Monday, 13 August 2012

Champions venture into the Championship - Charlton Athletic Season Preview 2012/13

This time last year, I wrote in my debut blogging piece that there was 'cautious optimism' regarding the new season. I don't know if all 20 people that read it agreed, but any faith that fans invested was well and truly repaid by Powell and his new squad. 101 points, top of the league since mid-September, and a side able to grind out results in the big games, something countless squads previous had been completely unable to do. Its also interesting reading back at how poor at judging the quality of new arrivals I was. Taylor and Morrison "are not great aerially". "It is unlikely that such a new team will gel instantly". Despite poor predictions such as those, I am glad I wasn't as far off as a certain "expert" employed by Sky Sports, who thought we'd finish 18th. Nice one Mr Birtles.

No performance typified those new quality Powell had instilled in the squad - of resilience, a will to win, and confidence in the players themselves as well as their team-mates - than the victory at Oldham. Listening to that game nearly gave me a heart attack. Two reds thanks to Mr Kettle, an official so eager to give out cards that he single-handedly kept Clinton's afloat all these years, meant that it was a huge effort required to win the game. One goal from Kermorgant after half time was enough, but it was the stoic, relentless defending that saw us victorious. In previous years we wouldn't have held on, but this is no ordinary Charlton side. With Powell at the helm this we've seen a much-needed injection of quality, ability and most of all passion from the players, who are in it for the club and not the money.  is hugely refreshing, and hopefully a trend that will continue in future years.

Guess who scored in that game. Yes, Super Yann Kermorgant. 

The transfer activity of last summer has been replaced this year by murmurings of discontent. Money has once again become something of an issue, and many perceived issues have been discussed at great length: 'Tony Jimenez alienating every board member he speaks to, forcing resignations'; 'Cash-flow problems have prevented new additions'; 'Tax bills staring us in the face'; 'A fire-sale of players is needed to keep us afloat'. Of all those, there has still been precious little in the way of official word on any issue. All we know is this squad is light of new players, but the lack of departures combined with the extension of some key contracts are significant positives.

Before I really saw of any negative rumours, I had this to say in a preview I wrote for a Bristol City blog, The Exiled Robin:

How are you feeling about playing in the Championship, a few weeks following your promotion?

For a number of years the prospect of playing in the Championship was one dreaded by Charlton fans that had become accustomed to finishing mid-table in the Premier League. However, this season is one greeted with much excitement following the end of 3 torturous years in League One. It is a very tough division due to the intensity of the games, and the persistent threat of the larger clubs being caught off guard by small, spirited sides. We were certainly on the wrong end of a number of results during our stay. This season however is being greeted as a return of our Charlton, which has undergone a significant transformation over the last 18 months. Taken over on the eve of 2011, and Chris Powell soon installed as manager, ever since pre-season there has been a hugely positive vibe about the club, with fans finally having something to be proud of. The squad that's been built stands us in good stead to perform well this coming season and with a few additions I'm sure we can make a good fist of it in the Championship.

What does your club bring to a tight, competitive and entertaining division?

Immediately after the sacking of Phil Parkinson the long ball, hit-and-hope tactics were thrown out of the window. Chris Powell has encouraged a more patient, passing style that worked extremely well early in the season when teams played an open style themselves. However, this does not mean we are a one-dimensional side. The addition of Yann Kermorgant in mid-September brought a new threat to opposition defences. We developed an extremely useful ability of grinding out results with solid defending, as well as scoring a number of high quality goals. So what will we bring? A good defence, a passing style, a few cracking goals. And watch out for free-kicks around the box.

What style of football/formation do you play?

Standard 4-4-2 employed by Chris Powell. Some have said he's reliant on the ability of the players to win through as opposed to having the tactical edge. Though with different attacking options in the air and on the ground there is definitely not one way to play against us. Teams that started packing the midfield struggled to cope with the ball to Kermorgant, whereas others were passed of the pitch. It will be a strong test of the squad and any new additions as to whether this can be maintained at the Championship level.

Who are the star players we should all look out for?

Yann Kermorgant: Though not the tallest of strikers, he possesses a huge leap that will trouble the tallest of defenders. Only Brede Hangeland looked comfortable against him in our FA Cup fixture at Fulham. He not only performs well in the air but he is extremely gifted technically, shown on countless occasions. Dropping deep to offer a killer pass, releasing other players, or just using his brute strength and agility to out muscle defenders, he really is an adept all-round striker.

Rhoys Wiggins and Johnnie Jackson: Left-back and left midfield combination that works fantastically well. Wiggins has excellent pace and loves to get forward on the overlap. Jackson can also cover in behind in adept fashion. Rarely do the two not manage to hit a cross into the box.

Chris Solly at right back. Arsenal bought Carl Jenkinson, the other young up-and-coming full back, from us for £1million last summer. After the season just gone, it is evident Wenger picked the wrong one. We aren't complaining though.

And is there an up-and-coming future star in your midst?

