Monday 29 March 2010

The Circle Game

At last, some clarity regarding the outcome for the season. Not quite everything is yet in place, but it seems obvious that if just two ‘outside’ results in the next round go our way all is virtually settled. Clearly Millwall have peaked too soon and they are set to slip up at home to admirable, fast-improving Brentford on Friday (nothing wrong with talking them up when we need a favour). Then all we need is a draw on Saturday in the game between Leeds and Swindon. With those two results in the bag, it’s all back in our hands: eight wins from our last eight games (including of course the one against Leeds) and we take second place whatever the others do. Technically we could still end up on the same number of points as Millwall, but they are not going to claim maximum points – and even if they do we only have to make up current deficit of nine on goal difference.

There is of course a flaw in the argument (there always is). We can’t be sure that Millwall will lose at home on Friday, so we may have to wait for them to implode in a later game. As someone who recently pontificated on the prospect of Leeds having regrouped after their Cup exploits, and suggesting that our main priority was to be within two points of them going into the final two games, my forecasting record might be considered dubious. But life is all about learning from mistakes (that’s generally been my problem as never having made one it’s been hard to develop).

Having been obliged to miss our last three games (Paris for the rugby was a delight, even down to the result; yes, I was denied the pleasure of celebrating a last-minute Wilkinson drop goal to win the game, but on balance I’m not sure that would have compensated for a severe strain to the entente cordial, especially as I would have been re-enacting it for the rest of the weekend), I’m in no position to comment on our recent form. The results speak for themselves: Gillingham was a disappointment (and a rather worrying one, given the fans needing an explanation that Elliot was injured rather than Parkinson having taken leave of his senses, followed by some not well chosen remarks from him along the lines of having to work with limited resources, which goes against our wage bill and the decision not to sell players), Huddersfield a result we would have taken before the game (which isn’t to say we weren’t howling from afar for the last-gasp winner), and what went before is simply unmentionable (I’ve taken the line that we’d informed the Football League before the season started that we considered it well beneath us to actually play against Millwall and that we’d rather not bother to turn up at their place – and that’s just what happened).

Funny how life goes in circles. The last time we played MK Dons I was off in France and during the game was buried in an underground vault in Beaune for an extended wine tasting, receiving text messages as the goals went in, with the level of inebriation rising with the score. It’s pure chance that for Christmas I received a voucher for two for a wine tasting at Vinopolis (well, it seems this one - which starts with what would seem to be a rather superfluous 20-minute session on how to taste wine – extends to a cocktail and three rum tastings in addition to the wine). It seemed only right and proper that I booked it for this Saturday as my partner Suzanne will be arriving in London for the Easter break (although the poor girl has no idea of planning as she is scheduled to fly back before the home game against Carlisle). I feel duty-bound to request the same text update service and to get as completely lathered as last time around. A repeat performance all round for us would do nicely, especially as a four-goal win coupled with Millwall losing will narrow the goal difference gap by at least five.

Talking of planning, mine ain’t so great these days as the Easter break means a delayed work trip to Amsterdam, so I’m going to have to pass on the Colchester home game as well. At least not getting to many games of late means that I can only recall us scoring goals and playing great football (it was a painful reminder to encounter last week a Brentford fan and to reminisce about the second we scored against them at The Valley, which for me stands head and shoulders above anything else for goal of the season, if you include the five minutes of passing and movement that led up to it). Consequently I have no doubts about our coming results.

