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Supporters of Charlton Athletic were initially sat down at the finest of tables and offered an updated menu of real quality when dining at the Transfer Window Restaurant this summer.
Their meals delicious, and served in excellent fashion. Few, if any, complaints to be had with the main course. Somewhat unexpected, seen as their trust in the quality of the restaurant’s services had long faded, and they’d only continued to dine there out of loyalty.
But as they sat patiently for the waiters to return upon the completion of their meals, with some expectation given the excitement that the names on the dessert menu offered, they were soon to find themselves creeping back towards the normality of disappointment. Nothing was available on the dessert menu, because they’d run out of the resources required to produce the treats. The diners were going to depart without any dessert whatsoever until a temporary solution, sourcing some supermarket ice cream, was found.
Ultimately, as nights came to an end, there a sense it would be greedy to be feeling anything but content. The taste of your meal still running around your mouth, and a healthy feeling in your stomach. But the thought of how sweet a dessert might have tasted, served to the same standard, leaves you wanting more.
And while the heart of Charlton’s summer transfer activity has been mightily impressive, producing a starting XI of such quality that expectation and some excitement has been injected back into supporters on the Addicks, the failure to deliver the sweet additional figures that the squad required has meant the summer ends with a tinge of frustration. What has arrived, and the performances delivered thus far by Karl Robinson’s strongest side, means the mood remains a hopeful one. But the thought of how strong this squad probably should have ended up, and how fragile it looks with a couple of injuries, leaves you wanting more.
For there no doubt that, both through quality arrivals and the retention of key players, that Robinson has been able to construct a starting XI as strong as anything seen while Roland Duchatelet as controlled the club. Not that that comment holds much value, but Charlton’s current strongest XI is a very strong one for League One level, at least competing with all in the division.
I will maintain, having mentioned it several times before, that the most important pieces of business done this summer has been retaining Ricky Holmes and Jason Pearce, with Josh Magennis latterly joining the duo in signing an improved contract at The Valley. Not only because of the quality of the players, but because of the message it delivered to supporters, the squad, and elsewhere. A display of the Addicks’ ambitions, and that there was a genuine attractiveness in remaining in SE7 even for players who could command moves up the Football League.
The individual performances of Holmes, Pearce and Magennis in the opening weeks of the campaign reaffirming their importance to the side, but they performances that have been matched by the efforts of those wearing Charlton colours for the first time.
After a unconvincing start, Bolton Wanderers loanee Ben Amos has made important contributions between the sticks during the victories over Northampton Town and Rotherham United, Jay Dasilva, actually wearing Charlton colours for the second time having signed up for a second spell on loan from Chelsea, has impressed both in his defensive and attacking duties at left-back, and Billy Clarke and Tariq Fosu have been crucial cogs in the impressive counter-attacking play of Robinson’s side that has created more promise and belief than any other factor.
In addition, there hope that Mark Marshall will emulate the form shown while at Bradford City upon his return from a knee injury sustained during pre-season, while a goal for Ben Reeves in Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy win over Crawley Town as he integrates into the side following his early August arrival provided a glimpse of the ability often displayed in his time at Stadium MK. That Marshall and Reeves sit outside the starting XI is proof that there’s quality beyond it, and that it’s not in every position where strength in depth causes a slight concern.
But it’s quite difficult to fully understand why strengthening beyond the start of the season, when it remained apparent that there were still gaps in the squad as the campaign got underway, was such a complex task. Difficult to understand to for several reasons. And not just because a couple of additions, to match the quality already brought in, without any further outgoings was really all that was needed.
There the perfect foundation from which Duchatelet and chums could prove there was a very obvious goal for them this season, and that they would not be playing games to achieve it. A few further additions to rid fears over lack of depth or what might be a reliance on young players, that have seen the Addicks fail in the past, and create a squad that had everything geared towards promotion. An absolute gift for a regime that has previously done nothing but fail and disillusion supporters, but one not taken.
