Tuesday 18 May 2010

It Don't Change Nothing, Not A Thing

Just over a week ago we had around 15 minutes when the dream of promotion was alive. Tonight we had longer and this time it hurts badly. We all know the financial consequences of not going up and just how many of those who trudged off at the end will take to the pitch for us next season remains to be seen. Plan B is going to have to come out of the drawer and I guess it isn’t going to be nice. Whatever. It’s done. And I’m still glad that we aren’t owned by those disgraceful Thunderbirds puppet rejects who are showing what they are made of. I hope Zola doesn’t settle and takes them to the cleaners in the courts.

I hope no-one’s looking for a proper match report. There just aren’t any words. The first half we played superbly, all through the team, and rounded it all off with what would have been a contender for goal of the season (although I’m glad that went to the second against Brentford, which alone justifies splashing out on another DVD that will ultimately be painful to watch). Swindon weren’t playing the same sort of game they had on Friday night (having been off to Amsterdam I’d missed out on the tickets but found a prime spot in front of a big screen) and we’d truly taken the game to them.

It was always going to be a little different in the second half, with them having time to regroup. But with the goals in the bag – and then what if I was reasonable I’d say was a tough sending off (he only got Burton in the chest; the Palace player against Sheff Wed got the goalkeeper in the throat and only saw yellow), which isn’t to say I didn’t howl for it – it was all falling into place. I thought then that even if they got one back at the death, 11 against 10 through extra time should be good enough; and I also thought we’d be able to see out the game and perhaps get another to really finish things off in style.

It just all fell apart. There’s no point laying blame. Yes, Bailey should have played the ball out left instead of cutting in and losing it, but how did we get caught short at the back with the game at that stage? Their goal was bad enough, but with Llera taking one for the team with another breakaway (no real complaints over that one) suddenly it was all square in numbers and into extra time. The game could have gone either way during the additional 30 minutes. They put one wide of the post and, although without Mooney and Reid we were less effective going forward (there was always going to be a need for fresh legs), we had the chance with just a few minutes left. Burton, who’d been excellent all night, put it agonisingly wide of the post.

Penalties? Cruel when you’re on the losing end. Only one miss in 10 but that was enough for them. There’ll be time enough tomorrow and in the days ahead for fair reflection, assessment of players’ seasons, thoughts about just how many will be let go/sold, and what will be realistic expectations for the next campaign. Tonight is just about being miserable as sin and even the cognac tastes sour. We were unlucky, the players gave everything they had, but we had it in our hands and couldn’t hold it. To call tonight a failure is harsh; it wasn't, but the season is. We know the reality is that its a fourth season in a row that’s turned out as bad as we could have feared. And the consequences are going to be tough.

So sod it. I’ll be there next season and bring it on. Well, I’ve already bought the season ticket so what the bloody hell else am I going to do? Charlton ‘til I die and tonight we paid back a little more for those years in clover. Let's have some time to mope and weep. But it don’t change nothing, not a thing.

Saturday 8 May 2010

10 Minutes Of Dreaming

So, it proved to be a fourteen-and-a-half hour round trip for maybe 10 minutes of dreaming. But it was a damned fine 10 minutes; and more than we expected when setting off. It’s amusing to think of four teams having occupied second spot through the afternoon, especially when the shortest duration went to Millwall; and they had the agony of waiting until the last kick at Elland Road. At least for us once the opening closed it shut pretty tight pretty quickly. As Parkinson promised, we did our job and if that proved not enough we ended the afternoon in pretty good spirits and looking up for what lies ahead.

Boundary Park conjures up images of a place for a genteel Sunday stroll until you check where it is on the map and until you get close to the ground and off the coach. Just why do so many teams choose to locate their ground on the most windswept, barren spot available? Seemed to me like a mix between Scunthorpe and Stoke. The coach arrived in time for us to enjoy all that Oldham has to offer, which proved to be one glass of wine which somehow tasted even worse than that on offer around SE7. Apparently the beer was good. There’s nothing pretty about the ground or the setting, but it was all about getting there, winning the game, and listening on the radio to what was going on elsewhere.

The team saw Sodje(S) and Forster drop out (whether through choice or injury I can’t say, we had no way of hearing the tannoy announcing the substitutes), with Llera and Mooney starting the game. And the first 10 minutes proved to be our worst of the afternoon. We looked sluggish and uninspired, as if the team didn’t believe in the dream, while both teams struggled to come to terms with the wind. In particular Llera began uncertainly and some confusion between him and Randolph almost let them in. But we slowly came more into the game and began to get a grip on midfield and start to make things happen. Oldham settled back after an energetic start and began to remember their best interests (Leeds not getting promoted). While all this was going on Swindon had their brief moment in the sun before the Spanners equalised. A couple of efforts came and went and then without too much trouble we took the lead. Sam was being allowed a good deal of space down the right and he sent one in low. It seemed to miss the pair at the near post and then another couple coming in, all of which left Bailey on his own at the far post to poke it home.

