Friday 24 December 2010

No Deal Today It Seems

Like everyone else, I’ve been watching and waiting for news today on the takeover front. And it looks like they’ve finally all decided to head off for Christmas without everything quite signed and sealed (just where is their sense of priority?). According to the club site, the acquisition is at an “advanced stage”, with Richard Murray commenting that “we expect to make a more substantive statement very soon”. So, the pre-Xmas notional deadline seemingly hasn’t been met, but there’s no reason to read anything into it. There’s no indication of problems, the weather may have interfered with planned meetings, and aside from keeping to the previously indicated date it really doesn’t matter whether it’s done today or next week (unless of course Dennis has something booked for new year – and no, I don’t have any idea if he is involved; and yes, like everyone else I hope he isn’t).

Maybe there will still be some announcement at the Southampton game, if it goes ahead (although the Walsall programme still brings a wry smile to my face: inside front page news story about the takeover confirming the details released but at the bottom “more on the potential takeover can be found in managing director Stephen Kavanagh’s column on page 11”; turn to page 11 and “unfortunately there is little more I can reveal regarding the potential takeover of the club”). Hopefully it will, if not just to reward those who turned up on Thursday to help.

The situation through the day did raise the question of who amongst us is sad enough to be hanging around pencil poised through Christmas Eve to be the first to comment. I guess at least some of the overseas contributors would have had some time advantage here, but I wasn’t going anywhere and wrapping the prezzies could wait (especially as Lyon only arrives in London on Sunday – silly girl didn’t realise there was an earlier kick-off and, even assuming there are flights in, won’t be able to accompany me if it goes ahead). Then there’s the ‘tree falling in the forest’ problem: just who might be sad enough to be looking for anything written on Christmas Eve when the news is actually that there isn’t any definitive news?

I’ve been reading other bloggers’ posts on the takeover and not surprisingly most comment seems to centre on a certain Mr Wise. Maybe the point to make is that the two things we know are first, that the buyers are a consortium, not an individual; and second, it’s headed by Peter Varney. Unless he is just a temporary front man, it’s fair to assume that he’ll be the new chairman and the major operational participant. If that’s the case, I don’t think we should be overly concerned just whose cash is involved. Murray’s pledges are good enough to provide as much guarantee as can be hoped for that there’s no asset-stripping involved (ie selling the ground in the event that things don’t work out as planned). There are potential downsides in being owned by a consortium, but looking on the positives a consortium has to have an agreed plan of action which brought it together. It may all unravel further down the line (which would raise the issue of whether members of the consortium would be ready to sell up to anyone on any terms), but we can’t think that far ahead.

I’m continuing to assume that the new owners will have just one priority in mind – getting us back to The Championship. It’s wrong to say we can’t survive in this league, but we have a ground too big now for the third flight and despite the Walsall setback we’re still in a position to make the rest of the season all about whether we can secure promotion. That’s all I care about; it’s why going out to Brentford left me indifferent and why I won’t be going to Tottenham for the cup game.

So, at least we can all clock off now and devote a day to other matters. Apparently it’s someone’s birthday tomorrow and we all get presents. Three points on Sunday, followed by three more on Wednesday, three more on Saturday and three more on Monday will do very nicely thank you. I can’t tell Santa I’ve been good, but I promise I’ll be better if that helps. A Merry Christmas to all and sundry.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Played Crap And Lost

Having been embarrassed for 44 minutes by a non-league side on Thursday evening, just why we thought we should beat a third-tier team, albeit one propping up the table, is a mystery. Parkinson’s excuse for the first-half against Luton was the disruption to training and rustiness; presumably today it will be about fatigue. Fact is there was no good excuse for a dire display that got what it deserved, just possibly a reason. Call it what you will: complacency, arrogance, poor mental attitude. Make no mistake, this was a far worse defeat than Brighton. We’ve just come off the back of two regrettable performances against Luton, albeit with the second one partially redeemed in the second half, and we’ve seen it before this season against teams at or around the bottom. Football isn’t that complicated a game. If the commitment and energy levels drop and players don’t work hard enough to create space, you’re running risks against determined opposition with something obvious to play for. Played crap and lost.

