Wednesday 26 January 2022

Time to face facts

I couldn't give a toss about the EFL Papa Johns Pizza Trophy. It's the definition of a Mickey Mouse cup competition. Played for the also-rans who are knocked out of the other two cup competitions early, they even tried to give it more kudos by extending the invitation to the U21 sides of Premiership clubs. It may work for the League Two sides who lose less money in it but it's a waste of time for all but the two teams who eventually find themselves in the final.

However, last night's humiliating exit at Hartlepool in the competition seems to be a milestone for Charlton Athletic Football Club. More than having finished our season in January, barring a still possible relegation battle, it really feels to me like this squad of players is finished. We have evolved over the last ten years into a bang-average League One side. Roland Duchatelet has a lot to answer for but even under him Lee Bowyer was able to assemble a decent side in which he instilled a never-say-die attitude. However, with no sustained investment and a careless transfer of ownership to ESI, we quickly lost that and were back to League One where, let's face it, we have struggled.

I hesitate from saying we have become a League One club, because I still believe we should be competing in the Championship. Our stadium and our declining home support still gives us cause for hope but neither kick the ball. That support will also be sorely tested next season, even if we retain our place in League One, as I expect us to. The thoughtless bluster of building bigger gates based on free tickets and the same poor football is over and we need to stop making fools of the club. The idea that our gates have been over 20,000 in recent months is for the birds. I think we all know that there is only one way to sustainably increase home gates and that is by playing attractive winning football. Something that has been in very short supply for the past two two years in particular.

The fact that the fans reaction to the defeat at 17th-placed Hartlepool is once again "why us?" belies the fact that we deserved it because the sum of the players sent out to represent us are simply an ordinary League One side. Some of them may have had decent Premier League or Championship careers, others may be considered prospects and we inevitably have a sprinkling of increasingly bewildered looking Academy graduates but collectively they are very average League One irrespective that we are over-paying them for what they deliver. 

Undoubtedly most of them can still put in a shift when the mood takes them but that flatters to deceive and as a team they can't hack it. No mental resilience, no sustained determination, little belief and too many really don't care enough to be playing at even this level. The litany of basic mistakes, week after week tell us that very clearly. The fact that we regularly find ourselves admiring opposition players and saying things like "Cheltenham aren't a bad side" is simply a sign of how poor we are - they are just doing the basics.

What we are having to witness week-after-week is just not good enough. Schoolboy errors, one after another. A casual acceptance as games slip away and a squad of players who seem to think that tweeting "it didn't go for us but we go again" somehow convinces fans to disbelieve what they have witnessed with their own eyes. The monotony with which this team have put in one stinker after another is depressing and heads should roll.

Some of our fans don't help either. We are so desperate for any success that players having a 15 minute purple patch or scoring a winning goal are somehow elevated literally to the status of the White Pele. It's so juvenile but a reflection of how detached we have become from the reality of the teams we have had and the players who have represented us in the past.

There is a broad acceptance by now that this season was doomed from the moment we were given the garbled nonsense about a recruitment policy designed to delay acquisition of a competitive squad until five or six games in because some genius thought it would allow us to swoop on the low-hanging fruit of unwanted Premier League youth. Not only did we get off on a losing streak but the low-hanging fruit ripened at Harry Arter and Elliott Lee. Arter couldn't even hold a place in our poor team and whilst Elliott Lee had a positive start, I think we can see why he's surplus to requirements at mighty Luton. Cameos aren't good enough.

Some of the signings we did make looked like they might pass muster on paper but it quickly became apparent that "HMS Piss The League" was drug-induced wishful thinking and Thomas Sandgaard's boast about blowing the league apart showed just how unqualified he is to be making player assessments. Some of them were also way short of what we have become accustomed to when Steve Gallen's role in selecting them looked bigger. Hopefully with the exit of Roddy, we can get back to that.

Tempted as I am, I will refrain from going through the playing staff one-by-one for now, because the message is simply that they aren't good enough. No-one wants to see an annual cull of the squad but until we get the core right, it's what we have to do. Fourteen of these players are out of contract by June and I really think we should struggle to make a case for retaining more than three or four of them at most. We also need to make some tough decisions on those who remain in contract. Some of them have also proven very clearly that they aren't ever going to play in a promotion challenging team and we need to deal with them and not just accept they are part of this squad for the next two or three years because nothing will change.

