Sunday 18 February 2024

Very Welcome Point And Performance

It may be a reflection on us, our inflated view of our club, but there are few fixtures in this league where going into it we feel very much the underdogs. But this was one of them. Anything from the game would be a bonus. We did get something and on top put in a performance which gave greater signs of the way that we assume Jones wants us to play the rest of the season, involving less backward/square passing but rather getting the ball upfield faster and looking to press in that area. We did I think catch out a rather complacent – and let’s not forget weakened (it was nice to not have to confront Santos for example) – Bolton, especially in the first half, and deserved our point. Three - via a late winner from a fierce Aneke shot - would have been wonderful, but each time Bolton went ahead or drew level we feared they would go on to win the game, which would have been cruel. So we grab the point and move on.

The team contained surprises. Having substituted him during Tuesday night’s game, Jones opted to drop May from the starting line-up; and there was no place in the squad for Bakinson, or for Watson(L), while Ramsay’s absence was assumed to have been down to him not being available. Instead, in a 3-5-2, in front of Isted would be Edmunds-Green, Jones and Thomas, with Watson(T) and debutant Small as the wing-backs. Dobson would be partnered by the returning Coventry, with Anderson kept in the more forward position, and Ladapo back to start alongside Kanu. With Camara, Campbell, May and Aneke on the bench we had plenty of forward options, less in the way of defensive cover, just Gillesphey and Edun, for a game in which we would surely need our back five to be as resolute as possible.

I have to say the first 15 minutes of the game I wasn’t fully concentrating as there was a coq au vin which had to be prepared for the evening. From a distance it seemed as though Small’s first contribution might have been to let them in for an early chance but he (and we) got away with that one. But once I’d settled in it didn’t take long for us to fall behind, to another example of our defensive weakness. There seemed no apparent danger from a throw on their left side, but the guy was allowed the space to send in what you have to say was a ball right on the money, into the near post area inviting someone to get on the end of it. That someone should have been a defender, most obviously Thomas, but he’d started to move out and was caught on the wrong side as their forward advanced, unable to make a meaningful challenge. All their guy had to do was get something on it to divert the ball past Isted.

It was disappointing after what seemed to have been a reasonable start. But we didn’t have long to dwell on it as just a few minutes later we were level. Small received the ball on our left, checked inside, and sent in a peach of a cross. It cleared their first defender and seemed tailor-made for Ladapo to head home unmarked. He managed to get nothing on it, but with their keeper having to cover for that prospect the ball just continued on its journey beyond him and into the net. One of those when you start to think that after all it might be your day and a goal on his debut for Small.

Bolton were stung, but still seemed to be playing within themselves, not being able to dictate play as our midfield did the hard yards, even if it involved a yellow card or two (usually for kicking the ball away). I had noticed that when Bolton scored the celebrations were rather more along the lines of normal order being restored rather than jubilation, and our equaliser seemed like an affront to them. If that was the case, when we went ahead before the break, once again in rather fortuitous circumstances, added injury to insult.

Kanu managed to make an interception in a good position and his attempt to play the ball across was put behind for a corner. This was played short and then a low ball was sent across the area, looking like a training ground move. If it was something went wrong in communication as nobody initially moved out for the shot. Instead it continued on until Jones met it on the turn, sending in a shot which went between or under a few and just beyond their keeper’s dive.

Glory be, this was not in the script. But if anything the break for half-time benefited Bolton as they were able to regroup, with probably some choice words exchanged in the dressing room. They made a substitution and came out for the second half in clearly more determined fashion. With greater intensity we found it more difficult to clear our lines effectively and it wasn’t especially surprising that after just six minutes of the second period they equalised.

Their guy received the ball on the edge of our area, to be confronted by Dobson. He moved to go on the outside, checked back, outside again, checked back etc. Finally Dobson bought the dummy and seemed to lose his footing. That enabled the guy to do what he had wanted all along, to shift the ball onto his right foot with the space ahead opened up. He was able to pick his spot, curling the effort beyond Isted. They would say an excellent piece of skill; for our part, as pointed out on CATV, the ballet between the two went on long enough for another Charlton player to have moved up to assist Dobson by cutting off the inside channel.

In the period after that equaliser Bolton threatened to put us to the sword. Kanu and Coventry picked up yellows, adding to the list (Jones, Dobson) – and by now raising concerns that sooner or later someone would get a second. So it was to most people’s surprise when just past the hour we took the lead again.

Kanu was again involved, this time intercepting to somehow get the ball across. That was cleared but we recycled it and a cross to the far post saw an ariel contest which saw their guy land, evidently, on his backside, seemingly rather painfully. He then tried to con the ref by feigning a head injury, rather giving himself away by holding his arms out in appeal. We, justifiably, kept playing. Small got in a scuffed shot which dropped for Kanu, who hit it on the turn in off the post. Bolton protested, but the ref got that one right.

Bolton responded and upped the pace again and we did start to look tired, the focus moving to when Jones might decide on replacements. If he was making up his mind the move came too late to prevent us conceding again. With some slick passing they created space for a guy to get to the byline on our left side; and when the low cross came in for the second time in the game our defenders were behind the play and another forward was left to complete a tap-in from close range.

