Thursday, February 24, 2011

County Show

The Sky cameras will follow the Addicks to the tidy surroundings of Meadow Lane, where the only certainty in an unpredictable season will be the terrible state of the pitch.

Man City almost became a cropper on it before £27m striker Edin Dzeko spared their blushes.

As Charlton fans know from the London Broncos days, sharing a pitch with a rugby team is not conducive to lush surfaces, and Colin Powell must be delighted he doesn't have to deal with such issues on his immaculate Valley turf.

However it's not clear the quality of the pitch is doing Charlton many favours at home, playing instead into the hands of opposition teams more technically accomplished on the ball.

Chris Powell's lengthy Evening Standard interview tonight made it clear that he favoured a passing approach, although there's precious little sign of it yet. Friday evening may not be the time to start however.

Having generated some considerable debate on this blog after the undeserved Peterborough result made it four wins in a row, two bad defeats against Hartlepool and Exeter provided some unwanted justification for my views.

If it was clear to me that no progress had been made after those four games, then I suspect my views would not have changed after the last two, even if I'd seen them.

The question is whether it's reasonable to have expected some improvement in performances by now, if Powell is potentially going to be a very good manager.

Given the addition of two accomplished forwards and having played four home games out of six, I'm tempted to suggest 'possibly' although I may be being unduly harsh.

His calm personality probably suggests he was never cut out to be an 'impact manager', so if he does turn out to be successful it's more likely to be a Curbishley-esque slow burn.

The crowd for the Exeter game was terrific, and at least puts to bed the idea that we've lost some of the missing 10,000 or so fans post-Premiership for good.

The £5 tickets were obviously a big attraction, but it still requires an effort to carve out a few free hours in busy lives, and to get to and from the stadium.

I suspect there weren't many first-time visitors, instead the usual 5,000 or so matchday home ticket sales are a rotating subset of fans (like me) from a pool of 15,000 or so who are only occasional attendees.

My own reasons for attending sporadically are family and travel-oriented, but the main conclusion from Saturday must be learning just how many of those occasional fans are unable to attend more often for financial reasons.

Thus if the Board just give themselves a pat on the back and forget about this conclusion, they are potentially missing a big trick (and one I've discussed previously on this blog).

In short, the club needs to find ways to increase the number of different season ticket price points, both at the upper and lower ends of the scale (in the hope that fans attracted to the former can pay for the latter).

If 8,000 or so extra fans were willing to attend the Exeter game because it was a fiver, then how many of those might be willing to attend every game if it was also a fiver?

It would require some imagination to offer season tickets for £115, but so long as the seats chosen are limited in number, and blighted in some way (eg. too close to the pitch; in the corner quadrants etc.) then you are turning seats that are probably empty for every match into occupied ones.

These seats can also be available for a fiver on a match-by-match basis too.

The key issue is that a fan who currently attends say seven matches per season at £17.50 each (the cheapest matchday price for a total spend of a roughly equivalent £122.50), will only be present seven times per season to spend money on other ancillary things (programmes, beer, hot dogs, merchandise etc.).

That same fan who attends every game might not generate any additional ticket revenue, but he/she is likely to generate considerably more revenue in other areas (as well as contributing to the atmosphere and 'sense of occasion').

Conversely, it seems perverse that the highest price a season ticket holder can pay will now be £375, or just £16.30 per game.

There must be a few hundred or so fans who are able and willing to pay considerably more than that (the tipping point is probably not reached until £650 or so), so long as they receive something small in return.

Other than obviously being given the best seats, perhaps simply a free programme, a comfortable lounge facility to have a pre or post-match drink, and a cushioned seat will probably do the trick.

Anyone who has been to the Emirates will know how successful the 'Club Level' concept has been. Something similar at The Valley can be achieved on a much smaller scale to offset the lost revenue from cheap tickets.

If something like this existed at The Valley, then I'd rush to buy not one but two or three tickets, attractive for inviting neutral friends/clients/acquaintances knowing that they will at least watch the game in comfort, even if the onfield product is lousy.

This type of temptation is visible across an entire swathe of industries that we see every day.

Pizza Express offers customers the chance to show they're willing to spend a further £1.50 on a 'Romana' base. Last time I was there I ordered it and I've still no idea what it was.

