Thursday 31 January 2008

Thoughts on Reid - And Bloody Scunthorpe

First off, if you’re out there Frankie I hope it proves to be just a hiatus for your blog. Everyone needs a break sometimes, especially if you’re crazy enough to try something every day (I should know, I created a company that produced analysis every day to an evening deadline; it wears you down). And sometimes other things are more important. But I can’t agree with what you put on your blog about your contributions. There are only two reasons in life to communicate: to inform and to entertain. You may not major on the former (you never attempted to), but you excel at the latter. Hope it resumes soon.

Most have had their say about Reid going and there’s bound to be different opinions. Fact is we are weaker overall now than a day ago as a very influential player has left. But if it was a choice between not getting Gray or anybody else (Halford and maybe another on loan it seems) nobody can say outright it’s bad business, whether or not finances demanded a sale (maybe the board thought that most of the Gray money could be recouped by selling McLeod). With Wyn Grant indicating that Dickson is out for the rest of the season, without Gray we would have been back to Iwelumo, Varney and McLeod as the striking options. I’m more confident in our position with Gray added to that list – and for the feeling that we have adjusted already to life without Reid.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that our record since Reid was injured is not good (two wins out of nine). But before Dickson came back and Gray came in our striking options were very limited. We resorted to long balls up to Iwelumo on his own. The first change came with Pardew’s decision to go with Varney and McLeod, at least offering pace and movement. Gray gives us another option and forward combinations that look good to deliver the goals.

Of course we don’t actually want Reid to go. He has always looked committed when available and is undoubtedly a very talented footballer. But some things just don’t work. The negative interpretation is that he was too slow to play out wide left and a liability in the centre in a four-man midfield. That left playing him in the hole (a role performed better by Ambrose against Ipswich and capable of being done by Zhi) or accepting his limitations out wide. Playing Reid and Ambrose together left us short of pace. We are now playing with much more verve - and it's very enjoyable to watch. There will of course be times/matches where we really miss Reid. But the time when we built the team around him may already have gone.

Anyway, if he’s gone so be it, he takes our best wishes. Whether or not it’s the right move will only be known at the end of the season. In the interim we have to make the best of it. With Gray and (presumably) Halford in and Reid out, I’m assuming that the final suggested loan signing will be a central midfielder. We are now a little thin there, with Semedo capable of coming in for Holland but with Zhi suddenly looking indispensable. If Racon was set for a loan move, the only option would be to bring Ambrose back inside in a four-man midfield. If Song from Arsenal or someone else is available that might be the final piece.

So, to Saturday. The season demanded a daft gesture. And having finally looked at the map I realise it doesn’t come any dafter than Scunthorpe away. I’m trying not to think about what godawful time it means surfacing on a Saturday morning, never mind the return. What I am thinking about is how one of our number managed to stitch us up like a kipper. ‘We need to do an away trip’, he says, ‘it’s been a while since we had a serious roadtrip … come on, let’s get everyone together … Scunthorpe’. Doesn’t need saying really, does it? We all get enthusiastic, get the tickets, then the originator turns around and says after all he can’t make it. Did he look at the map and had a reality check? (I know in truth there was a very reasonable excuse, but as usual the truth sounds better with a little teaking.)

Suffice to say it all goes much better if we win. So, Pards and the players, I realise there must be a temptation after the glories of Tuesday night and ahead of the little local clash coming up there might be a temptation to take the foot off the gas against supposed minnows. I’m sure it won’t happen, but if the energy and commitment levels aren’t what they might be please remind the players that it’s a bloody long way to Scunthorpe and back. I wish I could have met Luke Young and a few others to drive home the point last season after Brammall Lane.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Football Won, Stoke Didn’t

That was massive – and didn’t the players know it. At the final whistle they could hardly contain themselves, with Weaver engulfed by players for the save of the night in injury time to ensure justice was done. Stoke, you leave with nothing. Unloved, unwanted, unashamedly dire. Hope it’s a long journey back. They didn’t even manage to lose with any dignity, spending the last five minutes ploughing through any of our players who had the audacity to keep the ball.

For a long time it looked as though we wouldn’t get the three points. I don’t know what the statistics say, but I doubt if a team in the Championship has attempted or completed more passes in a game this season. I suppose we had to as a pass seemed completely foreign to Stoke. Long ball down the channels, get a throw or corner, launch missile into the area. We all hoped this sort of thing died out a long time ago. I wonder if Stoke fans are really happy with this approach.