Still 20 minutes of normal time left on the clock. Jones made a triple substitution, with Gillesphey, Camara and Aneke coming on for Coventry, Dobson and Ladapo, with Edmunds-Green moving forward into midfield and Anderson dropping back. Taking off both Dobson and Coventry may have been influenced by their yellow cards (Coventry had just committed another foul which fortunately had gone unpunished) but it was also a vote of confidence in these others to see out the job.

Bolton did almost get a fourth as the guy who scored their second found himself in a similar position, only this time to make a mess of the shot. On 85 minutes May was introduced for the understandably knackered Kanu, time enough for him to pick up a yellow for time-wasting; but when the board went up it showed nine extra minutes, too long for comfort. But we had the best chance to win the game in this period as Camara played in on for Aneke. The angle was tight, but he sent in a fierce shot which looked goal-bound until their keeper got a hand to it to turn it over. There was some panic defending for us, some injury time-outs for Isted, but we did manage to avoid another last-gasp goal against.

The point and the performance all constituted positives, although I don’t really buy the ‘best performance of the season’. I kept thinking back to the November draw away at Portsmouth. Had a check and just three of the 11 that started that game started yesterday. So I’d say it was the best this new team has played. The opposition, though missing some key players, was very strong and benefited from far greater coordination. We matched that with effort, in all areas of the pitch, married to a simple but effective game-plan, with Anderson of far more use in the advanced position against opponents such as Bolton than against Lincoln, who were happy to concede possession. The criticisms were allowing them two tap-ins, also that of our six yellow cards three were for kicking the ball away; you’d have thought that once the first was given for that we would have learnt the lesson.

There’s going to need to be the same level of desire and drive against Portsmouth and Derby – and of course thereafter. I don’t think the choices Jones is making now, in terms of personnel and tactics, are set in stone. We wait to see what he opts for when the emphasis switches away from getting something from the game to getting the victories we need to stay up.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Some Positives But Not The Points

Screw the game, screw the performance, just get the points! That was pretty much the message ahead of last night’s game. Only we didn’t get them. The outcome could have been better, could have been worse - which left us instead to focus on the positives to be taken – and the main one was pretty obvious – as well as what Jones might have learnt, especially as the starting team put out contained some adjustments and experiments.

That team showed five changes from the ultimately limp defeat at Reading. Out went Gillesphey (who had gone off injured at the break on Saturday) and Edun, both to the bench, Coventry and Watson(L), neither making the squad, and Ladapo, to the bench. In came Edmunds-Green to accompany Jones and Thomas in the central defensive three, Ramsay to operate as the right-sided wing-back, with Watson(T) switching to the left, Dobson, reinstalled as captain, to partner Bakinson, plus the real surprise of Anderson playing a more advanced role. Kanu came in to start to partner May. And on the bench there was the very welcome sight of Aneke. With him, Ladapo, Camara and Campbell available, we did have options to change the game from the bench.

Any optimism on that front was curbed by a poor first-half showing, one which highlighted failings in both boxes. We created little of note – a Bakinson nod down which Kanu couldn’t convert, a low shot from close range from Bakinson which was comfortably saved, and another from him from further out which went wide – and Lincoln, despite being content to stay behind the ball and concede possession (most of it going square and back), looking the more threatening when they did attack, exploiting uncertainty in our back line. And they took the lead, not long before the break, with their only effort on target of the half. A ball in from their left produced a mistimed header back out by Dobson, which was collected by Hackett-Fairchild, who took it beyond an unbalanced challenge and drilled the shot low off the turf and into the net. Dispiriting but all too familiar.

We had failed to take the game by the scruff of the neck, despite its obvious importance for us. As so often there had been no lack of effort, rather a lack of bravery in choices (Ramsay excepted) and of precision and pace. All the discussion at half-time was about how soon Chuks might appear.

There were no changes to start the second half, but we only had to wait until just after the hour for Aneke to appear. And it was for May. Now nobody is downplaying how important he is for us, but we have to acknowledge that for whatever reason he’s been looking jaded and out of sorts of late. I noted down that a couple of decent balls into their box had found no-one, largely because May was not getting into the areas which he had been, just appeared too late. A brave decision by Jones but an understandable one (the alternative, as suggested by Curbs on CATV, was to move him back to a No.10 role).

Almost immediately Aneke was causing problems, just with his presence. But before we could start to anticipate an equaliser we came close to going two behind, which might have killed the game off, as at Reading. Anderson fouled a guy moving forward. It was a fair way out, but the free kick was touched to one side and their guy hit a screamer. It beat Isted but came back off the outside of the post (possible he had it covered if it had been on target).

That was to be Lincoln’s final effort as an attacking force. On 70 minutes we made a double change, with Ladapo and Camara coming on for Kanu and Bakinson, and in no time at all we were level. A ball forward was met by a bustling Aneke, but Ladapo took it on from him, steadied himself, and sent a powerful shot through defenders and the keeper’s outstretched hands into the net. It was the equal of their effort.

