Sunday, June 10, 2012

Humble Pie

“ is simply not possible for Chris Powell to be the best available candidate, and remember only judge a decision at the time it's made.” (New York Addick, 13 Jan 2011)

If only the Board had appointed Gary Johnson or Paul Tisdale as I’d suggested….we’d probably have accumulated 120 points, and got 11 players into the PFA League One Team of the Year.

In my defence, just to prove to those doubters that I’m not entirely stupid, I did also say the following before the start of the season:

“I believe Charlton are the only side in League One for whom I cannot make the following statement with at least 95% confidence: “They will not generate more than 100 points.” (New York Addick, 2 Aug 2011)

“One bet in particular is extraordinarily attractive, namely SELL Rochdale.” (New York Addick, 2 Aug 2011)

And if that is not enough, perhaps I could bring sceptical readers on side by tugging on their heart strings and announcing my wife gave birth to a baby daughter on Saturday May 5th, just a few hours after the team lifted the trophy.

This news also explains the long gap between blog posts.

Strangely all three of my kids were born on Saturdays when Charlton were at home, a probability I calculate to be in the region of 1 in 800 (two wins and a defeat incase you were wondering).

I stand by my view at the time of his appointment that Powell was too much of a speculative punt given the situation the club found itself in.

The punt having paid off handsomely so far, next season will tell us much about whether he has a genuine shot at Curbishley-esque greatness (not that he needs to deliver instantly, Curbs didn’t after all).

Looking back I think Powell himself would be humble enough to acknowledge that the second half of the 2010/11 season was instrumental in explaining what came subsequently.

Many managers taking on a team in the play-off places wouldn’t have been given half a season to ‘learn on the job' whilst winning only 2 from 19.

One can only cringe now at the thought of those full-team goal celebrations; Gary Doherty’s career has never recovered from those unnecessary 70 yard runs.

Meanwhile Powell’s laudible attempt to get the team to pass the ball better was met with two vital realities.

Firstly, although I questioned it at the time, the players he inherited probably weren’t good enough to succeed frankly playing any type of football.

And second, he learned that playing passing football (something he attempted to impose immediately last season) wasn’t the most optimal way to get out of League One at least if you wanted to do so quickly.

Cue the rampant success of 2011/12, built upon a complete squad overhaul and a playing style that emphasised making ourselves brutally hard to beat, even if it wasn’t very pretty to watch at times.

This was something I identified but partly misinterpreted as early as the opening day against Bournemouth when I wrote, ”We were actually pretty mediocre, playing a counter-attacking style (at home) and often resorting to long balls from defence.”

It was only in the fullness of time that the sheer bloody-mindedness of our defence became apparent, and thus the realisation that it was this which our success was being built (ie. not possession, attacking flair, movement etc.).

Combined this with the fact that we always had ‘enough ways to score’ (direct free-kicks, Kermogant headers, BWP fox-in-the-box goals, etc.), and it explains why we accumulated 101 points despite sometimes (often?) not appearing entirely in control of matches in the classic sense.

Powell was very clearly backed by the Board, but pleasingly in an intelligent long-term way as I had suggested they would (call it the ‘Moneyball’ way if you will).

As an interesting aside, pundits have been falling over themselves about Newcastle's sixth place finish, built upon discovering under-rated gems like Cisse and Ben Arfa. 

It may be a coincidence of course, but as the former head of player recruitment, one wonders what influence our own Tony Jimenez (the low profile but clear driver of affairs at The Valley today in my view) had on building those foundations?

Back to Charlton, the mandate was promotion and anything less would have been considered a disappointment, but this base expectation was clearly exceeded given the manner in which it was achieved.

I had made the point in the summer that seasons are not created equal, and this warning could not have been more timely….ultimately 91 points were required to win automatic promotion, more than in any of the previous ten seasons.

Seen in this context, the achievement was even more welcome – I would guess that if you offered the Board a total of say 85 points at the start of the season, they would have taken it (in light of their rebuilding) confident it would still have been enough.

However the extent of the rebuilding programme should not be underestimated, evidenced for example by the fact that not a single homegrown player made their debut this season. Indeed none came close.

When injuries or suspensions threatened the team’s momentum, the likes of Russell, N’Guessan or Cook were acquired (presumably on decent wages).

With all due respect to Powell, he was never expected just to ‘make do’ as the season evolved although interestingly unlike in recent seasons, loan signings actually improved the squad this time to his credit.