The line-up was largely predictable, with the defence and midfield unchanged, while Iwelumo got the nod to partner Gray. It doesn’t look like an ideal combination as yet, with Gray perhaps more likely to benefit from Varney’s runs. But there was an element of Iwelumo being needed for height at the back against Stoke and nobody could complain about that. The problem was that when we needed to turn to a goalscorer in the second half to win the game Dickson wasn’t on the bench, not could we bring on Iwelumo. Instead Big Chris gave way to Varney, which still left us short of a real poacher in the box. Still, we have time to work it out – and we still won. Gray showed us enough to be confident that he will be a very welcome addition. Intelligent and strong on the ball.

For long periods Stoke were content to sit behind the ball and watch us pass it around. They knew that they would get a chance or two, with one mishit shot in the first half but then Fuller showing what potential he once had with a shot that just went the right side of the far post. We created plenty of half-chances, which were either blocked or went begging for want of a decisive finish. But just when it looked as though we would have to settle for 0-0 we managed somehow to put the ball in the net. It looked to me as though Varney at the far post made a complete hash of putting the ball into the net, but instead of the ball going out it barely moved, allowing him to square it (or get a rebound off the keeper, depending on your view of events) for Sam to finish. Cue pandemonium.

All that remained was for Stoke to bring on another basketball player, for us to squander a breakaway to score the second that would have seen us move above Stoke in the league, for Stoke to lose their heads, and for Weaver to make that save. All that was missing was the Chris Powell leap out of the tunnel.

Nobody needs telling how important the victory was. The run of home games against teams competing for promotion will determine the season and we’re off to the best possible start. Scunthorpe on Saturday, then it’s the local affair. Up the football league we go indeed. But for once I can’t waffle on as the pub’s still open and there’s a bloody great big glass with my name on it.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 10/10. What else could it be for saving the points. He dealt much better with the aerial threat than against Stoke early in the season and didn’t put a foot wrong.

Moutaouakil: 7/10. Not dynamic but capable in defence and still able to provide an effective outlet going forward.

Youga: 8/10. Vibrant and defensively very sound.

McCarthy: 9/10. He truly is a player reborn and provides the leadership in defence that we lacked for so long.

Bougherra: 8/10. Good game. Fuller escaped a couple of times, but that was all.

Sam: 8/10. Great first half, less visible in the second. But appeared at the right place at the right time.

Holland: 8/10. Another storming performance, full of heart. Against a team like Stoke it’s easy to be outmuscled in midfield and he ensured it didn’t happen.

Zhi: 8/10. Looks so much more comfortable now than earlier in the season. I think it’s down to playing alongside Holland.

Ambrose: 7/10. Good game. Not perfect, but involved and mobile.

Iwelumo: 7/10. Worked hard in attack and defence but didn’t run for him in front of goal.

Gray: 8/10. Encouraging performance, just needed a goal to round it off.

Subs: Varney (6/10), Thomas (7/10), Semedo (well, he was only on for a minute but did nothing wrong that I saw).

Saturday 19 January 2008

Is Gray The Next Melrose?

Having decided against going to Watford because of work commitments, I’ve just blown the morning catching up on Andy Gray and other blog postings/comments. Maybe I’m just feeling cranky as my financial planning for 2008 suffered a serious blow last night as the wrong numbers were pulled out for the Euro Millions. But I can’t remember a more subdued and/or negative reaction from Charlton fans to a signing. Well, not since Nicky Weaver anyway.

There is a danger of taking this ’talk up the positive’ approach, which doesn’t come naturally to me in any event, too far. And I don’t know enough about Gray to suggest with any confidence whether or not he might work out for us. Pardew clearly thinks he is and that has to be good enough, at least before he’s played for us. And what does ‘working out for us’ really mean? It means scoring maybe 10 goals in the 18 games left (if he starts each time of course and not including today, although it seems he is available and so could be on the bench). If he does that our chances of promotion go up significantly and at up to GBP2m he becomes a bargain.

What are the objections to Gray? He’s too old and not good enough for the money; he’s not good enough for the Premiership; we don’t need another forward. My answers would be, in order: don’t know but back the manager, don’t care, and yes we do. My only real concern is whether we fall between two stools in not taking a bigger chance on a better/more expensive forward or using what money we have to strengthen other areas. But just look at the accounts. We should be applauding the board for (probably) putting their hands in their pockets again and backing the manager.