The final 30 minutes (including 10 of stoppage time) were all about whether or not we could fashion a winner. The increasing pressure saw the game get edgy, with Lincoln not averse to rolling around on the floor and occasional handbags to try to break up play. Ramsay went down with what seemed to be cramp but may have turned into something else and was replaced by Edun, with Watson switching back to the right side. He was to be instrumental in the closing stages as we focused on getting balls into the box (usually too close to their keeper).

Right at the last we finally created the opening that might have won the game. The ball broke inside the box for Edun to be through on goal, albeit from a narrowish angle. But their keeper spread himself and made the save, and with that the points were shared.

It was far from pretty but at least with the reinforcements in the second half we overpowered them and came close to winning the game. That can’t gloss over a weak first-half display, during which Lincoln were seldom threatened and of course took the lead. What did we learn from that? That May needs to rediscover his zest and focus his energy on putting the ball in the net. That the experiment of asking Anderson to play an advanced role, presumably to provide energy and press high up, didn’t really work (not his fault). If the opposition is happy to sit behind the ball you need more guile, or pace down the flanks, to open them up. That Ramsay seems a breath of fresh air, hopefully he does not need a spell on the sidelines. And of course that Aneke, for however long he can spend on the pitch, changes our attacking threat.

We wanted/needed four or six points from the last two games. We got one. So be it. We know what’s coming up now: away at Bolton, home to Portsmouth, away at Derby. For sure we’ll be the underdog in each of the games and getting anything out of them will be a bonus. But hell, they aren’t supermen! Jones and his team will need to come up with plans for each of the games to try to counter the opposition’s main threats, perhaps looking to just stay in games until the later stages when we might be able to hit them with the changes. Wherever we find ourselves in the league at the end of this month, which will be primarily down to the results of others, will be far from the end of the story, so the other imperative is getting minutes into those returning and not picking up fresh serious injuries, since it will be all hands to the deck in March.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Bring It On

Just what are we to make of the Dobson affair? The negative interpretation would be it marks the culmination of a mismanaged transfer window, with complacency over the relegation risk behind the decisions taken. Alternatively – and not necessarily contradicting this – the U-turn on actually selling Dobson is the acknowledgement of a mistake and an attempt to correct it. Everyone makes mistakes but the far greater sin is not accepting them as such and not trying to do something about it.

Whether the decision not to take some cash for Dobson now – and presumably see him depart as a free agent in July – proves to be a good one really depends on him. It’s reasonable to infer that he felt alienated and disappointed by the new contract being offered to him by us, that he ended up embracing a move to Hungary both mentally and it seems physically (by preparing the relocation of his family), and that there has to be a question mark as a result over his full commitment to our cause for the rest of the season. This is despite what we know of the guy and have seem from him since he joined us. He wouldn’t be human if all that has gone on hasn’t affected his attitude, the question being whether he can quickly ‘get his mind right’.

That said, I hope he places some value on his legacy as a Charlton player. He has the appreciation and admiration of I’m sure all Addicks, which will only increase if he comes back into the team and helps guide us to safety. In a short playing career perhaps these things don’t matter, but he must know that his performances now will be scrutinised in terms of commitment and if he were to come up short, perhaps not feature regularly, it would impact on how he is remembered and treated on any return. He must know that Chris Solly did more than just blot his copybook by refusing to play post-Covid, whatever the circumstances and reasons, as well as Lyle Taylor. It is absurd that Scottie Parker gets booed when back at The Valley as a manager (he was and should be regarded as a Charlton legend), but it underlines that how a player leaves a club does have a lasting effect. I hope Dobson recognises that and wants to leave us with our unqualified gratitude and affection.

As for our club’s management, while there are extenuating circumstances, what has been done since the start of the year reflects poorly on them. By the time the January window opened, after a very disappointing December, the focus had shifted, away from strengthening in areas to try to get into the top six to looking to next season. The task was for sure complicated by both our captain and main attacking threat possibly leaving if we wanted to avoid them walking away for nothing in the summer. What we have ended up with is a recipe for disaster.

The players brought in all looked good on paper, they may go on to have great careers for us. But the influx was balanced by a similar number exiting left, including Blackett-Taylor (I have no idea if he was refusing to play but, as with Dobson, accepting £300k in return for him is bad business if we end up going down), Fraser (here too seems he wanted to move to Scotland for personal reasons), Campbell(C), whose departure along with that of CBT and Kirk stripped us of options out wide, just Campbell(T) now. Dobson’s absence and the injury to Hector meant that newcomers were unavoidably thrown in together, the formation changed, and to add to the chaos the manager – cited by so many players coming in as a factor in their thinking but one who had lost the crowd at least – sacked before the window closed. And what was a very disappointing December has of course been extended through January and into February.

It's not a tough task facing Nathan Jones, it’s now a massive one. The bookies at least have clearly written off Carlise and Fleetwood, both heavily odds-on for relegation; and Cheltenham are also still odds-on to join them. But just who ends up taking the fourth spot seems a very open question. Seems the bookies still fancy Reading to take it, which looks rather out of date. We’re still around 3/1, pretty much on a par with Shrewsbury, Burton and Port Vale. It really has come to this.

