Saturday 27 February 2010

Not Barking After All

In the end the trip to Roots Hall proved not to be an act of total lunacy, but it was a bloody close thing. After Tuesday night’s defeat the team came pretty close to leaving the pitch to more boos; instead – thanks to a combination of a wanton act of violence by one of their players, some substitutions which (in contrast to the Yeovil game) improved the team through the night, and them damn breaks – they departed to a chorus of approval (aimed especially at Nicky Bailey after his rough ride through the game, from the Southend team and supporters). Just a brief run through the game’s major incidents is enough to underline it could have gone either way, although Southend are a bit down on their luck at the moment (having lost to a stoppage time winner at Norwich) and with the one-man advantage and substitute Kyle Reid running their full-back ragged we finished the game the stronger, even if the winner was a little late in coming.

If there are more than the usual quota of errors in the account that would have something to do with the view of the pitch from where we were standing (there were seats, but I wasn’t aware anyone was using them), plus the fact my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Having left it late to get the tickets, our vantage point – from around the corner flag with the pitch obscured by nine pillars (including one large one right in the centre – wasn’t exactly ideal, while the PA system was a muffled noise somewhere in the distance. We just about managed to work out the substitutions as the game progressed, but still needed confirmation to identify the scorer of our first goal at least. Still, all’s well that ends well.

The team saw Reid drop to the bench after a disappointing display on against Yeovil, with Bailey moved out to the left again and Semedo returning to add some muscle to central midfield alongside Racon. With Burton injured Sodje(A) started with Mooney up front. But to say we struggled to get going (again) is an understatement. Southend had an obvious aerial threat up front, given the size of their forwards, but they troubled us on the ground too as the two up front seemed to have an understanding of how to play together. By contrast Sodje and Mooney were almost completely shut out, our play was flat and one-paced, and we struggled to retain the ball, let alone pass it. The first half passed with only a Bailey run inside and decent shot and a mazy dribble by Sam. Otherwise it was poor stuff, despite us being handed the extra man advantage as it was clear that the bad feeling towards Bailey wasn’t just on the part of their fans. I didn’t get a clear view of the incident, but it seemed that after the referee awarded them a free kick just outside our box Bailey might have been a little slow to hand over the ball. He received a punch in the face for his troubles, with no arguments offered by their player for the red card (for good measure Bailey was given a yellow).

Even that failed to lift our play and instead it was Southend creating the chances. Elliot had made two excellent saves (including one from the red card free kick) and I was just remarking about what a keeper he is turning into when we made a hash of cutting out a through ball, allowing their forward the time and space to line up a shot from outside the box. It was a decent strike, but one Elliot was – or should have been – well behind. Instead he allowed it to squirm underneath him and trickle over the line. Just one of those things, but once more we were behind and chasing a game – and playing badly.

We managed some better possession early in the second half, but it was clear that something had to be changed as we were not making the extra man count. And the change made pretty much turned out to be the match-winner. Semedo gave way for Reid, with Bailey moving back inside. It soon became clear that Reid had their full back for pace and, with Jackson getting forward well in support, we were starting to cause problems. And now the chances did begin to come. The best of them fell to Mooney as the ball broke to him around the penalty spot it seemed he only had to hit the target, but instead he found a defender on the ground on the line. That was followed soon after by an excellent save from their keeper, which was starting to give the impression that it wasn’t going to be our night.

The equaliser did finally materialise with about 20 minutes left. More good work down the left produced a dangerous cross to the far post and it was Sodje (apparently) who came in to prod it home. That goal redeemed an otherwise disappointing game, with by then McKenzie having replaced Mooney. The stage seemed set for us to go on to win it, but a few minutes later the next key moment was to occur at the other end. After a corner for them saw a free header put wide, the referee gave them another free kick just outside the box and this time the short seemed destined for the top corner. I think Elliot got a hand to it to balance his previous mistake and the ball came back off the bar, dropping to the feet of one of their forwards who surely should have scored. Instead there was a block and Southend’s chances of victory had gone.

They were still looking good for a point, however, as the game entered stoppage time (by which time Wagstaff had replaced Sam), but the sweetest moment of the night was yet to come. The ball was played to Reid and he realised that there was space behind the full back. He took him on for pace and got past him and although the angle was tight curled a delicious shot into the bottom corner. It was a superb piece of wing play and a goal worthy of deciding a game, although I doubt you’ll find a Southend fan to agree.