I find it very hard to believe that having handed the wages of Nicky Ajose, Igor Vetokele, Jorge Teixeira, Cristian Ceballos, Tony Watt and, latterly, Lee Novak to other clubs, budget was a decisive factor. That without considering the money brought in from Ademola Lookman’s sale in January, and the money that Duchatelet should be investing into transfer spending for a club of Charlton’s size and to match promotion ambitions. There surely the resources available to add the finishing touches to the squad.
The required finishing touches that are displayed quite handily as the Addicks head into this weekend’s game against Oldham Athletic without Magennis or Dasilva, who are both on international duty.
It downplayed somewhat, but I’ve found the options in reserve at full-back to be a little concerning, with Lewis Page still unfit and Anfernee Dijksteel a little bit of an unknown quality. Johnnie Jackson probably needing to fill in at left-back on Saturday hardly ideal, and it these kind of situations that you’d like a squad with promotion ambitions to be able to avoid.
But, of course, the main concern comes up top. A worry for a period in the transfer window’s final hours that, with Novak being sold to Scunthorpe United, the Addicks would only have one senior striker until January, but the arrival of Joe Dodoo on loan from Rangers merely brings levels of concern back to where they were at the start of the day. Which was fairly high anyway.
Even if Robinson religiously sticks to a formation with one up top, two senior forwards simply isn’t enough. Not least when one heads off on international duty every few weeks, and the arrival is a striker in quite a different mould. For all his struggles in a Charlton shirt, allowing Novak to leave without another target man style forward lined up is very odd.
Dodoo a young forward of promise, who would be an excellent addition if adding to an already healthy pool of strikers, to provide something a bit different. But the 22-year-old, who scored three times in 20 league games for Rangers last season, is going to be thrown straight in at the deep end on Saturday. Asked to perform the role Magennis usually does, when his qualities are more suited to partnering a forward of Magennis’ nature and running in behind.
The signing, particularly given as the loan is only until January, seems a bit rushed and panicked in response to Novak’s departure. There really didn’t need to be a rush and a panic to sign a forward that is ultimately a little bit of a gamble when there was a reasonable amount of time to attract a striker of real quality to the club from the start of August. Will Grigg, Matty Godden, John Akindie and Matty Taylor among those linked, and any of those or a forward of similar stature would have been excellent.
But the point isn’t to write Dodoo off at all, who I’m sure will have an impact and I say that with the second half performance at Plymouth Argyle in mind. A weak bench, with no useful alternatives, meant Robinson was unable to inject life into his sluggishly performing side at Home Park and defeat followed. A concern that there will be a repeat of that when Charlton are chasing games, and will be unable to break down the barriers that opposition defences have put up, but at least having a forward in Dodoo’s mould provides something useful in those circumstances.
The point, however, is that if his signing was purely as an alternative option, and not Magennis’ one and only understudy, then it would have been a very logical one. International weekends are going to be quite uncomfortable, and a huge worry if the Northern Ireland international suffers injury at any point.
Some might point to the success of young players in cup games to suggest there is adequate depth across the board, and not just up top, but we’ve been in a similar position before and such reliance hasn’t worked. There no question that the Addicks are understaffed in attack, and that this position is such an avoidable one.
Ultimately, it’s a frustrating end to a very promising transfer window. A window that saw a main serving of quality arrivals, and retentions, in SE7. But one where things got a bit sluggish thereafter.
And there no doubt that the creation of a strong starting XI has been achieved during this window, for which supporters have a great deal of faith in, and have so far been offered exciting signs by.
But knowing a finishing touch or two of quality could have, and probably should have, been added to the squad does leave you longing for more. It’s not so much concern, but maybe just a touch of discomfort as a consequence of what’s in reserve.
So often as he entered The Valley pitch, those who occupied the stands would chant his name with a level of noise and meaning that made for a genuine message. A shared knowledge that this enigmatic figure required as much encouragement and appreciation as possible, and a strong desire for him to succeed in the colours of Charlton Athletic. Receptive, if not always in his performances, but always towards those who supported him.
