Sunday 26 February 2023

Five Wins In Seven Becomes Three Defeats In Four

After having recently been put in our place by Bolton and Derby, taking on the league leaders, unbeaten for who knows how long, looked likely to be another chastening experience, especially with talk of illness within the squad. Set against this some were harping back to the Plymouth result, despite the special circumstances involved (it was one of those games), with the hope that a good crowd and atmosphere might help to bring out the best in us. It didn’t, we lost (a confused and spineless first-half display did give way to a better showing in the second, to no avail), and five wins out of seven has turned into three defeats in four, with two more tough ones coming up.

The illness reports and Holden’s mentioning of some injuries added an element of doubt as to how we would line up. And there were changes, to personnel and the formation. Inniss came back into the starting XI but Hector stayed, so we had a back three of the two plus Ness. That meant asking Clare and Blackett-Taylor to do their best impersonating wing-backs. Kilkenny came in for Morgan, alongside Dobson and Fraser, while Rak-Sakyi operated as a kind of second forward alongside a returning Leaburn, with Bonne back on the bench, alongside Aneke.

Presumably part of the thinking was to match up Sheff Wed’s formation. If the plan was to deny them space and keep it tight it didn’t work as by the break nobody could have complained if we were two or three down and it was game over. Blackett-Taylor did look a threat, with an improvement on his performance against Derby, but Rak-Sakyi was doubled up on whenever he got the ball, or sliced through. In the first half, as flagged elsewhere, we had no efforts on goal, let alone one on target, and aside from the CBT threat our only moment was when Leaburn was challenged clumsily from behind in the box facing away from goal. It would have been a soft penalty but there you are. Wednesday did cynically prevent anything from developing with a foul here and one there, but with the ref slow to take action to address this.

Wednesday simply passed the ball better than us, moved better without it, and as befits a team on their sort of run had confidence in what they were doing. But what drives me to distraction is for us to go out with three centre-backs and singularly fail to prevent clear goalscoring opportunities for players in space inside our box. In the first couple of minutes a cross from their right found one of the smallest guys on the pitch for a free header, which was deflected behind for a corner. From that corner Bannon had the time to weigh up a curler from outside the box, one which never quite came back in enough and clipped the outside of the post. And before 10 minutes were up we were behind. Ball played from right to left across our box then back again, up popped their guy in total isolation around the penalty spot to slot home. The replays indicated Dobson had been tracking him but saw danger with another unmarked, only for the guy he left to score.

That was by no means the end of it. After 20 minutes another pull back went to their guy open in our box, with Maynard-Brewer making the save. And in the final minutes of the half two more good opportunities for them went begging. The first was denied by an excellent recovery tackle from Ness, the second, the result of complete confusion in our back line, was saved by Maynard-Brewer.

At the break 56% possession for us and no shots. A fellow Addick asked if Garner was still in charge. Things had to improve and if Wednesday had scored a second, before or after the break, it might have got ugly. As it is, perhaps Wednesday eased off a little, perhaps their belated accumulation of yellow cards had an effect, and probably we realised we were at risk of embarrassment and raised the effort.

The catalyst for a change in mood was what turned out to be our best chance of the game. A ball out of their defence was well spotted by Clare, who intercepted then played an early ball into Leaburn around the edge of their area. He cut past one but just as he was about to shoot another challenge came in and seemed to put him off and he pulled the shot just wide of the post. At least it showed that we were not playing supermen. And for a period of time, as against Derby (before their second goal), we just might have got back on level terms.

On 56 minutes Aneke made his appearance, but for Kilkenny, not Leaburn, with us switching to a kind of front three despite the wing-backs. He put himself about and gave them something different to deal with. After 70 minutes CBT had a run, cut inside, and saw his shot turned around by their keeper, perhaps also the post. Shortly after a ball into Chuks saw him take an early shot. It was parried but into the path of either Leaburn or their defender. The latter got there first and cleared, to make things worse Leaburn went down and whether or not it was precautionary was substituted shortly after, Bonne taking his place.

Shortly after that we were in some disarray as Aneke stretched for a ball near the goalline and stayed down clutching his hamstring. We all feared the worse and he was indeed stretchered off. Payne came on, but any cohesive threat had now pretty much gone out of the window. We huffed and puffed in the final stages, ended the game with Inniss up front. And right at the death a cross from Blackett-Taylor was a couple of feet too high for Dobson to repeat his heroics against Ipswich.

