Friday 31 October 2008

Bread For Money

Can’t help it, I hate Barnsley. Well, not really. I certainly don’t hate them as much as some other teams. It’s just that every team we come up against these days reminds me of some time in the past we played them and how much better life was then. Perhaps we need Millwall to get promoted just as a reminder that not everything in the past was enjoyable (which does kind of assume that we don’t change places – but of course if we did drop another division we would not be short of reminders of unpleasant past experiences).

The last time we went into a home game against Barnsley, just nine games into the season, we were sitting in second place on the back of an unbeaten run of seven games, five of which were victories. We had if not a settled and balanced team at least something that looked reasonably coherent, one which certainly had the dab of class that we thought would get us promoted. Weaver, Mills and Powell at full-back, Bougherra and Fortune in central defence, Ambrose, Semedo Zheng and Reid in midfield, and Iwelumo and Varney up front, with Randolph, Sodje, Holland, Thomas and Todorov on the bench. Of that 16, seven are no longer at the club, one is out on loan, and two are out injured; only six will be available for selection tomorrow – and one of those is seemingly about to be swapped for a gnarled old lunatic.

I actually missed the game, having a pre-planned weekend in Lyon. It was disappointing at the time that we did not simply brush aside more inferior opposition and conceded a late goal to be held to a draw. But no more than that. Just a splinter in the banister on the joyride back to the Premiership. Little did we know that that Saturday morning in early October 2007 was the best it was going to get (Palace at home later on being the exception that proves the rule). After an international break we were turned over at Wolves then lost at home to Plymouth and QPR. We all know how it went after that; by the time we tamely surrendered 3-0 at Oakwell in the penultimate game of the season our fate had been sealed.

So basically they owe us one. I’m not sure exactly how and why, but I think we should use our marker tomorrow and have them roll over for a morale-boosting win. After all, we need the points more than them. They are destined to be in a relegation struggle, we still find mid-table to be beneath us, despite some recent performances.

Ambrose for Campo? Seems to have credence, given the comments of the Ipswich manager (although why would someone talk up a player they might be about to sign, surely it can only add to the price?). Ambrose has had so many chances to impress and still so frustratingly fails to impose himself on a game, in whatever position. If he goes I will feel sorry that he has so obviously failed to live up to his promise. As for Campo, why not. It could be fun. He will certainly add character.

As for the team tomorrow, it would appear that apart from Weaver and Bailey nobody covered themselves in glory. In front of Weaver, with Primus seemingly injured Hudson and Cranie are shoot-ins. Moutaouakil will presumably start at right-back, although Semedo replaced him during the game at Ipswich. And left-back is still uncertain, with Cranie and Basey having halves in the spot against Burnley but Youga brought back against Ipswich. I still favour Youga, but others disagree. It is, however, about balance and if Youga plays and Ambrose does not (if he’s going I’d rather he isn’t picked) there has to be a case for Basey on the left side of midfield, even though it’s not ideal. His crossing is a real asset.

Bailey and Holland were reunited towards the end of the Burnley game and started against Ipswich. It’s not a great combination, although I have absolutely nothing against either player with a different partner. I thought Semedo and Bailey could be tried together and this might still be an option. I would continue to leave Bouazza to warm the bench, with Sam kept in. With Gray seemingly absent due to family illness Todorov is (for me) guaranteed to start, provided the legs are up to it. Alongside him it’s a choice of Varney, Dickson and McLeod. Before Burnley I went for Todorov and Dickson to start and that’s still my preferred option. That does raise the possibility of Varney being played out wide, which may suit him better at the moment.

Now a link to the photo. On the subject of times being better tomorrow we may end up in The Crown for a pre-match glass and this would remind me of the last time we did this. Last Saturday. We got there early as some (well one) wanted a drink and others wanted food – and not to have to bolt down some lunch to catch a train. One duly ordered a burger and chips, another what on the menu said was garlic bread, accompanied by choice of sauces etc. In the event the burger went walkabouts and inevitably arrived 10 minutes before we had to leave. The garlic bread arrived earlier. I kid you not, that enlarged slice of bread cost £3.50. Now I like a mark-up, but that is right royally taking the proverbial.

Saturday 25 October 2008

Toddy Saves The Day

What to make of that one? At least this time around it was a case of marked improvement in the second half after a first 45 minutes that was as much of a shambles as much of Tuesday night. And we so nearly went home with a real spring in our step. Nobody was looking for perfection, just improvement and commitment. And at least some of that was evident in the second half as the (changed) team seemed to have more of an idea what it was supposed to do.

From Tuesday night out went Youga (presumably Pardew saw the game more like others in the West Stand than me), Bouazza, Holland and Gray. Hudson returned at centre-back to partner Primus but perhaps surprisingly Cranie was retained. When the team was announced, with Basey brought in and Moutaouakil keeping his place, I assmed we were going three/five at the back with two wing-backs. But no, it was 4-4-2 with Cranie deployed at left-back, Wright coming in to partner Bailey in central midfield, Basey and Ambrose playing wide, and McLeod coming in to partner Varney. Dickson didn’t even make a place on the bench (nor did Youga or Gray, or Semedo for that matter), with the spots going to Elliot, Todorov, Sam, Bouazza and Holland.

McLeod and Varney was one of the forward combinations I had speculated on, given their rather surprising success together in a few games last season. But along with everything else in the first half it didn’t work. Instead Basey and Ambrose gave almost no attacking outlet, Wright and Bailey looked as if they had been thrown together at the last minute, with nerves added to the mix, and McLeod and Varney, rather than running the channels, seemed to try to operate as a standard front two and got no return from the very limited service they received.

