Monday, 21 March 2022

Splendid Weekend!

I take it all back. Back-to-back wins and now we have a clear objective for the season. Realistically, the best we can hope to finish in the league this season is 12th, getting above Burton, Accrington and Cheltenham (the gap from them to Bolton in seventh is eight points). In the greater scheme of things it may not matter, but there is the small issue of whether or not this season will produce a new post-war low league finish for our club.

For the record, three seasons compete for that ‘honour’. The outright worst finish is 14th in the third flight, in 1973/74, just edging out 13th spot in both 2010/11 and 2016/17. Some might argue that 2010/11 deserves to be ranked worst as we scored our lowest points total in the third flight (59, against 60 in 2016/17 and the equivalent of 65 in 1973/74), but I guess position tops everything else. The bottom line is we still have to climb the table if this season is not to set a new low, while next season it’s all about avoiding another record: our longest post-war stay in the third flight, which will happen unless we get promoted.

I’d like to say I remember the 1973/74 campaign; but scanning through the results there are flashbacks but not a lot more. I’d have to check the scrapbook. What you can say about that season is that the late Theo Foley, having been in charge for our relegation in 1971/72, failed to get us back up for the second consecutive season and was dismissed. Andy Nelson came in and perhaps added the grit and organisation we needed, because one look at the squad for 1972/73 and you’d have said it should have prospered: Horsfield, Hales, Flanagan, Powell, Peacock were all there (along with in the photo a certain David Dangerfield, who I don’t think played a game for us), but we shipped 73 league goals in that season.

The good news looking forward is that our worst league finish was followed by promotion the next season (we repeated the trick in 2010/11 under Sir Chris of course, but with Roland at the helm 2016/17 broke that sequence). We know next season is going to be truly tough in this division. In a miserable moment last week I noted that, for perhaps the first time in my life, there were no ‘bigger’ teams below us in the Football League. Before there have always been some worse underperformers. There’s every chance that the third flight next season will contain us, Sunderland, Ipswich, Bolton, Sheff Wed, Portsmouth and Derby. Every one of us will feel, rightly or wrongly, that we are underachieving and it has to stop – and at least four of that list will end up disappointed.

But enough of that, we won! Consecutive clean sheets and three points! No apologies for the lack of a match report, the reason being I was there in person, a proud member of the International Addicks, and there was a lot of drinking to be done either side of the game, followed by a trip back across France on Sunday. You all know the score, the details, the fact that it wasn’t great but – unlike so often this season – it was good enough, competent, professional, with a couple of different but both decent goals.

It’s a long story as to why the International Addicks turned up for Saturday, when the official International Addicks game will be the next one, at home to Lincoln. Suffice to say all concerned deserve a slap on the back: the German Addicks (and Swedish Addicks) for making it happen, the many members who turned up (Germans, Swedes, Dutch, French, Irish etc), and the club for all the efforts to make the gathering a great success. Many of the photos can be found on the facebook page:

But I have to include one in particular which I took. Not often the owner of a football club, plus his partner, the club’s commercial director, the supporter liaison officer, and more turn up to a local pub on a Friday night to meet and share a Turkish takeaway with a group of supporters.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Relief At Last

So, could this season get any worse? Lose tonight and there would be every chance of dropping another place in the division, to 18th, and the bottom four positions move closer, ratcheting up the pressure. Win and to all intents and purposes we would have enough of a gap to ensure the final nine games of this desperate season could be about planning for next season. My only thought before the start was, for crying out loud just win the bloody game and give us all some relief. And they did.

We had been given prior indications that Famewo, even perhaps Blackett-Taylor, might be available once more. In the event there was no sign of the former, either to start or on the bench, but the latter did indeed return and was in from the start, one of four changes from Saturday. In front of MacGillivray would be Clare, Lavelle and Purrington, with Pearce and Gunter both dropped to the bench, with Matthews also returning as one wing-back, Blackett-Taylor the other, with thankfully no repeat of the Clare experiment. Lee was given a rest too, with Gilbey returning for a start alongside Dobson and Fraser, while Washington was deemed ready to start up front alongside Stockley, with Leko joining Lee on the bench.

