Saturday 2 May 2015

A Party, But Not For Us

Turned out to be quite a party for Bournemouth, quite a welcome back for Kermorgant, and nothing much to sing about for us. It was how we expected it to be and nobody in that sense disappointed. Bournemouth pretty much cut us to pieces in the first half and any chance of us making it a decent contest faded as we failed to get the goal to make it interesting and then disappeared with one of the daftest double-substitutions I've seen. All that was left was for them to score a third, us to prevent a complete rout, and then for a rather forced trip around the pitch for the players, before handing the party back to Bournemouth. Good luck to them.

The team contained a few surprises/changes. Gomez was left on the bench, hopefully not because we feared an injury before we can cash in, Cousins didn't even get a subs berth, while the chances of an end-of-season cameo from Le Point went out of the window. In front of Henderson, Johnson and Ben Haim were paired, with Solly and Fox. Diarra and Buyens took the central midfield spots, with Bulot and Berg Gudmundsson out wide, while not surprisingly Watt and Vetokele began up front. With four defenders and a keeper on the bench, only Church and Eagles provided alternatives going forward.

Bournemouth took control early on, passing the ball better than us and showing enough signs that they could score, if not when they wanted then pretty close, especially as we were making some pretty poor errors. Our back four seemed to line up intent on holding their positions, while Kermorgant played a bit deeper, laid it off and sucked defenders towards him when he collected the ball, leaving space for the speedy guy alongside him. Just as ominously, their guy down the right was finding plenty of space, with Bulot showing an indifferent (and then inability) to do the defensive work. Early on it looked as though we might be dangerous with one attack in three, whereas they looked like scoring each time.

The game seemed set up for something inevitable inside the first two minutes. Diarra was adjudged to have clipped Kermorgant advancing towards the box, giving them a free kick in prime position for him. Thankfully this time his curled effort failed to clear the wall and a minute or so later a loose ball in the box was thumped by him some way over the bar. Johnson was guilty of a poor header back towards Henderson which was easily intercepted, but Diarra came to his rescue with a good block.

In the event it took them 10 minutes to go ahead. It wasn't rocket science but was well executed. Ball played forward to Kermorgant and he played it wide right to their guy in acres of space, Bulot having not tracked back. He took it inside a bit and curled in an unstoppable low shot into the corner of the net. After that the last thing that was needed was to give Bournemouth a gift they didn't need. Buyens dwelt on the ball on the edge of our box and trying to turn out of trouble was robbed by Arter, who slotted easily past Henderson. Dreadful error duly punished, while Arter's celebrations in front of the East Stand seemed to be a little over-the-top.

Next up Francis advanced and hit a low shot from outside the area that went narrowly wide. That would have been hard to take. A couple of their corners threatened danger while at the other end we did have our one decent moment of the first half as Gudmundsson got free and fired a strong low cross that just needed a touch from Vetokele. Otherwise our frustration was evident as Igor misplaced a pass when in a good position. Bulot threatened once or twice, Watt caused them a problem or two, Diarra hit a shot over the bar. But otherwise I can't remember us carving out anything before the break, while a season that started so brightly for Vetokele ended rather tamely as he seemed to fall badly and was replaced by Church.

At half-time the impression was we were fortunate to be only two behind and, this being football, you just never know. Somehow scrape one back and, attacking the Covered End with some momentum, might still be a real contest. Alternatively a third for Bournemouth and that would be it.

Neither happened. We were more in it as perhaps Bournemouth felt that two would be enough (which is not to say they didn't have chances to add to their total, including one deflected on that came back off the bar). Watt advanced well and almost played in Church, while Gudmundsson was becoming increasingly influential. But the game stuttered as, when players weren't dealing with streamers and balloons, Church fell awkwardly and required treatment before being able to continue, then Watt seemed to pull up with what looked like cramp. The bench seemed to be preparing to take him off, but he indicated he could continue.

With about 20 minutes left on the clock Luzon opted for a double change. Diarra, who had been our most effective player in helping out the defence (while admittedly not adding much going forward), was taken off, along with Bulot. On came Gomez and Eagles, with the former slotting in at right-back and Solly moving inside. Just what the rationale for that one was escaped me at the time, while using the third change when both forwards had been hobbling seemed totally mystifying. That came home to roost shortly after as Watt went down again and this time hobbled off, not to return (in the good old days of course he would have walked around the centre-circle for the rest of the game).

Two down against a very good team, down to 10 men. The final part of the game was little short of a farce in footballing terms. Between them Church, Eagles and Gudmundsson actually contrived to create a few threatening moments. But perhaps the final straw was us getting a bit of space and Gudmundsson running through on goal only for Church to tread on the ball. The Icelander's expression said it all. And these moments became irrelevant as, after Yann had taken his leave of The Valley pitch, Bournemouth scored their third. They could have had more were it necessary, but with the news coming through from Watford everyone on their front was more inclined to begin to party.

After the final whistle we had some words from Jackson, a few from Luzon (who might have apologised for that double-change), then the stage was created for Bournemouth to be crowned champions. Kermorgant rightly celebrated with them, but still found the time to climb into the West Stand to embrace some fans and to be cheered to the rafters. Everyone knows that our loss is Bournemouth's gain.

No player ratings for this one. Honourable mentions in dispatches for Gudmundsson, Diarra, plus Church and Eagles. Others pretty much went through the motions. Buyens' error for the second goal was awful, but these things happen and the greater criticism is that he showed little desire through the game to be out there. I also felt that Vetokele didn't want to be on the pitch either, especially after his early mistake. Just who will be there next season and who will not, we wait to see.

Monday 27 April 2015

Best Laid Plans

Just as you love it when a good plan of your own comes together, sometimes you have to find amusement when the plans of others go awry. Not long ago no doubt Sky et al, having obliged us to get out of the sack at an indecently early hour on Saturday, were licking their lips at the prospect of a hair-raising final round of Championship games, with effectively four teams battling to the last seconds for the two automatic promotion spots, at least four (possibly more) scrapping for the last two play-off places, and two of those games involving teams at the bottom desperate for a last-match reprieve. Now, if Bournemouth win tonight and Rotherham tomorrow, the only remaining issues will be whether we and Middlesbrough can between us conjure up a 16-plus goals turnaround to deny Bournemouth, and whether Ipswich and Derby can get at least the draws they need to cement their top-six places.

