15 players out, 19 in. Chris Powell's transfer whirlwind has paid dividends for League One leaders Charlton Athletic so far, but Saturday's trip to Sheffield United will provide the biggest test of their promotion credentials yet.
You’ve just endured one of those desolate seasons on Football Manager. The genuinely depressing ones that you allow to affect your day-to-day mood. Your players have stubbornly refused to play to their ability, turning in average ratings around the 6.4 mark. Each defensive permutation has leaked as many goals as the other, while impulsive loan signings have failed to integrate and improve fortunes. The little ‘fans unhappy’ press memo templates now have your name and club in them as the pressure mounts. Anger-induced cracks on the desk and chips on the lap-top are a poignant reminder of the tunnel of misery you’ve been crawling through.
Yet in this computerised football world that always leans marginally into unfeasibility despite its powerful realism, there’s always the chance to completely overhaul your squad and start again – on a scale that just isn’t viable in the reality of football management. But this summer, nobody told Charlton Athletic manager Chris Powell that he wasn’t playing a game on Football Manager. Having overseen a wholly frustrating first 5 months at the Valley that saw an 11-game winless run turn a promotion push into a bottom half finish, Powell no longer wanted the squad he inherited. He wanted a new one. Cue 19 transfers in and 15 out.
This staggering scale of transfer activity had Charlton Athletic fans feeling like crack addicts. After the early buzz of each new signing, the incessancy of incoming players had supporters constantly seeking the next one, and the next one; scouring the forums for that next hit of transfer rumour. A player sighted at the training ground, a flimsy fabrication from a local journo; anything. As the transfer window ‘slammed’ shut (it always slams, and very hard. Never just shuts. Ask Jim White) at the end of August, the crippling side-effects of Addicks fans going cold-turkey on signings have been mercifully placated by the way Powell’s new-look squad has gelled. 7 wins and 3 draws have Charlton sitting pretty at the top of the table, 4 points ahead of their next opponents Sheffield United in third. League One therefore has its biggest clash to date at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
The Addicks’ cohesion thus far is remarkable given how many of the squad were strangers 3 months ago. ‘Keeper Rob Elliot tweeted how he’d been at the club all his life but felt like a newby during pre-season such was the change. Oh yes, Elliot’s gone now too, thanks to Newcastle’s generous propensity to dishing out five-year contracts to anybody who fancies one.
This staggering scale of transfer activity had Charlton fans feeling like crack addicts. After the early buzz of each new signing, the incessancy of incoming players had supporters constantly seeking the next one, and the next one; scouring the forums for that next hit of transfer rumour.
His replacement Ben Hamer has been ably protected by Michael Morrison and Matt Taylor, who’ve both learned an unfussy trade from the non-leagues, while the midfield acquisitions of Danny Hollands and Dale Stephens have been greatly significant. Hollands runs, harries, tackles, passes with purpose, scores goals and his sperm produces triplets. Young Dale, who attracted attention from Premier League scouts while emerging at Oldham, brings composure, creativity and a gracefulness that is so rare in the third tier, and his partnership with Hollands has borne fruit. January signing Bradley Wright-Phillips is scoring with unerring regularity, while Tuesday night’s draw at MK Dons showed the impending impact of fit-again Danny Green, who arrived with great promise from Dag & Red in June. His splendid cross was converted by the last of the 19 arrivals: Leicester fall-guy Yann Kermorgant, subject ofthis timeless YouTube classic.
So cause for (inherently cautious) optimism. Perhaps this new crop can finally arrest the unabated slump that’s brought a lower finish than the previous season for seven consecutive years. Success for Powell’s pups could finally put an end to the years of faux-sympathetic looks and inane questioning regarding the club’s demise from fellow football fans. “So what’s gone wrong for you boys?...What League are you in now?” And if one more sofa-pundit f*****g genius thinks he’s cracked the Charlton Athletic problem with a theory no-one else has ever had the wherewithal to point out, and says, “I tell you what happened with you, that Curbishley went and it’s been downhill from there”. Oh really? Oh do you think? Have you noticed we’ve tailed off slightly since then? Yeah, did we fail to replace him properly you reckon? Umm maybe you’re on to something mate… F**k off. We’ve been living the post-Curbs nightmare too long to go over it with idiots anymore. Thanks.
It will nevertheless be a tall order for Powell to drag Charlton Athletic out of these dark ages. League One is the stickiest of quagmires. And though this year’s contenders do not boast the same quality that Southampton and Brighton did last term, there will be plenty of worthy promotion candidates come May. Phil Brown’s Preston, spearheaded by the well-balanced and prolific Neil Mellor and Iain Hume, have won 7 on the spin and look strong. Despite being weakened in the summer, Huddersfield always play with zest and incredibly haven’t lost in 35 games – a record outside the top flight. MK Dons seem accustomed to residing in the top 6, a place where Scunthorpe, Colchester and Brentford will rightfully believe they could end up. Sheffield Wednesday have a robust and combative spine in the form of Rob Jones and Danny Batth in defence and David Prutton and Jose Semedo in midfield, while striker Gary Madine is the league’s top scorer having notched 9 goals already. Thankfully they are managed by Gary Megson. Steel City foes Sheffield United have kept their squad largely intact from last season’s Championship campaign and will fancy their chances of returning at the first attempt. In other words, the league’s wide open.
After the Blades host Powell’s ensemble on Saturday, we may have a clearer idea over League One’s promotion picture and Charlton’s place in it. But most likely it will end a draw, leaving us to return to our Football Manager games and search for tell-tale signs over the outcome of the season. Which it won’t, because Football Manager isn’t real life. Unless you’re Chris Powell of course.
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