Finally, one piece of trivia that still makes me chuckle (in addition to Hull giving Dowie the saviour’s job and the penalty that wasn’t for Palace), inspired by Kandol’s contribution to Leeds’ cause on Saturday. I’m afraid he can’t lay claim to ‘move valuable contribution from the bench’ title for this year at least. I happened to catch on the box a Catania v Inter game. Inter were strolling at 1-0 up and dominating the game when with about 15 minutes left Catania came up with an unexpected equaliser. Jose the sage responded a few minutes later by bringing on former Portsmouth player (isn’t everyone?) Muntari. His first act was to chase and bring down a Catania forward, giving away a free kick on the edge of the area and collecting a yellow card. He took his place in the wall inside the box and when the kick was taken jumped up and handled. A penalty was duly awarded and Muntari was given a second yellow. He was on the pitch for 85 seconds, only touched the ball with his hand, picked up two yellow cards, and gave away a penalty – which was converted (Catania went on to score a third to win 3-1). Pure class.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Narrowing The Gap

Nothing’s ever that clear-cut, but it’s a fair bet that this Saturday’s games will go a long way to defining the rest of the season for us – and whether or not we will need to keep the diary free beyond 8 May. It may not always have been pretty (OK, most of it has been downright ugly), but three wins out of four coupled with other results at least leave us once again looking up (at the possibility of catching Leeds) rather than down (and hanging onto a play-off spot, never mind third). We know what’s up next for us – and if the players need any more motivation to continue to go all-out for a top two finish the prospect of having to go back to SE16 for a second time should be enough (then again, if we don’t go up most of them won’t be with us next season in any case) – while Leeds visit Southampton. To say that Pardew owes us one is an understatement and it’s time to call in the marker.

Only a week ago and it seemed that a nightmare scenario might be unfolding with seven teams breaking clear to chase six automatic/play-off spots, resulting in a scrap to the finish and one team missing out with a very high (for seventh) number of points. If it’s to be the play-offs for us I’d rather a bit of time to prepare. It could still pan out that way, but for the time being at least let’s forget about what’s going on below us. If after Saturday the gap with Leeds has increased (clearly it could go to eight points – effectively eight-and-a-half, given goal difference), with 10 games left the fat lady might be giving her throat a rest until May. I know, the season won’t turn on the next round of games, but I suspect that Leeds are managing to refocus after their cup exploits and to expect them to continue their recent form – before their win on Tuesday night it was one win in eight – seems unrealistic. We need the gap to narrow on Saturday and, irrespective of their current form, a draw at Millwall will only look like a good result if Southampton beat Leeds.

After Southampton, Leeds’ final 10 games see them at home to Millwall, away at Norwich, home to Swindon, away to Yeovil, home to Southend, away at Carlisle and Gillingham, home to MK Dons, away to us, then Bristol Rovers at home to round things off. I have high hopes that Pardew gives us some payback, that Millwall do the decent thing and roll over against us then put in their performance of the season, that Swindon bolster their play-off position, that Chris Dickson sets a new goalscoring record for a League One game, and that a certain git called Blizzard, who should be sitting out the remainder of the season, contributes to a last-day victory for Lennie’s employers. It’s not just Pardew we’re looking to for compensation. But all that aside Leeds’ games against Yeovil, Southend, Carlisle, Gillingham, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers could easily yield them maximum points. Those eighteen added would give them 89 points. Add in anything from Southampton and some from Norwich, Swindon and us and a total in the 90s is on the cards. If we get nothing from Millwall, 66 points with 10 games left could see us virtually having to win all of them to get above Leeds.

Of course there will be surprise results and of course our home game against them could see a six-point swing. But if you assume that Leeds will win their final game if they have to (and by that stage Bristol Rovers will almost certainly be all but on their holidays) it follows we need to be less than three points behind Leeds ahead of that game. That’s an outcome – basically needing to win the final two of the season to get second place - that I think we’d all take with open arms right now.

Given the importance of Saturday I do feel guilty that I’m not going. There are decent enough reasons: after the monthly work-related trip to Amsterdam this week there’s catching up to do over the weekend, next week is busy and the following weekend it’s off to Paris for the France v England rugby match. But the bottom line is I lived for many years in deepest Bermondsey, went to Galleywall Road primary school, and have had bucketloads more involvement with the area than normal health recommendations advise. I went to the Old Den to watch us more times than I care to remember. I swore some years back that I would never go to the New Den (well, at the time it didn’t seem like a realistic outcome) and I’m sticking to that. Can’t even really say I’ll be there in spirit as I feel a bit like Chef in Apocalypse Now (something along the lines of “I used to think that if I died in a bad place my soul would be stuck there; now I don’t care where it goes just as long as it ain’t here”). But suffice to say there’ll be a whooping and a hollering if it all turns out right.

