BY PAUL BREEN
Much has been written in the national press these past days and weeks about the English football team’s failings in the heat and passion of another World Cup. Images of 1966 again come back to haunt the present generation of players, and another quartet of years will pass before they get a chance to sing the national anthem on the world stage. Whether Roy Hodgson is the admiral at the helm, at that time, remains to be seen. From a neutral perspective, there was much to admire in elements of the first two performances – the blooding of a new generation of talent, and an attacking style of play, shaped around Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. Supporters gave a good account of themselves too, and the press have been mostly realistic in their aspirations.
There also appears to be a sense of togetherness amongst the players, which is often missing at national level. Roy then has brought the best values of domestic football to the international scene, and that was long acknowledged as one of the strengths that he could bring to the position, upon his appointment. In many ways, it echoes the character and the charisma of a man at the opposite end of the managerial spectrum, who features in a book that I have recently had published about Charlton Athletic Football Club. Though the work is fiction and actual figures from the world of football are referred to secondarily, the character of one man is portrayed in glowing terms throughout. This is a man who I have met twice in my life, though never spoken to, but researched extensively as part of my preparations for writing ‘The Charlton Men’ published by Thames River Press in May of this year.
Christopher George Robin Powell, born on the 8th of September 1969 in Lambeth, south London, is a man with the red dye of Charlton Athletic running through his veins. Though starting out in his playing career at Crystal Palace, he had three spells with Charlton where he starred as a left back in one of the most memorable decades of the club’s history before moving into coaching. During his time there, he became synonymous with leaping off the pitch and punching the air, in a closed-fist, teeth-bared celebration, after notable victories. He was viewed by supporters as a man who represented all that was good about Charlton, as the club with a community spirit that nobody really hates, and by the broader football community as someone who stood up for the interests of his fellow professionals, and was never afraid to speak out against racism in the game.
In January 2011, Chris Powell returned to Charlton as manager, to replace the slightly unlucky Phil Parkinson, and set about refashioning the club in his own image, having seen it enter a downward spiral since the sudden departure of Alan Curbishley in the summer of 2006. The first months brought little success as the team plummeted from the outskirts of the play-off zone towards mid-table mediocrity. Defeat to Dagenham, according to Chris Powell, and many supporters, was the lowest point in Charlton’s rapid decline. Driving home through the Blackwall Tunnel that evening, he knew that action was needed to turn things around. Many supporters wanted him out at this stage, though the board had faith in him from the beginning. I had too, and was delighted to see him, alongside assistant manager Alex Dyer, at Wembley for the 2011 FA cup final between Manchester City and Stoke. I tried to catch his attention, hoping he’d be able to lip-read what I was saying. But he looked away. Alex Dyer caught the words and gave me a thumbs-up. Then they turned and were gone in an instant.
My companions at the game, who had all got tickets through the company that we worked for, thought it was some random guy I knew. No, I shook my head. This was the man who would oversee Charlton’s return to Wembley next season, in the third division play-offs, and a team in red, rather than blue, going up the steps towards the Royal Box. Little did I, or they, know what was coming next. Through the summer of 2011, Chris Powell cleared out the remains of Phil Parkinson’s team, and brought in his own men, Charlton men who would have pride in the jersey, and an ambition to instill that same pride in those supporters who’d stuck by them in their decline. Almost twenty players arrived before the autumn, transforming fortunes on the field, and steering the red men to achievements beyond my earlier Wembley ambitions.
Running away with the league for most of the season, despite a blip towards the end, Charlton amassed 101 points, and looked ready to impress in the 2012/13 season back in the Championship. However, lack of investment put paid to these ambitions and Chris Powell found himself having to mostly work with his existing squad and a few loan players. Despite this, after a few skirmishes with the relegation zone, the Charlton men ended up just outside the play-off zone in ninth place, in one of the tightest divisions in history, in terms of points separating the top teams from the bottom.