Not exactly the stuff of pay-per-view nirvana. Perhaps if Bournemouth and Rotherham do the business they might then relent and switch all the games back to a 3pm start, to allow for normal body-clock pre-match alcohol consumption. I know, I live in cloud-cuckoo land.

For me, all that remains of this season is to enjoy the trials and tribulations of others outside of the Championship, wonder what transgression needs to be dreamt up to dock Palace the points necessary to send them down, be there to give Kermorgant the welcome back/bon voyage he so richly deserves (with respectful applause for Francis and Arter), and to keep an eye out for Lyon Duchere, who thanks to a weekend win have moved out of one of the three relegation spots in CFA Groupe C but still have work to do with six games left.

As for us, dreams of finishing ninth above Blackburn have now gone out of the window (albeit in a noble cause) and it's a case of holding onto tenth (courtesy of Leeds' surprise win at Sheff Wed) or potentially ending up fourteenth. Provided Bournemouth get their victory tonight, surely it's not beyond the wit of captain JJ to get in touch with Kermorgant to sort out an amicable 2-1 win for us to send everyone back to the pub happy (I'm sure the Cherries will be ready to forego their outside chance of the title of champions in return for our assurance that a one-goal victory will be plenty good enough for us, plus a few good bottles thrown in for good measure).

In the greater scheme of things of course finishing tenth or fourteenth is going to mean nothing; we will remember the season for the three distinct phases it contained and overall be a good deal more relieved that a relegation fight was avoided rather than look wistfully at a play-off place that was never in our grasp. In general, with the obvious exception of the Millwall game, I think Luzon and the players have made a reasonable fist of seeing out the season when there has been only pride (and in some cases contracts) to play for.

Understandably, the thoughts of some are turning to ambitions for next season and associated with that who stays/goes, what we need to keep/build on and where we need to strengthen. Equally unsurprisingly, some have been suggesting that after a (probable) top-half finish progress has to mean a real tilt at the top six. In normal circumstances, I might be inclined to join in the speculation. Fact is, what happens come August is entirely down to the goals/priorities/whims (and to be fair the chequebook) of one man - and on that front, as from the start, we're just guessing.

We've been told that Duchatelet's twin objectives are to get us promoted and to break even. We know that those goals are incompatible. We've been assuming that the medium-term plan has been to benefit from the fair play rules creating a more level playing-field as regards finances and for the benefits of the consortium approach to then shine through. We should by now know that, whatever people think of FPL - I'm still in the camp that regards it as well-intentioned nonsense which will end up having little material impact even if not thrown out in the courts; for example if my understanding is correct there is nothing to stop any Championship club racking up whatever loss it wishes as long as there is sufficient fresh investment rather than just accumulated debt on the books, largely to the owner(s) - the former is pretty much a pipe-dream.

That all suggests to me that our owner has a fundamental decision to make: keep the losses within acceptable boundaries (ie pretty much around current levels, with no realistic prospect of materially increasing revenues outside of player sales) and accept that this probably means the main objective being to stay in the Championship (of course you can never rule out more or less), look to cut losses through player changes and by implication at least take a risk in that the chances of a relegation battle increase, or set the stall out to go for promotion and make the increased investment that this implies. Sure, it's not that simple, but the broad guidelines are fairly clear.

Absent some U-turn on communication with supporters as regards the balance of priorities going forward from the one person that matters, we are going to be left drawing inferences from player ins and outs. Even then it probably won't be easy. If for example we end up selling Gomez for a decent price (no doubt we won't actually know the fee if that happens, at least not at the time), it would remain to be seen whether the proceeds go towards strengthening in other areas or to redressing the books (or of course a mix of the two).

Accepting a decent offer for a player from a Premiership club (especially if he wants to move on) wouldn't exactly be new for us, or in itself grounds for criticism. I think I've seen the lot, from fire-sales to pay the wages/keep the club going (Paul Walsh/Paul Elliot, even Robert Lee), through reasonable acceptance of a fair offer for a young player (Jenkinson, Shelvey) to pay the bills and to bring in others. We hardly welcomed but accepted such sales as necessary evils. It is somewhat different now as to the best of our knowledge our owner doesn't have cashflow problems but rather has to judge on his own priorities/interests what level of losses are acceptable. This time around, if it happens, I merely would hope we get an honest explanation, even if that were 'the player was sold to contain losses'.

For sure none of us want to see Gomez, or Berg Gudmundsson (or for that matter Cousins, Watt or Vetokele) get sold, and rejecting any offers would be a very encouraging statement of intent. If we were to start the next campaign with those five still with us, plus Henderson, Solly, Wiggins/Fox, and enough others (Jackson, Buyens, Bulot, at least three centre-backs, plus Diarra), and perhaps an addition or two to replace some that might go, we could I feel reasonably expect to at least hold our own and to have hopes that with good fortune a stab at the top six is possible (depending probably on how the teams coming down from the Premiership and those that miss out on going up this season trim their sails). At this stage of the game, we simply cannot know.

Saturday 18 April 2015

Gudmundsson Comes On, We Win

It was a bright but blustery afternoon for an essentially meaningless game of football, one given a little prior interest by the news that six Leeds players had pulled out of the game at late notice due to apparent injury. Given the backdrop, the news did at least serve as a reminder that we are not the only Championship club with a somewhat idiosyncratic owner. Just how would it affect the game? I can't say how their team lined up and what difference the absentees made. But from their supporters' chants for their manager (and references to Italians in general) I'm assuming that they are less than pleased, just as I wouldn't be if I'd paid for the travel and ticket.

For us? Perhaps it didn't help as we were sluggish, not collectively up for the game, an impression strengthened by Luzon's decision to rest some players. Poor first half, no complaints about being behind then, a change at the break, Berg Gudmundsson comes on, he's involved in two goals, and that was it, with Leeds unable to muster a threatening response. It really is time for the season to end, at least as far as we are concerned and there's little point griping about what that means as we play out games.

The team saw Ben Haim brought in alongside Gomez in central defence, with Solly and Fox the full-backs in front of Henderson. Diarra took one of the central midfield berths, partnering Buyens, with Bulot and Eagles the wide men, and Watt and Vetokele up front. That meant rests for Johnson, Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson, who all sat on the bench. I can't say what the thinking was, or how the players were feeling after the recent run of games, but I don't think anyone would have thought that if fully fit our strongest starting line-up would not include Gudmundsson at least.

