Saturday’s game was the footballing embodiment of FIFA 64. A memory from my youth I thought long banished. For the uninformed I should probably explain. FIFA 64 was a computer game for the long forgotten Nintendo 64 games console, a technical behemoth of its age in the late 1990s. It had everything, controllers in different colours, Super Mario and games that cost £49.99 (adjusting for inflation that’s about £37,000 in today’s money). The one thing it didn't have was a football game. FIFA 64 was supposed to be the remedy to this situation and how I longed for it. Days spent counting the hours until release, I had the game on pre-order to ensure I would be amongst the first and then, finally, after months of waiting it arrived. I tore open the packaging fired it up and then…disappointment. It was simply not very good and its failures were compounded by my anticipation. Those emotions of expectation, zeal and impatience, which adulthood had done its best to crush out of me, came flooding back on Saturday. This summer I attempted to distract myself from the Charlton shaped hole in my weekends. I went to watch other sports, Cricket, Horse racing (I even went to watch Polo for goodness sake) but it was to no avail. I found myself at these events, but I wasn't really there. In my mind, and often on my phone, I was scouring Charlton forums looking for even the hint of a transfer rumour, for a quote from the manager or one of our players – anything really to satisfy my craving. The first game of the season thus attained the status of a hundred Christmas days rolled into one, and it was in that context that I met my companions at Waterloo to jump on the 10.35 south on Saturday morning.
By the time we arrived at Bournemouth, fuelled by four cans of extraordinarily priced larger, predictions of a crushing Charlton victory had gone from mere estimations to fact. Arriving at the Wetherspoons in Boscombe I suddenly started to see familiar faces, any fan who regularly travels away from home will know what I mean. People you acknowledge as fellow supporters and whom you encounter on a bi-weekly basis, normally in a northern town that the industrial revolution ravaged then left behind. You know their face and amongst your friends they’ll attain the moniker “that bloke from the Portsmouth game” that sticks despite the fact that the game in question was around 10 years ago. You think nothing of them in-between games and thus they have escaped your memory for almost three months – but then you see them again and it is confirmation that football is indeed back.
Part of the modern day football ritual is the constant refreshing of Twitter from around 2pm waiting on the starting line ups to be tweeted. I assumed we would certainly start with a 4-5-1, with Yann again ploughing a lone furrow away from home and was pleasantly surprised to see our big summer (loan) signing Marvin Sordell named amongst the first 11. However the bad news was, as feared, Jackson was out leaving a central midfield pairing of Gower and Hughes with a combined age of 70. No fear, I thought, Pritchard often “tucks in” when picked out wide to create more of a three in the centre of midfield. The only other question would be which of our other three centre backs would be paired with Morrison and Dervite was rewarded for his good form at the end of last season which he continued through pre-season with the nod.
For those unacquainted with Dean Court, it’s a small, compact ground a good 20 minute walk from Bournemouth town centre. The look of the stadium has been improved vastly by the addition of a temporary stand behind one of the goals which actually doesn't look particularly temporary (although I'm using Gillingham’s away stand as my barometer of how a temporary stand should look).
Whilst Jackson was a huge loss, Bournemouth for their part were without two of the players who proved so pivotal in helping the club to promotion back to the Championship for the first time in 23 years with Brett Pitman only fit enough for a substitutes place and Matt Ritchie not even available for that. Initially, things looked good for the Addicks. Harriott went close early on and it seemed he would continue his impressive form from the end of last season through to this. However that was the highlight as far as Charlton were concerned as Eltham boy and youth academy product Harry Arter began to turn the screw in midfield, looking composed and extremely confident. His passing was dangerous and he brought a degree of organisation and creativity to the Bournemouth midfield that Charlton couldn't replicate despite Mark Gower’s best efforts. It was from one of these Arter crosses that brought the first goal of the game after 26 minutes. A neat curling cross from the left into the back post where Lewis Grabban, the Cherries star striker, rose to head past Hamer who had got himself into a poor position by partially coming for the ball. In the 36 hours since there has been a lot of debate about Hamer's positioning for the first goal, however given the number of white shirts in the box you would like to think Arter's cross might have been dealt with earlier. The one goal half time advantage was deserved and most of the casual “that bloke from the Portsmouth game” acquaintances that I spoke to half time seemed to agree.
