BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Chris Solly always felt this season would be a success story for Charlton Athletic – with the same kind of squad dynamic that saw the club win the League One title in 2012.
The long-serving club captain, in his testimonial year, was only aged 21 when Chris Powell’s side rolled over nearly everyone put in front of them. And while the class of 2018-19 isn’t striding away at the top of the standings, and threatening to break the 100-point barrier, Lee Bowyer’s side are still well-placed for at least a play-off berth.
“In pre-season I thought this group of lads were the best I’ve been involved in since that squad we had that success with back then,” said Solly. “It made me think this could be a good year.
“The biggest difference this time is that we’ve probably had to fight against more adversity. Back then, we were lucky on the injury front and able to keep a settled 11 – this season we have chopped and changed so much.
“That has been forced upon us with injuries. We’re still in a good position and there is a third of the season to go. There are a lot of points up for grabs and everyone at the top has got to play against each other.
“It’s exciting to be involved in.”
But Solly certainly feels that Charlton are stronger than 12 months ago.
It was around this point that the Addicks’ form began to wobble. A run of one win in eight matches saw Karl Robinson jump to Oxford – harbouring fears he was about to be pushed as talk gathered pace of impending new owners at The Valley.
Lee Bowyer took over and guided Charlton into the play-offs, where they lost their semi-final to Shrewsbury Town. Takeover talks never came to fruition.
The Addicks are seven points ahead of their total after 30 games last season.
“We are set up much better as a group this year to really kick on,” said Solly. “We have got a few big players coming back from injury in the next few weeks and they’ll improve the squad.
“The games come thick and fast in March and you need to rotate. Maybe we haven’t been able to do that the last few months.
“This is a big month – we have four games and have got to take maximum points, ideally to bridge that gap to the top two.”
Solly has had his fair share of injury problems but has only missed one match this season – and that was because he served a suspension.
If he features at Fleetwood tomorrow he will clock up his 150th League One game. And he is closing in on the 300-match landmark for his boyhood club – needing just 12 more appearances to hit that milestone.
“I’ve had a few social media messages about being near to the 300-mark and it will be nice when I get there,” he said. “But I’ve never really been one for landmarks, especially at this stage of the season. The three points is all that matters. It’s when you finish and look back at your career that you appreciate them.
“I’ll enjoy playing and continuing to play for Charlton as long as I can.
“Touch wood, I’ll carry on the way I have been. I don’t think I’ve changed anything I do since last season. I look after myself well and do all my gym stuff – I do a lot of swimming now to tick myself over. I feel fit and strong.”
Solly has a testimonial dinner at The Valley on March 17.
Amongst the guests will be academy boss Steve Avory and Damian Matthew, who was his manager at youth team and reserve level.
The right-back, 28, also intends to invite Powell, who brings his Southend side to SE7 next weekend.
Solly is glowing in his praise for Avory.
“He was one of the first names I put on my list of guests,” he said. “God knows how many players he has been influential in bringing through.
“He is a top coach and a brilliant man. He is someone I owe a lot to. He just has this aura. When he puts on a session, everyone immediately listens to every word he says – the focus and concentration he gets from a group of lads is hard to explain.
“You just know you are going to learn from him. When players have seen previous ones learn from his coaching, that makes it easier – they know what he does works.”
It throws up the question whether Avory could ever have hankered to try his arm at men’s football.
“I’ve often wondered that,” said Solly. “The fact he hasn’t must be down to the satisfaction he gets from seeing youngsters improve around the age of 14, 15 and 16. The reward must be massive when he sees them in the first team.”
Solly hardly pauses when asked about the best youngster he has seen come through the ranks.
“Joe Gomez was the one,” he replied. “He must have been 16 at the time when he stepped up in pre-season – he was a kid in a man’s body. He was just so strong and composed on the ball.
“He had a good way about him, he wanted to listen and learn. He was probably the main one.
“Jonjo [Shelvey] ability-wise at 15, 16 and 17 was unbelievable – the way he could strike a ball and control a game from midfield.
“Very recently there was Ademola [Lookman]. He had so much ability technically it was ridiculous. He could go as far as he wants to go. He’s got the ability to be a top, top Premier League player.”
Celebrate a Charlton legend – Chris Solly’s testimonial dinner takes place at The Valley on Sunday March 17. Get your tickets from booking.cafc.co.uk.