Sunday, March 02, 2008

Closer than a Blade

I had already begun to plan my post-match blog before the game had even started….."...if only the players could show the same effort on the pitch, that I had shown just getting here." That’s what nearly three months without an away win can do for you state of mind; I shouldn’t have worried.

An overnight flight with no sleep, and then a 180-mile drive punctuated by two stops for power naps and copious amounts of Red Bull, was cause enough for me to be questioning my own sanity, particularly as my Sheffield United-supporting friend had cried off at the last minute.

However, as I weighed up the decision whether to go or not at about 7am yesterday morning, I miraculously received guidance from above, or at least from 10,000 feet or so. As the plane circled in one of the ‘stacks’ to the south of the city, I could see Selhurst Park out of the left side of the plane, and then as we banked to begin our final approach to Heathrow, I could coincidentally see The Valley out of the right side, thanks to the clarity of the morning light.

It was like a real-time embodiment of ‘good versus evil’, ‘yin versus yang’, or 'Jekyll versus Hyde' (that's enough contrasts - Ed.). At that very moment, my decision was made; I had to go to Bramall Lane.

Curiously, on the drive home, it dawned on me that I haven’t seen Charlton win away from home (in the flesh) for several years (not since 28 December 2003 at White Hart Lane to be precise) – no wonder it felt so sweet.

Despite well-advertised weather-related problems on the trains, the M1 was blissfully traffic-free, and I arrived in Sheffield for my first visit to the stadium, a rather understated collection of modern prefab-style stands, surrounded by the type of scenery that is best described simply as ‘Northern’.

By my estimation, about 800 Addicks had made the trip, and were in good voice and spirits throughout, offering ‘Super’ Alan Pardew plenty of support even before the opening whistle, a gesture he duly acknowledged. Our first hint meanwhile that the lads might well be ‘up for it’ (at least more so than at Blackpool) occurred immediately after the teams emerged from the tunnel.

Rather than indulge in their own individual pre-match routine, they ran en masse to the far corner flag to undertake a short intense series of shuttles. Presumably it was a premeditated plan to avoid the type of sluggish start that we suffered last weekend, but it was done right in front of the away fans congregated in that corner, and perhaps the visual message to them was not unintended.

Upon first sight, Pards’ team selection appeared rather conservative, leaving both Cook and Sinclair on the bench, whilst preferring the less subtle talents of Iwelumo, over the absent Gray. However within the opening seconds it was clear that the changes were more subtle than they perhaps appeared.

Luke Varney soon took up a position wide right, whilst Zheng was utilised virtually as a second striker, albeit a deep-lying one. With Darren Ambrose shifted inside, and Matt Holland clearly the ‘holding’ player, we suddenly had a quartet of runners to support the hard solitary work of Iwelumo, and it worked a treat.

We dominated the first period, denying the Blades even a sniff of goal (thanks to an exemplary four-man defensive display), but appeared to be heading back to the dressing rooms on level terms having seen Paddy Kenny deny Varney, Ambrose and Zheng, each chance a direct result of the exact deep-running mentioned above.

However an injury-time long throw from Greg Halford caused mayhem, and Iwelumo was on hand to pick up the pieces from close range. Halford’s throws really are a thing to behold, and far more dangerous than a mere corner because not only are two-handed throws far more accurate than one-footed kicks, but they are delivered from a height of two metres or so. They were a threat all afternoon, whilst offering a useful route out of defensive trouble thanks to his ability to hurl the ball towards the halfway line, from close to the corner flag.

It was clear very early in the second half that the game would be more open, with Varney for example seeing more space in the first few minutes, than he had during the entire first period. It wasn’t long meanwhile before Zheng had embarked on a breakaway solo run that produced a solid save from Kenny.

With the Blades attacking a noticeably subdued ‘Kop’, it was inevitable that we would face some pressure (particularly of the aerial kind given James Beattie’s presence), but in truth we were rarely seriously troubled, thanks to McCarthy and particularly Sodje’s faultless work.

Moreover, their second half ‘need’ to attack their visitors played somewhat into our hands given the pace we continued to maintain on the break, even more so when Scott Sinclair replaced Luke Varney (though the youngster almost learned a painful lesson about not dribbling on the edge of his own box). I think it’s an exciting signing for Charlton, though I might have advised him not to make his debut in yellow boots.

I had been offering Chicago Addick regular text updates, and midway through the second half I informed him that the Blades had most of the possession, but we still looked more likely to score next. Just a few minutes later, my hypothesis was proven right, Sam Sodje leaping magnificently to bury a Darren Ambrose corner and secure the points. His joyous celebration dance (not to mention his superb all-round performance) was enough to suggest he is the one current loan signing that we really must try to secure full-time. His infectious enthusiasm is positively Chris Powell-esque.

Our second goal was the cure for an exodus on a scale, last seen during biblical times. If the official crowd was 23,000+, there was barely a third of that number left at the final whistle. The early leavers missed a red card for Stephen Quinn (somewhat harsh in my view), and Sodje’s last-gasp copycat header which would have been the icing on a terrific day’s cake.

I’ve not seen Charlton enough times this season to form very high-conviction conclusions, but it is hard to believe that we would be languishing so far from an automatic promotion place, if this type of performance had exemplified most of our away days. It wasn’t that our football was that sparkling, but we played as a unit, defended with honour, and exhibited enough attacking nous to secure the three points.

Indeed, I was once again reminded that Championship football is typically played at the same pace as the Premiership, but with less technical ability on show; the result is often a mad ‘kick ‘n rush’ which wouldn’t look out of place in a pub league, although the fitness levels are superior. If there was a way of calculating how often the ball was firmly under the ‘control’ of one team or the other (as opposed to merely in their very temporary 'possession'); I’d be surprised if the sum total was more than a few minutes of the ninety.

Here are my player ratings:

Weaver (7) – had little to do, but his handling was largely efficient.
Halford (7) – on this showing, Pardew’s ticking-off worked wonders – he seems a perfectly capable full-back (albeit not of the overlapping type), whilst his throw-ins and height offer alternative attacking options
Youga (7) – he clearly loves playing football and is blessed with great talent; tie him down to a long-term contract
McCarthy (8) – along with Sodje, did not put a foot wrong; why was he missing for so long in 2007?
Sodje (9) – sublime in both penalty boxes; James Beattie’s mid-second half substitution said it all
Thomas (6) – flattered to deceive, but looked more interested than normal and posed an occasional threat
Holland (7) – as always, he sets a great example even if his ultimate value added is rather limited
Zheng (7) – ran his socks off, but did not quite get the breaks in front of goal; the position probably suits him
Ambrose (6) – frustrating as always, though created perhaps three half-chances – doesn’t play as if he cares enough
Varney (6) – was generally well-shackled out wide, but his work-rate impressed again
Iwelumo (8) – ploughed a lone furrow to great effect; deserved his goal, and won his fair share aerially
Sinclair (6) – missed a half chance late on; plenty of pace and promise
Semedo (-) – late substitute; Quinn had it in for him for some reason; got straight up


At 8:56 PM, Blogger Chicago Addick said...

Superb result. Really glad they gave you and the 799 others a performance, lets hope they do it again Tuesday night.

Thanks for the texts.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a top quality report NYA.

And you're a top geezer for getting there!

Pembury Addick

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Daggs said...

Wasn't at this game, but it illustrates why our season has been so frustrating. We're capable of beating teams with our quality play. We follow that up at the next game by playing like a bunch of strangers.
Consistently inconsistent. I can't see us getting auto. promotion, but we'll be in the play-offs. Let's hope we can be consistently at our best by then.


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