Wednesday 26 February 2014

Happy(ier) Days?

In Saturday’s programme, Michael Morrison talked of a “massive 72 hours” for the club. They couldn’t have gone much better, could they? We have time now to worry about fixture congestion (seems the Watford home game will be rescheduled for the next trip to Sheffield; would have been worse of course if Wednesday had equalised a second time and a replay was required), even to prepare for Saturday and what on paper at least appears like the hardest game of the season, even though we know that all we have to do is an emergency loan to get Kermorgant back for one game to come away with the points.

The images of Sir Chris sitting in the dugout on his own after Saturday’s win, then on Monday night swinging from the crossbar in front of the fans (unfortunately I can’t claim to have been among them, although I did make the youth cup game), will live long in the memory. After weeks of at best uncertainty (and at worst enforced disarray), he must have slept well on Saturday night, perhaps with the wins and contract negotiations seemingly started finally confident of being in a job come the next day. And let’s give him some proper credit, not just for taking the heat and pressure over recent weeks but also for his team selection and changes made. On Saturday we set up with two banks of four and (with hindsight) kept things tight for the bulk of the game, then made substitutions that gave us fresh impetus at the right time, as QPR were flagging towards the finish, playing as if they believed their manager’s daft comment about a “near impossible” pitch. And on Monday night, with some adjustments to incorporate fresh legs, we came away with the victory.

No question that on other days both games could have ended differently. There has to be some sympathy for Sheff Wed given the nature of our winner (it wasn’t a Maradona/Henry as Church had no intent to use his arm/shoulder, but having failed to make the connection with his head it was handball) and the subsequent near misses. Don’t have sympathy as such for QPR (and they don’t need it), but if they’d gone ahead it could well have been game over. On other days the luck has gone against us, so we take it and enjoy it.

All of which is just a bit of preamble to get us back to the basic issue: Duchatelet – visionary or fool? Perhaps there are fine margins on this front too.

After the debacle of the transfer window, I did come away with the impression that we would have sold anyone for whom an offer came in, as part of what looked to me like a deliberate Duchatelet ploy to prioritise cutting the wage bill/generate funds while shipping in those from his other clubs deemed surplus to requirements, in the process displaying an indifference to the risk of relegation. That wasn’t an unreasonable inference at the time, given the changes made (and hints of others). What comes across now, in light of what has been said in the conferences and written elsewhere, gives more of an impression of confusion and poor decision-making on the part of our new owner rather than the deliberate and pre-conceived enforcement of any asset-stripping policy.

Duchatelet of course cannot be blamed for the situation he inherited (ie Powell and so many players on contracts expiring at the end of the season). But surely he was made aware of it and/or realised it himself during and after the process of due diligence. In other circumstances I really wouldn’t have blamed Duchatelet for wanting to take some time to get to know Sir Chris himself, see how they could work together, even to the extent of leaving it to the end of the season before making a decision on whether or not to retain him. But the circumstances we were/are in called for a clear decision. What we ended up with was considerable uncertainty, with undesirable consequences as players (Kermorgant and Alnwick) felt they had to take up other opportunities to secure their futures. Equally, Duchatelet may have felt on taking over that we were headed for relegation with the players (and manager) we had in situ and felt ready to take offers for any of them (the club wasn’t obliged to accept offers). If he believed that, he was (in my opinion) mistaken; the team needed strengthening, not gutting.

If Duchatelet’s intention on taking over was to strengthen the team/squad to increase our chances of staying up, he has to date simply made poor, ill-informed decisions . Two wonderful wins (and the possibility of a Wembley visit or two) of course make us feel happier. But the team that took to the pitch against QPR contained only two Duchatelet signings (Thuram-Ulien and Ghoochannejhad) and they were (in my opinion) the worst performers on the day. On Monday night we started with just one (Ajdarevic). Of course I hope all of those who have arrived work out well (I was much more impressed with Ajdarevic's input against QPR than against Birmingham). As things stand, the changes made increased our chances of going down rather than the reverse. What impressed me most in the QPR game was the determination and resolution of the players, something for which Powell and his staff should get considerable credit. I had feared that these qualities might have been lost in light of recent events.  

I suspect that my very adverse reading of what happened in the transfer window was down to an overriding priority of avoiding relegation, for reasons obvious to all of us. In his interview today with BBC London, Richard Murray reportedly said that “this season the big priority is to stay up; then, next season let’s see what benefits we get from it” (ie the new regime). Absolutely. I can’t say I’m initially attracted by the ‘European network’ option, but it’s what we’ve got – and seems to amount to a way of trying to exploit the fair play rules - and we’ll see if it brings the potential benefits over time. I’ll admit that in the midst of the transfer window sales the feeling that we might end up as a feeder club for Standard Liege came too much to the fore; that risk does seem to have eased as we learn more about Duchatelet’s plans.

