Saturday, April 25, 2009

Derby preview

Despite just one win in nine games, Derby probably need only a solitary point against the relegated Addicks to secure Championship football next season.

When the Rams beat Sheffield United on 13 Sept, they ensured the club did not go an entire calendar year without a League victory, with just four days to spare.

However whilst like Charlton they chose to jettison their manager mid-season (Paul Jewell), their ostensibly risky and potentially sentimental choice of Nigel Clough appears to have paid off.

He has hardly been an indisputable triumph, but that typical 'new manager effect' paid off during the winter, when they recorded four straight League wins. Given they hover just five points above the relegation spots today, that short spell looks like being enough to keep them up.

However merely being called 'Clough' has been enough to galvanise this famous club. Crowds have consistently topped 30,000 since he arrived, and they are comfortably the best supported team in the division despite very little to cheer about in the past two seasons.

The achievements of his father continue to fascinate, and understandably so. He helped the club to the 1971/72 League title just three years after promotion, following fully sixteen years outside of the top flight.

It is relevant to note therefore that in my view, despite all of Charlton's sterling work with the likes of Target 20,000, Valley Express and the like, it is unfortunately impossible to rewrite history, and engender the type of fervour that those types of heady times at the Baseball Ground must.

The stories must be handed down the generations, and help to explain their strong support today. They also benefit from the 'one club city' effect, which again the likes of Charlton are not able to tap into.

We are likely to face two former Addicks tomorrow, in the shape of Luke Varney and Andy Todd. If outward appearances do not lie, then you could not find two more sharply different characters.

Todd was signed by Alan Curbishley for £750,000 (from Bolton) in Nov 1999, and would play an important role in securing the First Division title. His reputation as a 'hothead' would not have gone unnoticed, given he had been sent off at The Valley playing for Bolton earlier that season.

He would go on to win my vote as Player of the Year in 2000/01, his wholehearted approach appealing to my traditional sensibilities. He was also quite obviously as hard as nails in his quiet, but ever so slightly unnerving way.

Unfortunately his hardness was channelled towards teammate Dean Kiely in a well-documented training ground fracas, and he was sent on Grimsby.

Luke Varney meanwhile would not win any prizes in a hardness competition. He played as if frightened of his own shadow, as the sun set over the Jimmy Seed Stand.

He continues to retain some admirers at Charlton, and no-one could fault his work ethic. Unfortunately he simply wasn't good enough (mentally as much as anything), and his ridiculous price tag and presumably wages, ensured his stay was a brief one.

If Pardew had spent say £500,000 on Varney as a hard-working winger (in the John Robinson type mould), then few would have complained. But £2million as a goalscoring striker was a very bad joke.

Varney's career at Charlton effectively ended in the 88th minute at home to Burnley. It is probably unfair to suggest it would have been a turning point for the club's season, but one suspects it may have been so for the player himself. A further loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday suggests he still hasn't fully recovered.

Phil Parkinson has seemingly had a change of heart this week, with regard to the blooding of youngsters. Personally I found his team selection on Tuesday night to be ridiculously unimaginative; some have suggested he is only concerned with his own position.

However having argued that giving kids their chance too early might be damaging, he has since talked up the chances of perhaps two being involved at Pride Park.

I don't know if Parky is an Elton John fan, but when it comes to team selection, we'll see whether 'Solly seems to be the hardest word'.

I think he'll line them up as follows: Elliot, Solly, Youga, Hudson, Ward, Bailey, Spring, Racon, Sam, Burton, Tuna. Subs: Randolph, Butterfield, Shelvey, Kandol, Dickson.

NY Addick predicts: Derby 2 (Varney, Hulse), Charlton 1 (Bailey). Att: 31, 212.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Five Years

”We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot. Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” (David Bowie, 1972)

Five years ago today, I moved to New York. Instinctively I tell people it’s ‘flown by', but upon reflection it actually feels like quite a long time.

I had visited the city a couple of times as a kid, back when it was seen as an exciting but dark and dangerous place.

However it was during regular business trips at the start of this decade that I really began to fall in love with it.

On these trips, I devoured every guidebook, and explored virtually every interesting neighborhood.

As a result of this, plus the last five years obviously, I know New York considerably better than I’ll ever know London.

Some of my fondest memories are of waking jet-lagged in the early hours and embarking on aimless walks through the streets, or jogging through Central Park as the lights began to flicker back into life.

Thus once the opportunity to live here arose, I grabbed it with both hands. I quickly proposed to my then girlfriend (how stupid that looks now, given how much fun my single friends seem to have here), and sold the concept to her as best I could.

I figured there was no conceivable downside to the opportunity, and potentially substantial upside. We already had a handful of contacts to tap into, and as it has turned out (and as we had hoped) virtually every one of our friends from London has spent some time here since we moved.

