When Chris Powell finally removes his head from his hands he can’t stop laughing.
“Is this a therapy session?” he jokes loudly.
Powell is speaking to the Bromley Addicks Charlton supporters club over Zoom from the England senior camp and in many ways the conversation does feel a therapeutic group experience for all involved. The legendary former Charlton player – and more recently manager – breezed past the initial one-hour time slot allotted for the gathering as he revealed much, if not all, of the dramatic tales from his four stints at the club.
After leaving as a player for the last time in 2008, Powell returned to The Valley as manager three years later, replacing Phil Parkinson under the new ownership backed by Tony Jimenez and Michael Slater.
Success came in the form of promotion to the Championship in his first full season, but things behind the scenes were far from ideal. Even with question marks around the owners, Powell led Charlton to ninth place in their first season back in the Championship. Roland Duchatelet then arrived in January 2014 with the club fighting a relegation battle and the already tender situation quickly imploded.
Just over two months later Duchatelet sacked Powell. Still, it’s these 67 traumatic days in Powell’s 11-year Charlton journey that naturally garners the majority of the conversation with the 50-plus Bromley Addicks members present. It’s also, of course, the subject that provokes Powell’s comparison to a therapy session.
In truth, the current Tottenham and England coach didn’t hold back, happy to honestly reflect on a time that still leaves him with joy and happiness, but also frustration and regret – if not downright pain. There’s a lot to talk about, yet that one line somehow perfectly encapsulates his three years as Charlton manager and his acrimonious departure. “Is this a therapy session?”
“I mean, what can I say about that period? It’s many years on, but I still to this day feel if we had good owners…” Powell says before trailing off.
“Tony Jimenez was okay, he just didn’t have the money,” he continues. “Simple as that, it’s no secret. He said he did. But he clearly didn’t. So after that Championship season, when we finished ninth, after we got promoted. He said, ‘get rid of all these players, we’re going to get better.’ Basically, he was clearing the decks because of the money. So we lost Danny Haynes, Ricky Fuller, Bradley Wright-Phillips. It was tough and we ended up with no players coming in. So there was signs then of what was going on. Players didn’t get new contracts, Yann [Kermogant], etc. And you could sense something wasn’t right.”
“And then when he said, ‘I need to sell to good people that love the club at heart’. I mean, it couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Powell wryly chuckles.
“So, it was cut your losses and run with Tony. And then Roland, obviously, the way they worked was they control the clubs, they control the players, they control the coaches. I hate talking about it, because I just feel that if there’s one club it shouldn’t have happened to it’s Charlton – whether I was in charge of it or not. And it was just totally the wrong ownership for the club. So, you know, it was quite clear from my first meeting, what was going to happen. And of course, it got worse, not only for me, but for you guys, and for all the coaches that came in. I’m quite amazed how Bow and Steve [Gallen]managed to just keep that going. I really am. I don’t know how they did it. I’ve spoken to Steve a couple of times, but never really in depth on what was going on. But it was a real tough time because you could almost see it disintegrating before your very eyes. So it’s one of those things and, you know, a massive massive mistake, and a horrible chapter in the history of Charlton.”
Much of Bowyer and Gallen’s success was enabled by Duchatelet taking a step back and just letting them do as they pleased as long as they fit into a constantly shrinking budget. But as Powell explains, in the early days before the major protests that would come to define a disturbing era for Charlton Athletic, Duchatelet exercised total control on his network of six clubs. One particular story from transfer deadline day in January 2014 sticks out.
“Remember the Polish striker?” Powell asks the audience. “Polish Pete we used to call him, we couldn’t say his surname. He literally turned up, I was having a staff meeting. And [club secretary] Chris Parkes came upstairs and said Pete’s downstairs and I said ‘Who? Who are you talking about?’ He said ‘Oh it’s a striker, he’s turned up and is here for training.’ And I said ‘Parksey…I don’t know who he is.’
“It’s not the lad’s fault, but I went down and I had to act as if I knew him! I said, ‘Peter! I couldn’t wait till you turned up, your kit’s here, go and get your kit.’ And I didn’t know him. And I think he cost 800,000euros. I was compelled to put him on the bench. And I think I brought him on for 10 or 15 minutes, I don’t think he ever played again.
