Saturday, September 24, 2005

Play Away

Four points clear in 2nd place despite having played only two home games.....I'm starting to wonder if the heat from New York's seemingly never-ending summer has made me delirious. As with the Birmingham win, we were clinging on at the end but that's clutching at straws perhaps, as it was inevitable that our second goal would require a focus on defence over attack for the remainder of the game.

Our style of play clearly suits us playing away from home. Provided we do indeed soak up inevitable crowd-induced home side pressure, then Murphy's passing and the devastating pace of Thomas, Rommedahl and Bent will always allow us plenty of chances on the break. We have scored first-half goals in each of our four away games, which proves that this style is anything but defensive and far more than a simple case of 'hoping to nick a late goal'.

Ironically this fantastic run we are now really began with Ambrose's sending off at Sunderland, a rash act which persuaded Curbs to play Thomas at home to Wigan, and this attacking move set the basis for the fluid but solid 4-5-1 which rapidly becomes a pacy 4-3-3. Indeed the stability of his current first-choice eleven implies that a number of players whom we may have presumed would be far more prominent, may indeed spend far more time in the reserves, the unfortunate Ambrose included.

It's fair to say that I would have accused you of being fanciful if you told me that we would accumulate 15 points from 6 games with our 2nd choice keeper in goal, Chris Powell at left-back, the Herminator at centre-back and Chris Perry as his partner. As Curbs himself has intimated, the new signings, whilst obviously useful squad additions per se, they also served the purpose of lifting the whole club, and in the process improving the individual performances of those that were already here. Hreidarsson in particular had a disappointing end to last season but has been rock solid this campaign.

Whilst Chelsea bore the entire football world to death and prove that money really is everything (I continue in vain to hope that Abramovich goes the way of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) elsewhere some interesting and perhaps unpredictable trends seem to be emerging. Two results from today stand out in this regard: Man U 1-2 Blackburn and West Ham 0-0 Arsenal. As their own fans feared, Arsenal look as weak as they have done since Wenger took over, and with Henry injured and Vieira gone, they look on paper at least, dare I say it, ordinary?

Meanwhile, Man U limped to a draw with neighbours City, and then lost at home to a Blackburn side that has hardly set the world alight this season. Both sides' failure to win three of their first six games will rightly be seen by their fans as precisely that ie. a failure. It is far too early to suggest that the 'top three' has now become the 'top one' and that there are really three Champions League places up for grabs, but the early signs are encouraging from a Charlton perspective.

Speaking of Champions League places, it is hard to ignore the poor start that Everton have made. When combined with their dire European exploits, it suggests that their heroics from last season really were a one-off, and it leads to an obvious conclusion: Form tends to revert to the mean unless success is used as the basis for improving the squad, something Everton singularly failed to do during the summer (£4m for Simon Davies anyone?!). As we bask quite rightly in our early-season glory, it is worth remembering that things can change swiftly if the people in charge take their eye off the ball and believe they've found the holy grail.

Returning to the Arsenal result, it is hard not to be impressed by West Ham's bold approach to the Premiership, and moreover that of Wigan's also. It would be a healthy development if the promoted clubs are seen to be competing, and the early signs for these two at least is promising even if Sunderland look doomed already. I watched West Ham destroy Villa 4-0 and it was hard not to be impressed, and I'm pleased for former Addick Alan Pardew who got some unjustified stick last season.

It's Spurs next and whilst our home form against them has been patchy, we are firmly in the ascendancy overall in recent seasons, and Curbs can make a simple telephone call to find out how to beat them (the number begins 01472, the code for Grimsby.) Oh how we laughed.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Football in Decline - Some more thoughts....

It seems my last post regarding the slow decline of football and moreover, the dangers of Charlton increasing its debt (and the stadium's capacity) at the wrong time, was well-received judging from the number of responses. I've had some further thoughts on the matter, particularly in light of today's inevitable defeat to Chelsea.

