Monday, May 24, 2010

Cramping My Style

What have Shaun Bartlett, Mark Hudson and New York Addick got in common?

Yes that's right, they've all scored on their Valley debut.

As mentioned on my previous post, I fulfilled a lifetime's ambition by playing football on the hallowed (albeit bone hard) turf this morning.

Unfortunately despite yours truly claiming an assist for the first goal, and scoring the second, our team ran out 4-3 losers thanks to a rather dubious late offside decision.

By the time it was scored however, I'd been forced to exit the play with severe cramp in my calves, a near inevitability for me given my apparent susceptibility to it.

Luckily former Addicks midfielder Peter Garland was on hand to pass on the type of professional advice you expect from an ex-player: " should have had more salt on your fry-up."

It was interesting to note just how small the visiting dressing room was. It's clear that the psychological battle begins from the moment the opposition arrive (apparently the home dressing room was multiples larger).

I can't imagine how crowded it becomes on matchday with 18 players, and a myriad of coaches and trainers milling around.

Whereas our team (decked out in the club away strip) were strangers and generally Charlton fans, the home side were neither but were instead celebrating a 30th birthday.

Moreover, many of them had clearly played at a pretty high level, which was not what I needed in addition to the heat.

As they played neat triangles around us for the majority of the match, it afforded me plenty of time to take in the majestic surroundings.

Luckily we had a goalkeeper (and Leicester fan) who not only looked just like Joe Hart, but played quite a lot like him too.

He almost single-handedly kept the scoreline respectable, and allowed us to take the lead on three different occasions before finally running out of luck.

My goal for what it was worth came at the Covered End which was pretty special, a scrappy near-post poachers goal which will live long in my memory of course.

Either way, for those that have the time, money, energy and inclination, I would highly recommend keeping an eye out for next season's Football Aid game (whilst praying for cooler weather).

Like me you will never forget the first time you run onto the pitch, and can begin to imagine the memorable moments that you have witnessed on it.

It will certainly make me less critical of some real players too, particularly when they have to play in conditions like those. The pitch feels enormous.

The organisation was excellent, and everything from the DVD of the game to the hundreds of photos that were instantly available, made the players feel very special. Keith Peacock even popped by to say 'hi' too which was nice.

Most importantly, it raised over six grand for charity which is the main thing.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Football Aid

I will fulfil a lifetime's ambition on Monday, when I take to the field at The Valley for Football Aid.

The match will kick off at an ungodly 9.30am presumably on police advice, to discourage players from drinking heavily before the game.

Given the distance I live from the stadium and the rush-hour traffic, I'm tempted to stay overnight in the vicinity.

I'm not a good footballer. Any personal glimpses of sporting excellence tend to occur in the more civilised surroundings of a tennis court or golf course.

Moreover, the bulk of my footballing appearances have occurred in goal where I earned the nickname 'The Cat'.

Although I'd like to think my teammates were referring to my lightning reflexes, I think in truth it was my tendency to appear asleep when a cross came in.

Naturally therefore, I bid for the striker's position on Monday.

It was the most expensive option, but still considerably below where I would have valued the experience so everyone's a winner.

I've had my playing style described as a cross between two strikers with a rich Charlton legacy, Derek Hales and Jimmy Trotter (ie. Derek Trotter).

I'm pretty fit in a long-distance running kind of way, but if I begin to tire I will motivate myself by repeating a mantra in my head...."I'm a month younger than Nicky Forster....I'm a month younger than Nicky Forster."

In the unlikely event that I score, I'm hoping it will be at the Jimmy Seed Stand end where I can imagine 3,000 Millwall fans baying for my blood, and casually flick them the V-sign.

The game usually involves a couple of ex-Charlton 'legends' too, the likes of Eddie Youds and Simon Webster in prior years for example.

Rumours that both saw the teamsheet and decided they didn't fancy marking me, have yet to be confirmed.

Based on recent events however, no doubt if no suitable legends can be found in time, the club will scramble to bring someone in from another club on a short-term loan.

The West Stand will be full of WAGs meanwhile, although my own wife has strangely chosen not to be present (she gets too nervous apparently).

My fellow players can rest assured however, that regardless of how much their loved ones may cast admiring glances at the free-scoring player in the no.9 shirt, I have no intention of imitating John Terry.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's All Over Now

Whilst those Addicks fans present at The Valley were having their hearts ripped to shreds, I was desperately trying to follow events from New York via email updates from my Dad.