I thought tonight was going to be about keeping a clean sheet and perhaps nicking a win. Perhaps the team was lined up for that. A sending off and a goal conceded changed all that, prompting the changes through the game. Overall we were far from convincing, with the first-half display below par and no way of telling what would have happened if we had been up against 11 all game. But we got them breaks and let’s just take them tonight. Thoughts about the next game can wait as we can at least sit back and see how the others do tomorrow (well, today actually).

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. Would have been a 9 based on the saves he made, but the goal conceded was an error and he will have been relieved by the stoppage-time winner.

Richardson: 7/10. Decent enough game, once again no complaints.

Jackson: 8/10. I thought he made a real contribution, especially going forward with Reid in the second half. Settling in nicely.

Llera: 7/10. Was troubled by their forwards, which was hardly surprising given their size, but stuck to the task.

Dailly: 7/10. Much the same as Llera. He continues to be the unsung hero of this season, quietly going about his job.

Bailey: 8/10. Back out wide-left, then back in the middle. Nearly scored, then gets clobbered. It was an eventful return for him and he was instrumental in getting us more clearly on top in the second half.

Semedo: 6/10. Didn’t work for him and Racon together tonight, even when they lost their player. Made way early in the second half.

Racon: 6/10. Indifferent first half when we couldn’t get any passing game going, came more into it in the second.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Back To Square Something

Any thoughts of Saturday’s improved display (and win) proving the launching pad for a sustained improvement in confidence and results were pretty much blown away tonight. Up against more determined opposition than Yeovil, despite (perhaps because of) their respective positions, a dip in work rate and effectiveness from the start and the unhappy knack of conceding goals were enough to produce a night which got progressively worse and ended with the sparse remnants of a crowd expressing their frustration (in truth there were far too many, at least around me, more intent on voicing their unwanted criticism from the start – so much for contributing to a ‘fortress Valley’) and the players trudging off with heads bowed.

There needs to be some sense of perspective. The game on Saturday could have turned out as bad if Yeovil had scored first, as well they might have done but for Elliot. And tonight could have turned out as well had we scored first – as we should have done. Instead when the ball dropped to Racon in the box he miscued horribly, they moved upfield and with us struggling to get back a deflected shot from outside the area put them one up. That doesn’t excuse the performance. We started the game with the same level of drive that we finished on Saturday, which is fine if you’re 2-0 up. And through the night players who had good games against Yeovil – in particular Racon and Reid – proved far less effective, Bailey’s distribution again fell below standard, while Mooney failed to convert the chances that came his way, looking like he lacks a real predator’s instincts inside the box (he was denied once by a superb defensive tackle, but the ball should have been dispatched before the guy had the chance to get there). The pitch – which is in a worse state than I’ve seen for years – didn’t help, but it didn’t stop Brighton passing the ball well. And the substitutions made by Parkinson around the time that they scored their second only contributed to the general descent, with none of the gloom lifted by Sodje(A)’s stoppage time consolation strike.

For good reason the line-up was the same as on Saturday. But Brighton had the better of the early stages as we struggled to get going. There didn’t seem much of a goal-scoring threat, although their left winger clearly had the beating of Richardson for pace, which caused problems. We did seem to be working our way into the game through the half, with Jackson getting forward to good effect down our left, and we started to create some openings. But the best of them was the one that fell to Racon – after the ball was delivered from the left, an attempted overhead kick came to nothing but it dropped kindly for him and that should have been the lead. Instead within a minute we were one down. And there was additional disruption as Burton went of injured (a hamstring?), with Sodje(A) coming on.

At the break the mood was downbeat but far from desperate. In the second half Brighton seemed more content to defend what they had and we were dominating possession, although with both Sam and Reid not able to make much happen down the flanks – Sam did make intelligent runs but the balls played to him were invariably overhit, behind him, or got stuck in the mud – the chances were infrequent. But chances there were. Sodje poked one just wide, Mooney shot over from a tight angle, and the one that looked like being converted by him saw the defender’s block. Criminally we were to concede the second that all but killed off the game. It was another strike from outside the box, with their guy given far too much time and space to consider his options.

After that the crowd was happy to intensify the criticism and the substitutions caused more confusion than anything else. First Richardson was withdrawn for McKenzie, then Jackson for Sodje(S), the plan seemingly being to play a sort of 3-4-3 involving wingers that didn’t track back. It was perhaps a bold move by Parkinson, but with Brighton now all behind the ball all it meant was that we had to hit it long. Sodje(A) did cause them problems in the air but there was such a lack of coordination up front that there was no real end result, until the game was over and he did get on the end of a lofted through ball. Ten minutes earlier and it could have made a difference, but this was a night when nothing went right.