I’ll admit I just don’t really know enough about Jones to draw any conclusions, although bringing in Paul Hart to support him surely has to be seen as positive and astute. It’s really going to be a case of ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ (and if I hear another person distort that saying and make it utterly meaningless with ‘the proof is in the pudding’ another thing is going to go through the window). It’s safe I think to say that all Addicks were somewhere between satisfied and delighted with the appointment. Some will have had others as a preferred choice, but out of all the names bandied about I’d guess that Jones would have been in just about everyone’s top three.

If there’s a sense of hesitation it is more down to the number of times we’ve been promised the new messiah over recent years than anything to do with Jones himself. Duchatelet may have picked new managers from among his cohorts until he finally lost interest (and in came Slade and after him Robinson); Sandgaard, having chosen Adkins and later disposed of JJ, went all-in for Garner - and when he failed may have come to the realisation that it was time to move on, that he might not have the Midas Touch after all. Now the new owners, having been instrumental it seemed in the selection of Holden, excitedly unveiled Appleton just months ago. So it’s hard to get worked up about the next one on the conveyor belt. When the joke started circulating about Klopp having decided to leave Liverpool because the Charlton job was available again my first thought was ‘no, would be a terrible choice; just how desperate would we feel if he came to The Valley and even he got sacked after six months having failed to turn us around?’

Well that may be the bad news, but frankly none of it matters. Nobody’s interested (yet) in a blame game for a still avoidable disaster. Jones begins the job with the backing of all of us, which is as it should be. Camara’s return was perhaps the one bright spark from Saturday and tonight we wait to see if Dobson is back in the fold and whether Aneke is ready to play some part. Hopefully Hector will be available again soon, since so far at least the incoming defenders haven’t looked like leaders/coordinators of a defence. We’re up against a side in decent form but we know what needs to happen. Whoever gets out on the pitch, the time for excuses is over. In the words of the great Peachy Camehan, “it’s time to polish up your buttons and brasses, shove ramrods up your jacksie, and act bold”. Bring it on.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Quick Decisions And Fast Improvement Needed

No questioning the importance of this one, for us in particular, with the winless run having reached 12 and a league position of 19th, plus some tough fixtures coming up - although when you’re on a run which has included failures to beat Port Vale, Burton (twice), Bristol Rovers and Cambridge just what constitutes an easy fixture is hard to say. But we were against opponents who would undoubtedly have been boosted by their midweek win at Stevenage, which took them out of the bottom four, with two wins and two draws in their last four. Throw in the wildcard factor of our possible ‘new manager bounce’, plus the backing of a substantial away support, and you had the makings of an unpredictable six-pointer.

We may have turned them over 4-0 at The Valley, a result which at the time took us to four points off the play-offs, but that was back in October and even then it had taken us almost an hour to get in front. Although we merited the victory, the final score flattered us. Indeed, a look back at the game made for sobering reading. We opened the scoring from a Blackett-Taylor cross for Aneke to head home, with the game also featuring Tedic, Fraser, and Leaburn. Would anyone say we are stronger now?

What we ended up with was another disappointment, a sobering one. In a scrappy, error-ridden contest we lost because we were not clinical enough to take one of the few half-chances we created and not strong enough at the back to keep them out for a full game. Not good enough in both boxes is not exactly a recipe for footballing success. And perhaps worse than that, we ended up clueless as to how to play to strengths as we don’t really know what they are, in terms of both personnel and formation. All played out by a group which looked as if it had just been thrown together and placed under a new manager, which is of course the reality of the situation.

The team selected by Jones contained some surprises. As against Derby there was no sign of Dobson (and this time really no mention of him). Isted replaced Maynard-Brewer in goal, harsh on the latter but a judgement call. And Jones returned to the starting X1 in place of Ness (who might also feel hard done by as he had a reasonable game against Derby) in the central defensive three alongside Thomas and Gillesphey. Watson(L) and Edun were the wing-backs in a retained 3-5-2 while in midfield Edmonds-Green moved to the bench, with Watson(L) coming in to replace him alongside Coventry and Bakinson, with Ladapo and May up front. On the bench there were returns for both Anderson and long-term absentee Camara, with Fiorini not making the squad.

As so often of late we began the game brightly, dominating possession and dictating the tempo, albeit not causing them any problems. It wasn’t to last as Reading gradually got into the game and over the first half probably shaded it in terms of good chances, with us ending up without an effort on target and with Isted having been called on to make a couple of good saves.

Both sides coughed up possession cheaply and from a couple of those times we had our best moments, with Watson(L) sliding a ball through for May, who waited an age for it to sit right for him to shoot which gave the time for a defender to get across, then later Watson(T) played in Ladapo, who cut inside and got in a shot which caused the net to billow – but only because it had been deflected behind and bounced back to hit the netting. For a glorious two seconds I really thought we had scored. But again those two moments for Reading early on a corner returned to the taker saw him send in a shot turned over by Isted, then a long ball was missed by us and found a guy in space, only for his early effort to be saved by Isted and equally important he managed to palm the rebound away. And shortly before the break they caused chaos in our box as we failed to clear, the threat ending when their forward took out two defenders trying to reach the cross. Added to those moments were a fair shout for handball against Thomas in our box, one which the replays at half-time showed could easily have been given.

