Just like that, the strangest of seasons concluded with appropriately bizarre closing credits: Hull City lifting the League One trophy in front of an empty Valley as the Charlton players and staff watched on with a mixture of polite applause and slightly disappointed frowns.
Charlton did their job — disposing of the champions courtesy of Jacob Greaves’ second-half own goal — but Oxford’s 4–0 demolition of Burton Albion meant Nigel Adkins’ side missed out on the final play-off spot on goal difference.
In a race decided by the tightest of margins, one could pick out any number of individual moments where Charlton went wrong. Missed penalties against Oxford and Peterborough did real damage, last-gasp concessions to Swindon, Shrewsbury, Gillingham, and most recently Crewe hurt, while the near-constant procession of individual errors across the winter months placed Charlton in a deepening hole.
But in reality, this season was compromised long before any of these “what ifs” ever took place. Handicapped by last summer’s ownership shenanigans, Charlton started the campaign in a fog of uncertainty before Thomas Sandgaard’s arrival. Still, while the new owner lifted Charlton from the precipice of administration, the change in regime came too late to fully reverse the damage from the previous months’ destructive mismanagement.
Given less than a month to bolster their depleted squad, Charlton eventually brought in 12 new faces but they were largely loan signings or free agents who had been left club-less until the final weeks of the window.
With such a notable head start given to the other promotion-chasing sides, it was always going to be a season full of obstacles. The fact that Charlton nearly made the play-offs is an achievement in itself, but perhaps, considering the failures of those around them, they’ll feel they should have gone one step further. In football, you get absolutely nothing for moral victories and in terms of concrete success, Charlton have been left empty-handed.
But as supporters watched Hull lift the title from their couches at home, an unfamiliar sense of excitement will have washed over them. Not only will fans be back at The Valley next season, but for the first time in a decade, Charlton enter the summer with a genuine opportunity to build for the immediate and long-term future.
Thomas Sandgaard has spoken openly about his ambitions of reaching the Premier League within five years and now is his opportunity to show he can make that possible. This Charlton team is not good enough to match the owner’s lofty goals and with more than half the squad out of contract — or ending loan spells — there is a huge amount of work to be done.
Now, with the dust settled on another season in the history of Charlton Athletic, the South London Press set about answering some of the pressing questions facing the club…
Who will actually be sticking around next season?
Players Contracted Past July 1 (nine): Ashley Maynard-Brewer, Ryan Inniss, Chris Gunter, Ben Purrington, Albie Morgan, Alex Gilbey, Diallang Jaiyesimi, Conor Washington, Ronnie Schwartz
In defence, Charlton have Ryan Inniss, Chris Gunter, and Ben Purrington all on contracts past this summer. Gunter and Purrington have shown themselves to be decent squad players, but the former struggled to nail down a starting spot ahead of Adam Matthews under Adkins while the latter lacks the attacking impetus to offer his side much other than a solid defensive base.
Both full-backs will likely stay, but they shouldn’t be relied upon as starters next season.
Inniss, however, is someone Charlton can build around. Limited to just 12 starts due to a serious calf injury, Inniss has been a revelation, helping Charlton keep seven clean sheets in his 13 total games, nine of which were wins. It’s no coincidence Charlton collected 49 per cent of their points in Inniss’ appearances (which totalled just 28 per cent of the season).
Moving into midfield and only Albie Morgan and Alex Gilbey have contracts running into next season. Prior to Adkins’ arrival, it had seemed Gilbey’s Charlton career may be coming to an anticlimactic early conclusion with the midfielder totally forgotten under Lee Bowyer. But after starting the final nine games of the season, Gilbey should have a major role to play when Charlton return to action in August. Valued for his athleticism and goal threat, Gilbey will still need to improve if he’s to reach the levels from his MK days, but he will almost certainly be afforded the opportunity to do so.
After another difficult campaign, Albie Morgan’s future is slightly uncertain. Under Bowyer this season, he didn’t once start more than two games in a row before again struggling to establish himself with Adkins. Jake Forster-Caskey’s upsetting ACL injury against Lincoln handed Morgan a late chance in the season and playing in a deeper role he showed real signs of life in relief of Charlton’s Player of the Season. With such a small portion of the squad returning, Morgan should get his opportunity next season in what could very well be a make-or-break year for him. His time as ‘talented youngster’ will be coming to an end soon and Morgan needs to prove he can consistently contribute.
Up front it’s a similarly slender group tied down past the end of June. Conor Washington and Diallang Jaiyesimi both signed multi-year contracts and should be a major part of Charlton’s rebuild going forward. Washington notched 11 goals in 36 games while playing a rather unforgiving role, oftentimes limited by lack of service. Meanwhile, Jaiyesimi had started to flourish under Adkins before picking up a hamstring injury against Peterborough which ultimately ended his season.