When in the first minute a long throw into our box caused mayhem, with MacGillivray struggling to claim the loose ball, you feared it was going to be another tough evening, against opponents who were presumably well aware of our vulnerability at set pieces. But Gillingham didn’t really put the ball into our box often enough to capitalise. Instead through the first half they tended to sit back, perhaps expecting that a chance and a goal would come their way but conceding the initiative. And that proved costly for them as Blackett-Taylor ran them ragged down the left (and as often as not cutting inside from that position) while Gilbey both got into and created good positions for himself.

Our first real chance came around the 20 minute mark as Blackett-Taylor and Fraser combined with Washington, the ball squared for Clare to run onto it and shoot, only for the effort to be blocked. Soon after Gillingham did have another moment as a corner was cleared but sent back in, finding two of their guys getting in each other’s way and preventing a clear header on goal. But that was followed by Gilbey’s first opportunity. A pass from Dobson and he took it inside, the space opened up, giving him a clear sight of goal. But his left-foot shoot was screwed wide. And just after the half-hour, having just seen yellow for a rugby tackle to prevent a Gillingham counter-attack, Gilbey got on the end of a cross but his header went wide.

No matter, it was soon third time lucky. Blackett-Taylor was again allowed to run inside and seemed to confuse their defence by shaping to shoot from distance only to take it on further, then sending in the shot. A decent effort but their keeper had it well covered, only to spill the ball. Stockley was first to the rebound only for the keeper to block his effort, but it ran to Gilbey. It really wasn’t a tap-in as there were bodies now in the way, but he cleverly gave the ball some curl and air to send it into the unguarded net.

At the break we were well worth the lead, the questions being whether Gillingham would prove as passive in the second half, whether we could keep our nerve if the pressure came on and keep a clean sheet, or whether we might get a second and be able to relax a little. The last didn’t happen, and Gillingham both changed formation through the second half and predictably raised their game. But most important we didn’t give them anything easy, despite being pressed back as a number of players short of recent match-time ran out of steam and the strong desire to hold what we had took over.

We did have moments in the second half, especially runs through their defence by CBT and Gilbey, but didn’t fashion a real clear-cut opportunity to put the game to bed. Instead first Fraser – who put in a much improved display, linking up well with others – stretched for the ball on the hour mark and seemed to cramp up, being replaced by Lee, who slotted in to contest that space with his brother. Surprisingly CBT lasted considerably longer, although his race had been run well before he was taken off with a few minutes of normal time remaining, with Pearce coming on and Purrington moving to the left side. Washington lasted the full game.

Gillingham did have one fierce cross driven through our box, but really it took until just after Pearce had come on at the death for them to carve out their one real chance. A ball into the box was headed down and their guy had the opening, only to fail to keep the ball down, blazing it over the bar. And that, despite six extra minutes, was the final event of note, save for CBT managing a leap out of the tunnel to celebrate.

For once of late we can consider the positives. We competed all over the pitch and in the first half at least played some decent stuff, creating a number of half-chances and taking the lead, even in rather fortuitous circumstances. The difference was not surprisingly in the returning players. Stockley and Washington provided a potent threat and Blackett-Taylor was a weapon they couldn’t handle. Gilbey got into good scoring positions, while Fraser, perhaps just by virtue of getting to know better those around him, had his best game to date in a Charlton shirt. At the other end, Lavelle looked more assertive, Clare and Dobson put in good shifts, while MacGillivray, after that first minute moment of doubt, claimed a couple of crosses. That the performance progressively deteriorated in terms of control was not surprising.

We were up against more limited opposition tonight than of late and it showed. Perhaps as Curbs alluded to they missed a trick by not pressuring us enough in the early stages of the game, as if they’d taken the lead it would no doubt have been a very different evening. That they didn’t is their problem, not ours. We can look forward to the Burton game, perhaps with the thought of how we might be able to perform with the pressure eased.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Plenty To Ponder After Another Bad Day

My partner reminded me yesterday that when I arrived in France and had the streaming set-up working I had said ‘no, of course I won’t watch every game …’ Out of form and struggling, season already a write-off (hopefully), and away at Accrington Stanley, determined but let’s face it ugly opponents at the best of times. Did I tune in? Of course I did. And a truly dispiriting experience it was. Instead of being able to ‘build’ on the goalless draw against Sunderland we ended up losing tamely to opponents who patently wanted it more than we did, with our cause not helped by some of our own decisions.

