Wednesday 26 December 2012

Poor And Paid The Price

Thanks a bundle Santa. Two away defeats, a drop down the league, and some pressure on for a performance and a victory. We didn’t get either and today was a worrying display. There’s no point in trying to focus on a spirited second-half effort to get something out of the game. For a start it wasn’t that spirited; when you get one back with 20 minutes to go, at home, you expect more. Yes, we could have nicked a point, but even if we had it wouldn’t have disguised the error-strewn, limp and uncoordinated first half display, or the fact that Ipswich saw out the final period reasonably comfortably. Even given their keeper’s uncertainty with the high ball and our focus on it.

The team saw a bit of a shake-up of the available options. Jackson and Kermorgant dropped to the bench, while Kerkar and Wright-Phillips didn’t make the subs (Harriott did). Fuller returned to supposedly partner Hulse up front, making it a 4-4-2, but while both have their merits and put in shifts it would be wrong to suggest a partnership as they spent the first half competing for balls in the air 20 yards apart. Green came in, with Haynes on the other flank, with Frimpong and Stephens after his suspension in the centre, while the back four and keeper were unchanged.

With the exception of a couple of moments – an early shot-come-cross from Haynes which was palmed over and a superb free-kick from Stephens after Fuller had been upended which came back off the foot of the post – the first-half was at best tame and otherwise shoddy. The crowd was thin on the ground and the atmosphere lacking, which all contributed to a low-key affair from our perspective. Instead Ipswich, without doing anything spectacular, showed how to control midfield with a physical presence mixed with movement and feed a front two who had some idea of how to play together. One big guy and a lively partner full of confidence, supported by midfielders who made timely and angled runs forward. It wasn’t rocket science but it won them the game.

After the mixed opening their guy cut into the edge of the box and a clumsy challenge by Frimpong sent him tumbling. The only question was whether he still had control of the ball, no doubt about it being in the area and as penalties against us go it was pretty uncontestable. Campbell stepped up and put it high and wide – although with Hamer going the right way I think he would have saved it had it been on target. Instead of the let-off inspiring us, we remained subdued. There were moments, from a number of individuals, but nothing coordinated or indicative of a team knowing what it is meant to do. Instead the game arguably turned on two moments after half-an-hour. First, we had the Stephens free-kick, which was worthy of a goal but didn’t even come back off the post at the right angle for incoming forwards. Second, a few minutes later at the other end we conceded a soft goal. The ball went across the goal to beyond the far post and everyone followed it, only for it to be pulled back to an unmarked Campbell who finished with ease.

Goals do change games and having gone behind we really needed to get to the break and regroup, with perhaps some straight talking from Sir Chris. Instead Stephens was caught on the ball in a dangerous area and while the resulting shot was well blocked by Hamer it fell to their bigger forward to put it in the net. Two poor goals to concede and they’d missed a penalty. And it was raining. Not exactly what I’d promised my French partner Suzanne and not exactly what I’d been asking for either.

The second goal meant changes were essential, to add more drive and determination, hopefully more accuracy too. Frimpong gave way for Pritchard and Green for Jackson, but a number of others could have been replaced. We needed an early goal to get back into the game and the best chance of the half did indeed come not long into the second half. A ball towards the far post had Jackson bearing down on it, only for Fuller not to get a call or be aware and try to take it on. The excellent chance went begging and the nature of it seemed to sum up the game.

Ipswich, who had been wasting time from very early on, entered the second half with no great intentions of going forward and this did give us more of the play, with Pritchard making a difference (to the extent that they brought on Rio-Coker to try to nullify the effect) and Solly getting forward more in support of Haynes down the right. But it was really a case of an away team 2-0 up sitting back rather than us driving forward with intent. The aerial threat was always there, but the right delivery or right connection never came.

Instead we did get back into the game with enough time as Solly broke into the box and was flattened by a challenge as poor as that of Frimpong. Jackson was on the pitch, but seemed to pass on the opportunity and instead Haynes stepped up to plant one in the top corner of the net.

