Saturday, January 28, 2006

Cup Half Empty

A narrow and probably undeserved escape (again) at the hands of lower-league opposition. Full credit to Orient of course who tested us to the limit, but our consistent failure to control these types of games and win them comfortably defies belief and has been going on for too long now.

Sure, a win is a win, and I'm grateful to be in the 5th Round but I genuinely can't understand the problem. It's another reason why Curbs has never entirely convinced fans that he is a truly world-class manager as opposed to a very good one. With Curbs currently one of the favourites for the England job, one shudders to think how he might deal with home fixtures against Macedonia and Andorra in Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Fans got excited about reaching the last 16 of the Carling Cup before screwing up in monumental fashion, and if we get another favourable draw, we don't want excuses or Curbs pulling his hair out, but instead our first FA Cup quarter-final since 1999/2000.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Goodbye Deano

Deano's departure to Pompey saw a sad, but perhaps inevitable end to the Charlton career of one of the most consistent and revered players of the past decade. Most fans knew little about him when he joined from Bury, but by the end of his first season we had blitzed the competition in the First Division, and we knew we had a keeper to keep us in the top flight.

Indeed every season until 2004/05, one could have made a reasonable case for him being voted Player of the Year. He wasn't without his faults of course, a tendency to stay rooted to his line being the most obvious, but as a shot-stopper at times he really was second-to-none. Indeed at his peak (probably defined as 2002-04), I would have hesitated to have swapped him for any other keeper in the Premiership, and I think informed fans of other clubs respected him enormously. He would regularly perform such heroics that he very clearly won us games that our overall outfield play did not deserve - wins at Spurs and Birmingham spring to mind for example. That save from Dugarry in the latter is simply breathtaking.

Unfortunately however, there were signs in 2004/05 that his abilities were in decline, conceding 53 goals in 36 games. Whilst he would almost certainly have begun this season injury-permitting, the youthful potential of Andersen and the arrival of the experienced (and younger) Myhre have obviously persuaded Curbs to let Deano pursue a new opportunity. Moreover, his erratic performances this season when given a chance did him few favours.

I think Charlton have proved in the past that they won't stand in the way of loyal servants when an opportunity for first-team football exists elsewhere, and rightly so. Moreover, with the possible exception of Chris Powell, the decision with hindsight has rarely proved to be a wrong one with few players achieving more elsewhere than they did at Charlton. Perhaps the sale of Mark Kinsella (still only 33) is the best example of this.

Charlton fans will hopefully have the chance to pay tribute to Deano on Apr 17th, and he will deserve the plaudits, as his rapport with the fans (and quite often the visiting fans too) has been excellent throughout. Looking forward, there is still speculation about the club signing Robert Green - although Curbs seems to like having at least three strong keepers, it does seem a little excessive and is not repeated at many other clubs. Indeed, at times in prior seasons we have had four keepers who might not have been out of place in the first team and we thus have a long list of substitute keepers whose names are familiar but their performances are not (eg. Rachubka, Roberts, Royce, Caig, Leite).

Green seems an excellent keeper and would no doubt be a solid signing, but it would only make sense in my view if Andersen was sold to make way. (Whilst on the subject of Deano who had the face of a goalkeeper if ever I saw one, the Dane is disturbingly good-looking for a keeper and has clearly shied away from one too many collisions.) Otherwise, it is just another example of promising young players like Eliot and Randolph essentially having no future at the club because Curbs will never risk playing them if injuries required it.

Breath of Fresh Air

Sometimes it's hard for football fans to pay due credit to other clubs. However, having watched West Ham beat Fulham with a pair of 'goal of the season' contenders, and then witnessed Wigan's last-gasp defeat of a near full-strength Arsenal side, it would be incongruous of me not to pay tribute to them both.

The Premiership has been predictable enough at the top to cure insomnia, but the usual cycle of the promoted teams struggling has been broken with the exception of Sunderland (who ironically won the title last season), and the 'product' is all the better for it. Both teams play good football, and successfully blend youth and experience. The defensive football in the Premiership is played by the likes of Bolton and Villa these days, despite them having the 'bigger club' mentality.

Admittedly Charlton finished 9th in 2000/01 after bouncing back to the top tier, but I don't recall us playing with such style and seemingly without fear. I was convinced that Paul Jewell for example was just a jammy Northerner with a decent but fortunate record, yet without the tactical nous to truly compete consistently. However Wigan have not got into the top six and a Cup final by kicking lumps out of opponents, and it's hard not to be impressed by the likes of Bullard, Baines, Chimbonda, and Pollitt, none of which were household names in their own households. Meanwhile, the transformation of Jason Roberts into a true Premiership class striker is perhaps Jewell's finest achievement this season.

I have a sneaky soft spot for Arsenal, but last night's result was a one for all real football fans. Seeing Wigan in the Carling Cup Final makes me slightly sick however (with admiration). As Charlton fans we are crying out for the chance of some glory, or just a great day out in Cardiff or Wembley. The play-off final in 1998 will stick in everyone's memory for life, not just because of the result and the incredible tension, but because of the amazing feeling of being amongst 35,000 fellow fans at a neutral ground. Our highly conservative approach has served us well up until now, but I think most fans would now rather finish say 16th in the Premiership and reach a Cup final, than finish 8th.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Swede FA

At last, the FA has managed to nudge Eriksson aside. Perhaps someone dared to actually look at his record, compared it to his payslip and wondered how they got themselves in this mess in the first place. Judging from some of his supporters, you might think it is only his personal indiscretions that have seen him get the chop. But a closer examination of his record shows he is no more successful (or unsuccessful) than previous managers, particularly when assessed based upon the quality of players the clubs are bringing through.

I suppose we should be grateful that Howard Wilkinson never got the job on a permanent basis. Upon hearing the news of Eriksson's plan to leave after the World Cup, he remarked, "His record as manager of the England team has been excellent," before adding, "We have got a fantastic group of players," as if somehow Eriksson was responsible for that, as opposed to Wenger, Ferguson, Mourinho, Houllier, Benitez etc..

