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.

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