Nine seasons at the club as a player, 279 appearances, player-coach last term under Karl Robinson and now assistant manager under Lee Bowyer: there are few who know Charlton Athletic as well as Johnnie Jackson.
Having played his last game for the club last May, Jackson is now helping to prepare the squad for the League One play-offs. Dumped out at the semi-final stage by Shrewsbury last season despite an improbable run under Bowyer – appointed last March, initially as caretaker – to get them there in the first place, Charlton face Doncaster Rovers in the semis this time around. This is their third consecutive season in League One, despite the club being a Premier League regular up until 2007.
“I think me and Bow found a way of working together pretty early,” Jackson tells i, when asked how his first full season as assistant manager has gone so far. “We had some success towards the back end of last season and we’ve just sort of found a formula that works for us and carried on with that.” Fifth in the table for much of the run-in, Charlton went on a run of one defeat in 15 towards the end of the regular campaign and ended up third, putting them in a strong position going into the play-offs. “When you’re winning games, that obviously helps with the mood,” Jackson says. “We’re in a good place going into the play-offs. We’re in good form, the lads are in good spirits, they are training hard with a sharp, fast tempo like we always demand, and they’re looking good.
“They just need to translate that into the next, well, hopefully, three games,” he says, inadvertently lifting his hands with a half-smile and looking to the skies in a prayer to fate.
Jackson has seen his fair share of highs and lows at Charlton since he made his debut for the club in 2010. Part of the side which was promoted from League One in 2012 under the management of Chris Powell, another Charlton legend, he has also witnessed the club’s decline under the deeply unpopular ownership of Roland Duchatelet, which has seen them slide back down to the third tier. After several seasons marked by protests against Duchatelet and a widespread fan boycott, Charlton were at a low ebb. This season has been a notable improvement, though the supporter-led campaign against Duchatelet looks set to continue until he sells up as has long been his stated intention.
Asked whether, given the club’s off-field problems, this season feels like an overachievement so far, Jackson says: “We set out at the start of the season with the aim of getting promoted, so if we fall short of that we’ll be disappointed. We’re happy with the way it’s gone so far but certainly we like to think that we’re moving the club in the right direction, regardless of what transpires in the next couple of weeks.
“I like to think that we’ve built a team that people want to come and watch, and I think the gates over the next couple of games should reflect that. I’ve obviously been here a long time, I know the club and I know what fans want to see. First and foremost, they want a team that they can be proud of and that they feel a connection with. I feel like that’s coming back.”
‘The fans are incredible’
With almost 21,000 home tickets sold for the second leg of the semi-final against Doncaster at the Valley, there are tentative signs of a revival for Charlton. “I think that’s reflected in the mood around the whole place, around the training ground, at the Valley on matchdays, among the away support, who are incredible,” Jackson says. “People are getting behind us, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a good feel about the place.
“I’ve had both [in my playing career], when it was unbelievable and we were promoted last time in 2012 – and there’s certainly a sense of that around the place at the moment – but then obviously some low points and tough times,” he adds. “For me, there’s nothing better than seeing the Valley full, loud and proud. It makes you proud to see that and if I can play a small part in getting it back to that feeling, that’ll be rewarding.
“Next season, hopefully, will be my 10th season at the club as a player and a coach. It’s been a massive, massive part of my whole adult life. The best times of my playing days were here, my first steps into coaching, so I feel ingrained in it all. I take the highs and lows personally.”
Despite many feeling that Charlton have outperformed expectations this season, Jackson and Bowyer are out of contract in the summer. The fact that the club hierarchy has not already tied them down for next season is testament to Duchatelet’s erratic working practices, leaving fans with a sense of anxious uncertainty. Jackson insists that he and Bowyer are not allowing the situation to affect their preparations for the play-offs, at least. “I’ve sort of left it with Lee, he’s negotiating,” Jackson laughs.
“We’re so distracted at the moment, there’s so much going on that – and you might sound like a liar – but you’re not really thinking about it. Our focus is on the play-offs, there’s no time to get all that out of the way, but I’d like to think that we’re doing a good job and that people can see that. I’m sure it will be rewarded and it’ll resolve itself, but honestly, at the moment, it’s an afterthought. You come into work, you do your job and what will be will be, but we’re all really hopeful that we’ll be here next season to carry on progressing the club like we are.”
‘Our fans deserve a day at Wembley’
Charlton have an exciting young team, with academy graduates like goalkeeper Dillon Phillips and midfielder Joe Aribo complemented by shrewd loan signings like Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen from Arsenal and West Ham respectively. They are favourites to reach the play-off final, though Jackson warns that Doncaster are “a free-flowing, attacking side” managed by a man he knows well from his playing days in Grant McCann. For Jackson, however, reaching the final means more than just a career boost and personal accolades.
“I’m just praying that we can overcome Doncaster and give the fans the opportunity to watch us at Wembley,” he says solemnly. “They do deserve that for what they’ve been through over the last few years. There have been some real lows during that period, when it’s probably been difficult to be a Charlton fan. But your club is your club, you stick with them and that’s what they’ve done. If we can give them the reward of a day out at Wembley and promotion, then it would be fitting.”
Charlton Athletic take on Doncaster Rovers at the Valley in the League One play-off semi-finals on Friday 17 May at 7.45pm. Tickets start at £18 and can be purchased from https://booking.cafc.co.uk