Saturday, August 29, 2009

Five Alive

Unable to face the M6 on a bank holiday weekend (and kudos to those Addicks who felt differently), I got my footballing fill instead at Barnet vs Notts County.

Not yet emboldened by a fit Sol Campbell, the division's hot favourites still contained a number of players who have played most of their football at a higher level (eg. Kasper Schmeichel, Johnnie Jackson, Lee Hughes).

However on Underhill's famous sloping pitch (which rarely delivers an outstanding spectacle), they were undone by Barnet's neater football and a 93rd minute winner. I was especially pleased as I backed the home side with a tenner at 5/2.

The quality of football on display was not impressive, but if two-goal Lloyd Sam should ever be prised away, we can do worse than look at young Albert Adomah of the Bees.

But enough about the minnows of League Two, what about the mighty Addicks, flying high after a fifth consecutive win (well sixth really if you're counting)?

Sometimes even I amaze myself with my own fickleness. Having witnessed his somewhat nervous post-match interviews last season, I had almost written off Phil Parkinson as a managerial lightweight. An honest and decent guy for sure, but certainly no motivator I concluded.

Now after another thumping win, I find myself nodding in agreement at his every word, and comparing his calm authority to Jose Mourinho. The line between low self-esteem and cool assuredness is apparently a thin one, especially when you're top of the table.

He has been fortunate with injuries and suspensions so far, and whilst the likes of Wagstaff have impressed in brief cameos, the team will surely lose some momentum when the inevitable changes have to be made.

During the three games I saw on this trip, I was especially pleased by the quality of our football, and reports suggest we surpassed even those performances today.

Parkinson's permanent signings have all appeared sensible, and have not cost the club a penny in fees.

This is true not only of the trio of defensive summer signings, but also Deon Burton and Matt Spring. Hopefully the right lessons have been learned from the flawed obsession with loans last season.

The way he is treating the various youngsters in the squad also appears thoughtful, hopefully to their long-term benefit.

Few fans will bemoan our youthful exit from the Carling Cup for example, and indeed how might today's result have been affected by the two teams' varied midweek exertions?

Whilst he was able to give Tamer Tuna a run-out with no pressure today meanwhile, he was willing to blood Messrs Wagstaff and Solly at a far more crucial period of the Walsall and Orient games.

In short, whilst the results are obviously extremely pleasing, they are not merely good fortune and therein lies the most important issue.

I think all we have asked from our myriad of recent managers is a sense of team spirit, some logic to team selection and transfers, and an observable game plan and tactics which maximised our chances of winning football matches.

In the spirit of balance Parkinson was hardly blameless for last season's debacle, indeed far from it. We were a shambles until the final half-dozen games or so, by which point the players could relax knowing their fate was effectively sealed.

And by definition, if a club suffers regular relegations, it eventually reaches a level where it can begin winning matches again.

However my Mum of all people raised an interesting issue this evening when she asked whether Curbs was coming back.

A month ago I think a majority of fans would have welcomed him with open arms, but right now there would be substantial opposition to such a move. As a compliment to what Parkinson has achieved this season, this is about as big as it gets.

The next three fixtures are intriguing. Firstly a televised local derby, followed by successive matches against the two fellow relegated clubs whose seasons have started as poorly, as ours has started superbly.

I don't take any great pleasure in watching Southampton's demise, but instead find myself admiring Alan Pardew's chutzpah in managing his media profile so well, and thus finding himself thrust back into management so quickly. What must the likes of Aidy Boothroyd make of it all?

Our winning run may already have ended before the Saints come to town, but it is worth recalling that the club's last outstanding winning run also ended at home, and also against the division's bottom side.

The aforementioned Curbs led the Addicks to an incredible run of 12 consecutive wins, before Dean Kiely's uncharacteristic fumble gifted Swindon an unlikely Valley win on 11th March 2000.

We won the Championship nonetheless and went on to enjoy seven fabulous Premiership years. If Parkinson can maintain even a fraction of that momentum, my fickleness will know no bounds (even if he loses to Pards).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tranmere preview

Any natural optimism that Addicks fans must feel in advance of this fixture, would be tempered by a quick look at recent results between the clubs.

Throughout most of the 1990s, we enjoyed regular battles in football's second-tier, but one has to go back to 1974/75 for Charlton's last victory at Prenton Park. However six of the last eight meetings on their patch have seen the teams share the points.

The most painful memory of matches against Tranmere however, came at Upton Park rather than Prenton Park, when our brave and unexpected challenge for the play-offs was effectively ended by a 1-0 midweek defeat in our final home game of 1991/92.

