The Gaffer Returns

The Gaffer Chris Powell

I had recently joined the board of Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust and we were discussing potential interview subjects for the forthcoming issue of Trust News. I suggested we try approaching Chris Powell, former manager about to return to The Valley with his new club. Powell agreed so I headed to the Huddersfield training ground to meet him. Little did I realise, he was in the mood to spill the beans.

First published in CASTrust News 9 in February 2015.

Kids everywhere; little boys in blue and white home shirts or yellow away shirts animatedly waving 2012 play-off final flags, little girls in pretty dresses, smart for the occasion or perhaps on their way to another party. A hubbub of half-term excitement. This was the scene that greeted me as I entered reception at the Huddersfield training ground.  And there in the midst was the pied piper – scribbling autographs, crouching for photographs, shouting at passing players to join in, laughing and joking, turning this way and that: Chris Powell, resplendent in a bright blue training top, and very much at ease in his new-found Northern home. 

I’d requested this interview to mark the occasion of the first fixture between his new team and his old team, expecting to spend an hour or so reminiscing with Powell about his playing days, the famous tunnel jump, his managerial exploits and how he was getting on in his new job. I started by asking how he felt about returning to the Valley on 28th February.  “It’s the first game I looked out for to be honest.  It’s my wife’s birthday which is a bit bizarre – there’s something about birthdays and me!” It was, of course, his mother’s birthday on the day Charlton secured promotion at Carlisle in 2012, prompting a very emotional post-match interview.  “Both teams are in and around one another and needing the points, but it’s still going to be a great occasion. The crowd will be boosted by Football for a Fiver, and we travel well.  It’s a special day for me, of course – it’s never good the way you leave a football club – very rare that you leave in great circumstances. I know it came as a shock to people, especially on the back of the Sheffield United game, but I had known for a couple of months – since the takeover.” And before I know it, I am hearing Chris Powell’s first full on the record explanation of the goings on at Charlton last season.

I will return to the Quarter Final later.  But let’s start at the beginning, with Chris taking over as manager.  “Charlton had lost in the playoffs the season before I came in.  Then obviously I took over from Phil – there was a lot to sort out. I said to Tony Jimenez we need to get the fans back onside, because they’ve been burnt over the last 6/7 years, and I can do that – I have a relationship with them – in the main – not every supporter is going to like the manager, that’s how football is – but I’ve got some credit with them, because I’ve earnt that. So let me get on with it.”  He confirms that selling Jenkinson was a stroke of luck in providing the opportunity to re-build, and explains in detail how this was done, player by player, many on free transfers, but with investment in Wiggins and Stephens because there was potential for their value to increase and for them to be sold on at a profit in future.  He describes Yann as “the jewel in the crown” and Bradley Pritchard as “the kid who did the stats, a dream come true.” It’s an impressive account of how he built that record-breaking squad.  His fondness for the players, whom he hand-picked to deliver, is palpable.

“So we built a squad to compete and actually we did more than compete. We got into the Championship, had momentum and we carried it on.” He admits that 2012/13 was an up and down season, with  low points like losing 1-4 at home to Middlesbrough, but then the amazing comeback v Cardiff a few days’ later: “We only had 13k there, but if you ask Charlton fans, we had 50k there that night!” Then he becomes more reflective, referring to his time between managerial jobs, “I thought a lot about what we could have done, what we did do, when were the moments for us to actually build.  We finished ninth, three points from the play-offs. That was it – the time Charlton could have got back after all the down years.”  By now his voice is faltering with emotion, just like it did in the end of season speech he made on the pitch in front of the Covered End.

Instead of building on those well-laid foundations, the opposite happened going into last season. “I kind of knew pre-season – I said to some fans at the Open Day, we are going to struggle this year.  And they must have thought why are you saying that before a ball is even kicked? I was told to lose some players because we were going to spend big. I lost Danny Haynes, Ricardo Fuller, Jon Obika. Then all I had was Yann at the start of the season.  There was a lot the fans didn’t know.  There were four or five occasions when the players weren’t going to get paid. Going into games and I am trying to put out fires and put out a team.  To be fair, the players never let me down in that respect, but we didn’t always get the results.  It’s quite difficult for me to bring it up, but the fans need to know – that was the beginning of it. All those players, who had got us out of League One and were keeping us in the Championship, should have been rewarded with new contracts and then the fans would have seen we were building the team, building the squad to make a go of it and it just sadly never happened. It was just putting out fires from pre-season and it never stopped.”

