Friday 28 September 2007

Where Have All Your Players Gone?

This from the Coventry Telegraph quoting Dowie ahead of tomorrow’s game: "I had a great time there and have no problem because I can look everyone in the eye from the chairman to the players who are still there."

Now Iain, I’m glad to hear that there are no problems between you and Murray; really there’s no hard feelings on our part either (life’s too short to keep going over old ground, like Traore and Hasselbaink). But exactly who are these players you refer to that you can look in the eye? I think you’ll find they just ain’t with us anymore; they were shown the exit door not long after your good self. So you just have to try to look Andy Reid in the eye. (This sounds like a good song for the game, to the tune of Where Have All The Flowers Gone? - yes, I know everyone else is too young to remember 60s ditties like that.)

And finally, Iain, a word of advice. According to the paper, one of your key decisions for Saturday will be “whether to play keeper Andy Marshall - whose magnificent save from Fraizer Campbell proved crucial (against Man Utd) - or revert to Dimi Konstantopoulos, who shipped three goals at home to Bristol City and four at Ipswich.” Looks like a no-brainer to me, Iain, which is just as well.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Keep Looking Forward - Oh Bloody Hell Its Coventry

Oops, that wasn't meant to happen. Our second string was supposed to demonstrate our strength in depth and blow away lower league opposition, or at least outscore them (Stockport). But as is evident from Pardew's comments and other blogs, nobody is going to lose any sleep. The cobbled together team couldn't be expected to be a coherent unit, those in the wings and returning from injury got some useful match practise, and maybe the result will help to keep any complacency away from the door. And we have yet another goalscorer.

Let's hope so, because for obvious reasons Saturday is going to be interesting. I don't know if there's any lingering animosity between Dowie and the board; I hope not as life's too short - and there's a mutual support society when it comes to putting one over on Jordan (for what it's worth I really felt that sending them down wiped the slate clean with Palace, but every time Jordan opens his mouth ...). But Dowie wouldn't be human if he didn't badly want to turn us over. We're still on a roll and it mustn't be derailed up there.

I have been to Coventry twice in my life - trips which together make me think of the place as one of the most depressing spots around (only just edged out by Burnley on a Saturday night).

First, a party for a former mate which ended with some lame-brain reversing his car up the drive and into other cars and the garage, just because he hadn't been invited. Apparently this guy also had a habit of carrying around a hammer to hit people over the head with. This must have been over 20 years ago and I'd love to see the BBC find him to do some sort of 'where do you think you come from' programme. A guide through morons and criminals of the ages might provide more entertainment than the grim sight of psuedo-celebrities moping over some long-lost great-great-grandfather who somehow managed to write his name. Just what is it with family trees/history? We're all related to Henry VIII and Shakespeare so what's the point (unless there's unclaimed money involved)?

Second, the journey back from that cup win, with the joy of the comeback tempered somewhat by the antics of another lovely Coventry chappie. We were relaxed and feeling good, waiting in the queue to turn onto the motorway back to London. Nearby car looked like it contained other Charlton fans driving back. I did a little jig on the back seat to demonstrate our solidarity. The driver of the car suddenly got out, kicked in our headlight, ran back to his car and drove off. It was all over in a few seconds. Lovely place, Coventry.

This is all prompted by an email from the driver of our car saying that he is getting tickets for the game and that he is happy to drive. I just don't know. After all, these things go in threes so if I went the trip is hardly going to pass off without incident (I'm not superstitious, except for the Charlton underwear, lucky shirt etc).

Then again, due to my complacency if I don't go it may be Plymouth before I see us play again. If left to my own devices I would make travel arrangements, including holidays, about five minutes before departure. My partner plans ahead, especially as she often works weekends. So when she says 'is the weekend of .... good for you?' my answer is always 'yes'. I assume she has checked the website and has picked a weekend when we play away, usually somewhere nobody in their right mind would want to go (Coventry). So the tickets to France for next weekend were booked a while back.

Is she trying to tell me something? Has she concocted a devious plan to wean me off Charlton? Will there be a third visit to Coventry? I think I've been watching too many repeats of Dallas on UKTV Gold.

Sunday 23 September 2007

Better Than Norwich

Well, thanks very much to Rick for organising the pre-match lunch - and thanks very much to Gary Megson and Milan Mandaric for serving up another bunch of lambs to the slaughter. Leicester, like Norwich were poor, but as before maybe we helped to make them look bad with another impressive performance.