It is hard to argue with the view that England currently possess the best group of players, certainly since 1990 and perhaps since 1966 (when, to be fair, international competition was somewhat less fierce than it is today). Just to put it in context, the team that Kevin Keegan put out during his final game against Germany included such world-class players as Nick Barmby, Martin Keown, Andrew Cole, Gareth Southgate and Graeme Le Saux. And before anyone suggests that Keegan's team selection was the problem, his outfield options on the bench comprised Gareth Barry, Kieron Dyer, Dennis Wise, Kevin Phillips, Ray Parlour, and Emile Heskey.

Eriksson did a reasonable job of qualifying for the World Cup after that poor start, but we still required a last minute free-kick to ensure automatic qualification. The 5-1 win over Germany was good fun of course, but who had the last laugh? Germany as usual, going on to finish runners-up, whilst England limped out in a winnable quarter-final against the eventual winners.

Indeed, being drawn in the 2002 'group of death' (with Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria) was the only time the gods of the draw have failed to shine upon Eriksson. The Euro 2004 qualifiers saw us pitched against Slovakia, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, and Turkey whilst the finals saw us in pitched against a fading France, and two poor sides (Switzerland and Croatia). Despite this, we contrived to lose a game against France, and then he failed in his next 'test' failing to remove his captain Beckham after an anonymous performance against Portugal, a challenge that his counterpart Luiz Scolari didn't shy from. The team that won the tournament (Greece) had a fraction of our talent, but multiples of our organisation and tactical nous.

The World Cup qualifying group for 2006 was clearly the weakest of all, yet we were still humiliated in Belfast and failed to put together a single performance which might have suggested to fans that he could actually direct his talented squad to glory in Germany.

And then of course there is his bizarre use of friendly matches, of which perhaps the Australia game at Upton Park was the ultimate example. More recently he gave Andy Johnson 29 minutes at right midfield which must been a particularly worthwhile endeavour for both Johnson and Eriksson.

Remember this is the highest paid football manager in the world. Everything he 'achieved' should have been a given with the talent at his disposal. He has failed every time he's been genuinely tested and has erroneously been given one more chance to succeed. With the exception of left-midfield, we have nearly a complete team which goes into the World Cup as second favourites. Eriksson has been fortunate to have been manager just as the likes of Rooney, Cole, Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand, and Terry were emerging and thriving for their clubs, and it's a sporting tragedy that there's every chance they won't fulfil their potential in Germany.

Now all the talk is about his replacement with Curbishley variously close to favourite or second favourite with the bookies. Betfair which usually provides the most accurate assessment of the true probabilities currently has some bets available at 7/1 which sounds about right. As I stated in my last post, the big issue for me is not necessarily his managerial shortcomings (other than Mourinho perhaps, who doesn't have those?), but the fact that the media would be overwhelmingly negative from the beginning implying he would get virtually no time to find his feet. It is possible they could try to pair him up with someone more experienced, but the same could be said about Alladyce (whose record is arguably better) or McLaren (whose record is clearly worse). Either way, I just can't see it happening and again I reiterate that Newcastle is a far more likely next work location for Curbs than Soho Square.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

We have 'our Charlton' back

It may be a trifle premature, but it's just possible that we've got 'our Charlton' back. Most fans are realists - we don't expect to win every game, but we want to see total commitment, positive tactics and players making sensible decisions. These are the foundations of our success and given our limited budget, they are a prerequisite if we are to continue moving forward.

I suggested in an earlier blog that we would have no hope at Chelsea unless we approached the game in a way that gave us a chance to win, not just draw. Although Curbs went back to 4-5-1, it couldn't be described as a defensive move as at least three of the midfielders are more likely to look forward than back, and his natural temptation to drop Rommedahl was curtailed.

The pitch was once again a disgrace although it clearly worked in our favour. Perhaps Mourinho might forego a week's wages to let the club re-lay it. At times during the first half some of Chelsea's passing was good enough to overcome its shortcomings but despite all of their possession, they actually created very few chances and the goal was a soft one. It is frustrating to concede yet another goal from a set-piece - the bigger clubs have better players of course, but I don't see any particular inherent advantage at set plays so our failures in this department need urgent attention.

The unfortunate collision between Rommedahl and Young not surprisingly left the Dane worse off, but it did allow Charlton fans an early chance to see whether Marcus Bent was money well spent. Ironically during a week when fans also questioned the wisdom of buying a £48 ticket to this game, it's just possible both will turn out to have been very good value.

Our subs bench was unusual, containing two centre-forwards and two centre-backs, but no natural midfielders, giving Curbs no option but to emphasise his love of versatile players by putting Bent on whilst maintaing 4-5-1. Had we not equalised fairly soon after half-time, we no doubt would have seen the Bent/Bent forward partnership for the first time, but as it transpired he stayed wide right. Interestingly we finished the game with three strikers on the pitch despite a 1-1 scoreline, which might have left some of the away fans wonder if they were hallucinating.

Our equaliser was a fine one, and there's no better way to get the fans on your side than scoring on your debut as Marcus' namesake will tell him. The finish was well-executed but the pass was exquisite, and I have no doubts that Ambrose is going to be a terrific player for us, hopefully for many years. He is blessed with great feet and the pace to get behind defences, and although I'd rather see him play more centrally, he will continue to make things happen for us.

It was a shame we couldn't have crowned a great performance with a winner, but a draw was a fair result, and we probably should thank linesman Andy Williams for his help in this regard. Chelsea fans may wish he had stuck to a singing career, and at times he did appear to be 'watching girls go by' instead of defenders.

Every player did his job and worked hard, and we really defended as a team best-exemplified by Darren Bent's constant harrying of Carvalho that eventually saw the Portuguese defender get an early bath. Fortune was again rock-solid, and behind him Myhre brings the calm assurance that Kiely and Andersen lack, despite their obvious shot-stopping abilities.

It is notable that the team's recent improvement has occurred without the two midfielders that I previously considered automatic selections (Murphy and Smertin). With regard to the former, I'm finding it hard not to be cynical about the true reasons for his omission. If he does ultimately get transferred, the club are going to have a lot of explaining to do. Personally, provided we had time to spend the proceeds, I would accept £2.5m and move on.

