Football: Fresh hunger for goal in The Valley

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS IT is because the close season has been so truncated but... nothing's changed. Take Clive Mendonca, the Charlton Athletic striker. Last August he scored a hat-trick on the first day of the season as the Robins celebrated their return to the top flight. Now, despite the trauma of relegation in May, he did it again as Alan Curbishley's side beat Barnsley 3-1 at The Valley.

"We've got to show how hungry we are to go straight back up," Curbishley said. "Tactics and team talks can go out of the window if the hunger is not there." Charlton seem peckish.

The opening fixture every Nationwide First Division manager must have prayed for, home to Port Vale, fell to Blackburn Rovers. But Brian Kidd's relegated side were unable to overcome the team which won only three and lost 15 of 23 league matches on the road last season. Rovers were booed off after the goalless draw. "We had plenty of possession but no punch," Kidd said, in another echo of last season.

Other clubs who'd spent much of last season fighting relegation from the First Division got off to a brighter start: Queen's Park Rangers were 3-1 winners over Huddersfield Town (new manager Steve Bruce gave six players debuts). Rangers started well, built a lead and withstood Town's late onslaught. "We don't have a good enough squad to win the league or even get an automatic promotion slot, but if we keep battling we can aim for the play-offs," Gerry Francis, QPR's realistic manager, said.

Portsmouth, watched by new owner Milan Mandaric, beat Bruce's former club, Sheffield United, 2-0 at Fratton Park. The Blades had new signing Alex Smeets sent off and saw Paul Devlin miss a penalty, not a fun day for their new manager, Adrian Heath.

We all know the feeling. First day in a new job at a more demanding level. Ray Graydon's Walsall, promoted to the Nationwide First Division behind Fulham in May, coped with the challenge and got a point from a 0-0 draw with Swindon Town at Bescot Stadium. "I think Walsall will survive in this division because they are well organised, work hard and have some good players," Jimmy Quinn, the Swindon manager, said. "They will surprise a few teams."

In the Nineties, manager Brian Little has collected Midlands clubs as voraciously as West Bromwich Albion has accumulated managers and it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later their paths would cross. Little's first match in The Hawthorns' ejector seat ended with a 1-1 draw against Norwich City.

Alan Miller, Albion's goalkeeper, dropped a Daryl Sutch cross to gift Paul Dalglish, on his league debut, a tap-in for the Canaries. But the substitute Paul Raven, on for just a minute, salvaged a point. "I have always told my subs to go out there and get stuck in," Admiral Little said.

It is unlikely that any wheeling-dealing club manager had a busier close season than either Simon Paterson or John Kelly, the receivers in charge of Crystal Palace and Luton Town respectively. Both clubs eventually got the league's go-ahead to compete this season two minutes before midnight on Friday.

Mr Paterson was probably prepared for the typically frustrating Palace performance which saw Simon Rodger put them ahead against Crewe Alexandra after Lee Bradbury had a penalty saved. But Mark Rivers equalised for Crewe five minutes from time. "We'll have to be careful of injuries as we can't buy anybody or even sign a free transfer or loan until about eight to 10 weeks," Steve Coppell, the Palace manager said. "So we're on the ropes."

Mr Kelly's charges drew 0-0 at Notts County, an appropriate start. Finally, Brighton do like to be beside the seaside. Back on the South coast after a season lodging in Kent, they thrashed Mansfield Town 6-0.