Tuesday 25 February 2014

Seasonus horribilis, and yet...

If you were in any doubt, I have become more disillusioned and disinterested in Charlton Athletic this season than at anytime in the last 37 years. Sure, we have had worse footballing seasons and worse league lows, but a combination of factors have combined to really hack me off. The fact is I have been falling out of love with the club that has dominated my interests since I was 13.

The lack of pre-season investment was nothing new but the continued arrogance of Jiminez and Slater really got me. Our early-season injuries only served to re-emphasis the lack of investment and our difficulty in scoring goals underlined it. The icing on the cake in terms of the forced diet the club had been put on came through in the failure of our pitch which has lead to national embarrassment.

We then had the on-off takeover speculation and the glimpse of serious investment via Josh Harris. If that was too good to be true, at least Roland Duchatelet looks like he has removed any serious threat of Administration. However, his approach to the impending contractual disaster has been casual and he is courting disaster as a result. He has also failed to address the blatantly obvious squad deficiencies and is banking on contract threatened employees and reserves from his other clubs to preserve our Championship status. Cashing in on Stephens and Kermorgant may yet come back to cost him dearly. The much lauded extension of Powell's contract has yet to materialise and I reckon Chris is prepared to risk unemployment rather than settle for less than he deserves. Roland, this doesn't reflect well on you my son.

We remain in hot table bother and games in hand are notoriously unreliable when the season congests and relegation threatens. I am hugely surprised, therefore, that this rag-tag outfit continues to fight on in the Cup and show stubbornness in the League. I have been expecting a league tonking and a mini-capitulation for some time now as heads drop and towels are thrown-in. Instead, the spirit remains unbroken and they battle on. Say what you like about Powell but he remains defiant and they are standing with him.

For us, we have a very unlikely looking F A Cup 6th Round encounter against lower league opposition and the best chance of a proper Wembley appearance for 67 years. After a 5th Round away tie that was postponed on the morning of the match with fans en route, we then got a Monday night night replay with no televised game. The draw takes us back to Sheffield and what do the Numpties at the FA decide? Yes, move it to Midday on the Sunday which will rule out train travel and make it much harder for Charlton fans to travel when the other fixtures are relatively local affairs. Personally I have a sniff of making it now en route home from Edinburgh on the Saturday but I do wonder if the Gods are toying with us and we are about to get another kick in the teeth before the season finally collapses on us.  Saint Jude, hear my prayer.

Monday 24 February 2014

Sheffield Wednesday 1 v Charlton Athletic 2

Blimey Old Reilly! Fasten your seat belts lads, those misfits have only gone and done it again. 

I was convinced we would go out of the F A Cup tonight at Hillsborough. Our form has been poor of late with too many disjointed player comings and goings. The managers contract still hasn't been sorted out yet and I have been waiting for the wheels to come off. Saturday's tight victory over a misfiring Super-Hoops hadn't convinced me, even if I took it heartily.

I decided to try again and join the world of the streamers. Something I haven't been able to do successfully previously. All that pfaffing around registering on dodgy-looking sites and not getting to watch what you wanted had put me off previously. Tonight, however, I persevered. I knew we were one-up because I heard the newsflash over the commentary of the Hull v Brighton match as I drove home. Eventually I found OleOleTV, whoever they are, and a straightforward stream of the action. It was pretty crappy quality but I strained my eyes and imagined what our 1947 Cup Final victory would have looked like at home on a screen about the same size as my i-pad. All I needed was black-and-white.

As it was it took me a good fifteen minutes to come to terms with who was playing in the red shirts. I couldn't miss the swashbuckling Wilson who was defending the right-hand side of our box. Morrison's prowling walk was also recognisable through the granulated pixels but there were others I wasn't familiar with. Our goalie was white, which was unexpected, but his beard has grown so much since I last saw him that it took me a minute to recognise Ben Hamer between the sticks. His conversion to Islam became more familiar as the match wore and his punching, sprawling and flying saves became ever-more desperate. 

Richard Wood emerged alongside Morro in central defence and they were shepherding a young Morgan Fox in for Rhoys Wiggins. In front of them Johnnie Jackson appeared with Jordan Cousins, a grown-up looking Diego Poyet and Calum Harriott who had scored our opener. Simon Church ran the line with the unfamiliar partnering of Astrit Ajdarevic.

Having battled to maintain our early lead, Wednesday equalised around 58 minutes I think, when from a free-kick they knocked down a header which Charlton loan target Leon Best swept into the top corner. It had to be him and I thought we would be washed away after that. Wednesday certainly threw everything at us as the aerial bombardment intensified but Morrison and Wood stood tall. Wilson fought for every inch and Fox and Jackson tidied-up around them. Wednesday forced last desperate challenges and squandered a couple of close-range free-kicks as we held our breath.