No matter, we had the better of an inconclusive early phase, without troubling their keeper as we lacked precision in the final third. Good situations were worked, but Bulot when well positioned hit one of those that wasn't a shot on target or a low cross that anyone could get on the end of, Vetokele having cut inside well overhit the ball and lost it, while Eagles picked out the right pass but just underhit it. Things just weren't quite coming off, and there was early disruption as Diarra pulled up and hobbled off after only around 10 minutes, ensuring that Cousins' rest was short-lived.

After that generally encouraging start, we went off the boil and Leeds came more into it, and went on to create better actual chances than we had managed. First, a ball in was flicked on twice to find one of their guys coming in at the far post. With all the goal to aim at he hoofed it over the bar. Then Henderson got a bit too smart with a back-pass and with the forward closing him down attempted the clearance only for it to be blocked and end up going just wide of the post. The next chance went our way, as a corner was punched out by their keeper not very convincingly, Ben Haim ran onto the loose ball from outside the box and put in a shot, and I thought that Vetokele tried to deflect it goalwards only for the ball to hit the post.

But in general we were too sloppy in and out of possession and after about 35 minutes almost paid for it. Ben Haim was caught out by a ball forward and chasing after their guy going into the box slid in, only to make contact with him and not the ball. It seemed a pretty clear-cut penalty, the only relief being that the ref didn't seem to consider whether it was a goal-scoring opportunity and produced no card. The spot kick was hit firmly to Henderson's left, but he dived the right way, got fingertips to it, and diverted the ball onto the post and out.

Having been let off, you hoped we would raise our game. Instead we went behind not long after as a Leeds corner produced what looked like a training-ground routine, with the taker putting it into a place where their guy ran onto it, having lost his marker. He connected well and this time although Henderson got something on it the ball ended up in the roof of the net.

At the break things were not looking good. Watt seemed more interested in various tussles with their defenders and their number 4 who was protecting the back four, Vetokele continued to look short of both confidence and full fitness, Eagles had contributed well early on but hadn't made a telling contribution, while Bulot flattered to deceive on the other flank and Buyens seemed to be going through the motions. It looked like a case for a few words from Luzon in the dressing room and/or a change. Don't know about the former, but we did get the latter, with Gudmundsson replacing Eagles. A bit tough on him, but one way or another, if we were to get something from the game, he needed to be on the pitch.

Attacking the Covered End we started the second half well enough, as we had the first. But the only chance of note came early on, as Watt managed to set up Igor in a good central shooting position. He should have at least made the keeper work but hit it wide. By now, as reflected in the time-wasting, you had the impression that Leeds were reasonably happy to hold what they had and to try for what might had seemed ahead of the game, given the absentees, an unlikely victory. That was not to be, as Gudmundsson took it by the scruff of the neck. He may not be much good in the air, may not be able to tackle, but he can pick out the right cross and with about 15 minutes of the regular time left he floated one to the far post to find Watt, who hit is crisply on the volley into the far corner. It wasn't exactly a goal out of nothing, but wasn't exactly in keeping with our approach play and finishing that had gone before.

About five minutes later, Henderson managed to find Gudmundsson in space, he took it forward and inside and hit a reasonable shot. Their keeper parried it but didn't make it safe, Vetokele nicked it past him and took the contact. Whether or not he would have made it to the ball is another matter, but he had got to it first and been brought down, so penalty it was. Buyens may have been having an indifferent game, but he knows how to convert them and once more duly did.

Now the onus was on us to run down the clock, which we did to reasonable effect. Leeds had to chase it and tried, but I can't remember Henderson being called into anything more than routine action. The only event of note in the final stages was Vetokele taking an accidental knock to the head and groggily going off, being replaced by Church. And we managed to see out five minutes of stoppage time without a real scare.

Did we deserve the win? Over the 90 minutes probably not, but we scored a decent goal and converted our penalty when they failed with theirs. They may feel a little hard done-by, but couldn't muster a real threat in the second half, either to make the game safe or to square things up. And when the dust settles the chances are that neither sets of supporters will remember this one for long, both being more concerned about how the whims of their owners will translate into prospects for next season.

Player Ratings:

Henderson:  8/10. Superb penalty save, and this time we'll gloss over the moment when his dallying before clearing almost cost us.

Solly: 7/10. No real complaints, just didn't see much in the way of him bombing forward. In the second half I guess it was more a case of being available to support Gudmundsson.

Fox: 7/10. Solid enough, at the moment he's keeping Wiggins out on merit.

Ben Haim: 6/10. Coming back into the team he didn't seem to have the assurance we saw earlier in the season. Over the full game was decent, but was badly caught out in the move that led to the penalty and made the challenge that led to it.

Gomez: 7/10. Continues to impress.

Eagles: 6/10. Impressed early on and a little unlucky to be the one to be withdrawn to get Gudmundsson on the pitch.

Diarra: 6/10. Not really on long enough for a proper assessment.

Buyens: 5/10. For the most part he looked like he was playing well within the boundaries of what he can do. Some decent passes, a great penalty, but overall lacklustre.

Bulot: 5/10. Also lacklustre, generally peripheral today.

Watt:  6/10. Took his goal very well, more involved in the second half, but overall below par compared to what we have seen before.

Vetokele: 5/10. I really hope he recaptures the vibrancy and verve that he showed earlier in the season. No shortage of effort, but something, physically or mentally, isn't the same at the moment.

Subs:  Cousins (7/10 - almost a full game, not great but OK); Gudmundsson (8/10 - he obviously changed the game); Church (6/10 - just a cameo at the death to help see out the game).

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Fair Result

After a lazy long holiday weekend and a balmy afternoon, and given our position in the league (before heading back to Lyon today my partner Suzanne asked me if we would go higher than 11th if we won, and it seemed we could go up a place if we won by an eight-goal margins, or drop a place if we lost by four), there was an unavoidable end-of-season feel ahead of tonight's game, intensified by the prospect of giving a decent welcome back to both Curbs and Scotty Parker and even the thought that having failed to deny Millwall the points the only decent thing to do was give some to Fulham, just to keep their heads above water for an obvious reason (except that, while having no ill-will whatsoever towards Fulham and not being one to bear a grudge, I struggle to draw a veil over that equaliser in the Premiership). Question was would the players feel the same, or give us a decent evening's entertainment.

