Friday 31 August 2007

Taking Stock (Part 13)

With the departures of Marcus Bent and Amady Faye, neither of whom will be especially missed or lamented (but by going do limit some of our tactical options – more later), plus confirmation of Mills and Sodje coming in, there’s a fresh opportunity for taking stock – and perhaps drawing a line under what, with the exception of the Sunley takeover and near-closure, must rank as one of the most dramatic period in the club’s history. It certainly stands up against any other as the most calamitous.

Of the front-line players with a squad number at the start of last season, no fewer than 19 have now departed (all right, 18 really as one never arrived): Young, Hreidarsson, Faye, Kishishev, Bent(M), Euell, Bent(D), Lisbie, El Karkouri, Andersen, Hasselbaink, Rommedahl, Hughes, Walton, Traore, Bolanos(!), Sorondo, Myhre, Carson. And you could add another six - Perry, Jeffers, Bartlett, Johansson, Powell and Bothroyd – who left at the end of the previous season. That’s 25 players having left the club in a little over a year.

Only Andy Reid remains of Dowie’s signings (I think). And only eight - Holland, Thomas, Ambrose, Powell (again!), Fortune, Youga (just about), Sankofa, Sam – remain from the squad that ended the season before last. Actually it’s nine, but I’m not sure where to put Cory Gibbs. I still hope he will emerge and become our first-choice left-back, but so far he has what must be the unique distinction of having been at Charlton under four managers but having failed to appear for the first team under any of them.

Pardew has now brought in some 18 players – Weaver, Moutaouakil, Thatcher, Mills, Sodje, Zheng, McCarthy, Todorov, Varney, Powell(!), Iwelumo, Sinclair, Racon, Bougherra, Semedo, Christensen, Dickson, McLeod – with the total perhaps rising before the transfer window closes. What can be said is that just about the whole team and most of the squad is down to Pardew. And nobody can say that the board over the past 14 months has not backed the man at the helm.

So to recap, in just over a year 25 players have left the club, 18(+) have come in, and eight have stayed put. The numbers are truly staggering. I can’t think of any other club that comes close (maybe Leeds). Some 43 transfers negotiated – to which of course should be added the managerial changes (Dowie and Reed appointed and sacked, Pardew, Parkinson and Kinsella brought in, with Mark Robson going from junior to number three, number two, and now back some way down the pecking order). I hate to think what the agents’ bills have amounted to.

Enough of the past. Faye and Bent leaving does have implications for the composition of the first team – and for formation. Faye leaving means one less possibility in central defence and for the holding role in midfield, which now looks to be between Semedo (when not covering at full-back), Racon, Zheng and Holland.

Bent going means that Iwelumo is the unrivalled first choice as the big lump up front (this is unfair after Saturday). He can be paired with Todorov, McLeod or Varney, or Todorov could partner McLeod or Varney. I do, however, feel that were we to want to play a 4-5-1 formation again – which is a good option given the extra options now in midfield – Bent would have been the best choice. I can’t see any of the others being suited to the task. So it looks to me like 4-4-2 for the foreseeable future.

So what do the first-team options look like now:

Goalkeeper: Weaver (incumbent), backed up by Randolph and Elliot.

Right-back: Mills (incumbent), to be replaced by Moutaouakil when fit with Sankofa in reserve.

Left-back: Thatcher (incumbent), backed up by Powell and (hopefully one day) Gibbs.

Central defence: Two from Sodje, McCarthy, Bougherra, and Fortune, with Gibbs and Semedo outside possibilities. Just which two I have no idea from what I have seen, but presumably it’s Sodje plus the one who works best alongside him.

Central midfield: Semedo, Racon, Zheng, Holland, Ambrose, Reid.

Wide midfield: Thomas, Sam, Christensen, Ambrose Reid.

Forwards: Iwelumo, Todorov, Varney, McLeod, with Dickson in reserve.

I would say that at least the squad is better balanced now. The real quality is in midfield, with nine quality players competing for four slots. Getting the right mix here may well determine whether we can rebound – the other key factor being whether a capable defence can emerge from the current mess.

My dream world first-team involves a rather large element of wishful thinking – ie that some players (Gibbs, McCarthy, Varney etc) come good and prove to be as good as I hope they can, and that injuries are a thing of the past. I know McCarthy has had a bad start with us, but has he played much football over the past year or so and will he improve? I hope so.

