in a fashion which, while not attractive, got the best out of the players available. He won’t be able to reproduce that at Palace of course, due not least to the Jordan factor. But credit where it’s due. Dumping him for Robson and wasting at least the first third of the season as the team gets used to a different style is just what the doctor ordered for us. But as and when they do get it together they are bound to be a threat, not least because of Beattie.

That said, there is the opportunity tonight for the team to really come of age. There are always moments/matches/short spells which come to define a season and this could be one for us (even though of course we still have to play home and away against Watford, West Brom and Ipswich, so the real tests lie ahead).

Looking back at our three recent promotion seasons, in the first under Lennie at Selhurst Park it was a game against Sheff Utd that I think convinced us (maybe the team as well) that we had what it took to get into the top flight. They came to what we despairingly had to refer to as our ground on a good run, with a strong team, and with realistic promotion pretentions. On the day we outplayed them in every department. The result might have only been 2-0 but it was more conclusive than that.

In the second, the play-off season, for me it was when we played Notts Forest and Middlesbrough at home in short succession around Christmas/new year and thumped them both. After that the team grew in self-belief (although the mid-season signings and Sasha coming through also had something to do with it).

Of course, last time around it had something to do with that run of wins (so ludicrously ended at home against Swindon). Is there a danger of peaking too soon this time? Well, I’ve never felt that a 20-game winning streak for Charlton at any time is too soon. Getting promoted at the last is great to look back on, but we’ve done our time in that department and running away with the league still looks like plan A to me.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Part Three: The Forwards

So what about the forwards? I’ve got to get part three out of the way before the Lyon weekend (at last, France in its full glory: full of striking public sector workers). Let’s avoid the pretend suspense. It’s not exactly rocket science is it? We’ve lost Todorov for the season and need another forward, especially as Varney has yet to really catch fire and McLeod hasn’t yet impressed (apart from his 10-minute cameo against Norwich). Along with others I think and hope Dickson will return and play a role, for now at least as an impact player from the bench. But let’s not kid ourselves, as things stand what money is available in January needs to go first on another forward.

I’m happy with us playing five in midfield as it allows us to play with two genuine wingers and with Reid pulling the strings inside. But it is a system to some extent forced on us by the form of Varney and McLeod, just as Eriksson found himself having to play one up front at the World Cup when left with two forwards. If Pardew starts with Iwelumo and Varney then McLeod is the only change available at the moment, assuming Sam is not pressed into service again as a central striker. Varney on the bench means the option of a second outright forward coming on, him replacing Iwelumo, or him coming on to play out wide, as he has done to good effect. McLeod can still be on the bench to add pace late on if needed. Nobody is in any way writing them off and they both have time on their hands – but as a club we do not.

People are thinking in terms of wrapping Andy Reid in cotton wool between games. But really it’s Big Chris who needs the protection, if we could find a cotton wool ball big enough. His recent flurry of goals have eased fears that he would prove to be a sub-10 a season and if we lose him for any length of time we’re really stretched. Marcus Bent is on loan for the season at Wigan. So in an ideal world we would bring in two new forwards: a back-up as the target man and an outright goalscorer. That may of course be asking too much; the priority has to be the latter, maybe a loan signing.

Just who might be available and a realistic option? We’re not looking for an unproven youngster; again, Dickson fits that bill (he really does look to me like the sort of player who could already score goals at any level, albeit with other areas of his game sub-standard - just look at Wayne Rooney when he’s off form or tries to think about it, he looks dreadful). And it’s not realistic to look to players currently with other clubs with promotion ambitions. Leaving aside overseas players, I would look for someone out of favour at a Premiership club, possibly someone who may need the games coming back after injury. Again, we can’t think about who could do a job in The Premiership; its all about getting back there.

Unless god puts his Charlton shirt back on and Spurs let us have Darren Bent back, two players come to mind (which is not to say either might be a viable option): Bobby Zamora from West Ham or Darius Vassell from Man City. (Of course, Charlton’s scouting network is a little more extensive than mine and we may well be lining up alternatives we wouldn’t think of, such as the rumoured South Korean striker.)

The former has been out with injury and I have no idea when he might be coming back. Of course he’s not going to come to us, even on loan, if he’s in or around the West Ham first team, so much depends on whether they are strengthening in January. But obviously he knows Pardew, and Curbs and West Ham owe us a favour or two (if they let us have Zamora I promise I’ll stop saying their being in The Premiership is a disgrace). Us getting Zamora would cause more personal pain in the form of ridicule from another friend, a Brighton supporter, in light of the stick I’ve given him over Zamora not being able to cut it in the top flight (who can forget West Ham fans singing: ‘When you’re sat in row Z and the ball hits your head, that’s Zamora’?). But such considerations haven’t cut any ice with Charlton over the years.