It’s not a city that everyone would enjoy living in, and whilst it might lack say the grand beauty of Paris, or the subtle charms of London, it has a unique dynamism that I will miss deeply whenever the time comes to move on.

It saddens me that very few tourists explore it properly, tending to hang around in ghastly Times Square or linger in department stores, when the quirks of the West Village for example, or the splendor of the Upper East Side awaits.

Many people view New York as an inherently ‘unfriendly’ city, bordering on the downright aggressive. Certainly it’s not a place to live if you appreciate peace and quiet, but behind the hard-driving façade there lurks a brand of humour immortalized by countless comedians and TV shows.

There is an unfortunate tendency to say ‘give me’ rather than ‘please can I have’, but us Brits could learn something from (and would benefit from) their expectation of good service, if perhaps not the manner in which they demand it.

It takes a while to get used to the fact that everyone here is seemingly ‘on the make’, whether seeking financial gain, sexual adventure or potentially both at the same time. It’s not a place one would choose to live if just happy sauntering through life.

The culture here is certainly exceptionally commercial and self-promotional, and to at least a small degree I’ve had to learn to become more comfortable in trumpeting my own (limited) virtues, and liberating it's been too.

During the first couple of years that I lived here, I endeavored to indulge myself fully in the New York experience. I adopted the Mets as my baseball team for example, reading every match report and dissecting every statistic.

Meanwhile the wife and I found ourselves enjoying the type of nightlife we had never really experienced in London, tapping into a network of fellow expats and regularly crawling home at the type of ungodly hour that we were definitely too old for.

The fact that most young people you tend to meet live in Manhattan or on the fringes of Brooklyn, ensures that almost by definition all of your friends are no more than a 20-30 minute taxi or subway ride away.

Manhattan is only 23 square miles after all, or 30 times smaller than Greater London, and therein lay my biggest gripe with life in the latter. It is difficult to be socially spontaneous when friends are scattered all over the city, tubes stop at midnight and black cabs charge the earth.

Having said that, actually using the (24-hour) New York subway is a thoroughly unpleasant experience that always leaves me keen to disinfect myself. Luckily the buses are a more pleasant and seemingly underutilized resource.

The taxi drivers meanwhile are notoriously crazy, their erratic driving and manners outweighed only by the realization from the meter that they’ve taken you half way across town for less than ten bucks. A couple of years ago I got into a cab and asked for JFK Airport, only to be asked if I knew the way.

The city above 14th Street is arranged as an easily understood grid system, which ensures it's hard to get lost, and is good for traffic flow, but after a while it can drive you slightly insane.

In rush hour meanwhile, you soon get to learn where the term 'gridlock' came from, as selfish drivers insist on 'blocking the box' as they fight their way through the slower east/west cross streets. No wonder Jimi Hendrix immortalised the concept of 'crosstown traffic' in terms of a girlfriend who tried to tie him down.

Unfortunately, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the passing of time, and certainly thanks to the arrival of kids, life here is a much more boring proposition these days.

Suddenly not owning a car has been restrictive, rather than an unnecessary burden. Meanwhile having the ability to walk to literally 200 restaurants has lost some of its charm, when the extortionate cost of babysitters enters the equation.

Frustratingly it’s also clearly been a very transient place, even for Americans and certainly for the expats we made friends with. For most people it’s a city to indulge in for a temporary period, not to settle long-term.

Notably I no longer read local newspapers, instead choosing to have The Times delivered, and generally watching BBC America or English football on the rare occasions I am in front of the box.

My following of the Mets meanwhile has deteriorated to a cursory and only very occasional glance at the current league standings (Answer: P15, W6, L9....wish I hadn't bothered.)

I will never tire of the convenience however. Dry cleaning is collected and returned within a day, whilst every restaurant will deliver ‘take-out’, from the cheapest Chinese to the smartest bistro.

The sight of thousands of bicycle delivery men furiously pedaling the wrong way up the city’s streets, is thus one of the quintessential images of New York.

Most people live in so-called ‘doormen’ buildings meanwhile, apartment blocks with full-time staff to collect deliveries, and provide peace of mind. Our own building houses approximately 350 apartments (all rented), and includes on-site garden, pool and health club.

A friendly atmosphere is deliberately engendered by management such that some residents have rightly described it as a ‘village within a city’. I’m sure my older son’s outgoing nature is a function of having such regular interaction with so many different people.

My mind isn’t yet made up about the weather, although about two months after moving here, I distinctly recall commenting to a friend that it’s “…awfully sunny here…”. Not something I'd ever had to mention growing up in Hertfordshire.

Indeed, by my estimation approximately 70% of days consist of bright blue skies all day, even if the temperature can be rather extreme (90 degrees forecast for this weekend for example, and we're not even in May yet).

The weather in London had never really bothered me, and indeed I believe it is generally misunderstood by Americans who comment on the greyness. It's mildness is a virtue in my view, although the appearance of clear and recognisable seasons has been refreshing here by contrast.