If football's last 'decline' occurred in the 1980s, culminating in the Hillsborough disaster, then the its rebirth began with the Taylor Report, Italia 1990 and then in 1992 the creation of the Premier League. Although many fans did (and still do) resent the move to all-seater stadia, and whilst the atmosphere in grounds may have suffered, the Report definitely increased football's attractiveness to previously under-represented segments of society (women and the 'middle class' in particular). England's brilliant run in Italia 1990 and the creation of the Gazza phenomenon put the sport back in the nation's consciousness for positive reasons, and the creation of the Premier League saw the first proper attempt to market the sport properly and maximise its revenues.

My observation however is that these changes happened to occur during the last economic recession, and as the country emerged from it, so did football emerge from its own malaise. In the space of just over a decade, we have seen changes which would have been almost inconceivable, not all of them for the better of course, but few in 1989 would have predicted for example that football would become perhaps the highest paid profession in the country.

It cannot be mere coincidence that football's seemingly never-ending rise occurred alongside uninterrupted economic growth, rises in incomes and consumer confidence. The technology boom of the 1990s provided further support for this rise, providing cable/satellite access to more matches, analysis and gave the game a razzmatazz that used to be the preserve of Frank Worthington and his ilk.

However, in the past year, the economy and particularly consumption, has slowed markedly with retailers talking of the worst conditions on the High Street they can recall. The consumer sector is essentially in recession - growth overall is positive only thanks to investment and government spending. House price growth has fallen to zero (and is actually negative, if you ignore what the vested interests tell you) and with debt levels at all-time highs, consumers are realising they can no longer use the home as a cash machine, and are being forced to cut back to repair their balance sheets. Hence for the first time since its 'rebirth', football is being forced to operate within a soft economic environment, and the early indications of lower attendances and interest are hardly surprising.

Clubs know full well that the vast majority of fans will only ever support one club. Knowing that they cannot prise away fans of other clubs by lowering prices (as would occur in any other business), clubs have instead sought to fleece their captive fanbase by pushing admission prices to levels which are now out-of-line with most other leisure activities. I have heard Chairmen comment that theatre tickets also cost say £50, but most people don't go to the theatre 19 times a year. Moreover, it is possible to be reasonably assured of the quality of the product when you attend the theatre, by reading reviews etc.. Whilst football's unpredictability is part of its attraction, if we are honest, I suspect that with hindsight, we would not have bothered to attend perhaps 7 out of 10 games if we knew what rubbish we'd have seen.

Charlton have managed to sell the majority of their seats in the form of season tickets, but I wonder how many of those fans would have declined to buy one if they felt confident that they could always get a seat at whatever game they wanted to attend? Ironically by increasing the capacity to say 35,000, we could see attendances fall not rise. Those fans who bought a season ticket probably turn up to say the Wigan or WBA game (or give the ticket to someone else) in part because they think "I've paid for it so I've got to use it" (flawed thinking as it's a sunk cost but anyhow). Those same fans, upon seeing the capacity increase, may well opt instead simply to pick and choose the games they attend, and not bother buying tickets for the less attractive games.

If you don't agree with the above, then I question why we get such shocking attendances in the FA Cup, games not included in the season ticket. The fans who do turn up for these games might be described as the 'core support' which suggests we have 10-12,000 or so in this category. As much as the Board would like to think otherwise, our league games against the lesser Premiership clubs in a larger stadium would be 20,000 or so because thousands of fans would switch from a season ticket to match-by-match tickets. I suspect most fans stick their season ticket on a credit card and forget about how much their football habit is costing. Ask those same fans to produce ready cash at the gate, and many will baulk at shelling out £35 to watch lousy opposition.

Football clubs will rapidly learn that whilst fans are loyal to only one club, those same fans can certainly choose to consume less football, or even no football. It has always been a big part of my life and I assumed I would miss it terribly when I moved to the US, but the transition has been remarkably easy. Being able to watch perhaps ten Charlton games on TV plus a handful on returns to London satiates my need, particularly when combined with reading Internet reports, blogs and the message boards.

Over the next few years, the sport will have to rethink its business model because having shrinking revenues and bulging costs is not sustainable in the long-term. Clubs have relied upon a steady stream of generous (or naive) benefactors willing to plunge their fortunes into filling the gap with equity injections and 'free' loans. However this too is unsustainable - in a softening economy, the numbers of people able to fund clubs will shrink and moreover, many will choose to spend their fortunes elsewhere. Wages have to fall and ticket prices have to fall in tandem - as Richard Murray stated in an interview in the Independent, players are hardly going to leave the game and become postmen if they can 'only 'earn £10,000 per week, instead of £20,000. Only by the game finding its financial senses again, and finding ways to equalise the playing field, can its future success and prominence be maintained.