And yet, often moments after his name had echoed around The Valley’s structures, there would soon be unforgiving and universally shared groans of displeasure. The flashes of quality occasionally seen made you want to believe he would reach the peak of his potential in SE7, but too often were the same infuriating errors being made. Tony Watt didn’t just divide a fan base, he split the minds of individual supporters.
So as the Scot, following three separate loan spells away in his two-and-a-half-years as an Addick, prepares to exit the club on a permanent basis, there is not the anger that may exist when a key player departs, nor the sarcastic celebrations when a poor one is allowed to leave.
Instead, there a disappointment that the best of Watt, having made 53 league appearances in Charlton colours, was seen on so few occasions. A regret that the 23-year-old did not become the player for the Addicks the occasional flashes of brilliance suggested he could have been. A frustration that, having originally moved to the South East London branch of Roland Duchatelet’s network from Standard Liege, Watt heads for a second spell in Belgium, with Lierse his apparent destination, having failed to get anywhere near fulfilling his potential in SE7.
Potential that, regardless of how you feel towards the Scot as he departs, there is no question was shown. Many will point to that marvellous moment of skill that saw him keep the ball in the corner against Nottingham Forest, and I think the focus on that has left some forgetting that he did provide further contributions. His general form in that period, particularly in performances either side of the Forest game in victories over Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City, was outstanding.
So too was there the sensational start from Watt to the 2015/16 season, with the opening goal of the season in a victory over QPR and a long range, though somewhat deflected, effort during a visit to Derby County. “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Tony Watt, Watt, Watt, Watt” was sung with some vigour at Pride Park. A connection with supporters always existing to some degree.
I remember, quite explicitly, Watt standing in front of the away end on his own at Vicarage Road applauding the visiting supporters following the shambolic 5-0 defeat there in January 2015. It coming after Guy Luzon, a network appointment that brought resentment and revolt among supporters, had been given the head coach gig. The sort of player-supporter interaction so desperately needed.
I don’t think, therefore, there can be argument that supporters have not given Watt the opportunity to succeed each time he returned, and each time he wore Charlton colours. An opportunity he continued to be given, in part, because of the Scot’s willingness to acknowledge such support, and as such a desire among many supporters for him to perform. Frustration a regular response to Watt’s reaction, but never have supporters turned against him, and never has his name not been sung.
But maybe there’s an argument, not least given the fact his spells on loan at Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers and Hearts between November 2015 and January 2017 had just one appearance for Charlton sandwiched between them, that he wasn’t given a fair opportunity to prove himself by those in charge. Or at least, having been sent away on so many occasions, the conditions and circumstances at The Valley were not right for him to succeed. After that blast of brilliance at the start of the 2015/16 season, Watt faded at a dramatic rate, but maybe the action that would have provided the greater result for club and player would have been to stand by him.
That chance given to him by Karl Robinson upon his return from Hearts last season, and Watt generally did well. Largely utilised as a winger, and making his greater impressions from the bench, he made useful runs with the ball at his feet and appeared a threat. Not simply because he scored twice, but his overall play in the trio of home games against Scunthorpe United, Walsall, and Bradford City was impressive.
But so too were there dire efforts, where he appeared devoid of all quality, energy and intelligence. That two of those performances were against Peterborough United and MK Dons, two defeats that left the Addicks four points from the bottom four with five games to play, hardly helped his cause. Some promising signs seen, but back-to-back grim displays in these circumstances made what had gone before almost meaningless; the frustration of Watt in a nutshell.
Maybe that in part a motivation to make his pre-season successful, as it appeared it was. He certainly continued to make a point of it on social media, and given the criticism he has received throughout his career for being unfit I see no reason why he shouldn’t. Alas, after his name was sung as he stepped onto The Valley turf against Bristol Rovers, home supporters groaned as he failed to close down opposition defenders, and back to square one we all seemed to go.