If I were the Burnley manager I would have been furious at half-time as this was a game so obviously there for the taking and we hadn’t been finished off. A better team would have taken us apart. As it was, while we had no attempts on goal, they at least summoned up the effort to get the ball in the net twice. The first time the Burnley player was clearly in an offside position when the ball was played through but it also very clearly came off the top of a Charlton player’s head. The linesman flagged but the referee waved play on, with the player allowed to cut inside, past a few halfhearted challenges, and shoot. The ref gave a goal but was persuaded to talk to the linesman, who presumably reminded him of the rules. There was no such reprieve a little later. A poor corner was headed back to the taker and a half-clearance was returned, took a deflection and left Weaver rooted to the spot. Nobody was really surprised.

After that in the first half Burnley did little to suggest that are anything more than an average team. But average was looking more than enough to see off a team that was woefully short of confidence, ideas and structure.

It had to change and Pardew duly took off McLeod for Todorov, with Primus also giving way (presumably an injury), with Cranie moving to the centre, Basey dropping back to left-back, and Sam coming on to provide much-needed pace and attacking intent down the right, with Ambrose switching sides (or rather not having to bother to run over to the East Stand side for the second half). And the game seemed to turn early in the half as completely out of the blue Todorov received the ball and played a penetrating pass forward. It was a reminder that we can play football. Suddenly there was a game on. A cross from the left found two Charlton forwards well placed to score, but the header went straight at the keeper – prompting ironic cheers from the (very patient and supportive) crowd that we had finally managed an attempt on goal.

The improvement seemed in danger of petering out, but just when we needed it the equaliser came, courtesy of a Todorov header from a corner, with the Bulgarian showing the presence to move back from an offside position just in time to create the space.

During the final 20 minutes or so it could have gone either way. Burnley had a fierce shot that for all the world looked a goal, only for the ball to bounce down off the bar and presumably not cross the line. We had a couple of smart shots and at least for the most part showed we could pass, with Sam and Moutaouakil causing considerable problems for Burnley down the right. Then as we were approaching the end of normal time the chance came. A little luckily the ball broke to Varney running through on the right side of goal. He managed to nick it past the keeper, leaving him a little wide but with only one defender in the way. A couple of touches to steady himself but then the defender managed to spread himself and made a legitimate block. It was the sort of chance that is taken without thinking when things are going well. But that’s all it was; a missed chance.

Over the 90 minutes we couldn’t say we deserved to win, but we did deserve something for the vastly improved display in the second half. A last-minute winner would have been a little harsh on Burnley – but bloody nice all the same. The feeling at the end wasn’t so much despair at not having won, just relief that two halves of abject football spread over two games might mark the nadir rather than what we really have in store.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Don’t think he had a chance with the goal and after that had very little to do apart from come for a few crosses and watch Burnley’s one good effort come back off the bar.

Moutaouakil: 8/10. Looked more in the game than on Tuesday night, when he was rusty. Benefited from Sam coming on in the second half and gets an extra point for a superb defensive header in the first half.

Cranie: 5/10. Just why he was asked to play left-back only Pardew knows. It was a slap in the face for Basey, even if Youga’s services were dispensed with. Looked poor in the first half but more comfortable once again when playing as a centre-half.

Hudson: 8/10. Made a significant difference coming back. Held the team together in the first half.

Primus: 7/10. Not sure if he was injured or Cranie was preferred at centre-back for the second half. Seemed OK when dealing with Burnley’s usually limited attacking threat.

Bailey: 5/10. Sorry, but this was another poor game. A partnership with Holland in the centre looks limited but a substantial improvement on one with Wright. He didn’t seem up to assuming the senior role and dictating play and in the first half, along with Wright, was all at sea. He has been a real plus since joining us, but Tuesday and today are reminders that he’s not the finished product yet.

Wright: 6/10. Not an easy debut by any means and for much of the time the play passed him by. There’s no judgement on him after one game but I hope he will settle into the team and improve.

Ambrose: 5/10. During the first half we were crying out for him to get more involved and take some responsibility. It didn’t happen, but when we were playing better as a team in the second he started to feature more. Still an enigma.

Basey: 5/10. A little harsh perhaps. Good delivery from set pieces, but didn’t look like the answer playing left-side midfield during the first half, dropped back to left-back in the second.

McLeod: 4/10. Just a bad first half. I hope he is going to come back stronger, but looked as if he will need more time to get up to speed.

Varney: 6/10. Oh Luke. Please just forget about the miss, you got the chance. Managed very little in the first half but like everyone else perked up in the second with a formation that left us at least looking more like a team.


Todorov: 8/10. Quite simply, he made others play better and added class and cohesion in the second half. And he scored.

Sam: 8/10. Much better showing than on Tuesday night, when he saw as much of the ball but was far less effective. Caused Burnley real problems although didn’t always provide the end-product.

Holland: 7/10. Not enough time for a real score, but you know what you get with Matty. I thought Pardew should have brought him on for Wright or Bailey sooner as our lack of control in the centre could have cost us the game against a better team.

Friday 24 October 2008

Burnley Preview

So, match previews. Don’t usually do them as I really think you need to see the whites of the players’ eyes and we don’t really know what’s going on in the dressing room. But at the moment it should be all hands to the pumps, so here’s my twopenniesworth. Pardew is promising changes, but when you run through who’s available there aren’t that many options.

Weaver in goal is a given; I don’t know how Elliot is getting on but this isn’t the time to be messing around for the sake of it. Hudson returns and will presumably be partnered by Primus, who still looks short of match fitness but looks better than the alternatives. I thought Cranie looked more comfortable at centre-back than right-back, but there were a couple of nearly costly errors.

