Sunday, September 27, 2009

Colchester preview

Our second midweek League One fixture of the season, is another relatively local one as we travel to the fussily named Weston Homes Community Stadium in Colchester.

Compared to the cramped surroundings of Layer Road that many pampered footballers never 'fancied', this presumably represents a welcome change for teams visiting this historic corner of Essex.

Unfortunately as seems to be a constant theme throughout the country, the stadium has seemingly been designed with cost as the key variable, and to hell with architectural imagination.

Phil Parkinson is unlikely to receive a warm welcome, which seems a little unfair. He led the Us to their first ever promotion to domestic football's second tier, and left them with a squad strong enough to finish in a creditable 10th position in the Championship.

With hindsight, the allure of a move to the insalubrious surroundings of Hull was not obvious, especially as the Tigers had just finished in 21st place in the division Colchester would be joining.

Whilst the money must have been much more favourable, one wonders just how many managers reduce their long-term remuneration (surely the key metric), by accepting a better-paid job as the 'default option', before swiftly being rendered unemployed again.

Having been feted as a hero in the pleasant surroundings of rural Essex, Parkinson lasted just a matter of months on Humberside, and would have to wait two years before parking his car in the space marked 'MANAGER' again.

This season is only the fifth time that the clubs have been in the same division. The most recent was of course 2007/8 when three goals in the two fixtures from Kevin Lisbie, ensured the Addicks only secured one point from a possible six.

Lisbie is back in Essex on loan after failing to justify his £600,000 transfer fee up the road in Ipswich, but with six goals already to his name this season, perhaps he has finally found his level.

The Addicks returned to winning ways on Saturday with a rather unconvincing win, Parkinson finally forced to change his starting line-up with the introduction of Matt Spring.

A last-gasp winner for Leeds prevented us from reclaiming top spot, but we continue to tick along nicely, having already built a nine-point cushion from play-off hunting Swindon in 7th place.

Whilst the outstanding form of Leeds has been somewhat frustrating, there is at least room for both clubs to embark on a two-pronged promotion procession from now until May.

Colchester also win their first three games, but watched as yet another manager followed the lucre. This time around it was Paul Lambert moving to Norwich, having signalled his ability with a 7-1 win there on the opening day.

It was during this unwelcome period of instability that Colchester suffered their only two defeats, both times by just a single goal to promotion-chasing rivals (MK Dons and Leeds).

Since his deserved return to management meanwhile, Aidy Boothroyd remains unbeaten, guiding his new side to three away draws at Southampton, Swindon and Tranmere, and a home win over Hartlepool.

His generally successful spell at Watford did not win him many admirers amongst the purists, but his team's organisation and keen work ethic, combined with his own motivational style achieved results on limited resources.

However Charlton have shown no evidence this season that they are unwilling to match League One sides physically.

With Leeds facing a straightforward-looking home game with Carlisle on the same night, we would risk being fully eight points behind the leaders after just eleven games.

This scenario could befall us if we slip up at both Colchester, and then four days later at Elland Road. Having won our first six games, and standing unbeaten after nine, this would be rather extraordinary.

However it's not a scenario I expect to evolve, because just as the home fans on Tuesday night once said, "In Parkinson, we trust."

NY Addick predicts: Colchester 1 (Lisbie), Charlton 3 (Spring, Sam, McLeod). Att: 6,589.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exeter preview

The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains a new entry for the word 'meh'.

It was popularised by The Simpsons, and used more latterly on a regular basis by the likes of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's certainly a word that's entered the regular New York vernacular.

One of the internet definitions of meh is: Apathetic; unenthusiastic; uninspiring.

The club's announcement of a £7million cash injection was a meh moment for me I'm afraid.

It wasn't disclosed in what form the investment was made, but I'm willing to assume it was in some form of convertible debt, similar to the £14million issue from March 2008.

The fact that the newly consolidated Board now solely comprises participants in the latest investment round, suggests a certain degree of understandable 'horse trading'. Money talks.

It's harsh on those directors relegated to 'Vice President', but reflective of these financially-strained times. Streamlining the decision-making process is however sensible, regardless of whether it was achieved under duress.

Just like our shored up banking system, the problems haven't gone away but we're no longer in a 'death spiral' for the timebeing.

The two obvious negative implications of the announcement are firstly, why was the club unable to convert any of the outside interest into a hard investment?

The rumours were so strong that frankly this must be considered a surprise, although from a rational investment perspective, the club is a pretty tough sell. Perhaps potential investors are lurking, so it's just a bridging loan to tide us over.

Second, whilst the deep-pocketed willingness of our directors to continue to fund the operations is most welcome, what is the end game here? Their motives are not entirely altruistic of course; they also trying to protect any equity value left in their investments.

What most worryingly is the implication if we fail to win promotion this season (an outcome that must at best be considered 50/50 at this stage)?

The fundamental financial problems will remain (excessive fixed costs, declining revenues), but the club will now be saddled with £7million more debt, further reducing its appeal to newcomers.

Unless the short-term finances of the club were so dire that we couldn't even see out the season without January firesales or perhaps administration, then this injection seems effectively a £7million bet that the club wins promotion.

If so, Phil Parkinson seems sanguine about it all: "As I understand it, it's an investment from the current board to stabilise the club as we go forward for the rest of the season. They didn't want to put us in a situation where we had to sell players. But they're still looking for new investment."