Again though, rather than building on this, there was a lack of investment during the summer of 2013. Charlton went into the new season with a weaker squad than before, and duly struggled as the board sought new owners. Despite rumours of oil-rich Arabs and Americans taking us back to the Premier League, nothing changed until the turn of the year when a Belgian businessman named Roland Duchatelet took charge of the club, and soon after sold two of our best players, Yann Kermorgant and Dale Stephens, before replacing them with relatively unknown ‘foreign’ imports.
The fact of Yann also being foreign (French) was forgotten to us because he was one of our own now, a star player in our assault on promotion the previous year. He may not have been the greatest striker to ever pull on the Charlton jersey, but his passion was second to none, putting him up there in fans’ eyes alongside anyone who’d ever worn the shirt. It was commonly accepted too that this was probably a decision taken by the board above the manager’s head.
Immediately, fans suspected this was the end of Chris Powell’s tenure and despite some positive indications that he would stay at the helm, he was replaced in March 2014 after an FA Cup exit at the hands of Sheffield United, at a point when Charlton had fallen to the bottom of the table. Ironically this had as much to do with a backlog of fixtures caused by the Cup run as by anything else. As expected, there was rage on the terraces. At the next home game against Huddersfield Town, I stood up, amidst thousands of others, and applauded throughout the third minute of the match as a tribute to our former left back and manager.
The man beside me stayed in his seat, insisting that the table doesn’t lie. The team slogged through the match, and earned a draw under the tenure of a new Belgian manager named Jose Riga, who very soon came to pick the same Charlton men as Chris Powell had introduced, and staved off the threat of an ignominious relegation back to the League One. Riga though was also ‘released’ at the end of the season, prompting speculation that this is because he would not allow the team formation, and choice of players, to be determined from outside.
All of this is connected to the underlying philosophy of what has come to be known as ‘The Duchatelet Model’ which involves the ownership of several clubs at the same time, in different countries, to act as feeders and sustenance for one another, according to needs at any particular time. In practice this means that players can be loaned and transferred internally across this network of clubs without the need to pay the increasingly exorbitant fees demanded across Europe, and particularly in England at the present time. This in theory sounds excellent, though there is a substantial body of opinion in Charlton circles that the concept remains too vague to be embraced enthusiastically. Roland Duchatelet has never convinced supporters that their team is an equal partner in this network which stretches from south-east London to Liege in Belgium, and beyond to Germany, and even Hungary. Our fear is that secretly we are part of a football pyramid, a hierarchy in which our role is subsidiary at best, and at worst nothing more than being a feeder club for the Belgian team at the top of the pyramid. This Belgian team is of course Standard Liege who have been relatively successful since Duchatelet took charge.
Where then does this fit in with England and the World Cup? Am I suggesting that the FA fires a lot of their consultants in suits and buys the Belgian football team instead so as to establish a pyramid wherein they transfer all their top players to the team with three lions on its shirts? No, my argument is that the lessons learned by the shortcomings of the Duchatelet model, applied to Charlton, could be used to the positive benefit of England. It should also be noted, at this stage, that Mister Duchatelet has shown considerable willingness to adapt, and recognizes that English football, reflective of the nation as a whole, is socially and culturally different from other parts of Europe.
For a start England has what I am going to call the ‘chip butty’ mentality of good old-fashioned, reliable down to earth values somehow winning out in the end. Tied into this is a desire to maintain tradition, and stick with the things you know because their loss means abandonment of ideas that previous generations fought hard to create and protect. Some might say it is because of having never lost a war, and never realizing that these core values are strong enough to survive even in such an event. Whatever the reasons, this often causes the problem of resorting to stereotypes and platitudes, as in Roy Hodgson’s call to the players to sing the national anthem loudly, as if this was going to have an impact on their performance on the field. Personally, I’d rather see anthems scrapped at multicultural sporting events because so many of them are nothing more than hymns to war which are out of context in this day and age, especially in something such as a ‘world’ cup.