Right-back is a choice between Moutaouakil, Cranie and Semedo. I thought Moutaouakil looked rather rusty and short of confidence on Tuesday night, but then who didn’t? He will no doubt be the popular choice and I’d keep him in; but I don’t go along with the criticism of Pardew for not picking him more often of late. He made very costly errors last season, was suspended at the start of this one, and had a shocker at Preston. For me it’s just him ahead of Semedo, who may after all be required in midfield. Left-back is a case of Youga or Basey. I evidently saw Youga’s performance very differently from some in the West Stand. In the first half he was, as so often the case, our best attacking option and did nothing wrong at the back. In the second he continued to try to do things, but with others not interested and hiding mistakes crept in. At no point did Youga go into his shell, which might explain the booing. I would keep him.

Assuming we are going to keep things simple on Saturday and go with 4-4-2, the central midfield pairing is problematic and Pardew is justified in saying the loss of Zhi (and with Racon still on the treatment table) is a big blow. Bailey made a mistake on Tuesday night, it’s done. What was more worrying was that Bristol passed their way around him and for the first time in a Charlton shirt he looked lost. That should serve as a reminder that he is still on a learning curve at this level, but he won’t come up against better passing sides than Bristol this season. Holland may not be the force that he was, but he can still do a job. The real problem is that put together Holland and Bailey are not a great combination. The only options are Semedo, possibly Ambrose (although he would be a big risk in a central role in a four-man midfield), maybe Wright (although I really know very little about him). Whatever his form Shelvey is off with England.

We are not blessed with options, which does work against Pardew shaking things up. One possibility would be Semedo and Bailey. I’m not sure it would work, but presumably they try these things on the training ground. Semedo was splendid last season filling in early on for Holland and as long as he doesn’t have to do much with the ball looks good (at that time all he had to do was cover, tackle and give it to Reid). If Bailey can provide the drive it might work. But it would be no surprise to see Wright given a go, or Bailey and Holland retained as the relative safe option.

The wide positions are between Bouazza, Ambrose and Sam, unless Varney is played out wide, which has to be an option (one which might suit him given the pressure on him to put that white thing into the back of that netty thing), Christensen comes into the equation (I'm assuming Wagstaff will not yet come back into the picture), or Basey is played on the left side of midfield (or Basey plays left-back and Youga moves further forward). Personally, despite his obvious skills, I’ve seen enough of Bouazza for a while at least. Recently has has flattered to deceive and I would just leave him out. I would keep Ambrose - despite counting him among those who disappeared on Tuesday night (not just down the tunnel), after a very good early period - and choose between Varney and Sam. Sam saw a lot of the ball on Tuesday but usually didn’t take the right option. But I’d just about go with him at the start.

Rather surprisingly it’s up front where we have more options than at the start of the season, with the return of Todorov and McLeod. Dickson was initially lively on Tuesday night but it was hard to make an assessment given what was going on given the overall confusion. It is really all about partnerships and styles of play. Please can we not put Dickson and Varney together, just as it makes absolutely no sense to go for Gray and Todorov. One possibility, which rather surprisingly worked well last season for the few games it was tried, is Varney and McLeod. Otherwise for me I would be inclined towards Todorov and Dickson. Todorov also looks rusty and slow, not surprising given the time out. But he’s still a class act when linking up play and he could bring out the best in Dickson, who I hope still has that something special about him. Gray has not been impressive of late and a spell cooling his heels may be in order. If we were to go with Varney and McLeod it would have implications for the midfield as the emphasis is then on playing the ball into the channels for these two to run on to.

So, my starting team – which may be one or two steps too far (and which does not include the wildcard factors of Wright and McLeod) - would be: Weaver, Moutaouakil, Youga, Hudson, Primus, Ambrose, Semedo, Bailey, Sam, Todorov, Dickson. Subs: Elliot, Cranie, Holland, Varney, Gray.

I’m not in any way ready to jump on any ‘Pardew Out’ bandwagon – although with Dowie available again he surely must be feeling the pressure. We should find out over the next few games whether the players want to play for him and whether Tuesday night’s debacle proves to be just a new low or the shape of things to come. What I really want to see is signs of improvement and learning. We are still an unbalanced team, which reflects the enforced changes of the past 18 months. Pardew has had little room to manoeuvre and has been unlucky with injuries, but the changes he has made, especially loan signings, have not worked out. The priority between now and the end of the year is to get us into a midtable position with the possibility of a springboard to challenge for a play-off spot. But we shouldn’t even be thinking like that. It’s not a relegation battle yet either. We have to (please) drop all the talk about how many points we are from the top six and focus purely on playing better and as a team.

We all know what’s expected of us on Saturday - and it would be nice to hear a few songs for Richard Murray. The pay-off I would have received for my shares might have eased the cost of pre-match drinks but doesn't really compare.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Time To Be Special Again

A half-finished ramble post-Tuesday night has been overtaken by the news that Zabeel Investments has suddenly discovered that the UK is entering a recession and that there will be no takeover. The reasons given – that the company’s focus moving forward “will be on domestic opportunities in Dubai”, that there is a “current debate around foreign ownership of football clubs” and that there is a “worsening economic climate in the UK” – of course don’t stand up, or at least don’t tell the full story. There is nothing there that would not have been know a few weeks ago. Ahead of any further statement from the Charlton board shedding light we have to assume that they either simply changed their minds, or they are intent on buying another club (the Zabeel statement only said they have not approached another club, not that they will not do so now.