All true, but if my interpretation is correct then we don't just need to 'go forward', but 'go up'. Not a criticism of course; based on the first eight games, he's certainly going about it the task in the right way.

Next up for Parkinson's men is Exeter City, a club that has spent its entire 89-year history outside domestic football's top two divisions.

Their relegation to the Conference in 2003 appeared to signal the start of an irresistible decline, but the surprise appointment of Paul Tisdale (from Team Bath) in 2006 turned things around.

An amazing double-promotion has seen them catapulted to fixtures like Saturday's at The Valley, which were inconceivable until Tisdale arrived. This weekend two years ago, they earned a 1-1 Conference draw at Woking.

The teams have only met three times since the War, most recently a 3-1 FA Cup victory at The Valley in January 2003.

Two goals from Jonatan Johansson and a Jason Euell penalty were enough to see off a spirited Grecian side that day, in front of an 18,107 crowd that is unlikely to be exceeded this time around.

Indeed Charlton have not lost any of their 13 League and Cup home fixtures against Exeter (albeit mainly occurring in the 1920s), a good omen for Saturday.

They have made a steady but unspectacular start to life in League One, during a season where surely survival would represent an achievement.

They will however be without ace marksman Stuart Fleetwood (surely some mistake? - Ed.).

Norwich's late equaliser was a disappointment, but commentary suggested they were good value for their point.

Rob Elliott's case for a foul was not a strong one in my view, although television evidence was inconclusive.

He is clearly an excellent shot-stopper, but is not strong enough in precisely those situations, an issue I've brought up here before. Whether or not this prevents him becoming a top-class keeper remains to be seen.

If website comments about several injury worries are correct, then Saturday's fixture will give fans some clues about the depth of the squad, and Parkinson's flexibility.

Coming on the heels of two somewhat controversial draws, and with a Chris Dickson-inspired Bristol Rovers side ready to leapfrog us, it seems a game of some considerable importance.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 2 (Burton, McLeod), Exeter 0. Att: 16,991.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Norwich preview

After my epic post on the financial meltdown elicited just four comments (one of which was mine), I'll return to the rather more mundane business of an away fixture at Norwich.

It explains why I've found the transition to a Twitter world difficult. Why use 140 characters, if 13,562 will do?

Perhaps some readers took one of my favourite Woody Allen quotes to heart: "I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."

On 23rd April 2005, this fixture took place in the Premiership, a late goal from ex-Addick Matty Svensson securing three points for doomed Norwich. The surroundings won't have changed, but everything else is different.

Despite only spending a single season back in the top flight in 2004/5, the Canaries did not settle quickly back into life in the Championship. Two finishes of 16th and 17th preceded their relegation last season, so the writing was already on the wall.

For a club that became a byword for stability during its heyday (just four managers from 1972-1994), it has been a victim of gross mismanagement since, with the likes of Bryan Hamilton, Peter Grant, Glenn Roeder and Bryan Gunn spending short and unsuccessful spells in the manager's dugout.

Clubs like Norwich benefit from their one-club city status, ensuring a relatively stable and loyal support base. They were the third best supported club in the Championship last season despite dire performances.

However their first appearance in the top flight was not until 1972/73, and their presence there until relegation in 1994/95 was punctuated by three round trips back to the old Division Two, from which they amazingly bounced straight back each time.

As a likeable family-oriented club like Charlton, located in the centre of a pleasant and not so distant city, this would have been one of the more eagerly awaited away fixtures for Addicks fans, reflected in decent numbers travelling.

With the completion of the new 8,000-seater Jarrold Stand, the stadium is now modern throughout and a pleasant place to watch football. Away fans were previously housed in the cramped surroundings of the old South Stand.

We have enjoyed considerable recent success on our trips to Norwich, most recently and memorably the 1-0 FA Cup win achieved last season with a Charlton team full of youthful endeavour.

Looking further back, we actually managed four successive wins there from 1996-1999. Andy Hunt scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win in 1999/2000, following the precedent set by Clive Mendonca in an even more emphatic 4-0 win in 1997/98.

A stunning late Mark Kinsella winner secured a 2-1 win in 1995/96, just eight months after Bradley Allen nicked a 1-0 win for the Addicks there.

Meanwhile fans of a certain age and with good memories, may remember an incredible Paul Mortimer goal in a 3-1 in October 1988.

Norwich's form this season marks them out as the most inconsistent and thus unpredictable team in League One.

An absurd 7-1 defeat to Colchester saw the Canaries swiftly appoint the architect of that defeat (Paul Lambert) as their own manager.

He has instilled a degree of confidence back into his new side, wins over former club Wycombe and also Hartlepool, helping to install Norwich back into midtable.

Indeed it is notable that only five players who started against Colchester, also started at MK Dons during the week.

From Charlton's perspective, whilst losing our winning start to a side led by Alan Pardew was disappointing, it perhaps permits us to refocus back on what really matters ie, promotion, not breaking club records.

From a more positive standpoint, for the second time this season we came from a goal down to earn something from a game, and Phil Parkinson was once again able to name an unchanged side. He should be able to do so again.

Whilst wins at the likes of Orient, Hartlepool and Tranmere are very welcome, going to a grander ground like Norwich's and still dictating affairs and taking the points, would really hammer home that this Charlton side means business this season.