Nonetheless, it a disappointment to see him depart with this season and exclusively the Watt that has been seen in mind. Regardless of whether this is a decision made primarily by Watt, as it would seem, or by club and Robinson. Despite being an inconsistent nuisance that’s going to cause enough frustration to leave your head rolling down The Valley’s steps, he has more than enough ability, even well below his best, to be a threat in League One.
But that I’m suggesting it would be worth keeping Watt because he might be able to do something from the bench in the third tier of English football is probably a further indicator of the frustration involved in this situation. The greater point is that Watt has failed to deliver on his early promise, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s for the want of trying. The early promise of his career, and in SE7.
Of course, his career will forever be defined by *that* goal against Barcelona as a 19-year-old while playing for Celtic. A goal that has placed immense pressure on him. Maybe he was never actually of the level that goal suggested, or maybe he’s not been able to handle the expectations.
From a Charlton perspective, I still don’t understand how he went from an impressive end to the 2014/15 season and start to the following campaign, to a complete collapse thereafter. A player that could seemingly do everything, to one that appeared lost on the pitch. There didn’t appear a reason for such a loss of confidence, and those levels of performance have not returned.
The, ironically, rather lazy accusation to make is that Watt is lazy. Or at least he has a poor attitude. He’s certainly not your average footballer.
But a poor attitude is not something I pick up when he plays. Poor decision making, yes, but not a poor attitude. I’d also suggest the way his teammates treat him would be very different if laziness and attitude was a greater problem.
I do, given that Watt has displayed flashes of brilliance but not to any consistent level, imagine there is some degree of mental barrier in his way. But I don’t think it’s a self-created one.
To be perfectly honest, I’m really not sure why he’s struggled to deliver like he might have done, but I feel it might well relate to a reliance on confidence. The drop in form at the start of 2015/16, coinciding with poor team displays and the sacking of Luzon, something he struggled to get over, the loan spells not providing the boost required, and a struggle to perform ever since. While others show anger towards the Scot as a consequence, I feel a degree of sympathy.
In fact, as a person, I quite like Watt. Opinions gained from how he interacts with supporters and his social media behaviour only tell so much, but he does seem like a genuinely good guy. I was certainly one of those who chanted his name, wishing him to succeed.
And as such, as he departs, I’m one of those who feels regret and disappointment. We saw quality from Watt in SE7, but were ultimately given more moments of frustration. He leaves making only a minor impression overall, but there a knowledge he could have delivered so much more.
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.
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.
For some supporters, connection with a player is immediately lost the moment they no longer represent their club. Little interest, let alone affiliation, unless they wear the red and white of Charlton Athletic.
An attitude you can justify by bluntly pointing to the fact that, as supporters of Charlton, there should only be appreciation for those who currently call SE7 their home. The idea being that you should ‘move on’ from one player, regardless of the connection that existed between supporters and performer, to the next with no lingering thoughts towards the departed.
But most can look beyond such a one-dimensional take on supporter-player relationships, and still admire those who have departed with a similar level of affiliation and appreciation that existed while they fought for Charlton’s cause. A different kind of connection while they wear the colours of a different club, but a connection that means none of the emotions felt towards the player while he was an Addick are lost.
And in the case of Yann Kermorgant, the talismanic figure of a Charlton side that allowed for the strongest of bonds between club and supporters, there is an affiliation shared by the majority of supporters towards the forward that has not waned while Bournemouth and Reading badges have been on his chest.
For the Frenchman represents a period where following the Addicks was rewarding and heart-warming. He represents the self-inflicted crippling of any sort of connection between club and its supporters. He represents the inability of Roland Duchatelet’s regime to run a football club, and not least because of his continued success at a level well above where Charlton currently sit.
He’s part of the Charlton that Duchatelet’s regime has taken away, and a figure involved in the failings inflicted by it that have created such destructive damage. From challenging for each and every header with Kermorgant, to struggling to challenge against apathy. You want him to succeed as if he were wearing red and white, then feel the tinge of pain that comes from remembering he no longer wears red and white.