Charlton 0 Wolves 2

Not surpisingly, our game was chosen as the 3pm Saturday live game in the US and for the best part of an hour, we matched Chelsea if not for class, then certainly for effort. However one sensed that to get something out of the game, we couldn't afford to make any individual mistakes, and whilst Kish got away with losing possession once in the first half, his habit of dwelling too long on the ball cost us Crespo's goal. In football, the first goal changes not only the scoreline but also the psychology and pattern of the game, and with us forced to seek an equaliser more gaps began to appear, and within minutes a moment of brilliance from Robben ended the game as a realistic contest.

The difference in class was most apparent in the centre of midfield where Essien and Makelele hunted down any red shirt in possession like a pack of hungry wolves. Unfortunately whilst Murphy had enough about him to twist and jink and find a teammate with passes, Kish was unfortunately well and truly found out, whilst Hughes lacks the physical presence to make an impression. Clearly we missed Smertin but to be frank, I never really felt Chelsea needed to get very far through the gears to beat us and Andersen made several smart saves to keep things relatively respectable.

This may sound fanciful, but I would not bet against Chelsea winning every one of their 38 games this season. With the exception of their three remaining games against Man Utd and Arsenal, I genuinely can't see them dropping any points against the rest. If one of their team has an off day, they simply replace him with another multi-million pound signing - the replacement of Duff by Wright-Phillips on the hour mark simply underlines this point. Quite what was going through Chris Powell's 36-year old mind when he saw who he was going to have to mark next can only be imagined. As discussed, unless Abramovich chooses to spend his dubious wealth elsewhere or the distribution of cash in the game is made more progressive, the future of competitive football in this country is under threat, which Chelsea themselves will end up paying a price for.

Anyhow enough about them, our dream start is over but with Smertin back for the WBA game, and others pushing for contention, we can go into another winnable away game with the genuine belief that we can make it four wins from four. Again I was impressed with Darren Bent's tireless running, but more importantly his strength and aerial prowess which combined with his obvious ability to finish finally perhaps suggests we have a striker who can become a hero in the Super Clive mould.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Curbs out

Following the result at St Andrews yesterday, the position of Alan Curbishley as Charlton manager has become increasingly untenable. To only win by a single goal following comprehensive wins in our previous two away games, and then to, by all accounts, 'be under pressure for most of the second half' is simply unacceptable.

As far as the summer signings go, they are proving to be a complete failure not least Darren Bent. His 'expected' total goals for the season (by extrapolating his existing total over the course of a whole season) has fallen from 76 to 47.5 in the space of just four weeks which proves that he is clearly out-of-form yet Curbs refuses to drop him in favour of Kevin Lisbie (who ridiculously has been allowed to go on loan).

Moreover, he has recently allowed himself (see inset) to be photographed in an Aston Villa kit which shows that he has no loyalty to this club, and would jump at the chance no doubt to work under Doug Ellis whose efficiently-run operation puts our own board to shame.

He should do the decent thing and resign.

("I think you're confusing Curbishley with Eriksson." - Ed.)

Friday, September 02, 2005

Young at Heart

The press has been implying this morning that Luke Young, in all likelihood, will take the No.2 shirt against Wales. I must admit I would prefer to wait for confirmation tomorrow, but predictably some so-called 'pundits' are calling it a 'risk.'

I've attached this photo to show what real 'risk' is - playing Phil Neville for the 53rd time (frightening but true....the uglier Neville brother has 52 caps).

It's fair to say most fans weren't convinced by Young initially, partly as a result of the price tag which occurred at the height of football mania. Nonetheless, over time he has quietly gone about his business and confirmation that he had won around the fans came last season when he was deservedly voted Player of the Year. His defending and effort levels are excellent, and whilst this will always be the foundation of his game, his attacking play has improved also. He was also nominated capitain in the absence of Matt Holland which must say something about his leadership qualities.

