Charlton Athletic 0 Blues 0 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 12 April 2009 By Richard Barker

In the pub beforehand, discussions about the game were held with a cautious air, along the lines of "we've been here before, so we'll take nothing for granted". The fact is, this was a game Blues should have won. No ifs, buts, maybes, what ifs, etc, etc. Pure and simple, Blues should have gone to The Valley and won this game. Too many fans have seen all this before though, so the expectation wasn't quite there, at least publicly. Deep down though, I think that even the most cautious fan in that pub beforehand still expected Blues to win. You had to.

They didn't.

After the high-profile and exhilarating nature of Monday night's stunning victory over Wolves, you had to expect that Blues would now be on a roll, and that they were timing getting on that roll absolutely perfectly. That Wolves result (and performance) should have been enough to kick start the remainder of the campaign. Blues should have been unstoppable in this game.

Now, I've always had a healthy respect for Charlton. For years under Alan Curbishley they punched above their weight and they always played the game properly. In recent years they've had "proper" footballers in Paolo di Canio, Shaun Bartlett, Danny Murphy, Matt Holland and the like. I don't wish to be unduly unkind to them.

However, at this stage of the season, the league table doesn't lie. For all their past conquests, this season, Charlton are crap. They're bottom of the league. They'll finish bottom of the league. They'll be relegated. Those things will happen. Not only are they bottom of the league, but they're adrift at the bottom of the league. They're comfortably the worst team in the division.

Now, call me strange, but when you're in the position that Blues were prior to the game, on the back of a fabulous victory a few days earlier, surely you'd be busting a gut to get out there and steamroller whoever gets put in front of you? When what gets put in front of you is the poorest side in the division, surely that's the time to almost show no mercy and go for the throat? Not a chance with this Blues side...

To start off with, I still cannot get my head around the team selection. Kevin Phillips was dropped to the bench and Hameur Bouazza came in to make a 4-5-1 formation. I may have over-egged the point (no Easter pun intented) already, but Charlton are the worst team in the division by a distance. Why on earth would you set the team up in a less attacking way?

Yes, I know that 4-5-1 can be attacking if the wide men support the forwards and all the rest of it, and yes, it can. That didn't happen here though, so don't give me that. I haven't read any of Alex McLeish's comments yet, but I can imagine that his defence of this team selection will be, "well, it worked well for us in our last away game at Doncaster, so we decided to stick with it". If that is the case, firstly, that was four weeks ago now. Things change in that time. Move on. Secondly, yes it worked there, but Doncaster have a surprisingly good home record, whereas Charlton are just awful, home or away.

Even with ten men at home to a good Wolves side, Blues kept two men up front. Yet here, against the worst team in the division, Blues set up with just one man up front. Where is the logic in that? I mean, can someone explain it to me? Was it to try and counteract Charlton's excellent passing in midfield that's earned them the sum total of about 32 points in 42 games?

Then we get to a real bugbear of mine; Cameron Jerome as a lone striker. Right, forget what I've said above, and if for some reason you wake up on the morning of this game, someone's removed your brain and for some inexplicable reason you think that one up front is the way to go, ok, I accept that. We'll play one up front. So then, who are you going to choose as that one player up front? Bearing in mind you need someone who can win the ball in the air, hold the ball up for teammates to support you, bring others into the game, make clever runs into the channels... Who are you going to plump for?

Cameron Jerome, you say? Are you mad?

Look, I'm a big fan of Jerome's. His pace and power is frightening, and if I've said it once, I've said it six hundred and eighty three thousand times - if we used him properly, he'd be a hell of a weapon. However, I'm also conscious that if he was a footballer, he wouldn't be at Blues. Not only would he be in the Premier League, but he'd be at one of the "Big Four" and would be playing both in Europe and for his country. His physical attributes are that good. He's quicker and stronger than Thierry Henry, and so if he even had half of Henry's ability, he'd be frightening.

He's not a footballer though, hence he's at Blues.

So, you pick a man with the heading ability of an easter egg and the control of a certain police officer at the G20 summit, and you put him up front on his own and think that he's going to add something to the cause? Seriously, what are you thinking?

Jerome contributed next to nothing. I don't blame him, honestly. Like I say, I like him. I don't have an issue with him. He just gets horribly exposed when he's played in such a role. Put him up front with someone else doing the clever things and just tell him to run the channels, and fine, great, you've got a decent player. Try and get him to play with his back to goal in a lone striker role, and, well, what's the point?

So, to the people who then sang "you don't know what you're doing" and booed the withdrawal of Jerome and his replacement Marcus Bent, I'd actually stick my neck out and say that for about the first time all day, McLeish did know what he was doing. The role that I have described above is made for someone like Marcus Bent.

