Monday 25 April 2011

Forget the Table and the Future, Victory Is Sweet

Ah, now that was nice. Sunny day, sufficient to revive the practise of wine and bread on the Heath (somebody always has to spoil it by bringing cheese), entertaining game, and a victory. Then back on the Heath for more of the same (well, wine anyway). A lovely afternoon for once not spoiled by the football match in the middle. Only a pity that Suzanne, who was here for the weekend, made a mess of her timings and had to fly back to Lyon instead of being able to watch us trounce the mighty Rochdale. But she went home happy (of course she did I here you say, she was with me) as I – like any sensible male – remembered it was the Festa di San Marco and followed the tradition of giving a red rose (debit £2.50, credit enough brownie points to carry me through the months ahead).

Without the services of Elliot, Dailly, Jackson, Semedo, Reid and Wagstaff, the team today didn’t quite pick itself – but basically if you had a pair of boots you’d make the bench at least. Sullivan, Bessone, Francis (a welcome return to The Valley for him), Fortune and Doherty, Stewart and Parrett in central midfield, Racon and the mystifyingly underused Eccleston out wide, with Benson and Wright-Phillips – made captain for the day - up front. Llera, Nouble and McCormack were the other senior players available and sat on the bench, alongside Solly and Worner, plus Harriott and Jenkinson (who go the reception he deserves). You did wonder if we had to name another sub just who it might be.

Given the two additional suspensions from Saturday, you had to wonder about the motivation of the players. But that proved to be in no doubt, to their credit. We started brightly and through the first half outplayed a strangely subdued Rochdale. Tellingly, we were winning the important contests in midfield, Racon was finding space to good effect, and on the other flank Eccleston was a constant menace. At the back, Bessone’s interceptions, from intelligent reading of the game, broke up countless attacks. It wasn’t perfect, with Stewart and Parrett sometimes getting it right and sometimes not, but through the first period Sullivan didn’t have a serious attempt on goal to deal with. They did work a couple of positions, helped by a linesman so consistently behind the play he couldn’t spot offside, but wasted them – especially a free kick in a decent position after a clumsy challenge by Benson, which like many of their passes was simply overhit.

At the other end, the chances didn’t exactly flow, but there were enough of them. After the positive start things went a little quiet, but then Racon moved onto a ball and drilled a shot from the edge of the box into the net. Then their keeper somehow turned one over the bar, only for the header from the corner to be cleared off the line. At the break there was no question we deserved the lead, the only issue being whether one or two up was a fair reflection.

There was the fear that Rochdale’s players would get a rollicking at half-time for a lame performance and they did seem to have more purpose from the start of the second half. Even so, for them to get level with their first serious attempt was harsh. A corner was met at the far post only for Sullivan to pull off an outstanding block. Unfortunately the ball ballooned up for their guy to bury the rebound. But the crowd responded well and before we had a chance to get depressed we were back in front. A ball across their box – and throughout the afternoon they struggled to deal with any decent delivery – was met by the incoming Parrett who shot low into the corner. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a goal scored against us, but when you respond within a minute it gives you a nice warm glow.

After that, it was game on – and Rochdale threatened in a way that they had singularly failed to do through the first half. We didn’t exactly sit back, but they were getting more joy through midfield, perhaps aided by a couple of substitutions. They had what I thought was a nailed-on penalty not given as their forward went across Fortune or Doherty and seemed to be brought down; the ref obviously saw it differently and I have to defer for once to his better judgement. Set pieces were their main threat and a couple of shots went wide before we put the game to bed. The hard-working Benson got the ball wide right and chipped in an absolute peach of a cross which Eccleston made his own and buried the header.

3-1 up and that was fine. Solly came on for Benson to tighten things up, with Eccleston moving inside, then Nouble replaced Bessone, with Solly dropping back and Eccleston going back out on the flank. But by then it was just a case of seeing out the game, which was achieved without too much fuss. Rochdale seemed to accept it wasn’t their day and although the second half was much more evenly contested than the first we ended up winning both – has that happened before this season?

