Heather McKinlay interviewed Charlton manager Lee Bowyer this week:
Lee Bowyer stepped out of Karl Robinson’s shadow to take over as caretaker manager ten games from the end of the last regular season when the Addicks were in very poor form. “We were not in a good place as a football club – there was a lot of negativity, we’d only won one in eight or nine.” Yet now he has just won League One Manager of the Month, beaten that curse with a 4-0 win to guide the team to third place and holds the accolade as our most successful ever manager judged on win ratio – at 57% after 56 games. This makes him proud, very proud. “Everyone had written us off for the play-offs [last season] but we turned it round. Since then it’s got better and better. We brought in our own squad – players who would get us promotion. It was slow in the beginning but the football has been good all season. The home form is really good – you can see why we got those points.”
He is quick to rationalise the only two losing blots on the 2018/19 home record – a late and unjust penalty versus Peterborough and a final-ten-minute turnaround by Coventry after 80 minutes of unrewarded Addicks’ dominance. “The players’ work-rate has been exceptional and the fans home and away have driven us across the line. At Portsmouth – constant singing. At Burton on a Tuesday night the fans helped us through – Burton are a good team – we scored in injury time.”
He has a clear grasp of how he brought about such a quick turnaround in form after taking charge. “The professionalism wasn’t there – small details – like coming out to the training pitch late – you can’t let things like that creep in. And they needed to play as a team, not for themselves. Those were things I had to correct.” He is also quick to point out the different atmosphere around the club. “The players and fans have come together. When I left as a kid, the fans and players were together – it was a good club, a nice family club, with mutual respect. When I came back that wasn’t there no more. Yet it’s so big. Fans help the players more than they realise.”
He cites his first game as the most memorable of his tenure so far: “We had been on a bad run, my first time in charge, at home against a Plymouth side who had lost 1 in 19 or something crazy. We won 2-0 with a formation no-one expected us to play. Seeing The Valley bouncing the way it was that day, that was memorable”
It has surprised many that Bowyer has such natural talent as a manager. He slipped without fanfare into the Charlton hotseat more by circumstance than design. He has no hesitation in explaining why the role suits: “I was very fortunate as player – I had a long career and played under five or six international managers and the level of player I played with – I learnt a lot of things. I’ve taken bits and pieces from all of them and try to pass on that knowledge to improve the players as individuals and to improve our team.” For me it is telling that Bowyer can coach across all positions - yes, our midfield is especially strong, but so is the Charlton defence, pipped only by Barnsley by one goal to the title of the best in the whole of the EFL. Then in Lyle Taylor we have a 29 year old centre-forward who looks more and more accomplished every time he steps on the turf, a far cry from the journeyman who toured from Falkirk to AFC Wimbledon.
It is obvious to anyone watching Charlton over the last couple of seasons that Bowyer has a knack for bringing out the best in players. He is a coach beyond the footballing sense, not only able to hone the ball skills of his squad but also to instil the right mentality. How does he do this? “It is going to sound crazy. I said to the players, ‘You play as a team or you don’t play - it’s that simple. You can be the best player but if you aren’t going to run around for the team and make the right decisions then you’re not playing for the team.’” The example he gives is of a player not squaring the ball to a team-mate for a tap-in but taking a difficult shot on themselves. “It’s quite simple. If you don’t play for the team and work hard for the team, then you won’t play.” No need for the manager to name names, but fans reading this may jump to their own conclusions about Tariqe Fosu’s conspicuous absence from the squad.
“Man management is the most important thing in football,” he continues. Bowyer strives to ensure the players know he believes in them not just as individuals but as a whole team. He sees it as the manager’s role to comfort or cajole. “Off field stuff can affect them. They are not invincible – they’re human beings. You want to make them feel good – put your arm round them and keep telling them. All of a sudden they become different people and confident.” He is not adverse to a metaphoric “kick up the backside” if they are slacking off at all, though.
I enquire specifically about our latest cult hero, the initially much-maligned number 23. “We put our arms round him and told him he’s good but it’s the fans that have changed Naby Sarr – that’s what I meant earlier. We can only do so much. The first time the fans started singing his name, his confidence grew from 1 to 10. He was a young player when he first came, change of scenery, country, culture. It was difficult for him in the beginning.”
Having broken into the Charlton first team as a youth player himself, Bowyer is particularly sensitive to the needs of the Academy graduates. “You need to put your arm round them and blend them in. Young players like Albie [Morgan] and George [Lapslie]. You can’t just chuck them in to play ten in a row. They need to get used to it and their confidence grows.” This is another perfect example of him drawing on his own learning, in this case from Alan Curbishley: “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” he happily quotes the cliché, the pride ringing through in his voice. “Albie Morgan was fantastic on Saturday. He deserved a goal. I’m learning what Alan Curbishley did with me - play you a few then bring you out. You can get through a few on adrenalin but physically it can catch up with you – Albie is an 18-year-old kid, playing against men. Curbishley gave me my chance. I’m grateful for that. Then later in my career he had me at West Ham – I was still the same, just a bit older!”
