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.

Saturday 17 November 2007

Just Another Rant

I really thought that the suggestions that there could – or should – be some cap on the number of non-British players/quota of home-grown players, along the lines proposed by Fifa president Sepp Blatter, were just plain daft and would be quickly forgotten. But Sir Alex Ferguson has chipped in, Steve Coppell has added his six-pennyworth, followed by Steve Gerrard (who took the prize for simplistic, incoherent drivel) and now Paul Parker. No doubt there will be others either side of England’s (probable) failure to qualify for Euro 08.

Can they all be wrong? Well, yes. As a lifelong atheist (no, not an agnostic) I don’t have a problem with the idea that a large chunk of society is simply misguided (or to put it another way I disagree with them). And of course there are some vested interests - Ferguson enjoys a dig at his peers, just think where the wages of the best English players will go if there were strict quotas, and Fifa has its own agenda for promoting international over club tournaments – as well as other dissenting voices, most obviously Arsene Wenger.

It would seem that the prospect of England not qualifying for a major tournament (shock horror: I was at Wembley for the Poland game many moons ago, it happened before and no doubt will again) has sparked some navel-gazing. Well, someone’s got to be to blame and the head of Steve McClaren clearly just isn’t enough for some. Of course, if Russia don’t win in Israel and England squeeze through all of this will be forgotten, just like the booing at Charlton after we went 2-0 down against Sheff Wed.

Not long ago many were assuming that this period would be a golden era for the England team, given the array of talent coming through around the turn of the century. If not the 2006 World Cup then Euro 2008 was a realistic target for a trophy. Of course, when England screwed up in the former it was the fault of having a foreign manager (no, I’m not overlooking his poor squad selection). Now we’re probably not even going to qualify for the latter where do we pin the blame? Up goes the shout: something has to be done.

It is a failure; England will probably fail to qualify. But is there really a problem other than that a group of players and a management team have together not been better in a period of time than those of two other countries? And is it just easier to blame a dark external force than to actually examine where we went wrong, in terms of team selection, formation, management, motivation etc? Heaven forbid, if the latter we might actually learn from mistakes rather than waste time and effort on windmills.

I guess it just depends on your priorities. If it is collectively decided that the performance of the England team is the be all and end all then - ignoring for now the practicalities - we could look at keeping English clubs in English ownership, ensuring that club owners bow to the wishes of the England management on all matters (including resting players, postponing games, ensuring that team formations echo that adopted by England), and adopt best corporate practise by bribing when appropriate. Hey, why not prevent non-UK nationals from attending games? After all, their loyalties might not be reliable.

It’s all at best unworkable nonsense and at worst veers towards the disgusting. Of course, some may say, this is going too far, there just needs to be a correction to a situation which has become unbalanced and is in danger of becoming even more warped. Well, that is a matter of opinion. All markets have a tendency to overshoot – and usually to self-correct. Personally I will be disappointed if England don’t qualify, and don’t doubt that it would detract from my enjoyment of the actual tournament if we don’t make it. But there are no divine rights here, let’s just try to do better next time. Much as I’d love to alter the system to ensure that Charlton always won the Champions League (OK, occasionally we wouldn’t win it, just so we didn’t get complacent) others just might object. Same with England.

Equally if someone asks ‘are you in favour of Charlton and other clubs developing local, home-grown talent?’ the answer is of course ‘yes’. There is a special delight in a player coming through the ranks. But if there is a further question ‘do you favour distorting the system to try to achieve this?’ that’s a ‘no’ for me – unless someone can come up with a means which does not have undesirable side-effects. It’s a bit like being canvassed over the phone by The Torygraph: ‘Do you believe that you have a right to defend yourself if attacked by a frenzied, drugs-crazed, axe-wielding lunatic?’ OK, yes. ‘So therefore you believe you have a right to keep sub-machine guns in your house?’)

Basically I’m not convinced that there is a genuine, structural problem with English football, at least not one which could be ‘cured’ by artificial quotas – unless you simply find having ‘our football’ open to overseas investment and influence disturbing. I don’t. Of course an open approach and the massive influx of money and foreign players have implications and effects, not all of which are considered desirable by everyone all of the time. But that’s the nature of change. The art is to try to adapt to make the best use of change. The England manager may find himself having to choose a team from only around 90 Premiership players rather than say 300. Is that so difficult? I don’t think England’s problems have been due to a lack of players; rather it’s been about getting the best out of them.

