If there is just one player within Charlton Athletic’s ranks, at least in the very short-term, who deserves to begin the season plying his trade at a higher level than it is Ricky Holmes.
This the Holmes that proved himself during the previous campaign to be a step above League One level. So often was the real difference between two relatively sluggish sides his unbelievable quality to carry the ball forward, create openings out of nothing, and produce a match-defining moment. So often he performed while others looked uninterested, lost or beaten.
In fact, it was when the Addicks were at their worst last season that the quality of Holmes became even more obvious. A mental toughness could be added to what he was capable of with his feet as, while his teammates crumbled in a fashion that left Karl Robinson to suggest they weren’t fit to wear the shirt, a sublime hat-trick was scored in the defeat away at Shrewsbury Town. It was there when you felt that it was probably best to enjoy what was left of the former Northampton Town man while he remained in Charlton colours, because a player of his talent would surely not remain beyond the end of that campaign.
Not only because he was playing for an unappealing club, and a side who flirted with the idea of relegation from League One up until there were give games of the season remaining, but because clubs of a higher level would be quite rightfully attracted to him. At the age of 30, the prospect of a move to the Championship would something he’d surely have taken up immediately. Most Charlton supporters, though undoubtedly hurting from losing a player of such quality, could only have wished him well.
And so that Holmes has committed himself to the Addicks by agreeing a new deal with the club has not only come as quite a shock, but suggests there’s an attraction in staying put in SE7 that might well not be immediately obvious to those of us who have fallen out of love with the club in recent years. That Robinson’s rather exaggerated excitement for the coming season might actually have some genuine truth to it hiding beneath his parody-like style of expressing himself. That there is a playing environment in SE7 that players of talent want to be a part of.
For while the club remains owned by a regime that continues to fail in its roles off the pitch, not least in reconnecting lost supporters, and has committed too many damaging errors to ever be forgiven, what is building on-the-pitch ahead of the new season is genuinely promising. Holmes agreeing terms with such an intention as he signed his new deal.
We have, of course, said similar before, and we certainly said this at the start of last season. Distancing ourselves from the ownership to place faith in a side that looked capable of competing successful in the third tier under the stewardship of an experienced Football League boss. So maybe a degree of caution remains required.
There is certainly still some strengthening to the squad to be done, with the arrivals of Mark Marshall, Billy Clarke and Tarique Fosu not quite enough even if Ahmed Kashi return to fitness does feel like a new signing. Ideally another six to seven players to create that genuine strength in depth that we’ve been lacking for several seasons, but an absolute minimum of a goalkeeper, a right-back, a left-back, and someone who can do what Josh Magennis does who isn’t Lee Novak. Sorting two of those areas at least, in the recruitment of David Martin, currently training with the club, and Jay Dasilva, who seems set to arrive once finished with the England U19s, seems relatively straightforward.
While there no question that, despite deserving credit for galvanising his squad to earn those vital victories at the end of last season, Robinson has a point to prove. Supporters, both on the relatively unimportant factor of character and the more important quality of managerial ability, are undecided of the former MK Dons after a very poor season both at Stadium MK and The Valley. He needs a strong start to match his confident rhetoric, because there’s no doubt he can speak.
But there’s clearly quality within the side, that will be assisted by a full pre-season under Robinson. A disconnection between boss and players in terms of strategy and identity at times during the second half of last season, and a summer for the boss to get his ideas across crucial. Though I’m not sure how Robinson will cope without a network coach enforced upon him to carry the bibs and cones.
In circumstances that appear positive, the phrase “move on”, one that has been used with connotations of ignorance and aggression since the moment Duchatelet made his first blunder in selling Yann Kermorgant, will undoubtedly appear again. It views football supporters as short-sighted robots, hosting unnatural emotions that mean any previous events most immediately be forgotten regardless of what harm they caused.
The situation at Charlton is such that a key player signing a new contract, the squad appearing to be in a healthier state and the potential to subsequently win games will not reconnect many supporters with their club. The disconnection that has been inflicted by this regime is a very strong, and will be there until they depart. Given that it has been inflicted to such an intense degree over a four-year period, the chance for forgiveness has long passed.
For myself, it’s a case of both present, as they continue to run the club in cumbersome fashion and insult both it and supporters, and past. My connection with Charlton weakening because of the actions of this regime when, because of my mental and physical health, I’ve needed the distraction of this football club the most. It’s impossible to forgive to that, and anger towards Duchatelet and Katrien Meire will always remain.
The protests against the regime are undoubtedly further fuelled by results, and results are the best presentation to a wide audience of the failings under Duchatelet, but not the basis of them. A general incompetence and that sense of mistreatment of both club and its supporters, that has left fans feeling distant and apathetic. Something that after three years can’t be put right, and still exists.
But for many, the support the team not the regime mantra is one strongly lived by, and I’d like to think the fact I showed my rather unpleasant face at 46 league games last season shows that’s the mantra I follow. Maybe because results are the best form of distraction from what has occurred at the club, or simply because victories hold the same value regardless of who controls it. Either way, success on the pitch is still craved by a set of supporters who have seen little.
And while, after some hope towards the end of last season, we remain clueless when our opposition to the regime will be rewarded, there have been tentative signs seen over this summer that our support the team may finally offer more than just wanting to bang my head against a wall in Oldham Athletic’s away end on a Tuesday night.
At the very least, that Holmes has agreed a new deal, when Championship clubs were circling, suggests the Addicks will be finishing higher than 13th this season.