Saturday, November 30, 2013

You only sing when you're ploughing.

Is there a true, honest to God, football fan that truthfully begrudges losing to a better team? At QPR last Saturday the home teams quality shone though even though they had a (relatively) off day and yet they still picked up the three points. We battled, gave it our all, but still left with nothing to show for our endeavors. Were we bitter? Of course not, we had our pride intact and lost to a team whose salary reflected their ability. So seven days later that pride and belief, which had already been showcased in a tip-top performance against Doncaster on Tuesday, would again come to the fore and we would rejoice in a much needed second successive home win.

Trouble is, it didn't really go according to plan. Nobody could question Chris Powell in fielding the same eleven that ripped Doncaster to shreds midweek, and perhaps you could even argue that lady luck didn't really shine her torch on us today, but nothing hides the fact that for the first five minutes this afternoon we were still mentally in the dressing room.

Even before Ipswich got their goal Ben Alnwick was called into producing two good stops. I even said to those around me that it was probably good for the keeper to be called into duty early before he possibly had the chance to be a touch complacent.

It was to be the only goal, but my gripe is at the fact that Ipswich were never really in the game after that. We certainly didn't lose to the better team, maybe just the braver one.

Our ball into the final third of the pitch was always delayed, players looking for the safe option rather than taking a more direct approach. I can't quite remember seeing quite so much head tennis in the middle of the park, never resulting in Charlton gaining any ground. There was even occasion in the second half when we broke away with seemingly menace only for this attack to result in a sideways pass between our two centre halves less than twenty seconds later!

Ipswich had done their homework well, Jordan Cousins, for example, when receiving the ball on the edge of the box always had two blue shirts on him before he had a chance to swing his leg. The two visiting centre backs kept Church in their pockets whilst dishing Yann Kermorgant a rather tough lesson under the watchful eye of a (rare these days) card shy referee.

Charlton wasted move after move, it was only Rhoys Wiggins that nearly came close at the end of the first half when the keeper struggled to deal with a shot at his near post and nearly claimed an own goal. Danny Green looked lively replacing Jackson, he reminded me a little of Scott Wagstaff last season who needed to shine when the chance came his way. Pigott replaced Church with no real effect, I do wonder why this young lad is not on loan to gain experience and is instead ahead of Michael Smith in our front line pecking order. There was even another cameo for Marvin Sodall although for what good is anybody's guess.

Conceivably one of our clearest opportunities came near the death as Cameron Stewart received the ball via a diagonal cross from Cousins after Kermorgant was cynically hacked down in the centre circle. With only the keeper to beat the referee blew the whistle for the foul on Kermorgant bringing play back to the centre of the pitch. An unbelievably late call, what part of the word advantage he doesn't understand is beyond reason, if I believed that match fixing still occurred these days I'd suspect Ipswich of sweetening this ref with a box of organic home grown root vegetables prior to kick off.

The resulting free kick obviously failed to recreate any chance we may have had and only succeeded in infuriating an already tense situation into a complete free for all. As the players all 'bundled in' the referee should have stepped back and admitted to himself that the blame for these fisticuffs lay solely at his feet.

After the game in West London I predicted we would destroy Doncaster before returning to 'normal service' today. Unfortunately I was proved right, we were over ninety minutes perhaps the slightly better of the two sides yet we never looked like we wanted to be, or more appropriately, believed we should be.

I shall however finish on a positive. Ben Alnwick has been superb for these past two matches. I sincerely hope Ben Hamer has to fight for his place in the team upon his return. If he walks straight back in it will be a travesty, although Hamer is a country boy himself so perhaps he may try the fresh vegetable trick with the gaffer.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

If at first you don't succeed......

Bitter rivalries are usually formed through location, although occasionally a heated cup tie or some such event can sow the seeds of animosity. Has a football team ever been hated due to the weather though? Until this season it is unlikely, but biblical downpours and the ability to cope with such dampness have infuriated the supporters of Doncaster Rovers, so that now my Charlton pin badge is about as welcome in that part of South Yorkshire as an Ian Watkins guest appearance at your local school concert.

