Sunday, May 26, 2013

Worked hard, showed potential and ultimately achieved a good grade.

After ten months of moments of both ecstasy and, more often than not, agony, we're down to having just the one English domestic football match left to play, the most lucrative of them all. The Championship play-off final is a fixture close to the hearts of all Charlton supporters, the greatest day of them all for those of us too young to remember the FA Cup final of  '47, and this season's encounter bears more than a passing interest to those in and around SE7.

Our bitter rivals, Crystal Palace, will endeavour to defeat Gianfranco Zola's Watford to gain entry to the ludicrous Premier League on Monday. It's a game I for one am glad Charlton aren't involved in this season.

Having walked away with the League One title the previous year, some expected the Addicks to follow in the footsteps of Norwich and Brighton, taking the Championship by storm. However, whispered financial insecurities over the summer left supporters a little concerned that survival was a far more obtainable goal than promotion. The traditional comings and goings in the transfer market were few and far between although Charlton did manage to keep hold of the nucleus of the title winning squad including player of the year Chris Solly, despite interest from some of English football's big names. Lawrie Wilson joined from Stevenage as Charlton beat Peterborough for his signature, whilst former Glasgow Rangers wide man Salim Kerkar also signed after a successful trial period. Perhaps Chris Powell's shrewdest piece of business was capturing French defender Dorian Dervite. Dervite has been an unsung hero stepping up to the mark when called upon both in the heart of the defence and also playing just ahead of the back four when Powell experimented with a 4-5-1 formation. He's been known to come up with the odd goal as well, just when we've needed it.

The season started as many have with disappointment and cup heartache, a Charlton phenomenon we'll forever have to endure. League One Leyton Orient, a side we had become very familiar with, fought for a draw and ultimately beating us in a penalty shoot-out, Jackson and new boy Wilson missing our first two. This was always going to be a season when we had to concentrate on the league anyway.

The opening day was at St Andrews; Birmingham full of play off misfortune and determined to go one better this time around. Charlton started their league campaign where they left off the last one, the better side for the majority of the match and snatching a late goal through Leon Cort. A momentary lapse of concentration at the back saw Birmingham equalise with almost the last kick of the ninety minutes, they celebrated like they had just won whilst we were left reeling and in no doubt that mistakes this season would be punished with a regularity we were not accustomed to. A harsh but perhaps needy lesson. Three days later Leicester came to The Valley, one of the promotion favourites. Both Wright-Phillips and Yann Kermorgant got off the mark and although the visitors pulled one back it was a solid Charlton performance on a frenzied and charged night. Our first victory, third in the table and we'd played two of the most fancied sides in the division off the park at times. This Championship lark was going to be easy, a day later we signed Ricardo Fuller who had been let go by Stoke. Buoyant is probably the most apt adjective I can think of looking back for the late summer of 2012. August was rounded off with a draw at home to Hull, another much fancied side, in torrential rain. Five points from nine, were we punching above our weight or had we really found our natural level? Chris Powell was certainly the man of the moment.

September came and with it a change of fortunes. Nottingham Forest gave us a footballing lesson, probably the best we would see all season, the 2-1 scoreline and a late rally of Charlton pressure both deceiving and ultimately flattering us greatly. What better a fixture to bounce back in then, than the much anticipated visit of Crystal Palace. The Eagles packed the away end with great support both vocally and visually, it was unfortunate that a few idiots from both camps decided to punch and kick their way to the station afterwards. A tight affair, Palace inflicted a successive defeat on us although in fairness we had a perfectly good goal ruled out earlier from Bradley Wright-Phillips. These incidents never hurt as much as they do in a local derby; the following week was hard to stomach at work as Palace fans seemed to creep out of the woodwork. The first Palace league win at The Valley in my lifetime, this was lamentably a notable landmark in a season full of sharp milestones.

The Palace flares did look good though.

After a third consecutive defeat, this time at Derby, another club supported by a friend happy to heap more mockery upon me, we found ourselves just outside the relegation zone a drop of eighteen places in four weeks. An early indication of how tight the division would stay all season.