It is not entirely clear why playing the regular right-back from a Premier League team which has spent more time in the top half than the bottom in recent years, is seen as a risk. It's a sign of the usual flawed thinking that permeates through the game. It is to be expected of course that the best players in the country will tend, all other things being equal, to play for the most successful clubs but with the unbelievable influx of non-English players, there could well be international class players all over the Premier League. The reason is simply that the Premier League is perhaps the most popular League to play in (for foreigners) but this doesn't in any way reflect the underlying quality of the players that were born in that country. It's a function of the passion of the League, the revenues it generates and the global reputation, much of which actually derives from prior decades.

Take the big 3 clubs for example - how many of their first choice eleven are actually English? Less than ten out of 33 players I would say, maybe even fewer. Moreover, those English players that do make it into the first team of the big 3 may find their qualities are exagerrated by the world class players plying their trade around them. One glaring example springs to mind....Frank Lampard is probably the most over-rated player in the country yet looks a star because he has the world's best defensive midfielder alongside him. His move from West Ham a couple of seasons before the Abramovich era was an act of impeccable timing. Just ask West Ham fans what they think of Lampard, or indeed ask Chelsea fans what he was like before the roubles started flowing in.

Let's face it, we only have a handful of genuinely world class English players ie. those that would get walk into any club side in the world. Rooney and Gerrard for sure, maybe Ferdinand but certainly not Beckham or Owen. Hence these few world-class players aside, it would in many ways be surprising if the bulk of the England squad (we need 22 players after all) did not come from some of the lesser clubs like Charlton. The idea that Phil Neville should get 52 caps because he plays for Manchester United (yet in truth was only a squad member, regularly rotated) is (was) a nonsense. He was regularly dropped in favour of the likes of Keane, Silvestre, Giggs, Heinze, and O'Shea (none of them English of course). Had he instead played 38 games a season every season for a lesser club, cynical fans like me might have had a chance to conclude he wasn't that bad after all. But nonetheless, Sven still picks him.

So there we have it - I will await confirmation that Sven might see some sense, and I have no doubt that Luke will do more than 'not let anyone down', but might actually wake up some people to the English talent life outside the big 3.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Trivial Pursuits

So we did manage to clinch one last-minute signing after all, namely that of Jay Bothroyd who was a great answer to a football trivia question until about three hours ago, namely, "Who is the only English player in the Italian league?" I can't say I know too much about him though I recall seeing him interviewed on Soccer AM where he talked about how his move to Italy came out-of-the-blue, and he came across as being humble enough.

As a stand-alone signing, this would appear to be a fairly low-risk chance to take a look at him for a few months and have an extra pair of legs in the squad if required (though it's hard to see him featuring in the first team unless both Bent and Bartlett get injured). However when combined with Jeffers' move to Rangers, it seems a little illogical to have swapped one gifted but temperamental (according to Blackburn fans) striker for another, though it is perhaps Bothroyd's 'target man' status which swayed Curbs given the lack of height up front outside of his first two choices.

It isn't clear if it was Rangers or Charlton who insisted that the Jeffers loan only be until January, but I'm quietly hoping it was us. Assuming he gets some first team football, it may be a chance for him to score hatfuls of goals (if Hartson and Sutton can, then surely even Jeffers can) and come back to us confident and ready to do what he should have done in the first place, knuckled down and fought for a first team berth. The rumours about Jeffers' lack of off-the-field professionalism regularly do the rounds and he certainly doesn't seem like a 'Charlton-type' player which makes it all the more surprising we ever signed him in the first place, suggesting as some thought at the time, that it was a rushed transfer. Certainly the more considered approach this summer which has now yielded ten players with less cash outlay than last summer suggests lessons may have been learned. Having said all of that, on the odd occasion Jeffers has turned out for us, he has looked to be able to offer something which makes it all the more frustrating.

So the transfer deadline passed with something of an anti-climax, and I guess we may never know who the two players were that Curbs had bids in for. Perhaps if nine points weren't in the bag, we would have pushed a bit harder and it's hard not to be laughing a little at Newcastle fans who, when interviewed on Five Live, said that £16m signing Owen 'completed' their team despite the fact that they have one point from four games and no goals. Still, if they had a brain they would've had better things to do than see him unveiled in the first place.