With news coming through that Leeds were down to 10 men, things were starting to come together and at the break we were, if not optimistic, at least feeling better placed than at the start. And things could indeed only get better. An early break in the second half led to Mooney (I think) getting fouled and a free kick in an inviting position. Bailey and Llera seemed to be the options and in the event the latter hit a lousy shot low just around the wall. The groans of disappointment quickly changed as the keeper took his eye off the ball, seemingly to check on onrushing forwards, and he made .. well, a complete pig’s ear of it. Dreadful blunder but at least now we had a cushion.

Pretty soon it was pandemonium. The unbelievable had indeed happened as Leeds went behind and suddenly we were in the box seat. But even then the feeling was that it had all come together too soon. With about 30 minutes left the chances of no further goals in the two other matches were pretty slim. The only surprise was how quickly the bubble burst. A Leeds equaliser, Millwall going ahead, then Leeds taking the lead. And when news came through that Millwall had gone 3-1 ahead we knew the game was up. There was no way that both Leeds and Millwall would concede two. All of a sudden the song changed to ‘Wemberly ....’ At least we were spared it being snatched away in the final minutes.

The only other real event of note was the miss of the season by Bailey. Having taken advantage of indecision and wriggled through, he adeptly chipped the keeper and ran on to the loose ball with an empty net ahead. The angle was a bit tight, but I’d have backed my grandmother as they say. We knew it didn’t really matter. By this stage Oldham were pretty much going through the motions and we were fairly comfortable. But a third would have ended any thoughts of a silly goal letting them back in.

Wagstaff came on for Sam, Spring for Semedo, and late on Sodje(A) for Mooney, who pulled up with what looked like cramp as he was running through. We were running down the clock and when the end came it was pleasing that a pitch invasion by Oldham fans prompted no response (no complaints there, it was their ground and I think the fans were only trying to get warm). The team came over for some well-deserved applause. It had been a job well done, and, taken together with the recent performances against Norwich and Leeds, enough to suggest that we’re going into the play-offs in as good a shape as we can be (barring any fresh injuries).

No player ratings (it’s been a long day and I want to see if there’s any highlights on the box), but if anyone stood out for me it was again Dailly and the rest of the defence as they ensured that Oldham were restricted to a few long-range shots and the occasional dangerous cross. Mooney and Burton were a mixed bag up front, with good moments. Basically, having gone one up not too long into the game and scored at the start of the second it wasn’t an afternoon for going hell for leather, just for keeping things steady. There’s time enough for heroics over the next week and beyond.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Bound For The Park

Finally, the day when we will know what lies ahead of us is close at hand. Soon all the talking is over, and the time for recriminations/congratulations and assessment of the campaign can begin. And we are dealing with far weightier matters than who might occupy a certain address in Downing Street. By 5pm on Saturday we will know for sure if it’s the play-offs; OK, there’s a decent chance that by 3.10 we’ll know it’s the play-offs, but it ain’t over yet. And it won’t really be over until whatever ungodly time the coaches get back to SE7.

Through my life there have been times when I’ve truly felt on the verge of losing it (which is tantamount to saying that any impartial observer would have concluded I’d gone gaga). There’s still a day left to come to my senses, but the track record on that front isn’t good and barring a Damascus moment there’s a seat on the coach to Oldham with my name on it. I’m trying to rationalise the decision to go and draw some straws of comfort. At least this time they’re not calling it ‘Operation Boundary Park’, which would have been the kiss of death (I did actually manage to miss Operation Riverside, due to moving too late on getting tickets, but mention of Operation Ewood Park still prompts a wince). Last season’s futile gesture was a trip to Sheffield Wednesday away (and how they’ve gone down in my estimation since Sunday), for the delight of seeing us get turned over 4-1 (in the game against Palace the TV commentator mentioned that Jeffers hadn’t scored a goal for donkey’s years; was his last one actually against us?). All I remember of the coach trip back (apart from the horrible demands of others – hopefully not to be repeated – to have Mama Mia put on the video) was the very kind lady organiser asking me if I’d enjoyed myself.

I’m also trying to draw comfort from the prospect that even if Leeds are 4-0 up after 10 minutes the game is still very important for us. A win would guarantee us at least fourth place and consequently the second leg of the play-off first round at home (of course if Swindon beat Millwall it could be the Spanners up first, or of course Huddersfield if they win their final game). One regret in not being at home with my feet up on Saturday will be having to pass on betting on which TV or radio commentator first says ‘you need a degree in mathematics to work out the combinations’. Please just don’t be silly, you need 11+ standards, no more. Why is it that every football fan is well aware of all possible outcomes yet they seem to be beyond the pundits? Oh yes, they’re mostly former footballers.

