Saturday, April 23, 2005

Where are the kids?

I suppose Norwich couldn't have scripted it any better - former Charlton striker Matty Svensson comes on with minutes left and grabs a late late winner. He was always a player I valued and frankly we could with some of his aggression right now as our season continues to fade away to mediocrity and worse. The game sounded upbeat and we were inches away from winning it ourselves in the last few minutes, but the fact is we lost (again) and this season is threatening to be the 2nd worst points-wise since we returned to the Premiership, and in terms of expectations the worst for sure. At least anyone who followed my tip that there wouldn't be many goals will have some spare cash to drown their sorrows with this evening.

I am concerned that Luke Young began at left-back, not so much because he can't do a reasonable job there, but because it suggests there is no-one in the reserve or U19 set-up who was able to come in at short notice and do a job there. I've written before about the lack of youngsters coming through to the first team, and it worries me that say, Nathan Ashton was probably not even considered as an option for this game. When one looks at the other teams around us, there are a huge number of young players making real impacts; Villa have Steven Davis, 'Boro have Stewart Downing, Spurs have Stephen Kelly, Man City have the Wright-Philips brothers. Admittedly, we earned £10m from selling Scott Parker but he broke into the first team in 1997. It is all very well us celebrating the quality of our academy set-up (and I don't doubt it) and back-to-back reserve team championships, but what is the point of it all if we have to move our consistent first team right-back to the left and unbalance the whole side?

Unfortunately I can't help thinking Curbs has run out of ideas. During this awful run, the team has barely been changed around, injury-enforced moves aside, and we are now short of ideas, inspiration and perhaps even desire? (not an accusation you can usually level at Charlton) With the season effectively over, what is there to lose by changing things around, throwing in some kids and seeing whether they have it or not? Who wants to bet that we line up versus Man Utd with virtually the same team that lost at Norwich?

If you had to pinpoint where it began to go wrong, it would be the second half versus Liverpool when we got taken apart and then just over two weeks later we got deservedly kicked out of the FA Cup by struggling Leicester. In the space of just two games, we were forced to question whether we were really good enough to compete with the other teams fighting for a top six finish, and were forced to question (again) why we can't turn it on in Cup games.

The issue of the Cup falings remains a serious one and is unfortunately another bullet in the armory of those that are questioning how far Curbs can realistically take us from here. I'm willing to assume that we won't take any points from the next two games, and hence our season will end on 45-48 points and probably an 11th place finish. The club may well consider this a success, but in light of the signings we made in the summer and the usual end-of-season slump, it's definitely a 'marginal fail' as far as I'm concerned.

I'm not advocating the Curbs be sacked - frankly this is ridiculous though it doesn't mean questions need to be asked about his abilities. However, maybe the bigger question is where Curbs wants to go from here? He wouldn't be human if he wasn't on the way back from Norwich right now and thinking, "How much further can I take this team?" Admitedly he has a great relationship with Richard Murray, but he is ambititious and will know that to truly prove himself as one of the great managers he will need to push on to the next level, and it's possible he can't do it with Charlton.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Town Called Addicks

On a business trip last year to Houston, Texas I noticed a signpost to a place called Addicks, which I initially thought suggested I was hallucinating in the midsummer humidity, though which I have only just got around to corroberating.

Indeed, it seems that not only is there a town named after the club, but there is also a nearby reservoir (see link) which just goes to show the extent to which our recent exploits have been noticed.

I was also able to find the following information on Addicks:

You might be interested to know that Addicks has a population of 32,070 and the average household income in Addicks is $98,643. Residents of Addicks enjoy 51.8 degree weather in the month of January and 84.1 degree weather in the month of July. The median age in Addicks is 40.2 and the average household size in Addicks is 2.44.

Hence, it seems not only do they get to tell people they live in 'Addicks' (as opposed to us, who merely live for the Addicks), they also get warm weather all year around and a very respectable income to boot.