However, I don’t like the fair play rules in principle and am sceptical they will have the desired impact in practise. Where is it written that football clubs have to/should break even? It’s not a principle enforced on other businesses (and the primary objective of a company is to survive, not necessarily to make a profit). I suspect that some clubs in the Championship will adapt to the new rules, some will ignore them, and some (perhaps most) will end up finding ways around them. So in turn I’m sceptical of any strategy that involves believing that the rules will prove effective and that the European network approach offers an efficient way of capitalising on them.

Here too, we will have to wait and see. In the interim, I hope that the contract extension offer for Sir Chris reflects his true value, rather than how the world of football should work as seen through the eyes of someone intent on adjusting the world to his own view. That’s a bit snide for sure, but I still balk at some of Duchatelet’s comments. “It’s important for the fans that Powell is a club legend, but for me it’s not the most important matter”. Quite right. “The most important matter is just that he’s a very good coach”. He isn’t a coach, he’s a manager and needs to be allowed to manage; and just why does Duchatelet, with his very limited experience of football, believe that he knows who is and who is not a good manager? For the record, he is.

Finally, the Tintinometer. Having been initially set on a neutral 5 out of 10 after the takeover, in light of the transfer window events I dropped it to 3, with a risk of a further downgrade to junk status. On the assumption that Sir Chris gets an acceptable contract extension, let’s drop the negative bias and push it back up to a 4. 

Saturday 22 February 2014

Massive Win, Hard-Earned

I’m a simple soul; itt doesn’t take much to make me happy. Recently a hot dog from a portable BBQ in -15 degrees in the middle of Icelandic mountains was pretty good; but it doesn’t come close to a last-gasp Johnnie Jackson header to give us a win that could prove utterly uplifting. It was a match which before the start we would have been to take a point from and which had 0-0 written all over it, after we hit both posts in the same move in the first half and QPR failed to hit the target with their only decent created moment (we’ll come to their other moment later). But in the final 10 minutes we wanted it more than them and that ended up counting, with a couple of substitutions giving us fresh legs and momentum.

Just as the possession stats in the home game against Birmingham meant nothing, so today the fact that (according to the BBC) QPR had 66% possession was irrelevant. Far more important was their 0 for attempts on target. They didn’t come to terms with the pitch and looked like an outfit happy to give the ball to someone and expect them to do something; clearly they have players capable of making things happen, but we set up with the two banks of four in front of them and basically kept their opportunities to a minimum. Thuram-Ulien didn’t have an actual shot to save all game. That we won it was testimony to qualities that I feared might desert us with all the recent changes: heart and determination.

We began with a basic 4-4-2, with Thuram-Ulien retained in goal despite Hamer being fit (and on the bench), Wiggins returning, Wilson as the other full-back, and Dervite partnering Morrison in central defence. The experiment of Cousins wide right was correctly ditched and instead he and Poyet were the central pair, with Jackson widish left and Green getting a start on the right, while Church came back to partner Gucci up front. No place for Peter the Pole on the bench, while Ajdarevic was also among the subs. The two things that struck me about the team were first, the contrast now in terms of age/experience in central midfield compared with the start of the season, when the fear was how well Dad’s Army would hold up; and second, despite all the Duchatelet signings, only two were on the pitch (please don’t tell me that swapping Kermorgant, Stephens and Alnwick for Gucci and Thuram-Ulien has made us stronger, but we leave that for another day). Also on the bench was recent addition Tudguy.

The first half (in reality the entire game) wasn’t one to delight the neutral, with threats in either final third few and far between. A very cagy opening period set the tone, with us generally sitting back as Poyet and Cousins provided an effective shield in front of the defence  but with Gucci and Church having no chance in the air against their centre-backs and our set-up pretty much leaving them to chase lost causes. QPR had a couple of shots from outside the box, but for at least one the pitch did its job with a good bobble before it arrived. Both went harmlessly wide. The only moment of real drama was at their end and should have seen us take the lead. Wiggins and Jackson resumed their combination down the left and it resulted in a decent ball to the far post. Green controlled it and laid it back for Cousins, whose shot beat Green (the other one) but came back off the post. It seemed like a tap-in for Church (I think, others said Gucci) with the rebound but instead the effort came back off the other post. Wasn’t a gimmee but should have been converted.

At the break we were nevertheless reasonably content, given our pre-match ambitions. The defence was operating well and QPR hadn’t stretched us – with the exception of one outstanding run by their centre-back, who took the ball all the way into the box before seeing the opportunity to throw himself to the ground in a truly laughable fashion. Play continued for a few minutes after, but just why the ref didn’t give him a yellow card amazed me. Perhaps he didn’t feel that his fall was worthy of being called a dive.

