Tuesday 28 July 2009

Shock Horror: Slender Home Lead Retained

Well, as pre-season friendlies go it wasn’t bad. And thoughts of being depressed by the memory of recent years when we would cherry-pick Ipswich’s best players were eased by the fact that there didn’t seem much on display this time around worth picking up. Fears that the Keane effect would see them flying out of the traps were quickly put to bed. Instead it turned into a decent encounter and workout for both teams. And for us at least there were some clues as to the likely starting team for the season, were it not for the inevitable further comings and goings.

We lined up with Elliot in goal and Randolph on the bench, Solly at right-back (presumably new signing Richardson has already picked up a knock, while Moutaouakil seems destined to leave, turning out for Portsmouth at the weekend), Basey at left-back (getting the nod ahead of Youga – who did come on for Solly in the second half and seemed to send a message by delivering a virtuoso performance going forward at least), with Llera surprisingly partnered in the centre by Christian Dailey (on trial I presume, but with Fortune appearing for Sheff Utd and presumably on his way, the need for at least one more centre-back is obvious). The midfield was predictable, with Semedo providing the anchor role alongside Racon, Bailey (captain on the night) still having to plough his trade for us wide left, and Sam on the right. Shelvey played in the hole, with Burton the almost lone forward.

With Ipswich looking sluggish and outgunned in midfield, where Semedo and Racon ran the game and combined very well at times (when they were not colliding), Llera marshalling the defence and Solly playing well, we really dominated the first half. The main attacking threat came from Sam and just as the game seemed to be lacking direction a superb crossfield ball to him saw him run into the box and get taken down. Clear penalty: Burton 1-0. The second followed not long afterwards, with a cross from the right being headed back and a flick towards goal by Racon hit an outstretched arm of a defender. Soft penalty: Burton 2-0. (Call me old-fashioned, but I expect a forward to take penalties; Killer was no great penalty taker, but he always took them as he was well aware that he would usually score and they all added to his tally.) A flashed header over the bar shortly before the break was all that Ipswich offered and the main concern at that stage were the regular knocks that Bailey was taking and the sight of Semedo and Racon going down injured.

Semedo did not appear for the second half and that made a difference. Spring replaced him, but we lost some of the muscle and he and Racon didn’t seem to combine to the same effect. Ipswich may of course have upped the pace after some hairdryer treatment. They got more of a grip on the game and were awarded a penalty of their own; the ball seemed to have gone away from their forward but a nevertheless clumsy looking challenge from Llera probably left the ref with little alternative after the two given to us. Elliot saved superbly to his left low down, but the rebound was put away (by someone who a colleague reliably informed we must have been encroaching).

After that the game was competitive despite the regular substitutions. For us Wagstaff came on for Sam, Youga came on to replace Solly (who was by then finding their speedy winger more of a handful), while Dickson and Fleetwood came on for Burton and Shelvey and Small came on for Racon (with Bailey switching inside). A few opportunities were created, not least by Youga’s readiness to get forward, but no more goals saw us run out winners. Basically with no points at stake it was just pleasant - and a total contrast with most of last season - not to be on tenterhooks going into the last 10 minutes holding a slender lead. Even the players didn't seem to panic. So, not enough to inspire a Chris Powell leap from the tunnel but sufficient to send the bulk of the 5,000 spectators home in good enough spirits.

Plus points if it came down to ratings would have gone to Elliot (penalty save and all else handled well), Solly, Llera (barring the penalty tackle), Dailey (I really didn’t notice him, which for a defender can be a good sign), Sam and Bailey (for continuing to plug away out wide before moving back inside). Burton took the penalties very well, while Youga suggested to me that the left-back spot is still a fine call. On the other side of the coin, Shelvey struggled to make an impact (maybe we already expect too much from every game, especially when fitness levels are still being built up), Fleetwood looked like he could use shedding some weight, while Wagstaff doesn’t yet look convincing.