Also, the top club teams are simply better than national teams, which inevitably devalues internationals (just as gradually national governments are becoming increasingly impotent – a trend which has much further to go). Just learn to live with it.

Why don’t we instead celebrate having one of the most exciting and affluent leagues in the world (albeit one which has suffered a setback due to the temporary absence from the top-flight of it’s greatest club), one in which the best English players come through on merit, rather than a sport that through a mixture of hooliganism, lack of investment, and a blinkered, nationalistic approach was dying on its feet not so long ago? As Wenger questioned, exactly what did the England team achieve during 1970-96?

Wednesday 14 November 2007


I suppose I just feel like a rant. This is probably raking over old ground that nobody else cares about any more. And it really isn’t just an excuse to take issue with something else attributed to Peter Varney. But sometimes I can’t let things rest (like the Tevez affair and West Ham still being in the Premiership) and I take issue when the truth (of which I am of course the sole arbiter) is being trifled with.

So first prize for resurrecting a seemingly resolved issue and lying in pursuit of an ulterior motive at a public venue goes to the stadium announcer at the Gravesend & Northfleet/Ebbsfleet/Myfootballclub stadium. The ground capacity we are told is a few thousand and on Monday night there were around 100 present. Yet we were informed not just that the stadium was a non-smoking venue but that this policy was indeed “for our own benefit”.

Leaving aside the fact that I would have had to seek out other spectators if I was intent on imposing some passive smoking (which as a non-smoker would have been difficult), I do not need some muppet deciding for me what is and is not in my own interest – or rather trying to present spurious reasons for a decision. I have no problem if that club decides that it’s entire stadium is a no-smoking venue, just don’t try to suggest that such a decision has been taken on my behalf. You didn’t ask me and you don’t know what is in my best interest.

For the record I am not (I hope) some sad ‘libertarian’ defending some simplistic form of personal liberty. I am a former smoker (no, I didn’t stop because of the new legislation; I look forward to the day when it no longer matters and I can resume puffing on outsize cigars as port and/or brandy just don’t feel the same without them). I am well aware of the very real health risks. I was/am opposed to the ban on smoking in pubs – on the grounds that these are commercial enterprises and nobody has any ‘right’ to go into one.

Most of all I am disgusted by the way that the anti-smoking legislation was presented as something other than a way of saving the state money. What was wrong with an open and informed debate on the issue – other than that it would necessarily have had to encompass other, less comfortable (for the authorities) aspects of health spending? Instead we were force-fed a stream of sanctimonious twaddle by people who for reasons of their own opposed smoking. The most offensive were pen-pushers talking in terms of how many lives would be saved. Sorry, no lives are saved, only extended. To the best of my knowledge the death rate in this world has always been 100% (the as yet unsubstantiated case of one J.Christ notwithstanding).

Come to think of it, I wasn’t asked about The Valley becoming a non-smoking venue either. I remember being unconvinced by the ‘Valley Smokescreen’ defence of the new policy in the Sheff Wed programme and thought I’d take another look. Yup, thought so. It’s half-truths dressed up to try to form a poor (I believe) argument (I should add here that Charlton are no more ‘guilty’ on this matter than any other Football League club).

“It’s the law of the land – and the club itself will be fined if fans refuse to abide by the national no-smoking legislation that came into force last month”. Well, it’s undoubtedly true that we are all obliged to comply with the law of the land, and there is no doubt that as The Valley has been designated a complete no-smoking venue the club would be fined if it did not impose the rule. But does the law of the land require a smoking ban in all football stadiums? Well, no it doesn’t.

“The change in the law means we can no longer allow smoking within the confines of the stadium …. This means the entire stadium is a no-smoking venue once fans are through the turnstiles or gates, or inside any area of the building”. So said Varney. I don't think that strictly speaking this is true. Rather The Football League in early 2007 took the decision to go further than was required by the incoming legislation and to opt for a complete smoking ban within the confines of all Football League member stadiums. So Varney could have been correct to say that Charlton can no longer allow smoking within the confines of the stadium and remain compliant members of The Football League – which is of course a perfectly reasonable line of defence. But not that the change in law requires this.