Fully 35 separate emails pay testimony to the ups and downs of an extraordinary night, although as implied on my previous post I am rather unmoved by the eventual outcome.

Firstly victory last night we now learn, would only have set up a one-off game against a Millwall side, that outclassed us 4-0 just weeks ago.

In other words, if our probability of gaining promotion were about 25% when the first penalty was struck, then it would only be about 44% now.

Every club in the domestic football pyramid deserves to be where it is, and Charlton is no different.

It is irrelevant for example that The Valley is the 28th largest stadium in England, or that our average attendances in League One were higher than those at 14 Championship venues.

We must face up to the fact that the clubs we must now seek to emulate are the likes of Doncaster and Scunthorpe, not Fulham or Stoke.

We began the season so promisingly, those opening six wins achieved with some flowing football from a stable team selection, and not a single loan player on view.

The confidence that those quickfire 18 points engendered, should have been the basis for a successful season that culminated in automatic promotion.

Even at Christmas, the team had 46 points from 22 games and was still thus on course for nearly 100 points.

However just as the club had done in 2007/8 when form began to deteriorate, it desperately sought to plug holes with another smattering of loan signings and seemingly random team selection.

The philosophy seemed to be that if you try enough things, then eventually you must stumble across a winning solution.

Except that we didn't, and the inevitable result was extraordinary inconsistency and finally play-off defeat.

Unfortunately whilst one accepts Phil Parkinson tried his best, to believe that he is the right manager for Charlton is to tolerate mediocrity.

I've maintained all season that we do not appear to play to any consistent system, and the players appear under-coached.

How many individual players have categorically improved under his stewardship for example?

He does appear to have engendered good team spirit however, which allied with the decent (albeit revolving) quality of the squad he utilised, was enough to ensure the season didn't degenerate into total failure after Christmas.

Nonetheless a record as manager of just 27 wins from 74 League matches is a tough one to defend, and let's not mention those Cup defeats.

However whilst the club's finances are so unclear, it is hard to make predictions for the future or even to suggest an appropriate way forward.

Some appear to believe that administration is an inevitability, but this ignores the fact that the debts are largely owed to the same people (ie. the directors) who are responsible for deciding whether to opt for administration!

In short, to assess the likelihood of administration, one would need to know more about the individual financial situations of the directors, and this is of course not a matter of public record.

Either way, the debts are sizeable and must either be restructured (via administration), repaid (via brutal cost-cutting, surprisingly quick onfield success or the sale of the club) or converted to equity.

Whichever route the club takes, surely we must stop all this short-termist nonsense and build for the medium to long-term future, even if it means taking some steps back to take several forward.

It's just like 1992 all over again unfortunately. The stadium may look much better, but the challenges are similar.

We need to acknowledge that although those Premiership years are so vivid in the memory (and readily available to recall on YouTube), they are as far away today as they were back then.

When fans speak fondly of the Curbishley years, it is often forgotten that it took the club eight seasons to reach the Premiership, and ten seasons to begin to become established there.

In short, it didn't happen overnight but the club had stability, and did not panic when there were short-term blips (like twice finishing 15th in 1994/95 and 1996/97 respectively).

Instead Curbs slowly built a consistent playing system on a tight budget, that incorporated both homegrown youngsters and hidden gems in whom he could see potential.

Why is the club seemingly so unwilling to revisit this route? The one that sees the likes of Keith Jones or John Robinson signed for virtually nothing, yet ultimately coached into Premiership players?

You find the right characters that can fit into the system you wish to deploy, and you coach them to improve. And you do it consistently.

Ask Accrington Stanley fans whether being long-termist works. Their boss John Coleman has improved their League position every year for the past eleven seasons.

This is not easy of course, it takes coaching and tactical prowess and the belief not to be blown off course by a few bad results. Unfortunately Parkinson displayed neither.

Curbs utilised the odd successful loan signing of course (eg. Heaney, Costa etc.) but it was hardly the bedrock of his managerial strategy.

How could the best medium-term interests of the club be served by utilising Reid instead of Wagstaff, or Borrowdale instead of Solly?

If these kids aren't good enough then kick them out, but if they've got a chance for goodness sake play them. At least they'll be here next season.

So what if it takes us a few seasons to rebuild from here? At least when we eventually win promotion, we will have done so with a stable squad that will be better set up to cope with the new challenges of the Championship.