He’s still in touch with his first gaffer: “Yeah, I’m playing golf with him on Thursday – it’s his charity golf day. He drops me the odd text here and there – he brought me through as a kid – it must be strange for him…” Bowyer trails off, not needing to complete the sentence. There is almost twenty years in age between the original mentor and his protégé. I wonder if Bowyer is picturing a track-suited George Lapslie commanding the troops at Sparrows Lane a couple of decades in the future.
He reflects on the change in football since his own playing days. “It’s more and more a non-contact sport. It’s difficult, especially for players who are competitive like Josh Cullen running around tackling.” In the calm environment of an interview, he expresses genuine sympathy for the officials. “I’m disappointed by the way the players all dive and win fouls. The ref has the hardest job. I don’t understand why anyone would be a ref – the way the players just fall over now and cheat, it disappoints me.” I ask if he’s had to pull any of our squad up for simulation. “Our players? Yes, Jonny Williams at Peterborough away – not the right thing to do. He told me he was running at 100 miles an hour and thought the fella was going to take him out. Jonny, he’s the nicest man in football, so…” Again, there’s no need for him to complete the sentence. Williams now understands in no uncertain terms that behaviour which might have been acceptable at Palace most certainly is not at Bowyer’s Charlton. The boss sticks up for Taylor, though: “Lyle makes them aware he’s been fouled but he’s constantly being pushed and tugged etc.”
With a fairer wind behind us, Charlton might have made the top two. Bowyer knows this better than anyone but is not going to dwell on it. He explains that it was a calculated decision to hold out for Josh Cullen which is why we started the season a bit slowly, even with only five on the bench at Sunderland away. “We decided we’d rather take that chance that he wouldn’t go and play in the Championship than bring someone in who wasn’t as good. We had to accept being not so strong in the first couple of games but it would be better for the season.” He accepts injuries as part and parcel of the sport. “The long-term injuries – you can’t control that. Two dislocated shoulders in one game is unheard of, but with the squad we’d put together, when one goes out, the one coming in is just as good. My hardest job is when they are all fit, deciding who to pick.”
Bowyer pinpoints the dip in form at the turn of the year as the reason for missing out on automatic promotion. “We had Karlan going, Igor injured, Taylor suspended. We went a couple of games with no forwards. Josh Parker was learning the way we play – not right to chuck him straight in. Karlan going that was hard to take. Knew if we’d kept hold of him we’d have finished top two – we drew games after he left that we would have won…but I also understand that’s how football works. He’s a young player who has done well, scored goals, went and played in the Premier League and the club got good money for him. Unfortunately, it’s the way the cookie crumbles as they say.” The manager moves swiftly on, “But I think since then we’ve been strong. Managed to get Igor firing again, got his fitness up, been on a good run.” As an aside, I enquire after Igor’s current injury concerning the play-offs. Bowyer reports that he had a tight thigh a couple of weeks ago and then felt it again in training last Thursday. The boss is “hopeful he is going to be OK”.
Midway through this interview I thought I’d try a different angle. I ask the gaffer if he could share a funny moment from his time as Charlton manager. “Umm, no, not really - I’m a serious person,” is the initial response. Then he goes on: “The only thing I can think of – and it’s not funny - we made a sub at half-time, but then he didn’t get ready in time – Ben Reeves. He was out warming up, then by the time he’d put his shin pads on, we had to start the second half with ten men. These players nowadays they get mollycoddled, wrapped up in cotton wool, they can’t do anything for themselves. Me and Jacko were wondering what the hell happened there – why wasn’t he ready? Not funny, but it’s one of the strangest!” Fortunately for Ben Reeves, Charlton won said match v Portsmouth in style, batting away the hoodoo of rarely winning on TV. It is certainly not the kind of anecdote to have fans laughing out loud but is nevertheless an insight into the kind of detail that sticks in Bowyer’s mind. While he makes light of it now, I am certain we will not see a repeat under his dugout watch.
The burning question for supporters, of course, remains Bowyer’s contract situation. I share with him that we had fans queuing at the CAST stall behind the Covered End on Saturday to write messages to the owner on the subject. Can he offer us any hope that this will soon be resolved? “Yeah, it seems to bother everyone else more than me – I’m a laid back person – I don’t get flustered too much. I’m not really fussed about it - I’m focussed on getting promotion, in that zone. I understand everyone wants me to sign and I have no doubt, none, that it will get sorted – we’re not far apart. It’s not just mine, there are others as well. For me, it’s not a worry – I’m 99.9% sure it will happen. My focus is on the playoffs and getting up.”