Whereas the futures of Jaiyesimi and Washington are somewhat secure, there must be major question marks around Charlton’s final contracted individual. Brought in on a two-and-a-half-year deal in January, Ronnie Schwartz has scored one goal for Charlton and completely disappeared down the stretch, failing to get on the pitch for the final nine games. 31 years old and coming from Denmark, Schwartz was a gamble based on genuine talent but at this juncture, the experiment could be over.
With no sell-on value and limited time for improvement, Schwartz was always going to be in trouble if he didn’t hit the ground running. It must be acknowledged that moving countries in the time of covid while his pregnant partner stayed in Denmark placed Schwartz at a massive disadvantage but it may now be best for all parties if he heads home this summer.
So who’s out of contract…and more importantly, who should Charlton keep?
First-Team Players Out of Contract (10): Ben Amos, Adam Matthews, Jason Pearce, Deji Oshilaja, Darren Pratley, Ben Watson*, Jake Forster-Caskey, Andrew Shinnie, Chuks Aneke
* one-year extension option
Loan Spells Ending (five): Akin Famewo, Ian Maatsen, Matt Smith, Liam Millar, Jayden Stockley
With just nine first-team squad members on Charlton’s books for next season, the majority of this year’s players are either free agents or loans heading back to their parent clubs.
Starting with the five loanees; Liam Millar has already confirmed his return to Liverpool, while Ian Maatsen will also be going back to Chelsea. Both are likely to move out on loan again, but abroad or to the Championship feels likelier than a return to League One. Matt Smith’s January arrival has been a failure for everyone involved and he too will be departing The Valley.
The other two loanees — Akin Famewo and Jayden Stockley — present more interesting cases. Famewo made a total of 22 League One appearances, a number that would be higher without injuries. With Norwich regaining top-flight status, a permanent return to Norfolk seems unlikely and at 22 years old his parent club may feel it’s time to cash in on the centre-back. Largely flawless other than his ghastly error at Wimbledon, Famewo was chosen ahead of Jason Pearce alongside Inniss for the victory against Hull. It’s unclear what Norwich will demand in terms of transfer fee, but bringing Famewo in on a permanent deal would be a major coup for Charlton and give Adkins another important building block and long-term partner for Ryan Inniss. Admittedly, he could draw Championship interest, particularly considering the relative scarcity of left-footed centre-backs.
Stockley has made his position clear: he wants to join Charlton permanently. At face value this would seem an obvious deal to finalise with Stockley starting 87 per cent of the games he was available for, scoring eight goals in the process. Still just 27, Stockley should be entering his prime and his desire to sign permanently will make the deal a touch more straightforward.
However, the topic of Stockley brings us to potentially the biggest task for Charlton this summer. Armed with four strikers — Washington, Stockley, Schwartz, and Chuks Aneke — Charlton have lacked a transcendent goalscorer who can take the team to victory from tight situations. Only Sunderland, Shrewsbury, and Wimbledon ended with more draws than Charlton’s 14 and Adkins’ needs someone who can make the difference in these frequent close encounters.
Repeatedly this season that job has fallen to Chuks Aneke off the bench. While his tally of 15 goals is hugely impressive considering he started just 11 times, Aneke just can’t be depended upon as the decisive scorer if he doesn’t regularly appear in Akdins’ starting 11. Capable of absolutely bullying League One defenders, Charlton should endeavour to keep the super-sub but that doesn’t mean he’s the solution to their problems. Washington isn’t either and Stockley, while continuously impressive, will always raise questioning eyebrows until he can prove his productivity on the ground and not just through the air.
But with Schwartz already unable to get on the pitch, adding a fifth striker would just bloat the squad even further. Needing additional firepower, one of the four will have to depart and while Schwartz is the most replaceable, he also may be the hardest to offload due to his age and ongoing contract.
If Schwartz can’t be moved on, then Stockley may have to be sacrificed in order to bring in the number one striker this team is missing.
But the best sides score goals from all over the pitch and Charlton must strengthen the squad’s overall attacking threat. With Millar’s exit, Jaiyesimi has been left as the only remaining winger at the club and the lack of options out wide has cursed Charlton since the opening day. Not only do they need to bring in another starting calibre wide attacker, but they also need to recruit further depth.
Into midfield, and unsurprisingly, Charlton have lots of work to do there as well. Adkins confirmed the club plans to stick by Forster-Caskey through his injury recovery and it would make sense to give him a deal past that point. But with his long-term absence and the expiring contracts of Darren Pratley, Ben Watson, and Andrew Shinnie (and Matt Smith), Charlton have been left with almost nothing in the previously overcrowded engine room. Shinnie seemed a likely candidate to stay a few months ago, but he has taken a back-seat since Adkins’ arrival and it would now not be a surprise to see him go. Pratley and Watson, who combined for 71 total appearances this season, have valuable experience but also clear weaknesses that were highlighted throughout this season.
