Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Angel of the South

Rejoice. We have some meaningful Charlton news to digest.

The widely rumoured free transfer of defender Miguel Angel Llera has been confirmed, becoming the second player signed from MK Dons inside two years (albeit rather more cheaply than the first).

It seems lessons have been learned from 2008/9 when we began the season with only two recognised central defenders, one of which promptly got injured.

This set in train a seemingly random succession of defensive loan signings (Cranie, Primus, Ward etc..), and experimental team selections (Holland, Youga, etc..) which must have contributed to our ultimate demise.

However with details of Jonathan Fortune's future at the club as foggy as those of up to perhaps a dozen further squad players, it is merely a step in the right direction, not a giant leap.

At six feet four, Llera should pose a physical threat in the opposition box, a not insignificant consideration given the importance of set pieces at this level.

Meanwhile, if my memory serves me correctly, he'll become the first Spaniard to play for Charlton, a somewhat surprising statistic perhaps given the myriad of foreigners to have worn the shirt especially during the past decade.

The most important message however is that at least the signing proves someone (it's not entirely clear who) is in charge at The Valley, and making decisions.

The virtual media blackout since the Norwich game had caused considerable consternation amongst fans, and rightly so.

Even the pre-season friendly schedule seems to have put together whilst momentarily forgetting we're now in League One, ideal mid-July fodder for a Premiership club surely. Is Ipswich Town really the most attractive home opposition they could have invited?

It seemed somewhat distasteful to be aggressively promoting season tickets, whilst depriving fans of information (even of the most cursory kind) on the likelihood of potential new investment, the status of player contracts, etc..

It seems to be generally agreed (albeit to my knowledge without much evidence to support it), that the club is in 'flux', a result of various potential investment negotiations being undertaken.

However, it may simply be that there's nothing to say, although the club hasn't usually been this slow to spin a few stories that whet the fans' appetite for the challenges ahead. In a way, this scenario would be even more concerning since the squad desperately needs refreshing.

There are various players whose futures at the club must surely be seriously questioned, in addition to the handful officially disclosed as such (think Moutaouakil, McLeod, Gray, etc.).

Perhaps there's simply been no interest, and they remain under contract until there is. But why did they deem it necessary to take the photos of the first day's training with the type of long-range lens that celebrity-spotting paparazzi would be proud?

We're not 'entitled' to know who showed up for training, but it's not unreasonable for those fans who've recently dropped a few hundred quid on season tickets (or are considering doing so), to be given a few more clues.

With regard to new investment, as a potential money-making opportunity, investing in Charlton must rank only slightly above those Nigerian email scams about relatives being lost in an air crash, unless the Directors are literally going to give it away.

After the biggest asset bust of modern times, there are literally millions of more interesting opportunities out there.

It may interest a genuinely wealthy investor or consortium purely for the fun of it, but in terms of generating a return on investment to justify the risk, it should appeal only to the very rich and stupid (of which there are many to be fair).

The hastily planned trip to Ireland set the rumour mill alive, especially as we will face Wexford Youth, a club bankrolled and managed by a local property magnate and football nut, Mick Wallace. Could he be interested in another community-based club across the Irish sea?

I don't know much about this particular character, suffice to say that given the way that the country's property speculators (in cahoots with its banks), managed to destroy the Irish economy, Charlton fans might be careful what they wish for.

The new fixtures meanwhile were rather unkind, to me at least. I'll be back in the UK for all of the August fixtures, but 400+ mile round trips to Hereford, Hartlepool and Tranmere won't feature very highly on my 'to do' list I'm afraid.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Summer Vacation

I’m taking the wife and kids on a well-earned fortnight’s holiday to Florida tomorrow.

Won’t it be a bit hot at this time of year?” is the usual response to this declaration, to which I assert, “Well if it was any cooler, it wouldn’t be 40% off would it?

I can’t stand the heat you see, but I do love a bargain.

For example in 2005 we honeymooned in an Arizona spa resort, surrounded by glorious desert landscapes and blissfully untroubled by virtually any other guests.

The resort wasn’t that exclusive to be honest, we just happened to be there in July.