Having bored the pants off us early in the season at The Valley (a game which seemingly persuaded Parkinson to abandon 4-5-1, although at that time there was no plan B with only one fit and available forward), perhaps Oldham will do the decent thing and just roll over. But I see they’ve tried the trick of an end-season revival by binning their manager. Hopefully they’ll be concentrating more on the holiday brochures and booking pub seats for the World Cup than trying to impress the new boy.

I do think Parkinson and the squad can take credit for holding things together – its not that long ago that we were in danger of missing out on the play-offs period - and putting in better performances of late. It seems Burton has been playing through the pain with a hernia and it seemed indicative to me of the mood that Sam kept going late on Saturday even though clearly injured. Of course the dream of Saturday being the last game of the season is pretty much just that, but four more displays like those against Norwich and Leeds and I’d back us against the rest, including our near neighbours. Boundary Park on Saturday will be another ground for me chalked off and I trust that I’ll be adding the New Wembley before May is out.

Just time for some unstructured rants/thoughts. Didn’t you just know that Varney would fail to put Wednesday ahead on Sunday when he was one-on-one with the keeper? And didn’t you just know that Ambrose would bury the chance that came his way. All very depressing. Given the numbers that have been through our ranks over the past three years it’s pretty much impossible to watch any Championship game without some reminders of what might have been – or why did we waste money on that waste of space. And I see Gillingham have announced that they won’t be offering a contract to Chris Dickson. I don’t know if his contract with us is up at the end of the season, but whatever, please Chris get your mind right. A schoolteacher wrote on my final report ‘it’s sad to see a student waste such ability’ and anyone writing out one for him at the moment would have to echo the sentiments.

As for Fulham, no I’m not happy that ‘plucky little Fulham’ have made it to a European final. Plucky little Fulham would be as bust as Portsmouth without Al Fayed’s millions having been poured in and they should have gone down instead of us (yes, that bloody last-gasp unjust equaliser for which the linesman should have been struck off). And how on earth can the Football League, full of sanctimonious humbug, pick on Hartlepool for a breach of rules and dock them three points when West Ham lost none (as they said, it would have been unfair on their fans). There ain’t no justice. Hopefully there will be some on Saturday.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Nice Warm Glow, Whatever Saturday Brings

Well, thanks a bloody bundle Charlton. All through the past week I’ve been explaining to the unenlightened (non-Addick friends) that the reason we’ve let Norwich win the league and Leeds take second place is that the only way we could ensure that Millwall were not promoted was to enter the play-offs with them. If we had taken one of the top two places, which clearly we could have done, the Spanners could have sneaked up with us. So we allowed Norwich to come through and kept our options open. If Millwall were going to be in the play-offs, we had to be there too in order to ensure they stayed were they belonged (hopefully with another SE London outfit after tomorrow). That line of argument kind of falls down when we deny Leeds a guaranteed second place.

But deny them it we did. And whatever the permutations – we know what has to happen next week – it still feels good. It means I have to backtrack on all I’ve been saying, probably means I have to buy a ticket for Oldham (if I can get one), but tonight there’s still a warm glow. It was a tough game and we won it. It may not make a great deal of difference in the shake-out (although at the least it keeps us in fifth going into the final round), but don’t tell me the effort of getting up at sparrow’s fart to fly back from Lyon to make it for the game wasn’t worth it.

I’m going to keep details to a minimum tonight (and there may be more than the usual factual error), because I’m knackered and full of red wine (which I hope to top up as we go along; the alternative is unpalatable). And there’s a takeaway with my name on it. If I’m lucky I’ll stay awake beyond Match of the Day to relive the game. If not, I’ll wake up, eat the rest of the takeaway, and still have a warm glow inside.

The team lined up, as they used to say, as printed in the programme. We pretty much knew there would be no changes for us and Leeds stuck to the plan of keeping Beckford on the bench. We started brightly and dominated the opening 15 minutes in terms of possession, but one daft mistake – the first of two by Sodje(S) which almost cost us the game – almost gifted Leeds the lead. His weak backpass let in their guy for a one-on-one which Randolph blocked superbly (and he did well to gather the rebound). After our good start failed to produce a goal, Leeds started to dominate possession and we were to have our worst period of the game as we struggled to keep the ball. Forster and Burton up front weren’t causing them enough problems, Racon and Semedo were pinned back, and with Sam well shepherded and no real threat down the left we were under the cosh for a while. Our main threat going forward was Richardson bursting into space, clearly intent on reminding them what they’ve missed. But otherwise, as the game descended into a fairly dour struggle between two evenly-matched and determined teams, chances were in short supply.