I thought it was a better overall display than against Norwich, largely because we bagged the goals and were then able to see out the game playing at something like 70%. There was little doubt that we would win once we settled and got the two goals (which looked like the result of some very poor defending - both were scored from a few yards out with Chris Iwelumo and then Luke Varney pretty much unchallenged). And after three games in a week and with another two coming up next week I don't think we should carp about the players settling for 2-0 during the second half rather than really chasing the game. There were some tired legs out there by the end, the only surprise being they didn't seem to belong to Chris Powell.

After a reasonably bright start to the game (we hardly had a kick in the first five minutes) Leicester were rocked by the ease with which we scored. I think the first owed a lot to a great leap and flick by ZZ. Leicester's tactic seemed to be to shoot (poorly) on sight, with Weaver only really tested once by one at his near post. They made two changes at the break, including a welcome appearance from Radostin Kishishev, and enjoyed a lot of possession in the second half. No doubt the whole mood would have changed if they had pulled one back, but they seldom looked capable of doing so, thanks to a mix of effective defending - no panic this time around - and inept attacking.

My player assessments are as follows:
Weaver (7/10). Did what he had to do perfectly well.
Mills (9/10). My man of the match. Impecable in defence and got forward to great effect, often bursting past their right-back.
Powell (8/10). Faultless - except for one slight error which led to his (harsh) booking. Three games in a week and still able to do the tunnel victory leap twice.
Fortune (8/10). Quietly effective and it seemed to me that he and Bougherra are getting used to playing together.
Bougherra (8/10). No mistakes and some superb interceptions.
Reid (5/10). For some reason it just didn't happen for Andy today. By any standards he had a poor game. But it didn't really matter and let's assume it was a one-off; maybe the lack of intensity in the game encouraged a laxity on his part.
Semedo (9/10). Superb. And at last the crowd seem to have realised that he comes from Portugal and doesn't like Millwall.
Zheng (8/10). Good game with the assist for the first goal.
Sam (7/10). Some great runs but did run out of steam and looked spent before being substituted.
Iwelumo (8/10). Caused them problems all through the game and notched another.
Varney (7/10). Great to get his first goal for us.
Subs: Sodje, McLeod, Ambrose - none had a chance to shine with the emphasis on keeping what we had.

So, for the second time in a week we have looked several classes apart from admittedly limited opposition. Judgements do have to be reserved until we come up against the stronger teams (Watford, West Brom, Sheff Utd), but this team/squad looks to me like it really is gelling into an effective unit capable of taking us back up. Now that's the most optimistic I've been since the Murphy/Smertin/Kishishev/Thomas/Rommadahl/Bent days.

The team for Luton? It almost picks itself, for obvious reasons:

Randolph, Moutaouakil, Thatcher, McCarthy, Sodje, Thomas, Holland, Racon, Ambrose, Todorov, McLeod.

Friday 21 September 2007

Well Covered

First, a pat on the back for Alan Pardew – and the board. After all the comings and goings of the past year or so it’s fair to say that the squad we have now is well balanced and looks capable of coping with the injuries and suspensions that lie ahead. All of the areas that needed to be addressed have been addressed, those that didn’t want to play for us have gone (I hope), and the squad we have is showing signs that it can gel into a really strong, united and more than capable unit.

Pardew talked of the need to build a team that would have the battling qualities needed to compete in this division while retaining enough top-flight quality to give us an edge. It is still early days but it looks to me like he’s done this. There’s always someone who could improve the team, but with a few days left to take players on loan I can’t see why we would want to do so. If there’s any powder left let’s keep it dry for January.

The challenge now is cementing key partnerships and deciding which of these should form the starting X1. I think Pardew is refreshingly honest about being uncertain as to what these are – and it may well be that given the options available to him the season will see more player rotation and changes of personnel than we would normally expect (certainly more than the last time we were in this division).

I’m really not sure whether it’s best to have say six stand-out players who have nailed down their positions or 20 or so interchangeable parts. In our last second-flight season it could be virtually guaranteed that if they were fit Kiely, Rufus, Kinsella, Stuart, Robinson, Newton and Hunt would be in the team. That simply isn’t going to happen this time around, so we have to make it a positive by keeping a balance within the team and enjoying not being reliant on a few players.