I'd have a lot more sympathy for the Rovers supporters if their team had turned up last night, although for some reason this fixture was seemingly cursed as a signal fire at London Bridge caused havoc with the transport infrastructure in and out of South East London; in hindsight it's quite fortunate anybody attended at all.

Heading north out of Redhill I was informed of the impending gloom thanks to the very apologetic train driver. My choices were to alight at East Croydon and return from where I had come or show some initiative and battle on with a new resourcefulness and complete my journey to SE7. I chose the latter.

A train to Victoria, the Victoria line to Green Park and then the Jubilee line to North Greenwich and, hey presto, I landed with my feathers none too ruffled. The bus stops here though were heaving with far too many people and I decided a half hour walk was by far the quickest way to complete the final leg, also giving me opportunity to visit the newly opened Pilot Inn for liquid refreshment. It proved a good call as the beer was delicious and I stumbled across a friend, also diverted from his usual route, which made the final walk far quicker and more sociable.

And so I reached The Valley in good time for kick off, quietly smiling to myself that I had defied logic and raced across a standstill rush hour London. Local authorities, police, the railway companies and just about everyone else must be praying one of these sides is relegated in May so we don't have a repeat performance next season.

I was feeling incredibly confident about the game, lightening not striking twice and all that. Doncaster were only going to score three at The Valley the once, we had shown great spirit at Loftus Road on Saturday and if we took that into this game a severe thrashing could be on the cards. Believe me, it's not often I feel quite so confident. Thankfully this was not misplaced.

Charlton were superb last night, their best performances at home always seem to come under the floodlights of an evening game. Even a pre match injury to Ben Hamer didn't detract from our superiority as Ben Alnwick came in for his league debut and did everything right. Yes Doncaster were poor, possibly the worst I've seen in SE7 for some time, but the rookie keeper pulled off a couple of fine stops and kept that all important clean sheet.

Simon Church up front was fantastic. His commitment is second to none, he missed chance after chance but was rewarded with a goal after an hour which he took round the keeper and slotted home very professionally. Quite how he later managed to stand on the ball then fall off it before landing face first in the dirt is quite a mystery though! I took a long time accepting the lad, strange as how Steve Jones is one of my all time favourite Addicks and he too ran all day after everything with very few goals in return. Church had the Donny centre backs worried from the off though and they looked in awe of him whenever he came close by. He's growing in my (highly influential) esteem week by week.

Dale Stephens is a true Jekyll and Hyde footballer, you never know which one is going to turn up, fortunately last night it was the talented player that can read the game, execute the decisive pass and score goals of sheer memorizing genius. Yesterday we were treated to the whole package, a goal that made Charlie Austin's screamer on Saturday look like a poacher's tap in. Helped with the youngsters Stewart and Cousins being both on song and a handful for the disorientated opposition, and Jackson putting in a true captain's shift, our midfield last night looked as good as any I'd seen in this division. Don't panic though, we still had time to throw in a few meaningless sideways passes to keep the purists happy.

Yann Kermorgant got his first full ninety minutes in for a while, and with it a superb chance to steal a goal. Somehow he managed to curl a distance effort in front of an open goal further towards the corner flag than the target. With two goals, two efforts off the woodwork and plenty of other near misses we were fortunate that we didn't depend on our talisman striker doing anymore than improving his match fitness.

So surely there can't be any gripes at all can there? Well, I'm still not convinced with Wilson at full back and there's always Marvin Sordell. He came on for twenty minutes in place of Church and immediately looked more knackered than the enthusiastic front man he replaced. Dragging his heels like he does can't be doing his boots any good at all. Other than that I was full of smiles and more than ready for an attempt to get home.

It must have been the first time I've left the ground and not seen an away fan. The couple of hundred Rovers fans that had made it surely came by coach, those that caught the train must have been fuming when they could get no further prior to kick off.

