Sunday 30 March 2008

Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions ...

Today I feel bitter, depressed, cheated, angry, alienated, lethargic. It feels like the worst day for at least a year. But then I always feel this way when the clocks go forward. How can they just rob me of an hour’s kip? I know we get it back later in the year, but that never seems the same. I’m asleep for the extra hour, whereas today the deprivation is all too real. So it feels like a poor exchange. Maybe there’s another reason for feeling naff.

Having seen the highlights this morning the only things to add to last night’s garbled prose (the wine had flowed well before the game and was a requirement after it) would seem to be yes, McCarthy did switch off for their first goal; yes, he has to take most of the rap for Ebanks-Blake’s second (although like Gera’s volley for WBA would have been it was an effort worthy of winning a game); and how did Semedo get away with a yellow for his headbutt? McCarthy has been excellent since coming back into the team, but along with Sodje was exposed yesterday by the Wolves strikers. Semedo was superb early in the season in doing Holland’s job while the latter was injured. Since coming back he has looked less effective and uncomfortable in partnership with Holland. I thought we bought him as a centre-back.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not yet in the mood for reviews of the season, analysis of where it all went wrong (look at the goals against total for home games) and discussion of who should go and how we should structure the team for next year (under Pardew for sure). Clearly there can be no thought of buying in before we have disposed of a number of players. We do have too many, even ignoring the loan signings (for what it’s worth – and it’s a bit tough on Cook and Halford – I can’t see any point in playing anyone who won’t be with the club next season during the remaining games).

A few months back I decided to try to accentuate the positive through to the end of the season as I thought all supporters had a big role to play if we were going to get promoted. More recently it might seem to some, judging by some comments left, that I’m coming across as some sort of apologist for the club and burying my head in the sand as hopes of promotion steadily recede. Fact is if I thought there was any positive action I could think of to improve our promotion chances I would have put in on this blog, for what it’s worth. I have no connection with the club, I have never (to the best of my knowledge) met Pardew or any of the board. And the nearest I’ve been to meeting the players was going to one of those old open days when I was knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper.

In short, I haven’t got a clue why sometimes we manage to play so badly and appear sluggish and poorly motivated in some games, especially at the start, and have no idea what the real mood among the players is. I was one of those who thought when Reid left that we had worked out a good way to play without him (pace and movement, now a distant memory) and that it made sense to sell him. We’ll never know what would have happened if he had stayed; it couldn’t have turned out any worse as we ain’t going up. So in the words of Graham Parker, don’t ask me questions ‘cos there ain’t no answer in me.

However, I’m not going to make any apology for the opinion that the crowd has a positive role to play when things are not going well – and that collectively we’ve not come up to scratch – and that booing the team during the game is totally counter-productive. I’ve never seen our team, indeed any team, play better as a result. We were much improved in the second half yesterday, helped by Zheng replacing Ambrose and presumably some choice words from Pardew.

I was in the East Stand yesterday. The guy I was sat next to started shouting attempts at sarcasm/cynicism after maybe three minutes of the game. Maybe he didn’t like the line-up (personally I think that in the second half, when the overall play was better, Iwelumo and Lita looked as good a combination as we have, which admittedly is tough on Varney). The boorish and loud observations continued. For some reason this person clearly thought he was saying something that wasn’t blatantly obvious to everyone: namely we weren’t playing well. So when we equalised I started asking those around me why the booing had suddenly stopped. There followed a lively and extended exchange with the guy, which I will attempt to paraphrase.

‘I’m entitled to my opinion’. ‘Not really, your opinion is dull and you’re not helping, so keep it to yourself’ (repeat exchange numerous times). ‘Do you think this is good enough?’ ‘No, obviously it isn’t, but what do you suggest to make it better other than booing?’ (repeat ad infinitum). There followed some accusations and observations. Had I been bussed in from Kent? (well, Blackheath actually). He informed me he had been a supporter for 10 years. Think I can claim a few more than that, not that it matters.

To be fair to the guy at no stage did the very noisy exchange threaten to turn violent. When the dust had settled I tried talking to him a couple of times. But he was having none of it. What followed was truly remarkable. He spent the remainder of the game saying nothing, arms folded, looking miserable. He didn’t even react when we equalised in the last minute, just sat and sulked. Seemingly deprived of the ability to whine there was no purpose left. Presumably he felt vindicated by Wolves’ winner. At least he must have gone home happy.

I really don’t want to slag off a long-standing supporter. We need all we can get and I’m sure he has a different take on the matter. I just simply cannot comprehend why some people want to wallow in failure or to think that complaining is somehow enough, some way perhaps of avoiding any sense of association (and I still don’t know what this guy considered to be good enough, presumably a win is good, a defeat is bad). Personally I’m just not interested in coming away from a game having been ‘proved right’ and we’ve lost (I really do prefer being proved completely wrong and we’ve won). Whether we like it or not the team put out on the pitch is the one that the manager thinks is best equipped to win the game. And our comments aren’t going to change anything, especially when they only state the bleedin’ obvious.

So can someone please point out any flaw in the following rationale: I want to leave the game feeling happy (we do after all pay money to attend); I feel happy if we win (occasionally if it’s a draw, never if it’s a defeat); cheering the team in whatever circumstances, during the game, tends to help them play better while booing them tends to make it worse; the team has a better chance of winning if it plays well. This isn’t being an apologist or ignoring certain facts (most obviously that the season is turning out to be a massive disappointment and that there’s a great deal to be done if we are to mount a challenge next season).For those who say that ‘something must be done’ can we please have some suggestions for positive action (not including changing the manager).

