BY BENJY NURICK
At approximately 4:05pm on Saturday afternoon Charlton’s splintering season completely fell apart. Two-nil down to Blackpool, Lee Bowyer responded to a calamitous first half with a quadruple change. But the day went from bad to much worse almost instantly. Just two minutes after the restart Darren Pratley somewhat politely lashed out at a Blackpool defender, receiving his second booking for the offence.
The game was over from that point but the disaster was just getting started as a second penalty and Chuks Aneke’s late red card compounded a truly miserable day. Following a catastrophic performance that ramped up the growing pressure on Bowyer, the inescapable reality is we must discuss the Charlton manager and his future at the club.
If you’ve come here looking for an answer, you’re in the wrong place. We’ll chat about Bowyer and hopefully get somewhere, but it won’t be an answer. That’s for each of you to decide for yourself.
After a week of progress-halting mediocrity against Fleetwood and Burton, everyone knew Saturday’s clash with Blackpool was important. Their rapidly dwindling play-off hopes and seemingly the entire complexion of the season hinged on Charlton putting an end to their stuttering run of form.
Desperate for a reaction from their team, Charlton fans got one — in the worst possible way. Instead of coming out fighting, Charlton folded at the slightest provocation, the visitors coasting to victory following their 10th-minute penalty.
Bowyer’s side couldn’t handle Blackpool’s intensity, while they lacked any sort of attacking ingenuity of their own. By half-time, Blackpool had managed six shots to Charlton’s one and their second goal, seven minutes from the break, seemed to sum up this meek showing from the hosts.
Matty Virtue carried the ball from midfield taking four touches in the space of five seconds without an ounce of Charlton pressure. Finally, 25 yards from goal he smashed a great effort in off the post. The goal made it six consecutive home games in which Charlton have conceded from outside the box, but despite the many warnings in recent weeks, they did nothing to stop it.
Pratley’s red card killed the second half, and while it may have been harsh, the uncomfortable truth is that things are only going downhill for Charlton’s season. For the first time since Thomas Sandgaard’s arrival, some are looking down at the relegation battle rather than up at promotion and it certainly feels as if this campaign has hit a wall.
Results and performances have been steadily declining and it’s clear that all is far from harmonious in the dressing room. In a passionate 18-minute press conference following the defeat, Bowyer defended himself while accusing his players of not giving their all.
“Let’s be honest — do I see too many people fighting for the shirt out there?” he said. “Not really. Not what I’ve had in the past. I’ve had players, whether they are signed permanently or loans, you have to fight. This is a great club. You’re lucky. Fight for the shirt. Fight for the club. Fight for me. Fight for yourself — take a bit of pride.
“Too soft. That’s what I mean by that. They try. But can they give more? I believe they can.
“I believe some cut corners. That’s not just our football club — that’s every football club. You get the odd one who cuts the corner, another feeds off that and it has a knock-on effect.
“When you step on to the pitch you need to have all 11 players that are fighting for the same thing.”
Bowyer has made it clear throughout the season that Charlton’s squad was thrown together rather than meticulously planned, and it appears he doesn’t see this as his squad, but rather the group he is stuck with.
It’s easy to believe the players don’t fully care based on their performance against Blackpool, but it’s also fair to wonder if Bowyer’s criticism has affected his player’s already shattered confidence.
Bowyer believes he is simply being honest — providing the negative assessment that naturally comes with poor performances but would turn to positive feedback with improvements. There’s no reason to doubt this as Bowyer has repeatedly complimented his team in the past, but the bluntness that has become his modus operandi may not be the right approach for all of his current players even if it has worked previously.
Regardless, the accusation that his players don’t care enough is a tough place to come back from. And truthfully, actions speak louder than words. With pressure on their manager, the Charlton squad did little to help their boss, putting in the type of gutless performance that makes one believe there is a real divide in the camp.
It’s much easier to replace one person than an entire squad, and naturally, that almost always means the manager goes in times of discontent. Charlton however, are in a unique situation. This squad is temporary and regardless of who ends the season as manager, they will be forced to undergo major surgery this summer.