Still 20 minutes to go and it should have been game on. Instead we still struggled to really put them under pressure. Kermorgant stood on the sidelines to probably replace Hulse, until Fuller stretched for one and pulled something to depart a few minutes later. One free kick went narrowly wide, there were a couple of scrambles in the box, and the final moments saw Hamer up for a corner and Kermorgant hook one over his head which went just over the bar. But if I was an Ipswich fan I would have said they saw out the game relatively untroubled and would have felt aggrieved if we had grabbed an equaliser.

Today’s display was not good enough. It might prove to be a case of just insufficient tempo and drive in a poor first half, leaving us to chase a game in a fashion that was never going to be pretty. More worrying for me was the impression that there wasn’t much of a game plan before the start. We put out what looked like an attacking formation but had two forwards miles apart, a midfield that was out-thought, and hesitancy in defence. For me every decent team knows its strengths and plays to them. Today I didn’t really know if we were intent on a long-ball game (and if so why do it half-heartedly?) or something else, while we’ve shipped six goals in three games. Getting the best out of the component parts still looks a work-in-progress, with the possibility of more changes to the squad in January depending on loan signings.

Not the end to 2012 I was hoping for (I have to pass on the Derby game on Saturday as Suzanne and I are off to Brussels to see in 2013), especially with the sad news of the passing of Colin Cameron (which does put a football match into context). But the year has seen many other much better moments. Can we please have another year like it overall, just not like today?

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 7/10. Can’t be blamed for either goal (arguably the parry for the second might have gone somewhere else, but it was a decent save in itself), might have saved the penalty if it had been on target, and not much else to do.

Solly – 7/10. If you had to pick a man of the match for us it would have been him. Won the penalty and did nothing wrong that I saw.

Seaborne – 6/10. Defensively seemed fine, especially in a tough first half, but something happened to his control and distribution in the second half as suddenly everything he touched went astray.

Morrison – 5/10. Strangely uncertain in the first half as their movement from midfield and combative front two caused us problems, while their first goal was just poor from a defensive perspective.

Cort – 6/10. Much as Morrison. The fact that the defence was untroubled in the second half really doesn’t count for much.

Haynes – 7/10. Not everything worked for him but was a threat throughout and took the penalty perfectly.

Frimpong – 5/10. We were outplayed in midfield in the first half and his clumsy challenge gave away a penalty.

Stephens – 5/10. Has to lose a mark for losing the ball that led to their second, while a number of the passes in the second half didn’t come off.

Green – 5/10. Perhaps unlucky to be replaced at the break as others were as ineffective, but failed to make an impression.

Fuller – 5/10. Did hold the ball up well, won a free-kick on the edge of the box, but surely if you play with a partner up front you have to try to make it work together.

Hulse – 5/10. Found himself competing for balls with no support and then one of a number jumping for them in the second half.

Subs – Pritchard (7/10 – did make a difference by adding more energy and drive in midfield); Jackson (6/10 – might have been different had Fuller not taken the ball away when he was poised to score early in the second half); Kermorgant (6/10 – his late hook over the bar nearly sent me home content if not happy; but this time it didn’t).

Monday 17 December 2012

Reading Between The Lines

Losing’s always a bitch. No matter how deep you bury it (don’t even try to stay awake for the Football League show, forget the Sunday papers, skip all other reports), and no matter how unfortunate we might have been. Sir Chris’ comments (I couldn’t hide from everything) seemed to echo how Peterborough must have felt after the game at The Valley, when they looked better placed to win before Fuller let rip. Narrow margins for sure, but with Saturday’s game marking the formal halfway point in the season (unless of course we are denied automatic promotion and have to settle for the play-offs) nobody can say they don’t deserve to be where they are in the table (the obvious exceptions to the rule being two teams mysteriously in the top six).