Saturday 29 March 2008

Let It Go

There’s going to be a time over the next few days to review the season, to discuss the games that are left, to speculate on who we should sell, and to chew over why I spent the entire second half of the game seated next to a spoilt brat who just had his arms folded and neither cheered nor booed, even when we scored the equaliser. For now I’m just going to try to focus a little on the game and leave the meaning of life for some time in the future.

The team was a mix of good and bad. Iwelumo and Lita partnered up front, which looked good to me. But Holland and Semedo were still paired in central midfield (both worthy players but a partnership made in hell) and Halford and Thatcher had the nod over Youga and Moutaouakil. Thomas and Ambrose provided the width. But whatever plan we had for the first 45 minutes quickly went out of the window as we were awful. Conditions were difficult, but that didn’t stop Wolves playing some football – and by doing so embarrassing us.

I wish I could pinpoint why the first half was so bad. Wolves scored a decent goal, with McCarthy calpable for getting the wrong side of their forward, who played a ball in which left Halford against two forwards, including Ebanks-Blake who scored. What I remember as being remarkable was not so much how we struggled to put passes together (which we did), or whether Wolves were more up for the challenge than we were (they were), or whether I was sitting next to a dipstick who took more delight in moaning than in anything going right. What I remember was that we had a couple of half-chances and completely blew them, without anyone thinking twice. Our standard of finishing - and our expectation of our players being able to finish - has indeed fallen that low.

That we went into the break on equal terms was remarkable. Thomas, who again looked our most dangerous outlet but at the same time sometimes flattered to deceive, managed to get the ball across at the second attempt and Halford scored. Wolves went on to hit the post and continue to outplay us, but there it was at the break: 1-1.

It did change. Ambrose, who had a 45 minutes which I hope he was embarrassed by, was replaced by Zheng, and there was at least more urgency, even if we nearly went 2-1 down early on. Through a combination of greater effort and persistence we had the better of the next 20 minutes. Lita was looking dangerous and the combination with Iwelumo was causing problems for Wolves. We had three or four situations where we could have scored. We didn’t.

Then Ebanks-Blake scored the sort of goal that you should just applaud. Gera nearly buried us a week ago – and if his volley had gone in we should have just said so be it. This time around I have no idea how he scored. But he did, after we had failed to do so from much more promising situations. It’s what he’s paid to do. They have him. So we were losing 2-1 in a game we should have been behind at the break but then ahead after half time.

We made more changes, with Thomas departing for Cook and Semedo giving way for Varney. But in stoppage time it looked as though we would be denied. Then a decent ball in from the right and Lita moved well to get ahead of his marker and the keeper to score. He celebrated like we had discovered the secret of the universe. Suddenly we had two minutes to get the winner. Oh, silly us. We had two minutes to gift them the winner. I’m not quite sure how we managed to do that, but it was just one of those things. They were comfortable converting chances.

As the players left the pitch there was no doubting that we were unfortunate to have lost. But we were lucky to be level at the break. We had done enough to have at least drawn the game. But that wasn’t enough. A point wasn’t enough anyway. So words don’t mean much at the moment. We beat Stoke and Palace and looked better than them. Since then we have failed to beat Watford, Bristol City, WBA and Wolves. So be it. We can’t claim to have been unlucky. Perspective is for tomorrow. I don’t care right now for player ratings, reasons, hopes. Let it go. And let’s start thinking about next season.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Farewell Then, Teenage Trailblazer

I think it’s fair to say that unless I’m very cheesed off during/after the Wolves game I won’t be casting my vote for player of the season for a certain ‘teenage trailblazer’ (according to the Preston programme). Farewell then, Scott Sinclair, your Charlton career will forever read a succession of 0s save for three substitute appearances. I saw you play in a Charlton shirt. Once. You were dreadful. Or to put it another way good riddance, clear off and do the same job for Palace for the rest of the season.

In the interests of fairness I suppose it’s possible that the decision to move on was not Sinclair’s. Maybe we made some sort of pledge to Chelsea to actually play him (maybe they gave their word that he wasn’t rubbish) and it was them throwing toys out of the pram. Whatever. The wisdom of signing both him and Lee Cook on loan, with Thomas, Sam and Ambrose already available in wide midfield, was always questionable. At least it’s over.

In this age of media training for illiterates, and with the latest captain of the England team clearly someone who struggles with words, it is worth looking back at the highlight of Sinclair’s Charlton stay: his interview in the programme. Among the gems were: “I’m really happy to be here” (obviously not), “obviously we’ve won one and drawn once since I’ve been here” (clearly an observant young man capable not just of looking at results but also interpreting the scores), and “as long as we are not losing games and keep fighting and playing well, then I think we will get up”. OK, that one’s just plain garbage. Will we soon be picking out similar platitudes from Leroy Lita’s interview in the WBA programme? He has after all just extended his loan to the end of the season.

I just find it a little sad that even a player out on loan feels obliged to trot out the usual inane comments and meaningless verbage. Are they so scared of going off script? Of course most footballers don’t have the time or the command of the language to write their own books. But surely they can manage the odd interview that says something. Whistling in the wind I know.