There is also personal bias. To keep my partner happy, anyone French is guaranteed a place. And on a personal note, does Pardew have some special tie-up with my Man City mate to keep me on the defensive. Weaver, McCarthy, Thatcher, now Mills. Is there anyone else to come? If we appoint Kevin Keegan as transfers and tactics advisor I will get seriously worried.

So here it is:

Randolph, Moutaouakil, Gibbs, Sodje, McCarthy, Reid, Samedo, Racon, Thomas, Todorov, Varney. Subs: Weaver, Bougherra, Zheng, Sam, Iwelumo.

In the real world perhaps this is the more pragmatic (and likely) set-up, for Saturday at least (Sodje is apparently suspended):

Weaver, Mills, Thatcher, Bougherra, Fortune, Reid, Samedo, Ambrose, Thomas, Iwelumo, Todorov. Subs: Randolph, Fortune, Zheng, McLeod, Sam.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Glass Half Full?

That had to be worth £10 of anyone's money. Still don't know whether to laugh or cry. At 2-0 we looked totally comfortable, with fluent, attractive, attacking play down the flanks and through the middle, only for Stockport to realise that our defence is at the moment an accident waiting to happen. Made for great entertainment, even if the feeling at the end was similar to that on Saturday - we nearly blew it against limited opposition. Maybe for a while at least we just have to sit back and enjoy the ride (can't say years of following Charlton encourage this).

First the positives. Just about everyone had a good game going forward - which to be unduly negative might say something about the opposition. Todorov scored a beauty and very nearly one in the second half to better it; McLeod came through a quiet first half-hour to win the penalty for 2-0 (although I would have liked to see him have the drive to have stepped up again for the retake after his first effort was saved); Iwelumo was impossible for them to contain; Sam and Samedo - who I made my man of the match - combined well down the right; and Zheng did a good job on the left side.

Just what is going on with the defence? I don't think there is any easy answer, but tonight's combination of McCarthy and Fortune looked unconvincing. Maybe McCarthy just needs more games; maybe they all do, to get used to each other's strengths/weaknesses. Tonight once the centre had parted to invite the first goal there was panic again with any decent ball into the area, with Randolph conceding three but pulling off at least one blinding save. Pardew has made it clear that he wants to bring in another central defender; I just hope it's one who can combine well with one of McCarthy, Bougherra or Fortune as at the moment I have no idea what is our best pairing. Oh Diawara, why did you foresake us?

Racon impressed, aside from a few poorly timed tackles. Looked like another intelligent and skilful player. And with Racon, Samedo (when the full backs return), Zheng, Holland and possibly Sinclair all capable of taking one of the two central spots alongside Reid or Ambrose we don't look short if Faye does go. Samedo has so far played central midfield, left-back and right-back and has looked accomplished in each. Zheng played on the left tonight and made a telling contribution. And with Todorov making himself available there was fluidity throughout the team.

Eleven goals in the first five games, with nine of our players already on the scoresheet (albeit one curtesy of Fortune's backside). Scoring goals doesn't look like a problem. Seven goals conceded tells its own story. And with the exception of Stoke we haven't played a strong team yet; all judgements have to be reserved until we come up against the sort of teams we need to beat or not lose to: Wolves, Leicester, Southampton etc.

My player ratings for tonight:
Randolph (7), Samedo (9), Powell (7), McCarthy (5), Fortune (5), Zheng (7), Faye (6), Racon (8), Sam (8), Todorov (8), McLeod (6). Subs: Iwelumo (8), Ambrose (7).

Get The CVs Out

I was going to let this go, in the interest of community relations, but it's meat and drink to a pedant like me. Last Thursday's Financial Times contained an intriguing job ad: Head of Finance (to 55k plus benefits) and Financial Controller (to 45k plus benefits) for Crystal Palace Football Club.

Now, you'd think that if the person writing the ad was illiterate he/she would take a little time to have the spelling and grammar checked over. It is the FT after all. Not so, it seems. Perhaps the ad is what passes for literacy in SE25.

For example, according to the ad, "such is our growth, the Club are now strengthening its finance management team". No point wasting any hard-earned cash on someone capable of writing English then. The ad continues (verbatim, including missing word): "to be a successful candidate in our environment you will need be a stalwart, detail driven manager, maintaining a tight hold on cash management and cash flow along with managing budgetary controls and producing monthly, annual and statutory accounts." There was no mention of the Club's policy regarding control of legal expenses.