My attempts to reassure my wife that it was a dry heat (whilst she frantically read the small print of the wedding certificate), was met with a deservedly terse response.

Our oven has a dry heat” she observed,”…but I don’t have an urge to stick my head in it.

Unfortunately I am afflicted with a markedly increased susceptibility to sunstroke, whilst also being blessed with a rather uncommonly large head, making the purchase of headwear (to ward off said sunstroke) decidedly difficult.

Please be aware that the next time you see a hat or cap labelled 'one size fits all', that I can confirm it is breaching applicable trade description laws.

I was reassured however by a cap I inspected at the weekend from golf apparel makers Tommy Armour, threatened perhaps by some big-headed class action lawyers. It read far more acceptably, 'one size fits most'.

My obligatory head covering of choice therefore is an appropriately folded bandana, which makes me look like a threatening but ageing member of an L.A. gang like the Crips, or the Bloods.

As you'd agree, not exactly becoming of a polite and well brought-up man from Hertfordshire, but certainly handy for securing a sun lounger in a prime poolside spot.

The first week of our Florida vacation is at an ‘all inclusive’ resort, an open invitation to arrive as a healthy fit adult, and to depart as a grossly obese one with a drinking problem.

My only previous experience with ‘all inclusive’ holidays occurred in 1997 on a lads trip to Mexico.

After the first couple of days, we realized that it was so damned hot (do you detect a theme here?) that after about the third day, we’d lost the will to eat, let alone consume alcohol.

We thus grasped that we’d inadvertently been duped into paying 5-star prices for a 3-star hotel, albeit with unlimited bottled water.

On this occasion however, I do fully intend to see if I can get the holiday to pay for itself through grotesque amounts of calorific consumption.

Beer is unlimited and included, although presumably it is the undrinkable fizzy domestic brews, imploring one to dip into their wallet occasionally to pay real cash for one with some taste.

This is not a minor consideration given that about a third of a pint of beer is tax anyway, or as comedian Al Murray puts it, “Not until about halfway through your pint do you stop drinking for the Government, and start drinking for yourself.

In order to pay for the entire family’s holiday in beer alone, I’ve calculated I need to drink at an extremely challenging run rate of 5 per hour for 16 hours per day.

However with late afternoon rain showers a regular occurrence at this time of year, I may be saved by the Duckworth-Lewis method which may bring down the rate required to a more tolerable level.

It all reminds me of when a friend was recommended by his GP to take a week’s ‘alcohol holiday’.

Unfortunately by the time my friend had realised he meant a holiday from alcohol, he was already in Ibiza on his fourth consecutive all-night bar crawl.

There’s also an all-you-can-eat buffet for each meal, or as health-conscious restauranteurs are increasingly encouraged to call them, ‘all-you-care-to-eat’ buffets (which unfortunately for many Americans is the same thing).

Perhaps there's scope to stuff my face enough at mealtime, in order to line my stomach for the beer extravaganza ahead? With the kids safely enrolled all day in the Groovy Gang, I fully intend to at least give the hotel's finance manager a nasty shock, if only for a day or two.

We’re spending the second week of the trip with the mother-in-law a little further down the coast, enough to drive anyone to drink at an even more furious pace.

She is paying for the accommodation however which is sweet of her, although I found the implicit assumption that this also meant she could join us, to be just a little on the presumptuous side.

Utility Players

It’s not often that an article about the airline industry lends inspiration for a post about Charlton, but this article did.

The Dutch airline KLM has reportedly asked its underused pilots, if they would be willing to assist with some rather more menial tasks, such as baggage handling.

One particular line especially made me chuckle, namely the one that trumpeted the idea that pilots might want to cast an eager glimpse ’behind the scenes’.

As if your typical dashing Captain, as capable of landing that pretty stewardess in business class as he is a Boeing 747, ever turns to his First Officer at a moment of rare introspection to admit, “I regret never having spent more time behind the check-in desk.”

For some time I’ve wondered whether footballers’ contracts specifically state that they must be employed as a footballer?

