Monday, November 23, 2009

Bristol Rovers preview

Almost exactly 50km due north of Yeovil is Bristol, whose Rovers will be the visitors to The Valley on Tuesday night for the first midweek home Championship game of the season.

The battling draw in horrendous conditions on Saturday emphasized that Phil Parkinson’s side do not lack for team spirit.

However our red card nearly caused me to inadvertently fall out with my Dad. At around 10.30am (NY time) just as I was going about my morning chores, I received a strange text which upon first glance seemed to read, “SOD OFF”.

It was only upon a second look that I realised that far from ostracizing me from the family, he was simply letting me known our popular centre-half had been dismissed.

As is often the case however, it served to galvanise the Addicks and his brother Akpo restored family honour with a stunning second-half strike.

Despite losing top scorer Rickie Lambert to Southampton, Bristol Rovers continue to make steady progress under the impressive young stewardship of Paul Trollope, and with Charlton legend Lennie Lawrence serving as ‘Director of Football’.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Addicks fans with a keen sense of history recognize the invaluable role Lennie played in our mere survival and subsequent prosperity.

Looking back, his achievements of a promotion followed by four seasons of Division One football (all in the context of the departure from The Valley) were truly remarkable.

The team spirit he engendered and some of the characters he recruited and/or developed, laid the foundations for what we now term ‘the Charlton way’.

Although it took place at Eastville not The Valley, it is hard to discuss fixtures between these two clubs without mentioning the 5-5 draw on 18 Nov 1978.

It would have been even more remarkable if Charlton hadn’t gone one better in 1960, drawing 6-6 with Middlesbrough (a certain Brian Clough scoring a hat-trick).

The clubs were very regular opponents throughout the 1970s, but have not met in any competition since 1992/93 when the Addicks managed a home and away double.

One season earlier they suffered a 1-0 defeat at Twerton Park in Bath in a hot-tempered affair, which dashed Charlton’s surprise play-off hopes during Alan Curbishley and Steve Gritt’s inaugural season.

Unlike their somewhat more illustrious City neighbours, they have not tasted top flight football, but after a difficult decade in which they spent time in the League’s bottom tier, they are now firmly on the up and competing hard for a promotion spot.

They also now own the ramshackle Memorial Stadium in Bristol, which handily unlike the old Eastville doesn’t have a dog track separating fans from the action.

On-loan Chris Dickson will be unavailable on Tuesday night, but anyhow after an explosive start (scoring twice on his debut) he has faded somewhat and has been in and out of the side.

Only Leeds have won more away games than Bristol Rovers this season however, and they are League One’s joint second highest scorers on the road, averaging nearly two goals per game. However their more recent form has been decidedly worse than this implies.

Early-season wins at Stockport, Hartlepool, Brentford and Southampton saw them catapulted into a play-off spot, but five consecutive League One defeats during October sees them tucked back into 7th position with a negative goal difference.

The Valley has become something of a fortress, with Watford being the last team to leave with three points as far back as 7th March. The unbeaten home run now stretches to 13 matches.

The fixtures are now coming on thick and fast, the visit of the Pirates being the first of seven League One games between now and year-end, by which time the season will already be more than halfway through.

Reaching the turn of the year with 48 points seems a realistic target, and one that will set a useful foundation for the promotion push ahead.

Keen observers of the fixture list will spot that we will face fellow high-flyers Huddersfield, MK Dons, Colchester, Norwich and Leeds in the space of less than five vital weeks beginning in late-March. Expect the term ‘six pointer’ to be the most overused of the period.

This Bristol Rovers fixture will be the last as a New York-based Addick, and my brand consultants have yet to report on whether the name of the blog should change, or even if the blog should continue at all.

I’ll probably make my mind up depending how I feel after the Southend game, the first I’ll be attending on my return.