I trust that doesn’t make the first half sound exciting. In truth it was very poor fare between two sides which struggled to string passes together and seemed more intent on keeping the other at bay than taking risks. At half-time my abiding thought was that the game had 0-0 written all over it, but that meant that if one side did take the lead it would be crucial.

We made what seemed to be an enforced change at the interval, with Edmonds-Green (getting the nod ahead of Ness) coming on for Gillesphey, who had taken a knock to the head. That changed nothing and quite frankly the first 20 minutes of the second half was a good opportunity to go and make a cup of tea – and take a long time about it. Poor passing, balls into the area under- or overhit, plenty of endeavour from both teams but precious little cohesion. And then in five minutes the game turned as we missed probably our best chance to date – as a free kick dropped for Bakinson around the far post but he was unable to bring the ball under control or get in a decisive strike – and shortly after they went ahead.

Long throw into the box not dealt with decisively, it sat up for their guy to hit it on the turn across Isted. Well taken but once again just soft from our perspective. That was the cue for Kanu to enter the fray for Ladapo, but his first meaningful touch was probably to prevent us from equalising. A Watson ball in from the right seemed to be going through to an unmarked Bakinson to poke into the net only for Kanu to manage to make contact and divert it away from his path. And on 75 minutes the game was up as we went 2-0 down. Another long throw, this one headed on, Watson failed to get any power or distance on his header away, and the ball dropped nicely for their guy to volley home into a similar spot to the first one.

We might have got back in the game when a long ball was missed by their defender and Kanu was able to take it on, but his shot was comfortably saved. Camara and Campbell were introduced, for Coventry and Watson(L), for the final 10 minutes or so, but quite frankly nobody was bothering to work out what that meant for the formation as Reading, like Derby a week ago, saw the game out quite comfortably, our only bright spot being a good cameo from Camara.

When a manager says that the positives from the game were that he learnt a lot you pretty much know there weren’t any. There were flashes from players, most often Watson(L) and especially Camara, and there was no lack of effort. Rather at the back we continued to look like a group of strangers, a midfield trio of Coventry, Bakinson and Watson(L) doesn’t look like a particular productive mix, while Ladapo and May are generally feeding off scraps and both now looking in need of a goal.

We’ve gone from being a team playing 4-3-3, with the division’s leading goalscorer and the top player for assists, which shipped too many goals to be competing for promotion to one stymied by 3-5-2/5-3-2 – as the wing-backs are not providing the necessary attacking threat, central midfield is not cohesive or providing any goals, the front two are still working out how to play together (with one of them still building match fitness and the other looking in need of a break), we don’t look like scoring from set pieces, and we still can’t manage clean sheets. And of course now the pressure is really going to be on, starting on Tuesday evening.

Heaven only knows what Jones will decide to do. First up, if the indications today are accurate, is reincorporating Dobson, who it seems will be off to Hungary but not until July, with Charlton having prevented an early departure. That may be chaotic but surely good news. Having Coventry join us and immediately be the cornerstone in the middle of the park was a big ask. Second, the formation. Needs a decision now and whatever it is stuck to. A decision on that for me rests on whether Aneke will soon be available, even if not for full games. Third, sort out central midfield. If Dobson is staying and up for the task, pair him with Coventry and have the pair of them shore things up, then add either the box-to-box option (Bakinson, perhaps Camara) or more of a No.10 (Watson, even Fiorini). We can’t go back to a front three as we no longer have the players (CBT, Campbell on loan, while our Campbell is struggling for form and confidence), so look at options, including a front two or even a lone striker if you pack midfield. Tottenham many moons ago played with Clive Allen up front on his own and didn’t expect him to do anything other than get on the end of things in the boxes. They did have Hoddle and Ardilles, plus Galvin out wide, but it can work.

In that context we have to hope Jones learnt a lot yesterday, because time is obviously not on our side. Relegation has gone quickly from being no more than a theoretical possibility to a frighteningly feasible outcome. If we play the rest of the season as we have been doing it will become a reality. We have to improve, quickly. The first step is obviously winning a game, by whatever means necessary, and see what that does to confidence. And yes, the crowd will need to play its part on Tuesday night. We remember that game against Cardiff at The Valley under Sir Chris. A repeat performance would be very welcome.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Not Enough On The Day

With no confirmation as yet of Nathan Jones as the next messiah, this one wasn’t going to mark the start of a new era. Rather it was all about whether we could pull off what would be a surprise and end the winless run, the secondary issue being how we played and whether it looked as though the new players were bedding in. Clearly we failed as regards the former; and the best you could say re the latter was that it’s too early to tell. It wasn’t a terrible performance, we weren’t taken apart by a free-flowing promotion-chasing outfit, there was plenty of endeavour and some good individual displays. But throughout we lacked the pace and guile to unsettle an experienced and well-drilled Derby defence.

They were ahead for over two-thirds of the game, curtesy of yet another individual defensive error, and saw it out quite comfortably, never needed to chase things; we couldn’t manage to turn 61% possession into meaningful chances; the closest we came to scoring was not so much Kanu’s header as a low cross deflected by a defender almost into the net. The best you could say at the end of the game was that we shouldn’t judge our prospects for the rest of the season on the basis of this one, the performance might have been good enough to take the points against lesser opposition.