I had been keen, upon moving to New York, to live on Charlton Street near SoHo but a move to Addicks would be a perfect way to prove my affinity. An income of $98,643 would probably buy a very nice house and Houston is booming again thanks to the oil price and the post-Enron recovery.

Win-Win Situation

Having the day off sick on Wednesday did have one silver lining, namely that I was able to watch Chelsea vs Arsenal, whilst simultaneously listening in to the BBC London commentary of Villa vs Charlton. To be fair, within about 30 mins I concluded that I would far rather watch the former without the distraction of the latter, which pretty much sums up my feelings about the Addicks at the moment. The Chelsea game may have ended goalless, but in terms of quality, pace, and excitement it was as if they were playing a different sport from my beloved team. Admittedly, at least half of the players on display could be described as 'world class' (in the sense that they would have a fair chance of being selected for any team on the planet) so it's not entirely a fair comparison, but then again it was played within the same competition as Villa vs Charlton, and whilst I wasn't there I suspect our game fell rather short.

There are a number of things about both Chelsea and Arsenal that impress me, but the one that stands out is their ability to play the ball fluidly through the midfield and thus end up in attacking situations with the ball under control at players' feet (particularly Arsenal). Charlton meanwhile tend to play the ball across the defence, before one of the full-backs launches it long towards Bartlett (or worse, Jeffers) where there is barely a 20/80 chance of retaining the ball (though to be fair, the opposition typically do the same so we soon get it back). I've mentioned the lack of pace in our midfield before but watching the likes of Vieira and Fabregas merely brings it home even more conclusively. It's hardly a secret that we miss Scott Parker, and whilst he had numerous qualities, the one I remember most fondly was his uncanny ability to retain possession at pace and move the ball forward constructively. If I had to put one type of player top of our summer shopping list, it'd be a pacy skilful central midfielder.

So it's on to Norwich, a stadium I had always enjoyed visiting given its friendly atmosphere and now it has been improved markedly too. I recall vividly a stunning Mark Kinsella winner there a few seasons back which remains one of the best goals I've seen.

Judging by Nigel Worthington's pre-match comments, the atmosphere will be red-hot and in many ways for us it's a win-win situation. If we win (which I suspect we won't), then our European hopes remain alive for a little longer; if we lose or draw (which I suspect we will) then it harms the hopes of Palace of staying up, and also Southampton where one hopes Harry Redknapp will finally be found out. I also can't claim to be a huge fan of Bryan Robson but it's hard not to be impressed at the way he has turned things around at WBA, and turned them into favourites to avoid the drop. I'd love to see Norwich stay up - I like the club, they have two ex-Charlton players in the squad, and in my view they play the best football of the four teams down the bottom.

With Konch suspended and Hermann doubtful, we enter the game with problems from the outset, and whilst Luke Young may be a satisfactory replacement, it is hardly ideal and implies playing Kish at full-back. Curbs has already made it clear he is not willing to make large scale changes despite or catastrophic drop in form, and hence the team is likely to pick itself with just the one change from Wednesday. I continue to believe that Euell deserves a chance for the remainder of the season, and whilst his first touch may lack finesse (sic.) at least he has an eye for goal and a touch of pace. A draw at Villa may have been an okay result (though given what went before, we really could have done with three points), but another draw at Norwich will be unsatisfactory with games against Man Utd and Chelsea coming up. Hence my preference would be to get at them with two wingers (Thomas and Rommedahl), and play Holland and Murhpy in central midfield with Euell in the hole. Knowing Curbs, both Rommedahl and Thomas will start on the bench and somehow JJ will get in the side.