I think Parky will line them up as follows: Ikeme, Youga, Basey, Llera, Dailly, Bailey, Racon, Semedo, Sam, Burton, Sodje A. Subs: Randolph, Omozusi, Spring, Shelvey, Mooney, Wagstaff, McLeod.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 2 (Sodje A, Bailey), Bristol Rovers 0. Att: 14,901.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Yeovil preview

Bloggers live and die by the number of comments they receive, and my 795th post innocently entitled “MK Dons preview” elicited a record 46 comments thanks to my newly found audience stretching from Tooting to Carshalton.

As readers of the previous 794 posts will know, I rarely seek to antagonize for the sake of it, but equally I am not afraid to express contrarian views or to challenge the status quo. That’s not to say I’m always right of course.

Anyhow as football-based debates go, it was certainly largely done with eloquence and balance for which I’m grateful (no wonder Wimbledon is such a pleasant place).

As a result I resisted the temptation to invent a few former Wimbledon fans who miraculously agreed with me, partly because I couldn’t decide between calling him or her Susan Saran-Don, Don-ald Trump or Monty Don.

Hopefully I won’t antagonize Yeovil fans to the same degree by pointing out that just about the only thing I know about the town, is that it was once the Somerset constituency of former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown.

Tucked roughly into the middle of a quiet triangle formed by Exeter, Bournemouth and Bristol, it is after all hardly a hotbed of English football.

We have never previously met Yeovil in League competition, but bowed out tamely in the Carling Cup last season in a game I had the misfortune of witnessing in the rain.

Our only other encounter was a January 2005 FA Cup tie in which the Addicks scraped through 3-2, with goals from Bryan Hughes, Francis Jeffers (yes, really) and Shaun Bartlett.

For years they were known as giant-killing specialists, as a non-League club reaching the post-War FA Cup third round in each of 1949, 1950, 1958, 1964, 1971, 1980, 1988, 1993, 1999, 2001 and 2004. They were rewarded with ties variously against the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United for their troubles.

However the possibility of playing League football seemed a pipe dream as recently as 1995, when they were relegated out of the Conference to the Isthmian League.

However they soon bounced back and were finally rewarded with League football in 2003/4 after following up upon 2nd and 3rd place Conference finishes to lift the title, and score 100 goals in the process.

As seems often to be the case, they rapidly consolidated their newly found status with an 8th place finish before following up in 2004/5 with the League Two championship.

Three of their four seasons since saw lower midtable finishes, but they reached the play-off final in 2006/7 famously overturning a 2-0 home defeat to Nottingham Forest to win 5-4 on aggregate. However a defeat to Blackpool at Wembley ruined all their good work.

Bristol City boss Gary Johnson was instrumental in their rise up the divisions from 2001-2005, and he has continued to impress in his role with the Robins.

Meanwhile current gaffer Terry Skiverton is just 34 years old, taking over as player-manager in Feb 2009 after Russell Slade departed for Brighton (from where he has since already been dismissed). With over 300 appearances for the Glovers, he very much bleeds green and white as they say.

Their current season has taken on a certain symmetry, with a home record of W4 D3 L1 mirrored by an away record of W1 D3 L4. Tranmere, Brentford, Carlisle and Southend have gone to Huish Park and left with nothing, whilst only Swindon have emerged with three points.

Charlton will prepare for both encounters full of confidence after a 5-1 thumping of MK Dons, a scoreline which flattered but was desperately needed.

Thanks to the wonders of internet streaming, I was able to watch the game and MK were arguably the better side in the first-half, but Charlton adapted to the gusty conditions and were rampant after the break.

Nicky Bailey was tenacious in central midfield, and reminded fans what the team misses when he is played out left.

Therry Racon was perfectly capable in his stead on the flank, but we continue to be too reliant on Lloyd Sam’s attacking forays down the right.

This is not problematic when he so obviously fancies the challenge (directly involved in goals 2,3 and 4), but this is currently at best a one game in three proposition for the erratic winger.

Upfront David Mooney resembled a traditional target man, and took some of the hold-up play pressure from Deon Burton’s shoulders. With the additional loan acquisition of Akpo Sodje, the Charlton future of Izale McLeod must be in some considerable doubt.

In defence, Fraser Richardson will be missing so a straight swap for another loanee Elliot Omozusi is likely. Further changes are unlikely on the back of such a crushing win.

