Sunday 17 September 2023

Echoes Of Oxford - Except For The Ending

Nobody knew what to expect yesterday. All six games to date decided by the odd goal, new manager/head coach (and with this possibly new pairings or formation), away at the league leaders, which at this stage means little or nothing other than a good start to the campaign but with the opposition normally very tough to play on their own patch. In the absence of further insight what stood out is how far we have fallen when we are rated 3/1 against to win against Stevenage, with no disrespect intended.

What did we get? Another decidedly mixed bag, another game which might easily have gone either way, one which was almost ruined by a dreadful performance from the officials, ultimately one in which a share of the spoils was probably on balance about right. The game highlighted our defensive frailties and in many respects was a carbon copy of Holden’s last game in charge at Oxford – except for the final few minutes and the result.

The team showed two actual changes from last time out under Pearce, both it seemed injury-related. Asiimwe was unavailable and Abankwah came in for his debut out of position, the others in defence unchanged - Isted, Hector, Jones, and Edun. Midfield was as before - Dobson, Anderson and Campbell(C). But up front May seemingly picked up a concussion in training and had to drop out. Leaburn moved up from the bench to start, to be flanked by Blackett-Taylor and Campbell(T) in a 4-3-3. That all meant a couple of places on the bench, with Aneke and Tedic coming in, offering some interesting choices up front if needs be.

The first 30 minutes was uneventful in terms of goalmouth action, especially from us, but carried ominous signs as Stevenage did what Stevenage do. After we started quite brightly we were progressively getting bullied, unable to deal with their pressing out of possession to get anything going in their half and looking increasingly likely to succumb to some half-chance. For that you have to give them credit, they closed down any threat. At the other end Abankwah made a couple of errors, the sort which Asiimwe and others recently have made and ended up costing us goals. Not this time, but worrying nonetheless, even allowing for him playing in an unfamiliar role.

The first half then turned on a few strange minutes out of keeping with what had gone before. We may have been increasingly under the cosh, but no question we should have been awarded a penalty with the first of a series of appeals. The ball was squared into their box from our right. Their defender seemed to have it all under control but took a heavy touch. Anderson read the situation well, nipped in to play the ball beyond the guy, only for his follow-through to take him out. It was one of those where the officials might get caught out as it was unlikely that the set-up might result in a penalty, but I thought it was one in real time and the replays leave absolutely no doubt.

Just how the game might have panned out if we had been given the penalty and taken the lead of course nobody can say. Undoubtedly its path would have been different – as it might have been as a result of what followed. Stevenage broke and their guy advanced in space down our left. Dobson came across and undoubtedly made contact, outside the box. Their guy stumbled on into the box and went to ground, ball cleared. Correct decision would surely have been a free kick to them outside the box, probably a yellow for Dobson (which came later), no red as there were covering defenders.

If that wasn’t enough, we played the ball forward, their keeper and defender seemed unsure how to deal with it, and Leaburn got in between them to just touch the ball past their keeper, then tumble over his body. That one fell into the category of ‘seen them given but on balance probably not’.

A minute later and we were behind. A goal which Stevenage would probably describe as very well worked and finished but which left us once more tearing our hair out. From a throw on their right they played a good one-two which put their guy in behind Edun, advancing into the box. Dobson came across to try to cover but was unable to block the ball back, which thus fell kindly for the guy he would otherwise have been marking. Jones moved towards him but was completely wrongfooted and out of the picture as the forward touched it around him. Still a tight angle but he unleashed a powerful shot which Isted mysteriously managed to get out of the way of. A case of a goalkeeper making himself small, which is not exactly what I was taught to do.

The rest of the half saw Stevenage pretty much in control. They nearly added to their lead from a corner, the header blocked on the line, and late on as it required a desperate block from Jones to stop their guy getting in. All the signs were that they could continue playing as they were and another goal would probably come, finishing off the game. At the break, with no efforts on target from us (and just two off target) despite 56% possession (which meant absolutely nothing), you struggled to see how we might get back into it, with both Campbells, Blackett-Taylor and Leaburn barely getting touches.

And that was pretty much as had been the case at Oxford, where we had been outplayed – in a very different but equally effective fashion – and found ourselves behind. And as at Oxford we did find a way to compete much better in the second half, probably in both games helped by the opposition tending to increasingly settle for what they had. This time around there was no magical turnaround, no changes to formation and personnel, just increased effort and determination, which increasingly forced play into Stevenage’s half, even though actual chances were few.