While we’re on the contents of the programme, I think Pardew deserves credit for his honesty when writing about his muddling with the team and the effect that has had. Before the season started I penned something along the lines of ‘shock horror, Pardew discovered not to be god’, at a time when fans seemed to be ready to hail him as the new messiah. The point was to suggest that he will make decisions that come to be seen as mistakes and/or we disagree with (if there is a difference). In the end I scrapped it as it seemed unnecessarily negative. What is most important in any occupation or situation is the ability to continue to learn – especially from mistakes - and improve as the chances are similar situations will recur. Oh, that we knew when we were young what we know now. How many times would I have turned that promising situation into a reality? OK, I’m drifting into dreamland now. I didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t now.

(On the subject of learning from mistakes/taking advice, I remember discussing with my father many moons ago whether I needed to clean my flat as my then girlfriend was staying for the weekend. The sound advice was: “clean it like you’ve never done before, until it hurts to see the reflection, until the scrubbing brush is worn thin. If you do that you stand a chance of her thinking you just need looking after. If you don’t ...”. Trouble is I just don’t remember him advising me instead to get wasted the night before she arrives on the (false) assumption that I won’t oversleep on a public holiday and have her arrive to view the flat in its normal state. He must have done. How else would that have happened last weekend?)

Also, for all our carping one of the events that has gone almost unremarked is the fresh investment in the club by the directors, including new plc chairman Derek Chappell. I guess that’s because we have little to say on the subject. All we ask of the directors of our club is that they pour vast amounts of money into the coffers, without complaint and embracing the criticism from the rest of us that goes with the job, and select the right guy to spend it – and to be ready to replace him (and the money) if it doesn’t work out. Leaving aside the money, that’s the approach the club had for much of my time, with managers from Frank Hill regularly dispensed with. Surely we all hope that last season was an aberration in that respect and that we are back on the rightful path?

So, Wolves on Saturday. Can’t wait, especially as I have the winnings from the WBA game to pick up (why is it that the Ladbrokes booth is open before the game to take our money but not after to pay some of it back?). We all know we have to win, so what combinations up front?

Let’s consider all possible combinations of Lita, Varney, Iwelumo, Gray, Ambrose and Zheng. To my mind, to get the best out of a link-up player like Gray we would need to go back to the more mobile team of the early new year, with Varney to be the willing runner alongside him but also with Youga and Moutaouakil coming back to provide the extra pace and attacking threat. Otherwise in my opinion he should be left out. You can’t link up play if all around you are static. And he hasn’t given any indication yet that he is a poacher in the box. If Lita is the first name on the teamsheet, how do we get the best out of him? It doesn’t look like he’s effective playing as a lone striker. And I’m not convinced that he and Varney can play well together. They have given no indication of an understanding from what I have seen, nor do they complement each other. I would choose Iwelumo to provide the muscle and knock-downs for Lita to (hopefully) feed off.

I’m assuming we will play with two up front against Wolves, so the idea of Zheng or Ambrose in the hole is probably a non-starter. One friend continues to advocate Ambrose as the second striker as his strike rate puts others to shame. And on the grounds that Lita is going to start I can’t see Pardew embracing these options. So for me it’s Iwelumo and Lita to start (with Gray or Varney on the bench, which isn’t great if we need a goalscorer to come on), with the emphasis on getting in quality crosses. That places the onus on Thomas, Cook or Ambrose to do the business, rather than Varney starting out wide. Can we please just remember that if we do play Iwelumo it doesn’t mean we have to lump aimless high balls in his direction.

Friday 21 March 2008

Blowin' In The Wind

I’m not really sure what to make of that game. Nobody can deny that on the balance of play over 90 minutes and on chances created West Brom deserved to win more than we did. But getting nothing would have been hard on us after a performance which was lacking in cohesion – trying to play football in a howling gale interspersed with thunderstorms can’t have been easy, so both teams deserve a pat on the back for making the effort and for what was generally a keenly-contested but fair game – but not in effort and commitment.

The team was actually the same as the one for the away game against Burnley, so there was consistency of sorts. Thatcher and Halford as the full-backs, Semedo partnering Holland in central midfield. So there wasn’t much anticipation of us driving forward in numbers. Up front Gray was back to partner Lita, while Thomas and Ambrose provided the width. I’m not sure it’s a set-up for the team which inspires, especially at home, looking something like a compromise between playing football and knocking it long, with a shortage of real pace and a defensive feel about it. But quite frankly with so many possible combinations (Varney and Sinclair didn’t even make the bench), so little time left to get it right, and after three straight defeats and with confidence low I’m just not in the mood to carp.

Given the conditions both teams played well enough in the first half, without the game every really catching fire. After some cat and mouse stuff in the first 29 minutes (the time is important as Suzanne put a couple of quid on the first goal being scored in 21-30 minutes – at 9/2 – so we need to establish that) a set-piece was swung over to the far post. Halford met it and I thought headed it back across goal. But it went in and we had the advantage. A couple of half-chances were to follow but the finishing was not up to scratch (although nothing was to match Thomas’ early effort which not only failed to make Deano work but also didn’t make it out of play for a throw-in). And in the end two moments shortly before half-time were to decide the outcome.

First, Ambrose gave away a free kick in a risky position, not for the first time. After the delivery in was contested by just about everyone the ball fell to Phillips, somehow on his own just inside the area. There was still a lot to do, with Weaver and defenders on the line. But the little git struck it sweetly and in off the bar, giving those waiting for the shot no chance. Very soon after from another set piece suddenly Sodje (I think) found himself unmarked in the box with the ball. His shot blazed over the bar.

