Friday 20 February 2009

The Blame Game

A posting like this really ought to wait until the end of the season, when we will be trumpeting our success in the face of all the doom-mongers, or at least until after tomorrow’s game. But since the BBC site has a blog posting on ‘What’s Gone Wrong At Charlton’ and all and sundry, including yours truly, has said their piece, perhaps there’s scope for a purely personal and arbitrary allocation of the blame for our current plight.

Curbishley: I simply cannot go along with those who even partially blame Curbs. No, he wasn’t perfect. Our youth development suffered under him, but only because of a single-minded focus on keeping us in the Premiership and doing what was necessary to achieve that overriding objective. He bought some players who didn’t work out, but his record on that front overall is outstanding (Darren Bent?). Yes, he went stale and perhaps stayed a season too long; but we started his last season with a team that played the best football I have seen from a Charlton side before the side broke up. I think he stopped improving as a manager in the last couple of years (and maybe lost faith when it became clear that season ticket sales really couldn’t justify quick expansion of the ground to the sort of levels that would have allowed us to really compete in the top flight) and allowed a sense of ennui to set in. He ended up passing on a tired team in need of a serious revamp, but to that extent allowed his successor to make his mark from the start. Whatever small portion of the blame is attributed to him for the condition he left us in should be set against our situation when he was appointed and his role in what followed.
Blame Rating: 5% (only on the grounds that Jesus Christ would not get a 0).

Dowie: His saving grace is that it’s not really his fault that he isn’t very good. And whatever was going on in his personal life at the time must have had an effect. I still seems strange that he was appointed to head a tripartite not of his choosing, but his only fault there was to take the job on those terms (if he didn’t think it would work). I don’t automatically agree with those who say he was sacked far too soon as there have been enough hints that a lot was going wrong behind the scenes. Fact is far too many of the players he bought didn’t work out, under him or his successors, and he left us with the coffers not only bare but being bled further by the rise in the wage bill.
Blame Rating: 20%

Reed: Oh come on. He wasn’t brought in to be the manager, took the job in a crisis, and moved aside once an obvious replacement became available. He behaved honourably throughout. His tenure will not be remembered as a golden age it’s true; and his comments about Prozone stats after we had been hammered at Spurs still raise a chuckle. But have a heart.
Blame Rating: 5%

Pardew: Can’t take the rap for relegation, although with seven games to go I (incurable optimist that I seems to be in matters Charlton) thought we would stay up – only for the team to wilt under the pressure. But despite the enforced changes had a squad last season that should have won automatic promotion. His failings in that respect – to shape a team to play in a certain fashion depending on its strengths, and to address weaknesses – became all too apparent this season. And for whatever reason he failed to really motivate the players. There’s nothing wrong with arrogance when you succeed, but when you fail it becomes a real liability. He not only bought badly but tinkered unnecessarily, bringing in a spate of unfathomable loan signings (before landing Lita, who might have lifted us into the play-offs if he’d arrived in January and we’d not bought Gray).
Blame Rating: 20%

Parkinson: Only two things count against him. First, he didn’t do the dishonourable thing and walk out on Colchester to take over from Curbs. Second, he didn’t give us the ‘new manager bounce’ this season. But neither afford him a high blame rating and there are signs now that he is shaping the team – albeit with the necessary assistance of loan signings – to suit his style.
Blame Rating: 1%

The Board: Murray and co acknowledge that with hindsight wrong choices were made. In my opinion the only truly bad decision was to require that Curbs’ successor worked with Reed and Robson rather than to show confidence in the new man to choose his people (which could of course have been Reed and Robson). In many respects, given the known alternatives, Dowie was the safe choice as manager; I don’t think it was a mistake not to readvertise the post once Dowie was sacked; and nobody disputed Pardew coming in. The board provided good backing given resources for Dowie and Pardew – and of course are paying the price for decisions that have not worked out (rather than obviously bad decisions) in the value of their investment. As with Curbs, a blame rating has to take account of their role in what went before.
Blame Rating: 10%

The Players: Do you blame the manager or the players when it all goes wrong. Well, both obviously. Too many of them failed to deliver and for whatever reason were not up for the fight.
Blame Rating: 20%

The Fans: We have to consider the role that seemingly endless whining played in Curbs’ attitude towards the end, and the fact that far from becoming the fortress talked of The Valley has been over the past couple of seasons a place that no-one has feared. I guess we’re no worse than others (after all, Arsenal get booed off the pitch sometimes) but we’re no better either. And we could and should have been.
Blame Rating: 5%