My daily train service tempts me with the comfortable first class carriages, whilst I join the vast majority cramming into the hot standard class carriages. I'm close to chomping on that carrot too.

As the Board clearly knows, low crowds can become a self-fulfilling prophecy especially in a stadium which is clearly currently too large for League One.

Watching football in a half-empty stadium can be dispiriting for even the most loyal supporter, and lead more to drift away.

They have begun to move in the right direction, but some more 'out-of-the-box' thinking is required to optimise the ticketing policy, the goal being to maximise both crowd numbers and revenue.

Returning to matters on the pitch, Notts County are an 'all or nothing' proposition at home, registering just one League draw at Meadow Lane (against Walsall).

Eight home wins is the best record in the lower half of League One however, the goals of Craig Westcarr and Lee Hughes providing the foundation for a reasonable first season post-promotion.

Our last two trips to the ground saw us battle out 3-3 draws in the mid-1990s, a result Powell would probably settle for again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ex Appeal

Charlton’s run of good fortune finally ended at Hartlepool, although with fixtures still to come against Bournemouth, Southampton (twice) and Huddersfield, automatic promotion remains in our hands.

The largest gate of the season will be the reward for the club’s brave £5 ticket offer, although the presence of the extra people (many of whom will presumably be first-timers) adds to the pressure on the team to deliver.

Given Exeter’s reputation for playing passing football, the likelihood will be that the home side see less of the ball than Addicks fans would like, although this has not stopped them winning matches in the past.

Paul Tisdale was one of my preferred managerial candidates, having performed miracles in Devon on a tiny budget whilst playing stylish football (and wearing equally stylish attire).

His team sit relatively comfortably in 14th place, virtually equidistant from both play-offs and relegation.

The Grecians’ form is highly unpredictable, for example following up three successive home defeats with a 2-0 win at Notts County last weekend.

Nathan Eccleston again demonstrated at Hartlepool just what a meaningful impact both he and Bradley Wright-Phillips have had so far, scoring a beautifully taken goal.

Their addition has virtually rendered any immediate results comparisons between Parky and Powell meaningless, although it would be far too early to draw conclusions anyhow.

However one wonders what type of impact the pacy pair could have if the rest of the team would begin to gel around them, and actually control matches instead of inviting the opposition to do so.

If Powell manages this in the 18 games remaining, he can reduce the likelihood that results finally catch up with performances, and instead make talk of automatic promotion more than just mere mathematical tautology.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Barca

I was fortunate enough to procure a ticket for Arsenal vs. Barcelona last night, my first visit to the Emirates.

Having watched Barca mesmerizingly complete their 684 passes, it’s clear to me that football played this way is elevated to an art form. Remarkably they contrived to lose the match nonetheless.

Just to put those passes in context, if you assume that the ball is only in play for 70 minutes and that Arsenal had 40% of the possession, then it implies that when Barcelona had the ball (for 42 minutes) they completed 16 passes per minute or one every 3-4 seconds.

I suspect the current Charlton side complete about 16 passes per half (particularly if it’s the first one).

The best player on the pitch was actually English, Jack Wilshere looking absolutely at home amongst world class opposition.

Who says England can’t produce technical footballers? (although one imagines he wouldn’t have flourished at any other club)

However the predictable 4-4-2 formation which England continue to persist with at international level, looks remarkably staid compared to Barcelona's fluid 4-1-3-2 formation (which rapidly becomes 2-1-5-2 when attacking).

Their full backs (Alves and Maxwell) are so quick and proficient, the team is able to do without wide midfielders altogether.

If they lose possession with the full-backs caught upfrield, Busquets just steps back from his role protecting the defence and joins Pique and Abidal to form a solid trio.

By providing the width in this way, Barca can crowd the central midfield area with the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and Messi (when he drops deep).

They are all gifted enough to play wonderful triangles all around the opposition, thanks to having one or even two spare men at all times.

When opposition defenders are inevitably tempted out of position, gaps are created in behind for the likes of Messi and Villa to exploit. It’s truly astounding to watch.

Their refusal to waste possession cheaply, for example by shooting speculatively from distance or delivering merely hopeful crosses, meant that they didn’t win their first corner until late into the second half.

This is an amazing statistic for a team that possesses such a goal threat, and puts to bed the idea that penalty shoot-outs should be ended, in favour of deciding drawn matches on the basis of corners.