The result means we’re as midtable as you can get: 7-8-7 and a goal difference of zero. It’s nice to view it as only seven points off a top-six spot (especially as we know two of them will be vacated in the second half), but perhaps more realistic to see it as 12 points from third and 11 from third-bottom, with Ipswich’s upturn and Peterborough’s win at Cardiff providing more evidence of how tight the division is and how quickly things can turn either way. Saturday’s game at Sheff Wed is as much about maintaining/extending the gap from the bottom clubs as closing that on those above us.

Of course that’s not the full story. Having been 21st in the league after the Middlesbrough game we are, despite Saturday, still on a rising trend. And although the unbeaten run’s over, that spell (four wins and three draws out of seven) shows what can be done and that we are competitive. For that run, the team, the manager and the fans (for their response during the Cardiff game) deserve a pat on the back. The pressure was on, especially at home, and with a bit of luck along the way the players responded. We’ve had our Charlton back for a season-and-a-half; for me the most encouraging thing about this campaign to date is that the spirit and character that got us promoted has remained intact. Perhaps no real surprise as those qualities are embodied in the manager and his staff, but reassuring nonetheless.

Whether we can continue rising of course remains to be seen; by definition, the higher you rise the tougher it is to rise further. For that to happen, even to bring the play-offs into the equation, we almost certainly have to continue to get better. That could come about simply as a result of an end to the injuries disruptions and greater cohesion/understanding between the players; it might involve some tinkering in January. I’m assuming that there’s no money to be spent – and there’s no compelling case to be made for splashing out, with the team improving and with decent competition for places in almost all areas. But just how loan signings are managed remains to be seen. Seaborne is apparently still with us on a week-to-week basis, Hulse’s three-month loan must be up at the end of the year, with the same for Frimpong, while Holland’s loan with Swindon ends in early January. So irrespective of transfers there are decisions to be made, some which may not be in our hands.

In the absence of changes to the squad, it really is a case of looking to improve week in, week out, through sheer hard work. The calendar works against a comprehensive mid-season player review as after Saturday afternoon there’s the small matter of dealing with Santa, plus the necessary preparations for my partner Suzanne’s next London visit (these include fumigating the flat). She was happy to comment in an Xmas card that Charlton can be proud of having French players, then up pops a Frenchman in a different shirt to score a brace against us. The entente cordial will be restored in time, especially if we can both cheer goals from Kermorgant, Kerkar and/or Devite when she is in attendance for the Ipswich game.

However, there is one stand-out statistic worth noting. We are currently joint bottom of the league, with Huddersfield, when it comes to leading scorer. Huddersfield actually have at least three players on four goals, while the next team above the pair of us is on seven. Most teams have a leading scorer on close to 10 (the range goes up to 22 for Burnley’s Austin). Having a major marksman is no guarantee of success of course (Cardiff top the league but their top scorer is only on eight), and we all know the main reason (injuries) for our position on this front. Behind Jackson on four, we have four forwards on three but Fuller has started just six games, Hulse nine, Haynes five (often operating out wide) and Kermorgant nine.

The strike rates are respectable, the players just haven’t been available often enough. The contrast is Wright-Phillips’ return of one goal from 10 starts, which has to be (perhaps along with Hollands’ slipping down the ranks) the main disappointment of the season to date. With Kermorgant missing for much of the time, and with the early games when they played together indicating that what worked so well last season might not be enough in this league, BWP can have no complaints about currently being out of the starting XI. I just hope he’s keeping his spirits up as there’s no doubt he will called on sooner or later. To thrive in the second half of the season we will need at least four of the five forwards available (whether or not we choose to go with one outright forward) and better understanding between them as they play more games together.

This still doesn’t explain what had to be one of the worst bets on offer since football began. Like many others I made sure I was in the ground earlier than usual for the Brighton game, to take in the anniversary celebrations (and I don’t mind admitting having a tear in my eye when the Portsmouth highlights were shown; I was there but haven’t played the videos/CDs for a while). Having arrived early, thought I’d consider a flutter. They had the team on display on the board and Wright-Phillips was offered at 20/1 to score a hat-trick. Now 20/1 isn’t exactly generous for any player to notch three; when the guy’s in question’s not even in the team, indeed a team playing with one up front, I decided the euromillions lottery offered a better risk/return profile.