Consequently we have to conclude that either there is a more attractive opportunity for them elsewhere, or they were in the stands on Tuesday night and had further insight into the passion of the fans and the team. If the players were trying to ensure that they weren’t on the scrapheap come January it would at least partially explain the performance (and I have been thinking about the old story of a chairman going into the dressing room before the promotion decider and promising that there would be money for new players if they go up). Time will tell if it is the former, and whether we have been used as a stalking horse.

For what it’s worth the conclusion of said unfinished piece was going to be that at the moment – and I’m aware that this suggests I need my bumps felt – I would prefer us not to be taken over – or at least not before we can demonstrate that we still have the qualities that made us feel special over recent years such that they would not be buried under a mass of cash. There was a process leading to that conclusion, which is now somewhat redundant. For the foreseeable future we’re back to being poor and making do with what we’ve got. We have a day or two to lick our wounds and take the inevitable derision from some quarters before trying to make a virtue out of necessity, beginning Saturday.

Now for the link to something written before the news. Not easy but I’ll try. Like a Ronnie Corbett monologue we’ll have to see where it leads.

There are always going to be times when we say/pen something in the heat of the moment only to regret it in the cold light of day. And we all have off days, when the wine, cognac and any thoughts of a decent cigar have to be given up for Lemsips and paying £1.65 for a half-time container of Bovril (in terms of mark-up this one has to take the biscuit; I mean, just how many such containers can you get from a jar of Bovril?). So, how does it feel a couple of days after the Bristol debacle? No difference at all; still bloody furious.

Personally I can forgive a lot from any Charlton player as regards mistakes, incompetence etc; but not an absence of character. You can’t say we ‘started well, ended badly’; we started very, very well but disintegrated once we went behind. Character is what comes through in adversity. I thought after the Reading game we had rediscovered our team spirit. Clearly I was wrong (it does make you wonder what would have happened in that game if we hadn’t scored a couple of goals shortly after Reading pulled it back to 2-2 and looked like they could go on and win the game). That’s what really hurts about last night’s performance.

The Bristol fans sang ‘you used to be good but now you’re shit’; but a better refrain would have been ‘you used to be special, but now you’re not’. Punching above our weight was something I got used to, liked and appreciated. During my formative years our record against Millwall and Crystal Palace was dreadful. We were regularly turned over by them both, often because they knew that when pressure was applied we would not be up to it. The Bristol game was in that respect like an icy blast from the past. And I don’t want us go to back there.

The picture changed first under Lennie Lawrence, who forged a team full of character and gave us a first promotion to the top flight in my lifetime and four years mixing it with the big boys. Then of course there was Curbs, the return to The Valley, and the forging of a special relationship between the club, the supporters and the players, one that stood us in good stead for a number of years.

Before concluding this is just another whine from an old codger going on about the past, the point is that this is all over. That special relationship has run its course and means nothing any more (other than being a fond memory). Perhaps we’ve all lived off it for too long. Like any relationship it needs to be refreshed, renewed, and if there’s a fracture it’s not a case of an impossible return to the past but the forging of something new and better. In the Premiership we felt special. But nobody talks about a ‘Charlton model’ any more. We’ve been surplanted. Even last season we were talking about not slipping back to being a Southampton or Leicester. Too late now, we are just like them. We are in a division where at least 16 of 24 teams have recent memories of being among the elite.

Quite simply, we’re not special any more. We have to make ourselves special again, at every level of the club. Unless and until that happens I really don’t want us to be buried under a mountain of cash as that money could well end up obscuring all that I value about our club. So, while reserving the right to change my mind again tomorrow, when the Lemsips have stopped distorting the thought process, right now I don’t want to even think about Zabeel Investments. Rather I want them to come back when we have things moving in the right direction again.

As for the team, in the short term there’s no easy way to get back to winning ways, you just have to roll up your sleeves, try to grind out some results and remember how good it feels to win. Of course it’s not all about workrate over quality; but you don’t create chances, make space etc without working. Even glimpses of the top teams illustrate how hard their players work with or without the ball. If there are players who won’t respond and don’t really care it’s up to Pardew to drop them. If none of them respond you have to conclude they won’t really play for him and if that happens any manager is on thin ice.

Just as it’s nonsense for Joey Barton to talk of being a role model, it is nonsense to talk of Pardew being a good manager. Barton could, by keeping his mouth shut and head down for a few years, become one; Pardew, by moulding a team that has spirit and togetherness as a reliable base, could demonstrate to all that he is indeed a very good manager. Neither has a record to rest on yet and both have everything to prove. It is worrying that whereas Bristol on Tuesday adapted to a situation and improved we simply ran out of ideas and what changes we made only made a bad situation worse. Of course it was something of a scratch team, but that’s a poor excuse. In my opinion Curbs’ greatest strength, until the final year or two with us, was his eagerness to learn and improve as every situation throws up new challenges. Anyone who simply believes they are good, so it must be true, and there is nothing to learn from others who by definition cannot be as good as you, is a loser. I am not saying these things apply to Pardew, but it is up to him to prove to us they are not – and he will rightly be judged by what happens on the pitch.

With Zabeel no longer in the picture the need to refocus on what made us special in the first place is even more apparent. There’s no mountains of cash any more. We didn’t need them last time around.

Tuesday 21 October 2008


Last season I came away from one game, against Preston, totally bemused at how a Charlton team could take the pitch with apparently so little idea of what to do and maintain that level of incompetence for a full 90 minutes. By comparison that was a good display. Forget the fact that we played very well for the first 20 minutes or so (which we did) and could easily have been a couple of goals to the good (2-1 would have been a fair scoreline after five minutes). Nothing that resembles a team can capitulate in the way that we did after they scored. A game that we could have won 5-1 became one we could easily have lost 6-0 if Bristol had been bothered enough to compound the humiliation. That they didn’t feel a need to add to their two goals said it all.

