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01/02: Reports:

Worthington Cup Fourth Round, 27/11/01
Charlton Athletic
When the music stops...
By Matt Rowson

Ah, so that's the way to do it.

The season after Watford rather pathetically failed to span the great divide between the Nationwide and the Premiership (and Bradford barely clung to the edge of the cliff by their fingernails), Charlton and Ipswich showed us how it ought to be done. And in some style.

Further, it would appear that not only has Charlton's approach to the Premiership been remarkably successful, but timely with it. The Addicks may be a very well run and astutely managed club but they are not "big" in any sense that would include them in the ludicrously conceived "Phoenix League" were they not already in the Premiership. Their involvement, therefore, appears to rest on them having a seat when the music stops.

More details may have emerged in the national press by the time you read this, rendering any speculation obsolete. At the time of writing front page stories in two national newspapers have reported the planned enforced restructuring of the Premiership and Nationwide Leagues by big-to-middling clubs running away with their ball; Rangers, Celtic and a number of the self-stated "big" clubs in the Nationwide (you can guess who these are) plan to resign from the current structure to form two leagues of eighteen with very limited promotion and relegation both between leagues and to/from surviving structures underneath.

Such stories have been strenuously denied by a number of bodies and individuals, but it seems unlikely given the decision of the papers concerned to go front page that there is no truth in them. One can only wonder at the greed, conceit and naivety that has contributed to the steps that have been taken.

One. Rangers and Celtic's inclusion will almost certainly set British football on collision course with UEFA who will, with some justification, be concerned about the future of professional football in Scotland.

Two. Even without the "Old Firm", the abandonment of any pretence at meritocracy in the new structure sets the Phoenix League apart from the outrageous greed that prompted the Premiership, or even the revamped Champions' League. With the veil of fairness finally discarded, how does the new Phoenix League purport to make its money? Even if foreboding of reduced television monies in future prove to be inaccurate, the appeal of Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Crystal Palace to a televised audience will surely be limited outside of Wolverhampton and South London. As for the clubs themselves, if they find themselves in a division where both promotion and relegation appear to be distant possibilities, how many loyal locals will remain interested?

Three. This move sets a match to what gives football much of its remaining appeal; its heritage and history. The rearrangement by convenience of the most affluent clubs effectively says "if we can't win by fair means, we'll just move the goalposts". What sort of a heritage is that to believe in ?

As for clubs outside of the new structure (were it ever to get off the ground, which seems somewhat doubtful whatever the truth in the stories), this move would surely signal the death knell of many and, at best, a dramatic restructuring for the rest.

That Watford appear to be outside the group supposedly planning to resign from the Nationwide League is really neither here nor there. The greed that seems to drive football is alive and well and living in Watford... we all know that Watford would be in there if they could. And, whilst this is something of a digression, whatever the eventual success or otherwise of the new management regime on the field, by our change of policy in the transfer market we're becoming the sort of side that we used to take such pleasure in getting one over on. The kind of overbloated self-deluding monstrosity that we've always hated.

The Worthington Cup, meanwhile, seems a complete irrelevance in the circumstances and, almost fittingly, we've somehow in this season of such variable form managed to reserve some of our better performances for this competition. Concentrating on the matter in hand does feel like burying one's head in the sand in the circumstances, but as I'm supposed to be writing a match preview...

The Addicks themselves have experienced some dramatic swoops in form over the season, from the breathtaking win at Highbury to the pathetic capitulation at St.Mary's this weekend. A chronic injury list has not helped, but certain of the stars of last season also seem to be struggling to recreate such form this time round.

A notable exception to this generalisation has been keeper Dean Kiely who, having missed some of the season through injury, has put in some strong performances recently, particularly this Saturday. His cover is the Serb Sasa Ilic and former Middlesbrough keeper Ben Roberts.

In the absence of long-term injury victim and sadly missed Player-of-the-Year Richard Rufus, Mark Fish and Steve Brown are forming the central pairing. Fish, who played for Bolton in our play-off win at Wembley, is a South African international; Brown, whilst one of the less vaunted members of the side, also appears to be one of the most useful. His versatility spreads across the back line and even to the goalkeeping position, where his ability has apparently been used to justify not naming a substitute keeper in the past.

Other options at the back include Andy Todd, recovering his fitness if not his form after the second significant training-ground bust up of his career - the first of which saw him leave his second club, Bolton. Eddie Youds is returning from a long-term absence whilst Nigerian Daniel Shittu made national selection before getting anywhere near the Addicks first team. He spent much of last season on loan at Blackpool and is now apparently excelling after being borrowed by QPR.

Regular fullbacks have been Luke Young, subject to no less criticism at the Valley than he was at White Hart Lane despite his status as an England U21 regular, and the popular England cap Chris Powell. The emergence of Paul Konchesky, another to figure in the England youth set-up, has seen Powell pushed into a wide midfield role, however.

With both Bulgarian Radostin Kishishev and the transfer-listed Scot Greg Shields injured, youngster Jon Fortune is the most likely deputy for Young, although Brown can also play on the right.

In midfield the recent return of Claus Jensen, another name from Wembley in 1999, has added some much needed creativity, however Jensen's limited defensive contribution has forced captain Mark Kinsella into a more defensive role than that to which he is accustomed, and his game appears to be suffering for it. The experienced Graham Stuart came back from injury at the weekend at the expense of the popular Scott "kid in the McDonalds advert years ago" Parker, who must be wondering what he needs to do to hold down a place.

Other midfield options include the hardworking Welsh international John Robinson (a scorer in our last meeting at the Vic five years ago), and the on-loan Gavin Peacock. John Salako, however, is on loan at Reading.

Up front, Jason Euell started slowly at his new club but has exploded into form in recent weeks until, with cruel timing, an injury forced him out at the weekend. Jonathan Johansson and Shaun Bartlett are hence the most likely forward pairing; Johansson's season has also started quite slowly with the Finn breaking to the wings a little too often on occasions, and Bartlett, despite his other attributes, has never been prolific.

Injury continues to remove Martin Pringle from the reckoning; aggressive Swede Matthias Svensson was sent off shortly into a comeback match for the reserves and therefore seems unlikely to feature either. Clive Mendonca, no stranger to the injury list himself over recent years, was set to return to former club Grimsby on loan until yet another injury postponed that move. The two most likely deputies, therefore, are the chunky Charlie MacDonald and Kevin Lisbie, still struggling to live up to his early promise.

That's Tuesday then, for what it's worth; a rare glimpse of our superiors (albeit superiors that are much easier to like than many of their contemporaries) and maybe the last we'll have the chance to play for a while.

I'm somehow reminded of a story from a "Football Monthly" comic that I read about fifteen years ago. In a black vision of what was to follow, the backdrop to the story in question was a time an unspecified distance in the future where the unrestrained greed of the biggest clubs had grotesquely mutated professional football in Europe. A European League prevailed with one club, London United, representing England. Football was failing fast, losing popularity as London United failed to cordon the support of the British nation.

In retrospect it seems quite shocking that such a grim tale was set out in a comic aimed at young teenagers. More shocking still was that it may prove to be so desperately prophetic.