Betfair is showing 5/4 Norwich, 11/4 Charlton and 9/4 the draw. Ordinarily I would be considering emptying my bank account to bet on the Addicks at those odds, but as it is they are about right considering our form, defensive failings and lack of attacking flair. If I was going to have a bet, then I would suggest there won't be many goals so 0-0 at 11/1 is compelling as are both 1-0 and 0-1 at 15/2 and 11/1 respectively.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Only going to Europe on my holidays

As expected, another defeat (the 2/1 on Bolton was good value after all). As soon as I heard that Young wasn't fit either I feared the worst, given that at least he would have helped to counteract Bolton's greater physical presence. The squad is now looking threadbare and with Villa now above us too, it's clear we are all only going to Europe on holiday. I can't be bothered to write any more than this as it's all too familiar and depressing.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Bolton are a useful benchmark

Saturday's game would ordinarily be a huge one, but given Charlton's usual propensity to bounce back from a run of poor results, it represents a vital opportunity to get some momentum back again. If we lose or draw, we effectively lose touch with Bolton given only five games would remain and hence the battle would simply be for 7th place. Win however, and they are just two points behind and firmly within our sights. With Spurs facing a tricky game at Liverpool, and 'Boro not playing it is hard to overemphasise just how crucial this game is for us.

Bolton are a useful benchmark for us and our two clubs are similar in a number of ways. In terms of budget and attendances, there is little to choose between us and we are both 'blessed' with highly-regarded British managers. Whilst Bolton's overall history is a prouder one than ours (seven FA Cup finals), in recent decades we have both played the majority of our football outside of the top flight. Bolton's approach has been different from ours in recent seasons however, particularly in terms of transfer policy and it has paid off handsomely. Whilst one or two of their high-profile signings have failed, the contribution of Campo, Hierro, Okocha and Djorkaeff is (and was) huge and answered many sceptics who argued that they "wouldn't fancy it on a cold Tuesday night in Lancashire." Interestingly, the two Charlton signings that most resemble these higher-profile ageing names (Di Canio and Costa) were also big successes. Perhaps it suggests something about the efficacy of this shorter-term outlook particularly in the context of well-respected managers who can motivate and tolerate.

With six games left and nothing to lose, it'd be nice to think we might throw caution to the wind and begin to use our strengths rather than seek merely to stifle the opposition. If there is one area where we would seem to have an obvious edge, it would be the ability to use pace against their experienced but potentially slow defence. With Bartlett absent, our approach has to be more cultured and thoughtful, and hence it might be time to go for all-out attack with Rommedahl and Thomas on the flanks, and either Jeffers plus Lisbie up front, or Jeffers or Lisbie with a pacy runner in midfield, ideally Euell. It would be hard to drop Konch given recent outings, hence it might be time to see Holland or Murphy drop to the bench, probably the former given the need for the latter's extra ability on the ball. Hence a line-up of Kiely, Young, Hreidarsson, Perry, Fortune, Konchesky, Murphy, Euell, Rommedahl, Thomas, Lisbie/Jeffers may contain enough pace and guile to outwit their obvious height and strength advantage.

Indeed it is this height advantage, given the absence of El Karkouri and Bartlett, which I would be most fearful of. If Fish hadn't have been rushed back against WBA and then foolishly played against Man City, then arguably he'd be in for a shout for selection. However it is hard to believe Curbs would run the risk of facing the ire of the Covered End by selecting him again. If that decision backfired then the pressure on him really would begin to mount in earnest. Ironically this game would probably have seen the debut of Michael Turner had he not been allowed to leave, and again one wonders if the continued release of promising young players may not be looking premature in light of the current injuries and suspensions?

Betfair is showing odds of approximately 13/8 Charlton, 2/1 Bolton and 5/2 the draw, which normally would scream 'value' about Charlton but instead as an unemotional gambler, I'd be tempted to nibble at the 2/1 on the away side. There is 8/1 available on Lisbie to score the first goal which is tempting despite his frustrating finishing, whilst Konchesky is available at 22/1 which may be more interesting if allowed a more forward-looking role.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Where next for Charlton?

There is no denying that Saturday's result was hugely disappointing. After the hugely undeserved late late equaliser versus Man City, a visit to Pompey seemed an ideal opportunity to return to form, forget talk of an 'end of season slump' and push on to Europe. The pre-match omens weren't good - having promised full scale changes, Curbs essentially made just one change, at least from the side that began the second half at the Valley. It was a typical defensive cautious decision which backfired horribly inside three minutes, and his plans were further thrown into disarray when his only new inclusion (Kish) was taken off just a few minutes later. There must be squad members like Hughes, Euell, and Rommedahl who must wonder how poorly the incumbents must play before they get given a real chance.

