Saturday 28 January 2023

Decent Effort But Not Enough Today

This one was always going to be tough. A great game to win, to close the gap on the top six and keep thoughts of a miracle alive, but a big ask in any circumstances against a team which had earlier in the season blown us away. As it was, an enforced two-week break and slip back down the league, through no fault of our own, probably increased the pressure to get a result, in the interests of momentum. In the end there were ifs and buts, especially the fact that even though Bolton had many other opportunities to score more their winner was a messy, unsatisfactory affair, but no real complaints. Bolton looked like a top-six team, if not top-two, and we looked like we are making strides in that direction but aren’t there yet.

The team saw four changes from the one which started against Barnsley, with new loanee Penney straight in for the immediately injured loanee Kane at left-back, Morgan back in for Payne, Blackett-Taylor back in for Campbell, and Bonne getting the nod as the central striker in place of Leaburn. The three missing out were all on the bench, with no sign there of Stockley, although according to the club site he has picked up a slight injury (whether his absence was at least in part due to transfer speculation remains to be seen). I thought it amounted to our strongest starting XI.

The first couple of minutes were not an advert for League One football (or football at any level), the ball being pinged around aimlessly by both teams. But before anything could settle Bolton took the lead. Ness challenged for the ball and initially the referee played on, only to bring things back for what he saw as a foul (it may have been but others of a similar nature were to be ignored). The free-kick was reasonably central but a decent distance, it would take something special to score from there you felt. It was. Curled just over the jumping wall and curved away from a despairing Maynard-Brewer, to hit the inside of the post and in. Perfectly struck and placed.

After that, although we threatened at times, with CBT and Rak-Sakyi both looking dangerous, the only surprise by the break was that Bolton hadn’t scored more. A second inside the first 10 minutes, after Ness and Penney had lost the ball and let their guy in, who squared it inside our box, was only averted by an excellent half-block from Maynard-Brewer and the ball rebounding off the bar. There were some desperate blocks inside the area, another shot from inside the box went (very) narrowly wide with Maynard-Brewer well beaten, then more blocks.

For us Blackett-Taylor as usual had his opposite number for pace and nearly made it count, Rak-Sakyi had a free header from a set piece but couldn’t get enough on it, and he also went on a good run beating a couple and cutting inside, only for the shot to not have enough on it to find the net. Bonne was struggling to get anything out of the immense Santos (him squaring up to Inniss at corners was a real contest) while Morgan and Fraser were not able to exert any control of midfield. Bolton looked stronger in most areas, winning and retaining possession much more frequently than us and playing it around in our defence to good effect.

As was stressed on Charlton TV at the break, the positive for us was that we were still in the game – and things can happen. It was hard to see what Holden might do to balance things up, presumably Leaburn would come on at some point and perhaps we could stiffen up in midfield. In the first half Bolton had 12 shots, five on target, against three and two for us.

Something at the start of the second half did happen. The kick-off went back to Maynard-Brewer, who knocked it long. We competed and Fraser came away with the ball. He played it into Bonne, who transferred it to Morgan. A quick ball into Rak-Sakyi and he touched it back into Morgan’s path. The shot was decent but really should have been saved. Instead their keeper allowed it to squirm past his dive and within the first minute we were level.

The goal didn’t really faze Bolton but it not surprisingly gave us a lift. And for a while the game was in the balance. They fluffed a decent opening, Maynard-Brewer turned a shot over the bar, and from the corner Santos headed wide. Our real chance came just before the hour. Good work from Fraser led to a ball coming in from our left and Rak-Sakyi had found space to get on the end of it. Just that he couldn’t get a good connection on the ball, at an awkward height for him. More than a half-chance and it proved to be the closest we came to a second.

Instead, with just over 20 minutes left Bolton regained the lead. A series of challenges down their right all seemed to go their way, enabling them to advance towards our goal. When the ball came in Inniss looked set to head it clear, but he seemed to get shoved by their guy not challenging for the ball and instead the ball went up in the air. With both Maynard-Brewer and Clare drawn towards the ball, their guy was able to head it square for another to put into an empty net. Unsatisfactory on a number of fronts and a tough one to take.