Surprisingly perhaps, New York experiences greater rainfall than London, although it generally comes down in sudden short bursts rather than during long periods of drizzle.

The winter tends to drag on, and the presence of the skyscrapers tend to emphasise the wind chill. Proper snowfall in New York is undeniably romantic, and the city does not grind to a halt, but within days it is reduced to a grey sludge which dampens the spirit.

Summer here can feel like the Tropics at times, but being able to go out on almost any evening from May to September in a t-shirt and shorts, offers the relaxed feeling that most Brits only experience on holiday.

During the first couple of summers we experienced, I had an unstoppable urge to strip right down to my pants the moment I got home from work each evening. This was certainly a surprise to the wife when she walked in, though it may help explain how we got to have kids.

Without Central Park, the city would be totally uninhabitable but instead seemingly every inch of its 843 acres is mobbed on every summer weekend.

It’s a wonderfully designed park, surprisingly bucolic in parts, and I’m rarely less than happy and relaxed when I’m somewhere within it. There can’t be many better urban spaces in which to run for example.

We clearly have big decisions to make in the coming months, as the reality of having two young (American) kids in an apartment begins to impinge upon the attractiveness of life here.

However regardless of how much longer it continues, the entire experience of living abroad (particularly in a city as alluring as this one) has been fantastic. Despite its occasional frustrations, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cardiff preview

I can't honestly say I've felt any emotion about our relegation on Saturday.

It's seemingly been on the cards for so long that in a way it should have been a relief, but all the talk of 'bouncing back' underplays the size of the challenge ahead.

When Parkinson's role was made permanent on New Year's Eve, I wrote somewhat prophetically: "If relegation were to be effectively assured by say Easter, then season ticket renewal forms will be landing on doormats, coincidental with a severe recession. Hardly an ideal time for the relationship between fans and Board to hit a 20-year low."

In his post-match comments Parkinson presumably under strict club orders, emphasised the link between season ticket sales and our potential success next season.

The link is spurious at best, and partronising at worst. Peterborough United sit in 2nd place in League One, a season after promotion and with average home gates of just 7,449.

The past two seasons have seen outstanding season ticket sales, on the back of (false) optimism about promotion chances and the related Premiership season ticket offer. Why should fans assume the funds will be any better spent?

One might imagine instead that proper coaching, tactical guile and suitable motivation may be more relevant factors in producing results (which in turn drive ticket sales).

The past eighteen months for Charlton have been abhorrent, and I'm inclined to think that anyone associated with it deserves instant dismissal.

Whilst somewhat willing to acknowledge that he was probably merely Pardew's lackey until November, the case for retaining Parkinson is weak to say the least.

I believe that given the squad he inherited, there was enough scope over 28 games to provide tangible evidence that he has the ability to deliver results. Perhaps not enough to save us from relegation, but surely more than just three victories?

Even with relegation assured already, I still don't buy the oft-used argument that the players simply weren't 'good enough'.

Why should Charlton's relegated squad be so patently worse for example than Watford's, or particularly promotion-hunting Sheffield United's?

By my estimation, of the 37 players who started Championship matches this season, 20 have Premiership experience.

There was simply no attempt to build any sort of consistent system for them to play in, whilst the constant tinkering and obsession with loans appeared to made up on the hoof.

Seemingly only in the past few weeks has some semblance of stability been established, and it seems the results have finally begun to reflect its benefits. Unfortunately it was much too late for salvation.

The decision that the Board must now make with regard to Parkinson's future is not an easy one, and I do not envy them having to do so.

I suspect they will retain him in the name of continuity, although after a season like this one, I would argue continuity is the last thing we need.

The club is now ripe for a suitable manager to come in, and rip the club apart and start all over. The foundation is there, but unfortunately the building materials have been shoddy.

I'm not a sentimentalist in situations like this; I don't see any reason why so many of the coaching staff should be ex-Charlton players for example.

That 'all for one' approach may have been right in the 1990s, but it's a different club today partly thanks ironically to the success it generated.

Parky's promotion with Colchester will also count in his favour, although the two situations are vastly different, not least the relative expectations.

Next season will be far from easy. Leicester were relegated on the final day with 52 points, so all of the talk of 'doing a Leicester' ignores the fact that we haven't even managed to 'do a Leicester' this far.

The outstanding seasons meanwhile by MK Dons and Peterborough (both promoted from League Two in 2007/8), suggest that Charlton will again have to compete with smaller but considerably more stable and confident outfits.

Anyhow in a sense our preparation for next season begins three games earlier than the rest of our competitors, and it will thus be interesting to see how Parkinson's team selection reflects this.

The Football League will no doubt expect Charlton to 'keep it real' given Cardiff's promotion hopes, but after just 4 wins in 37 matches, the concept of a 'weakened side' offers considerable scope for debate.