For example, to get promotion you would assume that you need a 20+ goals contribution from your main scorer (and whatever people feel about them Beattie and Phillips will, barring injury, deliver that sort of return for Sheff Utd and West Brom), with perhaps 35+ coming from the front two. Last time around Andy Hunt delivered 24; next best was John Robinson with seven, although between them the second central forward – Kitson, Mendonca, Pringle, Svensson – managed 16.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this season nobody tops 20 (maybe even 15), but if Todorov, Iwelumo, Varney and McLeod, perhaps Dickson too, can together deliver say 35 goals the effect would be the same. It is indicative that in 1999/2000 in the 44 league games 16 different players scored for us (leaving aside own goals). In the eight league and cup games so far this season nine players have already hit the net (OK eight plus Fortune’s backside). We will also need a decent contribution from central defenders from set pieces (by then free-scoring Richard Rufus contributed six last time) and from the wide men – Robinson hit seven and Newton five. Andy Reid is already well up on this, but we will need goals from Sam, Thomas and Ambrose (and Christensen?) as well.

So, with all bar Holland, Sankofa, Gibbs and maybe Thatcher available for Leicester, what team would I pick (barring fresh injuries, niggles, babies)? Each time I do the exercise I find myself saying ‘if … plays then we need to have …’ – it’s getting the core of the team right – and selecting the subs - that’s difficult.

No doubts over Nicky Weaver starting in goal, having saved one out of one on Tuesday. If Thatcher and Gibbs are still unavailable Powell at left-back is also a shoo-in. Moutaouakil or Mills is a tough one. Danny did nothing (yes, nothing) wrong against Norwich and presumably keeps his place, although at home Yassin, if fit and ready, would offer more going forward. Dropping Mills would be tough but would be a statement of intent from Pardew.

Bougherra and Fortune both played well enough on Tuesday. With McCarthy not (yet) playing well enough to merit a place, the only decision would be whether Sam Sodje comes in. There’s no compelling argument to do so, but Pardew must have brought him in to play in the first team – and it’s much too soon to suggest that the defence has sorted out its problems. Norwich provided very little threat in the centre and there was still the impression that panic is not far below the surface. I would expect Sodje to come in sooner or later and there is a case for now, presumably for Fortune. This would be tough on him and has to be down to what things look like on the training ground and Pards’ assessment of the Leicester forwards.

On the flanks we can choose two from Reid, Sam, Ambrose and Thomas. It’s clear Reid has to play unless he needs a rest. And it probably has to be on the left side rather than central. To my mind this implies we need real pace wide on the right, with Sam keeping his place or Thomas coming back. In central midfield this leaves two from Zheng, Semedo and Racon. Altogether it looks like the same starting four as against Norwich. The other permutations involve switching Reid or Ambrose to a central spot, allowing Thomas (or Ambrose) back in wide. At this point in time it looks like an unnecessary gamble.

What to my mind doesn’t work is having Reid and Ambrose both starting out wide. Neither has pace – and depending who plays up front that commodity could be in short supply.

Iwelumo, Todorov, Varney, McLeod. Narrow the options. McLeod doesn’t yet merit a starting place. I felt we missed Todorov against Norwich as his movement and passing helps get the best out of Reid and others. Iwelumo and Varney wasn’t a blinding success as a combination. So for me it’s Todorov and one of these two to start. I’m tempted to combine Todorov and Varney and give Chris a breather. Much depends on what Pardew expects from Leicester. If they come to defend we may need the presence in the box, in which case Varney could miss out. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Pardew paired Todorov and Varney for the Welling friendly.

My starting X1 is therefore Weaver, Mills, Powell, Bougherra, Fortune, Reid, Semedo, Zheng, Sam, Todorov, Varney.

The subs are almost as important. My five are Randolph, Sodje, Iwelumo, Thomas, Racon.

The main players to miss out altogether are Moutaouakil, McCarthy, Ambrose and McLeod. A case can be made for each of them, especially McLeod in light of Norwich. I just hope we’re not chasing the game in the final minutes. Let’s just be grateful that through the season it’s unlikely we are going to be short of cover for each position.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Norwich Blinkers

Well, we got there in the end. Would have felt decidedly cheesed off had it finished 0-0 as it was one of those where you felt if we scored one we would get three or four against another very ordinary side (let’s be generous, there was an element of us for long periods making them look bad). We still might have done if the first goal had come 10 minutes earlier, especially if more of their players had followed Dublin’s lead in trying to square the books (in their eyes) with Danny Mills.

I really like Norwich, go there often for business, regard an away trip there as one of the best of the season, with a good atmosphere and welcoming pubs (thanks for nothing fixtures compiler for making it Boxing Day for us this time around). But whatever sympathy one might have felt for them missing out on a point disappears with the reaction of their players and their manager. Some apologies are due, or at least the removal of some partisan blinkers, with some comments presumably aimed at diverting attention from the paucity of their ambition on the night (our defence still showed signs that it could dissolve into blind panic if put under pressure).