In the event it was a reasonable enough game, albeit one that failed to turn into the goal-fest that looked possible in the first half, when both sides looked highly likely to notch more than one on the night. If anything the second half petered out rather tamely, which did tend to highlight the mystifying, and embarrassing, booing of Parker. I was ready to give him a standing ovation, he deserves no less. I hope he has better memories of The Valley than the late exchange with some fans after he nearly crocked himself in the boardings after a challenge by Fox.

The team was fairly predictable. With Solly unavailable, Gomez took his spot, with Ben Haim returning to partner Johnson, while Bulot came in for Eagles on the left side. Diarra, Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson completed the midfield, with Watt and Vetokele paired up front.

After a fairly even start, Fulham showed they had the ability to pull apart our defence, creating space between the two banks of four and getting joy especially down their right side, where Fox seemed to find himself without any protection. In the space of about 15 minutes they created four decent openings and, with Johnson and Ben Haim during that period seemingly chasing shadows, might have put the game beyond reach. The one they did score came from a fairly routine ball into the box which their tall centre-forward headed square and McCormack read faster than our centre-backs, stealing a march to head the ball over a stranded Henderson.

The space Fulham were finding/creating at that stage of the game threatened more, with Henderson called into action a few times. But at the other end it was becoming apparent why only Blackpool have conceded more goals than them this season. A bit of pressure applied and they were equally all at sea, especially when the ball was kept on the deck. The equaliser nevertheless had a tinge of controversy about it, even though I think the officials got it right (according to the offside rule as I understand it). Fox got in down the left and put in a low cross, which saw a clearly offside Bulot (I am informed) stretch to try to convert it only to fail to get a touch, with the ball running on to Gudmundsson, who had come through from a clearly onside position and who managed to divert it into the roof of the net. There may have been a case for Bulot having distracted their keeper and interfered with play, but said keeper was never going to claim the ball or get near Gudmundsson's effort.

That proved the catalyst for probably our best period of the game, when we should have added to our total. Watt produced one sublime turn to wrongfoot their defenders, only to just overhit the pass to Vetokele. But the next time they combined Watt prodded the ball forward for Igor, with Fulham again looking in vain to the linesman for a flag. He played it across the goal and Gudmundsson came onto it at the far post. There was a defender's leg coming towards him and the angle was a bit tight, but from only a couple of yards out he put it into the side-netting. It was a bad miss and, though it didn't look likely at the time, that was to be the best chance for the remainder of the game.

Just before the break a McCormack free-kick from outside the box produced a decent save from Henderson, who dived to his left to turn it away. And at the break it really was anyone's game.

The surprise was really that in the second half both teams failed to produce consistently the forward threat that had been evident in the first period. Perhaps both managers made adjustments to tighten things up, but for us Gudmundsson, who had run them ragged, featured less, while Vetokele seemed to be carrying an injury and struggled to get past their defenders when he had a yard of space. At the other end Fulham had their chances, but they were more the result of something falling in a crowded box - one clear opportunity was hoofed over the bar - than the movement they had shown before. There were shots and near misses at both ends, but nothing clear-cut.

After the hour Fulham made a double-substitution and shortly after Eagles came on for Bulot, who had shown a couple of deft touches but was largely peripheral. With about 10 minutes left Church came on for the tiring Vetokele but the game was really petering out to a rather tame draw when the referee decided to inject some possible late drama by awarding Fulham another soft free-kick outside the box. But McCormack curled it over the bar and that was pretty much it.

Over the 90+ minutes we may have just about shaded it, largely on the grounds that having equalised we had the best chance to win the game. But Fulham could point to that early period when defensively we looked disorganised and might have conceded more than one, as well as a couple of second-half shots. A draw was probably a fair result.

Player Ratings:

Henderson - 8/10. Couple of excellent saves, dealt well with any high balls in the box, and no chance with the goal (although he was off his line and perhaps made it easy for McCormack to see the opportunity to loop his header over him into the net).

Gomez - 7/10.  Another assured performance, defensively sound after the collective failures of the early period and seems to have the ability to stroke in some delightful, testing crosses.

Fox - 6/10. Not sure it was entirely his fault that most of their threat in the first half came down his side, he seemed to be left on his own a fair bit and they exploited the space.

Ben Haim - 6/10. Along with Johnson got more to grips with their forwards after the first 20 mins, but during that time we were vulnerable.

Johnson - 6/10. Much the same, can't say why we were seemingly easily pulled apart early on.

Berg Gudmundsson - 8/10. Ran them ragged in the first half in particular, would have been a clear man-of-the-match had he converted his second chance (which he should have done).

Diarra - 7/10. Neat and tidy, did a job. Decent addition for next season.

Cousins - 7/10. Seemed to struggle a bit in the first half but more effective in the second, some timely interceptions.

Bulot - 6/10. Threatened a few times down the flank, but nothing telling came from them.

Watt - 7/10. Once again was able to produce almost out of nothing a few moments that almost turned the game, couple of shots that went narrowly wide.

Vetokele - 6/10. Didn't look fully fit to me tonight and without the extra bit of pace struggled.

Subs - Eagles (6/10: nothing dramatic and was caught in possession a couple of times); Church (6/10: no great impact on the game in the final 10 minutes or so). 

Saturday 21 March 2015

Turnaround After The Break

Not everything turned out as planned today, including discovering rather too late there were no trains from Blackheath to Charlton and England not getting the final try in the last seconds (just how my French partner Suzanne can take pleasure in the end-result, handing the title to their 'Irish friends' - a fallacy of history - only she and her conscience can answer). But in between there was a pretty decent second half served up at The Valley, after a rather mundane (and for me shortened) first period, during which we in particular looked as though the summer holidays were being planned.

Apparently Solly, having been named in the side (as captain), was injured during the pre-match preparations, so whatever the original intentions it turned out to be in front of Henderson Gomez and Fox plus Johnson and Diarra. The midfield four (Bulot, Buyens, Cousins and Berg Gudmundsson) contained no surprises, while up front Eagles was given a start inside along with Watt, with Vetokele not making the bench.