The next couple of months saw complete extremes of emotions. Bradley Wright-Phillips was dropped as it became apparent he really didn't cut it in the second tier as was Danny Hollands. Two stalwarts of the title winning team that struggled to step up a level. The club captain, Johnnie Jackson, was also struggling to adjust as Chris Powell changed line ups and formations in an attempt to bring some stability to the team. Rhoys Wiggins had picked up a nasty injury in that clash against Palace, whilst Kermorgant also found himself in the treatment room for a month with an ankle injury. Chris Powell was always going to be tested as a manager and now he was, in the toughest of manners. He came in for criticism from some, his substitutions were badly timed and largely ineffective whilst it was obvious to many that he certainly had, and forgave, his favourites. If ever a manager was going to have to be brave and take a risk or two...

An encouraging and unexpected win at Blackpool was followed by probably the poorest performance of the season. Barnsley were the guests, football for a fiver was the event and 26,185 paying fans expected us to rise to the occasion to give first time viewers and long forgotten returning fans a spectacle. It was a drab game with very little atmosphere, the Tykes won with a single goal and there wasn't the merest hint of anything to encourage anyone to come again for the full asking price.

Those hardy souls that did return were treated to even worse in the next fixture, a 4-1 home defeat to Middlesbrough. Two away draws in between have given many false hope, the season wasn't even three months old and already The Valley was looking anything but the fortress we could depend on.

The high flying and re-branded Cardiff City were next, as if it couldn't get any worse! The crowd was much smaller than three days previously, many couldn't face going through all that again but those rugged enough to handle what Charlton could throw at them were in for a treat, the sort of night that will live long in the memory and told to future generations. Three minutes in, Cardiff had taken the lead, we slumped back in our seats resigned to another unwelcome battering. The only real surprise was that it took Cardiff twenty minutes to double their lead and as that goal went in I was so very tempted to make my way back down the pub to warm up. Something was different that night though, a feeling in the crowd that I last remember when we entertained West Ham in a thrilling 4-4 draw. This is one of those atmosphere's you couldn't recreate on a Saturday, it only happens under the floodlights but it was like an electrical charge running through the stands. We started to sing and sing and it just got louder and louder, akin to a mantra, we became a unit bound by a desire to not see our team capitulate but instead fight back with bravery and dignity. Bang bang, Johnnie Jackson rose to the call with two quick fire goals before the break to leave Cardiff shell-shocked. Malky Mackay's half time team talk must have been a stuttering and stumbling passage of disbelief whereas Powell's was obviously a rousing and proud speech. The Addicks returned to the battleground and knocked seven shades out of Cardiff for twenty minutes netting three times, the mother of all comeback's! Except for Huddersfield of course. The officials decided six minutes of stoppage time was needed, mainly for goal celebrations, and Charlton did their very best to give each and every one of us a cardiac arrest. Oh Charlton why do you always tease me so! Twice during those six minutes Cardiff found the net and looked very likely to finish the job before the referee finally brought the proceedings to an end.

We had beaten the league leaders 5-4, what could possibly touch me now? I was delirious. Even a Crystal Palace packed East Croydon station as I waited for a connection didn't really dampen things, albeit that they had also won and were rejoicing in now being top of the league, replacing Cardiff. Darn.

Momentum carried itself over from that game, we won three and drew one in the next four entering December with a much anticipated trip to The New Den. Things were looking 'dench' as our new loan signing Emmanuel Frimpong would say. The Arsenal lad would, it transpired, become subject to mockery for his actions off the pitch and completely forgotten for those on it. Another loanee that failed to make an impact at the same time was Danny Seabourne of Southampton although experienced and much traveled Rob Hulse, also 'borrowed' by us looked the real deal to me. Unwanted by QPR, the striker was keen to make an impression in the hope of a job offer from Powell. Hulse would later sign for Millwall where he was as popular with the natives as a Charlton supporter brandishing a flare. A lucky escape perhaps?