We lined up with Clare and Leko starting, the latter a straight swap for Burstow but with it unclear whether the former would play in a back three (with presumably Gunter the wing-back), even in his normal midfield position. Turns out he would play as the right-sided wing-back. The good news was Washington being able to take a place on the bench, confining the absentees to Inniss (have we seen the last of him in a Charlton shirt?), Aneke, Blackett-Taylor, and of course Forster-Caskey.

The actual match proved to be dominated by four uses of the arm. The first 15 minutes had actually been quite enjoyable, if ridiculously open. The tone was set as we very nearly took the lead in the opening minute, with a poor pass by them intercepted by Leko. The ball was worked out to Lee on the left side, who moved inside and sent in a splendid curler which looked headed for the bottom corner before their keeper got the faintest of touches to turn it wide. Good effort, excellent save. In response Accrington managed to beat the offside trap and forced MacGillivray into a save, then from a free kick almost inevitably a guy had a free header, but like Sunderland had done sent it wide. And before 10 minutes had elapsed Purrington had set up Stockley in space in their box, only for him to take a heavy touch and lose the opportunity.

After another header from them just over we had the first use of the arm. Lee challenged for the ball with their defender and it did seem that the guy used his arm to bring the bouncing ball under control. The ref had a long look then gave it. Soft for sure but time we had a break. Can’t say Stockley gave their keeper no chance as he dived the right way but couldn’t get low enough to stop the ball going into the net. That, it turned out, was as good as it got.

We held the lead for about 10 minutes, but then were behind in five more. Their equaliser was plain horrible. A Pearce foul gave them another opportunity to load the box. Strangely the ball in was allowed to go beyond the back post where their guy chipped it back in. Cue head tennis, MacGillivray half-coming, a final header goalward and only diverted into the roof of the net by the guy on the line. A failure to deal with the first ball in cost us dear. Then an attack of ours broke down as Purrington’s low cross was intercepted, long ball forward, turned on to guy in space. He’s allowed to cut inside and beats MacGillivray with a shot into the far corner.

The rest of the first half was a niggly affair, playing into Accrington’s hands, with Dobson and Clare among those picking up yellows. We were already getting bullied in key areas, couldn’t handle their set pieces, and were struggling now to get anything going in their half.

More of the same into the second half with JJ making no changes at the break, with a free-kick on the edge of our box blocked but the ball back in resulting in a goalbound header down then up cleared off the line. We made our first change as Pearce was withdrawn for Washington, this involving Clare being able to abandon his role on the right side, going into central defence, while Leko moved out wide. Then just after the hour we had arm incident number two as their guy seemed to think it was OK to run towards Clare to challenge for a ball in the air and to lead with his elbow into Clare’s face. The ref didn’t bottle that one and off he went; he can have no complaints.

Accrington responded by taking off a forward and bringing on another midfielder, the message being pretty obvious. But we did nothing more, with our three centre-backs now having all the time and space they wanted – but nobody else. We did then get arm incident number three as Leko’s cross from the right sparked huge Charlton appeals for another handball in the box. It wasn’t obvious and this time it would appear if the guy did use his hand the ref didn’t see it, nor did the linesman.

With about 20 minutes left Jaiyesimi came on for Purrington, the formation unchanged. Accrington not surprisingly were happy to keep it basic and simple, worked hard filling the spaces, and we, while understandably now having more of the ball, were getting nowhere. Caution was finally thrown to the wind with a few minutes of normal time left as Burstow replaced Gunter; and right on the 90 minutes we did think we’d managed to salvage something from the game. Dobson’s long ball forward saw Washington control it, touch it inside, and slot it past their keeper into the net. Only for this to prove arm incident number four as the goal was ruled out and Washington given a yellow card for his trouble. Just four minutes of stoppage time and Accrington saw them out comfortably.

Overall it was horrible. We’d been outfought when it was 11 against 11 and then with a man advantage we managed to turn it into greater possession but nothing more. Some credit to Accrington, who worked hard for their win. But we can only try to look, again, at what went wrong.

