Thursday 31 July 2008

Back In The Fold

OK, there have been excuses. For example, one of my nefarious activities in the real world involves making recommendations for investments in financial stocks. That in itself would have been enough to leave me mired in depression through the close season (and beyond). But ultimately the sabbatical was down to two things: a perfectly understandable desire for a break, which soon turns into something more as you lose the habit of posting anything (I am reliably advised that I have not lost a life-long habit of verbosity), and a feeling that there wasn’t much to be gained from thinking about the composition of the team for the coming season when it was clear that more players would be leaving.

Whether its a feeling that the (apparent) sale of Bougherra might see the balance shift now to one or two being brought in (which is not to suggest that I have any idea whether the stream of departures has ended) , whether it is confirmation that Royal Bank of Scotland have passed my subtle acid test of their repaired capital position by being duped into a restructuring of my personal finances, or whether it’s just the feeling that when the going gets tough it’s time to do something daft, it was off to The Valley today to do something I haven’t done for a couple of years: buy a season ticket.

I don’t think I ever felt it was inappropriate to write one of these things without being a season ticket holder. I’ve done my time - and to the muppet who last season suggested I might be a newcomer bussed in from Kent (as if that would be something to be ashamed of) have the accumulated season ticket stubs (complete with never-needed cup ticket vouchers) to prove it. I dropped out as it were when Curbs left. I just felt like a break and didn’t want to think about renewing – and before I knew it the deadline had passed. What was a decent bloc in the Upper North was in any event dispersing, with a couple moving out of London and some moving to the family stand (well, that was what they told me anyway). I decided it would be an advantage to be flexible: to see games from different parts of the ground and to go to more away games by missing a few at home. Some chance. I ended up going to nearly all the home games (from different vantage points) and only managed the usual token gestures when it came to getting out of London, trips which invariably ended in tears (Sheff Utd and Scunthorpe).

There might also have been an element of a treat with the season ticket, as Saturday is my birthday. It is, apparently, a big one. Suffice to say the Romans had a letter for it. I knew my schoolboy algebra would come in handy one day, so in a couple of days I will indeed by 20x years old, with ‘x’ being a variable function of reality and self-deception.

So there it is. I’m not going to go out of my way to claim the moral high ground (although it is a place where I feel naturally at home) but there was an element of thinking this is the time to be showing some comm... comit... commnt ... (as previous girlfriends can confirm I seem to have problems with the ‘c’ word). Let’s just hope the season ahead proves more enjoyable than the last two; it would be hard for it to undercut them.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve adjusted to the possibility that we could be back in this division for the foreseeable. And I’m not ready, if I ever was, to just sit back and enjoy the game. Whatever the obstacles and whatever the limitations, there is still a batch of players which if they can be gelled into a coherent unit will be capable of being in the frame, especially if the fans can play their part in making The Valley a place to fear (for good reasons of course). And when it comes to enjoyment I’ve never walked away from a Charlton victory feeling depressed. Frustrated, exasperated, relieved, perplexed, even occasionally rather bored. But never depressed. So if there is a sure-fire way of ensuring that the season is enjoyable it is to run away with the league.

Now it’s time to do what all good season ticket holders should do. Get down to The Valley for a pre-season friendly assessment (whether this can morph into a coherent match report on what is likely to be a liquid day remains to be seen) and then bugger off on holiday and miss the start of the season proper. France still shuts down for August, so my vacation will be spent at the hottest point of the year, in Greece. As someone who turns blue after bright pink following five minutes of sun, I’m going to fry (we once went to a splendid Roman baths off the beaten track in Tuscany and literally everyone there stopped to look at my body; they had simply never considered the possibility that one could be so white). It just might be worth it if this time around the text from Blighty says something better than a 1-1 draw against a newly-promoted team.

Monday 14 July 2008

How The Mighty Fall

So Chris Iwelumo is off to Wolves, Marcus Bent is Cardiff-bound, and Scott Carson is leaving Liverpool for ... Stoke. They say all sporting careers end in failure, but Carson’s has barely started. It’s one thing to endure two seasons out on loan and to have to sit back and watch Liverpool and Villa struggle to agree on a price, quite another to see the devastating impact on standing and valuation of one howler for England. A nation’s fans may be extracting collective revenge, but even so the Potteries seems a little harsh. Maybe Scott is attracted by the prospect of going to a club where he will be the best ballplayer. At least the ball won’t get slippery as it won’t touch the turf.

To my mind Iwelumo goes with all best wishes. It isn’t just that he always gave of his best, whether asked to play alone up front or in a 4-4-2 or to come on as a sub in a hopeless cause. He tended to get blamed (by many fans at least) for the failings of others. A contribution of 10 goals (more if he had been first-choice all through the season) would have been OK (for a target man) if he had a strike partner (or partners) scoring 20 (the pairing with Luke Varney never really took off but was it Big Chris’ fault? I just hope – and expect – that we haven’t yet seen the best of Varney). And was it Iwelumo’s fault that, especially when playing alone up front, the other players seemed content to hump useless long balls in his direction?

Big Chris was nearly a success for us – and he did score what seemed at the time important goals. He knew his way around the division (better forwards used to playing against better defenders would for example never have thought to try to score the two he bagged against Sheff Wed). He won’t make Charlton’s hall of fame, but he wasn’t the worst we’ve had and I for one will be applauding him when he returns. Wolves? Well, at least we can say he’s capable of filling Jay Bothroyd’s shoes.

Marcus Bent? Of course it’s a different story. We seemed to pay over the odds for him, but there was a rationale if it was going to get the best out of Darren Bent (read also Jimmy Floyd). Quite rightly we have been looking to offload him to all and sundry, the only pity being Wigan would have paid more for him. Presumably Bent has chosen Cardiff because as a capital city he can still stand relatively tall in the Wagg-pulling league. But Marcus here too your best days are behind you.

My abiding memory of Bent will be that glorious interview when he arrived at The Valley. When asked whether it would be confusing to have two Bents at the club he replied to the effect that, yes it would be a bit of a problem as Darren’s nickname was ‘Benty’ and he liked to be called ‘Benty’. He seemed totally oblivious to the possibility of his strengthening the impression that at least most footballers are a little lacking in the grey cell department.

Episodes like that should serve as a reminder – as the practise of a Charlton open day seems to be being revived - that actually meeting players (nay, heroes as the club website likes to remind us) may not always be the uplifting experience we hope for. I remember as a callow youth walking around the rooms where the players were sitting and chatting among themselves, in between fag breaks. They presented a picture of total indifference as autograph books were pushed under their noses. I still have the autograph book, which does rather date me if nothing else (looking at it now I can make out the signatures of Eddie Firmani, Len Burns, Cliff Hall, A. Fagan, Lucio Masiello, Paul Gilchrist, Charlie Wright, Ian King, Len Glover, Peter Reeves, Theo Foley, Graham Moore, and a few others that are totally indecipherable). Charlton North Downs says that he even saw Len Glover thump one fan at such a gathering.

So please, Mr Pardew and Mr Murray, tell the current crop that it’s in their best interest to keep the fans, however young, on their side and to at least feign interest. After all, sooner or later for you it will be Cardiff, Wolves or Stoke (and at the risk of plagiarising the Eamon Dumphy quote for some truly unlucky sods even Palace or Millwall).