14 games left to go, down to 12 in a week’s time. We’re nine points clear of the relegation zone while needing a stepladder to see the play-off spots. The players have each other, the manager, and the supporters to play for, can’t even say they are competing for contracts for next season as nobody has any idea who will own the club by then, whether Holden is retained, and just how we go about creating a competitive team/squad. In truth Wednesday yesterday reminded me of the job Sir Chris’ team did against them and United in short order when we blew away the division. They, like us then, are on their way up and can look at how Sunderland are coping in the Championship to give them encouragement. We have Portsmouth for company in bemoaning a season which has effectively passed us by.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Plan A Didn't Work And No Plan B

The start of the four-game run against top-six candidates began in decidedly disappointing fashion. OK, we weren’t massacred, but a decent Derby team barely seemed to be breaking sweat to brush us aside and, as did Bolton recently (even in that context Fleetwood), underlined that collectively we are not good enough to be in the promotion-chasing group. No doubt we’ll go on and blow away Sheff Wed, Peterborough and Plymouth, just to make all of us look stupid, but right now any lingering thoughts of an unlikely run in the final third of the season to get in amongst it have disappeared. Mid-February and we are struggling to see the point of the remainder of the season, given that because of the ownership situation we can’t even start to plan for next season, except for (hopefully) getting Holden sorted out with a reasonable contract.

The game itself was decidedly low-key. We threatened their goal on just a few occasions and generally struggled to retain possession, with some very poor passing and control of the ball. Derby didn’t create many clear-cut opportunities either (a penalty and a set-piece provided the goals), but didn’t need to as having taken the lead inside the first 10 minutes their domination of the game in key areas (not in terms of overall possession) meant they dictated the pace of the game. With our wide men misfiring – although let’s give Derby some credit as they defended very well and made sure Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi were kept very quiet - and outgunned in central midfield, this was as routine and comfortable a victory as it gets.

There is a slightly more positive interpretation, for what it’s worth. Derby came out of the traps fast and really put us under pressure in the first 20 possibly 30 minutes. We did concede once, through Hector’s hand blocking a shot, and it could have been worse if the ref had viewed Clare’s late lunge in just the second minute worthy of a red rather than yellow card (it was one of those you thought it would have been harsh but no real complaints). But we came through that period still in the game; and at least the final part of the first half was more even in terms of territory and threat. Then in the second half we were actually enjoying our best spell of the game, even looking like we could get back on level pegging, when Derby scored their second, a poor decision by the ref to penalise Dobson for a fair challenge, the free-kick whipped in from out wide, their guy showing more ambition and determination than Hector to get on the end of it. To make matters worse, Holden had only just made the first changes, bringing on Aneke and Payne to replace Bonne and Morgan. They had no chance to have an impact before the game was effectively settled.

To recount our best moments, in the first half there was just once when Derby were exposed. A Maynard-Brewer ball out was headed on by Bonne and perhaps more by luck than design fell into the path of Rak-Sakyi in space. His first touch was heavy but he still managed to get to the ball again before their keeper, only for him to smother the effort (and consequently avoid any penalty for his subsequently upending of Rak-Sakyi). In the second half there were more shots from us but none which stretched their keeper. But on one occasion we did, Out left CBT, who had a poor game overall, found Fraser with a ball inside and sent in a smart short from inside the box which their keeper saved well with an outstretched arm. If that had gone in, we would have found ourselves level early in the second period and maybe, just maybe, Derby would have struggled to respond.

Hindsight as usual helps, but you have to say from a distance that we got a number of things wrong; another way of putting it would be our limited options since the transfer window found us out. Team selection was a little curious, with Hector coming in for his debut to replace Inniss (a fair reflection that it’s hard to see them being paired), Morgan replacing Kilkenny, and Bonne starting again instead of Aneke. As all three incoming had been on the bench against Forest Green and all three left out were among the substitutes, the changes had the appearance of just a little reshuffle. But was it best to throw Hector in at the start so soon, in what was always going to be a tough game? Kilkenny has been offering greater workrate in midfield of late and here too you felt for this game we needed that. As for Bonne and Aneke, with Leaburn still not fit enough and Kanu the only alternative, it was always going to be one to start and one in reserve. For sure we’ve no idea who might have been in need of a rest and who was impressing in training, but none of the changes paid off.

Neither did changes made during the game. Again, our first moves came just before Derby’s second, but looking back this was a day when 4-3-3 wasn’t working and CBT and RS were struggling, for whatever reason. Surely there was an argument for putting Aneke on alongside Bonne and switching to a 4-4-2. Might have also involved Kilkenny for Morgan to stiffen things up elsewhere. But again we were having our best period of the game when the first changes were made, so a formation change at that point would have looked odd.

Ultimately too many had an off day for us to match Derby and we are left with some serious questions. Teams low in the division have come to The Valley and given us no space for the wide men to exploit, going on to take the points. Bolton and now Derby have shown that good teams can beat us without having to adopt such an approach. I have no idea how Holden responds to this, other than perhaps to stress that when we are at our best we can compete, but have to be at our very best to do so against the promotion-chasing teams (and it does no good to point to the Plymouth game as that was a freak; sure we played well but were only 1-0 up when we won a penalty and they were reduced to 10 men, then compounded the impact with a blinding shot from Clare before half-time).