The trains were now running of sorts, I got to London Bridge as quickly as I would have normally and there was a connection to East Croydon within minutes. My luck stopped here. It took me another hour to reach Redhill and this is still six miles from home. Refusing to wait at least another half hour I resorted to a taxi which I shared with another chap still trying to get home after his days work. He asked me where I'd been; I told him all about Dale Stephens wonder goal.

Needless to say my smile was much larger than his.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The best and worst of West London

Queen's Park Rangers are a strange football club. As a child I remember they were one of the best in the land, Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis, and co playing the most attractive of football in the late seventies. Then there was that plastic pitch and the cup final, yet afterwards there has been years of misery, administration and scandals. Recently they've had a return to the elite but again only reached the headlines for less than illustrious achievements.

This has all been done without really upsetting, or more interestingly, hindering anybody else. Outside of West London you'll be hard pressed to find a supporter, and I (wrongly I admit) refer to them as London's forgotten club. That said, good old 'Arry, does his best to keep his mix and match of top flight journeymen footballers (and their accompanying sky high wage bill) on the back pages of your favourite tabloids.

So what is the best bit of West London you may ask, as you know I can't be referring to the view from the away supporters section of the Loftus Road Subbuteo grandstand. Well it's a little traditional boozer tucked right behind Notting Hill tube station.

Many Charlton fans took the disco boat along the Thames as has become almost SE7 tradition when playing in West London, but I believe police made this dock in Westminster Saturday. There were no boats for land loving me, as I took the circle line to the home of Portabello Road market along with many others, all of whom were looking for an antique bargain to take back home. Tucked behind the station though is The Uxbridge Arms, a pub time seems to have forgotten. A perfect pint of Tribute, a warming fire and a archetypal London landlady. A strong woman that certainly wouldn't take any mischief but would happily ply you with beer until either you could drink no more or the last bell was rung.

We left it as late as possible before taking the central line three stops and following the blue and white hoards to the ground where we must have had to walk round three sides of the place before finding entry. This was easier said than done. A bottleneck of supporters were herded through an army of stewards who frisked you once , then twice before finally allowing you past. I offered a third young steward the chance to pat  my pockets but he politely declined, ha ha, not one of them looked under my hat. A tip there for you youngsters keen on your flares etc. I do remember it being strict there in previous visits as back in the 90's I recall then Charlton drummer Mark Garvey being bundled to the floor by the men in hi-viz as he tried to carry his drum in.

If you thought entering was tough, you had no idea what treat was in store for us as we tried to escape!

The game itself had it's moments, Ben Hamer was called upon to make a couple of needy stops from distance and although Rangers superiority was obvious for all to see, they struggled to make a mark on the game.

Charlton played well, were organized and obviously stuck to their plan. It's just a shame the plan seemed to be to hold them to a goalless draw. Simon Church up front did was he does best and ran all afternoon but with little support it became clear we wouldn't score in a month of Sunday's. QPR were calm on the ball, never rushed, and showed real signs of being a top flight side again. Never has Bradley Pritchard looked more out of his depth.

The goal was a delight from Charlie Austin, struck cleanly it looked as good this morning on the small screen as it did at the time. In fact our only chance would have been if Cameron Stewart could produce something similar for us at the other end. At 0-0 our plan wasn't really working, at 0-1 it was defunct and we knew five minutes into the second half that Powell needed a change. It would be Pritchard and Church that came off, Harriott and Kermorgant on. We recognize the big Frenchman needs little convincing to fall to the ground but even on the unintentional occasions yesterday it was obvious little would be given our way; again we were unpopular with the man in the middle.

Joey Barton took remarkably little stick considering who he is, Rob Green, who as was frequently reminded had let his country down, certainly made up for it. Andy Johnson made a cameo appearance and again got his deserved share of flack, whilst the arrival of Shaun Wright-Phillips heralded  chorus after chorus of his brothers anthem, 'he's better than Shaun'. Great stuff. The stand out player for me though was the left back, a lad on loan from Spurs I am told. From where I stood, and granted, with rather failing eyesight, I thought I'd been beamed thirty years back in time and was watching the great George Berry!