QPR came out for the second half with a bit more intent, presumably after a bit of a rollocking, and looked threatening for a while. They did carve out one decent chance, with their guy down the left pulling it back to someone who really should have put it away but he sliced it horribly wide. Perhaps the pitch came to our rescue again. We were creating nothing but hanging in and the game increasingly looked like ‘who scores first wins’ (just like the youth cup match last night).

Changes were made by them, with it notable that Doyle was replaced, having got nothing out of Morrison and Dervite. And around that time there was the moment when we might have gifted them the game. It was a poor back pass, difficult for Thuram-Ulien to deal with, but it very nearly became a disaster as his effort to control is saw their forward nick it from him. Fortunately he ran out of space and the ball went over the line before he could tuck it into the net or pull it back for someone else to do that.

Green and Gucci were replaced by Ajdarevic and Tudgay and the changes did make a difference. Tudgay knows his way around and he was a good deal more adept at holding the ball against bigger opponents, while Ajdarevic gave us more than we had before in their half. A rare passing move around their box ended with Jackson shooting wide. Harriott came on for Church, who as usual had worked his socks off, to provide another possibility, but with the clock running down I don’t think anyone expected the deadlock to be broken. Certainly QPR didn’t and as they seemed to settle for the point – after their guy had fluffed a chance through poor control, allowing Thuram-Ulien to grab the ball - we managed to take the initiative. Going into stoppage time Ajdarevic tried a curler from outside the box that Green (the other one) did well to turn around the post for a corner.

And what a corner it was. Curled to the far post by Ajdarevic (rather than behind the goal-line like the previous one by Jackson) and in came the skipper to get his head on the ball. From where I sit I thought it was probably into the side-netting, but glory be it was squeezed into the net. The ploy of assuming that Green (the other one) can’t deal with crosses did finally pay off. I don’t know if the entire Valley erupted, but I did.

All that was left was to see out the final minute or so; and then for Sir Chris to emerge to enjoy the plaudits with the players. On the balance of play, over 90 minutes, QPR will undoubtedly be gutted to leave with nothing. But that telling statistic again: no efforts on target. We (apparently) had only three, but two that were ‘off target’ came back off the woodwork and we had the one that counted.

What counted most for me wasn’t the win (don’t get me wrong, it’s made me very happy), but the attitude on the pitch. Exemplary. If we keep that going we will stay up.

Player Ratings:

Thuram-Ulien: 5/10. What mark do you give a keeper who hasn’t had a shot to save or dangerous crosses to deal with? His dodgy moment with the (admittedly poor) back pass nearly cost us the game.

Wilson: 8/10. The guy keeps doing what we ask him to do. Wasn’t perfect but against decent opposition put in a performance.

Wiggins: 8/10. Composed at the back and combined well with Jackson going forward. Just a class act, so glad he’s signed a new contract.

Morrison: 9/10. Outstanding.

Dervite: 9/10. Equally impressive, the pair of them gave their front two no opportunities in open play.

Green: 6/10. Struggled to make a real impact down the flanks and didn’t get in the crosses he was picked to do; but did set up Cousins well for the shot that came back off the post.

Cousins: 8/10. Pairing him with Poyet in central midfield was asking a lot of both of them and neither disappointed. As a pairing in other games we might not get a great deal going forward, but today they were just right in protecting the defence.

Poyet: 8/10. Another excellent display. Some misplaced passes, but reads the game well and consequently often appears at the right moment to break up the opposition’s play.

Jackson: 8/10. Had to get the extra mark for the goal, as it meant so much. Otherwise fair enough, but his knack of scoring at key moments, in a team which is struggling for goals, is still key.

Church: 6/10. It was a tough ask for the front two, neither being target men and likely to be outmuscled by their central defenders. If it was him who didn’t convert the rebound off the post ….

Gucci: 5/10. Looks like he’s struggling to adjust to what’s needed at this level. Comfortably contained by their defence.

Subs:  Tudgay (7/10 – made a difference when he came on by being a better outlet than Gucci); Ajdarevic (8/10 – I was more critical than others of his performance against Birmingham, but there’s no question he has ability and he too made a positive difference when he came on); Harriott (7/10 – not on for long but did cause them a problem or two).

Monday 10 February 2014

Going Fishing

Ah well, news that the youth cup game against Arsenal has been postponed has resolved at least one of my dilemmas. Would have liked to go along to add to the backing, but time is of the essence at the moment (which rather begs the question why spend some rattling off yet another on thoughts about Roland) as my place needs fumigating again before my French partner Suzanne arrives on Wednesday and before we head off together on Thursday for a spot of fishing. And snowmobiling (apparently), whalewatching, and a few other assorted activities in Iceland, with (if we are lucky) the Northern Lights thrown in for fun.