There’s still 15 games to go and it’s up to Holden and the players to make a success of this period. Give us some entertainment, keep the commitment levels high, and perhaps play with some freedom (not in defence). We can all see the dangers. Dobson signing up for another year is a real positive, but I believe we currently have 10 players out of contract at the end of the season, plus the ones on loan. It’s all very well to play for a new contract, but if nobody who might make the decision is going to be watching … Contract for Holden, takeover resolved, then some decisions about how we try to create something new for next season.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Talk About Winning Ugly

Back to matters on the pitch, at least for an evening, one which as for some others may require a little compensation in return for spending it in front of the telly with the live stream rather than something which would apparently be considered by some a little more romantic (and you’ve got to love Holden’s post-match suggestion of Charlton targeting dating sites if that many were able to travel up). Like Saturday, we went into it expecting a victory, against opposition on a run similar to that of Fleetwood and unlike them anchored to the bottom of the league, with no sign yet of a new manager bounce. A win and it would be five out of seven, looking like back on track (at least ahead of some tough fixtures); anything less and we’re wondering again just why we’re failing to see off teams in the lower third of the division.

What we got was another very mixed bag. After the Fleetwood game I saw a fair amount of comment along the lines of hoping we quickly get back to the level of the Exeter performance. In truth I still see little if any difference. At Exeter after a sticky start we scored twice in the first 20 minutes from perceptive balls in to the danger area and good finishes. After that, aside from a near miss early in the second half, we created nothing and played the determined away team role, kept Exeter at bay, at least until the final minute when we might have dropped a couple of points. By contrast Fleetwood came to The Valley and did the hard yards, scored with a speculative effort and a calamity of a set piece (from our perspective). We mustered one moment of quality but also wasted two very good breakaway situations with numbers over with poor passes. Against Exeter we were ahead for most of the game, against Fleetwood we were behind for a large part and never ahead. Yes, you might say we needed to move the ball quicker against Fleetwood, but that was in part down to their approach when out of possession, denying us space. Exeter gave us that space. I’d suggest the lesson to learn is how to adapt our style when facing different challenges, not necessarily seeing the result as the direct reflection of our performance.

With Inniss having had his red card overturned, but with him having ended his game on Saturday with his head in bandages, plus Clare and Penney having left the field injured, there were doubts about who would be fit and able to start tonight – as well as whether Holden might opt for a change or two. In the event the line-up showed two changes, with Penney replaced by Sessegnon but both Clare and Inniss both fit to start. No change in midfield or the wide front roles, but Aneke was selected in the central position with Bonne dropping to the bench (with still no sign of Leaburn), alongside Hector (who replaced Thomas as the centre-half back-up).

The first 20 minutes were like the Exeter game. Really nothing happened in the first 10, just scrappy all round, then out of the blue Rak-Sakyi collected the ball on the right a long way from goal but clipped it past his marker and outpaced him, choosing the outside channel. Inexplicably no other Forest Green player came across to close him down (perhaps a sign of why they are where they are in the league) and he was able to advance to the box. His low cross took a deflection but that in turn laid it into the path of Blackett-Taylor, in the right place at the right time, to plant into the net. And shortly after we really should have been two to the good. Clare advanced down the right this time and his cross to the far post was headed back by Aneke. Somehow, from a couple of yards out, Rak-Sakyi failed to put the ball into the net.

As Holden commented after the game, perhaps it felt all too easy and we began after that to ease off. Forest Green didn’t create any actual chances during the rest of the first half, but neither did we and it was much more even than early on. At the break the overriding feeling was that if Rak-Sakyi had taken his chance the game might already effectively be won, but at 1-0 you just never know. And surely at some point, if it stayed that way, Forest Green would throw caution to the wind, having nothing to lose.

In the second half against Exeter, after that Blackett-Taylor chance, we created nothing of note. Last night in the second half we created nothing, period. Throw in that we failed to score in the second half against Fleetwood and perhaps we see a problematic pattern emerging, perhaps key players tiring as the game progresses? In any event, from our perspective the second half was at best turgid and at worst almost calamitous as we came very close to throwing away two points. Forest Green’s new manager may have been overcooking it after the game by talking of them dominating the second period and ‘peppering’ our goal, adding that how they failed to score was ‘beyond’ him. But they had all the telling moments and the fact that Maynard-Brewer was selected as our man of the match says it all.

Four of those moments stood out. Of the many crosses which came in one was on its way to their guy at the far post before Ness managed to divert it for a corner (one of their nine on the night to our three). With about 10 minutes of normal time left they broke in space for once, but their guy strangely opted to try to play someone else in instead of taking it on himself. Shortly after from a corner Maynard-Brewer earned his MotM award by diving sharply to his right to turn a goalbound header wide. It was, the stats say, Forest Green’s only effort on target all night. And with a few minutes on the clock Forest Green almost salvaged a point, as had Exeter, but from a great position inside the box their guy scooped his shot from a cross over the bar. Add in numerous blocks and after five minutes of stoppage time we had made it over the line, claiming a very narrow, scrappy win against the team bottom of the league.