With nine days left in the transfer window, we are all hoping for more new recruits to boost the squad and seek to avoid the traditional end-of-season collapse. West Ham's bid for Dean Ashton proves that it is not simply a case of identifying players you want, but being willing to pay a club's lofty valuation. For a downpayment of £7m, there is no way Charlton should of (or could of) matched it for a still unproven player.

On a different note, the papers are full of speculation about who Sven's successor should be. It's somewhat hypothetical of course, but I just don't see the FA appointing him because the media would be too lukewarm to give him the time he would need to find his feet. From Curbs' point of view I would also imagine being an international managers is a hugely dissatisfying role. Curbs backers should be more concerned about the next appointment at Newcastle than England.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kevin Lisbie stranded in Thames

The team of rescuers desperately trying to save a stranded whale in the River Thames, announced that they have today named London's newest tourist attraction, 'Kevin Lisbie.' Speaking to journalists on the riverbank, a spokesperson said, "It seemed an obvious name. The whale appears confused and disoriented, it went missing for a long period, it is out of its depth, it keeps moving in the wrong direction, and when we took him off, everyone cheered."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Criminal Charges

Many Charlton fans are rightly astonished at the ticket prices for our upcoming game at Chelsea (48 pounds), but some of them need a healthy dose of today's new reality. Chelsea have no interest in 'fairness' or competitiveness or any of those nice 'touchy-feely' traits that used to characterise sport. They are a business owned by the richest man in Europe, and run by hard-nosed businessmen like the odious chap photographed.

It's a free market and Chelsea are free to charge whatever they like for the fixture and Charlton fans have a choice whether to attend or not. The biggest clubs and the richest clubs (Chelsea are in the latter category, not the former) have implicitly and in some cases explicitly, put in place a clear 'priority list' for different sub-categories of fans. This is clear not only from the prices charged on Sunday, but also from the approach taken by fellow London rival Arsenal for selling out their new stadium.

At the very top of that list are the corporate hospitality packages which sell rubber chicken lunches and a cushioned seat to global corporations eager to entertain key clients. The big London clubs clearly have an advantage here given the preponderance of mega corporations in the city.

Also near the top of that list is a further sub-category of fan which in recent years has become extremely important, namely the foreign 'tourist fans' particularly from Asia who purchase extortionately expensive tickets as part of a wider tour package. Not only do these 'fans' pay up for their tickets, they also tend to supplement the club's income through club shop spending sprees.

About halfway down the list is the bog-standard home season-ticket holder. They are important to the club because they are stable and large in number, but they tend not to spend much additional money, often showing up five minutes from kick-off having used up their pre-match cash in local pubs instead of at the stadium. Charlton, given our high proportion of season ticket holders compared to total capacity, have a disproportionate number of these types of supporters, but we lack the glamour to attract the high-margin categories.

Just below the season-ticket holder is the 'fairweather' fan. Again they have some 'value' because they are loyal to one club and they help to fill the stadium for the bigger games, but they can't be relied upon to attend every game and their preference for game-by-game tickets is also less attractive from a cashflow perspective compared to prepaid season tickets.

Right at the bottom of the list, and for good reason is the away fan. For those clubs with excess demand for seats, the away fans presents little more than aggravation. Some purists might argue they add to the atmosphere, and they are right up to a point, but on the flipside they add to the police bill, they don't spend any money beyond the admission price and regardless of the quality of the product on show, they will never consume it again (until the following season's fixture). Given that clubs are obliged to offer a certain amount of tickets to visiting fans, their only rational objective (in the absence of any rare displays of altruism) is to maximise revenue from them. Admittedly in the case of Charlton and other less well-supported clubs, charging 48 quid may backfire on this score (might halving the admission price more than double our away support?, but Chelsea know that over the course of a season they will be better off with this policy.

Before Charlton fans get all high-and-mighty on this issue, it is worth remembering we don't exactly treat our visiting fans with a great deal of respect. The admission prices may be fairer, but we house them in an old stand with seats bolted to an existing terrace, minimal catering facilities and a great big pylon in line with the centre of the goal.

To put the issue another way, the policy of clubs like Chelsea can be compared to an airline's ticketing policy. At the front of the plane are the highly sought-after businesspeople enjoying first-class service for an astronomical fee, all paid for on expenses. Behind them are varied categories of passengers, ranging from businesspeople travelling on a tight budget in economy class (somewhat valued by the airline, akin to a season-ticket holder), to the backpackers with no concept of loyalty to the airline (akin to an away fan).

Instead of moaning about it, the best thing Charlton fans can do is refuse to attend and watch the game in the comfort of their own home or the pub, thus depriving Chelsea of any revenue at all. Unfortunately we will instead have the worst-case scenario of 500 or so ripped-off fans, unable to provide the team with much vocal support, and suggesting to tv viewers that we are (again) terribly supported away from home. At least a completely empty away section could have generated some media coverage and perhaps embarrassed Chelsea into a more generous pricing policy.

And for those of us unwilling (and in my case, unable) to attend, just add 'ticket prices' and 'Sunday lunchtime kick-offs' to that ever-growing list entitled, "Reasons I Don't Attend Football Matches As Much As I Used To."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Curbishley's flexible friends

Time will tell whether Marcus Bent is a good signing for us or not, but it's hard to argue against the view that the fee is a little on the high side. Hence, I stopped to think about what factors Curbs may have considered before agreeing to make such a generous bid. Could it be his goalscoring potential? Or could it be his aerial ability and strength? Could it be his ability to play alongside namesake Darren?......And then it hit me like a bolt from the blue.....he can play on the right side of midfield! You just know that as soon as Curbs realised he can play in more than one position, he added another zero to the bid!

I think Curbs' obsession with versatile players made much more sense in the mid-90s when we were operating on a shoestring, than it does now. Back then, the fact that Brownie could move into midfield or Shawn Newton could drop to full-back was clearly a benefit in a small squad. Phil Chappell even started a game upfront (it didn't happen again not surprisingly).