As for Paris, my French partner Suzanne asked me some months ago if for a Christmas present a weekend in Paris for the game would be a good idea – and at the time, without checking the dates, it was. The deal is I go wearing a France rugby shirt and her an England one. I had my fun by getting her a number 10 as she doesn’t like Wilkinson. She says that’s because of the way he prepares for his penalties – ‘ze way he sticks out his bottom, like a chicken, ‘ee is ridiculous’ – but I suspect the reality is that she fears him - and England grinding out a try-less victory with some judicious shots between the sticks. Her revenge may be a shirt of Bastareaud (or Chabal). But if you watch the highlights and see a woman in the crowd wearing an England shirt belting out La Marseillaise you know what’s going on.

Paris means I’ll miss the Gillingham home game as well, while the current schedule for my Amsterdam visits takes in the Tuesday evening home game against Colchester. I may only have three or four games to get to before the normal season ends – unless I can make some away games and/or manage to book for Amsterdam with British Airways and hope they go on strike. So, the focus for me over the next couple of months may have to shift away from error-ridden match reports to idle ramblings on notional points totals, the fate of my adopted French team Lyon la Duchere (who for the unaware were not the ones turning over Real Madrid last night), and anything else of vital national interest. Suffice to say that through the period I shall be a happy bunny if that gap just gets progressively narrower, starting Saturday.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Points Secured

Yippee! The opportunity for a short post-match report. In truth the game should have been declared over after five minutes, by which time whatever game-plan Ablett had sent Stockport onto the pitch with had gone out of the window. What followed was entirely forgettable, but after two defeats out of three at home there’s no moaning from me over the team taking a day off and coasting. There’s plenty of challenges ahead which will test the energy levels. So the day will live long in my mind for the opportunity to shake Killer’s hand in the club shop and if we get promoted it will be viewed as a good day in the record books. At this stage of the season that’s fine.

No real surprises in the starting X1, with Reid starting this time, Bailey and Racon in central midfield, and Mooney and Sodje paired up front as at the start against Southend. There was a case for a change, given their previous showing together, but no matter. The game had barely started before a cross from the left resulted in some beach football exchanges of headers and the ball coming off one of theirs and nestling in the net. Sorry, but I just love games where you’re gifted a perfect start. And it got better a few minutes later. Decent enough cross and Sodje had the time and space to pick his spot with the header. He may not always look elegant, but that’s five goals from him now in seven starts and eight substitute appearances. Killer would have been pleased with that himself.

All that could happen after that start was that we would drive on and score a bucketload, we would relax and they would get one back and suddenly we’re in trouble, or we would relax and they wouldn’t score. It proved to be the last of these. Having bemoaned the tempo with which we've started so many games of late, a key factor in us often having to chase the game having gone behind, to be 2-0 up so early on was a very pleasant change. The rest of the game? We had a few more chances, with Sam and Mooney both failing to convert from good positions (and it is getting to the stage where a few goals from Lloyd wouldn’t go amiss). And they had their moments too in the second half. One cross flashed across the face of the goal, Elliot flapped at one cross and missed, their number 10 had a couple of shots, and one moment of confusion between Elliot and Llera nearly let them in. But when you find yourself reading the programme during the game you realise that it just isn’t a classic in the footballing sense. Take the points and go home.

So no player ratings; it really isn’t fair to judge players individually for that sort of game. For what it’s worth the defence deserves credit for a clean sheet and I have to say I was a little surprised that, after Solly had come on for an injured Jackson in the first half, Parkinson made a further double-substitution with about 15 minutes left. Burton and Wagstaff came on for Sodje and Sam. OK, but if we’d picked up an injury then we would have been down to 10 and this was no afternoon for letting anything slip.

