Thursday 31 May 2007

Harry Cripps Has A Lot To Answer For

In a recent post ( Wyn Grant was bemoaning the impression of Charlton now competing with Millwall for players. I prefer to think that rather than a real competition it's a case of a player choosing between Chelsea and Manchester City: the former offering higher wages, a fashionable environment, and the chance to learn from other players but also the prospect of just warming the bench; the latter the chance of being a local hero but in a place where no-one else cares and no-one wants to go.

Nevertheless, it had me thinking back to one of the worst moments of my life ....

In times gone by there were spells when Millwall were not only above us in the league but also regularly turned us over, with our team usually as intimidated as us supporters. My father, having given me the best start possible in life by ensuring that I would forever support Charlton, then sent the family into the Lions' Den, almost literally, by taking over two shops in Ilderton Road, Bermondsey. They provided a good vantage point for the running street battles which often followed the Spanners' home games, but the move also saw me placed in a junior school where a Charlton scarf was not so much a novelty as an act of pure lunacy.

In this school football fans fell into three categories when asked who they supported. First, there were those who struggled with the question, or at least struggled to make any intelligible verbal response, and would often instead just instinctively kick out at the questioner. There was never any doubt where they would end up. Second, there was the usual smattering of those that claimed to support Arsenal/Liverpool/Man Utd or whoever had won the league the previous year. Third, there was me. I like to think of myself as a natural born contrarian, but maybe it started then and is more nurture than nature.

Most of the time people in the school, rather than reacting violently, struggled to comprehend what someone living in Bermondsey was doing supporting Charlton. Ah, I used to reply, we might not be very good, there aren't many of us, and you always beat us, but you have Harry Cripps playing for you, he being the epitomy of an unemployed docker in a football shirt (which more of less summed up Millwall). Then one day I woke up to find out we had signed him. Oh, how they laughed.

Harry went on to play a significant role in a promotion season (from the old third division) and to endear himself to all Charlton fans, myself included, for performances that should have been preserved for future generations (I have a video of the Chelsea v Charlton game to decide who went into the play-offs and some of the challenges come close to Harry's style of play). A website analysing Cripps' career concluded that he sometimes missed the ball and sometimes missed the player - but never both. But I still struggle to forget the moment when the only argument I could come up with (at the time) for being Charlton rather than Millwall was demolished.

Come to think of it, after junior school in Bermondsey came secondary school in Dulwich, where I was again in a class of just about one (university was Sheffield - is there a pattern of self-harm emerging?). At that time (I know, it's hard to imagine now) Palace seemed to be more successful than us. I have to confess that I did have one moment of weakness, when I was taken to Selhurst Park to watch Palace win in a season they won promotion to the top flight, while we continued to scrabble around in the lower divisions seemingly going nowhere. Fortunately it passed.

It does seem that few true supporters really choose their team and instead tend to have them foisted on them by their nearest and dearest. I keep having to remind myself of that whenever someone who otherwise appears sane says to me that they are a Palace fan (I really felt that sending them down closed the book as proper payback for the portacabin years but Jordan manages to perpetuate the bad feeling every time he opens his mouth). Ah, bless, it's not really their fault, let's just hope that they learn from the sins of their parents and don't repeat the mistake. I knew that I had done my job when told that when being read a bedtime story my daughter responded to 'and the queen lived in the palace ...' with an auto-response 'Palace .. uurgh'.

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Good Luck or Good Riddance?

With talk now of 10 new players for next season and the prospect of more departures, some welcome some not, it's difficult to comment meaningfully on whether we deserve to be made favourites for promotion. My immediate reaction is that this is by default, given the lack of obvious alternatives and clarification of some issues (including potential takeovers). But then if we end up getting promoted 'by default' as everyone else is crap, who is complaining?

I only hope that being made favourites does not encourage any complacency. Pardew may know what to expect from this division, but he isn't (yet) a god, we all know that the Championship is a slog, and we face the prospect of starting a second consecutive season with a batch of new players that may take time to gel as a team. Given the lack of obvious quality in the division, there has to be the potential for a well-organised and motivated outfit to steal a march early on. If Sheff Utd hadn't installed Bryan Robson as manager I would have gone with them, given that they will retain the structure of their team, will have an even greater sense of injustice than us at being relegated, and that they gave us two of the most depressing afternoons of the past season; if Ipswich weren't trying to buy Francis Jeffers it might have been them.