In a more even contest we started to make a few things happen. Leaburn came close to deflecting a Hector shot from outside the box into the net. That was followed on the hour by a triple substitution, with Abankwah taking another knock and replaced by Thomas, while Anderson and Campbell(C), who had been unable to get into the game, left for Watson and Taylor. Watson’s first contribution was a shot just over, then Campbell(T) seemed to have been found in space to have a run on goal but wasn’t able to control the ball.

All of this would have counted for nothing if Stevenage had taken a gilt-edged chance with about 20 minutes left on the clock. We lost a tussle for possession in the middle of the park and suddenly we were all at sea as Hector and Jones parted, tried to play offside, just went AWOL. The ball was played into space for their forward to have a run in on Isted. He hit the bar instead of sealing the game.

After that we were on the offensive in the later stages. Players went down in a crowded area with fresh appeals for a penalty, nothing given – and to be fair nothing obvious overlooked. We made what looked like our last throw of the dice as Aneke and Tedic came on for Leaburn and Campbell(T), with no change of formation, Tedic slotting in on the right side. And we were quickly reminded of what Chuks can bring to the team as we were denied another penalty. Long clearance from Isted was allowed to bounce and Aneke was pressuring their defender inside the box. Suddenly the ball was diverted to go behind – and the replays showed that the defender had, perhaps unwittingly, used his hand to knock it away. You could forgive the ref for not taking the decision as it was right in the view of the linesman. He signalled for a corner for us, an admission that the ball had been diverted by some part of the defender’s anatomy, but nothing more. Not as stonewall as our first appeal, but another that surely would have been given by VAR – and by now enough to incense the Charlton fans behind the goal.

With a couple of minutes of normal time left Taylor was left flat out in their box, seemingly concussed and bleeding. That allowed us to replace him and I guess Appleton just had a choice between Ness and Maynard-Brewer. He went for the former, which is just as well as he was to play an important role early in the 11 minutes of stoppage time.

The ball was held up on the edge of their box and Ness – I have no idea where he was meant to be playing – made the overlap. Low ball into the box picked out Tedic, with his back to goal. Their defender made a challenge, down went Tedic, and Dobson and others, with the backing of the massed ranks of supporters, turned to howl at the ref for one last time. He thought about it, then pointed to the spot. Up stepped CBT and despite a mazy run-up buried it.

There were still nine minutes left when that happened. And in that period either side could have grabbed a winner. That didn’t happen and at the final whistle – which came bang on the 111th minute, despite the stoppage for the penalty and goal – we had something tangible to show for a determined effort in the second half.

And that’s the contrast with the Oxford game. That time around we’d levelled things up with around half an hour left to play and had gone chasing a winner in the closing minutes. To recap, from a throw we had eight players in their box, got caught hopelessly on the break, and lost. If we’d scored a winner from that set piece everyone would have praised Holden for his positive approach in not settling for a point. We didn’t, we trudged off the pitch with nothing to show for our efforts, and coming on the back of consecutive home defeats Holden was out of the door shortly after. Narrow margins.

Appleton claimed after the game that we were the only side likely to win in the closing stages and if the game had continued longer. Not a daft claim but one which overlooked that Stevenage had been ahead all through the second half, had the chance to wrap things up, and if not sitting on their lead were not chasing a second. That would have changed if we had equalised sooner in the game.

Enough of if and buts. We didn’t get beaten, an outcome which was highly likely at the break, and deserved our point. Can’t say that there was any evident difference in our play under Appleton, but it’s really too soon to tell. Perhaps he can add an element of discipline and game control, we shall see.

As for a ‘winning mentality’, I should say that in my report on the Port Vale game, my first of the season, I wrote that “there was no evidence of any kind of winning mentality” – and since then the club hasn’t stopped talking in those terms. But a winning mentality isn’t just instilled, it is developed, by not accepting defeat, by doing what it takes to win a game, however pretty or ugly. The practical steps towards that include sorting out a defence which is at present collectively not good enough (no news there) and trying to ensure that we don’t treat the first half of games as some sort of learning exercise (we have gone behind in the first period in each of our last three games).

Friday 8 September 2023

Appleton It Is

One of the exchanges with fellow Addicks over the past couple of days has been ‘if it’s Appleton, has there been a Charlton manager (sorry, head coach) greeted with less initial enthusiasm’? Some offered up Fraeye, even Luzon or Peters (basically anyone daft Roland thought suitable after getting lucky with Riga). For those of us with longer memories Mullery was pretty controversial (and didn’t last long), Craggs was just an act of desperation (as was Reed). Let’s also throw into the mix Nelson (greeted with suspicion but despite his absence of social skills got us promoted), Lawrence (also basically just got the job because he was around and look what he did for us), even Curbs and Gritt.

