Wednesday 28 September 2011

Rolling Countryside To Stadium:MK

Last time we travelled to Stadium:MK I got as close as the front door before deciding I couldn't face the disappointment (at the time, if I remember correctly, we were hanging on by our fingernails to faint hopes of the play-off's). It was a good call, we lost 2-0. This time around I was far more confident we'd get a result, so headed out in to the warm afternoon, full of optimism.

Milton Keynes is only an hour away from my house, and what a pleasant drive it is. I can't think of another fixture that I could access via A-roads alone, with rolling countryside and woodland as my landscape along the entire 50 mile route. Even my sat nav seemed quite happy to avoid motorways. Furthermore, where else could you pull up your handbrake within 200 yards of a stadium on a matchday and park for free (for future reference, ASDA)? In fairness, the latter point is perhaps a lamentable juxtaposition of good v bad. After all, despite the welcome convenience of being able to park so close without charge it was because this is League One and we're playing MK Dons, who have no fans whatsoever.

Stadium:MK is certainly imposing given it's remote location, but it's far from impressive from the outside. The lack of cladding to the steel-framed structure gives it a half-finished, awkward feel. Inside it is a different story, where it is easily as good a stadium as you'll find in this country. A few years back I watched Bayern Munich play Munich 1860 in the hugely impressive Allianz Arena on the outskirts, Munich...obviously, and Stadium:MK (or whatever they call it nowadays) reminded me of a smaller version of that in the way the concourse circumnavigates the entire stadium and has unrestricted views of the pitch (picture above). The sightlines are exceptional and the seats are massive and roomy. Shame there's no home fans to fill them. You do have to wonder if there will ever be a need for them to add seats to the top tear which remains out of use and set aside for future expansion.

We were poor in the first half, but credit must go to MK Dons for the way they passed quickly and pushed forward, mainly down our right as if targeting young Solly. They are a decent and capable side and have a bright young manager. I'd need to see the penalty again, but in real time I thought it looked clumsy and, as was the case Saturday, a needless challenge. In some respects, I was pleased we were only the one goal down at half time as it could have been worse. Thankfully the second 45 was better as we imposed ourselves on the game. Credit must go to Powell for recognising the two areas that needed improvement with the two attacking substitutions, whom combined to produce our equaliser. We could have gone on to win the game (Jackson's free header - which you'd have put your bloody mortgage on), but then we could have lost it as well.

This could well prove to be a very useful point come May.

Monday 26 September 2011

A Perfect Way To Spend A Saturday...

Saturday got off to a great start after I decided to pass up my wife's offer of a lift and take full advantage of the balmy late summer weather by running the 6.5m to the pub where I'd left my car overnight. I do enjoy the virtues of a good run first thing in the morning - it really sets me up for the day. The run was particularly enjoyable as part of my route took me off-road and along countryside tracks, which is a terrain I very rarely run on. By the time I got back home I was about ready to grab a shower and head for the Valley.

To raise my mood still further, I had a raft of music to get through on the journey down to SE7. One of the great advantages of rarely having company to Charlton games means I can get deep inside the sort of music I want to listen to undisturbed. Being a music man, I love those self-indulgent moments. Later on Saturday evening my missus and I were going to an Arabian Nights themed fancy dress party (more on that later) and as my varied musical taste are well documented, I'd been asked to put together some music that fitted the mood of such an event. Therefore, I spent the 45mins on-route to the Valley thumbing through my collection of music from North Africa and the Arab Peninsula, with my personal favourite being some excellent jazz from the legendary Egyptian drummer, Salah Ragab.

Knowing that the club's £5 a ticket promotion pretty much guaranteed a decent turn-out (22,000 plus), and taking into account Charlton's recent history, the game looked like a stonewall banana skin. But for the first time in some years I felt confident we'd get a result because we were at home, had the better players and had good form on our side. As any Addick would know only too well, those facts alone (excluding the last one, perhaps!) would not have been enough in recent years and so often these sort of occasions ended up being horrible days to forget. The Covered End were in raucous mood, which made for a great atmosphere inside the bustling Valley. Long may it continue!