At least the three points ease any pressure ahead of our next four games: Derby, Sheff Wed, Peterborough, and Plymouth. If we play in these four as we did last night, nobody would be surprised if we emerge empty-handed, but each game is a different challenge and at least we don’t really have to worry about the results, just look to the performances. Aneke getting 70 minutes last night was encouraging. Hopefully with Leaburn back we will have three competing for the spot – although what we have seen of late is more evidence that whether it be Stockley, Leaburn, Bonne or Aneke the role is a tough ask, unless Fraser gets up in support and the wide players also get into the box (which they do seem to be doing). Hector looked impressive with his 15-minute cameo – but it’s hard to see him working well alongside Inniss and our switch to a back five last night can’t be said to have worked well.

Hoping for some clarity on the ownership front in the near future is probably asking for too much. We should be cutting Sandgaard some slack in light of his mother, nobody – or at least nobody who hasn’t seen and read the agreement and has insight into who talked to whom and when - knows if the Methven camp has a viable legal case to proceed with their investment, and nobody can say if the Spiegel approach will result in a deal. Until all this is sorted out nothing that happens on the pitch can say anything about our prospects for next season.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Echoes Of Recent Past In Disappointing Defeat

After the fresh developments in the investment/takeover saga on Friday, at least we were able to focus on the football for a little while. No question the interesting aspect of today’s game was just how Stockley would shape up against us on his early return to The Valley, including whether he and Inniss would last the game. Irrespective of that, this was one we went into expecting to win, Addicks over the Cod Army, with us having registered four wins out of the last five (the Bolton defeat rapidly fading in the memory) and Fleetwood coming down to us on the back of four successive league defeats – but having strengthened at the end of the transfer window, including Stockley, and having had a morale-boosting win in the cup over Sheff Wed during the week. Instead we didn’t play well, lost, saw both full-backs limp off, and Inniss managed to see red (albeit unfairly) even without Stockley’s assistance. Pick the positives out of that.

I’ll get to the thoughts on the display later, let’s just get the details out of the way first. The team to start was unchanged, not surprisingly, while the bench showed the welcome return of Wollacott, Sessegnon and Aneke – although whether he was included because he was ready or because of an injury ruling out Leaburn is a moot point.

Anyone hoping for a repeat of the first 20 minutes against Exeter were to be disappointed. Truth be told the first near 30 minutes were scrappy and unmemorable. Blackett-Taylor was causing them problems down the left, linking up with Penney and Fraser and able to get runs on his opposite number. But the only chance of note had come when Fleetwood got in a decent cross and two of their number, Stockley included, couldn’t convert. They were getting men back behind the ball when out of possession, entirely predictably, and we were seldom working the ball quick enough and with enough movement to create space.

Even so, when Fleetwood took the lead it was a surprise. A ball in from their left was headed out by Penney but not strongly, to one of theirs. He wasn’t being closed down but there still seemed little danger as he opted for a shot on the half-volley. Proved a good choice as with the outside of his boot it span and curved away from Maynard-Brewer’s dive to his left. He managed to get more than fingertips to it, but couldn’t divert it sufficiently to keep it out. A good if rather speculative strike, one which the replays and half-time discussions suggested Maynard-Brewer could have saved but misread the flight a little and got caught out.

That goal framed a period of Fleetwood domination, seemingly helped by a formation change as they had to replace a full-back and had another on a yellow. It took us until the 40 minute mark to have a decent strike on goal, with Dobson curling a shot from a decent position over the bar. And compared to what had gone before we did have a lively end to the half, including five minutes of stoppage time.

For once we caught them on the break with players over, but Bonne played a poor ball inside and the opportunity went begging. Fleetwood had a claim for a penalty at the other end, then Fraser came within a whisker of equalising. A ball into their box was contested by Bonne and dropped for Fraser, whose shot was goalbound only to deflect off a defender’s leg over the bar. No matter, there still proved to be time to level things up before the break as Clare threated a ball to Rak-Sakyi. He collected it well, was allowed to turn inside on to his left, then placed rather than hammered it into the far corner. Good marks for Clare for the ball to him, but really a goal of RS’ own making.

So when the break finally came we were in much better spirits. Fleetwood had done a job on us, taken the lead, but now level surely we would up the pace, put them under pressure, and go on to win the game. Arrogance perhaps, as that overlooked the fact that the game had all the hallmarks of some earlier in the season when determined opponents at The Valley denied us space, kept the threat from the flanks to a minimum and an isolated front man under wraps, and taken chances. We had seen it all before and still didn’t see it coming, perhaps as we thought we have improved.