NY Addick predicts: Yeovil Town 1 (Williams), Charlton 1 (Mooney). Att: 5,012.

Friday, November 13, 2009

MK Dons preview

After a depressing week in which we exited tamely from two Cup competitions (thus completing the season's trio of exits to supposedly ‘lesser teams’), the focus returns to League One.

The optimists amongst the Charlton faithful, are willing to look through two months of poor form, and maintain that the league table doesn’t lie.

However there is a gang of half a dozen or so teams right behind us, and defeat on Saturday will not only see us exit the promotion spots for the first time, but could conceivably leave us just a two point cushion from 7th place.

Each of Norwich, Huddersfield and Colchester face straightforward looking home games and are all in form, with the Us notably in a position to leapfrog us too. The table may indeed not lie, but it can sometimes be economical with the truth.

It has been a strange season so far. As I’ve mentioned many times before, those first six games were won in style but now with hindsight it is clear that the stability of those eleven players was vital, whilst the fixture list was kind too.

The six defeated sides are currently placed 24th, 23rd, 18th, 16th, 12th and 11th respectively. As Manchester United proved last season however, beating the lousy teams is often enough to achieve glory (they dropped only 11 points in their 32 matches against teams outside the top four).

However that argument rather falls apart when you consider points we recently dropped against the likes of Gillingham (19th) and Carlisle (15th).

The problems can be traced back to the first enforced change (Spring for Semedo) to that eleven which started the first eight matches.

We beat Exeter that day, but three days later got walloped in embarrassing fashion at Colchester (which was the catalyst for the first ‘voluntary’ change, namely Sodje for Llera in the goalless draw at Leeds).

Parkinson reverted to 4-4-2 for the first time at home to Huddersfield (and it appeared to have worked), but we were fortunate to earn a draw with the formation at Gillingham, and the three consecutive defeats then followed even after reverting back to 4-5-1 at Northwich.

The injuries to Rob Elliot and Fraser Richardson were particularly ill-timed, although the decision to instantly replace both with loan signings may have rocked the boat unnecessarily. Certainly Darren Randolph must feel particularly aggrieved having patiently sat on the bench week after week.

So where does all that leave us? Surely the key to 4-5-1 is maintaining possession and waiting for gaps to appear which the likes of Shelvey and Racon can exploit.

As decent as his hold-up play is for example, long balls up to a solitary Deon Burton (or whoever) do not play to the formation’s strengths. There was too much of this on show during both recent Cup games.

Meanwhile, the 4-5-1 surely also works best when it is balanced so that play can be switched just as naturally to the left, as to the right.

However Nicky Bailey is a right-footer playing on the left, and certainly no winger whatever flank he is on. We thus seek to utilize Lloyd Sam disproportionately (a threat easily snuffed out by doubling up on him).

Unfortunately I suspect Parkinson has concluded that given a thin squad of variable quality, it is preferable to be slightly unbalanced than leave any of his genuine class on the bench (ie. Racon, Bailey or Shelvey).

He has experimented with 4-4-2 (by dropping Shelvey), but he has not yet experimented with 4-5-1 but also dropping one of that esteemed trio. In terms of natural left-sided players, Parkinson can opt for one of Leon McKenzie, Luke Holden or Grant Basey.

McKenzie would be the most attacking of the options (but more importantly, he’s perhaps not yet fully fit). Perhaps ideal as a substitute option to maintain the formation, but add greater forward impetus if required.

Basey often comes in for some rather unfair criticism given his lack of pace, but he is hard-working, possesses a very capable left-foot, and his more defensive nature provides a nice counterbalance to the more cavalier Sam.

However most interestingly, perhaps it is young Luke Holden who deserves to be thrown right in at the deep end. His cross for McKenzie’s goal on Wednesday night was a peach, and vitally was delivered with his left-foot. When a team lacks confidence, it’s often those players least affected by it who can offer something productive.

On the website, Parky has cryptically said, “I look at Nick as a captain who inspires people with his performances. He needs to get back to that on Saturday. Whether it's in a different position, all will be revealed at three o'clock.” It seems as though he’s thinking along the same lines; I think the time has come for a change.

