Though a month and a half into it, the arrival of a player that I was unconvinced the club would be able to attract to SE7 signals the first genuinely encouraging news of Charlton Athletic’s summer.
For Mark Marshall, a creative and direct winger of high League One standard, joins from Bradford City. A vital part of the Bantams squad that reached the play-off final, a fear existed that other interested parties would provide a more attractive proposition for a long-term target of manager Karl Robinson. To have the 30-year-old on board is pleasing, promising, and offers quite the relief.
It, in the impact had among supporters of both clubs, is in some contrast to the transfer of Billy Clarke, who also made the move from one Valley (Parade) to another.
At best, forward Clarke was a frustrating figure among supporters of the Yorkshire club, but more truthfully a figure who could no longer be trusted. Wasted chances and poor overall performances meant money were happy to see the back of the Irishman, and surprised another club were willing to pay a fee for a player who had failed to impress for several seasons. Not to write Clarke off without him kicking a ball in Charlton colours, but the evidence suggesting an average League One player signed that set a worrying tone for arrivals in SE7.
Addicks concerned that they would merely see their squad for the new season cobbled together with third tier journeyman mad enough to join a club in a desperate state, and the club’s overstating of an average signing hardly created confidence that those currently within Robinson’s squad that are attracting interest from elsewhere would still be among it come the end of August.
But the celebrations of those who supported Bradford at the thought of Clarke’s departure were brought to a crashing halt by the news that Marshall had moved on. Player of the Year for the season just gone at Valley Parade, and for good reason. Fans of the losing play-off finalists devastated to see the winger leave.
So where do we go from here? Has Clarke really set the tone, with Marshall the marquee signing and nothing else to follow? Or is Marshall the catalyst for the strengthening of the squad to a point where it may actually be able to challenge competitively for the top six?
Desperately seeking to fill the squad with those unwanted by divisional rivals, or beating clubs in better shape and possibly of higher status to the likes of MK Dons’ Ben Reeves? It seems with a player signed from each category, this a crucial point in the summer.
Of course, the Marshall signing becomes a near irrelevance if Ricky Holmes is not kept. The Jamaican a figure that should be strengthening the squad, and not a replacement for its most dangerous asset. Marshall of high quality, but if the question was one or the other, I’d want Holmes, not that it should have to be choice.
Holmes down the left and Marshall down the right is duo that will create. Marshall down the right with, well, I’m not actually sure there is anyone suited to the left wing role at the moment that isn’t Holmes, isn’t quite so threatening. It goes without saying that keeping Charlton’s 2016/17 Player of the Year is vital.
But the fact that there isn’t much cover in the wide positions at present reveals, as if there is an Addick not already aware, that plenty of work remains to be done. Work that in previous seasons has so often been left undone.
Promise last season as Holmes, Nicky Ajose, Lee Novak and Josh Magennis arrived. Two of the four failed to impress, but that not really the point. More so the fact that we’d made some interesting additions but the squad overall remained weak, lacking in both depth and quality. Dishing out rushed six-month contracts to a Kevin Foley impersonator is something I’d rather not be doing this time around.
Still required is a goalkeeper, and I’m personally happy for that to be a genuine first choice stopper or someone who will provide cover for Dillon Phillips. I have complete trust in the homegrown goalkeeper after his performances last season, and don’t really mind how that pans out.
Then with Lewis Page’s injury now keeping him out until August, there’s probably a need for two left-backs. Jay Dasilva’s return would be welcomed, but the decision to release Adam Chicksen now seems a little bit odder. Those two as the left full-back options while Page recovers would have been perfectly fine, with both able to play further forward if required.
Additionally, with no cover for Chris Solly and his injury record continuing to be less than impressive, a right-back of similar standard is required. Not simply cover, but someone that will compete with the long-serving vice-captain, and will perform as admirably should the academy graduate find himself absent at any point throughout the season. Ezri Konsa’s performances in that position last season suggesting that playing him there is firmly placing a square peg in a round hole.