It seems unlikely for example that Messrs. Butterfield, Ward, Zheng, and Kandol will be Charlton players next season, so there is absolutely no point playing them any longer.

Fixtures such as this one are sickening, because the likes of Cardiff have had a fraction of our resources this season, yet tower over us in the League table. The crowd and atmosphere promise to be a shocker.

I hope we line up as follows: Elliott, Moutaouakil, Basey, Youga, Hudson, Sam, Bailey, Racon, Shelvey, Burton, Tuna.Subs:Randolph, Spring, Wagstaff, Dickson, Holland.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 1 (Bailey), Cardiff 2 (McCormack 2). Tickets sold: 18,019. Seats occupied: 10,229.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Blackpool preview

Even Pythagoras would struggle to dream up the mathematical outcome that would ensure our survival, but for now Charlton retain the possibility.

By my estimation, the probability of Charlton even winning their final four games (a prerequisite of course) is merely 1% or so.

Furthermore calculating the probability of the additional prerequisite that at least three clubs finish on 46 points or less, and with worse goal difference is beyond the scope of this blogger.

However to paraphrase legendary darts commentator Sid Waddell, there's surely more chance of Elvis walking into The Valley tomorrow and ordering a chip butty.

The above graph (which looks clearer if you double-click on it), shows Charlton's rolling 6-game form, expressed in terms of a 'full season equivalent'.

The first vertical line shows the point at which Pardew was sacked, whilst the second shows the point at which Parkinson was assured of the post permanently.

The horizontal line represents 51 points, my best current estimate for the points total that would have been required for safety.

It shows quite clearly that there has indeed been some improvement in recent weeks, but at virtually no point during Parkinson's reign did the team demonstrate 'survival form' over any six-game period.

Indeed, the chart suggests that alarm bells should have begun to ring as early as the 9th game of the season (Palace away).

Interestingly Pardew's initial post-match comments were focused entirely the other way: "We still sit above Palace, but we are falling behind the pace-setters."

He did however go on to acknowledge with rather unnerving accuracy: "Now we really need to start looking after ourselves in terms of making sure get a run together or else we will find ourselves in trouble."

The chart does back up the club's argument that the team's form has materially improved since Parkinson took over, but only after that initially disastrous eight-game winless run, and never to an extent that our survival was more than a pipe dream.

However in order to have stayed up, we needed to spend considerable periods above that horizontal line, and yet we've barely managed to get above it long enough to take a breath.

One might argue that things may have been different if Parkinson had been given the permanent nod the very day that Pardew was sacked.

Perhaps the uncertainty of that six week period, prevented him from putting in place the foundation from which our gradual improvement has been built?

I'm being too fair on our manager. Whilst draws with the likes of Reading and Birmingham, and a fighting away win at Southampton are positive enough signs, we have still only won one of our last ten games.

It seems all season that whenever we have sorted out one aspect of our game, another has fallen apart. Our woeful defence has kept three clean sheets in four games, yet we take only three points because our strikers can't score.

Consider for example that no Charlton-registered striker (as opposed to a loan), has scored a goal from open play since December!

Clearly it has been the midfield instead which has been solely responsible for the recent improvement. A dozen goals since the New Year from Messrs. Bailey, Zheng, Shelvey, Racon and Spring have ensured our season has been kept alive even this far.

It's debatable how much of this is down to the manager (Zheng is probably simply too good for this division, but was barely available to Pardew this season), and assessments such as this will define whether Parkinson remains manager for next season.

He's a likeable enough chap, and I don't doubt his honesty but I continue to think we need a change. Regardless of Board talk about 'doing a Leicester', I fear another relegation battle is the more likely scenario especially if bids for the likes of Bailey, Racon and Shelvey are too good to turn down.

Call me mad however (you're mad - Ed.), but I've a feeling we might actually defy the above odds and win our final four games.

It won't be enough of course, but would leave us wondering just what might have been. Might we accuse the club of ensuring a relegation through mid-season managerial madness again?

NY Addick predicts Charlton 3 (Kandol, Bailey, Zheng), Blackpool 1 (Campbell). Tickets sold: 18,983.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Birmingham & Coventry previews

And now, the end is near. Charlton's impressive win at Southampton has at least ensured that relegation cannot be confirmed on Saturday.

However by Monday, in the miserable surroundings of Coventry, we may be able to 'officially' begin building for next season.

Lady Godiva is believed to have ridden naked through the city's streets. Charlton's deserved fate will similarly be laid bare.

I'm not naturally an optimist, but I had desperately tried to build a scenario that concluded with our survival.

A quick review of the remaining six fixtures reminded me for example that we have four home games, including a final day clash with Norwich, currently in 21st place.

Is it totally inconceivable for example that we could enter that game say three points behind the Canaries, and needing an improbably large win to survive? Or perhaps just two points, so that any win would do?