It really isn’t worth trying to list the events of the game, the litany of chances created early in the game which were through a combination of poor finishing, bad luck and excellent goalkeeping (one save from an Ambrose shot was a turning point in the first half, a superb deflection late in the day just drove home the point we weren’t going to score come what may) were not converted, or to bother with player ratings (for what it’s worth I thought Youga was exceptional through the game, despite some mistakes late on as he tired). Collectively it was shameful and embarrassing.

It is surely unacceptable – or a sign of some truly deep-seated problems in the dressing room – for a team to fall apart in the way we did after conceding a goal. Where before there had been vibrancy, movement and positive passing players hid, getting rid of the ball as soon as possible, by whatever means. And with few players wanting the ball movement disappeared, leaving the man in possession to lose the ball, have to run with it with no other option, or hit it long. Just to compound the misery we had substitutions which, whatever their purpose, left the team utterly incoherent. It seemed as if Pardew wanted to demonstrate an ability to make things worse just when we thought it wasn’t possible (which does sound a little unfair on Dickson, Todorov and Sam who came on; nobody could have turned it around on the night).

We looked like a team that has become too used to losing. And we have lost four of the last five. With ready-made excuses in the form of the absence of Hudson, Semedo plus Zhi, the distraction of the possible takeover, the apparent injustice of going behind having created so many chances seemed sufficient for heads to fall instantly. Is our confidence and motivation really that fragile? If it is we have serious problems. Another capitulation on Saturday and the fans could really turn on the team and the manager. As it was tonight, bare minimum support was provided before astonishment at what was going on on the pitch led to gallows humour.

There’s a lot of work to be done starting tomorrow morning, hopefully with the players and manager collectively accepting responsibility for an unacceptable display and discussing between them some home truths. At least before the game on Saturday we should be spared being told how close to a play-off place we are. We were up against a good team tonight, one which kept its shape when under the cosh and which played good football when given the chance. The last 30 minutes of the game for them was nothing more than a training session. This is an incoherent and inadequate account of what happened tonight; but in the circumstances that’s appropriate.

Addicks Expect

For the second time in recent years I found myself in sitting in bright sunshine, on the Champs Elysees, sipping wine (OK gulping it as usual) and basking in the ambiance, only for my wellbeing to be upset by a text informing me of a 2-0 away defeat. Last time around it was Fulham, a game we were unlucky to lose but which could have been seen as one of those things for a mid-table Premiership team. If I’d known then what the next few years held in store I would have bought a second-hand laptop and asked the waiter how much it would cost to stay there. This time around it was away to Cardiff, a piss-pot result that leaves us at the lower end of midtable, basically amongst the stiffs.

Judging from the tone of some of the other blogs its clear we are all feeling rather sorry for ourselves, not surprisingly. I penned something at the end of September entitled ‘something better change’, basically on the grounds that my liver could not continue to cope with regular disappointments. I was thinking at the time in terms of the team/formation and my expectations rather than prospective buyers capable of putting the club back among the elite, ie where we belong (you can manipulate the statistics to back that up, especially if you include the war years). It seems that what we have now is a microcosm of our raised expectations: we are all waiting for news.

On that front, I think it would be in the club’s interest to announce on the official site some time before tonight’s kick-off whether or not there is to be an announcement of significance. In the absence of any news we are going to turn up tonight (yes, I will be there, despite picking up a French bug, although I can hardly claim credit on this front as for me it’s an extended stroll) with half a mind that there will be the signing of a deal or confirmation before the game or at half-time. If there is no such prospect in the near future it would be better to announce this now so that we can just concentrate on the game. I appreciate the limitations imposed on the directors at present, assuming there is still a process of due diligence ongoing, but surely there is nothing to stop the club confirming that no material announcement is imminent. In the absence of such news our hopes are going to be raised with each passing minute as the match gets near – and more unfulfilled expectations we can do without at the moment.

Just to add my agreement with others over ‘lines in the sand’. A move away from The Valley to the peninsula and a new ground: regrettable but acceptable, especially assuming some time to say our farewells to our home. A move to the Olympics stadium: forget it. Involvement of Dennis Wise and his ilk? Surely we can have confidence that Richard Murray and others are going to make it clear that, while not for sure a deal-breaker, this would send entirely the wrong message. Don’t want them. A move away from The Valley and having to accept Wise et al could be a step too far for many.

At another level of course it’s all rather daft to talk in these terms. I don’t own the club (save for a few shares) and nobody is offering me bucket-loads to jump ship. Neither am I, or I assume others, waiting in the wings to deliver alternative financing such that we are in a position to really criticise whatever decision the board makes – if indeed there is a decision to make. All we can do is outline how we feel about possible developments. And at the moment morale off – and probably on – the pitch is not good.

But damn it all we are Charlton supporters. So to the club - give us some indication over whether tonight might bring news so that we can focus on the game if there is no prospect; to the players – sod the injury crisis, go out and ensure that the fans stay onboard through the evening, whatever happens; to supporters – whatever, let’s give the team and the board the best backing we can. And for me? Well, bug notwithstanding it’s wine if we win and wine if we lose – but cognac if something is pulled out of the hat.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Bring It On? Don't Make Me Laugh

Bring it on? Zabeel Investments? Dubai? Pah. Just a wanabee Abu Dhabi. I mean, what’s the point of being in the Gulf if you don’t have substantial oil reserves? I don’t even remember anyone even wanting to invade Dubai. Lousy human rights record (see the piece in The Observer magazine of 5 October). The idea that our fine and noble club could end up being the plaything of a plaything state is just too much to bear and it’s time for the board to stand up for our values. But the prospect of being a fall-back plaything of a plaything state is even worse.

