Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wheels come off up Victoria way

"One day, he'll be able to say, 'I was there...'"

The youngest of the All Quiet travelling party had just been dropped off and we were winding our way through the streets of Eltham, his uncle rediscovering his swearing muscles and telling us why he'd taken the youngster to the match. In football, it's best to get your disappointments out the way early. At five, it's unlikely he'll remember much of today at Northwich. He's the lucky one.

You've probably seen the game, you may well have read semi-literate rants from fans who didn't travel much further than the "on" switch on their TV, questioning the commitment of our team. So you won't need me to tell you that today's performance at the Victoria Ground was embarrassing, a low to rank alongside the Wycombe League Cup defeat in 2006, the 6-1 home thumping by Leeds in 2003, and the Dagenham & Redbridge FA Cup fiasco of 2001. Oh yeah, and it was on TV, so all your mates saw it too. Thanks.

Northwich fully deserved the win. They invested in a Haynes Guide to Televised FA Cup Giantkilling, highlighted the words "hustle", "harry", "intimidate", "pass the ball" and "just bloody go for it", and, well, bloody went for it.

We, collectively, crapped ourselves under pressure. There is no other way of describing the spineless scenes. Early in the second half, you really could see the dread in Lloyd Sam's eyes. Phil Parkinson had picked a team which wasn't up for it at all. Like Leeds at Histon last year, Charlton faced a modest team at a modest ground, far from their comfort zone... and buckled.

To a great extent, though, this was a match lost before a ball was kicked. The stubborness of Phil Parkinson has intrigued me. In good times, this has been steadfastness. In bad times, this looks like lunacy. Playing 4-5-1 at a Conference North ground? With Izale McLeod up front? Even fewer Charlton fans would have made the journey if they'd known that in advance.

On the pitch, this was a terrible collective failure of nerve. With Rob Elliot injured, it's unfortunate that Darren Randolph - so strong in our last Premier League match at Anfield two-and-a-half years ago - dropped a horrible howler in humbler surroundings today.

After the disappointment of Gillingham and the defeat at Carlisle, the sheen of the start of the season is a distant memory. With the Football League Trophy match at Southampton and a home match against MK Scum coming up this week, this doesn't leave us in a good position. And it also makes you wonder whether this team really can cope with high-pressure occasions. At the moment, it appears not.

I'm left with some odd memories - parking at neighbouring Witton Albion and clambering over a muddy embankment to get across the river to the Victoria Ground; the shudder at seeing a Charlton flag tied to a Blue Square hoarding and realising how close we were to the Conference; the bar where, after queueing, one of the staff announced she was too young to serve alcohol; and the bantering ginger-haired steward in the corner. "Highest earnings per head in the country, Cheshire!", he chirruped as "we pay your benefits" sort-of erupted from the away fans.

Just like their steward, Northwich had all the answers today and fully deserve their day in the sun. The questions left behind for Charlton won't feel anywhere near as comfortable.