Monday 31 August 2009

"Some Day This War's Going To End"

Ah, you just can’t buy Sundays like that. Not only did looking (repeatedly) at the league tables bring a warm glow, but I found on arrival that the gym was closed. Saved money and had an insurmountable obstacle in the way of torturing myself – for a week at least. Gave more time for .... looking at the league tables. I can only claim to have seen the goals from Saturday, but what a beauty from Semedo! If it had been scored in the Premiership they would have been drooling over it for hours. Hopefully many more to come (and hopefully the DVD of the past two seasons will be delayed until this season’s becomes available, to help offset the misery; no implied criticism for the delay - which in contrast to certain other matters has been fully explained to fans - just another example of my needing my bumps felt for stumping up for something that will only see the light of day when I feel like a real mope).

Nevertheless, the abiding thought today is based on Willard listening to Kilgore. “Some day this war’s going to end”. Some day we are going to lose, in a campaign that fundamentally we don’t want to be in. Five games into it and already hopes and expectations have been turned away from Killer’s relegation warning, from thoughts of building a new team and in the interim watching exciting games full of goals and errors, and towards just winning every game and getting the hell out of here and back to the Championship. I’m already getting blasé in text updates to my partner Suzanne. Walsall: ‘0-0 but it’s too easy’; Tranmere: ‘H-t bit disappointing, we’re only 2-0 up’. I didn’t even feel the usual gut-wrenching tension on Saturday when they said on the radio ‘there’s been another goal at Tranmere’.

It’s not pride coming before a fall; rather it’s the unavoidably growing – but hopelessly unrealistic – thought that we should be winning these games. I know it’s wrong (and alien to our nature, forged through years of experience), and hopefully nobody at the club has similar thoughts. But every time I look at the fixtures coming up I’m thinking, ‘yep, three points’. With the possible and obvious exception of Leeds – who seem to have a striker a cut above this league (come on, somebody buy him) – what is there to challenge us (transfer deadline notwithstanding)?

I guess it’s just part and parcel of being a natural born contrarian. Why not just enjoy it? Well, that’s just too easy. Turn winning into just the way things should be and you strip out the glory. I guess it’s going to last until we get turned over by someone on a cold, wet and windy afternoon. Yes, I do remember us going for that 13th straight win at home to Swindon. Let it not be Millwall.

At least over the past couple of weeks I have felt able to peruse the fixture list with only a slight sense of nausea. Brentford and Southampton at home coming up. Norwich away. I’ve just sent an email to Suzanne explaining what a pleasant city Norwich is and how it would be a good idea to plan a day trip there when she is next in London. She knows me well enough to spot the obvious, but she just might go for it. Further out its a little disappointing that the trip to Brighton and the dodgems on the pier (if it’s still there) is tucked away on a Tuesday evening – and that for some reason we play Carlisle away only 15 games into the season. I don’t think that 42 points going into that game would be enough to ensure promotion with another victory. Maybe we can turn history on its head by going up at home to them (in April). Promotion with six games to spare would probably be acceptable – and give us some leeway if as I hope we tell the league that we just don’t want to – or rather feel it is inappropriate to - play Millwall and let them have the points.

So these are the variations of lunacy that five out of five inspire. But on the subject of starts to the season my adopted French team, Lyon Duchere (not the Lyon team that has squeaked through to the Champions League), seem to have come out of the traps in similar fashion to us. They started the season with a comprehensive 3-0 home win against Villefranche-sur-Saone (a team/town which I have a soft spot for, as it marks the start of wine country going north from Lyon), and after the away fixture against GFCO Ajaccio was postponed have recorded two more straight wins. The first of these must have been by 2-0 at home, but for some reason the France Football website doesn’t list this round of games (even I’m not sad enough to work out from the table who it was against). Most recently La Duch won 1-0 away at the utterly unlovely Andrezieux (I know it’s unlovely because last season Suzanne and I drove there to watch Duchere lose to a last-minute scrambled effort).