After Saturday’s game we pretty much knew the team for the next one. Just what changes Parkinson can make for Southend is something for him to ponder. A return for Shelvey and Semedo in a 4-5-1 has to be one option, especially if Burton is out for a while (although with him missing from the bench for the past couple of games is he out of sorts?). Sure we need a win, but at the moment the priority has to be a clean sheet. Just what he can do to lift the players’ confidence and team spirit is another matter. Me? I’ve got tonight to sleep on whether to make the trip.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. Didn’t have a great deal to do and although both goals were from shots outside the area he can’t be blamed for either (especially the first, which took a deflection).

Richardson: 6/10. Beaten for pace by their winger early on but got more of a grip on him as the game progressed before being taken off.

Jackson: 7/10. Having been (rightly) chastised for giving him a fairly low mark for Saturday, I thought he was our best player in the first half, especially with his contribution going forward.

Llera: 8/10. He played well and irrespective of the result deserves a good mark.

Dailly: 7/10. No complaints, Brighton were generally contained in and around our box.

Reid: 5/10. As ineffective tonight as he was impressive on Saturday. Some wayward crossing, especially when pushed onto his right foot, and equally wayward shooting.

Bailey: 5/10. Seemed a little jaded and again passed the ball badly. Unlike Saturday this time it mattered.

Racon: 5/10. Missed the chance of the game and was outmuscled in midfield; his frustration at it all was clear well before the end.

Sam: 6/10. No decisive contribution and seemed to annoy the crowd by not making space, but often this was because he was timing a run and the pass to him was poor.

Mooney: 5/10. Could have been the match-winner as the second-half chances largely fell to him. But he didn’t take them.

Burton: 6/10. After his improved display on Saturday, our generally sluggish start to the game and his early departure left it unclear whether the better contribution would have been maintained.

Subs: Sodje(A) – 7/10 (looked ungainly but did cause problems when we were going long, and did score); McKenzie – 5/10 (no real contribution other than getting caught offside); Sodje(S) – 7/10 (no on for long enough for a real mark and the game was effectively over by the time he appeared).

Monday 22 February 2010

Portugal's Own King Artur

Just as the players needed to relax a little, today provides a narrow window of opportunity between home games to reflect on matters only peripherally connected with Charlton. These are centred around a romantic Valentine’s Day break in Lisbon - or cheap, last-minute, unimaginative Xmas present for my French partner Suzanne, depending on your assessment of my true nature (she after all came up with two tickets for the France v England Six Nations rugby match in Paris coming up; the deal is I go in a France shirt and her in an England one, so if the cameras focus on a lady in an England shirt belting out La Marseillais you know what’s going on, although of course like all sensible people you will all be at the Charlton v Gillingham match, which I shall have to forego) – and a chance encounter with Portugal’s answer to King Arthur (not of course the mythical ancient sword-in-the-stone one responsible for turning the entire south-west of England into an asylum for tree-hugging, crystal-worshipping weirdos).

It was my first time in Lisbon (indeed, in Portugal) and truly splendid it was too. Cheap flights, very cheap hotels, a city manageable in size for a weekend, with a charming old quarter (including an enormous flea market if you feel a need for 10-year-old mobiles and assorted used drill bits), and best of all friendly and extremely laid-back people, which makes for a relaxed atmosphere in which to chill out. Even the street drugs sellers took a simple ‘no thanks’ for an answer and I loved the small bars which only sell a cup of cherry liquor, which did simplify the decision-making process. There are also the delights of Fado music, of which I knew/know nothing. It’s always fun to speculate on what the songs might actually be about – but slightly disconcerting that Suzanne always says ‘it begins with the man having done something very bad’. Just a couple of tips for prospective visitors: first, if you opt for the open-topped tourist bus in February, remember to wrap up very well; and unfortunately the much-anticipated Institute of Port seems to have shut for good.

Appropriately Suzanne chose the restaurant for Valentine’s night. She shunned the obvious options offering traditional Portuguese cuisine (especially those which included a ham omelette on the traditional menu) and instead opted for a less conspicuous bistro-style outlet, on the grounds that she thought it looked like it had a loyal, local clientele. Turns out it was their opening night. It also turns out that it was owned by a former Portugal international, who introduced himself as ‘Artur ... without the h’.