And with uncertainty over Konsa’s further, Jorge Teixeira likely to leave and Harry Lennon set to be spending a few more months in the treatment room, centre-backs are also on the agenda. Not just cover for Patrick Bauer and Jason Pearce, but two of their standard. Hopefully, in a shock twist, the club decide not to cash in on a young talent and Konsa remains an option for the coming campaign.
An option, too, in midfield, where he looked much more suited than at right-back. But with Robinson’s lust for playing five in the middle, Andrew Crofts and Johnnie Jackson likely to be relegated to members of the squad, and Ahmed Kashi still missing a leg, plenty of midfielders are a must. Ball-winning types, the creative sorts that fit the Ben Reeves mould, and some alternatives in the wide positions.
A midfield that will feed Magennis, but forward options are still likely to be needed. I’m not convinced Ajose has a future, Novak is Novak, I’m not totally won over by Tony Watt’s Twitter confidence, and I imagine Igor Vetokele is going to join those who also spent last season away from the club in departing the club. Cover for Magennis a must, with no player of any real quality that can play in the role he does, while a couple of more poacher-like forwards would be useful with Clarke more suited to playing between in the ’number 10’ role.
So you’re looking at, assuming those at that are likely to leave depart and those that we’d like to keep hand around, one goalkeeper, two left-backs, a right-back, a centre-back, two or three central midfielders, two wide-men, and two or three strikers. A rough estimate of 11-13 players needed for the squad to be complete, which may seem a lot but there can be no excuse for it lacking numbers once again.
As such, it’s important to remind ourselves that the signing of Marshall means relatively very little in a wider context. There still plenty of work to be done.
But what it does mean is that there’s a chance the club are capable, and willing, to attract players of top League One standard that divisional rivals in arguably better positions may also be chasing. That Marshall is the catalyst, rather than merely the marquee.
Equally, there the possibility that Marshall is as good as it gets, and the tone that many feared had been set by Clarke’s arrival has merely been temporarily disturbed.
The signings, and those retained, over the coming weeks the only way of having hopes supported or crushed, or fears reaffirmed or calmed.
With a month passing since Charlton Athletic’s final game of their torrid 2016/17 League One campaign, Karl Robinson felt the need to defend the club’s lack of recruitment in that period. Early additions were promised, and yet no new faces have been added to the Addicks’ squad.
The justifications offered by Charlton’s boss, though offered in his characteristic manner that makes football supporters seem naïve of all footballing knowledge, have a fair amount of reason behind them. That other football still taking place affects transfer activity is reasonable enough, agents are notoriously tricky customers, and players of top League One quality aren’t going to accept the first offer from a third-tier club that comes their way.
In fact, that a lack of early signings is considered a real concern is, coupled with the emphatic nature of last season’s failure and what has gone before, really an issue that Robinson has created for himself. A promise not fulfilled, and a bit of pressure not cooled. The lack of faith that supporters have in ownership, club and coach remains as high as ever.
But, by comparison, Chris Powell had only made the additions of Nick Pope, Danny Hollands and Bradly Pritchard by June 1st in the summer of his promotion season. Pope developed into excellent goalkeeper at Championship level, while Pritchard was a consistent performer in the first season back in the second tier, but it only Hollands who was a vital part of Powell’s title-winning group. The squad not really taking shape until the final weeks of June and the start of July.
The squad, therefore, not put together in May, but all but complete by the time pre-season started. Only Ben Hamer and a certain Frenchman of those who were regular starters arriving after early July, and a repeat this summer, with the bulk of the group in place by the time of the trip to Ireland, would be no problem at all.
And so it can be said that the extent of the problem of Charlton not making a fast start to transfer activity has been overstated. But part of the reason that Charlton’s first month of the summer has been without recruitment does highlight a concern as to whether Robinson will be capable of building a promotion-chasing side.
A problem Robinson himself alluded to. That high-quality League One players are also likely to be sought after by Championship sides. Is this football club, with its weakened and Roland Duchatelet-tainted reputation, in a position to attract the sort of talents that Charlton’s boss apparently wants, and to compete with second-tier sides for the signatures of players?
