Monday 28 May 2012

Sorry Pep, The Job's Taken

One problem ahead of another season, or any tournament, usually involves managing expectations (given that our club is by a distance the finest in the land they will only be satisfied, to some extent, when we have dominated the Premiership and the rest of Europe for say five years). This time around it’s different as there’s a bit of a problem in actually framing our expectations for the campaign ahead (while for once there’s general agreement that England don’t have a bat in hell’s chance at the Euros). I noticed that Huddersfield’s manager, following the most entertaining penalty shoot-out for the neutral since a certain 7-6, was quick to state that their priority is to survive in the Championship. Can we say the same?

It’s easy to list in order our priorities: first, to not get relegated; second, to avoid a relegation battle (such that we might actually enjoy some games); third, to challenge for promotion; fourth, to get promoted; and fifth, to win every game and blow away the division. Somewhere in the list you can feed in playing good football. In the past six seasons the single priority has been easy to identify: stay in the Premiership (failed), rebound (failed), consolidate (failed), rebound (failed), get promoted (failed), get promoted (succeeded, gloriously). This time around, and ahead of new signings, I just don’t know what would constitute success. I guess the answer is, as for Huddersfield, not getting relegated, as that’s progress. It may turn out that way; equally something a good deal better could be on the cards.

A quick check on one website for the early odds on us winning the Championship suggests the bookies aren’t sure yet either. We seem to be being bracketed in a group outside the obvious favourites (Leicester, Wolves, Bolton, Birmingham, Leeds) but at around 20/1 on a par with those that are considered likely to finish mid-table but could surprise (Notts Forest, Middlesbrough, Ipswich etc). We are favourites to finish the top London team in the division, but given the competition that given could still be compatible with a relegation struggle.

I don’t know either whether the outcome of the season ahead will be affected by uncertainty over the objective, even whether my uncertainty is framed by experience (which can be useful but sometimes a limitation). It would be foolish of Sir Chris or the board to be making statements to the effect that promotion is the goal. Last season was different. We all knew that the club couldn’t survive indefinitely in the third tier (I remember Rochdale fans singing ‘your ground’s too big for you’ and at the time they were right). We all know that it can live in the Championship; we’ll be competing against peers in terms of size, probably with a set-up and squad size that will stand comparison with others but not be stand-out. In this division you know you’re just one good season away from the dosh; we can live there. So I guess next season – and the one after that - is all about progress and getting stronger, to whatever degree, on and off the field.

I don’t think that amounts to complacency about being back in the second tier. Yes, we have spent most of my life in the division; the Lennie spell in Division One was a glorious interlude, something of a triumph of will for sides packed full of character, albeit one marred by inability to enjoy ‘home’ games. The period under Curbs was different, given that the money generated afforded the opportunity to develop the club (including the stadium) to a level whereby we could expect to compete in the top flight. We didn’t quite make it that far, in that we were always one bad season away from potential disaster (ie not getting back). I’ve never been able to feel sorry for clubs like Wolves, Sunderland, even West Ham when they get relegated. Sooner or later, given their support levels and potential, it’s virtually assured they will get back (I wouldn’t add Mans City, they needed another few seasons in the third flight to get some semblance of reality into their lives). It’s different for Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn etc, as it was for us.

What did in the end for the Lawrence era in the top tier was, as he effectively said, was a collapse of will. You can over-achieve for only so long and he has talked in terms of the well having been drained. I think there were elements of that in Curbs’ final year, after Murphy threw his toys out of the pram having not received an England recall, Smertin jumped ship, the team lost momentum, and then Curbs himself didn’t get the England job. What gives me confidence for the season ahead is the fact that mental fatigue shouldn’t be an issue in that sense, plus the character shown by the squad through the past season. They showed qualities that carried more than echoes of the best sides put together by Lawrence and Curbishley. We have indeed got our Charlton back.