So having played only three games to four for most teams, Lyon Duchere stand proudly at the top of their division (CFA Groupe B). Can we both keep it going? I don’t get to visit Lyon again until November. I will be sacrificing the home game against Milton Keynes Dons to go Beaune for the wine auctions (just to watch – as well as eat and drink). But the compensation comes in the form of being able to take in a midweek home fixture for Duchere against Lyon B. This was pointed out by Suzanne (yet more evidence of someone needing their bumps felt), so maybe there’s a fighting chance of making it to Norwich after all.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

I've Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

With apologies this time to Lee Hazlewood, ‘I’ve been down so long, it looks like up to me’. After being truly miserable gits for the past three seasons, nobody can blame us for getting a bit ahead of ourselves as we look down on the rest of the division after four wins on the bounce to start the campaign (although of course if Leeds had put one more past Tranmere on Saturday we would have still been second). One more victory and Parkinson can get the glasses and ice bucket out for the Manager of the Month award; you’d have probably got decent odds any time between May and the start of August on that happening.

Aside from us and Leeds there are just four Premiership teams still with a 100% league record (and they have only played two or three games); can we keep the run going the longest? Might get some positive national coverage if we do, which would be a pleasant change from recent experience.

There’s just one fly in the ointment. Well, two related ones to be pedantic. There’s about a week to go to the transfer deadline and plenty can happen – and we still don’t have a clue what’s happening with the prospective takeover and with this what is the state of our finances. Unless and until the latter is cleared up, either way, we simply have no idea. And as long as that remains the case, are we in a position to turn down any decent bids for any of Shelvey, Bailey, Racon, Semedo, or Sam, leaving aside the players that Parkinson wants to move on (Moutaouakil) or would seemingly be happy to trade (McLeod, Dickson, Fleetwood)?

I’ve written very little through the summer, mostly out of idleness, work, holidays etc but also because like everyone else it’s been a case of checking the website and emails for confirmation of a takeover – or that the deal is dead. Until that’s sorted we simply don’t know where we stand, which leaves me not inclined to look beyond the end of August. After all, the talk during was the summer was of the Varney-led takeover resulting in a change of manager. Could Parkinson still become the first manager with a 100% record for the season and pick up the bubbly and be sacked? That would surely put us back in national laughing stock territory, but why do the sightings of Curbs keep cropping up (hopefully he’s just been coming along because of a rediscovered love of Charlton)? And why have we chosen a sponsor that seems to put his name back on the shirts?

All pointless waffle until the board confirms what’s going on. It’s plain to all that things have not gone according to plan. Cancelling the supporters’ Q&A was perfectly understandable in the circumstances, but obviously the meeting was set up with a view to a deal being done beforehand. We’re some way on and still have only the bare statement released by the club. Of course there’s a need for confidentiality and nobody expects chapter and verse until it’s sorted. But there’s nothing wrong with periodic updates given the time that has elapsed. That’s putting it mildly. Were Charlton Athletic plc still quoted such information would be a legal requirement – and as the club has shareholders not on the board (admittedly very small stakeholders) there are still responsibilities (of course I’m well aware that privileged information for shareholders wouldn’t remain private for long, given people like me).

In its statement the club noted that the takeover of a football club was a complicated business. Well, in the greater scheme of things it isn’t. Bank of America took over Merrill Lynch in the blink of an eye, Barclays nearly bought all of Lehman Brothers over a weekend only to walk away and do a deal for the North American business days later, while Lloyds TSB agreed the HBOS deal in nothing like the time taken for a bid for a third-tier football club. OK, Barclays aside the others would make a good case for taking one’s time before signing on the dotted line – and Murray and the directors would be forgiven for thinking long and hard before writing off much of their investment (if this is the structure of the prospective deal). After all, another few wins and you can add a 0 to the price (making it a round tenner).

There may also be complications related to the Football League’s attitude to any deal which involved the purchase of assets rather than the club lock, stock and barrel (as per the original bids involving Southampton). But it really isn’t rocket science and someone is at the least stalling. If it’s Varney there’s nothing wrong with setting a deadline; if it’s the board the same applies. After all, if there’s a good bid for a player just who decides whether to accept it? Please just get it sorted – and let us know.

So, back to matters on the pitch. I think Parkinson and the players deserve the plaudits for a focused and determined start to the season. Parkinson is playing a system which suits the resources available and already there’s a consistency sadly lacking in the past three years. I might regret certain players (not least Moutaouakil) not working out, but Parkinson is at least being decisive and shaping a team that suits his purpose and there’s no good reason not to back his judgement. Having necessarily shed so many players to secure four wins with the same starting X1 merits the coming champagne.