I suppose the point is none of us are going to be thrilled by the choice, but there have been times in the past that’s been the case and it has worked out well. Appleton faces a massive job in winning over the fan base, especially as despite the usual guff with the announcement he most likely wasn’t the first choice (albeit the club apparently didn’t get to speak to those top of the list), plus the fact that the new club management team have come out of the whole episode poorly. Perhaps Appleton’s asset now is that nobody has great expectations and if it all goes pear shaped it will be the owners and club management that take the blame.

There is of course just one (obvious) way in which Appleton will win over the crowd. Results. If there is a material improvement on the pitch – and let’s face it we have reasons to believe it will, given those returning from injury and those brought in, as they learn to play together, and as surely the defence gets sorted out – that will do fine. It isn’t that we can’t learn to love Appleton, just that he doesn’t come across as anyone’s idea of Prince Charming and we’ve been left waiting at the altar so many times in recent times. Whatever our immediate thoughts, we desperately hope he will succeed.

Like all these things the full circumstances around the decision to sack Holden will only potentially be revealed over time. If the rumour that Sir Chris was offered some role before the Oxford game, and/or was approached after it, proves true I hope the person/people concerned feel ashamed. You’d hope they would learn from any such mistake, but these are not people finding their way in football. In those circumstances it would hardly be surprising that he told them to take a running jump. Just as it seemed something rotten had been going on before JJ’s team took to the field at Ipswich, so this time around perhaps the rumours were circulating and had an impact at Oxford.

So like all the times we have been welcoming in a new manager the choice of song reflects hope that it will all turn out well, with the usual sense of foreboding that more often than not over recent years it has not. So perhaps to reflect the behaviour of the club management we could have ‘I’ve Got Friends In Low Places’, even Lee Hazelwood’s classic ‘I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me’. Just that through this week it’s felt more like ‘What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted’ – and right now still does.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Always Someone Worse Off Than Yourself? Duchere Reborn

While we wait for news on Holden’s successor – and if it is to be Appleton he is going to have a massive job on his hands to win over supporters, while the new owners and those actually running the club are coming out of this smelling of something and it isn’t roses – the phrase ‘there’s always someone worse off than yourself’ comes to mind (usually along with Basil Fawlty’s retort ‘well I’d like to meet him, I could do with a laugh’). For anyone seeking comfort of this nature I can offer up a candidate, my previously adopted French team Lyon Duchere – or Lyon-la-Duchere as they are now called (having changed again having been spuriously renamed Sporting Club de Lyon in 2020).

It is a tale of hard-won success and over-achievement feeding into over-ambition and implosion. Not unique in football for sure – and with echoes along the way of the fate of a certain other club, one located in SE7. Just how and why things were done I have no real insight into. I can only relate the way I saw things through the years and where things stand now. But to grab while I can another cliché, ‘tomorrow is another day’ and like football fans everywhere hope springs eternal. It has to. Even when expectations for the campaign are turned on their head just five games in, there’s always ‘if only …’ or ‘there’s always next season’.

Now many moons ago, when I was starting to spend weekends in Lyon as a result of romance, I thought of taking in a game or two of French football. At that time Olympique Lyonnais were the dominant force in the league, regularly winning the championship and competing in the Champions League. I did go to a game. But just down the road from where my partner lived played Lyon Duchere, an amateur outfit playing in National 3 (regional groups below a similar structure for National 2, itself below National, the French third division), on a Friday night, in front usually of a couple of hundred locals. It was really no contest.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Duchere had in place a good manager. And he started to deliver results. The club won promotion, to National 2, and the upward trajectory was to continue as the 2015/16 season ended with La Duch securing a second promotion, to National. Now Duchere found itself slugging it out against teams with far greater resources (and much higher attendances). No matter, the team stayed up, strengthening the idea that Lyon might after all have a second football team, if not to challenge OL then to offer an alternative.

And that’s probably where the problems began. Under an ambitious president we started to notice changes. An area in the ‘stand’ was roped off, for VIPs (you can guess who they were). The manager who had ushered Duchere from National 2 to National in a short space of time was dispensed with, and money is spent on a flood of new players. Now to be fair, despite getting into the third division crowds at Balmont Stadium never really took off. Duchere is perched on a hill in the north-west of Lyon; it’s a bit like Norwich, nobody travels through it to go anywhere, so attracting support from outside the immediate locale was not easy. And you can’t gloss over the possible racist element in some quarters; Duchere was an area created for the pied noirs and the population now is predominantly of North African descent. In the early 1990s Duchere won promotion to the then second division – only to be immediately demoted for ‘administrative purposes’ (which did lead to the club going into liquidation in 1996).