NY Addick predicts: Norwich 0, Charlton 2 (Bailey, Burton). Att: 23,290.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Financial Meltdown, Part I

(not Charlton related, but interesting)

I’ve been intending to write something substantial about the ongoing global economic crisis, but events have seemingly been changing quicker than I can write.

Most of the write-ups in the general media have been disappointing, with the notable exceptions of The Economist and to a lesser extent, the FT.

Where I sought unemotional analysis, I typically found only self-serving or politically-motivated guff. This is seemingly only getting worse.

However with today being the anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008, and with the recent rally in risk assets having provided something of a lull after the storm, it seemed an appropriate time for me to reflect on the extraordinary last twelve months.

I’m certainly no expert in finance, but I enjoy trying to explain its workings to those who know even less and feel overwhelmed by events. Hopefully you will find it illuminating, even if you don’t agree with all of it.

I will attempt to do so in three parts, beginning with the background to the meltdown:

It feels like an age since I first wrote about subprime mortgages (Mar 2007), and their possible implications (Jul 2007).

I’ve since argued in a couple of more recent pieces that US subprime mortgages were not ‘the problem’, but merely happened to be the first manifestation of the credit-fuelled madness of the last decade.

It could have initially revealed itself almost anywhere, but it is vital to understand that eventually the unsustainable credit boom had to turn to bust.

The full impact of that generalised madness is now all too apparent in the insolvency of major banks, the effective collapse of entire smaller countries (and their governments), and the sudden and shocking fall in global demand, leading to a recession and rapidly rising unemployment.

First, a personal and slightly unconventional recap of how we got here. A confluence of events occurred, which individually may have been rather beneficial, but collectively proved to be explosive especially when mixed with human greed.

In the developed West, low interest rates (generated in order to fight the worst vestiges of the late-1990s technology, media and telecoms [TMT] bubble) existed alongside the coincidental ongoing disinflationary effects from the rapid growth of emerging market labour supply, particularly in India and China.

An often overlooked aspect of the TMT bubble, is that the overinvestment it encouraged led to considerable and unnecessary spare capacity in key sectors of the economy.

As a result, after interest rates were cut in its wake, the cost of capital fell at a time when ‘natural’ opportunities to deploy it were somewhat scarce. Why build a new hi-tech factory, when the existing ones are not working at full pelt?

The capital instead flowed into ostensibly less exciting investment opportunities, albeit ones that could be easily leveraged at low interest rates.

This illusion of higher returns without higher risk, would be a key theme throughout what ultimately transpired.

Residential property was the most popular global recipient of these flows, and one that appealed to man’s base instincts for shelter and space.

Crucially however, in the developed world it remains ultimately a vital yet unproductive asset, other than what is required to cater for net new household formation.

Moving the working population from shanty towns to apartments in the developing world directly enhances their productivity, but building thousands of Yuppie apartments in the middle of Leeds does not.

The housing stock in the UK for example is not fulfilling its sheltering role any better today than it was a decade ago, and arguably somewhat worse given shoddy modern building standards.

Meanwhile the ongoing shift in Western economies (since the 1980s) away from manufacturing, and towards the service sector continued to serve ostensibly to reduce the ‘volatility’ of economic growth.

In the words of our own hapless PM, Gordon Brown, “No more boom and bust..

The most cyclical or costly aspects of Western corporate operations continued to be outsourced to the eager new companies in the above developing world.

Concepts such as ‘just-in-time’ inventory management, or ‘call centres’ were a direct response to this new source of cheap labour supply.

This combination of low interest rates, disinflationary forces and reduced volatility of business outcomes, inevitably led to a certain complacency.

This was not only on the part of the traditional consumption-led economies of the UK and US, but also from those that fed that consumption, notably the major ‘savings-rich’ Asian countries (especially China), but also Germany, the world’s engineering heavyweight.

One of the ironies of the bust is that the bloated debt-fuelled countries may emerge in better shape, than their more frugal counterparts due to these enormous imbalances.

When reduced to mere equations, economics can be remarkably simple; every nation’s current account deficit (exports minus imports), must always be matched exactly by an equivalent capital account surplus. In short, spending must be financed.

Thus the property-led consumption boom that was ignited in countries such as the US, UK, Spain and Ireland, was matched by a willingness to fund that boom, by these frugal savers in the rest of the world.

Ordinarily these imbalances would be reduced via the effect of currency, but in the notable case of China, they continued to maintain a fixed exchange rate against the US Dollar in order to protect its low value-added export economy.

Germany meanwhile, the powerhouse of the Eurozone would be forced to accept a weaker currency than its bulletproof economy would otherwise warrant, generating even greater demand for its world-class cars and sausages.

In the absence of a tacit acceptance of enormous differentials in unemployment (or transfer flows to offset the effect thereof), then a currency can typically only be as strong as its weakest component.

In Germany's case, they had to accept a weaker than optimal exchange rate, in order to ensure that Italian shoemakers or Portuguese sherry makers could scrape a living.

Consider how much higher unemployment in the North-East of England would be for example, if so much of the taxes paid in the wealthier regions wasn’t directed there, notably in the form of so much public job creation.

These transfers are easier to undertake in a political union like the UK, than it is in a cobbled together currency zone like Europe.

In the case of Japan, the central bank regularly intervened in currency markets (selling Yen) in order to prevent its natural appreciation, thus favouring continued export strength over domestic purchasing power.