First, team selection. Please stand up who thought it was a good idea to play the returning Clare at right wing-back? Take the responsibility and learn from the mistake. Don’t do it again. Sure, there had to be an element of play the conditions and adapt to try to nullify your opponents. But surely we must have know we weren’t going to win by outmuscling them. The point of playing wing-backs is for them to provide an attacking threat. Selecting Jayesimi from the start might have been a risk too far against Accrington, given their arial threat. But we had Matthews and Gunter available (if the latter presumably Clare came into the back three), both likely to be far more comfortable in the role. Also, we all hope for great things from Fraser, but at the moment he’s struggling to get into games and seems on a different wavelength to others. Give him more time.

Second, formation. OK, we know from Thomas Sandgaard that we’re sticking with 3-5-2/5-3-2, but sometimes circumstances change. When they had their guy sent off around the hour mark, shortly after they withdrew a forward for a midfielder to shore things up. And for too long we did nothing. We had three centre-backs covering a lone forward against a team intent on defending what it had. All the extra space came in our own final third. We did make changes as the game progressed, but too late. Washington did come on for Pearce before the sending-off, with this involving Clare switching into the back three and Leko moving wide-right. The next change, 10 minutes after the red card, was to swap Purrington for DJ to add to the attacking threat (we hoped) but still keeping three at the back. Why? Just who were they marking. We had Gilbey and Morgan available and could have used either for a defender to pin Accrington back. The final introduction of Burstow, for Gunter, came as a desperation move with four minutes of normal time left.

Third, attitude and belief. They seemed in short supply from us and that just isn’t good enough. The pressure is clearly telling, on everyone. I pondered in midweek that the run of five straight losses, hopefully ended by the Sunderland game, was the most depressing run in my lifetime (we had seven straight losses in the top flight but just compare the opposition). Now it’s one point from seven games and a crying need to beat Gillingham on Tuesday night. The points game to the relegation places is still seven (and our goal difference is better than nearly all the teams below us), but as we take on Gillingham, Shrewsbury are at home to Morecambe, so someone’s going to pick up points. Can this season get any worse? 

Sunday, 6 March 2022

A Welcome Point

Before today’s kick-off I couldn’t get out of my head the idea of us being a bit like Yosser Hughes, ‘gizza point’. But it was Sunderland, so there was always hope. And they just about obliged. We showed significantly greater defensive resolve than of late and managed to limit them largely to free headers from set pieces, albeit that should have been enough for them to score once or twice, while MacGillivray delivered a set of decent if expected saves. At the other end, although the stats show we had 37% possession and no efforts on target, we did actually fashion a good chance apiece for our two forwards, neither of which was taken. One came right at the death and if converted would have sent us home ecstatic; as it was we were content. The run of defeats halted and something on the board, the prospect of some games against lesser opposition than of late, and the hope of more key players returning to contest them.

The team showed four changes from last Saturday’s trip to Sheff Wed. Out went Famewo and Matthews (both to the bench), with Pearce coming in to join Lavelle and Gunter as the back three and Jaiyesimi (who had played most of the last game after Matthews had been forced off) and Purrington the wing-backs. Also out were Gilbey and Morgan (also both on the bench) in a refashioned central midfield, with Dobson accompanied by Fraser and Lee, while Stockley was deemed available to start to partner Burstow up front. With Leko the only available forward option in reserve, thoughts centred on just how long we could expect to get out of Stockley.

Let’s face it, the first 30 minutes belonged to Sunderland as we were unable to get out of the traps, deprived of possession by their pressing game. The writing was on the wall when their guy had a free header from a corner on five minutes, heading straight at MacGillivray; and before 20 minutes were up, after he’d turned around a far post header for another Sunderland corner, their guy had another free go at it and should have scored. Just for good measure, after almost 30 minutes there was another header, a near identical free header, and he missed. Each time the delivery had been good and they created the space, but whatever we were supposed to be doing to stopping them from set pieces wasn’t happening, despite Stockley adding to height in the box.

However, they didn’t score with their headers, or from a free kick conceded by Dobson just outside the box, MacGillivray turning the effort over the bar. And we did work our way more into the game in the remainder of the first half. A good delivery in by Lee from a free kick on the left was close to being met by Stockley and just before the break the same two teamed up in similar fashion only for Stockley’s header to go wide, then a great run down the left by Lee, taking out two defenders, led to another corner.

