There is perhaps one advantage to being a gnarly old git, especially if there’s a bit of sad thrown in. It’s that when you ponder life’s great questions, such as just why did we lose on Saturday (aside from the obvious, ie an inability to build and maintain a wall) and what will it take to get promoted next season (aside from the obvious, ie spending the GDP of Switzerland on new players), the supporting research materials are close at hand, in a shrine containing my CAFC programmes, books and memorabilia.
On the former, on reflection what set Huddersfield apart from us (and it did come down to margins) seems to me to have been down to their desire and expectation, reflecting their position. They certainly weren’t gung-ho, but with a dependable defence they must have felt that a chance would come their way at some point and that could be enough. Although we did well enough, there was always in the back of my mind, possibly the players’ too, that an honourable 0-0 draw wasn’t a bad result. We went forward, but not with great conviction or belief. Once they got their goal they saw out the game fairly comfortably. Winning mentality.
That in turn set me thinking to whether we could learn anything from the last time we finished in this situation – yes, that season again, 1973/74, our second consecutive in the old Third Division when we ended 14th. That campaign ended in abject misery; it wasn’t a happy time, with the board threatening to leave for Milton Keynes if Greenwich council continued to block plans for a sports centre; headlines talked of ‘The Valley of Despair’ and a football club dying on its feet. But the following season we were promoted (we did nearly blow it remember by picking up only two points from four games in the run-in, only to triumph at home to Preston in the final game, the first time I learnt that supporting Charlton didn’t involve just suffering). We edged out Palace that season (they finished fifth, failing to rebound having been relegated the previous season), so assuming that Scunthorpe or Preston do the business this time around, history should be set to repeat itself – if we can pull ourselves around.
So I dug out the programmes for the final games of the final games of the 1973/74 season to see what might be inferred. Theo Foley achieved a great deal in the game and still comes across as one of the most astute thinkers around. Like a certain Chris Powell, he started in a blaze of glory. Taking over from Eddie Firmani with four games left of the 1969/70 season left, we won two and drew one of these to avoid relegation. But it didn’t last. A 20th place finish was repeated the following season, then 21st to take the fall. After a second season without a rebound Foley was sacked just before the end of the campaign (indeed, before a managerless team won the final two games we were lying 19th in the table, albeit with no danger of relegation). So his final notes as Charlton manager were in the programme for the penultimate home game, against Watford.
You didn’t get quite as much insight from the programme in those days. It was back-to-back 12 pages, including adverts, fixtures, statistics etc, with the Football League supplement thrown in. But even then what did you expect for 7p? For those wanting comparisons, the final programme of the season (Aldershot) contained ads for the coming concert at The Valley. The Who, Lou Reid, Humble Pie, Lindisfarne, Dave Mason (who?), and Bad Company, 1pm to 11pm, and the entrance fee? £2.50. I regret I didn’t go, preferring instead to sit in the back garden and listen. Well, in those days £2.50 was £2.50 and pocket money was just that.
Foley’s Talking Points in the Watford programme nevertheless still sound apt. He highlighted inconsistency through the season, adding that “inconsistency stems from a lack of desire to fight against the odds, or against a lesser known team in the division”. During the season he had said the team had “too many cowards”. Sounds familiar? It has to be kept in mind that in the season we went down (1971/72) Foley brought in Mike Flanagan; the following season he signed Arthur Horsfield, Peter Hunt, and Colin Powell. In his final campaign in came Derek Hales, together with Eamonn Dunphy. It’s been stated often before, but a manager who signed Flanagan, Horsfield, Powell and Hales alone ought to have been successful. He wasn’t – and just from the tone of those programme notes it sounds as if Foley knew that for whatever reason he wasn’t getting things right and that his time was up.
So what went right? It wasn’t changes to the team that made a difference. Andy Nelson only made one important signing before the start of the following season – the excellent David Young – and one during it – the legendary Harry Crips. It might be said that Foley had done the work for him with his signings as Hales, Flanagan and Powell blossomed, while Nelson still had the services of Peacock and stalwarts such as Phil Warman and Bob Curtis to rely on, plus the emerging Richie Bowman. What is perhaps remarkable is that of the twelve who were listed for the final game of the 1973/74 season, no less than 10 made up the squad for the Preston game a year later (the two who dropped out were Mark Penfold, whose promising career was cut short by injury, and Peacock, with Young and Cripps brought in).
Although Nelson signed a man to marshall the defence, we didn’t go up by playing it tight. In the 46 games in 1973/74 we scored 66 goals, bettered by only three teams in the league (at the top), but shipped 73, also only topped by three others (at the bottom). The following season we still conceded 61, more than any other team in the top 10. But we scored 76 (bettered only by Plymouth, who finished second), with Hales bagging 20 and Horsfield 10.