Do we need another forward, especially with Chris Dickson getting ever closer? I think we do; and clearly Pardew did too after the loss of Svetoslav Todorov. Chris Iwelumo has to my mind done a fine job for us to date. He isn’t perfect but does a job. Luke Varney has shown he is a very useful player and a willing worker, capable of playing through the middle or on the flank. What is in doubt is his ability to score the sort of scrappy goals in the box that come naturally to a Kevin Phillips. Chris Dickson clearly can be something special – and nobody wants us to accept any offer for him (unless, conceivably, we secured a 75%-plus sell-on clause and even then it’s a ‘no’ for me) – but isn’t a sure thing yet. Izale McLeod is the real disappointment to date. If he plays with Varney or Iwelumo he has to be the goalscorer and to date it hasn’t happened. With Gray coming in he seems to me to be the one to drop down the order or go if we get a decent offer.

Comparisons are being made of previous signings of forwards at key times. That with Sir Clive are unfair. Mendonca was identified by Curbs as the man he wanted and came in before the start of the season, having time to bed in. He was a bold signing at the time and obviously paid off in spades. Promotion next time around came on the back of Andy Hunt’s goals. Both players were either untried or failures at the top level when we signed them. Neither would go on to score hatfuls of goals in the top division, with injury affecting both. But they contributed massively to us getting promoted.

A better comparison for me is Jim Melrose. Under Lennie we were in the frame for promotion but lacked some goals, with John Pearson (a Charlton hero for me) a good target man at that level but Robert Lee, Mark Stuart etc not the goal poachers we needed. Melrose had a mixed record but brought experience, attitude (I can’t remember which game it was but he gave a master class in one game of winding up his opponent, who eventually lost patience and thumped him, getting sent off), and goals. It was the right move at the right time. Can we please at least hope that Gray does the same?

After all, this afternoon is shaping up to be a very important one, given the fixtures. The league changes too often for results at this stage to be decisive, but Watford v Charlton, Palarce v Bristol City mean that at the end of the day it could either be very tight for second place or much more stretched, with Watford and Bristol City, possibly Stoke too, in much better shape than us. A draw would be perfectly acceptable, given that just about all the top clubs have to come to The Valley. Our season will stand or fall on how we perform at home against these clubs. And Gray could make the difference.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Let's Do Right By Darren

Charlton rightly prides itself on its links to the community, its friendly and welcoming approach, and its open-arms policy when it comes to returning ex-players (except those called Parker, Pitcher etc). And there are times when you just have to do the right thing, whatever the consequences.

We all know that in his two seasons with us Darren Bent was a star, on and off the pitch. We also know that, while an exceptional striker who should progress to play for many years at the very top level, he wasn’t the finished article and needed to work on elements of his game. Hardly surprising; find me any footballer of that age, including Rooney, who doesn’t. But instead of allowing him to move on to a club where he would be nurtured and allowed to progress (a couple of years with Wenger at Arsenal would have been perfect), we milked every penny we could from his transfer by sending him off to an outfit which has turned inflated expectations into an art form. There are strong parallels with selling Killer to Derby, where he was expected to play alongside Charlie George and Archie Gemmell in an ageing and declining team. Expecting Darren to perform well alongside arch sulkers Defoe and Berbatov, or prima paddie Keane, and to transform a club which can’t even sack managers properly while carrying a massive price tag was downright unfair.

Now poor Darren finds himself possibly low on confidence and apparently surplus to requirements where he is. And according to reports today “Tottenham have had no takers for Darren Bent, who they are prepared to sell at a loss despite having only signed him last summer (Independent)”. We have a duty to do what we can to help.

For Spurs loaning Darren back to us for the rest of the season would hold out the prospect of either taking back a rejuvenated player in the summer, one who has benefited from scoring a hatful of goals, or selling him on for a good deal more than they would get at present. For us, there would be the inner pleasure of knowing that we had done right by one we took to our hearts (plus the opportunity to send him back with our best wishes in the unlikely event that he doesn’t fire us to promotion).

I know its been mooted around the table by us before and I know in my heart of hearts that it isn’t going to happen. Curbs must be prowling on the sidelines waiting to pounce at the last minute with a bargain offer. But it’s got to be worth the cost of a call.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Let's Hear It For The Boys

Now getting a train to go one stop down the line doesn’t stand up against the records of those who travelled to the Hawthorns, or even those planning to make the trip to Watford on Saturday (it’s the pub for me I’m ashamed to say). But as a desperate attempt to cover up a lamentable performance to date when it comes to away games – a position which will be partially redressed with the season’s daft gesture, a kiddie-carrier full of Addicks driving somewhere up north for the Scunthorpe game – going to the FA Youth Cup game wins a few points. And unlike my previous grand gesture, a 0-0 draw for the reserves against Palace, this one provided plenty of entertainment.