The Charlton article went on to expose its own shortcomings. “The new laws, which came into force on July 1st, mean there is no room for compromise – and indeed, The Football League has introduced even more strict guidelines affecting member clubs”. I’m confused here. If the new legislation left no room for compromise, why would The Football League feel obliged to introduce stricter guidelines? And how could it? How can you have a ‘stricter guideline’ than one that allows ‘no room for compromise’?

My reading of the actual legislation, taking account of the FA booklet outlining the implications for sporting stadiums, is that there could be smoking areas within stadiums (indeed, if there was ‘no room for compromise’ why did the FA produce a booklet for guidance?). The law is not (not could it be) precise about every instance/area where smoking might be allowed; the broad rule is that such an area is not enclosed or substantially enclosed. So a club not bound by self-adopted Football League rules could I believe introduce a smoking area within its stadium having checked that the area in question is not at odds with the enclosed/substantially enclosed requirement. I imagine that this would involve getting approval from the authorities, take time and effort and require signposting. But it could be done.

The Charlton article – which echoes wording from just about every other Football League club – went on to peddle the line that a blanket no-smoking policy in all areas of stadiums was popular among supporters. “In a survey conducted by the league last season, almost 80% of fans advocated the introduction of some form of smoke-free policy at matches, with half of all fans supporting an outright ban”. Sounds convincing? Well, not really. Put another way, there was a clear majority in favour of limiting smoking in stadiums but a 50-50 split on an outright ban. So the policy adopted by The Football League is one which by its own admission was opposed – or at the least not supported - by half of the people canvassed.

I’m dubious about all the claptrap regarding clubs wanting to encourage healthier living, a new breed of supporter etc. So what could be the real motive for introducing a ban that clearly was not demanded by legislation and which was not supported by a majority of fans? Doesn’t take much imagination does it? I imagine it saves money in areas such as insurance and cleaning and avoids any danger that clubs could fall foul of the new legislation. Why not just say so? It’s exactly the same reason why it is now apparently illegal to smoke on the platform at Blackheath railway station – which is as open air as it is possible to get. (When I remember I’m going to buy some cigars and stand on the platform and pretend to be smoking without lighting up; try proving in court that I was actually smoking.)

Again, I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t have a problem with Charlton deciding that The Valley is a no-smoking venue (I have no ‘right’ to attend matches). I do have a (small) problem with the way a decision taken by The Football League, after (it says) consultation with the clubs, for as yet undisclosed reasons, is presented as something other than it is and used as a smokescreen. (Ha ha.)

Monday 12 November 2007

Down With The Stiffs

I’m not sure if it was the euphoria of three wins on the spin, guilt over my miserable failure to date to get to an away game (a run which will continue through the Preston game as that’s the next scheduled Lyon weekend), the fact that for the first time in a couple of weeks I feel OK (after cold etc exacerbated by rainy nights in Amsterdam – no, the trip was work-related), or just the attraction of being able to write total nonsense about a game with little fear of contradiction. But I felt an overwhelming desire to go and watch the reserves turn over the Palace stiffs, to get a feel for how some of the players that are bound to be called upon at some point are shaping up.

This desire did ease a little when I realised that reserve games are being played at Gravesend & Northfleet. But after a quick check it seemed the journey could be done by train in less than an hour – and it’s an easy way to notch up another ground at which I’ve seen Charlton play (and one which some fellow Addicks who tot up these things may struggle to match).

I don’t have particularly good memories of Gravesend. (Yes, I know that to go to the game you get the train to Northfleet; I’ve just been there for Christ sake. It’s a little poetic licence to use an anecdote or two – and let’s face it nobody on this planet, even those who currently reside there, can have any recollections of Northfleet. I’m a city dweller and don’t trust places without copious street lighting or with these dinky little stations that still give you the impression you’ve landed in the middle of nowhere. Taxi mate? There’ll be one along next week.)

