Wednesday 8 May 2013

So Much For A Pause For Breath

You take a deep breath after the final game and with some satisfaction ponder the benefits of being an Addick (including justifiable pride at the community club award, the emergence of the Trust, and the return of Voice of the Valley), especially as the post-international break mini-season proved as good as we could have hoped for. You look forward to the season’s DVD and spare a thought for those less fortunate than us, including those still holding forlorn hopes of advancement (even when all past experience suggests that promotion would only bring tears afresh to accompany a season of humiliation), plus those who have failed to hang onto their managers (yes, you couldn’t help having a high regard for Jackett; and yes, wouldn’t Dowie be a splendid choice to replace him). And rather lazily, with work getting in the way, you start thinking about maybe writing something who might have to leave us to prepare the ground fresh blood for the season ahead.

Then suddenly there’s the news that to the list of disposals to date (Sullivan and Mambo, plus presumably Wright-Phillips) have been added the names of Wagstaff, Taylor, Kerkar and Fuller. All seven go with nothing but best wishes, especially Wagstaff, for obvious reasons. He hasn’t at least yet quite become the John Robinson all-round nuisance (for the opposition and officials) on the pitch but will hopefully find a suitable home not far away (I was thinking Orient rather than Millwall). He, Taylor and Wright-Phillips made key contributions last season, but if we are looking to push on tough decisions have to be made. These clearly include the calculation over Fuller, in terms of wages per likely availability. We will remember him a good deal more fondly than Hasselbaink. Kerkar promised much with his early appearances, but ended up not really taking the chance to nail down a starting place.

The announced departures at least should put a stop to thoughts about whether the late season form might suggest we can progress next season with a virtually unchanged squad. I do remember penning something a few months ago along the lines of the squad perhaps needing to be reduced in size and a little extra quality added, which might look like the plan. We are after all letting go two of our only four players who have reached double-digits in Charlton career goals (assuming BWP doesn’t get a new contract), a sometimes outstanding forward, one who has shown he is capable of unnerving defences, plus a decent centre-back.

Any thoughts about who we might bring in have to be conditioned by the owners’ financial planning. Of this of course we know little, but it’s not unreasonable to think in terms of three broad options: first, accept a similar level of losses (and financing) as this season; second, look to at least trend towards trying to balance the books; third, spend more and target promotion. We all want attendances to rise and revenues to expand, but there’s no prospect of the club’s finances being truly stabilised in this division through substantially higher revenues, leaving aside player sales (and we all know who that would mean). The second option is probably as much of a gamble as the third, even with the phasing-in of fair play rules, given the consequences of relegation. But I’m not the one writing the cheques. I’d be inclined to expect the first option to prevail, with the emphasis on adjusting the player cost base by slimming but improving the squad.

Then you turn to the spine of a side, what you want to build on. In the promotion season just about all component parts made up that spine. Through the past season in the Championship it was refined down, but I think it’s fair to say that with Hamer, Morrison, Jackson and Kermorgant you have the essential core. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect (my partner Suzanne doesn’t like perfection, which is just as well for me; ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’), rather that they form the base. The character, spirit and determination may stem from the manager and his team, but you need it to be evident on the pitch too. This also suggests a bias when looking for new players in favour of a type who would play well in partnership with them.

Consequently for the defence, nobody (at least not me) would have any complaints if we lined up next season with Hamer, Solly, Wiggins, Morrison and Cort/Devite, or if the back-ups remained Button, Wilson, Evina and the one of Cort/Devite not in the first team. Releasing both Mambo and Taylor does suggest a new centre-back, unless one of the youngsters is deemed ready to be on standby. And clearly the imponderables are whether we will get a bid for Solly which cannot be turned down, plus whether Button, Wilson and especially Evina are prepared to wait for fresh chances. Hopefully they are.

Losing Wagstaff and Kerkar would seem to imply that Harriott, Pritchard and Green, plus Wilson, will contest the wide midfield positions absent fresh blood. But central midfield is more complicated. Hollands, Stephens, Hughes, possibly Gower too, along with Jackson and Pritchard. I thought Gower looked increasingly effective with more match-practise, but you can’t really make a case for both him and Hughes. Neither would we (or presumably they) want another season in which Hollands and Stephens played a similar number of games; they both deserve to be starting regularly for us or someone else. It’s a decision for Sir Chris to make as for me either one or both of the two become mainstays next season or we bring in another option – or perhaps of course the new ace in the pack will prove to be Rouamba; hopefully he’s been enjoying the sun of late.

Up front, shorn of Fuller and presumably Wright-Phillips, with Cook seemingly peripheral, and with it entirely unclear whether Obika might be an option, we are as things stand down to Kermorgant and Haynes. Smith might be moving up the pecking order, as might other youngsters, I really don’t know. But in an ideal world, even if 4-5-1 (or variations) is used periodically, you would want four available strikers (and in my simple world usually two bigger guys matched with two speedy goal-poachers).

