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.