The new owners inherited a struggling League One squad which nonetheless still contained some saleable assets (Jenkinson, Elliot), and this cash inflow combined with some further capital for transfers/wages, provided the basis for a title challenge.

Some signings were clearly failures (Euell, Alonso…) whilst others are firmly unproven (Evina, Green….), but most were outstanding for the job in hand.

Morrison and Kermogant were instrumental for example, and were clearly driven by Powell’s experience of having coached the pair.

Others like Wiggins, Taylor or Hollands were presumably driven by wider scouting resources, because it is hard to see how Powell could have assessed them properly in half a season as manager in the same division they were playing in.

Either way, having seen recent managers demonstrate the gross misalignment between their own short-term interests and the long-term interests of the club, credit must be given to everyone involved in recruiting such an impressive group of not only players, but human beings.

Who for example couldn’t be inspired by Yann Kermogant’s life story, or wonder at the motivation of say Rhoys Wiggins, a promising career threatened by injury and rejection before it had properly begun?

Had promotion not have been achieved, this would still have held the club in good stead.

The precedent set by Norwich and Southampton (who interestingly were both relegated with us in 2008/9) has led some fans to expect an immediate promotion challenge, a view I consider somewhat arrogant and unrealistic.

There is likely to be considerable summer rebuilding again, but by definition Championship-quality resources are more expensive to acquire (likely only partially offset by increased TV and matchday revenue).

As a result, I would not be surprised if the club was willing to entertain offers for one or two key players, in the name of ‘kaizen’, a Japanese term meaning continual small improvements. After all, look what the sale of Jenkinson led to.

There are rumours (likely unfounded) for example regarding Solly and interest from West Ham. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s hard to see Sam Allardyce fancying a pint-sized full-back, I am firmly in the ‘every player has a price’ camp, even with a homegrown and hugely popular player.

I hold this view because the homegrown aspect is irrelevant, and if for example a £2m+ bid was received, it is hard to believe a perfectly adequate well-scouted replacement couldn’t be found for say £500k, leaving a healthy surplus to reinvest elsewhere.

Solly (and Wiggins for that matter) may be Premiership quality, but we don’t play in the Premiership.

Potentially swapping a Premiership quality player for say three Championship quality players may not be such a bad trade.

Of the current squad, I see only a handful as definitively good enough for a possible immediate promotion challenge (Hamer, Morrison, Solly, Wiggins), with some others good enough for at least an important squad place in that context (Stephens, Kermogant, Wright-Phillips, Cort).

However whilst I don’t doubt that the likes of Hollands, Jackson, Green and Taylor could step up to the Championship without embarrassing themselves, I seriously question whether they could form a prominent part of a top half side there.

Thus if the club wishes to mount a genuine immediate promotion challenge, I think the current squad needs at least 7-8 good quality additions (more obviously if any key players are sold).

Even with a healthy dose of the ‘Moneyball spirit’, this investment would not be cheap in terms of transfer fees or wages.

By the end of August therefore, we will have a much better idea of the resources of the new owners and their willingness to use them.

For what it’s worth, I expect to see plenty of pre-season trading, enough to give us both a genuine (albeit long) shot at promotion, but importantly also to ensure no material risk of an immediate return to League One.

Fans may be surprised at who leaves but the end result will be a squad that it is at least competitive, a not insignificant improvement on the last time we competed at this level.

Next season one can probably split the Championship into three parts:

A: parachute beneficiaries and/or bankrolled clubs (Blackpool, Leicester, Wolves, Bolton, Blackburn)

B: stable clubs with similar resources to Charlton (Derby, Ipswich, Forest, Palace, Burnley, Cardiff, Bristol City, Birmingham, Hull, Middlesbrough, Brighton, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield)

C: clubs clearly with worse resources than Charlton (Millwall, Peterborough, Barnsley, Watford)

As a base expectation we should do better than ‘C clubs’, but I see us in the near-term as residing firmly amongst the ‘B clubs’ rather than the ‘A clubs’ for now.

However there will of course be teams that over and under-perform within each category.  Reading and Southampton would have been solid ‘B clubs’ at the start of last season for example.

Either way, I feel strongly that the long-term health of a football club is assured if it spends the majority of its time in the division which its resources, history and fanbase can support.

For Charlton, this is firmly the second-tier of English football (and it’s great to be back), but to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt I wouldn't swap eight Premiership years and three League One years for eleven in the 'grey twilight' of the Championship.