On my return I did the usual searches to see if I could find out more about him. ‘Artur, Portugal, footballer’ threw up plenty of options, mostly pointing towards a certain ‘King Artur’ Jorge, a striker who played for Porto, Academica and Benfica, who made 16 appearances for Portugal and who went on to manage (among others) Porto, Portugal, Switzerland, Cameroon and Iran. A recent photo showed a healthy-looking 64-year-old with a truly splendid tash. Looking at the pictures it just didn’t seem like our guy; and further investigation revealed a more promising alternative: a certain Artur Manuel Soares Correia. The photo of him I found (as above) looked more familiar, even though unfortunately our restaurant owner has suffered a stroke and now doesn’t move too fast.

Now this Artur had no mean career either (and like the other one he was included in a recent poll of Portugal’s 100 best-ever players), winning 35 caps as a right-back. One site talks of him as a player well-known for giving all he had, being expert in the tackle and formidable in the chase. I guess that’s tantamount to being a bit on the combative side. In my conversation with him he said he had played against England and Scotland – and listed in Scotland’s international matches is a game played at Hamden Park on 13 May 1975, which Scotland won 1-0 courtesy of an own goal by a certain Artur Correia (he didn’t mention that). He talked of playing against Francis Lee (‘ee was dirty, ee punched me’, which sounded authentic; I asked if he punched him back and he said ‘later’).

Artur – like everyone else we encountered – said he knew Jorge Costa well (it seems he is now managing a team in the south of the country, SC Olhanese, having previously been sacked as manager of Sporting Clube de Braga) and remembered that he had a spell on loan in England. Unfortunately he didn’t seem to recognise the name of Jose Semedo, but I put him right on that count.

So, if anyone’s planning a trip to Lisbon take time to check out Artur’s restaurant. Only don’t wait too long. I know less about the restaurant business than I do about football, but it did strike me that on opening night at least there were still one or two gremlins. Like a front door which didn’t open from the outside and a less than enthusiastic response from Artur when it came to opening it for potential customers (he was talking to me at our table when a group tried to get in and said ‘they can wait’), while we were told (having sat down early by Portuguese standards) that the cod dish was ‘finished’ (not getting cod in Lisbon is a bit like going to Brick Lane only to discover that curries are ‘off’). Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Welcome Return To Football - And A Win

Not perfect by any means, but so much better than of late, largely because (praise be) we tried to play football. And we had a formation and combinations in key areas that worked better than in recent weeks. Sometimes the passing wasn’t crisp enough, which was perhaps understandable as the team is a little low on confidence, we didn’t make the most of some opportunities to score more, and for whatever reason Yeovil had enough decent chances themselves to have scored one or two (and if they’d gone ahead in the first half it could have been a very different game). But we carried genuine menace down both flanks, had a central midfield combination that combined graft and grace, and with Mooney often dropping deep there was space created for Bailey to break forward to (nearly) good effect. It all made for a better game to watch than of late; after all, we created more than the past five games combined – and we won.

The line-up saw Jackson start, with Llera returning at the expense of Sodje(S), Reid and Sam taking the wide berths, pairing Bailey and Racon together in the centre. Parkinson kept the 4-4-2 and revived the Burton and Mooney partnership. And overall all of the selections worked. After one bad moment in the first half Jackson did well enough, Llera made a number of timely interceptions (and Dailly looked more assured alongside him), Bailey and Racon together gave us better balance (and the switch to looking to play passes rather than hit aimless balls forward meant he was much more effective), Burton had a far better game than on Monday night (which might not be saying much), the two wingers created problems all afternoon (with of course one scoring), and Mooney worked intelligently (and scored). You can never be sure on the basis of one game, but there was enough to suggest that it will be the same team on Tuesday night.

The first half was open and entertaining, although we did allow them more decent chances than anyone in red would have liked. The first of these saw a cross from the right and their forward coming between two defenders to shoot, with Elliot saving well with his leg. Not long after we had a better opportunity, as neat play saw Bailey freed breaking through with only their keeper to beat. Should have been buried, but the effort was smothered (and it has to be said that a feature of the first half was some wayward passing by Bailey). They also had a free header from a corner and another shot smartly saved by Elliot, but we made the breakthrough as good work by Bailey and others to win the ball just outside our box saw us break clear with what looked like five on three. Reid carried the ball forward and when it seemed he must pass to someone in space as their defenders backed off instead he unleashed a curling drive into the top of the net.

On the balance of chances we were perhaps fortunate to be ahead at the break, but our play always seemed to carry more threat than theirs. And after an even start to the second period we managed to get a little elbow room with a second. Sam and Racon jinked around as we waited to throw the ball into play – and to very good effect as suddenly Racon found himself in space turning into their area. He pulled it back and Mooney coming in finished it well.

