Friday, March 26, 2010

Border Terriers

Charlton’s trip to the Galpharm Stadium is undoubtedly in my view the club’s most important game since the Feb 2007 encounter against West Ham.

On that occasion we triumphed in great style, but ultimately did not go on to achieve the ultimate prize of Premiership safety.

If we somehow pull off an unlikely win on Saturday however, it would all but guarantee a play-off place by opening up a nine-point gap with just eight games remaining.

The alternative scenario of a Huddersfield win however would leave us horribly exposed to being leapfrogged by them just seven days later as they travel to lowly Wycombe, whilst we travel to MK Dons.

It should never have come to this of course, and indeed many fans have rightly pointed out that reaching the play-offs would be a Pyrrhic victory anyhow, as Phil Parkinson’s rapidly fading side will surely be the least fancied to triumph.

Watching Millwall win impressively at Leeds on Monday night was a salutary lesson, and proved for the benefit of those not present at The New Den a fortnight ago, that the 4-0 result was infact unsurprising.

The Lions were excellent throughout, their movement off the ball and neat interplay being a real joy to watch.

As Millwall-supporting fans of Shakespeare will be aware, the path to promotion never did run smooth but based on that performance alone, they would be worthy recipients of the second promotion spot behind Norwich.

With four home games against bottom half opposition still to play, it’d be hard to bet against them.

Whilst the Addicks have suffered from a few injury problems, I don’t think anything we have experienced would reasonably be described as a ‘crisis’, but merely the typical ups and downs of a tough 46-game season.

Meanwhile with regard to Parkinson’s comment last weekend that, “ However, I do think there is a lack of understanding about what I, as a manager, have had in terms of resources to put this team together”, I simply don’t buy this either, if you’ll excuse the pun.

This may be true at least compared to the cavalier financial flexibility handed to his predecessor, but relative to most of the other League One frontrunners, he sounds like a man fishing for excuses for the way the team has become derailed.

After all he may not have had transfer fees to splash around on the likes of Holt (Norwich) or Lambert (Southampton), but he inherited a number of ex-Championship players that we paid fees for (eg. Bailey, Racon), plus a number of homegrown players with considerable value (eg. Shelvey, Elliott, Sam).

Meanwhile it can hardly be claimed that some of his free transfers were the detritus of the Football League.

Richardson was Leeds captain, Llera had just finished 3rd in League One with MK Dons, and Dailly was a highly experienced defender whose most recent club was Glasgow Rangers!

The number of loan signings meanwhile is frankly absurd, but in virtually every case the player has come from a higher level or has previously played for Parkinson elsewhere (eg. Jackson, and now Forster).

Anyone who has experienced the frustration of trying to regularly incorporate a succession of temporary staff into an organisation will appreciate the drawbacks of this obsession with loans.

Insiders would no doubt like us to believe that the football industry is different, except that it isn’t.

How are these players expected to slot seamlessly into the side, when they don’t even know their teammates names without referring to the backs of their shirts?

Why exactly are we paying Darren Randolph’s wages when he seemingly can’t be trusted to step in to Rob Elliot’s place when injured?

First it was Carl Ikeme, and now Tony Warner. The Irishman is after all nearly 23 years old, the same age as Joe Hart for example.

The reliance on those loans is the footballing equivalent of ‘instant gratification’, but it is so overwhelmingly a possible short-term solution only, that it risks damaging the medium and long-term future of the club (even if it works).

And of course if the plan doesn't work (think of 2007-2009) the consequences can be horrendous, both at the time and for the future.

How are the likes of Chris Solly or Scott Wagstaff going to learn and grow into the regular first-teamers of the future, if they are not offered a proper run in the side when injuries provide an opening?

After a fabulous start to the season (with an unchanged side admittedly), Parkinson has been unable to find any degree of consistency whatsoever, to the point where his team selections now appear to be resembling what statisticians term a ‘random walk’, with results to match.

It is difficult to point to any individuals in the side whose performances have noticeably stepped up a level, whilst any regular game plan or style of play with the ‘Parkinson stamp’ is seemingly difficult to discern too.

With no away wins all season against teams currently in the top half, it is difficult to generate much confidence about either the Huddersfield game, or the following week’s encounter at MK Dons, although Paul Ince’s side are surely too far adrift now to be play-off contenders, despite sitting in 8th place.

Tomorrow’s fixture is given extra spice by the fact Parkinson reportedly accepted the Huddersfield managerial job whilst assistant to Alan Pardew, before having a change of heart that was so late, that the press conference announcing his ‘arrival’ went ahead anyhow with an empty chair!

Whilst events are unfolding in Yorkshire, I’ll instead be enjoying some corporate hospitality at Stamford Bridge as my adopted Premiership side Aston Villa take on the team everyone (including me) seemingly loves to hate.

I will however be at MK Dons next weekend where in a moment of paternal madness, I hope to take my 3-year old son to his first game.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Flat Track Bullies

"Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." (Aaron Levenstein)

The league table never lies, or does it?

Despite a frustratingly inconsistent run which began just before Christmas, the Addicks still find themselves in 3rd position so it's hardly a crisis.

Nonetheless, over the course of the past 15 games, the team has been accumulating points in the style of a midtable side rather than a promotion hunting one.

Just 5 wins and 21 points during this period explain the chasm that now exists between Charlton and leaders Norwich, and more worryingly the gang of three teams lurking behind us in the remaining play-off spots.

So whilst automatic promotion looks a very distant prospect despite the similar inconsistencies of Leeds, surely a play-off spot is all but assured? Not so fast I'm afraid.