At the break it was still anyone’s game. We were playing OK given the conditions, with Thomas putting in the best 45 minutes I’ve seen from him this season (not just threatening but putting in some committed tackles too). The defence was looking reasonably solid against a team we know scores for fun. Two West Brom players booked, Semedo joining them (the only complaint here was that the ref was not going to show a card until the WBA player showed him the effect of the challenge). How Ambrose avoided being booked was a mystery given repeated fouls and talkings to. The only other incident that sticks in my mind was Thomas delivering the worst attempt at getting a penalty I have seen for a while. He had clearly lost the ball before deciding as an afterthought to take a tumble.

With the two teams back to parity much of the second half was as cagey as the first. But to the credit of both as the game progressed substitutions were made with the intention of getting the winner – and as the game opened up in the last 20 minutes it was once more the opposition which looked the more likely. One rasping shot of theirs hit the top of the bar and their passing and movement seemed to improve as they chased the game. We weren’t shy of throwing players forward either, but there was more of an air of desperation about our attacks in comparison with theirs. But we continued to defend well, with McCarthy marshalling those around him and with plenty of tackles and blocks. It’s just a pity that the abiding memory of our defending was a Keystone Cops moment when a poor backpass saw Weaver scramble to get to the ball to prevent a corner, only to keep it in play for them.

In the conditions any set piece could cause problems for either defence, so there was always hope. We brought on Zheng for Semedo, then Iwelumo for Lita and Cook for Ambrose. Zheng looked a little rusty and, with West Brom getting a grip on the game it was a gamble which nearly backfired. When Big Chris was warming up I assumed he would come on for Gray, as Lita was the most likely to benefit from scraps in the box. Cook coming on saw Thomas switch to the right, where he seemed generally less effective.

There was always the chance of a goal but when the final whistle blew we had to accept that we had created very little from open play (again, the conditions did play a big part), with no indication that Gray and Lita could play together. In the last half an hour we got in plenty of crosses, but when Kiely comes out and gathers them all comfortably you know that the quality of the ball in was not good enough. Whether a point is good enough for either team is doubtful, but West Brom probably had the better case to feel more aggrieved at not getting all three.

I usually like a couple of days to ponder before drawing any conclusions. But my main feeling after the game was that we were/are still in danger of falling between stools in terms of style of play. With Thatcher and Halford as the full-backs there is precious little support for the wide men going forward, which of course makes them less effective. Equally, Semedo and Holland is not a partnership to produce driving runs forward. Up front, Gray and Lita did not look like a natural partnership. I thought Lita was looking threatening before he was substituted (OK, let’s be honest, I thought it was crazy to bring on Iwelumo and throw in crosses but at the same time take off the player most likely to nick a goal in the box). A player like Gray requires more fluidity and forward movement than our line-up afforded. Maybe our game plan was to get in front and then have the weapons to keep it tight at the back. If we could have made it to half-time in front and/or got a second it might have worked. And maybe on the day not being beaten was enough.

Player ratings:

Weaver: 6/10. No chance with the goal and dealt with other shots and crosses, but has to be marked down for a couple of crazy moments in the second half.

Halford: 8/10. Defensively sound enough and scored the goal. But whether or not under instructions there was nothing from him going forward in open play.

Thatcher: 7/10. As with Halford without the extra point for the goal.

McCarthy: 9/10. My man-of-the-match. Leadership and commitment. Excellent display.

Sodje: 8/10. Not far behind. I don’t know what happened regarding marking for their goal, but today defensively we could not really be faulted.

Holland: 8/10. Put in so much work, with some stirring tackles. Just questionable whether a partnership with Semedo is a central midfield to either control a game or to support the attack.

Semedo: 7/10. If Holland wasn’t around he would do the job splendidly, as he did earlier this season. It’s not his fault that together it’s not ideal.

Thomas: 8/10. Loses a point for the penalty effort, but was our main attacking threat through the game. Often had no support.

Ambrose: 6/10. Not his best game. Lucky not to be booked in the first half, wasted a free kick in a good position in the second. But no lack of effort and the crosses did cause some problems.

Gray: 6/10. It wasn’t a day for playing through the middle and he’s not one for the longer ball.

Lita: 7/10. Still not really convincing, but was proving something of a handful before being taken off.

Subs: Cook (looked less impressive than when he came on against Watford); Zheng (difficult to come on against West Brom’s midfield and impress); Iwelumo (tried hard but he and Gray is not the partnership we’re looking for).

The officials: They came in for a lot of stick. But from where I was sitting there was only one decision – a foul given against Halford contesting a ball in their box, which was down to the linesman – that was poor. Some were questionable, but the howls of derision from the stands were just not justified.

Sunday 16 March 2008

Sisters Of Mercy

The season has developed not necessarily to our advantage. I didn’t actually see the Burnley or Ipswich games. From the reports it seems clear that the performances were substantially better than against Preston, which shouldn’t be completely ignored as the players have shown they have the necessary pride and commitment. No goals, no points, and the loss of the place we had virtual squatters rights on tell their own story. But at least expectations have indeed been adjusted. Squeezing into the play-offs would now be seen as a bonus rather than the consolation prize it has appeared through the season (arrogant, Premiership-wannabees that we are).