Certainly in the vast majority of cases, this is the most useful role they can fulfil, but in certain other cases such as injured players or out-of-favour players, surely there are other tasks around the club that they could assist in?

A typical employment contract would specify a main role, but would also state that an employee may be required from time to time to undertake other ‘reasonable’ duties.

In virtually any business, especially a relatively small business like a football club, it is almost a pre-requisite that staff are prepared to ‘muck in’, especially with regard to covering for absent colleagues, or undertaking some dull but necessary tasks.

Take Martin Christensen for example, a player signed in March 2007 by Alan Pardew who assured fans that, “…fans will be excited when they see him” Well Alan, we’re still waiting.

It is rumoured the Dane may be earning as much as £5,000 per week, not bad for a 21-year old with not even a place on the substitutes bench to his name.

So whilst the club eventually managed to loan him out (though presumably on a shared-cost basis), it surely would have been preferable in the meantime to have used him to do odd jobs around the club, rather than make him show up for training with no realistic prospect of graduating to the first team.

As a fit young man, he could have helped to unload boxes in the club shop, or perhaps help Paddy Powell tend to the playing surface.

I’m being a little facetious of course, but not entirely so. If it has been the lad’s attitude rather than ability that has held him back, then a few weeks in the ticket office might just be the tonic.

Likewise, I see no reason (particularly at the lower levels of the game) why an injured player should not be used in other roles, so long as they do not interfere with his rehabilitation.

The contract system works both ways of course, and until the Bosman ruling, even players at the end of their contracts were not permitted to leave for free.

However if that concept was rightly changed in favour of the player, surely likewise the case of a highly-paid player who is never utilized should be challenged in favour of the club too?

Former Chelsea full-back Winston Bogarde is perhaps the finest example, although by all accounts his attitude was unimpeachable, always being fit and available for selection. He just refused to move on that's all, as was his right.

In the end he only appeared eleven times in four years, earning nearly £10million in the process, as Chelsea’s increasingly desperate attempts to offload him failed unsurprisingly.

I’ve equally wondered whether there was scope for the ‘instant dismissal’ of a player for gross misconduct, on the back of a series of particularly disappointing performances.

It would certainly keep players on their toes if they spotted the Head of HR in the West Stand, poised over a P45 form with a pen at the ready.

Luke Varney (who would surely have been on a 'final warning') may well have slotted home that last-minute chance against high-flying Burnley for example, and then who knows what might have happened to Charlton's season?

Friday, June 05, 2009

Up for Adoption

I've decided to adopt a Premiership club.

This entire concept may be anathema to many readers, and if so what follows may risk generating considerable ire, for which I apologise.

Now I'm not suggesting that I will love my adopted club in the same way that I love Charlton, but I intend to put in enough time and interest to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

Particularly whilst living abroad, but frankly also increasingly at home, coverage of the Premiership is ubiquitous.

It is almost as if the other divisions don't exist, and indeed if nothing is done about the inequity, many of the clubs therein may cease to.

Whilst Charlton were only a single promotion away from the promised land, this disproportionate interest was bearable.

But with us set to begin our first season in the third tier for nearly thirty years, I believe my planned adoption should be seen as merely platonic, and certainly not an infidelity.

Many fans for example would not think it strange to have an ostensibly lesser club for whom they maintain some affection.

I look out for Barnet's results without fear of being labelled a footballing cad. The irony is not lost on me however that we could theoretically switch divisions next season.

So why shouldn't the same concept apply in an upwardly-looking direction? Some may say that our spell in the Premiership ended far too recently, and suggest that I'm simply on the rebound.

Rather than declaring it an 'adoption' (which suggests a degree of permanence), perhaps I should use a 'fostering' analogy instead, implying a loving relationship of unknown length.

My relationship with my newly adopted club will include, but not be limited to the following:

- active viewing of live TV matches involving chosen club;
- review of pre-match team news and interviews;
- reading of post-match media reports;
- occasional visits to fan-based media such as blogs, forums etc.;
- study of key moments in club's history, famous players etc.;
- possible attendance at matches.

The following is however explicitly banned:

- purchase of any club-branded merchandise;
- any declaration that "I'm a ........ fan"
- attendance at matches if Charlton playing at same time, and within reasonable travel distance.