There are also possible issues of misrepresentation. According to the ad, "Crystal Palace Football Club is a force in the Football League", as well as being "a vibrant multi-faceted enterprise". And why choose the FT? There are many other outlets that spring to mind as being more likely to produce suitable candidates for the posts. It is perhaps illuminating that there is no mention of these jobs on the official Palace website. Presumably it is accepted that there is no prospect of anyone capable of meeting the requirements being found among the support base.

If anyone's interested in applying there's only a few days left (31 August is the deadline). I can think of nothing more amusing than being given control of the Palace cheque-book, especially if the payment of Charlton's legal expenses hasn't been made yet.

Monday 27 August 2007

Better Late Than Never

Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age. Maybe I got out of bed the wrong side. Maybe I was still feeling alienated by a dreadful first-half performance by the crowd, many of whom seem to have forgotten (or never had) the idea that support is most needed when things aren’t going right. But I didn’t feel ecstatic about the recovery from 0-2 on Saturday. Relieved, yes. Happier than at 3.45, undoubtedly. Confident that this was the turning point? Well, not yet.

My overriding feeling was that through a combination of poor team selection/formation, poor defending, plus some bad luck (we weren’t so bad as to merit being two down after 15 minutes; sometimes it just happens) we nearly conspired to drop points against a very bad (at least very limited) team. We – especially Pardew, who should carry the can for the first half – got lucky.

I’m not suggesting that we have some divine right to win these games, and we know that it’s going to take a little time for a strong team to emerge from the options available, especially given early injuries to forwards and defenders, with Pardew having acknowledged that he has yet to get the balance right. But perhaps it will help if a couple of options are ruled out here and now (just why some of them arose as options is beyond me).

Bent and Iwelumo together up front? After the Stoke game I assumed it was clear to all that this is not a viable combination, unless we are relying on long balls in some desperate attempt to chase a game (or if injuries leave us with just this two). Neither played especially badly in the first half, but they held the same line with no movement deep or forward, with the result that the Wednesday defenders were able to hold their positions and cramp the space in the final third. Todorov, with movement and intelligent lay-offs, made a world of difference. He was a key factor in their defence being pulled apart. If we play with Reid, Thomas, Zheng, Ambrose etc the forwards have to work to create space for them.

Reid on the right? One of those things you try on the training ground – well, the guy’s all left foot and does his best work inside, so try him wide right and he can come inside. One of those things that having seen it in a competitive match needs to be filed under ‘don’t try again’. Ever. At least Pardew had the good sense to make the change for the second half.

What else? I thought Samedo was our best player in the disjointed first half, but Zheng’s introduction was the third key factor to the second-half recovery. I’m sure Samedo goes out with a defensive midfield brief and he did it well. Presumably at 0-2 and facing humiliation Pardew told ZZ to go for it – and his intelligent movement and passing, plus his extra drive, paid dividends.

Weaver? Do we sing his praises for the save at 1-2 or continue to carp about the confusion that any half-decent ball into the box causes us? In the final 10 minutes on Saturday I still thought we could lose as any corner or free kick for Wednesday caused us problems. Deano wasn’t the best at coming for crosses, but the defence got used to this and adapted. He still controlled his area. One thing that worries me is that there seemed to be no communication between Weaver and the back line. It’s up to the goalkeeper to organise the defence. Sort it out. Please. And a word of praise for McCarthy. He didn’t look a natural at right-back, but that’s not surprising. He went out and did a job without fuss.

Reid and Ambrose? Still for me the biggest issue. Potentially these are the two players, plus Thomas, who could put us apart in this division. Equally Reid does his best work coming inside and is no winger, Ambrose can play telling balls and make very good runs but does not give the impression he can control a game from central midfield. I’m still not convinced that we can accommodate both – and if we do I’d be inclined to have Reid central and Ambrose playing wide.

Overall maybe it’s best to focus on Napoleon’s lucky general phrase, while accepting that we won’t find a way back against better teams than Wednesday. I hope we get to see Racon and Varney against Stockport. After all, if we don’t get more options how can we be expected to keep ruling them out?

Friday 24 August 2007

Reality Can Be Uncomfortable

These thoughts were put together before I saw those attributed to Alan Pardew regarding the possible fresh investment in the club, which play down any thoughts of an outright takeover. I was going to just bin them, but the link from Forever Charlton was already up, it's Friday, and what the hell ...

Contrary to some other blogs, I have been surprised by the absence of speculation/comment following confirmation that the club has engaged Seymour Pierce to explore fresh funding options options, up to and including a full takeover. I take this to be positive, something akin to a fully-merited mark of respect for (and confidence in) Richard Murray and his board.