I lived there for a few years after my parents decided that the fresher air away from London would be better for my father and my sister’s asthma (they were wrong). My abiding memory is that in the sprawling semi-circular avenue in which we lived every house had a front garden. Every front garden was a lawn. Except one. Ours. Ours had rose bushes. Now I don’t remember the thought process that led up to the events of the afternoon in question (I was too young for it to have been alcohol). But suffice to say that my heroic levelling of the rose bushes (aided by my toy rifle) was matched by a smack of the belt from my father for every rose left lying on the ground. I’d have made a fortune in compensation today.

More recently trips to Gravesend (and Gillingham) have not been voluntary. You know the score. Trashed in town, just make the last train back. Your conscious as the train pulls out of Lewisham but are desperately hanging on, knowing that there’s just a couple of minutes to go. Then you come too with a jolt and immediately realise something is wrong. The train doors open and there’s the sign: ‘Welcome to Gravesend’.

So going to Gravesend has become associated for me with ‘please rewind my life’. Maybe in the future there will be a good reason to go back there. I just can’t for the life of me imagine what it could be. Maybe just to tear down that bloody sign.

The line-up as announced was Elliot in goal, Sankofa and Solly as the full-backs, Bougherra and Aswad Thomas in central defence, the returning Matt Holland and Racon in central midfield, Wagstaff and Lozano-Calderon on the flanks, and Varney and McLeod as the front two.

Mixed team for my purposes. Where were McCarthy and Moutaouakil, two players that I most wanted to see, or even Christensen? The first two both last appeared for the second-string at the end of October against QPR, missing the following game against Watford. Are they injured? I haven’t seen any announcement to that effect. I was particularly keen to see how McCarthy was getting on, even in a meaningless match (no, CAFC website, reserve matches do not make amends for anything). I’m still inclined to assume that Pardew expected him to be his general in defence, but so far he has looked error-prone and rusty. I wanted to see if he was knuckling under and waiting for his chance or sulking. Yassin we all expect to see back in the first-team sooner or later, so I just wanted to see whether he looks fully fit.

No matter. With a spine of Bougherra, Holland, Racon, Varney and McLeod most if not all of us were assuming that the team would have too much for Palace reserves (too much indeed for any side that they could put out). It just didn’t turn out that way. I’m not a regular watcher of reserves games, so this may have been a classic. But I doubt it. It was a mishmash of poor passes and incoherent play which had 0-0 written all over it well before the final whistle.

Charlton too often relied on a long ball forward in the expectation that a Palace defender would make a mistake or Varney would flick on to McLeod or vice versa. The trouble was when it worked for Varney he blew two one-on-ones – the first early in the game he shot at the keeper, the second late on saw him with a long run in and an embarrassing failure to even get in a shot – and when McLeod found himself in good positions he had run offside.

I had hoped for a little chemistry between the two. It was more like magnetism of the wrong sort. I don’t think they even looked at each other during the game, let alone talked. And both looked miserable and low on confidence. Come on guys. It’s only a reserves game, you don’t have a real match for another couple of weeks. What’s wrong with some evidence that you are doing something you like? These are at present our only two striker options if Iwelumo is not available. I know you shouldn’t draw strong conclusions from a run-out for the stiffs on a cold November evening. But it wasn’t inspiring.

Bougherra dealt comfortably with what came his way. Sankofa had a couple of iffy moments early on but otherwise was sound if not spectacular (there was no sign of him getting forward). Racon looked a cut above the others in midfield without really imposing himself on the game. Matty Holland? He looked like, well, just what you’d expect. He lasted an hour before giving way to Arter. Another couple of run-outs and Holland should be ready to do a job once more.

The game became more interesting once Arter had come on and Uchechi had replaced Lozano-Calderon on the left wing. They added greater urgency going forward – but at the same time the Palace midfield found it a lot easier to run past Arter than they had Holland and for a period it was like QPR all over again. Palace had three or four shots which went narrowly wide or were saved by Elliot in a short spell. The just left Varney’s late fluff and widespread groans from the shivering support when it was announced that there were three additional minutes to play (yes, everything's still coming in threes - and we're back down to third).

Sunday 11 November 2007

Sunday Musings

Everything does seem to be coming in threes these days: three defeats followed by three wins, the latest by three goals and with a third clean sheet in a row. What happens next is anybody’s guess, but since the game three things have made me chuckle (would be four if I included the news that West Brom have lost Kevin Phillips for a while at least, but that would be just plain nasty).