The club site already has a comprehensive report on the 6-0 victory so there’s not much point in going over the details. Suffice to say that as a real contest the match was over after half an hour with Charlton’s second goal, the only doubt having been whether our dominance and obvious advantages in terms of pace and movement would be converted into goals. With a 4-0 lead at half-time the difference in class was obvious. Charlton were able to play through the gears when it mattered while Sheffield’s kids had only one. Their lack of pace in attack was only outdone by a ponderous midfield and a physically-imposing but otherwise limited defence.

By contrast the Charlton youngsters were quick and incisive, playing with a system that had strong similarities with the first team of late. It seemed that every time Sheffield lost the ball going forward we were able to spring a dangerous counter-attack. Our third goal came from such a move, with six Charlton attackers confronted by four defenders. The major difference with the seniors was the quality of the shooting (I’d like to see the percentage of shots which were on target), which put the first team to shame.

It’s fair to say that everyone had a very good game. In goal Joe Woolley dealt with all that came his way, which amounted to one strong shot and a few crosses. The full backs, Chris Solly and Sam Long, tackled well, used the ball with intelligence, and played their part in attack. In central defence Yado Mambo and Rhys Coleman had only a few iffy moments and generally dominated the opposition. Alex Stavrinou had a quietly outstanding game, protecting the defence and allowing others to get forward. And it was the pace and skill of Danny Uchechi, Rashid Yussuff and Jonjo Shelvey – who between them scored four goals, including two in 10 minutes before the break for Shelvey - that proved crucial, especially with good link-up play with Scott Wagstaff, who did a very passable Luke Varney impression. And while centre-forward Ben Godfrey was often out-muscled by Sheffield’s defenders he took his revenge in the second half with two excellent strikes. Callum O’Shea, Mikkel Rygaard-Jensen and Steve Lozano-Calderon came on towards the end but the contest was over long before they took the field.

There was even the added benefit of thinking about how miserable the coach journey back up to Sheffield would be for them and any of their supporters. Unfair? Not after the misery for us of the drive back to London last season. And they probably won’t even have the comfort of a Charles Aznavour CD playing in the background (I’m really not turning French, although the purchase over Christmas of a baby accordion might suggest otherwise). Can’t wait for the fifth round myself, presumably against Middlesbrough (although Swindon Town would be a nice bonus, as long as they don’t bring Willie Carson with them again). It would be nice to turn over Middlebrough in a cup tie and bury another bad memory.

Just about everything that needs to be said about the West Brom cup tie has been said elsewhere. I found myself progressively losing my indifference to the outcome as the game progressed, to the point of a round-the-kitchen jig to Chris Dickson’s equaliser (I totally agree with Wyn Grant that accepting an offer from Southend would make no sense, even if we do eventually land Andy Gray from Burnley). Another good overall team performance should help further strengthen morale and confidence, while hopefully still leaving a sense of unfinished business for the league game against West Brom at The Valley. However, while this might go against the ‘talk/think positive’ pledge, we will only find out on Saturday whether the effort put into the cup tie was worth it.

Monday 14 January 2008

Stuck Inside Of Mobile

So mobility is the keyword now (apologies to Dylan), with Moutaouakil and Youga replacing Mills and Powell (God bless him) and Varney and McLeod in for Iwelumo plus A.N.Other. Have we stumbled upon the system that gets the best out of the players available? Of course it’s too soon to say, after its use only in home games against a weakened West Brom and a Blackpool side that found itself 2-0 down after 10 minutes. And even if it proves to be the answer we still need Plans B and C for the inevitable injuries, suspensions and loss of form. But so far so good, with the quality of football significantly better.

The new approach still allows us to play with two wide men (even with Christensen going out on loan we have Thomas, Sam, Ambrose and Varney). It would be nice to get a few goals from those starting out wide. More important, with Varney and McLeod creating more space Zhi has looked far more effective than before in central midfield. Perhaps also he is benefiting from being alongside Holland as they learn to play together. And of course with energetic full-backs comfortable playing the ball forward the attacking options increase.

The enigma as ever is Reid. There was a discussion a while back on how we would cope if he were injured. At the time I suggested that, while losing him would of course leave us weaker, it needn’t be a terrible loss if we adapted and played at a higher tempo without him (I was assuming Ambrose and/or Racon would come into the equation in the centre). It seems to me that when Reid got injured we tried to carry on in the same fashion. And in the four games without him following the West Brom defeat (two at home) we had three draws and a defeat, scoring one goal in each of the games. There were other factors of course, including two red cards. But perhaps we underplayed the effect Reid has on the team by not quickly accepting that without him we needed to play in a different way, with more pace. It isn’t rocket science that with your best and most creative player rather slow, if he drops out you reassess the whole style and look to take advantage of the situation to emphasise other possible strengths.

