Ben Garner’s career highlight is a Crystal Palace promotion. Now he will be hoping that he can surpass that with a Charlton Athletic one.
Addicks owner Thomas Sandgaard wants attractive, flowing football and believes that is the best way to drive up Valley attendances. And the fact his vision did not marry up with Johnnie Jackson’s more gritty approach was part of the reason that the club’s former captain was relieved of his duties at the start of May.
Garner, 42, is still relatively green in terms of managerial posts but began coaching in 2005 in the Eagles academy, initially with the U11s before being promoted to the first-team set-up in 2012 by then boss Ian Holloway. Palace won the Championship play-off final at Wembley the following May and Garner stayed in his post under Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock and Alan Pardew before leaving in 2015.
The key to him landing the Charlton job this week, signing a three-year contract, was his achievements at Swindon Town last season. Working with a squad whose average age was 23, they placed number one in League Two for most goals (77), number of passes (21,711), average possession (60 per cent) and most away points. Thirteen players made their professional debuts.
Swindon reached the play-offs but lost on penalties to Port Vale, who went on to beat Mansfield, in their semi-final.
Garner knows that his tactics are wholly endorsed by Sandgaard, who is on to his third managerial appointment since acquiring Charlton in September 2020.
“The big thing for me was the vision and philosophy of the football club,” Garner told the South London Press. “If I’d have come into the conversation with Thomas and he’d said he wanted the team to defend deep and play direct then the conversation wouldn’t have gone very far. It has to be aligned. I don’t think you can be successful in any business or football club if you’re not all on the same page.
“So that was the biggest thing, combined with the size of this football club and the potential. This is a fantastic catchment area in terms of the academy as well.
“It was a difficult decision to leave Swindon – we didn’t get that fairytale ending at Wembley – but it was a marvellous season. We started with hardly any players, no pre-season and the financial restrictions of an embargo. It was a unique season, it really was. So many people deserve great credit for that.
“It’s a season I’ll look back on with great fondess for many years, but this is such a wonderful opportunity.
“That experience of getting promoted at Wembley [with Palace] is unique and wonderful. The experience of last season as a whole, with that group of people and what we achieved was special. Everything that has gone in the past is experience and it’s just learning – it’s now about what we do today and moving forward that is important.
“For me it’s about focusing on each day and doing the right things and best things possible. If we do that then we’ll progress nicely this season.”
Charlton were 13th in League One last season – 24 points behind sixth-placed Wycombe Wanderers – their lowest finish since the 1973-74 season in the old Third Division.
So what is Garner’s objective?
“The first step for me is establishing a new identity and a style of play that we want moving forward,” he said. “Looking to improve on last season. The ultimate target is promotion. We want to try and get into the Championship but that is a process, we need to put building blocks in place – establish the foundations.
“We understand that needs to be quickly and we need to win football games, as many as we can.
“It’s about everyone knowing their role as part of the team and being in perfect harmony, with and without the ball. You want a team with a really strong collective and that plays in the style we want – with the energy, intensity and desire. Alongside that you throw in organisation on set-pieces and restarts, there is so much in terms of trying to get a complete performance.”
Garner is in the process of watching all of Charlton’s matches from the 2021-22 campaign to gather more insight into the personnel he has available. The question is whether a squad that so badly under-achieved last time around needs extensive surgery in this transfer window or whether a different tactical approach can avoid a repeat of that soul-crushing season.
“There is a good core here, a strong nucleus, and we know we need to bring quality into certain areas as well as add some depth to the squad,” said Garner.
“I’m 10 or 15 games into watching last season. There is great potential. It’s about getting to know the individuals here first and then identifying which ones we feel can come with us on this journey. Possibly there might be some that don’t fit what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go. I’ll make those decisions very quickly.
“Everybody will get a chance to be a part of this.
“I’ll be heavily involved [in recruitment]. We’ve got a strong recruitment team. The important thing is we get the best possible players to Charlton Athletic and that doesn’t just mean good players, it means players who fit what we want in terms of style of play and, just as importantly, character and attitude.
“I realise what a wonderful opportunity this is and what a great football club Charlton is. It’s important to now do everything to help Charlton be successful. That’s a joint process through everyone at the football club. Everyone plays their part and we’ve got to all perform to the best of our abilities.”
Sandgaard looked at 40 candidates for the position now filled by Garner.
“We seriously interviewed multiple times about a dozen of them,” said the US-based Dane, who flew into the UK earlier this week.
“There were approximately four that we were seriously looking at. They would all come with an attacking, high-pressing playing style, that was one of the key elements.
“What Ben had over all the other candidates was being much more well-rounded, having seen things at the highest level and also being a manager and being beat up at the lower level. He has a record of developing young players and obviously all under the banner of playing attacking football – always showing up whether it is home or away.
“He is a very grounded person. Those are the things that definitely stand out.
“He actually started his coaching career when he was 18 and he is now 42, pretty much everything I’ve learned about him ticks all the boxes. I’m actually very confident that he is perfectly mature for this job.
“I’m very confident in how much he is going to achieve, especially because we are so much on the same page about everything. That’s why we gave him the three-year contract – he needs time to turn this around and moving in the right direction.”