This junket, which was planned some time before the fixture list came out, means that I’ll also be having to pass on Saturday’s trip to Sheffield for the cup game. If all goes according to plan (and schedule), when we take the field I shall be somewhere in the middle of nowhere (literally), possibly digging holes in the ice to catch some dinner (or holes in the drifts to dig out Suzanne if she gets a bit over-enthusiastic with her snowmobile). With luck, and barring erupting volcanoes or frostbite in extremities, I’ll be back at it in time for QPR, no doubt in a T-shirt basking in the balmy UK weather.

Perhaps it’s a good time for a break in any event. I don’t like feeling negative about Charlton-related developments (I think a fault of mine over the years has been trying to be too upbeat, especially about some players’ performances, as I really want them all to turn out to be world-beaters). If I’m due a period of being sent to Coventry, I’m happy that it isn’t actually Coventry and if distance and isolation helps a sense of perspective I ought to be spot on by the time we get back.

Let’s try a bit of interim perspective, if that’s possible. Our overriding priority for this season, before and since the takeover, has been to avoid relegation (of course we hoped for something better in the summer/autumn, but the absence of strengthening until virtually the first game cast doubt over what might be achievable, while subsequently injuries have left us stretched). I can’t see relegation as a blip at the start of a brave new era; it would be a massive setback. I’ve followed us in the third flight enough times in my life not to be full of glee at the prospect of doing so again, especially so soon after getting back up. I don’t entertain any notions of us being ‘too big’ for the third flight (how can we?); if we get relegated it will be because over the season we were one of the three worst teams and have to accept that. So the following questions are addressed purely in terms of whether changes made, in my opinion, increase or less the risk of our being relegated.

Do I believe Duchatelet is completely indifferent to whether or not we are relegated? No, despite the indications in The Voice of The Valley about the adjustment to his purchase price if we go down. Any such clause would seem like sensible business practise in light of our position and doesn’t amount to a compelling reason to think that we have just been bought as a feeder club. Does he want to get us into the Premiership? Yes, there is every reason to believe that he does. Why wouldn’t he, whether it’s about money or ego? That’s the good news/positives out of the way.

Have the changes made to the squad made relegation more or less likely? I don’t think there’s any question it’s the former. For sure we needed strengthening in the window. But for me that amounted to retaining core strengths (including team morale and character, in the form of key players). By all accounts (again drawing on The Voice and other bloggers), in addition to disposing of Alnwick, Stephens and Kermorgant (and of course Smith), Morrison would have gone if an offer had been sorted out, Evina and Pritchard may well have gone on loan. Who else might have been sold if offers had come in and/or they were fit will remain speculation.

Irrespective of the abilities of the players brought in, we have 18 league games left to get out of the bottom three. Others have commented on how many points we may need to get. The way the league is panning out we could get lucky and finish fourth from bottom on a low points total. But as desperation sets in others will be fighting and it’s reasonable to expect those around us to average more points than they have to date. Our position is precarious (but not yet desperate) and all we can do is watch, wait and hope as far as the league is concerned during the week ahead. Even a target of 50 requires 26 points from these 18 games. That’s more than an equal number of wins/draws/defeats.

In short, Sir Chris stressing that the new players have to hit the ground running is an understatement, especially if there are more coming in during the loan widow. They are in new surroundings, a new country, with new teammates, and (so far) no experience of Championship football (or of playing on our pudding of a pitch). You hope for quick miracles and early understanding, but it is an enormous ask. We could easily after a while come together and begin to play well, learning to focus on the strengths of a changed team, only for it to be far too late. And while this is going on, will some players who it seems the club was happy to move on be really committed to the task? I hope so.

Which of course brings us back to Sir Chris. It is given that his contract situation, and that of a number of players, was an utterly undesirable state of affairs for Duchatelet to acquire, for which the previous owners are to blame. However, the idea that it makes sense in our situation for him to take his time to assess the boss and to make a real decision at the end of the season rings hollow to me. Understandable perhaps, but not what we need in our position. There’s an element of sentimentality involved for sure, given our deep affection for Powell. But we don’t have time on our hands and surely it would help rather than hinder our cause if the players (new and old) were made aware in no uncertain terms that the manager has the backing of the owner. I happen to feel he deserves that.

Now some other quibbles. We were told that Duchatelet would not have day-to-day involvement. Well, if he’s a bit bored and does after all have time on his hands, I don’t mind if he spends it looking at day-to-day affairs. But when it comes to undermining the manager’s position by getting involved in player selection that’s unforgivable. Sure, there’s a process of getting to know each other, working things through. But if you don’t trust his judgement to the extent of who goes on the pitch (let alone selling players he wants to keep) replace him with someone you have faith in or do the job yourself.