Apparently we were pretty good in the first 15 minutes, having at least one decent effort, but this time around I really can't say from first-hand experience. All I do know is that by the time I arrived Reading were getting more of a grip on the game and were to provide the few moments of interest in a decidedly unmemorable first-half. What became noticeable was their inability to take advantage of decent situations, with free-kicks overhit (one in particular on the edge of the box after Johnson had taken one for the team to stop a threatening attack) and final passes misplaced. We looked off the pace, with only cameo moments from Bulot and Gudmundsson and little if any service to the front two, who were regularly outmuscled by the Reading centre-backs. Buyens in particular (but not in isolation) appeared to be going through the motions.

I don't remember us having a shot in anger in the first half. Neither did Henderson make a save, but he did have to pick the ball out of the net. It wasn't a goal out of the blue, rather a finish out of keeping with what we had seen before. One of their guys seemed to get space between our lines and when the ball broke to him he finished in some style.

At the break you just felt that the extra impetus from attacking the Covered End in the second half had to make some difference - and after 10 minutes of the second we had already created more than I'd seen in the first 45 and were very unlucky to at least not be back on level terms. First good work down the left ended with a cross that eluded their defenders but came at an awkward height for Watt towards the far post and he ballooned it over when it really should have been on target. Then one from the right to the far post was nodded down for the incoming Buyens, whose low shot from around the penalty spot was blocked by a prostrate defender. Finally great work down the right and an excellent cross saw Eagles with a free header that he failed to keep below the bar.

It seemed as if a bit more tempo and application and Reading's back line looked far from secure. But we hadn't taken the chances and ended up getting level in rather strange circumstances. This time it was an innocuous ball in from the left which Watt and their defender contested, the end-result being the latter falling backwards and adjudged to have handled the ball. A penalty and a yellow card. A fellow Addick who had a clearer view suggested after the game that Watt might have given him a bit of a tug to unbalance him, but the ref's decision is final (and I've never questioned a spot kick for us). Buyens may have had a poor first half but he can take a penalty. This one was hit crisply into the roof of the net.

That gave us additional impetus and now Bulot and Gudmundsson were having more of an influence, Watt causing more problems, and perhaps most important Buyens and Cousins getting more of a grip on central midfield to provide the service. Luzon made a change, with Church coming on to replace Eagles, who had struggled to make a telling impact as a central forward, and our second wasn't long in coming after that. An exquisite pass inside their full back picked out Gomez on the overlap and he delivered into the box. Buyens again proved the man on the spot. I'm not sure if he placed it into the net or if it bounced in off his knee, but the outcome was the same.

Reading made changes but while looking capable had still to fashion a real chance in the second half and gave no great impression of being about to get back into the game. Instead another ball in landed to Church and while his shot was decent enough it was another last-ditch block by a defender, seemingly denying him a goal against his former club. No matter, with around 10 minutes left on the clock we had the moment of the afternoon. The ball was knocked forward to Watt on the right edge of the penalty area, with a defender in close attention. The defender must have realised that Watt was going to try to go past him towards the by-line but was just unable to stop him doing just that, with his strength taking him clear. He squared it and Church was on hand to put it in the net.

That seemed about it, just play out the game. But there was time for Watt to get involved in a little off-the-ball afters with a defender already on a yellow card. One more each and off went their guy. Cue sensible move by Luzon to withdraw Watt, to give LePoint another final cameo. Then just as we headed into five minutes of stoppage time Reading did get one back, with a ball to the near post not dealt with and their guy shooting low into the net. But a last-ditch free-kick was claimed by Henderson and there was to be no late squandering of a couple of points.

We deserved the win, by virtue of the fact that when we raised our game in the second half Reading weren't able to cope. We scored three in the second period and on good chances it could have been double that. Just remarkable what a contrast that was with the subdued display in the first. Was it something Luzon said at the break, or just a collective acceptance that the way we played before half-time was simply not good enough to win a game? Who knows.

Player Ratings:

Henderson - 7/10. Don't remember him having a real save to make apart from their goals, which he had no chance with. Made the necessary claims of high balls.

Gomez - 7/10. Decent game defensively, instrumental in our second goal. A real plus this season.

Fox - 7/10. Happily now seems to have put the problems of earlier in the season behind him, looked solid and dependable.

Johnson - 7/10. Nothing dramatic, just the necessary, including hauling down their guy when we were in trouble and taking the yellow card.

Diarra - 7/10. Looks quite capable at centre-back, good interceptions, obviously reads the game well.

Gudmundsson - 7/10. Not in the game much in the first half, but when we wrested control in the second was able to come much more into it to good effect.

Buyens - 7/10. I watched him in the first half and felt he was doing not nearly enough, far too casual. But he upped his game in the second and that made a big difference to the team, converted an excellent penalty, scored another and might have had a third, getting into the areas where Jackson often does.

Cousins - 7/10. He too came much more into the match after the break, got forward to good effect with decent runs that weren't always picked out.

Bulot - 7/10. No decisive contribution but as with Gudmundsson on the other flank a better second half.

Eagles - 6/10. He's been impressive since arriving but struggled a bit today, failed to put his header from a very good position on target.

Watt - 8/10. After a quiet first half he became a real pain for them in the second, involved in getting the penalty, their guy's second yellow, and that run for our third goal was the abiding memory of the game.

Subs - Church (7/10: delighted that he got the goal, the winner as it proved); LePoint (7/10: job for the final few minutes was to run around and help ease any pressure and he did that).

Friday 20 March 2015

Bon Voyage Lawrie

If it is to be curtains for Lawrie Wilson's Charlton career, we'll remember the good times rather than the sad ending: an emergency loan to Rotherham (no disrespect intended, just reminds me of that dramatisation of Eamon Dumphy's book when he is trying to comfort a Millwall youngster who's just been released with the idea that things could be worse, he - Dumphy - has been told he's got to go and play for Charlton). The last time I was in Rotherham I was waiting to catch a bus back to Sheffield after having watched us lose 3-0, proudly wearing my red and white scarf, feeling hacked off, only to get a bucketload of abuse from Charlton fans in coaches setting off back to the smoke. Rounded off a somewhat imperfect day.

