Charlton Athletic, 2021–2022
The only goal I scored for Tottenham came at The Valley. I got the last in a 4-2 win there in February 2004.
I’d only played there once more by the time Phil Parkinson signed me on loan from Notts County in February 2010, when Charlton needed cover at left-back.
I had actually been Phil’s first ever signing in management, when Colchester loaned me from Spurs a number of years before. He then set up a permanent deal for me in the summer of 2006, just before Hull came in for him.
I was speaking to him about joining Charlton when I left Colchester in 2009, but he still needed to get a player out. I was running out of time before the start of the season, and the project at Notts County, under Sven-Göran Eriksson, seemed an interesting one to be involved in. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but Notts County gradually gave me a taste of what can happen when the wrong people are in charge at football clubs.
When the move to Charlton happened later that season, and became permanent that summer, it just felt right. I was excited by the challenge. It was great to be moving to a club like that – and back to London.
I was gutted when Phil got the sack the following January. He’d shown a lot of faith in me, and he had done a good job. We were fifth in League One, but as a player you feel culpable, and disappointed for him.
Chris Powell replaced him, and before the start of 2011/12 made me captain. He came into the club with a vision, and there was a massive turnover in players that summer –I was one of the few who stayed. For someone to show that faith in me helped elevate my game.
That was also when I was playing my best football. We won the League One title with a club-record 101 points (below), and then had a good season back in the Championship, finishing ninth.
I saw myself as a central midfielder. But Chris recognised that, if I played on the left, I could tuck in as a third central midfielder and Rhoys Wiggins would overlap from left-back. That would give us an extra man in midfield, and an outlet on the left. It was a little bit lopsided – an out-and-out winger on the right and me on the left – but it really worked.
"i took it upon myself to be visible and make myself accessible to the fans"
Chris recruited really, really well, bringing in good players and really good characters. We had a great group that included Jason Euell – we trained hard and were really tight-knit.
I had a really good relationship with Chris, so when he got sacked by Roland Duchatelet, Charlton’s new owner, in March 2014, I was gutted again. We had a good team when we went up to the Championship, and we had an opportunity to do something even better.
As I was getting older, and thinking more about coaching, I started looking in more depth at what managers and coaches were doing and saying – how they were getting their messages across, and how they were dealing with adversity.
Phil was really organised, and very structured in his work; from Chris, I learned a lot about man-management, and how he would talk to and motivate players. They are two coaches I have huge respect for.
José Riga, Chris’ successor, was also really impressive. His methods and his approach were really good, and he managed to keep us up in 2013/14. I was disappointed he didn’t stay on. He had done his homework and knew what was required.
Guy Luzon, two appointments later, was one of the best defensive coaches I’ve worked with. He was very structured and detailed, and clear in what he wanted. Out of possession, he was one of the best I’ve seen.
During that period, I also took it upon myself to be quite visible, and make myself accessible to the fans. The turnover of managers and players – at a working-class, London, community club – made it important that they had someone they could really relate to.
"Bow and I were thrown together, but we developed a really good relationship"
There were some difficult moments. Like the fans, I had an idea of how I thought the club should be run and the direction it should be going in – and it wasn’t going that way. They had to voice their opinion, and I was all for that, but I was also stuck in the middle of it. I had to try to empathise without making too much noise.
They didn’t stop, and the club’s in a better place for it, so I had to admire their resolve. The club’s a huge part of their lives – it’s too important to people to see it used as a plaything.
Karl Robinson coming in as manager in 2016 was huge for me. He had a massive influence on me, and is one of the best coaches I’ve worked under – both in the classroom and out on the grass.
Karl really helped me with the transition into coaching. He recognised I was coming to the end of my playing career and that I could be of value to him – just not as a player, and he was good at helping me see that. The easy thing would have been to move me on, but he helped me – particularly with getting my head around thinking like a coach instead of a player. That took a while.
I still felt I could play but, on reflection, I wasn’t good enough any more. I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to, but when you’re in it it’s difficult to see that. He really helped me with that.
Ahead of his first full season, in 2017/18, Karl made me player-coach (above). It was both exciting and daunting. Coming to the end of your playing career is a testing time, but he gave me an insight into the other side of things. He also gave me some responsibility, and some value, which had been missing as a player.
"i had convinced myself we were going to win. instead, my playing career had come to an end"
It was very gradual. He let me coach when I wanted to coach, and train when I wanted to train.
He also brought in Lee Bowyer, initially part-time, to work with the midfielders. Karl liked bringing someone in to give a different stimulus and keep things fresh – and, when Richie Barker went to Rotherham, Lee then became his assistant.
It was completely out of the blue when Karl left in March 2018. He was a really good coach with great ideas, and I thought he’d get it right. He even told me he told the board to appoint me as his successor.
Bow stepped up instead. I became his assistant, and he did brilliantly. We were thrown together – I didn’t know him until Karl brought him to the club – but we developed a really, really good relationship.
We see football the same way, and are both working-class, London boys. He showed a huge amount of trust in me, and gave me huge responsibility. He is strong-willed and, as the manager, he had the final say. But it was very much a team effort, and it just worked.
The players really bought into it, and we had a great finish to the season that took us into the League One playoffs. There, we lost to Shrewsbury. I’d convinced myself we were going to win and go to Wembley. Instead, at 35, my playing career had just come to an end. Coupled with the disappointment of missing out on promotion, that was really tough.