First, the photo. Is it me or does Danny Murphy look like the bloke from the pub who has turned out every Sunday for the past 40 years and refuses to hang up his boots?

Second, the dance down the annals of history that is the ‘On This Day’ page in the programme. I previously took delight in the glib description of the liberation of Paris. Now we are informed that on this day (10 November) in 1971 journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley located missing explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone. I would have been at school at the time but don’t remember the news filtering through (and could have sworn that there was already something in the history books about this one). You’d have thought it would have got a mention as Dr Livingstone, who was born in 1813, would have been 158 years old at the time.

Third, the relief that I didn’t agree in total with Peter Varney’s latest musings. His plea for consistency in the application of the laws by referees must have everyone’s backing (and he included a very timely observation that we were “due a change of fortune regarding refereeing decisions” – it was indeed Fortune whose tackle in the first half could easily have been given as a penalty by a different ref). But he went on to express his reservations about the possible introduction of ‘sin bins’ in football.

Varney argues that their use “would presumably mean the introduction of a new card ranked between yellow and red that results in a spell in the sin bin” and that “this would lead to further disputes regarding the offences that deserve two yellow cards and a sending off, and those that don’t”. Sorry, but I don’t see why.

I always thought the sin bin would be used alongside the current yellow and red cards. In rugby a single yellow card means a spell in the bin, a red means dismissal. Such a set-up could be replicated in football - or alternatively a second yellow means a spell in the sin bin (and presumably a third yellow after the player returns would be a red card). There is no reason why the use of sin bins introduces a new card or new type of offence. Varney and others may be against sin bins (and there are clearly pros and cons) but the reasoning he outlines doesn’t stand up.

What are we trying to achieve? I think it’s reasonable to say that too many games are ruined by players picking up two yellows for run-of-the-mill fouls – and that the punishment in these cases exceeds the crime. If we want to change this either the referees have to be instructed to show some greater leniency when giving out cards, perhaps with more use of warnings, or a less onerous punishment than losing the player for the remainder of the game is introduced.

Of course, if one yellow means a spell in the bin there is the danger that games turn into a farce – a team could have four or five players in the bin at the same time. The fact is that the use of yellow cards in football and rugby is different and referees behave accordingly. If sin bins were introduced for two yellows the danger is that refs start handing out cards even more liberally, knowing that there is a stage between a second and outright dismissal. But this set-up looks to me as if it could work.

It may be that the size of the perceived problem doesn’t merit introducing sin bins. But it’s worth a general discussion, even an experiment.

One law in football that I feel really does need changing is the requirement that players treated for injury have to leave the pitch. It was brought in for good reason: play-acting was wasting time, players simply couldn’t be trusted, and it was/is unfair to expect referees to be able to decide when a player is putting it on. But the habit of feigning injury is much less prevalent than it was, while we have become much more used to refs adding on several minutes at the end of the game. On Saturday Cardiff had a corner and we had to defend it without Sodje and Iwelumo, who had received treatment, while Cardiff also had a player who had to leave the pitch. This is a form of punishment - you could even say a very short-lived sin bin - where most if not all of the time no crime has been committed.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Happy Bunnies

I think we’d have settled for that before the game: three goals, another clean sheet, JFH substituted after a virtuoso performance of ineptitude, and back up to second in the table (at least ahead of the West Brom game). It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.

Approaching half-time I thought the game was pretty much level on points. Cardiff had had a good chance blocked and a shot from a well-worked free kick saved splendidly by Weaver. We had had a Chris Iwelumo effort just over and the ball in the net (disallowed for a push or for offside, I wasn’t sure). We were doing OK without dominating against a Cardiff team that looked competent but short of pace (how could it be otherwise Jimmy?). Then came the few minutes that decided the outcome.

Many moons ago I was involved in a (very) small music publishing and independent record label business. One piece of advice we had was: ‘and when you get a number one, the best thing is to follow it up with another, and then another’. Hard to disagree. So after Sam Sodje had put away a poor defensive header to put us one up, the next minute or so saw Iwelumo running on to another poor defensive header to shoot home from outside the box.