Eventually we released the pressure and from a rare forward foray Miguel Lera handed us a chance after conceding a free-kick and earning a booking as he did it. From the deep ball into the centre from Jackson, a host of red shirts poured forward and the one furthest forward was that tryer Simon Church. Churchie timed his run perfectly and was bravely in before a charging keeper and got just enough on it to head home. 

Game on and for ten minutes Wednesday blew it. Instead of focusing on the task in hand and getting at us, they lost it a bit and several more names went into the book as player after Charlton player were bundled off the ball or kicked up in the air. Glenn Looven's agricultural challenge was typical but it played into our hands. They did manage a header off the inside of the post which looked like it may have crossed the line but Hamer scooped it out and was clearly this side of the line as he did so. 

It was all hands to the pumps in the dying minutes as we made our staggered changes but the Wednesday crowd were heading for the exits and the first-half of our Sheffield mission has been completed. I wrote after the Huddersfield Cup victory that it was "beginning to look a lot like Millwall." That continues to be the case and with the lowest ranked league club left in the competition as our quarter-final opponents, we almost look favourites to make a Wembley semi-final appearance in a proper cup for the first time in my life. Quite amazing given the upheaval of this season. It would, of course, be typical Charlton to go and fall flat on our faces at Bramall Lane but after this evening's performance, I have a gut feeling we will see that one out too.

Italy 20 v Scotland 21

I suppose it was going to happen eventually. I will dig through the records but a Scotland/Charlton win-double - I wonder what the odds were? Two last minute winners to boot and I was a happy man in Rome on Saturday night. 

With my Uncle failing to join me for this trip, it turned into a rare romantic weekend with my better half. We booked into a suite in the centre of Rome (good value) with historical connections and I was assured we were staying in Giuseppe Garibaldi's own bedroom. The building was once the Rome home of the 19th century General and all-round national hero, although I suspect every guest staying is told the same thing.

Rome really is a great city. I think this was my fifth visit over the years (work and pleasure) and I have always enjoyed it but I noticed much more this time and it was interesting how much better it felt than being in Paris last year. Perhaps the rugby and the Charlton result made the difference? On reflection we both agreed that the honour of best European city (outside London) is probably a toss-up between Rome and Barcelona, with Amsterdam a close third?

The match itself was again played at the Olympic Stadium as Stadio Fluminio undergoes a revamp. Given the size of the gates for international rugby since the "temporary" shift, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Azzuri stick with the bigger stadium. It wasn't a full house on Saturday but I think there were 66,000, far in excess of the 40,000 re-fit at Fluminio

There was a predictable first-half of suffering for the 4,000 or so visiting Scots as the Italians edged things and scored a late try to open a 13-3 lead. I was expecting our hopes to be killed off at the start of the second forty but Scotland  battled back with Alex Dunbar finishing off a rare back break by getting through the Italian lines. As if surprised that he could do it, he repeated the feat with more confidence as he smashed through a couple of tackles and decided against an offload before crashing over. With plenty of time left on the clock the Italians pressed again and with ten minutes left they broke through to take a 20-18 lead. Once again a familiar feeling of gallant failure arose within me but Scotland pushed forward looking for a late winner. 

From our superb vantage point in the stadium I pointed out that we were setting ourselves for the drop-kick. There were opportunities for it before it came but Scotland were running the clock down and awaiting the best possible opportunity. With Greg Laidlaw having been subbed already, the pressure fell to  Duncan Weir. Chris Cusiter fed the ball back forty yards out and Weir showed no fear as he laced through the drop-kick and we all watched it soar high above and, crucially, through the posts. The photo here captures the emotions two minutes later as the players did a lap of honour.

I then received the text messages from fellow-Addicks that Johnnie Jackson had managed the same feat from a last-gasp back-post header which had beaten-off a poor QPR team. The win was also vital in preventing us going bottom of the table with Yeovil and Barnsley also both winning. The exciting prospect of leap-frogging Millwall and leaving them in the merda is gathering momentum.

Thursday 20 February 2014

The power is in your hands Chris

I haven't read or heard any blow-by-blow account of today's big Duchatelet press conference but it seems to have been fairly predictable. The news that Chris Powell is in contract negotiations with the new owner is the hot news and it would appear from the gallery images on the OS that Chris partook in the event. That all seems grand and Chris has cancelled a scheduled Supporters evening to continue discussions. As Paddy McGuinness would say, "the power is in your hands now Chris."