This is not to suggest that we should be indifferent as to whether Reid stays or goes in January. He is a key player for us. And if he goes to Sunderland for a net £2m plus another right-back it would look to me like poor business. Alternatively, if he goes for £4m-plus and we are able to use the money – plus that for Walker and (hopefully) Faye and even Bent (although I assume Wigan will just keep him on loan) – then so be it. These are decisions for Pardew and the board.

It is very tough on Iwelumo to find himself on the bench, having strived manfully on his own through injury and awful service. It must be very frustrating for him to get across to the other players that just because he’s a bit big it doesn’t mean they have to lump hopeless balls in his direction all the time. And as soon as we decide to play better football, the end-result being better quality service to the forwards, he finds himself on the bench. That said, I hope he takes the lesson on board that playing up front in a 4-5-1 still requires mobility. Beattie gave a master-class against us earlier in the season.

I hope we do now have the makings of a settled defence, one that can improve as a unit through the rest of the season. The full-backs, at least for now, pick themselves (with Sankofa/Semedo and Basey/Powell as the cover). McCarthy’s return is a big plus and to my mind gives us good cover in central defence, even if the overall quality is not that high. For me it’s McCarthy or Sodje, alongside Bougherra or Fortune. And McCarthy is the only one of the four who seems prepared to lead the defence.

In midfield Semedo is ready to cover for Holland. Suddenly Zhi is looking indispensable – and irreplaceable. Holland and Reid in central midfield in a 4-4-2 is far too risky and short of pace. If Zhi were to drop out at the moment the options would seem to be Ambrose or Racon – or reverting to 4-5-1. Ambrose had his best game of the season in the hole against Ipswich and on Saturday reverted to being peripheral when out wide. Racon I just haven’t seen enough of to make any sort of judgement. Up front, if pacey and mobile forwards are the order of the day we need to have an alternative. Dickson is the obvious choice unless and until there are January signings.

The bottom line is that tomorrow night’s meaningless cup tie against West Brom can be used to test out some of the players who we may well need in the current set-up. This suggests a run-out for Racon and a full game for Dickson. If the latter is to play an important role this season we need to give him more than a cameo 10-15 minutes to show what he can do. Arguments can also be made for including Sankofa against West Brom. We all know that Watford is a far more important game.

Finally, it would seem clear from the Blackpool programme notes that Pardew and Varney are underlining the message that the drive for promotion starts now and that we all have a part to play. And they’re right. It will be no good to us at the end of the season to say ‘I told you so’. It means accentuating the positive whatever happens, at least for a time. So, my friends, it is time for me to abandon my usual level-headed, impartial and reasoned, perhaps a tad cynical, approach to life and to dive headlong into the world of accentuating the positive. Well, I’ll try anyway.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Just What The Doctor Ordered

Well, that was just what the doctor ordered. It wasn’t perfect (just as the Colchester game wasn’t the worst ever), it wasn’t particularly exciting as a contest, at least for the second half. But there were encouraging performances through the team, there was some very good football played at times (with the caveats that some showboating went awry and that it’s much easier to do the elaborate stuff when the pressure is off) and it’s very nice to think about room for further improvement on the back of a 4-1 win and ahead of the tough games coming up. Are we playing much better now or was this down to the quality of the opposition? Probably both, but we'll only really find out in the next few weeks.

Blackpool did play their part as the perfect guests. A goalkeeper (ex-Addick Rachubka) who looked even more ill at ease with crosses than Weaver, an open defence which did not seem to have done their homework (you don’t allow – or shouldn’t allow – forwards to cut inside you on to their favourite side), and a lively enough attack to keep the game interesting. They could easily have scored more than one. They leave with our best wishes for their contribution, although it is a mystery how they are in mid-table while Colchester came to us bottom of the table. Just goes to show what happens in this division when you have an off day and are chasing the game for most of the time as opposed to being handed a two-goal start.

In the end Pardew opted for the same starting eleven as against West Brom, which basically meant opting for the more mobile combination up front, the only change being on the bench where the attacking intent was underlined with Semedo providing the only defensive cover and Iwelumo, Dickson and Thomas to provide the options. In the event the subs weren’t really needed, with three coming on for a run-out more than to try to change the game.

We started well enough, although those around me in the East Stand seemed intent at getting on Ambrose’s back before a ball had been kicked (to be fair he went on to give them plenty of ammunition in the first half by too often failing to get back to help out Youga, the end result being an outstanding first-half display by the full–back). The pattern was set as our first corner was swung into the box and Rachubka stayed on his line, the result being panic even though no Charlton player was anywhere near the ball. The second corner saw him come out, only to demonstrate why he had previously stayed put. A terrible flap at thin air allowed a determined Bougherra to head into an empty net. And not long afterwards Varney collected the ball on the left edge of the box and was allowed to move inside before dispatching a precise shot into the bottom corner. A good goal for him but a poor one for the Blackpool defence.