“And obviously there was pressure that you have to play him because they thought ‘we spent a certain amount of money on him, expose him to the English game, and maybe an English club might take him for double the money.’ I mean, that that was the mindset, no doubt.”
Piotr Parzyszek, now 27, plays his football for Frosinone in the Italian second division, a nomadic career following his solitary Charlton appearance, a brief cameo against Birmingham. Powell feels for the striker, dropped into a bad situation, but says he was simply “nowhere near” the level required in training.
‘Polish Pete’ wasn’t the only example of interference in decisions typically made by a manager as Duchatelet’s first transfer window in charge saw him sign six players, five from his network of other clubs across Europe. The arrival of goalkeeper Yoann Ulian-Thuram caused particular friction as the Belgian owner demanded the new acquisition play despite his manager feeling he simply wasn’t good enough.
“Thuram…I had a few fights about Thuram!” the seemingly perpetually smiling Powell laughs. “I mean, I’m sure you remember, it’s quite an iconic game when we beat QPR, Jacko scored last minute, and Thuram played. And I don’t know how we got away with it to this day. Harry Redknapp didn’t speak to us after the game, but I was thinking ‘We put Thuram in? He shouldn’t have been in goal.’ But he went in, we got away with it. I think he played at Middlesbrough. I was told to play him at Middlesbrough. And I said, no, I was gonna play Ben Alnwick. But Ben fell ill overnight at the hotel, so I had to play Thuram and we lost 1-0. I think he let one through his hands from 25 yards or something…a real soft goal. And that was the start of it. And it was just never-ending from there. [Loic] Nego. He came in – full-back. I was told he’s better than the full-backs we already had Chris Solly, Rhoys Wiggin, who I think may have been injured at the time..it was just non-stop from then.
“I had everything. I literally had everything. I had emails, phone calls. I think if you remember there was a press conference. There’s a picture of me where I’m sort of looking at Roland. Literally half an hour before we were arguing. And I mean really arguing. I just said to him ‘what you’re doing is just wrong for this club it’s just disgraceful. I’m not standing for it.’
“But you know, you do what you have to do. And then we was sitting in front of the press and he’s saying ‘this is the coach for me’ and I’m thinking ‘you lying…’”
Powell was given instructions on personnel and formations he ‘had’ to play and while the incoming signings set a bizarre trend, perhaps nothing was more confusing and destructive than the decision to sell key players, namely top scorer Kermogant. A crucial component of Powell’s squad in the two-and-a-half years leading up to Duchatelet’s takeover, neither Kermogant nor his manager wanted the Frenchman to depart. But the new regime was intent on selling to fund moves for additional strikers and pulled the trigger against Powell’s vocal wishes.
“I was told he was overweight. I was told he wasn’t a good striker,” Powell chuckles, shaking his head at the absurdity of it all. “And I said to them, ‘but have you seen the previous two years?’.
“I was told by Katrien [Meire, chef executive] ‘Oh Bournemouth have come in, how much should we sell him for?’ She was asking me and I said, ‘Nothing! You shouldn’t be selling him!.’ But she said ‘no, they want to sell him, they want to bring in a couple of strikers.’ And I said ‘you do what you have to do.’ I rung Yann and said ‘I really don’t want you to go but you know what, go for the sake of your career. Don’t stay with these people.’ And obviously he experienced promotion to the Premier League which…I was pleased for him.
“He was some player. Some player. We still speak now. I know there’s many players that were influential for me, but alongside Jacko, in a different way, I think Yann was the catalyst for me. He really was. He was a special sort of player, quite a unique player in his build and his touch. You don’t get many like that.”
While Charlton struggled for progress following Powell’s dismissal – at least until Lee Bowyer arrived – Kermogant helped Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth win promotion to the Premier League in 2015. On the final day of the season he played 82 minutes as Bournemouth beat Charlton 3-0 to win the title. Of course, Powell was long gone from the sidelines.