Now its off to another, less des-res part of SE London. I shan’t be making the trip. For many years of my youth I lived in Ilderton Road, Bermondsey and I’ve done my time at the Old Den. I’ve never visited the New Den and somehow doubt that I ever will. It will be another afternoon for taking the points and moving on. If we do, like today I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the entertainment value.

Monday 1 March 2010

Case For The Defence

Another game, another controversial incident and refereeing decision, and another set of different accounts of what happened, this time from the players as well as the managers. And this time - unlike the Blizzard-Basey incident, which was blindingly obvious to all concerned except for a muppet called Trollope, with the TV footage to prove it - we’re the accused, not the accusers, and the clips from the BBC at least failed to clear up any uncertainty (to date I haven’t found anything on Youtube that covered the incident). Nicky Bailey has been branded a cheat by his former manager, Steve Tilson, for supposedly getting Southend’s Jean-Francois Christophe sent off – and for good measure Bailey has responded with a tirade of his own. Is there any way of telling what happened, beyond the obvious we’re right and they’re wrong?

For the record I honestly didn’t see what happened. We had just conceded a free kick on the edge of the area and I’d turned sideways to exchange knowing glances with friends (which without the need for words amounted to ‘don’t worry, Elliot will save this one brilliantly, although he might let an easy one under his body in a few minutes’). By the time I looked back, in response to the crowd noise, Bailey was on the ground. Only two people I spoke to on the night claimed more insight. One of our group was convinced that a punch had been thrown by Christophe and that there was at least intent, although she couldn’t say whether it landed (and given the view from where we were standing that’s not surprising). The other was a Southend supporter on the train back to London. He wasn’t sure about a punch but basically said Christophe is an idiot (he described him as his least favourite Southend player) and noted that there was no real complaint from the player when the red card was shown.

What can be gleaned from the accounts of the four main protagonists, Christophe, Bailey, Tilson and Parkinson? I think each of them are revealing in their own way, when you read between the lines and look at what each of them doesn’t say.

Christophe: According to the Southend website, Christophe (who now faces a four-game ban having been sent off earlier in the season) says “I just pushed him in the chest – I never hit him – and he fell to the floor like I had punched him in the face. The next thing I see is him rolling around like a dog – its a bit embarrassing. I was disappointed to see that, we are on the pitch to play football. I know I shouldn’t have pushed him but the way he reacted he knew exactly what he was doing which is bad for football and bad for us.” He added that “the strangest thing was that the referee only gave Bailey a yellow card which I felt was harsh” and that “the referee didn’t say anything to me. I just said ‘did you see what he did to me’ and he just gave me the red card”.

Tilson: Again from the Southend website, he said “we know what Bailey is about; he’s diving and rolling around on the pitch and that says it all. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it’s a pretty regular thing with Nicky”.

Parkinson: According to our website, he said: “Christophe's run over and punched Bailey. The only player that the Southend management should be disappointed in is their own player. When you run 20 yards and punch an opponent, you're off the pitch, and when someone that size punches you, you're going to go down. Sometimes as a player, you're best off going down and then you don't end up having a brawl. So Nick went down. He got punched, and that's it. It was a red card and I think when Steve Tilson sees that in the pictures, he can have no complaints. Nick ran over and pushed a player out of the way and then Christophe's run over and punched him, so I thought the ref called that about right. Nicky probably deserved his yellow. But it was also a definite red in my eyes.”

Bailey: From The Mirror this time: "I find his (Tilson’s) comments quite laughable. I was punched by one of the Southend players. To call me a cheat from 25 yards away at full-time and in all interviews after the game is a total disgrace. It was clearly stated that Tilson gave instructions to his team to wind me up and get me sent off. Cheating is not a word that I have ever been associated with. I still have many friends at Southend and just believe that Tilson was disappointed with the result, so someone had to take the flack."