I imagine a number of bloggers have a problem with this one. Any informed insight into likely developments has to come from those with close contacts with the club and/or Murray personally. Clearly there are confidentiality issues here and others will quite rightly not compromise their contacts and personal confidences. So I do feel it's important that anyone spouting off on this one clarifies whether or not what they say is informed or purely speculative. For my part I have no contacts with the club, have absolutely no way of knowing what Murray in particular is thinking, and to the best of my knowledge have never met any of the board. So what follows is entirely speculative (which is a much nicer phrase than total bollocks).

What concerns me is a possibly strong element of wishful thinking in what is being written elsewhere. Because we have confidence in Murray he will do nothing that ... etc. We all know what we want - someone with enormous amounts of money ready and willing to hand it over to the club in return for: well, nothing. We don't want to move, we don't want the style of management to change. We just want the dosh. Doesn't sound likely, does it, especially given our collective failure to unearth new famous/wealthy Charlton supporters in recent years (I haven't given up entirely in my hopes of one day buying the club, but I'm not sure that the current or future owners will agree to my precondition of playing centre-forward)?

What is missing is some inside assessment of why there is a perceived need for fresh investment - and why now? On the grounds that if something isn't broken don't fix it, and bearing in mind that the club is not operating from a position of strength (compared with a year ago), the possibilities would seem to be: one, the club has a real financing crisis; two, the board feels that the time is right to investigate fully whether there are options available that would make sense for the long-term development of the club; three, Murray and/or other key figures have decided for whatever reason that they want out.

A full-blown financing crisis has to be seen as the least likely of the three. In that event the news would surely have been of fresh interim financing, either with a new investor or bridging finance while the club looked for new owners, or of talks with a view to debt restructuring. What is more likely is that the process of repositioning the club following relegation is prompting some reassessment by the board of what is possible regarding long-term development without fresh funds.

That said, according to Companies House the next set of accounts for the plc are due by end-January 2008. The last filed accounts were to end-June 2006 and the figures for last season are surely going to be awful. Everyone is surely aware of this, given the transfer and wages policy adopted, plus extra spending on management. As and when the accounts are released questions could be asked about the club's viability and the extent of subsequent cost-cutting. But the assumption has to be that the money raised with the sales of Bent, Young and Diawarra, plus the savings on wages from those released, mean that the club is not facing a fire-sale.

So is the board just assessing it's options for the long term? Possibly. It is reasonable to suppose that if we fail to bounce back this season there will need to be fresh financing adjustments for next season. In effect the current board may be saying that it cannot provide the sort of funding needed for a fresh promotion drive and that we are still living beyond our means, with parachute payments not lasting for ever. In this context exploring available options can be seen as sensible (especially as relegation has knocked some £30m off our valuation and a failure to return to the premiership this season or next would surely take off another substantial sum).

I just doubt that this is the whole story. The only personal experience I bring is that of selling a company which I started and had a great deal of personal commitment to (for what it's worth the company subsequently went for flotation that was handled by Seymour Pierce, but it was a long time ago). There had been offers for a few years, all of which I turned down as I was not inclined to sell (at least not for the amounts offered - everything does have its price). But it reached a point where I decided selling was the best option. Then it was a case of just casting around for the best available offer. Once the mental switch in favour of a sale had happened there was no going back.

Again, I have absolutely no way of knowing what Murray and others are thinking. But it's reasonable to suppose that their jobs have become a great deal more difficult - and a good deal less enjoyable - since the departure of Curbishley. Previous years had been about letting Curbs get on with it, with agreed and conservative financing, and basking in the plaudits of being everyone's model development club. We supporters loved it too.

Peter Varney's mea culpa at the end of last season was informative. He said then that he had to take some responsibility for relegation; Murray may feel the same way. In truth, were it not for the accumulated goodwill and the appointment of Pardew the closing stages of last season could have been a good deal more uncomfortable for the board. However unfair we did move very quickly from model club to laughing stock. Could this situation have prompted something of a crisis of confidence at board level, or at least a feeling that it is time for new blood?

I do feel that the pivotal point for the club came not so much with the departure of Curbs but about a year earlier. The evident lack of demand for season tickets for the 2005/06 season must have shocked the club's management. All thoughts of further expansion of the ground had to be put on hold - and without a realistic prospect of taking capacity above 30,000 and to a level compatible with premiership stability Curbs' motivation may have started to wane. The England job debacle, following the Murphy/Smertin episodes, may have finished him off for us (and of course there are parallels for Bolton this season). It's a real cliche, but if you're not going forward you're going backwards.