Unfortunately I'd fallen into the trap of focusing too much on how many points the 21st place team has. I'd failed to realise of course that if we go into that final fixture just 2 or 3 points behind, then in all likelihood Norwich won't be 21st anymore!

To survive, we don't just need to catch Norwich but finish above any three teams. An obvious point of course, but it's easy to overlook the fact that Forest and Southampton matter too.

Saturday's opponents serve arguably as an example of how to adapt swiftly to relegation from the Premiership.

Rather than put their faith in potential as Charlton largely did, the Blues opted for tried and tested experience (Carsley, Phillips, Bowyer etc.).

The result hasn't been pretty (they've only scored five more goals than Charlton), but they sit firmly in the box seat, and automatic promotion is theirs to throw away.

Although hindsight is a wonderful things, perhaps the time for Charlton to experiment with unproven potential (Moutaouakil, Semedo, McLeod, Varney etc.), was after the parachute money ran out, not before. Racon has finally flourished it seems, but two years too late.

Coventry meanwhile are threatening to become a permanent fixture in the Championship, rarely threatening promotion or relegation.

Like Charlton will next season, they are playing in a stadium that's too big for them (54% full on average), but unlike us they are merely tenants not owners.

From my perspective, they are a club without a clear identity at this point; 34 years in the top flight masked the fact that they are one of the least well-supported clubs in a region full of them.

Are they a 'big club' currently suffering a short-term spell outside the Premiership, or more likely an 'average club' struggling to reignite any type of 'buzz' around themselves?

A similar argument could be made about Charlton of course, and to their credit Coventry have steadied the ship far better than we did as they continue the readjustment.

Charlton's win at Southampton, with all the goals coming from midfield (as they seemingly have done all season), offered a rare glimpse of light at the end of this tunnel.

A midfield in League One of Bailey and Racon, with Shelvey playing off a target man, might reasonably be considered comfortably the strongest in the division.

Unfortunately a reasonable case can be made that each of them will be off to pastures new before August. The trio might bring in several million in fees, a not insignificant consideration given our financial plight.

Bailey has already been linked with Birmingham (although promotion would surely end their interest), whilst one might conclude that Racon might prefer to play for a middling club in the French Ligue 1, than spend wet Tuesday nights in Yeovil.

The departure of Shelvey meanwhile (and one presumes offers will be forthcoming) would naturally be a great disappointment, but if the fee is right then I cannot build a strong argument for it to be denied.

It is difficult to form strong conclusions about the ultimate potential of 17-year old players, but I'm tempted to wonder whether some of the excitement is simply a function of him being unusually strong for his age.

Either way, if he's genuinely top class then it's unfair to expect him to stick around in League One for long (or at all), whilst if there's a decent probability that he's not, then there's an even stronger reason to cash in.

This is not a Scott Parker scenario, as much as we might like to pretend so. Parker was proven, Shelvey is not and we need the money. He's probably worth at least five training grounds that the club's just been forced to sell.

More importantly however, Parker was the best player in an established Premiership side, and thus we represented no impediment to his international hopes (quite the opposite as it transpired).

Parker would presumably accept that his departure was a mistake, at least from a footballing perspective.

Whether Shelvey (and his parents) conclude his further development is best served by being kicked in the air by League One defenders remains to be seen.

Put it another way, if we were offered £5m for Shelvey and £1m for Bailey, which offer would you accept?

Talking of youngsters, Tamer Tuna will be in the squad for Saturday, continuing in that fine tradition begun by Mike Salmon, and more latterly Mark Fish. At least he should know where the back of the net is.

NY Addick predicts Charlton 0, Birmingham 2 (Jerome, Phillips). Tickets sold: 22,189.

NY Addick predicts: Coventry 1 (Morrison), Charlton 1 (Burton). Att: 16,991.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

Southampton Preview

I was supposed to be flying to London tonight, with a view to possibly making the pointless drive to Southampton.

However a family issue takes precedent and thus I find myself still in New York, desperately trying to think of something interesting to say about such a depressing fixture.

Southampton's fate has been the key Championship news story this week, but it has required a background in company law to fully understand the implications.

Either way, their story is a sad one on a number of levels, but also one that I found hard to fully comprehend until I dug a little deeper.

Despite the limitations of a highly restrictive stadium, they spent the entire period 1978-2005 in the top flight of English football, a remarkable achievement. A runners-up spot in 1983/84 was their high point, and they flirted with relegation on a number of occasions.

Their final season at The Dell as 2000/01, and thus they enjoyed four full seasons at St Mary's Stadium before finishing bottom of the Premiership in 2004/5. Thus despite the obvious cost of building the (unnecessarily) large new stadium, it's not as if relegation was an immediate event.