Economic theory would teach you that as a country begins to spend beyond its means, its currency should weaken in order to attract the foreign capital flows required to finance that spending.

The weaker currency would make its exports more attractive, thus shifting resources back towards investment in the export sector, and away from consumption on imports. The balances would thus if not close, at least be prevented from moving to extremes.

Instead the surplus countries generated enormous foreign assets and reserves, and their economies did not shift away from exports at all, and the consumption economies continued spending.

The ongoing recycling of this explosion in foreign assets was a fabulous boon to the Wall Street and City banks, who revelled in their traditional role as ‘middleman’ to these gigantic flows. The phrase ’red rag to a bull’ springs to mind.

As the size of these flows began to exceed the growth of (limited, see above) natural profitable investment opportunities to utilise them (the so-called ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’), then the banks started to get ‘creative’ instead.

It is in this context in my view, that the current uproar about bankers should be viewed. They got inventive because that’s simply what bankers do, and they got the opportunity to be so indirectly, because of our own addiction to consumption.

With the regulatory system so complicit, and the willingness of the surplus countries to save seemingly inexorable, the banks sought to persuade these somewhat dumb foreign investors that they could continue to earn additional return, apparently without additional risk.

One of the most popular tools was called ‘securitisation’, and its related alphabet soup of increasingly absurd offshoots known generically as ‘structured products’.

The tool of ‘securitisation’ is not toxic per se but it fell into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

A securitisation takes a pool of assets (usually loans or mortgages), and slices them up into different ‘tranches’, which are then sold onto investors depending upon their particular risk tolerance.

Rather than fund loans and mortgages direct from customer deposits in the traditional sense, securitisation permitted them to be turned into investments to be sold, thus freeing up a bank’s balance sheet for more lending.

To use an example, imagine a pool of 1,000 identical mortgages, all at 80% loan-to-value, and all paying 5% fixed interest rates.

In the absence of a bank getting ‘creative’, these mortgages could only be pooled to create a single security paying 5%, with any defaults (losses) in the pool being allocated equally amongst its buyers. There would be a market for such a security, but not a very deep one.

However imagine if the same pool could be sliced up in different ways, so that the different tranches might appeal both to very conservative buyers, as well as to far more speculative ones.

If the first losses solely got allocated to the latter (in return for higher yields), whilst only far greater losses were allocated to the former (in return for lower but more secure yields), then suddenly a rather uninteresting pool of identical mortgages was suddenly very interesting (not least to the banks doing the slicing, in return for a hefty fee).

Once the banks managed to persuade the ‘credit ratings agencies’ (eg. Moody's) that the large senior tranches of these pools were bullet-proof (‘rated AAA’), in any reasonable scenario for loan defaults and house prices, then the incentive for the banks to push the boat even further out was apparent.

The credit ratings agencies were paid directly by the banks, creating an enormous potential conflict of interest.

Cue the wonderful likes of the ‘self-certification’ mortgage (or ‘liar loan’), the interest-only mortgage (akin to renting, albeit with risk), and the 125% loan-to-value mortgage (a Northern Rock speciality). These products simply could not survive even the most marginal downturn in house prices.

And it wasn’t only mortgages that were pooled in this fashion. Loans that were issued to finance increasingly aggressive leveraged corporate buyouts (the target of many of which have already entered bankruptcy), were similarly pooled into so-called ‘CLOs’ (collateralised loan obligations).

Likewise commercial property loans, credit card receivables, car loans, student loans etc.. If it moved and could be financed, then the banks would lend against it, safe in the knowledge (or so they thought) that it could be quickly sold back to the cash-rich institutions of those surplus nations, hungry for extra yield.

Eventually the debt levels reached a ‘tipping point’. As the bears always warned us, the system was inherently unstable; it did not require an external shock such as unexpected higher interest rates, or higher unemployment. No such shock was present.

To use economics terminology, the system reached its ‘Minsky moment’ (named after Hyman Minsky), whereby borrowers are no longer generating the incomes and cashflows required to service their debts.

There are thus no longer any investors or speculators willing to pay the ever higher prices demanded for assets, and prices tumble into bust.

Just like a classic ‘Ponzi scheme’, the amounts coming in were swamped by the amounts required to go out.

Ironically if the system as a whole was a ‘Ponzi’ about to unravel, then the largest individual Ponzi scheme (Bernard Madoff's) was unravelling as a direct result thereof. I will write about his fascinating tale another time.

However the above described process should not by itself have led to the failure of several major banks. After all it so far largely describes the banks’ role as facilitator of these products, rather than investors therein.

The failure of the banks could be seen instead to be a result of adding further fuel to the fire as follows.

Firstly, there were routes for the banks to insure against the risk of default on any structured products via so-called ‘credit default swaps’ (CDS), or via specialist insurers such as MBIA or Ambac.

Bored of insuring against staid 'municipal' debt in the US (eg. hospitals, schools, police etc.), they saw an opportunity to grow earnings by insuring structured credit instruments. They are all in varying states of distress and bankruptcy today.

Regulators require banks to maintain an equity cushion to protect against losses on risky assets, but through these insurance mechanisms, the products were magically made ‘risk-free’ or at least ‘lower risk’ thus freeing up more capital to backstop further lending.