So there were encouraging signs towards the break that we might be able to build on. Instead the second half began in similar fashion to the first and we almost went behind as a ball was played to their guy in the channel on the left side. His shot went past MacGillivray; it may have been going wide in any event but Gunter blocked it in any event, while the episode ended with another shot and another MacGillivray save. But we weathered that storm too.

On the hour we had our turn from a set piece as Lavelle created the space to meet a Lee free kick on the left with a flashing header. With their keeper rooted to the spot and the net moving I thought it had gone in. But it was the side-netting. It was time for changes as our midfield still wasn’t really in the game, neither were our forwards given the poor service. On 65 minutes Gilbey was introduced for Fraser, who had struggled to make any impact on the game.

Just after that we had the first of our two real chances. A long ball found Stockley and he moved it on quickly to find Burstow in space moving towards their goal. I suspect his first thought as the ball sat up was to chip their keeper, but he moved back and that opportunity was lost, while Plan B turned out badly as Burstow screwed his eventual effort well wide. Couldn’t call it a real one-on-one as it was further out than that, but he should at least have made their keeper work.

Burstow then couldn’t quite get on the end of a Gilbey cross from the right and that was to be his last contribution, Leko coming on for him. And as the clock ticked down it was looking like one goal for either side would win it. Sunderland did come close as their guy was played in down the right side and his shot across MacGillivray was well parried – and this time didn’t drop to an inrushing forward. At the end of normal time Dobson tried an ambitious cross-field pass which was intercepted and they broke in numbers, but it all ended with another MacGillivray save.

Into five minutes of stoppage time and we attracted a couple of free kicks to give us the chance to get the ball into their box, the second of which might have given us that undeserved but much desired winner. The ball came in from the left side and Stockley ran around the outside of the line of players, beating the offside trap and receiving the ball in space. He had a lot more time than he might have imagined but instead of getting the ball under control went for the first-time volley and only managed to knock it back across goal in front of others. Like Burstow’s, not an easy chance but a good one.

That was it. No doubt Sunderland left the pitch thinking they had done enough to win the game, but against that they had missed the target with their best opportunities and couldn’t bring more than decent saves out of MacGillivray. For that a good deal of credit has to go to Pearce and his colleagues. And although we didn’t have a functioning midfield until Gilbey gave us better movement, and Burstow was in a game like this, with us on the back foot and unable to build any pressure, a passenger. Add in Stockley still feeling his way back after a long break and us still depleted up front (no Washington or Aneke) and you have to say fair enough, we take the point and move on.

Friday, 4 March 2022

Takes On TS Q&A

Last night’s Q&A with Thomas Sandgaard organised by the Charlton Trust didn’t come with any earthshattering revelations, coming in the wake of his interview with the BBC in which he made reassuring statements regarding the position and future of Johnnie Jackson. But it was insightful in certain areas.

Before picking through some details, let’s first give thanks to the Trust for putting it on and to TS for spending 90 minutes answering questions honestly and openly, even though he will have been aware that these would focus on strategy and investment, areas which the owners of football clubs are generally reluctant to discuss meaningfully. It is a direct contrast with Roland/Katrien, who quite clearly regarded communication with the fans as an unpleasant chore. Also in sharp contrast, I love seeing that TS clearly enjoys being the owner of our club, something that could never be said of Duchatelet, something which I found truly sad (I’d say his only interests were trying to prove himself intelligent to others by being able to make money out of football, in which – like his political career – he failed miserably, and to make money).

First the positives. TS stressed that his ambitions and enthusiasm were unchanged. Let’s qualify that as he did appear a little tired and tetchy when pressed on his use of a certain figure (the citing of a figure of £100m run up by owners before Duchatelet when looking to justify his stance on financial objectives). And right at the end he said he was ‘at least as frustrated as everyone else’. The past year has been tough all round (leaving aside the dreadful effects of the pandemic and horror at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), but none of us has seen our net worth tumble in the fashion that TS has while at the same time overseeing a season of failure on the pitch. His continued enthusiasm is central to the survival of our club and long may it continue – which doesn’t preclude constructive criticism. 

