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.