Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fleetwood Back

Perhaps the most-telegraphed transfer in the history of non-League football was concluded today, when Stuart Fleetwood finally signed for the Addicks from Forest Green Rovers. He had been listed on Wikipedia as a Charlton player for at least the past ten days.

Fleetwood was the top scorer in last season's Blue Square Premier (with 27 goals), particularly impressive given Forest Green finished fully thirty points behind title-winning Aldershot. The inevitable comparison with Chris Dickson is a little unfair given that Fleetwood's goals were scored three levels higher in the league pyramid.

When choosing from a fully-fit squad, Pardew's striking options are undeniably deep:

Chris Iwelumo (tall, reliable but ultimately limited)
Andy Gray (clever, strong but lacking in confidence)
Luke Varney (pacy, versatile but neither target man nor outright finisher)
Izale McLeod (sprightly, full of potential but extremely raw)
Svetoslav Todorov (great with his back to goal, but lacking in pace)
Chris Dickson (confident, exciting but utterly untested)
Stuart Fleetwood (see Chris Dickson)

Those readers that studied combinatorics at school, will know that if Pards plans to revert to 4-4-2, he will thus have 21 different striking options next season. Broadly one could probably subcategorise the septet between 'target men' (Iwelumo, Gray, Todorov), 'channel runners' (Varney, McLeod) and 'poachers' (Dickson, Fleetwood).

Assuming Pards does not plan to partner two players from the same category (the footballing equivalent of incest), his options are reduced to 16 from 21. Personally I find the option of either Gray or (especially) Todorov alongside Varney, with at least one of McLeod, Dickson or Fleetwood ready to spring from the bench to be the most attractive.

In light of the embarrassment of striking riches above (contrasted for example with our relative poverty of midfield options), some fans have understandably questioned the rationale for the Fleetwood deal. Like Dickson before him, he will probably be loaned out to a League One side to gain valuable higher-level experience.

The initial outlay for these types of speculative and virtually free players, either from non-League or as free agents, is by definition immaterial, so it can appear at first glance as a risk-free investment. This is particularly the case if, as Wyn Grant probably rightly suggests, Dickson may now be worth £300k+ without having started a game for the Addicks.

However one firstly needs to factor in the wage costs, which are typically not counterbalanced with an immediate first-team impact. Second and most importantly, the overall success of this type of transfer strategy needs to be assessed on a holistic basis; for every Chris Dickson, Kelly Youga or Jerome Thomas, there is likely to be a Sergio Leite, Jesper Blomqvist or Stephen Hughes (remember them?).

So far, it is hard to argue that Charlton have not done a good job in this regard, and as such they should be urged to continue down this route. Jerome Thomas for example could well be worth seven-figures to some poor unsuspecting Premiership side (Hull City? - Ed.). That type of windfall can hide a multitude of speculative sins. From the current squad alone, Messrs Racon, Christensen, and Monteiro are probably costing perhaps £75-100k pa each, with no discernible positive impact thus far.

I am fond of referencing author Nassim Taleb on this blog, and a recent interview in the Sunday Times reminded me of a highly attractive theory which would seem to describe perfectly Charlton's current transfer strategy. He was referring to an optimal personal investment approach, but it remains valid in my view. In short, he believes one should position themselves to benefit from unexpected surprises ('Black Swans'), rather than to suffer from them:

"....well, the good investment strategy is to put 90% of your money in the safest possible government securities and the remaining 10% in a large number of high-risk ventures. This insulates you from bad black swans and exposes you to the possibility of good ones. Your smallest investment could go “convex” – explode – and make you rich. High-tech companies are the best. The downside risk is low if you get in at the start and the upside very high."

Stuart Fleetwood's valuation could 'explode' (as could his impact on the first team); Mark Hudson's could not. Hudson is however a 'safe' investment based upon his prior Championship experience; Fleetwood is not. Providing the club continues to get the balance right, the approach makes considerable sense. A 'safe' central midfielder would be nice right now though.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Paddy sold down the Hudson River

An enjoyable and relaxing week with my parents in Vermont was temporarily halted a couple of mornings ago, when my Dad delivered some shocking news.

"Have you heard what's happened?" he asked me grim-faced, as I emerged from a rare good night's sleep. A terrorist attack was my first terrible thought, or perhaps a plane had crashed in New York or London? "Neither," he confirmed, "...Paddy McCarthy's been sold to Crystal Palace."

I'm really not too sure what to make of this one at all, except that it probably lends further proof (as if any were needed), that the normal rules and controls that govern most businesses, seemingly don't apply to football.