It was splendid and appropriate to have Richard Murray on the pitch at the break to pass on his thoughts. Nice of him to thank a range of people (including all shareholders who lost money), but was there a hint of mischief in mentioning those behind Voice of the Valley, given the club’s silence about the dismissal of Rick Evreritt? In the programme, Michael Slater made a joke about our being informed of the move from The Valley by leaflet, adding “to think that some people now question the current board’s level of communication with the fans!” Sorry, not appropriate; and, as they say, two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s no excuse for the behaviour 20 years ago, but it was a different era (flicking back through my programme collection throws up real gems, such as a sentence on Killer leaving the club). More recently, we had a fans’ representative on the board (whatever the actual merits of that) and access to annual accounts. We even knew who the owners of the club were and their ambitions.

Communication is not just about being personable and approachable; it’s also about being as open as possible with information on sensitive issues towards interested parties, which we the fans are. Compared with a few years ago we have considerably less access to information about the state of the club we love. We don’t know if there’s truth in the rumours of a possible sale, whether Paul Elliott is being courted to become chairman, the full story of boardroom changes, and what the attitude of the board is towards money being/not being available. We know what might have happened had the club not been bought (leaving aside whether that would have involved going into administration) and the purchase ensured considerable goodwill towards the new owners. More openness on current affairs would help to ensure that goodwill doesn’t get eroded.The anniversary celebrations reminded us why we feel a bit special and the qualities, from top to bottom, that make us feel that way.

Enough negativity, it is supposed to be a season for something else. And as it’s now impossible to go anywhere without being assailed by bloody carols it is perhaps time to wish all and sundry a splendid Xmas and truly successful New Year. Cheers.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Hard-Earned Point

So, no glorious victory to celebrate the anniversary; instead a hard-earned point against a decent side (albeit one that mixed some of the dark arts with passing football). On the balance of chances Brighton will feel they should have won; that they didn’t was down to poor finishing, at least two superb saves by Hamer, and one last-ditch deflection of a goal-bound shot. The annoying thing was that despite their possession and chances the two they did score were the result of a mistake and a deflection (ours were, of course, sublime). Add to that we were robbed at the death. Final minute of stoppage time and the ball’s deflected for a corner. Flashed through my mind that Cort would come on and that, given their uncertainty from set pieces, one of he, Hulse, Kermorgant, Morrison or Devite would nod in the winner to spark delirium. The ref gave a goal kick. Ah well, I’ll dream about it tonight.

Sir Chris opted to make a few changes, with some welcome selection problems to work out. Seaborne didn’t make the team (or the bench) with Wilson returning at right-back and Solly switching sides; with Morrison available again, Cort was the one to give way rather than Dervite (perhaps the thinking was that Brighton wouldn’t be playing the ball in the air); Stephens and Frimpong were the central midfielders, with Jackson and Haynes out wide, Pritchard in the hole (although he and Haynes seemed to alternate) and Hulse effectively the lone striker, with Kermorgant dropping to the bench.

We could have been behind in the first couple of minutes as their guy, who may have moved offside (it looked a close call) scooped it over the bar at the far post, while Hamer was to pull off the first of his splendid saves, making himself big to block a one-on-one, possibly with his face. Brighton as expected were knocking it around, but we were keeping our shape and put together a few probes. There followed a game of ‘who scores from corners’. Our first went harmlessly into the keeper’s arms, but the second, from the other side, was flicked on at the near post and was buried by the onrushing Addick. It was given first as Stephens but seems it was indeed Wilson. Just how and why he was in that right spot is a mystery, but full marks for the run and finish. Our next corner saw Morrison get clear but his header went over the bar, while at the other end a Brighton corner caused panic and almost an equaliser.