However, having battled back from 2-0 down to head into the break level, the momentum should have been with us. Instead it sounded like we were under the cosh for most of the second half and whilst it required two late goals to actually beat us, few reports I have read suggested it was anything other than a deserved defeat. Three games in three weeks against mediocre opposition had accrued just one fortunate point, and seen ten goals fly past 'player of the year in waiting' Dean Kiely who must wonder what he has done to deserve such a statistic.

There seems to be a surprising level of negativity regarding Curbs on the message boards I frequent, and it's probably a worthwhile juncture to assess his strengths and weaknesses. In my last post, I suggested his caution and organisation would typically ensure the club reached 40 points but he lacked the flexibility and appetite for risk to push the club much further. This is not to be scoffed at after all - since we returned to the Premiership in 2000, clubs such as Leeds and West Ham have seen their fortunes change very quickly, and each is still in my view a 'bigger' club than Charlton (not that these things necessarily last for very long). To do it five seasons in a row with lower than average resources is indeed an achievement, and not to be scoffed at.

Hence whilst we haven't gone backwards, perhaps my biggest gripe with Curbs is that we haven't really progressed very far either. It is worth recalling that in 2000/01 we reached ninth position with 52 points, and even this points total is looking somewhat optimistic with just six games left in this campaign. Perhaps even more of a concern is our -9 goal difference, the joint worst outside of the bottom six and a signal perhaps that Curbs' key strengths are fading over time. It used to be notable that we weren't thrashed when defeated, but scorelines this season of 1-4, 0-4, 0-4, 0-4, 1-4 and 2-4 suggest this is no longer the case.

Indeed, our strong seventh place finish in 2003/04 was achieved with only 53 points, our actual league position both that season and this reflecting the mediocrity and 'barbell' nature of the Premership, rather than any underlying improvement in results. Bear in mind too, that we have singularly failed to have a Cup run, this season's defeat to Leicester perhaps the most painful given the simple route we were given to the last eight.

Given that the current squad, on paper at least, is the strongest in the club's history then either the 2000/01 squad overachieved and was an unfair comparison, or the current squad is potentially underachieving implying question marks over Curbs' management and transfer policy. I am inclined to believe that it is probably a combination of the two, but I am particularly concerned at the disappointing performances of our key summer transfers, at the boring football we are playing, at the lack of youth team players that have come through in recent years and the ongoing problem of the 'end of season' slump.

The real question I suppose is whether gaining 45-55 points every season and finishing midtable, whilst occasionally dashing fans' faint hopes for Europe is a reasonable expectation. Unless you are a Chelsea fan right now, most clubs have plenty to moan about. Even Arsenal and Man Utd have had disappointing seasons by their standards, and whilst Liverpool are going great guns in the Champions League, they are not guaranteed re-qualification by any means. In short, the real problem in the the game right now is the difference in resources between the top three and the rest, and then notably between the middle twelve or so (of which we are part) and the promoted clubs from the Championship. It would be a sad indictment on the game if WBA, Palace and Norwich are all relegated, yet this seems the most likely outcome right now.

Where does this leave football? I think Varney and Murray are right to be concerned about dwindling away attendances, unfair allocation of money and overexposure on TV. Admittedly I am now living abroad, but I had cut down markedly the away games I was going to and it's clear many others are doing the same. How long will it be before crowds at the Valley potentially fall below capacity, particularly with a planned expansion going ahead?

It is unrealistic to propose a move to a US-style system of equalising standards across the league, and it ignores the commerical realities of the industry, but it is not in the big clubs interests to trample on the competition year after year since the commodity itself is devalued as a result. Many Americans I chat with are astonished that approx 90% of Premiership fans pay up front for their season ticket knowing full well that their club has a near-zero prospect of winning the title.