I met up for an enjoyable couple of pints recently with a fellow Charlton fan called Chris. He's the type of thoughtful fan who really ought to have his own blog, except he's too busy running a successful global company.

He pointed out a statistic which had hitherto passed me by.....the highest placed team that Charlton had beaten away from home, were Leyton Orient currently sitting in 14th place!

This was despite the Addicks recording a creditable seven away wins in total, the joint third best record in the division.

We are the League One equivalent of cricket's flat track bully. The seven teams we have beaten on the road are the weaklings presently occupying 14th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd and 24th.

And if we can bully teams on their own patch, we're even more full of confidence when they turn up at The Valley virtually asking for a beating.

Just look at the teams currently occupying the four relegation spots (Stockport, Wycombe, Southend and Exeter). Our record against this sorry quartet? Played 7, Won 7.

In other words virtually a third of our points have been accumulated from the League's worst four teams.

Amongst the five fellow sides that make up the top six however, it's a different story of course. No wins, two defeats and five draws (including two desperate late equalisers against Swindon).

There's nothing wrong with this modus operandi in principle. You don't get any more points for beating a good side rather than a poor one, a concept that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United were acutely aware of in 2008/9.

They romped to the Premiership title, accumulating 90 points of which 85 were picked up against the bottom 16 teams.

In other words, they dropped more points against the trio that make up the rest of the so-called 'big four' (13), than they did against the sixteen also rans (11).

The problem for Charlton however is that we still have ten games left, and they are heavily concentrated against sides in the intimidating upper echelons of the table.

If one assumes that Southampton should really be in 8th position given their actual 57-point haul, then our remaining fixtures are against teams placed 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 17th, 19th and 21st.

The four fixtures against bottom-half sides will make or break our season, not the more glamourous looking ones, just as they have evidently done throughout the campaign.

We manifestly cannot afford to slip up against either Gillingham or Carlisle at home, whilst the away fixtures at Exeter and Oldham are probably tougher than they appear.

The Grecians have lost just four times at home all season, whilst the Latics may well be fighting for their League One lives on the final day.

Frankly it's a horrendous run-in, and it scares me. A small boost may turn up in the fact that both Norwich and Leeds will likely arrive at The Valley with nothing to play for, although even this doesn't always work in the opposition's favour.

After all if the team does not pick up the 12 or so points it's likely to need from those four lowly sides, then it will probably have to do what it has failed to do all season......beat a top-six side, or win away from home at a side above 14th.

Don't let the League table fool you. As the aforementioned Sir Alex Ferguson once said, it really is "squeaky bum time" now.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Keith Alexander's letter

After searching through some boxes that had been stored whilst I was living in New York, I managed to track down a copy of the letter that the late Keith Alexander enclosed with his photos.

I had forgotten that he had given me two free tickets to Barnet's final home game, and offered to show me around the club.

My memory tells me that I didn't take him up on his kind offer, probably because it clashed with a vital Addicks game taking place the same day (this coincided with the First Division period under Lennie Lawrence).

I also find it touching that he had no qualms about putting his home address and telephone number on the letter.

Domestic football today has changed immeasurably since those days, but judging by the warm tributes paid to Alexander since his death, his decency never did.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Keith Alexander RIP

In my much loved edition of The Economist newspaper, the final article is always an obituary.

Whether hero or villain, famous or merely infamous, the superbly written pieces complete what is rarely less than an insightful and thought-provoking weekly read.

However it's typically not the achievements of the subject that resonate with me, but the touching anecdotes which offer a private insight into the real person behind the public facade.

Sadly it's unlikely that Keith Alexander will warrant an obituary in tomorrow's broadsheets, let alone the more choosy Economist but in their absence I will retell the following brief reminiscence.

Growing up in Barnet in the 1980s, I was a regular and keen attendee at their famously sloped Underhill Stadium.

Under the mad but inspired leadership of Barry Fry, the team was always a joy to watch given his cavalier approach to the game. In 1991 he eventually led them to the Football League for the first time.

Alexander had joined the Bees as a 30-year old journeyman striker in 1986, with all of his previous experience being gained at a variety of non-League teams in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Utlilised by Fry largely as a physically imposing 'enforcer' often from the bench, the beanpole striker soon became a cult hero not least amongst the impressionable group of teenagers camped on the old South terrace.

Rather than ensure he was properly warmed up in preparation for being called into action, he preferred to lean on the pitchside railing and chat to us instead.

Indeed, we were so enamoured by the easy-going nature of the striker, that I decided to write to Alexander via the club, and request some signed photos.

Late one evening the following week, I was at home with my parents when the doorbell rang.

Slightly suspicious that there was a well-built stranger stood on the front step, my Mum applied the doorchain and part opened the door.

"I'm Keith Alexander. Is your son home? I've a package for him," he said, my Mum blissfully unaware who he was.

Rather embarrassingly dressed in my pyjamas, I raced to the door convinced this must be some type of wind-up at my expense.

"Thanks for your letter. Here's what you asked for," he smiled, handing me an envelope. "I got the whole team to sign them."

And then he was gone, but the memory has stayed with me forever.

It's a story I've told many times, evidenced by the fact that five different people emailed me today asking me if I had heard the sad news about his death.

Indeed to this very day 23 years later, I can still picture the exact moment he handed me the photos. It was a small gesture, but it meant the world to me at the time.

It's fitting but ironic that the England team are wearing black armbands tonight in his honour, because the glamour on show was a world away from the footballing life that salt-of-the-earth types like Alexander experienced.

Hard working and passionate, he was proof personified that you could carve out a respectable career in the game without being blessed with great natural talent.

The Macclesfield chairman described him as a "..splendid man." I know he's right. RIP, Keith.