Sunday 29 September 2019

Charlton Athletic 1 v Leeds United 0

My first live Charlton match of the season. Those of you who read these pages on a passing basis will be aware that I have been boycotting for the last three seasons. It certainly felt right and the only thing left to me in August 2017 when we were still lumbered with Katrien Meire and His Lordship was refusing to budge. Since then we have had the blessed relief of La Meire buggering off and Duchatelet has finally confirmed that his multi-club experiment has been a disaster and that he has no interest in football and wants out at the Valley.

To some extent, then, the protests of the club's supporters have succeeded although final victory will only be celebrated once Duchatelet exits stage left. In the circumstances, I have increasingly missed watching the Addicks since Lee Bowyer has instilled fighting spirit and managed the impossible promotion. The shenanigans of the close season notwithstanding, Lee Bowyer has done it again in terms of re-grouping and stepping up once more, so my boycott has been under intense pressure.

Yesterday I was tempted by the offer of a spare ticket from a mate which turned into a seat in an East Stand box this week and he even managed to fit my fellow boycotting season-ticket holder in, so everyone was happy. I was very keen to see the side in action and playing Bookies favourites Leeds was a bonus.

So, with low expectations initially we survived a couple of early scares and settled into the match. Leeds' Jamie Shackleton had said in the week that their game-plan was to take an early lead and kill us off. I did think at the time that this might come back to haunt him and sure enough, after half an hour in which Leeds had failed to score, the Addicks forced a corner in front of the visiting supporters who had the best view of the game's only goal. The ball was swung into the box and Tom Lockyer got a touch to force the ball goal-ward. Kiko Casilla, in the multi-coloured mess of a shirt, managed to parry it but only on to the back of Macauley Bonne from where it crossed the line. The goal sparked joyous celebrations and succeeded in silencing the hitherto noisy Whites, which helped ease the pressure on the home side. No sign either of any trouble from the 'hundreds' of Leeds fans purported to have bought tickets in home areas. 

It was Charlton's first chance and we didn't get another throughout the ninety minutes. The absence of Lyle Taylor is painfully obvious but tactically yesterday we haven't sought to try to replace him. Bonne and Leko were instead playing fifty yards apart and withdrawn to just ahead of Cullen and Gallagher on the sides of the diamond. It meant that we had extra bodies and feet to help win the midfield battle but no target man or out ball. As a result we looked to play our way through the Leeds defence. Williams and Gallagher in particular tried that as hard as they could with Josh Cullen in support but it's expecting a lot from deep in open play against a well-organised and capable defence like Leeds'. 

At the back we were under pressure for long periods of the game but not much in the way of danger. Leeds were quick and neat and moved well to create space but most of this was around the Charlton box and they were often left to pot from distance, most of which sailed over the bar. Given all the PR about Leeds I was surprised that no-one in their side stood out. Kalvin Phillips saw a lot of the ball on Charlton's left flank and did whip a number of decent crosses in but Sarr and Lockyer were waiting in the first-half and when they put us under scrutiny in the last ten minutes, it was the stalwart Chris Solly who popped up twice between lurking Leeds players to head on and out of play.

Leeds made two early second-half changes, one introducing Arsenal starlet, Eddie Nketiah, a once hopeful Charlton loan but he failed to show and little changed for the visitors. Chuks Anneke came on for Williams who had taken a knock but whom Bowyer may well have decided to rest ahead of the Swansea game in midweek. Like everyone else, I was surprised at his size and he at least looks like he could lead the line although he was again  played in a wide role. Field and Pearce came on in the final ten minutes as we sought fresh legs to keep chasing Leeds players as they tried to force the equaliser. A collective sigh of relief when the ref finally blew his whistle after five minutes of added time and time to celebrate a memorable victory even if it wasn't the free-flowing attacking football of my dreams.

Finally, I heard mutterings from several sources last night that "he will be gone in three weeks" and twice that an American consortium was in talks to end the Duchatelet nightmare. Given history, we have to be sceptical but it will happen one day and soon would be tremendous.