Reading The Voice was depressing, including the suggestion that the family area may be relocated to where I currently sit (surely we are not going to be in a position where we want to give people a reason not to renew?) but mostly for the account of Kermorgant’s departure. Either that article is wrong, and the sentiments that he expressed in the South London Press interview are wide of the mark, or the club statement giving the impression that everything was done to try to keep him is misleading. Decide for yourselves. It does drive home the point that Meire may well be intelligent, articulate etc but she doesn’t pay the piper. (Another anecdote from personal experience is that the guy I sold my company to had a PA; she was his ‘eyes and ears’ in the office and everyone knew it; the guy often complained to me that she was being treated unfairly by others as she was frozen out; the fault was his, not hers, for putting her in that position. I’m sure Meire’s a lot smarter and more discerning than to simply report back everything said and done, but she’s a piper too after all.)

In short (again), putting to one side for now whatever vision/strategy Duchatelet has for Charlton, the tactics to date have been (in my opinion) dreadful. It simply isn't enough to think he's a successful businessman so he can't be dumb (I keep remembering the '5-year plan' that the Icelandic former owners of West Ham had for that club). Dumb is a bit all-embracing and covers a multitude of character traits which in some situations can be strengths and in others weaknesses. Perhaps he’s a fan of Von Clausewitz. “It’s better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past”, or “pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination”. If he is, I hope he doesn’t forget “obstinacy is a fault of temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous effect, to which others must bow”. I don’t think that one’s meant as a compliment.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Don't Believe The Stats

I was a bit slow off the mark to begin a report this time around, indulging in a post-match glass while watching the remainder of the rugby, possibly also reluctant to be sound negative again. So I had a quick check on the club site for a detail and saw the opening to that report on the game. It began with a suggestion that this was a “second sickener in seven days”, going on to comment that “Charlton threw everything they could possibly muster at Birmingham City, dominating the game from start to finish but came away from nothing to show for their quite valiant efforts”.

That is indeed one way to view the game, but it’s a rose-tinted glasses one. We did dominate possession, had far more attempts on goal. But against a poor side that looked shorn of confidence themselves we conceded the vital first goal, allowing them to sit on what they had, and showed such a lack of belief in the final third that I don’t think anyone was surprised that we didn’t score, or get anything out of the game. I know I wasn’t – and I truly wanted a different outcome.

We looked like what we are, a group thrown together without cohesion, short on confidence, with a confusing line-up that didn’t work. That was Thuram-Ulien in goal, Wilson and Evina as the full-backs, Morrison and Wood in central defence, Jackson and Poyet in central midfield, Cousins wide right, Ajdarevic notionally wide left, and Sordell and Ghoochannejhad (Gucci) up front. Now let’s take a negative interpretation of that line-up. A keeper drafted in who is getting to know the defence in front of him, one full-back coming back from suspension who we know is best in a more advanced position, the other full-back who we were apparently ready to send out on loan, a central midfield that comprised a captain struggling to get back to full fitness and a very promising youngster (Poyet), who was to have a very decent game but one that looked like a fair copy of the other very promising youngster (Cousins) who was obliged to play out of position, with a front pairing that doesn’t look for a minute like working, with two similar players looking to make similar runs (all of which was summed up when they collided going for the same ball).

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but surely you make a choice between Poyet and Cousins, for a game, and either choose an outright winger (Green) or keep the guy who played last weekend at right-back (Nego) and have Wilson ahead of him. And stripped of Kermorgant, Smith and Pigott as target men, whether or not incoming Parzyszek was ready the combination we went with didn’t look like working. Individually both Sordell and Gucci had good moments; as a pairing and a combination it didn’t work. The upshot was a set-up that couldn’t go long, no pace down the flanks, and no drive in midfield. Every decent team knows its strengths and plays to them. I honestly don’t know what we think they are. That we dominated the game was down to Birmingham’s lack of ability and ambition and solidity at the back from Morrison and Wood, plus the defensive cover that Jackson and Poyet provided.

We were unfortunate on balance to be behind at the break. For all the problems with the line-up and familiarity, we had a number of opportunities. One corner headed back to Ajdarevic who could only head tamely at the returning Randolph, a move that ended with the ball breaking to Cousins whose shot lacked conviction, a decent shout for a penalty when Sordell seemed to be upended, and a scissor-kick from Ajdarevic that forced a save. At the other end, Birmingham had a flick at the near post from a corner and nothing else, except their goal.

It seemed to me to be a poor decision by the linesman to give a foul for a nothing jump in the air between two players. But from the free-kick whoever was supposed to be picking up Macheda didn’t do the job and he flicked a header into the bottom corner. I don’t think that Thuram-Ulien had much chance, but some around me disagreed. Have to see it again.

The first goal in this game always looked crucial and so it proved. Birmingham hadn’t threatened but had scored; we had opportunities but failed to take them.