I do still think – and don’t doubt that Sir Chris and his team are well aware of it - that there will be work to do on the mental side of the game ahead of the season. The squad that was put together a year ago involved a large degree of cherry-picking the best players from teams in the division. They already knew that they could thrive in the third flight. To a man they’ve earned the opportunity to show that they can do the same against better quality opposition. But it is relatively unknown territory for many of them and they have to show they can step up. Confidence shouldn’t be an issue early in the season, but a bad start and that can change. Hopefully all the squad will see this as their best opportunity to prove they belong in at least the second flight, if not higher.

It’s not as if we haven’t done it before. Never mind Lennie and Curbs, I’ve just been reading through the Sam Bartram book and the tales of how a team moved from the third division to Division One runners-up in successive seasons, each time people questioning their ability to cope. So progress is fine and good enough, but collectively the squad could prove to us all that it could involve priority number four, if not five.

It all adds up to bitter disappointment for Pep Guardiola. Having quit Barcelona, it seems he said that “I will be ready (to return) if one club wants me and seduces me”. You can’t blame him for sending out the obvious feelers in the direction of SE7, but sorry Pep, the job’s taken.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Something To Whine About At Last

It feels like we’re in a transition period, perhaps the twilight zone. The reflected glory’s still there – and being prolonged by some splendid interviews with the players. You’ve just got to love Kermorgant’s comments; I’m even starting to believe he might have meant that final goal. TREC’H Yan (I’m reliably informed that’s Breton for victory); and Yann Basten does sound better than K the frog. Wright-Phillips’ comments on the back of The Mercury were fun. A guy who measures his season by the number of goals he scored – and nothing else. And Solly is of course a worthy player of the year. But it’s all going to fade over the next couple of months, before Welling hoves into view and the DVD comes out.

There are still the formalities of the season to finish off. A (non-Addick) friend recently inquired as to why there was still football going on when the only thing that matters is decided? The answer I suppose is that, just of the rest of the world (or at least the bits I perceive) has to exist in some sense to provide a framework for me, so it is necessary for other football teams to exist, and for there to be a pretence maintained that they in some sense matter. Supporters of other teams are necessary, and they need to be kept in a state of ignorance, since if the reality of their insignificance were to become clear to them they would stop helping to fund a league and in turn Charlton would find it more difficult to operate. So Manchester, Chelsea and Bayern Munich and others still have to finish things off even though nobody really cares. (I should add that the one remaining undecided issue of importance, namely whether Lyon Duchere get promoted, has taken a turn for the worse, with Duchere losing last Saturday and Bourg-Peronnas won; with four games left it’s now theirs to lose.)

After that can start the preparations for the next glorious campaign and who comes in. Good luck to Doherty and Euell, and the others released, including Alonso, while I’m assuming that the few new faces that are likely to come in will be spread around the positions. Three centre-backs is OK, but without Doherty and unless Mambo is considered up to it a fourth may be required, while no cover for Solly at right-back would remain a risk. Powell will have to assess whether a choice from Stephens, Hughes, Russell (if he joins us) and Pritchard to partner Hollands will be strong enough in a division where we will probably need to control possession better. It is a different style of play in the Championship (as I remember from when we passed through it the last time) and may suit some of ours more than others. Green and Wagstaff, along with others, will need to up their game to thrive, while the key choice for the season ahead has to be confidence in BWP knocking them in regularly alongside Kermorgant.

What will be interesting is the approach of the owners in terms of whether operating losses for the club are acceptable and if so what sort of level? These things can’t be set in stone as we really can’t tell whether we will have a season looking up or at the trap door. But they must have parameters in mind. So far they’ve played a blinder, but I’ve no idea what sort of level of fresh investment in the team is envisaged, taking account of the money already shelled out in covering operating losses, which presumably were pretty much in line with what the owners envisaged when the acquired the club (these issues having been well covered by New York Addick in his posts). We shall see.

Let’s end with a taste of things to come, by giving vent to a natural inclination to whine. These instincts have been suppressed for a season now as there’s been next to nothing to complain about. OK, we didn’t win every game, once or twice Sir Chris’ choices and substitutions didn’t work out, occasionally BWP missed, and occasionally the opposition scored (although with each passing day it’s even more difficult to visualise any of their goals). Sometimes the red wine I had before the game fell short of even my (very) low quality control.