Again that’s another issue, as is the ridiculous outburst of nationalism that sometimes accompanies major sporting events. These things need to change in order to create a social and cultural environment where the English team might have a chance of re-developing into champions, and where they are seen to be doing what they are good at, which is playing football, not carrying the jingoistic burdens of a nation upon their young shoulders.
Here then are five major problems followed by ways in which something along the lines of the Duchatelet model could change the situation where there seems little hope of England winning a World Cup in the foreseeable future, and by extension reduced hope of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales sending their teams to the next couple of World Cups.
(1) Lack of overseas experience – Statistics produced by Sky Sports (ironically) recently showed that the English players have far less experience of playing in other countries than any other group of players at the World Cup. At least in 2010, North Korea was there to hold such an honour! Fraser Forster is the only one who appears to have ventured outside the national boundaries, and even then he only moved up the road to Scotland from his native Newcastle! Yet, other teams are full of players who ply their trade overseas, including Luis Suarez who scored the two goals in England’s defeat at the hands of Uruguay. There is little doubt that his development has been assisted by his experience of playing in Holland, and England; and looking at the reaction of the Uruguayan team and media to his attack on Giorgio Chiellini, one can only dread to think what he might have become, if only exposed to one set of values.
(2) Belief that the bulldog spirit will come good in the end – It may well do, but football in the modern world is not governed by Roy of the Rovers romance. Heart might have won the 1947 FA Cup for Charlton or the 1966 World Cup for England but these days it is going to take hard work.
(3) Emphasis on solid systems, not individuals – Brendan Rogers at Liverpool has shown the importance of having solid systems in place, and working from the ground-up in terms of training, though that might be tested next season without certain players. England’s emphasis always seems to be on individuals, and particular players going onto the team-sheet regardless of how they might fit in. Though Roy Hodgson has reduced this somewhat, the Wayne Rooney conundrum still dominated the aftermath of the Italian game. Roy’s approach was right, if he felt those were the correct tactics, but his choice of Rooney to play in a position that he wasn’t fully comfortable with means that he was probably going neither with his heart nor his head when he made that decision; but the fear of public opinion.
(4) Getting the infrastructure right – There is not so much
to say on this because I am not qualified to know if the English infrastructure is in good shape. I just know that, connected to point number five, young players are reaching a level of development and seem to be going no further because they are not being encouraged to take the extra steps. Why would they when they are paid twenty grand a week for cameo roles, lauded as heroes, and told that they are part of the best league in the world? They lose all sense of perspective, and impetus for development so the infrastructure has to be there to keep these players down to earth, and educated about the game on a global level.
(5) Youth development – As in the above situation, development does not stop at eighteen and the point of being sold for astronomical fees, then earning millions and having your name on the sports’ pages. Development starts young, and stops the minute you decide to stop playing. It is a lifelong process, and the best players keep on learning. In any professional field, where winners are involved, as soon as they find themselves in a rut, they embark on a new challenge. Relating this to the World Cup, Roy Hodgson came in for a lot of criticism for bringing Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw to Brazil ahead of Ashley Cole. If Baines and Shaw develop, this will have been hugely worthwhile. If the tabloid stories are true about certain young players in Brazilian hotel rooms (no names mentioned) then their development is already stunted by lack of focus. Even if he may not have been the best left-back to ever play for England, in his limited time in the national jersey, Chris Powell’s values should be hammered home to everyone who pulls on their country’s jersey. Development doesn’t stop at the point of getting your name in the papers!
How the Duchatelet Model could be applied:
(1) Encourage more young players to go overseas – England’s young players would do well to head across to the continent for a couple of seasons to see how the game is played in other places, and develop their skills in a different environment. The Duchatelet Model, if Charlton are equal partners, could see young English players starring in the Belgian or German leagues, coming home and using their technical improvement to get the club back into the Premier League. For this to work on a national level, the clubs would need to get behind some form of initiative to send their young players overseas.