I don’t know if the recent run and going second has encouraged a view among the players that we are good enough to play within ourselves and still grind out a result. But through the first half today I kept remembering how the first season in the Championship went and a period during it when we managed to win games by fairly narrow margins and without going flat out. I thought then for a while that that team had enough about it to get away with it. As it turned out it didn’t and the end-result was a loss of momentum and failure. If you want an easy ride in a game against lowly opposition you impose yourself and win the game, then coast if you must. You don’t amble around for much of the game expecting something to happen. Today far too often the player with the ball, often a defender, looked up to see nobody moving, coming short, making available an easy pass, or making runs further up the pitch. The result was usually a hoof forward because that was the only available alternative. Avoiding aimless balls forward isn’t about instructions; it’s about players putting in the graft and making space.

Walsall played the better football, passed the ball, had forwards who held the ball up and laid it off to willing runners, and had midfielders and defenders ready to hussle us and scrap for possession. It isn’t rocket science, just basics. Our recent run was sparked by reaction to the Brighton game and if today is to become just a bad day at the office there needs to be a similar reaction, starting at Hartlepool (what happens at Brentford is irrelevant, what happens at Spurs is only relevant for the bank balance).

With Elliot and Benson passed fit and Dailly still suspended, the team lined up as would have been expected, the same as the starting X1 against Luton. That meant Martin, Reid, Sodje and Abbot on the bench, alongside a goalkeeper with a number 40 according to the announcer (presumably Worner wasn’t fit, which meant Elliot being pressed into service come what may). And the first half bore a passable resemblance to Thursday night. Walsall had more of the play and showed some good movement, although Fortune and Doherty seemed in control in and around our area. With us struggling to get anything going, the period rather came and went. Wagstaff had an early shot from a good position which went wide, Jackson hit a decent strike but the save was routine. It basically added up to a wasted 45 minutes, a period which encouraged Walsall to believe that they could get something out of the game.

Parkinson had seen enough and at the break Anyinsah and Fry were replaced by Martin and Reid, with Jackson dropping back to full-back. It promised a more creative approach and for a period it seemed as if it might work. Reid clearly worried them, but they’d done their homework, doubled up on him when necessary, and gradually regained the control of midfield they had enjoyed in the first half. Martin initially made a difference through his mobility, but after a while he and Benson just got outmuscled.

The outcome of the game turned on two chances within a minute – and despite our overall performance we could have won the game if we’d taken the first proper chance that came our way. A ball was played through for Benson to run on beyond the defenders. The angle wasn’t great, but he only had the keeper to beat. He put the shot wide of the post. I’m a fan of Benson on the grounds that he’s a goalscorer and should be judged on that rather than his hold-up play, which hasn’t been great so far. But the miss proved costly. The ball went up the other end, their right-winger got in a decent cross to the far post which was nodded back to their guy running in to score.

That was the cue for Sodje to replace a disappointing Wagstaff, who as on Thursday night failed to provide the basics of a winger’s job. His goals have been a big bonus, but neither against Luton nor today did he give the impression of being able to beat his man, make a telling delivery, or create space. Martin moved wide right and Sodje’s greater physical threat held out the promise that we could still get something out of the game. However, as play became increasingly stretched nearly all the decent chances were created by Walsall, who might easily have scored a couple more. Elliot saved well in a one-on-one after their guy had waltzed through, other chances went begging. There was a last-gasp opportunity which fell to Benson, but when the ball dropped to him in the box he tried to lay if off instead of shooting.

In the programme, one of the Walsall commentators remarked that “if the Saddlers are to get anything today, they will need veteran keeper Jimmy Walker to be on top form”. How wrong can you be? He had to make one basic save in the entire game. Not good enough; even in the final desperate minutes there was no great sense of urgency. It’s for Parkinson to assess whether certain players are tired and whether those in the wings provide a better option. Nobody expects champagne football every game, but the past couple of weeks suggest to me that we aren’t as good as some might have started to think. Time for another response because today was a setback in every sense of the word.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 8/10. His kicking clear, especially in the first half, was poor, but I don’t know if that can be put down to whether he was truly fit. No chance with the goal, couple of good saves after we’d gone behind.