Johnnie Jackson needs to sort this out quickly or he will also begin to look like he is out-of-his-depth. Rotating half a dozen players who continue to fail to deliver the expected performance isn't helping. Players have to fight for their place and know that repeated basic mistakes or a lack of involvement or contribution mean you drop out until you have made a very strong case for a return. 

These players are earning a much better living than most of us and it's the job of the management team to ensure we get value-for-money and that the club is well represented. This lot are largely taking that money and it's far too comfortable. 

Thomas Sandgaard's ownership ambitions also face a severe test. It's going to take some very decent League One money to turn this around. The big question is, does he still have it and is he prepared to gamble? 

Saturday 22 January 2022

Charlton Athletic 2 v Fleetwood Town 0

Three important points this afternoon in a game reminiscent of the relegation scrap it was. The quality might not have been there but we did see a steely determination to compete and after having endured an early onslaught from the visitors, the game settled down and became increasingly less stressful to watch. 

The line-up reiterated that Johnnie Jackson looks wedded to a 3-5-2 formation. No Purrington,, no Matthews, just Blackett-Taylor high on the left and Jaiyesimi opposite him. That left us with Famewo, Inniss and Clare in defence and they struggled early on as Fleetwood made the running. Two early twenty-odd yard free-kicks screamed over our bar. A decent header from eight yards out and a right-wing cross from Paddy Lane which clipped the bar. 

After we forced our best chance of the first-half, when Elliott Lee saw his second attempt at goal superbly pushed out by a one-handed save low to the keeper's left, we finally came into the game. Lee had been anonymous up until that effort around the 36 minute mark and we were not making much progress down the flanks. Morgan and Dobson were busy scrapping in the middle but Fleetwood were playing their way through us up until then.

Following the restart and with the Addicks attacking the Covered End, we began to find a little bit more space and were able to keep the visitors looking over their shoulders. Our first goal came from a deep driven cross from Elliott Lee (I think) which Ryan Inniss rose to meet outside the back post and thumped a header across the six yard box where Mason Burstow was first to react and get his head across it to steer it in. I was really pleased for Burstow who clearly has so much yet to learn but who has still managed to keep nicking goals despite relatively few touches in games. That's his third and as long as he continues to poach the odd goal, his overall contribution is less important as he finds his way. His game will come and so will more goals. He eventually made way for Conor Washington and Elliott Lee did likewise for Alex Gilbey. 

It was a late Gilbey run across the box that lead to the second goal in added time. Albie Morgan had just missed a golden opportunity having tidied up outside the box, skipped his way into space and firing a low cross-shot which just missed the back post and a screaming Conor Washington. Gilbey's run and right-angled cut-back wasn't cleared fully and it fell to Morgan on the volley fifteen yards out. He drilled his shot home and was clearly delighted to make amends and have cemented his recent return to the team. 

The win lifts us a place or two but we remain only six points off the drop. There are plenty of sides between us and Morecombe though and it will take a major crash for us to let them all leapfrog us before May. The next three months of the season need to be about preparation for next year. Terry Skiverton will get to know the set-up and Johnnie Jackson needs to work out who he wants and who he doesn't. We will get to see Juan Castillo at left wing-back soon although the chances of him still being with us next season are slim. 

We have also been linked this week with a couple of other loans which may or may not happen next week. However, we look to have enough now with Aneke (didn't do an awful lot today) back to see the season out and I am unsure of the merits of giving game time to loanees whom we have no realistic prospect of signing beyond May. Jackson would be better off trying to get the midfield playing with something like the fluidity of the Plymouth and Ipswich home performances.

We have Portsmouth away and AFC Wimbledon at home next before a run of four very tricky looking fixtures. Bolton and Wigan away from home will be tough and then we face Oxford United and MK Dons who always battle at the Valley. I am banking on us raising our game once again here to ensure we keep putting points on the board.

Sunday 16 January 2022

Cheltenham Town 1 v Charlton Athletic 1

Us Charlton fans often believe that the Gods rarely smile on us. Unfair refereeing decisions and last minute goals against are what happens to us and we don't get a rub of the green. Common sense tells you that isn't really how it works and all fans feel similarly when they are hard done by. Yesterday's match proved that point as we stole a point that should have been beyond us well before the 96th minute.