Then just as we were texting friends about how poor Blackpool were a shot from outside the box flew over Weaver. I’m not sure if he could/should have got to it, tomorrow morning’s highlights should tell. But before we had time to get seriously worried at half-time we scored a third, with Zhi scoring from inside the box. However lively Blackpool looked going forward, the impression that they could concede at will thereafter seemed to drain their confidence and motivation.

The second half was free of tension, especially after we scored from another corner. This time Bougherra’s header came back off the post for Zhi to get his second. There was still time for Thomas to come on and miss an easy chance to break his duck for the season, for Dickson to come on and to get himself in a couple of good positions without being able to take full advantage, and for Moutaouakil to match Youga’s first-half display with an excellent demonstration of overlapping skills and passing. In the end all that was missing was the fifth goal to send us home truly purring.

The negatives (how nice to be searching for these)? Taken individually all of the back five played well, at times very well. But at no stage was the defence as a whole rock-solid. Blackpool created good opportunities, even in the first half when the game was still a contest. Up front, while Varney and McLeod provided pace and movement neither looked totally convincing. McLeod had good moments but too often didn’t make the most of openings. Varney scored and worked hard to usually good effect, without looking like a true goalscorer. And while Holland and Zhi both had excellent games, Ambrose seemed off the pace and Sam was contained (and was the first to be substituted).

Play ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Not sure about the goal (make it an 8 if he had no chance) but dealt well with everything else, including some tricky shots in the second half, and seemed to be communicating more with his defence.

Moutaouakil: 8/10. I thought he had an iffy first half, but in the second really warmed to the task, both defending and going forward. May still need more games to get fully back up to speed, but if he does there’s a lot to look forward to.

Youga: 9/10. Excellent. Came under a lot of pressure in the first half and dealt with all of it. I especially liked the fact that he made his mind up quickly what he was going to do, which gave the opposition little time to react. Suzanne will be very pleased with our full-backs (yes, I know Youga isn’t French but he came to us from Lyon).

Bougherra: 7/10. Perhaps deserves an 8; after all, he scored and his header came back off the post four our fourth. But the defence was often stretched, especially in the second half, and could have conceded more than one.

McCarthy: 7/10. His form since coming back into the team is a major plus as he could have a big effect on the rest of the season. Acts like a leader, something which has been missing.

Sam: 6/10. Was often involved but didn’t make the most of his pace advantage or the combination with Moutaouakil.

Holland: 8/10. Another good all-round display, with endless energy and commitment. Tough on Semedo to be trying to oust him from the team.

Zhi: 8/10. I thought this was the best I have seen him play in central midfield. Scored two and made telling contributions with his tackling and passing.

Ambrose: 6/10. Too often seemed to be allowing the game to pass him by, going forward and back. Should be more influential given his ability.

Varney: 7/10. Not great but took his goal well and worked hard to good effect most of the time, through the middle and out wide (after Ambrose went off).

McLeod: 6/10. Doesn’t look the finished article and things aren’t really working for him, but showed flashes of the obvious potential that he has.

Subs: Not really fair to rate any of them as the game was over before they came on.

A word for the ref, Mr Singh. He and his officials had excellent games, only one yellow card (although Moutaouakil got away with a clear tug back that should have been a second).

I want to end on a sour note. No thanks to the programme editor for including a reference to Gary Nelson having just enjoyed his 47th birthday. Many happy returns Gary, but how is it possible that all through his Charlton career this sweaty, knarled old veteran was younger than me?

Sunday 6 January 2008

Just Cut It Out, John

So, a belated bonne annee to all and sundry. Kind of forgot to mention that after the Colchester game. Might have had something to do with the result. And no, I wasn’t one of the 12,682 who made what sounded like an entertaining if ultimately unsatisfactory game yesterday. I was out of the country for work and returned only in time to catch Villa and Man Utd bore the country to death later in the day. I do plan to make amends by going to the Youth Cup game coming up (which is another way of saying I’m not going to make amends by going up to The Hawthorns for the replay).

Perfectly good reason or not, it was hard to get enthusiastic about yesterday’s game. For a few years I foolishly kept the tickets for the early rounds in the vain hope that this could be our year. We know we’re not going far this time – and financial considerations aside I don’t really want us to draw a top team even if we get past West Brom. It will only remind us what we had got used to and don’t have any more. And I can’t think of an entertaining minnow that we could host in the next round. So as far as I’m concerned it’s the reserves for the replay and hang the result.