I’m seldom if ever first with the news and I have no insight into the intentions of Zabeel Investments or angle on whether the reports about them looking instead to buy West Ham are true. I was going to pen something highlighting the snippet in The Observer on Sunday suggesting that the Maktoums were still intent on buying Liverpool and the risks that this could entail, including us being bought by Zabeel, costs rising sharply in a promotion push, only for them to walk away not long down the line in pursuit of what others may consider to be a larger club. Sooner or later a foreign investment in a football club will go this way; I had been assuming it would be Manchester City as anyone taking a look at the club and the town would have to have second thoughts. Probably still will be.

So we have to wait and see for a while. The club was sensibly circumspect with its announcement, making it plain it was an indicative offer with no guarantee that a definite one will follow - which unfortunately would seem to rule out the possibility of a Citigroup-style suing of West Ham (or Liverpool, or anyone else). Oh what the hell, I think we should sue West Ham anyway. Everyone else is. For good reason. We can always fill in the details of the suit further down the line.

I’m sure other blogs have covered this ground, but just in case I thought I’d check out what a friend with Irish racing connections might think about the Maktoums. Reading between the lines and with no more guarantee of accuracy than a Palace programme match report, the general line seemed to be they are of the highest integrity and where they invest they do not leave enemies behind. Horses are tied up with the culture and sense of identity, which are behind the massive amounts spent on racing; investment in other sporting ventures are different in nature and geared around the main objective, selling Dubai as a sporting and leisure centre. That objective in turn means that whatever the Maktoums end up investing in becomes something of a flagship for Dubai, so they are not looking at a football team as a plaything, rather as something that they have more than a vested interest in ensuring it succeeds. This suggests the risk of them buying the club and then walking away further down the line to take on another is remote.

Why Charlton? This has to be the remaining worrying element. The real prize for them is Arsenal but they can’t get it. They do have the stadium name, however. The thing that West Ham and Charlton have in common is of course proximity to the 2012 Olympics venue. The Maktoums are heavily invested in the docklands in general and there must be some thought to a football club that could relocate to the Olympic stadium once it becomes a white elephant (personally I’m in full support for the proposal in a letter in the Financial Times recently that we should outsource the Olympics to Beijing).

There is no question that expansion of The Valley is by a distance the most desirable plan for Charlton. It is fundamental to any hope we have of truly establishing ourselves in the Premiership that we increase attendances. I was among the few (at least among people I know) who thought relocation to a new ground in the peninsula was not a complete no-no a few years back. I still consider it to be a price worth paying if increasing capacity at The Valley becomes impossible and if the end result is a realistic prospect of 40,000 watching Charlton in the top flight (no, I’m not suggesting there are any guarantees). However, relocation to a ground the other side of the river is, as far as I’m concerned, completely out of the question.

It’s all more than a little academic. At the moment we don’t know if a purchase of Charlton will go through and on what basis. Overall I think we are ready to accept the changes that this would imply, confident in both Richard Murray’s ability to ensure the club remains in good hands and in the Charlton fans’ ability to ensure that the characteristics of the club we truly value are preserved. But there are lines in the sand. If it were ever to become a choice between 20 years in the lowest division and relocation to the north side of The Thames for me there is no issue (provided in the bottom league we don’t have to play Millwall).

Talking of preserving qualities and double-standards, the best laugh I had over the weekend was the booing of Ashley Cole. As part of what I do I have recently had to plough through acres of sanctimonious twaddle by teenage scribblers overseen by idiots about the financial sector crisis; but I haven’t yet come across anything quite so daft as Rio Ferdinand suggesting that the fans who booed might be ashamed of themselves. This is Rio Ferdinand. The inarticulate, suspension-serving role model for the truly hopeless. Suggesting some other people should feel shame for their actions in expressing their derision for Ashley Cole. Please.

I regularly howl at the periodic booing of Charlton fans as being totally counter-productive. But surely nobody, not even Ferdinand and Rooney and any other representative of the collective brain cell of England footballers, could pretend that Cole was booed for having made a mistake. He was being booed for being Ashley Cole, with the mistake just the excuse. Let’s get this right. Wembley is just around the corner from ... Arsenal. This is the Ashley Cole who endeared himself to all football fans with his apparent reaction to the dreadful injustice of Arsenal’s new contract offer, one which had he accepted would have amounted to a revival of the slave trade. The Ashley Cole who cheated on a nation’s sweetheart. His terrific gaffe on Saturday gave Wembley’s fans the opportunity to send a message that, yes, we have to put up with the sort of characters that pull on an England football shirt, but don’t expect us to like them. And yes, Rio, just in case there’s any doubt that includes you too.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Bring It On

Whether its just being knackered after the week that was or whether its that stage of life, my initial reaction to the news of a prospective takeover of the club by Dubai’s Maktoum family is bring it on. These things can always go pear-shaped – for example purchasing Manchester City comes with a written guarantee of failure – but you’ve got to feel that its time to take the risk. After all, the balance of risk is staring us in the face and, with no sleight whatsoever to the current board/owners, the increasing prospect of a return to the sort of situation for Charlton that I spent the first half of my life enduring (it wasn’t that bad, I didn’t expect any better) is simply not appealing.

