Football, as Jimmy Greaves used to say, is a funny old game. In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby says that football fans, as a species, have confused anthropologists for decades. Like Nick Hornby, I’m interested in the cultural and social aspects of the game, and its stories that go far beyond the borders of the Premier League.
In my book The Charlton Men, I write about two people in love with a football team, and fighting for the affections of a woman at the same time. The story is partly based on my own experience of coming to England and falling in love with one of London’s less fashionable teams. Indeed I’d say it was more than love – it was a casual affair that turned into full-blown passion, and now has a special place in my heart, my marriage, and everything else in life.
The club and the place at the heart of my story, as the name of the book suggests, is Charlton Athletic – who have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons in the past few weeks.
To cut a long story short, the club has been in financial difficulties for most of the past decade since dropping out of the Premier League in 2007. Managers, owners, and players have come and gone in that time, with varying levels of success and failure. In December 2013, Belgian businessman Roland Duchâtelet agreed to take over the club, and add them to a network that was built around Royal Standard de Liège in his home country.
Very soon, a cluster of overseas loanees began to replace the British players at the core of a team that was struggling in the championship, largely due to a lack of investment. Soon after, on the very weekend of an FA Cup quarter final against Sheffield United, their English manager became the latest and not unexpected casualty of change. José Riga, Belgian ex-manager of Standard Liège, replaced former England international Chris Powell, whose tenure had lasted less than three seasons.
However, as the team continued to struggle in the relegation places, José Riga turned to the home-grown players rather than loanees, and ended the season in some style, keeping Charlton up and laying the foundations for a more stable season after.
Roland Duchâtelet though had other ideas. In the summer he replaced Riga with a lesser-known Belgian named Bob Peeters, an injury prone ex-Millwall striker who was given a lukewarm welcome at first. Then at the start of the season, bolstered by new recruits, Charlton became the unknown quantity of the Football League Championship. Taking the team to the edge of the play-offs, based on a strategy of solid defence, Bob Peeters was building a reputation not just in South-East London but further afield.
And then, slowly but surely, it began to disintegrate. The solid defences of Bobby Peeters’ Red Army started to crumble as teams worked out that we seemed to have only one style of play, and we succumbed to injuries, leaving us with a threadbare squad. After victory against Reading in November, our worst form materialised. Everything afterwards was a draw or a defeat, and in the opening games of 2015, the heart and soul had gone out of the team.
If they were bad before the turn of the old year, they came back in the new one looking as inspired as little boys who got school socks instead of an Xbox in their Christmas stockings.
Last weekend, after defeat to Brighton, the news reached us that Bob Peeters was dismissed, and there would be interviews conducted in the search for a new manager. In a division full of ex-Premier League bosses, such as Mick McCarthy, and the likes of Eddie Howe, exciting young coaches for the future – the mood amongst supporters was that we needed somebody with experience to steady the ship, and reinvigorate the spirit of better times.
Alan Curbishley was mentioned, though more in hope than expectation. Paul Jewell was another that some fans desired. Then, less than 48 hours after news of Peeters’ dismissal, rumours emerged that we would appoint another ex-manager of Standard Liège. Guy Luzon, a former Israeli international under the age of forty, was the latest in our quick succession of foreign managers.
More stories surfaced of dressing room unrest – the very thing that allegedly caused Bob Peeters to get the sack. Twitter was awash with rumours that senior players were unhappy. The whole thing became a PR mess for the club, and worsened with the way that information was given out to the fans by the owners and their representatives in a tone of ‘It’s our club, not yours.’ Then on Saturday past it reached a new low – a five nil defeat at Watford.
Though I wasn’t there, I have heard that it was the most soulless performance seen in years. Even when we got badly beaten before, there was some heart, or even a sense that we just didn’t have the players to compete against our opponents. This time, we didn’t lose because our opponents were far superior to us, as happened a few years ago when Brighton beat us 4-0 in the league, and Fulham beat us by the same score in the FA Cup a season and a half later.
Twice in the previous eight months we have beaten Watford, and several times more in the past couple of seasons, we have fought out close encounters. This time around we were dismal in everything from strategy to the basic condition of wanting to be on the pitch in the first place. A Watford supporting friend of mine described us as “playing a high defensive line with two centre halves who are about as mobile as wardrobes, against forwards who are so fast they could catch pigeons.”
In essence we seem to have lost the plot, and it could have been worse for he added that without the efforts of goalkeeper Neil Etheridge it could have been ‘seven or eight’.
Yet, what is it that can make teams go from a position of verve and swagger to slumped shoulders in a matter of months? This is not unique to Charlton, in any way. We only have to look at Liverpool’s complete change from the end of last season to the beginning of this one, and it was far more than just the loss of Luis Suarez – because as others have pointed out, if he was a one man team, he’d have won the World Cup for Uruguay (had he stayed on the pitch).
Maybe though the answers lie within this comparison of Charlton to Liverpool. If we look back at how last season ended, Liverpool’s decline actually began when José Mourinho tested out a growing belief that if you stopped Liverpool coming at you with all guns blazing in the early stages, you stalled their chances of a goal fest.
Through his mind games with Brendan Rodgers too, he challenged the belief that the Liverpool manager was already the finished article. Just as he has often done with Wenger at Arsenal, Mourinho dragged Rodgers into a confrontation of philosophies, and a desperate desire to prove that he could win the league in the swashbuckling style that Liverpool fans had grown accustomed to.
After the Chelsea defeat, doubt crept in – and grew as Crystal Palace tested this vulnerability further, attacking Liverpool with the same force and passion as they normally did to opponents. On a Monday night, at the start of May, Palace came back from three goals down, with eleven minutes to go, and level the game at 3-3 – amd almost had the audacity to snatch an injury time winner!
Suddenly, the chinks in the armour were exposed. Rodgers though in the summer did not adequately cover up these chinks, spending much of his money on the midfield, as if plastering over the parts of the team where there were no cracks showing. As such they started the season with the same soft underbelly in the centre of defence, and Simon Mignolet’s goalmouth. Just as with Charlton, and Bob Peeters’ – soak up pressure and then strike on the counter attack – slow tactics from the back, it was as if others had seen through them, and new strategies were needed to redress this.
But Brendan Rodgers seems to have adapted his tactics to suit the team, and has them playing with the old swerve and swagger to some degree. Last weekend he even went as far as saying they have got their identity back, and that is great because long before I converted to Charlton Athletic on account of moving to London from Ireland, I followed Liverpool – from a distance.
Now Charlton fans can only hope that Luzon can find a formula to bring the passion back to our club, because what shapes the heart and soul of a team is very hard to define. Manchester United too discovered this when David Moyes replaced Alex Ferguson. Luzon maybe is more like Van Gaal coming to United after Moyes, but without the money, and two of the best strikers on the planet!
He does though need to get the red heart of Charlton Athletic pumping at full speed very quickly, because it’s a long time between that win in November and the end of this season. I’m not sure that after the way we’ve seen the heart and soul confiscated from the club that our fans have the stomach for a relegation fight!
Paul Breen’s book ‘The Charlton Men’ is available at selected bookstores and online at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X