We had a few bright moments, but at the break, the one-on-one excepted, neither side could say they had really troubled the opposition’s back four. And the game continued in much the same vein for a large part of the second half. We knew by then that Millwall were losing, but if anything that inhibited Leeds as a draw would still have represented a good day for them. We were tending to get the upper hand in the crucial contests, however, and started to threaten more consistently, with Sam, as so often the case this season, blossoming in the second half, ably assisted by Richardson. And in a tight game finally the chance fell to us. A ball in from the right saw Bailey throw himself in its general direction, possibly handballing, but then the ball loop up to Sodje(S) a few yards out with the keeper grounded. He had time and space, but instead of planting the header in the net put it over the bar. In a tight game it looked like being the decisive moment.

Changes were needed and Leeds brought on Beckford, while Parkinson opted for a triple substitution. Burton and Forster were replaced by Sodje(A) and Mooney, while Reid as usual came on for Racon, with Bailey moving inside. It was a bold move to do it all at once, but it worked – only just, as Sam clearly took a knock in the latter stages and might otherwise have gone off (to his credit he kept doing the necessary work). Sodje(A) from the start unsettled a Leeds defence which had contained Burton and Forster, especially in the air. At the same time Leeds clearly carried a greater threat and a tight game was to explode in the final stages as a goal broke the deadlock and then opened it up for both sides to have chances to score.

In truth, I’m not entirely sure how we scored. I think it was a ball in which Sam managed to flick on and the onrushing Sodje(A) met, only for a deflection off the defender to take it over the keeper and into the net. Cue pandemonium. After that Leeds had nothing to lose and they were to have a chance with a flick at the near post and then what can only be described as an opportunity which produced the save of the season. A ball in from the right found Beckford around the penalty spot and when he headed it all in the ground thought it was in. Randolph must have just thrown himself in the general direction and deflected it wide. Aside from a couple of routine shots, and the odd threat in the air, he’d had not a great deal to do. But early and late in the game he’d made two exceptional saves which were to win us the game.

There was still time for a free kick from Bailey to come off the inside of the post and a breakaway led by Reid from inside his own half which ended as these things often do, in rather comical failure to score. We just wanted the final whistle and when it came celebrations were extended and merited. Until it dawned that it meant having to go to Oldham next Saturday. The Leeds fans we spoke to after the game were frustrated by what they thought was their over-reliance on a long ball game, and in truth they showed nothing today to set them apart. On balance we deserved the win, Parkinson takes credit for the changes he made, but the victory owed much to the two saves by Randolph.

Player Ratings:

Randolph: 10/10. It should really be a nine, because he was a little hesitant with some crosses, but what can you say? Elliot has been outstanding this season, but since taking over when he was injured (another decision for which Parkinson should take credit, as Warner was available) Randolph has done nothing wrong and today takes all the plaudits.

Richardson: 9/10. He clearly wanted to impress today and did. Defensively sound and made a nuisance of himself going forward.

Borrowdale: 7/10. He’s not everyone’s favourite and when its him and Bailey down the left its a bit sterile going forward. But the first task is to defend and today he did nothing wrong.

Sodje(S): 7/10. For most of the game he was excellent and deserves a better mark. But he nearly gifted Leeds the lead in the first five minutes with a poor back pass and spurned the golden chance to put us in front.

Dailly: 9/10. Just another outstanding performance.

Bailey: 8/10. Gets an extra mark for one superb defensive block. Still a fish out of water wide left, but does it for the team and made the switch into the middle when Reid came on.

Semedo: 7/10: Sound game – and at times in the second half realised that occasionally there’s nothing wrong with taking the ball forward, even if the prime task is protecting the defence.

Racon: 7/10. Struggled to impose himself in the first half, but was actually winning the midfield battle in the second and a tad unlucky to be substituted – although the changes needed to be made.

Sam: 8/10. Gets an extra mark for continuing to work hard when clearly injured in the latter stages. Caused Leeds problems through the game and continues to stand out in terms of creating chances. Time for another goal though.

Forster: 6/10. Worked hard enough, but in tandem with Burton neither had the pace, aerial ability or something else to stretch Leeds’ defence. When they were on Leeds generally looked comfortable in defence.

Burton: 6/10. As for Forster. It doesn’t look like a partnership at the moment.

Subs: Sodje(A) – 8/10. Made a big difference just by unsettling them at the back, and just happened to score the goal; Mooney – 8/10. Played his part too in making them work harder. Reid – 7/10. Looked a threat but could have made more of the opportunities which came his way on the break.