It’s rare to see Arsenal outpassed in this way, and some of the technical deficiencies of the likes of Eboue and Walcott were exposed at times.

However to their credit they kept believing and took advantage of some Barca profligacy in front of goal to actually win the tie.

On the rare occasions that the action waned enough to warrant less than full attention, I did begin to daydream about Chris Powell turning the Addicks into a League One version of Barcelona.

With their athleticism, who better to control each flank from defence to attack than Scott Wagstaff and Matt Fry (or a fit Kelly Youga)?

Jose Semedo would be cast firmly in the Sergio Busquets role, slotting seamlessly into central defence as needs require.

Alan McCormack even looks like Iniesta, so he can play the neat triangles with Therry Racon and Johnnie Jackson in front of Semedo.

Just ahead of them, Kyle Reid or Nathan Eccleston would provide the foil for Bradley Wright-Phillips to play off the shoulder of the last defender, David Villa style.

No wonder there's a 20,000+ crowd mooted for Exeter.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lucky Four

Post-match opinion after Saturday's bizarre 3-2 win, will likely be divided depending upon whether your love of Chris Powell is unequivocal or not.

If the former, you will acknowledge that he hasn't had enough time to change Parkinson's direct style, but point to his half-time motivational teamtalks and tactical nous that have earned a fourth win in a row (all 7 goals have been in the second period).

If the latter, you will see the same woeful lack of technique but identify that Messrs. Eccleston and Wright-Phillips (neither available to Parkinson) have added new pace and ability to scare defences.

More specifically with regard to Saturday, the former would point to the introduction of Pawel Abbott which changed the game.

The latter meanwhile would question why on earth Powell thought pairing Eccleston and Wright-Phillips (two peas in a pod) was a good idea in the first place.

Not surprisingly given recent posts I fall into the latter camp, more comfortable continuing to put results down to luck (like Wagstaff's injury which probably ensured Eccleston started the second half).

There is quite clearly is not any fundamental improvement yet, and any fan who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. The first-half was truly abysmal yet again.

Peterborough demonstrated far better passing and movement, the ex-Rushden man Lee Tomlin a real livewire, and Craig Mackail-Smith a hive of activity upfront.

The long-haired George Boyd meanwhile directed affairs in central midfield, demonstrating the mobility which Semedo and McCormack lack, and which enabled him to regularly find himself getting the right side of Charlton's central quartet.

Thus when Tomlin scored an excellent opener, it was no surprise that the half-time boos that greeted the substitute referee's whistle seemed to signal an end to the Powell honeymoon.

The introduction of Abbott was an obvious one, although it was the decision to move Eccleston to the right wing which also changed the game.

Scott Wagstaff clearly has an eye for a goal and the intelligence to make runs that might lead to one, as demonstrated by the Addicks' only first-half chance, a weak shot after an inch-perfect Bessone through ball.

However he is rarely penetrative in terms of old-fashioned wing play, and Eccleston's more direct approach would pay rich dividends.

Ironically however, the first goal was all about a full-back and a former full-back.

Picking up on the 'second ball' (as they say in rugby) after a long hoof forward (inevitably), Simon Francis showed some hitherto unknown pace to deliver a terrific cross that Johnnie Jackson bravely finished.

The second goal was credited to Wright-Phillips but all down to Eccleston, and for once there wasn't a long ball in sight (they saved that for Abbott's third).

Running at pace at the Posh defence, the Liverpool youngster played a delightful one-two with Abbott to create space in the area.

Unselfishly he stood up an inch-perfect cross for Wright-Phillips who could not miss from six yards.

The pair of pacy strikers who had failed to make a single meaningful contribution in the first half, had suddenly combined in great style thanks to a tactical rejig.

Abbott's goal was a fortunate one, but even at 3-1 the game was far from ended as a contest, Peterborough's well-taken late consolation adding some late nervy moments.

However the Addicks held firm through six minutes of injury time to record their 9th single-goal win of the season.

It was a result which just about sums up Peterborough's season, and which took the total goals in games they've been involved in to 120.

Maybe that explains why a healthy contingent of 1,000 or so had made the trip from Cambridgeshire. 'That's Entertainment' as The Jam once said.