More interestingly, since relegation they have offloaded a number of players for not inconsiderable fees: Beattie (£6m), Crouch (£7m), Walcott (£5m), Bale (£5m), Baird (£3m), Jones (£6m). How Charlton would have enjoyed this type of windfall, which they only partially matched via Darren Bent.

Their average attendances at St Mary's steadily fell as expected, regularly approaching the 32,000 capacity in the Premiership, but settling around 23,000 post-relegation.

However in 2008/9, their attendances have nosedived to just 16,808 implying a barely half-full stadium.

Anyhow, nothing in the above account of their recent history implies that they would be top of anyone's list of the most 'at-risk' football clubs. Even whilst in the Premiership, they never appeared to be a club that noticeably lived beyond its means.

However, they certainly had their fair share of managers with all of the related and grotesque signing-on fees and payoffs (since 2000 alone: Jones, Hoddle, Gray, Strachan, Sturrock, Wigley, Redknapp, Burley, Pearson, Poortvliet). Where have we heard that one before?

A brief review of the accounts of the listed Southampton Leisure Holdings Plc to 30 June 2008, was however startling. In the very first paragraph of the Chairman's Statement, it reveals astonishingly the following:

"The operational performance during the period....was entirely down to the previous Board. I do not propose to go into the detail....but to lose £4.9million after a £12.7million profit on player disposals, and to run a player/coach wage bill of 81% of turnover speaks for itself. The only justification for this would have been promotion, but in the event we narrowly avoided relegation!"

It seems that George Burley was given licence to strengthen the squad (via both transfer fees and higher wages), having reached the play-offs in 2006/7. Unbelievably therefore, the wages of playing staff alone rose from a manageable 45% of turnover, to 81%! No wonder they're close to collapse.

Despite Burley's vision, they ended up finishing 20th, and this outcome coincided with the loss of their parachute payments, revenues thus ratcheted lower whilst the cost base was now higher.

Matchday revenues fell sharply too as the momentum of the prior season died away, from £10.5m to £7.9m, not as a result of lower attendances (as noted above), but lower ticket prices. In the current season, their season ticket sales fell to just 10,000.

As a result, and as noted in the above accounts, the club remained reliant upon the continued support of its key creditors, namely Barclays Bank (£5.7m overdraft) and more importantly £22m in loan notes.

It is these loan notes that have clearly caused the club's collapse into disarray. The club borrowed £25m at a fixed interest rate of 8.35% (!), repayable in annual instalments out of a securitisation structure backed by season ticket and matchday ticket sales!

The interest portion of the remaining loan balance (£22m) is thus nearly £2m alone, before even accounting for principal repayment.

When the club's short-term operations are being funded meanwhile by the above Barclays overdraft (not surprising given that net cash outflow from operating activities is £15m), then eventually the impressive conveyor belt of impressive saleable youngsters cannot keep up. That is where the club finds itself today.

The irony of the above should not be lost on Charlton fans. After all, Southampton are precisely one year further down the post-Premiership line as we are. Their parachute payments have already run out; ours are about to.

Given our respective League positions moreover, its unsurprising therefore why this fixture is so damned depressing. At least they still have a fighting chance of staying up, a points deduction notwithstanding.

I've almost lost total interest in the footballing aspects at Charlton, strangely energised only by seeking to analyse its season ticket pricing, or reviewing its next opponents' annual accounts.

I feel no rapport with the players, and certainly not with their manager. I'm hoping the summer clearout reignites my passion, but right now its stone cold.

When I try to predict the line-up, I can barely remember who's in the squad anymore: is Soares still there? Who knows? Who cares?

Anyhow, I think Parky will line up his dead men walking as follows: Elliot, Butterfield, Youga, Hudson, Ward, Bailey, Racon, Spring, Sam, Zheng, Kandol. Subs: Randolph, Holland, Shelvey, Dickson, Burton.

NY Addick predicts: Southampton 0, Charlton 0. Att: 23, 289.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Season's Greetings

The club today announced its season ticket pricing policy for next season.

They are offering two forms of related incentives:

1. A general £50 reduction on 2008/9 prices (except for the cheapest seats in the Lower North, which remain unchanged); and

2. A punishing and 'guaranteed' minimum cost of 23 equivalent match-by-match tickets, to encourage the purchase of a season ticket.

I think the club has a confused view of its support base, and that its policy will not only fail to maximise revenues (its stated aim), but will also fail to maximise attendances (a potential key contributing factor to the team's success).

I have often argued that the seven consecutive years of Premiership football from 2000-2007, may lead the Board to overestimate its core support, if it extrapolates too much from season ticket sales.

When The Valley was sold out for every single Premiership game, a season ticket was almost a pre-requisite for those casual (but still somewhat committed) fans who wished to guarantee a seat at the glamour matches.

By way of example, even after I'd moved to New York on a permament basis, I retained a season ticket in 2005/6 and 2006/7. Once relegation guaranteed a less than full stadium, there was no reason to renew it.