The fans were supportive and happy, Sir Chris had to do the victory leap from the tunnel given the absence of a viable alternative, and the train left on time to allow us to refill the bottles and lie down again in contented mood (although can someone please tell the morons who frequent the Heath and seem to think it’s OK to leave their rubbish it just isn’t). The game said little about next season; we started with five loan players after all, none of which are guaranteed to reappear. Was the midfield better without Semedo? Who knows, and given that the two that played in the centre are both on loan the answer may be irrelevant. But the spirit was good and we played well – and we got what we deserved. That will do for me for today.

Player Ratings:

Sullivan: 8/10. A couple of iffy moments, but was desperately unlucky to pull off one of the saves of the season only for the rebound to be put it. Otherwise dealt with a number of crosses well.

Bessone: 8/10. I like the guy. He broke up so many attacks with intelligent reading of positions to make timely interceptions. Not much going forward, but that will do for me.

Francis: 7/10. Has been unlucky to find himself behind Jenkinson and Solly after one bad mistake and was under pressure on his return in front of home fans. Good, solid game, sufficient to wonder why he was out of the team for so long.

Fortune: 7/10. Decent enough. He and Doherty kept things reasonably tight at the back. Under more pressure in the second half, when they started to create chances.

Doherty: 7/10. As with Fortune. I’d have to see replays to assess whether one was better than the other as plenty of balls were headed out.

Racon: 8/10. Lively and effective game, scored a goal and could have notched another. He seemed to benefit from the movement of others (Stewart, Parrett and Eccleson) and the work of the front two.

Stewart: 7/10. Caught out a few times, some passes didn’t come off, but overall not bad as he was constantly involved.

Parrett: 7/10. Much as Stewart, with the added bonus of a good strike for the second goal. I just don’t want to build up our hopes as I’ve no idea if he’ll be back.

Eccleston: 8/10. For me it’s been a mystery why he sat on the bench for 11 games on the trot. Caused them problems all afternoon and scored an excellent goal by attacking a great cross.

Benson: 7/10. Lot of hard work with intelligent lay-offs. Just thought as the game progressed that he was doing all his best stuff outside the box, then he chipped in the cross for the third, for which he deserves as much credit as Eccleston.

Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Nothing fell for him in the box today, but no shortage of effort and played his part.

Monday 18 April 2011

Lessons From The Past

There is perhaps one advantage to being a gnarly old git, especially if there’s a bit of sad thrown in. It’s that when you ponder life’s great questions, such as just why did we lose on Saturday (aside from the obvious, ie an inability to build and maintain a wall) and what will it take to get promoted next season (aside from the obvious, ie spending the GDP of Switzerland on new players), the supporting research materials are close at hand, in a shrine containing my CAFC programmes, books and memorabilia.

On the former, on reflection what set Huddersfield apart from us (and it did come down to margins) seems to me to have been down to their desire and expectation, reflecting their position. They certainly weren’t gung-ho, but with a dependable defence they must have felt that a chance would come their way at some point and that could be enough. Although we did well enough, there was always in the back of my mind, possibly the players’ too, that an honourable 0-0 draw wasn’t a bad result. We went forward, but not with great conviction or belief. Once they got their goal they saw out the game fairly comfortably. Winning mentality.

That in turn set me thinking to whether we could learn anything from the last time we finished in this situation – yes, that season again, 1973/74, our second consecutive in the old Third Division when we ended 14th. That campaign ended in abject misery; it wasn’t a happy time, with the board threatening to leave for Milton Keynes if Greenwich council continued to block plans for a sports centre; headlines talked of ‘The Valley of Despair’ and a football club dying on its feet. But the following season we were promoted (we did nearly blow it remember by picking up only two points from four games in the run-in, only to triumph at home to Preston in the final game, the first time I learnt that supporting Charlton didn’t involve just suffering). We edged out Palace that season (they finished fifth, failing to rebound having been relegated the previous season), so assuming that Scunthorpe or Preston do the business this time around, history should be set to repeat itself – if we can pull ourselves around.

So I dug out the programmes for the final games of the final games of the 1973/74 season to see what might be inferred. Theo Foley achieved a great deal in the game and still comes across as one of the most astute thinkers around. Like a certain Chris Powell, he started in a blaze of glory. Taking over from Eddie Firmani with four games left of the 1969/70 season left, we won two and drew one of these to avoid relegation. But it didn’t last. A 20th place finish was repeated the following season, then 21st to take the fall. After a second season without a rebound Foley was sacked just before the end of the campaign (indeed, before a managerless team won the final two games we were lying 19th in the table, albeit with no danger of relegation). So his final notes as Charlton manager were in the programme for the penultimate home game, against Watford.