That sparked changes, with Campbell coming on for CBT, and not long after Leaburn made his appearance, not for Bonne but with Clare going off and us switching more to a 4-4-2. Later Payne and Henry came on for Morgan and Dobson, but through this period, although there was no lack of determination from us and reasonable possession, Bolton continued to have the better chances to put the game to bed. In the end they didn’t need to.

It was a decent performance from us but against a better, more coordinated, physically stronger opposition who knocked the ball around with confidence and moved intelligently, it wasn’t enough. No disaster in the greater scheme of things but sobering, leaves us looking a long way up the table to sixth. It gives Sandgaard and whoever may or may not be calling the shots no additional incentive to spend money on this season in the final days of the transfer window, and as stressed by Curbs after the game increases the desire on our part to have the ownership situation resolved. Until that’s done we can’t even start to think about how we approach next season, or start to enjoy the rest of this one just for its own sake and for evidence of further improvement under Holden.

Sunday 22 January 2023

St Vincent Compensates For Postponement

News of the loan signing of Matt Penney provided a bit of a lift this morning, even though it would seem to follow the unfortunate immediate unavailability of Todd Kane and there’s no indication of an option to buy (which might point more towards building the squad rather than plugging a gap for a while). And a lift was perhaps necessary after the late cancellation of the game – which would have provided a great test of how we are improving and an opportunity to close the gap on those above us – and the impact of the other results. A look at the table following them is a little sobering, which some might suggest that is just what I needed after yesterday.

Now we all will have made our preparations for the Peterborough game; obviously for some this meant having set off to get to the ground before the news came through; and on that front the apology from their co-owners accompanied by the offer of a refund or free coach travel for the rearranged fixture is welcomed. Peterborough have also said they will undertake a 'full investigation’ into the postponement. Clearly someone or some people screwed up, but the club’s response to the regrettable affair looks appropriate and to be applauded.

My preparations were somewhat different. Yesterday was the Day of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers, which is taken seriously in these parts. The Givry Societe De Secours Mutuel each year select a domain to be honoured with the statue of Saint Vincent. So the day begins with a gathering at the previous year’s selected domain, from where the members of the society carry the statue to this year’s chosen domain, in a splendid procession. This year’s honoured vineyard is Domaine Francois Lumpp, which as chance would have it is about five minutes walk from our gaff:

There followed a couple of hours of appreciation and sampling of the wine, which ended in good time for the game (the members of the society went into the centre of Givry for a slap-up feed). I was by that time really up for the game, as you can imagine, only to get the news. Others, I guess, had it tougher.

So this morning, instead of us having powered into the top 10, we have through no fault of our own slipped back to 14th. Worse, wins for Barnsley and Derby leave the top six looking somewhat distant, with us nine points off sixth and with the task of clambering above eight teams to reach that spot. And there will be a near full round of games on Tuesday night, not including us, so the points gap and numbers could increase further, ahead of a tough game at home to Bolton.

Three wins in a row have greatly improved our situation, but needless to say it is a Herculean task to turn that into the sort of second half of the season to elevate us into the top six. Not impossible, but highly improbable. All of which leaves me at least, in a sober fashion, hoping for a clarification of the ownership situation and with this some insight into what the goals are for the rest of this season and next. The moves made by us so far in the January window add up to a signing until the end of the season and two loan deals, one of which has already become largely irrelevant, along with the departure of two good but out-of-favour players. We’re are rapidly moving towards the closing stages of the window marked by desperate last-minute and often chain moves, all of which is hard to control. We have no idea of whether any more may come in, or if more may depart, or the ownership/investment situation. A glorious win at Peterborough would have put a very different gloss on the weekend; as it is I think another glass is in order/necessary.

Sunday 15 January 2023

One To Savour

This one turned into a football statistician’s dream (or nightmare), perhaps a verification of Bill Shankley’s “the best team always wins, the rest is just gossip” assertion, perhaps a reminder of a key reason why football is the beautiful game. If this had been a rugby game Barnsley would have been 25-10 ahead at the break and would have gone on to win the game 30-25. The stats show they had 61% possession, 23 attempts on goal (to our 8), 11 corners (to our none). It was only the most important comparisons where we came out on top: 4 attempts on target to their 2, two goals notched to their none. We won the game because we scored at very good times in the game; and with Barnsley after our second clearly feeling this wasn’t going to be their day – they had two off the bar in the first half, our one off the post ran to Rak-Sakyi to tap in – might even have added one or two more. That we won it despite tired legs and fresh injuries is a credit to Holden and the players. 