Having faced the sort of ungracious demise that we have, I think most Charlton fans still expect the wheels to fall off and continue to guard against possible disappointment by finding it easier to focus on the elements of the team that remain work-in-progress. I can understand that, but the apprehensive feeling and fear of impending disappointment is lifting in me, and my faith in the team to produce more consistent levels of performance is growing ever stronger. Charlton do look a different team...but that's because they are: completely different. There will be set backs - and the week ahead will be a huge test - but we are now deep enough into the season to stop referring to the 'good start' and concentrate on the 'continuing good form' of the Addicks. By the end of the week, we'll be a quarter of the way through the season!

I thought a number of players produced their best performances to date, which is another encouraging sign. Wiggins, in particular, was outstanding, as was Solly, once again. Although not at his best, I love Stephens desire to play football. How refreshing it is. I just hope that the crowd encourage him rather than grow frustrated with the odd misplaced pass that will inevitably happen. We do not want to end up with the 'hot potato' scenario that Racon & Semedo were never able to shake off, and how we suffered for it. Hollands, who understandably looked a little bit away with the fairies at times (his wife gave birth to Triplets earlier in the week) gives Charlton a real steely-but-classy edge in the middle of the park. He's my new favourite Addick (he'll no doubt be pleased to know)! So often the mark of a good side, the backbone of Charlton looks pretty impressive at the moment.

Despite Chesterfield pulling a goal back from the spot, the game never seemed in doubt for me.

So on to the evening, where I took on the role of a rich Arab (I've never seen a poor one), with my missus dressing up as a Genie. The hosts of the party had gone to extraordinary lengths to create an Arabian paradise in their home which included authentic cuisine and the creation of an amazing Bedouin-style desert settlement, complete with a 4 pipe Hookah (Hubbly Bubbly) in their front room! It was a fantastic night. And as for my went down a treat...for about 15 mins (14 mins longer than I thought), before being replaced by the sort of pop drivel that Capital radio hammer to bits.

A great day all round...

If the weather holds and work permits, I will be taking in my first away game of the season tomorrow night, full of hope as always!

Monday 19 September 2011

Liquid Sunshine...

(Not Charlton Related) If last year's fell walking trip to Lakeland rates as one of the best experiences of my adult life, then our return this year easily goes down as one of the biggest disappointments. As lucky as we were last year with clear blue skies all through the weekend without a hint of rain, we clearly had to pay the price this time around with swirling wind, torrential rain (or liquid sunshine, as a sympathetic local referred to it as) and low cloud that completely destroyed the otherwise glorious views.

It was perhaps that last point that has left me feeling so deflated. The landscape in Lakeland is truly breathtaking and I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to seeing it again. At around 2,400ft, the Langdale Pikes should have offered us some fantastic views across Lakeland, but sadly visibility had dropped to around 10-15m long before we got that far up.

Our plan was to camp out overnight and continue to walk the following day, but with conditions only getting worse we made the hugely disappointing - but annoyingly sensible - decision to cut short our intended route and return to our accommodation in Great Langdale. All in all, we completed nearly 6 miles in some of the most demanding walking terrain in the UK in some of the most awful weather conditions I have ever had the misfortune to be out in! The following morning the torrential rain continued to fall and even the temptation of a day in the pub offered no solace so we cut short our break and retuned home.

Oh well, that's the way it goes, I guess. After all, the clue is in the name. Lakeland has an abundance of water, and this can't happen without an abundance of rain!!! Thankfully, being an Addick I am well aware that you have to take the rough with the smooth: to experience the lows to appreciate the highs. At least the result at Rochdale cheered me up.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Return To Lakeland...