Indeed those heady days for the Wirral club clearly marked a historic peak in their fortunes, forever in the shadow of bigger neighbours just across the Mersey. They even took to playing regular home games on a Friday night in an attempt to boost attendances.

Despite already being 32 when he made his debut, John Aldridge would register 174 goals for Tranmere as both player and player-manager, but he took them down to the third tier in 2001, where they have remained ever since.

Now another John with Liverpool connections sits behind the manager's desk at Prenton Park, a surprise appointment for Barnes following the dismissal of fellow ex-Addick, Ronnie Moore in the summer. A harsh punishment for failing to reach the play-offs on the final day of 2008/9.

Given his unceremonious brief spell as Celtic manager beginning in 1999, it was an unusual appointment, and one which smacked of a short-termist desire to boost the club's image, rather than a considered decision. Indeed strange comments about Moore's effect on attendances suggested as much.

Barnes is supported by local lad, Jason McAteer who had a reputation for being one of the less intelligent footballers (and there was much competition).

It is not clear whether this was deserved, but as a pairing, it does not bode well and early results are not promising either.

One would expect them to be a footballing side however, and perhaps one which is merely taking time to adapt to a new system rather than fundamentally flawed. They only dropped 19 points at home last season, so must be respected if not exactly feared.

Phil Parkinson will take confidence from the fact that fellow pace-setters Leeds beat Tranmere with ease last weekend. Hopefully minor injuries to Jose Semedo and Fraser Richardson, will not prevent the selection of the fifth consecutive unchanged side.

I return to the USA this weekend, with fond memories of three victories witnessed. The next couple of days could be vital for the club with the failure to complete the ridiculously protracted takeover, possibly requiring last-minute transfers before the window closes.

Nothing could do more to stop this momentum of optimism in its tracks, than the forced sale of a key member of what is developing into an impressive and balanced team.

NY Addick predicts: Tranmere 0, Charlton 1 (Burton). Att: 7,033.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Charlton First in Second Gear

At around 4.35pm on Saturday, my perception of Phil Parkinson changed, and hopefully for good.

About a minute earlier, Lloyd Sam (who had been a threat throughout) carved out an outstanding chance for Nicky Bailey to double our lead.

But Parkinson saw fit to make his only subsitution, replacing Sam with Scott Wagstaff, a player who had looked utterly out of his depth when I saw him play the first half against Yeovil in last season's Carling Cup.

This was surely manna from heaven for cynical bloggers like me, perched high in the Upper West Stand surrounded by banks of empty seats, and cobwebs that are quite literally occupying the back row.

But just four minutes after coming on, Wagstaff was set clear by Deon Burton following a classy backheel by Kelly Youga. He kept his cool to finish clinically and seal the game.

Indeed his impressive dribbling throughout and eye for a sensible pass, helped the Addicks emerge from a slightly tired period of the game, and take hold of a game that Walsall never deserved to take something from. I guess that's why I blog rather than manage.

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, "When the facts change, I change my mind." So after a fifth consecutive League win, and just one League defeat in twelve, have the facts changed and if so have I changed my mind (about Parkinson)?

A number of fans in the North Stand are reassessing their view too it seems, finally inviting Parky to let them know the score (even though the scoreboard was working this time).

We are now playing in a lower division, and if Walsall are supposedly a solid midtable outfit, then the gap between League One and the Championship is a chasm.

My fears about a possible third relegation in four years were clearly overstated, given the rather shoddy opposition that must presumably characterise this entire league.

The three summer transfers meanwhile have settled in comfortably, Christian Dailly's experience nicely complimenting Miguel Llera's power, with Fraser Richardson providing honest endeavour and neat link-up with Sam, and then Wagstaff.

But what has been a real surprise has been the quality of the football on show, which once again emphasises what a shambles we were under Alan Pardew.

Charlton are once again a real footballing side, not just in the clichéd media use of the term (which persisted under Curbishley, even when untrue), but in the real nuts and bolts sense of passing and moving, maintaining possession and carving out openings.

Four wins do not make a summer, but there is real hope for optimism based upon performances which thoroughly deserve those results.

We moved to first place on Saturday, without ever having to get out of second gear. The players appeared somewhat jaded in the mid-afternoon heat, but Parkinson has got them playing to their strengths in what might be called 4-5-1, but is really 4-2-2-2.

Shelvey plays just behind Burton, with Sam and Bailey encouraged forward at every opportunity thanks to the defensive discipline of Therry Racon and (especially) Jose Semedo.