We do sometimes see games differently from the other side (although I have always regarded my version of events as the truth, pure and simple). So rather than penning a detailed match report I thought it might be better to see how the Norwich Pink ‘Un local paper viewed proceedings, with some comments added.

“The Canaries suffered the cruellest of blows last night as two late penalties crushed their hopes of snatching a valuable, and unlikely win, at The Valley …. City had looked good value for a point but as the match entered the final few minutes, disaster struck.” Cruellest of blows? I think not, we’re not talking last kick of the game here. And just how was a win, however ‘unlikely’, going to be fashioned by a team which managed one meaningful effort on goal all night? As for Norwich being good value for a point, well it was 0-0 with around five minutes to go.

”Charlton sub Izale Mcleod was at the centre of it all, going down under a challenge from Gary Doherty and then, within three minutes felled by Julien Brellier.” Why say ‘going down under a challenge’ instead of ‘fouled by …’ It was a clear penalty, so why try to insinuate a dive?

“To add to manager Peter Grant's woes, skipper Dion Dulin was given a straight red card after an altercation with Danny Mills”. An altercation? From what I saw Dublin first kicked out at Mills, which merited a straight red in itself, and then squared up to him, possibly using his head (or maybe trying to draw Mills into something similar).

This is how the Norwich paper read some of the Mills incidents: ”… within a minute (of the start of the second half) Charlton had two players requiring treatment; Varney after slipping in the area and Mills, for a bloody lip after a challenge by Simon Lappin.” So that would be the challenge that left Mills missing two teeth then. “The temperature increased again when Huckerby fell to the ground clutching his face after a chase with Mills”. And then: “the fans were baying for Huckerby's blood when he took out Mills just before the hour mark, the City man earning a yellow card for his efforts - Mills presumably left to pick up his Oscar at a later date.” That is just near libel. A dreadful and premeditated attempt by Huckerby to carve through Mills could have seen a red card if Mills had not got up and got on with it (he even seemed to be saying to the ref he shouldn’t send him off).

As for Norwich manager Peter Grant, he said that “everybody has seen what Mills has done to Huckerby” and that “it was not a head-butt - if it had been a head-butt he would still be lying there”. Further pearls of wisdom included: “the player that was on the pitch should have been off anyway; he swung his elbow at him (Huckerby) and he deserved to go”, adding that "Dion would not have headbutted Danny. He would not have reacted like that. It's always important to finish a game with 11 men but unfortunately circumstances dictated we couldn't because somebody cheated.” So obviously it wasn’t a case of a player losing his cool and trying to exact revenge with the game already lost.

Now I really have no idea if Mills elbowed Huckerby, or if he did whether it had been deliberate. But what followed for the remainder of the game were either attempts at simple retribution, which the ref rightly punished (again, Huckerby could easily have gone), or efforts to spark Mills into retaliation. Either way, just how was Mills a cheat? He didn’t play-act when scythed down or when Dublin kicked him. Thug maybe, but cheat seems inappropriate.

As for the rest, Grant’s tactical acumen is perhaps illustrated by his view of the first penalty. “A kick up the pitch, we let it bounce and all of a sudden it's a penalty kick.” So, it clearly wasn’t a case of a fast forward with a more direct running style than the man he replaced being brought on to exploit tiring central defenders.

Overall it was a good but not great performance, perhaps a 7/10. Again, if we had scored in the first 20 minutes, when we were in total control, we would probably have won very comfortably. There were to my mind a number of pros and cons.

I was less impressed than others with Luke Varney. He was willing and got in some very good positions but didn’t make the most of them. He is very reluctant to use his left foot and he missed a one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the second half. He looked to me like a confidence player and maybe just putting one in the back of the net will be enough. I thought we did miss Todorov and his ability to disrupt a defence with his movement and lay-offs. But hats off to Izale McLeod. He hasn’t set the place alight since his arrival but proved to be just what was needed on the night, especially with Iwelumo generally well marshalled by Dublin and Doherty.

I would have liked to see Zheng and/or Semedo taking more chances with runs into the box. When Varney was carving through their right side in the first half somebody should have been bombing through to get on the end of a squared ball. And allied to this for long periods we tended to play at the same, measured pace. We passed well and there was good movement, but with Sam having a mixed night (some moments were excellent) we seemed to miss someone driving forward at pace.

The defence. Bougherra had perhaps his best game for us to date, while Weaver pulled off a very good save from Norwich’s one real effort on goal. However, there was always the feeling (or maybe it’s just me) that panic wasn’t far below the surface. I’m not sure we’ve got it right yet; maybe Sodje will fit in alongside someone.