(Not Charlton related). Very nearly 12 months ago myself and four of my friends embarked on a long weekend of fell walking and wild camping in the Lake District. It was a huge success and easily rates as one of the best experiences I've had in my adult life. This weekend we return to Lakeland, take to the hills and head out into the wilderness once again. I have to confess, like a kid at Christmas, I can't wait to go back!

Last year, the ultimate goal of our 3 day trip was to climb Scafell Pike, which, at 3,200ft, is England's highest mountain. It's not a huge challenge technically, but it does require a fair bit of stamina and no less determination to reach the summit, especially after a day and a half of trekking to get there. I was absolutely thrilled to bits when I reached the top (picture below) and rather enjoyed my brief moment as the tallest person in England!

This year we're looking at a route which covers an area north of the Great Langdale valley and encompasses 8 of the 214 Wainwright Lakeland mountain fells. As was the case last year, we'll be sleeping under canvas, relying on tarns and streams for our drinking water and carrying our food and other provisions in our weighty rucksacks. We also plan to do some wild swimming at Codale Tarn, which will be the location of our camp on the first night. Last year we attempted to take a dip in Angle Tarn (below), but the water was so frighteningly cold that nobody lasted longer that 2 minutes in the water. It was so cold, in fact, that my hands began to claw-up the second I entered the water. All I could think of was my Dad telling me to "get your shoulders under, son, and you'll be fine" but our bravado was beaten all hands down by Mother Nature.

For so many reasons I feel much better prepared this time around, not least of all as I have a far greater understanding and respect for the terrain. I've spent the last year studying OS maps and reading books by and about the legendary author, Alfred Wainwright, who made it his life's work to create fell walking guides to Lakeland. I shall be taking his third book up the fells with me, but the added weight will be well worth the effort, as anyone who has read his books will testify.

Lakeland is a truly awesome environment to walk in, but it can be unforgiving as well. One of our party still suffers occasionally from the effects of a nasty fall last year which injured his wrist and back and I had quite a scare myself when I suddenly found myself submerged up to the knees in a watery bog that appeared from nowhere. In my case, the shock was worse than the actual danger, but it was a lesson learnt. As Wainwright himself once said "watch where you are putting your feet". Great advice!

The one disappointment I have when looking back over my trip last year was realising that I had climbed on notable fells without even realised what mountain I was on at the time. Take Bowfell and Esk Pike, for example, both of which are not far off 3000ft high (only a few hundred feet smaller than Scafell Pike). Looking back I really would have liked to have appreciated in real time the achievement of climbing over both mountains on-route to Scafell Pike. It wasn't intentional: the fact is I was totally blown away by the sheer enormity of the landscape in Lakeland, completely in awe of my surroundings. We also relied a little too much on our unofficial leader, Rich, who was in charge of navigation. In hindsight, his keenness to keep focused on our route meant we never really discussed exactly where we was at any one time. This year I have propelled myself forward and it will be my proposed route that we will walk this year.

I have always been a solitary person, enjoying at great length my own company. The sheer vastness and remoteness of a place like Lakeland appeals to me in this regard. But as I get a bit older my desire for solitude has lessened considerably. I'm looking forward to a weekend of manly camaraderie and endless blokey banter (with my quirky ways often baring the brunt of the leg pulling), mixed in with some of the most impressive scenery found in the UK.

Monday 12 September 2011

Can We Go Home Now?

It may not have been a classic, but it did have it's talking points. Two goals that stood and, by all account (I've not seen either repeated on the box), two 'goals' which should have also been given. So it was 3-1 then! Either way, a Charlton victory. Any sympathy I may have felt for Exeter was negated in part by the sheer stupidity of Nardiello in getting himself sent off. If Charlton were also robbed of a perfectly good goal a short while after Nardiello's effort, then young Solly showed the Exeter front man just how to react to such an injustice.