Walsall's chances were not aided by woeful away support, with barely 200 making the trip to The Valley.

I suppose that as a percentage of home support, they are probably better supported on the road than we are generally, but it does little to inject the type of two-way atmosphere that football thrives upon.

Indeed the biggest downer of Championship football, let alone League One for me, is the lack of any sense of 'occasion', which we took for granted in the Premiership. If the atmosphere is tepid when we are top of the league, it will be firmly stone cold if we begin to stumble.

The scoreboard operator did his or her best to improve matters however, confirming the crowd as 19,000+, which produced applause and laughter in equal measure. Infact it was a rather disappointing 15,706.

The outstanding player on display was Semedo, who produced a quite exemplary exhibition of defensive midfield play. His upper body strength leaves allcomers in its wake, and he if misplaced a pass all afternoon, then I must have missed it.

You don't see many fans with 'SEMEDO' on their backs but when I spot one, I tend to give them a sly nod as fellow members of a secret society of Charlton fans who like me, have unemotionally acknowledged him as the most important player in the team.

Burton was also particularly impressive, chasing down defenders and finding space when he appeared to be crowded out.

Andy Gray's departure leaves us desperately short of cover for this particular role however, with Messrs. McLeod, Fleetwood and Dickson offering a different type of role that Parkinson is not currently auditioning for.

Here are my match ratings:

Elliot 6 - a quiet afternoon; the line between a 'flap' and a 'confident punch' is a thin one, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt as a fellow Charlton fan;

Richardson 7 - plays with a pleasing sense that he knows what an honest day's work is; already appears to have a good understanding with Lloyd Sam which bodes well

Youga 6 - both at Leyton Orient and here, one is starting not to notice him much during games, which given past experience must surely be a good thing;

Dailly 7 - given he has gone in the space of a year from West Ham, Rangers and Scotland to lowly Charlton, one would expect him to look comfortable, which he does;

Llera 7 - perhaps the first Charlton player with three consecutive letters in his name since Matt Tees; a commanding performance with occasional distribution which Eddie Stobart would be proud of, and capped with a messy goal;

Semedo 9 - can't think of a good reason why it shouldn't be a '10', except that would imply he was like Roy Keane or Patrick Viera, which he isn't (but he was today); simply immense;

Racon 6 - drifted in and out of the game; there will be games where his extra class will be required, but this wasn't one of them;

Shelvey 5 - I was asked for a scouting report earlier this week by a curious Spurs fan, and my short answer was "I've no idea how good he is"; this performance made things no clearer;

Sam 7 - too much talent to be playing in League One; however unlike some others that are blessed in this way, his attitude seems great much to our benefit;

Bailey 5 - never looks entirely comfortable on the left wing, and indeed was largely anonymous during the second period; when he doesn't score he can look rather ordinary;

Burton 8 - leads the footballing equivalent of life in a slum, feeding off scraps; however based on this performance he has every chance of producing a story of 'rags to riches';
Wagstaff 8 - confident finish for the goal, and a highly productive contribution throughout; one mazy run towards the end particularly caught the eye; perhaps the squad members behind the first choice XI are not as mediocre as we feared.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Walsall preview

My third and final Charlton fixture of this trip sees the visit of Walsall, a team we have not lost to in a League fixture since 1973/74.

By way of a further good omen, we did the double over them in 1999/2000 during our Division One winning season, the last time we competed at the same level.

The Saddlers have enjoyed two recent brief spells in the second-tier of English football, most recently relegated in 2003/4, but are back in League One after a round trip that included a single season in League Two which they exited as Champions in 2007.

Like our opponents on Tuesday night, Walsall are one of those inoffensive teams, overshadowed by far larger and better followed neighbours, but plugging away and enjoying occasional relative success. Unlike Leyton Orient however, they have not even managed a single season in the top flight.

There are no Charlton links in their present squad, but Addicks legend Mark Kinsella took on various roles at the Bescot Stadium, including player, coach and even caretaker manager.

Creditable 12th and 13th place finishes in the past two seasons suggests a degree of stability.

Under Chris Hutchings (usually the perennial no.2 to Paul Jewell), they also have a manager who has found his appropriate level, after a brief failed Premiership spell at Wigan following Jewell’s departure.

Walsall’s four points this season could easily have been more, having led in all of their opening trio of fixtures, most recently at home to high-flying Leeds.

Given how we struggled to put away newly promoted Wycombe on the opening day, one can reasonably expect that an improved performance will be required to secure a fourth consecutive victory.