Nothing really changed in the second half. Quite frankly you felt that if Birmingham had some belief they would score again and kill off the game. They took their time. Their second, when it came, was a decent example of how to score on the break, with a series of passes ending with Macheda converting. We had scrambles, shots, moments of potential, but nothing that counted. There was no sense that we could turn this game around and we didn’t. Changes saw Green and Church come on for Jackson and Sordell, with Cousins moving back inside, then at the death Parzyszek coming on for Poyet.

Sometimes moments sum up a game and a situation. We had three free-kicks in potentially dangerous positions. There was a time when Jackson curled them in, but his attempt in the first half didn’t clear the wall. In the second Ajdarevic tried his luck, which was on target but had neither the direction nor the pace to trouble Randolph. For the third, Green took up the challenge and completely mishit it. Then a late cross saw Parzyszek half-heartedly jump with no chance of getting to the ball, only for it to fall to another incomer to balloon it over the bar.

The positive today was for me Poyet, who gave an assured performance. I felt sorry for Morrison and Wood, who played well but must wonder what’s going on around them. Wilson was decent enough but lacked the zip and conviction going forward that we hope for, while Evina looked vulnerable against a decent winger. Of the newcomers, Gucci looked useful but obviously got on the wrong side of the ref who believed he was looking to dive at every available opportunity. Thuram-Ulien had very little to do apart from the goals, and I don’t think he could be blamed for them. Parzyszek had no time on the pitch to be able to judge, but did look lost while he was on. And then there’s Ajdarevic. Fellow Addicks were encouraged by his performance. He was involved in some of our best moments and had chances to score. For me, he looked like a decent player in a good team but someone I wouldn’t want to be in the trenches with. Someone who is happy to make flicks in his defensive third, which resulted in us losing possession in a dangerous situation, doesn’t (yet) appreciate what a Championship relegation battle is about.

No player ratings as it is too early to tell. Suffice from me to say today we were a little unlucky. If we’d scored first it may well have been different. But don’t get blinded by the stats. We ended up well beaten by a poor team, albeit one that brought in on loan a forward from Man Utd who had the quality to win the game.

Throwing My Toy Out Of The Pram?

We know the risk, that the cover comes off and there’s a pre-match downpour (or more during the game), resulting in another postponement. With that risk in mind, it’s quite possible that (depending on the weather) our pre-match gathering will be in Blackheath rather than at the Rose and, while I very much look forward to reading Wyn’s Grant’s thoughts on the Duchatelet strategy in the pending Voice of the Valley (and the rest of the publication), possibly discussing it over a pre-match glass, it may not happen today at least. So in the interests of clarification (within the context of my unavoidable verbage), let me outline my concerns over our new owner’s strategy – or to put it another way (which won’t fit in the headline space): ‘why might a committed Europhile balk at Charlton being part of a European scheme?’

To begin with Monsieur Duchatelet, let me stress I don’t suggest for a minute that he is a fool, or a crook, even an egomaniac. He may be none, one, or all of those things, I really don’t know. I’ve never met the man and know no-one who has. My recent allusions to Shakespeare were born out of our situation of trying to discuss/assess a person and a strategy with no real knowledge (allowing for the fact that things said may or may not turn out to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth), so interpretations can reflect mostly our own inclinations. Some of the comments about him out of Belgium do worry me simply because in my experience people who ‘don’t like to be contradicted’ and believe that success in one area means they have special gifts usually fail in others.  Events may prove my concerns groundless and I hope this proves to be the case.

Briefly why do I consider myself a European federalist? I happen to believe that, especially in a European context, the nation state should be consigned to the 20th century. It had its time and that’s gone, with enough reason to believe that would be a fine thing. For me, the quid pro quo (indeed, the prerequisite) of a true European federation, including us, is a substantial strengthening of regional powers. Considerable automony for Catalonia, the Basques, Scotland etc would for me be entirely welcome, hopefully allowing regional diversity to flourish in a positive fashion. Not least as we don’t even have a democratic voting system in this country, I feel no sense of identity with whoever we might elect to a house of parliament and am indifferent to whether general guidelines are set by London or Brussels (I actually feel that the independence of the judiciary and the media, plus the competence of the civil service, are far more important than who is in government). I don’t pretend these views are popular, but they’re here perhaps to underline that I hope my concerns over Duchatelet’s strategy have nothing to do with nationality or – in the right context – European integration.