Team selection was always going to be down to whether some of the starting XI from last Saturday and Old Trafford needed a rest and whether the two new signings were ready to be involved. In the event Holden opted for three changes, with Kane, Campbell and Payne in and Clare, Blackett-Taylor and Morgan dropping to the bench; that became four as Sessegnon was injured in the warm-up, so Clare started after all. On the bench we had Stockley, Bonne and CBT, giving us better options than for some time. However, we did look light in other areas, with O’Connell left as the only available replacement defender, with only Morgan and Henry in midfield.

Perhaps not surprisingly after the last-minute adjustment, with Kane slotting in as left-back and Clare on the right, Barnsley started much the brighter, working the ball around the pitch. In the first 10 minutes, after a couple of shots wide their third corner in the opening period saw they guy put a free header wide, shortly after the ball dropped to their guy in the box and his fierce shot brought a fine save from Maynard-Brewer, turning it over the bar (for another corner). But they failed to score.

In the following 10 minutes we had the chances – and did score. A ball from Kane found Rak-Sakyi at the far post, but he was unable either to beat their keeper or square it to Payne for an open goal. Then we broke in numbers and a cross from Rak-Sakyi missed Leaburn then Campbell was unable to bring it under control and get a shot away. The goal came as we pressed in midfield and won possession, with Payne managing to swivel and put in an excellent ball for Campbell to run onto. Their defender didn’t get close and, having paused, Campbell then turned on the burner and made the space, shooting hard into the net at the near post for his first Charlton senior goal. Perhaps their keeper should have done better, but it was well struck.

After that, Fraser put one over the bar but the chances went back to Barnsley. There seemed to be a foul on Leaburn but their defender headed forward and another sent in a dipping shot which cleared Maynard-Brewer but didn’t quite dip enough, going off the top of the bar. After the half-hour Barnsley might already have been forgiven for thinking this was not their day as this time a goalbound shot from inside our box was blocked by their own player. And in stoppage time Kane went down injured and, despite getting to his feet, was unable to put in a challenge, leading to a cross to our far post which their guy ran on to, only to head against the bar. Although the break was imminent, Kane departed, O’Connell coming on, with it looking like we were switching to a back three/five. Just before the whistle Leaburn went down holding his head and was clearly unhappy with the challenge. While waiting on the sidelines to return after treatment he was having to be calmed down, prompting some of us to recall his father during the war at Stamford Bridge having to be restrained from getting back on to exact retribution.

At half-time it seemed highly probable that there would be more goals in the game, most likely for both teams. Barnsley will have been shaking their heads to be behind, having hit the woodwork twice, forced a good save, and had one stopped by their own player.

The early period of the second half saw things carrying on much as before, especially as it seemed we were sticking with a back four, Ness moving to left-back. With some tired legs out there, and Barnsley having a measure of control, Holden opted for a couple of early further changes, with Bonne and Henry coming on for Leaburn and Payne. And on the hour they were both instrumental in us doubling our lead. A ball in from Henry found Bonne and, with Barnsley looking for an offside (Fraser I think was indeed offside but had his hands in the air and made no attempt to touch the ball), he tucked it past their keeper, only for it to hit the inside of the post. The footballing gods were smiling on us today as it rolled across for Rak-Sakyi to plant into an empty net.

After that Barnsley huffed and puffed, but it didn’t seem their heart was in it. Their substitutions failed to galvanise them and if anything we might have scored another, two good chances falling to Inniss. First he couldn’t quite stretch to tuck home a low cross at the far post, later from a free-kick Henry sent in a beauty but he was stretching for the header this time and his downward effort bounced before reaching their keeper. We picked up a couple of yellows – including one for Inniss which sounded the alarm bells - but really saw the game out well, with a Barnsley shot over the bar during only four minutes of stoppage time summing up their day.