And so to see the big man from Brittany, as he was described during Sky Sports’ coverage of Reading’s Championship play-off semi-final with Fulham, perform such a heroic role in such a high-profile and important contest provided a certain amount of pride and pleasure.
Were it not for the sheer importance of Kermorgant’s winning goal, coincidentally struck from the spot after previous penalty misdemeanours in Championship play-off encounters, it would be a footnote in the most marvellous of determined and driven performances. The penalty itself won by the Frenchman’s endeavour, as the pressure he applied on Tomas Kalas resulted in the Fulham defender handling inside the box. Tucking beyond Marcus Bettinelli to lead the Royals to Wembley.
But to focus purely on the goal, his 19th of the season at the age of 35, would mean not giving enough credit to a mighty all-round effort. If not holding up the ball and carving out openings for his teammates, then dropping deep inside his own box to perform heroic defensive duties that Naby Sarr and Roger Johnson would not be able to emulate. It a throwback to his warrior-like performances in Charlton colours, that enforced such a bond between Covered End and Kermorgant.
Blissful enjoyment derived from witnessing such a performance, in such a game, from one of my favourite players to ever perform in Charlton colours that went untainted until the game’s final moments. Untainted before a familiar bitter rage returned to the forefront of my mind, and the joy of his performance replaced by the anger of his departure from SE7. An anger shared by so many, to the same intensity as the affiliation with him.
A passionate standing ovation sent his way as the forward, having exerted every ounce of energy his body could possibly give, was withdrawn with a minute to play. In response, there not just a tired applause, but attempts to inspire further support and noise from those who made up the Madejski Stadium’s attendance. A display of a connection between supporters and player, that was so strong in SE7.
I’m still haunted by the solemn look on his face following defeat to Doncaster Rovers in January 2014 as he applauded a set of Charlton supporters while wearing a Charlton shirt for the final time. Unquestionably aware this would be his final game, and that he was being forced out of a club that was already showing signs of the damage Duchatelet’s influence would cause. Still hurting that that relationship, that high quality performer, was taken away from us.
His many great displays while an Addick spring to mind, as the sense that you have been robbed of both a marvellous player and a person intensifies.
The additional quality that meant 101 points were possible in the promotion winning season, with opening goals in the vital wins over Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town. The determination and fight offered, summed up by the iconic image of him covered in more bandage than skin. And, of course, that goal against Hartlepool United on the final day.
The first season in the Championship brought about those goals against Leicester City, enjoyed by Kermorgant as much as they were Charlton supporters. There crucial performances in crucial points through the season, but not least during the eight-game unbeaten run at the end of the campaign, where he was simply unplayable. If I’m haunted by his solemn look after the Doncaster defeat, I’m still mesmerised by the beating of the Charlton badge on his chest following the incredible 6-0 win over Barnsley at Oakwell.
And even as the point where he was to be forced out drew near, there remained inspirational performances of quality and class that strengthened an already unbreakable connection. Leicester, who would go on to be champions, ruffled again, combining with Lawrie Wilson to achieve a superb victory against Brighton, and a delightful free-kick at Oxford United beginning a FA Cup run that would create memorable moments before disaster struck.
So too do you think of each time he has returned to SE7, not least his most recent visit while with Reading in February 2016. Standing ovations for his goals not because Charlton supporters embraced failure, but because they represented the fact failure had been self-inflicted from above. To so readily discard such a performer, and a performer who held such great affiliation for the club and its supporters, is a damaging act that will never be forgiven.
The ability to ‘move on’ made more impossible by the unsuccessful attempts to replace a cult hero treated with utter distain by those unwilling to grasp so much about this club. Unsuccessful not only in terms of ability, from Piotr Parzyszek through to Lee Novak, but unsuccessful in terms of recreating the sort of bond that existed between Kermorgant and Charlton supporters. Bonds between fans and players brought to the club under this regime few and far between, and bonds of such a high intensity simply unable to exist in an atmosphere of apathy, disconnection and disgust.
