LONDON — Guy Luzon is running late to his weekly press conference. It is just after 1pm on Friday, October 2, and at noon on Sunday, his Charlton Athletic team is due to face their London rivals, Fulham, in a soccer derby best described as a must-win game for their manager.
On this beautifully sunny and crisp October day, Luzon is still out on the training ground, running through drills, testing out formations and combinations, whispering in the ears of individual players — trying to get his preparations just so.
Yes, he eventually tells the journalist from the local BBC affiliate who leads the press conference, it is his responsibility for Charlton’s current poor run of form that has seen them lose four out of their last five league games. Charlton has had a good deal of bad luck with injuries of late, but no, it can’t be an excuse. And yes, the derby against Fulham represents a great challenge and chance for the team to show its quality.
After a couple more questions about players Charlton will or will not be selling or allowing out on loan, the press conference is wrapped up, briskly and efficiently.
Luzon took charge of Charlton Athletic, based in southeast London, in January 2015 when it was positioned 14th in the English Championship — the division below the Premier League. After a rocky start with the “Addicks,” as fans call the team, Luzon steadied the ship and took Charlton to a respectable 12th place finish. Fans will expect a similar finish this season, but after three successive defeats in the league, Luzon’s side is currently 17th and falling.
In English soccer, managers aren’t often given the time to turn things around. After only his first home game in charge — a 1-1 draw against perennial strugglers Rotherham United — Charlton supporters were already chanting, “You don’t know what you’re doing!” Another couple of defeats and, doubtless, fans will be getting restless once more.
After his playing time was cut short at the age of 21 due to injury, Luzon’s career in soccer management began in 2001 at Maccabi Petah Tikva. Over six seasons, Luzon won the Toto Cup — the third-most important competition in Israeli soccer — and took Petah Tikva to second place in the Israeli Premier League in the 2004/05 season. Luzon also led Petah Tikva to the group stages of the UEFA Cup on one occasion.
What followed was a less-than-edifying spell in charge of Hapoel Tel Aviv where in seven months Luzon won only five of his twenty-two games in charge, getting the sack halfway through the 2007/08 season. After returning briefly to Petah Tikva, he moved on to Bnei Yehuda in Tel Aviv, where in two seasons Luzon qualified for preliminary European competition twice and won the State Cup in 2010.
Speaking to The Times of Israel after his press conference in the small media room at Charlton’s training facilities, where the walls are boldly painted in blocks of the club colors — red and white — it was evident that his truncated period at Hapoel Tel Aviv remains a sore point.
‘Do you know how many years I am a coach? How many? Fifteen. Do you know how much time I was at Hapoel Tel Aviv? Three months’
“Do you know how many years I am a coach? How many? Fifteen. Do you know how much time I was at Hapoel Tel Aviv? Three months,” Luzon said. “I took Maccabi Petah Tikva to Europe three times. I took Bnei Yehuda two times to Europe. I was the under-21 national coach. I went to Standard Liège— This happens in football.”
Between 2010 and 2013, Luzon coached Israel’s under-21 team. (His uncle, Avi Luzon, was chairman of the Israel Football Association at the time of his appointment.) During the 2013 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, hosted in Israel, Luzon led his side to a memorable 1-0 victory against England at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Until October 2014, Luzon managed the Belgian side Standard Liège, taking them to a second-place finish in the league in his first season before resigning in the wake of a bad start to his second season in charge.
“It’s great to work here in England. I’ve adjusted quickly to the Championship and to life here,” Luzon said.
Comparing the styles of soccer, he explained that in Israel the game is played mostly on the ground, in Belgium it’s a combination of long ball soccer and short passes, but in England the soccer is “high tempo and high intensity. The atmosphere in the stadium is great. It’s the best place to be.”
‘Israel is not a country that developed the sport or invests a lot of money in sport’
Israeli football “is not at the best stage” right now, Luzon said. “Israel is not a country that developed the sport or invests a lot of money in sport. A lot of money goes towards the security of the country” and investment in sport including soccer is not viewed as a priority, he explained.
Luzon didn’t think he was under great pressure to succeed how he’s coaching in England. “I think when you are a football coach, you are under pressure no matter where you coach: Israel, Belgium, England. It’s the same. This is the job, and if you cannot cope with pressure, maybe you need to leave the job. It’s part of the game.”
Luzon would take another training session with his side on Saturday prior to the game on Sunday — the last game before a much-needed break from the domestic calendar. As for his ambitions at Charlton, Luzon initially kept his cards close to his chest.
“Our first target is to win on Sunday,” he said. Later he revealed, “Of course, my target is the target of all clubs which is to get to the Premier League but it depends on our squad, on our financial terms, and the expectations of the club.”
Sunday could not have been a better day for soccer. At midday, the air was cold but clean and the sun shone uninterrupted. But Luzon did not meet his target.
Sunday could not have been a better day for soccer. But Luzon did not meet his target
By two o’clock, Charlton had drawn with Fulham 2-2, stopping the rot but at the same time extending its run without a win in the league to six games. Things didn’t bode well for Luzon’s team when, in the game’s opening minute, a Fulham mistake gifted striker Conor McAleny a clean chance through on goal which he fluffed wide of the post.
After sitting back for the first 20 minutes, Fulham gradually came into the game, and after thirty-two minutes, an embarrassing spillage from a free-kick by Charlton goalkeeper Nick Pope allowed the waiting Fulham midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe to slip the ball into the back of the net with relative ease. Charlton went 2-0 down after half-time when Ross McCormack took the ball down on his left foot, pivoted, and struck it across the face of goal and past the keeper.
After 80 minutes, Charlton pegged one back from a corner, headed in by substitute Johnnie Jackson in what must have been his first sight of action in the game. Galvanized, the home side suddenly decided to come alive in the final 10 minutes of the match, pressing Fulham deep into their half and having several chances on goal. Well into injury time, 21-year-old midfielder Jordan Cousins leveled the match with his left foot and the home crowd celebrated the draw as if they had won the match.
Luzon spent the game as if he was kicking every ball in his head and might, at any moment, strip off his training gear and dive into the action himself
Luzon — wearing a fluorescent yellow-green polyester T-shirt and black tracksuit bottoms — spent the game hugging the edge of his technical area. He crouched down on the touchline to get eye-level with the ball, before leaping up, applauding with force and encouragement, and barking instructions at his players. He veered between hyper-animation and exasperation, as if he was kicking every ball in his head and might, at any moment, strip off his training gear and dive into the action himself.
Overall, his Charlton side played at a decent tempo and demonstrated glimpses of technical astuteness, especially in the first 20 minutes and final 10 minutes of the match. With Fulham utilizing a counter-attacking style, Charlton sought to retain possession, passing and working the ball effectively through the middle of the park. Charlton, however, were inexperienced and naïve at times. Its defense left holes at the back for the Fulham attackers to exploit, while its forwards, want of a killer instinct, failed to make that early possession count in the final third for most of the game.
To its credit, after going 2-0 down and having been booed off at half-time, Charlton showed great character in being able to regroup, and a couple of well-timed substitutions from Luzon gave the team new life. It pressured Fulham and came back with a response. The draw was, on balance of things, deserved.
In the circumstances it was great to come back with one point, Luzon told the assembled press after the game, but the way the team played Charlton deserved something more. Jackson’s goal gave the team the confidence to play football, he continued, and if you play with confidence you’ll get your result.
No, he isn’t worried about the performance of the goalkeeper who was at fault for the first goal. And yes, the point is very important to getting the side back on form. There are a thousand reasons for the side’s bad run, but we mustn’t cry — we must continue to fight.