I've always felt a sending off, no matter how you feel the numerical advantage may be advantageous at the time, ruins the game. Exeter got behind the ball and defended, relying on the chance of a counter wherever possible. They never really threatened, but it took Charlton far more patience to break them down than some fans present were prepared to accept. This disappointed me, if I'm honest. I have to say, there are growing sections of Charlton fans that are sounding more like Spurs fans as the games go on, like it's our God given right to roll teams over because we've got 'history'. At present, I'm putting this undercurrent of irrational thinking down to the sheer frustration of being in League One and a desire to get out of it, but it really bothers me to hear this sort of attitude from Charlton fans. It's as if there's a growing number of 'fans' who want the wheels to fall off just so they can tell us they told us so!

In my book, Saturday was all about staying calm, sticking to a game plan and getting up and over a very stubborn obstacle - which we did. 3 points won.

Anyone who read my previous post will know that I took my young son, Thomas, along Saturday to what was his first Charlton game. In reality, the young lad done far better than I'd hoped, with a good 40 mins passing before the first "can we go home now". At times throughout the first half he genuinely looked like he was watching wide-eyed, and he pulled out a couple of sensible questions. One of which I could well have done without, following Nardiello's sending off. I had to explain the chap had been very naughty and was sent from the pitch to have a think about his actions. I thought I'd prepared myself well, with a pocket full of sweets and a fully charged DS should he get bored, but what I hadn't even considered was the noise. He was clearly a little unnerved by the volume inside the Valley. The only downside to the day will have been the 3 blokes who sat behind us in the first half who shouted and swore repeatedly throughout the first half. Firstly, I'm so thankful I'm not that negative. Secondly, what a shame you have no respect for your fellow Addicks. We moved to the Northern end of the East Stand in the second half and my boy managed to see out the game, but it was a shame we had to compromise our position for such ungentlemanly people.

In hindsight, I think the whole day was just too much for him to take in, but I'm glad my Mum and me took him. At least he knows now what Daddy does every Saturday afternoon and over time I'm hoping he may ask to come again.

A special thank you to Charlton who added a note in the matchday programme about my lad's attendance for his first ever game. That was a great bonus for me and he was chuffed to bits with seeing his name in print.

So back to my usual seat on Tuesday night, and hoping for a repeat of the excellent performance shown by the 2nd 11 against Reading.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

A New Face At The Valley...

Saturday is sure to be an emotional occasion for me as it will be the first time I take my boy to watch Charlton. For nearly 18 years, following the Addicks has been a lonely affair for me, but as much as I have greatly valued the solitude of having Saturday afternoons all to myself, I've reached a time of my life when I'd love my son to be alongside me. I've been looking forward to this day for the last few months, and I can't tell you how much I hope it ignites something inside of the young lad. My Mum is coming along as well. It is my Mum's father, my dearly-missed Granddad Thomas, who first introduced me to football and I want the connection to continue down my family. My Mum's become well and truly Addicted over the years and typically comes to The Valley with me at least once a season, so I felt it was important that we took him together. History means a lot to me, in this regard.

When my Thomas was born (named after my Granddad), I lost count of the amount of people who warned me not to inflict my love of the Addicks on the boy as it could turn him off football completely! Perhaps some were only half-joking after seeing at close-quarters how I've suffered over the years, but I'll confess that at the time it did rather irritated me as I'm just not that sort of openly jingoistic type who would buy the baby-grows, bed sheets and paint his room red and white before he was old enough to have an opinion. None the less, in hindsight, I suppose it did make me take a very deliberate step backwards from introducing Charlton to him and perhaps football generally. I guess I've assumed he'd pick it up naturally if it's destined to be a part of his life. Now I feel ready to direct him a little...and see if he takes the bait!