Confidence among the players must be low – and surely it isn’t going to be helped if players go out on the pitch on Friday and expect to be booed from the first misplaced pass. For crying out loud can we please play a part in helping to maximise our chances of winning, against a team which may itself have surprisingly fallen away of late but which is bound to be scenting blood? This means not just not booing but also singing from the start. The crowd has been up for some games, most obviously Palace, but they have been few and far between. Of course it’s a chicken and egg argument about what happens on the pitch influencing the crowd. But we’re not impartial observers. I’m not in the least bit interested in leaving the ground listening to ‘told you we’d lose, why are we still playing X when he’s rubbish, I’ve got a right to voice my opinion’. The crowd does influence the outcome so can we please play our part in trying to make it a positive one.

We do have to hope that Pardew will stumble on a combination of the talents available that works in the seven (hopefully 10) games left. I’m always reluctant to make any suggestions regarding what this might be as I’m quite ready to accept that Pardew will have forgotten more about football over a cup of cocoa than I will ever know (this is of course penned through gritted teeth because there’s a part of every supporter that just can’t accept such common sense). Also, we are not close enough to the players or see them in training to see who is working well, who is up for the fight, what partnerships seem to be gelling etc.

It may be rather late in the day to be having a discussion about our best starting X1, but there we are. We haven’t had a settled team all season and, with Halford, Cook, Sinclair and Lita having come in we’re not going to in what’s left. It goes without saying that the successful teams are those which play to their strengths, including having an established style of play (even if, like Watford and Stoke, its awful to have to watch). To do that you have to know what they are. So are there any lessons to be learnt from our inconsistency – both in terms of results and team selection – through the season? Maybe. Bear with me in the following ramble as there may be a conclusion.

I’m sure from what he said and from our squad that Pardew believed that with Reid, Ambrose, Thomas, Sam, Holland and Zheng to call on midfield would be our strength, with lingering Premiership quality. And after a stuttering start there were reasons to believe that this would prove to be the case. However, with Holland injured it didn’t gel as well as it might have done – which was no fault of the excellent Semedo. Accommodating Reid and Ambrose in a four-man midfield left us short of pace and zip, Zeng struggled to have an influence, while too often we looked to Reid to deliver something special. At that time it wasn’t clear if Iwelumo and Varney would deliver the goals, with Todorov being used sparingly and McLeod not making an instant impression. And with McCarthy starting his Charlton career like Bambi on ice and Fortune and Bougherra not looking a comfortable combination, the defence was shipping goals.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointment of being held at home by Barnsley, going into the international break we had good reason to be cheerful (had we but known it then). Todorov was adding class, we were in second place with a newly constructed team which would only get better. There was a swagger about some of our play then, and an element of fear in our opponents.

However, the goals, which at no stage exactly flowed, dried up and Todorov was taken out. With McLeod struggling, Varney not scoring goals, and Dickson scoring elsewhere – and just as important the midfield not contributing – we had the experiment of Iwelumo on his own up front and Reid, Zheng and Ambrose trying their luck in the hole, all with mixed results. The bonus was that, with Sodje coming in and Mills producing some stirring displays, the defence, for a while, was tighter. But that all fell apart with home defeats to Sheff Utd and Burnley and, although there were some good performances/results (not least home to Ipswich), for me the season hit rock bottom against Hull as with Reid lost to injury we appeared clueless, a performance not matched until Preston.

It took us a while to work out that without Reid we needed to have a different approach, especially as Dickson was out of the equation almost as soon as he had returned. I really thought we found it for a while, due to two developments. First, the defence was transformed – not just as a defensive unit but as an integral part of a more fluid style of play. Youga came back from loan and was a revelation, Moutaouakil returned after Mills imploded, while McCarthy got back in the side and provided the leadership we so badly lacked. He and Bougherra formed what still looks to me like our best central pairing. Second, Varney and McLeod in tandem up front provided the necessary pace and movement. McLeod didn’t justify a place on the grounds of his finishing, but in combination with Youga and Moutaouakil the emphasis was on pace.

It seemed to me to work. The movement allowed Zheng to come into his own, with Holland providing the anchor. We had devised a way of playing without Reid which got the best out of some key players. I thought Gray coming in could be the final piece in the jigsaw. Instead it has been disruptive as he has needed time to settle in – and because for some reason Pardew saw him and Iwelumo as the initial combination.

All too soon it was over. Moutaouakil’s mistake against Scunthorpe cost him his place (I think he was also culpable for Watford’s goal in the away game, so for me it wasn’t just one mistake) and more recently Youga seems to have lost it. I have no idea why. In comes Halford and then Bougherra gets injured, so in comes Fortune. Youga is dropped and Thatcher is back. The defence is transformed again. For the better? At the same time Cook, Sinclair and Lita join the ranks. Is it any wonder that the players against Preston seemed to have no idea what sort of system they were supposed to be playing?

So, the lessons. Ideally we would have a settled spine to the team. We don’t (let's accept that Pardew has been unlucky with injuries at key times). Neither do we have obvious players/strengths that should dictate the way we play. In my opinion Pardew has to look at the squad and decide what the structure and style of play should be and choose the players accordingly, all the way through the team, not just in attack. If we’re going to play with pace and movement then it has to be Moutaouakil and Youga back in, with Varney and Gray starting up front. If we want to be more direct and see Lita as the man to score the goals we need, partner him with Iwelumo and try to ensure the wingers supply the goods, which probably means no place for Ambrose.