There is very little new to say about the Addicks since Tuesday night. Fans are rightly encouraged by what they have witnessed so far, the quality of the football and seven goals scored doing much to draw attention away from concerns over the depth of the squad, and three sloppy goals conceded.

It is clear already that the eleven players who have so far monopolised the shirt so far this season, can very much compete and perhaps even excel over the majority of teams in League One this season. The entire midfield five for example could all play at least one level higher.

However it is difficult to make an intelligent case that any squad player not currently in that first eleven, would improve it in any way and therein lies the concern.

Just a single injury or suspension will weaken the team somewhat, and several concurrently would weaken it materially.

Meanwhile we look somewhat vulnerable to pace at the back, whilst Rob Elliot needs to add greater command of the penalty area, to his obvious shot-stopping abilities.

In the three games so far, the 4-5-1 formation would appear to suit us beautifully, but well-organised teams may nullify the threat, and the brief dalliance with 4-4-2 on the opening day was not encouraging. Plan A looks terrific, but is there a Plan B?

Until any pending takeover is confirmed, one can assume resources to add to the squad will be extremely limited. Thus we must watch our matches with fingers crossed, whilst enjoying the surprisingly impressive stuff being served up for now.

It is thus clearly much too premature to be even thinking about promotion, but when recent wins have been as rare as runs from England’s middle order, you’ll forgive us enjoying the moment.

With Colchester facing a tricky away game at MK Dons, and our goal difference already superior to Leeds (at home to Tranmere), the top of the table potentially awaits but let's not get carried away.

I can thus confidently predict Parkinson will line them up as follows: Elliot, Richardson, Youga, Llera, Dailly, Semedo, Racon, Shelvey, Bailey, Sam, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Solly, Spring, Wagstaff, Gray, Fleetwood, McLeod.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 3 (Burton, Bailey, Gray), Walsall 1 (Parkin). Att: 16,239.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Orient Express

When invited to the posh seats at Leyton Orient, one expects to rub shoulders with some retired armed robbers, or perhaps a local pie and mash entrepreneur.

Thus imagine my surprise when the seat next to me was occupied by renowned classical cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber.

Lloyd Webber is of course a huge Orient fan, and is considered very much the 'Phil Neville' of the music world......not as rich or talented as his brother, but unfortunately no better looking by way of consolation.

To be fair to the guy, he's clearly no casual fan. He was clattering into every tackle and challenging for every header with his beloved Os, and when he was out of his seat early in the first half insisting Jonjo Shelvey should be 'OFF!', I thought he might well be.

Charlton are doing a very passable impression of a football team right now. For the first time in nearly two years, there is finally a very real and deserved sense that we've turned a corner.

The most pleasing aspect of the night was not the third win, or some of our passing which was again very fluent, although we took a while to get it going.

Instead, it was the very clear sense that every single one of the players on show was absolutely committed to the cause.

Combined with the fact that the midfield especially contains some outstanding players at this level, and it's possible to feel good about the team again.

I'm comfortable enough with my sexuality to acknowledge too, that Phil Parkinson really does look terrific in a suit.

The contrast with the dumpy training kit and boots worn by his former assistant in the home dugout, could not have been starker. If more of our fans were women, we might have sung a few songs about Parky by now (a few more wins like this however, and he won't have too long to wait).

The first half was a rather scrappy affair, full of honest endeavour by both sides, a little too much to be frank particularly from Charlton. Controlled aggression is an attractive trait, but giving away stupid fouls in unthreatening positions is not.

Given that it takes perhaps half a dozen accurate and consecutive passes to set up a promising crossing opportunity, it is infuriating when we gift the opposition the chance to do exactly that from a dead ball and with a ten-yard space infront.

Orient's opener came from just such a situation. Going nowhere down the right flank, Therry Racon challenged unlawfully rather than standing his ground, and from the subsequent free-kick, the delightfully-named Tamika Mkandawire rose unmarked to steer home.

Deon Burton had already gone close with an opportunist far post effort, whilst Shelvey could not find the ideal finish to the game's best passing move, shooting over with his weaker left foot from twelve yards. His superb second half strike more than compensated for his profligacy.

At half-time our hosts acknowledged that Charlton were the better side, but one feared it would be one of those infuriating nights. The faithful Addicks that filled the East Stand had been fairly quiet, awakening only to confuse the team with its occasional chants of 'Come on you Reds'.

Although Charlton dictated the tempo throughout the second period, it was Orient's Ryan Jarvis that had the first real chance, screwing his shot wide of Rob Elliot's upright when the ball squirmed free on the edge of the box.