The obvious other spot was a delightful image of Katrien Meire. I can't download it off the OS site so have found another, although it doesn't do her justice. She really is a striking lady and cuts an impressive figure. Brains and beauty!

I also have to say that I like Roland's yellowing teeth. So refreshing to see a man of means who is so comfortable in his own skin that he has avoided the obvious temptation for a set of impossibly white veneers. 

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Duchatelet to speak

Roland Duchatelet will be holding his first open press conference in London tomorrow and will be joined behind the mic by Katrien Meire and Richard Murray. Once again, the club will be publicising the event through CAFC Player initially although more inclusive coverage should be available quickly from the assembled press.

Given that the Daily Mail and the Guardian have already run pieces on Roland's acquisition of Charlton Athletic and his other football interests, I will be keen to see who else reports on this beyond Rich Cawley in the SLP who will, presumably, have a front row seat and be teeing up some questions. 

I hope to be pleasantly surprised by what we hear about the future plans for CAFC although I am not expecting answers to any of the key current questions. Instead, I suspect we will hear more about Roland's club-owning philosophy and and about the power of six. Pooling scouting across the geographies, using language capability, developing youth, sharing players to maximum group effect and investing where it will make the most difference or where the priorities lie. A pre-season Duchatelet Cup tournament can't be far off either. Standard Liege or Charlton Athletic to host as best and biggest city venues, if Standard Liege aren't likely to be sold-off in the meantime. He may talk about his revenue stream from his non-football business as this is key and a safe subject.

I expect Katrien to field any immediate CAFC-running questions to share the load and where she will get an easier ride as a new kid on the block and can refer to what she has done in similar circumstances at Standard Liege without committing to anything in terms of Charlton.

Richard Murray will be along to ride shot-gun and step-in if he hears any trick questions or those designed to trip Roland or Katrien up with regard to our history or precedent.

Outside of that we entertain spluttering QPR on Saturday and I would like a Charlton result almost as much for the damage it will inflict on Rangers as our need for points. The largesse at Loftus Road has been galling to watch under Harry Redknapp and to quote Kevin Keegan, "I will just love it" if they fail to win promotion this season and they have to pay the FFP penalty in the Championship next season for trying to buy their way out. Having said that, they are due a result and we rarely fire at home. Maybe a 1-1 would be a good result for us here...

Sunday 16 February 2014

Sheffield United away

That's the reward if we can overcome Sheffield Wednesday to make the last eight of the F A Cup. The Owls remain a formidable obstacle and I don't think the Tuesday evening rescheduling will help our cause, especially as they know the reward for beating us, but it's not Mission Impossible. I was hoping for a home tie and a shot against one of the top sides left in it, but the Blades would represent a realistic chance for us to make our first cup semi in a major competition since we won the trophy 67 years ago. 

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, if we were to see Wednesday off, the match at Bramall Lane would be played on 7th or 8th March, the weekend of the Watford away game. That would mean another game in hand but it would be a nice problem to have. Given the newness of so many of our current squad, we need as much game time as we can get, so these cup matches are welcomed. I would settle for a semi-final defeat at Wembley if it helped us refocus our league form and put a run together with the games in hand to haul ourselves out of trouble. I guess the odds favour us slumping out at Hillsborough and losing a six-pointer to the Lions once again when United entertain Wednesday in a Steel City derby. 

If we are to beat Wednesday, I can't help thinking Chris Powell needs to be far more positive than his team selection for the postponed fixture at Hillborough. Marin Sordell was again picked to start upfront. I'm sorry, but he's shown us he has very little in his locker and just why he has been loaned out by struggling Bolton. Goocnhannejhad and Peter the Pole may yet be unproven but I'd throw them into the fray rather than watch Sordell fire another blank.

Jordan Cousins isn't a winger either but Powell again sought to play him out wide to accommodate Jackson and Poyet. I am in the 100% Powell backing camp but he's not going to get his contract renewed without winning more games and he must be more positive if we are to have any chance of that. It was interesting to hear Richard Murray's prepared answer to the question about Powell's future at Thursday City supporters gathering - "it's a result business." I don't think he could have been any more specific and you know that he is repeating Duchatelet's view. 

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Cup diversion

Charlton's F A Cup run to Saturday's 5th Round appears to have caught the imagination of our supporters, if not the national media. Close to 2,000 travelling Addicks is an impressive number given our league performance and our prolonged suffering this season. Perhaps it's a welcome relief and our supporters are relishing the unpredictability of cup football? Maybe it's just the novelty of having progressed through two rounds already? There may even be a bit of backs-to-the-wall spirit given our club and league travails?