Given all of the above - and the chances are that there is no single overriding reason for the shareholders to be considering options, just factors which tilt the balance - I would be surprised were the appointment of advisors not to result in significant changes to the ownership of the club. The speculation shortly after relegation (the widely-reported rumours then concerned a full takeover by a group of businessment from the Middle East and Europe) quickly disappeared, but this time it just feels different.

There seems to be a general response that a takeover of the club automatically means money invested in new players and/or ground development. It's a reasonable assumption - on the grounds that anyone buying the club will want the valuation of the asset to increase and this has to be through expansion - but no more. The shares in the club constitute ownership of the club and it is the shares that are bought. The money changing hands does not go to the club but to the owners of the shares. Of course any deal can involve fresh issue, or a clearing of the club's liabilities. But more money for Pardew to spend in January is not a given.

There are some other uncomfortable issues. If there is a full sale of the club to outsiders it is inconceivable that they will have the same feelings for and commitment to the history and traditions of Charlton Athletic as the current board. If I was buying the club I would at the least be exploring the options of moving away from The Valley. Again, we may be confident that Murray would never sell to someone ... etc. But it would be a very strange agreement that included a clause always to remain at The Valley.

Before Curbs left the desired 'next level' for the club was ground expansion to cement premiership stability, with a top 10 finish and to be competitive in cup competitions. Last season was all about avoiding relegation. This season is all about bouncing back, by whatever means. But anyone looking beyond this season has to come back to an ability to compete in the premiership and more bums on seats being a necessary condition for this.

If the current board feel that this has to involve fresh blood more praise to them for realistically assessing their options. That sense of reality has to extend to the supporters in the event that some uncomfortable issues rear their ugly heads. And to anyone who has had the time and inclination to get this far let's just add that three points on Saturday and the world will look a much happier place.

Monday 20 August 2007

Finding The Magic Brew

When they come to write the definitive guide to great sporting evenings last Saturday is not going to feature strongly - unless of course you happen to be a French Stoke supporter.

I suppose by the law of averages, involving some quirk of fate and/or a very unlikely liaison, there is somewhere out there such a person. We don't choose our teams, so maybe Pierre's Dad took the aspiring young Potter to his first game and he's been a supporter ever since. There has to be some reason why any French person would back the awful version of football that Pullis seems to embrace. Come to think of it, why would anyone want to watch their humourless, nasty, wooden team?

Of course this sounds like sour grapes, and it's not intended to gloss over our shortcomings on the day. But I haven't seen football like this since Cambridge took the long-ball game to its logical conclusion, involving advancing down the touchlines through throw-ins until they were close enough to deliver a bomb into the box. The system requires a couple of strong target men - and Stoke had them. It would be churlish to ignore the quality of Fuller's goal (or to just blame it on McCarthy). But after one team that came to defend in numbers and another that was happiest when the ball was hoofed high I hope we have seen the worst of the Championship (well, I suppose not as we haven't played Palace yet). If not, it's not just going to be a long, hard season, it's going to be a bloody boring one too.

That's done with the whining (well, not quite - I though the ref should have clamped down on some of the Stoke challenges sooner than he did, with a couple of promising moves deliberately stopped with fouls and no cards issued), let's get the negatives out of the way. On another day Pardew's changes might have worked; this time they didn't - and backfired. Weaver's inability to deal with crosses could easily have cost us dear; Yassin settled down to play well, but was beaten a few times in the shaky first 15 minutes in a way that Thatcher wasn't. McLeod was anonymous and Bent wasn't great. Ambrose and Reid both had good moments (the move that led to Ambrose shooting wide was the only piece of good football in the match) but I thought struggled overall.

I felt that we were a team falling between two stools, the excuse/reason perhaps being the players not available/not yet ready. If you want to play a passing game with movement don't bring on Iwelumo at half-time (of course his height was useful to help the defence but that can't have been the primary motivation). That sort of game is better suited for Todorov or Varney. If you're going to play a simpler game involving two big strikers don't have Thomas, Reid and Ambrose across midfield. Reid's best moments were when he came inside; presumably Pardew either feels he is too much of a defensive liability to play him in the middle or wants to accommodate Ambrose. Either way, only on occasions did it work and I felt left us lacking pace in midfield (with Sam not getting enough of the ball). It may well be that with Racon and Zheng getting up to speed Reid and Ambrose are competing for one place.

