BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Every manager has a shelf life at a football club. And that’s why it isn’t a major shock that Lee Bowyer’s time as Charlton Athletic manager came to an end this week.
It is why the 44-year-old decided to call it quits at the club where he started as a box-to-box goalscoring midfield talent, who went on to move for a then record fee for a teenager to Leeds United in 1996, and start afresh at Birmingham City, the penultimate stop on a pretty illustrious playing career.
Bowyer is gambling. He is the Blues’ eighth boss appointment – although he has taken the title of head coach – in the last five years. His predecessor Aitor Karanka was only eight months into a three-year contract.
It helps that Bowyer was a high earner at the likes of Leeds, Newcastle and West Ham. He doesn’t need the hassle and pressure of management – it is done through choice, not out of urgent necessity to meet the bills.
And Bowyer has been in demand before. He has been under consideration for plenty of attractive jobs while on Charlton’s payroll over the last three years.
Huddersfield made multiple attempts to persuade him to leave in September 2019 before they eventually appointed Danny Cowley. Bowyer rejected their overtures because of the promise of an imminent game-changing takeover – East Street Investments.
And that’s one of the reasons why we are where we are.
Bowyer quickly grew weary of the incessant rumours of investment after succeeding Karl Robinson. And when ESI did get control of the South London club in January 2020, it quickly became apparent that they had no money. The new regime never emerged from a transfer embargo, which became even more stringent after relegation.
ESI were the final straw, while not instantly being the final straw. You knew he would not pass up another opportunity if a Championship club came calling.
He was in the running for Birmingham in the summer but missed out to Karanka. It was the same with Cardiff City, only for Neil Harris to get the job. The pair were again both the lead candidates for Birmingham this month – and this time he shaded it over the former Millwall chief.
Prior to that Bowyer had also attracted interest from Swansea, City and West Bromwich Albion.
Until Thomas Sandgaard acquired Charlton in late September it had been a sapping job.
We’ll never know what Bowyer could have achieved if there had been the US-based Dane’s financial backing to build on that victory over Sunderland at Wembley. Instead Roland Duchatelet, looking to offload the club, kept the playing budget at League One levels. Play-off hero Patrick Bauer left on a free for Preston. Joe Aribo opted for Rangers with his contract also up. The club failed to tie down their key men, Lyle Taylor’s terms not extended despite his huge influence in Charlton escaping English football’s third tier.
But Bowyer and director of football Steve Gallen still put together a squad that came within a whisker of staying up last season. They surely would have done if Taylor had played the final chunk of games, or Conor Gallagher’s form had not led to Swansea jumping in to cut short his loan from Chelsea.
Cue another huge player turnover. Of the team that started the 4-0 loss at Elland Road on that fateful final day in July 22, only Jason Pearce was in Johnnie Jackson’s starting 11 for Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over Bristol Rovers.
Only eight Charlton managers have won promotion and Bowyer is one of them. His win percentage of 40.8 is only bettered by Jimmy Seed (42.6) and Chris Powell (41.2), if you insert the requirement of at least 100 matches in the hotseat.
Charlton also had the sales of Karlan Grant, Ezri Konsa, Anfernee Dijksteel, Dillon Phillips, Macauley Bonne and Alfie Doughty under his watch. Loanees Josh Cullen, Krystian Bielik and Gallagher all kicked on under him.
That’s not to say that Bowyer was perfect. But who is? I don’t think that he would dispute that things had gone a bit stale and that a change was needed. He has been in the game long enough to know that missing out on the League One play-offs this season could have seen Sandgaard move for someone else to try and make the Championship a reality.
And Sandgaard, by his own admission, has been doing his due-diligence on candidates to potentially replace Bowyer for a number of weeks.
Charlton’s wage bill is not even half of what Portsmouth, Ipswich and Sunderland have to play with – although obviously the wage cap restrictions have been scrapped since last month. Bowyer sounded like a broken record pointing out that all of their competitors had a major advantage, doing the bulk of their business before the short-lived spending curbs came in.
The spotlight was always set to shift on to him once ESI and Duchatelet – both lightning rods for criticism – were removed.
And there has been plenty of speculation over whether Bowyer’s habit of excoriating his players in public damaged both dressing room morale and their desire to go out on the pitch and perform for him.
That honesty and bluntness got him in trouble at times.
When he was critical of the lack of atmosphere generated by 2,000 fans at the Milton Keynes game – calling them “quiet” and “negative” following a poor performance and a 1-0 loss – it did not go down well on messageboards and social media.
You could argue that Bowyer really needed a longer cooldown period after matches before doing media commitments. But that became even less of an option as he usually only had a matter of minutes to blow off any steam before being put in front of the Valley Pass cameras as part of Charlton’s revamped streaming service.
But I don’t think it would have mattered that much if had been able to have a more lengthy time out. If you asked him a question he would give you his opinion – whether it upset anyone or not.
“Praise in public, criticise in private” is one mantra of coaching. Bowyer would at least partially be happy to air his grievances in public. It’s fair to say that would get the right reaction from some players, while for others it would have an adverse affect.
The fact he voiced his disapproval more this season seemed to be a frustration at the shortcomings of his squad, who particularly struggled for form at The Valley.
There were also question marks over the intensity of the training and the amount of injuries that Charlton sustained. Bowyer was convinced that was not his fault and Alastair Thrush, head of medical services, left in December.
While Karl Robinson had a more relaxed and jovial approach in terms of interacting with his squad, Bowyer was more formal. He was their boss, not their mate.
The reality is that when any manager goes there are players who are happy, others who are sad and also those – quite often the senior pros – who have seen it all before countless times and don’t really have any strong opinion either way.
But none of that really matters any more. Bowyer has left the club in pretty much the same position that he inherited it.
But he managed to be the longest-serving boss in Duchatelet’s reign, endured some of the most chaotic and jaw-dropping periods in the club’s recent history as ESI imploded and administration became a real possibility and had some success.
Bowyer deserves respect.
Subscribe to Blog via Email
Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing:
“A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
If you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can make a donation which will allow us to continue to bring stories to you, both in print and online. Or, please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