Bah humbug. The positives did outweigh the negatives by some distance. We played intelligent and purposeful football, usually involving Andy Reid, and created enough good openings to have scored four or five. And we have cover and competition in just about every position. We look well placed to cope with the inevitable injuries and suspensions (well, with Mills and Thatcher these aren’t going to be far off).

Third in the table and another home game coming up, with Leicester perhaps providing our toughest test to date, despite their league position and change of manager. And to round things off, here’s Peter Taylor: "I am not confident (of keeping my job) but I just don't know because I have not spoken to (owner) Simon (Jordan).” Trust me Peter, you don’t want to.

Thursday 6 September 2007

Player Songs Needed

Ye gods and little fishes. Two thrilling (well, they get better with age) comebacks followed by a third consecutive away win at Palace (Todorov taking his place as a modern Charlton legend alongside Rommedahl and Kitson), Simon Jordan's face as even he couldn't think of a reason to take the matter to court, and two new signings to bolster the defence. It's got to be time for a whine.

This isn't a new topic, but let's face it. The singing at home games during recent years has been pants - not in terms of decibels and Valley Floyd Road etc but as regards the range of songs for players. There are mitigating factors: as soon as we learnt the player's name he was off - or with notable exceptions proved to be a waste of money. But I do find it embarrassing that the best we could come up with in two years for Darren Bent was Darren Bent, Bent, Bent.

If we really want to turn The Valley into a fortress this season it will surely help to have an auto-response song for as many players as possible. They don't need to be complicated (although a few with some wit and imagination would be welcome), they just need to be known and accepted.

Just looking at the players list for the last home game in the second flight last time around, we had songs/chants for many of them (Kiely, Powell, Rufus, Kinsella, Hunt, Mendonca, Robinson, Brown, Youds, Parker - there was even one for Lisbie). We knew what to sing. Now we just about have something for Powell and Thomas. Iwelumo and Todorov score and how do we respond? The popularity of Jorge Costa and Diawara was in part down to the fact that they had a song that we liked to sing (yes, it does contain a 'bad' word but that wasn't the point).

Now an old fart like me is not going to be leading renditions and we're not collectively likely to come up with original material that cottons on (most songs anyway are rehashes or nicked from other clubs). So maybe it's best to just take those songs for the last batch of second-flight players and use them for the current squad. It's not blasphemy, they've been recycled before.

So, with a few inspired additions - and in the hope of better suggestions from others - are a few proposals:

1. For Yassin and Racon surely we can adopt/adapt the end of La Marseillaise. It's the most stirring national anthem there is and might help them feel at home. The end part when it gets to 'marchons, marchons ...' could easily be replaced with Yassin or Racon (allez, allez Yassin/Racon).

2. OK, this one's daft but I can't get it out of my head. Since thinking about a song for Racon the old David Essex song Rock On keeps coming back (try it with Racon instead of Rock On). Now very few of us are old enough to remember it, but it fits very well - and would have some originality.

3. We have to have the Jorge Costa/Diawara song included, so who for? It has to be a one ... two/three. Could be Paddy McCarthy, Magic Bougherra, or Iwelumo. But for me it just sounds better for it to be Semedo. After all, he comes from Portugal and we all know who he hates. Has to be a done deal.

4. The old Johnnie Robinson song (oh, Johnnie Johnnie, ....). Needs a surname with three syllables, so could fit for Todorov, Bougherra but might sound best for Paddy McCarthy (come on, we can't sing 'Patrick').

5. The old Steve Brown/Andy Hunt song. Fits well for Andy Reid. Just can't think of anything that rhymes with Reid. More work needed.

6. Kin, Kin, Kinsella. Yes, he's still with us but we don't get to sing it any more. Another three syllable surname. Boo, Boo Bougherra doesn't sound right. Why not this one for Todorov?

7. Deano. Easy fit for Dean Sinclair as and when.

8. We need something for Chris Iwelumo. Uninspired but why not a simple Chris E, Chris Iwelumo whoa ....

9. Zheng Zhi. Works well with clapping/shouting da, da, da da da, da, da, da, da ... Zheng Zhi.

10. The Super Clive song. Well, it was reused for Lisbie so rehashing it is fine for me. Maybe it works best for Nicky Weaver (or Darren Ambrose). There. New Charlton song for Nicky Weaver were not words that I thought would ever pass my lips.

That's it. I've run out of what little inspiration I had. Still leaves (among others) Thatcher, Mills, Sodje, Holland, Ambrose, Varney, Gibbs, Sam, Bougherra, Sankofa, Fortune, Randolph, McLeod, Dickson.