Instead of taking the game by the scruff of the neck we were behind again not long into the second half. A Fleetwood shot was turned around by Maynard-Brewer for a corner and from that we screwed up badly. It looked like a routine they had planned for as a group of players jostled on the edge then broke forward, with Fraser either falling over or pushed leaving us outnumbered, while Stockley made a run to the near post, taking Inniss with him. That created the space for their spare man to arrive in total isolation to head in from a couple of yards out. It looked at first like a horrible goal to give away, another throwback to days we had thought were over. On replay (several times) you could see how it happened, leaving it just poor.

OK, we have to go again, still plenty of time left. But from our perspective the game progressively degenerated. We did have good positions to at least get back on level terms. Another good break and this time Fraser played a poor ball square with players over in space, especially Rak-Sakyi. Almost immediately after Fraser played a delightful ball for Blackett-Taylor to run onto into the box, only for a good last-ditch tackle to deny him. Then a ball into the box was headed down and found Rak-Sakyi in space – but on his right foot. Instead of taking on the shot he worked it back onto his left, allowing the defender time to get to him and block the effort. Before the last of those chances we had seen Clare stretch for a tackle and go down clutching his knee. Fortunately this time there was Sessegnon to replace him, but how serious the injury proves to be we have to wait to find out. Also, Penney picked up a yellow for a dive for a penalty.

With around 25 minutes of normal time left, and shortly after Clare had limped off, Aneke made his appearance. Holden opted not for a straight swap for Bonne but to take off Kilkenny and switch to a 4-4-2. Chuks quickly made his presence felt, holding off the defender but shooting rather tamely at their keeper. His next significant contribution was to clash heads with Inniss from a set piece, with the latter coming off worse and shedding some blood, all wrapped up with bandages. And after Aneke was able to bully their defender and get into a decent position but opted to shoot from a fair way out and his effort was easily saved.

Our hopes for a stirring end to the game then took a serious blow as we were reduced to 10 men. They broke clear and the ball was played down their left for a guy running onto it. Inniss came across and stuck out his leg. The replays showed he didn’t get any of the ball, no question it was a foul; also no question it was outside the box. Inniss’ first reaction was to try to make sure nobody thought it was a penalty, while the ref was marking the spot and getting the spray out. Just who or what alerted him to the possibility that a goalscoring opportunity had been denied remains unclear, but as he wandered away talking into his mouthpiece followed by Fleetwood players it became increasingly clear that Inniss was in trouble and the red card was produced. It was a poor decision. The guy was going away from goal and Ness was covering behind Inniss, not a clear goalscoring opportunity, nor was Inniss’ challenge a dangerous lunge. I hope the club appeals asap, but that won’t change the outcome.

To add insult to injury in the move Penney managed to get injured and had to hobble off, replaced by Campbell. And with us in some disarray, Fleetwood content with what they had and running down the clock at every opportunity, the final 10 minutes of normal time and 12 minutes of stoppage time failed to produce a meaningful chance for us (there was time just before the end for Ness to clear off the line to prevent a third for them).

Disappointing, discouraging for sure. But I think there’s a danger of going overboard on this one. I don’t think our display was much different from that against Exeter – with differences at the margins. Last time out we clinically converted a couple of chances in the first half and coughed up only one back, found ourselves ahead in the game for all but the first eight minutes. Yesterday we scored one good goal and were not clinical enough with other good positions, with poor passes and tame shots, while instead of one we conceded two, one a shot rather out of the blue and the other a defensive lapse. And yesterday we were behind in the game for about half of it – and never in front. Goals shape games. Also, Exeter were at home and took the game to us, Fleetwood were, like others before them, able to focus on keeping things tight; they kept their discipline and deserve credit for that. Different opposition posing different challenges.

We play again on Tuesday night and the decisions taken late in the January window may already be coming back to haunt us. We could well be without Inniss (perhaps a lengthy ban), Clare, Penney, plus of course the other full-backs Kane and Egbo, with it unclear whether Hector can be thrown in, leaving only Thomas and perhaps Elerewe or Mitchell.

With the Methven-led takeover now in the bin, we are back to waiting for some meaningful statement from Sandgaard about alternative suitors, while also keeping fingers crossed that the chaos doesn’t encourage Holden to up sticks if Huddersfield are interested. Hey, ho, an Addicks life is, right now, not a happy one.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Break Out The Champers Or Get Out The Inflatable Pigs?

The somewhat muted response to the reports that Charlie Methven is on the verge of completing a £10m takeover is not surprising. We may be clamouring for confirmation of the ownership situation but first, the news is not official and second, we really have no idea if we should be breaking out the champers or getting the inflatable pigs back out of the loft. The involvement of Methven is in itself no cause for celebration and we are getting warnings aplenty from Sunderland fans. But a chairman doesn’t have to be popular and I’d suggest it all boils down to the nature and attitude/ambitions of the supposed US investors believed to be providing the cash. (As ever I’m not ITK, so none of this is based on anything more than public information.)