You didn’t get quite as much insight from the programme in those days. It was back-to-back 12 pages, including adverts, fixtures, statistics etc, with the Football League supplement thrown in. But even then what did you expect for 7p? For those wanting comparisons, the final programme of the season (Aldershot) contained ads for the coming concert at The Valley. The Who, Lou Reid, Humble Pie, Lindisfarne, Dave Mason (who?), and Bad Company, 1pm to 11pm, and the entrance fee? £2.50. I regret I didn’t go, preferring instead to sit in the back garden and listen. Well, in those days £2.50 was £2.50 and pocket money was just that.

Foley’s Talking Points in the Watford programme nevertheless still sound apt. He highlighted inconsistency through the season, adding that “inconsistency stems from a lack of desire to fight against the odds, or against a lesser known team in the division”. During the season he had said the team had “too many cowards”. Sounds familiar? It has to be kept in mind that in the season we went down (1971/72) Foley brought in Mike Flanagan; the following season he signed Arthur Horsfield, Peter Hunt, and Colin Powell. In his final campaign in came Derek Hales, together with Eamonn Dunphy. It’s been stated often before, but a manager who signed Flanagan, Horsfield, Powell and Hales alone ought to have been successful. He wasn’t – and just from the tone of those programme notes it sounds as if Foley knew that for whatever reason he wasn’t getting things right and that his time was up.

So what went right? It wasn’t changes to the team that made a difference. Andy Nelson only made one important signing before the start of the following season – the excellent David Young – and one during it – the legendary Harry Crips. It might be said that Foley had done the work for him with his signings as Hales, Flanagan and Powell blossomed, while Nelson still had the services of Peacock and stalwarts such as Phil Warman and Bob Curtis to rely on, plus the emerging Richie Bowman. What is perhaps remarkable is that of the twelve who were listed for the final game of the 1973/74 season, no less than 10 made up the squad for the Preston game a year later (the two who dropped out were Mark Penfold, whose promising career was cut short by injury, and Peacock, with Young and Cripps brought in).

Although Nelson signed a man to marshall the defence, we didn’t go up by playing it tight. In the 46 games in 1973/74 we scored 66 goals, bettered by only three teams in the league (at the top), but shipped 73, also only topped by three others (at the bottom). The following season we still conceded 61, more than any other team in the top 10. But we scored 76 (bettered only by Plymouth, who finished second), with Hales bagging 20 and Horsfield 10.

Nelson didn’t write programme notes, so to get some indication of his approach I had to turn to the scrapbooks (I said there had to be some sad thrown in). In one article Nelson talked of a conversation with chairman Michael Gliksten before a game against Port Vale. Apparently Gliksten had said “we can’t expect to win here can we?”. Nelson told him “I expect to win every game” and commented that “I realised that his attitude was the result of getting so many kicks in the teeth over the years”. It seems that Nelson, who perhaps tellingly played under Sir Alf Ramsey at Ipswich, installed all sorts of disciplinarian measures (swearing, being late etc) and stressed respect and honesty. Perhaps the most telling comment I found from my records came from the late Bob Curtis. He said in an article: “I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never known a time when everybody was working so hard for everyone else. What the manager has done is to make us all believe in ourselves and the atmosphere down here has not been better in my time.”

OK, football’s changed a bit since the mid-70s. But I do think there are lessons to be learnt – and with Hales and Powell(Colin) still around perhaps they can have a quiet word with Sir Chris about what happened then.

First, winning mentality. For me the biggest disappointment following the first four wins after he came in – which we all know came with huge dollops of luck – is that the run failed to develop a winning mentality. I’ve never heard a manager say ‘we’ve got a lousy bunch of lads here who don’t like each other’; equally I doubt if there’s a happy dressing room anywhere when the team isn’t winning. Five years of failure have badly affected the club, but they’re over, done. I want to see Charlton next season going into every game not just expecting to win (not because we’re Charlton but because we’re better than the opposition) but ready to do so and to do what it takes in terms of graft, determination and mental courage. If we have players not ready or able to do this, sideline/sell/dispose of them (Nelson seemed to be brutal in his treatment of some players, such as Dunn and Shipperley). Of course this is easier said than done; every team wants to win. But it comes down to margins and who wants it more.