To summarise, McCarthy was signed by Alan Pardew on 6 Jun 2007 for an initial fee of £650,000. Having spent the past seven seasons unconcerned with matters outside the Premiership, I think it's fair to say that he was virtually unknown to most Addicks fans. Nonetheless, we implicitly trusted Pards:

"He was really positive and sold it to me. He told me how good the club was, how much potential there is here and what type of team he's looking to put together next season. Everything he said was exactly what I wanted to be a part of."

McCarthy started on the opening day against Scunthorpe, but was dropped in preference of Jonathan Fortune at Stoke a week later. His contribution as a second-half substitute that evening did him few favours, but he filled in as a capable right-back in the 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday, and was then returned to centre-back for the win at Palace, and the draw at Colchester. For reasons that have never become apparent, he then suddenly disappeared from the picture, surprising given that the only defeat until then had been the only game he hadn't started (ie. Stoke).

After Danny Mills' red card at home to Hull on 22 Dec, Pards was forced to play Madjid Bougherra at right-back, and was obliged (ie. forced) to recall McCarthy who subsequently became a virtual ever-present. Indeed he delivered such consistent performances thereafter, he was even talked about as a possible 'Player of the Year, despite having played such a limited role until Xmas.

He also importantly demonstrated the type of leadership that the team so clearly lacked. If our post-Xmas dip in form coincided with his return to the side, then surely this was merely a coincidence, the true blame lying elsewhere, for example in Andy Reid's departure, or in Pardew's tactical tinkering.

It is possible that he was irked by the capture of Mark Hudson (a player seemingly with many similarities to McCarthy), but the Irishman himself described his sale as a 'bolt from the blue'. Moreover, with Sam Sodje presumably returning to Reading, and with Jonathan Fortune's future at Charlton somewhat doubtful, we were not exactly overburdened with centre-backs even with Hudson onboard. Presumably Matt 'Captain Cleanshorts' Holland will retain the armband, so their relative claims to be skipper should not have been cause for dispute.

Although I struggle to see how this transaction improves our chances next season, I'm more concerned about the questions it raises concerning Pardew's managerial approach since after all, McCarthy was his own signing just one year ago. An optimist may suggest that we are no worse off because the (undisclosed) fee broadly repays us for the initial outlay, whilst Hudson is an ample replacement.

A realist like me would suggest firstly that Hudson is probably on higher wages, and second that this view handily ignores the cost of two agency/signing-on fees, plus the simple fact that when injuries permitted, a Bougherra/McCarthy partnership showed perhaps the most potential of all (witness the two vital home wins over Stoke and Palace for example). If Bougherra himself is potentially on his way too, then we'd better hope that Paulo Monteiro has been working on his English.

The evidence clearly suggests that Pardew and McCarthy didn't get along (players with leadership qualities tend to have forthright opinions). McCarthy's post-transfer quote pretty much confirms it:

"Generally if a club accepts a bid it tells its own story and when I spoke to Neil Warnock he just came across as a man I think I'll have a great relationship with. He will maybe appreciate me as a player a little bit more."

All of which brings me back to my initial point about football operating in its own reality-free cocoon. The next time Richard Murray is asked to open the club cheque book, and to agree to add someone to the playing payroll, will Pardew be made more accountable? Didn't we learn from the Dowie experience in this regard? After all, one is entitled to wonder whether McCarthy would ever have played for Charlton again after Sep 2007, if circumstances had not required it.

And finally would a few quotes from Pards himself in circumstances like this not be an appropriate way of explaining McCarthy's sale to the fans? Unlike most of Dowie's signings, McCarthy was actually quite good, at least in the context of the Championship.

During the same week that fans were again urged to renew their season tickets, it's not unreasonable to be reassured that the manager is not just making it up as he goes along, particularly in light of the second half of last season. McCarthy was hardly Beckenbauer, but for some reason this transfer irks me more than most. Perhaps I'm still getting used to the fact that outside the Premiership, clubs are inevitably 'deal takers' rather than 'deal makers'.

Instead new boy Steve Waggott is forced to cut and paste from an old email presumably entitled, 'Quote upon the sale of Soulemayne Diawara' to state, "We wish Paddy well in his future career and we thank him for his efforts in his one-year stint with us." The fans deserve better.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


As I write, it appears almost certain that Barack Obama will shortly be confirmed as the Democratic nominee for the 2008 Presidential Election.

Although determined to hang on, Hillary Clinton now resembles Road Runner who has crossed the end of the cliff, but is refusing to let gravity take over.