Charlton's best opportunity meanwhile had come from the unlikely left boot of Miguel Angel Llera, sporting menacing-looking protective headgear but showing no shortage of guile, with a terrific free-kick that was tipped over by Jamie Jones.

However with the Addicks taking a real stranglehold of the game, and with Racon particularly beginning to pull the midfield strings, the patient approach finally paid dividends in the 64th minute.

In truth the goal was uncharacteristically 'route one'. A low driven Elliot kick was flicked on by Burton before being helped on by Lloyd Sam into the path of Shelvey.

The youngster still had plenty to do but you wouldn't necessarily have known it as he chested down, swivelled and fired home all in one motion. An ecstatic moment for the travelling Addicks, but perhaps not what we needed if we want to hold on to his precocious talent.

We were now all over the Os like a cheap suit (not that Parkinson would recognise that concept), although clearcut chances were few and far between as the home side defended doggedly on a beautiful evening in East London.

Again the winner when it came was fairly direct, suggesting that for all of our enterprising passing football, sometimes it pays just to lump it.

Fraser Richardson's hopeful punt forward was misjudged by Mkandawire, and Burton completed a hard-working but largely quiet night with a calm finish over the stranded Jones. His second goal of the season remarkably similar to his first up at Hartlepool.

Clearly my impersonation of a Leyton Orient fan had been a respectable one, because Lloyd Webber turned to me and said, "That's not what we needed." No it wasn't Julian, no it certainly wasn't.

Parkinson handed Chris Solly a rare cameo in place of the impressive Sam, as the team defended its lead for the final few minutes.

Thankfully there was none of the blind panic on show which characterised the final stages of the Wycombe victory, and the players and their coaching staff celebrated joyously in front of the 3,500 hardy Addicks. For the first time in a very long time, we were all again as one.

Here are my ratings:

Elliot 6 - a couple of straightforward saves from long-range efforts, but stranded for the goal and possibly at fault too; I remain concerned about his lack of presence

Richardson 6 - a solid and delibrately unshowy display; rarely troubled by Jason Demetriou and claims an assist for the winner

Youga 6 - came more into the game in the second half as an attacking presence, but defended with the assurance that has sometimes been lacking

Llera 7 - won several important headers, although one suspects Mkandawire was probably his man for their goal; has the looks, style and presence to be a cult hero someday, especially if keeps throwing his shirt into the crowd

Dailly 7 - his experience often gets him out of trouble when you fear he's been beaten for pace, or mistimed a ball; would appear a more obvious captain than Nicky Bailey

Semedo 7 - arguably the most important player in the side, and the fulcrum around which the rest of the team pivots; acknowledges his limitations and leaves the flair to others

Racon 7 - kept the team driving on in the second half, and was unlucky with a long-range speculative effort; his commitment to the cause was obvious and pleasing

Shelvey 8 - began the game with the maturity of a temperamental toddler, but showed his class in the end; plays with the freedom that Semedo is denied

Bailey 6 - showed some rare second half glimpses of genuine wideplay, and was unlucky with a typical late-arriving header; generally quiet however

Sam 7 - a handful for the opposition all evening with his pace and trickery, upon his return to Brisbane Road; plenty still to work on but his attitude seems spot on

Burton 6 - largely manhandled out of the game, and was probably about to be substituted for Andy Gray when he scored his opportunist winner; a thankless role in a 4-5-1 formation

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leyton Orient preview

The largest travelling Addicks contingent since 5,250 fans travelled to Middlesbrough for a midweek FA Cup reply in April 2006, will be present at the Matchroom Stadium tonight.

The uncharacteristically strong interest in this fixture probably stems more from the novelty value of a rare visit to a local rival, than from any early optimism garnered by two back-to-back wins.

Perhaps not however, because ridiculous as it may be, we have not managed consecutive victories since December 2007 when we triumphed over Cardiff and Ipswich in the space of four days. No wonder it feels a bit weird.

Ironically Leyton Orient were one of the teams we beat to reach the aforementioned quarter-final, Jay Bothroyd scoring a very late Valley winner to spare Charlton blushes in front of 6,000 travelling supporters of their own.

Being the corporate whore that I am, I’ll be viewing proceedings from ‘The Gallery’ in the new West Stand, a description which conjures up images that are more Andy Warhol, than Andy Gray.

However hopefully the joyful sight of 3,000+ Addicks celebrating goals directly opposite, will be more than enough to comfort me for the fact that I may struggle to do much celebrating myself.