That it was Chuks Aneke who got his breath on Inniss' near post flick on from a final corner was almost inevitable, in spite of his mixed performance. He wasn't alone, as we contrived to play horribly once again in front of 1550 travelling fans. 

Johnnie Jackson will be doing some soul searching at the moment. The change in our play across this group is puzzling and bitterly disappointing but it is something he needs to draw some conclusions from and them put a plan in place to address. Staying up is the prime objective but the close season is rapidly approaching and he will need to act decisively to remove this fundamental weakness from the squad.

The first-half was pitiful to watch as hard-working Cheltenham did the basics well and exposed us all over the pitch. Innis, Clare and Famewo had a collective stinker at the back. Inniss and Clare inexplicably passed to their opponents in space across the backline on a couple of occasions each and we were very lucky not to concede before we did. The distance between them was criminal and hard to understand. Famewo was once again playing far left and a bit further up field than his partners. Inniss was left centre-half and Clare had the whole right side to himself. It was a mess and a goal was inevitable.

MacGillivray was given an extra day off to be with his wife and new-born and I think we would all have given a collective 'ah' at the news that Henderson would be starting again. When Cheltenham scored courtesy of a carbon copy of Tuesday's first goal at Crewe it was more of an 'aarrgggghhhh!'

I thought Gilbey deserved to be dropped after his patchy showing on Tuesday but not sure I would have brought Morgan back in to do it. To be fair to him, he saw a lot of the ball but we were all over the place in midfield and there appeared to be no game-plan once again and precious little from wide positions. Matthews was back on the right wing which meant playing right-footed Jaiyesimi (and then Blackett-Taylor) on the left. Cheltenham shut them out and Aneke and Burstow were stranded.

Jaiyesimi did get one decent cross in during the first-half and Aneke should have got to it unmarked at the back post. He seemed to see it coming for several seconds and was close enough to reach it and to jump but he did neither. He also didn't win much elsewhere either and strangely he didn't seem to go for any headers. He did manage to prevent Cheltenham from going two-up before half-time when he was on our goal-line and somehow managed to clear a goal-bound header over the bar from a yard out and facing his own net. Cheltenham also managed a great goal-line clearance from our best chance of the half when Inniss flicked on a low near post header that beat Evans but was hooked off the line at the back post.

After the break and kicking towards an end packed with increasingly vocal and angry Charlton fans, there was certainly more urgency about our play but still no game-plan, no guile and still loads of frustrating errors. Cheltenham faded a little but they still created several better scoring chances than us and should really have set-up a two goal cushion. 

Aneke hooked a high ball over his head and it skimmed the bar from close range. Elliott managed a decent volley from distance but Evans clung onto it in the home goal. There had been a fair bit of stoppage time, especially in the first-half and the added six minutes gave us some final hope even if we were hardly battering their door down. A late, late corner saw it swing in to the near post where Ryan Inniss dived towards it and got a flick on across the near post where several bodies converged and there was Chuks Aneke for that hot breath touch which deflected the ball ever so slightly but just enough to creep in at the far post. 

It was the signal for ridiculously extravagant celebrations behind the goal and the side return, from where a dozen or so Charlton supporters were easily able to run on and make an arse of themselves as well as the club. It looked to all the world like we had managed a well-deserved winner, not a jammy equaliser. Not sure what the home crowd thought of it but I wouldn't have been impressed. The players also celebrated like they had managed to breach the Edersee dam after 90 minutes of constant bombardment without any luck. It was the sort of thing that makes me almost regret the point because you get the impression the players will learn nothing once again from their shambolic performance and that we will need to suffer further shocking performances and losses before they finally snap out of it and secure the points we need this season.

In terms of that soul-searching, Jackson needs to be having discrete conversations with non-performers whose contracts are up in the Summer and telling them it's now or never. Literally. Another poor performance and they can start looking for another club willing to carry them. That would make the Summer clear-out much easier and enable him to make clear very early on what replacements are required. Whatever happens, we need to find a few Winners who can set the standard for next season, provide on field leadership and ensure our performances next year are far more consistent than we have had to suffer this year. 