A Shrimpers24 website seems to lay into Parkinson’s account of the incident, particularly the idea that a player might be ‘best off’ going down rather than having a brawl. But there’s more fun to be had from the Southend official website report on the game. This begins with the wonderful sentence: “it was an all too familiar case of déjà vu for Southend United ....” Now call me a linguistic pedant if you like, but I’ve never once come across an unfamiliar case of déjà vu. It goes on to describe Bailey’s “pathetic actions” and says that “as Christophe went to pick up the ball he was pushed in the back by Bailey and as the French midfielder confronted him, Bailey dramatically fell to the floor as if he was looking for a late entry into this year’s Oscars, even though there was no contact”. Well, overlooking the clumsy English ‘no contact’ is a hard position to defend in light of what Christophe has already owned up to. One advantage of being a blogger is being able make mistakes in accounts of games (even sometimes spouting utter nonsense) without being called to account. But an official match report surely has to aim a little higher, especially when the account is contradicted by what Christophe has said.

It is evident that the accounts of Tilson and Southend supporters (bar the reasonable one on the train) are heavily tainted by their feelings towards Bailey (the same comes across in other comments posted by Southend fans; they just don’t like him any more, hell hath no fury etc). Even if you take Christophe’s account verbatim at the least he got involved and made some sort of deliberate contact with Bailey. So I’m instructing the jury to disregard these testimonies. They are biased, prejudiced, and inaccurate. In the interests of balance, perhaps it’s also best to disregard what Parkinson said. He not surprisingly wants to defend our player. In any event, I don’t feel that his evidence is necessary for the case for the prosecution.

In the absence of conclusive video footage (which of course may yet emerge) I think the compelling evidence (exhibit A if you like) is still on the Southend site, in the photo gallery. The first image shows Bailey hitting the ground and Christophe’s right arm outstretched. Just looking at it suggests to me that Bailey and Christophe’s account of the ‘contact’ might not be contradictory. What the former calls a punch and the latter a shove can be one and the same, especially if a shove in the chest in an upward fashion extends to catching the player in the face. The photo at least shows Christophe’s fist not being clenched, supporting his choice of term, but that’s not to say that Bailey knew at the time whether or not it was a punch. And going back to Christophe’s account, he seems to be annoyed by the fact that Bailey was only given a yellow and him a red, not that either deserved to be let off.

Summing up, on the evidence available it seems to me that Christophe was perhaps a little unlucky to get a red card rather than a yellow, but that the action the referee took cannot be said to have been clearly wrong. The ref saw it as a punch and took the appropriate action. Christophe, like any other player, knows they lay themselves open to be red carded if they do something like that. Did Bailey overreact? Only he knows, but I think there’s no reason to doubt his account that he was caught in the face, whether or not with a punch or a shove in the chest that ended up in his face. In any event, how Bailey reacted is irrelevant to the actual offence.

Bottom line is that if Southend are really that aggrieved why aren’t they appealing against the red card? Perhaps they’re waiting for the referee’s report, but more likely they’re well aware that the outcome is more likely to be an extension to the ban for a frivolous appeal than the red card being overturned. We shall see.

Ah, were it that we were still in The Premiership. The incident would have been picked up by different cameras from different angles and we’d know for sure. But if that were the case that git Blizzard would be sitting out a long ban and we wouldn’t have to listen to BBC pundits drooling over a goal he scored at the weekend (stuck in the throat even if it was against Colchester). What happened to Arsenal’s Ramsey at the weekend was obviously horrific and he deserves all our sympathy. But the actual tackle by Shawcross looked far less malicious and reckless than that perpetrated by Blizzard (which is not to say that Blizzard intended to put Basey out for the season or that Shawcross doesn't deserve his coming ban). Wasn’t in The Premiership, so who cares?