Charlton can have no complaints, they did lose to a better side but certainly didn't disgrace themselves in any way. QPR however must wonder why, with stands so close to the pitch and with roofs surely designed to keep the noise in, have a support that hardly made a sound. Is that the worst of West London? It's certainly the same scenario up the road at Fulham.

No, the worst side of West London has to be the access, or lack of it. As I said before, getting in the ground was tough, getting out was a nightmare. The narrowest of concourses meant we all shuffled slowly through (at the times we weren't stationary) under the glare of stewards in a manner I can only assume would resemble prisoners at a concentration camp shuffling towards the 'showers' under the watchful eye of Nazi guard. On finally making it out onto the metal staircase down to the street there was a feeling of escaping and an urge to run in case I was captured and sent back in.

A couple of drinks in Clapham on the way home where my companion Jim found himself innocently caught amidst Chelsea - QPR urinal warfare rounded off another London derby defeat. I was feeling quite upbeat all things considered, then stupidly glanced at the league table. It's a little more concerning than I had realised. I don't believe it's too early to call Tuesday's visit of Doncaster a six pointer is it?

In typical Charlton fashion I think we'll rub salt in the wound midweek and come away victorious, just to burn all our Donny bridges once and for all. That's how football goes isn't it, but then come next Saturday and Ipswich and I'm certain normal service will be resumed.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Don Revie Legacy

As posts for a Saturday afternoon football match go, this is pretty late. It's lateness seems rather fitting in retrospect however considering the events of yesterday.

Engineering works disrupted southbound services both in and out of London Bridge, thus resulting in ridiculous travel times and awkward routes. With an irony you just couldn't contrive, I found myself waiting for a connection at Selhurst at half past two, and this with Crystal Palace playing at home too! What a joyous place that was.

Charlton however had obviously heard of my plight and lovingly put the kick off back by half an hour to coincide with my arrival. Well both that and the inclement weather of course. After the Doncaster fiasco you'd have thought we may have invested in a tarpaulin or two for the eastern side of the pitch. With three thousand travelling supporters and the thought of the bar revenue that would generate it was obvious the club wanted the game to go ahead, but looking at it from an outsiders view it must seem laughable that a club of our side struggle to get a game on on time. Is there another professional club that has this problem?

Before you all shout about the clue being in the name and the lack of funds for water dispersing equipment, may I remind you that clubs a lot smaller than us on tighter budgets manage. Colin Powell has done the job long enough, winter has only just begun and the pitch looks worse than a park already. What on earth is it going to be like by the end of January. Perhaps Tony Jimenez ought to host a golf tournament back home in Cyprus in aid of some new turf. I'm sorry to say this but sometimes supporting Charlton is a little embarrassing. Take the minutes silence for those brave souls that defended our country yet never returned home for example.

There are times at a football match where a minutes applause is quite fitting. There are times when a minutes silence is called for though. A group of Leeds fans started applauding, I'm told to drown out a couple of idiots, but then we followed suit as we always do. Thankfully it soon died out and we finished the sixty seconds respectfully in silence.

Say what you like about Leeds United, and many have, but you cannot deny that (apart from the one or two mentioned above and a few who seem to still be stuck in the past with it's reputation of the 'Service Crew') they have a great away following. They packed the Jimmy Seed stand and had plenty to cheer as they ran out 4-2 winners. There are those that will argue they were helped to a degree by the man in the middle but, as good as Charlton were yesterday, you cannot ship four goals at home no matter what the circumstances.

It's common knowledge that Leeds are rather unpopular outside of the city itself. As a kid I rather liked them. Players like Arthur Graham, Brian Flynn, Tony Currie, Peter Lorimer, not to mention our own Paul Hart all resplendent in one of Admiral's finest kits, they had characters aplenty and we got to watch them frequently on The Big Match. I always had a soft spot for the white scarf with the blue and yellow trim too. As an eight year old the tactics hadn't really hit home, The cool badge, the recent history, they had an element of fascination in my eyes.