To return to the point, I think the critics of Curbs are getting ahead of themselves. The real problem is the boredom of the Premiership and the fact that 15 or 16 clubs will begin next season with the avoidance of relegation as their primary aim. There seem to be very few managers whom I would rather have - one look at Watford's ridiculous decision to sack Ray Lewington shows the dangers of making rash short-term oriented decisions. The usual names would be thrown out (Strachan, McCarthy, Royle, Taylor, Dowie.....yadda yadda) but the only managers I might potentially want are at other clubs and not accessible (Moyes, Alladyce, etc..).

Footnote: We're still not out of the European chase! Wins versus Bolton and Norwich, and a draw at Villa and suddenly things might look brighter. Famous last words.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Bottom Fishing

"And now for today's line ups........No.6 Mark Fish...." - Am I hearing this correctly? Had the ravages of my recent stag weekend caused me to hallucinate and imagine terrible things? This was clearly the most ridiculous team selection since Jamie Stuart played a series of games during the mid-1990s. How much more did he need to humiliate himself and the club in order to ensure he was consigned back to the reserves where he belongs? Regardless of El Karkouri's suspension, there was a fit and perfectly capable replacement on the bench, and one who proved it during the second half.

The first half was simply the most inept 45 mins I can recall seeing against a side that can only be described as average at best. Had Deano not been at his brilliant best during the first half, we could easily have trailed 4-1 or 5-1 at half-time. The first City goal was actually an own goal by Hreidarsson, and Perry was at fault for the second but the lack of confidence caused by Fish's lumbering presence, was rippling through the rest of the side who somehow managed to nick a goal from their only worthwhile attack of the entire half. The passing was woeful with Murphy in particular guilty of wanton profligacy. Out on the right wing, the pathetic figure of JJ led my friend to comment that he should have been a fashion stylist or make-up artist, given the way he minces around the pitch terrified of getting an injury or ruining his hairdo by challenging for headers. It truly was astonishing that we could play this poorly after having had two weeks to train hard and put the WBA loss behind us. Aside from Deano, only Konchesky could be spared some blame given his work-rate and excellent pass to Thomas for the goal.

Curbs made the two obvious changes at half-time, thankfully putting JJ out of his misery rather than being tempted to play him as the second striker in the new 4-4-2 formation. In essence, we began the 2nd half arguably with the team that should have started the game, but unfortunately we now had a 45min match with a one goal handicap.

The second half was little better, the lack of pace in the midfield causing the side's momentum to stall inside the City half, the team limited instead to hopeful punts up to Bartlett (who barely won a header all game) and hopeless punts up to Jeffers, who in fairness looked reasonably lively despite the poor service. Murphy came more into the game, but his body language (and not for the first time) suggested he would rather be elsewhere. Thomas had a great chance to level matters midway through the half, but his finish was rushed and summed up an off-day for Charlton's cameo performer. Holland put a header against the bar but his overall contribution on his 500th league game would probably rank about 490th.

The equaliser when it came was greeted with a curious reaction - almost one of guilt, shortly followed by virtual silence at the final whistle - no wild celebrations today of a point miraculously gained, but recognition that the usual end-of-season collapse had started in earnest. Is Curbs going to become the 40-point manager, capable through his organisation and caution of steering a team to this important mark, but unable to push them beyond it? Where was the ambition today? Where was the realisation that with just a handful of games to go, this club has a unique opportunity to push on to the next level, ie. European qualification? This was a lunchtime stroll in the sun instead of 90 minutes of passion and effort.

Such is the mediocrity of the Premiership outside of the top three, the league table still suggests a finish of 7th or above is attainable, though the points total required to achieve it (perhaps 52 points) is a more telling statistic, since it would ordinarily not warrant more than a mid-table finish at best. With four teams averaging less than a point per game, and three running away with things, the remainder (Everton excepted) are bunched together, unable to find the form required to pull away from the pack. I wouldn't be surprised if this pattern repeated itself in the future given the difference in resources between the top three and the rest, and frankly it does not do the Premiership 'brand' credit at all.