Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jon-Go Shelvey

The news that Addicks starlet Jonjo Shelvey has moved to a top Premiership side is unsurprising, but the timing of the deal is odd given he will not be available for the play-offs.

It does however lend credence to the view that Phil Parkinson’s apparent reluctance to utilise the player, was in large part due to a desire to protect from injury the club’s most valuable intangible asset.

However if so, it would surely not have made sense to have played him at all unless the fleeting appearances were an attempt to give him just enough playing time to appease the various scouts, with fingers in the directors box well crossed every time he went in for a tackle.

It seems I’m in a minority of one amongst Charlton fans, but I’ve held the view that the teenager clearly has talent, but I’m not convinced he has great potential.

This may sound paradoxical but talent is a pre-requisite, but not a guarantee for success.

No-one doubts his ability when given time on the ball. Meanwhile the goals he has scored suggest a very natural finisher.

However, he lacks pace and is a very poor header of the ball despite his height, although the latter can of course be worked upon to some degree.

So far, so very Frank Lampard.

But it’s his languid style which borders on the casual, which has always made me question the fairly obvious potential comparison with the Chelsea midfielder, whose workrate and fitness is astonishing.

For those Charlton fans with good memories meanwhile, a similar contrast with both Lee Bowyer and Scott Parker could not be starker either.

I doubt a single fan could state with confidence what Shelvey’s best position is.

If it’s a deep-lying striker ‘in the hole’ (which it probably is) then how many teams will set themselves up with the formation to utilise this?

You have to be a pretty special player to have a team built around you, particularly at Premiership level let alone in League One where he was often a square peg in a tactical round hole.

Thus I don’t view the transfer fee as particularly disappointing, especially in the context of our greatly challenged bargaining position.

Realistically how much more cash could the club have negotiated, for a player who has at times impressed, but has hardly been a stand-out performer even in League One?

Compare it for example to the impact that Lee Bowyer had at the same age, but one division above. Virtually an ever-present, his energy, drive and goals drove the team to an unlikely play-off berth in 1995/96.

For those that like conspiracy theories, perhaps rather than a transfer driven by acute financial difficulty, maybe the club (and Parkinson) had developed certain concerns about Shelvey’s true potential themselves (perhaps derived from aspects of his character, who knows?).

If so, his value could actually be falling not rising if he stayed for say one more season?

This view would be an alternative (and hardly outlandish) way of looking at Parkinson’s decision not to give him more playing time.

From Liverpool’s perspective, it certainly suggests a change of strategic direction away from foreign youngsters. He will inevitably end up on loan somewhere next season so the club can have a proper look at him.

Meanwhile the possibility of a ‘strategic partnership’ with Liverpool does bring back unfortunate memories of the similar deal struck in the 1990s with Inter Milan, however it could have some merit.

With the top Premiership clubs operating with playing squads of 40-50, the scope for loan deals is enormous (Arsenal currently have 14 players out alone, many of them very impressive).

Readers of this blog will know I don’t generally favour loans, but giving playing time to talented youngsters on Liverpool’s books is a more palatable option than taking cast-offs from the likes of Notts County and Reading.

However I’m not quite sure what ‘in both directions’ might mean per the club’s website in terms of player development, unless Liverpool are planning to give our youngsters an opportunity to work on the Anfield concourses.

Anyhow, I wish Shelvey well; he seems like a nice kid and he made a valuable contribution to what still might turn out to be a promotion season.

I’d be delighted to be proven wrong about his long-term prospects.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Yellow Fever

Anyone wanting evidence for the enduring appeal of football should have been at The Valley today.

A game totally dominated by the side in red, yet victory was secured by the team in yellow.

In football's very unpredictability lies its appeal, although today the only emotion is frustration, tinged with disbelief. A rugby match similarly dominated would have ended up something like 48-7.

On a glorious Spring day, and with the skies overhead unusually free of air traffic en route to Heathrow, a noisy but slightly disappointing crowd of just over 20,000 were expectant.

The Addicks were instantly on the front foot on a bumpy pitch.

Playing the type of passing football that always makes us look an impressive side (but we don't do it often enough), we were camped in the Norwich half. Even Akpo Sodje looked the part.

The visitors meanwhile were a great disappointment. Shorn admittedly of their two best players, they did not impress at all except for an exceptional keeper in Fraser Forster.

He deined Bailey twice from an indentical left-sided position (although the first effort was going wide), and the carrot-topped midfielder was again unlucky with a curled effort.

Norwich had however given a warning of their aerial capability from a rare attack, when a goal was disallowed somewhat dubiously for offside.