The talk is that Eriksson is being handed a fortune at Man City and this has to mean some players going spare – at little or no cost. Vassell hasn’t been setting the world on fire, but at Championship level he must be a good bet. Whether he’s ready to drop down who knows? Perhaps we can do a package deal with City. Samaras and Vassell. My humiliation vis-à-vis relations with my Man City-supporting friend would be complete (Weaver, Mills, Thatcher, McCarthy) but I’m ready to make the sacrifice.

January Options Part Two: Midfield

After the defence, what about the midfield? I’ll try to use the same system as before: an overall mark for performance to date, an assessment of whether strengthening in January is a priority, and some comment on how our current group of players might cope as and when we are back in the top flight.

Overall rating: Perhaps surprisingly I’m only going to give the midfield a 7/10. This is perhaps a reflection of having expected more, with the midfield containing the real quality that Pardew talked of, and to date performance has been mixed. I think there are reasons for this which lie in the limitations of the options available to us (more later). But such a rating is unfair on two players: Reid and Semedo.

Both have been first names on the team sheet and both have been outstanding. Reid has his drawbacks and of course not everything he tries comes off. But there has been no questioning his appetite or his quality, while his goals have been more than useful. He remains central to what we do. Equally Semedo, whether or not pressed into service as a defensive midfielder by the absence of Holland (I’ve no idea if he will end up in central defence), has barely put a foot wrong (leaving aside the air kick in our box against Cardiff: nobody’s perfect). We all saw what happened when he was withdrawn at half-time against QPR.

Of the others, Thomas is looking as though he is putting early season problems behind him, which if true is a massive bonus for us. He ought to be a shoo-in. But can we have some goals please? Sam was excellent before his sending off and we badly missed him. But can we have some goals please? Zhi has contributed a few goals but to my mind hasn’t excelled, either in a four- or five-man midfield. Perhaps he is settling into his role in the latter and more will come.

Ambrose has been disappointing. I felt early in the season that a four-man midfield containing Reid and Ambrose was unbalanced and left us short of pace. Like Reid, he lacks the pace to be a winger and to date too often he seems peripheral to the game rather than imposing himself on it. I just hope we see more from him as and when he is called on again (which is bound to happen). Of the others its either too soon to judge (Racon, Christensen, Sinclair) or an open book (Holland). And I’m assuming that nobody else is coming up fast through the reserves (Arter being one for the future).

There are in my view problems whether we play four or five in midfield. This is hardly surprising, no formation in football is perfect and we don’t have unlimited resources.

If it’s four in midfield the problem is Reid. Wide left and he usually has to come inside to do his best work, and although he delivers a quality cross he just doesn’t have the pace to operate as a winger. We can get away with it, especially if it’s Sam on the other flank. But we are also left with a central two of Semedo and Zhi (or Ambrose). Good players but not a combination that’s going to control a game. Basically as we’ve seen it’s not bad but not great either.

If it’s five in midfield? Like all good armchair critics I think there are some golden rules to this set-up. The two best examples of the formation I’ve seen were Tottenham and Chelsea. The former saw Clive Allen up front and Hoddle and Ardilles in midfield. They didn’t bother to play the ball up to Allen to hold it up. His job was simply to get on the end of the ball in the box. All the play came through midfield interplay or down the flanks. To work that needs a real poacher to score the goals, good and fast wingers, and a central unit that is comfortable on the ball. The latter was the Drogba, Robben and Duff combination. Whether it was 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 became irrelevant as their power and pace destroyed teams.

So what about us? In an ideal world five in midfield with two genuine wingers means you need a third on the bench, in case of injury or just to try someone different without altering the formation. If we start with Thomas and Sam the third option – as has been tried with some success – is Varney. I’m assuming that Christensen isn’t ready yet; maybe he will get his chance. So we’re reasonably well covered.

More problematic is the three in the centre. Murphy-Smertin-Kishishev worked very well because they operated as a unit and knew their jobs. Reid-Zhi-Semedo isn’t the same. We have Reid as the playmaker, Semedo as the defensive cover, and Zhi expected to get forward and support Iwelumo. It’s actually still quite stretched out and vulnerable, despite the numbers, especially given the fact that opposition midfielders can simply run past Reid. Here too, it’s not bad, especially at this level, but not great.

Now that Matt Holland is coming back we have cover for the defensive midfield spot in the event of injury or suspension (or indeed if Semedo was to drop back to central defence). The fear that some have raised is what happens as and when Reid is not available? I have to say I’m not as worried as some seem to be – and to that extent don’t see cover for Reid as a priority for strengthening in January.