As it happens OL around this time moved to a brand new stadium. Their old one becoming vacant, Lyon’s rugby club, Lou Rugby, saw the opportunity to move in. That in turn meant Lou’s old stadium became available. Duchere’s ambitious president saw the possibility to turn the club clearly into Lyon’s second football team and to transport it to the other side of the city. As part of the process, supporters were ‘invited’ to vote on a name change. In fact they were offered four alternatives, none of which mentioned ‘Duchere’. Accordingly, and with spurious claims that the new name had been selected by fans, Lyon Duchere AS became ‘Sporting Club de Lyon’.

At that point I stopped going, a small protest against an owner with a big ego destroying a club. And then the problems mounted. ‘Sporting Club’ were having a tough time in National, despite the new players, then along came Covid. The season was suspended, then effectively terminated. When it came to the start of a new one, it was unilaterally decided by the French football authorities that Sporting would be considered to have finished bottom of the league and would be relegated; them alone. A protest was lodged but nobody in Paris bothered responding.

Sporting had to accept their fate, but the ambitions of the president were falling apart and he did a runner. The planned move across Lyon was abandoned. And the name change was effectively reversed, the club now called Lyon-la-Duchere.

The club competed back in National 2 for the 2021/22 season and just about managed to stave off a further relegation. And with 2022/23 things seemed to be looking up again. Duchere was in the mix for promotion through the season, finally missing out, finishing fifth.

I thought the other day I’d check to see how they had started 2023/24, but couldn’t find the club listed under any of the National 2 groups (there are four of them). So I did a little checking on the club site. Now says Duchere competes in National 3 (in one of 12 groups). It seems that Duchere has been ‘administratively demoted’ (for the second time) in order to avoid a bankruptcy filing, commenting that dropping down to N3 is the best option to ‘save the club’ and that the budget for the team would be ‘limited and regulated’.

There we have it, back where it all started. But before anyone despairs, there is hope. The club’s website is hailing the return of Karim Bounouara as coach, alongside Ludovic Assemoassa, while there is the embracing of a more community-focused approach with as much focus on developing youth as the first team. The club site talks of having “the right combination to allow La Duchere to shine in the National 3 championship and to progress towards higher horizons” and that “the stakes are higher than ever for the Lions of La Duchere”. The club may be back where it was when I came along, but perhaps it has rediscovered its soul.

So, I may spend more of my time these days in Givry than in Lyon, but I hope to be taking in a game or two before long, the boycott most definitely over. Might even buy the shirt. But in one sense the parallels with Charlton come to an end as in the first two games of the new season Duchere have secured a win and a draw, to stand fifth out of 14, without conceding a goal. If only.

Sunday 3 September 2023

Blessed Relief

Four deadline day signings, making around 11 new players in total for this season, manager sacked after seven good months gave way to one pretty poor one, four league defeats in a row, 19th in the third flight, and up against one of the five teams still below us, one which – with no disrespect intended – is among the favourites to be relegated. The overwhelming desire was just to fashion a win, by any means and of any description, give Pearce a 100% record, then we can have a couple of weeks off (Crawley really doesn’t count) to start to focus on how we will shape up with the new personnel and manager. But nobody was forgetting that Fleetwood left The Valley with the points last time around, or the possibility of Stockley returning to exact some retribution.

We ended up for once getting what we wanted, and just about what we deserved, with yet another game decided by the odd goal and us overcoming a poor opening period – during which we could well have conceded more than the one we did. Stockley did exact some retribution, but to his credit kept his goalscoring celebrations low-key. In the end it was smiles all round on the pitch on our side, less so for Fleetwood who followed up today by sacking their manager, becoming the second team this season to do so.

The team and formation were anyone’s guess, hadn’t exactly been consistent under Holden. In the event Pearce made three changes from the starting X1 at Oxford, with Elerewe and Ness, two of the starting three centre-backs, missing out (Ness to the bench, Hector coming in), along with Kanu (also to the bench), seemingly to accommodate a 4-3-3 set-up: Isted retained in goal, Asiimwe and Edun full-backs either side of Hector and Jones (who seems to be quietly retained each game), Dobson, Anderson and Campbell(C) making up a midfield trio, then May flanked by Blackett-Taylor and Campbell(T). The surprises on the bench were the early return of Leaburn – which meant going from no forward options in reserve to having two - and Kirk given a spot (to be fair with Jaiyesimi departing on loan and the others included in the starting line-up he was the only reserve wide option available).