Not long thereafter the Addicks fell asleep at a corner and unmarked defender Michael Nelson headed home from close range.

Burton replaced the injured Sodje, and the Jamaican would play an influential role in the second half, not least when his instinctive header was brilliantly saved by Forster.

Although only 50 minutes were on the clock, it was the moment where I thought "It's not going to be our day," and so it proved.

Charlton delivered wave after wave of attacks, but the ball just wouldn't sit right in the box.

Therry Racon in particular seemed to find himself with the ball on the edge of the box countless times, but just couldn't release a shot with sufficient power and accuracy to level the scores.

The impressive Semedo was removed on 72 minutes as Phil Parkinson threw caution to the wind, but paradoxically we lost our momentum, the ball-winning abilities of the Portuguese clearly missed.

By the end of the game, Jonjo Shelvey was introduced as a deep-lying 'quarterback' style midfielder, and Sam Sodje was thrown upfront but it just wasn't to be.

I could finally take no more when on 93 minutes, having seen Darren Randolph race forward (perhaps out of boredom) for an attacking free-kick, we ridiculously tried to play it short and failed even to deliver a cross at all. Madness.

With Swindon having failed to win, the Canaries could celebrate a promotion they scarcely deserved on the day, but it's hard not to be pleased for such a nice club.

Facing the same (or arguably worse) financial challenges as Charlton, their fans stayed loyal despite that infamous 7-1 defeat.

With average home crowds of 24,000 in their tidy stadium, the club and its fans deserve to be back in the Championship.

As for Charlton, results elsewhere could scarcely have gone better, so we really have most likely wasted an outstanding chance to put automatic promotion into our own hands.

Frustratingly had we played this well for most of the season, we surely would too have been promoted by now. After all we were 11 points ahead of Norwich after just six games.

Then again, just five goals from open play in our last eight games suggests that perhaps today's result was somewhat predictable. Finding a way to score goals again must be no.1 on Parkinson's 'to do' list.

Here are my match ratings:

Randolph 6 - virtually nothing to do except a regulation first-half save; could he possibly have dealt with the corner for the goal?
Richardson 7 - always a threat going forward, and regularly linked well with Sam.
Borrowdale 6 - less cultured than a yoghurt but solid defensively; some poor set-pieces
Dailly 7 - as consistent as ever
Sodje S 6 - the defensive pair were so rarely troubled, that I only noticed him when he went upfront
Semedo 8 - outstanding; does the blocking and tackling to allow others to play
Racon 8 - the best I've seen him play; fully involved when previously so often anonymous
Bailey 6 - no-one can doubt his shooting ability, but his influence wax and wanes out on the left
Sam 7 - impressive again; I reiterate that he should consistently have been taking League One defences apart (but rarely did)
Sodje A 7 - I had wondered on Tuesday how he ended up as a professional footballer; today he provided some answers
Forster 6 - generally well-shackled but makes intelligent runs; well worth a 1-year contract
Burton 7 - a vital player and definitely missed whilst injured; holds the ball up far better than Sodje
Reid 6 - struggled to get involved despite tired Norwich legs
Shelvey 7 - a brief cameo in an unusually deep role; ironically he looked quite an interesting option there

Friday, April 16, 2010

Candidates Debate

(not Charlton related)

"Going to the candidates debate,
Laugh about it, shout about it,
When you've got to choose,
Every way you look at it, you lose."
(Simon & Garfunkel, 1968)

I watched last night’s election debate with great interest, being the very epitome of a ‘floating voter’.

My electoral behaviour must confound psephologists since I voted Tory as a teenager in 1992, and then switched to Labour once I had a bit of money in my pocket.

My mind had been turned when I became friends at university with a young Labour Party activist, whose bookshelves were full of weighty Tony Benn tomes.

Ironically he ended up marrying a posh sort, works as a barrister and was last seen living in leafy Buckinghamshire. It just shows you never can tell.

Last time around in 2005, I used my postal vote in favour of the Lib Dems mainly because I greatly admired Charles Kennedy’s drinking habits.

But when I consider my choice for 2010, I’m torn on the age-old question….do you vote for the party that’s best for you, or the one that’s best for the country?

Or shall I just continue to cast my vote for silly reasons, like the fact that I've a son called Cameron, and share a birthday with the Tory leader?

As a voter in his mid-30s, I'm reminded of a famous quote (often misattributed to Winston Churchill): “If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain.

But having been brought up in Michael Portillo's famous old constituency of Enfield-Southgate, I now find myself living in one of the safest Tory seats in the land (SW Hertfordshire, won with a 10,000+ majority even in 1997).