Little attention was paid to whether those entities that wrote the insurance would be in a position to pay.

The failure of AIG for example, was directly related to this process, via the activities of its ‘Financial Products’ division and the risks they underwrote.

Second, as the banks competed furiously to win business, they were increasingly required to hold the debt they had originated on their own balance sheets until a suitable buyer was found via securitisation (a concept known as ‘warehousing’).

When the music stopped, those banks left holding disproportionate amounts of these toxic assets were required to make enormous write-downs because as we now know, they weren’t worth what they thought they were.

This banking model (known as ‘originate to distribute’) is now fundamentally broken, hopefully for good.

Third, considerable initial profits were made by the ‘proprietary’ desks of major banks, as they traded these products amongst themselves using the bank’s own balance sheet, and created new deriviatives and indexes thereon. They also enticed in other trading-oriented entities, notably hedge funds.

Again when the fun was over, liquidity dried up almost to nothing (the ability to trade out of positions) and those left ‘holding the bag’ were stuck owning assets they couldn’t sell, and with a value they no could no longer ascertain.

Fourth, those banks who could not finance their targeted lending through traditional deposits, or through the above securitisations, increasingly turned towards ‘wholesale funding’ (via short-term lending in money markets), and other forms of less certain finance.

Northern Rock was a notable victim of this ‘borrow short, lend long’ culture that was always vulnerable to any breakdown in its aggressive assumptions.

As a result of all of the above factors, banks became absurdly overleveraged, piling increasingly dodgy assets upon a tiny sliver of permanent equity.

At the time of its bankruptcy filing, Lehman Brothers was leveraged perhaps 30:1, implying that little more than 3% of losses on its assets, or a temporary inability to finance those assets, would wipe out its shareholders (as they did).

You don’t need a background in banking regulation to know this is crazy, yet every major bank was levered to a similar degree. This is the reason why so much ongoing new regulation is focused upon enhancing bank capital requirements and thus limiting leverage.

The main difference between those banks that failed and those that survived (so far) is a function of the assets they were leveraging (and the quality and liquidity thereof), the cost and permanency of their financing (deposit base = good, capital markets = bad), and simple good fortune.

In Part II, I’ll reflect upon the breakdown of the credit boom and the implications thereof, and in Part III I’ll do my best to predict what is likely to come next.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Beauty and the Beast

(not Charlton related)

The beauty of sport, is its occasional power to leave its spectators utterly speechless.

Whilst football has its memorable goals for example, sports like tennis tend to attract fans to its ebb and flow and consistent high quality, rather than single moments of extraordinary ability.

But during the penultimate point of his semi-final win over Novak Djokovic, the five-time US Open champion Roger Federer produced an unbelievable shot that will be replayed countless times surely, as a stunning and deserved legacy of his greatness.

It seems that having newborn twins has not slowed down the Swiss. There is no shortage of career statistics that demonstrate his superiority over all rivals, but two in particular always astound me.

Firstly, he has not failed to reach a Grand Slam semi-final since the French Open of 2004, a run of 22 consecutive forays into the last four, from which he has ended up as champion 13 times.

Second, during this amazing five-year period of dominance, he has played 124 Grand Slam opponents who were at that time outside the top 5 in the world, and he has not lost to any of them.

It is extraordinary to think that on not one single occasion, has he let his guard down once to a player ranked outside the world's top five. The only players he's lost to during this period are Marat Safin, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic.

Our own great hope Andy Murray ended his favourite tournament with a damp squib, losing in straight sets to talented Croatian, Marin Cilic.

Murray is the game's ultimate counter-puncher, frighteningly quick and able to grind opponents down with his baseline scampering, and delicate shotmaking.

Unfortunately however, just like he was at Wimbledon (to Andy Roddick), one fears that his lack of a truly 'big shot' will leave him vulnerable to a big hitter who finds his range.

During his 4th Round match, Murray lost six consecutive games to Cilic, something you never witness with the likes of Roddick, let alone Federer.

The Scot has the talent to one day win a Grand Slam, but he needs to develop a 'plan B' if he can't truly develop a killer weapon, else he may continue to find his luck runs out at some point during the seven-match run that victory entails.

Federer's brilliance will thankfully take some of the tournament headlines away from Serena Williams, yet to learn the sport's final verdict following her disgraceful outburst during her own semi-final against returning mother, Kim Clijsters.

I've never found it particularly difficult to dislike the Williams sisters; all of that faux niceness, the dubious sisterly battles and the post-match tributes to Jehovah, as if he was their coach.

Serena's on-court interview after her quarter-final meanwhile, was one of the most ridiculously contrived attempts at product placement that I've ever seen.

As she fumbled furiously to ensure that her Gatorade bottle was firmly in the camera's glare, did she honestly expect viewers to believe that elite sportswomen rehydate by consuming a drink with 14 grams of sugar?

Anyhow, if it could be proven for example that a footballer had threatened to kill a linesman, then he could quite reasonably expect to be banned for years, possibly for life.

So given that TV footage proves that Williams did exactly this, it will be interesting to see how much more she is punished, than by the $10,000 fine delivered so far. She probably got paid more than that today to drink Gatorade.

Unbelievably as things stand, she is set to play in the women's doubles final on Monday. It is worth recalling that even 'gentleman' Tim Henman was disqualified from Wimbledon in 1995, the first player ever to have been so.