However today we have perhaps the largest squad in our history. This combined with the ability to name five subs (and use three) has surely removed the need for players to be versatile in all but the most extreme circumstances. I've discussed before the fact that our best players of recent seasons were only able to play in one position, but did it extremely well (Parker, Kinsella, Mendonca, Hunt, Rufus etc..). Surely versatility should be a mere bonus, not an attribute you would actively seek?

Just to hammer home the point, I was somewhat taken aback by Curbs' comments in the 'Ask Curbs' section of the website. When asked about Luke Young's chances of making it into Sven's World Cup squad, he replied, "Once they get Luke into the training ground and have a good look at him they'll realise a couple of things. He can play in a couple of positions - he played a lot of his games at Spurs at left back and he can play centre back as well, as we know. So you've got a very versatile player there and I see no reason why, if he keeps up his form, that he shouldn't be part of that squad. I don't know who would play at left-back at the moment if Ashley Cole got injured, but you've just seen that once Gary Neville got injured they didn't have another specialised right-back established in the squad."

With all due respect to Luke Young who has become a core part of a team (at right-back), I suspect Sven will be less impressed with his versatility than Curbs is. If the injury situation was so dire that they ran out of 'natural' left-backs (Bridge, Cole) then he would sooner play 3-5-2 than throw in Luke at left-back in a vital World Cup clash.

I often shudder when I see Matt Holland pushed to right midfield, or Jerome Thomas asked to plow a right-wing furrow, and there are still question marks over the Herminator's abilities at centre-back despite this seemingly having become his default position. Taking players out of their comfort zone is rarely going to have a positive impact on the team. If Curbs feels he is lacking players in certain positions, then the transfer window is open or shock horror, maybe try out a youngster.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sven Moron Eriksson

A quick word on the Eriksson 'sting' by the News of the World. In short, the Swede is unfit to be the leader of any organisation, let alone be the best paid member of his profession in the world. His record when assessed on a 'value for money' basis is mediocre at best, and he has been exceptionally fortunate to have been the manager during an untypically fertile period for English talent.

It is clear the only reason he remains in the job is due to the cost of dismissing him. All of his indiscretions to date, whether they be the Chelsea 'tapping-up' affair, or the inappropriate liasons with members of staff, or now his willingness to disclose private information with complete strangers prove his position is untenable regardless of whether he remains in the post. Could you imagine the highest paid banker or lawyer in the world being 'stung' in this fashion? Occurring during the same week as football has been forced to re-examine the murky world of transfer dealings, it all proves once again that the industry is as bent as Charlton's new strikeforce.

Stadium of Blight

It's a bank holiday here in the US, and with the wind chill taking the air well below freezing outside, there's not much to do today other than write my blog.

An observation from yesterday's Sunderland-Chelsea game.....the attendance was just 32,420, in a stadium that holds 49,000. Now I know the game was on Sky and that Sunderland are perhaps the worst team to play in the Premiership, but surely Chelsea are the biggest draw in the land right now? And whilst Sunderland is in a relatively poor part of the country, their ticket prices reflect this.

The reason I bring it up of course is to remind the Charlton board that Sunderland used to get full houses for most home games, yet are now seeing a precipitous decline in gates. In short, in the absence of either radical increases in the competitiveness of the league, or a radical decrease in ticket prices, the assumption that a newly-expanded Valley would be sold-out for the 'glamour games' is utterly flawed, particularly as many would be shown on TV.

Bent Over Double

It's not the first time I've used this headline for a post, but I couldn't resist myself this morning.

It seems that medical-permitting, we are set to have a pair of Bents up front for the remainder of the season. It's not clear what role the potential comedy value played in the transfer, but unusually for Charlton, this was a transfer that has been 'telegraphed' for many months. Admittedly he wouldn't have been my first choice but you can only sign players that are available, and at an affordable price, so it's probably not a bad piece of business. He is a real 'journeyman' and like others of a similar ilk (Hreidarsson for example), let's hope he also settles down and we get the best years of his career.

If Darren provides the guile, pace and finishing ability then Marcus is clearly from the school of hard knocks, and a big lad at that (6ft 2in). His scoring record has that air of familiarity about it (only 96 goals in 419 games) but Curbs has clearly seen something that others have not. A big question mark for me would be the fact that this is his third million-pound plus transfer (Blackburn and Ipswich also paid big money) but he failed to succeed at either club, and we will be his ninth club. Let's hope it's not an attitudinal issue as we have had enough of those recently with £2.5m strikers. Indeed, given that Everton only spent £450,000 eighteen months ago, they've achieved a remarkable mark-up on the back of just eight goals. If I'm ever selling a house, let's hope Curbs comes to view it.

The Ipswich connections in our team are now verging on the ridiculous, and it's a credit to that similarly well-run club and well-liked club that so many of their ex-players are attractive to us. I would imagine it can't be easy for their fans, now required to watch midtable Championship football, whilst some of their best recent homegrown (and purchased) players ply their trade at Charlton. Given that they might reasonably be described as a 'bigger club' than us, all things considered, there's probably some valuable perspective to be gained there whilst we wallow in boredom at our midtable Premiership 'plight.' Whilst they're not a true 'local' rival, a mini-rivalry did build up during the late-1990s, so you can imagine how we would feel in a few year's time if we saw our best young players like Thomas, Bent and Ambrose all end up at say West Ham or Spurs.

Footnote: It also seems that Jason Euell is off to Birmingham for a fee of £1.5m, a material reduction in his value since we paid top-of-the-market money for him in 2001. In my view, he has been treated poorly by Curbs, and whilst he never had the greatest technique, he always gave 100% and his goalscoring record is second-to-none in recent seasons.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Slow on the Draw

As a statistics junkie, there is one key thing that a careful analysis of Charlton's results brings up, namely the fact that we have drawn only one game this season.