Three wins in a row and how things have changed. Holden has to take a good deal of the credit – although let’s not forget that first-half showing against Oxford was the result not least of him picking the wrong team on the day. What has since come across is him having taken a good look at the players available and their strengths and weaknesses and asking them to play in a fashion which emphasises the former. Ness coming into the team since his recall from Torquay on loan has been a major boost, at a time when O’Connell and Thomas were both unavailable, while for some reason suddenly Inniss, CBT, Rak-Sakyi and others are able not only to play 90 minutes but to reel off three full games in a week. How has that proven possible now and not before? And ultimately perhaps it was just ending the long winless run, then building on it.

Of course it’s at least premature to think in terms of the chances of us nabbing a play-off place. Don’t even need to think about that yet. For now, ahead of a batch of tough games – the next three are against teams above us in the league, which is both a challenge and an opportunity – the focus is each game as it comes, keep improving. And of course watching and waiting to see if there are further changes before the transfer window closes, and a clarification on the ownership front. 

Saturday 14 January 2023

Goings and Comings

So it’s a welcome back for Macauley Bonne and a plain welcome for Todd Kane, plus goodbye and thanks to Craig MacGillivray. The two arrivals are indeed timely in that without them we would be halfway through the transfer window month, two decent players out the door, giving rise to some concern that planned deals are not coming off; and with some tired limbs after Old Trafford they could provide a lift for the Barnsley game, which really is a must-win if we are to harbour thoughts of a run for the play-offs. Only thing is – and this is not a negative in any way related to the two coming in, who obviously I hope will be blinding successes – is that the additions tell us nothing about the bigger picture. We will have to wait for further changes, and of course developments on the takeover/investment front, before drawing any conclusions about the ambitions for the rest of the season and hopes for beyond it.

Reading between the lines as usual, Thomas Sandgaard’s decent statement after Old Trafford was muted on the expectations front, concluding that “hopefully we can use that togetherness to build on to a strong second half of the season”. That smacks of we want to improve - and let’s face it with occasional notable exceptions and the boost from two consecutive wins the season to date has been horrible – but not to the extent of suggesting more, ie a serious drive to try to make the play-offs. In that context, Bonne on a deal to the end of the season and a loan signing undoubtably strengthen us, but cannot, at least not yet, be said to be pieces in a plan. That awaits more comings and probably goings. After all, among the Addicks I know confirmation of Bonne coming in sparked discussion over whether this heralded the departure of Stockley or Leaburn. In itself there’s no reason for this to be the case, even with Bonne and including Aneke we have four forwards, not especially overloaded in that area (and compare with Ipswich, who have signed a striker from Everton and one on loan from Leicester).

When trying to assess where we can offload without damage and where we need to strengthen, a key starting point for me is whether Palace recall Rak-Sakyi (to send him back out somewhere else). I have no idea if this is still a risk – and to be fair, a few weeks ago with us in disarray I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had taken him out, for his own good. Hopefully the improvement in fortunes, plus the lift from Old Trafford, will see him stay with us. I think he’s crucial in that without him, unless we brought in someone to play in the same position and similar style, we would have to abandon the 4-3-3 set-up which is currently working well (as long as the opposition doesn’t park the bus and deny space and the main components are able to last a full game). We do have wide players other than him and Blackett-Taylor (Kirk and Jaiyesimi), but not ones able to play in a front three.

Given that, I think the club should be pressing Palace for a commitment to leave Rak-Sakyi where his is – if this has not already been delivered of course. With the 4-3-3 the pieces are already pretty much in place as regards a starting line-up, with Leaburn, Stockley and Bonne, plus hopefully at some point Aneke and Kanu, effectively competing for a starting birth and one or two places on the bench. But again there’s no back-up for CBT and Rak-Sakyi. If we wish to play this formation a back-up option for them would, in my view, be very desirable.

By the same token, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Kirk and DJ are surplus to requirements, as things stand, or at least available if a decent offer comes in for either. Their staying is fine too, as Kirk can take the number 10 role, as he did at Burton (scoring twice), and play in a 4-4-2, if we ever used that option. As an outright wide man and crosser of the ball. Similarly DJ and Campbell could have roles to play as outright wingers in a 4-4-2, but under Dean Holden Plan B seems to be a 3-5-2 with wing-backs, and neither of them are suited to that role.