His crime? Accidentally hitting a ballgirl after lashing a ball in anger. It seems threatening violence, is a lesser offence to the accidental outcome of a common show of frustration.

Unfortunately tennis more than most sports, is in thrall to the TV companies and Serena remains big box office. The crazy scheduling of night matches at the US Open during 'prime time' for TV is proof enough.

But putting aside her tirade for a moment, as a purist and lover of the sport, what really galls me about Williams is that compared to the graceful movement of Federer, you can become the world's best female player whilst covering the court with the delicacy of an elephant.

FOOTNOTE: In the post above, I may inadvertently have given the impression that Roger Federer was somehow incapable of losing at all, let alone to a player outside the world's top 5.

Adjectives such as 'dominant', 'superior' and 'stunning' may have led readers to believe that Federer was utterly unbeatable.

In light of his defeat to Juan Martin Del Potro (aka 'Del'), it is now clear that Federer is just another also-ran, who might wish to consider settling in Britain.

I apologise for any confusion this may have caused.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Southampton Preview

The focus of attention at The Valley on Saturday will all be on Alan Pardew, which is a shame in my view because it threatens to work to Charlton’s detriment.

Much has been written about his two years in charge, most of it not particularly complimentary and this blog has been no exception.

However it is time to move on, as we appear to have very sharply turned the corner (particularly as a team, less so as a club perhaps).

Given that perhaps only about 5% of the fans attending on Saturday will read this blog, I suspect my plea will fall on deaf ears, but I urge fans to ignore their base instincts and to offer Pards a polite round of applause for all he tried to do.

This is not because I think he deserves one of course, but because it would remove one of the key obstacles in the way of our 7th consecutive League One victory. Namely the huge incentive that such vitriol will give his team and players, to stick one over us.

This is the managerial equivalent of course to the old adage that players always score against their former clubs.

I’m fairly certain that there is actually no statistical significance to this theory, but if there was then the fact that most ex-players are booed rather then cheered offers a fairly obvious explanatory factor.

In recent seasons Charlton fans have spurred the likes of Jermaine Defoe and even Kevin Lisbie, to score goals for their new clubs at The Valley.

Anyone who has played competitive sport even at an amateur level, will know that they can find an extra gear when riled somehow by the opposition, and if the anger is channelled in the right way.

Pards didn’t deliberately fail at Charlton. He was never as good a manager as he thought he was, and his arrogance prevented him from recognizing this and perhaps doing something about it.

The Board appointed him at a time of panic after the Les Reed fiasco, and his credentials at that time were impressive, if perhaps not impeccable.

The first twelve months were not so bad, a reasonable attempt to secure Premiership safety followed by an impressive start to Championship football. His first four signings could hardly be faulted either (Zheng, Thatcher, Bougherra and Song).

He is thus generally absolved from blame for our Premiership relegation, although I was disappointed that rather than push on from those 10 points earned beginning with the win over West Ham, instead we completely lost momentum.

The 0-0 televised draw at a weakened Man City was one of the most negative tactical performances I’ve seen, at precisely the time when we should have been taking some risks to earn three more points. We never won another game.

Then once results began to deteriorate rapidly after Xmas 2007, it was clear that there was no ‘Plan B’ to reassert our promotion credentials, and by the start of 2008/9 there were worrying signs that our very worst fears could be realised (and they were).

A tendency to overpay for several misfiring strikers, was compounded by several destabilizing loan signings that detracted from, rather than added to the squad.

The quality of our passing football this season (albeit against inferior opposition), is a damning indictment on what was served up for most of the period under Pardew. The over-reliance on long balls to Iwelumo was made stranger by the fact that he subsequently sold him.

His erratic team selections were hardly conducive meanwhile to building confidence and consistency.

If the masterplan meanwhile was to mix promising but unproven youth from home and abroad (Moutaouakil, McLeod, Varney, etc.), with experienced journeymen (Iwelumo, McCarthy, Weaver, Todorov etc..), then for whatever reason it simply didn’t work.

The subsequent obsession with loans to try to fill the gaps, was effectively an omission of failure although you knew he’d lack the humility to acknowledge it.

In fairness, he did uncover a few gems too, at least two of which (Racon and Bailey) are now driving Phil Parkinson’s new-look team forward.

By the end however he became almost a laughing stock, pausing to blame anyone or anything for our misfortune, except himself. His post-match press conferences were a blogger’s dream.

My ongoing problem with Pardew however, was that I simply couldn’t stand the bloke. Arrogance is never an attractive trait, but occasionally it can be excused if accompanied by real achievement and talent (think Jose Mourinho for example).

But in this case, one quickly realised it was a façade to try to hide away from his inadequacies as coach and manager.

It obviously works for him however, because he was rarely off our screens or airwaves during his break, and now he’s back in football which returns me of course to Saturday’s fixture.

Despite a 10-point deduction, Southampton were installed by the bookmakers as a 16/1 pre-season shot for the League One title, odds that seemed aggressive even at that time given the turmoil going on behind the scenes.

The club eventually fell into safe and moneyed Swiss hands, and whilst they have only begun slowly to splash the cash (Rickie Lambert the main exception), one suspects they will do so in earnest in January if relegation remains a clear threat. Whether Pardew is still there to spend it is a moot point at this rate.