Second, know your strengths and play to them. Nelson inherited a side including Horsfield, Hales, Powell, Peacock and Flanagan. It surely wasn’t rocket science to conclude that our best option was to outscore the opposition. This season I haven’t had a clue what our real strengths were – and that’s reflected in the statistics (indifferent home record, average away record, too many conceded, not enough scored etc). We’ve been neither an effective passing side nor a long-ball team. I honestly don’t care whether next season we get promoted by having the tightest defence or the most effective attack. There’s no perfect formation in football (even Plato would have struggled to define one), but surely it’s clear that to succeed you have a clear pattern of play. Yes, you need a Plan B to call on, but for a Plan B you have to have a Plan A.

It’s an advantage and a disadvantage for Sir Chris to have almost a blank sheet to work from. If I was to start to write a team for next season I’d struggle to go beyond Elliot and Wright-Phillips. But it’s a start. BWP is a goalscorer, someone who given the ammunition is likely to get 20+ in this division. Then you define the type of partner he needs. He can’t play alone up front (unless we play a midfield five and the sort of approach that worked for Spurs when Clive Allen’s only task was to get on the end of things). On the books are Anyinsah and Benson; for me, Benson is another goalscorer and his role is as back-up to BWP. We’ve seen them play together and, while not bad, it isn’t great. If Anyinsah and BWP doesn’t work either (and Anyinsah does seem to be injury-prone), we need to bring in the target man (I’ve no idea if that could be Nouble). I’ve been mystified by our reluctance to use Eccleston, if the priority is still getting points, but that’s over now too; he’s not going to be here so unless we want to keep Liverpool happy (in the hope of others coming our way) he’s out of the picture.

For the defence, Powell has to look at Dailly, Doherty, Fortune and Llera and decide, right now, who has the legs and the desire. If Dailly has the former, there’s no question about the latter. He remains the main man. But if he hasn’t (oh come on, this isn’t sitting on the fence, I’m not the bloody manager) then make the decision now. Then, like Ramsey with Moore and Charlton(Jack), you decide on his partner. And for me you tell the others, whoever they are, that they are back-ups. If they don’t like it, tough. Either go or prove the manager wrong (and to be fair to Llera he’s been doing that this season). I don’t think we can determine the midfield set-up until there’s a decision about how we want to play. Let’s face it, nobody currently makes a case for being automatic selection, even the admirable Semedo.

There’s always a lot more to say but time enough for another day. But after losing on Saturday I don’t think the final games are about getting as many points as possible, they’re about preparing for decisions. By the start of next season we should know the style of play and the key four or five players on which the team will depend. Then work on the mentality (overachieving is only possible when people are bullshitted into believing they are capable of more). All wishful thinking I know, but I’ve had enough of failure.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Worthy Effort But No Points

Before we start, I’ve got two gripes, one pertinent to the game. First, turning over the front page of the programme we see an outline of pre-season friendlies shaping up and the statement that “Addicks boss Chris Powell has reiterated that the team remains firmly focused on finishing the current campaign with the maximum number of points possible”. If so, why are we supposed to have been firmly focused on renewing season tickets for next year? Having to do so in early April rankled last season and it does even more this time around. Second, just what are we trying to achieve in the games left? We can’t plan for next season as we don’t know who stays, who goes and who comes in. So the stated priority is to achieve as many points as possible. There’s a lot to be said in other circumstances for consistency in team selection, and for retaining players who perform, but today we had on the bench Nouble, Eccleston and Reid. And we select a team with a central midfielder wide left and two finishers up front.

The team selection meant we were compact and competitive – and once again there was no lack of effort and commitment from those selected. It turned out to be a game we were unlucky to lose, but also one that at especially at half-time you wondered whether the fire-power on the bench would, if utilised, had contributed to a much more enjoyable experience. Fact is we played hard and ended up losing. Couldn’t have turned out any worse and the alternative might have been more fun. Huddersfield, after all, were not exactly world-beaters.

