Sunday 23 December 2007

No Pain, No Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 22 December 2007

Bye Danny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Ratings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 21 December 2007

It's Really Not My Fault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 20 December 2007

Thin On The Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 15 December 2007

Sum Of The Parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Ratings:

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

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

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

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

Sodje: 6/10. As above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 13 December 2007

Bravo OL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 10 December 2007

We’ll Be Top At Five O’Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 8 December 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player ratings:

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

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

Sunday 2 December 2007

Can We Please Score First At Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 1 December 2007

Tonight I Hate Three Gits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player ratings:

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