Both of tonight’s managers learned their trade at Colchester United, Geraint Williams building on the promotion foundations laid by our own Phil Parkinson, to lead the U’s to an impressive 10th position in the Championship.

However the reality of a severely restricted budget led to relegation the following season, despite a Kevin Lisbie inspired win at The Valley.

Williams took over at Orient in February 2009 when they were in a precarious position but he steadied the ship, registering nine more wins to finish in 14th place, seven points clear of relegation.

It would be hard not to maintain a soft spot for the Os, their long-suffering fans having enjoyed just a solitary top flight season (in 1962/63) and forever living in the shadow of West Ham.

They’ve even changed their name from Clapton Orient to Leyton Orient, then just to Orient and then back to Leyton Orient, suggesting something of an understandable identity problem. They also used to play in blue.

If Charlton maintain their 100% start to the season, it will do Parkinson’s reputation no harm whatsoever in the eyes of the fans, although in the likes of Shelvey, Bailey, Racon and Sam, he is blessed with players far too talented to be playing for long at this level. Luckily they all currently play for us, and in the same midfield.

Indeed Bailey in particular has developed a scoring record that is bordering on the absurdly impressive for a midfielder, and not one moreover who plays in an especially advanced role.

His overall record for the Addicks is 15 goals in 45 games, but since the Burnley away game on 31 Jan he has managed 10 goals in just 19 games, the type of regular scoring that only the goalhanging likes of Kevin Philips or Michael Owen have managed over their careers.

Speaking of strikers, we will probably face a former Addick in the shape of Scott McGleish, now in his third spell at the Orient, having carved out an impressive career as one of the lower divisions’ most consistent goalscorers, with over a century to his name.

He may be joined up front by fellow veteran James Scowcroft, a player seemingly linked with a move to Charlton every year for the past decade.

Meanwhile, the impressive winger Jason Demetriou will be one to watch, another whose future surely lies at a higher level. Charlton were rumoured to be interested in him too, back when we had some money.

Charlton have had a recent habit of putting in deflated performances, when cheered on by a sizeable away following. We may not end up victorious of course, but there would be little excuse for a repeat tonight.

Indeed whilst that mouthwatering midfield quartet remain at the club, and so long as our paper-thin squad remains blissfully injury-free, then on the limited evidence so far, we should have little to fear in this division. Parkinson should appropriately be judged in this rather expectant but honest context.

I expect him to line them up as follows: Elliott, Richardson, Youga, Llera, Dailly, Semedo, Shelvey, Bailey, Racon, Sam, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Spring, Basey, Wagstaff, Gray, Fleetwood, McLeod.

NY Addick predicts: Leyton Orient 1 (McGleish), Charlton 3 (Bailey, Racon, McLeod). Att: 7,911.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hartlepool preview

When one discusses the nature and merits of true genius, the likes of Einstein, Newton and Michaelangelo tend to be at the very heart of the debate.

However to the traditional illustrious list, I would also add one of Hartlepool's finest, Jeff Stelling.

His ability to front Sky Sports on a Saturday afternoon with such humour, despite the gormless invited company of a washed out collection of former players and alcoholics, is worthy of such lofty comparisions.

For those Addicks fans seeking a hint of the type of reception they might receive as high-brow Southerners, this classic clip of Stelling at his very best. Don't take it too seriously though....he held his wedding in Richmond-upon-Thames.

After an at times impressive opening day performance at the Valley, the Addicks soon reverted to type, going down 1-0 at Hereford admittedly with a weakened side.

It would be easy to write this one off as a meaningless defeat, but it was hardly a reserve side that played.

In a number of important positions (eg. centre back, full back, wide midfield), the cover for the incumbent players is extremely weak, which does not bode well for tough trips just like today's.

Given that Hartlepool have played all of their League football in the lower two divisions, the visit of a club like Charlton with very recent Premiership experience, will be viewed by locals as one of the 'glamour' fixtures.

And they'll no doubt be more up for it as a result (we've never played them before in a League match incidentally).

We met in Sep 2005 in the Carling Cup however during Alan Curbishley's final season. A crowd of 10,328 saw the Addicks triumph 3-1 at The Valley, with goals from Johansson, Bent and Bothroyd. Of the 16 players in the squad that night, only Lloyd Sam remains at the club.

Thanks to the efforts of highly-regarded managers like Mike Newell and Danny Wilson, the club have achieved a degree of stability in the past decade or so, coming painfully close to a first promotion to the second tier in the 2004/5 play-off final.