We would no doubt continue to follow the club. But we are all aware that a failure to get promoted this season – and most people would say we have no better chance than perhaps half the division (I can’t bring myself to agree) – means an end to the parachute payments and a further cutting of the cloth, coupled with a prospective fall in season ticket sales, whether or not the promotion freebie offer is extended. In case it has escaped anyone’s attention the economy is developing not necessarily to our advantage. The implications for football in general are bad enough, but with Far East gambling money and TV rights to continue to prop up the top flight the real effects are going to be felt outside the Premiership.

There’s nothing wrong with being one of a dozen or so decent Championship clubs. However much we carp, the quality of football in the second flight is far higher than it was even five years ago let alone 20, and sooner or later we would get used to our revised status and truly enjoy the greater comradeship that is the Championship – always provided that Millwall and Leeds stay where they are; if they don’t I want out of this league one way or another. Cobblers. I just don’t want to. I have more than the T-shirt.

I haven’t checked emails this morning; it’s been a late start. And I’m probably the first to know about the Dubai bid. I don’t doubt that there might be one or two in there from a Man City friend who has been the butt of my derision in recent months (well, years actually). I think it was the words I wrote to Once I Had A Secret Love (‘once I had a football team etc) that hit hardest. Fact is, Platini and others don’t really understand British football. He recently questioned whether if Liverpool were bought by the Maktoums, taking over the reins from US owners, managed by a Spaniard and with nearly all the players from outside the UK would there be anything left that was Liverpool? Well Michel, there is. It’s called the fans.

We (the fans that is, not just wisened old bloggers) have rightly taken plaudits for the way we have collectively contributed to the development of Charlton over recent years. We have full confidence that Richard Murray is not going to sell on any terms, but ultimately whether the club retains the character that we value will be down to us. And that’s not just sentimental twaddle. It’s what Platini and others don’t understand. So again, bring it on.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Life Is Sweet Once More

Ah, let’s just take a minute or two to bask in the warm glow of a glorious victory. Plaudits and congratulations all round, three points in the bag, possible crisis averted. It’s so nice to celebrate with a glass of wine rather than having to gulp it down in a headlong rush to forget. OK, we all realise it was far from perfect. Just as on every other day so far this season it could easily have turned out differently. But there were enough sturdy performances and enough cohesion and purpose to ensure that Ipswich, while a touch unlucky to lose on the balance of play and chances created, could not claim to be robbed. Perhaps most significant, just like us a week ago after they went 2-1 down they failed to create a single clear-cut chance; Lisbie did seem to get between Hudson and Weaver and be in a position to head over the keeper and into an empty net. But he was never going to do that, was he?

Given that in a recent post I was questioning whether the Holland/Bailey combination in central midfield was not our best option (which is not to say that either is not worthy of a place) and whether we could really afford to start with Bouazza and Sam, it follows that I thought the changes to the starting eleven were astute. The back five was unchanged, with Cranie still getting the nod at right-back, but Holland dropped to the bench for Zhi to return, while Sam also stood down for Ambrose and Todorov got the nod over Gray.

I thought in the first 20 minutes we were clearly the better team. There was better movement and control than in previous games, even if we had the handicap once more of scoring first. A free kick in a reasonable position and Bailey drove the ball hard and low. My first reaction was it was going wide – and I think Wright in the Ipswich goal thought the same. Seems to have taken a deflection and next thing you know its in the net. Credited to Bailey, but maybe a case for the dubious goals committee. Zhi ensured better link-up play, while Todorov, while not surprisingly still looking short of match practise, held it up well and almost played in Varney on a few occasions.

However, we were getting little joy down the flanks; Bouazza was to have a very poor game, save one moment, and Ambrose flitted in and out of the game. Both seemed spectators when they didn’t have the ball and did not do enough to make themselves available. Shortly after the goal Bailey was clattered from behind and fell awkwardly, the first occasion when referee Hegley made the wrong decision over cards. He had to go off, although with Holland coming on you can’t say it made us materially weaker. Bailey and Zhi had looked good together.

Whether or not the change affected us – and Ipswich also made a substitution, bringing on the lively Counago - as the half progressed Ipswich got more of a grip on midfield, pressuring Zhi in particular. He thrives on moving the ball on quickly, which means players making themselves available. When they don’t he can be caught in possession. A poor mistake by Youga, who otherwise was playing well and creating more than Bouazza going forward, almost led to a goal and it was no real surprise that another cross from their right side caused problems. Cranie had to play the ball running towards goal near the far post, with a forward on his shoulder. Unfortunately he planted it in the net. After that Ipswich clipped the top of the bar from a free kick, but at the break it was pretty much a case of honours even and all to play for.

I don’t know if he was injured or just upset at the own goal, but Cranie was replaced at half-time by Semedo. It was to be a significant change as Semedo, who hadn’t before looked to me comfortable at right-back, took his opportunity with both hands. He was energetic, enthusiastic, and during the second half cropped up in advanced positions on the break, leaving Ambrose some way behind.

The next goal was always going to be crucial, but with Ipswich enjoying better control in midfield but Varney causing them problems with his pace and running it was an even bet which team would get it. In the event Ambrose and Semedo seemed to run down the right together before the former put in a superb cross. Bouazza had read it well and was in the right place. But he seemed to completely screw it up. However, after connecting with something the ball bounced down and then up and over Wright into the net. A free kick going wide before being deflected, an own goal, and a miskick. Ah well, who cares, this is the Championship.

After that we threatened on the break, with Varney getting around their defender only to be pulled down either outside or just inside the box. From the East Stand we couldn’t tell. The referee gave it outside, but for some reason didn’t give the defender even a yellow card, having booked Bouazza in the first half for a tug back in the Ipswich half. I think he just forgot. In this brave new world players are not supposed to call for cards, but if the referees singularly fail to make such obvious decisions what are they supposed to do? Respect? Don’t make me laugh.

