BY PAUL BREEN
Charlton’s season ended with half the club’s support applauding one of their favourite strikers, celebrating his successful end to the season. In the final game of 2014/15, celebrations at The Valley echoed the League One victory of 2012. Then, the Addicks cantered to the title with a grand title of 101 points – driven on by the management of Chris Powell and the forward presence of Frenchman Yann Kermorgant, alongside Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The future looked bright for Charlton then. Sadly, issues of funding and ownership got in the way with no real investment in the successful squad. Come the winter of 2014, a new owner came along in the form of a Belgian businessman named Roland Duchatelet. Armed with his own ideology of how things should be done, a host of foreign imports replaced established stars on the sidelines and on the pitch. Kermorgant, perhaps considered too old for a long-term contract, was sold to Bournemouth and Chris Powell was sacked as the team struggled at the foot of the table.
A few months later, Powell’s replacement Jose Riga found himself out the door and a new face ushered into the managerial dug-out; ex-Millwall striker Bob Peeters. Charlton then started the season, stepping into the unknown, with this relative rookie at the helm. Fortunately, the new term started brightly. Peeters and his Charlton team were something on an unknown quantity in the Championship, picking up enough points in their early games to secure a place in the play-off positions at the start of autumn.
Suddenly, the policy of bringing in foreign imports rather than those more established in the British game seemed to be working. Several of the new faces became instant stars at The Valley, particularly in the creative trio of Belgian central midfielder Yoni Buyens, Angolan striker Igor Vetokele and Icelandic winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. There was new steel in the defence too with a couple of established international faces brought in over the summer. André Bikey and Tal Ben-Haim made Charlton a difficult team to break down, especially with Buyens marshalling the area in front of the defence so effectively.
Victories over the likes of Derby and Wigan (then one of the promotion favourites) left Charlton fans dreaming of the Premier League. There was, though, an underlying problem that revealed itself over the months ahead. This Charlton squad lacked depth, and not all the foreign imports seemed to shine in the championship. Take Frédéric Bulot for instance – a young Gabonese left-sided midfielder – who showed more frustration than finesse in the appearances he made under Bob Peeters.
As winter encroached, the cracks were beginning to show. By Christmas, the squad was as threadbare as a drinks’ cabinet on New Year’s Day. Tensions within the team had begun to erupt and simmer over into public hostility. The owners, though, assured supporters that Peeters was safe in his post. Then, just past the turn of the New Year, those owners performed a sudden U-turn.
Peeters was fired and replaced with a 39-year-old Israeli named Guy Luzon whose main credentials at the time seemed to be his past connection with Standard Liege. Like many of the support, I didn’t take to him at the start and even wrote articles criticising the appointment – not because I didn’t want Luzon, but as a reaction to the fact of him being our fourth manager in just one year.
Luzon, to his credit, got on with his job and didn’t seek to be top dog in anyone’s popularity contest. Whether or not it was his signing, the capture of Tony Watt proved to be a revelation. Again, there was a Standard Liege connection here and some supporters voiced criticism at the start, particularly about the standards of the Scottish league and his inconsistency at Celtic.
This, though, was a young man who had played for one of the top teams in Britain (by any standard of measurement) and had scored in the Champions League against Barcelona. Most Celtic fans on their forums and blogs recognised that the boy had talent but was sometimes inconsistent in his application of it. What excited me though was that we seemed to have finally found a player who could replace Kermorgant as the frontman to set fans’ hopes and imaginations on fire. Added to that he was from Britain, somebody you could have a chat with, a drink with, a normal connection – unlike some of the other imports that probably couldn’t even have pointed out Greenwich Borough (where Charlton’s located) on a map before they were whisked off on a plane to London’s airports.
The onus then was on Guy Luzon to get the best out of Tony Watt and the rest of his team. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well at the start. Guy’s reign was marked out with a series of heavy defeats against some of the best teams in the divisions, such as on a trip up to The Riverside in Middlesbrough where we got thumped as tensions boiled over amongst some in the away support. There were, however, flickers of hope, and the more analytical amongst us (of whom I wasn’t one) could see signs and spells of play that inspired hopes of beating lesser teams in the division, those we could see ourselves as being on a par with. Added to this, Luzon brought in Roger Johnson on loan – a solid defender with substantial Championship experience.
Then came Valentine’s Day at the Valley, when the start of a new romance was born for many supporters. That day we thumped Brentford 3-0 as the signs of promise flowered into a full-scale bouquet to seal our first victory in thirteen games. The freefall was over, with Tony Watt showing what he was capable of. More displays of the same calibre were soon to follow and another homegrown player with championship experience was added to the squad – Chris Eagles, formerly of Bolton, Burnley and Manchester United.
Best of all, Luzon was getting everyone in the squad to perform for him, especially young Frédéric Bulot freshly back from the African Cup of Nations. Almost as if we were seeing his twin brother on the pitch, this new incarnation of the young winger was such that we dared to dream of goals every time he touched the ball. Goals, you see, had been a rare commodity since we banished Kermorgant to the south coast.
Yet now, as the fans started to sing out Luzon’s name, the goals were flowing and Watt made us forget about “that French bloke who used to play for us.”
Still, Kermorgant would come back to visit on the last day of the season when our form was cooling off a little and the players seemed content with mid-table respectability. That afternoon, we got hammered 3-0 thanks to sterling performances from Kermorgant and Harry Arter; another of our ex-players.
And so we ended the 2014/15 season with some considerable hope after dipping in and out of hopes and despair along the way. Again we find ourselves at the start of summer wondering what direction the transfer window is going to take and what the intentions of the owners are. There seem to be a few options – consolidation as a mid-table team, some investment and a possible push for the play-offs with a limited squad, or a major investment that raises our aspirations to the point of a sustained push for promotion. Right now, we are unsure which of these we are going for, but there is hope that Luzon knows what he is doing and can build on his good work in steadying a very uncertain ship.
Our squad again seems threadbare though. Buyens and Bulot appear to have moved on, though we don’t know that for sure. There is talk too of Wolves coming in for Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, and I’d love to tell Kenny Jackett that if he’s reading this, it’s best not to sign him. He’s erratic, unlikely to score many goals, especially the odd spectacular, and not much loved by fans. Sadly, the opposite is true and he’s the type of player that lifts teams from ordinary to extraordinary. If we’re to push for the play-offs we need to keep him, and other key players in our squad.
That’s the goal then for Charlton, and hopefully to do it as soon as possible, hence the title of striking while the iron is hot. We have a decent squad and their form in the closing stages of the season (Bournemouth aside) was such that we’d have been in the top half dozen sides if the league were played from February to May. It wasn’t though and won’t be next season either. We can’t have another campaign where the cupboard is bare after Christmas. I don’t expect that we will though. I’m confident we’ll get in the players we need and players that will give us the right balance – high quality foreign imports, since these are an essential fabric of our being now as a network club, and home-grown players with Championship experience, like Eagles and Johnson.
I get the sense the owners have learned from the past mistake of assuming foreign imports alone could thrive in the championship. Similarly, the largely homegrown team that walked away with League One in 2012 would struggle to make an impact in this increasingly competitive Championship environment. So we can only hope the balance is right this time around and that the cheque-book comes out sooner rather than later. The new season after all is just around the corner, and I for one am going into it in a positive frame of mind, keenly awaiting the forthcoming fixture list.
FOLLOW PAUL BREEN @CharltonMen – His book ‘The Charlton Men’ is available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X