Back in August, after we had taken apart Sheffield Wednesday at The Valley in a stunning 2nd half display, I urged readers
to put on a serious bet that Charlton would win the title.This is thus an appropriate opportunity to express my apologies for such a premature outburst of unbridled optimism.
The final table suggests we were only two wins away from the play-offs, and any frustrated Charlton fan can reel off the ones that got away, without even needing to consider those away from the Valley (Colchester, QPR, Preston, etc..).
However we were also only four defeats away from a Leicester-esque relegation with 52 points, and we were no strangers during the season to late goals, including one at the Walkers Stadium that ultimately condemned the Foxes.
Where did it go wrong? Injuries were certainly a factor, often occurring at highly inopportune times. Todorov for example was outstanding during that Wednesday game, but was crippled shortly thereafter. Bougherra was similarly sidelined just as he appeared to be forming an excellent partnership with McCarthy, whilst who knows what effect Andy Reid's injury had on the club's decision to accept Sunderland's offer?
Pards was forced to build essentially a brand new team, understandably preferring younger players with potential to more experienced types. Certainly his preseason challenge compared unfavourably to say Gary Johnson at Bristol City, or even Ady Boothroyd at Watford. Then again, when one reviews the fabulous job Neil Warnock did after arriving at a shambolic Crystal Palace, perhaps it wasn't such a great excuse after all.
Unfortunately Pards never found the right balance, offering 30 different players a starting berth, with Jonjo Shelvey the last, yet ironically perhaps the most exciting. It was inevitable that Holland and Zheng were voted 1st and 2nd in the Player of the Year, because they were the only outfield players seemingly assured a starting berth if fit. Meanwhile, Chris Iwelumo appeared in every game (14 times from the bench), and he was never remotely close to be being a striker of promotion quality.
The disappointing final League position I can accept, but occasionally our season smacked of experimentation. Yet when an experiment seemed to be yielding interesting results, it was soon replaced with a new one. As one example from many, Luke Varney and Izale McLeod showed signs of forming an unlikely, but exciting partnership up front most notably during the 4-1 win over Blackpool (our then highest-scoring fixture). Three games later, McLeod was forgotten about and now the rest unfortunately for him, is history.
Although increasingly the squad comprised his own signings, he clearly lacked confidence in many of them (was Varney really signed to be a winger for example?). He has pleaded guilty to overutilising the loan market, but here I am less critical since each one of the six concerned was (on paper at least) a valuable addition to the squad. The fact that they did not improve results does not imply Pards was wrong to go down this route. Hindsight is always 20/20. It should instead be seen as an understandable (albeit ultimately fruitless) attempted short-term solution.
However where I would be critical of Pards, is in the sheer number of first eleven permutations he dabbled with. I'm not necessarily against the concept of Benitez-esque rotation, so long as the players are technically drilled enough to cope. Ours patently are not. Some players were given the benefit of the doubt for weeks on end (eg. Ambrose, Iwelumo, Halford), whilst others were seemingly dropped instantly for daring to make a mistake, or play poorly just once.
Naturally therefore, if Pards was not sure what his best team was, then it was inevitable that he might over-react to short-term negative results as he did on several occasions. If he was only changing the personnel (but stuck to a consistent system) then this may have worked out, but increasingly he seemed to do both. No wonder we looked so disjointed at times.
The goalkeeper and his defence always sets the foundations for a successful side, and this fact did not bode well for us, Weaver generally aside. Three defensive loan signings (Mills, Sodje and Halford) made 57 starts, whilst the talented but very raw Moutaouakil and Youga made just 18 between them. Ben Thatcher ended up securing the left-back berth in the end, despite being unwilling to cross the halfway line for a series of matches we needed to win. Paddy McCarthy meanwhile emerged as our best defender, yet he was overlooked for nearly half a season.
Our enigmatic French-speaking pair of full-backs (their own injuries aside) sum up for me our problems this season; it was as if Pards likes to 'talk the talk' when it comes to exciting young talents, but is afraid to truly 'walk the walk' as soon as their understandable propensity to overindulge takes hold. I hope we see much more of both next season, but I'm not convinced they'll stick around.
The midfield was a familiar story of no creativity. Once Reid had left, Holland and Zheng secured the central berths but they needed genuine invention outside of them in order to ensure adequate forward service. Ambrose is a round peg in a square hole played out wide, whilst our true wingers (especially Thomas and Sam) were selected only sporadically, and usually not together. Maybe Varney meanwhile could have been a productive winger, but again he was never given the run of games there to prove it.
Playing 4-5-1 seemed at times to offer the panacea to all of the above, freeing up one of Reid, Ambrose or Zheng to play in the 'hole', but like many of Pardew's experiments, he seemed to lose courage after just a single poor result using the system.
Up front, we obviously lacked a prolific striker, and Charlton fans hardly need reminding that Kevin Lisbie (free transfer) managed just four fewer league goals than Iwelumo, Varney, McLeod and Gray combined (total cost: £4.6m). Some will however have taken comfort from the final game promise of a Gray/Varney partnership; they certainly appear to have the requisite balance and complimentary styles required. With the likes of Chris Dickson and perhaps a rejuvenated McLeod available from the bench, goalscoring productivity should increase. And let's not forget the mercurial Todorov of course.
So there we have it. Perhaps the most disappointing season (relative to reasonable expectations) since 1990/91, when a similarly relegated Charlton side stumbled to 16th place. But that very season serves as a vital reminder that we could easily lose perspective; we played our home games that season at Selhurst Park in front of pitiful crowds. The crowds today are larger, but also considerably more expectant, but that's the price of progress I suppose.
Looking to next season, the full composition of the Championship will not be known for some weeks, but it's fair to assume based on past evidence alone, that 2007/08 was perhaps an 'outlier' in terms of the low number of points required for either promotion or play-offs. WBA were deserving champions in the end, but they only won half their matches. Unfortunately for Charlton, that probably means the improvement required next season will be considerably greater than we might realise.
Seeking to examine the source of such improvement is pointless right now, with the summer wheeling and dealing likely to be as frantic as last time around (albeit hopefully a little more focused this time). However if the existing solid core of 8-9 experienced pros, can be blended alone with the growing group of younger players with scope to improve, there are enough reasons to be cautiously optimistic (or at least not irrationally pessimistic).
As Pards implied, this season has been a very conspicuous blot on his otherwise impressive CV, and I suspect his ego is too large to let it spread much further. 16/1 for the title anyone?