But that was a long time ago and I now understand a lot more the basis of the success that came to the club prior to my era. Silverware was prominent in Revie's reign but so were the underhand tactics. Brian Clough knew it and so did the rest of the country. Since then managers and players have come and gone but the mentality has remained. You wonder if they sign a special clause in their contract upon arrival at the club whilst being told of the heritage and 'Leeds way' by the chairman. I jest of course but there is no doubting the nickname 'dirty Leeds' is commonplace and therefore has to have some substance.

The number 22, Scott Wooten, felt the urge to go to ground with great regularity despite all the water and the mud. Every time he would hobble off only to sprint back on seconds later. All clubs have a player that does this but I've never seen such consistency to it before. The number 5, Jason Pearce saw the effect it was having on his teams performance and tried it for himself. The defining moment for me was when one of them hobbled off in front of the East stand and then took the resulting throw in. In goal Paddy Kenny had his own method of distraction with time wasting. It says an awful lot when the referee finally decides it warrants a booking in the 38th minute of the game. Kenny then condescendingly applauded the officials decision to book him, is that surely not a second card?

It all sounds like sour grapes but that's far from the truth. Charlton played very well coming from behind twice, the first time with a dream goal from Cameron Stewart. Simon Church came so close with a point blank header saved fantastically by Kenny (who would later pull off another fine save to deny Callum Harriott), as Charlton rallied, piling the pressure on the Leeds goal as the first period came to a close. There was a very good penalty shout as Church went sprawling but as stonewall as it looked at the time I would like to see it again. One Leeds fan tweeted me saying Ashley Young would have been proud of such theatricals.

A penalty was however given at the beginning of the second half, this time as Harriott got himself caught up with the advancing Leeds player inside the box. Ross McCormack stepped up and made no mistake for his second.

Simon Church again ran his socks off yet the ball just wouldn't go in the net for him, he spent most the game with his hands on his head. Good work didn't go unrewarded though as his ball across the byline was tapped in by Johnnie Jackson. The Leeds faithful weren't quiet for long. Three minutes later McCormack got his hat-trick even though Jackson had done his best to barge the striker off the ball. Ben Hamer comes in for more than his fair share (a matter of opinion of course) of stick sometimes but for this goal I think only the keeper himself could talk you through his actions. Or more precisely lack of them.

McCormack rounded off a superb performance with a delightful free kick that sailed into the top corner at the death, finally killing off Charlton's challenge. He was without doubt the difference between the two sides and although the man in the middle did his utmost to steal the mantle, the Scot was by far and away the best player in what could be a very talented Leeds side. If only they'd cut out the antics, but then they just wouldn't be Leeds then would they.   

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Good Form"

A phrase that can be equally applicable to both team and supporters, although usually preceded by a few other words unless you speak like it's still 1952.

Charlton are certainly in a rich vein of this form as they picked up another three points on their travels yesterday at St Andrews. With the win at Blackburn and the draw last Sunday against Wigan, it's seven points out of nine for the Addicks and unbeaten in five. Once again, in repetition of last season, our away form looks likely to becoming vital in carrying us through the winter months. If we can turn those draws into victories back home we could be in for an easier ride that we may have predicted a couple of months ago.

With Yann Kermorgant back in the treatment room, Chris Powell approached this match with a slightly more defensive approach, Simon Church being the only recognized front man in the starting eleven. Johnnie Jackson spearheaded a five man midfield while Dorian Dervite partnered Michael Morrison at the centre of the defence in place of Richard Wood.

Dale Stephens scored the only goal in a game which Charlton were in control of for the main part. After an initial strike from Cameron Stewart was parried by former Charlton goalkeeper Darren Randolph, Johnnie Jackson was then denied before the ball fell for Stephens making no mistake from just a few yards out. I think it's fair to say Birmingham aren't the force they were a year or two back, they themselves must be desperate for fortunes to change if they want to pull clear of the lower reaches of the table. Their fans are certainly disgruntled, a barrage of boos met the team at the final whistle. A different story to the reception that greeted the Londoners at the same stage. Small in number they may have been, huge in stature they stood proud, dominating the surroundings as this you tube clip shows. Without doubt the travelling supporters were in good form, and this after having to endure sharing trains north with Crystal Palace supporters heading for The Hawthorns.