I can’t say I’m delighted to discover that our new kit sponsors are Nike. We’ve had some years of making the best of things, but I didn’t think that stressing choices of partnering companies that share some of our values was completely down to needs must. I’m not well up on whether Nike has indeed improved its corporate responsibility record with respect to the use of suppliers with awful labour standards, but a quick glance at a few sites suggests it’s still at best a work in progress. I was intending to invest in a new shirt and retire the old (Llanera) one in honour of the season past. But unless I’m persuaded otherwise there’s a change of plan on that front. We had to sacrifice our old club website for financial reasons, which was understandable at the time if unwanted. Having the club shop and the kit taken over by Nike doesn’t fill me with joy.

Saturday 5 May 2012

See You In The Championship

Ah, that was nice. If we couldn’t have Sir Chris on the bench, Jason Euell was a decent stand-in. Hartlepool supplied the smurfs and made a game of it, but we got the 100 points and enough celebration to see us through the coming three months. Tomorrow the reflections, reviews, and thoughts of preparation for the next campaign can begin; today we just enjoy.

The game itself was a reasonable affair, if not the five-goal thriller that the scoreline might suggest. Powell made the right selections for the starting X1, focusing on the players that have done most of the legwork through the season. It was right that Morrison and Taylor were reunited in central defence for the final game, as it was that Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips started up front and Hollands and Stephens formed the central midfield partnership. That’s no reflection on those who have come in, including Cort. Today was about acknowledging what has been done.

After the songs and the parachutists the first half was a low-key affair, like drawing breath before the main event. We had the better of the play, created the better chances, but were short of our best, failed to take the chances, and let in a sloppy goal to give them the lead. A good knock-down in the area, presumably from Kermorgant, saw a goal-bound shot blocked and the rebound over the bar, one cross went through both sets of players instead of being converted, and Wright-Phillips shot narrowly wide. Against that, Hartlepool didn’t look dangerous, but with our focus not entirely all there a couple of bad minutes saw us fall behind. Jackson presumably picked up a knock and was replaced by Haynes and almost immediately indecision over a through ball led to a corner, which went to the near post and wasn’t cleared, allowing their guy in space to convert. Sloppy.

It was a bit tough on us to be behind at the break, but we hadn’t really controlled the game and a slightly lacklustre approach meant that we couldn’t really complain, just needed to knuckle down, play better, and not let the season end on a slight downer.

The first 20 minutes or so of the second half didn’t produce any real change, even though attacking the Covered End inevitably brought a little more urgency to proceedings. Hartlepool had their goal and were happy enough to get players behind the ball and waste some time. It was up to us to break them down – which we should have done as another knock-down for Wright-Phillips should have produced the equaliser, but he shot over the bar. The clock was running down and the further change saw Pritchard came on for the ineffective Wagstaff, a change which did improve our mobility. But before the crowd started to get restive the goals came – in a flood.

Having delivered corners straight into the arms of their keeper, we tried something akin to their opener and one towards the near post saw Hollands meet it sweetly to volley into the roof of the net. That improved the mood all round, except for the smurfs, and not long after a well-worked move down the right produced a cross to the far post which Haynes met superbly to put us ahead. Then, before the crowd had settled down, we seemed to put the game to bed. What looked like an overhit cross was chased by Kermorgant. He stuck out a leg to try to send it back across goal and instead it floated beautifully inside the far post. He had the decency not to pretend there was any such intent, but who cared?

3-1 up in the space of 10 minutes and that was the cue for Euell to make his appearance, with Wright-Phillips departing. The assumption was that was that, but apparently Hartlepool scored again. Some people in front of me were leaving (why?) so I really didn’t see it, but apparently they had a shot deflected and in. That changed the script a little and made for a little more concern over the final five minutes or so, but we saw out the time left without serious alarm. All that was left was to cheer and clap and watch the trophy being paraded around.

There’s no ratings again today. But honourable mentions go to Pritchard, whose introduction made us much more fluid and effective, Haynes, who took his chance very well and was close to making other opportunities count, and Kermorgant. Donning a beret for the celebrations only added to the pure enjoyment. See you in the Championship.