For what it’s worth my French partner believes we would have won if we had put out Racon as well as Youga and Moutaouakil. I didn’t have the heart to point out to her that Yassin, while his return is very welcome, was at least partially culpable for their equaliser.

So maybe that’s it for the cup, except for regretting Luton getting a replay against Liverpool (thought we might be able to pick up a bargain or two – don’t get sentimental, let’s remember Paul Elliott and Paul Walsh) and the prospect of passing a couple of hours watching Stoke remind the nation that you can still play football the Watford/Cambridge way. There aren’t many teams I hope don’t pull off a cup upset, but Stoke are one of them.

So it there any point to all this? Maybe. One of the enjoyable aspects of watching coverage of the cup at this stage is the brief appearance of assorted characters you had forgotten about (the player we never managed to sign who now has the waistline of Ralph Milne etc). Having slept through the previous evening’s highlights I was lying in bed with the TV on safe in the knowledge that our game would come towards the end and hoping against hope that the programme would go on long enough to provide a plausible excuse for not having the time to go to the gym (it didn’t). Then came one of those moments when your blood freezes. The BBC really ought to provide some sort of warning.

After the highlights of a tremendous win for Oldham at Everton the Beeb in its wisdom decided to interview the Oldham manager. The face was a little older, a little more lined, perhaps a touch podgier. But it was unmistakable. And horrible. John bloody Sheridan. I thought he had gone for good from my life. Apparently not.

Now I don’t know about you but any mention or picture of Sheridan sends me to a very unpleasant place. Yes, I know it all turned out all right in the end. And happy memories come flooding back when anyone makes reference to St Andrews, Peter Shirtliffe, play-offs etc. But if the starting point is Sheridan I immediately bring up the image of him striding pompously towards the ball after an outrageously bad decision against Paul Miller by the ref, finger pointing and shouting at those around him. He didn’t even seem to stop when he reached the ball, just curled what a neutral might call a perfect dipped shot over the wall and into our net. The next thing that comes to mind is sitting on the terraces head in hands at half-time in extra time, trying to come to terms with the thought that we might be relegated that night.

So, can the BBC please provide some warning if their programmes are going to contain my own little house of horrors. Or John, just cut it out. Don’t do the interview. If by some quirk of fortune we beat WBA in the replay and get Oldham in the fourth round I will not be responsible for my actions.

Tuesday 1 January 2008

We Are Stardust

So, was this an embarrassing home defeat to the Championship’s bottom team or an enjoyable game of football between two well-matched teams that ended up going against us? Well, both of course, depending on your level of expectation. Whether wisdom comes with age, whether its the after-effect of yesterday’s excesses, or whether it’s just the time of man I actually enjoyed the game, even when we were 2-0 down. I came away from the Hull match fuming as we had created little and looked like a bad team. I came away from this one thinking we were unlucky to lose, should have scored more than one, and were denied a penalty, but without any illusions that we deserved to win.

The problem this time was not a lack of creativity. We made enough chances to have won three games. Rather we lost because we allowed Colchester to score twice and only converted one of at least a dozen good opportunities. A better team would not have allowed either to happen – and if it’s coming down to a lack of quality in both boxes that’s like being a struggling team in the Premiership. We know all about that.

Colchester weren’t the worst team to come to The Valley. They defended in depth, they had good movement, and they had two forwards who expected to have to work hard with little support, with the space to work the flanks. Yes, Lisbie did look effective. And give them something to defend and it’s a different game. If we had gone in front we probably would have run out easy winners. But that’s not what happened. That’s not what’s happened too many times this season.

How did the game go? Well, 4-5-1 with Zhi in the hole and Sam and Thomas out wide. First 10 minutes or so were uneventful, but we looked very static. Everyone has their position, with a lack of fluidity. You wondered why at home we needed to have Holland and Semedo working together in front of the defence. There was a warning as Colchester ran through us once, but surely that wouldn’t happen again. Then Bougherra overran the ball coming out of defence and lost possession. The ball was moved into the box and as Lisbie (I think) was about to shoot McCarthy bundled him over. I still cannot work out why it wasn’t a red card and felt relief that, although 1-0 down, we still had 11 on the pitch.

A couple of half-chances later we allowed Colchester to cross to the far post and a ball knocked back found Lisbie with his back to goal. He was always at his best when he had no clear idea where the goal is, so it was no surprise that he put one over his shoulder into the top corner. Cue loud boos from the morons, but all that had really happened was that we had been caught out by a bad mistake and had given away a penalty and then a half-chance in the box had been taken.