The former gaffer openly admits that the takeover was desperately needed, that Jiminez and Slater needed to move on, “What we couldn’t do was fashion a squad to be competitive at that time.”  He also acknowledges that he had concerns for his job security, since he had been appointed as the result of the previous change of ownership. But Chris Powell is a man who still has Charlton very much in his heart, so he was not only thinking of himself, “My worry, which has come to fruition now, is that whoever it was they needed to understand the football club, they needed to understand the psyche of the fans. If you don’t do that – and especially at Charlton – and I know it’s just saying it, but actually if you look at the history of Charlton, what they’ve done and what they’ve been through, it is different – fans forming a political party to get their football club up and running – unheard of!  So whoever it was, don’t see it as a vehicle to use it as a feeder club or as a means for whatever – don’t do it. And if you’re going to do it, be honest with the football club, be honest with the supporters, let them know exactly what’s going on.” 

He confesses to already having felt a bit worn-down by having to carry full responsibility for communications under the previous régime: “That was the downfall of Tony – fans didn’t know what was going on – it was always me, I had to explain to the fans, and actually at times I had to not say anything, which I didn’t want to do. Charlton fans know more often than not I’ll tell them the truth because that’s what they deserve to hear, because they pay their money.”

Powell then reveals that he and Roland Duchâtelet were at odds with each other from the very start, “Within a week, after my first meeting at the Valley, I knew I wouldn’t be there too long and I knew exactly what was going to happen in regards to people like Yann, Dale and a few others and what he was going to do. It wasn’t just what he was telling me.  I had a press conference where he said I was a good coach. Well, I was arguing with him just an hour before – about Charlton – I was saying to him, you can’t do that, you cannot do what you are planning to do with this club. It’s not right, it’s not fair, let’s not string people along.” 

Powell describes his first meeting with Duchâtelet, at which Tony Jiminez was also present. The omens were not good – Powell was ill the night before, and had to pull over on his way to The Valley to be physically sick. The Belgian businessman arrived with strong ideas about the playing squad, while Jiminez, keen to ensure the deal was quickly done and dusted, sided with the new man’s opinions rather than supporting his manager.  “We had the nonsense with the goalkeepers. Ben Alnwick had come in and was outstanding with Ben Hamer being out. He (Roland) said Ben Hamer is not good, Ben Alnwick is not good.  I’ve got a goalkeeper who’s better than both. I said, who is it, I need to know. Then it was always, oh he’s better, he’s this, he’s that. I said I need to choose who’s right, for this division and this league.” Clearly there was intransigence on both sides of the table, but Powell is not at all bitter in what he is describing, just deeply disappointed at the gulf in football philosophy.  He is a manager who takes full responsibility for putting together his own squad, yet he was faced with the complete opposite, “I’d be in my office and there’s a player turning up downstairs with his suitcase, saying he’s come to play. Who is it? It’s Loic Nego, it’s Anil Koç. I don’t even know who they are. ‘We’ve been told you need a winger’ – yeah, but I need a winger who’s used to the Championship, and you’ve got a young boy who’s played three games for Standard off the bench. I mean, that’s not for Charlton. Charlton deserve a player who’s going to improve them.” He was clearly very frustrated at the lack of understanding of the strengths of the existing squad, “He’d say you need a right back, I’d say we’ve got Chris Solly. If he’s better than Chris Solly, going to be some player! Nego came in, played against Wigan, clearly not suited. (Roland) said, well he can play left back. I said, well I’ve got Rhoys Wiggins, and Ceddy Evina who can fill in, fine you’re not going to have two top drawer – we’re not Chelsea or Man City, but you need players who are able to play at the level.  I just knew that whenever there was a time that I didn’t play them, I was going to be in trouble.”

