The Championship has been a strange division, full of surprises yet lacking in quality, reports Tom Green
It’s easy to see why away fans might enjoy visiting The Valley. Tucked away in a quiet south-east London neighbourhood, it’s a proper football ground, modernised and expanded but still on its old site five minutes from the train station. The club “superstore” is more like a corner shop and pre-match catering still tends to mean fish and chips or a kebab. While there are plenty of expensive players’ Range Rovers in the car park, the statue of post-war Addicks goalkeeper Sam Bartram that looms outside the West Stand is an effective reminder of the club’s history.
Clustered together in the Jimmy Seed Stand, those Baggies who have made the trip for this Good Friday fixture certainly seem to be having a good time. There are fewer of them than might have been expected but, with their team fancied for automatic promotion and through to an FA Cup semi-final, they’re clearly enjoying their season.
The same can’t be said for the home fans, of which I’m one. In recent years another reason why away supporters have liked coming to Charlton is that they’ve tended to leave with the points and, despite the money spent since relegation, this season that trend has continued. Sides ranging from Bristol City to Colchester United have won at The Valley and, with the team having fallen outside the play-off places after only two wins in nine games, pre-match expectations are low. Never mind winning, most fans simply want to see the team produce a performance that’s something better than awful.
In the programme, Alan Pardew apologises for the display in the last home game, when the team were comprehensively outplayed by Preston. He admits to errors in selection but insists that they got back on track in the subsequent trips to Burnley and Ipswich. Admittedly they lost both matches without scoring, but these are mere details when you are trying to motivate 20,000 people to get behind a team for what he promises will be “an epic encounter”.
While, as yet, there’s little animosity towards Pardew – he gets polite applause as he walks along the touchline – it’s becoming hard to know exactly what sort of team he is trying to build. Indeed, watching Charlton since relegation has been like a never‑ending pre-season. Performances have been disjointed and lacking in conviction. The team have never been settled, with the permanent sense of things being tried out. New players have come in at an alarming rate, bought from lower leagues or loaned from the Premier League, but none has made an impact. Pardew talks of wanting to play football “the right way”, but persists in playing a big man up front and preferring tough old pros such as Ben Thatcher to more skilful alternatives.
Perhaps if the pressure to bounce straight back had been less intense there could have been more time to bring players up through the ranks and rebuild a team spirit that has been in decline since well before Alan Curbishley’s departure in 2006. Most supporters, I think, would have accepted that. Yet too often these days, even at a club like Charlton, impatience is seen to be a virtue.
As the game kicks off amid a sudden downpour, the home fans are, nonetheless, in good voice. After only two minutes a ricochet sends Leroy Lita (on loan from Reading) through on goal and for a moment it seems as if he is about to prove that, despite previous showings, he is still a top-class striker. Some hope. He never quite gets the ball under control and it ends up bouncing tamely into Dean Kiely’s hands.
West Brom are soon stroking the ball around, with Jonathan Greening to the fore, but, despite the noise from the stands, there is surprisingly little intensity on the pitch. Having lost 4-1 at home to Leicester in their previous match, the visitors are perhaps keen to steady themselves. They also seem to be a team who, rather like a lower-grade Arsenal, are sometimes happier passing it around than threatening the goal. Only Kevin Phillips, compact and busy up front, seems to have a real hunger to score.
Fortunately for them, Charlton look even less likely to strike. A long shot from full-back Greg Halford (on loan from Sunderland) goes wide, but most of their play is undermined by passing to an opponent at the crucial moment.
My gaze drifts to the perimeter advertising – never a good sign. The Dartford Messenger wants you to read it. And some local scaffolders are looking for work. It’s a long way from Old Trafford’s whizz-bang video screens distracting your eye with ads for Nike and Vietnamese beer. Llanera, a Spanish property developer and official club sponsor, is the most prominently displayed name. Shame they went bust last year.
Finally, on 29 minutes, some goalmouth action. A lofted free-kick from Darren Ambrose and Halford’s header skids across the six-yard box and into the net. The crowd is reawakened and Charlton begin to play something resembling football. In the best move so far, Jerome Thomas runs from deep and links up with first José Semedo and then Andy Gray (no, not that Andy Gray) before having a shot deflected over the bar.
Could it be that confidence is the only ingredient that Charlton are missing? Could this be the start of the charge to the play-offs and beyond?
Jonathan Greening puts an end to such optimism with a free-kick to Zoltan Gera at the back post. His header finds Kevin Phillips unmarked eight yards out and, with all the clinical skill you would expect, the division’s leading scorer slots it into the top corner beyond Nicky Weaver’s reach.
Greening and Semedo are booked before half-time for late but not malicious tackles and that’s about that for the first 45 minutes. Neither goalkeeper has had to make a save from open play and neither team looks as though they would be anything more than whipping boys if they were promoted.
A hail storm at least provides a talking point at the start of the second half and both sets of fans do their best to inspire their team to raise their game.
Thomas, despite looking somewhat thick around the midriff, still presents Charlton’s best attacking option, but his finishing is worse than wayward. The strikers, meanwhile, look ever less threatening. The other Andy Gray would be a definite improvement; even Richard Keys would be worth a go.
West Brom have better players, but Ishmael Miller seems lost out wide and Phillips lacks the pace to be a real danger playing on the shoulder of the central defenders. Gera drifts in and out, but this is a curiously low-key performance from a side who are still most people’s favourites to win the title.
Maybe they consider a draw to be a good result, but it’s surely not enough for Charlton. Zheng Zhi is brought on and then Chris Iwelumo takes up residence alongside Gray in attack. Neither seems likely to change the course of the game.
The introduction of Roman Bednar for West Brom has more promise. Phillips hits over from 20 yards and, amid another flurry of hail, they are starting to get more players forward. Charlton’s Paddy McCarthy makes a couple of last-ditch blocks and all of a sudden Baggies fans have something to wave their inflatable bananas about.
Pardew brings on Lee Cook (on loan from Fulham) for the hapless Ambrose, but Charlton’s play is summed up by the fact that goalkeeper Weaver now seems to be the main playmaker. His hoof up field almost puts Iwelumo through, but the lumbering centre-forward can’t manage to get a shot away.
In the closing minutes it’s West Brom’s Gera who looks most likely to break the deadlock. A skilful run almost puts him through and then, as the clock ticks down, his terrific volley from the edge of the area comes backs off the Charlton bar.
By the time the fourth official has indicated that there will be another four minutes, many of the locals are already long gone. There’s time left for Cook to give the ball away a couple of times and for Phillips to try another long-range shot, but still neither keeper has to get his shorts dirty.
At full time there are some half-hearted boos. Most Charlton fans, however, seem to have achieved a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that this is likely to be a season to forget. A run of wins could still bring a play-off place, but with no apparent way of scoring from open play that seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, West Brom manager Tony Mowbray has taken his players into a huddle in the centre circle. Perhaps he’s giving them a motivational “the rest of the season starts here” speech. Or maybe they’re just discussing where best to watch Grand Slam Sunday on Sky.
From WSC 255 May 2008