They began this season with a creditable draw at much fancied MK Dons, whilst following up with an even more impressive 1-0 Carling Cup win at Coventry

The Addicks should be selecting again from a full-strength squad which offers some comfort. Assuming Parkinson opts again for 4-5-1, I think the first 20 minutes or so will be key to the final result.

If that impressive five-man midfield can retain possession and slow the game down, then our generally greater quality can prevail. If however we are not fast out of the gate, and invite pressure onto a questionable defence, then a defeat surely looms.

I sense this one will be a real marker for our realistic hopes this season, for better or worse.

I think Parkinson will line them up as follows: Elliott, Richardson, Youga, Llera, Dailly, Bailey, Racon, Shelvey, Semedo, Sam, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Mambo, Spring, Basey, Gray, McLeod, Fleetwood.

NY Addick predicts: Hartlepool Utd 1 (Boyd), Charlton 1 (Bailey). Att: 6,901.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Debutant's Ball

The season's opener neatly summed up perfectly both our hopes and our fears, for the campaign ahead.

The nature of two of the scorers meanwhile, gave me an excuse to post a gratuitous photo of an attractive woman in eveningwear.

Although we did not enter a sparsely populated Upper West Stand until 3.15 thanks to the queues at the Blackwall Tunnel, it did not take us long to acknowledge that Charlton were playing some pleasing stuff.

Just as fans had hoped, our talented midfield five were dominating proceedings, forming neat triangles around the quarter-shirted opponents, and rarely playing a long ball in anger. And refreshing it all was too.

Whilst Christian Dailly's opener arose from a (poorly defended) set-piece, the second goal oozed class and was a deserved reward for continued enterprising passing football.

Excellent work by Lloyd Sam and the impressive Fraser Richardson, aided perhaps by a slightly fortuitous bounce, saw the former Leeds man keep his cool to pick out the fast arriving Nicky Bailey, who finished with typical aplomb.

Just minutes later, if only Sam himself had demonstrated similar coolness with his weaker left-foot when presented with a gilt-edged chance, and the game could have been all over by half-time. It was hard to imagine at that heady moment that such profligacy could so nearly have cost us two points.

A head injury to Miguel Angel Llera forced a temporary ten-man readjustment upon the Addicks, with Jose Semedo asked to step back into defence in place of the Spaniard.

One wonders whether a manager with deeper central defensive cover on the bench, would have taken this type of risk. This will surely be addressed before the end of August.

As is invariably the case, a deep and rather innocuous looking cross from the left was headed confidently home by Chris Zebroski. The half-hearted challenge offered by Kelly Youga was a poor advertisement for the African's own central defensive capabilities, if required.

When a bandage-headed Llera volleyed home a deflected Jonjo Shelvey free-kick shortly after half-time, Addicks fans confidently assumed normal service had been resumed.

Listeners to the old 'Charlton Live' radio show will recall a commercial for accountants 'Gary Sargeant' which asked, "What's all this 4-4-2-3-4-1 stuff they go on about then?", before assuring us it was just tactical formations, and it wasn't as if we needed an accountant.

However for reasons that might best be described as spurious (Richardson apparently wasn't getting adequate defensive support from Sam), Phil Parkinson opted to move from a 4-5-1 that was utterly controlling the game, to a 4-4-2 that gifted the momentum to Wycombe for the first time in the game.

And from thereon, with only half-chances for substitutes Andy Gray and Izale McLeod notwithstanding, we were firmly under the cosh and hanging on desperately, especially after a painfully square Addicks defence gifted Zebroski his second.

It was thus not until deep into an extended injury time with the clock approaching 5pm, that a combination of goalline clearances and Rob Elliott saves confirmed the three points would remain at The Valley.

As I said, it confirmed our hopes (that our first-choice eleven, and particularly the midfield, could excel in League One), and also our fears (that we might lack defensive nous, and managerial decision-making may be questionable).

Parkinson's suggestion that we could easily have won 6-2 was disrespectful to an honest Wycombe side; as it transpired we could just as easily have lost 4-3.