In a nutshell, assuming it is confirmed that Methven is heading a takeover backed by investors, and whether or not Thomas Sandgaard retains a minority stake, we need to know whether the backers are a disparate bunch contributing (in football terms) modest amounts, looking to make a decent return in a short space of time (say 18 months), or seriously wealthy people ready to step up their involvement in the event of promotion to the Championship. Just what have they been sold and how deep are their pockets?

The Sunderland warnings suggest the new owners would attempt a repeat of what was tried (unsuccessfully) there: a quick dash for promotion and if that is achieved selling the club on, letting a new owner of a second-flight outfit, one good season away from the promised land, deal with matters such as The Valley. Let’s face it, in essence it isn’t far removed from the goals of the previous chancers, the spivs (Slater/Jimenez). They did choose Sir Chris to lead the charge, helped him to create a team which blew the league away (although there was little if any actual net money spent on players) and got us back into the Championship, where for a little while we outperformed (before the money ran out).

So there can be commonality of interest even if the owners are thinking short-term. However, of course there are also pitfalls. Sunderland fans warn of their academy having been asset-stripped to help generate funds; would the same apply to us? How would the new investors behave if we don’t get promoted? And when it comes to selling the club on, will they care who it is to if the price is right (ie would we be wide open for another Duchatelet)?  

Right now we surely simply have to reserve judgement. New owners hell-bent on getting us promoted is in itself a desirable development. If we hear that the new investors intend to hang around after reaching the Championship and have the money ready to commit to help make us competitive in the second-flight, I for one will be breaking out if not the champers a decent bottle of Mercurey for the weekend. But they are big ‘ifs’, so for now is stays in the racks.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Better Defending Reaps Reward

Well, that was most welcome. After the reservations over the January transfer window and given the lack of communication over the ownership situation, it was good to be able to focus on a fourth win in five. It wasn’t a lucky win but fortune was on our side, to accompany the sort of defensive display which seemed beyond us earlier in the season (in particular we previously coughed up soft goals from corners/other set pieces but Exeter had 14 yesterday and couldn’t make them count). Exeter fans and management will probably feel, with some justification, that they were on top for the majority of the game, but during our period of ascendency we scored twice (or in the words of Gary Caldwell were gifted two goals) and through a tough second half restricted Exeter - absent their top-scorer - to very few real opportunities.

With none of those who started against Bolton having departed in January, the team showed just one change from that XI, with Kilkenny coming in for his debut, replacing Morgan. With Sessegnon apparently not fit and O’Connell having been sold, Thomas found himself elevated from clearly surplus to requirements to the only defender on the bench (alongside three midfielders, a winger/wide forward, and a central forward).

If someone says Exeter had the better of the first five minutes I’ll take their word for it; I had been watching the rugby and then had problems logging on to Charlton TV, so I missed the start. I was, however, safely up and running when we took the lead in the seventh minute. Fraser held it up on the left side and laid it off for Dobson, who was given the time to look up and pick a spot. He saw the run inside from Rak-Sakyi and floated it unerringly into his path. Still a lot to do but Rak-Sakyi had got beyond and on the right side of his man (to meet the ball in) and superbly met it on the full and helped it on its way into the far corner. Super goal. And the post-goal commemoration for Ben Jay was worth the yellow card.

For the next 15 or so minutes, with Exeter rather stunned, we played some high quality and effective football, with Fraser mobile and the two wide forwards causing problems. Blackett-Taylor cut into the box only to overrun the ball and then not get the penalty as he seemed to be bundled over. Inside 20 minutes we were 2-0 up. Ness brought the ball out of defence, looked up, then hit a super long ball into the channel where CBT was making the run. The first touch wasn’t great but their defender failed to make a decisive intervention and allowed Blackett-Taylor to nudge him out of the equation, then slide the ball under the advancing keeper.

In some respect that was the pinnacle for us. The Exeter manager clearly didn’t like what he was seeing and made a change to their left-sided wing-back before 30 minutes were up. The guy who came on clearly carried more threat going forward and that, coupled with a perhaps unavoidable taking the foot off the peddle from us, saw Exeter gradually regain the initiative. That was of course aided by them getting one back on the half-hour. Their guy in a tight spot on the right side was allowed to turn, as Dobson for once got his angles wrong. His cross to the far post didn’t seem especially threatening, but Rak-Sakyi stood and watched it while Inniss and others didn’t move out to try to meet it. Instead the Exeter sub read the flight and attacked the ball, brushing past Rak-Sakyi and hitting the dropping ball in to the roof of the net.

In the following few minutes Exeter might even have drawn level as first we caused problems for ourselves as three went for the same ball inside the box, fortunately getting away with it as a shot was blocked, then a shot from further out brought a decent save from Maynard-Brewer with his fingertips. But we made it to half-time with a lead still intact.

The second half was dominated by Exeter, in terms of possession and chances. But with Kilkenny and Dobson working hard in front of the back four those chances were kept to only a few – and we did have one ourselves as CBT brought an excellent save from their keeper from close range, as well as a break which began down the left and saw us with numbers unable to convert, with Leaburn – who had by then replaced Bonne – seeing a shot blocked.