This for me was the interesting discussion after the game. Is it a positive that Powell is rewarding players who come in by keeping them in the team, or is it a negative that he doesn’t seem to be selecting on perceived merit/ability when available? Llera came into the side when Doherty was unavailable and played nine in a row. Now Fortune, who was on the bench for that spell, is given the nod with Dailly absent. Francis made a bad mistake nine games ago and hasn’t featured since. Eccleston hasn’t started a game since the start of March, nor has Reid. Nouble came straight into the team but now, apparently fit, isn’t first choice. I wish I could see the pattern, but I can’t. Eccleston and Nouble probably won’t be around next season, but we knew that when they came here and I thought the priority is to get as many points as possible.

Huddersfield proved to be big and strong, organised, but nothing to get excited about. They looked like a slightly poorer version of Southampton. Good luck to them if they go up, but I’d rather this division loses Southampton for next season as there’s nothing there to fear for the next campaign. Their attacking threat seemed to amount to trying to find Kilbane out wide at every opportunity – and overall Bessone handled that threat well, leaving aside the first-half trip that wasn’t given – and a big guy in the middle. No change of pace, no real intricacy, just another team full of worthy endeavour. That said, there were a couple of periods, one in each half, when they raised their game and the pressure they put us under might have produced results.

As for us? I don’t want to be too critical as with some luck we could have won and deserved a point. The defence, protected by Semedo, coped well with almost everything thrown at them. The midfield competed, with Stewart showing he has more in his locker than McCormack, although it’s not yet clear whether he is looking to stay or to get fit to impress someone else. He got on the end of two moves early in the second half to get shots in, the first decent the second, from a better position, fluffed. Wagstaff had a much better game for me than of late, being involved both halves, while Racon continued to apply himself in a position not suited for him. Benson acquitted himself well, with intelligent and effective play with back to goal – but lacked conviction when it came to shooting opportunities – while Wright-Phillips did more work outside the box than I expect. What was missing, throughout the game, was effectiveness where it mattered. We had shots and half-chances but nothing you could say that really tested their keeper. The same could be said about them.

For much of the game the teams cancelled each other out. The longer it went on, the more intruiging it became as at 0-0 it was there to be won. In the end they scored. An aimless ball forward was miscontrolled by Wagstaff and fell to their guy, who was fouled. The free kick was parried by a hand being raised by someone in the wall (or so the ref decided) and was advanced to the edge of the area. What happened next I’d have to see again, but when someone can blast a shot through what was supposed to be a wall into the centre of the net someone hasn’t done their job. No blame attached to Sullivan in goal.

That left about 10 minutes to get something out of the afternoon. Reid came on for Racon, but surprisingly that was the last change. We had to resort to going longer, but the option chosen was Doherty moving up front. Perhaps too many things about this season were summed up in the final seconds, when Reid took the ball in space going forward. It looked like right place, right guy. He trod on the ball and the moment was lost.

The guys on the pitch deserve credit for their effort. But the result means that the focus shifts from one win, one draw, one defeat in three to three games without a goal, and one win (and six points) in 15. Four left to play and, sorry to say, none of them matter a damn. It will be over soon.

Player Ratings:

Sullivan: 7/10. What rating do you give a keeper who’s dealt with all the minor stuff competently and had no chance with the goal?

Bessone: 7/10. Decent game as he was up against their main attacking threat. Caught out a couple of times, but is doing enough to suggest his name on the teamsheet next season would be welcome.

Solly: 7/10. Nothing wrong. I’m just at a loss to what happens next season in a choice between him and Francis, who’s unlucky to be out of the side.

Fortune: 7/10. The defence as a whole did little wrong today; aside from a poor job by a wall it would have been a clean sheet. Fortune played his part in this.

Doherty: 8/10. For me he’s disappointed a little this season; I expected more in terms of leadership and drive. But with Dailly absent he played his part and was effective in breaking up many of their attacks.

Racon: 7/10. What to do with Therry is one of the decisions for next season. Last campaign Bailey ended up playing out wide because he couldn’t nail down the central position. Stuck to the task through the game, wasn’t substituted because he was playing badly.

Semedo: 7/10. Solid and effective. An inspiring early tackle to win the ball, even got forward a few times and had a header on goal. Maybe he’s got the taste for scoring goals.

Stewart: 7/10. Decent but not great. One of the two shots early in the second half might have produced a different result.

