Illusions of Control
Despite a dire season in which we accumulated fewer points than we did in 1998/99, and despite the shock realisation that our signings will now come from the likes of Crewe and Colchester, I feel like I have taken relegation in my stride. It is thus with a clear head that I can begin to assess where it went wrong for Charlton.
As a starting point, it might be reasonable to question whether it went wrong at all, or whether relegation after seven consecutive Premiership seasons actually represented success when viewed in the context of the whole period. After all, when we kicked off the 2006/07 season, only ten of the Premiership clubs had been in the division longer than we had.
There's a tendency to seek answers or explanations to events that were purely random. Witness the media's insatiable demand for public inquiries or resignations, in the wake of events which were supposedly foreseeable, but probably weren't. Seen in this way, perhaps as Charlton fans we had unrealistically raised expectations following our relative success (some of which was itself random), and then have been unreasonably critical of decisions made subsequently as our form dipped.
There's also a tendency to have an 'illusion of control', or a belief that individuals can have influence over outcomes they demonstrably cannot. In its purest form, it's evidenced by casino players having 'lucky numbers' at the roulette wheel, or giving the dice a lucky rub at the craps table. Perhaps as Charlton fans this season, we might reasonably be accused of assuming the Board could have avoided the fate of relegation, if only they had seized control and stopped the rot in time. Maybe instead, they were merely rearranging the proverbial deckchairs aboard the Titanic, unaware perhaps that they'd already hit an iceberg.
Most of us knew the team and the club had gone stale, long before Curbs had left. The poor quality of the football, and an increasingly erratic transfer policy would surely have come to the attention of the Board, as much as it did the fans. His purchase of Marcus Bent for £2.3m (just 18 months after Everton paid £450k) was a parting gift from Curbs which his successors were largely left to unwrap. But even if the Board knew things were heading in the wrong direction, what reasonably could they have done? They would have been vilified if they had sacked Curbs, so understandbly concluded it was better the devil you know (most of the time at least).
Those keen to identify a 'tipping point' tend to focus upon the departures of Scott Parker and Danny Murphy, perhaps the two outstanding central midfielders of our Premiership sojourn. Each clearly felt they could not fulfil their ambitions at Charlton, and it was a double two-fingered salute to the Board who must have wondered if we could ever lose our 'small club' tag. The saddest part of the episodes however is that we were right, and Parker/Murphy were wrong. Their careers have drifted (Parker) or gone into freefall (Murphy), and Charlton have been relegated. It's like the unhappy former lovers that meet several years later, and dare to whisper, "We could have been good together, you know?"
If randomness plays a vital role in sport, then the best we could have hoped for from our Board post-Curbs, was that they consistently made sensible decisions diligently, and without bias. For example, we all now know that Djimi Traore was a terrible signing for £2m, but could they reasonably have known it at the time? I don't recall a groundswell of surprise or indignation when announced, which probably suggested they couldn't.
And likewise with the appointment of Iain Dowie. As soon as Curbishley left, I immediately signalled him as the outstanding realistic candidate, and it seems the Board felt the same way. If what ultimately transpired could not reasonably have been foreseen, and if his signings could not have been criticised (either in terms of who, or how much) at the time, then specifically his appointment should not be blamed for our subsequent fate. It would now appear that Billy Davies would have been a better manager, but the additional evidence of his outstanding season at Derby was not available to us in the summer.
Unfortunately the decision to appoint Les Reed, not merely as a caretaker manager (which would have been perfectly understandable), but in a 'permanent' capacity remains as ludicrous today as it did at the time. As early as immediately after Reed's first game at Reading, I wrote "...the Board have put their credibility on the line with their initial appointment of Dowie, his subsequent premature dismissal and the appointment of a rookie manager with all the badges but little of the fiery presence that we so desperately need..." If all we asked for from the Board was unbiased and diligent decision-making, we were let down on that occasion.
If Dowie's appointment was understandable, Reed's smacked of the 'easy way out' for the Board, perhaps nervous about dealing with a devil they didn't know again. It was the single biggest (and more importantly somewhat foreseeable) mistake they made, and the only positive outcome was that it bought us some time, whilst West Ham also pressed the panic button and sent Pardew our way.
The damage done by Reed's seven games in charge went further than merely accumulating just four points, and is perhaps best evidenced by the dire FA Cup performance at Forest which would have been almost inconceivable now, but occurred before Pards had time to stamp his authority on his demotivated squad. He was required to put out fires before he could contemplate rebuilding the charred wreckage he inherited. It even got me thinking, is it conceivable that we would have accumulated more than 34 points had we stayed loyal to Dowie throughout? Think about it, it's not as ludicrous as it sounds (though we may not have stayed up).
But in truth, we'll never know if Dowie might have kept us up, or Curbs for that matter. The £11m budget given to Dowie could have been spent a million different ways, some of them would have been better, but plenty would have been worse. Unfortunately, we only get to see a single path of history, and in this case it wasn't a good one.
That path has taken us to the present, where we find ourselves back in the Championship (the level at which we have played the vast majority of our post-War football), with a well-regarded manager at the helm and a financial situation which, whilst weaker than before, is still considerably stronger than most of our new peers. Acceptance is an important goal on the way to healing, and as we look forward to next season, it's worth recalling that some things are just meant to be.