Jerome had been beaten in the air every single time by Darren Ward (can't someone tell him that League Two, dyed blonde mullets went out of fashion in about 2006?). It was a non-contest. Blues had nothing up front for much of the game.

Now, I'm not saying that Bent was fantastic when he came on, and Ward got the better of him in the air on most occasions too, but his hold up play was far better than Jerome's. He made intelligent runs into the channels where he held the ball up and looked for a teammate, rather than running blindly. He brought those around him into the game. Also, towards the end he cushioned a beautiful header down for Keith Fahey in one of the best Blues moves of the game - Fahey's header was straight at Rob Elliot. Had it been Jerome at the far post, he'd have either flicked the ball out for a goal kick or gone for goal and headed it into the side netting.

As far as I'm concerned, it was no coincidence that once Blues got a striker onto the pitch suited to holding the ball up and bringing others into play, they started creating chances. Blues created more in the last 20 minutes than in the rest of the game.

Now, as I say, I'm not saying that Bent was fantastic, but he certainly contributed and is our best option (possibly alongside Garry O'Connor) in such a role, so I am getting sick to my back teeth with the people who boo him and needlessly slag him off during games. It's pathetic. It's bad enough to do it to one of your own players anyway, but it just smacks of a completely childish vendetta now. I'm all for shouting the odd bit of abuse at a player when they cock up (some people thought "for fuck's sake McSheffrey" were the only four words I knew for a time), but to just do it constantly in ignorance of other factors and to treat it like a pantomime is, well, as I say, childish. Grow up.

So to go full circle and to go back to the team selection at the start, what effectively happened was that Blues wasted 45 minutes, and in doing so, allowed a team with little or no confidence to grow into the game. In the second half, Blues started throwing forwards on. Why on earth did we not start with some in the first place? There were only five games left including this one - why basically needlessly write off half of one of those games with a selection/formation that wasn't going to work? Why oh why oh why?

As I say, Blues being hopeless for 45 minutes (the first half was one of the worst halves of football that I have ever witnessed) meant that Charlton grew into the game. Had Blues picked an attacking team at the start and gone for Charlton, they may have scored in the first ten minutes and gone on to steamroller them. The day before, a Wolves team that Blues had beaten just five days previously were 3-0 up against a relegation-threatened side within 18 minutes. It can be done. Just not by Blues, apparently. So, Charlton grew into the game and in a frantic second half could actually have won the game themselves - Maik Taylor made one stunning save from a deflected shot. Blues basically allowed that to happen with the way that they approached the game, and as I've said, I just can't fathom it for a second.

Now, you'll be surprised, but I want to take a minute to lavish some praise on someone in a Blues shirt; Damien Johnson. I have to say, I think this was Johnson's best ever Blues performance in the middle of the park. He's played well on the flank before, but there have always been questions about him in the middle, but he was superb. He carried out the Lee Carsley role, but did it much, much better.

I didn't do these reports for either the Norwich or Wolves home games, but had I done, Lee Carsley would have been in for a slating in both. Against Norwich it was his stupid messing around on the edge of the area and subsequent foul that led to Sammy Clingan's equaliser. Against Wolves it was his absolutely brainless challenge on Chris Iwelumo that thankfully didn't hurt Blues as much as it hurt Iwelumo's knee. I actually still think Carsley's challenge in that game has been overlooked and that the result has detracted from the criticism that he should have got as captain of the side for making such a challenge and potentially jeopardising the result and the season. He was lucky that his teammates rose to the occasion then.

Ironically, in the past I must have criticised Johnson many, many times for exactly what Carsley did - giving away stupid free-kicks, costing goals and getting sent off in key games. However, back as captain, Johnson was superb here. He kept the ball moving quicker than Carsley does, switching play and bringing the more creative players into the game. He read the game expertly, making tackles, interceptions and disrupting Charlton's play. He also covered his defence brilliantly, particularly late on when Radhi Jaidi and Liam Ridgewell (who I'll confess played well again) were throwing themselves forward and Johnson had to sometimes take on the role of two centre halves. He competed with people twice his size (as he always has done and always will do) and I was genuinely thrilled for him. It was a performance to remind everyone just what he has to offer. Lee Carsley may not get back into the team this season. Actually, what am I saying...? On this performance Lee Carsley SHOULDN'T get back into the team this season, but let's face it, he will.

Right, I've ranted and raved enough now. All I'll add is that two years ago a Blues side chasing promotion and in an excellent position to do so had two winnable games in three days over Easter. They lost at home to Burnley and away at Barnsley, results that effectively cost them the title and made the issue of promotion a lot tighter than it should have been.

Two years on, a Blues side is chasing promotion and in an excellent position to succeed, with two winnable games in three days over Easter. They've blown one of them. Let's hope that they don't blow the other, but I'll finish as I started...

Would anyone honestly be surprised if they did?