Charlton Athletic marked the 30-year anniversary of being back at The Valley on Monday. But Ben Garner’s dismissal the same day means no manager has even got close to celebrating 12 months as manager since Thomas Sandgaard became owner.
The former Crystal Palace first-team coach paid the price for a solitary League One victory since October 22 which left them languishing 17th in the table.
Garner also did little to ease the tensions between himself and the club’s hierarchy with a number of his post-match comments – including the fact they had failed to deliver on promises made about the summer transfer window business.
“We’ve not got the depth to compete at the top end of this division,” he said after the 1-0 defeat at Port Vale last month. “That’s a fact. I’m not a magician, I’m not a miracle worker. I expected a different set of circumstances when I came in.”
It wasn’t the only occasion that Garner spoke his mind. So much so that there was speculation in recent weeks that he was almost pushing to be handed his P45.
Even if that wasn’t the case, the deflection of any criticism towards the man who paid his salary, as well as a six-figure sum in compensation to Swindon Town, was always going to have ramifications.
When Garner signed his three-year contract he promised attacking football. His Charlton team were top for pass success rate, third for possession and seventh for goals scored. It’s telling that they only ranked 17th for average shots per game. There were clinical displays – 5-1 and 3-0 against Plymouth and Portsmouth – but too often they lacked enough of a cutting edge.
Charlton saw a transfer deadline day deal for QPR’s Macauley Bonne collapse. Chuks Aneke missed the opening months. Jayden Stockley, ill-suited to the system Garner employed, saw his effectiveness blunted. Teenager Miles Leaburn was the offensive hit before an ankle injury sidelined him in October.
“If you look at the results that have been achieved under Ben Garner in isolation then it would not be surprising that he has been sacked,” said Voice of The Valley editor Rick Everitt.
“Of course you have to put it into context, and that is that the squad was inadequate at the start of the season – there were glaring and obvious gaps in the line up. Really they have come home to roost.
“Early on they were lucky with the emergence of Miles Leaburn, which covered the obvious problem up front. But, generally speaking, the squad building was naive and I don’t know you can hold Garner responsible for that – in that the players that came in from Swindon, [Joe] Wollacott and [Mandela] Egbo looked the part, really. I’m not so sure about some of the others.
“Realistically I think if you told people that the Swindon manager was being appointed and we’re not going to fill those key positions then the expectation would be exactly what happened.
“It has left everybody very demoralised. I’m not sure there was anywhere for Garner to go – the performance at Port Vale was abysmal. There was no appetite to watch any more of that from Charlton fans.
“Whether changing the manager is sufficient to make an improvement, I rather doubt.”
None of the three bosses appointed by Sandgaard – Nigel Adkins, Johnnie Jackson and Garner – have lasted more than seven months.
Charlton’s inability to perform as a solid defensive unit was also a factor in the side’s demise, with no clean sheet in their last 10 matches in all competitions.
In Garner’s last match, the 1-0 defeat to Cheltenham a week ago, he opted for youngsters Zach Mitchell, 17, and 20-year-old Lucas Ness, recalled from National League Torquay United, to play either side of Ryan Inniss in a three-man central defence. Garner claimed that it was no reflection on Sam Lavelle, who played 165 matches for Morecambe before transferring to the SE7 club in August 2021, that he was benched.
The excuses also started coming. Port Vale, competing with nowhere near the budget that Charlton had, were described as playing “anti-football”. The linesman “guessed” about a ball still being in play for the corner which led to Stockport County’s late equaliser in the two clubs’ FA Cup tie at The Valley.
Even when the end came for Garner, it was executed messily. There was speculation he had left his post on Sunday only for Sandgaard to deny that when contacted by the South London Press. Garner took training the following morning, prepping for Wednesday’s replay with County, before being called into a meeting with Sandgaard, on Zoom, and his son Martin, director of analysis.
Assistant-coach Scott Marshall told the Sandgaards he did not want to take interim charge.
Anthony Hayes accepted the caretaker role – aided by Jason Pearce, who retired from playing in the summer.
Charlton TV pundit Steve Brown, who made 242 appearances during 12 years in the first-team ranks, has watched the drama unfold.
“You get the news come through and you kind of get it – three wins in 16 is enough for any manager, in this day and age, to get given their marching orders,” said Brown.
“It was getting to a critical point. We raised eyebrows at times with some of the things Ben came out with. But having held positions at football clubs where I’ve managed – if that relationship across the top isn’t working and you don’t believe you’re getting what you need to be successful in a managerial role – you will come out and try and defend yourself.
“As a manager, at times, you feel like you’re the fall guy. You do feel like you’re being pushed out front. Things you thought you might get and might happen don’t materialise.
“You need a really good relationship with the owner at that point to sit down and communicate, thrash things out how you move things forward together.
“I’ve said things like Ben, being honest, and I’ve lost my job. You are putting yourself in a position where people in the media think ‘something isn’t working’. So I wasn’t overly surprised, but I thought it would go on a little bit longer than it did.
“There were some performances where you went ‘that’s exciting and good to watch’. But as we predicted in the studio, that was quite early on, because every team in the country can get hold of footage now at the drop of a hat. They can analyse and work out who your weaknesses and strengths are.
“As we moved on it felt like teams came and sat back – allowed us to attack them – and got results. We didn’t really adjust our play against those teams. The ones who need to get results – Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich and Plymouth – it is a different game for them, they need to be on the front foot and win games to maintain gunning for an automatic spot.
“Teams who have no expectation levels – your Port Vales, Cheltenhams, Bristol Rovers and Forest Greens – they can come and sit because they don’t expect to get a result at Charlton away, or even at home. They’ll be patient and we found it hard to beat those sides and invariably lost to them – they soaked up pressure and countered on us.
“We just didn’t have the players, or the savvy, to break those sides down.”
Charlton are expecting to have more than 30 credible applicants for their vacancy.
“There will always be somebody who wants to take the job on, regardless of the situation the club finds itself in – because they’ll believe they can make a difference,” said Brown. who managed Ebbsfleet United, Lewes and Margate.
“You have to feel that way as a coach and a manager. The reality is that if a club is in a bit of a pickle then it’s very difficult to turn things around.
“A club has to be very, very stable – across all platforms before you get down to the manager and recruitment. Then if that is good as well, you’ve got half a chance.
“Unless you’ve got all your ducks in a row, all the planets aligned, then it is very difficult to be successful at a football club. Unfortunately at Charlton – not just now but for years and years – it has never quite got everything right.
“I don’t even think in the Lee Bowyer period that the club was quite right. The last time it was right was the Chrissy Powell one [winning the League One title in 2012]. That took a mass exodus and an incredible recruitment drive.
“Even then I don’t think it was quite how it should’ve been behind the scenes. The team got it right, the manager got it right and the set-up was half there behind the scenes – but didn’t totally get there.
“As a football club, I think we’re in a pickle everywhere. It’s not just players or management. It feels like nothing is working as it should.
“I just get a feeling this last decision has made a massive difference to the fanbase. They are very disillusioned, put it that way.”
That apathy can be felt in the verdict of Gavin Billenness, editor of My Only Desire magazine. He said: “Garner should’ve been getting more out of this set of players, but I do feel for him.
“It appears the job wasn’t as advertised and promises weren’t kept. For an owner who is supposedly trying to cut costs, it really doesn’t make any sense sacking him and having to pay him out.
“Previously I’d have taken a keen interest in who might succeed Garner but I now feel, what does it matter? They won’t get any money to spend. Who could we possibly attract?”
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