So with seven down and no doubt more changes to come, you can make the case for a new centre-back, central midfielder and two forwards. Don’t look to me for suggestions beyond the obvious (seems both Baldock and N’Guessan ended their seasons looking rather disgruntled); I seldom pay attention to any of our opposition during games as basically I just want them to fall over, balloon it over the bar, or pick up a second yellow for another silly challenge. What I do hope is that the latest news heralds a better planned strategy for new recruits than appeared to be the case last time around, based on the VotV commentary. We should appear a more attractive club to sign for than a year ago, as long as the owners ensure that first and foremost Sir Chris and his team are signed up securely.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Signing Off In Style

As end-of-season sign-offs with nothing really to play for go, this one was as good as it gets. We managed to sign off the campaign with a fourth straight home win and, with us unbeaten away since mid-February, that meant 18 points from our final eight games. We didn’t quite manage a first home clean sheet since late November, but perhaps you shouldn’t crave everything. Not even Palace missing out on the play-offs, or Millwall getting relegated. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to return to the Premiership on the back of one point from four games against them. So let’s go again next season with the words of Sir Chris in our ears, the impetus that we have, and confidence in the strengths that have contributed to our end of the season. In between, a decent holiday won’t go amiss.

I don’t want to indulge in a blow-by-blow account of the final game, perhaps just to focus on the main moments as I remember them (which given the early pub start are fading by the moment). The team showed a couple of surprise changes, forced by injury, with Hamer unavailable and no sign of Fuller. Button came in in goal with Obika getting a start up front, while Jackson returned for Hollands but Gower kept his place alongside him , Hughes being kept on the bench. It did give us a chance to look at the two loan players in the final run-out.

Let’s face it, the first-half didn’t exactly set the pulses racing. Bristol City were playing for pride and beyond ensuring ninth place and signing off in style I can’t think what we were going for. It was a contest crying out for a goal to make something happen. In the event we had a couple of early headers, one glancing and one powered, but with neither troubling their keeper, plus Harriott being played in only to blaze wide. They had a free-kick which summed things up as after their guy made a run towards the box and was adjudged to have been fouled by Gower (who picked up a yellow), the shot went into the centre of the wall at about knee-height. The ref entered into the spirit of things, as after at least two interminable breaks for injuries and drinks, including the premature departure of Wiggins (with Wilson coming on and Solly switching sides), he thought two minutes of stoppage time would suffice. Hard to disagree if he’d gone for the obligatory one.

It was a case of Sir Chris telling the players at the break that they can kip in tomorrow but had 45 minutes left to send us home happy. Maybe he planted an idea in Kermorgant’s head that he would end up on single figures and behind Jackson in the goalscoring chart for the season. Whatever was said, the deadlock was broken in a fashion entirely out of keeping with what had gone before, prompting a quick reassessment of the goal-of-the-season competition.

Good work fashioned a position out right and the ball was played into the box slightly behind Yann. If you want to hit a shot on the volley and on the turn you couldn’t dream of doing it better. Kermorgant fairly leathered it into the top corner of the net. If I fall asleep before the League Show on TV tonight I’ll be watching it tomorrow. And now with the impetus and attacking the Covered End, it wasn’t long before we extended the lead, with a goal that in its way was almost as good. The ball was worked wide left and when the cross came in Kermorgant made sure it was his, burying the header.

Suddenly we were 2-0 up and having a party. But the game itself then settled back into first-half mode as we assumed it was done and Bristol perked up after replacing Baldock, who looked like a player who felt he’d made a poor decision in pre-season. No worries, but the game as a contest came back to life as we managed to gift a truly poor goal, passing the ball back progressively until an awkward ball to Morrison saw him try to lay it back to Button, only to screw it up and lay it on a plate for their guy to lob over the keeper into the net. I’ll have to see it again, but I think they didn’t touch the ball between our throw-in in their half and the guy scoring. Tough on Button too as he’d had nothing to do through the game, had no chance with the goal, and was to depart shortly after following a pulled muscle, with Pope taking over between the sticks.

It would be wrong to make it sound dramatic, but the game was now up for grabs, with the sub-plot being whether Kermorgant could complete his hat-trick and overtake Jackson as top scorer for the season. You wanted a last-minute penalty to see who would demand to be the taker. In the event, after Wagstaff replaced Harriott, the outcome was just about settled by additional goals. Kermorgant worked some space outside the box and tried to chip the keeper. It didn’t quite fade into the net, but came back off the bar for Obika to nod home.

That pretty much settled the result, but there was still the mini-contest to decide – and Jackson made sure he won out, by getting on the end of a cross to extend the lead. More goals could have come, with a daft sequence of blocks in a goalmouth scramble preventing Yann getting his just rewards, but it ended as it did, not too soon for Bristol and with us sated.

No player ratings for today as it was no match to judge performances. No question who gets man-of-the-match, as Kermorgant’s first strike could well get goal-of-the-season and his brace settled the contest. Just a good deal of satisfaction with how we’ve performed overall, especially when the chips were slipping if not down. Clubs talk about good spirit and character but not all of them have it. We do. Ninth becomes the benchmark for next season, but let’s worry about that tomorrow.