It’s highly unlikely that any of Charlton’s five current loanees will still be around next year (although no one would say no to Jayden Stockley joining on a permanent), while another nine members of the first-team squad are out of contract in July. Of those nine it seems logical that Jake Forster-Caskey and Chuks Aneke would be offered new deals but there’s no guarantee with the others. And whether those two stand-out players would agree to extensions is another question entirely.
The make-up of Charlton’s squad will look completely different next season and if one believes that Bowyer is the right man for this summer’s rebuild, it makes sense to keep him around regardless of the relationship he has with this current group.
If the link between Bowyer and his squad truly is irreparable, then continuing with him at the helm is quite possibly agreeing to a dull and meandering final few months of the season. But ultimately, if you believe Bowyer is the right person to take the club forward in the summer then it makes sense to give up short-term goals for longer-term ideals.
On the other hand, if you don’t believe Bowyer is the right person to rebuild this team then it’s a much easier call to make.
Either way, we’ve gotten to the point where decisions need to be made. Uncertainty is hanging over the club and it may well be time for answers. Ultimately, only one person’s view matters — Thomas Sandgaard. It’s a huge decision for Sandgaard, really the first major test of his ownership. Bowyer’s legacy is imprinted all over the club and any decision will have major repercussions going forward. Owners need to be ruthless when the time comes, but must also be careful not to be sucked into the dangerous cycle of sacking manager after manager searching for “the one”.
But if Sandgaard no longer believes Bowyer is the person to lead this club forward, then there is no point in hesitating as things continue to disintegrate. Alternatively though, if the plan is for Bowyer to remain regardless of the season’s outcome — relegation notwithstanding — then it’s best for everyone to know that , including the players who may feel they can just ride out the end of Bowyer’s time at the club.
Blackpool might have been the breaking point but it’s been coming for some time with Bowyer clearly lacking faith and trust in his squad. Everyone will decide who they want to blame but Bowyer and his players have entered a destructive cycle where individuals are failing to take their opportunities and as such are being removed from the team. But alongside the constant changes, the entire team is struggling for consistency leading to more disappointing performances and more players dropped.
All managers want to be able to trust their players and Bowyer hasn’t been able to feel that this season with his squad’s procession of horrific mistakes. But at the same time, perhaps those wrinkles could’ve been ironed with extended runs in the team.
The decision to leave Pratley on the pitch against Blackpool summed up Bowyer’s dilemma. In a perfect world, the manager would have probably taken him off, knowing he’s always at risk of a booking. But Bowyer felt he had to persevere with Pratley as the experienced midfielder is one of very few members of this squad he trusts to show up and not hide when things get tough.
On top of the clear issues of trust in this squad, there are further problems. Charlton had a full month in January to freshen up the squad and the signings they made seemed undoubtedly positive at first. Stockley has been a real force since his arrival while Liam Millar started his Charlton career in terrific form. Unfortunately, that form has dropped off while Matt Smith and Ronnie Schwartz have thus far shown little to prove their worth, albeit in limited minutes. Meanwhile, marquee signing Diallang Jaiyesimi already looks short of confidence, a major concern for Bowyer and his entire team.
On top of the issues with the players they actually did bring in, there will perpetually be questions about the decision not to chase defensive reinforcements as the team continues to haemorrhage goals.
In addition, performances are only getting worse. After a positive run where Charlton really seemed close to clicking they have fallen off a cliff in the last week. In the eight games prior to the trip to Fleetwood, Charlton averaged 1.76 expected goals (xG) for and just 0.93xG against. In their last three games, they’ve averaged 0.54xG for and a whopping 2.03xG against. It’s unclear what has happened, but Charlton’s performances have collapsed, culminating in the horror show at Blackpool.
Ideally, the humiliation on Saturday will spark a fire in this squad and get them going regardless of Bowyer’s fate. But it certainly appears that the season has hit a point of no return and is teetering out of control. It is time to pick between Bowyer and this squad while clarity on the situation would surely help.
Either way, I’m just here to provide you with information. The answer, however, to the big question hanging over SE7 right now? Well, that’s up to you.
PHOTOS: PAUL EDWARDS, KEITH GILLARD AND PA
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