Chris Solly won the Player of the Season vote after his first full year in the team. A lot were questioning how dependable he would be at right back at the beginning of the season, but with every game he's got better and better. Despite being a rather short bloke Solly is almost the perfect right back. Defensively excellent, skilled going forward, and an extremely industrious player means he has firmly become a fans' favourite at the tender age of 21. And according to our chant, he's better than John Terry, too.

Danny Haynes split opinions a little during his time at Ashton Gate, what do you make of him & is he likely to play a big part this season?

Haynes arrived in January but didn't really break into the first team until towards the end of the season. Despite that, he made a significant impact coming off the bench on a few occasions. He scored twice in our final two games of the season to cap off an excellent spell. His pace seems to be a huge asset, and his ball-striking has looked fearsome in the warm-ups. Powell used him as a third striker to come on towards the end of games, with defences troubled by having to deal with the extra speed. Its likely he'll be used in the same sort of role this season, as well as on the right wing. Kermorgant threading balls in behind defences for Haynes seems like an extremely dangerous eventuality for the opposition, as the combination of skill and speed will cause all sorts of trouble. But that depends on integration into the team over pre-season, and again, whether Powell prefers Bradley Wright-Phillips at this level or dips into the transfer market for another quality striker.

What are your views of your manager?

Chris Powell has almost achieved legendary status already. Three spells at the club made him a fans' favourite, and many were worried his perfect reputation would be tarnished by a stint as manager, as it could prove unsuccessful. A lot of the doubters made huge noises as 2010/11 petered out with just 2 wins in 11 games, and the club finishing a dismal 13th. However, many of us kept the faith - if Chris was allowed to overhaul the squad and bring his own players in, capable of playing his style of football then we'd be able to judge him on his achievements. I think following his first full season in charge, there aren't any who don't support him in his job. He really has turned himself into a hero, overseeing the rebirth of the club. When asked about the possiblity of tarnishing his reputation, he was he came back in order to enhance it. Promotion is the first step in what could prove to be an incredible journey. Its important fans don't get impatient or overly expectant, and ensure they aren't too quick to forget the phenomenal success Powell had in getting us out of League One.

….and of your owner/board/Chairman?

There is still a certain amount of confusion as to who actually owns the club. New Chairman Michael Slater (not the ex-Aussie opener...) has done a good job in giving Powell financial backing. It was announced that long-standing board member Peter Varney would be leaving his post at the end of this season, which has rightly been greeted with sadness as it sees a true Charlton fan leaving the hierarchy, and potentially opens up discussion as to the motives of the new owners and board, still all relatively unknown individuals. Despite that, so far the main decision Slater made was to sack Parkinson and appoint Powell. 18 months on, things haven't turned out too badly. It'll be interesting to see what goes on this summer in terms of transfer dealings - whether there is an ability to purchase thanks to board funding, or consolidation with a handful of good value signings. I suspect it will be the latter.

What are your expectations for the upcoming season?

The lack of movement in the transfer market thus far, combined with the plea from Chris Powell not to get our hopes up, means most will just be happy with a solid mid-table finish, or a season comparable to Brighton's. Its unhelpful that the two clubs we were relegated with into League One - Norwich and Southampton - both made it back-to-back promotions, leading some to suggest that it is 'fate' that we are the third club in three seasons to manage it. There is optimism that something like this could happen, with a squad well settled. Any signings made between now and September will dictate the extent of that optimism, but many would say a play-off push would be the most to ask for. The risk of relegation is always there, but there would be a lot of surprise if we found ourselves towards the base of the table. A year to consolidate would do us nicely.

Who will be your big rivals in this division?

It is the first time Charlton, Palace and Millwall have been in the same division for a while now, so the three-way battle between the three of us will be of great importance to a lot of the fans. I reckon the rivalry with Sheffield Wednesday, who's fans seem to do a good job making the club unpopular, will continue as they came up with us (well, behind us, but still.) A win in a couple of those fixtures would certainly go down very well here.


Since then we've seen a few new tactical ploys trialled by Powell, including playing with 3 central midfielders and one more attacking just behind the front two. The board rumours spiralled almost out of control. But I still stand by all of what I had to say. We have to have faith in the board, there's not much else we can do really. Despite the actions of Jimenez in increasing his share of ownership the board have done nothing that means we should issue a call to arms and prepare to revolt. Yes there is still uncertainty, but holding together all members of that core squad from last year, plus the additions of Cook, Wilson and Kerkar, all promising in different ways, means there is no cause for concern as yet. The 2-1 win at Fulham implies that a number of those players from last season have stepped up a level under the brilliant leadership of Powell.

Tomorrow's League Cup match is unlikely to feature many of the players from that friendly victory on Saturday. However, the weeks of anticipation for the start of our Championship return are almost at an end, and a chance to return to The Valley, that sacred place where such wondrous feats were achieved last season, is one that many cannot wait for.

Light on additions, but high on confidence, cohesion and understanding, this squad is more than capable of holding its own in the Championship. Early season form and any further signings might define which section of the table we are fighting in, but a year of consolidation in this league would do no harm at all. The thought of returning to League One is just too frightening.

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