The unusual sight of a team on –6 points is potentially rather flattering in the sense that one focuses on the effect of the original deduction, and not the fact that even without it, they’d still only be sitting one place higher in 23rd spot.

However if Pardew is to be believed, their performances are starting to improve and defensively at least, they are not amongst the division’s laggards.

Fraser Richardson came through his own injury scare last weekend, and put on an impressive display, so we can only hope that both Bailey and Racon can play through their own rumoured niggles.

If not, then the depth of our squad will be tested for the first time this season with Parkinson facing a particular conundrum in left midfield where the choices appear to range from the conservative (Basey), through the cavalier (McKenzie), and to the downright speculative (Holden).

If Racon is unfit, then Matt Spring would appear to be the obvious replacement unless he does something more drastic, and opts for 4-4-2 although a Semedo-Shelvey midfield does not fill one with great confidence.

I managed to watch most of Saturday’s game on a respectable internet feed, and again was impressed with the quality of football on show, not least that classy 2nd goal.

However, if one watches just the highlights clip on the CAFC Player site, then one realizes that just like the Wycombe and Orient games, on another day we could easily have taken just a point.

Jonjo Shelvey still does not do enough for me in that free role behind Deon Burton, and as our most valuable player, it seems strange for me to conclude that he'd perhaps be the one out of the unchanged eleven that I'd be least concerned to have missing.

Thus whilst acknowledging our spectacular and largely deserved 100% start, let’s also be humble enough to acknowledge that in a low-scoring sport like football, the line between victory and defeat is a thin one.

When that inevitable defeat (or even draw) happens, it’s the way we react and bounce back that will be key. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen on Saturday, but if it does why give ourselves the collective opportunity to worry that we did Pardew’s side a favour, by letting our fans do his teamtalk for him?

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 1 (Burton), Southampton 1 (Lambert). Att: 18,235.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Brentford Preview

Whilst Leeds and Charlton are setting a cracking early pace in League One, there are three other teams that remain unbeaten after five games.

This compares for example with League Two, where no team managed to enter August without defeat.

MK Dons are picking up where they left off under Paul Ince, whilst Millwall are quietly setting foundations for a promotion push with an unbeaten start, despite only scoring four goals in the process.

The fifth unbeaten side is of course tomorrow’s opponents Brentford, further evidencing the oft-repeated theory that promoted sides maintain their positive momentum, despite competing at a higher level.

This is perhaps not hugely surprising, especially in the two lower divisions where few clubs have outlandishly disproportionate wealth, and where distortions such as ‘parachute payments’ are not a factor.

Last season newly promoted Peterborough waltzed through League One, whilst the aforementioned MK Dons came mightily close to emulating them with what would have been an incredible ‘double double promotion’.

Lest it be forgotten meanwhile that Hull City were competing on the Football League’s fourth rung as recently as 2003/4, before their own double promotion to the Championship and just three years later, the Premiership.

Plymouth Argyle were another that managed back-to-back promotions from 2001-2003, and are now firmly ensconced in the Championship’s midtable.

Thus whilst it’s easy to dismiss the likes of Brentford as mere local cannon fodder, it should be noted that if such very visible confidence can be engendered by our own mere five-match winning run, imagine how good it must feel to be part of a team that has lost just 7 times in its past 51 matches?

Although the two clubs have only competed in the same division twice since the 1970s, they have more in common than merely wearing red and white, and being situated next to the Thames on opposite sides of town.

Both enjoyed their heyday in the years leading up to the War, and season 1934/35 was a title-winning one for each with the Addicks lifting the Third Division (South), and the Bees the old Second Division.

We subsequently enjoyed our own ‘double promotion’ in 1935/36 to join them in the First Division for the first time ourselves.

The following three consecutive seasons witnessed the remarkable sight of both Charlton and Brentford occupying top six positions throughout, with Charlton’s highest-ever finish of 2nd in 1936/37 being just four places above Brentford in 6th:

1. Manchester City 57
3. Arsenal 52
4. Derby County 49
5. Wolves 47

Had Hitler’s Germany not decided to rampage through Europe, who knows how football’s history books might have been rewritten. By way of comparison during that heady 1936/37 season, Spurs and West Ham finished 10th and 6th respectively in the Second Division.

Whilst Charlton managed to keep things intact enough to reach a couple of swift post-War FA Cup finals, and maintain First Division status for eleven seasons, Brentford were relegated immediately after League football recommenced.

In order perhaps to assist in drowning their sorrows, fans have a pub on each corner of Griffin Park to choose from, the only ground in the country with such an extravagance.

By 1954/55 they were back in Division Three (South), and they have managed just a single season since in the domestic game’s second tier (in 1992/93). On that occasion we eked out a 1-0 victory at The Valley, just four months after our return home from exile.

The visitors have injury worries tomorrow, and amongst others will be without former Addick striker Charlie McDonald, who has worked his way up from rejection by Charlton and a non-League tour of duty, to earn League contracts firstly at Southend United, and now Brentford.

Meanwhile a minor injury to Fraser Richardson threatens to force the first change upon Charlton’s winning team, with 18-year old Chris Solly likely to be offered a first start.

It is worth recalling that Jose Semedo has acquitted himself well at right-back in the past, but his outstanding performances in midfield suggest the introduction of Solly would be the least disruptive option.

However assuming there’s no risk of lasting damage, then based on the lack of clarity in reports, then one suspects Richardson might well play.