(2) Incorporating the best of British values into plans for the future – I have no doubt that Charlton would have stayed up last season if Chris Powell had stayed in charge. The values that he represents are the best that England has to offer; beliefs in pride, passion, respect, decency, fair play, and community spirit. He is a family man who brought a family atmosphere to the club he played for and then managed. These are the values that make Britain stand out, and the values that make English players stand out at the World Cup and other tournaments because they have a sense of fair play very different to those of Luis Suarez, for example. Roy Hodgson has tried to instill those values in players but trumpeting them on its own is not enough. They have to be adapted to the circumstances of the modern game, and in the Chris Powell situation at Charlton, some have suggested that neither the Belgian owners nor the young British manager were ready to meet in the middle. The world has changed, just as tactics have changed, and there is a need to adjust to new systems that produce better results, tactically and philosophically. That does not mean we all become as cynical as Suarez, but that players become more streetwise. Then Steven Gerrard, as fantastic as he is, can play with his head and not his heart, so that there are fewer slip ups at key strategic moments.
(3) Creating systems where the team rather than the individual matters–Duchatelet’s model has a major strength in seeking to standardize systems across his different clubs, which if developed fully could mean that Standard Liege play the same type of game as Charlton. In this way, players can step into roles in any team, at any time, and feel at home, or know how to play in different systems. If they are playing in systems for long enough, the emphasis then is not on individuals but the style and needs of the team. In this way, the influence of star players, or players holding the team to ransom, is reduced. The system takes precedence, and there will be no more of the ‘Chris Who?’ mentality, which was a headline in The Evening Standard newspaper in London, when he was first selected for England at the age of 31. Taking this approach might also have helped Fabio Capello in the choice he was slated for never quite making between Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the talismans of the so-called golden generation. If they had become accustomed to playing in a national system that demanded versatility, they would have been given roles to assume, rather than being this amorphous presence at the heart of a team which has to be built around their needs.
(4) Youth development – Charlton’s Youth Academy has been incredibly successful down through the years and this is something which the Duchatelet camp is keen to maintain and replicate in their other clubs. If young players come up through the ranks, playing in particular systems, and possibly going overseas for short periods to help in their development, they will arrive in the senior team as far better players. This though only works when there is coherence and linkage between all parts of the chain, from schoolboy level up to the senior team. Also, as may soon be proven, in Charlton’s case, following the departure of recent Academy graduates, players who step out of the development stage into stardom too early are likely to wish they had stayed at a level where development can occur rather than warming Premier League benches. That said, if the right decisions are made, such as Jonjo Shelvey, former Charlton graduate ending up at Swansea, after a semi-successful spell at Liverpool, the spiral of development can keep moving upwards.
(5) Getting the infrastructure right – I have left this to last because it is one of the successes of the Duchatelet takeover at Charlton in physical terms, with a great deal of progress made regarding the provision of facilities, redevelopment of the pitch, and sponsorship initiatives. There are though some issues regarding communication with supporters, and a feeling that the owners are out of touch with the fan base. They probably share this with the FA’s men in suits, but at least Roland Duchatelet has made some effort to address the concerns of supporters, and has adapted his approach as he learns about the club.
So the whole, maybe for Charlton this marriage of Belgian chocolate and good old-fashioned chip butties can work, if both are equal partners. Some of these principles could work for England too, but it might require a major shift in mentality, and the co-operation of clubs who are focused on the development of the game at a national, rather than purely domestic level.
There also has to be a transparent and fearless analysis of the way that the English Premier League in its present incarnation is severely damaging the prospects of the national team. Even amongst the commentators on TV, very quickly the emphasis moves from analyzing the failings at one tournament to looking forward to the next, where they seem doomed to making the same mistakes. Time will tell what happens I suppose, and in a few months it will all be forgotten about probably as we are assured that Hull city versus Crystal Palace is really what the game’s all about as we pass the winter watching the best League in the world.