Lee Bowyer's Charlton have defied expectations once already, and they can do the same in the Sky Bet Championship

Can Charlton avoid relegation in the Sky Bet Championship?
Can Charlton avoid relegation in the Sky Bet Championship?

It would haven taken a brave person to predict that Charlton would start to climb the football pyramid again at the time of their relegation from the Sky Bet Championship in 2016.

The decline was hardly a surprise. A club that failed to capitalise on a glorious campaign in 2011/12 which saw the League One trophy lifted with 101 points on the board. They were just one of two teams to post a three-figure tally in League One's 15-year history.

In truth the season that followed was one of satisfaction. Chris Powell guided his side to a ninth-placed finish, although had a genuine goalscorer been in the squad then they could have closed the three-point gap to the play-offs.

However, any chance to build was diminished with the arrival of new ownership in January 2014. Roland Duchatelet acquired the club, and what ensued was years of fall-out, protest and a club that seemed to be falling apart, both on and off the field.

Powell went, as did eight others who were brave enough to accept the vacancy at The Valley. Eleven managerial changes in the space of four years extinguished any hope of consistency on the pitch, and with it any chance of success.

The short time that Powell worked under Duchatelet was an indication of the type of leadership now in place. As reported by the Daily Mail, while Charlton were 3-0 down to Doncaster, the owner sent his manager an email which read: "Could you explain why you did not put Yahann Thuram in goal the last two games?"

Sky Bet: Charlton to finish in the top-half of the Championship table at 9/4

It got worse. Just three days later, another email explained to Powell, a manager who had won the League One title, the LMA League One Manager of the Year award, alongside three Manager of the Month accolades prior to Duchatelet's arrival, what the 4-4-2 formation was.

Chris Powell and Charlton celebrate winning League One in 2012
Chris Powell and Charlton celebrate winning League One in 2012

"This means that one of the 4 midfielders becomes a 'nr 10' behind the two strikers and another one strengthens the defence before the two central defenders," the email reportedly explained.

"Whilst the lateral two midfielders go more to the centre such 3 out of 4 midfielders participate into the attack such that when one of the upcoming backs gives a cross in the 16 of the opponent."

It wasn't just Powell who was on the receiving end of questionable correspondence, so too were the supporters, with numerous articles appearing through official club channels.

In a statement published in February, where Duchatelet wanted the EFL to purchase Charlton, the club said: "The first seasons under Duchatelet Charlton finished 18th and 12th in the Championship. After two years of ownership without problems Charlton got too many injuries relative to its limited squad size.

"Results were poor. Fans started to criticise and then protest, sometimes during the games, which didn’t help. Charlton got relegated to League One.

"As a result of the damaging and sometimes criminal fans' protests and the changed financial climate of the P&S rules, Charlton were officially put up for sale at the end of 2017.

"A few months later Heads of Terms were in place with two candidate buyers, pending the funding of the transaction.

"However, new incidents were created by a coalition of fans against the owner based on fake news, like young players were not getting water to drink and staff not being paid due bonuses.

"It’s hard to deny that such actions could jeopardise the ongoing purchase process. The EFL said it would intervene to find out who was telling the truth but nothing like that happened. They did not really investigate things."

Charlton's beach ball protest in 2016
Charlton's beach ball protest in 2016

Remarkably, that wasn't the worst thing put out by the current regime. In March 2016, a statement appeared on cafc.co.uk which read: "Last Sunday, some individuals did not come to The Valley to watch the game and support the team, but came to create disorder on the pitch and interfere with the players and the game.

"Disorder which is, allegedly, needed to drive change in ownership and management.

"Whom would they expect the club to be sold to? How long would a sales process take? Is it easier to sell the club when it is in League One rather than Championship?

"Some individuals seem to want the club to fail. This is a confused approach, since following this logic leads to exactly the opposite of what we all want: staying in the Championship."

It seemed impossible for anyone to thrive in that environment. Managers were questioned for their approach to matches, while supporters were targeted when expressing their displeasure.

The uninspiring 13th-placed finish in 2017 signalled the current stature of the Addicks. A club that boasted one of the best teams at this level just five years earlier were back, and seemingly a remarkable distance away from even coming close to replicating that success.

