Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Chris P. Chilly Beef

Reading some of the emotional outpourings of grief from a meaningful majority of Charlton fans yesterday, one might initially have concluded Chris Powell must have died rather than merely lost a relatively well-paid job.

He departed as one of the ten longest-serving managers out of the 92 clubs, a fact both remarkable and ridiculous for a manager still rightly described as a ‘rookie’.

At the time of his appointment, I vociferously considered his success as a Charlton player and his all-round good character as being obviously true but irrelevant when assessing his suitability for the job. 

However it was precisely those qualities which persuaded Tony Jimenez to take a risk, and although I thought him crazy at the time, with the full benefit of hindsight it was an inspired move.

His familiarity helped rally the fans at a difficult time whilst his likeability was key to motivating a newly-built team in 2011/12 to win 30 out of 46 matches.

The following season was something of a conundrum – investment in the team was limited but then again the recently accumulated squad had masqueraded as a Championship team in League One.

Our campaign threatened to drift into a relegation scrap much as the current one has, but two pivotal wins (Cardiff and Bolton at home) reversed the momentum completely at vital moments.

Whether you put those turnarounds from two goals behind down to luck, opposition incompetence, managerial genius (or likely some combination thereof), their impact was undeniable.

Those two games plus the seven games that followed each generated a total of 33 points, more than half of our entire season’s total from sixteen games.

It is nonsense to suggest we ‘almost’ made the play-offs – we accumulated 18 points from our final eight games and still finished effectively four points short.  It was a virtual mathematical impossibility several weeks before the season ended.

Importantly however the general consensus that we had almost done so worked against Powell’s best interests, implying to the now cash-strapped (former) owners that the squad was stronger than it really was in reality last summer.

Whilst the squad clearly wasn’t strengthened last summer, it is hard to argue it was materially weakened either – the ageing Fuller (who started only 20 games) and the usually crocked Haynes replaced by Sordell and Church, with the remaining ins and outs largely being insignificant ‘noise’ around the edges.

If one was being harsh therefore, one might suggest Charlton’s poor form this season (at least until the takeover) was entirely consistent with last season’s ‘conundrum’ ie. we rode our luck then, and we have now been ‘found out’.

Unfortunately for Powell overachieving this way (whether by luck or otherwise) again somewhat paradoxically did not serve him well in the eyes of Duchatelet given how things have subsequently transpired this season.

With a wage bill firmly in the League’s bottom half, an accumulation of 55 points would have represented a reasonable enough return last season.

However looked at with a fresh pair of eyes like Duchatelet’s (unaware that our points total last season almost certainly flattered us), it would not be hard to see why he would immediately have grave concerns about Powell’s abilities, even before any conversation about his plans for player recruitment etc.

The new owner may have been told (politely knowing Powell’s way) that the ‘players aren’t good enough’ but he might have looked at last season’s table and the virtually unchanged squad, and simply have disagreed. 

Even worse when handed a half-dozen new players in January, Powell continued to largely prefer the incumbents.  It’s not hard to see why the relationship became untenable.

The agricultural football dished out on a regular basis would not have helped his cause either, even if The Valley pitch is suitable currently only for agriculture.

Indeed it seems unarguable that Powell produced teams which were functional rather than stylish, even during the record-breaking 2011/12 season. 

It is unclear whether this was an approach designed to fit the squad at his disposal (implying he could adopt a passing style with different players), or whether it is the only approach he is comfortable with.

Notably during the disastrous second half to 2010/11, he clearly tried to get his newly inherited team to get the ball down and play but it was quickly apparent they weren’t able to effectively.

He certainly seemed trapped at times in his naturally risk-averse straitjacket, an observation which if true would represent an obvious weakness.  The very best managers are flexibly-minded.

However as an inexperienced manager he should be judged less severely than more seasoned peers, and it’s possible (as many believe) that he will flourish into one of the very best over time.

Some fans care little about style and only about points but speaking personally, as I get older I find the former is just as important as the latter if not more so. 

With my free leisure time away from work and family responsibilities extremely limited, I value seeing good football significantly more than I used to. 

I think a Board will naturally be more patient with a struggling manager adopting a more attractive progressive playing style, because the ‘optics’ are better (in short they can see what the manager is trying to achieve more readily).

The fans were patient because they understood the limited resources and because it was well, Chris Powell.

Unfortunately when a more direct or conservatively set-up team plays poorly, you risk performances like Sunday’s which are almost impossible to defend in the circumstances.  Even some of the most ardent Powell supporters must have had their heads turned.

I’m conscious of course that I haven’t yet mentioned Duchatelet’s plans for player recruitment yet, particularly those borrowed or acquired (perhaps temporarily) from his own network of clubs.

It seems strange to fear becoming a feeder club when so far we have only been fed by Standard Liege.  If it’s a problem, I think it’s only one for the distant future.

It's worth remembering we’ve always been a ‘feeder’ club, just for different clubs not one (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea......)

Intereference in team selection is clearly unworkable, but I have no problem with a manager having only very limited input into recruitment given how short their average tenure is. 

This is the much-feared but actually quite sensible ‘European model’.

At the other extreme, an absolute managerial veto on sales (for example in the case of Stephens or Kermorgant), or an effective open cheque book for purchases is likewise unworkable.

In short there is a huge misalignment of interests – when was the last time you heard any manager state that he was happy with his current squad?

It’s certainly possible that Powell was denied any say (let alone veto) whatsoever which he may be have considered intolerable, but conversely being told to get on with coaching, preparing and selecting from the squad he is given is surely not entirely unreasonable either, even if it’s uncommon?

Fans who demand differently seem detached from the financial reality of the club losing perhaps £5-6m in the Championship. 

Berating the person who is stepping up and funding the deficit whilst daring to try an alternative model surely deserves some respect (even perhaps from Powell, though we aren’t privy to the exact nature of their conversations).

The club tried the ‘wealthy fan model’ and it ultimately failed, and then we tried the ‘wealthy non-fan fronted up by a couple of iffy geezers model’ and that clearly failed too.

There’s no guarantee the ‘club network’ model will work either but I at least am prepared to give it a try.

It’s a shame Powell isn’t coming along for the ride but there’s two sides to every story and I suspect it didn’t have to be like this. 

The relationship was clearly chilly and each party had its beef. 

Some mutual compromise might have gone a long way.