In recent years, the production of incredibly talented youngsters through an incredibly successful academy structure has been one of the few aspects of Charlton Athletic that supporters have been able to maintain a degree of pride in.
At a time when supporters have become disconnected from their club, seeing so many grown from within succeed in the first team maintains a certain amount of identity, and has offered an element of solace in a period of despair.
It no wonder that, while every other player received a muted applause, the reading out of Chris Solly’s name upon his return to the side for Monday’s victory over Bristol Rovers following an injury layoff was met with a relatively huge cheer. Consistency, commitment, and longevity earning him cult hero status. He is Charlton.
A connection with each new academy graduate given their opportunity, as a figure that stands to maintain the club’s identity. Each new academy graduate supported in the same way Solly has been in his 212 league appearances for the Addicks. Each new academy graduate creating a sense of expectation born out of the success of those they are attempting to emulate.
Josh Magennis, and rightly so, claiming most of the attention after scoring a hat-trick in the victory over Rovers, but there so much pleasure to be had in witnessing a teenage, and unlikely, midfield pairing show quality, maturity and control.
The Valley offering standing ovations to both 19-year-old Joe Aribo and 18-year-old Ezri Konsa as they were replaced during the latter stages of Monday’s win. Aribo’s impact in his two Football League starts, providing four assists and already appearing a class above League One level, has been sensational, while Konsa, a centre-back by trade, appeared unfazed by the move into midfield.
Dillon Phillips largely untroubled against the Gas, but has won points for the Addicks since replacing the injured Declan Rudd between the sticks. At least three fresh academy graduates making big impressions so far this season. Bonds between those youngsters and supporters already developing.
New bonds created all the time. For while other clubs may claim success if one youngster gets himself on the fringes of the squad in a season, recent campaigns have seen numerous Addicks make their way into the starting XI. Bonds that remain even once they’ve departed.
There delight in seeing Joe Gomez, so clearly valued at Liverpool, return from a year-long injury, an interest in the careers of Jordan Cousins and Callum Harriott, and, though disappointment in his recent misdemeanours, still a sense of ownership over Jonjo Shelvey.
Pride in the success of homegrown players. They are Charlton.
But so too is there a sense of bitterness and disappointment that Solly is unique. That so few academy graduates are maintained for more than a season or tow. The brilliance of the academy structure builds successful careers but provides only a short-term impact for team, and is tainted by the ideology of the regime and the status of club.
A unique experience, apparently, to watch the stars of tomorrow before they are cashed in on. And it might well be a unique to see so much talented produced by a club that’s otherwise in disarray. But a unique experience is also provided by the constant frustration born out of homegrown talents being moved on so quickly.
It not simply a case of accepting a departure as another young talent or two come into the side. That really isn’t how it works.
And Ademola Lookman will become the latest academy graduate to be sold. That latest departure we must accept, and quickly move on from, as the 19-year-old heads to Everton.
Let there be no doubt that the extremely talented winger warrants this move. His performances, not least given the fact they have come in an extremely testing period for the Addicks, have been consistently superb and exciting. There can be no frustration towards the player, who deserves to be making this step up in his career.
There’s pace, there’s extremely clever footwork, and there’s all the attributes required in the final third to make him a potent finisher and creator. His decision making his only real question mark, but so often it hardly matters, as his ability is enough to make any decision right. A real, real privilege to have watched and supported such a talent.
And this not only a move Lookman warrants, but a sensible move for the teenager. Everton are a good club, and one that are giving opportunities to young players.
Is he ready for the Premier League right away? Based on talent, yes. Mentality, maybe not quite yet. But I would expect to see him making an impact from the bench before this season is out.
And so too must it be accepted that £10m is an offer that a League One club, regardless of their status, who they’re owned by, or who the player is, can’t turn down. It is, even in a climate where a player is worth as much as their club decide he is rather than any sort of accepted logic, a huge sum.
It would, with conviction, be called a good piece of business if we were owned by a regime you could trust. Alas, we are not, and so there is understandable concern and frustration as Lookman heads to Goodison Park.
Again, as with any departure of similar nature, there is this familiar feeling of being little more than a development club, assisting those above us.
Of course, our ability to be anything more than just a feeder club is restricted not just by the decision making and strategy of Roland Duchatelet’s regime, but as prominently by our position in the Football League. Cashing in on one talent for such a large amount is unlikely to prevent Konsa, Aribo, Phillips departing if serious offers are made.
There’s just a sense of dejection that’s born out of this philosophy. A relatively small part of what’s created disconnection between club and supporters, but a part of it nonetheless. That players we develop real connections to are seen as assets to make profit from by those above, and little more in the grand scheme of things.
Another frustration being that Lookman’s sale, particularly at this time, brings out another one of Katrien Meire’s inaccurate promises. It was, in truth, always obvious that Lookman was going to depart, but the fact another promise hasn’t been kept, and will be quickly swept under the carpet, increases the difficult many supporters continue to understandably have in trusting this regime.
A lack of trust which makes it difficult to believe that the money Lookman’s sale provides will be spent with positive intentions, or be spent wisely. Robinson’s commitment to strengthening the side is commendable, but believing Duchatelet and Meire have the same motivation is challenging.
In fact, why has it taken until a major sale for squad improvement to be considered to the extent it should have been in the summer? The money has always been there, and a failure to act before now means that, even with improvement to the squad, this season is likely to conclude with little more than a mid-table finish.
It seems every move taken by the regime is an attempt to paper over a mistake that shouldn’t have been made in the first place. Even in the sale itself, it allows them to claim transfer success and ignore the minimal fees earned for the sales of Gomez, Cousins and Harriott, in addition to non-homegrown players such as Kermorgant, Stephens and Gudmundsson.
And so too would it have been nice to have fought to maintained Lookman until the end of the season. Possibly agreeing a deal now, but either keeping him in SE7 until the summer, or having him loaned back until then. This, as such, not quite the perfect deal.
So there must be sympathy with those that are frustrated, disappointed and worried. It not cynical, it merely born out of what has gone previously. If that money isn’t fully and properly reinvested, the already unfixable relationship between regime and supporters becomes even worse.
However, should the money be reinvested properly, Robinson is allowed a degree of freedom in who he recruits, and Lookman thrives, there is no denying that, even when the frustration in losing another academy graduate who wowed supporters is considered, it becomes good business. A stronger team built in SE7, while pride can be taken in Lookman’s efforts on Merseyside.
It’s just that, when others have left, the reinvestment either hasn’t happened or hasn’t been wise.
You would hope that Robinson’s influence will be a decisive factor. His desire to improve the squad, and admittance that it’s neither strong nor big enough, will not have been deterred by the marvellous second-half performance on Monday. Jake Forster-Caskey’s arrival, for example, is promising.
And you hope, though other Charlton bosses haven’t, he will get his way. Allowing the sale of Lookman to be disappointing, but far from disastrous.
We live in hope, if little more than that.