I was reasonably early in alerting readers of this blog to Obama's charms, but nowhere near as early as my friend Chicago Addick. As early as July 2004, he proclaimed that he may have just watched a speech from a future President of the USA.

As the father of an American citizen, I am proud that a large swathe of this often unfairly (and sometimes fairly) criticised country has seen fit to elect such an inexperienced, but electric candidate as its Presidential nominee. Of course there are doubts about his abilities, but it has been fascinating and hugely rewarding to watch his incredible campaign.

In the so-called 'Land of the Free', it seemed bizarre that just two families could potentially provide 28 consecutive years' worth of Presidents (had Clinton won in both 2008 and 2012). At least that particular outcome has now been dismissed (although it may still be 28 from 32, see below).

I am a self-declared Obama supporter and when asked why, I simply admit, "I don't know, but I just know I want him to be President." Therein probably lies both his greatest strength, and his potential achilles heel when he now faces the brutal electoral machine known as the Republican Party. He has to do more now than merely be both intriguing and inspiring.

His oratory is truly extraordinary. If he was merely reading the football results, you'd probably find yourself weeping with joy because East Fife had won away at Dumbarton.

It was unfortunate for Hillary Clinton that her whining style tended to remind many voters of their demanding mother/mother-in-law/wife/girlfriend* (*delete as appropriate). She was however also an outstanding candidate, and if Obama loses to McCain, she is surely the automatic Democratic choice for 2012.

However it would be a potentially irreversible tragedy for the Democratic party if they were to produce two such outstanding candidates, yet fail to win an election after eight years of George W..

Some idealists are keen to see her join up as Obama's vice-presidential candidate. As a united pair they would surely be unbeatable, but is it a realistic outcome? As the most ambitious political family since...erm, the Bush family, I'm not convinced that the Clintons 'do' vice (except Bill of course).

It's also not clear what Hillary has to gain from such an arrangement, since if successful in November, she would not become a viable full Presidential candidate until 2016, by which time she will be 69, just three years younger than John McCain. It's far from obvious too that Obama would accept such a compromise.

McCain is of course constantly pressured by the media because of his age. He has even attempted to turn it to his advantage, appearing on Saturday Night Live to declare the importance of his 'oldness'. Some aspects of his campaign are untouchable due to his genuinely heroic military past, and whilst he has distanced himself somewhat from the Bush presidency, he hardly represents a true fresh start.

If a failed war, economic recession, and public sector infrastructure that is not fit for purpose does not stir the American people to vote for change (not withstanding genuine doubts about Obama), then one is really forced to despair.

However McCain is likely to pitch his campaign in terms of his ability to be a safe and (likely) one-term President, able to steer the economy out of recession whilst maintaining strong foreign policy leaderships, both tasks to risky to place in the hands of Obama. In the meantime, the Republican Party can find a more youthful candidate to take them forward in 2012 (Mitt Romney perhaps?).

I would make McCain a slight favourite to beat Obama. Hillary Clinton's refusal to exit the Democratic race, should be viewed in terms of her (correct) belief that she would be more likely to beat McCain in a straight run-off. More Clinton supporters are appalled by Obama than the other way around.

Some Clinton supporters won't vote; others might even vote Republican. You don't have to travel far away from places like New York City to realise that this is a highly conservative country, not naturally attracted to Obama's urban educated style. Will enough Independents be swayed in his favour?

Obama has a real problem garnering support amongst middle-aged women, working class voters and Hispanics. He's seen as 'lofty', ironic given the relative difference between their respective and recently published tax returns (the Clintons earned $109m from 2000-2007).

Obama's core support amongst the young, blacks and the educated may not be enough to win the key swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. However, he has proven to be a fund-raising phenomenon, tapping into liberally-minded new money on both coasts.

With a media campaign in full motion, and with his famous oratory now able to be directed squarely at Bush/McCain rather than Clinton, he may do just enough to win. I'm can't be sure what America needs right now, but it's certainly not more of the same.

What Are The Chances?

A couple of weeks away from the keyboard has left me fully refreshed, and ready to begin to prepare for Charlton's promotion season.

In the meantime there's the small matter of Euro 2008 (NYA predicts Portugal, Germany, Russia, and Spain will comprise the semis), but what better way to begin the new season than to assess the odds for the 2008/9 Coca-Cola Championship?