In the first 20 minutes or so we were decidedly second-best. Fleetwood were laborious, generally predictable, but did the basics better than us and played to their strengths. By contrast we buzzed around to little effect and once again looked vulnerable at the back. In the first 10 minutes Fleetwood had a couple of dangerous situations, rounded off with Stockley smacking the crossbar from a free-kick just outside the box after a foul by Dobson (one of several he was pulled up for through the afternoon, some unjustly, without picking up a yellow).

So it was really no surprise that on 15 minutes Fleetwood took the lead with what was from our perspective another soft goal, from Fleetwood’s probably a well-worked and well-finished move. The bald facts were their guy in a decent position on the right side put in a good cross to around the far post, where Stockley outmuscled his man to head home. The reality became clear with the TV replays, which highlighted another case of poor defensive coordination and lack of leadership. Anderson had tracked Stockley back, into the box. When he saw their guy on the right he drifted to the far post, still marked by Anderson. When it came to getting on the end of the cross Stockley barely had to get off the ground, heading home from slightly behind him back across Isted.

You might say Anderson should have called for help when he realised the situation, perhaps that Asiimwe could have taken over, it was more his space, and that Edun stood off too much, allowing their guy to choose his time to deliver and where to put it. But for me the main culprits were Hector and Jones. When the cross came in, Hector was central, marking their other forward. I’d guess he felt he was doing his job. Jones was to the left of Hector, presumably also feeling he was where he should be positionally, but actually on his own, just marking space. Neither he nor Hector reacted to the danger, to assess the situation and take action. With a simple drift to the far post Stockley had created a mismatch and punished us. Now it can’t be that easy. Perhaps the two centre-backs didn’t have the time to adjust, but they didn’t seem to be aware of the danger and made no effort to neuter it; and whatever they did it couldn’t have turned out any worse.

Perhaps having gone ahead Fleetwood became more conservative, but the rest of the first half proved more even; and we created half-chances. CBT and Campbell(C) were causing problems (even if Campbell sometimes seemed to be taking up the space that CBT needs in order to use his pace), crosses were almost finding their way to May – and when on 40 minutes a low one from our right did hit the mark he completely missed the ball rather than tuck it home. No matter, all was forgiven a couple of minutes later. Campbell(C) from around the half-way line on the right played an absolute peach of a pass, curled behind and in between their centre-backs. May timed the run to perfection, didn’t have to take a touch or break stride before sliding it low under their keeper. Suddenly we were level and the game had changed.

Pearce indicated after the game that some home truths were said in the dressing room at the break, and accepted by the players, and buoyed by the goal we did come out on the front foot in the second half. Things done just a little faster, more determination to win the ball back. It actually felt a little like away at Oxford and the reaction then to what had been an unacceptably poor opening period.

Before the hour we should have had a penalty. It wasn’t a stonewall one in real time, but when the ball was nudged in the box to Campbell(C) their defender went through him to try to reach the ball, connected with him but not the ball, then guiltily played it away. Any VAR and it would have been given.

Instead a further 18 minutes elapsed before we were awarded a spot-kick, this time with no doubt involved. For the second time in the game a penetrative ball forward, this time from Jones it seems, resulted in a goal. This one was to Blackett-Taylor on the left, inside the box. He cut inside and their defender stuck out a leg. Over he went and May stepped up to rifle the ball down the middle. He managed to pick up a yellow in the process, explaining afterwards that there had been a few exchanges with the Fleetwood keeper and acknowledging that it wasn’t the best thing to do, especially following a series of yellows for kicking the ball away bringing the risk of an early suspension.

Thereafter we were the more likely to score and with hindsight, despite 12 minutes of stoppage time and the nerves associated with wanting to end a losing run, we saw the game out reasonably comfortably. It seemed as though Fleetwood’s changes had made them weaker, whereas we were able to welcome Leaburn back onto the pitch to good effect (for Campbell), then to later replace Edun and Campbell(T) with Thomas and Taylor, even at the death bringing on Kirk (for CBT), with time for him to dunk in an inviting cross which May just failed to reach.

There will of course be much stiffer tests ahead. But the only negative for us after the game was more evidence of defensive frailties to be worked on. The positives included the contribution of Campbell(C), who despite May’s two goals I would have made Man of the Match, the return from injury of Campbell(T) and Leaburn, a couple more goals for May, and the sight of four new signings to be integrated in the weeks ahead. Most of all, just a huge sigh of relief, for obvious reasons.

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 ...