Friday 14 January 2022

Aneke returns

Positive news at last as we sign Chuks Aneke from Birmingham on a three-and-a-half year deal. Some fans are moaning at having paid £300k for him when he left for nothing at the end of last signing but you have to remember he was out-of-contract and we were never going to get a fee for him. The three-and-a-half year deal is more eye-popping but at 28 he would be looking for some security and the term might be offset by lower wages - he will certainly have taken a big step-down from Championship money.

His move to Birmingham clearly hasn't worked out. Only two goals in 18 appearances this season after moving further down the pecking order when the Blues signed Troy Deeney. However, he has featured in their last four games and should be match fit.

Given the risks involved in signing any striker, Aneke looks a shrewd move. He knows the club and we know he will score goals at this level. That is what we need desperately right now in the continuing absence of Stockley and we shouldn't under-estimate the threat of relegation if we don't start scoring goals again and winning games. I would expect him to play tomorrow but it may be from the bench, although that's really how we have seen him used most effectively for us previously. 

For me, however, he is another 'second striker' and we already have Stockley and Washington in that mould. We still need that main striker who is going to get 20 plus goals if we are ever to get out of this division. Just look at the top two, Rotherham and Sunderland, where both have strikers heading for 20 plus this season (Smith 14 and Stewart 18 respectively). Chuks also has a poor injury record and that alone tells you we need more firepower, certainly ahead of next season. 

Aneke will provide stronger competition for Stockley and Washington and will mean we don't have to rely on inexperienced youngsters. Hopefully that will save Burstowe from what could become a dispiriting loss of confidence if over-played. It will also likley lead to a change for Davison who has struggled to make an impression in the first team.

Credit to Thomas Sandgaard too. He has been called out on this and has responded. The real cost of Aneke's deal will be well north of a million pounds over the term (guessing closer to £1.6m). A cheaper and riskier option may have been to go for a short-term loanee. I fear that could be it in this window, which I think might be another missed opportunity, but at least we have addressed the current emergency. 

Thursday 13 January 2022

Crewe Alexandra 2 v Charlton Athletic 1

In the last few days I have been fearing the worst about the upcoming run of games and was not confident of getting anything at Crewe. Prior to kick-off, however, when I saw our line-up I felt more reassured and even checked our price at Bet365.

Our inability to score goals without Stockley was my main concern but the return of Conor Washington and starting with the more experienced Leko rather than Davison or Burstowe gave me false hope we could get in front and stay there. As much as our team selection may have raised spirits, my hopes were really founded upon playing a poor Crewe side struggling in the relegation places.

The game opened well enough with Johnnie Jackson's side dominating possession and appearing to be playing quickly from back to front with some freedom. We bossed things for 25 minutes without creating a goal-scoring chance but Crewe were beginning to work our our game-plan and began to win more of the ball. Our back three and the wing-backs when in possession in defence, were playing long passes into midfield. Early on Dobson, and particular Lee and Gilbey were profiting on these and working balls to Jaiyesimi, Wasington and Leko in advance wide positions. Those three were struggling to beat their man and attacks petered out. Crewe then began to step-in on our balls out of defence and suddenly found themselves with space and time to attack us. 

They created the first good chance which was fired wide with the goal beckoning and shortly afterwards, Stephen Henderson was forced to push a ball out wide from a diving save. Soon after, Henderson was forced into a challenge deep in his area on a Crewe forward and the player was sent sprawling in what looked at first glance like a penalty. The ref waved it away for a corner and the replay showed Henderson got his fingers to the ball a split second before the he brought the Crewe man down. No matter, from the corner Crewe drew another stop from Henderson but he spilled the shot and Finney was on hand to knock in the rebound.

We failed to respond to the goal. We kept up with the 35 yard passes out of defence and Crewe continued to pick us off. The killer second goal came before half-time and it was a howling defensive error as they headed home a left-wing cross unopposed. 

I decided to spend the rest of the night with my wife watching evening TV, so am not qualified to give any opinion on the second-half other than to say we managed a consolation goal through Mason Burstowe - his league debut goal and something that may become more significant over time than it was last night.