Powell explains how he tried hard to make the relationship work, “I was very open with them at the start – I said to Roland, I will come over and I will meet you, and you can tell me exactly what your plans are. I held my hand out, extended friendship to say welcome to South East London. I will tell you exactly what the Club’s about, what’s gone great, what hasn’t.” But Duchâtelet did not want Powell to go to Belgium. “I said to him re-sign Yann, it’s a no-brainer, he said ‘NO – I don’t think he’s good enough, we’ve got better strikers’ – and now, I know Charlton are looking for a physical striker. We had one – he didn’t want to leave. It was the same with Dale. I know this league – of course, I’m not going to get everything right, will get a few things wrong, which I did at Charlton, which I will here.  But I know what it takes in this league. I think anyone in any walk of life if they’re doing a job and someone tells them they are doing it all wrong, when they have no experience of it, that’s pretty hard to take.”

He describes his belief that stability and harmony within the squad, and club as a whole, is vital for clubs like Charlton and Huddersfield, and the only realistic chance they have of competing with the big-spenders, so it was hard for him to see this quickly fall apart, “Charlton – and any team – like I’m doing here at Huddersfield – is built on team spirit, character through adversity a lot of the time and skill, but the harmony wasn’t there because every time a new player turned up, the players who were already there felt they were going to be marginalised. The new players when they came in, if they weren’t playing, they’d be up in arms, speaking to the owner, saying you brought me here to play and the manager’s not playing me.  So you can imagine the discontent in the camp.”    

I ask if things came to a head around the Sheffield United cup match.  “It came to a head over plenty of games, not only that one… I was quizzed constantly – it was quite disrespectful really, looking back. I was getting emails, I was getting messages on what I should be doing in training, how we should play. It was done by two chaps in Belgium who were on laptops looking at our games.  They were saying things they thought I didn’t do with Charlton which I’d always done – preparations, tactics, analysis…They thought maybe it was their way of helping.”  Talking specifically about the build-up to the Cup game, Powell recalls how Charlton unexpectedly found themselves bottom of the table due to the three teams below all winning on the Saturday, and the squad heard the news as they were travelling to Sheffield. “I’ll be truthful, we were never in the right frame of mind approaching that quarter final. It was the first time the club had been in the quarter final since I was a player – at Middlesbrough. Really, we should have been at Wembley.  I can’t say I knew before the game, but we weren’t in the right frame of mind – or the club wasn’t – and we let down the six or seven thousand fans we had there.  It was the build up of what had happened since the takeover.”

Powell never played at Wembley, as his England appearances and play-off final with West Ham took place while the famous stadium was being rebuilt.  To lift the mood a little, I ask if he would have stepped up to take a penalty in the Charlton v Sunderland match, had he been on our books then. “Oh God, just wish it wouldn’t have got to me – bit like Richard Rufus, who pushed Shaun out, because they didn’t think it was going to get to theirs. Shaun went, and he actually mis-hits it – it looks a great pen, but he mis-hits it! Mark Bowen took one, but he took them throughout his career.  I would have taken one, yeah, I wouldn’t have felt great, but I would have taken one!” 

Powell returns to last season’s FA Cup run, which he had seen as the bright spot in an otherwise tough season. “It’s a big regret that I wasn’t able to get the team to Wembley. I just had it in my mind all the way through the run, when we beat Oxford, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday. Just seeing 35-40k red and white Charlton fans at one end, I swear I would have cried. But life goes on – it never happened.”

He is calmly philosophical about Jose Riga taking over as Charlton manager, and expresses genuine delight that the Addicks survived under his stewardship, appreciating that the new boss was able to get things back on track, “But I moved on and Jose came in and was able to get the stability I craved and the team got some good results – I was desperate for them not to go down.” He does feel vindicated that this was mainly achieved with the squad he had built, so perhaps some lessons were quickly learned.