Wilson for sure goes with all our best wishes. He has looked a bit forlorn of late, not the driving force down the flank that we got to appreciate. Perhaps he already knew he would be off in the summer (if not in January) and some of the enthusiasm (not the effort) may have gone. I hope he gets it back at Rotherham and flourishes. But yes, we will remember him in particular for last season's contribution. He was a Player of the Season contender (and I suspect may have scored higher if a number who might have voted for him opted instead for Kermorgant).

So as this season winds down to its conclusion, the news does turn thoughts towards who should get the gong this time around. For me it boils down to three candidates.

Starting at the back, no question Henderson was badly missed and his absence can be seen as a significant factor behind the poor run either side of the turn of the year, especially as Pope didn't prove capable enough at this stage of his career (he clearly has time on his side). If he'd played through the season he would have been among the favourites but he didn't. Solly, Wiggins and Jackson have all been missing at various times through injury and, while deserving of mentions in dispatches, probably (through no fault of their own) won't get the nod. Buyens, Bikey-Amougou and Ben Haim all started off the season excellently, only for them to suffer the dip in form which characterised the middle third of the season (two of them ended up being dropped and can have had no complaints). Equally, if Vetokele's first-third strike rate had been extended through the season he would have been a shoo-in, but it didn't.

While not ignoring others, that really leaves my top three: Cousins, Berg Gudmundsson and Watt. For a sustained, high-quality contribution - and let's not forget nine goals and counting - you'd go for Gudmundsson. For impact and being a major factor in a real relegation scrap being averted, it would for sure be Watt. But it is meant to be an award for the player of the whole season, and my vote's going to go for Cousins.

He's made 40 appearances to date (including cups, not one off the bench), tried his best when played out of his best position for so long, and took the opportunity to shine again when brought back into central midfield. It tends to get forgotten that he was getting rave reviews last season before Poyet broke into the side and the limelight. He didn't throw his toys out of the pram then, and didn't when it was a case of 'back out wide again for you laddie' (in a Belgian accent) at the start of this campaign.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Vital Game On Saturday

It’s an absolutely glorious sunny morning, feels very much like spring is in the air. No idea what the weather’s like back in London, but in Lyon, aside from a little haze still to be burnt off, it’s a day when you question the sanity of having set off a week ago wearing a very warm but slightly cumbersome flying jacket; if I venture out in that (and I brought no alternative) I’m dafter than a Spanners fan.

I’ve sacrificed the game against Blackburn for an extra Saturday with Suzanne and a bit more French culture – having last Saturday toured the Jean Moulin memorial and house (where he was arrested) plus the prison in which he was subsequently held, we are attempting something which I haven’t managed in all the years of coming here, namely getting up early and visiting the traboules – followed by a football match of a different nature, one with a lot riding on it. Lyon Duchere, hovering just above the relegation zone in CFA Groupe C, will be taking on Beziers, who sit proudly at the top of the league, having lost just once in 21 games. It could be a cracker.

The formbook obviously favours Beziers. Duchere haven’t won for four games and lie fourth from bottom (three go down), with just a couple of points breathing space (in truth it’s at least three as they have a game in hand and you get a point for turning up in this league). Just 23 goals scored in 20 games (only 24 conceded) and just four wins all season, compared with 13 wins out of 21 and 30 scored (it’s not exactly a free-scoring league this time around) for Beziers. Time to turn it all on its head and send the few hundred of us that will turn out home happy, with tales to tell of victory against the odds as we sip our Liqueur de Chataigne on the balcony (Suzanne has of late been trying to fob me off with Chartreuse or cognac but I found the bottle she’d been keeping quiet about).

Of course, if Duchere had the misfortune to be part of the Duchatelet network they might have Igor or Tony Watt (more likely the waste of space Rezza or Polish Pete, who might shine at this level) parachuted in to help the cause. Fortunately for them I have no reason to believe that they are on his radar and are in the happy position of standing or falling on their own merits, which for me is an integral, essential part of the rationale for a football club (if this sounds like resistance to change so be it, if a consortium model is some sort of future for football I want no part of it).

I’d intended to leave any decisions regarding next season until what just a few weeks ago was looking like a real fight against relegation was resolved (not that whatever division we found ourselves in would have a bearing on the outcome). The splendid turnaround since then means that battle has been fought and won, with Luzon entitled to his share of the credit for it, along with the players (and the board/owner for the necessary strengthening of the squad). With the season ticket renewals details having been publicised (fortunately in a fashion which didn’t involve a squalid attempt at free publicity), and having read Kings Hill Addick’s depressing account of Katrien Miere’s visit to East Kent Addicks, there’s no good reason to wait longer.

I shall have to get used to Saturday afternoons away from The Valley as, barring some unexpected development and/or real change of heart, I shall not be renewing my season ticket or attending games next season. That the Trust’s renewed appeals for meaningful consultation with the club/board have fallen on deaf ears is disappointing but hardly comes as a surprise. It merely reinforces my impression that the board/owner have no intention to deliver on what they say regarding engagement with supporters but instead pay lip-service to the notion. Fair enough, that’s their decision, they own the club. Just leaves us to make ours – and it feels like I’ve made mine.

Hey, it’s one supporter and one season ticket. Nobody’s going to lose any sleep. I don’t expect my attitude to in any way influence anybody else – and do fully appreciate that others (including fellow Addicks I go to games with) feel differently, putting perhaps a higher value than me on purely results/performances etc. To those whose immediate reaction is ‘good riddance, we don’t need supporters like you’, I can’t say much other than good luck, keep enjoying it, just that for a number of reasons - there will be time enough to repeat them but they all boil down to a combination of a board that has no respect for supporters (including a CEO who dislikes being labelled a liar, a term which I have never used, but is then happy to effectively brand ‘former employees’ as liars) and an owner with a dreadful strategy for his football clubs - I no longer do.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Good Performance, Deserved Result

Good performance, deserved result. Forest fans may not agree, given that they had the lion's share of possession in the second half. But we basically bettered them in both boxes, had the lead and kept a shape through that second half, restricting them to only a few moments of danger. And yes, with Watt starring again the final little cameo of keep-ball by the touchline was most entertaining (for us), if a tad frustrating (for them). That we started the game with what looked like a team patched together made it all the more impressive as they did their jobs.