However enough rambling about Charlton, what about MK Dons? Charlton have two ex-players in their squad (Llera and McLeod), and they must still be chuckling about the time Alan Pardew called up and bid for their forward. They must have thought the decimal point was in the wrong place.

The whole ‘Franchise FC’ debate is beginning to fade, not least given the romantic story emerging at AFC Wimbledon (which stands for ‘A Fan’s Club’ incidentally).

My view is that the old Wimbledon would undoubtedly have gone out of business by now, given their tiny support, large debts and lack of a stadium. Had this occurred in the ‘natural’ way, I would imagine that there would not have been the impetus for AFC Wimbledon’s formation.

Thus in order to be horrified by what led to the MK Dons, I think one has to both support the idea that a club cannot simply be parachuted into a new area (the ‘franchise’ concept), and support the view that it would have been preferable for Wimbledon simply to have gone bust.

I can certainly relate to the first argument (which goes against the whole concept of a League pyramid), but the second makes no sense to me.

However once the FA approved the move, Wimbledon fans had a choice either to drive up the M1 to watch MK Dons, or get behind the new AFC venture. Importantly, at least they had a choice.

The idea that their club had been ‘stolen’ was irrelevant because there would very soon no longer have been a club at all.

Not surprisingly most opted for the latter, whilst contrary to the expectations of some and putting aside any distaste about how they got there, the whole MK Dons project has been a clear success on and off the pitch (average attendances better than Millwall, not a high bar admittedly).

I consider it to be a win-win situation (because of my argument above that it was only the existence of MK Dons which galvanized the Wimbledon fans to rebuild a club from scratch).

And finally, if you support the concept of a League pyramid, how come AFC Wimbledon magically ended up in Combined Counties League Premier Division, and not its Division One? Or a lower league for that matter?

Whilst you ponder that, I’m going to suggest Parky will line Charlton up as follows: Randolph, Richardson, Youga, Dailly, Sodje, Bailey, Racon, Semedo, McKenzie, Sam, Burton. Subs: Ikeme, Llera, Basey, Shelvey, Spring, Mooney, Holden.

NY Addick predicts: Charlton 2 (Burton, Sodje), MK Dons 0. Att: 15,933.

Monday, November 09, 2009

We Are Not Amused

Having successfully avoided finding out the result for fully eleven hours, I settled down for complete but (very) delayed 90-minute coverage of today's First Round tie.

It honestly never crossed my mind that we might conceivably have lost.

Admittedly even world-class defenders might occasionally have struggled with the succession of long throws aimed squarely at the head of the giant Matthew Bailey.

However one might reasonably assume their teammates may have offered a bit more quality at the other end in return. We did not create a single clearcut chance against part-timers.

Two outstanding early saves from Darren Randolph suggested he was grabbing his first-team chance quite literally with both hands, but he royally screwed up in the 82nd minute to hand Victoria a famous win.

Despite Phil Parkinson's post-match comments, I had never sensed that Charlton lacked commitment as it happens, perhaps with only a couple of exceptions as outlined below.

That incredible first-half goalmouth scramble surely offered considerable evidence that the players were willing to put their bodies on the line.

Sam Sodje meanwhile notably neutralised much of Victoria's aerial threat in the second period, with a series of acrobatic leaps. It would be hard to make the case meanwhile too that the likes of Omozusi, Dailly, Bailey and Semedo were not 'up for it'.

Instead the most disappointing aspect was the total lack of quality on display by supposedly League One's second best team which with only a couple of exceptions, represented a first-choice eleven.

On the type of perfect pitch which might be considered a mid-November rarity in non-League, where was the controlled passing football which has launched us to that second place spot, even if it is quite clearly now highly flattering to us?

Returned to the starting eleven after a spell on the bench, this televised tie represented an ideal chance for Jonjo Shelvey to show viewers his worth.