"That goal gave me the best feeling I've had in football. It was unbelievable"
In hindsight, it was for the best. We managed to build a really good team for the following season; we had reflected and learned what we needed, and we had more resolve. Bow, myself and Steve Gallen, the director of football, became a team, even though we hadn’t been appointed permanently. We worked to do what was right for the club.
That adversity brought us closer together. That pre-season, we didn’t know if we’d get a trip. Bow ended up ringing around to club together favours to go to Portugal. We didn’t have great facilities, but we made the most of it. That trip, and that bonding, was invaluable in bringing everything together and getting our messages across early.
We were competitive all season, and in the last few months were flying. We finished third, but by the end of the season we were the best team in the league.
Credit to Bow, we found a way of playing that we never veered from. We had two forwards and a diamond midfield or a 3-5-2, and because we had Krystian Bielik we could flip between the two mid-game. He could be at the bottom of the diamond or in a back three, when our full-backs would become wing-backs. We were really flexible – everyone knew their roles.
We were so well drilled, and so confident. When we played Luton, the eventual champions, at The Valley with a few games to go, we played a diamond midfield. No one had dealt with Luton’s diamond that season, but all over the pitch we were better than them. We won 3-1.
Going into the playoffs, I knew we had a really good chance. We were a much better team.
"we’d conceded so many late goals – if we had avoided just one, we’d have survived"
I never played at Wembley, which was one of my biggest regrets, so to go there as a coach was exciting. the playoff final against Sunderland was unbelievable – one of the best moments of my career.
We went behind after five minutes, when we conceded an own goal from a backpass, but we were confident and we knew we’d score. We stayed calm, got level, and the game looked destined for extra-time, which we were starting to prepare for. When Jonny Williams won a free-kick, the clock said 93 minutes. I remember thinking that we should try and attack, because even if the ball got turned over the referee would blow up.
Patrick Bauer and Jason Pearce, our centre-backs, stayed forward, and Bauer ended up scoring (below). That goal gave me the best feeling I’ve had in football. It was unbelievable.
The following season, back in the Championship, was like two different seasons in one. We started brilliantly, and played some really good football. We then had a terrible injury crisis that winter and went on a really bad run – and in January we lost Conor Gallagher, a massive player, when Chelsea recalled him.
That month was also when Duchatelet was finally bought out, which initially felt positive. The new owners were making the right noises and saying the right things, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t right. The fallout from that was really difficult.
Everything was then shut down by Covid. We regularly touched base with the players, but I was itching to get back to work and we didn’t know whether the season was going to restart.
"As a player, you lived for scoring goals; now there was no one there to cheer them"
In the very last game before then, we’d fallen into the bottom three for the first time that season. So, when there was talk of the league being decided on a points-per-game basis, we had even more to worry about. It was a strange and tough time.
When we finally came back, a couple of players refused to play. That was disappointing. You’re looking players in the eyes and you want them to say they’re with you, and some of them weren’t. They were important players as well.
On the last day of the season, we were relegated by a point after losing away to Leeds, the champions. There had been so many games in which we’d conceded a late goal – if we’d avoided just one of them, we’d have survived.
In the car coming back from Elland Road, Bow and I were speechless. We were looking back on those little moments, and wondering how it had happened.
It felt like everything that could have gone wrong did. Barnsley went to Brentford on the last day of the season, when Brentford needed to win to get promoted. If Barnsley hadn't have won, we’d have stayed up, but they did. It really hit me hard.
The present owner, Thomas Sandgaard, completed his takeover that September. It quickly became clear that he was serious, and different to what we’d had before. When the worry of players getting paid went away, we all knew we were on a much better footing.
"I was confident and really determined – I knew it was my opportunity"
We’d been in a relegation fight – when we had been playing in empty stadiums, every match was so important that we were wrapped up in what we were doing.
After that, in League One, I hated it. It was soulless. You almost questioned what the point of it was. As a player, you lived for scoring goals; now there was no one there to cheer them. It actually made it feel a little bit less important.
In March 2021, just after Bow resigned, I could have gone with him to Birmingham. He’d become a friend, and I knew he was ready for something new. He wanted me to go with him, so it was difficult for me. I wanted an opportunity to manage – which he knew – but Nigel Adkins came in quickly. I had to decide whether or not to stay at the club.
It took a lot of conversations with family, and people I respect in the game – and a lot of soul-searching – but once I got my head around it I realised it was an opportunity to learn from someone new. It was a tough conversation with Lee – before that, I thought I’d go with him – but he understood.
Nigel is experienced, and had had success at that level, so I learned a lot from him. He was really diligent. I thought he probably wanted to bring in his own man and was stuck with me, but he never made me feel that way. He also promoted Jason Euell, and was great with us both.
"After so long biding my time, it was a huge relief to have earned the job"
When he left, the owner was in the country, and we had a brief conversation. “Nigel’s going to be leaving. I want you to take the team for the foreseeable.”
That was on the Thursday, and we had a game at Sunderland on the Saturday, so I had to quickly think about putting on training and preparing for the game. I was confident, and really determined – I knew it was my opportunity.
I had to impress, and show what I’d do differently. I was very conscious that, despite me already being at the club, it had to be like a new manager had walked in the door. That’s how I tried to approach it.
We were in the relegation zone, but we quickly started climbing the table. We went on a run of nine wins from 13 before Martin and Thomas Sandgaard called me into the boardroom and told me they wanted to appoint me permanently.
I rang my family straight away. After so long biding my time, it was a huge relief to have earned the job – and another proud moment at The Valley.
Author: The Coaches' Voice