After a start to the season plagued by ongoing off-field uncertainty, positivity is now echoing through the Valley – and EFL expert Gabriel Sutton dissects three straight wins for the rejuvenated Charlton Athletic.
The optimism that now surrounds The Valley was not evident before the season started.
It was unclear, at that stage, whether a buyer could be found to save the club, which had seen its future threatened – the owners at that point were very difficult to do business with.
Luckily for Charlton, Thomas Sandgaard’s persistence saw him complete the takeover and massively lift the mood around SE7.
Sandgaard’s strong start
Sandgaard has said and tweeted the right things since taking charge in late-September but, even more importantly, he has done the right things.
The US-based Danish businessman has bought into the fabric of the club by engaging in community projects.
On top of that, the 62-year-old has also invested in the first team: in the 11 days between Sandgaard’s takeover and transfer Deadline Day on 6th October, nine new players have joined the South Londoners.
Each of them have been of sufficient calibre to enhance the immediate quality of the first XI, so while it would be premature given history to declare that Charlton are categorically in safe hands, the early signs of Sandgaard are extremely promising.
Dillon Phillips made 89 saves from inside his own box last season, which was the most in the Championship and would be tough to replace after departing for Cardiff.
Ben Amos, though, has started the season positively, making 21 saves in seven games – only four goalkeepers in League One have made more.
Unlike those who have made more stops, the one-time Manchester United youngster is yet to concede in 362 minutes of football.
Edwin van der Sar, he’s coming for you.
Four clean sheets
Look in the Championship and Nottingham Forest, for example, found it very difficult to integrate a whole new back-four.
It is a credit to Bowyer, therefore, that he has been able to organize his new recruits so promptly, to the extent it looks as though they have played together for years, with four consecutive clean sheets.
It helps that one of the signings, Chris Gunter, has Championship experience with Reading and international experience with Wales.
The right-back, therefore, is the ideal player to guide young talents like ball-playing centre-back Akin Famewo and Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen.
Chelsea recalled midfield star Connor Gallagher in January to loan him out to Swansea which massively scuppered Charlton’s hopes of staying in the Championship, but lending the impressive Maatsen goes at least some small way to making up for that move.
Ryan Innis, meanwhile, is the ideal defender to have when facing direct sides like Northampton, whom Charlton beat 2-0 on Saturday; in just three appearances, Innis has already won a remarkable 26 headed duels, making him one of League One’s most effective aerial specialists.
He is a threat in the opposition penalty area, too and we can expect the Addicks to have plenty of joy this season from his knock-downs following Jake Forster-Caskey’s deliveries.
Ben Watson was one of the first signings Charlton made after Sandgaard took over and it is easy to see why the midfielder was a Player of the Year contender last season at Forest, who were pushing for the Championship Play-Offs.
Watson brings a wealth of experience and can certainly lock down a midfield when paired with Darren Pratley, whose half-time introduction was key to victory at Northampton.
Pratley is not a pretty footballer, but he is very strong and aggressive, which means he relishes tough conditions and can match teams in terms of physicality.
Watson and Pratley give Charlton a solid platform, which means their attacking players have the freedom they need to express themselves.
Charlton were not relegated last season for want of heart, desire nor organization.
The Addicks, in fact, were strong without the ball, in terms of intense pressing in first halves of games and gutsy, last-ditch defending in second halves.
After Gallagher left in January, though, the quality of their use of the ball dropped alarmingly and this put undue pressure on their work off the ball to churn out results.
The signings they have made this season, though, may have solved that problem.
Marcus Maddison lit up League One for a half-decade with Peterborough and certainly has the individual quality to improve Charlton’s attacking play, as does Andrew Shinnie, a 2018-19 title winner at this level with Luton and Dylan Levitt, a highly-rated talent on loan from Manchester United.
If one or two of those players can become a main source of inspiration for the Addicks, they could put a great run together.
31-year old attacking midfielder Andrew Shinnie has officially joined #cafc— Benjy Nurick (@BenjyNurick) October 16, 2020
Note: Shinnie won Luton’s Player’s Player of the Year when they were promoted from League One two years ago https://t.co/I7lR3sVMQg
Strength up top
Omar Bogle had a great start to his career by posing a major threat with his pace, strength and goalscoring ability in the National League North with Solihull Moors, then in the National League and League Two with Grimsby.
Since leaving the Mariners though, the striker has had tough Championship stints at Cardiff and Birmingham in which he struggled to kick his career onto the next level.
League One, therefore, is the ideal place for Bogle to get his career back on an upward trajectory and, at 6’3”, the 27-year-old has the frame that allows Charlton to go direct at times and bring others into play.
One of those players is Paul Smyth who, having shown potential in the Championship with QPR in 2017-18, impressed on loan at Accrington Stanley in 2018-19 and helped Wycombe to promotion from this level last year, should really be playing second tier football by now.
Smyth is a bundle of positive energy who can play in either position out wide, or just off a main focal point, so his partnership with Bogle could be one to watch.
Lee Bowyer’s story
Lee Bowyer is a rather unlikely managerial hero.
During a colourful playing career, few outsiders would have tipped the midfielder for coaching greatness.
Nor would Bowyer, himself, after retirement in 2012, when he bought two fishing lakes in north-western France, where he spent much of his time.
Bowyer then joined Karl Robinson on the coaching staff at Charlton midway through the 2016-17 campaign and, after Robinson left for Oxford the following year, Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson took temporary charge, got the Addicks into the Play-Offs from an unlikely position and has had cod-like status ever since.
Whenever chatted to Lee Bowyer @bcfc always felt there was an interesting football mind there - a deeper persona compared to the perception - who would be suited to coaching/management if he ever put the fishing rod down! Fair play— Colin Tattum (@colintattum) May 26, 2019
What next for Bowyer?
There could be a case to say the 43-year-old can go on to manage in the Premier League, perhaps at another club – and certainly Bowyer has shown the potential, in terms of results, to reach English football’s top table once again.
Bowyer’s lifestyle in the period between playing and coaching, however, might suggest that becoming a top-level manager is not a major priority for him.
It could be that he would prefer to stay at the club at which he started his career, somewhere he feels loved and respected, even if that means he does not quite have the resources to manage in the top division.
It would not be a huge surprise if, come 2025, Bowyer is still in charge of Charlton and is one of the longest-serving managers in English professional football.
What next for Charlton?
On paper, Charlton have a squad as strong as the Coventry and Rotherham crops that won automatic promotion from this level in 2019-20, so some would say there is no reason why they cannot push for the top two.
Those two sides, though, were building on and evolving a template from their 2018-19 campaigns, whereas Charlton are throwing a new group together.
Just five members of the Addicks’ last match-day squad featured for them in the league last season – and of those, Pratley is the only player to have started more than 15 times – so some patience is required.
Then again, three straight wins to nil – after a 0-0 draw with Sunderland – suggests these new recruits have hit the ground running, so a top six berth looks within sight.