For a few minutes after that we had more of a strut about us, as if the pressure had been taken away. But a slight relaxation gave them encouragement and created a spell of pressure which saw us if not hanging on then pressed back, with Llera standing out with some fine work and Elliot making a few more saves. But we managed to weather the storm and as the game entered the final 15 minutes we were pretty comfortable. Wagstaff came on for a tiring Sam, although by then, with Reid tiring too, it was pretty much a case of taking what we had (although Burton and Mooney both missed chances to extend the lead). Semedo replaced Racon just before the end and there was just time for one of the silliest pieces of running down the clock you will see. In stoppage time, 2-0 up, we get a free kick. Instead of a ball in to look for a third (we could hardly lose at that stage) we tried we tried some fancy stuff, lost possession and as their guy broke forward picked up a totally unnecessary yellow card in stopping him. That was taking one for the team.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 9/10. Didn’t have a perfect game as one time he failed to stop a ball going for a corner and one or two clearances were iffy. But if that’s all you criticise your goalkeeper for you know things are fine in that department. Three good saves in the first half were just as instrumental in the victory as the goals scored.

Richardson: 7/10. Decent display, no complaints.

Jackson: 6/10. Did well having just arrived. Caught out badly once in the first half but otherwise settled in well.

Llera: 8/10. Deserves a good mark for coming back in and not obviously putting a foot wrong. When he plays well he looks commanding and assured.

Dailly: 7/10. Seemed more comfortable than of late alongside Sodje. But still a bit of a mystery why Yeovil created a number of good chances.

Reid: 8/10. Made himself available and troubled them for most of the game before understandably fading late on. Super shot for the goal.

Bailey: 6/10. Some poor passing, especially in the first half, gave the ball away badly once in the second, and didn’t score with his one-on-one. But also won the ball well on occasions and remains a pivotal part of the team.

Racon: 8/10. Although Elliot gets a higher mark, I made Racon my man of the match. Much more involved than in recent games, given the change in style. Not everything worked, but he made things happen, especially for the second goal.

Sam: 7/10. He’s always going to be a bit frustrating as he usually looks like having the beating of the full back and doesn’t always make it count. Good game but not a decisive contribution.

Mooney: 8/10. Operated as much in the hole as the second striker and his mobility helped create space. Could have been man of the match if he hadn’t messed up a couple of shots after having scored well.

Burton: 7/10. Much better. Good hold-up play, but didn’t score when he had the chance in the second half.

Friday 19 February 2010

Too Late To Panic; Relax

I was going to pen something quickly in advance of the Yeovil game (and the mini-spell of three games in six days, which is going to test resources) along the lines of not wanting to hear any moaning from the crowd, whatever happens, and the notion that in recent games the players seem to be trying too hard, perhaps feeling the pressure of trying to stay in touch with the top two and performances suffering accordingly. But Phil Parkinson has beaten me to it. His comments in last night’s club email were: “We really need our supporters to get right behind whatever team I pick from the first minute to the last" and “a few of the lads have almost been trying too hard, so we need to relax everyone and settle down”. So all I can say is I fully agree on both counts (well, I’m far too verbose to leave it at that, so it’s not really all I’m going to say).

Of course we’re all disappointed with the outcome of the past five games. Looking at Killer’s comments in the programme for the Tranmere game (after the home defeat against Orient) he was talking in terms of getting a win that day by any means and then perhaps securing seven points from the following three away games. Such a return of 10 points would have seen us right up there with 64 points, two behind Norwich and two above faltering Leeds. As it is, with just three in the bag we’re down to fourth and as close to dropping out of a play-off spot as getting in the top two.

Too bad. It’s happened. We need to get back on track with the three games coming up. A while back, when the team wasn’t playing well but getting results, I said I wasn’t going to complain about how we performed as long as the points were accumulated. Since then we’ve continued to play poorly and (unlike against Hartlepool for instance) haven’t had the breaks. So perhaps its time to just concentrate on playing, forget the league position, and for the players to perhaps even look like they’re enjoying the game. That is for sure where the crowd comes in. Howling at every misplaced pass, scorned opportunity does nobody any good. But the quid pro quo from the team is possibly to show more intent to play football. With the departure of Dickson and McLeod our forward options don’t include pace, so the idea of getting behind defences with hoofed balls forward – of which we have played far too many of late - has to go out of the window. What is the point, for example, of picking Racon and bypassing midfield? On Monday night the game was just passing him by (any injury he may have picked up would have been a stiff neck watching the ball sail over his head in both directions).