It’s just not good enough to suggest that this is our best player in this position, decide maybe seven or eight on that basis, then fill in the rest. It may well not be the best combination – and at worst the players can end up not knowing how they’re supposed to play (Preston). Of course we need to be able to change the system if things aren’t working out. That’s what subs are for.

Don’t forget Pards. You will be performing for a discerning audience on Friday as Suzanne will be over from France. I can’t believe that I didn’t know until a couple of days ago that Leonard Cohen is coming to town. I nearly didn’t manage to get a ticket for the London performance. But even better he is going to do one night in Lyon. I hope to take that one in as well. Come on, watching Leonard with Suzanne in tow. How can it not happen? This did actually spark an exchange with a friend over tickets as I suggested us going to Lyon and that before the concert Suzanne could take us down to her place near the river (well, she doesn’t actually have one, but there are two rivers in Lyon and you’re never that far away). He inquired whether that meant he could spend the night beside her. Maybe I should take the Sisters of Mercy path instead. Suzanne does have four after all. But then we weren’t lovers like that – and besides it would still be all right (his words, not mine).

When you get to this stage of life music and concerts can be about filling in gaps, as with laudable exceptions most new music is a poor rehash of old ideas. (Old fart or what?) So please Charlton, I’ve seen us play in this league for many years, I’ve seen us play in the league below. But I haven’t been to the new Wembley yet.

Monday 10 March 2008

Keep The Criticism In Perspective

Well, that was the weekend that was. I don’t know about the rest of you but I still feel shellshocked and unable to make sense of the display against Preston. All you can say is that it was more worrying than just a bad day at the office. That the team may have had little idea how to play together was perhaps understandable; that too often they were pressured into lumping balls forward – and were seemingly happy to do so – suggests either a very poor game plan or motivational or fitness problems with key players. For me it was as disappointing as it gets after the vibrant and entertaining football we have in recent months shown we are capable of producing.

First things first. To my mind anyone entertaining the notion that we would be better off without Pardew needs their head examining. So does anyone who thinks a manager is not going to make mistakes. Mistakes after all are errors of judgement, nothing more. And unlike most businesses football is a zero sum game. Preston deserve all the plaudits for Saturday. So, by implication, does their manager. What’s far more important is an ability to absorb and to learn.

There may well come a time when it will be better for us to part company with Pardew – although the odds are heavily in favour of the eventual parting of the ways being down to another club wanting him than us wanting rid. But that time is, I hope, a very long way off. Let’s not forget, Dowie didn’t get the job because he was the greatest manager in the world. He got the job because we weren’t exactly flooded with quality applicants to replace Curbishley and he seemed the best option at the time. As it couldn’t have turned out worse for us that goes down as a possible error of judgement on the part of the board. Doesn’t mean it was a clearly bad decision, or that on the basis of it we want changes there. Obviously not. (By the way, I do not feel in any way qualified to comment on the announced departure from the club of Peter Varney. I have never met him. But what is clear from others’ comments is that those who have have nothing but good to say about him, which says enough for me.)

So that’s that one cleared up. Criticism is fine as long as it is intended to be positive. Booing the players from so early in the game on Saturday is plain daft and those who did should feel ashamed of themselves. This is a well-worn debate with nothing new to add. All the time just ask yourself what good do you do and are you contributing to a happy outcome?

After the game I felt very much like I had after the Hull game. Disappointed with the result, alienated by the performance. At that point I all but wrote off our season in my head, to the extent that I couldn’t get upset losing at home to Colchester. It was a fair game and a fair result. The trouble with this bloody team is that it can’t make up its mind whether its world-beaters or relegation-fodder. A few changes, adapting to the loss of Reid, and suddenly we’re playing like we could win the league. Then we go to Scunthorpe and prove we can’t. Pardew is quite right to remind us (on the club site) of the recent good displays and to encourage us to keep the faith. We will, just allow a little time for another wound to heal.

What is now clear is that this collection of players has shown that collectively they are not good enough to be consistently better than others in this division. Might seem obvious but maybe it needs stating. It does after all involve a change in my expectations. We have singularly failed to go on a run of wins as we are not strong/good enough to be able to overcome bad luck, setbacks etc. Pardew may have come to the same conclusion himself. Is it a managerial masterstroke that, having concluded we could not get automatic promotion with what we had, it is the better option to bring in new players on loan, even at the cost of short-term incohesion, so that we can peak for the play-offs? Let’s hope so.

In the immediate aftermath of the Preston game I said I didn’t want us to get a play-off place. A part of me still feels like that. In an ideal world we would accept that we have thrown together a collection of players and asked them to gel despite crucial injuries and enforced changes of tactics to cope and that we have a better chance next season of dominating the league and getting promoted with a decent chance of staying up. But in the real world we have to accept that it’s better for the club if we get promoted somehow, get no points next season, and return with the finances in better shape. Promotion this season by whatever means still has to be the goal.

One negative thought, which may need expanding on another day but which does not bode well for the play-offs, should we make them. This team and the club in general has not so far coped well with pressure. Before we developed delusions of the ‘next step’ we valued character. Lawrence went for players who had it in buckets (Shirtliffe, Miller, Peake, Melrose etc), so did Curbishley (Kinsella, Robinson). Pressure games in those days we won (Leeds, Chelsea, Sunderland). Since we went back up we have either managed to avoid pressure games – Curbishley was a master at keeping us out of relegation fights and when we finally found ourselves in one we capitulated. And last season going into Easter I would still have made us favourites to stay up, notwithstanding the Tevez disgrace. In the end the team couldn’t cope with the pressure and buckled in a way that previous Charlton teams would not have done.