One thing we haven’t been able to manage well to date I think is the switch during a game from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2. This has in my view been partly down to asking full-backs (Sessegnon and Clare) in the later stages of a game to switch from being full-backs to wing-backs, expecting them to have the energy to storm up and down in the channels and get balls into a forward pairing. It is asking a lot. Ideally with the switch you bring on a pair of wing-backs with fresh legs. With Kane now providing a fresh option on that front, perhaps we will improve at it. Of course, with Kane Holden may decide that wing-backs are Plan A, but that doesn’t fit with playing to the strengths of Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi.

So in the outright forward area as things stand we have to assume we are covered, as a fifth/sixth option would surely only be embraced on the expectation of one or two leaving. In the wide positions I’d say if Kirk or Jaiyesimi want to head for pastures new and a decent offers come in, so be it, especially if that cleared up space for a back-up for CBT and Rak-Sakyi.

In central midfield, Dobson is obviously the anchor, now captain to boot. If he gets injured I’d imagine Clare would be the replacement, or Henry, as the role doesn’t suit Morgan – and we have yet to find what role might suit MacGrandles. If he were to depart we would wish him well, but more than likely Addicks will be asking quiz questions about his Charlton career, which has not (yet) begun and perhaps never will. Fraser is making himself the key player we hoped he would be, contributing goals in support of a single central striker. Payne is effectively his replacement, with Morgan completing the picture. I would have thought that one quality addition in this area would be highly desirable, to provide real competition for places, but it would be not unreasonable to assume that any such move would require one or two moving on.

With O’Connell back in the fold, Kane in effectively for Egbo, and Inniss having managed to escape the retrospective red card and likely five-game ban we feared for the incident against Oxford, and having put in disciplined performances in the last few games, and Ness having really come from nowhere to move above Elerewe and Mitchell in the pecking order (and having so far grabbed his opportunity), we have numbers for the central defence position. Of course there are still doubts about how many consecutive games some can manage, most obviously Inniss, and the threat of suspension (ditto), but with Clare another option it would be surprising to see another come in, or anyone exiting.

To complete the picture, with MacGillivray moving on and presumably Wallacott not far off a return, the only question would seem to be whether Maynard-Brewer or Wallacott become number one when the latter returns from injury.

Really so far the ‘easy’ transfer window changes have been made. MacGillivray and Forster-Caskey were always set to move on, having been out of favour under both Garner and Holden, while the world and his dog knew we needed at least one more forward and Bonne was an obvious - if not yet universally acclaimed – option. Further changes are if anything likely to be more dramatic, if bids come in for Stockley, Leaburn, Kirk, Jaiyesimi or anyone else, if Rak-Sakyi is recalled, and if Sandgaard or a new owner want to make a statement signing. I just hope this isn’t unsettling through the rest of this month, as we do still – however crazily and on the back of just two wins – still harbour thoughts of the play-offs. At least I still do. It’s all about momentum.

Sunday 8 January 2023

Thank Heavens It Went Wide

The proverbial ‘all’s well that ends well’ – as it very nearly ended very badly. Whether or not the ref should have been adding on all that time, he did. And before his whistle blew Lincoln’s final attempt to salvage a point ended up shaving the post. If that had gone in it would have been very hard to take. Less because of the overall balance of play – undoubtedly we merited the victory but it was far from one-sided as Lincoln were on top in the first and the last 20 minutes, with us dominant in between once we’d gone ahead – but more because we so badly needed back-to-back wins and to build on the positive display at Portsmouth (which I’d spent trying to follow on the live stream on a mobile travelling back to Lyon from Nimes, which is what happens when you stupidly allow your partner to sort out new year plans).

In the end we took the points, but Holden was I think right to be grounded in his post-match assessment. On another day Lincoln’s bright start to the game would have seen them take the lead. Only a desperate block by Inniss prevented one and there were other such openings in that opening spell, even if the stats at half-time showed no shots on target for Lincoln. Once we took the lead and not long after that doubled it, all we needed was a third and Holden could have rung the changes, to give some a breather ahead of Old Trafford – and Barnsley next Saturday. We didn’t manage that; instead in classic 2-0 style we conceded and the game changed, with Lincoln having nothing to lose. From that moment we just wanted the final whistle – and it was a long time coming.