There was enough to suggest that the starting midfield line-up at least (and available options) should be strong enough to make us promotion contenders, that with Llera and presumably Richardson the defence should be at least workmanlike. However, with Parkinson talking of bringing in perhaps another four players and with departures (in addition to Gray, who remains absent, and Fortune and Holland if new contracts are not on offer) inevitable if he does, nothing can be said with confidence at this stage. At least until .... well, we’re still waiting for the takeover news. I just want an end to it, one way or the other. Just where the funds are available for a new assistant manager I have no idea, but let’s hope bringing in Breaker proves to be an inspired move.

That’s it for me until Orient away. France awaits for a couple of weeks. May I return to find us top of the league with two victories under our belt and the club ownership situation resolved. We’re muppets really, aren’t we? A victory at home of any sort and suddenly the thought of sacrificing the south of France for Wycombe and Hartlepool doesn’t seem quite so daft.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Still In Limbo

Well, in the end it took an article in The Mail (as if any self-respecting human being would read – let alone believe - anything in that rag) rather than the various appeals by fans to prompt a response from the board. And the statement issued read like the conclusion of an Iraq inquiry set up to answer questions that avoided the real issues. It was the sort of statement that would have been appropriate a couple of months ago but by now still leaves me somewhat mystified – and as is evident from other posts only serves to encourage speculation that our financial situation is indeed significantly worse than we were assuming.

The statement was admirable for its brevity. It contained three points. First, confirmation that one approach for the football club (“through an acquisition of some of the assets and liabilities of Charlton Athletic plc”) is “being processed”. Reading between the lines (and with absolutely no inside information), this would seem to indicate that the Varney offer, if such exists, is a complicated mix of purchasing assets and leaving a rump company to go into liquidation. I presume that this is behind the time being taken as the club will be taking legal advice over whether a deal as envisaged would be sufficient to avoid a 10-points deduction.

A prospective takeover of Southampton which seemed to be based around a new company stripping out what was viable and leaving the remainder (a football version of the ‘good bank/bad bank’ restructuring) was quite rightly deemed to be unacceptable. Whether we can square the circle with certain adjustments remain to be seen. But the conclusion has to be that the deal being ‘processed’ carries a significant risk of falling foul of the football authorities and that we will start the season on -10 (but still above Southampton on alphabetical order). If this reading is correct, presumably Richard Murray and the board are weighing up the merits of risking the points hit as well as the personal losses they face.

We only have access to the club’s accounts (and debt levels) as of end-June 2008. At the start of last season Murray outlined that the intention was to run the club on a breakeven basis. It has to be assumed that this goal proved unattainable and that the debt situation deteriorated significantly through the past 12 months (leaving aside the fresh cuts to be made to adjust to life in the third tier and the loss of parachute payments; perhaps the collapse of Setanta Sports has also affected projected TV revenues). As just over £4m of the club’s bank debts of around £7m in mid-2008 were at floating rates there should have been a benefit from lower base rates, but clearly it’s likely that various revenue streams fell short of expectations through the past year (except for beer sales as most of the time we were crying into our pints), while costs probably overran, not least as loan signings were made in the failed attempt to avoid relegation.

Given this, the complete absence of any comment regarding The Mail’s figures for our debt would suggest that they are not wide of the mark. If they were the club would have been quite entitled to rubbish the estimates. That, plus the above reading of a Varney offer, makes speculation of administration perfectly understandable. Given that the bulk of debt is directors’ loans and bank loans secured against The Valley, and that players contracts are now ring-fenced, simply going into administration still doesn’t seem to make sense to me as there’s little to be gained (unless other debts have spiralled in the past 12 months). But a Varney acquisition of parts of the club’s real assets and leaving the remainder in a zombie company does. Again, this would put the ball in the court of the Football League as to whether we get the points deduction.