Despite two further wins in the intervening period, if one adjusts for the extra away support present on Saturday, the attendance was about 1,300 down on the Plymouth game and virtually back to normal Saturday turnouts.

The £5 promotion for next weekend is thus timely because if one of the aims of Powell's appointment was to boost crowds, it clearly hasn't transpired.

In the meantime it's onwards and upwards (about 300 miles) to Hartlepool, a grim though on a weekend let alone a Tuesday night, but one of the vital 'games in hand' which continue to leave automatic promotion in our hands.

The Monkey Hangers are sitting solidly in 13th position, but have conceded four goals in three of their last five games (to Brighton, Oldham and Peterborough).

With just 29 goals to their name all season, they are League One's lowest scorers whilst their -14 goal difference is 19 goals worse than Carlisle's in 16th. It's a funny old game as they say.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Posh Spice

"The only sure thing about luck is that it will change." (Bret Harte)

Three average performances under Chris Powell have remarkably produced nine points and three clean sheets.

Fans thus find themselves delighted at the progress on the pitch, but aren't quite sure what if anything has actually changed yet.

The short answer is 'probably not very much', with the exception of the acquisition of a striker who would be good enough for the Championship if his knees weren't iffy.

Without those two winning BWP goals, we'd be sat in 10th place instead of a much prouder 5th. No wonder strikers command the loftiest transfer fees.

No-one is getting carried away though. After all it wasn't so long ago that Phil Parkinson's leadership brought us fully five consecutive wins, including a stunning 5-1 win over Saturday's opponents. He was gone within a few weeks.

The real test of Powell's managerial abilities will be whether he can use some of the confidence engendered by lucky wins, to begin to build a real foundation for deserved ones too. Parky never managed this and it cost him his job.

With the resources at both managers' disposal, the very least we should expect by default is play-offs so we should hardly rejoice that we are now firmly back in those places.

There is however some more positivity around the place, and the limited evidence of some dynamism at the club (both on and off the pitch) can be cautiously welcomed.

According to Football365, Charlton have the best League record against sides in the top half, securing an average of 1.8 points per game.

However somewhat ominously we have only played 10 of our 26 games against teams currently in the top half, a reminder that the real battle for promotion is still to come with the likes of Southampton and Rochdale still to be played.

Speaking of statistics, Peterborough are not surprisingly way out ahead in terms of goals scored, a phenomenal 60 goals already this season from just 27 games.

Indeed those Posh fans who have seen every game will have been treated to a total of 115 goals at a ridiculous rate of 4.26 per game.

Given that the spread betting companies typically expect about 2.7 goals per game over the course of the season, this really is an extraordinary outlier.

Aaron McLean scored ten of their goals, but was prised away by Hull in the transfer window putting extra pressure on Craig Mackail-Smith to build on his own 15 League goals (the same total as our own double-barrelled striker).

The strange saga of Darren Ferguson's return to London Road remains somewhat confusing, but if he was intending to lower the heartrate of the Posh fans with some better defending, it hasn't worked so far.

It's thus a game to look forward to, and I'll be attending in person for the first time since Spurs to witness Powell's side with my own eyes.

With Matt Fry's loan having been extended, he will likely be able to name an unchanged side which seems to be his stated preference whilst we rack up the wins.

There is little to suggest that Fry is more than a Championship-quality player in the making at best, some early promise giving way to question marks over his defending.

He was torn apart at Spurs for example by Andros Townsend, a fellow Premiership youngster doing the loan rounds.

Unlike some loanees however, you can't question the West Ham man's attitude though. His reward might be Championship football at the Olympic Stadium.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Yeovil Preview

With all due respect to our cider-drinking friends from Somerset, it's fixtures like Yeovil away which sum up why we need to get out of League One at the earliest opportunity.

Synonymous with FA Cup shocks and led into the Football League by Gary Johnson less than a decade ago, it's no surprise that the teams have only met five times.

A stunning Akpo Sodje goal earned the Addicks a point in horrendous conditions last season, a moment of sublime skill which he never looked remotely like repeating.

In November, Charlton won at The Valley by the odd goal in five thanks to a rare Johnnie Jackson header, although not before Christian Dailly had seen red for the second time this season.

With average crowds of less than 5,000 (albeit representing approximately 10% of the local population), relegation battles can be expected at League One level but the Glovers secured a respectable 15th position last season with 53 points.