Instead he pranced around as if the stage was too small for him, and by the time he was rightly withdrawn he was largely anonymous. As I've suggested before, he's miles away from Premiership quality at present, but it's not clear anyone has told him yet.

Izale McLeod had shown one or two decent touches in an odd lone striker role, but his 46th minute elbow was disgraceful and a three-game suspension surely awaits based on video evidence. It seems that it's not only in front of goal that the £1million+ striker neglects to utilise his brain.

In the wider scheme of things, this loss is largely meaningless beyond the near-term embarrassment. Wednesday's tie at Southampton represents a more realistic chance of a trip to Wembely of course.

Whilst a money-spinning Third Round tie might have beckoned in January, the League must remain the top priority.

But where today's defeat does have meaning, is in terms of providing more evidence that it was the first six League games of the season that were the 'blip', rather than the most recent nine. To use an economic term, there's little sign of a 'V-shaped' recovery right now.

Throughout the season Parkinson has attempted to accommodate four 'natural' central midfielders. Perhaps earlier in the season we had enough raw talent as well as the 'surprise' factor to win matches, but now we just look unbalanced and bereft of ideas.

I'm not smart enough to have the answers. Maybe just a couple of back-to-back wins will reveal it was just a temporary confidence problem after all, with little fundamentally wrong. But on today's display, this seems just a trifle optimistic.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Running Up That Hill

"If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." (Scott McKenzie)

...or in my case, sellotape some to my forehead.

With just four weeks of my US residency left, it didn't take much to persuade me to make a short trip to my favourite city in the world, San Francisco. I wasn't sure when I'd get the chance again.

At least I find flying West doesn't provide anything like the same jet lag issues as flying East, which is usually enough to leave me out of sync for several days.

It was perfectly smooth too, and with barely a cloud obscuring the view from coast to coast, it was a treat to witness again the incredible vastness of this country.

The Rocky Mountains looked particularly beautiful, dusted with the first traces of early winter snow.

As I often tend to do after arriving for a trip, my first task after checking into the hotel was to don my running shoes, and rediscover the city.

Running is not a topic I've written much about on this blog. I think its joys are something you either appreciate or you don't, and writing about it might be akin to 'dancing about architecture' as someone once described music.

However it's a very important part of my life, and the ultimate antidote to most of my ills.

Stressed and anxious? A run will clear my head. Lacking energy? Paradoxically perhaps, a run will provide a boost. Early signs of a cold? A run seems to ward it off.

I've never done a marathon, although I did admire the New York runners last weekend. The sight of the elite men bounding past like gazelles after 19 miles is truly a thing to behold.

However if there's one thing that winds me up when I tell someone I'm a runner, it's the inevitable question, "Have you ever done a marathon?" (I haven't and don't intend to).

Why is it that if you told someone you enjoyed driving for example, their follow-up question wouldn't typically be, "So have you ever done the Paris to Dakar rally then?". It doesn't need to be taken to excess to be enjoyable and rewarding.

As it happens I was fortunate enough to be able to run in Paris last week (although not Dakar), a city which richly rewards with its stunning architecture and its awe-inspiring boulevards.

Paris also virtually guarantees you will pass beautiful women at an extraordinary rate. Just in case you thought bpm only stood for 'beats per minute' in a runner's vernacular, for others like me with higher goals there's also a target 'birds per minute' to aspire to.

However Paris probably ranks no.2 in my all-time great cities to run in, just behind San Francisco and its hills.

New York would probably be no.3, although it's mainly confined to Central Park which admittedly can look pretty special on a crisp autumn day. Washington DC with its abundance of city centre greenery and iconic images of political omnipotence, would probably be a close 4th.

The thing about running in San Francisco is that however fit you thought you were, you're not. You're also guaranteed to not be able to walk for several days, ironically because of the hills you run down, rather than up.

As regular runners will know however, the thing about hills is that they offer a reward at the end, namely the view that evolves behind you as you bust your lungs.

My reward tonight as the photo shows was a cruise ship going past Alcatraz, taken from the top of the wonderfully named Nob Hill. For once there was no fog rolling in to ruin the experience.

Now where did I put the Nurofen?