Second, “the board of Charlton Athletic plc would like to inform all supporters and shareholders that it will, as always, act in the best interests of Charlton Athletic plc and the football club”. Pardon me, but that’s the obligation of all directors of any company. I don’t think criticism of the board for the absence of any information has come anywhere near to the point of questioning the intentions of Murray et al. Whatever mistakes have been made, the basic goodwill and trust that exists remains in place; the directors have been the ones bankrolling the club and are seemingly set to take sizeable personal financial hits. Rather the criticism has been born out of frustration over the lack of information and the time taken for any deal to be concluded – or indeed scrapped.

Third, and following on, “we are mindful of the financial consequences (of relegation) and will continue to work towards ensuring that Charlton are prepared for the new season, both on and off the pitch”. Well, that goal is impossible until the ownership of the club is resolved. I want to prepare for the new season and to start to get ‘up’ for the coming challenge. But you have to have a base to move from and as yet we don’t have that. May it come quickly. I don’t know how the players (including Matty Holland) feel about it all, but whatever is said you can’t prepare until you know who’s staying, what points total we start the season with, and whether the manager is being kept.

In these respects we are behind Southampton. At least they know where they stand: -10 and with Pardew in charge. No doubt his reception when he returns to The Valley will be frosty at best. Personally I’m not inclined to give him a hard time. He did his best, but all the indications are that he simply isn’t anywhere near as good a manager as he seems to think he is. Perhaps he will learn from his mistakes, but that requires a level of self-assessment may be beyond him. Perhaps, as Murray said of Dowie, he interviews well.

As for player comings and goings to date, the departures of Hudson, Ambrose, Weaver, Wright and Zheng Zhi are all understandable, the prospective sale of Gray to be welcomed (I remember commenting when we signed him that he could be the new Jim Melrose and provide the added push to get us back into the Premiership; I didn’t realise he was actually the new Barry Endean, without the charm). Replacing Hudson with Llera on a free would seem to make sense. And from Parkinson’s comments about new right-back Richardson being the sort of character we need, the implication is that Moutaouakil is not. Whether he can be sold or just left to waste in the reserves remains to be seen. Another case of a promising player who has gone backwards with us.

As things stand, parts of the team likely to start the season can be predicted. In goal its Elliott with Randolph the back-up, Richardson at right-back (with Solly probably ahead of Moutaouakil as the replacement), Youga/Basey the left-back options. Llera in central defence partnered by Fortune presumably if he stays, with Semedo the emergency reserve (let’s not forget Matty if he is kept and Mambo if he continues to progress). But midfield and up front is less clear. Shelvey, Bailey, Spring, Holland, Semedo, Racon, Sam, Stavrinou and Wagstaff looks like a powerful range of options, but a couple may still be on their way. Up front it looks like Burton in pole position alongside one of Dickson, McLeod or Fleetwood (if he is not sold to Exeter). We have yet to cut our cloth completely – and at the moment we still don’t know what size the suit is meant to be.

For me, there’s Ipswich still to come (that is going to be a sad occasion as we all know there was a time when we cherry-picked their best players) after which its off to France on hols. I will miss the season opener against Wycombe and the trip to Hartlepool (which might have been fun in a desperate sort of way) and will kick off with the Orient excursion (actually one of the few games I was looking forward to). So there’s still time to get my mind right. If I can’t I’m going to soak it in wine and cognac. OK, I’m going to do that anyway, but hopefully in celebration and anticipation rather than despondency.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

No Curtain-Raiser

So, its news by default. The cancellation of the Murray/Chappell Q&A, on legal advice, is perfectly understandable in the context of ongoing negotiations regarding the prospective Varney-led takeover/investment. But the cancellation is the first concrete development (rather than rumours) to actually indicate that such talks are indeed taking place. Presumably they were taking place before the event was scheduled, so arranging it at least implied that it was expected that matters would be resolved by now, one way or the other (let’s face it, there’s not a lot else to ask about as we are led to believe that the manager’s position and a number of player retentions are contingent on a deal). We have to infer, therefore, that at the very least a deal is taking longer than expected to agree (or faltering?).