Why am I a Charlton fan? Well, the inescapable truth is because my father was and he took me to games when I was knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper. Since then, it’s been a choice whether or not to continue to be a Charlton fan. Being an Addick has over the years given me considerable pleasure, and pride. Moments and experiences that I treasure. That doesn’t mean that I consider my identity to be tied up with Charlton. It’s a part of my life. It does mean that at one level – and I think it’s perfectly acceptable – Charlton exists for my pleasure, such that if the pleasure goes the club no longer (for me) has a purpose. At a basic level Charlton provides a framework for meeting friends, chewing the cud over a glass or two, taking mutual pleasure in the good bits, enduring the lows etc. Football, like most things, is ultimately pointless unless you care, to some extent, afford it value. If you don’t care, you may enjoy the game for its own sake. But then you don’t get the highs (and unavoidable lows) that go with supporting one club, just because it is your club, the one you continue to choose, for better and for worse.

Given that, what do I want for Charlton? Of course, I’d love to see us back in the Premiership. Getting back to the Championship was a necessary step in that direction. If it all goes pear-shaped, if we get relegated, so be it. Football is a zero-sum game. Success for us inevitably means defeat for someone else and hard times for people who care as much about their club as I do for mine. If we find ourselves in League 2, even the Conference, so be it (a friend is a Wrexham fan, ask him).

Now imagine that someone comes along and buys your club. It’s quite normal to think there will be an alignment of interests, even if their motivation is money. For them to succeed and have an asset worth more than they paid for it would, you’d think, require progress, advancement (or if you are in the Premiership just holding tight and milking it). So be it.

Imagine instead that someone comes along and buys your club, quite possibly also motivated by money, but this time there’s a different agenda/strategy. What if that person thinks he/she can make money irrespective of whether that particular club prospers? What if that person has a number of clubs which he can manipulate in order to maximise the net worth of the network? Then the priority of said owner is not what’s best for my club but what’s best for the group. So what if supporters of one club in the network complain? They will (probably) still turn up, even if the club is relegated. Why should he/she care if relegation means slashing costs? Why should he/she care if shifting players around hurts one of the clubs in the network for a period of time if the net outcome is positive?

In short (ha!), the best interests of something that I value might, just might, now be secondary to another objective. That’s tantamount to telling me, in no uncertain terms, that my commitment to Charlton means nothing. I don’t pretend that this commitment in other circumstances has any value at all for the owner of the club, but if it’s treated with contempt it becomes worthless and it goes, at least until something changes. Perhaps this amounts to me just throwing my toys out of the pram in a fit of pique, after being told that my toy isn’t really my toy.

In the early stages of the Duchatelet takeover, I wrote: “Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if a new owner opens up with ‘there will be no move away from The Valley and my first priority is to agree a new contract with Sir Chris, followed by signing extensions for key players; and by the way there will be funds made available to strengthen the squad in January if the manager feels this is desirable”. Well, we know how far off the mark that’s proven to be. Later I suggested: “Perhaps it does boil down to basics. I have no interest in the team I support being part of somebody’s network, for whatever ultimate purpose.” That’s why I fear that the identity of our club may be in question, if Duchatelet has an overriding goal which is not dependent on Charlton prospering.

It’s quite possible that others will be confident in the club’s identity being preserved by the fans, irrespective of whether we progress or regress and who owns us. It may even be a case of stringing along for the ride, let’s see how it turns out, it could be fun. It’s quite possible that at another time I might feel the same. Right now, I don’t and … (oh, bloody hell, we’re back to Shakespeare again).

My one extra hope for today (beyond the game going ahead and us winning) is that Thuram-Ulien plays a blinder (well, I really hope he doesn’t have anything to do during the game). He is with us now and it’s not his fault he’s been thrown into a situation where, even given the news about Alnwick and Orient, his arrival cast doubt over the intentions of our new owner.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Having A Pop At Shakespeare

In a recent post I digressed (no, really?) to comment that I never really had time for Shakespeare. Perhaps understandably, given locale, Wyn Grant, came to the defence of the Bard. So amid all the uncertainty, differing opinions over Sir Chris and recent developments, maybe it’s time to elaborate, rant a bit, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, make it somehow relevant to our position (and my feelings about it). It may go on a bit, but the weekend’s a long way off.

Now I’ve no problem with a night out at the theatre, all good fun, and I won’t dispute that the guy wrote well. A couple of hours watching one of his romps can even lead to entertaining debate on some aspect of the human condition. But the plays themselves are nothing more than clever ploys to pose questions. You don’t learn anything from Shakespeare; everything in the performance/interpretation (and post-event debate) only serves to bring out our own/the director’s basic instincts and prejudices as there’s no right/wrong answers. If it’s any comfort I had the same problem with Dostoyevsky, indeed novels in general. Aside from the fun of a Flashman book, I haven’t read one for donkey’s years. I don’t advocate burning them, or view them as useless, it’s just that there’s so much else to focus on and actually learn from, and so little time. Without doubt the silliest thing I ever read was a review of a novel which stated that “I learnt more about the First World War from reading this novel than from all the history books”. No, you didn’t. If you want to learn, rather than being spoonfed what may or may not be half-truths, read something from someone who experienced it.