Although my non-commitment was purely a continental issue, it was at this point that the first wave of non-renewals kicked in because match-by-match availability was now assured.

Season ticket sales have held up well in both seasons post-relegation, because it was reasonable to expect the team would be somewhat competitive on both occasions. Moreover the club offered a free Premiership ticket if successful, a smart but ultimately irrelevant ruse.

However with League One football now upon us, and with no equivalent Premiership offer on the table, the next wave of non-renewals will kick in almost regardless. Thus I think the club has tried to get too cute with its pricing, and unnecessarily so.

In my view, the demand function for 2009/10 season tickets will resemble the chart I have constructed above. It assumes for simplification that there is only one single season ticket price, and that the equivalent match-by-match cost is £20 per game, or £460 per season.

Ignoring visiting supporters for the timebeing, the club could probably fill The Valley entirely with Charlton fans if it charged around £80 for a season ticket.

This would probably be too much to entice the merely curious, but low enough to attract all fans from the most casual to the fanatical (whether or not they all turned up is a different matter of course).

However at £80 per ticket, the club's match ticket revenue would be a mere £2.1million for the entire season, compared to more than £8million in 2007/8 from 'ticket income and matchday activities.'

As the price rises from £80 however, demand falls very rapidly (as the casual fans are disincentivised) until it begins to stabilise around £150 at the 12,000 or so mark.

Interestingly in my view, demand then falls only slowly as the price rises, until it approaches the £460 mark at which point there is no financial incentive to renew (although there may be non-financial incentives such as the surety that you will be able to sit with friends etc..).

In short, I would estimate that even in League One, there will be 10,000-12,000 'committed' fans whose price sensitivity is relatively limited until that match-by-match comparative is reached.

At that point, demand obviously falls off very rapidly with only the most well-off committed fans, and those who greatly value the consistency of the same seat, willing to pay more than the match-by-match equivalent.

Thus whilst far from an exact science, the revenue maximisation from season tickets will occur fairly close in my view to the match-by-match equivalent price, and certainly much closer than the £101-£285 savings the club are actually offering.

Little additional incentive is needed (by way of a further discount) to these hardcore fans, because they intend to attend every match anyway. In economist speak, they are price inelastic.

Yet strangely, the club has sought to effectively 'punish' the less committed (but nonetheless important) fans, in order to provide an extremely flaky 'incentive' to the committed fans, who frankly didn't need much incentive anyway!

And most absurdly, by setting a 'guaranteed' minimum price for match-by-match tickets, the club has left itself virtually no flexibility to run clever ad hoc marketing promotions, which would improve attendances and might lift the atmosphere.

Why did the club even need to even mention what match-by-match prices would be? A season ticket and 23 individual match tickets are different products.

In my example above therefore, fans would have to estimate the likely cost of the equivalent match-by-match tickets and make a value judgment, but the club has no long-term incentive to screw its most loyal customers.

The club could have guaranteed merely that 23 individual matchday tickets, would be no less than a season ticket for the equivalent seat.

Even more drastically, they would have been far better served in my view, if they'd merely announced the prices of season tickets and left it at that. No need for fanfare or marketing spin - this is the price, take it or leave it.

Either would have been a reasonable compromise; after all why should hardcore fans resent some occasional discount ticket promotions if they boost the crowd and atmosphere?

My guess is that season ticket renewals will come in roughly as expected, but it will quickly become apparent that matchday sales are poor.

The club may thus have to consider retrospectively reneging on its discount guarantee, with an inevitable backlash from season ticket holders.

I would imagine the club felt obliged to make a 'statement' about how much it understands the fans' pain (financial and footballing), and wants to ease its burden.

However I suspect it overestimates how much in the current circumstances it can realistically do, to sway those wavering fans that it is most focused upon.

Most had probably already made their mind up, absent an enormous discount that would never have realistically been forthcoming (and wasn't).

The club is misguided therefore to fall into this trap and disincentivise some of those same fans from attending match-by-match.

Price discrimination is a fact of life, and particularly prevalent in the service industry. When the time/place aspect of a product is relevant (flights, movies, hotels etc..), then the idea of fixed or inflexible prices is perverse.

The average cost of a matchday adult ticket for League One football will be guaranteed between £17 and £25.

There's always considerable debate about whether football tickets are 'overpriced'. Given that every stadium in the Championship is at least half full (Southampton is lowest at 51.4% of capacity), and that half are at least 75% full, then one might reasonably argue they are only moderately overpriced.

Given that the marginal cost of admitting an additional fan is essentially zero, any pricing policy is flawed if a stadium is less than full. However short of having a "Tickets for £1" promotion 30 minutes before kick-off, this is perhaps unavoidable for most clubs.

I have friends who pay over a grand for a Premiership season ticket, or over £50 per game. Because they pay for it in a lump sum, it hits their credit card and they don't pay it too much attention.

