Steve Brown believes that Charlton Athletic are in a better place with the make-up of their squad this summer as the South Londoners look to banish the memories of a painful 2021-22 campaign.
The Addicks start the new League One season at Accrington Stanley tomorrow under new management with Ben Garner quitting Swindon Town for life in SE7.
Brown has been a regular pundit on Charlton TV for the past couple of years and digesting and analysing the matches as the club laboured to a 13th-placed finish last time around, 24 points adrift of the play-offs, was not always easy.
Brown played 242 matches for the Addicks and twice won promotion to the Premier League. He has experienced the good times, and is hoping their latest crop of players can give the fanbase something to cheer about.
“The owner has clearly seen a pathway and an identity he wants the club to go in with the appointment of Ben Garner and the recruitment this summer has at least aligned with that,” Brown told the South London Press.
“It’s exciting and the optimism is there – but we know that League One is a pretty tough one with some strong sides who will have recruited well.
“You have always got to set a goal of play-offs if you’re Charlton Athletic. Being Charlton Athletic in League One, it comes with an expectation that we will be expected to push for that.
“Some might say: ‘We’re Charlton Athletic – we should be pushing automatic’. But it is a harder league than people give it credit for.
“The way things have gone over the last 12-24 months we are still, I’m afraid, playing a little bit of catch up. I think the play-offs is the minimum the owner expects this season.”
Brown, who also works as a summariser for BBC London, believes League One can almost be split down the middle in terms of teams capable of going for glory and those potentially dragged into a dogfight at the bottom.
“The clubs that come down have, just by their very nature, got the nucleus of a Championship squad – you expect your Peterboroughs and Barnsleys to be up and around the top half,” he said.
“I was doing some research earlier this week and there looks to be a strong 12 for the top half and then a not so strong 12 for the bottom half.
“Predicting league tables is almost impossible. I tend to make a decision, like I did last season, after 10 or so games. You can usually see who the favourites are then. Before that you’re never quite sure, no matter how optimistic you are.
“I’ve managed teams and I’ve also been in teams where you think they might struggle, or flip that coin and you’re expecting to be successful, and it doesn’t pan out that way because the signings just haven’t gelled or, vice versa, they do gel and you win the first five games of the season.
“I’d expect Charlton to be in that top 12, but a lot of the factors will have to align for me to see them getting up to the top six.”
It looks hard for there not to be an improvement.
The Addicks were in the relegation zone when owner Thomas Sandgaard sacked Nigel Adkins. Successor Johnnie Jackson pulled them clear but it also meant the final couple of months were mundane mid-table nothingness.
“If you’re sat in the offices at the training ground or if you’re a player, you’ve got to be thinking that was a bad year and improving on that is a must,” said Brown. “If we don’t then there will be consequences, I would’ve thought.”
Garner’s work at Swindon Town landed him the Charlton gig.
They had the highest possession in League Two, most shots and goals as well as the most away wins in the fourth tier.
Swindon lost in the play-off semi-finals but scored the most league goals since their 1989-90 season.
The former Crystal Palace coach is determined to play out from the back, dominate the ball and produce entertaining and attacking football.
Equally those tactics invite the press from the opposition.
How would former centre-back Brown feel about playing in that set-up?
“I was a different era but, don’t get me wrong, we were allowed to play,” said Brown. “I don’t think we were ever as open, or as expansive, as teams are now.
“We were very well-organised and very hard-working – those were the two characteristics that stood out like a sore thumb. We also had very good players and very good characters.
“Being brutally honest, you enjoy football a lot more when you’re winning. When you boil it all down and take away all the nonsense, the smoke and mirrors around football, I was happiest when I was playing and winning – simple as that.
“We can get into systems, recruitment and style of play – all of that is insignificant. If you’re losing games, you’re unhappy. If you’re out the side, you’re unhappy. If you’re in the side and winning, nothing is better.
“Playing in a side that played open and expansive football, I’d always be worried on the transition. I wouldn’t want acres of space behind me, to my right, to my left and in front of me. So you need a specific type of centre-half if you want to play open, attractive, build-up football.
“I was always comfortable when I had a midfielder in front and a full-back tucked in! But I could pass, so I could’ve fitted into a system. The fear of being exposed and isolated, if we gave it away at the wrong time, would have worried me somewhat. If I’m Richard Rufus…not so much – because he could cover more ground.
“But you adapt. I was 12, 13 or 14 years as a professional and football changed enormously in that period – and it’s moved on again.
“Individuals have to adapt – hide your weaknesses and accentuate your strengths.”
Charlton collected just 34 points from 23 matches at The Valley – scoring 32 goals. Garner’s Swindon side scored three more in the league below on home turf but collected the same tally. They scored 42 times on the road, where they accrued 43 points.
Improving Charlton’s home results appears pivotal to success.
“Data is data and analysis is analysis – it is fantastic and you have to move with the times,” said Brown. “But there are a lot of things that can’t be measured – and playing under pressure is one.
“Assessing a character who is up against it, not playing particularly well but can still stay focused not to make the wrong decision at the wrong time – still recognise his job for the team when the crowd is on his back – those characteristics are extremely difficult to get off of numbers.
“A make-up of a team is so important. When things are going well, things happen automatically. It’s like playing golf – when things go smoothly you don’t even think about hitting a golf ball. But when you’re playing rubbish then you think about everything. It’s kind of the same with football.
“You find out a lot more about people when things are going wrong. Performing under pressure is a major characteristic of a football player.
“I think that’s why we struggled a little bit last year.
“The squad we had struggled to play under pressure. I remember saying in commentaries: ‘We seem to really struggle when we have a setback’.
“We could be playing alright at 0-0, concede a goal and that setback knocked the stuffing out of the whole side. That leads you to think there was not enough character or leaders.
“Now hopefully that has changed this season. We’ve got a couple of new signings and also retained a couple I think can lead.
“If you look at the additions they are good ages, good athletes and they’ve been brought in on data and based on what Ben Garner wants in certain positions. In that respect it looks very positive.
“I think we’ve got one or two who may have hangovers from last season, who need to shake themselves down and hopefully get themselves in a better mindset and produce, that would be lovely.
“We’ve done very well to find players who are on free transfers, on a wage structure we can afford and they look like they fit into what Ben Garner is looking to build.
“On the recruitment this season you have to say tick, tick.
“You win the first couple of home games and that can give you that bit more confidence, morale and belief – they are immeasurable. It can make a massive difference.”
PREDICTION TIME…..Gavin Billenness – My Only Desire Magazine @modmag1905
I’m not brimming with optimism but I’m willing to get behind ‘Garnerball’, so I’ll put my neck on the line and say our new brand of third-tier tiki-taka will see us scrape a League One play-off spot.
WHO IS GOING TO YOUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR?
I’m really hoping it will be Charlie Kirk. His arrival promised silky, tantalising, McManaman-esque wing-play but then we hardly saw him. Now it feels like he’s a new signing, given we all thought he’d be off to Blackpool.
MOST EXCITING SIGNING
Jack Payne. Could be the lively, free-scoring midfielder that we’ve craved for so long. Great drive and energy and comes highly recommended from our Wiltshire sister club.
WHAT WORRIES YOU?
I’m not alone in thinking we’re still missing a tenacious, nippy forward who can play the high-press, which is frustrating because we had one of those in Conor Washington.
WHO IS GOING UP?
Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe, Milton Keynes
WHO IS GOING DOWN?
Morecambe, Port Vale, Bristol Rovers, Cheltenham
The new edition of My Only Desire magazine is out now. Subscribe at modmag.co.uk
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