Wagstaff: 7/10. For me, much better than of late. No histrionics and instead he was involved and often effective.

Benson: 6/10. Good work with back to goal. But for me him we took one look at Eccleston and Wright-Phillips together and decided that wouldn’t work and him and BWP isn’t the combination either. He was brought in to score goals and his efforts on goal lacked conviction.

Wright-Phillips: 6/10. It was that sort of game where chances were few and far between. He’s shown what he can do and just needs to be fed.

Subs: Reid (5/10 – not really his fault, but that moment in the final seconds summed things up; how much football has he actually played in the past six months and to expect him to come on and deliver immediately is unrealistic).

Sunday 10 April 2011

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Sir Chris may have his objectives for the remainder of the season. For the rest of us I suspect it’s a case of grabbing what fun can be had, plus a series of minor issues/goals which we might as well focus on in the absence of anything else. A while back the run-in, after away at Southampton, looked like a series of winnable games during which we should cement at least a play-off spot, with dreams of nicking second. We all know what happened from mid-February to the end of March (when we managed to cram in 11 games) and when your game comes up last on the division’s highlights round-up you know the fat lady isn’t just singing but has exited stage left with a sore throat. Bournemouth losing at home to Tranmere does mean that five wins and collective implosion from six teams above us ..... OK, in reality all it means is a nasty reminder that any sort of return from those 11 games and we’d have been delaying those May travel plans. That we are not is down to us not having been good enough.

I still want us to finish above 14th – or perhaps in that spot, to mirror our previous low for my lifetime. The inevitable subsequent fresh churning of the squad means that we will have to wait some time for meaningful assessments of our promotion chances. We could dwell on the fact that our most valuable asset at the end of this season is a kid who came in to make seven appearances before deciding to decamp to the Gooners. But more positively, it is reasonable to expect us to begin the next campaign with a stronger squad than at the start of this one. Parkinson was obliged to go bargain-hunting to fill in the gaps, given our financial position, whereas this time around, although nobody can expect big-money signings, the emphasis should be on improvement. The new owners have stated as much and, after all, next season is if not promotion or bust promotion or a good deal of uncertainty and misery.

Dailly’s sending off (having seen the highlights you can have sympathy with him for his reaction but can hardly question the decision) and the prospect of him missing the rest of the season may at least clarify the outcome of the player of the season. Christian, the deserved winner last time, would have had a reasonable shout again, but his absence and the tears shed over his goal against Orient surely means that Semedo is a shoo-in. Nobody will have played more games for us this season and nobody will have tried harder. Wright-Phillips for his strike rate (albeit bettered by that of Sodje), Jackson for his goals (we have ended up missing him more than I thought we would), Elliot and even (for me) Francis deserve mention in dispatches but no more. There are downsides to having a predominantly destructive central midfield player in a 4-4-2 (and it’s not as if as a result we’ve been tight at the back), but that’s not his fault.

Last weekend also lifted my spirits. The win against Orient obviously helped, but the key was the wonderful unveiling of that statue at Fulham. Leaving aside the dubious merits of having a statue for Wacko anywhere on the planet, there is no doubt that there is only one living being who feels that it belongs at a football club. He owns the club and can do with it what he likes, irrespective of the wishes of Fulham supporters. But to have that message driven home, especially with his tasteless response to criticism of the monument, must make those fans pause before signing up for another season when their love of their team means so little to its owner. ‘Here’s my money, love me’ seems to be the mantra. Well, ‘can we just have your money and pretend to love you, just like you pretend to value our opinion’ might be the appropriate response. So it was with absolute delight to see when the covers were pulled off an utterly ghastly, plastic caricature. It is an appropriate tribute, reflecting the dire ‘artwork’ that Wacko himself apparently used to collect (and reminiscent of the treasures unearthed in Saddam Hussein’s lair). The fact that Al-Fayed can’t see it adds to the pleasure. When Fulham eventually have a new owner, and those supporters are still there, it would be a nice gesture to allow them to haul it down.