Sunday 15 September 2019

Welling United 1 v Wealdstone 2

Just after Midday yesterday, I wandered down Harvey Gardens and up to the bookies on Charlton Church Lane. The sun was shining and I stopped on numerous occasions to shake hands and exchange Charlton updates with old faces as well as to nod to many others I know less well but know nonetheless. Some were heading off to the Anchor and others to the Oak and I was sorely tempted but I had agreed to be at Park View Road for my first Wings match of the season. My Duchatelet boycott remains intact but I am unsure I can sustain it for much longer as I am increasingly of the opinion that I am missing it much more than Duchatelet is my money and it's failed thus far to influence him in the right direction.

I made the Wings bar by 2.15pm and enjoyed a couple of pints with stalwarts Tony and Bobby before we took our place on the steps behind the visitors goal that the Wings were attacking in the first half. My expectations were low. Welling had changed 90% of the squad during the Summer and manager Steve King, who engineered the play-off finish, had been replaced by owner Mark Goldberg. Goldberg has played manager previously and it didn't go too well but perhaps after watching King for a season he now feels he can emulate him. Results have been mixed thus far and the Wings are languishing in the bottom-half of the table.

However, the opening forty-five were a pleasant surprise. Wealdstone countered well which made me think that their early season success may have been built on speed and accuracy. The fact is though, Welling had so much possession and did so much pressing that counter-attack was the only option Wealdstone had. 

The Wings midfield was lead by the deep-lying Theo Widdrington who was rightly awarded man-of-the-match. His promptings in front of the giant pairing of Rob Swaine (Captain) and Ejiro Okosieme freed Cook on the left and McCallum on the right to raid with Coombes and Goldberg leading the line.

The opening chance fell to Coombes who timed his run to meet a free kick in from the right perfectly. Swaine and Okosieme had drawn the taller defenders a few yards further back so Coombes rose unchallenged to direct his header wide of the imposing Oxborough in the Wealdstone goal and inside the far post. Oxborough though moved quickly to his left and was airborne when he managed to paw the effort out. 

Anthony Cook cut in and flashed an effort over the bar as well but their weren't too many other clear cut chances. For their part, Wealdstone managed a low flashing drive that beat Wilks but also the far post. 

Into the second-half and attacking the Park View Road end, I anticipated a Wings opener but it didn't come. Oxborough kept out another Coombes effort (offside in any event) and when finally beaten buy an excellent low drive from Widdrington, we had to watch his effort curl away from Oxborough's finger-tips and thud against the upright. 

Wealdstone then scored from a corner in front of their 100-or so fans. Wilks blocked the initial header but the ball fell to a blue shirt to fire home from close range. Nil-one and Welling stepped it up but before they could equalise, a second for Wealdstone settled the result. Coombes did smack a penalty in off the bar for 2-1 but the table-toppers had done enough. The home fans weren't too happy and some complained about a lack of effort from Coombes and Cook which I thought was harsh and also of Goldberg's decision to withdraw Widdrington at 2-0 which didn't look like the right move. 

Back home before 6pm and I stopped with a few old faces outside the Oak to hear about Charlton's predictably disappointing Centenary performance against the Blues. Lyle Taylor may have made the difference but no-one else stepped up and my guess is Taylor will be out for the rest of this month and maybe October too. An early sign maybe of how much he will be missed if he leaves in the January transfer window. 

Monday 2 September 2019

The Bowyer Paradox

There's a rule-of-thumb in football that says don't consider the early season table until ten games have been played. Historically, that's a good yardstick for how the season will pan-out. That didn't stop me as a boy from eagerly adjusting my Shoot League Ladder after the first game of the season to show Charlton in a typically unrealistic position following a rare winning start to the season (having started at home) so I could begin the dream.

I still follow the ten-game mantra but it's impossible not to look at the Championship table after six games as Charlton fans and draw some startling conclusions. The most obvious is that we are, somehow, incredibly sitting in an unlikely second-place. Second, from following the games (from a distance for me), is that it's no fluke, we have been competitive in this division for the first time in twenty years despite all the logic suggesting that would not be possible before we kicked-off.

This impressive and heart-warming start is all the more amazing considering the relative state of the football club, it's operating budget, the owner's lack of ambition or interest and the high question-marks surrounding our medium term future. 