A problem that exists in a very real and practical sense, and one that hovers around the minds of supporters. Trust has been lacking for three years, and maybe an early addition would have improved it to a certain degree. A lack of trust that makes it hard to believe the club are in a position to form an impressive squad, and will need to prove the justifiably formed beliefs of supporters wrong. Something they’ve not been very successful at.
For even in Powell’s summer, on the back of similar on-the-pitch failure in the season before, there was a sense of fresh start, rejuvenation and realistic but highly motivated ambition. While Michael Slater and Tony Jimenez ultimately proved failures, they initially provided support for Powell’s plans. A plan that was easy to prove to those he attempted to sign, and as such meant he was able to attract players of decent quality and stature.
League One’s best signed, with players such as Dale Stephens, Rhoys Wiggins and Michael Morrison arriving despite interest from Championships sides. The foundation left by the previous season might not have been so great, but the club’s obvious attempt to rejuvenate, and in particular an ambition that had substance, meant good signings could be made.
But, even if Robinson might want to talk about ambitions, that is simply not a position we find ourselves in now. Besides, his words have been unconvincing at best, contradictory and concerning at worst, while the end-of-season burst was not enough to provide complete confidence in his managerial ability after a difficult season stretching both over his spells at Stadium MK and The Valley.
The point, however, is more about the effect Duchatelet’s ownership, and continued ownership, has had on the reputation of the club and what it can offer in comparison to others in better states, both in this division and the one above.
For there is little denying that Charlton as a club are in a very poor state, and will find it incredibly difficult to justify their ambitions when the same regime has instigated three seasons of discontent and failure. Apart from Duchatelet’s attraction to wasting money, there no reason why financial demands can’t be met, but much more than that is required when Championship clubs and fellow League One clubs who will be looking for promotion are hovering over players the Addicks have interest in.
Our unique selling points in the summer while Powell put together his squad that racked up a century of points was the man himself, the infectious way in which he could justify his and the club’s ambition, and a handy if not excessive budget. What, in this period while Duchatelet lingers, are our USPs to players with plenty of other options to consider? I’m not sure a six-month subscription to an online video service is going to do it.
And the worry that follows is that, as we miss out on talented players to clubs in a better state, we find ourselves playing catching up, forced to snap up the best of the rest. And in a division that will include Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Bradford City, three very good sides promoted automatically from League Two in Portsmouth, Doncaster Rovers and Plymouth Argyle, and the likes of Fleetwood Town, Scunthorpe United and Southend United who are also likely to be competitive again, that is unlikely to be good enough.
It simply hard to believe that the club is in a position from which a promotion-winning squad can be built. Hard to believe we can compete with others in this division, and the bottom-half of the second tier, for the players required.
All this, of course, without considering possible sales and need to have a squad of reasonable size for the first time in several seasons. Club ambition not so much the problem with Ricky Holmes but, particularly as he nears 30, the concern is that he’ll have a strong desire to play in the Championship and find the offer of working with Chris Wilder again an attractive one. Club ambition would have to be questioned if, having only just signed a new contract, Ezri Konsa was cashed in on without at least another season to his name in Charlton colours.
You would hope the sales of the likes of Igor Vetokele, Naby Sarr and Cristian Ceballos, with the departures of Jorge Teixeira and Tony Watt also looking likely, will help prevent the need to cash in on anyone that has a role to play in the first team. You would hope, too, that their sales would provide the funds that increase the chance of Charlton competing for the signatures of players who will be wanted by clubs in better states.
But, in all honesty, I’m not sure finances are the main issue, even if Duchatelet and those he misguidedly places his trust have a habit of investing unwisely. The issues of reputation, and justifying our ambitions to players who will have plenty of suiters, much more important.
Something that, at this time, it’s reasonable to believe the club aren’t in the best of positions to do. Something that, in the next month, the club must prove. Over to them.