Francis: 6/10. Distribution wasn’t great, but again I’m inclined to blame those in front of him and others for that.

Fry: 6/10. Like Francis, could have got forward more but was only around for the first half. He’s done nothing much wrong, but there has to be a case for Jackson dropping back to allow in Martin or Reid, especially for home games.

Fortune: 7/10. I thought at least before the defensive side of our game went awol towards the end he had a good game. Commanding in the air and seldom troubled.

Doherty: 7/10. Much better today than in the rather shocking first half against Luton. A couple of excellent interventions from crosses and generally assured. Today wasn’t about defensive lapses for most of the game.

Jackson: 5/10. Seldom featured as an attacking threat in the first half, although he had one decent shot. With Wagstaff not finding space, our threat down the flanks was muted.

Semedo: 5/10. Put in the expected harrying and tackling when we didn’t have the ball, but this was a game where we failed to exert any control of midfield and I can’t remember him doing anything in possession.

Racon: 4/10. Disappointing game as he was generally crowded out and the game passed him by. I don’t know if he’s tired, but he looked it today.

Wagstaff: 4/10. Perhaps we’ve become over-reliant on the goals coming from him and Jackson and they’re viewed from that perspective rather than their contributions as wide men. Today he was completely contained by their defence and too often wasn’t there out wide to make space.

Anyinsah: 5/10. Some effective running in the first half and had to work on scraps, but looked rusty and I doubt whether their defenders will have an easier first half all season when against him and Benson.

Benson: 4/10. He was poor against Luton and poor again today. Missed the chance that could have won us the game and he has to be judged as a goalscorer.

Subs: Martin (5/10 – Added more movement when he came on, but also struggled against a well-organised defence); Reid (5/10 – Much the same as Martin; the fans expect a lot from him when he comes on and today, after early promise, he was contained); Sodje (6/10 – Did at least unsettle them in a way that hadn’t happened before he came on).

Friday 3 December 2010

New Owners, Second, Time For Fans To Raise The Game?

No World Cup then, but the news that Richard Murray has accepted “an indicative and legally binding offer” for Baton 2010 from an “investor group” headed by Peter Varney is far more important – although as others have already commented there’s not a lot to be said at this stage. As usual, I have no inside information and nothing to go on other than the short statement released.

In principle it’s welcome news in that Varney is of course no stranger (and his knowledge of the club must indicate that the chances of the deal folding are slim), we have confidence in Murray’s pledge only to pass on the club to suitable new owners, the timing of the deal (expected to close before Christmas) holds out the possibility of activity in the transfer window, and any new owners would have to be aware that continued funding will be required, whether or not we return to the Championship. But as yet we have no idea how deep are the pockets of the new people or just what their plans are. Hopefully that will all make for a good Xmas prezzie when such information is made available. Torres may be having a tough time, but I think he could still do a job for us.

Consequently there has to be potential upside. Barring a lousy December, new owners will come in with the team in a league position we would have grabbed with both hands at the start of the season. For that, despite the horrors of Brighton, Parkinson and the players deserve credit, even if the division this season seems a good deal poorer in quality than previously. We all remember Curbs bringing in Mills and Youds to give us fresh impetus and a couple of additions this time around – in addition to securing new contracts for Racon and Semedo - could hopefully have the same effect. Downside risks? You can’t rule out that the new guys don’t like Parkinson and that a change would cause at least short-term disruption. I hope I’m justified in ruling out the nightmare scenario of renewed talk of finding a new ground (I can’t remember Varney’s position on that one). To me these would amount to unwanted distractions when the stage is set for a real promotion push. And again it’s reasonable to suppose that new investors know that all future development hinges on promotion.