It looks as though over the next couple of seasons we will be welcoming back to The Valley more former players than before raising the question of who gets booed, who gets cheered, and why. Hopefully they won't number Scott Parker as he goes to West Ham and they are relegated next season as we are promoted. (Enough has been written elsewhere about the West Ham case; like others I have nothing against them as a club but view their 'punishment' as insufficient, taking account of the daft reasons given for the panel's decision - not only the impact on fans and the timing but also the 'fact' that they pleaded guilty. Go back to the early stages and West Ham's initial response to the charges, under the new regime, was to contest them 'vigorously'. Were they told that a guilty plea would see them only fined?)

In most cases the decision whether to cheer or boo is simple and pretty much unanimous, decided by whether they player in question left with dignity (ie either kept their trap shut or said good things about us) and whether we had our money's worth. Sometimes there's a wildcard factor. I liked Jorge Costa as a player, especially as he had that knack when in a difficult position with the ball of going down under the merest hint of a challenge, inevitably being given the free kick. But sometimes he wasn't up for a game, he made mistakes, and he only played for us for half a season, one which ended quietly. I can't help thinking that his popularity was influenced by the fact that he had a catchy song that we loved to sing. If Diawara stays and starts most games next season he is almost guaranteed hero status as he has inherited the ditty.

Of those actually and probably leaving us, Darren Bent is assured of a standing ovation if and when we meet again, El Karkouri should be well-received (helped by a song), while at the other end of the scale are Hasselbaink and Marcus Bent. In between would come Kishishev (I would cheer him, for his attitude and abilities), Thomas (is the best of him yet to come or is there nothing more?), and Rommadahl (frustrating is an understatement but he features in a best-ever Charlton XI for one obvious reason).

It's my impression that the level of hostility shown to some returning players has risen in recent years. Perhaps this is a reflection of us seeing many of them as greedy bstrds rather than the seasoned pros trying to make a living of yesteryear (at a time when either we sold on someone on the way up to help fund our existence or provided a stopping-off point on the way to retirement), maybe it's just the mood of the nation, or maybe there never used to be enough of us at a game to raise a decent boo.

Top of the table for the best reception on returning would be Robert Lee (Chris Powell and Darren Bent may run him close); bottom by some distance Darren Pitcher (possibly the last Charlton player to want out to go to a bigger/better club only to choose Palace). The two that perhaps most divide opinion would be Parker and Lee Bowyer. Personally I booed Parker first time back, but he took the reception without complaint and didn't milk it when he hit a screamer into the net in front of the Covered End. There should be remission for good behaviour and for me it's done (I also think the East Stand went well beyond what is acceptable last season by cheering as Parker was clattered in front of them and for a moment looked as though he was badly injured). Bowyer still gets a good reception from large sections of the crowd, but for me one own goal isn't enough.

Standing ovations or howls of derision are at the end of the day all part and parcel of our enjoyment of the experience; it means more to us than most if not all of the players concerned. After all, they're having the last laugh as we're paying their wages.

Friday 25 May 2007

Two Down ...

So now it's two down, with Hreidarsson off to fight it out with Traore or Bramble in the Portsmouth back four after Hasselbaink's departure. One goes with our best wishes and understanding for wanting to have another year or two in the top flight (and presumably a decent signing-on fee), probably with the board happy enough to cut the wage bill on a player who most felt was coming towards the end of his useful life; the other leaves with a Jane Fonda workout video and the bootprints of most supporters on his ample backside.

Herman has been a fine player for us, the occasional elbow notwithstanding, but I'm struggling to think of a great 'Herman moment'. Any ideas? And while Portsmouth fans will no doubt be happy to pick up a useful squad player for nothing they must be aware of the Jonah tag given HH's now very impressive record of playing in teams that get relegated (well, anyone who has played for Palace in recent years has at least one relegation blot on their copybook).

My main concern in losing Hreidarsson is that it might leave us even more dependent on central defenders who might be off for the Africa Cup. Fortune might come back into the equation just because he's available and as in the Championship he is probably good enough (I tend to think he's adequate in any event as long as he has a very good partner capable of marshalling the defence: oh Rufus, how we miss you).

Can we place any credence in the rumours that Darren Bent might either stay or be loaned to Arsenal for a season? I have absolutely no inside knowledge and can only assume that if someone bids the full (apparent) £15m asking price he will go. As throughout his time with us his behaviour earns nothing but respect and provides a model for any young player (surprising that his agent doesn't seem to be stoking press speculation). Maybe he's able to do this because he is that good he doesn't have to sell himself.