Have I been neglecting my creative side? Oh no, don’t get me started on that one. Next I’ll be asked to accept this inane modern tendency to confuse creativity with making things, to label some activities as ‘creative industries’. There’s creativity in everything – and far more in a well crafted and executed bond trade than in most popular music (they actually share a good deal as you are selecting certain combinations and possibilities to produce the desired end-result). Some architecture for example can be considered creative, but most amounts to simply calculating what is the possible outcome given the constraints involved (money, space etc), just glorified plumbing. There’s no word (I think) to be the opposite of creative, just uncreative, which implies an absence of something, something which we tend to view as desirable. True creativity is found in many places, is rare, priceless, and shouldn’t be debased by an attempt to brand certain activities as 'creative' by their nature and others not.  

But I digress. Unlike Kenny Rogers’ Gambler (from which I filched unashamedly for the headline of the previous post), I don’t claim to have made a life from reading people’s faces. But I can lay some claim to have forged something approximating a career out of reading people’s bullshit, spoken or written, from the all-too-frequent technique of stating the blindingly obvious in a fashion that makes it sound opinionated to recognising when someone is not telling the full story – and if so to then try to assess why not. It’s made me something of a cynical old git (the truth is probably that I used to be a cynical young git and was always that way inclined, so career ‘choice’ was at least partially predetermined).

There are inevitably some areas in life where your background, experience, allows some degree of understanding, even expertise. That allows you sometimes to realise that someone, or some media outlet, is either ignorant of the topic or being deliberately misleading. That’s the easy part. However, nobody can have expertise in all areas and so sometimes it comes down to trust. I’m not a scientist and don’t claim to have useful opinions on for example global warming/climate change (and I’ve no time for the ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ line: have an opinion by all means but please keep it to yourself as it’s worthless). So when on one side of the debate there is a considerable majority of scientific opinion (at least I believe so) and on the other there is … former chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson, my instinct is to put more trust in what the former might say and note but basically ignore the latter.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on football. Best I managed was six goals in my first three games for the school team and mentions in dispatches, plus later a runners-up trophy for a five-a-side competition. These proved to be the peak of accomplishments (to date at least). So when it comes to footballing matters, if there’s any difference of opinion between for example Sir Chris and a certain new owner, who to the best of my knowledge has a playing career no better than mine, I know which opinion I’d put my trust in.

All of which brings us back to Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, we all welcomed the takeover, given antipathy to the old owners turning towards despair as they had lost the means or willingness to take action to help cement our place in the Championship (or to head off our embarrassment over the pitch). We not surprisingly thought a new owner would see avoiding relegation as the overwhelming priority and appreciate that this would require investment to strengthen the team. Why would anyone buy us without the carrot of the Premiership in mind? And how could this not square with maintaining Championship status?

These were our responses, based on our priorities, our interests, and our understanding of our (ie Charlton’s) position. The current debate over the merits of keeping Sir Chris seems to be following similar lines (I’m firmly in the camp that we need him but accept others may have different opinions, based on the same goals that all of us supporters share). What seems to be dawning, in the fashion of a Shakespeare play (or possibly an episode of Columbo), is that there might be another agenda, another set of priorities involved. And perhaps Doctor Kish in his post today is getting close to outlining what that could be.

Under this scenario, Duchatelet has no immediate need to replace Sir Chris – unless there is a real falling-out, which might be the result of not agreeing with the new owner. Sacking him would still cost some money and a replacement would need to be found. If avoiding relegation isn’t the priority, why bother at this stage? But can we conclude that avoiding relegation isn’t the priority? No, we can only infer, based on the evidence. For me, the most damning piece to date is the sadly predictable decision to sell a goalkeeper in fine form, one only selected by Powell as recently as September as worthwhile, to reduce the net wages bill of Duchatelet’s regime.

Sir Chris has not surprisingly talked in terms of players moving on and potential new heroes coming in. All of the incomings bar one were already on the Duchatelet wage bill. The exception, Parzyszek, seems like a truly exciting acquisition. But on what grounds have we landed him, what promises? A cynical old git might think that if he does well for us, might he end up loaned out to Standard Liege next season, if needed in the Champions League? On that basis, buying him is to put him in the Duchatelet stable, available for a move on if needed for a greater goal: trying to milk the benefits of the Champions League.

Perhaps our new players will prove to be heroes, if we stay up. But our true strength over the past couple of years, even the past couple of decades, has been an uncommon bond between supporters and the club born out of the wilderness years and the return. That may be a thing of the past, but no enterprise succeeds if different parts of it are pursuing separate goals. We know our goals and we know that Powell shares them. Whether our new owner does we will only be able to tell as we watch the play unfold as we can’t rip up the script, choose the actors, nor ensure the happy ending we want. Merde, now I can’t get a Bee Gees song out of my head.