If Reid is not available I would suggest we have two options. First would be Ambrose as a straight replacement in a five-man midfield. This might prompt howls of protest, but I think he could do the job. Maybe he has to believe it too – and to go out and prove it. The alternative would be to bring in Racon and play differently. A central combination of Semedo-Racon-Zhi might play at a faster tempo and get the best out of the wingers (although heaven only knows what language they would communicate in). It has been a weakness of late that we have struggled to maintain a high pace of play (whether or not through simple fatigue). When we do we look as if we can take teams apart.

I’m certainly not advocating Reid stepping down. He is first on the team sheet, and Racon is as yet untried. But we have to have a plan to cope for his absence and as long as we accepted a need to play differently if he isn’t available it might not be the disaster it first appears. And if we bring in another possible playmaker does Reid go back on the flank (at the expense of Thomas or Sam?).

In conclusion (yes, I’ve already gone on too long and can’t be bothered to redo the above to stick to the promised format) do we need to strengthen midfield in January, and if so where? I’d rate this as desirable but not essential. If Song from Arsenal is available again on loan he would be a good option as he knows the set-up. I don’t think we need an overhaul in midfield. It’s more a case of getting the best out of what we have as that should be good enough at this level.

After all, if it’s not 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 we have the resources to go to three at the back (with Yassin and Basey as the wing-backs). And the midfield set-up is of course contingent on options up front. Maybe its more about the players continuing to improve collectively as they play together more. If not, bring on the diamond/triangle/rhombus formations. As it is friends and I tend to disagree during the game over what formation we are actually playing (do they not see what I see?) let alone what formation we should be playing.

Monday 19 November 2007

Case For The Defence

A two-week break is an opportunity for the players to take a breather and, now that international call-ups are the exception rather than the rule, for the injured to recover. For us lot it’s an excuse to blow off some steam, wheel out recollections, and to make assessments of the season to date. And with the January transfer window not far off it is reasonable to speculate on where there might be some effort to strengthen the team to help drive us on to an automatic place (yes, that optimism is back).

The way the season is shaping up it would be surprising were four of the top six places not to be taken by us, Watford, West Brom and Ipswich. Sheff Utd look like they may come through (although the Robson factor should continue to work against them). Teams like Wolves, Stoke and Coventry could make up the numbers in the play-offs but don’t look consistently threatening. But even with these clubs (bar Coventry of course) their supporters will be looking at the possibilities and calling new signings.

Of the four main contenders, we may well be in the worst position to be spending money in January. By then the figures for last season will have been released and from what I have read (by Wyn Grant and others) come January there won’t be much to spend. By then of course there may have been developments regarding additional financing, but as things stand we will be in no position to think about anything more than one maybe two players to do a job in The Championship (ie there can’t be any thought of preparing for next season). By contrast Ipswich have significant new money, while Watford and West Brom I would imagine have some cash to spend.

It will no doubt be a tough call for Richard Murray and the board, given the financial implications of missing out on promotion for want a player or two. Nobody can say they didn’t back Dowie - or Pardew for that matter. But for now at least let’s assume that if we need someone to bolster midfield it ain’t going to be Ronaldo. I’ve seen some suggestions that Ipswich have a couple that we could use. We have to be realistic. Unless we are streets ahead of them come January their players won’t see much attraction in moving to us – and their owners won’t be inclined to sell.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that transfers are two-way. Deadline day has been an unhappy experience for us in recent years, with Parker and then Murphy jumping ship at the last minute. It can’t be ruled out that there will be offers for some of our players, especially if Big Chris keeps knocking them in.

So, intro over this is the first of a three-parter, this one looking at the defence. It’s a mark out of 10 for overall performance to date, a ranking for the priority for strengthening in January (bar injuries of course), and a comment on the chances of what we have being adequate for The Premiership.

Three successive clean sheets and suddenly we have on paper one of the tightest defences in the division. It just doesn’t feel like that, because we still panic and make silly mistakes. Maybe that’s just an aspect of The Championship that we (supporters) haven’t come to terms with. At this level you just get away with more mistakes. But perhaps most important the unease is because some of the players bought by Pardew have not as yet worked out. And it’s not yet clear if suddenly we’ve become tighter at the back because of Sodje coming in, playing five in midfield, or just luck. Probably it’s down to all three.

Goalkeeper: Weaver, Randolph, Elliot.

I’d give Weaver a 7/10 for the season to date (a tad generous, it could have been a 6). He has made crucial saves and I can’t really think of any howlers. It’s his inability to dominate his area and to take the responsibility to organise his defence that count against him (especially as there is no real ‘general’ in front of him). I guess that’s not going to change, so it’s something that the other defenders have to compensate for.