In the last year or so he's shown enough interest in playing football to convince me that taking him on Saturday is a gamble worth the effort. I'm not naive, at very nearly 5 years old I know he's still very young and I'm not expecting him to last much more than 20-30 mins before losing interest on this occasion. Furthermore, even if he likes football in the long term, there's no guarantees he'll follow Charlton. I know of many examples where support is not passed down through generations, not least of all my good friend Scott, who is a life-long Gooner whilst his Dad is Spurs. Without shame I'll admit that come Saturday I'll be filling my pockets with sweets galore and I'll ensure his DS is fully charged.

But I know only too well how kids minds work, and sometimes that spark can take a little while to smoulder gently before it begins to burn. Best case scenario for me is that next time I'm readying myself for a game, he asks me whether he can come along.

I can honestly remember the exact moment the flame ignited in me. I'll never forget the moment for as long as I live. My Granddad was babysitting for my sister and me (I'd have been 6-7, I guess) when from my bed I heard what I would later learn to be the theme from Match of the Day. My Dad never followed football, so it wouldn't have be commonplace in our home at the time. I remember creeping out on to the landing, completely mesmerised by the commentary and the noise from the crowd (I can recall it was West Brom V's someone or another as I remember Cyril Regis scored from a penalty - I would forever have a soft spot for him as a result, and I would mimic in the back garden his crafty technique of taking penalties by turning his back to the goal until just before he began his run-up). After a while my Granddad realised I was listening in and let me watch for a short while before packing me off to bed. The rest, as they say, is history.

So I appeal to Sir Chris & Charlton to give my lad a goal to cheer, and please, please don't put in one of 'those' performances! You may have noticed that I'm a sentimental old fool, but despite the numerous low points when I've quite literally drove home alone, tears in my eyes, in the words of Billy Cotton, I've 'lived, laughed, loved and been happy' watching Charlton, and now I want my boy with me.

Monday 5 September 2011

Return Of An Old Friend...

It seems way too early in the season to have that gut-wrenching, nervy feeling inside of my belly and where every train of thought leads inevitably to tonight's match. It's hardly 'must win', but tonight does represent our toughest test of the season so far, and the Addicted at The Valley tonight (and watching from afar on Sky) will be anxious for Charlton to prove they can raise their performance and overcome the challenge of a strong Wednesday side who will themselves be hoping to push for promotion this season. Perhaps more so, I want to believe that the renewed hope has some genuine longevity beyond the first few games of the season...and preferably for the next 41!

I do love evening games at the Valley. The atmosphere seems intensified and far more focused as if nothing else of such importance is happening anywhere else in the world. In way, I guess it isn't. The added advantage to playing this game on a weekday evening will be partly negated by the Wednesday fans who should turn out in numbers and add to what should be a great atmosphere. They, like us, will be hurting inside at the decline of their club and looking forward to better days ahead.

To add to the spice, tonight we'll see the return of last year's player of the year, Jose Semedo. In his time with the Addicks he was easily my favourite player. His determination, passion and effort was unquestionable and I loved the man to bits. But - and it genuinely pains me to say this - he also represented the biggest problem Charlton have had for the last 5-6 years (and certainly since we lost Danny Murphy) in our inability to pass the football or retain possession. It was no surprise that Semedo moved on in the summer: in fact, it was for the best. I will always hold Semedo in the highest of regards and no Charlton fan could surely begrudge him a chance to wipe his own slate clean and head off to the Steel City for a fresh challenge. I would have preferred him to have not moved to a League One club, but I for one will stand and applaud our former skipper, and it will be tough watching him playing against us tonight.

Knowing our luck, Semedo will be pinging 30 yard passes onto a postage stamp tonight...but unlike messrs. Defoe and Lisbie, I won't be too concerned about him scoring (oh, I wish I'd not written that!!!)

I've been impressed with the start to the season: not least of all as the sheer volume of new faces have appeared to gel far quicker that I could ever have hoped. Tonight those with little else to do on a Monday night but to tune into Sky can see for themselves whether Charlton are on the up. So often a monkey on our backs, the TV cameras should add an edge to what will be a tough game.