Nelson didn’t write programme notes, so to get some indication of his approach I had to turn to the scrapbooks (I said there had to be some sad thrown in). In one article Nelson talked of a conversation with chairman Michael Gliksten before a game against Port Vale. Apparently Gliksten had said “we can’t expect to win here can we?”. Nelson told him “I expect to win every game” and commented that “I realised that his attitude was the result of getting so many kicks in the teeth over the years”. It seems that Nelson, who perhaps tellingly played under Sir Alf Ramsey at Ipswich, installed all sorts of disciplinarian measures (swearing, being late etc) and stressed respect and honesty. Perhaps the most telling comment I found from my records came from the late Bob Curtis. He said in an article: “I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never known a time when everybody was working so hard for everyone else. What the manager has done is to make us all believe in ourselves and the atmosphere down here has not been better in my time.”
OK, football’s changed a bit since the mid-70s. But I do think there are lessons to be learnt – and with Hales and Powell(Colin) still around perhaps they can have a quiet word with Sir Chris about what happened then.
First, winning mentality. For me the biggest disappointment following the first four wins after he came in – which we all know came with huge dollops of luck – is that the run failed to develop a winning mentality. I’ve never heard a manager say ‘we’ve got a lousy bunch of lads here who don’t like each other’; equally I doubt if there’s a happy dressing room anywhere when the team isn’t winning. Five years of failure have badly affected the club, but they’re over, done. I want to see Charlton next season going into every game not just expecting to win (not because we’re Charlton but because we’re better than the opposition) but ready to do so and to do what it takes in terms of graft, determination and mental courage. If we have players not ready or able to do this, sideline/sell/dispose of them (Nelson seemed to be brutal in his treatment of some players, such as Dunn and Shipperley). Of course this is easier said than done; every team wants to win. But it comes down to margins and who wants it more.
Second, know your strengths and play to them. Nelson inherited a side including Horsfield, Hales, Powell, Peacock and Flanagan. It surely wasn’t rocket science to conclude that our best option was to outscore the opposition. This season I haven’t had a clue what our real strengths were – and that’s reflected in the statistics (indifferent home record, average away record, too many conceded, not enough scored etc). We’ve been neither an effective passing side nor a long-ball team. I honestly don’t care whether next season we get promoted by having the tightest defence or the most effective attack. There’s no perfect formation in football (even Plato would have struggled to define one), but surely it’s clear that to succeed you have a clear pattern of play. Yes, you need a Plan B to call on, but for a Plan B you have to have a Plan A.
It’s an advantage and a disadvantage for Sir Chris to have almost a blank sheet to work from. If I was to start to write a team for next season I’d struggle to go beyond Elliot and Wright-Phillips. But it’s a start. BWP is a goalscorer, someone who given the ammunition is likely to get 20+ in this division. Then you define the type of partner he needs. He can’t play alone up front (unless we play a midfield five and the sort of approach that worked for Spurs when Clive Allen’s only task was to get on the end of things). On the books are Anyinsah and Benson; for me, Benson is another goalscorer and his role is as back-up to BWP. We’ve seen them play together and, while not bad, it isn’t great. If Anyinsah and BWP doesn’t work either (and Anyinsah does seem to be injury-prone), we need to bring in the target man (I’ve no idea if that could be Nouble). I’ve been mystified by our reluctance to use Eccleston, if the priority is still getting points, but that’s over now too; he’s not going to be here so unless we want to keep Liverpool happy (in the hope of others coming our way) he’s out of the picture.
For the defence, Powell has to look at Dailly, Doherty, Fortune and Llera and decide, right now, who has the legs and the desire. If Dailly has the former, there’s no question about the latter. He remains the main man. But if he hasn’t (oh come on, this isn’t sitting on the fence, I’m not the bloody manager) then make the decision now. Then, like Ramsey with Moore and Charlton(Jack), you decide on his partner. And for me you tell the others, whoever they are, that they are back-ups. If they don’t like it, tough. Either go or prove the manager wrong (and to be fair to Llera he’s been doing that this season). I don’t think we can determine the midfield set-up until there’s a decision about how we want to play. Let’s face it, nobody currently makes a case for being automatic selection, even the admirable Semedo.
There’s always a lot more to say but time enough for another day. But after losing on Saturday I don’t think the final games are about getting as many points as possible, they’re about preparing for decisions. By the start of next season we should know the style of play and the key four or five players on which the team will depend. Then work on the mentality (overachieving is only possible when people are bullshitted into believing they are capable of more). All wishful thinking I know, but I’ve had enough of failure.