The Premier League: I know we finished second-bottom, but again with seven games left we were reasonably well placed to survive – if West Ham were out of the equation. It makes a big difference if you are trying to scramble one place higher or get above two opposing teams. In that context, the Premier League’s decisions over Tevez cost us dear (if I was a Sheff Utd fan it would still be incandescent with rage). I have no axe to grind with West Ham, they were defending their own interests. But the Premier League’s decisions were scandalous and indirectly cost us as well as Sheff Utd.
Blame Rating: 9%

Referees/Acts of God: Few teams get relegated without having been unlucky at key moments. And there were none bigger than the linesman’s gaffe in injury time when we were 2-1 up against Fulham. Still hurts. I won’t even mention the succession of penalties we should have been awarded. Then there have been a string of serious and disruptive injuries in the past two seasons, probably more than a team can expect to suffer. I realise you make your own luck, but sometimes you don’t.
Blame Rating: 5%

Ultimately you need a scapegoat. Every outfit has (and needs) one. So, as the Liverpool supporters used to sing: ‘don’t blame it on the sunlight, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on Traore’. Fact is we were afforded an awful early fixture list under Dowie (which encouraged a sense of crisis from early on) but on the first day of the season in bright sunshine and with a new team and manager were 1-0 up away at West Ham. Traore manages to get himself sent off after 20 minutes. It’s been downhill ever since (until now).
Blame Rating: 100%

Thursday 19 February 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

Let’s face it, there are three possible scenarios for the rest of the season. First, we win all our remaining 14 games and end the season on 67 points, above Palace but with us left to moan about having just missed out on a play-off spot (which given our prevailing form we would have been a shoo-in to win). Second, we lose our next five or six and relegation is effectively confirmed in time to plan for an Easter break far away from football. Third, understandably, something in between.

It’s premature to get really excited after the Plymouth game, given how poor they were. The next couple of games, both away, will determine whether last Saturday was the crucial win we hope or just a blip. But, and call me an irrational dreamer if you must, there are grounds for relative optimism.

First, the players are still learning how to play together, which is hardly surprising given how long many of them have been at the club. This in itself offers the possibility of continued improvement if confidence can be bolstered by more good results.

Second, the return of Racon and prospective return of Zhi do, for the first time this season, give us real options in midfield. A group of (in no particular order) Sam, Soares (who has extended his loan), Ambrose, Racon, Zhi, Bailey, Spring, Holland, Wright and Shelvey, plus Semedo if he gets fit in time, should stand comparison with most of this division’s midfields. Also, while there are drawbacks with the midfield quartet on Saturday (Bailey, Racon, Spring, Soares), with Bailey not especially comfortable wide-left and Soares’ inclusion meaning no starting berth for Sam (who to my mind has been involved in most of our best moments this season), it must be behind Parkinson’s thinking that all four of them are likely to score. Bailey, Racon and Spring have all demonstrated that they can shoot. Given that we have spent most of the season with forwards firing blanks (or rather not able to load in the first place), this has to be a real change for the better – and a merited pat on the back for the boss.

Third (and on this one the jury has to still be out), is the possibility that Kandol and Dickson can provide the forward partnership that we need (and with Burton suspended for Saturday presumably Todorov will at least make the bench). And finally, barring injuries the defence is looking reasonably settled, with Ward looking like the type of player who can partner Hudson, Murty still here, Youga likely to improve with a run (I hope), and Elliot having taken his chance to prove himself our number one in goal.

Given this, it seems almost irreverent to think about relegation (I’m actually fearful that we will end the season is better shape than at any other time in terms of team performance – but still go down). Nevertheless, in the interests of balance let’s take a look at the division (remember when we did this based on points totals for promotion and thought those were hard times?). It goes without saying that two of Wolves, Reading and Birmingham will get the automatic promotion spots (with the one missing out favourites for the play-offs). The next eight (down to QPR in 11th) are in a scrap for three play-off spots, Then there’s a block of six (possibly seven including Barnsley after their win at Sheff Wed and given their games in hand) unlikely to feature in the promotion or relegation battles. That leaves the bottom six.

From what I’ve seen this season, Palace aside Plymouth are the worst team (obviously they are on a very bad run and weren’t always so poor), followed by Derby, Norwich, Southampton and Forest (despite their act of gross larceny in winning at The Valley). Derby seem to be pulling themselves together under Clough and their trouncing of Blackpool suggests they are unlikely to drop back sufficiently to come within our realistic orbit. I find it hard to see Watford imploding either. That to my mind makes Southampton, Plymouth, Forest, and Norwich as the likeliest targets for us to overhaul (it’s not exactly rocket science is it?). And the good news is that they are all on awful runs.