With such intense disharmony between manager and owner, the end of Powell’s tenure was somewhat expected – even though he’d been in talks about a new contract just a week before he was let go. With Charlton sitting at the foot of the Championship table, Powell knew his time was up after his side crashed out of the FA Cup to League One Sheffield United in a dispiriting quarter-final at Bramall Lane.
“I think leading up to the game, a massive game like that, you should be clear,” Powell recalls. “You should know exactly what you’re going to do with your team – which I was. But then of course, all of a sudden, I’ve got players saying they should be playing. And I’m getting calls saying ‘he should be playing.’ I’m trying to think back to the team…there was one or two that I said ‘they can’t start the game.’ And I knew then.
“It was horrible, really, because it was a big day, a big moment for all of us, we hadn’t been in the quarter-finals for a long time. So, I kind of knew then. I don’t know if many of you remember but I just stood on the touchline after the game, I shook every Sheffield United player’s hand. And obviously, my own players’ and just thought ‘Well, you know what? It’s been a good ride.’ On the bus home, I said to the staff, ‘I think tomorrow that’ll be it.’ We weren’t doing well in the league. Let’s not forget that. We had games in hand. But, we didn’t win many games at that time. We were very very affected by what was going on, no doubt. And then obviously Mr Riga came in and the team managed to stay up which was brilliant because they didn’t deserve to be where we were…but that’s football.”
The ending may have taken the headlines, but it was Charlton’s promotion from League One as Champions in 2012 that will leave supporters toasting Powell’s managerial legacy for years to come. After an underwhelming first few months in charge, Powell recruited heavily in the summer of 2011, eventually putting together a squad that would relatively cruise to the title.
Under Nigel Adkins, Charlton still have a slender chance to go up this season through the play-offs. But if they fail to do so, they’ll be looking towards Powell’s dominant first full season as a blueprint for their next attempt to regain Championship status.
But what went into such a successful campaign that saw Charlton end with 101 points?
“A bit of everything actually,” Powell explains. “One of my big things was saying that Charlton’s a big club in League One. And the players needed to feel that they were here to get the club up and move the club on. But I think what was key to it all was it was a new start for everyone. New club. Pre-season was huge. A trip away, we did some things that got them together. Who was captain was huge. But I made sure that everyone felt part of it. And from day one, I said, ‘We’re not here to make up the numbers. We’re not here to let teams have a great day out at a good stadium in League One. We’re here to win, we’re here to go up. Did I envisage 101 points and the Championship? No, I definitely saw us in the top six. But just everything aligned, we had players playing at a real high level, players who actually I felt were better than the league they were in. And that was part of our thinking as well. To get players that we wouldn’t have to replace if it all went well.”
After bringing in 19 new faces the previous summer, Powell stayed true to his word, keeping the bulk of the squad that got Charlton up while rounding it out with a few additional arrivals. Life back in the second tier started shakily and after winning just three of their first 14 matches, Powell thought he was on his way out with his side 2-0 down to Cardiff City after less than 25 minutes. Then, a brace from captain Johnnie Jackson and goals from Dale Stephens, Danny Haynes, and Rob Hulse fired Charlton to a memorable 5-4 victory that proved the perfect tonic to the team’s rough start.
Charlton went on to win three more of their next four games and finished the season in a respectable ninth, consolidating their place in the Championship. Like most Charlton fans who were there for that dramatic occasion at The Valley, it’s one of Powell’s clearest and fondest memories.
“That’s my favourite game, I think,” Powell says happily. “Because we lost to Middlesbrough on the Saturday, 4-1. And that wasn’t a good phone call on Sunday with myself and Tony. I think Tony, because his friend, well thought he was his friend, Gus Poyet, was doing great at Brighton, spent loads of money, he wanted to be like Brighton. I was saying, ‘Well, if you give me a million pounds to spend on a striker like Craig Mackail-Smith, yeah, fine.’ But that’s not happening. So we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. But he was adamant, ‘oh we should be Brighton and this, that and the other.’