Parkinson has after all brought in three new defenders, all going straight into the first team. Last season’s failings were spread throughout the team, but conceding goals with monotonous regularity was the real failing. Getting a decent fee for Hudson and bringing in Llera already looks like very good business. (Just what is it about ‘undisclosed fee’? Presumably it’s ‘undisclosed’ because one or more party doesn’t want it revealed. Both clubs know, the player and agents know, and while we weren’t told the Hudson fee it’s there in black and white in the Wycombe programme/review. Presumably the fee for Gray will remain undisclosed as it doesn’t do much to offset what we spent on him.) Richardson may well be just what we need at this level, while Dailly has slotted in effortlessly. It’s clear that we need at least cover at centre-back, with suspensions and injuries inevitable, with using Semedo threatening the midfield balance (which is no slur on the option of bringing in Spring, just that Racon and Semedo seem to work well together), Mambo presumably needing more time to develop, Youga a fall-back option, and Holland presumably still waiting on takeover news (one year contract with a coaching role?).

It’s been noted by others that at present with 4-5-1 we are dependent on Burton remaining fit and effective. It is hard to see McLeod, Dickson or Fleetwood (or Tuna) playing the lone striker. I’m assuming that at least one of these three will move on and that one will come in to provide a better balance of options. I still feel a little for Bailey having to play out wide, but his goals, crossing and defensive work remain invaluable (and either he has gained an extra yard or pace or the Walsall full-back was a real donkey as on Saturday Bailey was doing him for pace).

So, at the moment, as it was when we went down to The Championship, it is the extra class in midfield that is our main weapon. I just hope it survives the transfer deadline.

On other matters, it’s good to hear the crowd finally adopt the ‘Vierra/Costa’ song for Semedo – and an as yet undecipherable song for Burton. Now we need the fans to embrace David Essex’s classing Rock On for Racon (‘hey, did you boogie too? .... Racon!) And a word for Youga. I can’t help noticing that there’s no acknowledgement of the crowd from him at the start of games. Perhaps it’s a legacy of the flack he took last season. Time to make up. I’d like to hear the East and West stands give Youga the encouragement he may still need to feel loved.

Finally, to anyone who’s lasted this long, on the subject of Bailey gaining pace I couldn’t help noticing this on the BBC gossip page: ‘Sunderland boss Steve Bruce has paid tribute to a new slimline Andy Reid after the midfielder lost 9kg and 22mm of body fat in the summer. Reid celebrated by scoring twice in the 4-1 Carling Cup win over Norwich on Monday.’ Just like the note about Burton’s excellent shape when he returned to training. Begs the question why they were content to be lardy in the past. Maybe they are learning from experience that time is short. If so, the message hasn’t yet got through to one former ‘player’ (also from BBC gossip column): ‘Ex-Fulham winger Hameur Bouazza has quit Turkish club Sivasspor after only five days’. No change there then.

Saturday 22 August 2009

As Comfortable As It Gets

Yawn. Another game, another win. I thought this division was going to be exciting? This was about as comfortable a home win as we are likely to have, a disallowed effort and one off the inside of the post aside. And with this being the fourth (for some the fifth) game in quick succession nobody could blame the players for taking it easy towards the end. Having been away for Wycombe and Hartlepool, and after Orient provided determined but limited opposition, Walsall must surely be one of the weakest teams in this league, lacking pace, imagination, or any alternative game plan (they didn’t rely on the long ball, but might have well have done). Seeing the admirable Bailey do their full-back for pace perhaps summed it up. Undoubtedly sterner tests are to come, but we won this one at a canter; and this time we are indeed top of the league.

The victory was if anything based around an excellent display by Semedo, who protected the defence and won countless tussles in midfield. With Llera and Dailly only occasionally troubled, that provided the secure platform. In truth, we showed the sort of strolling arrogance at The Valley not seen since ... well, not since we started off back in The Championship. The difference then was that after seeming a class apart the opposition decided to put a spoke in the works by scoring (usually more than once). This time around the quality of opposition, so far at least, has ensured no repeats.

No surprises that it was the same starting XI, so if anything the interest was in who was on the bench, especially given the departure of Gray for Barnsley (no tears there; of course its not been entirely his fault, but he goes down as one of our worst signings of recent years – the new Melrose my fannie adams). McLeod, Fleetwood, Wagstaff and Tuna – but no sign of Dickson. And perhaps surprisingly no Basey (injured?).