Richard Murray used to draw comparisons with Fulham and the amounts that Al-Fayed was prepared to pour into their club. Those millions have kept them in the Premiership, but you don’t get owt for nowt. When he tires of it Fulham will be in trouble, knowing that one bad season could be curtains. Yes, it still rankles that we went down instead of them – and instead of West Ham. I’ve nothing against either club or their supporters, but you still hope for belated justice. And I doubt that Sheffield Utd fans staring at another relegation will have any sympathy if the Hammers go down. Justice for the Tevez scandal and fair return for their unlovable new owners; I just hope (forlornly) that Orient get the Olympics stadium decision reversed.

So, at the risk once more of putting too positive a gloss on things, we can take heart from the prospect that unlike last summer we can feel more secure about the club’s financial position (not the size of the losses, just the ability to fund them) and broadly reassured by the actions and intentions of our own new owners. We’ve read the reports about their questionable past, don’t know how much money is really available, and can’t be sure about whose money it is (and whether we are just an acceptable laundering operation). But we still have Murray’s pledges and to date they’ve done everything to deserve the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t agree at the time with the decision to sack Parkinson, but we avoided the unpalatable Wise, have a decent man as manager who we all hope proves himself, Slater impresses with his appearances and comments, and the signing of Wright-Phillips (plus bringing in the criminally underused Eccleston) was a move that might have been the key to promotion.

Hopefully these factors will be the launching pad for getting us back up. Personally, I’m going to stop talking about hating this crap division; as Powell has said, we have to put together a team capable of thriving in it, whatever that entails. And by the way, the (unsafe) assumption that the deadline for season ticket renewals would be extended and the priority of a work-related Amsterdam trip meant that I didn’t get around to renewing mine in time. The cheque consequently isn’t in the post, but it will be.

Saturday 2 April 2011


Well, what to make of that one? Before the game we’d have taken a win of any kind; before the game I just wanted to see a decent game of football. At the break neither seemed in prospect. After a bright start, we’d fallen off the pace, conceded a goal (and might have gone two down), looked tired, dispirited and out of sorts. Like many other teams visiting The Valley this season, Orient will have gone off at half-time thinking that they’d not had an easier time of it defensively and that the game was theirs for the taking. I don’t think there was one single factor that turned things around. Attacking the Covered End gave us some impetus, as the effort level just had to be raised, we got an equaliser when we needed one, and then the referee made his best call of the game to (correctly) deny them going in front again. Two minutes later we’d been gifted the lead – and as gifts go this one was a beauty – and we made the game safe with a third, scored memorably by Semedo. Victory, glorious victory.

The team was pretty much as before, with Benson rather than Nouble getting the nod to start alongside Wright-Phillips to replace the injured Anyinsah. That meant pretty much the same team that has played two games a week through March without a win. It also meant Eccleston, Nouble and Reid – three players presumably itching for a start and with fresh legs - on the bench. And through the first half we seemed to suffer for it. We had our fair share of the play, but I can’t remember a meaningful attempt on goal (I do remember their goalkeeper chesting down an effort and wondering if that counted). Again, the start was bright, but all the limitations of the set-up of the team seemed to be on display. Racon operating wide-left, trying his best to be effective in a position which doesn’t suit him; Benson, the man brought in to score the goals for us this season, having to operate more as a target man; Wagstaff buzzing on the right to no great effect; and in central midfield Parrett looking like a duck out of water in a league he’s not accustomed to.

Orient sat back, got men behind the ball, and waited for their moment. It came when we lost possession badly in the middle (Semedo I think) and were stretched. The ball went wide right and when played in their guy hit a miserable shot but one which was deflected in by former Addick McGleish. There were cries for offside, but without the benefit of replay it looked as though we had a couple back on the line playing him on.

The goal further deflated us and the effort levels dropped. Players with the ball – often Racon - found themselves isolated as the support wasn’t there and with everything one-paced Orient looked comfortable. Our only note of encouragement was that they insisted on trying to faff around with it at the back, sometimes outrageously. They got away with it, in the first half. Orient felt under no pressure to chase the game and just before the break another break down the right saw the ball delivered in for a shot which went over the bar. If they’d scored then the boos at half-time would have been resounding and the game possibly over.

There was no immediate change early in the second half – ie it wasn’t evident that Powell had given the team the roasting that they deserved for the lacklustre effort – but spirits were to be raised by a moment which changed the game (well, to be fair there were further twists and turns). Racon picked up the ball wide left and drifted inside. An exchange of passes saw him venture further and then deliver a reverse ball in which Wright-Phillips met on the volley. The keeper made the save, but with all their defenders static and seemingly indifferent the rebound fell to Benson who scored.