Southampton, who could of course be bottom on Saturday, may take the administration option if their next five or six games turn out badly. Leaving that aside, they are on 28 points from 32 games. Of their remaining 14 games (seven home, seven away) next three are Preston and Cardiff at home then Ipswich away. All tough games but all capable of being won by a team in form. Fortunately you can’t say that of Southampton, who have won just one of their last 15. They have yet to play away at Birmingham and Wolves and will still host play-off contenders Preston, Cardiff, QPR and Burnley. Of the teams around the bottom they have Derby at home and Forest away (on the last day of the season, which could be interesting). Oh, and us of course. Bottom line is if we end the season around or below Southampton we’ve had it. Points prediction: 11 points from remaining 14 games, season total of 39 points.

Plymouth. It’s tempting to predict nil points for them for the remainder of the season. But of course they could sack Sturrock and get the replacement lift that all except us benefit from. They are on 35 points from 33 games. Recent form of 6 points from 11 games is another welcome statistic. Next up for them will be Sheff Utd at home and Wolves away. These games could see the manager go. After that they still have to play Reading and Birmingham but also vital (for them) clashes against Watford (home) and Norwich (away). Like Southampton they have a relatively good final bout of games, against teams with possibly nothing left to play for (Coventry, Doncaster, QPR and finally Barnsley). Points prediction: 12 points from 14 games, season total of 47.

Forest. They’re on 34 points from 33 games. Of their remaining 13 fixtures only six are at home, starting with Derby in the next round of fixtures then Preston, Swansea, Wolves, Bristol City, Coventry and finally the Southampton fixture on the last day. Add in away trips to Reading, Watford, Burnley, Barnsley, Sheff Utd and Blackpool and it’s not an impossible situation for them. However, they’ve taken only 1 point from their last four fixtures and if they lose against Derby and then away at Reading they will be on a real slide. Points prediction: 13 points from 13 games, season total of 47.

Norwich. I can’t wish relegation on Norwich, which is one of the best away trips going. Well, I can, but only in extremis (ie us or them – and of course we host them on the final day, so remember these comments Norwich, if you’re safe we want the points). But only 32 points from 33 and they too are on a poor run, not having won in 5. Next up are home games against Burnley and Coventry, both winnable. But if they fail they have QPR and Blackpool away to follow, so much for them rests on the next two. Of all the clubs around the bottom Norwich’s run-in looks the easiest (at least before the final day). Only Birmingham away and Reading at home, with winnable home fixtures. Points prediction: 13 points from 13 games, season total of 45.

Last season Leicester went down with 52 points, but from the above it would seem that, even allowing for higher points averages than before for lowly teams (as they scrap for survival), 50 points should be sufficient. If Southampton fall by the wayside we have to be targeting 22-25 points from our remaining 14 games. That might be a mix of 6-7 wins 4-7 draws, ie only losing at most four more games. Another way of looking at it is that if we continue our present form – two wins, two defeats in the last four – we would end up on 46 points, at least in the mix. Basically we have to be the form team for the remainder of the season. But before our thoughts can turn to clashes with Watford, Southampton, Derby and Norwich there is the small matter of Barnsley and Swansea away. The importance of the former might have been eased by their midweek result, but we have to view this as a winnable game coming on the back of our success last Saturday – and there aren’t that many of them left.

Saturday 14 February 2009

That'll Do Nicely For Now

Well, well. Two home wins in a row, both with clean sheets. No, we’re not getting really excited yet. As before, two away games coming up and plenty still to be done before we can really dare to hope. That sort of attitude seemed to be reflected in the crowd today. I’ve been to noisier funerals. But what the hell. Take the win and move on. Killer got it right with his bet this time. Plymouth were there for the taking and we could/should have won much more comfortably. But we’ve lost at home to poor sides before this season, so we can allow ourselves a decent celebration.

The line-up saw the defence as expected, with Elliot in goal, Murty and Youga the full-backs, and Hudson and Ward in the centre. Racon was given a starting slot, alongside Spring, with Soares out right in preference to Sam and Bailey deployed on the left side of midfield instead of Sam starting on the left. Up front Dickson kept his place and the surprise was that Kandol started instead of Burton. As a spectacle the first half, one moment excepted, was one of the worst I have seen. We looked disjointed and short of a game plan, while Plymouth were ponderous and equally low on confidence.