Top players continued to leave and were not replaced. Karl Robinson, a manager who had guided them to the top-six in the division, left for Oxford in March 2018, having tried to resign twice beforehand.

Karl Robinson during his time at Charlton
Karl Robinson during his time at Charlton

A rare high point descended into chaos once again. Robinson's departure divided opinion but the fact remained that the team were in a solid position in the league.

It may not have seemed it at the time, but that switch turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Addicks. It saw Lee Bowyer given the reins with Johnnie Jackson as the assistant.

Two lads who understood Charlton, a lack of managerial experience was naturally a concern, but in times of need you often look towards those with an understanding of what is required and what people want. Bowyer and Jackson possessed just that.

An appearance in the play-offs was the best that could have been hoped for, although a defeat to Shrewsbury over two legs followed. It was the foundations to build upon, but the uncertainty continued.

He'd done enough to get the job on a full-time basis, yet Bowyer could only retain the caretaker manager role 'until further notice'. A club that had the right man at the helm were seemingly going to get it wrong again.

The reward for a strong start to the campaign was the permanent position, although that was only until the end of the season. A decision was finally made, the length of the contract a papering-over-the-cracks situation, but it was progress.

In his first full season in charge, Bowyer guided Charlton back to the Sky Bet Championship. A thrilling semi-final victory over Doncaster on penalties was followed by Patrick Bauer firing in the winner in the dying seconds at Wembley.

Charlton celebrate Ben Purrington's goal in the Sky Bet League One play-off final
Charlton celebrate Ben Purrington's goal in the Sky Bet League One play-off final

“We have to rebuild," Bowyer told his press conference after their historic win.

"It was always going to be the case, whether we were in League One or the Championship. We’ve done a good job this season, our recruitment was very good and we didn’t spend a penny.

"We didn’t have millions to go and buy strikers. We lost a striker – Karlan [Grant] was our top goalscorer at the time. We just adapted and they’ve done that great all season, but regarding building a squad…it’s going to be tough because I don’t think we are going to have much money."

There was a point where Bowyer wouldn't be back to lead the side on their return to England's second tier. On June 17, a statement appeared on the Addicks' website which read: "Charlton Athletic have been unable to reach an agreement with manager Lee Bowyer regarding the extension of his contract.

"Lee has been offered a one-year extension to his contract at a level which is approximately three times what he had since his last increase when he became permanent manager in September.

"It is six times what he earned when he started as assistant manager in 2017 and 50% more than what any Charlton manager previously had (excluding the Premier League years). This reflects the strong desire we have to continue to have Lee as our manager. But Lee wanted much more.

"The owner understands Lee’s point of view, because many Championship clubs pay huge amounts (some pay millions of £ per year) to their manager. It is fair that Lee feels he should be paid like many other Championship managers.

"That the average Championship club makes a loss of around £15 million per year is not something players should care about. The owners are crazy."

Lee Bowyer after the Sky Bet League One play-off final
Lee Bowyer after the Sky Bet League One play-off final

The hero was being portrayed as the villain. The lad who came through Charlton's academy, and returned in their hour of need to not only steady the ship but arrive at their destination, was forced out. The latest in a long line deemed not good enough by those at the very top.

Less than 24 hours later, after a confused Bowyer admitted he was unaware that talks had broken down, the club announced they had reached an agreement. Quite what went on on that Monday night after the announcement will likely remain a mystery, but it seemed typically Charlton to find a way to go from point A to point B via the longest route possible.

The re-build is in full swing, although it doesn't appear complete. Ben Purrington and Jonny Williams have come back after playing key roles last season, while Chuks Aneke and Macauley Bonne will make the step up to Championship level to provide competition in the forward positions.

How they'll replace Joe Aribo and Patrick Bauer remains to be seen. Two key players who have since moved on, others capitalising on the slow pace that the club moved at in sorting out their summer.

Yet, with the odds seemingly stacked against them, and while all logic when glancing at the club on the surface says they'll be heading straight back down, there's something that makes me think that this team, under this manager, can continue to push.

Because while Charlton find themselves lacking in transfer budget compared with their divisional rivals, they possess something that simply can not be bought. What Bowyer has installed is the right mentality. A group who play for their man, a group who play for their club, but most importantly, a group who play for each other.