The team showed something we had feared through January, the absence of Dobson – although we are assured this was not a Blackett-Taylor-style injury (and he missed out on a place in the Derby squad). He was replaced straightforwardly by the returning Coventry, while Edun returned after suspension to replace Asiimwe (who didn’t make a place on the bench, with newcomer Ramsay given the spot). It did mean Edmunds-Green being retained in midfield in the 3-5-2, while May took the captain’s armband.

There was really nothing in a tight, disjointed, injury-disrupted first half (there were 10 additional minutes, including the time necessary to patch up Maynard-Brewer after a brave early intervention). The best we could muster was Lapedo being first to a knock-down of a Coventry ball forward in search of May only for his fierce shot to be blocked, possibly by a hand (although there was no obvious movement of hand to ball). And we gifted them a goal.

Maynard-Brewer out to Gillesphey on our left side. As we’ve all seen many times by now, he shaped to send it down the line only to sell the dummy and slide the ball inside towards Coventry, only problem being he’d bought the ball down the line and was moving forward. Their guy intercepted and we’ve been caught. They made the most of it as the pass to the forward bisected defenders, Mendez-Laing took an excellent first touch and set himself to drive the ball low into the far corner. Well taken for sure, but another howler from our perspective.

At the break we’d enjoyed 54% possession but managed only three attempts on goal, none on target, to Derby’s six and two respectively. All the hard work that had gone into making us competitive had been undermined by an error and we now had to look at what we could do to change the picture. And Fleming did make a change, with Kanu introduced and Edun withdrawn, which seemed to mean a back four with Thomas taking the left side, while May dropped more into the hole.

And in the first 15 of the second half we did have our brightest and most threatening period of the game, might easily have drawn level. May had a shot routinely saved but then we worked the ball down the right, with Edmonds-Green sliding it through for Watson. His low cross had to be played by their defender and his touch diverted the ball towards the net but not by enough, it going past the post and behind. Ladapo had a decent shot deflected up for the keeper to gather, then just before the hour Gillesphey put in an inviting high ball from our left side. An unmarked Kanu got to it but his header from close range was turned over the bar. It wasn’t a gimme but if he’d managed to head the ball down the keeper would have had no chance unless it just hit him.

Then Derby reminded us that they carried a threat, Bakinson just managing to intercept a ball destined for a guy in space, then after a May low cross was put behind they did have a near miss. A guy danced past a couple of challenges and then poked the ball just wide. And really that chance, just past the hour mark, was to prove as near to another goal either side came.

We made changes, with Ramsay making his debut for Gillesphey (and picking up a yellow with almost his first involvement), then later Watson(L) and Campbell introduced for Bakinson and Watson(T), finally Fiorini for Lapado at the start of five added minutes. It was all to no avail as Derby, having weathered our good spell, closed the door.

It was a game for us of might have beens. If we’d conjured a goal in the first half to get our noses in front Derby might have had to change their approach, if we’d equalised during our good spell we could have come away with a point. But overall we just didn’t carry enough threat. And I wasn’t convinced by the changes we made. I thought before the game that a fair bit rested on how well Bakinson and Ladapo would shape up. In the end both were peripheral as attacking threats, as Bakinson had no space to move into and Ladapo looked still rusty. For me we needed someone in midfield or in the hole to provide a bit of the unexpected, either a Fraser (OK, too late for that) or an early introduction for Watson(L), even giving Fiorini the chance to show us what he has. Later, after our threat was ebbing and players tiring, we needed a fresh, physical presence up front, soon hopefully an Aneke but if we’d signed him Ikpeazu. Someone to bully their defenders and even enable us to go long.

So we were really left with a lot of unanswered questions, ones presumably for Jones to start to address next week. He will need to come up with answers quickly for we know the importance of the next game, at Reading. We do now have options in most positions, within the context of just one genuine wide player and only three available forwards. Getting the right combinations in defence and midfield looks paramout – and quickly.

Friday 2 February 2024

Window Over, Now Make It Count

So, that was the window that was. Not exactly a final flourish, but with Ramsay brought in and McGrandles exiting left there was a certain symmetry, with eight in and eight out. Do we emerge materially stronger? I’d say potentially, but that depends on whether those coming in really shape up. There’s been no statement signing, we have arguably lost more as an attacking force than we have gained, but we hope – and expect – that from the changes will emerge a tougher defence, in particular a properly functioning and coordinated central three and wing-backs playing that role to good effect, assuming of course that the new manager – who heavens be praised it seems will not be Warnock – sticks with 3-5-2.

Of those leaving, of course we didn’t want to lose Blackett-Taylor. If he wasn’t before, he became this season one of the divisions outstanding players. There aren’t many who force the opposition to change the way they play to try to contain someone. He did. And the hairs rose on the back of your neck when he received the ball in space with only one between him and the goal. Of course the end-result often could have been better, but if it was he wouldn’t be moving to Derby but playing in the Premier League. Can you imagine how it would have been this season if we’d had May and Rak-Sakyi along with him as a front three? Good luck to him (although of course I hope he has the decency to have a mare on Saturday if he features).