I have written previously about the irrational 'value' placed on a draw by managers, and it is pleasing to see that despite a very inconsistent season, we sit on 28 points after 20 games, on course (amazingly perhaps) for 53.2 points, our highest ever Premiership total. The frustration the fans feel this season comes from the ten defeats (50% of the games) but perhaps we all need reminding that our goal should be maximisation of points, not minimisation of defeats since after all, 38 draws would often see you relegated.

In the unlikely event that I am ever Chairman of a football club, any manager of mine should know that they would face instant dismissal if they reveal in a press conference, "..we set out to get a point." Obviously with ten minutes left in a match, with the score at 1-1 and the team under the cosh, it makes sense to protect what you have. But at the start of a game, any attacking tactic deployed needs only to increase the probability of a win by just over half the amount it increases the probability of a defeat to make sense, thanks to three points for a win.

The Chelsea game next week is a prime example and it's fair to assume Curbs would 'take a point.' However, Chelsea will no doubt begin the game on Betfair at odds of approx 1/4 (which expressed as a probability is 80%) whilst the draw will be approx 5/1 (16.7%) and Charlton will be approx 30/1 (3.3%) implying punters expect on average Charlton to take 0.26 points from the game.

If Curbs approached the game with two forwards (as he no doubt will) but also two pacy wingers, and perhaps Ambrose in midfield (instead of Holland), I (and other punters in my view) would be willing to take a punt on Charlton winning at 12/1 (7.7%). This 4.3% increase in our probability of winning would need to be offset by an increase in Chelsea's probability of winning to 88.6% (80%+ (2 x 4.3%)) , which expressed as odds would be 10/77 or roughly 1/8. I do not believe that any sensible punter, upon seeing the line-ups, would back Chelsea at slightly better than 1/8, implying in my view this would be a perfectly rational tactic.

Paradoxically perhaps, this approach is likely to make more sense in games against Chelsea than against say, Birmingham because the probabilities are so mismatched to begin with. Managers however tend to see it the other way around, and they are wrong to do so. I'm not suggesting Curbs will suddenly discover the wonder of statistics, but as New Yorkers often say, "do the math."

Question: Which is the third team out of the 92, aside from Chelsea and Charlton ironically, to have only drawn one game this season? Answer: Wigan (whose fans one can assume are relatively happy with their lot, despite nine defeats).

Holding Out for a Hero 'til the End of the Night

During this frustratingly hit and miss season, there has been one consistent bright spot throughout. That man in the photo (taken misguidedly during the Spurs game) has been phenomenal all season and I shudder to think where we might be in the table right now without his 11 Premiership goals.

I generally prefer Martin Tyler to Bonnie Tyler, but I couldn't help putting one of her lyrics in the title line of this blog. Fans have rightly bemoaned the absence of Valley legends like Rufus, Kinsella, or Mendonca players who the fans could latch onto and whose ability and effort never let them down. Having been starved of heroes for a couple of seasons now, it took the fans a while to realise they finally had one again, but with the fans finally singing his name down the post-match tunnel, Bent will have become aware that he has now joined that illustrious list.

It's noticeable that of the top six Premiership scorers, four read like a 'Who's Who?' of world talent: Van Nistelrooy, Lampard, Henry and Rooney (I hesitate to use the word 'talent' when describing the over-rated Lampard but you get my point). Of the remaining two (Yakubu and Bent) it is interesting that both are young, and both were bought by midtable sides in the summer, to boost ailing forward lines. The key difference of course is that the Nigerian costs £7.5m, whilst Bent cost just £2.5m. Yakubu is a fine player also, but full credit to Charlton for pulling off what can only be described as a transfer coup.

I would summarise his key strengths as follows:

1. Attitude - he runs all day long, and never shirked from his responsibilities when utilised as a lone front man, despite his teammates flailing around him - as Curbs himself said after the Wigan debacle, "At least Benty kept going."

2. Pace - a pre-requisite for any top striker these days, but he has it in abundance. Admittedly he's no Thierry Henry, but at least our Darren can head the ball and doesn't appear in French car commericals. Witness the goal today against Birmingham, or the one last week at Sheff Weds, both occurring with the team under the cosh and fans getting anxious.

3. He can score all types of goal - he is a brilliant finisher with both feet and his head. His chances-to-goals ratio is phenomenal - it's rare to see a Charlton striker in front of goal and expecting him to score. When Kevin Lisbie manages to hit the back of the net, you need treatment for shock. He scores confidently with his left foot (Sunderland [H], Boro), with his right foot (Spurs, Sunderland [A]) and with his head (Birmingham [A], West Ham). Indeed, I don't think you can honestly say he's scored a single 'scrappy' goal all season - all have been 'missable' and often barely half chances.

4. He scores important goals - he has scored the first goal in 6 of our 20 league games this season, rewarding 'first goalscorer' backers handsomely. Indeed, his record implies the 'true odds' (including a profit margin for the bookie) should be around 2/1, ridiculous if you think about it (but true). If you'd backed him at odds on average of say 6/1 for a tenner all season, you'd be better off to the tune of £220, not bad in a highly speculative market which 'professional punters' tend to shun. As mentioned above, he also scores vital goals at the end of games to relieve pressure and wrap up wins. All in all, he has scored in seven of our nine wins, and all four at home, and in each of our three Cup wins - it proves how vital he is to us.

5. He scores goals when he's not playing well - of course it's nice for strikers to be involved all-game, holding the ball up, bringing the midfield into play, creating chances etc.. However it's the sign of a good striker when you can find the confidence and belief to hit the back of the net, when you've had an in-and-out game (today was a good example). This is the type of trait that has marked out the likes of Michael Owen for years.

6. He finishes with aplomb - watch today's goal for a fine example of this - he bears down on goal and with Melchiot on his shoulder and Taylor closing the angle, he casually hammers the ball into the far top corner. Or how about his second goal against Spurs? Or his three goals this season against Sunderland? He knows that power, when combined with precision, puts the odds firmly against the keeper.

7. He cost less than the following players this summer - Simon Davies, Peter Crouch, Park Si-Jung, Emre, Craig Bellamy, Mikeal Forsell, Curtis Davies, Jermaine Jenas, Milan Baros, Nathan Ellington. Would you take any of these in a straight swap for Bent? How about any of them plus cash for Bent? No, I didn't think so.

