First class team, second class travel: How Powell makes sure Charlton keep their feet on the ground
Chris Powell’s Charlton side may be heading inexorably for promotion to the Championship next season, but even when strolling down a railway platform the manager remains alert to an unexpected challenge.
‘Oi! It’s you, isn’t it’ shouts a figure through the doors of a recently arrived train. ‘Crystal Palace! We’re playing you next year!’
‘I hope so,’ chuckles Powell. ‘Fingers crossed …’ and the fan retreats into the train, placated by a grin.
A few years ago, Charlton’s hope for the next season used to be ‘Europe’. Now it’s ‘Crystal Palace’. The recalibration of ambition tells its own story. For now, though, the sun shines on The Valley. They have dominated League One and a 2-0 win at home to Stevenage on Saturday took the leaders 14 points clear of third place, making the prospect of becoming the first team in the leagues to clinch promotion this season agreeably inevitable.
Travelling in the right direction: Chris Powell has reversed Charlton's slide and looks a certainty to return the Addicks to the Championship
Yet Powell’s caution is understandable. It is his first job as a manager and the challenge is personal. The club are ‘very special to me, like nowhere else’, he says.
He speaks with the authority of a man who knows the game better than most: more than 750 appearances, promoted with five different clubs, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association and proud owner of a handful of England caps. He had three separate spells with Charlton and the fans love him.
But 13 months ago, when he succeeded Phil Parkinson, life was less rosy. After winning his first four games, the slump which followed was a reminder of the challenges ahead. Charlton won two of their next 19 matches, as the season fizzled out. It was a gruesome initiation into his new role. ‘I came back, we won a few, and people started to say it was easy, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t,’ said Powell.
‘The squad wasn’t right. Not for what I wanted it to do. That losing run was important, because it taught me who I needed. Because of that, we started this season with the right squad for the job.’
Promotion charge: Powell's Charlton have a handsome ten point lead at the top of League One
The sale of Carl Jenkinson to Arsenal brought in urgently needed funds, and the board allowed him to rebuild as an investment in the future.
‘People think we’ve spent a fortune,’ said Powell. ‘In fact, our budget is half that of Huddersfield and nowhere near either of the two Sheffield clubs. I’ve been creative, used free transfers and moved on people who couldn’t do what I needed them to.’
He had little option, having been made aware right from the outset that the finances were in a desperate state. ‘We’ve got good owners, who have lived up to their words. And without them, Charlton would be where Ports-mouth find themselves today. The fans deserve to know that.’
The troubles the fans had endured since he was at the club as a player also played on Powell’s mind.
‘It sounds odd, but we didn’t feel as in touch with them as we had been. There was a sense of despondency. It wasn’t the Charlton I remembered and that was the first job, to get back in touch with our people.
‘This club was dragged up from its knees by its community, and they were feeling let down. We owe it to them to pay them back for the faith they showed.’
Humbling: Powell is keen to keep his players' feet on the ground
His solution, among other things, was to strengthen the bond between players and fans. It started with a decision about travel. Powell’s players used to take the coach to away matches. But Powell had other thoughts.
‘It was an away game at Hartlepool and it just seemed like a good idea, a normal thing to do,’ said Powell. ‘We walked to the station, got the train to London Bridge, Northern Line to Kings Cross, on the train again up north, there before you know it.
‘An eye-opener for a few players, perhaps, but they understood. We don’t get our own carriage, we just book seats all together, but it’s good. It keeps you in touch with reality.’
It also represents a way of thinking. Powell’s squad is no place for players with exaggerated ideas of their own importance. The team may be first class, but the travel is decidedly second.
‘I want them to be humble, because they’re lucky. They do the best job in the world,’ said Powell.
‘Show respect and, in return, earn it, don’t just demand it. At the training ground, treat the kitchen staff and the groundsmen properly, with the respect they deserve. It helps to build something bigger.’
Opening doors: Powell arrives at No 10 Downing Street for an anti-racism summit
Scattered around the ground, from pictures in the boardroom to footage on the big screen, are reminders that his greatest successes still rest on the pitch, not the dugout. Since the first day of his new role, however, Powell has been determined to draw a line under all that went before.
‘They call me “Gaffer”, and I know it’s an old word, but it represents something. I had to say to everyone that I was still the same person, still the same emotions, but with a different role. No more “Powelly” because I’ve got a job to do and I need that understood. And it is.’
The short-term plan is promotion — ‘It was top six at the start of the season, so we’ve done well’ — while the medium-term objective is to become a fixture in the Championship. But, with the infrastructure still in place from their Premier League days, dreams are possible. ‘Momentum can carry you a long way — just look at Norwich or Southampton.’
Despite the stresses of recent weeks — ‘I keep being told we’re having a blip. Blips happen. We’ll deal with it’ — Powell’s affection for the game remains as clear as the day he signed his first contract. If he met himself, as a 16-year-old apprentice, what would he tell him
‘Never forget that it’s a beautiful game. Never, ever, give less than everything you’ve got, and never let go of your dreams. Because there will be ups and downs, and it’ll be tough, but it will pay you back for the effort. And when it does, it’s fantastic.’
And, given his successes, if a big club should come calling, asking Powell for his services ‘They did. I manage them. And I want to take them back to where they used to be.’