None of this should be necessary. When the prospective Dubai takeover came along the club issued an appropriate statement (admittedly after having received an indicative offer; perhaps Varney is making offers that are less than indicative). Of course there’s a need for confidentiality and we don’t need chapter and verse until something’s signed and sealed, or indeed ruled out. But this time around there’s been just silence from the club – at the worst possible time (ie when the club needs all the goodwill from supporters it can get). I really just don’t understand why there has not been a simple statement issued given the time that has elapsed and the evident feelings of fans.

I was giving the Murray/Chappell gathering a miss in any event, having previously signed up to attend the Westminster electoral reform rally. I have never voted in a general election (and would have a spotless record on local elections were it not for the Valley Party). It always struck me as incongruous to support ‘one person, one vote’ but not the idea that each of the votes count equally. The campaign is all about encouraging debate on reform (it doesn’t have to be pure PR), discussion, openness, free flow of information. Seems like a current theme.

No doubt it will all come out in the wash, but it’s indicative that when you feel disgruntled about something other issues tend to grind. It starts to nark when the club releases an email newsflash that we have signed a new player – a welcome addition who of course we all hope goes on to have a long and successful spell with us – but no such emails when it comes to departures (Hudson, Wright and now Zheng Zhi). No disrespect to Manuel Angel Llera, but as soon as we saw he had signed the assumption was that the reports about Hudson going to Cardiff were true. It’s not as if there’s something to hide. We have a broad idea about the finances and netting a £1m-plus swap on presumably lower wages clearly makes sense. And let’s face it none of us are surprised either that Zhi has declined the chance to get kicked to bits (although I do seem to recall Steve Wiggott saying something before about how much he loved the club; ah, how fickle affairs of the heart can be).

So, it wasn’t exactly with a spring in the step that I boarded the 89 for Welling. The chance to see two composite teams for the two halves comprising a number of players we still have no clear idea whether they will be staying, under a manager who two months after the end of the campaign is still ‘unsure of his position’, with an assistant out of contract. I didn’t even know if the three players who are now out of contract but whose futures are unresolved (Holland, Fortune and Randolph) are eligible to play for us (or if the club would stump up for Matty’s train fare down from Colchester if he is). In the event Randolph played the second half. With none of my compatriots daft enough to attend, I really had the impression on the way that I might be the only one turning up. But while perhaps not as full as in past seasons the turnout wasn’t bad by any means (scientists may have discovered how to reproduce male sperm but they’re still nowhere near isolating the gene that pre-determines Charlton fans).

There’s no point in a proper report on what amounts to a training exercise, just a few personal observations. Undoubtedly the focus of attention in the first half was Llera, but not for the best of reasons. His first touch in a Charlton shirt was to collect the ball from Elliott, stride purposefully forward, then wellie a cross-field pass high into the stand (well, high relative to the size of the stand). That was just about his only decent strike of the ball. After that he managed to slice a couple into touch, managed one air shot, and got caught in possession. He did look suitably commanding in the air, but as for finding his feet he obviously had but managed to attach the right one to the left leg. He'd better get them sorted before the start of the season as at the moment, given possible departures, along with Elliott and perhaps Burton his is the first name on the team sheet.

Otherwise it was pretty nondescript, as was to be expected at this stage. Burton and Dickson started together up front in the first half, with Tuna and Sam down the flanks, while McLeod and Fleetwood took over in the second. All had moments, but nothing more. A Mambo header was ruled out for something and after a scoreless first period Wagstaff shot home from a tight angle early in the second, only for Welling to equalise from a low cross. After that the game petered out. What we were left to ponder were the names missing from the 21-name line-up: no Holland, no Gray (presumably we are doing all we can to offload), but for me perhaps most surprising was no Mouatouakil (has he gone, injured, not selected?).

You can’t call it a curtain-raiser. For that you need the orchestra to be seated, the conductor warming his baton, and the actors/singers ready and waiting. We don’t even know who’s writing the play.