I’ve no insight into exactly why Murray is selling up, whether it’s for commercial or personal reasons. But I do remember my state of mind when selling a company I’d created: once the decision to sell is made there’s really no going back, and it would seem that Murray made that decision some time ago. I’ve been spending a little time recently converting numerous Charlton videos to DVDs and I must admit it’s had a strange effect. A concentrated reminder of the Leeds play-off, the Chelsea away game, the Battle For The Valley, the Greatest Game, and the Premiership years left me with two thoughts. First, it probably will never be that good again, period. Second, these matches/seasons/events are history and it’s up to a new generation to forge new experiences. Might Murray have similar thoughts? I’ll always be a Charlton fan to my bones, but like any relationship there has to be renewal every now and then. If it isn’t there any more, it’s time to move on; if it is, make it work.

Second in the league, prospective new owners - now its promotion or if not bust a fifth successive season of failure. That leaves what us, the fans, can do. It’s going to be difficult now not to drift into grumpy old man territory (and to avoid going over well-trodden ground), but I’ll try to work against my nature. After all, no sooner has Killer in his programme notes commented that us Charlton fans “are pretty damn good from what I can make out” than a lifelong fan has to be taken to hospital after some loser in the crowd threw a coin and a cup tie produces a paltry crowd. On the key issues – behaviour and pressuring/encouraging the team - are we good or are we bad?

On the coin-throwing, of course I hope the person is identified and held to account. But I hope even more the guy responsible has the character to come forward voluntarily (which of course begs the question whether someone who feels able to throw a coin in the manner assumed has any character or courage). It might be asking for the moon, but if the person did come forward, offered some explanation and apology, and did his/her best to make it up to the lady who was injured, I hope the club would take that into account before considering action. We’ve all done very stupid things, sometimes things which had consequences we would never have wanted, which we regret. But unless and until the person does come forward (and I’m not aware of anything to date) you have to assume he/she is the kind of moron for whom we should have nothing but contempt.

So, we ain’t perfect to begin with. But that was never on the cards. When you’re doing the video conversion for highlights of the Cup replay against Spurs in 1985 and hear monkey chants from the East Terrace you get a sad reminder of how things used to be. We do like to think we’re pretty good in general on the behaviour front. We do after all have the benchmark just down the road (no, I don’t wish to tar all Spanners with the same brush or decry that club’s efforts to clean up their supporters act, especially as some are if not friends periodically required – for fixing the boiler etc; I don’t want to get fitted up in any way other than outlined in the manual). But there’s never room for complacency.

On support of/pressure on the team, we have to do better from now on. I don’t mean in terms of attendance; these are hard times. But to delve from the archives again the noise generated by 8,000-odd for the first game back at The Valley and that truly iconic moment of Sasha arms aloft and a sea of baying fans in the background after Newton scored against Ipswich have to be our own benchmarks. Parkinson and the players are obliged to comment favourably on the level of support during games (and of course sometimes it’s merited, especially at away games). But let’s take it to another level and really get behind them.

Are we, collectively, capable of this? I was struck during a recent game by a boy, who might have been about 10, a couple of rows behind me. I didn’t hear him sing or cheer once, but with monotonous regularity there were shouts of ‘mark up’ or ‘pass’, ‘defend’. Aside from the absurdity of any of us passing on useful advice to professional footballers, and allowing for the fact that we’re all guilty of not being able to keep our gobs shut and of offering up comments that might at best travel a few yards, just what is the mentality behind feeling that it’s acceptable to moan and carp and offer up nothing in return? My dictionary definition of ‘supporter’ is “one who or that which supports or maintains; defender, partisan”. Being partisan and supportive, without this spilling over to unacceptable behaviour, is what it’s about. Maybe it is a generational thing, with everyone believing their entitled to their opinion (yes, pot, kettle, black etc); if I need brain surgery I’d prefer to rely on a brain surgeon. But perhaps we’ve lost sight of supporting in the true sense being in our own best interests. I’ve never come away miserable from a Charlton victory and if increasing the chances of winning involves being partisan, at least during the game, amen to that.