As a result, and certainly in light of scorelines like the one at Carrow Road, it must go down as a very valuable three points, but with plenty to improve upon. Here are my player ratings:

Elliott 7 - made some outstanding late saves after an otherwise quiet game; his body language needs to improve as his lack of inches already restricts his presence
Richardson 6 - an excellent hard-working first half, and a quieter second period (apparently due to injury it seems)
Youga 5 - like the modern reincarnation of the biblical Samson perhaps, his play is too error-prone and seemingly casual; as virtually the club's longest-serving player he needs to step up
Llera 6 - other than the goal, I barely noticed him which is often a good sign for a defender, but he was caught short of pace on at least one occasion
Dailly 7 - a threat at set-pieces and a vocal organiser; not hard to tell why he was snapped up so quickly after a short trial
Bailey 6 - generally a quiet game; he always carries a goal threat but is simply not a wide midfielder
Shelvey 5 - far too casual and occasionally over-confident; let's hope for his sake it's merely understandable immaturity rather than arrogance; miles away from Premiership quality on that performance
Racon 7 - bossed the first-half, rarely conceding possession; Parky's tactical change destabilised the entire team, the Guadaloupean included
Sam 6 - with the right coaching and motivation, he can be a real threat at this level, but only proved it in fits and starts
Semedo 6 - as the team's water-carrier, he generally took to his task without fuss; his sheer physical presence makes him ideal for the role, a vital one too
Burton 7 - hard to fault as a lone striker's performance; some of his first-half hold-up play was exemplary
Gray 5 - looked rusty, perhaps as should be expected - should have finished off a fine-flowing move, but shot weakly
McLeod 5 - lively, in the headless chicken type sense; a neat run and on-target shot was the highlight

Friday, August 07, 2009

Wycombe preview

For a club only promoted to the Football League in 1993, Wycombe Wanderers have had their fair share of higher profile managers.

The likes of Martin O'Neill, Lawrie Sanchez, John Gorman and now Peter Taylor have taken up the Chairboys job, attracted perhaps to its leafy Buckinghamshire location, even if the town itself is a notorious dump.

Our only other competitive fixture ended in ignominy for Charlton, as our best chance to reach a major Cup final since perhaps 1947 was extinguished by a single Jermaine Easter strike.

For the third consecutive season, we open with a home game against a promoted side. Whilst we drew and won against Scunthorpe and Swansea respectively, both were disjointed performances which posed more questions than they answered.

Wycombe may have a reported injury crisis, but as a promoted club they are blissfully free of the type of upheaval that has characterised Charlton's preseason.

Call me an old cynic, but is it possible the much rumoured takeover will be announced before the game? Just the tonic perhaps for a depressed fanbase to cheer the team onto victory, and to dare mutter the 'P' word as they walk excitedly up Floyd Road.

The confirmation that Nicky Bailey would be club Captain was interesting in this context. As the club's second most valuable playing asset, Parkinson would surely not be so premature as to make the announcement unless his future at the club was assured, at least for this season.

And what is the only thing that can guarantee such an outcome, if our financial state is truly as abject as the Board would have us believe? Yep, a takeover.

I also found the comments about Andy Gray's availability for selection to be cause for cautious optimism too. The state of his personal issues are none of our business, but he likely remains the highest-paid player at the club, and probably good for 20 goals a season at this level.

Most had assumed the club would accept a reasonable bid from a Championship club like Barnsley, but perhaps the problem lies in the treatment room rather than around the negotiating table.

No cash-strapped club will risk hard currency on a 31-year old with a pelvic problem, but if he can be patched up well enough by his current employers then we may have found our League One target man, and a capable (and expensive) one at that.

The possible presence of Gray somewhat complicates a predicted team selection, which had until then been straightforward. If Parkinson opts for a straight 4-4-2 with Gray likely partnering Burton, or perhaps the pacier McLeod, then it leaves a conundrum behind with Shelvey something of a square peg in a flat midfield four hole.

The sooner we recruit a genuine left-sided midfielder, the sooner Parkinson can flit between 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 without unbalancing the side. Grant Basey offers positional discipline and quality delivery, but his lack of pace is perhaps less problematic away from home where a point is more easily acceptable.

Given the long-winded trial afforded Wade Small however, and confirmed rumours about Plymouth's Jason Puncheon, it is clear Parkinson is aware of this issue.

It would require at least two of the likes of Bailey, Racon, Shelvey, Spring or Semedo to start on the bench, but few successful sides suffer from too much squad competition.

Semedo probably remains the only true holding midfielder, so he may be asked just to protect the new-look defence whilst some of his goal hungrier compatriots forge forward.

When the teamsheet is delivered however, I expect it to look like this: Elliott, Richardson, Youga, Llera, Dailly, Semedo, Bailey, Racon, Sam, Shelvey, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Basey, Solly, Spring, McLeod, Fleetwood, Gray.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 2 (Shelvey, Bailey), Wycombe 0. Att: 16,792.