Not only has he found a connection with the players at his disposal, but there's been a rekindling of the relationship between the manager and the fans. Something that is crucial for success at a club like Charlton.

Speaking to Sporting Life prior to the Sky Bet League One play-off final, Addicks legend Powell said: "Lee (Bowyer) has done a sterling job with the backdrop of what's been going off the field. The support to him from his players and from the supporters has been very, very important.

"Charlton fans like a connection. I had it, Alan Curbishley had it way back. If you have that, they stay with you and I think we'll see 35,000 Charlton fans here enjoying themselves because they feel that the club should be in the Championship minimum.

"Lee should be very proud of what he's done, he's got the club back to almost where they want, he's got the fans back on side, they've just got the negotiate one more game."

Negotiate it they did. Bauer's strike finding the net in front of the Charlton end of Wembley. The loudest roar of the weekend echoed around the national stadium, not bad for fans who were once accused of wanting their club to fail.

It was a surreal moment to be a part of. To the right of my seat were tens of thousands of fans in unison expressing a mix of delight and relief, a rare moment of light in years of darkness.

Against the expectations of many, and against the odds, they had done it. Bowyer had created a group worthy of promotion and they seized upon the opportunity they had created for themselves.

Charlton players and fans celebrate promotion
Charlton players and fans celebrate promotion

The real insight into the group didn't come from the joy on the pitch and celebrations with the fans, nor did it come from the videos of Bowyer's address to the players in the changing room.

It didn't come from the various chants of 'Twist & Shout', and I'll be honest I didn't predict six minutes into the final that I'd later be watching Dillon Phillips leading the song stood on a bar on my phone later that night, but it came from an interview with Lyle Taylor afterwards.

Sky Bet: Lyle Taylor to finish as the Sky Bet Championship top goalscorer at 20/1

The Charlton forward's goals had more than played their part. 21 in total, with a vital goal and assist in their semi-final first leg victory over Doncaster at the Keepmoat.

We learn a lot from player interviews. The insight to training, the route into the mood in the dressing room, alongside the key opinions of those at the heart of the major incidents.

Yet the one interview that said it all was the one of few words. The speechless striker struggled to sum up the afternoon, and that gave all the answers.

"I'm just so happy that we managed to do it," he told Sporting Life. "I don't know how we managed to do it after the start that we had but what a way to win a game with ten seconds to play. Unbelievable, unbelievable!"

The relationship with Bowyer and the atmosphere created was clear from that. Every player wants to achieve success, but you felt that Charlton had that little bit extra needed to get over the line.

The refreshing honesty shone through and that few minutes taught me just what type of team Charlton had under their current manager.

"He's a great man, honestly he's a great man," Taylor said of Bowyer. "It's been a pleasure. I said to him 'thank you' and he said to me 'no, thank you for choosing this club'.

"I chose the club because of him. So, it's a full circle, he wanted me, he thanked me for choosing here and I chose here because of him. We've done it together."

In all that, there was an acknowledgement of who this was all for. The fans who had suffered so much, and while that's often a cliche answer by many nowadays, you could tell there was real meaning behind it.

"They've been phenomenal," the striker continued. "I don't really know what else there is to say about the Charlton fans to be honest that I haven't already said.

"They are something else and they deserve this, they deserve this. So, this is for them."

Delight for Charlton fans at full-time
Delight for Charlton fans at full-time

This season presents a whole new host of challenges. The step up to the Championship always proves to be a difficult one for the newly-promoted sides, and we've seen multiple times sides going straight back down in recent years.

The Addicks don't feel like a club punching above their weight. The Championship feels like the minimum level they should be operating at.

The potential of the club is huge, too. The showing at Wembley highlights the size of the fanbase, one that has had its loyalties tested to the limit under the current regime.

On the pitch, this side can compete and will pick up results against those at the very top of the Championship. Those with bigger transfer funds to work with, an ability to attract players who should be at a higher level.

When the going gets tough, the atmosphere created among the squad can only be of benefit. It's the desire to win for those lining up alongside them and the name on the front of the shirt.

With Bowyer at the helm, and the current staff he has employed, this club will always have a fighting chance of success on the pitch.


Odds correct at 1645 BST on 22/07/19

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