We are going to have to experience the bitter taste of a draw before too long, let alone a defeat. However so impressive have been the team’s performances, and given the additional resources acquired in midweek, we are entitled to feel confident but not conceited at this point.

The teams last met during Alan Curbishley’s final season, a crowd of 22,098 seeing Charlton secure a last-eight FA Cup berth, with a 3-1 victory. None of the 16 players on show that day remain at the club.

The lunchtime start may be an unusual and additional influential factor, with no player’s body clock adjusted to playing at that time, whether in training or for matches.

Unexpected results are often witnessed for example following Boxing Day’s typical early kick-offs, so punters may fancy an investment on an early goal for either side, as players wake up.

I think Parkinson’s late morning teamsheet will look as follows: Elliott, Richardson, Youga, Llera, Dailly, Semedo, Racon, Shelvey, Sam, Bailey, Burton. Subs: Randolph, Solly, Basey, Spring, Wagstaff, Tuna, McLeod.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 3 (Burton, Shelvey, McLeod), Brentford 0. Att:15,988.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Deadline Day

The approach to the transfer deadline has not been kind to the Addicks in recent years (think Parker, Murphy, etc.), but it was more bearable this time.

The January window tends to be more frantic anyhow, with agents taking advantage of panicky managers to offload their overpriced wares.

However it is hard to imagine that there wasn't considerable interest, especially from Championship clubs, for our sparkling midfield.

Thus we should be grateful to our Board for turning down any bids, and to any players concerned for not throwing any hissy fits.

Ironically the transfer deadline was irrelevant to the best piece of news from Tuesday, since it concerned a free agent.

Born in the Borough of Greenwich, and a member of an exceptional sporting family, Sam Sodje did not make the jump from non-League football until after his 25th birthday.

As a result, the popular defender with the prodigious leap has barely made 100 League starts. However 20 of them came in a Charlton shirt during 2007/8, impressive ones they were too generally, though he'll surely start on the bench against former club Brentford.

After a losing debut at home to QPR, he started in the following four consecutive victories and was generally a fixture until a daft red card at Norwich opened the way for Paddy McCarthy to return to Pardew's favour.

His two most impressive traits are his ability at attacking set pieces, and the infectious enthusiasm he brings, not seen perhaps since former Addick teammate Chris Powell moved on.

Whilst hardly a classical defender however, he offers vital cover for the incumbent pair who have seen only three goals go past Rob Elliot behind them. In the meantime, his most productive work may be done in the dressing room and on the training ground.

The other positions where we were desperate for cover, were centre forward and left midfield.

With the acquisition of Leon McKenzie, Phil Parkinson hopes to have killed two birds with one stone, a smart move perhaps unless both Messrs Bailey and Burton are injured or suspended concurrently.

His scoring record is impressive, averaging nearly a goal every other start, although he has also been utilised as a regular substitute.

He will have to prove his fitness, and at 31 years old he must represent a risky transfer given his recent injury problems. However the one-year deal and presumably unexceptional wages probably heavily discount this anyhow.

There's not much specific to say about the other deadline day acquisition of Luke Holden, except that after one good 'Luke' (Young) and one bad 'Luke' (Varney), it's perhaps worth remembering the words of The Hollies: "Just one Luke, that's all it took (yeah)"

If the signing is out of 'leftfield', then so is his position reportedly operating as an exciting winger (though they said that about Martin Christensen).

Like most clubs, we haven't had huge success with these speculative non-League purchases, although it doesn't stop us from trying.

Despite high hopes even recently, the likes of Chris Dickson and Stuart Fleetwood have failed to make the grade, whilst who even remembers the likes of Dorian Smith?

Perhaps our location in 'Greenwich Borough' persuades us we'll emulate our South London rivals, and uncover the next Ian Wright.

It's only an initial loan so there's not much to lose, but in order to believe in the potential of these types of signings, one has to believe also that the market for football talent is very 'inefficient'.

An inefficient market would imply that players can be found playing in leagues several rungs below their potential, and moreover that they can be prised away for next to nothing (implying no-one else has spotted the potential). Jonjo Shelvey playing for Charlton does not imply 'inefficiency' for example.

In a world of enormous scouting networks and voracious agents, it is hard to make a realistic case that a true 20-year old talent is hiding away in Rhyl, and is available for free. Perhaps on the beaches of Copacabana, or in the shanty towns of Soweto. However, I hope to be proved wrong.

Yassin Moutaouakil has finally found a club, and I bet no-one was expecting it to be Motherwell. If rumours are true that he struggled to settle in London, then I would worry about his mindset in an impoverished old steel town just outside of Glasgow.

His failure to make it at Charlton despite his obvious talents and French U-21 experience, only serves to further emphasise the challenge presented to the likes of Holden.

Parkinson's comments that his presence would present an obstacle to Chris Solly was odd however. After all, we're a professional football club not the Chris Solly Development Trust; sometimes I'd wish they'd just tell the truth (we all know the Frenchman can play).

I was surprised to see him only go out on loan, but perhaps the club had no choice if the sole concern was getting his wages off the payroll.

He still has two years left on his contract, so we should all hope he is a roaring success in order to boost his transfer value. It's hard to envisage him having a future back at Charlton.

However if some of his past defending is anything to go by, he will be giving Scottish wingers more freedom than Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed Al Megrahi.