Monday, December 30, 2013

A load of Belgian waffle.

Football as a sport is built on defining landmark moments. An FA Cup final in the blazing sunshine of May, a Tuesday night trip to Plymouth in the freezing January rain, a hectic Christmas festive football frenzy marking the halfway stage of the season watched by grown men in club colour-matched Santa hats. These different junctures of the campaign all contrive equally to delight us with a hobby and lifestyle we couldn't replicate elsewhere, even if the actual game play so frequently disappoints.

It's a long time since I've managed to complete a whole Christmas fixture list, family commitments (read 'a wife that would never forgive me') taking precedence over a Boxing Day jaunt to SE7. This year, as has become the norm, was spent with family in Tunbridge Wells, Rusthall to be exact. A village to the west of the town immune to mobile phone signals and hosting frustratingly sporadic internet connections. A refreshing break from social media therefore opened out far more traditional Christmas entertainment, but it was a good twenty four hours after the final whistle before I managed to read of Lawrie Wilson's brace and the enthralling team effort to go with it that saw off Brighton & Hove Albion.

If I couldn't attend Boxing Day, there wasn't a cat in Hell's chance I was going to miss The Valley's second festive fixture, this time against a rather large club from Yorkshire. Christmas is renowned for throwing the simplest of travel plans into chaos, never more so than this year with abnormal weather and huge Southern Railway maintenance plans. Every football supporter dreads the words 'rail replacement bus' yet despite their efforts to the contrary, I still arrived at the Richard The First in Greenwich in plenty of time for a few pre match ales.A good job too, I was in danger of sobering up for the first time in four days.

Chris Solly had returned for the Boxing Day fixture, but a heavy pitch had obviously taken it's toll on the full back as he was missing for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday three days later. Rhoys Wiggins was also absent but this due to the birth of his first child. Could the momentum of Brighton be carried over to this mid season relegation heavyweight six-pointer clash with such disruption to the team? Perhaps a far bigger question, could an area of grass that you wouldn't want to walk a dog on host a Championship football match?

During my break from the online world I had missed the news of Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet and his intentions to buy the club. As tempting as it would be to immediately have the finest Belgian blonde and wheat beers pumping through the North Upper concourse, the first job after tying down the staff with new contracts for any prospective buyer has to be investment in the playing surface. Quite frankly that pitch is shocking and an embarrassment to the Championship, a statement that could also be used for match officials but more on that later. If it isn't puddles of water stopping a pass reaching it's recipient, it's the mud. Yes, I agree they used to play top flight football in these conditions in 1974 but that was forty years ago. The way the game is played has changed since then, technology has moved on, even if the weather hasn't. I find it very difficult to believe this day and age that professional people keeping a professional football can struggle so much. If the kit man were equally poor with his results would the club happily send the players out in pink shorts after the red in the shirts had run?

So could such a surface host a football match? Just. The first half was dreadful, as dire a forty five minutes as you'll see all season but Dale Stephens would turn on a little style to surprise us all just after the restart. Collecting the ball directly from a Wilson throw on the edge of the box he dropped his shoulder, took it inside the defender then out-witted the oncoming keeper using the outside of his right boot. It was delectable, and as they so often say, a goal that could grace a cup final. The sort of goal Simon Church dreams of. Church, perhaps the 'unluckiest in front of goal' of a long line of Charlton front men spearheaded our campaign to not increase our lead. As we started to sit back on our lead Wednesday started firing shots vaguely goal-wards but mainly towards the corner flags. We felt deep down as we so often do that it was only a matter of time.

The table doesn't lie, these two sides are poor and that is why they find themselves consistently in the bottom six. I never like to slate the officials, it's an easy option but it is becoming harder by the match as referees and their assistants continually both falter with and show little fluidity to many match changing decisions. That said, to some extent you make your own luck in football and if you continually fail to take the chances you create and if you play half your matches in terrible conditions you won't be sitting pretty on top of the pile.

The Sheffield Wednesday equalizer certainly hinted at offside and the more you watch it the clearer it appears to the point where you wonder how anybody could have missed it in the first place, yet it's arrival was ultimately an inevitability. We defended in numbers, so much so that we seemed to get in each others way, our only option going forward was to catch them on the break. The obvious thing to do would be to bring on a centre half come very defensive midfielder and a wide man lacking in competitive practice.

Again Mr Duchâtelet, I beseech you, should you spend your pennies in this corner of London, whilst arranging an annual summer pre-season friendly at Standard Liège, could you invest in resurrecting the reserve team. An occasional Wednesday morning behind closed doors friendly is never going to be enough for the squad's fringe players to find that aggressive edge. Perhaps a short time in the 'stiffs' would also ease the likes of Solly (and all those with recurring injuries) back into the first team for a more prolonged period of time.