It would of course be a massive boost to morale if he were to stay. But what about the repercussions of a season loan? There are already grumblings on Ipswich sites that this is just a ploy to avoid having to pay them their chunk of a transfer fee. Would we be content to cheese off another club in this fashion? It may be just coincidence but we do seem to have rubbed a few up the wrong way of late, including Sheffield Wednesday. I'm like everyone else in valuing our club's reputation for decent behaviour - to a point. For years we would bemoan our 'little Charlton' reputation and the feeling that we lost out in fees for players we sold because of it. There has to be a balance and an awareness that there is sometimes a price to pay for the benefits of actually being nice.

Finally, I'm that dumb that I didn't even realise why the BBC/Teamtalk etc still list us as a Premiership club. In the past few days I've been hoping that they will make the change to put me out of my misery; let's just get it over with. Of course the switch comes after the play-off finals. So take your last look for a while at our top flight listings and prepare for Sunday morning football TV.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Time To Get Real

If the wallowing was allowed until our first signings guess it's time to stop. But recent news has prompted a strange reaction. There was a time when securing two new strikers would have set the pulses racing. This time, however, through no fault of their own, the news that we have secured Luke Varney and Chris Iwelumo has been greeted with near silence, or at best muted acknowlegement.

In part this I'm sure is because it only serves to effectively confirm what we already knew: that Darren Bent is on his way. A bit of recent speculation that we could juggle the numbers and keep him for another season is now redundant. The signings also suggest that thoughts of keeping Carson are similarly just wishful thinking.

However, there may be a deeper reason. A new forward pairing for a combined £2m seems almost too cheap. And we are now signing players we have no real idea about whereas in recent years talk would be about which international might be coming, whether we can lure a player wanted by Spurs etc. I used to take the mickey out of a friend who is a Man City supporter by saying that, especially under Keegan, they had to persuade the club they were buying a player from to double the price otherwise their supporters would think he was crap (realisation that he was would set in later).

Maybe we have become a little like that - and it's time for a reality check. Next season is going to be a scrap from start to finish, with Pardew having to recreate a team while as he says trying to retain an element of quality to give us an edge. The news that Wolves will have a great deal more money than us to spend (with speculation that Southampton will be next) only underlines the point.

There was a good deal of upbeat talk towards the end of the season of us 'getting our Charlton back' (I don't know if this was from the same people that regularly called for Curbs or someone else to take us to that 'next level'). I want the Charlton of a few years ago back (if I can't have Charlton in Europe playing wonderful football), but I don't want back the Charlton that drifted aimlessly outside the top flight for most of my life. This means as supporters giving it our all next season and starting by giving Varney and Iwelumo the best welcome possible when they step out on the pitch. Neither may prove to be Darren Bent, but they're not going to be JFH either.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

I Want To Wallow

It's no bloody good. I cannot yet, nor do I want to (yet), start getting 'positive' about next season. Yes, there are aspects of the premiership we will not miss (provided our parting is short), but these are outweighed by the positive, not just the obvious ones.

Many people complain about the football over recent seasons. I happen to think that in the first third of the 2005/06 season we played the best football I have ever seen from a Charlton team. Curbs stumbled on the line-up by accident (having failed to sign John Stead and after Ambrose was sent off on the first day of the season), but with two genuine wingers (Thomas and Rommadahl) given proper service by a fluent and inventive midfield trio (Murphy, Smertin and Kishishev) and with Bent as the goalscorer we were, for a short period of time, great to watch. It wasn't perfect and there was no real 'plan B' when it didn't. But at the moment I just don't know when we will see the like again.

By the time August comes around I will no doubt be up for the fight. Relegation has happened four times before in my time as a supporter and it hasn't proven terminal yet. But last season was the first real reverse that the club has suffered since the return to The Valley. Yes, I have confidence in Pardew (although his record in the transfer market is not perfect - see Konchesky and Spector); yes, the board still has our full backing; yes, I can look forward to new grounds and some fresh challenges next season. But for now I want to weep a little for a season that went badly wrong and which has resulted in my team being relegated.

The only people I have ever met who are always 'positive' and 'upbeat' are either unbearable or morons - or both (Dowie?). And in the modern world there seems to be endless middle-management training gobbledygook about always being positive. That is a blinkered approach. You can't come back stronger from reversals if you don't acknowlege them and learn from them. So just leave me to wallow for a while, at least until our first new signing.

Monday 14 May 2007

..... Baby Blue

I must admit this morning I'm struggling to work out a scenario under which we stay up. I think we finally have to accept reality: we are probably relegated.