We continued to create chances, with Thomas featuring strongly, but seemed intent on shooting into the stands, with Pardew making an understandable switch to 4-4-2 by bringing on Varney. McCarthy was unlucky to be taken off to accommodate the change, but being on a yellow card it was sensible. If he has thrown a hissie fit, going straight down the tunnel. he is out of order. It was a realistic tactical change, with Bougherra moving to the centre and Semedo switching to right-back. And the change paid dividends before the break as Sam delayed a cross to good effect, picking out an unmarked Varney. There was just time left for us to have the ball in the net again, but I had seen the linesman’s flag go up and didn’t even enjoy the celebrations before they were cut short.

A goal back before the break at least subdued the boos. And there was no realistic prospect of the score being unchanged at the end. Surely it was only a matter of time before we got the equaliser and then the winner. It happened against Sheff Wed, why not now? But we seemed to lack the intensity that had led to the first goal and the clock ticked down. We should have had a penalty as Sam was shoved in the back before the defender got to the ball, but the linesman in front of us wanted to remain anonymous. Just another official bottling a big decision. And from the same move the ball flashed across the goal for Iwelumo to just fail to convert. It looked like a key minute and so it proved.

Colchester had a few moments in the second half, but were not surprisingly content to run down the clock, with the ref happy to warn them (repeatedly) for time-wasting but doing nothing about it. And the game was summed up in the last two minutes. A cross to the far post found Zhi with a free header a few yards out, only for the ball to glance across his face with his eyes shut. Then Ambrose, who had come on for Powell as the last throw of the dice (after Yassin had replaced Semedo), only had to chip the ball into the net with their keeper stranded but managed to miss. Two great chances and both unconverted.

Reflections on the game? Good luck to Colchester. On another day they would have lost, but they deserved a draw. We didn’t lack effort or commitment, just quality in preventing chances and in taking them. Of course we’re missing Reid (and Todorov) but today was about finishing. And we were found wanting. More serious reflections on what we do in the January window will have to wait – as my glass of wine is empty and my typing finger tired.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. No chance with the goals.

Bougherra: 4/10. His mistake led to their first goal. Moved into the centre and played well enough after that, but we have two right backs in Yassin and Sankofa. The experiment of Bougherra at right-back should now be over.

Fortune: 6/10. Didn’t stand out positively or negatively, although there was a collective responsibility for the defence for their second.

McCarthy: 6/10. Lucky not to be red-carded, unfortunate to be substituted. I still hope his return will be a big turning point.

Powell: 7/10. Got forward well, good game. Just miss the win celebrations.

Semedo: 7/10. I still think he has a role in central defence for us. Started alongside Holland and was moved to right-back, then substituted to allow more attacking threat from Yassin. Did nothing wrong throughout the game, but where do we play him now that Holland is back?

Holland: 7/10. Does what it says on the label. What he really needs is more movement from those around him.

Zhi: 5/10. An enigma. Had little chance to play in the hole today as we were soon 2-0 down and we changed formation. More restrained role thereafter. Finds himself in great positions but seldom gets the pass, often fails to deliver the right pass when on the break – and missed a great chance at the death.

Thomas: 7/10. Looked dangerous, saw a lot of the ball. Only criticism was the failure to convert all of this into chances/goals.

Sam: 7/10. His cross for our goal, foul on him should have given us a penalty. Criticism was he was too often too difficult to find. When he had the ball he looked dangerous.

Iwelumo: 5/10. For the first time this season I thought he played poorly. He was contained quite easily by their central defenders and had a frustrating afternoon. We badly needed a plan B without Big Chris, who has fought manfully for us so far through injury. Today it just didn’t work.


Varney: Scored but struggled in the second half to find space. Needs to learn from Todorov how to go deep and to link play rather than just waiting for an Iwelumo flick. Still looks best on the flanks and outside the box.

Yassin: Got forward well. Looked a little sluggish but that’s not surprising given lack of games. Let’s make him our right-back and get on with it.

Ambrose: Just time to miss a great chance.

It’s too soon to write off this season and to just build for next (although the case for doing this is strengthening). We’re not that much short of a team capable of getting promoted. But to go up we have to improve. Whether that can come from the current squad and finding better combinations, with Reid returning, or whether it can be done from some new signings I can’t say as I don’t write the cheques or pick the team. We clearly need something. And Pards, Chris Dickson has to have a chance to make an impression. Another month without a game and it may have gone. Maybe it’s gone already. Maybe it’s the time of man, but we've got to get ourselves back to the garden …