The Second Half...
The second half began and I noticed to my immediate right that a father and his young son had produced a very odd flag. On closer inspection it appeared to be the flag of Brittany and after enquiring via my terrible command of the French language (thank you South East London comprehensive education) I ascertained that they were indeed from Brittany, in England on holiday and had come to support Yann – a native of that region of France. Discovering quite how they managed to obtain tickets in the Charlton end with such a strict allocation regime in place for this game was beyond my linguistic powers but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. A few minutes into the second half and our Gaelic chums were enjoying them even more. A surprisingly quiet Rhoys Wiggins (the same could be said for his fellow full back Solly) attempted to cross the ball to the far post Arter style, however the cross failed to beat the first man with the deflection arriving in the vicinity of Yann's boot and when the ball arrives in this vicinity inside the box it normally ends up in the back of the net. If the outcome was no surprise, the means of arriving there were spectacular. A scissor kick - the likes of which I can’t remember seeing, but in its execution reminded me of Kermorgant's stunner in the last game of last season. With Brittany flags waving and Charlton fans celebrating it seemed like this could be the turning point and for a good few minutes that was the case, with Charlton seemingly giving the recently arrived upstarts from League One a tough welcome to the Championship. It was short lived however with Grabban firing in a spectacular second on 66 which beat Hamer at his near post. Again the goalkeeper has been criticised post game and there is definitely an argument that Hamer shouldn't have been beaten from that distance at his near post, however I would argue that the only person in the ground who thought Grabban might shoot from where he did was Lewis Grabban and sometimes goals are just so good that you have to hold your hands up.
For our part we endeavoured to find an equaliser and Church (who had replaced an ineffective Sordell moments prior to Grabban’s stunner) looked the better of the two recently arrived strikers and showed signs that he may be better than his Wikipedia stats suggest. However it wasn't to be, and with moments of the game remaining an enthusiastic if clumsy challenge from Bradley Pritchard saw the Addicks down to 10 men and effectively out of the game. Something hadn't seemed right with the midfield all afternoon. It really lacked something and perhaps Pritchard's challenge was borne out of frustration, those who know the player know there would certainly have been no malice in the tackle.
And so it came to pass. 1,400 Charlton fans (plus a good couple of hundred in the home areas) departed, a run of seven away games undefeated had come to an end. Powell’s warnings prior to the game that this would be a long season have added credibility as do calls for areas of the squad, budgets permitting, to be strengthened prior to the closing of the transfer window in three weeks. Sordell and Church have the potential to be good players, it’s just a shame that at least one wasn't brought in earlier in the summer to give them time to acclimatise. I would imagine at least Church will get a chance to start on Tuesday against Oxford, possibly with Piggott.
Positives for Charlton of course include Yann's goal and the performance of Dervite at the back was promising for the season ahead. In the middle, I'm not sure if Hughes and Gower together work and I think Powell would have known prior to the game it was a risk and it’s one I think he’s unlikely to take again. If Jackson isn't ready for the Middlesbrough game on Saturday expect Stephens to start in the middle, probably for Hughes. Pritchard's sending off has an easy Danny Green shaped answer which may provide more width (is it telling that our only goal came from a cross?). One area of concern is the goalkeeping situation. I have to admit to not being Ben Hamer's biggest fan when he originally joined the club; however he really won me over last season with some great performances. On Saturday he was generally solid – some of his catching was good and his distribution (particularly throwing) is greatly improved. However there’s no denying that since the sale of Button he is a goalkeeper without much competition. He would have to play incredibly badly for incredibly long for Powell to seriously consider throwing Pope in to start a league game. No other player in the squad is in such an assured position and the memory of Robbie Elliott lives long in the memory. Fantastic when he had competition in the form of Randolph and Weaver but when he felt his place was guaranteed he sometimes gave the impression of a man who didn't have to work for it. Let us hope that Hamer doesn't suffer similarly as that may be the true price of selling Button.