Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Eyes On The Prize(s)

I've found myself in recent days checking the club site more often than I can remember. I wasn't entire sure why. It wasn't to stay on top of developments in the U21s' clash with the Spanners, nor was it to put in my belated vote for the January poll that's still showing ('Are you looking forward to this season's FA Cup campaign?' - yes, no or undecided; do you really want to know?). Instead it was probably the feeling that after Saturday's result and what had gone before, plus what is coming up, we might get confirmation of some material development, possibly related to Ms Meire. Nothing yet, so we're still in the dark regarding our owner's prevailing mood and thoughts (let's not ennoble these by labelling them a strategy). But is there some tentative evidence that he may finally be starting to listen?

My first reaction to the news that Nebojsa Vignjevic would not after all be replacing Karel Fraeye as interim/permanent head coach/bell-boy was that perhaps Duchatelet had indeed listened to others and changed tack. This was before the reports emerged that the switch back to Jose Riga may have been down to Vignjevic simply turning down the opportunity. Maybe it will all come out in the wash; perhaps Vignjevic saw enough of the immediate response from Addicks - and let's face it nobody in their right mind who gave priority to us avoiding relegation would have considered the man, unless of course the available talent pool is strictly limited to network employees - to realise that there was nothing in it for him, at least for now. But just possibly the implications (ie stupidity) of appointing Vignjevic were made plain to Duchatelet and he listened.

Then the new signing. At one level depressing and easy to dismiss, another Standard Liege reject about to make the switch to the US to milk his remaining career years and instead pushed in our direction. But that is unfair, at least until we've seen what the guy can do. We've only recently been told by Richard Murray of the three types of player that our owner favours (domestic youth, young overseas players, and domestic seasoned lags), which fits with his strange (sorry, visionary) thinking. Quite clearly signing Jorge Teixeira, a 29-year-old on a four-and-a-half-year deal doesn't fit. Now I can't rule out the possibility that the move to us is somehow entwined with Duchatelet's dealings with Standard Liege, just as whatever happens to Tony Watt may be, or that Teixeira just came top in the latest spreadsheet exercise from the player-selection cronies. But on the face of it, from what Teixeira and Riga have said, it looks like a case of an incoming manager pointing out an available player who he feels will do a good job for us and the owner backing that judgement and shelling out a not immaterial fee (especially in the context of two other centre-halves having only recently been brought in, albeit one on a short-term loan). Strange indeed if true - but welcome.

The benefit of the doubt as far as I'm concerned was lost some time back and at best it is premature to conclude that things have indeed taken a material turn for the better. No question that the move which would strengthen that feeling is if Meire is moved on (anywhere away from us). We know she's not the decision-maker and her departure could end up meaning nothing; but, especially if a change came in advance of this Saturday's protests, it might, just might, indicate at least a willingness to respond to the club's customers' wishes.

I guess my thinking is that although a change of ownership is probably the only positive eventual outcome for us, let's keep our eyes on the prize, ie just what it is that we want. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that by early February we should know whether we are still in a relegation fight but with a realistic chance of success, or whether we should be resigned to another spell in the third flight. By then the transfer window will have closed (don't ask me about the timings for loan signings) and we will have played three crucial games: Blackburn at home, Rotherham away, and Bristol City at home. The former and the player moves in and out of the club should give some insight as to our owner's priorities and perhaps Riga's influence; the latter will tell us about whether the players are up for the fight (obviously last Saturday's outcome casts fresh doubt on this) and, depending on the results, whether there is still a fight to be had.

We do after all have a very hard run-in. After this coming series of three we have, through to early March, five games against middling opposition (Cardiff, Fulham, Preston, Reading and Brentford), then MK Dons. Thereafter in our final 10 games we are up against at least seven with promotion expectations/ambitions. Sure, in the closing stages it is even more the case that anyone can beat anyone; but if we're still in the bottom three after playing MK Dons on 8 March we would surely be set for the drop.

By this stage of the season no team is not where they deserve to be. Relegation is by no means nailed on, but obviously Riga/Fraeye  and Hull/Huddersfield (and Colchester) need to become the watershed if it is to be avoided. I'd suggest that the next three matches set the scene. I'm not convinced they are must-win games (or say two out of three), that may be asking too much too soon. Rather we cannot afford to lose to either Rotherham or Bristol City, need to pick up at least one win, and over and above all else need to show that we are turning a corner, laying the base for a real run at the following five games and then to be in with a realistic chance for the tough final 10.

If the players turn out not to be, collectively, up for it, so be it; the cause is lost. But in line with some of the comments after a previous post I'd agree that there's no excuse for the supporters not playing their part, for now at least, when it comes to the relegation issue. I'm not privy to the protest plans for Saturday and appreciate why some elements are being kept secret for now. But I would welcome CARD and all associated with it building on the pledge not to hold a pre-match demonstration on Saturday by calling on supporters to back the team 100% inside the ground and through the game, and to state this openly in advance of the game, so that the players can feel confident that the first mistake won't open the floodgates for protests.

Again in line with the comments, we can't look back on this stage of the season and conclude that we did not do all we could to help the team avoid relegation - and consequently for the second time in three years achieve that objective despite the actions of the board. There is after all still that dilemma at the heart of the protests, as evident from the recent Trust statement following the inaugural meeting of CARD. Those in CARD were described as having come together "to formulate plans to step up protests aimed at forcing the owner Roland Duchatelet to put the club up for sale". It went on to say that "the immediate objective for the group ... is to force significant changes in its (the club's) senior management", which I assume means the departure of Miere. Now that's fair enough, no contradiction in assisting in her going and the ultimate goal of a change of ownership, as long as there's no loss of focus regarding the latter.

The statement concluded with "at this stage, CARD simply wants to assure Charlton fans that they are working together to try to bring a swift and positive end to the current crisis at the club". Now that's a bit ambiguous. Does an end to the crisis mean avoiding relegation or getting new ownership (provided of course that the incoming is not an asset-stripper and/or advocates a move away from The Valley)? I'm inclined to assume it means the latter, as this is the root of the problem, the former just the symptom. But perhaps here too there is no contradiction. After all, if Duchatelet would not even deign to meet Peter Varney's potential investor, the chances of any actual sale of the club in the near future are pretty remote. And as outlined before it's quite likely that relegation would not force a sale, rather just more severe belt-tightening (and a marked downgrading of the players to complement the youngsters).

Arguably our best chance of being sold on is to stay up, and in doing so to confront Duchatelet with the continuing dilemma of having to fund a level of losses he isn't comfortable with (perhaps even over the medium term cannot afford) to try to compete, without a realistic hope of promotion and all that entails, rather than a possibly significantly lower running loss (I only say possibly as who knows if that could be achieved given the likely attendances) while we all wait for the tomorrow when financial fair play changes the picture (and in the interim bask in the delight at watching those Premiership stars of the future rather than support a team). Who knows, but it might be another argument in favour of driving home the 'support the team, not the regime/roar the team, roast the regime' message, making it absolutely plain that once inside the ground supporting the team is paramount.

There will be time enough to protest across the board in the event we lose the relegation fight. And surely it doesn't need to be added that however high the emotions run there is simply no excuse for aggression (let alone violence), or racism/sexism. None of that is a part of the Charlton we want back.

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