Exeter’s two real opportunities came in five minutes of stoppage time. First, a free-kick for handball on the left side was headed out rather weakly and dropped to one of theirs in space on the edge of the box. He hit the shot hard but wide, which was a let-off. And then right at the death we were almost robbed, as a clear shove on Ness as he went to head clear went unpunished. In the resulting confusion Maynard-Brewer had to come out of his box to head clear, then get back into position to stick out a paw and divert a goalbound shot around the post. That one would have been hard to take.

In the greater scheme of things it wasn’t a classic. We spent much of the second half focused more on spoiling Exeter’s play than creating much ourselves, while aside from swapping Bonne for Leaburn our only changes, despite some tired legs, came in the final few minutes (Campbell for CBT, Thomas for Rak-Sakyi – and a quick switch to 3/5 at the back). There’s no special importance to be attached, just a hard-earned win which leaves us moving back up the league but only to the mid-point, 10 points off both the final play-off spot and the last relegation place. Next up of course is Fleetwood at home and a challenge for Inniss not to be wound up by a returning Stockley. Should be fun.

Friday 3 February 2023

Scott/Holden Window Assessments Redress Balance Slightly

Since the closing of the transfer window both Andy Scott (who is still in situ and apparently may have his appointment made permanent) and Dean Holden have provided interviews for their thoughts on the comings and goings. Does what they say alter the pretty negative reaction to the fire sale? Slightly, not fundamentally in a number of respects, but slightly.

Both men were keen to stress the desire for a smaller squad, Holden talking in terms of those remaining being involved on matchdays rather than a number feeling left out, which by implication is not positive for group morale, and Scott indicating that having few players was indeed the desire of Holden. It isn’t easy to get the wordings right when talking of the quality of the squad having been improved and not being detrimental to those who have left, not least as some may return in the summer. But overall both did a fair job of getting the message across, reinforced by the apparent rejection of interest in some players the sale of which would have had us all howling.

Whether the squad is now of higher quality than before only time will tell; Holden and Scott say it is and they know a good deal more about these things than the rest of us. That the full-back options have been strengthened is not in question, but bringing in some to fill gaps here was a necessity and not really the issue. The strengthened argument will only hold good if Hector can get match-fit in a shortish space of time and make a meaningful contribution on the pitch; if Kilkenny can hit the ground running and provide a better option than those who have been playing (a greater contribution than those who have left will not be sufficient given they weren’t getting a look-in); and whether Bonne proves to be an improvement on Stockley. On these three fronts the jury is out but we keep an open mind (if that’s not a cliché too many).

What has not changed is what the changes say about this season being an effective write-off (in the sense of going up or down). Improving the culture and mentality of the squad may be a plus, but it’s a pretty peripheral one when it comes to the summer and inevitably a further substantial reshaping. Basically no team with any play-off pretentions would have knowingly left itself as thin on the ground in certain areas as we have (a fair assessment might be that we have strengthened the starting X1 but weakened the squad). That may be merely an acknowledgement of the reality of our situation, but is true nonetheless.

To recap, we are now light in central defence (assuming Hector is treated with patience, as Holden said he needs to be), in the wide areas (if we stick to our current formation we have only Blackett-Taylor, Rak-Sakyi and Campbell to cover the two spots for all games, fallback positions I guess being Payne – but it’s not his position – or Leaburn – ditto – or even Clayden), and in the central forward position (just Bonne and Leaburn, plus Kanu, unless Aneke surprises us all, which would be nice). An injury or two, a suspension, and we will be back to fitting square pegs into round holes or promoting youngsters perhaps before they are ready (and/or too many at the same time).

It is reasonable to assume we have a sufficient gap and enough quality not to get embroiled in a relegation struggle – but again some bad luck and it is not out of the question. I did take a glance at the current odds on us getting relegated and it seems you can still get 40-50/1. That looks generous to me, I would have thought around 25/1 – still very much a long shot.

After all, it has happened before (almost). Those of us of a certain age will remember the 1977/78 season, when with nothing to play for we let Paddy Powell and Flash Flanagan (and Laurie Abrahams) depart to play in the US. We went into a slump and only getting a 0-0 draw away at Orient in the final game saw us avoid the drop. Let’s please put a stop to such thoughts – and doubts about the window changes – with a resounding win at Exeter followed by some information on the ownership front.

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Weakened In Certain Areas

Some transfer window, some final day. I think you can only draw two conclusions from what happened, neither exactly positive: first, that this season is written off; second, that nobody is in a position to be planning for next season. That the underlying priority behind shipping out eight players and bringing in five, of which only three are available to play right now, is to cut the wage bill would seem clear (although it would be no surprise to hear some leaks about bids for other players having been turned down). There could be some talk of reducing an unnecessarily large squad, of creating a tighter, more focused group, but we are left dangerously weak and lacking cover in certain areas – but as this season no longer matters small price to pay.