I note that our substitutions were again like-for-like as Jackson stuck with his 3-5-3 shape and continued with our tactical approach that wasn't working. The 3-5-2 formation has served us well in terms of enabling us to firm up our defence but without Stockley as a spearhead, I think we need to be thinking about a 4-4-2 again and focus on creating goalscoring opportunities through the middle than persisting with crosses that we don't seem to be able to win. Washington rarely gets up for a ball and I can't recall seeing Leko make a header. Davison and Burstowe aren't ready to mix it in the air with established centre-halves either.

The bigger issue for me from last night is again one of leadership. Pearce and Famewo often call the shots but there is precious little ahead of them. Gilbey or Lee should be bossing midfield but both are quiet and often disappear for spells. Dobson was great once again in the first half, playing in front of the back four but he was by-passed in the second-half. 

If we had brought in a goal-scorer during the first ten days of this window, I think we would have scored first last night and won the game. Our failure to do so is negligent. You wouldn't go with only one goalkeeper, so why do it with only one striker? The current four match losing league spell is becoming an issue, as is our form away from home - it's not been great all season. The performance last night also speaks, once again, to the Summer recruitment failure. There is nothing we can do about that but the transfer window is open and we should have taken steps already to address the glaring issue upfront.

Johnnie Jackson sounded pissed-off last night and I hope he is being brutally honest with his players. The majority of them aren't going to see better playing days after Charlton and loads of them are out-of-contract in the Summer. Plenty too have been given second chances with us and shouldn't be allowed a third. It's galling to see players going through the motions when you know they are amongst the best paid in this poor league.

If Thomas Sandgaard thinks he can keep his money in his pocket until the Summer, he is taking an unacceptable risk based on what we are currently witnessing. A humiliating finish to this season will cost him plenty next Summer. Fans have been buying season tickets in this division because they have anticipated watching a winning promotion campaign. When that hope fades as it surely is now, numbers will nose-dive and we risk cementing our current position as one of London's worst three clubs. An unthinkable relegation would put us on a par with only Leyton Orient and we would face the prospect next season of becoming the Capital's lowest ranked side for the for first time in history. "Doing a Charlton" would take on a whole new meaning.

Monday 10 January 2022

Charlton Athletic 0 v Norwich City 1

Norwich City came into this match on the back of five successive defeats. They sit bottom of the Premier League and another relegation threatens. On Wednesday they go to West Ham for another Premier League fixture so their task yesterday was to get in and out of the Valley with minimal damage. Neither Billy Gilmour or Teemu Pukki started as the Canaries set-out to get a result with minimal effort.

It really was a huge open goal of a game in which I believe Norwich were there for the taking. A very rare opportunity these days to progress beyond the 3rd Round of the F A Cup and to take a Premier League scalp. Cambridge United had shown us the way on Saturday in a much tougher fixture.

Sadly, Johnnie Jackson was ham-strung from the off. Once again Jayden Stockley was missing due to his hip injury but Conor Washington also failed to appear due to injury. Not only are we desperately short of goal-scorers upfront but these two also regularly miss matches. The sight of Leko and Burstowe up top told you all you needed to know about how this game would play out. Leko is an honest lower league journeyman and more of a winger than a striker. Mason Burstowe was making one of only a handful of starts as an fledgling 18 year old. I have no complaints against either as they toiled away but also no complaints that we didn't score again. We did create chances and Elliott Lee or Alex Gilbey might have done better with efforts from decent positions but it always looked like we were going to fall short.

Half-time was the signal for Dean Smith to send Pukki on and after that it was really only a matter of could Norwich get a goal. When it did arrive late on, it was Pukki who carried the ball into our defence and set-up Rashica to score. In typical Charlton fashion we saved our best chance for the last attack of the game when Purrington headed onto their bar in a late goalmouth scramble.

Our play-off ambitions effectively ended last week against Wycombe Wanderers and we are now out of the F A Cup. It will allow us to concentrate on the EFL Trophy which is realistically the only positive interest left this season and without a forward threat, that too might be short-lived.