“So the Cardiff game, the hardest game I could have chosen really. We’re 2-0 down and I said to Alex Dyer, I think this is it. We’re losing to the top of the table team 2-0 after 25 minutes and I tinkered with the team. I think I played Rob Hulse on his own initially and Danny Haynes on the right and packed the midfield. But that wasn’t gonna work now we were 2-0 down. So I put Haynsey up top, and I remember it clearly, I just thought ‘We’ve got to go for it. If we lose three or four, well we go down fighting.’ And then Jacko obviously got us back in it with two goals, and then at 2-2 you do feel when you go in (at half-time) this could be us now. You know, we’re on a high and it was a brilliant game…just a brilliant night. Brilliant, brilliant night until the last few minutes when they scored two goals to go from 5-2 to 5-4 and I think they had a chance to make it five-all. It wouldn’t be Charlton if it wasn’t like that! But yeah, that was a big moment. And important in that season.”
“But it was just, the fans were sucking the ball in basically. A bit Liverpool-like at the Kop, you know. It was just being sucked in at the North Stand.”
Playing 270 games for Charlton as well as becoming the first Addick in 36 years to earn a cap for England, Powell’s legacy can be measured in countless statistics and memorable moments. But perhaps nothing says more about his Charlton core than that one sentence; “it wouldn’t be Charlton if it wasn’t like that.” This is someone who knows the oft-beleaguered, but always battling club, inside and out.
If you need any more convincing of the lasting impression Powell has left at Charlton, look no further than the ritual that has become tradition after each victory at The Valley: the tunnel jump.
Sadly with supporters barred from the ground, it’s been a while since Charlton fans have been treated to a tunnel jump. A 2,000-person socially distanced crowd cheered Jonny Williams’ turn in December, but one has to go all the way back to Charlton’s 3-1 win against Luton Town last February for a proper one in front of anything close to a full house.
It’s become an essential part of each Charlton win – the final show of gratitude from players to fans and vice-versa before everyone packs up and heads home. One last moment to revel in the collective joy of victory. Each tunnel jump has a little bit of Powell in it, yet the creator couldn’t quite believe it’s still part of unofficial Charlton canon.
“Is that right?!” Powell says when asked about the ongoing ritual. “Wow! I knew Rob Elliot tried it before I came back. Oh, I’m amazed at that, I didn’t know that it still happens. Good, let’s hope you all get the chance to see it again soon.
“Kins [Mark Kinsella] – he used to celebrate in front of the North Stand when I first joined. And then Blackburn away when we won promotion. I kept coming out of the tunnel and acknowledging the fans. And then I met a few of you guys at the end of season dinners and events, everyone seemed to like it. So I said, ‘alright, let me see, I’ll do something during the season.’
“I remember playing games, and we’re winning. And it might be two, three minutes ago, I’m thinking ‘No one’s going home. No one.’ Now normally, you see a few fans funnel out, but no one used to leave and it was like, you gotta do it. And the tunnel jump was born. And then it became part of matchday routine, which fans like. I’ve been there, fans like the experience, pay the money, see the team win, and they want to feel part of it. And any little role you can play as a player to make the fans have a good day…and yeah it got a bit crazy in the end. I think I started jumping out with the mascots’ head on one game. And people still ask me about it!”
The iconic image of Powell jumping out of the tunnel wearing just socks, shorts, and the head of the mascot-dog Floyd, came after the final game of the 2007-08 season against Coventry. Powell was brought on for the closing stages to claim one last ovation as a Charlton player before departing in the summer. He capped off the occasion with just his third goal for the club, a moment of near-invincibility Powell describes as feeling like “something out of Roy of the Rovers.”
It’s fitting that Powell’s lasting imprint at Charlton is so closely associated with the club’s supporters. After all, it was for them that he repeatedly returned to South London and it was for them that he went to war with Duchatelet.
Now interim assistant coach to Ryan Mason at Tottenham after Jose Mourinho’s sacking, Powell will also go to this summer’s European Championships as a member of Gareth Southgate’s staff. Fully focused on his current jobs, Powell laughs off the suggestion that he could have considered applying for Charlton’s recent managerial vacancy. It seems likely that Powell’s active Charlton history is in the past. But he also says “you never know in football.” After all, no one knows more about the art of the return.
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