To add to the negatives, just how Sandgaard conspired to turn the window month into a period of due diligence for potential investors, such that an opportunity to use the window has gone begging and now nobody looking to buy the club from him has any incentive to act before the end of the season, is astonishing. We could of course be surprised and have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, but we risk months of uncertainty which wouldn’t help supporter morale and could extend to the attitude of the players, especially as they can't be sure Holden will be around next season.

Rather than looking at each departure – and all of those heading off permanently go with our best wishes, just as we hope those brought in prove to be world-beaters – perhaps best to take each area of the pitch to see whether we have emerged stronger or weaker.

Nobody’s arguing about the keeper’s position. Maynard-Brewer has taken his opportunity well, Wollacott must be close to a return, MacGillivray deserves better than to be number three with little chance of playing. Good luck to him, decision for Holden to make over who is the number one, Harness the back-up.

For the full backs, we knew we needed strengthening and we have done that, with effectively one addition, perhaps two if Clayden is kept following the end of his loan. Kane's immediate injury led to Penney coming in, hopefully at some point before the end of the season Egbo will be able to reappear. As things stand, we have Sessegnon, but with doubts about his availability, Penney and Clare, Chin and Clayden possible alternatives.

In central defence, it was the night of the long knives. We probably thought that someone might be shipped out, but both O’Connell and Lavelle, the former permanently, was a surprise. I hope that Hector quickly gets up to speed, as well as having a good impact on the youngsters in the dressing room (surely Jason Pearce was around to do that), but really can’t see the case for bringing him in. It is February for crying out loud, the season has three months left, and his deal is to the end of it. And Holden acknowledges that we have to be ‘patient’ with him as he hasn’t played and isn’t match-fit. His arrival as the rationale for selling O’Connell just doesn’t stack up. The appearance of Ness on return from loan has been a big bonus, and of late Inniss has been lasting full games; but it was only recently we feared another red for a violent challenge and a lengthy ban. As things stand we have Inniss and Ness with Thomas – who having been brought back too soon from injury for half a game might have been shipped out but instead finds himself first reserve – and Clare if necessary. Add Elerewe, possibly Mitchell, and Hector at some point in the future. Right now one injury or red card and we are struggling. I’d add that for me central defence is as much about partnerships as individual players. We’ve knowingly left ourselves at risk in this area.

In central midfield we’ve lost Forster-Caskey and McGrandles, balanced by the arrival of Kilkenny. As the two outgoing were not usually in the matchday squad and the arrival will be (Bournemouth, having brought him back from Stoke because he wasn’t getting game-time, will expect him to play), you might argue we have been strengthened. But even here I’m dubious. Kilkenny will only be with us for a few months; and if Bournemouth get relegated to the Championship they may well look to him next season. So the chances of him staying with us beyond early May look slim. In that context, given also that he hasn’t been playing much of late and could take time to get up to speed, why bother? Assuming that Dobson, Morgan and Fraser are currently in pole position for the places, with Henry and Payne in reserve, to accommodate Kilkenny suggests Morgan will become more peripheral. And he is a player we will need to decide on come the summer.

In the wide positions we are now short of cover. Moving out either Kirk or Jaiyesimi, perhaps to clear up the space for a more like-for-like back-up for Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, might have looked good. Shipping both of them out with nobody coming in – OK, let’s acknowledge that Palace not recalling Rak-Sakyi was a big boost as if he had gone the whole formation would have needed reappraisal – leaves just Campbell, possibly Payne, as the alternatives. Given that neither of the two first-choice can be relied on to last a full game all guns blazing, it’s another area where one injury will leave us at best stretched.

As for the central forward position, a straight swap of Bonne for Stockley – and the retention of Leaburn – would on the face of it seem fair enough. Stockley has had a miserable season for us, not least because we have not played to his strengths. But he’s not a bad player given the service, will no doubt return to The Valley soon with Fleetwood and play like Ibrahimovic, and the change will make us weaker defensively from set pieces. The jury’s out on whether bringing Bonne back will prove a good move, let’s hope so.

It's reasonable to say teams go into a January transfer window with one or more of a range of objectives: fill a position made vacant by injury/loss of form, strengthen in key areas to bolster a promotion challenge/stave off relegation, take advantage of an opportunity arising. At full-back you can say we’ve acted on the first of these. Otherwise we’ve left ourselves weaker in some areas, which has to be primarily about saving money, given that nobody has been brought in for longer than the end of the season.

That surely requires some explanation along with much-needed clarity on the ownership front in the very near future, if supporters are to be treated as stakeholders. After all, we've just been told the rest of the season isn't important, but by the way please buy the merchandise and renew season tickets. We will, we are supporters. But come on, throw us a bone as we really could use good reason to believe next season will be different. 


Plenty To Be Pleased About

Time for us to be the underdog yesterday, despite the record of recent years. Portsmouth, having done what every club says it intends/wants ...