That team was stripped of Johnson, Solly and Berg Gudmundsson, along with Jackson and Wiggins. The surprise was that Bikey-Amougou remained on the bench, with Diarra drafted in alongside Gomez in central defence, with Wilson and Fox the full-backs, while Harriott came in to play wide right. Not a back four that many would have predicted. With this being a game that you felt Forest needed to win to keep alive slim hopes of making the play-offs, you'd have been forgiven for thinking that we were taking the opportunity to give some a little more time to be fully fit, as the recent run of three wins from four had eased immediate concerns. But as things turned out, that would be a disservice to those who came in, especially Diarra, who went on to deliver a commanding and assured display.

The early exchanges were pretty even, both sides content to knock the ball around. But from the start Watt looked as though he was capable of unsettling them, which he did after less than 10 minutes, picking up a routine ball and running at them, resulting with him being bundled over outside the box. No Gudmunssson, a bit close to the goal to be confident of another getting it over the wall and down. But those doubts were dispelled as Bulot stepped up and simply curled it superblly around their last guy and into the net. Ahead before the game had really shaped up (and as with Saturday, what a difference it makes when you can score goals).

That gave us a lift but also sparked Forest into a response and they began to push us back. They didn't appear threatening, but nobody had (yet) realised that their left-winger was to prove capable of going past pretty much anyone in front of him all night. He picked up the ball out wide, cut inside and went past Wilson, took it on to the edge of the box, and curled in a shot just inside the far post, giving Henderson little if any chance. Some goals you just have to take your hat off to the guy. Not really Wilson's fault, nor Henderson's, just that we were slow to realise the danger of letting this guy get some space.

Now levelled up, the game settled into a pattern of both teams probing, us looking capable of unlocking them and Forest, well their forwards were being well contained but they had this guy out wide .... Their main ploy in this phase seemed to be to curl set-pieces into the near post and to pack that area, and for a while Henderson (and the rest of the defence) were troubled by it. But that danger passed with time and there was an unsavoury incident when their guy was muscled out of it by Diarra, who saw the ball out for a goal-kick only to be bundled over and to end up hitting his head on the advertising hoardings. It was a cheap shot by a frustrated player who had lost the ball, not perhaps deserving of a red but at the least the yellow that he received.

Getting towards half-time we hadn't threatened a great deal after the opening exchanges, but we then fashioned a well-crafted and well-executed goal. Their winger may have been very good with the ball, but he wasn't too keen on tracking back and when the ball was played out wide Wilson appeared on the overlap, was well picked out, delivered a decent square ball in to find Bulot, who'd moved across from the left side in space. He took a touch and then dispatched the shot. Good decisions in good areas and the third of three pretty good goals in the first half.

At the break there was still plenty of work to be done if we were to win, and Luzon opted to change our right side to try to cope with their real threat. Wilson and Harriott (who had struggled) were replaced by Bikey-Amougou and Eagles, with Gomez slotting in at full-back. I wouldn't say that this put a stop to the danger he posed as he was a handfull even after that, not least once when Eagles was doing his defensive duties only to be comprehensively beaten. Fortunately his ability to go past players wasn't matched by his second-half shooting, or by his crossing.

We only posed intermittent danger from then on, but that applied to them too. There was a header from the centre of goal that their guy might have done more with, a shot which Henderson saw around the post, and a couple of reasonable saves (coupled with more assuredness on the high balls). But you can't point to a single moment when we were really opened up, or when Henderson was called on to do something outstanding. At the other end Vetokele almost got on the end of one cross to the far post, but by and large, with some clearly tired legs out there, we became content to see out the game.

That we were able to do so was due in no small measure to Buyens' ability to keep hold of the ball, Cousin's interceptions and forward runs, and the willingness of the front two to chase whatever came their way. Not long short of the 90 minutes Igor went down and seemed not to have the legs to get back up, going off to be replaced by LePoint, who also made his contribution with a dangerous cross or two and relieving the pressure on the back line. By then their guy who'd bundled over Diarra had tested the ref's patience again and was subbed before he saw red, and as Watt toyed with them in the final moments it was really a case of whether anyone would clatter him badly enough to get red rather than yellow. That didn't happen but neither did they get their equaliser, with a corner right at the death and their keeper up for it Henderson gathering well and that was it.

Four wins out of five, 11 goals scored, and a season that not long ago was looking like falling apart has been turned around. No coincidence that this has been accompanied by having Watt match-fit and Henderson returning (and the introduction of Johnson plus the strengthening of the squad with Diarra and Eagles). But I'd also give mentions in dispatches to Cousins, who being (finally) given the central midfield berth has been excellent, and tonight to Buyens too. He's been out of form, looked pretty hangdog, was deservedly dropped and only brought back because of Jackson's injury, but has improved again by the game.

Player Ratings:

Henderson: 7/10. Not sure if their goal unsettled him but looked a little shaky in the first half, only to pull things together totally with a commanding second-half display.

Wilson: 6/10. Yes, he was given the runaround by their winger (and was subbed at the break) but so was everyone who came up against him. Against that, he played a vital role in the winner with a good overlap and delivery in.

Fox: 7/10. Decent game, has looked more assured than earlier in the season, so let's give the guy some credit.

Diarra: 9/10. Actually my man-of-the-match. Came in to play a role that I guess he didn't expect and with Gomez and then Bikey pretty much prevented their main forwards from getting a look-in.

Gomez:  7/10. Pretty good too, had his problems when moved to full-back after the break but their winger did become increasingly less effective as the game went on.

Harriott:  5/10. OK, he struggled, looked a bit rusty and perhaps also suffered from trying too hard to take his opportunity.

Buyens: 8/10. I watched him closely through the game and, although he was caught out once trying to make an interception, I don't otherwise remember him giving the ball away. Instrumental in the victory.

Bulot: 8/10. Didn't mention him much in the text, but the guy took both his goals very well and caused them problems with his movement. 

Cousins: 8/10. Excellent, not least for the breaks forward towards the end which relieved the pressure.

Vetokele: 7/10. Didn't stop working until he fell over towards the end, but didn't really fall for him tonight.

Watt: 8/10. When a forward is such an obvious pain for a defence you have to give credit. Plus he is clearly enjoying himself. And in addition to his role in our first goal that final episode deserves an extra mark.