I have argued on here that we have needed more goal-scoring power all season and even recently was hoping that the right front man might give us a strong finish to the season and leave us in a reasonable position for next year. However, looking around the squad yesterday was a bit disheartening and I wonder if what we really need is another large clearout? That was typified by the substitutions we made. Fresh legs may have been needed, certainly in the case of Ryan Inniss, but the sight of Gunter, Davison and Blackett-Taylor trooping on after 70 minutes was depressing. Gunter did nothing, Davison drew a booking for Hanley and Blackett-Taylor hoisted a cross over the Norwich crossbar. Bringing them all on at the same time smacked of Jackson making a point to Sandgaard but perhaps it was all he could do? I am not a fan of rewarding failure and none of them have done anything positive for ages. And then we brought Kirk on. His only part was a howling mis-control in their box which blew a promising attack. The lad is so shot that he now visibly throws his hands in the hand and screams every time he loses possession - it's really not doing him or us any favours.

So, for me, the season is over, or it should be. We are now down in 14th and worryingly, only six points from the drop-zone. Compared to the 14 points from 6th place, the only remaining excitement this season could be another flirtation with relegation. Perhaps we should bring in a couple of strikers now just to make sure things don't go from bad to worse? Season Two of Sandgaard's Five Year Plan for the Premier League is in tatters. It started badly with a flawed recruitment plan and perseverance with a manager who had lost the plot. We simply have to get this right next season and hoist ourselves to the right end of the table or we will do more permanent damage to the standing of the club. If Sandgaard has the money to do this, he really needs to use it. Trying to throw a double-six again won't do.

Saturday 1 January 2022

Charlton Athletic 0 v Wycombe Wanderers 1

First day of the New Year. I was despondent to read Johnnie Jackson online pre-match suggesting we might be cautious in the January transfer window. I am tired of going on about it but we are in glaringly desperate need of another striker who can cut it at League One/Championship level. As if to reiterate the point, we arrived for a pre-match pint to discover that our only current striker, Jayden Stockley, would be missing again, this time due to an injury sustained in training this week. They kept that quiet. To rub salt into the wounds, Josh Davison was back in the starting line-up. I told my mate, who was down from Aberdeen for the game, that we would be lucky to score without Stockley leading the line. 

The first-half was entirely predictable. Wycombe came to frustrate and we could only huff and puff, with no cutting edge. Davison and Washington failed to win a ball throughout. Several crosses from Jaiyesimi floated harmlessly across the face of goal and and everything played up to the front two was easily snuffed out. Davison was forced to drop into midfield to try and get the ball but whenever he did, all he could do was steer the ball straight back to Pearce or Dobson or whoever had given it to him. Our sole effort was a curling shot from Elliott Lee which Stockdale did well to save.

Sadly, that came after Wycombe had taken the lead after thirty-odd minutes after the old stager Sam Vokes had managed to get on the end of a goal-line cut-back and fire high into our net from close range.

Once Wycombe had the lead we saw a virtuoso display of shirt-pulling, time-wasting and general 'gamesmanship.' Unfortunately, when you can't lay a glove on your opponent and they get their heads in front, you have to be prepared to suffer this.

Mercifully, Davison was pulled at half-time and Jonathon Leko was brought on to fire a Covered End fightback. To be fair to Leko, he managed that and for twenty-five minutes we put the Chairboys under some sustained pressure which lifted the crowd. Lee and Gilbey were suddenly pressing the midfield and we were playing some decent stuff without actually managing to find a forward in space to pull the trigger. Wycombe doubled-down on the shirt-pulling and time-wasting and eventually they broke our momentum. 

As the game ebbed away, Johnnie Jackson made a substitution that proved beyond doubt that he must see what his biggest challenge is - he brought Ryan Inniss on, not to replace the booked Sean Clare but to go upfront and try to win a header. It was a desperate last chance and it nearly paid off with the last action of the game as Inniss steered a header from a free-kick goalward but Wycombe had been battling too hard to throw it all way at the death and they managed to get it clear. 

So, another poor start to another year but at least the need for that additional goal-scorer has been made abundantly clear. We really need two more strikers so we can cope with injuries and suspensions but beggars can't be choosers. If we fail to bring someone in pronto, this season will fizzle out by next month and if that happens we will face another pre-season of wholesale change and another big gamble for next year. 

We have shown that we have the nucleus of a side that can compete in this division but we have to build on it now and leave ourselves with fine-tuning in the close season and not more re-building.