A dismal effort from Church at the end again begged the admission that no matter how you dress it up, we struggle to score goals. I've said this before but it seems poignant on the weekend when he found himself reaching double figures, but surely now is good time to give Michael Smith a chance providing it possible to recall him. He certainly knows where the goal is, albeit two divisions below, but regular competitive football is certainly keeping him sharper than the bench warmers above him in the current pecking order.

As much as we like to moan, it is just a matter of perspective. We are unbeaten in three and who wouldn't have taken four points from the two festive home games a week ago? So it is with this vision that I shall bode a farewell to 2013 and welcome the new year full of Belgian hope.

That's if the takeover talks don't collapse on the second of January. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

No Way Out

Well there's a man I know, at least I used to years ago. I didn't really mind, he used to come round all the time. Of course he had to be fed, I had to give him a bed. He used to kip on my sofa, they used to call him a loafer.

Suggs sang that, it was fitting for a while as I showed hospitality to an East Midlands lad. He's back in Derby now (this lad, not Suggs) and to be fair, he's bloody 'full of it'.

A week before kick off my phone was restless, every day a text came through delighting in the Rams current good form and his predictions for the Saturday whilst poking fun at our less than satisfactory results, league position and hopes for both the match and the future generally. I didn't really mind, he used to come round all the time. Not any more, that kind of attitude wouldn't get him through the front door, even if he is right on every count.

He knew Derby would win the Wednesday before, I knew Derby would win the Wednesday before yet come Saturday I still obligingly arrived in SE7, spent a fair share of my weekly pay packet, and came away just as depressed as I was on arrival. I wasn't the only one.

The takeover by the rich 'septic' is off, the manager and the majority of the team don't have a clue as to who will employ them come next summer, the consumer, the customer is dejected, the owners have no interest and just want to sell what they see as a lost cause, the atmosphere around the place is one of defeat, if it wasn't football but just another business venture the towel would have been thrown in ages ago. If it were a horse it would have been shot, turned into burgers and would currently be residing on the supermarket shelf resplendent in a yellow reduced sticker.

Chris Powell respectfully, dutifully, and emotionally said his players gave not only him but all the fans everything they had. Unfortunately that just doesn't seem to be enough. Week in week out we play well but always lack two elements, goals and luck. If we could just find one of these the other would be sure to follow.

We conceded two against Derby, the first a free kick which took a major deflection off the wall,wrong footing our keeper and the second a deflating match winner after we had run our hearts out and were ready to collapse. This against a team which are without doubt the in form side in the division. This against an in form side whilst we are without, Leon Cort, Richard Wood, Chris Solly, Ben Hamer, four players that would all stake a claim to a starting place in a full strength defence. Quality in depth certainly isn't a hindrance in certain areas of the park.

Our best chance though also fell to a defender, Michael Morrison, who should really have done so much better with his header. On another day, under different circumstances...

Kermorgant looked lonely up front, often dropping deep for the company. Church was dropped to the bench to consort Marvin Sodall. Both would later come on as Powell adopted rather desperate 'three up front' tactics. Bradley Pritchard got a start (a player out of his depth at this level coming in against the form team!), as did Danny Green who did everything right except for the finding the killer cross. Callum Harriott also appeared from the bench running circles around the visiting defence but, like a dog chasing its tail, with little direction or purpose to all his hard work.

Derby County, who for marketing reasons presumed their white shirts and black shorts would clash with our traditional red jerseys and therefore wore their 'thunderbirds' third kit, knew that if they soaked up the pressure without having to exert too much energy they could counter and find another victory.

I refuse to blame the referee at all, in fact I always see it as being a little despairing when we do, but there is little doubt he was atrocious. As have been so many before him, but no team finds themselves as precarious as ourselves solely on the basis of poor match officials. This is still largely a League One squad that has lost its match winners. Fuller, Haynes, and to a lesser extent Wright-Phillips, all gone and not really replaced, not that that's Powell's fault. If he's got any sense he'll be looking to the future, we won't be adding to the squad in January, it's unlikely he'll get the boot as Slater and Jimenez won't be able to entice anyone else here, no, he'll be watching the managerial merry go round closely to see where his next opportunity lays. Love, passion, pride, loyalty, he has the lot but he's still got a family to feed as have the rest of the squad that are currently faced with no secure future.

They all have a way out. We however are stuck with this melancholy for the foreseeable future, until either fortunes somehow change for the better or the owners finally run this club into the ground.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One happy Addick

I may well be the only Charlton supporter to have come away from a match this weekend with a smile across my face. It's been an infuriating few days for the Addicks without doubt.

After a poor match against Ipswich last weekend, Chris Powell's side had two important away matches, against sides with varying fortunes yet neither a formality.

On Tuesday Simon Church returned to his former club Reading with a hope (as former players do) of haunting their previous employers and showing the home supporters exactly what they're missing. The Royals needn't have worried, he evidently left his scoring boots at home as did the rest of the squad. In Church's defence, he did have a seemingly good shout for a penalty turned down after being brought to ground minutes before the hosts scored up the other end.