Barring injury we’re not going to get in another goalkeeper in January, the priority ranking to strengthen here is very low. As for next season, I just haven’t seen enough of Randolph to say. I hope he goes on to be number one for Charlton and Ireland for years. But let’s face it two untried youngsters and Weaver means that we’d be on a wing and a prayer as far as next season in The Premiership is concerned.

Right-back: Mills, Moutaouakil, Sankofa.

Collectively it’s an 8/10 for me so far (including McCarthy’s honourable effort before Mills was brought in). Yassin was a star before getting injured and Danny has been excellent (barring his second half against QPR). As things stand this is a strong position for us. But there are some decisions to be made.

Unless we buy him Mills goes back to Man City at the end of the year, The demands to do so are already going out. I’m not so sure. I hope we keep him, but how much will he cost? If he’s a free it’s a no-brainer, provided wages are not a block, and if talk of Ericsson being given massive cash is true it’s fair to assume that Mills doesn’t figure in their plans. But if it’s a choice between alternatives, paying money for a right-back when Yassin could be one of our better players and Sankofa, back for the reserves, an adequate back-up, might not be the best option. Perhaps the answer is to buy Mills and ask Yassin to do a job at some point on the right side of midfield (as Konchesky often did on the left). But that still leaves Sankofa.

I’m inclined to assume as a general rule that if a player isn’t first choice or back-up by the time he’s passed 20 he’s best shipped out. Sankofa is 22 and has managed 12 league starts. He has spent most of his time at Charlton as understudy to Luke Young and now has to contend with Moutaouakil. Through no fault of his own (injury) he missed the chance to make a claim for the place before Mills was brought in. If we buy Mills he’s third choice for the foreseeable future, which is no good for him or us. And Yassin may start to get unsettled (let’s not forget the mess we made of the goalkeeper spot between Myhre, Andersen and Kiely).

Signing Mills is a decision for January, so this is a priority area but not a case of looking to buy because we are short. All I would say is that this is down to available resources and if Pardew decides to let Mills go back to Man City in favour of strengthening elsewhere so be it. As for next season, I hope Yassin proves to be a star at the top level. Him as first choice and Mills as back-up (and cover in central defence) would look good to me.

Left-back: Powell, Basey, Thatcher, Gibbs, Youga

The burden has so far been shouldered by Sir Chris and his youthful squire Basey and it’s an 8/10 for the season to date. But let’s face facts, we have too many left-backs on the books. Youga comes back in early January and we have to assume that Thatcher will be available before too long. Gibbs’ unavailability is sad for him and us. I hope he would be first-choice this season. Basey’s chance has come sooner than might have been expected, but he’s not a kid.

It’s safe to say we’re not going to sign a new left-back in January. For this season I’m happy with Powell and Basey/Youga. If Thatcher comes back he could be first choice, but I haven’t yet forgotten his mindless sending off at Blackburn. Next season in The Premiership? Well, of the available options it’s only Basey and Youga that inspire confidence, assuming that Chris’ legs go completely at some stage. I wouldn’t want to rely on Thatcher (he was a good signing as an attempt to stay in The Premiership), we can’t rely on Gibbs, so it will be one to worry about – just not yet.

Centre-back: Sodje, Fortune, Bougherra, McCarthy (Semedo, Mills).

Let’s be generous and give them a 5/10 for the season so far. It’s been edgy, fractious and inadequate. All you can say is that defending is a team job and sometimes those in front of them (and behind) have left them exposed. But it’s not good enough.

Bougherra was a January signing by Pardew and did nothing much last season; this season he failed to form an effective partnership with Fortune and now finds himself out of the first team. McCarthy was I believe intended to be Pardew’s general for this season and hasn’t so far justified a place. Fortune can do a job if alongside a mobile and intelligent defender; but he’s not going to develop into a top-flight defender and was lucky to get the nod to partner Sodje. We were, after all, about to let him go to Stoke before Diawara wanted out. Sodje is here for the whole season and in a short space of time has made himself the first name on the sheet.

It looks to me as though Bougherra or Fortune can play alongside Sodje – and that McCarthy is the back-up if Sodje gets injured/suspended. Bougherra and Fortune together just didn’t work. But it’s an area where we lack quality – unless McCarthy can get it together. Clearly Pardew saw something in him. I hope he comes good. Otherwise central defence is the position where we are vulnerable and may well need to strengthen in January.

An imponderable is whether Semedo or Mills could do the job in central defence. Did Pardew sign Semedo as a holding midfield player? If Yassin is given the start at right-back would Mills be a better option in central defence? Questions which only Pardew can answer. In conclusion, if we strengthen the defence it looks like another one for the centre. But the chances are that, barring more injuries, it will be a case of muddling through with what we’ve got, especially if we keep Mills. The priorities may lie elsewhere.