Johnnie Jackson's 100% win record as Charlton manager will come under severe threat this weekend when he and Jason Euell take their team to The Stadium of Light to play Lee Johnson's promotion favourites Sunderland. It is hard to think of a more challenging baptism.
Sunderland's home record this season is played seven, won seven, scored fourteen, conceded three. As a result of their scheduled game with Oxford being postponed for international call-ups they haven't played at home for nearly a month but that hasn't hindered their progress. They sit in second place one point behind Plymouth with two games in hand having picked up a further six points on the road this week (4-0 at Crewe and 2-1 at Gillingham). The only blot so far this season was their surprise 0-4 defeat at Portsmouth at the start of the month.
When 31 goal Charlie Wyke left to join Wigan in the summer there was a question mark about whether Johnson's team would have sufficient fire power. Step forward Ross Stewart who joined from Ross County in January. He only scored two in eleven outings last season but has nine in twelve so far this term and has earned the nickname "The Loch Ness Drogba" from Black Cat fans. He won't have the support of Elliot Embleton who is suspended after being sent off at Gillingham but Alex Pritchard and Aiden O'Brien also carry a goal threat, not to mention Aiden McGeady who has four assists and two goals already.
Charlton's last trip to Sunderland was only six months ago and our 2-1 win (which ended the home side's unbeaten fourteen game run) was one of the high points of Nigel Adkins's reign. The play-offs looked a certainty at that point and, when we didn't quite make it, most fans nevertheless felt optimistic about another strong tilt under Adkins this season. Few would have then predicted that we would find ourselves in a relegation struggle come the autumn.
Jackson's promotion to caretaker manager will give everyone a lift and it will be fascinating to see what team he picks and what formation and tactics he employs. We have been constantly outplayed this season by smaller clubs with smaller (and less expensive) squads but whose teams have seemed better organised and fitter. No-one is realistically expecting a miracle on Saturday (although we can dream) but we will all be looking for signs that at least a corner has been turned. We remember the effect Jimmy Floyd had at Burton last season and how the replacement of Chris Hughton by Steve Cooper last month has revitalised Nottingham Forest.
Despite the disappointment of May's play-off semi final defeat by Lincoln, Lee Johnson's managerial record at Sunderland is impressive - 56 games, 33 wins, 13 draws and just 10 defeats - a win percentage of 59%. But it pales into mediocrity when compared with Jackson's proud record which he achieved when his team staged a stirring comeback from 0-2 to beat Bristol Rovers 3-2 last April. In many ways he has little to lose at Sunderland. The real scrutiny will come in the following home games against Doncaster and Rotherham, not to mention the FA Cup humdinger with Havant & Waterlooville.
The man himself was upbeat today, but aware of the need for change:
"For me, personally, to lead a Charlton Athletic team out there as caretaker manager will be a real honour. I’ve got my own style and I need to imprint that on the team. What we’ve been doing isn’t working, clearly. So, I need to do something different. The players need to do something different.
It’s a collective and we all need to do things differently and try that bit harder and see what we can find because the position we find ourselves in isn’t a good one. But I’m confident that we’ve got enough and I’m confident in myself to be able to drag it out of these lads to get a result.”
He can also be confident that all true Charlton fans will be dragging with him and it is an impressive reflection on our support that about one thousand will be up there doing it in person.