Despite currently being in 17th position however, they are actually on course for a better points total (56) if they maintain the form that has seen them generate 33 points from 27 games.

Their home form is somewhat volatile with both five wins and five defeats, with Rochdale, Dagenham, Sheff Weds, Exeter and Hartlepool taking three points.

However Yeovil are enjoying a very nice run of form with just one defeat in nine League One matches, and will fancy the chance to put daylight between themselves and the relegation zone.

Based on reports and not my own eyes, Charlton were fortunate to take three points on Tuesday but what did Napoleon say about lucky generals?

Somewhat frustratingly for Chris Powell, he took over with the Addicks in 7th and now they sit in 8th despite a 100% record.

If both the Plymouth and Colchester wins were somewhat fortunate, then it continues a theme that has characterised our entire season.

Rather than focus on short-term results however (which ebb and flow), I'm more interested in whether our style of play begins to demonstrate a degree of fluidity and consistency.

It is upon this type of foundation that the club will be sure to progress in the long-term, although with reinforcements like Wright-Phillips and Eccleston, we might sneak somewhat undeservedly into the play-offs nonetheless.

Eagle-eyed League One table observers will have noted that automatic promotion remains a realistic aim once games-in-hand are taken into account, although Rochdale/Hartlepool away and Southampton at home are hardly 'gimmes'.

The wife has approved a visa to attend the Peterborough game next weekend, although as my interest in Charlton hits hitherto unknown lows, I'm not sure I'll even bother to get it stamped.

I must be getting old.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Essex Boys

Thanks to Saturday’s postponement, Chris Powell continues his relatively gentle introduction to managerial life with a home game against fellow 38-pointers, Colchester.

Both clubs have lost fewer games than Bournemouth in 2nd place, but too many draws (8 and 11 respectively) have consigned the Addicks and U’s to 8th and 9th position instead.

In light of Crawley Town’s FA Cup exploits, it’s worth noting that Colchester were the first non-League club post-War to reach the Fifth Round of the Cup, a couple of years before their election to the Football League.

With both Phil Parkinson and Mark Kinsella having been sacked since the teams met in December, the links between the clubs have lessened somewhat, although visiting captain Kemal Izzet and striker Dave Mooney have Charlton connections, whilst Johnnie Jackson played over 100 games for Colchester during two spells.

The town is best known for its Roman roots and for being the place that Blur come from (I’ll let you decide which of those is the more relevant), but from a personal standpoint it’s also the town where my Dad was living and studying when he met my Mum.

I’ll be making my own personal one-man protest against Powell’s appointment by refusing to attend tonight. Only joking, I’ve got a chest infection which ensured my recent trip to the USA was a miserable one.

Shame really, because our new-look squad has an exciting look to it, albeit a rather unbalanced one.

For example we have four attack-minded speedsters (Reid, Wagstaff, Eccleston, Wright-Phillips) and three further strikers (Anyinsah, Benson, Abbott), yet Powell would do well to pick more than three of them without leaving us exposed in other areas.

Meanwhile our central midfield is positively ponderous, with less creativity than an MP’s expense claim. And defensively we move slower than a queue at the post office (enough analogies – Ed.).

Indeed whilst the loan window remains open for now, two strikers and a left-back would not have seemed our top priority at the start of January so we have to hope Powell has a brilliant masterplan that we are not aware of (maybe it’s an exciting 4-2-4 formation).

In other news, Alex Dyer was confirmed as Powell's no.2 in a well-telegraphed appointment.

Dyer was an important but extremely limited player during our transitional years from 1990-93, and I recall liking him even though he wasn't very good. Maybe he's a better coach.

With a full League One programme in store, it is vital that Charlton secure at least a point tonight to keep in touch with the play-off race else we may find ourselves looking anxiously over our shoulder at the relegation zone just eight points away right now (let alone after tonight).

Finally it will be interesting to see tonight’s attendance, in order to gauge how much momentum the Powell factor has in this regard.

Our two midweek evening home games this season have attracted crowds of just 13,155 (MK Dons) and 13,468 (Bristol R), although in truth this includes many season ticket holders who did not actually attend.

As a result the headline attendance may not be materially higher, but the actual one might be. I’d expect a figure around 14,000 to be disclosed.