It wasn’t exactly game over, but in the second half we were able to showboat a little and avoided having to chase the game. Cardiff had some half-chances – and as in the first half some magnificent blocks were put in by the defence. But they didn’t really threaten consistently and we looked capable of scoring again. We duly did when Zhi was allowed to head home from a corner. Cue extended singing and happy chappies going home (with the exception of what looked like some rather charmless Cardiff supporters).

Player ratings:

Weaver – 8. May seem a little high but perhaps I was unfair after QPR if it was after all a foul on him for their goal. Had little to do but was decisive and safe on crosses and made one an excellent save.

Mills – 7. Looked sound and given the scoreline wasn’t under pressure to do much in the second half. Surprisingly enough he seemed to rankle their supporters (can’t believe he did anything untoward).

Sodje – 8. The defence with him in doesn’t suddenly look rock-solid, but maybe he’s just lucky. Nudged up from a 7 because of the goal.

Fortune – 7. No obvious mistakes or major contributions, but I’m not going to criticise defenders after three successive clean sheets.

Basey – 6. Gave away a free kick in a dangerous position in the first half. Sound thereafter, but like Mills didn’t get forward much in the second half (presumably under instructions as there was no need to).

Semedo – 7. Overall another good game, but one error (air kick in our own area) could have been punished and the game would have been very different if they had scored first.

Reid – 7. Mixed performance. Some sublime moments but some wayward passes and shots too. Remains central to what we are doing.

Zhi – 7. Though he was having an indifferent game, not really playing in the hole and not influential, but then he did score.

Sam – 6. A little disappointing. Struggled to have an impact. Looked dangerous when he had the ball, but too often was unable to create space and make himself available. No decent crosses I can remember.

Iwelumo – 8. Battled manfully again and took his goal well. Deserves a good rating for the week he has had.

Thomas – 8. I’m pleased to say my man of the match. Until recently I though he’s been letting us down. At this level he should be a shoo-in and be a key element of the extra quality that Pardew talks about to help us get back up. But he has looked distracted, churlish and uncommitted. I didn’t see him at Southampton or Bristol but the reviews were better and I thought today he was lively, dangerous, and up for the challenge. In the first half he was blocked off in a good position and I thought should have had the free kick. But the referee waved play on and this time he got up and got on with the game. I hope this is a sign of renewed application because if he plays to his potential he will be a big factor in whether we go back up.

Subs: Couldn’t really rate them. Ambrose came on for Sam but the game was won by then; Varney and McLeod were late replacements for Iwelumo and Zhi.

A word for the ref. I thought he had an excellent game. One or two decisions were wrong (ie they went against us) but he was consistent with his application of yellow cards for professional fouls and let the game flow. The big criticism of the officiating was not really his fault (I assume). He applied the letter of the law to players leaving the pitch after treatment and this nearly cost us dear when Cardiff had set pieces. In the second half they had a corner and Sodje and Iwelumo had to leave the pitch, along with one Cardiff player. It was 2-0 at the time and the game would have changed if they had pulled one back because we were short of numbers/height through no fault of our own. The rule of making players leave the pitch after treatment has run its time and needs to be scrapped (or amended).

Overall impressions? It was in the end another game that was heavily influenced by who scored first. I can’t say that we were bossing it before we went in front; clearly we did through most of the second half with a two-goal cushion. If I was in the mood to be overly-critical (which my bloody toothache inclines me to be) I still have the impression that we are one-paced. With Sam and Thomas there should be greater verve about our play. And a Reid-Zhi-Semedo trio in central midfield was not entirely convincing. Zhi too often was playing as a second forward, while Semedo was doing the defensive donkey work. A midfield trio in a 4-5-1 should work as a unit, going forward and back, and there was no real evidence that the players were on the same wavelength. And the defence still panics in the absence of an effective leader in the pack.

But ha ha. We won. WBA have lost Kevin Phillips. I can watch the highlights, read the papers. Basically I’m a happy bunny.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Booing Debate Sorted: Welcome Back JFH

Seems that once Suzanne’s favourite grandmother smiles on you she really does the business. Two last-minute goals to give two away wins. I’d like to congratulate Pardew and the team (along with those who actually went to either game) for a great response to the problems and criticisms post-QPR, but I know where the credit really lies. Please Marie just make sure that as with pre-blanquette de veau disasters our triumphs come in threes – and then let me know what I’ve got to cook to keep the run going. If we win on Saturday and I hear nothing more I’ll assume that it’s one meal gets us three wins and plan accordingly.