To support the point about relaxing, Bristol Rovers’ first goal was a classic example. A corner to the near post saw just about every Charlton player go to the ball, as if to try to do other defenders’ jobs for them. The result was that when the ball was flicked on nobody was there to defend it. And going forward we seemed to be heavily reliant on getting the ball to Bailey in a shooting position. Fair enough, he’s delivered almost all our goals of late, but it isn’t going to work every time. We saw what can happen when we get the ball out wide (Sam’s cut inside and low cross clearly should have been converted, which would have meant a different game).

As regards team selection, I’ll back whatever Parkinson comes up with. But for what it’s worth, here’s my Plan A and Plan B. Presumably the incoming Jackson will go straight in, given the absence of Basey and Youga and with Solly really being Richardson’s back-up (why is it that full-back positions have been so problematic in the past few years?). The defence has been shipping goals consistently of late and there has to be a strong case for bring Llera back, with either Sodje or Dailly taking a break, although with one enforced change at the back already Parkinson may feel it’s better to go with continuity elsewhere.

The real issues are 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 (or whatever else you may call it) and Bailey in the middle or wide left. I’d go with the latter, at least at the start against Yeovil, even though they would presumably be happy with a point and may be on the defensive. I can understand Parkinson going back to the Semedo/Racon central partnership that worked so well early in the season, but it worked in a 4-5-1. This time around I’d pair Racon and Bailey in the centre, with Reid and Sam out wide. Bring back Shelvey in the hole and go for McKenzie (assuming he is fit) as the lone out-and-out striker. It’s taking a chance, with a very attacking midfield and no obvious holding player (Semedo), but there’s no perfect set-up and we’d be back to a midfield set-up that should return to passing the ball (and one which should produce goals).

So for me its: Elliot, Richardson, Llera, Sodje(S)/Dailly, Jackson, Reid, Bailey, Racon, Sam, Shelvey and McKenzie. On the bench in addition to Randolph you’d have to have Solly, Sodje/Dailley, Semedo, Wagstaff, Spring, and two from Burton, Mooney and Sodje(A). If Parkinson opts for 4-4-2 I’d still go with Bailey and Racon in central midfield and the two wide men.

Finally, nice to see from the club's email that Monday night's ref has been in touch with the club to apologise for not having given Blizzard a straight red. For that he deserves credit. It just leaves Trollope in a class of one in the world still (publicly at least) in denial. In an ideal world the League would be allowed to accept the ref's word and give Blizzard a retrospective red. And bring in that charge against Trollope for bringing the game into disrepute.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Rovers' Disgusting Response

The news that Grant Basey has not after all suffered a broken leg is obviously welcome. But after the disgraceful challenge by Blizzard in the first minute I thought I’d check the Bristol Rovers website to see how they viewed the incident. Now I’ve nothing against the club, obviously there is a good association given Lennie Lawrence being there, and before the game at The Valley we had a very enjoyable chat with some Rovers fans in the Rose of Denmark (they went as far as inviting us down for some pre-match drinks for the return fixture, all of which was ruled out by the greater goal of earning much-needed brownie points by doing the right thing on the Valentine’s Day weekend). After all, some clubs/supporters don’t enjoy the same ability as us to assess such matters impartially. I have to say what is on their site brings shame on their club.

Their match report outlines a “thoroughly entertaining encounter” which was “marred by a number of injuries which saw four players forced from the field”. It acknowledged that “there was an early stoppage after Dominic Blizzard went in late on Grant Basey, who eventually left the field on a stretcher with a suspected broken leg”, adding that “Rovers responded well to that early delay”. After that whitewash I thought I’d check out what their manager had to say on the matter. Trollope dished up something worthy of his name. “We wanted a competitive edge to us and we wanted to show a spirit, but it was unfortunate for the lad who got carried off early, because I think everyone who knows Dominic knows he is not that sort of player. It was early in the game, Dominic was trying to get the ball, the lad nicked it and they’ve both gone to ground. The lad was just too quick for Dominic. If they knew Dominic’s character and what he was about they would realise he is not the sort of player who would go in late on anybody.” He went on to say “I don’t think it was a red card offence, I think the referee got it right with a yellow” and that “there were a lot of challenges from both teams that were highly competitive and I was proud that my team stood up to all of them”.

These days managers get hauled up on charges of bringing the game into disrepute for the slightest comments. For gutless, cynical, tasteless and deliberately misleading statements such as his he deserves a large fine and a ban. Where to start on what he said? “They’ve both gone to ground …”!!! Well, Basey went to ground because of the over the top challenge. “It was early in the game”!!! So bloody what. “If they knew Dominic’s character ….”!!! I don’t give a damn if he loves his mum and gives all his earnings to charity. Just where does it say in the rule book that a ref’s response to a potentially career-ending tackle should be influenced by the player’s character? I don’t mean to suggest that there was any intent to break a leg, only Blizzard knows that. But if he and his manager had any character at all they would apologise and acknowledge that the card should have been red. Their current response simply brings shame on their club and deserves a response from the authorities.