It was indeed a heartily welcomed moment of good fortune for the club, the negativity dominating the news during the previous week being put to bed.

Nobody can have failed to hear about the seven Charlton Athletic supporters jailed on Wednesday for racist chanting on a train after an FA Cup match at Fulham. I don't for one moment claim to know all the facts, I've heard stories from some saying that evidence was inconclusive, that sentences were too severe and that some were just guilty by association. That aside, there is no place for racist chanting, or for that matter any threatening behaviour towards the general public. I do know one of the lads, admittedly not as well as I used to, but suffice to say he has had a record for disturbances previously and has certainly from time to time mixed in less desirable circles.

The video from yesterday proved how superb our support can be, there is very little in life that compares to out-singing the opposition in representation of your team. This really doesn't have to 'cross the line' though. I still join in with choruses of  'we forget that you were here' and other such good humoured jests, but my days of hand gestures to the opposition fans are long gone. It doesn't make me any better than anyone else, it's just not my thing and I don't need the constant hostility and looking over my shoulder that once upon a time was a regular part of football. At the same time I do enjoy watching the lads with the flags and the flares, I love seeing new generations of young lads going to the game with their mates all dressed to the nines, there is still as much a place for these boys in the modern game as their is for the families that the clubs try to encourage, as middle aged men bring their wives and children for a nice (albeit expensive) family day out.

The good form of the supporters can change instantly though as I discovered on Tuesday evening in Sutton. My first visit of the season to Gander Green Lane was an FA Cup fourth qualifying round replay (my third FA Cup match of the season), Sutton United hosting Hemel Hempstead Town after the U's had drawn 3-3 four days earlier in Hertfordshire.

The kick off was delayed as the team coach carrying the visitors was delayed in traffic, fortunately it was ahead of the supporters coach, also stuck, a few miles behind it. Upon entry to the ground I was frisked, an entirely new experience for me at non league football. It transpired that Hemel Hempstead fans were prone to the odd flare; the stewards were certainly on edge and ready for confrontation on reputation alone. As the first half was just warming up the bulk of the away support arrived, they certainly made themselves heard. A large contingent of young lads, they sung their hearts out but you could sense the impending altercation.

Gathered behind the goal on terracing under cover, they soon accompanied their songs with rhythmic banging on the rear of the structure. In moved the stewards, from where I stood it certainly seemed that they were trying to eject the culprits with force. Then it happened again when a huge flag appeared over the heads of the more 'bouncy' section of the crowd, the stewards did their best to antagonize these lads with quite forceful reprimands.

There are rules, we all have to abide by them, but unlike flares none of this was dangerous to anybody and certainly there has to be a degree of common sense used. Following the rule book word for word is a modern policing philosophy that more often than not does more harm than good.

Sutton went on to win the match 2-0, and a great game of football it was too, but the seeds had been sown, what started as good humour became slightly more sinister by the end. Hemel Hempstead had superb support for this level of the game, they sung for ninety minutes and were the more audible even when Sutton's second goal went in. Leaving the ground individuals from both sides verbally attacked each other quite unnecessarily and I honestly believe this hostility was born from earlier treatment inside the ground. In the road outside groups from both sides faced each other taunting and provoking until the blue flashing lights descended, all very avoidable and unwelcome in the non league game, a place where supporters have always mingled with good cheer.

A slight dampener it may have been to proceedings, but a football crowd can be far more electric than any other. When the adrenalin kicks in there is no place I'd rather be than supporting my team, for ninety minutes I'm territorial, I'm part of the pack, but I wish no real harm. In true good form I'm delighted to enjoy a pint in the company of 'the enemy' before bidding them a safe journey home.