There were chances. Plymouth had one early on after two defenders went for the same ball and allowed space behind them, but their guy put it over the bar. And our nerves were not helped by a very unsettled start by Elliot (who did steady himself and went on to make decent saves). We had a header and a couple of shots which should have resulted in their keeper having to work harder. But the chances were all about mistakes and the succession of poor passes, poor control and hopeless lofted balls, from both teams, provided a depressing contrast with the way Swansea had been playing in the cup earlier in the day.

However, as the game progressed Dickson and Kandol started to cause some problems and something of an understanding, while their pace and tendency to go for the unpredictable offered hope. Soares offered the occasional run. Midfield was a congested mish-mash in which Racon and Spring coped OK but without dominating.

Then lord above a moment of sheer class. From a corner the ball was knocked out to Racon in some space outside their box. It seemed easier to shoot with his right foot, but he turned left and delivered a superb curling shot into the top corner. The contrast with all that had gone before was dramatic. Plymouth had the chance to respond in kind, with a free kick given in a dangerous area. But their curler came back off the bar. The remainder of the half was much like what went before, but somehow it just seems better when you’re winning. And the second half was a completely different story.

I really think the game turned on a half-time substitution by Plymouth. They took off a right-sided midfielder and brought on a lump to play up front. Suddenly they were far more open at the back and the pace of Dickson and Kandol, plus Soares, started to simply tear them apart. In a 15-minute spell the game should have been put to rest. We won a rather soft (but perfectly correct) penalty for handball, but although Bailey struck it hard their keeper, Larrieu, who during this period kept them in the game, held out a strong hand and the chance went begging. Then a deflected ball looped up in the box and fell to Bailey, who went for power and put it high into the North Stand.

Other good chances followed but finally Dickson flicked on for Kandol, who played an excellent ball into the box for Bailey to run onto. He took it square past the keeper and tucked it away. Valediction. For what it’s worth I’d give the man of the match award to Bailey. He clearly wasn’t comfortable wide-left, but never stopped trying. In the first half he was injured in our box putting his head in where it hurt to avert danger. He missed the penalty and then the great chance, but didn’t hide. Whatever division we end up in next season he looks like Matty Holland’s natural successor.

The rest of the game was fairly low-key, with Charlton content with what they had. Dickson, who had been yellow-carded, was taken off to a deserved standing ovation – and it was noticeable that the chances stopped coming with Burton on (although to be fair we weren’t pressing as hard). There was just time for Plymouth to be gifted a one-on-one by a dreadful back pass, but the guy put it wide. We really won’t play a worse team this season on that performance, with a special pat on the back for Sturrock for making the half-time switch which changed the pattern of play so much.

So, onwards and upwards. Neither the fans nor the players were jubilant. It was a necessary win if we are to retain any hope of staying up. Now its back to whether we can carry it on on our travels.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. Strangely dodgy start, with errors and confusion. But after the first 15 minutes he saved everything he had to and was more comfortable with high balls.

Murty: 8/10. Excellent performance. Not much going forward, but gave his all and ensured that nothing dangerous came at us down their left side.

Youga: 5/10. Undoubtedly a poor game. He seems low on confidence and has lost the exuberance going forward that he used to show. Needs to get it back (and I really hope he does, because when he is playing well he adds a great deal), otherwise Basey will be back in the team.

Ward: 7/10. Coped competently with a succession of aimless high balls, with Plymouth playing to his strengths. Will face tougher tests, but so far so good.

Hudson: 8/10. Another who had a rather iffy start to the game, but once he settled put in another impressive display – again, against very poor opposition.

Bailey: 9/10. As outlined above, I don’t care that he missed a penalty and a great chance. He got in the right position to have another and never stopped working. Playing wide-left clearly isn’t ideal for him, but was asked to do a job and did it.

Racon: 8/10. Has to get an extra point for the goal. Otherwise tidy and looks capable of more. I just want to see that shot again (and again).

Spring: 7/10. Not a great game, but always involved and clearly has some nous about him (one excellent moment when he was found wanting for pace but made sure we kept the ball).

Soares: 6/10. Mixed game. Contributed significantly in the attacking spell but failed to deliver telling balls or get on the end of them. More to come.

Dickson: 8/10. Very good game and deserved a goal. Made a nuisance of himself, won more balls in the air than he had a right to, and made one fabulous break down the right, skipping past challenges to set up a chance. His pace means defenders can never be comfortable.

Kandol: 7/10. Might just be the player to work alongside Dickson. All-round game looked fine, but he didn’t impress with his shooting.

Subs: Burton 5/10 (game was effectively over when he came on). Not used: Shelvey, Holland, Sam, Randolph.