And for me to all the rest. I seldom think ‘good riddance’ when someone who hasn’t worked out moves on, more disappointment that we haven’t managed to get the best out of them. Kirk (who it appears has returned to Crewe) may have disappointed too often, but he was the best crosser of the ball we had, scored a brace when playing as a No.10, and is still a decent footballer. Equally Fraser has failed to spark this season, but when played in his best position (No.10) and on song he could find that pass and take chances. I thought Campbell(C) had quality but for some reason was not played wide-right in a front three. I even thought Tedic merited more chances playing as a central forward – he leaves and we switch to a front two! Of course we trust that Ladapo will prove a better alternative.

Of the others, McGrandles will always be remembered for that late headed equaliser at Portsmouth. Walker will struggle to get into a Charlton history book, but that really wasn’t his fault. And Abankwah returns to Udinese after one of the strangest and least successful loan period of recent years, but with his career still ahead of him. Good luck to all of them.

Taking each unit of the team as it now is, three goalkeepers means we are well covered, will be up to the new manager and form whether Maynard-Brewer remains first choice through the rest of the season.

Assuming we stick with three central defenders, it’s a choice out of Ness, Jones, Gilleshey, Thomas and Edmunds-Green, with Hector to return at some point. I don’t know what combination is best, of course there will be injuries and suspensions in this area, but most important is that a unit is chosen and gets used (asap) to playing together, develops an understanding, and has a leader, one who coordinates with the keeper and sets the tone.

For the wing-backs seems we now have a fresh choice on the right side at least. Edun appears unchallenged, in that if he is not available either someone switches sides or a central defender fills in, although perhaps Chin will come into the picture. I’ve no idea how well/badly he is progressing, but wing-back at least suits him. With Ramsay there is the choice between him, Watson(T), and Asiimwe. Incumbent Watson does have his moments (including scoring recently), but too often it appears that he doesn’t move too far from the halfway line, not in the frame when we are caught out and not providing the attacking threat we need from the system. Asiimwe has looked rusty when called on of late. I’d add that for me if you play wing-backs you really need a back-up one on the bench. It’s a demanding role physically and if you want to keep the same shape but need fresh legs surely you keep a like-for-like option among the subs.

Central midfield and really the big news of the window was that Dobson is still with us; whether or not he will be off in the summer I have no idea. So the current first picks are him, Coventry and Bakinson, with Watson(L) and Anderson as the only real straight alternatives, assuming that using Edmonds-Green in midfield at Blackpool was a one-off and that Taylor will be eased into things returning from injury (and quite frankly none of us knows yet what he is capable of). That leaves Campbell(T) and Fiorini, plus Camara as and when fit, but they are really for a different formation during a game (other than in extremis, such as asking the former to play wing-back). For now it has to be assumed they will be on the bench.

Up front of course it’s Ladapo and May with Kanu as the third option/back-up. I don’t know how close/far Aneke is from a return, but safe to say we went into the window light in this area and come out of it light. We seemed to have lined up the extra option with Ikpeazu, who in the game against us had given a passing impression of Chuks, but that one mysteriously failed to happen after Ladapo was brought in. With Aneke available, at least for a period of a game, all should be OK, but we all know that’s a big ‘if’ – and an injury to Ladapo or May – even to Kanu as he has to be available at least as a sub - and we are once more seriously stretched. Casey and Mbick could be called on but they really should be developing on loan.

It would appear that the choices are going to be down to Nathan Jones, now it seems 1/12 on to take over. If Richard Crawley indicates its done bar dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s that’s fair enough. He can expect universal backing from the fan base, even from us atheists, given that none of us are ready to contemplate what failure for him would look like. We just desperately need a win, to put a stop to all the negative statistics. Sure, we also just need to play consistently better, but confidence needs that shot in the arm. Whether or not Jones will be installed in time to take charge on Saturday or the responsibility will stay with Fleming and Pearce remains to be seen. Sure it’s going to be a tough ask to beat Derby, but they’re not worldbeaters and the winless run has to stop.

Sunday 28 January 2024

A Point And Some Positives

Last time out it was all about Appleton, with another late goal conceded resulting in another defeat, sealing his fate. This time, with speculation focused on the name of the next head coach (for crying out loud what is Warnock doing among the bookies’ favourites?), the practical question was could we expect any sort of bounce from the temporary stewardship of Fleming (we had after all won our other game this season under a stopgap)? Blackpool went into the game on the back of three consecutive wins, set against our three consecutive defeats (and of course no win in 10, a run stretching back to late November), hungry for points to try to close the gap on the top six and with a very strong home record. So, a tough ask.

What we got was a very mixed but ultimately satisfying afternoon. For much of the game it felt like more of the same, as Blackpool were well on top in the first half, could easily have been two or three up at the break, then started the second by hitting the bar and then getting gifted the lead. But this one ended up differently. First, the luck was on our side (now what was that Napoleon said about generals?). I imagine Rhodes had nightmares about his failure to put the ball into an empty net from a yard out, while Ness slept a relieved man having slammed an attempted clearance against the post and out. Also, we equalised completely against the run of play and out of the blue, via two deflections of a May effort. Second, and very different than of late, we finished the stronger team. Blackpool’s attacking threat was reduced at half-time by Rhodes being injured and replaced while for us the introduction of Kanu and later Watson(L) proved effective. Blackpool (and their fans) became increasingly frustrated and we were gaining ascendency.