However I hate the concept of 'safe' seats. I want my MP (David Gauke) to have earned the right to represent me (although to be fair, he seems like a decent one even if he supports Charlton's former feeder club, Ipswich).

It may be 80th on the list of Lib Dem target seats, but it only requires an 8.5% swing, not so much if you think about it. I may vote Lib Dem for this reason alone.

Indeed the Lib Dem electoral map fascinates me (as do maps in general), so I'm attracted by the thought of adding another seemingly random yellow dot to it.

The Tory and Labour heartlands are predictable (rural/wealthy vs. urban/poor), but the Lib Dem seats seem somewhat haphazardly distributed.

We know their problem has always been support that is average everywhere, but not especially strong anywhere.

I've noted the fact that they seem to be strong in towns that I like very much (eg. Bath, Cambridge, Winchester, Harrogate, York). But all these places are very well-to-do, so why don't they vote Tory?

Meanwhile, what's so special about Portsmouth South, Chesterfield and Hornsey & Wood Green? All naturally Labour consituencies, yet firmly Lib Dem yellow.

However, back to the debate. The format is more suited to US-style presidential politics than parliamentary politics. The Prime Minister is selected by MPs after all, not the people.

But as a way of getting points across to a large audience, it had merits even if it's only the residents of Witney, Kirkaldy and Sheffield Hallam that have the option of voting for them individually.

During the debate, I was thinking why we only get to assess their intellectual prowess?

The electorate should also demand to assess their physical prowess, perhaps via a 'Superstars'-style competition.

David Cameron would surely win the cycling, but Gordon Brown could no doubt utilise his rugby physique to forge ahead in the squat thrusts.

I didn’t understand the need for such a well-publicised ‘hand-picked’ diverse audience, given that they weren’t allowed to applaud or add follow-up comments.

However hand-picked or otherwise, Nick Clegg’s insistence on constantly referring to the questioners by name was grating as if their identity or background was relevant.

I doubt many viewers watching at home were thinking, ”Wow, what an outstanding question – I never could have thought of that one.”

In the end, the outcome was fairly predictable. Clegg apparently ‘won’ the debate (whatever that means), but then he was always going to.

He looks the best, and given he has no prospect of being Prime Minister, he can pretty much say what he likes without ever needing to worry about putting it into practice.

Brown looks awful and speaks just as poorly, but as the incumbent he had the benefit of saying ”I did” rather than ”I will do.”

I’m sure his spin doctors have told him to try to appear more ‘human’, but the reference to ‘X Factor’ in his closing remarks was ridiculously contrived.

Paradoxically he is more impressive when just being himself ie. stoic, but with an outstanding knowledge of the facts.

Some commentators meanwhile have concluded that Cameron was the clear ‘loser’ in the debate, but again this was entirely predictable.

He’s the PM in waiting after all, so his policies have to be realistic (unlike Clegg’s) yet are inherently unproven (unlike Brown’s). Not surprisingly, he appeared rather nervous as a result.

The best his advisers could have hoped for was the avoidance of any real clangers, so on that basis alone Cameron can probably declare his evening a success too.

All three of the candidates were guilty of resorting to irrelevant ‘real life stories’, in place of the old-fashioned skill of actually putting forward arguments.

They underestimate the public’s intelligence if they think we can’t understand the challenges of say the NHS or policing, without resorting to pointless anecdotes about people we’ve never met.

As usual however, no candidate was willing to tell the public the truth about the fiscal deficit.

They are nit-picking about a billion here and a billion there, when the government was forced to borrow £160bn last year alone.

Rather than debate for example how to improve the NHS, we should be debating whether we can afford a universal health service at all.

By way of a final thought, I couldn’t help feeling rather disappointed with Alastair Stewart.

Seemingly bereft of any policies or ideas, he regularly left the stage and seemed capable solely of shouting out the names of his adversaries, as if inviting them for a fight.

He’s definitely not getting my vote.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Suffer the Children

Last night I attended my first home game of the decade, and unlike my below described trip to MK Dons, the absence of my young son meant I was likely to witness more than just the opening period.

However with about 20 minutes on the clock, I was desperately regretting not bringing him along again, because the thought of much more of it was torture.

Charlton went a goal ahead thanks to a solitary moment of class, but as a spectacle it was turgid stuff.

Admittedly Colchester’s direct approach was partly to blame, but it was not as if we were trying to play slick passing football ourselves.

Those awful long balls to the channels, from full-back to no-one in particular were played more regularly from Charlton boots than Colchester . I know because I counted them.

Having built his reputation around the direct approach, at least Aidy Boothroyd’s side had the wisdom to lump it in the general direction of the goal. Unfortunately for them, they had Kevin Lisbie up front.

