01 Jun 2012
CHRIS POWELL: TURNING THE TABLES
If being thrown in at the deep end is the best way to learn, Charlton Athletic manager Chris Powell can certainly claim that he earned his blue riband the hard way.
Last season, the Addicks dominated npower League One on their way back to the npower Championship. Not only did they take the title by a country mile, becoming the first team in the country to clinch promotion, but in doing so Powell also propelled them beyond the 100 points mark as they became only the ninth club to accomplish that feat.
Along the way, he collected three Manager of the Month awards and unsurprisingly was named LMA npower League One Manager of the Year. The annals of Charlton history will show the team registered a club record 20 cleansheets plus another record - 15 away wins. And needless to say, he is in dreamland after a success-saturated first full season in charge.
It was, however, all in stark contrast to the previous campaign, when the 42-yearold managerial freshman was subjected to a gruesome initiation after returning in January 2011 from Leicester to succeed Phil Parkinson.
After winning his first four games, a run of just two wins in the next 19 presented a test of character with which only those with something more to offer than an ability to select a team would cope, as echoes of discontent rumbled around The Valley.
It became of little or no consequence that Powell spoke with the authority of a man who knows the game as well as he clearly does. Never mind the fact that he boasted 750 appearances; had been promoted with five different clubs; been chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association and possessed five England caps.
He had also enjoyed three separate spells as a player with Charlton. Yet the fans who adored him began to question his ability to manage. Common among accusations levelled was that he was “too nice” - that he would be a “soft touch” in the dressing room.
His detractors, though, couldn’t see the steely glint that flashes across his eye whenever he perceives something as being wrong.
As if to make a point, by the end of August he had made 18 new signings. By the end of the season that number had risen to 25. Powell didn’t stand on sentiment. There was no more “Mr Nice Guy” as Charlton underwent the biggest and fastest face-lift in the club’s history.
The transformation was nothing short of remarkable as they hit the ground running on the opening day of last season and set - and maintained - a scorching pace. But how does a man, finding himself gradually backing into a corner, suddenly discover the strength to achieve what he did?
Powell produced one of his trademark smiles as he recalled: “When I returned from Leicester and won a few games, people were saying it was easy but deep down I knew it wouldn’t be. The squad wasn’t right for what I wanted to do and the way I wanted us to play.
“On reflection, that difficult start was a blessing in disguise. I needed that to give me clarity on what I had to do in the summer regarding the amount of surgery that was required.”
Carl Jenkinson’s sale to Arsenal brought in urgently needed transfer funds and the board - led by ony Jimenez and Michael Slater - allowed him to restructure. “We’ve got good owners,” he said. “They fulfilled their promises and allowed me to get on and do what I needed to do. Without the new owners Charlton would be in a sorry state, and it’s important supporters know that because the club sailed perilously close to administration. I had to become creative and use free transfers. Those unable to deliver what I wanted moved on.”
Powell demanded his new-look side played a more expansive game with players passing and moving. Every last percentage was extracted from set-pieces, and on the training ground extra-time was put in on the delivery of free-kicks. On match days that work paid off handsomely as skipper Johnnie Jackson and Yann Kermogant produced spectacular free kicks from distance to clinch crucial wins against Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Yeovil, Rochdale and Wycombe. Those light touches of Latin would have produced drooling adulation down South America way. Charlton were truly the self-styled set-piece kings of npower League One.
Also key to the transformation was that off the field, Powell assembled his own back-room team. Former Charlton player and South London schoolteacher Alex Dyer left his job as West Ham reserve team coach to become assistant manager. Damian Matthew stepped up from Academy coach to first team coach, while Charlton legend Keith Peacock took the role of football advisor.
“Alex is different to me,” said Powell. “That’s one of the reasons I brought him in. In terms of personality, managerial teams need to complement each other in a dressing room.”
Charlton are a club whose community dragged them up by their bootlaces, yet Powell sensed supporters, who endured crushing disappointment from the loss of cherished Premier League status, were feeling detached - and he was determined to do something about it. He doesn’t mince his words on the subject. “The club was lost, it wasn’t the club I knew and played for. There was a feeling of despondency around the place and players told me they thought it was rudderless.”
In seeking a solution to strengthen the bond between supporters and players, the team coach was rendered redundant on away days. Instead, the players travelled with the fans by train. “We didn’t book our own carriage, we booked seats all together and mingled. It keeps you in touch with reality. None of the players have exaggerated ideas of their own importance.”
Another key change was to make it clear that when it comes to addressing the manager, he was no longer ‘Powelly’. He explained: “They call me Gaffer. I know it’s a bit of an old word, but it represents something. I told everyone I was still the same person, with the same emotions but with a different role. I’ve got a job to do and I needed that to be understood. It is.”
When it comes to tactics, the Gaffer abides by an old football adage... the one about strikers winning games and defences winning championships. He said: “Having a settled side is a key ingredient for any successful side. Having a settled defence was our bedrock - and that’s what keeps coming back when I reflect on last season.”
It certainly was a remarkable turnaround in fortunes - not just for Charlton but equally so for Powell - but what of the forthcoming 2012-13 campaign? With 10,000 season-tickets sold, expectations at The Valley are already at flood level. Again that trademark smile as he said:
“I know how the game is. I know I must keep striving to improve as a manager and to improve all aspects of being a manager. I quickly realised that in dealing with players you must demonstrate man-management skills, leadership skills and coaching skills. You’re forever learning how to keep on board those players who are not in the side. But I love every aspect of the job.
“So far as the new season is concerned, there are no promises or predictions from me, except to say that we need to consolidate as an npower Championship club. We’ve seen what similar size clubs like Norwich, Southampton and Reading have done and of course, it would be terrific to match their achievements.
“But we are Charlton Athletic. We are what we are and can only do what we see fit as a club. We’ll deal with next season on its merits and see where it takes us.”