And so while a poisonous regime linger at a club they have crippled, and cannot heal, one of the great victims of Duchatelet’s reign has the opportunity to inspire his side to a Wembley victory and promotion. Kermorgant the talisman for a side on the verge of a Premier League. A talisman for a Charlton side that had the strongest of bonds with the club’s supporters.
There are, of course, other members of that Charlton side who held or hold similar connections with supporters, with Johnnie Jackson’s ovation as he left the pitch during the final game of the season just passed the perfect example. There a manager, with Chris Powell so poorly treated and his legendary status unblemished, for which an almost identical feeling exists. Sustaining those relationships a simple task.
But it the anger, the position Kermorgant’s sale holds as the catalyst for destruction and disconnection, that has sustained and even strengthened the Frenchman’s status as a cult hero among Addicks.
Love for what he has done, and admiration for what he continues to do. Anger that he was prevented from doing more in Charlton colours, and that he succeeds while we fail. The man that, through no fault of his own, represents the decline from affiliation to apathy under Duchatelet’s directions.
As a disappointing season reaches its conclusion, there no question that thoughts must immediately turn to shaping Charlton Athletic’s squad for next season.
A squad that will hopefully be shaped under a new ownership regime, that take the club out of Roland Duchatelet’s destructive hands and allow for both sensible and proper investment. Not once under this current regime has the squad had enough quality or depth.
But before the process of strengthening the squad can begin, and regardless of how the potential sale of the club affects Charlton’s summer activity, there are plenty of decisions to be made by Karl Robinson regarding the futures of those already at the club.
So too are there judgements to be made over whether young players and those returning from loans away from The Valley are good enough to mean signings in their positions aren’t required, while there also a need to fight to retain the better players in this current squad, and not lose them so readily as has been the case in recent years.
A high turnover of players likely once again, but it necessary for Robinson to have some sort of base of a squad from which he can work and build from.
Those on loan
The contributions made by those that have been on loan at Charlton during this season have been relatively mixed. No one particularly disappointing, but no one excelling on a consistent basis.
And no one has mixed excellence and disappointment in more obvious fashion than Declan Rudd. Outstanding during spells at the start and end of the season, but enduring a horrid period while the Addicks went eight games without a win as mistake after mistake was made.
His performances in the final weeks of the season have reminded supporters that there is a decent goalkeeper in the Norwich loanee, and with his contract set to expire at Carrow Road I would suggest that Rudd is the most likely of the loanees to have a Charlton bade on his chest again next season.
Jordan Botaka also out of contract at Leeds this summer, but I’m considerably less convinced there will be an attempt to sign him permanently. Though sometimes offering a bit of additional pace and drive from the bench in the dying embers of contests, his bit-part role has largely been a frustrating one. Too many ineffective runs, too many poor decisions, and not enough threatening final balls.
A third player on loan from a Championship club is Nathan Byrne, who has been frustrating at right-back but generally quite impressive when playing on the wing. I think whether Charlton are able to make a permanent move for him will depend on whether Wigan Athletic somehow manage to maintain their status in the second tier. His chances of still having a future there will probably rise considerably if the Latics return to League One.
Certainly greater chance of attracting Fredrik Ulvestad to SE7 on a permanent basis. The Burnley loanee has been steady if unspectacular during this season, and has certainly been a reliable figure in Charlton’s midfield. Nothing, however, to suggest that he’s good enough for the Premier League and, at 24, time isn’t really on his side, meaning the Clarets will probably want to cash in.
No chance of the Addicks signing Jay Dasilva permanently, but you wonder whether Chelsea would be willing to send him back out on loan given that he’s broken into the side in recent weeks after such an extensive period gathering dust on the bench. It would also be nice to see Stephy Mavididi back at The Valley, having impressed prior to suffering a loan-ending hamstring injury.