Home wins over Stoke and Brentford, away wins at Blackburn and Reading as well as draws at home to Forest and away at Barnsley, have seen Lee Bowyer's battling side take 14 points from a possible 18 and remain unbeaten in second-place. Confidence is high both amongst the players and increasingly so, once again, amongst the club's barely believing supporters who are already beginning to pick up the support levels from where we left off at the end of last season where we appeared to sweep all before us with a blooming chorus of 'allez, allez..' The team spirit and fight from last year remains and the new boys have evidently all bought into it. 

I think we are all largely agreed that Bowyer, Gallen and Jackson are the primary reason for this. They have managed again to pick up loans and free transfers as well as players prepared to play within their small budget who have ability but, as importantly, the right attitude to the game and whose collective output is far greater than the sum of their parts. In football management this really is the Holy Grail, especially outside the Top Six of the PL where managers can get by by playing fantasy football and simply buying proven top quality players and hoping they continue to perform. 

The paradox is that Bowyer & Co are managing this in spite of everything around them. We were told by Roland Duchatelet that Bowyer's contract wouldn't be extended this season because he hadn't accepted the offer he had been made and that he was being greedy asking for a Championship-sized increase. The fact that Duchatelet caved in that same day and secured Bowyer may appear extremely fortunate for the supporters. Maybe it was just a case that Duchatelet facing paying a similar amount for a new face if he had rejected Bowyer and acknowledging it wasn't worth the damage to supporter relations or the risk of hiring another in his long line of duds? 

The fact is Bowyer stayed and he did so knowing his budget would again be challenged and that he would have to fill the holes in his squad on the cheap as well as having to gear his team to compete at a higher level. Six games in and he has clearly demonstrated that he has managed that and is rightly receiving the plaudits for it.

Realistically, we cannot expect to hold on to an automatic promotion place or even seriously hope for a third successive play-off place. Finishing mid-table would represent significant success in the circumstances and would match the impressive Chris Wilder's first season back in the Championship two years ago as the Blades developed into a Championship-challenging side. 

However, given the progress Bowyer's Boys have made already, Charlton fans are daring to dream that we can have a go this season and once again upset the apple-cart. 

My decision to boycott matches from the start of the 2017-18 season was borne from a refusal to give any more money to a billionaire who was simply using it to cut his losses and under whom I was absolutely convinced we had no chance of any footballing progress. This was evident from his ongoing mis-management of the club but also because I was convinced he was quite happy for the club to operate in League One where his costs (and subsequent losses) were considerably less but also because I was equally convinced he did not want a return to the "financial graveyard" of the Championship and that he would act to prevent that. He proved me right when he failed to back Bowyer in January last year when we didn't get the missing striking jigsaw piece and, instead, he sold our joint top scorer. The fact that Bowyer defied the odds and won promotion was close to a fairytale.

This close season has followed Duchatelet form. He has cut his budget by allowing several of the better players to move on when better management a small investment could have kept them on. He has also cashed-in on youngster Joe Aribo and I believe he would have taken the money for Lyle Taylor had we been able to line-up a replacement on deadline day. That didn't happen but I fully expect him to cash in come January on Taylor whose head was clearly turned during the transfer window. We risk a deja vu then from last season when Grant moved on, and yet Bowyer completed the task in spite of Duchatelet and a who would rule out a repeat if we are still properly in the mix come New Year?

There is one other key difference that we have to consider in the unlikely situation that Bowyer is still trading punches with the heavyweights at the half-way stage. There is also the previously impossible prospect that Duchatelet might see a possible route to his desperate personal need to be able to sell the club without taking a stonking loss. A hitherto-to unlikely investment in the squad might just be a gamble he is willing to take even if it goes against his modus operandi and risks his determination to turn a profit and start to reduce his huge overall ownership losses. 

There is a long way yet to go but very few would seriously have predicted this start to the season without wishful thinking or naive bias. Bowyer also has me itching to return to The Valley to witness his ongoing miracle. I still don't want to give the Belgian Billionaire a bean but the prospect, however unlikely, that Bowyer could win a second promotion that might, ironically, get rid of Duchatelet once and for all is a tantalising prospect and begins to approach justifying the expenditure and change of mind. Every cell in my brain tells me this is impossible but the blood pumping through my heart reminds me of that incredible feeling at 5pm on 26th May.