Bowing out with a little pride at Anfield was no comfort at all. It was a game that Liverpool barely stirred for and which we should have won with something to spare. And any joy in the performance of the 'team' has to be tempered with the realisation that maybe six of the starting 11 won't be with us next season. The picture of Darren Bent after scoring has all the hallmarks of a farewell salute. Of course we would love it if he stays to spearhead a promotion campaign, but I'm assuming that the numbers just don't add up if we hold onto him, even allowing for a chunk to go to Ipswich - and that we would not stand in his way in the event of a decent offer from a club he would like to go to (just don't let this be West Ham - they should be with us in the Championship).

It is pretty much a waste of time to talk about the shape of the team for next season before we know more about the finances and the main departures (Carson, Young, Diawara, Song, Zheng, Rommadahl, Thomas, Bent(D), Hasselbaink, maybe not all, maybe others). But here goes.

The first decision for Pardew is whether Randolph is good enough to be our first choice goalkeeper. I have no idea. If he isn't, letting Mhyre and Andersen go was poor business as we will need a replacement. I'm assuming we don't have the money to sign Carson, so a seasoned veteran has to be drafted in, whether as first or second choice.

Decision number two is whether Sankofa can be relied on as Young's replacement. Clearly the answer would be 'no' in the premiership, but for the Championship maybe. I like Diawara and hope he stays, but there has to be a good chance that he'll go, including to cut the wage bill. That would leave HH, El K, Bougherra (who has to date been less than impressive) and Fortune. It's not the best quartet but could suffice - but we do have to bear in mind that El K and Bougherra could be off for the Africa Cup (Diawara too if he stays).

Midfield is a real problem. We know Rommadahl is off, maybe Thomas too (especially if we are signing the winger from Gillingham). The key question is whether we can rely on Reid to be fit for most of a season. If he stays and if he's fit we would presumably build midfield around him. Ambrose has I feel been a real disappointment, being too slow to be a winger and not strong enough to impose himself on a game in the centre. But maybe the Championship will suit him. For Holland it's a question of whether the legs will last; Hughes can do a job in the lower flight.

Up front there's little goodwill left towards Bent(M), Hasselbaink, or Lisbie, although whether they leave will presumably be down to how long their contracts last. Rumours that Warnock wanted JFH are now irrelevant. For now we have to hope that Dickson is something special - and at least for him there is a better chance of development in the Championship than being thrown in in the Premiership.

In short it's too soon to see the formation of a core of a team capable of rebounding. And it's too soon to expect that, given our situation.

Thursday 10 May 2007

Up For Sale?

There's no way of telling yet about the takeover rumours, but the club's statement means nothing as regards the chances of an offer being made. Varney is only saying that there has been no contact or approach, something which would only happen when any consortium is ready/able to make an offer.

Like everything, it depends on the price. I think there will be genuine interest in a takeover. Championship teams with a good shot at the premiership can be bargains (eg Sunderland) - or turkeys (Leeds, unless you are good at card tricks and can get debts removed without blinking). But there seems to be a common assumption that being bought out automatically involves having more money available for investment. A takeover involves purchase of the club from the people who currently own it. Nothing more - unless the sale makes such stipulations and/or the prospective new owners make it plain that they intend to provide additional funds for players/ground development.

I'm confident Murray would only sell if he felt it to be in the club's best interests, and he has earnt our trust. But we are at a crossroads. If we fail to rebound we are back on a par with Southampton (unless they are bought), Leicester, Coventry etc (we will always be bigger/better than our former landlords). We can't compete in the premiership over the medium term unless we have bigger gates/more resources, which on the evidence of the past couple of years requires better players, which means ....

In retrospect as soon as the Valley expansion plans went on ice (for good reason, the demand just wasn't there) the club stalled, Curbs felt time was up, the applicants to replace him were not exactly high quality, and we have paid the price. In that context the club may need a fresh injection of enthusiasm - and money. It is not as if the accounts for the past year are going to make good reading.

I think we have three possible future paths: there is no sale and we get promoted back next season (leaving us where we were last time around, perhaps stronger); there is no sale and we don't get promoted (ie we're back to where we were before the play-off season); or there is a sale and it involves significant additional resources, giving us a good shot at promotion next season or the season after but with no guarantee that new owners would have the same commitment to the club as the current ones.

Just hope it is all resolved before Pardew starts to plan for next season as fresh resources would make a difference over who stays/goes and who is brought in.

Tuesday 8 May 2007

The Blame Game

Tomorrow we think about possible takeover and the positives from a return to the second tier. Today we weep. Whatever slant we might put on it nobody wanted anything other than a glorious, improbable escape from relegation.