There are no plans for contract talks this week and the ball is in Duchâtelet’s court. Bowyer is not keen to chase, even quipping that he might get disappointed, though asserts that would not change anything. He has one focus right now and that is the play-offs. “It will happen – there are three weeks left – it might as well just wait. Hopefully we’ll get to Wembley, then it might be announced before that – that would be good.”
I enquire whether he has had discussions yet about next season’s budget. “No,” he replies, “it’s difficult for us trying to plan for both leagues. Depending on what league we are in and what players are at our club next season from our remaining ones, we have players that are our targets for League One or the Championship. We are planning already for this.” Bowyer keenly wishes to reassure fans. “The owner has spoken to Steve Gallen and we’re on this. Everything is positive. For me there is no negative - that’s the truth. We have had discussions about recruitment for next season. The owner has been good. To be fair to him he has backed us this season on the ones we wanted to bring in. I have no doubt that whatever league we are in, we will bring in the right players to suit the way we want to play.”
Equally the lack of senior management at the club on the non-footballing side is not an issue, he says: “I’m OK. Richard Murray is always around – he pops in most Thursdays – and Keith Peacock most Thursdays and Fridays. I have a chat with them most weeks – just general chit chat. I don’t get phased – I’ve been in the game so long. Steve Gallen deals with the owner regarding players etc. Apart from that – I’m on the training pitch each day. It’s all good, there’s nothing to worry about. We all know our roles and jobs and we just get on with it. Anything that’s going on that we can’t control – there’s no point worrying about. We know what our jobs are and we keep working hard on it every day.”
Bowyer, quite rightly, refuses to be side-tracked from the immediate challenge of the play-offs. His desire to win and to succeed is blatantly obvious. “From a kid I’ve always been like that. You have to win. No-one remembers second. There’s never a quiz question, ‘Who came second?’ It is always, ‘Who won?’ It’s the way I am – I’ll do anything to win. I just want to win – at tennis, at golf, it’s the way I am. I like to think I have that effect on players. Winning is everything. We’re in that mentality now. The players are in a good place – they’ve got a bad habit of winning games. It’s the best habit to get – you think you are invincible and never going to lose. We had that at Leeds. Any game against anybody, when you have that, losing doesn’t even become an option.”
I do not get any inkling that Lee is looking beyond Doncaster, with all efforts focussed on those two legs right now. But he mentioned Wembley earlier, so I have to ask how he would feel being the first Charlton manager to lead the team out there since Curbs. Suddenly he is brimming with childish enthusiasm. “That would be amazing! This is where I started as a kid, playing football, to then be leading them out at Wembley would be some achievement - quite emotional. I’m not really an emotional person – but that occasion would probably get me. Let’s just hope I get to experience it. If we get there I honestly believe we could beat anyone on the day. For the club as a whole – because there has been negativity – there were some tough times before I came – now we have this good feeling around the place again.” He admits he’s not had the squad practising penalties yet. “I don’t think it’ll come down to that if I’m honest. But what a job Curbs done back then!”
Bowyer’s winning mentality has passed on to the next generation. He has ten-year-old twins, Amelie and Charlie. Does he think either of them might make it in professional sport? “Not football!” he quickly asserts. “My girl is the competitive one. She’s a machine, same as me – she has to win everything.” He describes how a very young Amelie would race to eat her dinner so she could be the winner and earn Dad’s approval. “She will go on and do something – she’s in the swimming team at moment – a very good swimmer.” In contrast, maybe it is Bowyer’s son who has helped his dad handle the contract uncertainty: “He is just so laid back, he’s not really fussed about anything.”
In every interview I’ve ever heard or read with Lee Bowyer, he emphasises the positive. As a Charlton fan, I’m as concerned as many others about the future of our club under an absentee owner who claims to be desperate to sell yet seems unable to progress a deal. And it seems I’m much more worried about the contract situation than the gaffer himself. Being directly on the receiving end of Bowyer’s straight-talking, even with his naturally deadpan delivery, is highly motivating. For the next two - hopefully three - weeks, I’m just going to let myself get swept up in the Bowyer bubble.
I ask him for a few parting words for the fans: “Come and support us like they have all season. Bring a friend, family, get the numbers up, make it louder and more intimidating for the last home game –experience something special. I want to thank everyone – they have been so kind with their words and their support. I’m loving every second and hopefully we can deliver.”