In order to select a suitable club for adoption, a simple process of elimination seems appropriate, except to note that should my adopted club exit the Premiership, a brand new emotionally-charged search must resume.

Likewise, if Charlton return to the Premiership themselves, then all ties must immediately be cut with the adopted club.

I begun by eliminating the two clubs that I find positively abhorrent, namely Tottenham and Chelsea.

When it looked as though Charlton might go out of business in the 1980s, I made some tentative enquiries about the feasibility of owning a Tottenham season ticket....in the away end. However I concluded at the time that the cost of 19 replica shirts was prohibitive.

As for Chelsea, they will always leave me stone cold; they represent everything I loathe about modern football. In the 1980s they played in front of tiny crowds in a dilapidated stadium, and when Abramovich walks away, they'll play in front of tiny crowds in a modern one.

Portsmouth might seem to tick several boxes (plucky underdogs, passionate fans, Hermann Hreidarsson etc.).

However knowing my luck, straight after the adoption ceremony, Harry Redknapp (who repels me) will return as the Messiah, leaving me in a decidedly awkward moral situation.

And lest one forget that the ground is a dump, the town is full of drunken sailors.....and Jerome Thomas plays for them.

Let's quickly tick off the trio of Blackburn, Bolton and Hull, if only because supporting any of them may involve having to visit.....Blackburn, Bolton or Hull.

Bolton's ground is quite nice I suppose, and I'm not that put off by their functional football (it works it seems), but if none of those three clubs existed, no-one would think to invent them.

Manchester City might ordinarily have warranted some consideration. They've always seemed the 'cooler' of the two big Mancunian clubs, and I've always looked quite good in sky blue.

I liked those inflatable bananas too, whilst as a team in League One as recently as 1998/99, they can serve as inspiration for Charlton.

However I'm annoyed that unlike us, they managed to snag the 'good' Arabs (the ones from Abu Dhabi not Dubai). Meanwhile their Chief Executive Garry Cook recently referred to the club as a global franchise entity.

I can swiftly rule out Wolves, Birmingham and Stoke, on the basis that adopting them would be akin to adopting a child, and finding out they were actually your bastard offspring anyhow.

I'll never easily be able to accept they're two Leagues above us now, so similar did we seem barely eighteen months ago. I do admire Rory Delap's throw-in though.

My Dad has confirmed that he has adopted Liverpool, so that would be a popular choice within the family at least.

I am only a Charlton fan because he brainwashed me as a child (how many other Charlton fans do you know with no historical family link whatsoever to South-East London or Kent?).

Having ruined my life once, I don't intend to give him the pleasure of supporting his adopted Premiership club too. Indeed I may support Everton to spite him (see below), just to add some extra spice to those ding-dong Merseyside derbies.

When I told a friend about my adoption plan, he immediately assumed I'd choose Fulham, and that annoyed me. In truth, they never stood a chance.

Thanks to their location on the 'right' side of London, they already enjoyed a higher profile than their mere dozen historic seasons in the top flight warranted, at least until promotion in 2001.

Although they've never won a major trophy, somehow being synonymous with the likes of George Best, Bobby Moore and Johnny Haynes, has earned them a fonder place in footballing hearts than Charlton (albeit without other good reason).

When I see their (admittedly atmospheric) ground filled to capacity, I ask myself how many of these so-called fans will show up when they are relegated, and Al-Fayed walks away.

And I also wonder how many of them work in the City, happen to live nearby, and have names like Sebastian, Rupert and Tarquin.

Sunderland warranted more than a brief thought. That play-off final at Wembley in 1998 was an unbelievable experience, but it was also a shared one.

Walking away from the stadium that afternoon, I vividly recall their goodwill towards us, aware that football really was the winner that day, even if we secretly knew that Charlton were too.

However, now 100% owned by an American billionaire, and with Steve Bruce installed in the manager's office, I struggle to feel any affinity.

This is Bruce's seventh managerial appointment in just eleven years, yet perhaps someone can tell me in less than a hundred words what he has achieved at any of his clubs (short-term, let alone long-term).