Watson has a one-year extension option and will likely be sticking around while Pratley has confirmed today that he is leaving.
Behind the two defensive midfielders, Jason Pearce, Adam Matthews, and goalkeeper Ben Amos are all set to be free agents in just a few weeks time. After struggling desperately in the first half of the season, Pearce has played his way back into contention since February and likely did enough to earn a new contract. His leadership will be vital in tying together what will be a very new squad, but as with Pratley, his days starting should be coming to an end. Deji Oshilaja meanwhile seems a near-certainty to head for the exit after failing to make a single appearance under Adkins.
At right-back, Charlton have a conundrum that perfectly encapsulates many of their tough decisions this summer. Mathews is likely a better option than Gunter and Charlton may even decide just to go with the same duo again. But in an ideal world, both these players would be back-ups to a new starter and it just doesn’t make sense to keep two deputies; therefore Matthews may have to say goodbye with Gunter signed off for another year.
Amos finished second in Player of the Season voting and despite a handful of high-profile errors, likely did enough to earn another deal if he wants it. Should he depart, Charlton would be left with the choice of promoting the talented but untested Ashley Maynard-Brewer or going in search of a new starting goalkeeper.
So now that we’ve assessed this season’s players, what do Charlton need?
As we’ve discussed in recent weeks, this Charlton team is full of squad players, capable of helping out but not necessarily able to inspire or carry the load themselves. They were almost good enough to make the playoffs, but that’s why they only almost made the playoffs.
A game-changing striker is the most pressing concern, but a well-rounded defensive midfielder could have an even greater impact. Charlton are yet to replace Josh Cullen with Pratley and Watson sharing the minutes at the base of midfield this season. Pratley is still a capable defensive force while Watson has been used for his passing ability. But neither can adequately operate on both sides of the ball and that has severely limited Charlton this season.
On top of those two giant holes, Charlton need reinforcements out wide. Defensively, both full-backs should be assessed while a partner for Inniss is required. Charlton have to be ruthless this summer and if that means sacrificing players such as Gunter/Matthews and Schwartz, then that is what they must do.
In terms of the make-up of their squad, Charlton need to get younger and more dynamic. With an average age of 27.8, second oldest in League One after Sunderland, Charlton’s squad is full of players past their prime and unlikely to improve greatly, let alone offer any potential future selling value.
In many ways, Jaiyesimi represents the blueprint for a successful transfer strategy moving forward. Young, and admittedly still raw, Jaiyesimi was pilfered from a struggling League One club, Swindon, as Charlton flexed their muscles to bring in one of the more promising forwards in the division. Jaiyesimi must continue to improve, but he has the potential to step up to the Championship alongside his team. It’s these kinds of players with high ceilings that helped fire Chris Powell’s team to promotion in 2011 and it’s not a bad place to start looking for this year’s rebuilding job.
Had this iteration of Charlton gone up through the play-offs, their squad would have been nowhere near good enough for the Championship. As they rebuild this year, Charlton should be looking to bring in players who can not only carry them out of League One but keep them in the Championship. Continuity and permanence are two things Charlton have had very little of in the past few years and some stability would help.
In addition, this season’s squad lacks a central theme of almost every successful Charlton core before it: academy presence. With Albie Morgan the only graduate from Charlton’s academy to play more than 10 games this season, it’s a real concern. In the 2018-19 promotion season Charlton had seven academy graduates make more than 10 appearances while last season in the Championship that number dropped to five.
As well as issues with age and the dearth of academy regulars, Charlton have also relied on far too many loans this season. A necessary evil due to their late start to last summer’s transfer window, Charlon have essentially had six loans, with Shinnie’s temporary deal turned permanent for the final few months of the campaign in order to allow them to fit all six players into the matchday squad.
In 2018-19 Charlton had just three loan players who made any real impact (Josh Cullen, Krystian Bielik, and Ben Purrington) while in the 2011-12 title-winning side only Leon Cort and Darel Russell appeared in more than 10 games.
Charlton need to get younger and they need to build a permanent core so that there is no longer the need for a complete rebuild every single summer as has been the frustrating trend over the last few years. With Roland Duchatelet and then ESI in charge, Charlton have had to focus on the short-term and as such the squad looks set to be ripped apart once more in the coming weeks.
But now, with Sandgaard at the helm, Charlton can properly build a team that relies on players brought in by want as much as necessity. There’s genuine excitement around Charlton for the club’s future but to keep that going they need a summer window fueled by ambition and yes, money.
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