However they typically agree that if they were required to give a turnstile operator fifty sovs in cash, to watch their team play Stoke or Hull, they would pause for a second, turn straight around and head back to the pub.

But for them it's a cost worth paying, for a guaranteed seat to watch the dozen or so games they'd always want to see. When these clubs clamour for bigger stadiums, I wonder if they really understand this dynamic (Charlton clearly didn't....we once wanted to go to 40,000).

Those ambitions are thankfully in the past, but we will still expect fans to pay perhaps £25 at the gate, to watch their team play Hartlepool United on a wet Tuesday night. And all to provide a supposed incentive to hardcore fans who didn't even need one.

Footnote: the price of £49 for all Under-11s, and £75 for Under-18s is undoubtedly an outstanding offer, and one for which the club should unconditionally be applauded. Looks like my sons will have to become Charlton fans after all (poor souls).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Charlton For Sale

The dire state of the club's finances was demonstrated today, with the announcement of several proposed transactions involving its property assets.

In order to improve the working capital position of the club, it will seek shareholder approval to proceed with the proposed sales.

Presumably it is the absence of usual routes to improve working capital (especially an overdraft facility), that have led to this decision.

The transfer window is closed too, not that we have many saleable playing assets left.

The fact that the ongoing credit crunch has thus likely forced the club's hand in this regard is ironic, because the concept of 'working capital' can perhaps best be understood in the context of the troubled banks.

There are some who believe the banks merely have a 'liquidity' problem ie. they are 'solvent', but cannot easily convert assets into cash, or raise new cash in order to service short-term debts.

Meanwhile others believe the banks are fundamentally 'insolvent' ie. the value of their liabilities exceeds its assets. In such a scenario, only a debt restructuring (a reduction in liabilities), can obviate an outright liquidation.

In this sense therefore, it's somewhat reassuring that the club's directors have identified a shortage of working capital as the issue. The alternative presumably would have been to go into administration, akin to an admission of insolvency.

Out in the 'real world', employees at many similarly working capital deprived companies have been forced to accept pay cuts, shorter working weeks or compulsory redundancy.

Of course in the sheltered world of professional football, such a concept would be anathema, not least because their pay is contractual over a fixed term, regardless of fitness or form. I'd be surprised if our players have the audacity to look the directors in the eye, when they collect their pay cheque.

I'm not smart enough to understand all of the legal ramifications involved with these types of sale and leasebacks, but suffice to say that any such 'related party' transactions are always potentially conflicted.

I must confess for example that I wasn't aware that the club had any genuinely 'independent directors', although they have reportedly approved the commercial rate of the leaseback.

It is not possible meanwhile to ascertain from the 2008 annual accounts, at what 'carrying value' the assets were held at because they are all lumped under 'Freehold Land & Buildings', for which the majority is represented by The Valley.

Anyhow, given that the Directors involved in the transaction (albeit seemingly via their respective pension funds and foundations respectively), also collectively own the majority of the club's debt and equity too, then there is not an obvious incentive to undertake in any shenanigans.

The problem of course, is that despite no doubt taking independent valuation advice, the properties would never have been offered for sale to outsiders, even if this might have led to a higher bid (unlikely but who knows?).

However impressive it may be, the training ground is just that, a training ground. Even if the Directors someday sell their interest in them to a non-Addick, then I see little harm done. After the trauma of 1985-1992, most fans would baulk at the sale of The Valley however.

Assuming the 25-year lease survives a change of ownership, then even if the new owners ultimately sell their interest, then it seems to make little difference.

Much longer-term (and frankly who can even see beyond next season at this point?), then assuming that the land has little residential or commercial development potential, then what better lessee would the new owner want than a professional football club?

The most interesting comment in the article was, "Charlton have also retained the right to repurchase these freehold properties under certain circumstances on defined terms."

This implies to me that this is hopefully merely a short-term, but nonetheless necessary step to ensure the club survives this severe downturn in its onfield fortunes. Derek Chappell meanwhile has lent the club a further £500,000 in a separate transaction.

When one observes these types of transactions at a well-run club, albeit one experiencing near-term problems, it does make you wonder whether the whole football club-buying mania is finished for now, at least outside of the truly 'big clubs'.

Who in their right mind for example could conclude that Charlton was an interesting investment, when it is reduced to flogging its training ground to its Directors just to pay its bills?

An expensive plaything maybe, but an investment opportunity? Forget it.

On a more philosophical note, the legal effort that has to go into the raising of just £1.5million, surely puts into perspective the unbelievable sums that those same Directors have permitted various managers to fritter away in recent seasons.

As I have argued quite vehemently on this blog before, if only they asked more difficult questions of Messrs. Dowie and Pardew, before several multiples of these amounts were wasted in fees and salaries on grossly overrated players.

If next season we become a simpler and frankly rather boring club again, then that would surely be a very good thing.