Without prompting, Powell expresses empathy with Charlton’s new CEO, “There was so much involvement from different people who felt they needed to justify Roland taking over and their roles.  Amongst all that, (was) Katrien, put into a position. I actually got on really well with her – she could see how difficult it was – she was told one thing and then when it happened, it got changed – and I believe that’s still happening now.”

When I ask whether he thinks Roland has a real interest in football, Chris Powell thinks carefully about this for a moment, “He does. He’s very fond of Sint Truiden. He’s very proud of them, I think that’s his team. He’s obviously been very successful in his business, no problem…he’s earnt his money and that’s right in his field. But when you go into football, obviously you have an idea of what you want to do. I think you’ve got to appreciate the football club that you’re buying into or joining, quickly recognise what they’re about and what makes that particular football club tick. Listen to people who have been there a while. Use your own judgment of course, because you are entitled to.  But I think you’ve got to be very careful.”

What does he think Roland’s strategy for Charlton is? “Only he can tell you his strategy, but I suppose you’ve got to look at the other clubs and what’s happened there. Standard obviously is their flagship club, and one or two players have been sold from there, so I think they felt that will happen at Charlton too. The Championship is now a step away from the most profitable league in the world, especially with the new TV deal, so I would think any owner that comes into the Championship has one eye on that, because all you need is one season and you’re made. But you do have to have stability… So the strategy may be trying to put the players from abroad onto a bigger stage, and then maybe they get sold on – maybe. It’s just me guessing, I’ve never been told that – me looking now from the outside in.”

What about aiming for breakeven? “(Roland) did mention that to me very early on. He said we need to breakeven – some of the money that is spent on players, we need to cut down.  That’s his prerogative, no problem, but I did say you’ve got to be careful – there are certain areas that you do have to spend money, normally on strikers, they cost money because they are at a premium…So it’s very noble that he’s trying to cut it down, and if he can, of course he should, you don’t want to waste money, but it’s very hard, especially in this league which is just not a level playing field at all. If you don’t have the money, you’ve got to get it from having the team together, getting them fighting for a cause. It can be quite straightforward and if the players buy into it, it gets you points and wins. That’s something you need to understand at a Club, especially in the Championship, especially at a club like Charlton.”

I ask Chris for his thoughts on whether or not a network approach in principle could be successful. “I know at Watford to an extent it has (been), but they’ve done it differently, with the Udinese players and the Granada players, they have settled down, have a set way of playing, and whenever a player comes in it is to play in a certain role and they know he will be suited for the Championship, for the level.”  So what about Charlton? “Has it worked so far? Might it in the future? At this time with four managers in a year, that doesn’t scream of stability, that doesn’t scream of an actual plan for the football club. And that’s what you need, any football club needs stability. Clubs that have stability, more often than not, somewhere along the line get exactly what they are after.”

Chris is aware that Charlton fans had recently held a public meeting, so I wonder if he has any advice on how the fans might engage the owner.  At Huddersfield the chairman demands that Powell is as open as possible with supporters, telling them about the plans for the Academy, for players, for the training ground, for spending or not and being realistic about their ambitions. “It does work. Because the fans then feel that they are important, not just someone who is going to shell out £300, £400 on a season ticket and that’s it, but actually involved in the process, and I think you can’t ask for anything more.” He believes that Charlton fans are realistic, craving stability above all, keen to see young players coming through, but also accepting that sometimes players will be sold for profit, “Like Darren Bent – we paid £2M for him and we could see he was too good and we’d end up selling him – £16M – that’s the Charlton way.”  The owner puts the money in, and that needs to be respected, “But (the fans) are there for 50/60 years some of them, even beyond that. I don’t think you get an owner at any club who’s there for that long…I think you’ve got to look at it from both sides. But if the supporters are not getting anything back – all you get is you turn up, you pay your money and that’s it, it’s not right.” 

I’ll leave the last word to Chris on his football philosophy: “If you have the harmony, the spirit and don’t spend beyond your means and don’t think beyond your means, you can do great things. Charlton have done it before and they can do it again, and hopefully we can do the same here at Huddersfield.”