Understandably having taken the lead we were content to let Brighton knock it around at the back, looking to rob them in midfield and counter. But after looking reasonably comfortable for a period we let them back in after half-an-hour as a rare hopeful lofted ball forward from them saw Morrison make the mistake. He miscued the header up in the air and off balance their guy up front picked it up and before Morrison could get back to him buried it low inside the post. No point dwelling on it, Morrison knew he’d erred and it cost us.

The remainder of the first half was pretty even as having levelled Brighton were more content to take their time, while we continued in the same vein, with Hulse pretty isolated and not much coming down the flanks. After the break the game continued in a similar fashion and for a while became rather scrappy. Aware of their hesitancy from set pieces, Brighton resorted to a mix of shirt-pulling – and hair-pulling – to cope, with the officials seemingly oblivious to it all.

However, Brighton seemed to be gaining the upper hand and had a period of wasted chances. Hamer pulled off his second great save and when their guy seemed sure to score one of our number deflected the shot for a corner. They also fluffed a couple, but just when it seemed we were on the rack we produced a move to break the deadlock. The spark I think came from Stephens shaping up to play it wide right and instead switching direction to Hulse, who moved it out to the left. The ball in produced something of a scramble and it seemed the chance had gone, only for Pritchard to slide the loose ball past the keeper.

At that point the final whistle would have been welcome, but with 20 minutes or so to go we were far from home and hosed. Indeed, passes in midfield started to go astray, with Stephens guilty of one at least which ended up with a foul close to the box. Second time around, a hospital ball across to Wilson saw him lose out and their guy go on to be brought down on the edge of the box. LuaLua had come on as a sub and you feared the worse. However, when the shot was taken it seemed as though the wall had done it’s job, only for their fans suddenly to be celebrating. Seems the shot took a deflection, leaving Hamer no chance.

Kermorgant had just come on for Haynes, with Pritchard going out wide and us reverting to a 4-4-2. For the remainder of the game it was a case of them looking more likely than us to grab the winner, but with Kerkar on for Jackson you felt that if he could get the service something might still go our way. In the end, neither happened and at the finish both sides seemed reasonably satisfied with the draw after an entertaining game. Just a pity about that last-gasp corner we should have had.

We keep our unbeaten record going (and we haven’t lost at home now for four games), we move up a couple of places, and move on to Bolton and Sheff Wed away before Santa arrives. No euphoria, but the next best thing.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 9/10. Two excellent saves, dealt with corners when he could, and no chance with the goals.
Wilson – 9/10. My man of the match for today. First game back and no signs of rust, scores a goal and looked a real threat going forward. One late run seemed to go on and on and caused them all sorts of confusion. I’m not going to mark him down for their second goal as for me the fault lay in the pass.
Solly – 8/10. They just didn’t know enough that he plays just as well on the left as on the right. They do now.

Morrison – 6/10. It was a bad mistake for their first. These things happen. Otherwise sound against a team which caused us problems around the box with their movement.

Dervite – 7/10. Composed and decent game. They did create chances but not through anything he obviously did wrong (I’ve no idea who might be culpable for the wall not doing its job for their second).
Haynes – 6/10. Not the sparkling return we hoped for, out wide wasn’t able to use his pace to good effect. But after the lay-off it’s good to have him back available.
Frimpong – 6/10. Effective first half, but it’s not easy chasing shadows against Brighton and seemed to fade in the second.
Stephens – 6/10. Mix of good and bad. I may be being unfair if the second-half misplaced passes weren’t his, but they cost us. On the other side of the coin, his vision set up our second.
Jackson – 6/10. Struggled going forward against a rugged defender, worked hard but not especially influential today.
Pritchard – 6/10. Here too good and bad. Often knocked off the ball or was crowded out and perhaps didn’t provide sufficient support for Hulse, but he scored the second.

Hulse – 7/10. Often isolated but did the lone striker’s role well enough and might have nabbed one.
Subs – Kermorgant (6/10 – not especially influential in the 20 minutes he was on, but we weren’t seeing much of the ball); Kerkar (6/10 – only on for about 10 minutes and didn’t get the service he needed to make an impact).