Despite the triumphs, the booing issue is bound to crop up again on Saturday. And this time I’ll be on my feet howling along with the best of them. Welcome back Jimmy Floyd. Most of the time I can’t be bothered to get at returning players. Scott Parker probably deserved the initial reaction from the Valley faithful but took it on the chin and for me that was good enough (although if he comes back with West Ham I’ll be booing them generally as if there was any fair play in the Premiership they would have been relegated, quite possibly instead of us). And let’s face it Danny Mills would get a hard time when he came back but we’re quite happy now to cheer him to the rafters.

There’s just something that still sticks in the throat about JFH. He was the signing that was going to get the best out of Darren Bent, they guy that would give us the craft that had been missing. It isn’t necessary to go over what we actually got: an unfit, load-mouth waste of space. He stirred himself to score against Chelsea and Middlesboro. If it hadn’t been for him and Marcus Bent we would have brought in someone else. Whoever that might have been he couldn’t have done a worse job for us.

It’s not as if Jimmy has shown any contrition (if he had any sense he would expect a very rough ride on Saturday and perhaps say something in advance about sometimes moves just not working out for both parties etc). In one of the Championship highlights early this season on Cardiff he was talking about strikers sometimes only being rated on what they did in their most recent season. Damn right they should be. If you score on Saturday please don’t expect a repeat of the polite applause that you got at Stamford Bridge. If there’s any justice Jimmy you’ll just play your normal game. That’ll be bad enough for us.

Had a glance through one of the Cardiff supporters’ sites just to see if they are disgusted with him yet. Seems not yet. Complaints seem to focus on the drawbacks of playing Fowler and Hasselbaink together rather than the latter’s inability to run. The impression was that there is something of a crisis going on at Cardiff, with many fans calling for Dave Jones to be sacked and with Ridsdale locked in a legal dispute over the financing of the club. It looks very much like a case of disappointed expectations with discontent growing, not surprisingly, following a failure to beat even Palace.

That said, Cardiff’s away form isn’t bad, with two wins and three draws out of six. They’ve scored more (10) away in fewer games. But the two away wins came early in the season, against QPR and Norwich, and in the last four they’ve lost one and drawn three. It looks to me like a game in which if we score first (something we failed to do in the three lost recently) we should go on to win.

Two away wins in a row and suddenly we do have something in common with our last promotion season. More points secured away than at home. But Pardew must have some selection problems. Presumably Semedo will come back in for Racon, but the big decision is whether playing one up front is acceptable at home. Given available resources I think it has to be, assuming all are fit. Having finally put one in the net with his head Big Chris must be feeling good having repeated the experience last night. Varney has played his part. But the facts are that one up front allows us to play Reid inside without being overrun and with only three first-choice strikers 4-4-2 means our only option being to bring on McLeod.

On the subject of options, the BBC reported Gillingham manager Mark Stimson as being ‘full of praise’ for the in-form Chris Dickson after the forward's goalscoring display in the draw with Doncaster. “Chris has got natural talent, a natural talent to put the ball in back of the net and he scored a great goal," Stimson said. "He is a very good athlete, he causes defenders problems with his style. He has now scored five goals in six games and when you have somebody on form like that, you have to play him."

This does sound a little strange from a manager who recently was pleading with Pardew to allow Dickson to stay. I would have expected more of the ‘he needs the games and the experience’ line. I know the standard’s different, but without Todorov we need another forward. Either it’s a loan signing, or the chequebook comes out in January, or Dickson comes back after his loan and gets a chance, presumably at least at first on the bench as a late impact player.

Saturday 3 November 2007

Ave Maria

New York Addick may have had a much better claim to responsibility for recent form, but ain't nobody going to deny me the credit for the (massive) victory. I had cooked the blanquette de veau for Suzanne, we ate while watching the scores with the radio on. She took the last mouthful and commented that "yes, it was as good as cooked by my favourite grandmother Maria". At that moment BBC announced a goal at St Mary's. Need I say more.
Doesn't take much to make us happy does it?