If Yassin is out for a few weeks I can only assume that Sankofa comes back into the reckoning; hopefully he is up for this having been effectively passed over with the signing of Yassin. Along with Gibbs and Faye he makes up the (so far) invisible trio. And before making any judgements on the team Pardew presumably had Todorov, Varney, Holland, Racon, Zheng effectively unavailable and Gibbs and Faye seemingly out of favour. Along with those actually involved on Saturday there's a good team waiting to get out. I just hope the blend and key partnerships will be formed before too long - and that all concerned have the patience which may be needed.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

More Questions Than Answers

There's nothing like a couple of weeks away to give a fresh sense of perspective. You come back to find we've sold one and seem about to sell another, signed three new, and failed to beat Scunthorpe while turning over Swindon in a competition that we now care about even less than before (which is not to say that the win wasn't welcome). So it's a mixed bag. The positives are there, but it's daft to ignore the negatives - not the obviously disappointing Scunthorpe result (it's early days and we have no divine right to win games or to determine the tactics of the opposition) but rather the departures.

I have no idea whether the decision over Diawara was down to the transfer fee, wages, his attitude, or a combination of all three. Pardew has said he doesn't have to sell, but presumably there is some balancing to be done. Maybe a decent offer for Diawara was sufficient to fund the signings of McLeod, Zheng Zhi and Racon. If Fortune had gone to Stoke would that have been enough? But if we end up signing a new central defender for any significant sum to replace Diawara the decision to accept a bid will look questionable - especially if in the interim we have injuries or suspensions (it's early days on this front too but let's not forget Traore).

The fact is that unless he didn't want to play for us - there is no good reason to believe that was the case, although maybe his apparent long-standing desire to play for Bordeaux meant a different attitude when they came in for him - we are weakened by Diawara's departure. Bottom line for me is I liked him. He didn't react badly (at least not publicly) to the poorly chosen comments about his signing, seemed genuinely pleased when the fans sang his name, and didn't seem in the least bit fazed by playing against Welling. Plus if he'd had the chance to form a regular partnership (which he did not last season) he could have been a real star for us.

Perhaps more worryingly, if Thomas does sign for Derby it will give the impression that, while we have haggled over prices, we have ended up selling any player for whom there's been definite interest (of course we may have rejected bids for others that have not become public). We always knew that Darren Bent and Luke Young would be sold, Diawara could be seen as a special case. But Thomas would be a different matter, even though there is a case with him of simply taking the money for a player who may never realise potential. If he goes I would welcome some comment from the club: if he wanted out then a simple 'we didn't feel we could stand in his way' would be enough; if we needed the money (whether to help balance the books or to fund a new defender) fair enough.

Central defence and strikers are perhaps the two areas where partnerships are as important as individual ability. Many moons ago I interviewed Jack Charlton (when he was manager of Sheffield Wednesday). It's a well-worn story but he said he asked Alf Ramsey why he picked him for England when there were better centre-halves around. The rationale was that England had the best defender in the world in Bobby Moore and Ramsey wanted a certain type of player to complement him. He chose the best available of the type.

If you apply this thinking to us, can McCarthy and Bougherra form a mutually-supportive combination? Neither has played anything like enough games for a clear answer. But I have to say I'm sceptical, given what seem to be their styles of play. If he stays, of the options available I'm inclined to think that Fortune can be a better partner, probably for McCarthy (as he seems to be the leader in the defence that we badly lacked last season). Fortune has his limitations, but can do a basic job if partnered with a more mobile partner better at reading situations developing. Perhaps with new midfielders coming in Samedo will revert to central defence, or maybe the elusive Gibbs will come into the picture (surely we will get more from him than a cameo against Welling).

As for the Scunthorpe game, I'm prepared to take the rap. It might have been the mickey-taking of the mummified bodies of St Pellegrino and St Bianco (although I could argue that this was just a nervous reaction to the sheer terror of the drive to get to the village stuck up in the mountains), or pointing out in Lucca cathedral that a painting of the new-born christ has him looking like he's enjoying a good smoke. For someone up there it was pay-back time, and thanks to the vagueries of text-reception allowing me to believe for some time that we had won probably leaves us even.

So the holidays are over - well, not quite. My partner came back to London with me. So her romantic last night of the annual break will be spent in a pub watching Stoke v Charlton. As we now have two French players she's up for the fight - although with England v France at rugby to follow all may not be sweetness and light. Allez Racon!