Over the full game Blackpool will still be shaking their heads over their failure to take all three points; but had it gone on another 10 minutes I would have backed us to win it; imagine what a last-minute winner would have done for us. And for me the real encouragement was that after they took the lead we didn’t crumble; another for them then and the game would have been over; and after we equalised we dug in and saw out a tricky period.

Fleming’s team showed three changes from Appleton’s final game, two of them enforced. With Edun unfairly suspended, Watson(T) swapped sides and Asiimwe came in as the right-side wing-back. Coventry it seemed was having an enforced concussion break and the surprise choice was to move Edmonds-Green into midfield alongside Dobson and Bakinson, a pretty clear indication of the desire to protect a fragile defence. Nevertheless, Fleming opted for another change to the central defensive three, with Jones dropped to the bench and both Ness and Thomas coming in to accompany Gillesphey. Anderson made it back into the squad, taking the final place on the bench.

We did have a chance or two in the first half, but mostly it was a case of near miss after fluffed chance for Blackpool. They knocked it around well and exploited the spaces, with Asiimwe in particular looking rusty and the ball played behind him several times to a guy running on. He briefly switched sides with Watson(T) and the same happened there, leading to a ball in and a clearance off the line. And after around 30 minutes came a moment when we had, shall we say, the rub of the green. Back pass to Maynard-Brewer but his clearance hit Rhodes (suspicion of handball but nothing was given) and looped up. It fell to him again about a yard out, just needed firm contact and it was into the net. Instead he only managed to divert it sideways for a prostrate MB to gleefully collect. It will go down as one of the misses of the season.

Not long after another ball down their right side for a guy into our box. Maynard-Brewer rather rashly came out and was nowhere near it. The ball was clipped over him and towards another around the far post, only for Ness backpeddling to intercept but so nearly to send it into the net, the ball instead crashing against the post and out.

Add in a Blackpool penalty shout (Ness seemed to bundle their guy over before being able to make contact with the ball) and several dangerous crosses somehow not converted and the relief was palpable at half-time that the game was not already done and dusted.

Both sides made a substitution with for us Jones replacing Gillesphey, presumably the result of an injury, while for them Rhodes did not reappear. Either an injury or he just couldn’t stop shaking his head looking at the replays of his miss. It didn’t seem to matter as Blackpool started the second half by crashing one against the bar, with Maynard-Brewer well beaten. And just as it seemed our goal might lead a charmed life through the game we finally went behind, in the too familiar fashion of handing out gifts.

Jones won the ball facing his own goal, realised that the back pass had been cut off, so turned well to seemingly shrug off their player. But fatally he then took another touch instead of … well, anything else. Seems it was Morgan who got across to block the delayed ball forward and fortunately for them it ran to Dembele, in plenty of space. He needed no second invitation, driving the ball into the corner of the net from around the edge of the area.

For the next 10 minutes or so the game might have got away from us. Blackpool pressured us, we were picking up yellow cards (I thought Dobson had been booked in the first half, so when he fouled again and the ref went to his pocket I thought it was going to be another yellow and a red). But we managed to see out that period without conceding again.

Just past the hour we made another change, with Asiimwe withdrawn and Kanu coming on, with Edmonds-Green seemingly dropping into the back three and Jones moving across to wing-back. It wasn’t clear exactly where Kanu was fitting in, but really before we had the chance to find out amazingly we drew level. May collected the ball inside the area, cut across and put in a shot. Seemed on target but not especially dangerous, but one defender managed to deflect it wider but only onto another who caught on the hop sent it back into the net. I don’t know the rules on these things, but seemed to me that May’s original effort was on target before the first deflection, but seems to have been labelled another OG.

That stung Blackpool and once again for a while we came under the cosh. With still almost 20 minutes left on the clock Maynard-Brewer was booked for timewasting. But then with a little more than 10 minutes on the clock we made another substitution, with Watson(L) coming on for a tiring Lapado. That settled us back into a more classical 3-5-2 again and Watson(L) was to prove influential in the final stages. The balance of play tilted and we began to create chances.

Watson(T) collected from a throw and played in Kanu, his low cross not getting converted. Then Watson(L) picked out Kanu in space against a retreating defence. He seemed to hesitate between taking the shot or passing to May and a defender was able to get in the tackle. May shot over the bar, then we seemed to catch them very cold on the break with numbers getting forward, only for the ref to pull play back for a crafty tug by Thomas on one of their number. The final chance came from a corner for us, which looked as though it was going to be headed home for a dramatic winner. That wasn’t to be, instead there was just time for May to get himself booked again, for dissent.

So mixed emotions at the end I suspect. We were enjoying our best period of the game, causing them problems and appearing less threatened at the back. Equally, after all that had gone on leaving the pitch clutching a point gave us tangible reward for hanging in there, one which may prove very important. Fleming now has a week to get them ready for the visit of Derby and for the board to decide whether or not to go for a quick appointment (and just in case anyone missed it, not Warnock, not in a million years).

Very Welcome Point And Performance

It may be a reflection on us, our inflated view of our club, but there are few fixtures in this league where going into it we feel very much...