Monday 15 February 2010

Bad, Bad Night

Tonight was a bloody bad night. Having jetted back from a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend (or unimaginative Xmas present for partner which amounts to killing two birds with one stone, take your pick) in Lisbon and still struggling to shake off the after-effects of a lousy cold, or the residue of the port and the cherry liquor (take your pick), it just wasn’t what the doctor ordered. So this one’s going to be short.

It was one of those nights where nothing went right – from the line-up, through losing a player in the first minute (the world and his dog knows we should have been playing against 10 men after the dreadful challenge that saw Basey depart), through conceding the first goal again, through substitutions, through to ending up with only 10 on the pitch, and to scoring when it was too late. But the theme that ran through the night was, again, just not playing well enough, collectively and individually, against a team seemingly short of confidence and on a bad run. Tonight we didn’t look like a top team (for the division) getting undone by plucky opponents; we looked like an average side, one seemingly content to do its fair share of hoofing the ball forward, which might on another occasion have got something out of the game but didn’t get the breaks but which gave the other side encouragement and something to hold on to. We have better players than that.

The formation saw Bailey out wide left, with Semedo and Racon occupying the central midfield berths, and Sodje(A) paired with Burton up front in a basic 4-4-2. In the first half the only problems were that our front two caused very few problems, in contrast with theirs, we were outfought in central midfield, and our defence was all over the place, not just from set pieces. After the early challenge on Basey saw Solly introduced as a straight replacement, which as in previous games limited our options later on, Bristol Rovers looked by far the livelier and more determined side. No real problem if you can weather the early pressure and grow into the game, but instead we looked nervous and surrendered possession far too easily. Too many balls pumped forward early and nothing like enough made of them by the front men. And it all left Racon – in the side presumably to add some passing skills – totally bypassed. And we fell behind.

As a master class in how not to defend from a corner their first goal took some beating. One to the near post saw every Charlton player go towards the ball, which left their defender who peeled away totally unmarked when it was flicked on. Just rank poor defending. What followed was equally unsettling. Semedo losing the ball in a challenge saw it played through to create a one-on-one, with Elliot (who was splendid all night) saving well, then panicked clearances led to more chances for them. We had moments of our own - with Sam beating two defenders and crossing low, only for the forwards to fail to arrive on time, a deflected free kick headed back to allow Sodje(A) a free header which was aimed firmly at their keeper, and a dipping shot from Bailey which went just wide. But in an open game in the first half they created the clear-cut chances and had the goal. It was probably summed up by our penalty shout involving Bailey going down far too easily after only minimal contact and picking up a booking and theirs seeing Sodje(S) get away with a very dangerous shoving off the ball of their forward.

A second change at the break saw Mooney brought on for Sodje(A), the only surprise being that it wasn’t for Burton, who had an ineffective first half and was to go on to make it a truly poor full 90 minutes. The change that I thought should have been made came later, which was to bring on Reid and switch Bailey back to the middle. The night wasn’t made for Racon, but Semedo was the one to make way. In any event there was no time to see if it would have been effective as Bristol scored their second, somewhat fortuitously. A booted clearance came off the head of Sodje(S) to a guy clearly by then offside. Whether he was offside when the first ball was played I don’t know. Either way he was goalside of Dailley and ran through to score.

After that Rovers settled for what they had and sat behind the ball, which allowed us more possession but left us facing a massed defence. And our cause was pretty much up when Mooney and their defender clashed heads (accidentally). The lump which immediately appeared on Mooney’s head left little doubt that he wouldn’t return. It was ironic that we played the later stages with only 10 when they should have been one down from the start, but the game was up before then. Racon’s deflected shot towards the end of stoppage time did nothing to change the mood.

No full player ratings tonight, but the good marks would go to Elliot (he kept us in the game in the first half). At the other end of the scale Burton was dire. His night was summed up by being shoved into a challenge on their keeper and picking up a booking. Without the shove he wouldn’t have been involved, which would have been in keeping with the rest of his evening.