And let's assume we have been relegated. In theory we could win at Anfield and end the season above Wigan, then get the West Ham decision changed. But it isn't going to happen. Personally I hope we initiate/participate in any legal action to try to have points removed from West Ham, or some compensation, if there is the remotest possibility of success. Forget all the nonsense about 'it should be decided on the pitch'. Only eligible players are entitled to be on the pitch.

If the panel which opted for just the fine had said something along the lines of 'having considered the nature of the breach of rules and possible punishments we decided the deduction of points was not appropriate' I don't think anyone would still be complaining. But to acknowledge that the outcome was influenced by a desire not to punish West Ham supporters (what about us?) and the change of ownership at West Ham (totally irrelevant), and that the outcome could have been different if the decision had been taken sooner (again, should be irrelevant), is to lay bare the fact that the punishment should have been more severe - ie included a points deduction.

This isn't papering over our inadequacies this season. It is to acknowledge that an injustice has been done to us - even if we finish second-bottom. Who can say how the season would have ended if West Ham had been sent down by a points deduction? Maybe with the thought that we only needed to get above one other team during the run-in would have eased the pressure. We will never know.

We are one of the victims of an injustice (primarily a financial one) and if this can be rectified in full or in part through the courts so much the better.

So, when it comes to the blame game the three-man panel who decided West Ham's punishment are right up there.

If that factor is set aside, who should carry the can for our failure this season? My feeling is that with so many new signings it was always going to take time for the squad to gel, while a difficult start to the season saw pressure increase on Dowie and the board, pressure which in the end they could not handle. These are my assessments of the degree of culpability.

Alan Curbishley - 0%. No blame whatsoever should be attached to him. We know that he left a poor squad that would need revamping. If he had stayed no doubt he would have made better use of the money made available, while his record as manager of our club speaks for itself. It is plain daft to make Curbs partially responsible for what has happened after he left.

Ian Dowie - 25%. Fact is he was given the money to improve the squad and the bulk of his signings have not worked (Hasselbaink, Traore, Faye, Reid, Puoso).

Les Reed - 10%. I'm inclined to be lenient. He was appointed coach and (to the best of my knowledge) had no aspirations to manage the club. He had no opportunity to buy/sell players to. But he has to take a bit of the blame as he clearly failed to get the team to play for him. He still comes across as a decent man with the best interests of Charlton at heart.

The Board - 20%. There has to be some reflected blame for the decision to appoint Dowie and for the imposition of a management structure that didn't work.

The Supporters - 5%. Maybe the growing dissatisfaction with mid-table 'mediocrity' helped to create pressure that contributed to the season's failure.

The Players - 39%. Collectively their level of commitment fell well short of what we as supporters can realistically expect. I'm sure the management changes were unsettling but too often players seemed to be looking for excuses and to hide. Together they were not good enough and lacked the character to compensate for shortcomings in ability (obviously there are exceptions: Bent(D), Carson, Holland).

Epicurus - 1%. Epicurus was an atomist and believed that atoms followed pre-determined paths. But he didn't want to be a determinist and to reject freewill. So he came up with the 'Epicurean swerve'. According to this every now and then, for no apparent reason and totallly unpredictably, an atom swerves from its path. I suppose it's really another way of saying shit happens.

Thursday 3 May 2007

Something Springs Eternal

I suppose it's hope but I'm just not sure. Barring some drunken revelation this will probably be my last post before we are either relegated or off to Anfield with a fresh spring in our step (barring an attack of conscience on the part of the authorities re West Ham). In football, as in everything else, success and failure is relative: if we stay up we will celebrate and end the season in triumph; by contrast Man Utd fans will feel mixed emotions at best after their latest Champions' League 'failure', Chelsea fans will see the season as a definite failure, so will Liverpool fans if they lose their final against Milan, and for Arsenal fans failure is a done deal.

It's impossible to be positive or negative about the Spurs game ahead of the others' results on Saturday. But to look on the bright side it can be easier for a bad/an average team to win two final games than to say get 10 points from five games. We are down to the last two games, so there is no excuse for leaving anything in the tank.

It would be nice to think that we can go out and outclass Spurs. But more important is that we go out and dominate them. It means being up for a fight (not literally HH) and showing such commitment that Spurs are cowed. Sounds horrible, but that's really what Sheff Utd did to us. If we win that battle the rest can follow.

I don't know what this means in terms of team selection. That's Pardew's job (and whatever opinions we express we can never know what really goes on behind the scenes). It isn't about building a team any more, it's about winning two games of football by whatever means. We have blown a good chance over the last four/five games. If Saturday gives us another I hope the players will have the character to grab it.