The defending was sometimes frantic in the last 20 minutes, but in general Hudson – who had another very impressive game – and Primus dealt with what was thrown at them. Weaver was called on once or twice, but it never looked desperate. We found it difficult to keep possession, however. Again, Semedo showed up both Ambrose and Bouazza with the pace and energy he showed getting forward and back. Gray replaced a tiring Todorov and after a few mild scares it was all done and dusted.

The overall performance was mixed, but Todorov, Ambrose and Zhi presumably need more games to get fully up to speed. I think it’s positive to view, for now at least Holland and Bailey, and Todorov and Gray, as interchangeable. There’s a two-week break now and at least I can look at the Sunday papers – and yes, even the league table – without suffering palpitations.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 7/10. Capable enough, only called on to make saves a few times.

Cranie: 6/10. Have to see why he was replaced at half-time; no real blame for the own goal, these things happen and he had to play the ball. But Semedo gave us a lot more in the second half.

Youga: 7/10. Generally impressive, but one bad mistake in the first half could easily have cost a goal.

Hudson: 9/10. I thought he was excellent today, held the back line together, good tackles and interceptions.

Primus: 8/10. Also very good. Nice to see him knowing how far he could go in dealing with Counago in particular.

Bouazza: 5/10. I thought he had a very poor game, not finding or making space, not getting past the full back. Capable of much more. But saw the opportunity for what proved to be the winner.

Bailey: 7/10. Only on for around 15 minutes but looked good with Zhi in that time – and presumably he will keep the goal.

Zhi: 6/10. Something of an enigma today. Looked good moving forward and did get in a fair share of tackles. But Ipswich had better control of midfield and Zhi was outmuscled on a number of occasions. Should be a case of sticking with him and him getting fully up to speed.

Ambrose: 6/10. Moderately encouraging but he too can do more. Was a bit peripheral for much of the game, but gets credit for the cross for the winner.

Todorov: 6/10. Needs more games, good movement and passes in the first half but conditions were not easy for him.

Varney: 8/10. Didn’t score, but almost single-handedly worried Ipswich in the second half with his pace and running.

Subs: Holland 7/10 (does what it says on the bottle); Semedo: 8/10 (something of a revelation); Gray: 6/10 (no great impression on the game).

Friday 3 October 2008

Striking The Wrong Note

Now I’m all for accentuating the positive, even sometimes with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek. And I don’t particularly enjoy criticising others – by implication it means I am not especially happy with the prevailing situation, and by nature I much prefer to be a happy bunny. After all, its not as if we ask much of our football team. Only that it wins, entertains, shows commitment to the cause, gets into Europe – or at the very least doesn’t lose to Palace. However, sometimes things strike the wrong chord and it seems to me that there have been a couple of examples of that of late.

First, the Charlton website is touting the fact that despite two defeats we are still ‘only’ four points off a play-off spot. That statement is depressing at every level. It suggests that a play-off spot is the pinnacle of our ambitions (which in terms of club development suggests we have gone backwards to the point of the last time we only sneaked into the play-offs – to lose to Palace); it even hints that we are, with a limited horizon, succeeding. And to be four points off a play-off spot after nine games, lying 17th in the table, is a source of misery, not hope. After all, if we continue in the same fashion after 18 games we will be ‘only’ eight points off a play-off spot; and after 36, as the season enters the final run-in, we will be handily placed, tucked in just some 16 points below the team in sixth.

Second, Alan Pardew in his programme notes for the Sheff Wed game went out of his way to “reassure supporters that this club is not a vehicle for me – this is not a stop-off on my career”. Another time and in a different context these remarks would have been appreciated, and I assume they are heart-felt. However, Pardew’s stock has fallen since his failure to keep us in the Premiership (no real blame there but with seven games to go I would have backed us to stay up – and still hope we join the queue of those waiting to sue West Ham) and more particularly the failure to rebound. As some fans apparently made clear at the Palace game, the table has turned and for the near future at least it is up to Pardew to demonstrate that he is the still the right man to manage the club. No Charlton fan that I know of is currently contemplating the risk of Pardew jumping ship to join another club.

Even the great Lennie Lawrence called it wrong when he took his realistic appraisal of situations to the extent of considering Charlton a small club with a ceiling of potential that could not be raised. We all have unrealistic ambitions for our teams, but not many clubs can point to the sorts of attendance that we enjoyed for long periods, or the extensive potential catchment area for new fans. That the conditions were never in place to begin to exploit that potential during his tenure is a fact. But most clubs simply do not have that potential. Curbs (and no doubt Richard Murray) seemed to me to get it right by acknowledging that the key to our future is being able to both expand the capacity of The Valley and to fill it. Until that happens in the Premiership we will always be punching above our weight and in the Championship we are really just another club (with ambitions).

At the moment I don’t want to look at the league table, or hear ‘reassurances’ that some people are not too big for us. I do want to hear and see evidence that we are moving in the right direction. In practical terms that means Pardew having the support of the players, the players showing the necessary commitment, and the fans providing the backing that can help. We need to concentrate on playing better and finding the style of play (and combination of players) that best suits our available resources. (To the relief of anyone reading I’m not going to repeat the contents of the previous post.)

Also, on Saturday the last thing I want to hear is booing if we start poorly and/or go behind. Whether Pardew is the right man for the job is now a real issue for discussion – for that it’s worth, my view is that unless he clearly loses the support of the players he is and should be given the season to prove it; after all, we don’t have much to lose – but not during the game. It’s the same old well-worn argument. But it still boils down to a definition of supporter.