Those out on loan
Among those out on loan, the main focus of attention is Nicky Ajose. Struggling to make a real impression in SE7, at the very least failing to live up to the 24-goal season he had for Swindon in 2015/16, the forward was shipped back to his former club for the second half of this campaign.
His record since returning to the Robins, with five goals in 15 games, not breath-taking, but they were important goals for a side attempting to salvage themselves from the bottom four. Swindon’s relegation at least confirming his loan deal won’t be made a permanent on.
But will Ajose, who showed some positive signs in a Charlton shirt but constantly frustrated with his finishing, be given a second chance at The Valley? I don’t see the harm in him being allowed to prove his worth, but I’m not totally convinced Robinson is a fan. Bottom-half League One clubs would happily take him off our hands, should the boss not want him.
Elsewhere, there a chance that Robinson is going to have a handful of players that were signed by the regime long before he arrived thrown at his feet. Igor Vetokele, Cristian Ceballos and Naby Sarr all set to return from spells out on loan.
Though, personally, I don’t see a future at The Valley for any of them. It would provide no surprise if Vetokele and Ceballos, both about to enter the final year of their Charlton contracts, have their loan spells at STTV made permanent, while Naby Sarr’s incompetence while an Addick means he’d do incredibly well to win the support and trust of anyone at the club. Under this regime or another, I would imagine as much lost cash as possible will attempt to be regained by cashing in on the trio.
There also a handful of youngsters set to return to the Addicks, all with a degree of first-team experience in Charlton colours and all holding some degree of potential. Josh Umerah and Mikhail Kennedy with limited game time while on loan at Kilmarnock and Derry City respectively, but rated highly in SE7 and might well be utilised next season, while Regan Charles-Cook returns from a more profitable spell at National League side Solihull Moors but with a greater sense of doubt as to whether he’ll make the grade at Charlton.
Terell Thomas also returns, having played the best part of a full National League season with Woking, but the centre-back is out of contract this summer and I find it unlikely that he’ll be kept on.
Those out of contract
One of the many positives about this season coming to an end is that there’s a very high chance these are the final weeks of Roger Johnson’s Charlton career. The centre-back not only dreadful, but finds himself as an enemy of supporters having approached fans after the defeat at Bury on the opening day of the season and told them “if you don’t fucking like it, don’t fuck come,” or words to that effect.
Having made just two league appearances all season, and not appeared since the turn of the year through a combination of injury and incompetence, it fair to suggest his contract definitely won’t be being renewed.
But a character in complete contrast to Johnson will certainly be remaining an Addick. Skipper Johnnie Jackson set to sign a new deal this week, which will seemingly combine duties as a player and a coach. His performances in the second half of this campaign, particularly during periods where the Addicks had been incredibly poor, prove he still has a role to play on the pitch.
Less certainty, however, about the futures of Andrew Crofts and Adam Chicksen, who both signed one-year contracts at the start of this campaign.
With Crofts, who has appeared in all but two of Charlton’s 52 league and cup games, being such a regular feature in the side, you would expect another 12 months will be handed to him. But the Welshman is 33 at the end of May, and has performed inconsistently. Sometimes a stable, calming influence in the centre, other times persistently losing possession and appearing very weak.
I suppose the questions Robinson will be asking himself is can I do better than Crofts and if so, can he still contribute to the squad. I wouldn’t be disappointed to see him depart, but I wouldn’t be disappointed to see him given another 12 months. He does a job.
I would, however, be a little disappointed to see Chicksen depart. That he can play at left-back and on the left side of midfield makes him incredibly useful, and he’s generally performed consistently in the appearances he’s made in both roles. Though his lack of appearances since the defeat to Peterborough United, with no mention of injury makes think he might well be on the way out.
Those from the development and academy squads
Aaron Barnes and Anfernee Dijksteel being named on the bench for Saturday’s game at Chesterfield, in addition to signing new contracts this season, suggests the pair will be the latest academy graduates to have some involvement with the first team.