Anyway perhaps enough brown-nosing of Darren Bent for now, just suffice to say that thank the lord that he plays for us and has probably saved us a potentially disastrous season. It would be a tragedy for England if he doesn't go to Germany - I cannot see how Eriksson can ignore him. One thing working against him is the lack of media attention focused on him, though learned figures in the game are well-aware. From some of the superlatives used to describe Peter Crouch in recent weeks, you would think he was a clone of Pele, as opposed to the most ridiculous sight on a football pitch since The Who last played at the Valley.

With just Owen (injury permitting) and Rooney assured of striker places, you cannot make a viable case right now for taking Crouch or Defoe ahead of him (both of which will have benefitted from far more service than the Charlton side can currently deliver). However given that the gormless Swede's decision-making baffles me more than Curbs, I would not put my mortgage on it (if I had one). I'm no patriot at the best of times, but if he is fit and doesn't go, I will be supporting another team (like Iran).

Can't think of too much more to say about the Birmingham game - it sounded like hard work but I suggested to my Dad that it was our most important game of the season, and in such circumstances it's the result that counts. The inclusion of Myhre in recent weeks has clearly been an undoubted success, and he has clearly instilled some well-needed confidence in a shaky defence. Bryan Hughes relaxed the crowd with a header, and after seeing him almost grab us a late point against Bolton in similar fashion, it seems he is unusually strong in the air for a small man. Indeed, if so (ironically Lisbie is another), it makes plenty of sense to aim for him at set-pieces, as opposed to the Herminator or Bartlett since he will typically not be marked by a strapping defender.

Three home wins out of four, all of them 2-0, will at least have appeased the home fans who have had poor value for money at the Valley in recent months. Fans don't ask for too much from their team and management, just plenty of commitment, a few original ideas, sensible progressive tactics and an absence of the type of schoolboy errors that characterised that ridiculous Nov/Dec period last year. Curbs has bought himself some time, but not any players.

It's Chelsea next (oh, and Bent has scored against them too).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Newell in Shock Bung Revelation

Luton manager Mike Newell today sensationally revealed that bungs are 'rife in football.' He also dared to suggest that footballers might be 'making a lot of money,' that Sven Goran Eriksson may be a little 'over-rated' and that Chelsea were building a 'rather good side.'

More seriously, for an eloquent summary of the issues from a footballer's point of view, click here for Andy Hunt's blog:

Valley of Dreams?

The club, as is well-documented, is in the process of seeking planning permission to increase the capacity of the Valley from 27,000 to 31,000 and ultimately 40,000. Judging from Peter Varney's comments this should be celebrated. Wouldn't it be great, all other things being equal, to be able to accomodate more fans than say Spurs and Everton? Well yes, of course, but all other things are not equal, and more importantly it is an unnecessary and misguided development in my view.

When assessing the viability of a stadium expansion, there would seem to be three key issues to address. First, what is the current demand for seats, and how is it being met? Second, what are expectations for future demand and how can it be met? And third, what are the financial risks of proceeding with any expansion? I would like to address each in turn.

Charlton have 24-25,000 tickets available for home fans at each game. The vast majority of these are sold in advance in the form of season tickets (though notably season ticket sales have been falling recently). If there was clear excess demand for tickets, then the minority of tickets available for match-by-match sales should sell out quickly. Infact, the club is currently forced to resort to various promotions to sell just a few thousand tickets, and on more than one occasion has failed to sell out. The club is currently advertising a special offer for the vital Birmingham game which kicks off in just three days time. The attendance versus West Ham was 25,952 and less recently, the attendance versus Wigan was just 23,453. Even more surprisingly, the Chelsea home game did not sell out until just days before kick-off. If you cannot sell just a few thousand tickets for the Chelsea game weeks in advance, then it is clear to me the club does not have an excess demand problem currently.

Successful organisations are forward-looking, so perhaps the club is ignoring the lack of excess demand currently by anticipating excess demand in the future. Peter Varney has raised the point that the club's catchment area is poised for rapid population growth and hence the club should anticipate (and market to) the new entrants to the area. However he misses the point that football is perhaps a unique business. Most people that attend football matches do so because of some intangible personal link to the team and the sport, not because they expect to be entertained. Unlike films or plays, football matches are unpredictable but people attend because they care about the eventual outcome. For those of us that have been brought up supporting a team, this is of course its very essence. However to a neutral all of this is irrelevant, not least when the club is asking for £30+ for admission. Sport in general is not meaningful unless one cares about the outcome - often this emotional involvement can come from a financial involvement (witness the explosion in sports betting).

More importantly however, if Varney's theory holds then one should expect that those parts of the country which have experienced depopulation should have seen their local teams experience declines in attendances. Cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle have all seen material decreases in population over recent decades, yet their football teams have, if anything, seen an increase in attendances. Indeed their slow decline can probably in part explain the increase due to the importance of passion implied above - during difficult times, the local club becomes the focal point for local pride. More generally it is notable that, within certain ranges, club attendances are remarkably stable. Ironically, Charlton is one of the few clubs that has seen material and consistent increases but these now seem to have plateaued and are based more upon our 'friendly atmosphere' and low ticket prices (relatively speaking), rather than a sudden awakening of passion for the club's fortunes. For further evidence of this phenomenon, you only have to witness our diabolical away support which is perhaps the worst in the Premiership.

Charlton is perhaps the ultimate 'community club' and it is something that all decent fans are proud of. However, they will never in the short or medium-term make a meaningful impact on attendances in the absence of material (and hugely unlikely) falls in admission prices. My passion for Charlton knows few bounds, but I wonder if I would myself baulk at attending every game if forced to pay ready cash at the turnstile instead of handing over a season-ticket, paid for in advance on a magic credit card. Then you have to ask yourself how Mr New-to-Greenwich is likely to weigh up the possibility of attending Charlton vs Portsmouth.

The third point relates to the financial implications of expansion. I am not privy to the ways the club intends to finance expansion, but assuming it involves some additional debt, this would seem imprudent given the football industry's notoriously poor visibility of future cashflows and revenues.

