I don’t know about the club’s April Fool’s contribution being the notion we can still get in the play-offs (I know, I’m almost starting to believe again myself, but then Saturday’s a long way back now and the next game isn’t yet on the immediate radar). Seems to me it’s come a day late with the news that fans can bid for pictures of former players - Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Bryan Hughes, Hermann Hreidarsson, Radostin Kishishev, Souleymane Diawara and Dennis Rommedahl, plus Marcus Bent and Amdy Faye (who may of course return) – which come with an “inspirational quote” from the former hero in question.
This really ought to spark some speculation/competition as to what the ‘inspirational quotes’ should read like. For JFH, Rommedahl, Bent and Faye perhaps read: “I’m living proof that you can have your (very large and expensive) cake and eat it – time and time again’, or ‘feeling past it and just plain not bothered? Well so do I - and look how much I get paid’. All a little harsh on Hughes (who always tried his best for us – and may of course end up as a Premiership player next season), Hreidarsson (why did we think he was past it?), Kishishev (an unsung hero in my book) and Diawara (wasn’t his fault we paid so much for him and to such little effect; I thought he could have made the difference this season but I guess didn’t want to stay).
Surely if the club wants to boost revenues from the sales – and I assume we need every penny we can get – they could have Alan Pardew or Richard Murray write on the back of the photos what they really thought of the player in question. This would add a mystery element – and help to make the photo a true collector’s piece, rather than a piece of unwanted tat that in normal circumstances would have been thrown in the bin. I really don’t want to be reminded that some of them were ever with us.
One further thought on why this season has hurt so much – and prompted the pain and anger behind the booing debate. Being supporters of Charlton has given us many reasons to be proud in recent years, starting effectively with the appointment of Lennie Lawrence. (These years have for me at least more than balanced the accumulated misery of what went before, even if it is that period which tends to dominate my approach to games, still being a little uneasy when Charlton are actually favourites to win,) One of them has been that in just about all the pressure situations during the recent period we have come through.
The four years in the top flight under Lawrence were remarkable – and object lessons in pressure management. In each of the first three of these seasons we were among the favourites to be relegated (if not the shortest odds) but showed a steady progression: survival through the play-offs, avoiding the play-offs on the last day of the season, then staying up with a game to spare (away at Notts Forest, what an occasion). Lennie I’m sure talked of having gone to the well too many times to survive a fourth season, when the pressure just got too much and we were unable to compensate in the same fashion for a (relative) lack of ability. We know he went out of his way to find players with character who would come through for him in pressure situations (Miller, Shirtliffe, Peake, Melrose etc).
It was much the same under Curbishley. We did of course lose in the play-offs, but we barely scraped into them and that season didn’t really count. When the chips were down we came through against Sunderland at Wembley. Even though we were relegated next season we won matches at the death, especially the 4-3 triumph at Villa Park (read Steve Brown, Kinsella, Robinson etc) rather than surrender meekly. After re-promotion, fading towards the end of the season was always disappointing, but at least there were reasons for this and the trend tended to underline that we were still able to do the business when it mattered.
Last season, after all the trials and tribulations, I felt approaching the Easter period that we would stay up. It was the business end of the season – and that’s when we have come into our own. Or so I thought. Instead, starting with Man City away, we accumulated three points from the final seven games. It was something of a capitulation and showed that collectively the players lacked character. They couldn’t deal with the pressure. Indeed, Sheff Utd came to The Valley and put in the sort of performance that I thought we were still capable of.
OK, so we think we bought the wrong players, appointed the wrong manager(s) etc. And this season would be different. For a start we were better than the other teams (an assumption which proved to be wrong); and if we were not obviously better we had inner strength which would see us through. Instead, this season too we have buckled when the pressure increased, in obvious contrast to some teams now well above us. Of course we (and they) are where we deserve to be.
For next season this isn’t necessarily an argument for a team of hard men. There’s a real difference between character and being able to deal with, if not thrive on, pressure and the ability to chop an opponent in two. Ideally Charlton will play football like Brazil, score bucket-loads of goals, and run away with the league while winning the FA Cup. But if that combination proves beyond us what I want more than anything else to see is that the team is mentally up to the task.
I disagree with many who argue that too many players have simply not tried this season (I wouldn’t argue about last season). Rather pressure exerts itself in different ways. Anyone suffering from it can end up hiding – from problems or just anything that seems difficult. With some exceptions pressure is usually a constant. What varies is our ability to deal with it. We have players who have demonstrated that they are able to stand the heat (Matt Holland being the obvious example). But it doesn’t take much to tip the balance against us (including the crowd getting on the players’ backs – oh shit, I was trying not to reopen that debate) and once a few players are wilting under the pressure the team can’t function (which is something that a manager - in any walk of life - should be alert to and ready to act on). I really don’t want a repeat performance next season of us failing when the pressure is on.