What would the squad have looked like next season had we won promotion? We may well have been an embarrassment again, and that would have set us back further than where we stand now.

Clearly the club has royally screwed up the past four seasons, but they had set the expectations bar pretty high, having built the club into one that was rightly viewed as a model for so many others.

I've no wish to sound like David Brent upon learning of his redundancy, but if lessons are learned then last night's defeat may well be the best bloody thing that's happened to our club in a long time.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Play Away

Thanks to the events of May 1998, the play-offs will always hold a special place in the heart of Addicks fans.

However despite the excitement evidenced by Charlton’s allocation of tickets selling out within hours, promotion to the Championship would not have anything like the same impact on the club.

Revenues in the Championship would barely be higher (perhaps a 10% increase in attendances, and a small increase in TV rights), but the cost base might conceivably rise even quicker as the wage bill increases to compete effectively.

Whilst it would obviously take us one step closer to the holy grail of the Premiership, from a purely financial perspective the benefits of promotion are not entirely clear, even more so if we find ourselves facing a likely relegation battle again next season.

For this reason, I’m really not too fussed whether we triumph or not. The long-term stability that the club desperately needs may not be synonymous with promotion this season.

In the same vein I suspect Leeds will be better served by having won promotion this season, rather than in either of the previous two.

Having said all that, for a few precious minutes on Saturday, it looked as though Charlton might still snatch the 2nd place they barely deserved, but we do not enter the play-offs feeling hard done by.

Interestingly it is the sixth place team (Huddersfield) that are unquestionably the form side with six wins in their final eight games, scoring 17 goals in the process.

With five wins in their final eight matches meanwhile, Charlton can claim greater winning momentum than Millwall (four) and Swindon (three), but the lack of goals may present a fuller picture.

Most fans were hoping to avoid Millwall at the semi-final stage, and by comparison an away leg at the County Ground in Swindon will be an immeasurably more civilised affair.

The two League matches against the Robins were characterised by a pair of desperate late Charlton equalisers.

Yet interestingly whether only one or even neither equaliser had been scored, we still would have faced Swindon in the play-offs (albeit with the home and away legs switched around).

Given that the apparent advantage of playing the second leg at home is not obviously clear to me, ultimately those Llera and Bailey goals might be deemed irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.

I did not attempt to secure a ticket for tonight’s game, mainly because the prospect of watching it in the comfort of my living room accompanied by a couple of bottles of Sharp’s Doom Bar is considerably more appealing.

However many fans will involuntarily be faced with the same prospect, having unexpectedly been unable to secure a ticket given the club’s decision to virtually put the tickets on general sale.

As Kings Hill Addick has eloquently described, there is no easy solution to this problem of ticket ‘entitlement’.

I might add a controversial view though, which is that it’s actually the occasional away fans rather than the regular ones who should be rewarded.

I’m willing to accept for example that 3,000+ Addicks strewn across one side of Leyton Orient’s ground in August may have lifted the team.

However I’m equally confident that the couple of hundred who travelled say to Hartlepool or Stockport made not a jot of difference.

It is thus precisely those fair-weather travelling fans that come out of the woodwork for games like tonight’s, who can actually swing results in the team’s favour.

It is they who should be rewarded, not the ones who go to games where their presence makes no impact.

Unfortunately those fans who blindly go to every game home and away are rather inviting themselves to be treated like mugs I'm afraid (and this is of course true of all clubs, not merely Charlton who frankly treat their fans better than most).

I would also add more generally however that fans ought to remember again that football is unlike any other industry.

With only a handful of exceptions (like fans of Fulham it seems), we can choose only to consume our football via our beloved club of choice, or not at all. We do not suddenly switch our allegiances.

Thus rewarding loyal fans over irregular ones is merely a kind gesture by the club, not obviously a commercial decision.

Obviously annoying your most loyal customers on a frequent basis is not recommended (because they may choose to consume zero football instead), but I can understand them knowingly doing so occasionally.

Conversely, as a very frequent flyer on Virgin Atlantic for example (with nearly a million miles to my name), I have reached the pinnacle of their loyalty program and am thus treated like royalty.

The difference of course is that if they did not treat me this way, I would have the realistic option of switching to British Airways, on the very rare occasions when they actually fly.

If you don’t like it, support Crystal Palace. Go on, I dare you :-)

Up the Addicks!