Robinson has spoken highly of the pair on a number of occasions, while Barnes really impressed me during the Kent Senior Cup semi-final defeat to Welling United. Too often, with Kevin Foley, Ezri Konsa and Byrne all filling in, we’ve had square pegs in round holes when Chris Solly has been injured. It might be better if Barnes is the alternative at right-back next season.
It would also appear that, with Robinson reintroducing him to the first-team squad and handing him his first start since December 2015, there is an increased faith in Karlan Ahearne-Grant. I’m very much undecided on the forward but, given that he’s been around for so long, it’s easy to forget that he’s still a teenager and there’s still time for him to develop.
The 19-year-old is relatively decent on the ball and possesses bundles of pace, but lacks physical strength and I’ve not seen much from him with regards to finishing or a final delivery. In fact, it would be ideal if we could blend together Ahearne-Grant and Brandon Hanlan. His fellow teenage forward, who did well enough in the opening weeks of the season, possessing all the strength and ability to hold the ball up that Ahearne-Grant does not.
There’s certainly something there with regards to both of them, and while I wouldn’t want to depend on them even as immediate alternatives to the genuine first-team forward options, the pace of Ahearne-Grant and the strength of Hanlan makes them useful to have around and handy options from the bench.
Finally, if Rudd isn’t retained, I’d have no problem at all with Dillon Phillips becoming number one. The young goalkeeper really impressed me during his stint in the side while Rudd was injured, and I wouldn’t suggest it would be a lack of ambition or anything along those lines if we were to make the academy graduate our number one.
Those with uncertain futures
Let us not pretend that eyes won’t have been watching Charlton’s most impressive player during this campaign. Particularly since returning from injury, Ricky Holmes has been extraordinary even when the side has been pathetic, and there no doubt that even as he approaches 30 he has the quality to player at a higher level.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that Championship sides will show an interest, but it of vital importance that the winger is retained. He’s irreplaceable.
Let us also not pretend that the signing of new contracts for young players prevents them from being sold. Interest in Ezri Konsa and Joe Aribo has already been reported, and Charlton’s record under the Duchatelet regime when it comes to retaining young players doesn’t fill you with confidence. And even if they club were to be sold to a regime with greater footballing ambitions, it’s not always a simple equation to retain young players when Premier League teams are circling.
I do think, however, that Charlton and League One is the right place for both Konsa and Aribo to be for the time being at least. Both have already shown their unquestionable quality, but both still require a degree of development, and more game time at this level would be beneficial to them. They’re not quite at the level of Joe Gomez or Ademola Lookman.
Less terrifying questions can also be asked about the futures of Tony Watt and Lee Novak. Watt divides fans, but he’s been okay since his return from Hearts, though the point that being just ‘okay’ doesn’t justify his wages is reasonable. Novak, however, has been utterly terrible, and it might be best for both parties if he moves on.
It also wouldn’t come as much surprise to me if Jorge Teixeira finds another club. He’s been alright since returning to the team under Robinson, helped by his frequent contributions in attack, but a sense of distrust seems to remain to an even greater extent than it does with Watt. In reality, he’s also fourth choice behind Patrick Bauer, Jason Pearce and Konsa, and I can’t see him being willing to settle for that.
Finally, I do wonder what next season holds for Ahmed Kashi and Harry Lennon. There was a suggestion from Robinson a couple of months ago that he’d not had contact with Kashi, who has spent an entire season out injured having been unavailable for much of the previous campaign with the same Achilles problem. I’m not convinced he’ll be around next season, recovered or not.
In the case of Lennon, he’s had a very unfortunate season. Sent off against Oxford United on one of the two occasions he made a league appearance, and otherwise spending much of the campaign dealing with a hamstring problem. I think that, after such a frustrating season for him, he’ll want to be playing football in the next one, and that might well result in him moving on.
Either way, I hope from a perspective of the individual that both are able to resume their careers after such lengthy periods out of action.