Sadly, I won't be going. Having committed to 6 Nations weekends either side of this one, I can't justify another full day away from my family especially as I am mega-busy with expanded responsibilities at work which is keeping me out of the house during daylight hours. If I am being brutally honest, I really don't fancy it either - I can't see beyond an in-form Wednesday win and I couldn't face the long trip back in the circumstances. 

Our new owner is gambling with our future and he appears to have a £4m incentive for our club to be relegated so it's not exactly a win-lose scenario for him. Jiminez and Slater managed a promotion from League One on less than £4m and Duchatelet may see the opportunity to completely rebuild as he did at Standard Liege. Let's face it, his approach to expiring contracts and player sales says just that. Great in the long run if that were to happen but I am not enamoured at the prospect of relegation as an acceptable part of any plan. It's the supporters who will have to endure another season of ignomy in League One, not our Belgian owner. Promotion is also far from guaranteed as we know from bitter experience.

Duchatelet's gamble has not started particularly well. We have had four successive league defeats since New Years Day and have managed a solitary goal. The sale of Stephens and Kermorgant means we lost two players who scored in four of our five league wins this season. Personally, I wouldn't argue too strongly over Stephens if we got £750,000 for him but Kermorgant was a miscalculation that will cost us financially through loss of supporter goodwill and could yet cost us our Championship status.

Early days for the spare players from Duchatelet's other clubs who have been moved in but it's likely to take time for these guys to adjust, if indeed, they offer us anything more than what we already had, which was already widely acknowledged as not being good enough. 

I note the latest surprising leak in the SLP that Chris Powell is targeting four unlikely looking loan players in the shape of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jonathan Williams, Luciano Becchio and Leon Best. Either Chris Powell is upping the ante with his boss or his boss may be feeling more uncomfortable at the idea of turning his Championship acquisition into a League One outfit inside four months of acquiring us. 

Monday 10 February 2014

Scotland 0 v England 20

A new low for me watching Scotland play rugby. Plucky defeat is one thing but such a lack of belief (in only your second 6 Nations match) and a complete absence of any scoring threat is very hard to take. Saturday's game was the equivalent of watching a child swing not-so-furiously at an adult who is keeping them at bay with an out-stretched hand on their head. Coach Scott Johnson reacted to the second-half collapse in Dublin by dropping two of the bigger names from the squad but if he intended to get a reaction it failed completely. Not once did I realise that the new faces, Seymour and Fusaro, were playing.

The post-match killer statistic was that Scotland managed just 1% possession in the England 22 during the second-half. That must be a record - less than 48 seconds? I will be in Rome in a fortnight for what looks like a battering with the wooden spoon and I am also committed to a trip to the Millennium Stadium and another mauling against Les Bleus in Edinburgh. 

Desperately searching for positives here and missing a few Charlton matches is one of them. By all accounts we weren't quite as hopeless as Saturday's scoreline would suggest. I expected a double-booing at both whistles and a couple of duff performances from some of the Duchatelet Reserves. Sounds like it was Evina, Jackson and the hopeless Sordell who misfired whilst Thuram-Ulien and Goonchannejhad played well. No doubt we will rally but if it's not soon, we are likely to fall behind and get relegated.

No sporting positives but I was with friends and family for the match and we were joined by a good friend and his wife who called in for the night en route from watching Aberdeen outplay Celtic in knocking them out of the Scottish Cup in Glasgow. It was heart-warming to hear everything going right at a football club who have been suffering for as long as we have. There is always hope.

Yesterday we took a two hour historic walking tour of old Edinburgh. I am pretty good with my Scottish history but it was great to hear and see some of it come to life in a city that I thought I knew pretty well. I had never actually stepped into Greyfriars Churchyard before in the shadow of the castle but that will definitely be worth another visit. Amazing to hear that there are around 300 gravestones but estimated to be 250,000 bodies buried. I have always wondered why graveyards look so small for all of the people who must have died prior to cremation becoming so popular. 

I had never heard of a mort-safe either, where you could have your freshly departed's body safely buried from grave-robbers for five weeks until it lost it's medical student value, before being re-buried in the family plot. 

I knew about the Covenanter's struggle in the 17th century to be free to practice their Presbyterian religion without royal interference but I didn't know about the Covenanter's open-air prison or the extreme suffering they faced at the hands of the English King's men who persecuted them. Quite sad to peer through the gates in one corner of Greyfriars Churchyard and look at the ground on which hundreds were forced to lie face down every night in all Scottish weather under pain of death for moving. Those wearing the blue of Scotland at Murrayfield could do with a sharp history lesson to infuse some passion and fight.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Wigan Athletic 2 v Charlton Athletic 1

No surprise at the result here, nor frankly, of the performance but the game certainly didn't go the way I expected and the side we put out appeared to fight tooth and nail to protect the lead we took as early as the third minute.