Does the team now have the character to succeed under pressure? Well, the jury has to be out. The pressure games we have won (Stoke, Palace) have been ones where we scored first (and against Stoke we nearly surrendered the win in the final minutes). In others (Watford, Bristol City) we have got ourselves into the position to win only to fail to see out the game – indeed, to finish the games looking more likely to be beaten than to win. Going’s getting tough guys and we have to show the character to get into and succeed in the play-offs. What was most disappointing about Preston was that absence of character.

Anyway, at least I’m not alone in talking nonsense in the immediate aftermath of a game. At least Wenger had the good grace and intelligence to retract his comments on Taylor. It would be surprising to see Ferguson perform a similar U-turn. If he doesn’t I hope he picks up a decent fine for his offensive remarks about a referee. Man City had a better shout for a penalty over the weekend than Man Utd but Ericsson accepted the decision. No, it doesn’t mean that Ferguson is a winner and the others aren’t. But the prize for the funniest weekend remark came from Ronaldo about feeling afraid to play his natural game in England. That natural game would be more at home on the stage than a football pitch.

As for banning players for life for deliberate attempts to hurt opponents? It doesn’t need to be said that any such notion is unworkable as the principle is unprovable – unless the player states intent (aka Keane). Two of the worst tackles I’ve seen in recent years (let’s leave aside Muscat’s assault on Matty Holmes) were Alan Smith on Richard Rufus and, more recently, Wayne Rooney’s attempt to cut in half Chris Powell. Powell saw him coming and jumped up. If he hadn’t his standing leg (probably the other one too) could have been decimated. Rooney had clearly lost his temper, for whatever reason. So would the authorities call for life bans if the player in question is not a Birmingham defender but one of the most valuable in the country?

Saturday 8 March 2008

Bring On Next Season

I guess it’s written that some times in your life you feel like a prat (or maybe sometimes it's obvious that you should feel like a prat). I can’t believe I was recently musing about the notion of winning eight out of the last 10 to still claim a top-two spot, or at least be in the right frame of mind for the play-offs. Right now I have some sympathy with anyone who says something out of turn in the heat of the moment, something they may regret in the cold light of day. Because right now I don’t want us to get a play-off spot; we don’t deserve one, we’re not playing well enough to merit one, and something looked very rotten today – in terms of attitude, commitment and preparation of the team. After that performance I want us to go away and think about next season and what might be the core of a team to launch a proper promotion bid, rather than one continuing to flatter to deceive.

I hope Pardew is as angry and dismayed as the rest of us. I wish the team was too - maybe with Pardew. An incoherent line-up, players taking the field clearly not up for the task, and a shambles of a performance with nobody on the pitch having any idea what they were supposed to do and where there colleagues were supposed to be. To be outfought and/or beaten by Preston can happen. To be outpassed by them is odd. To be beaten by them without them having to play well is embarrassing.

One of the virtues of not having a season ticket is to move around the ground for different perspectives. But a screw-up over tickets for this and the WBA game meant that my location for this game – West Stand lower block A – was not exactly what I had in mind. However, it was up close and personal. Because of the ticket confusion I missed the first few minutes (which a friend assures me were the best of the 90). When I did arrive I saw a collection of players not fired up and seemingly confused about how they were to play the game. The first moment of note was Youga, now a parody of the exciting player who came back to us, almost gift Preston a goal. You can forgive a team many sins, but going onto the pitch in the wrong frame of mind is not one of them.

The first half passed in a blur. Sam was an early casualty, which was significant as Sinclair came on. I didn’t see him play against Bristol but he must have had a blinder by comparison because today he was dire. It may not really be his fault. We brought in on loan Halford, Cooke, Sinclair and now Lita (who for what it’s worth I thought fought well today). One common denominator is that between them they’ve not been playing much football. And they look rusty. Otherwise the first half was only notable for Preston’s goal. A touch unfortunate in that we had a player flat out in the spot from where their guy scored, but that’s not the point. Half the game passed without us creating a decent chance. OK, let’s be honest. Without us playing a decent pass.

Varney was replaced at half-time by Gray, on the grounds that he and Lita did not look like a partnership made in heaven. Had they looked good together on the training ground? That can be the only reason for thinking that they might be a combination. Gray’s link-up play did help to bring Lita more into the game in the second half, but Gray himself looks so out of sorts that the difference was marginal.

There was more purpose about our play, but no more conviction – or suggestion that this combination of unfamiliar parts could function as a team. So it came as something of a surprise when we equalised. A set piece and McCarthy slotted home. It all reminded me of the home game against Hull when Bougherra scored in a 1-1 draw, a game which at the time I thought was the pits. Then we were clueless and bereft of creativity, with Iwelumo chasing hopeless long balls forward, before Mills got himself sent off. But then we got a point. This time, having equalised with 15 minutes to go and the prospect of driving on to win despite playing appallingly, we contrived to give Preston back the lead. Hesitation in the centre.

Iwelumo came on for Halford to try to chase the game. I can’t say that the change made us less coherent. I’m not sure what could have done. When good footballers like Holland struggle in possession you know something’s up. So little movement when we had the ball, so many aimless, forced long balls, so many instances of players having no idea what their colleagues were doing. It’s not that the team didn’t try. Individually they did. Collectively they didn’t have a clue.