I’m not sure I buy Phil Parkinson’s post-match comments about Colchester denying us the ability to play our natural game.

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the Swindon vs Exeter game between two passing sides, and we don’t look remotely like either of them.

Last night’s game meanwhile was strictly one for the purists, but unfortunately the stadium (or at least the West Upper where I was sat) was teeming with young kids, presumably enjoying a rare evening game during school holidays.

No doubt the suburbs of SE London and Kent were thus ringing last night with the sound of ”Never again Daddy,”, not least from the poor young lad who took a typically cultured Colchester clearance full in the face just a row behind me.

Parkinson was absolutely right however to note that we matched Colchester for spirit and fight, especially in the frantic final minutes.

The visitors are truly pitiful to watch, and whilst the statistical defence for their approach seems valid (ie. you can only score in the final third), is there any evidence that it actually works in practice? Doesn’t quality of possession count for something too?

Christian Dailly was immense, and will likely win my Player of the Year vote for sheer consistency. His fellow three defenders meanwhile could not be faulted, restricting Colchester to just half-chances.

At the opposite end of the field, Nicky Forster was neat and tidy and took his goal well.

He has something of the Clive Mendonca in the way he plays and moves, which is a shame because he spent most of the match trying to win headers against giants.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Therry Racon was anonymous with the ball fizzing back and forth above him, whilst Akpo Sodje had an unproductive evening.

Without the guile of the likes of Forster or Burton, Sodje needs to play the role of old-fashioned battering ram (particularly on nights like this), but he seems to lack the presence.

The oft-maligned Lloyd Sam proved some of his critics wrong meanwhile, making productive use of a limited amount of possession, not least with a peach of a cross for the goal.

Results elsewhere were mixed, and our merely average goal difference may soon become a decisive factor.

Play-offs look a near certainty now, but realistically who would we fancy ourselves against? Indeed we may want to be careful what we wish for.

We could narrowly and bravely finish third behind the top two, and then face the rampaging Saints in the play-offs, a thought frankly too horrible to contemplate.

Similarly a potential tie against Millwall threatens to render last night’s battle a mere ‘shot across the bows’.

They say the sign of a good team is one that plays badly but wins, but that’s a load of bull (especially as we’ve only won 6 of 16). The sign of a good team is one that plays well and wins.....regularly.

But I guess my general ‘take away’ from last night is whether the way the club is operating today is too short-termist (contrasting with the period under Curbishley for example).

Despite all the permutations, the bookies only give Charlton a 30% chance of winning promotion this season and they’re not usually wrong.

Obviously we’d take promotion it if it comes our way, but there’s a 70% chance we will have a 46-game campaign in League One again (even after these three ugly 1-0 wins in four games).

All of which begs the question, do all of these ostensibly short-term measures (the loans; the seemingly random rotation; the lack of a discernible 'system' etc.) serve the club's best interest in the medium-term (potentially as soon as next season)?

Maybe we need to accept a few rebuilding years of famine, to set up the subsequent feast. It might take a decade or more to get back to the Premiership; scrambling to a 1-0 victory in our next game is not the be all and end all.

At the moment we're both short-termist and stumbling, which can't be good.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

My Boy Lollipop

Ask the average person which is the greatest invention of all time, and you will most likely receive predictable responses like 'the wheel' or 'the steam engine'.

However ask fathers of young children the same question, and instinctively they will say 'the lollipop', and they'd be absolutely right.

"A mere boiled sweet on a stick," sneer cynics, ignoring the seamless way the lollipop's two constituent parts work in tandem.

The stick obviates the inherent child choking hazard, allowing the key trait of the boiled sweet to rise to the fore, namely its longevity.

Haircuts, train journeys, and trips to the supermarket are blissfully tantrum-free thanks to the humble but brilliant lollipop.

You may not read about this method in Parenting magazine, but believe me it works and I'm not ashamed to use it.

So when I decided in a moment of madness to take my 3-year old son to MK Dons this afternoon, I knew the lollipop would be playing a vital role.

When I describe him as '3-years old', I'm not doing so for effect (in the sense that he's actually almost four).

No, infact he only celebrated his third birthday a few weeks ago. What on earth was I thinking?

I desperately needed him to have slept well the previous night, or at least to have napped in the car to the stadium. He did neither, setting my pre-match preparation onto the wrong foot already.

My wife prepared a series of healthy snacks, whilst I secretly smuggled away two lollipops, intending to use them strategically inbetween the apple pieces and raisins.