From the off we dominated possession and knocked the ball with ease. The surprise was that 30 minutes had passed and, while comfortable, we weren’t creating many chances and the game was still scoreless. A rasping drive from Richardson, an excellent crossfield pass found Sam who darted well into the box but finished weakly, Bailey headed over, but not much else. However, just when thoughts were turning to Walsall coming more into the game we did make the breakthrough. A good cross in from the left found somebody’s head from within a group and after some doubt the linesman signalled that it had crossed the line. It was credited to Llera. Another before the break would surely have put the game beyond doubt, but Shelvey’s curling shot was turned around.

Walsall did up it a little from the start of the second half, having made a change, and at 1-0 there’s always doubt. We were getting a little sloppy and the worry level did rise as a cross from the left was bundled into the net, but the linesman’s flag was up. Sam, who looked threatening at times but also a little tired, was replaced by Wagstaff and it was the youngster who put the game to bed. After a Walsall attack the ball was worked down the left and suddenly there were acres of space on the right side. The ball was duly played through and Wagstaff found himself with a one-on-one. He didn’t bottle it, instead planting the ball low across the keeper.

Walsall did have one more moment, with a glancing header (not dissimilar to Orient’s goal on Tuesday) coming back off the inside of the post, while one or two shots went wide. But by that time it was clear that they wouldn’t score. Bailey might have scored with another header, but the final minutes saw Charlton keep possession and run the clock down. No complaints about that.

With no game now for a full week, attention has to turn back to the takeover as the transfer deadline nears. It’s not getting ahead of ourselves to say that the midfield we have – which should be good enough to compete in The Championship – will be too strong for most teams in this league. But are they all staying? Holland and Fortune are still waiting in the wings, no question we need cover in central defence, but the forwards are still a mixed bag. Burton clearly stays and has started well, but the impression is that any one (maybe two) of Dickson, Fleetwood or McLeod would be sold if there is a suitable offer. We brought in each of them as natural goalscorers making a step up, but with Parkinson talking of another being a priority it would seem clear that they are not impressing him. Perhaps it all comes down to Shelvey; if he stays and plays 4-5-1 would seem to be the order of the day; if he goes we reshape and then either one of the forwards we have steps up or we would indeed need another.

That’s tomorrow’s worry. I think we would all have settled for the start we have made and if today’s game was periodically soporific two goals and a clean sheet will do fine. And if someone deserves a pat on the back tonight surely it’s Parkinson. He has kept his counsel about his position through the summer and has ensured that the team we have has started the season in very good shape. May all our opposition be Walsall.

Player Ratings:

Elliott: 7/10. Little to do, but has taken on well the task of the Chris Powell celebration.

Richardson: 7/10. No complaints here either, solid performance, got forward more than against Orient.

Youga: 7/10. No defensive howlers and provided good support in attack.

Llera: 8/10. Already looking an excellent signing, commanding in the air and solid enough on the deck. The crossfield passes go like bullets, just a matter of getting the range right sometimes.

Dailly: 7/10. If the worst you can remember is one moment of uncertainty resulting in him heading behind for a corner and one poor header in the second half that’s fine by me.

Bailey: 7/10. Good performance, more involved than at Orient, sound defensive work as usual, and could have scored a couple of times.

Semedo: 9/10. My man of the match. That Walsall offered very little was due in no small measure to him.

Racon: 7/10. Not every trick works, but effective enough and always involved.

Sam: 7/10. Dangerous through the game but must have been galling for him to see Wagstaff come on and do what he has singularly failed to do of late (score).

Shelvey: 7/10. One excellent shot shortly before the break, intelligent passing.

Burton: 8/10. Doing the lone forward’s job well, might have scored for the third game running with a lob over the keeper (only this one was rather tall).

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Turned Out Nice In The End

Well, it turned out nice in the end. And if it seems that we’re still not quite sitting pretty at the top of the league, three wins out of three will do fine for a start. If only we could get that pesky takeover business sorted one way or another so we might have some idea what the world might look like come the end of the month. I guess there’s just no pleasing some people. I’ve just come back from holiday and have to have something to grouch about.

Orient, having lost at home on Saturday and clearly determined not to have two in a row, provided a stiff test of resolve and character. One that after a patchy first half we came through, with a little help from a truly naff defensive header that allowed Burton to run onto to score the winner. It was a mixed performance in just about all areas, but what was encouraging was that having gone in at the break behind the work rate and determination was evident in the second and ended up being rewarded. Orient will probably feel they did enough to earn a point, but they surrendered the initiative, took off their most effective forward (yes, Scowcroft), and we finished much the stronger of the two teams. And although the winner came from a defensive error, their keeper had no right to have turned over the bar Racon’s superb free kick, which should have been an early contender for goal of the season.