Parkinson has some thinking to do now. We aren’t playing well and haven’t been for some time, with tonight’s result leaving us basically in a pack with Colchester and Swindon rather than closing the gap on the top two. The defence is unable to keep a clean sheet, the midfield options are being tried without obvious success, and we’re still striving for the right combination up front. Confidence looks like it’s ebbing away – and possibly taking team spirit with it. In these situations it’s usually a case of back to basics – after all, that’s what Bristol Rovers did to us tonight. That has to start with a strong defence and maybe its time to give Llera an extended run again, whether for Sodje or Dailey, as we keep shipping goals. Youga’s return would be great, but there’s no sign of that. In midfield, if a five is our best option go with it. We undoubtedly played better with that set-up early in the season. And McKenzie has to come into the reckoning if he’s fit; Burton can have no complaints after tonight if he is left out.

Me, I’m going to try to think about Lisbon, flea markets on a sunny day, port by the bucketload, and anything else rather than the game.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Today's FT Bargain Offer

Given that we’re not exactly flush at the moment, and were seemingly ready to embrace the sartorially-challenged Gold and Sullivan, it would of course be injudicious to take delight in the advert in today’s FT inviting bids for Crystal Palace. But come on. It’s snowing outside, I’ve had a lousy cold (made worse by the effect on the sinuses of short-haul flights), and despite the very welcome news late on Saturday Colchester, Swindon et al are closing the gap on us. We could all use a laugh, the easier the better.

“The club offers many benefits for an investor”. It seems the ad cites a “highly reputable” academy, plus revenue streams from player sell-on clauses and the freehold of the stadium. There is no mention of a consistent record in Premiership campaigns, or a penchant for appalling team strips. Or of the location and condition of said stadium (‘easy commuting to anywhere to make fast getaway from Norwood, except for tortuous journey to SE7; facilities in need of some renovation’). Perhaps the club’s greatest (and uncited) intangible asset is the apparent ability to turn Ambrose from a die-hard loser into a goal-scoring machine.

This could after all be our last chance to wave a fond adieu to a certain Jordan. In a recent Torygraph piece he was doing his best to talk up the price. "The administrator's job now is to save the club. I don't know how he is going to do it. I've seen the cash-flows. He's got a couple of months”. Now that’s salesmanship for you. In the article, which read like a personal valediction, blaming those nasty hedge funds for actually wanting to get their money back, he added "this administration is outrageous and utterly pointless. I felt royally shafted. I felt devastated, humiliated, embarrassed. I have done 10 years of my life and £35 million on Palace.” Not enough on either count might be considered fair comment.

So, just what is the asking price? According to Jordan, "I'm the biggest creditor and I'd like some of my money back. Am I asking for £30 million? No. £20 million? No. £15 million? ....” Well, keep going. The administrator was quoted as saying "I have to take the best offer to creditors. I'm open to offers, I don't have a figure in mind". I do, the only problem is that the postage stamp threatens to double my potential outlay.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Manager Speak

While my monthly work-related sojourn to Amsterdam prevented anything more than a remote following of the Walsall game, thereby precluding any meaningful comment from me (were such considered to be possible under any conditions), I did think that the subsequent club email note on the game provided two excellent examples of great ‘manager speak’.

First, we have Parkinson’s remark that “Therry might have been slightly theatrical in the way he dived, but I thought it was a penalty”. So, poor marks for the execution of the dive, but nothing wrong with the concept. Note to work harder on this on the training ground.

Second, we have their boss Chris Hutchings remarking that: "It (the penalty) looked soft to me the first time I saw it, and normally my instincts aren't wrong .... then 30 seconds into the second half I thought we should have had a penalty, so the inconsistency was there for all to see". Splendid! Just where is the inconsistency? We have a manager believing that a penalty awarded against his side was a mistake and that not giving his side one was also a mistake. We have a referee who believed that one was a penalty and one was not. Surely this reflects total consistency on the part of all concerned. Of course, if Hutchings had argued that the ref’s fault was a consistent bias in our favour, or that his own views on what might constitute a penalty differ according to the decision, he might have been on stronger ground - conceptually, not of course in reality. With the possible exception of Llera’s recent challenge on the Hartlepool forward I’ve never seen a penalty awarded against us that I agreed with. Now there’s consistency for you (even to the extent of the Llera incident being the exception that proves the rule) and, unlike Hutchings, my instincts are never wrong.

On the subject of penalties, it is for sure time to dash off a letter in response to the appeal made on behalf of Bob Curtis. A splendid player and a true Charlton legend. The only problem is that the appeal is for supporters to send their memories of Bob as a player. Try as I might (and I was a mere nipper at that time) the abiding memory is still of the penalty that he missed, the one against Preston in the crucial promotion game. Given that he scored all the others, can we just write it off as another exception that proved the rule?