The crowd were lifted and suddenly the game was about Orient’s defensive frailties when put under pressure. Benson ghosted in to connect with a cross only for their keeper to stick out a hand and somehow deflect it wide; and he followed this up by turning a smart drive over the bar. For some reason the game was now entertaining and open, especially as Orient brought on a big guy up front and almost immediately Llera’s calm assurance went out of the window. We wondered if they had seen off our purple patch with the two saves and then the game turned again. Their ball in and I thought Llera was set to head it clear, only for him to fail to do so. The ref got that one spot on as the shove on him had cleared the way for the ball to be headed into the net. Relief all round was to turn to celebration and laughter as their keeper did something which really should appear on ‘what happened next a few times’. I can’t say I saw it that well because as he had the ball I looked the other way. Next thing I know the ball is at Wright-Phillips’ feet. Seems he threw it straight at SWP and paid the price as after some hesitation Wright-Phillips slotted it past him.

I’d forgotten what it was like to be ahead at home, but it felt good. And although Orient’s substitute was causing us problems at the other end we were to score again. A corner was taken short and Semedo gambled on going to the far post. When the cross came in he was unmarked and duly scored, which sparked not just the normal celebrations but seemed to be too much for Jose, to finally score at The Valley.

With Stewart having come on for Parrett, Wright-Phillips limping off to be replaced by Eccleston (please let it not be serious), and Benson departing for Nouble, there was no need for Doherty to make the last-minute appearance. Orient did hit the bar twice in the final moments, but we weren’t going to concede two and it didn’t really seem to matter. Elliot, who seemed to have crocked himself just before half-time, was able to do the necessary after the final whistle and life seemed good on the stroll back from the ground.

As turgid as the first half was, the second half was great fun. It was a contest, we saw goals (proper goals, ie not those scored by the opposition), and we had the truly edifying sight of their keeper – who was turning time-wasting into an art form – getting his just deserts. Just how one of their forwards’ awful tackle went unpunished is a mystery, but I’ll forgive the ref a good deal for getting that call on their headed ‘goal’ right.

I can’t remember the last time we went 11 without a win. But it’s over now and Sir Chris is on course for April manager of the month. Surely there will have to be fresh legs for Tuesday as we nearly paid for this today; and we shouldn’t gloss over a truly poor first-half display. If Orient had shown more ambition they could have finished us off. But I don’t care. The history books will record a win, with both our two main strikers scoring, and Jose netting at The Valley. Having not won the Euromillions lottery (yet again), I’ll settle for that.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. Thought he was going to have to be substituted at half-time, but carried on. No great saves but nothing wrong either (except a strange back pass incident which might have been costly).

Solly: 7/10. Looked more of a winger than Wagstaff for much of the game. Decent performance.

Bessone: 6/10. Cultured and effective defensively but can’t remember him getting forward. Might still be feeling his way back.

Llera: 6/10. Found life much more troublesome when their substitute came on; suddenly he was second to balls in the air.

Dailly: 8/10. Superb reading of the game, especially when we came under pressure. Held the line, instrumental in Orient having few scoring chances until the final moments.

Racon: 8/10. My joint man-of-the-match as he always tried to make things happen, even in the first half, and was key to our equaliser, which turned the game. Made a goal out of nothing. What do we do with him? Wide left is clearly not what he wants.

Semedo: 8/10. Got to make him the other MoM for his reaction to the goal. Was probably culpable for their goal, but what can you say about someone so overcome by scoring?

Parrett: 6/10. Strange. Clearly a gifted player but as against Southampton I felt much of the play passed him by and he struggled to make an impact. Tough ask for a young player finding his way to come into this division and in our situation.

Wagstaff: 6/10. More influential in the second half but along with many others was poor in the first.

Benson: 6/10. I’m still inclined to see him as a poacher rather than the best foil for SWP, but stuck at it, scored one, and could easily have had a second.

Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Mostly contained, but you just can’t argue with the goalscoring record, even if this one was a gift. Hope the knock isn’t serious.

Subs: Stewart (7/10 – looks a better bet than McCormack); Eccleston (not enough time for a rating, same with Nouble).