Indeed, there is an important point which I believe the board is missing entirely. Infact I think it is so vital that I wrote to Richard Murray about it in some length. In short, I believe that the limited capacity of the Valley is boosting attendances, and moreover that its expansion would cause a material decline in attendances.

I do not believe that Charlton have 20,000+ devoted fans. Instead we have perhaps 12-14,000 devoted fans (as evidenced by our typical Cup attendances) and a further 6-8,000 'fairweather' fans who feel obliged to purchase a season ticket to ensure they are able to attend the handful of games that are meaningful to them (Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U etc..). If the club goes ahead with its plan to add 4,000 and ultimately 13,000 additional seats, those 'fairweather' fans will be confident in their ability to purchase tickets for the glamour games, and will resist buying a season ticket. As a New York-based fan essentially 'wasting' £450 pa on a season ticket, it is fair to assume I wouldn't be renewing mine in the context of a stadium expansion.

There is an unfortunate confluence of events occurring currently which tell me that the club's stadium expansion could well lead to several unintended consequences. There is, in short, a combination of the club's poor form (especially at home) combined with a generalised apathy for football, set alongside a gradual deterioration in consumer confidence and all analysed within a rose-tinted view of the impact of demographic changes.

The Valley is almost the perfect compact Premiership stadium, and we are able to fill it on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps some improvements to the ageing Jimmy Seed Stand would improve the aesthetics, but given that it houses away fans, who cares? Instead I can visualise the team running out in a half-full but spanking new stadium (just like Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Wigan and Sunderland) but where the very absence of any atmosphere discourages those potential supporters from attending in the first place.

If it ain't broke, then why fix it?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Orient Express

We couldn't really have asked for a better draw than home to Leyton Orient, and based upon Barry Hearn's post-draw interview, they couldn't either. I'm sure I'm not alone in having a soft spot for the perennially hapless O's, though ironically they have reached an FA Cup semi-final more recently than us (in 1978) so perhaps we shouldn't be too cocky.

The paradox of our dire Cup record is that, in recent years at least, we certainly can't blame the 'luck of the draw.' Indeed, we seem to be given a disproportionate number of home ties and the likes of Rochdale, Yeovil, Dagenham and Exeter, have all been drawn to play at the Valley in recent memory, and none were put aside with much aplomb. Strangely the worst draw we have had in recent seasons (away to Chelsea in the Carling Cup) resulted in one of our most memorable Cup wins. Maybe we should stop praying for easy draws (or home draws) since they represent a poisioned chalice.

Unfortunately for Hearn, his hopes that the game would be a sell-out will almost certainly be dashed unless the two clubs can agree upon a very aggressive pricing strategy for the game. Even if the O's bring 6,000 by occupying part of the East Stand, our 'Cup support' has been shown to be only 12-13,000 typically, implying several thousand empty seats.

If the FA Cup is going to have any chance of reminding us romantics of those fond Cup ties of our youth, then games like this one really have to be played in front of a full house. Indeed it was notable how many games over the weekend had crowds which were astonishingly low, not least our own at Sheffield Wednesday (14,851), but also Leicester (19,844) and Wigan (10,980). Indeed it says an awful lot about the degree to which the Cup has lost its allure that Leicester can have a crowd of 21,072 at home to Norwich just a week before a Cup tie against a high-flying Spurs team, no doubt backed by several thousand of their own fans. Although I naturally enjoyed Leicester's brave comeback (the great thing about hating Spurs is the regularity with which they offer you cause for great mirth), I couldn't help noticing how flat the atmosphere seemed despite having all the ingredients for a ding-dong Cup tie and ultimately a giant-killing.

On a similar note, the Burton-Man Utd game in prior years would have gone down as one of the great 'shocks', but instead the team Fergie put out implied they are not taking the competition seriously, and hence the result was not a shock at all in my view. It is only a shame that Burton couldn't have nicked a goal from somewhere because then the Man Utd fans (and the club's new owners) might not have seen the funny side. Ironically this could have been the type of boost the competition needs with the club then shamed into taking it more seriously next time around.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Banana Skin Avoided

Full credit to the lads for negotiating a potential FA Cup banana skin, and whilst it was rarely a comfortable afternoon we did ultimately score four away goals and avoid the replay fate of the likes of Everton, 'Boro and Birmingham. It sounded like we had returned to the winning formula which had served us well away from home in the opening weeks ie. soak up some pressure and be devastating on the break. With players like Bent and Rommedahl capable of leaving most defences in their wake, it's a tactic which clearly plays to our strengths. As Curbs never fails to remind us, the Danish flying machine is indeed an 'enigma' but he's a potential match-winner and I certainly hope he's now a fixture in the side for the foreseeable future.

A home draw against non-Premiership opposition would be nice on Monday, but with only two Premiership clubs yet turfed out of the competition (Spurs being the funniest as usual), it's far too early to be dreaming of a rare Cup run. More importantly, we have a vital home game against Birmingham next weekend, the result of which will have big implications for the remainder of our season. If we can match the Blues for commitment, I'm confident we will have sufficient quality to take three points but if we are complacent and believe we are 'too good to go down' then we will have problems. With Pompey likely to be splashing the cash this month, the teams behind us may begin to loom large in our rearview mirror unless we find a way of plugging our defensive holes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

How much would we accept for Murphy?

The newspapers during the January transfer window are unsurprisingly full of rumours, substantiated or otherwise, but it is noticeable that the 'Danny Murphy rumour' refuses to go away. I've no idea whether he is a) unsettled, and/or b) clubs have indicated an interest, but I'm inclined to think there is unlikely to be smoke without a fire.

Assuming there is some truth, the usual spin coming out of the club ("..he's not going anywhere etc..") may not be particularly welcome, particularly given that we apparently turned down 2.5m for Jason Euell from Palace last season, a bid which would be ludicrous if received today.

