There are few positive connotations linked to a most improved player award. In youth football, it is regularly awarded to the kid who can’t kick straight, but managed to make an accurate pass once midway through March. I, impressively, managed to win one for both football and cricket when I was even small(er) lad.
But Charlton’s most improved player in the 2014/15 season was not deemed as such out of sympathy. Frederic Bulot’s transformation from network flop and forgotten man under Bob Peeters to fan favourite and key figure under Guy Luzon was remarkable.
There was a time, and with justification, where he was placed next to Yohann Thuram as a figurehead for all the things wrong with Roland Duchatelet’s strategy. A player effectively sent against his will from one network club to another, who was not suited to English football, and was seemingly unwilling to put the necessary effort in to prove himself.
Such was his lack of playing time that his disappearance to Equatorial Guinea for the Africa Cup of Nations was hardly noted. Appearances had been limited, and positive contributions even less so.
In fact, upon his return from international duty with Gabon, he was seen as a problem rather than a solution in Luzon’s first few weeks in charge. The sort of player that was seemingly being picked on basis of Duchatelet’s influence, and not on ability. His dreadful performance as a second striker in the traumatic defeat to Norwich City providing further evidence for such a belief.
But, rather emphatically, Bulot forced his critics, of which there were plenty, to change their views. So impressive was he in the run of seven wins from nine that he managed to make himself something of a fans’ favourite.
Part of that, of course, was his rather generous interaction with supporters on social media, but it was largely as a result of his pace, power, and genuine threat from both flanks that made him such a central figure to Luzon’s counter-attacking football. On the occasions where Bulot was a victim of Luzon’s end-of-season rotation, the Addicks lacked a degree of potency.
Whether it was the change of head coach, his trip to the AFCON, or simply a case of needing time to acclimatise to the English game, something clicked for Bulot in the final few months of the season. If he had have been a player permanently contracted to Charlton, there would have been a level excitement about what he could achieve if he was able to replicate such form over the course of the season.
Instead, there has been a summer of doubt over whether Bulot’s loan deal from Standard Liege would be made into a permanent switch. His importance to the side towards the end of the season meant resolving the complexities of making his move to SE7 a permanent one should have been one of the main priorities over the summer.
But it would appear those in charge of transfer dealings were complacent. Maybe they anticipated that, giving that Liege were part of the network and good relations existed even after Duchatelet sold the Belgian club, Bulot’s transfer would happen naturally.
For I cannot work out any other reason why the Gabon international was today presented as a Remis player, and not setting off for Belgium with Charlton.
Of course, it’s probably something as basic as the French club offering more money to Liege, and to the player himself, but they should not have been in a position to do that.
In a period during and post-Duchatelet’s ownership of Standard Liege, all parties were wanting the deal to happen. Transfers, of course, are complex, but with greater urgency the deal should long since been completed before Remis even voiced an interest.
We were told for a number of weeks that the deal was merely being delayed for the sake of being delayed. You got the impression that the transfer was just a few signatures away from being completed. Bulot kept dropping hints, and was even seen training with the Addicks during pre-season.
For all intents and purposes, he was once again a Charlton player. So to have him taken from under our noses is incredibly frustrating.
You could even argue that loaning Bulot in the first place was a little odd. There was evident little interest in keeping him at Liege, so why did he need to make a temporary switch to another network club?
Even if his failure had extended throughout the season, and there had been no desire to keep him, he could have simply been moved again. Bulot would have simply joined the list of players signed on permanent deals and then sold or loaned under Duchatelet.
Which leads onto what is now the more pressing matter – finding a replacement for Bulot. Unless you’re of the opinion that playing centre-mids and strikers out of position is the way to go, it’s hard to argue that Charlton’s wide options are currently incredibly limited.
Not only is there a worry that, having failed to secure Bulot, our position in the transfer market isn’t as strong as the first three additions to the squad suggested, but Duchatelet’s record of replacing players is incredibly sketchy.
There have, of course, been a number of excellent additions, and those made this summer appear promising. But when the list of failed transfers is so long, it’s a little hard to feel positive about the likelihood of a player being brought in who will have the same impact as Bulot did.
Especially from the off, with one of the main benefits of signing Bulot being that he had seemingly already adapted to the Championship, and no risk would have to be taken on a player who, although impressive on paper, might not be able to apply himself in England’s second tier.
Not only has a player with experience of the Championship been missed out on, but one with knowledge of Charlton and Luzon’s system lost.
Having the same front four that proved so potent during the winning run to turn to, and not have to implement a new system around new signings would have been incredibly beneficial. You feel now that a great deal of the momentum gained from that period, not helped by the sluggish end-of-season performances, is now lost.
I don’t dismiss the idea that players will come and go season-to-season no matter how the club is being run, but there was a decent skeleton on show throughout February and March. That’s now missing a few bones.
And time is running out to properly insert new ones. Of course, the transfer window does not shut for another month and a half, but leaving key signings so late isn’t wise. In an ideal world, I’d have liked the basis of the squad to be together already.
The situation, involving Bulot and in general, is by no means a complete disaster. There were plenty of positive signs during the first half at Park View Road on Saturday, not least the style of football that was being played.
And additions required to the starting XI, although excessive for this time of year, are not outrageous. A centre back and a winger gives the Addicks a decent enough first choice side, but the second half did show, even with a few absentees, how paper thin the squad remains. I think you can be excused for mixing positivity with a touch of anxiety.
I’m not at all completely rubbishing the idea that an adequate replacement for Bulot will be found, nor that the squad won’t be sufficiently bolstered, but I find it hard to dismiss the failure to sign the winger as nothing to worry about because someone better and as effective will simply be plucked from Duchatelte’s pool of transfer targets.
It means that, as has seemingly been the case with every obvious error made under Duchatelet’s ownership, a true judgement can only be made once a replacement has been found. Regardless of how hard it is to replace disappointment with relatively blind faith.