That enthusiasm perhaps has to come along with a certain naiveite, and TS can’t be expected to be aware of all aspects of our club’s recent history. With reference to his plan when he bought the club, he acknowledged that we ‘got out of the starting blocks slower than I thought’ and that the timeline of the plan had been impacted by how other clubs behave. Reminded me of when West Ham were bought by Icelandic investors who had a plan; only problem was it was the same plan as every other club – and football is the ultimate zero sum game. TS also commented that the club would be looking to expand the fan base by targeting areas outside of Greenwich, as if the Valley Express and targeting of the Medway area (much to the chagrin of Gillingham) had never happened.

To move swiftly to what I thought were negatives, TS said that on the pitch we would ‘definitely focus on wing-backs rather than traditional full-backs’. Perhaps I’m a little old school here, but the formation of the team on the pitch is really not an area for an owner. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with discussing with the manager how we want to set up, with a view to decisions over what players to bring in/release. But if this veers into a manager being instructed to play a certain way, to try to make square pegs fit round holes, it is not desirable. I may waffle on about football, but I’m happy to acknowledge that people such as JJ, Curbs, Steve Brown etc have forgotten far more about the game than I will ever know. What I do know is that there is no perfect/ideal formation in football, the art is to get the best out of the resources available – and that is the job of the manager and his team. Leave them to it.

TS was questioned about the role of Martin Sandgaard, basically how reliant we might now be on data analysis over football knowhow. TS did acknowledge that you still need to watch a player, videos and in the flesh. That did lead on to whether or not we need an experienced CEO at the club, to which the answer was a calmly stated but pretty definite ‘no’. TS was not ruling out having at some point a CEO, as and when the right person appeared, but that it would probably be a non-football person to handle operational issues and – like everyone else – would report to him.

There was a similar downplaying of any need to bring in fresh investors. TS indicated that there could be points along the way when that could be a good option, in particular as and when there might be a deal to buy back The Valley (alarmingly he talked of real estate investors – but we can deal with that another day and it was an off-the-cuff remark) and perhaps if we were in the Championship and looking for a fresh leg up to make it into the promised land.

The financial objective for the club would seem to be to trend towards breakeven, primarily by increasing revenues and by doing things ‘smarter’, assisted by player sales along the way. But as repeated in the BBC interview the goal on the pitch for next season is to get one of the top two slots for automatic promotion. Just how these are balanced out remains to be seen, but suffice to say next season is absolutely crucial, perhaps the most important for our club since relegation from the Premiership.

Fact is, hopes of substantially increased revenues and of filling out The Valley on a regular basis depend fundamentally on us being in the Championship. Heading into the season break we have an owner who has perhaps a better appreciation of the size of the task ahead than a year ago but a chosen and popular manager and, with so many current players out of contract or set to return to their clubs – the opportunity to create a team in their mould, based on their choices, to win promotion (just as every other club will feel), avoiding the errors of a year ago (when we moved too late and too slow, missed out on certain targets, apparently to the annoyance of Nigel Adkins). On the players front, TS indicated (I think) that he expected to make up to four (but possibly five, perhaps six) new signings, one probably an experienced player, others investing for the future, and to complement these with loan signings.

Imagine a Trust Q&A with TS in a year’s time. If we are by then at least not in the mix for a top-six finish, The Valley will be looking bare, the criticism of what would with hindsight appear a prioritising of reducing operating losses over investment on the pitch would have moved to a different level, and quite probably TS will have lost, or be losing, his enthusiasm for the struggle and perhaps looking for an exit (or a Roland-style distancing). In that event, other factors being equal, we will be in a world of merde.

The reverse scenario, under which we are blowing away all opposition on the pitch, The Valley is packed to the rafters, and TS is being lauded as having got the strategy right, JJ for having gelled a new team to get us out of this awful division (and bye-bye Mickey Mouse cup competitions, hello third round of the FA Cup), and all will be well with the world (especially if selected other teams are moving in the opposite direction).

Of course it’s not going to be that simple. But there is a bottom line. A failure to win promotion next season, however close we came and for whatever good reasons, and it is the merde scenario. Hopefully we supporters can play our part in avoiding it. 

Passable Contest To Round Things Off

It is done and finally tenth place it is to be. As end-of-season affairs go the game itself was passably diverting, with four goals, a strea...