Not surprisingly the team and formation was pretty much the same as against Portsmouth, the only change being forced by Maynard-Brewer getting concussed in training. Although there was still no sign of Aneke on the bench, there was the welcome news that O’Connell was fit enough to take a place, which meant Lavelle out of the squad, with Ness having overtaken him in the pecking order (and no sign of Inniss being charged/suspended for the Oxford lapse). With us keeping to the 4-3-3 set-up, the question ahead of the game was whether Lincoln would, like others before them, park the bus and deny us the space needed to get that to work.

Perhaps surprisingly, Lincoln really took the game to us from the off. In the first minute from a long throw headed on a goalbound shot was blocked, the first of a few, as they moved the ball well in our final third. However, we managed to avoid conceding during this time and as the game progressed began to take over. We were starting to create openings – Blackett-Taylor and Fraser down the left and a low cross which just needed a touch, then Rak-Sakyi played in and his shot-come-cross almost turned in by Fraser. So although Lincoln had had the better of the opening spell by the time we scored, on 34 minutes, it came as no real surprise.

Morgan played in Leaburn down the right. He looked up and saw Fraser moving towards the far post, then delivered the perfect cross for him to meet. The header took a deflection off a defender and their keeper got a glove to it, For the rest of the first half it was all us. And after a couple more chances had gone begging we doubled the lead. Dobson turned in a tight spot and made space to go forward, passed to Fraser, who played a delightful ball between their defenders for CBT to run on to. No-one was going to catch him and after his touch to the left his powerful shot went into the roof of the net, with their keeper curiously almost turned around by the force of it.

At the break there was nothing for us to complain about, just the feeling that if we could get a third the game was over. And we very nearly did, on several occasions, the best of which came shortly after the restart. Dobson’s crossfield ball found Rak-Sakyi, who was allowed to cut inside. His curler to the far post was saved but it looked as though Leaburn would put home the rebound, only for a desperate challenge to seemingly put him off and prevent him from making a clean contact. Rak-Sakyi and Blackett-Taylor continued to get in shots, but not surprisingly we did start to seem to settle back a little with around 20 minutes left.

Payne came on for Morgan and on 75 minutes Lincoln were back in it. Their guy won an arial contest with Clare, who was injured in the process, and played it across our box, where Lincoln had a couple waiting. The first effort was poor but only knocked back to their guy; the second had much more sting but was blocked well; the third sat up for him and he connected well to leave MacGillivray with no chance.

For us it was a deflating moment as all the fun went out of the game and we were contemplating not winning a game in which we could have been out of sight. More changes were made, with Kirk for Rak-Sakyi then late in the day O’Connell and Stockley for CBT and Leaburn, while we started to accumulate yellow cards: Payne for two fouls in short order, Sessegnon for time-wasting, Dobson for a rash challenge. And then, after seven minutes of stoppage time had been indicated and we were into the ninth extra one, that ball dropped in our box and, mercifully, the shot went wide. We could finally relax.

After the Oxford game if anyone had said we’d win the next two – and play well in the process – we’d have said they were hoping for miracles from Santa. So some credit is due to Holden and the players for turning things around, ending the run of winless games, and reminding everyone that we are capable of more than competing in this league, when we are at our best. Signs of confidence returning and of the players being more comfortable not having to find a pass every time they get the ball in whatever circumstances. Grounds for optimism.

In an ideal world I think we’d park the Man Utd game and play it in a month’s time. It comes at a time when we have no idea if we are being taken over, if there will be money for new players in the window (and if some more are going to follow Forster-Caskey – who leaves with all our best wishes), and when we can’t easily put out the reserves to give some a rest. Can all of Sessegnon, Inniss, Blackett-Taylor, Rak-Sakyi etc now put in a big shift on Tuesday night and still be available for Barnsley on Saturday? I guess it’s not our problem, we just have to enjoy the night out and remember that a Leaburn always scores for us at Old Trafford in the cup.

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...