Given that each lollipop takes approximately 15-minutes to consume, I essentially had a 30-minute 'lollipop budget' for a matchday experience that could easily drag on beyond two hours.

I did consider bringing the full compliment of seven lollipops (including one for half-time), but no football match is worth a lifetime of rotted teeth.

As a result, I felt much like Phil Parkinson might when considering how best to use his substitutes.

Throw them into the fray too early, and you will run out of options later.

Give them a berth too late, and the game may already be over before they can make an impact.

After weighing up the pros and cons, I decided on the way to the game that I would produce each lollipop a third of the way through each half.

The consumption of the lollipop would take up another quarter hour, whilst I'd hope to see out the final third by asking him "Did you enjoy your lollipop?" several times per minute.

However just like any good manager, I needed to remain flexible in my tactics in case events out of my control demanded an alternative strategy.

However, first a few observations. The stadiumMK is predictably situated on a retail complex and surrounded by industrial estates (which were refreshingly free of parking restrictions incidentally).

However despite its rather bland location, it's actually very impressive and like many modern stadiums, does not seem to have been done 'on the cheap'.

The seats are padded and wide, whilst legroom is ample. The upper tier is presently seat-free, but when complete it will arguably be the best medium-sized football stadium in the country.

Most impressively, punters can view the pitch easily from the whole of the wrapround concourse thus providing plenty of space and light, whilst encouraging fans to avoid the manic half-time rush for refreshments.

It no doubt helps to explain how a team with no history is enjoying the sixth best attendances in League One.

After all if you've never watched football regularly before, you'll hardly be enchanted by view-restricting pylons or claustrophobic walkways.

It remains to be seen however whether or not they will maintain their momentum, or if the stadium risks becoming a white elephant much like say the Darlington Arena (Capacity: 25,000; Last game: 1,296).

We arrived in the stadium around 2.40pm, and all seemed to be going well. My son seemed in good spirits, and was particularly enamoured by the MK Dons mascots, Donny and Mooie.

"They waved at me Daddy!" he exclaimed as I smiled, afraid to point out that in truth I think they were waving at the entire block we were sitting in amongst the home support.

Then when the teams emerged from the tunnel, something very touching happened.....without prompting, he stood up and clapped with a big grin on his face. Everything was going to be fine I thought.

For the first five minutes he was engrossed in the game and seemed to find headers to be particularly amusing, which was handy given he was watching League One football. He'd have hated Arsenal vs. Barcelona.

Unfortunately then something very bad happened. The first whinge of the afternoon was heard with less than ten minutes on the clock. "My bottom's sore," he said.

I've learned from experience that rather than being an acute medical emergency, this simply means he needs the toilet.

Unfortunately there was more chance of our manager handing Jonjo Shelvey a start, than there was of me persuading him to use his portable potty in a busy stadium (my son, not Parkinson that is).

Not quite sure what to do, instinctively I produced the first lollipop and his little face lit up.

It was a little earlier than planned, but it would buy me some time as I frantically thought how on earth I was going to get him through the rest of the game.

The lollipop did its job but as soon as it was finished, he was moaning about his bottom again.

Even worse, most of the healthy snacks my wife had prepared might be considered mild laxatives. The last thing this boy needed right now was fruit.

Now there were tears and cries of "I'm tired, take me home" which must have been painful for all those sat around us. You expect to hear a young child crying on an aeroplane for example, but not at a football match.

Feeling acutely embarrassed, I picked him up and took him for a walk around the aforementioned concourse that overlooked the pitch where frankly very little of note was going on.

His mood was not improving, and with the large stadium clock showing only forty minutes played, I decided to throw all my cards on the table and produce the second lollipop. I really had nothing to lose at this point.

Initially it seemed to have the desired effect, and we were able to sit in some empty seats at the front of the stand for the remainder of the half.

It's not clear whether it was his sore bottom or possibly Scott Wagstaff's glaring 43rd minute miss, but he was soon moaning again and this time even the lollipop didn't seem to placate him.

This was the managerial equivalent of seeing your final substitute get injured, and it wasn't even half time.

I broke the news to my Dad who had remained in the original seats, that we would have to take his grandson home. If nothing else, I was struggling to cope now let alone him.

Despite my kind offer to drive around the block a few times and pick him up at full-time, Grandpa put family before football and accompanied us back to the car. "It was a load of rubbish anyway," and it was hard to disagree.

A local radio station was offering commentary which softened the blow, and Forster scored the vital winner as we reached the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard.

As for my son, within two minutes of driving off, he was fast asleep in his carseat, a half-eaten lollipop still dangling tantalisingly from his hand.

I never stood a chance.