From my point of view, whilst I've enjoyed watching him play, and his contribution has been positive on the whole, his body language has always suggested he feels he belongs on a bigger stage than Charlton. If true, whilst he is probably misguided, there is little point forcing an unsettled player to remain particularly when cash bids might be on the table. Given our form since he joined (71 points from 57 games), we shouldn't feel too concerned if arguably our highest profile player was to jump ship. Looked at another way, Liverpool have not exactly missed his contribution since he left.

Hence, the main question would be what type of cash bid would be acceptable? He turns 29 in March, and is hence pretty much at the peak of his career. Given that we paid 2.5m for him, it would be incongruous to accept any less, but the possibility of a cash+player deal with say Newcastle (receiving Bowyer or Faye for example) would seem a reasonable piece of business to me. Our half-decent midfield would be weakened perhaps only marginally, but we would have vital extra cash to bid for the likes of Ashton in an area where we are desperate for reinforcements.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


I really thought it was going to be our day on Monday in more ways than one, not least when I was told at around 2.30pm that I was being upgraded to 'Upper Class' on my flight home. Alas, regular SMS goal updates from my Dad dashed my optimism and just as the cabin doors were closing, confirmation of yet another disappointing defeat came through.

I think if you'd asked me a couple of years ago whether I'd rather have an upgrade than a Charlton win, I'd have opted for the latter but no longer. It's selfish of course, but sums up the way I feel about the club right now.

We really are taking one step forwards and about three steps back at the moment. It sounds like our defensive frailties let us down again and one has to hope that the solution can be viewed through the transfer window.

Although I still think relegation is a remote possibility, I couldn't help feeling relieved on learning that Pompey had lost thus ensuring the gap between us and 18th remains eight points, a considerable gap when the teams down there are averaging less than a point per game. Having said that, the worst-case scenario would be a compression of the teams currently placed say from 10th (West Ham) downwards since that would cause an almighty dogfight with six-pointers cropping up every other week. Indeed our next two home games against Birmingham and WBA are already potential 'six-pointers' and they will know that their own survival chances rest squarely on winning games like these. Assuming we take nothing from the Chelsea game, then four points or more from those two home games would probably be enough to put relegation fears aside for the timebeing.

In the above context, those 'layers' on Betfair who offered some punters 80-1 on us getting relegated (presumably four games into the season) will be having several sleepless nights over the coming weeks.

Given our dire recent form, not least away from home, it's fair to say the last thing Curbs needed was a tricky FA Cup tie at a Championship side. I'm trying not to even contemplate losing but his position will be increasingly untenable should our worst fears be confirmed. On the other hand, a strong Cup run may just appease us doubters and what better year to do it with the new Wembley set to host its first final? (Put it this way, I'm not booking my plane tickets yet.)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Day to Remember, A Year to Forget

When the fixture list showed a rare Dec 31st home fixture against West Ham, I had several months to prepare my explanations to the wife why it should take precedence over a wedding taking place the same afternoon. "We've come all the way over from the US - I'm sure they'll understand if I'm a little late", "I really miss the football and anyhow, she's your friend not mine." and perhaps the weakest of all, "Games against the Hammers are always exciting." etc.. etc.. In the end I think the dirty look from the bride suggested she was not too impressed but in my own twisted mind, the fact that we won backs up my decision to go along and miss the ceremony.

It was a funny game to be honest, full of chances and could easily have produced another six goal plus thriller. For the first half-hour we were dire, as bad as I've seen us all season. The fact that we were 1-o up after 21 minutes was nothing less than miraculous, and the exasperations of the fans suggested the majority knew it was an injustice against a bright young Hammers side. The goal was the result of our only succession of passes in the game thus far - a ball from the Herminator to Darren Bent, and an early low cross evaded the hapless Christian Dailly and presented Bartlett with an unmissable opportunity. It neatly showed the virtues of playing two forwards (it would happen again in the second half) but came wholly against the run of play. Indeed until Rommedahl began to get involved and produce a series of runs and shots in the last fifteen minutes of the half, we seemed to lack shape and ideas, with the midfield unable to take any players out of the game, and thus forced to resort to hopeful punts forward.

Thankfully the second half was much better, beautifully exemplified in our second goal, a real beauty of a team goal, and emphatically finished by the impressive Bent. There aren't many better sights in the game than a centre-forward attacking and powering home a cross. Indeed, as Curbs intimated in his press conference, Bent has impressed in multiple ways, but it is the range of 'types of goals' he scores which should, in my view, cement him a place in Germany this summer.

After the second goal, the nerves finally lifted and the belief returned and we began to look like the side which we thought we had four games into the season. It was a welcome sight, seeing full-backs reaching the byline, the midfield winning the ball and using it intelligently, and finally unless my eyes deceived me, Lisbie nearly scored at the end. A third goal would have been harsh on West Ham who were missing several key players, and competed well throughout.

The real test now is whether Curbs can find a way of bottling that second-half performance and injecting the belief it should have generated back into the players, particularly with another vital game tomorrow. A clean sheet was most welcome obviously, and Fortune deserves plaudits for a second solid performance and he seemed to boost the Herminator's confidence too, who also had a strong game.

The return of Murphy and/or Smertin would be welcomed at Goodison because whilst a Holland/Kishishev pairing never lacks for effort, it certainly lacks for quality. Similarly the jury remains firmly out on Hughes whose attributes are difficult to decipher right now. It was reassuring to see Rommedahl remained in Curbishley's plans, and whilst he was a menace whenever he got the ball, it surprises me how reluctant he is to put his head down and really test a defender's pace, preferring to cut inside or stop and seek a pass. Admittedly Konchesky is no slouch, but given that Rommedahl lacks 'tricks' it's seems strange how rarely he uses his one god-given gift. Finally Bartlett had one of his best games for a while, and there were clearly signs that a partnership with Bent could be fruitful given the right service.

So a disappointing calendar year ends on a high note, and with the transfer window now open, fans will be fully expecting plenty of movement both in and out. I'm surprised by the rumours about us targeting keepers since this is not an obvious weak area, particularly with Mhyre's impressive performances. Instead a young striker, left-back, defensive wide midfielder and centre-back should be top of Curbs' priority list.

Happy New Year!