It proved to be too little, Charlton rallied and pressured for the last twenty minutes or so as they consistently seem to, yet the final penetration (again regularly) eluded them. Reading's unbeaten home form remained intact even though they failed to impress, a similar scenario to QPR. These relegated sides from the Premier League either don't seem capable or don't deem it necessary to produce anything more than the bare minimum required to see off their visitors from SE7.

So after the win against Doncaster, Charlton once again found themselves just above the drop zone and facing what was a pre-Christmas six pointer at Huish Park. Yeovil Town would be going into this match in the form of their lives beating both Watford and Blackpool in their last two outings; what back in July would have seemed a certain three points was now looking a formidable task. If our goal shy strike force were to forget those boots again we would certainly require some assistance from the ranks behind them.

Fortunately for Charlton our midfield had been briefed. Cameron Stewart, a future Premier League starlet, wasn't afraid to run at his opponent and scored our first goal in just over four hours of football with a spectacular effort having collected the ball in his own half. Skipper Johnnie Jackson made it two just before the interval settling Charlton hearts down to an unorthodox relaxed pace. I caught news of this at a clubhouse bar many miles from the West Country but my half time pint slipped down much the easier for it.

The second half had a crazy five minute spell when Charlton snatched our content and expansive temperaments back, screwed them up, jumped up and down on them before tossing them into Armitage Shanks and flushing. Yeovil of course had a part to play but, seriously, how could you do this to us Charlton?

A Yeovil ball into the box, seemingly harmless, caught Michael Morrison on the arm and the centre half beat his own goalkeeper. This was unfortunate, Andy Hughes bullying their player off the ball and conceding a penalty four minutes later was just careless. A 2-0 lead wiped away in an instant but worse was still to come. Johnnie Jackson lunged into a tackle in the middle of the park and, having watched it three or four times now, deservedly received a straight red. From being comfortable and in control Charlton had managed to gift the home side a point and had to cling on by their fingernails in the final minutes as to not lose the one they still possessed.

The immediate future doesn't look too good for Chris Powell, high flying Derby visit next and they really do seem to be the divisions on form club at the moment. When you genuinely need a break of some sort, the fixture list always has a habit of 'putting the boot in'.

So why was I still smiling at five o'clock Saturday afternoon. Well I'd decided to catch some level nine football and joined about thirty other hardened folk to watch Horley Town entertain Mole Valley SCR in the Combined Counties League. Horley, my local side find themselves in a similar precarious position in their division as Charlton do in theirs; three points equally as vital for The Clarets as they were for The Addicks.

Mole Valley SCR come from Cobham but originate from Carshalton, the SCR standing for Sutton Common Road. In Carshalton they were known simply as SCR followed by the name Plough or Grapes depending on which public house was sponsoring them. When they started playing Saturday football it changed to simply SCR for they wanted to lose the pub team identity. Yesterday they took to the pitch in a rather fetching pink and purple number which was set off by the pleasing admission of any sponsors name. Unfortunately for them though it gave them a park team look.

Horley, under the caretaker leadership of club legend Anthony Jupp, were soon behind, the visitors running through a sleepy home rear guard in the second minute to score. Ten minutes into the match and Horley led 2-1, their number 10 showing great composure as twice he slotted he ball home; I felt a goal fest was on the cards as I hugged my Bovril.

Horley battled well, their work rate was superb, but tempers started to flair as the game progressed. With every Town attack, the Mole Valley manager took a step nearer an early grave. As animated and vocal as any boss I've ever witnessed we cruelly 'joked' about running a book as to which minute he'd suffer a coronary.

Horley eventually ran out 3-2 winners although they missed a couple of real chances to put the game to bed late on. It was however a vast improvement to the performances I'd previously witnessed there this season, unlike Charlton goals are never hard to come by at this level - at either end!

One thing that always cheers me watching Horley is the ability to hear every word uttered on the pitch. As a Horley midfielder was upended upon entering the opposition's half the referee gave the correct decision and awarded a free kick. The lad picking himself up off the ground shouted out to the official "In all honesty ref I think I'd have gone on to score there" as a ripple of laughter echoed not only on the terrace but on the field of play too.

The referee had a good game, his use of the advantage rule led to Horley's third goal and certainly showed up the decision by a certain man in black a week ago at The Valley. Chatting to a chap with a clipboard next to me, I discovered this gent was also a referee and was this young lads mentor making notes on his performance. When was the last time you went to a game and got such an in depth discussion on the match officials performance? I didn't dare admit to this chap what I've told some of those officials to go and do in the past.

So I left The New Defence having seen a team perform when they really needed to, hard graft that paid dividends, wasn't always pretty but was exactly what the boss demanded. It may well be a long hard season for the team but nobody could ask any more from them; and they can proudly tell their colleagues the same on Monday when they return to their day jobs. Whilst they're doing that hopefully Chris Powell is putting his strikers on a regime of shooting practice.