What with all this week's comings and goings, most of the interest was going to focus on what side Chris Powell put out. No surprise that with Ben Alnwick moved to Orient, Thuram started in goal. With Wilson still on a ban, Loic Nego debuted at right back and joined a more familiar defence of Morrison, Wood and Wiggins. The midfield was Jackson, Cousins, Poyet and Ajdarevic, with Sordell starting upfront with Reza Ghoochannejhad getting his first start. The only surprise, and slight disappointment, was that Piotr Parzyszek didn't feature in the eighteen. 

I followed the game via Charlton Live, so I can't claim to have an accurate view of the match, although it was probably no worse than the poor sods still subscribing to the lame CAFC Player who were again frustrated by the hopeless Emma. What was clear, was that we took an early lead and Gucci featured fairly strongly early on and managed to fire against the underside of the bar which might have changed the outcome with a whisker more fortune. 

Instead, it was an increasingly nervous afternoon and a desperately long second-half as Wigan threw everything at us. They had a goal disallowed for a dubious offside and hit the post and the crossbar. Thuram may have had a helping hand into the keepers jersey but it sounded like he earned his salt today as the busiest Charlton player. As the game wore on, I knew we wouldn't hold out. Millwall were being trounced at home (Saviour Holloway?) and no-one around was winning. Sure enough, with three minutes to go and just after Dervite had come on to shut up shop, we conceded an equaliser. I was also watching the rugby, so decided to shut my i-Pad, not wanting to see the "FFS" and other customary expressions as Wigan got the winner. I watched it come up on the videprinter instead.

For all the disappointment, we obviously fought much harder than I anticipated and did about as well as could have reasonably been expected. Wigan are on a strong run since Rosler took over and we shouldn't forget they are F A Cup holders and were Premier League last year. With all the new faces and the uncertainty of this week, I think there are some positives. We might even have done a fraction better if we hadn't lost Rhoys Wiggins early in the first-half and had to throw Harry Lennon on against Calum McManaman for most of the match.

We look relegation fodder tonight but we only need to finish above three other sides and that should be possible if we can settle the side. There are some obvious things that could be done to aid that but I am not going over all that again because it doesn't look like it's part of the plan.

I will miss several games during the 6 Nations and, for once, I'm not really bothered. If we end up going down, I think I will move to a match-by-match ticketing arrangement for the first time in 36 years. I do feel like my loyalty has been abused in the last few years. Mister Duchatelet's strategy may well bear fruit in the long run but I'm no longer prepared to cough-up in advance and commit to a season of League One matches, especially when suffering what I see as an entirely avoidable relegation. We're all hoping that doesn't happen, of course, but the writing is on the wall. 

Twenty Judgement Days

The Transfer Window closed late night. Barring unlikely loan swaps (we have our regulation four), the die has now been cast and Roland Duchatelet's strategy for managing his English club will now be tested over the last twenty games, starting this afternoon at Wigan.

It will be a different atmosphere on the coach up the M6 today and we have to hope it's one of positivity and familiarisation. For me this match comes far too soon for the new players and it's one I am already ragging off to another defeat. The key thing will be the manner of the defeat.

I have said before that our run-in is dominated by reasonably winnable home games and tough aways. In the next ten at the Valley we face Birmingham, QPR, Barnsley, Watford and Huddersfield whereas away it's Wigan, Leicester, Millwall, Forest and Derby.

Despite what may have become an increasingly untenable position for Chris Powell, I suspect he is considering how his behaviour from here on in will be viewed by the limited pool of prospective future employers. He could fall on his sword and refuse to continue in a situation where he has clearly had a limited say in who comes or goes and possibly interference in who should play - news that Duchatelet was unhappy that Alnwick was restored in goal on Tuesday is worrying, especially as Alnwick was a surprise mover to the O's yesterday. However, I think he will want to be seen to continue to do his best in trying circumstances and I am pretty sure he doesn't want to desert the fans or the rest of the squad he has nurtured and supported for three years. There would also be an element of running from the fight and trying to avoid being associated with a relegation on his watch.

In the event we suffer a disastrous relegation, we will have the schadenfreude of knowing that the person most affected by it will be the owner, although we would have to put that into perspective. With a coterie of other clubs, he would probably put that down to unfortunate business-as-usual and given the size of his personal fortune, it would probably be an "oh well" moment. What would be very clear is that he does have a fixed plan when acquiring a new club and giving a toss about what the supporters think or listening to anyone too closely doesn't feature.