Friday 13 February 2009

Bottom Fishing

Ah, what bliss it’s been. Almost two weeks free of feeling obliged to stare at the league table and contemplate all possible paths to survival. No meaningful news, no speculation about the manager, no matches. Peace. Well, except for a somewhat fraught trip to Amsterdam (having struggled out through the snow the return should have been a doddle – and was until City Airport was closed due to an aircraft bursting a tyre) and crafting a tax return (yes, I know they were supposed to be submitted by end-January but some works of fiction take a little longer to construct).

And its not as if there’s much to say about Plymouth. Never seen us play there, no strong recollection of clashes with them in the past. I even had to dig out a programme to remind myself how we did against them last season. A 2-1 reverse at home in October (during our first sticky patch when thoughts of running away with the division were first questioned) and a 2-1 win at their place (the one where Weaver was sent off early on). That’s about it. You can’t really dislike them and we all remember with some affection Michael Foot and his green-and-white scarf. But let’s try.

First off, their chairman has been whining about the ‘unfair’ advantage given to some teams in the Championship by parachute payments. It seems he is stressing trying to get promoted “the right way”. Well, if you don’t have any alternatives you might as well try to claim the moral high ground. I’m now a firm believer that there should be parachute payments made to teams relegated from the Championship, given the financial traumas that this can produce. Perhaps Plymouth could be persuaded to contribute. They did after all make a profit of £1.1m last season by flogging a few players.

Second, while I’ve no axe to grind with the guy the manager, Paul Sturrock, reminds me of our failures (as Nico sang, please don’t confront me with them, I have not forgotten them). Southampton took a chance on him after Gordon Strachan departed and it all went pear-shaped for them. It served as a chilling reminder at the time that for clubs like us and Southampton it only takes one naff season.

Third, and I remember now, it was Plymouth’s thug who took out Todorov last season. That’s enough to justify a change of heart. I really don’t like Plymouth. And a glance at the league table doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. They have conceded only 17 goals in 16 games away from home this season. With our home strike rate not exactly, ahem, impressive the odds would seem to favour neither side scoring more than one. In that context a 0-0 or 1-0 win might be the likeliest outcome. Sod it, let’s just score four and take the draw.

In fact once tomorrow is out of the way and we have narrowed the gap there will be a further three weeks without direct heartbreak as I won’t be making trips to Barnsley or Swansea (I shall be hiding out in Lyon) and will be out of the country (Amsterdam again) for the Doncaster game. So after tomorrow from me its just going to be random waffle until Watford. Plus ca change.

The sojourn in France will, however, give me the opportunity to watch some football. Lyon Duchere take on Saint-Etienne B tomorrow week and I shall be there, providing strong vocal (if rather meaningless) encouragement. Should be a lively encounter as there’s not a great deal of love lost between Lyon and Saint-Etienne, which is traditionally the more working-class and industrial near neighbour. Since their slight 5-1 reverse in the local derby against Olympique Lyonnais’ reserves La Duch have had mixed fortunes. First, they went down 3-2 away to then mid-table Agde (somewhere I’d never heard of, so I did a quick check; seems its just along the coast from Marseilles with Cape d’Agde a leading naturist resort – if the tax authorities come calling and take away my pc this really was in the interests of research). But they followed this up with a splendid 2-0 home win against Villefranche/Saone, the team they were promoted with last season (a delightful town in Beaujolais country).

As a result Lyon Duchere are still hanging on to fourth place in the (18-team) league (CFA Groupe B). But it looks as though they will soon be overhauled by OL B, who are only two points behind with two games in hand. It still looks to me as though the champions of the division are promoted automatically and that there is some sort of play-off/lottery involving the second and third-placed sides. Hyeres (seemingly another coastal resort, just east of Toulon, although of the more traditional variety) seem to be running away with the title, having lost only one game in 18 and conceded just seven goals (they’ve scored only 20 goals in the 18 games yet have won 10 of them – oh, for a defence like that). Toulon could catch them and in any event look secure in second, while the ubiquitous Andrezieux (something of a toilet; I should know I went to La Duch’s away game there – I really must do this sort of research before planning trips, going to an agricultural backwater but missing out on the coastal resorts) are in third, with the same number of points as Lyon Duchere but having played three games less.

Before they can count on my support there is the small matter of an away game tomorrow, against Jura Sud. They are bottom of the league with just three wins in 17 games. So Duchere will expect victory – and if they are to make it into the top three and rekindle promotion hopes a win tomorrow and then against Saint-Etienne B (currently in ninth place) would seem to be necessary. Basically there’s only one bottom-placed team we want to see walk away with the points this weekend.