Saturday 28 February 2015

What A Difference Goals Make

There were enough games between November and Norwich when the abiding thought was 'we didn't score/take our chances, so we can't complain'. Today's game, if we didn't know it before, was about chances being taken - and really having two forwards capable of scoring, which shifts the balance completely. On the balance of play and chances this was not a 3-0 game. Huddersfield had enough opportunities for the result to have been very different, but they failed in front of goal (and when they didn't Henderson was there to pull off an outstanding save at 2-0) and we scored when it mattered, including a third to kill off the game that was entirely of Watt's making. What a difference goalscorers make.

Let's deal with Sir Chris first, because this was a special occasion. Exactly why the club opted to have so few turnstiles open for the East Stand when everyone knew the attendance beggars belief. I only got in after the game had started, along with many others. So be it. The tribute was decent and I hope heartfelt for him too. But once done there was a game to be played.

The team lined up much as expected (given the continuing absence of Jackson and Wiggins) other than that Gomez was given his chance in central defence alongside Johnson (ahead of Bikey-Amougou and Onyewu), with Ben Haim apparently injured. Cousins returned from injury with Wilson back on the bench, after the apparently unsuccessful experiment of him in central midfield. It was to be 4-4-2 against 4-4-2.

Huddersfield probably shaded the first 10 minutes or so in terms of possession, but there wasn't much in it as both sides probed without grabbing the game by the throat. We looked rather more mobile going forward, with the front two and Bulot and Berg Gudmundsson linking up well, they had the physical presence and threat of Miller (but the rather less threatening Vaughan alongside him). It was nip and tuck and as the game progressed the first goal increased in importance. We fashioned probably the better of the chances, with two falling to Vetokele. Good play down the left saw the ball squared and passed on to him, but having to turn back in on his left side his shot was weak, while another decent opportunity also went begging. Watt looked a constant threat, showing an ability to fashion something out of nothing and keeping their defence on the back foot. At the other end the occasional mistake (a misplaced pass by Fox and a misdirected header by Gomez, plus a couple of misjudged attempts to head clear by Johnson) stretched us, with some decisive blocks put in, and Miller was able to turn inside the box and almost get a decisive effort in.

However, heading towards half-time neither goalkeeper had been called into serious action. That all changed when we won a free kick outside the box, in a position that was very nicely set up for Gudmundsson. Far enough out to get over the wall and under the bar, central enough to go either side. He didn't disappoint, curling it over their defensive line and away from their keeper into the left corner of the net. It was a situation that called for precision and he delivered just that.

Not long after they had a free-kick in a not dissimilar situation but failed to clear the wall. Another effort from them went just wide of the post, while the moment when they put the ball in the net was always a foul on Henderson. So at the break we were ahead but the game looked like it could still go either way.

It turned very much in our favour not long into the second half. Another move fashioned down the left saw us choose good passes in a tight situation and the ball moved on across the box to find Watt in space and he provided the finish. That stung Huddersfield into accepting that there wasn't a great deal for them to lose by sitting back - and they enjoyed probably their best period of the game. Gudmundsson seemed to have picked up a knock and was replaced by Wilson, and for a while they looked the more likely, without seemingly having the cutting edge to convert the chances.

They did fashion one: a ball into the box and a smart effort low to Henderson's left. But he stuck out a strong arm and turned it around for a corner. It was an excellent and decisive save. They get one back then, with fresh legs on the pitch, and the game's back in the balance. Instead being kept out seemed to sap them a little, and we - or rather Watt - put the game to bed with about 20 minutes left.

It was a routine pass to a forward outside the box with his back to goal, nothing obvious on. But he turned it past one defender and with the space opened up hit crisply into the bottom right of the net. A goal, like the other two, of real quality, which contrasted with Huddersfield's efforts in the final third (Henderson's save excepted).

The final 15 minutes or so were something of a stroll. Diarra came on for Bulot, presumably to shore things up, with Cousins going wide left, then Eagles came on for Watt, who may have been a little miffed at being denied the opportunity of a hat-trick but had previously picked up a knock. The only other change I might have considered would have been taking off Gomez, not for a bad game but just because he had picked up a yellow and committed a few fouls after that. It would have been silly for him to get a second yellow in a game that was by then won. Huddersfield, genuinely mid-table, were never going to come back from three down and the real interest in the final stages was in how well Diarra would shape up and whether Eagles would be able to beat their keeper with shots from the space he enjoyed. There was also a splendid save by their keeper from a Wilson effort from close range, followed by a Buyens effort deflected wide (if I'm honest I can't remember whether we were two or three up by then).

We deserved the win because on balance we had the better chances and took some of them. Just how the game might have gone if they had scored first, or if Henderson hadn't pulled off the save at 2-0, will forever be just conjecture. All that was left was to applaud Sir Chris off the pitch, give the players the applause they too deserved, and bask in the position of being some 11 points now above the third relegation place. If someone had suggested to me after the Norwich game that we would be in this position, after three 3-0 victories out of four, I would have suggested they needed their bumps felt.

Player Ratings:

Henderson:  9/10. Mostly routine saves, a couple of dodgy moments clearing the ball and one dropped cross, but that superb save was as important as any of the goals.

Solly:  8/10. Solid game, nothing dramatic going forward but not necessary today.

Fox: 7/10. Generally played well, encouraging. Occasional error in posession and notable that once he was very easily brushed off the ball against a physically stronger opponent.

Gomez:  7/10. Also not error-free and was on the edge having picked up a yellow, but for a guy playing his first game in central defence for the first team also encouraging.

Johnson:  7/10. Some errors judging the flight of the ball to get headers away, but able to lead the defence and generally assured, despite the threat of Miller.

Berg Gudmundsson: 7/10. The decisive strike of the first half, didn't last long into the second.

Cousins: 7/10. Calm in regaining and in possession, decent enough game.

Buyens: 7/10. He has been off the pace of late and today wasn't perfect, but he made his contribution.

Bulot: 7/10. Seemed to have problems early on keeping his feet, but showed enough to justify his retention in the side after the poor Norwich game.

Vetokele: 7/10. Always a threat but today didn't manage to convert the two decent chances that came his way in the first half.

Watt:  9/10. Two goals, almost a third (when their keeper was nearly caught out at his near post), and clearly making a very big difference to the team.

Subs:  Wilson (7/10 - nothing dramatic but at least wasn't expected to play a central role); Diarra (7/10 - came on when the game was won); Eagles (7/10 - ditto, but both look capable of making material contributions to the rest of the season).