Here are William Hill's latest odds:

QPR 6/1
Birmingham 15/2
Reading 8/1
Sheff Utd 10/1
Palace 11/1
Ipswich 12/1
Wolves 14/1
Derby 14/1
Charlton 14/1
Watford 16/1
Cardiff 20/1
Forest 25/1
Coventry 25/1
Bristol City 25/1
Swansea 33/1
Southampton 33/1
Preston 33/1
Norwich 33/1
Plymouth 40/1
Doncaster 40/1
Burnley 40/1
Sheff Wed 66/1
Blackpool 80/1
Barnsley 80/1

It is worth recalling that a diversified High Street bookmaker's job is not to quote odds that reflect his views on the likelihood of each outcome, but instead his views on the average punter's assessment of said likelihood. If done properly, this will ensure the balanced book that they seek (smaller independent bookies are more predisposed to 'taking a view' on the outcome). It is in this context that one should view the otherwise absurd selection of QPR as favourites.

After a disappointing start, QPR eventually recovered to finish in a respectable 14th place with 58 points. Their notoriously wealthy owners showed only limited inclination to splash the cash in the January 2008 window (spending £4.5m on Matthew Connolly, Hogan Ephraim, Patrick Agyemang, Fitz Hall and Rowan Vine), and have since notably added Radek Cerny and Peter Ramage, presumably on Premiership-type wages.

However it is worth remembering that these investments bolstered what had previously been perhaps the weakest squad in the division, restoring them only to the midtable parity that they ultimately reached. From the end of the January window, they picked up 25 points from 17 games, equivalent to 68 points over a full season. An improvement for sure, but not even play-off form (whilst Charlton fans hardly need reminding who has been entrusted with managing the new title favourites).

In my opinion, QPR's owners would need to lay out transfer fees in the region of £30-40m, and tolerate a wage bill of approx £25m pa to create a squad which merely had a 50/50 chance of promotion. Even that implies some aggressive assumptions about their ability to attract Premiership squad players (or foreigners who could genuinely make a difference), as well as Dowie's ability to mould it (interesting that he's back managing in London again!).

Not surprisingly, their owners have shown no inclination to go down this route, and nor do I expect them to. I recall similar sentiments when Wolves were taken over last summer, yet little investment transpired. If I could 'lay' those 6/1 odds, then I would gladly do so.

So where is the value? As soon as it became clear that Reading would be relegated, I was adamant that they would be the team to beat, so long as Steve Coppell remained in charge. The squad which accumulated 106 points and 99 goals in 2005/6 was dominated by the likes of Doyle, Hahnemann, Harper, Ingimarsson, Kitson, Lita, Little, Murty, Shorey and Sonko, virtually a mirror-image of the squad that has just been relegated, and will largely be retained. 8/1 looks like outstanding value.

Charlton at 14/1 does not 'scream' value, but if one is not tempted by those odds, then presumably one would be tempted by the alternative ie. 1/14 on Charlton not to win the title. Would you be prepared to lose £1400 to win £100 on this outcome? No, I didn't think so. So there, I guess we're reasonable value too.

Elsewhere Watford look a generous 16/1 (and particularly so each-way, a tasty 4/1 to finish in the top three). Their season tailed away of course, but they were never out of the top six, and led the way for half the season. Bookmakers and punters alike need longer memories.

Likewise I wouldn't rule out Paul 'shagger' Jewell's ability to turnaround the disastrous Derby side (which he partly created), and produce a genuine challenge. Again an each-way bet looks worth a nibble at 14/1.

Ipswich, Palace and Sheff Utd all look stupidly short-priced given their tight budgets; I wouldn't be tempted by any of them, nor Wolves at 14/1. Birmingham are such an unpleasant club that I have to resist my natural inclination to wish them only ill. At 15/2 I can do safely do neither as they are probably fairly priced, the steady guidance of Alex McLeish counterbalanced by boardroom instability.

If I was looking for a big-priced outsider, it's hard to look further than Bristol City at 25/1. I saw us outclassed by them at The Valley, and those odds look too wide for a side which after all was only two goals away from promotion. Beyond them, it's hard to make a case except to say that if the same hierarchy of odds is reflected in the total points spreads, then Barnsley and Norwich would both be solid 'buys'.

Likewise, I see little reason why Notts Forest should be considered a solid midtable prospect; further evidence perhaps that the bookie seeks to anticipate the opinion of the average punter, presumably tainted by memories of past European triumphs, rather than the reality of lower division financial struggle.

New York Addick tips:

5pts Reading - WIN at 8/1
1pt Watford - E/W at 16/1
1pt Derby - E/W at 14/1
1pt Bristol City - E/W at 25/1