It’s not fair to give ratings for that game. I thought Youga and Sodje were both poor, Halford was made a scapegoat because he kept hitting it long as there was no alternative (or maybe he just epitomises the option we have taken instead of sticking with Moutaouakil). McCarthy, Ambrose and Lita I thought came out with some credit, Holland and Zhi just looked tired and harassed. And when ZZ loses his zip he is far less effective. Enough said. If I was being interviewed I’d say something I’d regret the next morning. So sod promotion, sod the play-offs, let’s start to build for next season.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Bring On The March Hares

Just what is it? You choose a quiet time to slip away for a few days and come back to find we’ve won away for the first time since December, have failed again to beat a team we needed to despite being ahead at the break, have brought in Leroy Lita six weeks too late (which is not to say we could have got him earlier) to make it no fewer than five loanees in the first team squad, have Izale McLeod crocked by the same Plymouth defender who took out Svetoslav Todorov (can the club get insurance against him personally ahead of our game there?), and have Peter Varney leaving the club for personal reasons, Frankie Valley back under another name, and New York Addick in London. Bring on the March hares. Or did I just take the air in the wrong places in Amsterdam?

I obviously can’t comment on the Bristol game, having had to rely on text updates. But I haven’t seen anyone suggesting we were robbed (apart from me that is). And the impression was that, as against Watford, the opposition ended the game stronger than us and more likely to win it. We may be the best club with the best management and the best players, playing the best brand of football in The Championship. But we can’t say we have been undeniably one of the two best teams in this division over the course of the season. By definition you always end up where you deserve to and with 10 games to go we can’t have any complaints.

By the same token it still isn’t the time for any post mortems. With 10 games left we have maybe a one-in-ten chance of automatic promotion, perhaps less. Barring some magical emergence of a perfect blend emerging from our now many options (which markedly do not extend to alternatives for Holland and ZZ, who must be feeling the strain having – according to my rough calculations – started the last 18 games together in central midfield) nobody’s going to put money on us putting in the sort of startling run to claim by rights a top two spot. Teams above us have to blow it (which perhaps makes West Brom’s last-minute winner against Sheff Wed a crucial blow – them winning at a place we didn’t, just as Bristol did at Scunthorpe). But it’s still possible, just as it’s possible we can end up outside a play-off spot.

There’s been four or five games for each of the teams at the top since I last looked at points projections. My forecasts then had Watford (then top) getting seven points from five games. In the event they won six (although tellingly they got their point against us). So my projections have them ending on 77 points. West Brom, then second, were forecast to get 10 points from four games; they managed only seven (five without the Sheff Wed winner would have been very nice). Trimming three from the previous total gives them a season’s total of 82.

Bristol City I had getting just eight from five games and, just like before, they’ve outperformed my expectations (and not just from one game in particular) with 11. Add three to the previous total and I now have them on 80 at the finish. Stoke I had as getting nine from five – and that proved to be the case (although I didn’t predict them losing the last two, which is a bonus of sorts. Long may it continue. So I still have them finishing the season on 82.

Consequently, as things stand I have West Brom and Stoke ending together on 82, with Bristol City and Watford missing out whatever happens to us. Perhaps not surprisingly we are the main underperformers compared with my expectations. It would have been surprising any other way. I had us getting 11 points from the last five games (I was trying to be realistic) but we managed only 6. As I had us ending on 84 points previously, this implies 79 now – and fourth place. If we finished level on points with Stoke we would probably end above them on goal difference (we have to do better than them in terms of results in the remaining games and we’re about level on goal difference now), although we have no chance of beating West Brom by this measure.

So by my reckoning now 82 points and its second spot, 83 to be champions. That means it’s 26 points needed from 10 games. Basically we would have to win eight of them. So sod it, I’m now predicting the full monty of 10 straight wins, 86 points, and the jug being paraded around The Valley in early May. (No, I’m not going to do projections for those below us; life’s too short and it still looks to me like the range for the past 10 seasons of 73-76 for sixth spot is realistic.)

There’s still plenty to play for – and plenty to muse over. I still can’t get my head around Pardew criticising the defence of late and going out and getting three forward players in on loan. This isn’t carping. Seems that Leta will be a double-edged sword: if we play him and he bangs in the goals in the month ahead he will go back to Reading to help in their relegation fight. If he does bugger all he can stay. For what it’s worth I think we’ve missed Bougherra as he and McCarthy looked like the right blend – although perhaps Sodje and McCarthy are fine too with only one conceded in their two games together.

I’m not going to try to suggest a line-up for Preston. Instead I’m going to be first (hopefully) claim the old farts spot by reminiscing about the best game against Preston in recent years. 1974/75 and home to Preston is the last game of the season, under floodlights. A win and we’re up – promoted, OK from the old third division but the first time in my life following Charlton that we have a shout of actually succeeding. A crowd of 24,659 and what do we do? Well, of course we went 1-0 down, that goes without saying. The surprise was us getting a penalty and Bob Curtis, who never missed a penalty, missing. Then when everything was getting sweaty up popped our saviour: Bobby Goldthorpe.

A former Palace player, Goldthorpe I remember as one of the worst defenders to pull on the shirt. But I think of him with nothing but affection as he headed home the equaliser (if memory serves correct he actually headed it goalwards and the officials had to decide that it went over the line). Killer went on to score twice and we had pulled off an unlikely (at the start of the season) promotion. History can repeat. Bring on the March hares.