Apparently he brilliantly 'guided' Wigan to 11th place last season.....with 45 points.

Alan Curbishley meanwhile accumulated 52, 44, 49, 53, 46 and 47 in consecutive seasons at Charlton with considerably less fanfare and no wealthy backer. He's now unemployed.

So let's quickly eliminate Wigan too then. I just find them to be such a 'nothing' club, not even the biggest sports club in a small town.

Their rise from non-League is apparently a 'fairytale', except that it was all paid for, whilst in their infinite appreciation for Dave Whelan, their stadium was 3,000 short of capacity for their 13th May fixture against local rivals and soon-to-be-crowned Premiership champions,Manchester United.

Speaking of which, I've never had any particularly negative feelings towards United. Indeed in a world of supposed big clubs that aren't (think Spurs, Newcastle, Chelsea etc.), they truly are the global footballing brand supreme.

And moreover, it was as recently as 1989/90 that they finished 13th in Division One, below such giants as Wimbledon, Norwich and QPR.

Their success has been built in fairness as much on loyalty to Alex Ferguson, and an outstanding youth set-up, as it has to their unparalleled ability to generate commercial interest. However as a result, they hardly need me to adopt them.

The same cannot be said for Burnley of course, apparently the representatives of the smallest town to reach the Premiership (a bit unfair of course given that Charlton is hardly a thriving metropolis but anyhow).

I have greatly admired their League and Cup exploits this season. Their football has been straightforward but inventive, and Owen Coyle seems to have the appealing combination of intelligence, ability and humility.

A good friend in New York is Clarets-mad, so I would have an immediate drinking buddy to watch games with. However his passion is such that it would be akin to lovingly adopting a child, yet having his or her natural parents round every Saturday for tea.

Moreover, whilst they thoroughly deserved their Wembley win over Sheffield United, their lack of pace was painfully obvious.

Unless they can inject some into a rather ageing squad, they risk becoming the new West Bromwich Albion....admired for their football, and thanked for the points.

So that just leaves Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and Aston Villa.

As a born and bred North Londoner, if one is not going to directly support either Arsenal or Spurs, it at least helps to decide at an early age which one you will despise less.

Perhaps it was their red shirts, or the fact that I very much enjoyed attending their 5-1 win over IFK Gothenburg in March 1980 (on their way to a Graham Rix-inspired final defeat in Valencia)

Either way, I've not so much not despised Arsenal, as rather liked them, even before Arsene Wenger turned them into the best footballing side in the world. And their stadium is awfully easy to get to from my parents' neck of the woods.

Unfortunately however, the recent news that Wenger himself is reportedly 'under fire' from some fans, means I cannot voluntarily associate myself with such ignoramuses. Presumably the same ones that walked out just minutes into their Champions League semi-final second leg.

After seven major trophies, and thirteen consecutive top four finishes, it brings to mind that famous line from 'Life of Brian': "...but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order....what have the Romans ever done for us?"

There are a few family links to West Ham, and indeed my late Grandmother who passed away last week lived for a while just a well-struck 3-wood away from Upton Park. The sentimental tug is certainly a strong one right now.

However I can't easily forgive the way they treated Curbs, noting that Gianfranco Zola is feted as a hero for accumulating a whopping 51 points, whilst the 49 that Curbs managed the previous season was clearly wholly unacceptable (whisper it quietly of course, but 6 of this season's belonged to Curbs too!).

So it looks like I'll be adopting either Everton or Aston Villa. Such an important decision should be the subject of a separate head-to-head post, in keeping with the spirit of the times (think Britain's Got Talent, Pop Idol etc.).

Before I embark on a thorough study of their respective histories, I'm reassured that I'll be choosing from two 'proper' football clubs.

Both are founder members of the Football League, playing in the same stadium they've occupied since 1892 and 1897 respectively, and with a plethora of major trophies amongst them (just not acquired that recently).

Their respective fans might be described as passionate but understanding, whilst both are led by sensible British managers that one can feel an affinity with.

There won't be much to choose between them. I'll report back in the coming days with my educated decision.