With Parkinson sending out the same starting eleven as for Wycombe and Hartlepool, most of the first-half incidents centred on Shelvey. A poor first touch in the opening minutes saw him lunge after the loose ball. Some referees might have reached for a red card, which would have been harsh but not absurd. Having had his warning his next foul saw a yellow card produced – but to his credit he kept his cool through the remainder of the game. The chances we did create seemed to fall to him, but after good approach work he shot over and then towards the break after Burton teed him up he blazed over.

With Semedo and Racon struggling to dominate midfield, Bailey seeing very little of the ball out left (and Youga not getting forward at all in support), Burton generally not finding support coming through quickly enough, the ball was given away too often and we only showed in flashes that we were capable of finding a way through. Sam, although picking up a booking for persistent fouling, was the main outlet. Orient, while looking second-best technically, battled hard and kept to a fairly simple game-plan. The difference at the break was down to quality of delivery. We had a few free kicks in dangerous positions but, except for one scrambled save by their keeper, didn’t really trouble them. Their deliveries into the box carried far more menace. It wasn’t a real surprise that one whipped-in free kick got the appropriate touch and put them ahead. A bit tough on us on the balance of play, but the impression was that we weren’t doing enough of the graft to create space and openings. We looked as if we had started to believe we are too good for this division and had run into a team determined to prove otherwise, one which would have been very satisfied with life at the interval.

It would have been no surprise had Parkinson made a change at the break to switch to 4-4-2. But instead perhaps there were a few choice words about having to win the battles. And there was an improvement in the second half as players anonymous in the first started to have more influence. Orient seemed less of a threat as Bailey and Youga pushed up more, while Racon had more joy in the centre. Bailey headed over from a good position and just as the Charlton contingent were striking up the call for ‘4-4-2’ we drew level. A ball in from the right found its way through to Shelvey, who swivelled to shoot low into the net.

After that we looked far the more likely winners, with Orient retreating more into their shell (and taking off Scowcroft). But with Racon’s free kick somehow turned over the bar it seemed we would end up settling for the point. Then a rather hopeful lofted through ball produced a weak header back from their defender and Burton latched onto it to lob the keeper. Orient made a couple more changes (we did bring on Solly for Sam – who had splendidly gone over to the other side of the pitch before being taken off to use up some seconds), but the final minutes were negotiated reasonably comfortably (well, compared with the final minutes of much of last season they were a breeze).

Parkinson might say that against determined opposition we needed to show patience but that eventually the chances came. I suspect there was more to it in that, with the second-half extra effort getting its reward. Does, however, raise the question of whether at the start of the season expecting the same eleven to start a fourth game in two weeks on Saturday will not see some very tired legs. Anyway, like that takeover that’s for tomorrow. Tonight ended well.

Player Ratings:

Elliott: 7/10. Flapped at one dangerous cross but otherwise dealt well with what came his way.

Richardson: 6/10. Is probably more used to this sort of football than anyone else at the club. Showed no inclination to support in attack, and seemed to barely feature in the game. But for a defender that’s no bad thing.

Youga: 6/10. One dangerous back pass and a sliced clearance, but otherwise sound and featured more going forward in the second half.

Llera: 8/10. Not sure who carries the can for their goal by losing their man, but provided the aerial strength to limit their main attacking option. Looked impressive overall.

Dailly: 7/10. Seemed sound too. Generally efficient and effective, especially as Scowcroft tired.

Bailey: 7/10. Poor first half, when he was out of the game, but made up for it in the second, going forward and defending.

Racon: 7/10. Also differing halves, but gets the extra point for the free kick which should by rights have been a goal.

Semedo: 6/10. Not bad, but he’s there to protect the defence and to work with Racon and in the first half Orient caused us problems.

Sam: 7/10. Was our main attacking option in the first half and worried them throughout. Be nice to see him nick a goal before long though.

Shelvey: 7/10. A real mixed bag. Could have seen red early on, missed the first-half chances, but kept his head well thereafter - and scored.

Burton: 8/10. Tough task in the first half when he lacked support, but kept working and took his chance well when it came.