Saturday did produce a splendid victory for a football team that I support; but to say I’d have swapped it for a win of any sorts at Exeter is something of an understatement. In the event even victory there wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference, with neither Leeds nor Millwall slipping up. Those results meant that the extra two points and beating Leeds would still have left us requiring Leeds to lose their final game (home to Bristol Rovers) and Millwall failing to get four points from their final two games (away at Tranmere and home to Swindon). That scenario is of course more likely than the one which confronts us now to get second place and nobody but the seriously deluded (which usually includes me and a few I know) imagines it will be anything other than the play-offs.
I’m inclined to agree with Wyn Grant when he writes that we’d have taken a play-off berth at the start of the season. But that perhaps doesn’t tell the full story. We started the campaign with a style and panache that made it look for a while as though we simply had too much class, especially in midfield, for others to deny us automatic promotion (in fact it has all been reminiscent of the first season back in The Championship). But as others got better we started to struggle and if anything it’s only been the past dozen or so games that have reflected what we might have expected at the start – the team grinding out some good results but not setting the world on fire or stringing three or four wins together. We’ve been passed by three teams and have been unable to take advantage of the problems of the fourth. The team’s done well to hang in there, but we’re not going to be viewed as the favourites for the play-offs.
Thoughts have understandably turned to whether we would rather see Leeds or Millwall take second place and indeed whether we could favour finishing seventh to take on one of them over two legs rather than a Wembley final. There’s no perfect outcome, but neither is there any real purpose to trying to play the permutations. I’d loathe the idea of helping to send the Spanners into territory that they really shouldn’t be allowed to occupy (which begs the question of where they should reside). Equally, we’ve already hosted one promotion party and I don’t want to witness another on our patch, especially if it involved putting a smile on Bates’ arse (and instead allowed our directors to offer him their heart-felt commiserations).
End of the day it’s about us, not them. The play-offs it is, so let’s go out and win them and there’s no better preparation than the confidence of winning games. Victory over Leeds would raise spirits and give us an edge in the event of us meeting again in May. There’s also an incentive to finish fourth or fifth rather than sixth as there’s home advantage for the second leg of the first round and always the possibility that Huddersfield or Swindon would turn over Leeds or Millwall.
There are still doubts/differences of opinion over our best formation; and it is ironic to see the fresh speculation that Shelvey will be off for around £3m, with the market value of an unused squad member being higher by some distance than that of any other player on our books. Part of the problem surely is that with no reserves team playing regularly just how match fit is Shelvey (and others such as Spring for that matter)? I’ve always had a bias for 4-5-1, not because it’s a better formation but because it (in my opinion) makes better use of our available resources/strengths, with three genuine wingers available and four central midfielders able to compete for two slots. And I think it’s easier to switch to two up front if things don’t work out than simply changing the front men. But this is all well-worn ground; I’m happy to back whoever Parkinson puts out and leave the post-mortems for May (hopefully the end of May).
All of which seamlessly leads us on to the football match that I did watch on Saturday. I’m beginning to feel a bit like Moses parting the waters, having flown back to London from Amsterdam the evening before flights were grounded and then off to Lyon the day after they resumed. Whatever, the smooth transit ensured that I’d get across to the Stade de Balmont to watch my adopted French team, Lyon Duchere, take on Jura Sud in France’s CFA Groupe B.
I’ve been a little casual of late when glancing at Duchere’s league position. After a disappointing 0-1 home defeat to lowly Sochaux B in mid-April the team had slipped to 12th (out of 18) and in a very tight division at the bottom there wasn’t much breathing space. However, Duchere then managed to gain revenge for the unlucky 2-3 defeat earlier in the season against Olympique Lyonnais B (which I witnessed) to win by a similar score in the reverse local derby fixture. That must have lifted confidence for the match against Jura Sud, who went into the game in top spot despite having lost their previous game.
I wish I had the words to describe the majesty of La Duch’s first goal in the opening minutes of the game. I don’t because one of the downsides of hanging on in front of the PC for confirmation of the outcome in Exeter and an 18.00 (French time) start for Duchere meant that we missed the first five minutes. It was a while before we realised that Duchere had already taken the lead; it just looked as though Jura Sud were being afforded the bulk of the play with Duchere aiming to catch them on the break or make use of set pieces. Whatever, it was evolving into an interesting contest. Jura were bigger, looked stronger, and had a very dangerous left-winger; but Duchere were able to match them in midfield and with greater mobility (if not pace), with the forwards dropping deep, were able to create space and catch them out.
So it proved after about 30 minutes when Duchere won possession in midfield. A well-placed pass out to the right was taken by the winger to the by-line and a perfectly delivered waist-high cross was volleyed in by the onrushing forward. Jura did manage to create one decent chance as a player broke into the box through defenders but blazed the shot over the bar. 2-0 up at the interval and all was looking good for Duchere. The priority for the first 15 minutes of the second half was to keep things tight and not let Jura back in; and the job was well done. Indeed, Duchere almost extended their lead as a flick-on from a free kick landed just on the roof of the net.
As the game progressed Jura had to commit more players forward; but Duchere took advantage of the space and continued to create the chances without managing to kill off the game. However, the picture changed when Duchere’s right-back – who had done a splendid job of containing Jura’s most dangerous player – landed awkwardly and had to go off. The replacement didn’t look like a natural full-back and Jura’s efforts began to be focused down that side. And with about 15 minutes left a ball into that area saw their winger run on between defenders and finish well with a shot across the keeper into the corner of the net.
That set up a rousing finish as Jura piled forward and Duchere found themselves with a series of opportunities to score a third. The final moments were understandably frantic, but there was to be no further score and Duchere came away with a well-deserved victory. I thought when I saw them last (against OL B) that they had come on a lot in the past year and what I saw on Saturday indicated further improvement. The defence (as their record reflects) is sound, the midfield competitive, and if the forwards lack obvious advantages in terms of height or pace they make up for it in movement and adapting to the team’s overall intelligent style of play. After Saturday’s win they might still only be in 11th place but are now 10 points clear of the bottom two and only five points off fourth (and in this league you a point for turning up).
A second season of consolidation in CFA Groupe B is no mean feat for Duchere after promotion the previous campaign. A couple of additions next season could see them mount a challenge for promotion to, if I understand it correctly, National, the French equivalent of our …. well, third flight. That would be a very big step up (into a nationwide rather than regional division) and may be too soon for a developing outfit. It can’t be said that Duchere is a hotbed of football, with the crowd on Saturday probably not much above 100 (it had been a different story for the OL match). But the team and the area are looking up, as I trust what I assume is the only other Charlton and Duchere supporter can testify. May the same apply to us through May.