The game at Millwall won't be remembered for the football but for how Charlton and their 'geeky' fans stood up to the Lions. Charlton never backed down even when things got intimidating, many noses were put out of joint so much so that the Metropolitan Police, and the clubs for that matter, were worried that certain factions would seek retribution come the return fixture. Much was of course made of how all parties dealt with this, many feeling like Charlton fans were made to feel like second class citizens on our home patch in an effort to escort Millwall off the premises as quickly as possible. Those that like a bit of politics had a field day! We only took one point off Millwall in the end over the two games.

From that moment on Christmas had a distinctly miserable feel to it as the Addicks struggled to gain a measly two points from the next fifteen, the only highlight being Danny Haynes peach of a goal against Derby which would ultimately go on to be voted the clubs goal of the season.

As 2012 rolled into 2013 we sat in 18th place in the table. The confidence of the previous season was a distant memory, as was the 'homely' feel of League One. It would be fair to say that, with a couple of obvious exceptions, I wasn't really enjoying being back in the second tier of English football. I'm in no way a glory hunter, I certainly don't only watch the club when they are winning, but i missed the friendliness of third division football. The Championship is a lot more stressful both on and off the pitch.

New Years Day gave me a perfect opportunity to visit Vicarage Road, a ground I hadn't been to for many years. I could never have picked a better time to reacquaint myself with the place. Now Watford didn't play a nice game to be fair, I'm only going to support them on Monday because of the opposition. Full of Italian loanee's they played up, fell over and generally cheated in an attempt to win, much like the real McCoy on the other side of Europe. They may not have endeared themselves to us but Charlton did the complete opposite refusing to go down and winning the match by playing football. No matter how much we thought we loved our club, we loved them a little more after the game. Twice we went behind, twice we came back eventually running out 4-3 winners. Johnnie Jackson scored the winner, his face full of passion, it was a face he would pull again before the season was out. An early kick off meant a good long celebratory drink afterwards, first in Watford and then back in Euston. I was in the dog house for days afterwards once I'd returned home!

This form was taken into our next league match, Blackpool's visit to The Valley. There was the small matter of the third round of the cup between these two fixtures, we entertained Huddersfield and in true Charlton tradition we were abysmal so I shan't dwell on it. Not only did Blackpool mark our first double of the season but also our first home Saturday 3pm win of the campaign too. Had we turned over a new leaf? The 2-1 victory saw a goal for Scott Wagstaff who had returned from a loan spell at Leyton Orient with the bit between his teeth. If ever a player was out to prove his worth to his manager this lad was showing it. He would keep his place for the next three games including a win at Ewood Park. The last of these was our trip to Selhurst Park, a sad day for the club as the Eagles inflicted a second defeat upon us whilst our fans shamed themselves both inside and outside the ground with acts of needless vandalism. The actions of the police didn't help matters but even so.....

One point out of four South London derbies. I started this piece mentioning agonies don't forget.

February saw the long overdue return of Rhoys Wiggins, Cedric Evina had done a good job filling in but our first choice left back certainly gave a feeling of stability in our defence. We needed that stability as Ben Hamer was starting to feel the pressure, his mistakes became more apparent and, with it, more costly. David Button was given his chance between the sticks. Again our away form carried us through with the second double of the season at Leicester whilst Sheffield Wednesday, Forest, Burnley and Millwall all triumphed in SE7.

Chris Powell once again dipped into the loan market picking up Jonathan Obika from Tottenham and Mark Gower from Swansea. Last season's top scorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips was now enjoying a spell at Brentford (which would culminate with an appearance at Wembley) and may well have played his last game for the Addicks. Callum Harriott had been given the nod for the first team and raised his game pulling full backs here there and everywhere with his youthful exuberance. His performances along with the forgotten man of Charlton, Andy Hughes, were to transform our season end run in.

Bolton Wanderers came to The Valley at the end of March, another much fancied side in a rich vein of form. This game, at the beginning of the final straight, was I believe the turning point, not just because it was the start of our unbeaten climax to the season, but also because it finally showed the belief of the the players, the management and the supporters. After the poor showing against Millwall a week previously, we were again two down and this time after only twenty minutes. The visitors went defensive with a substitution, we immediately capitalized pulling a goal back and then never let go. Bolton had two players sent off but that was merely a statistic, with Andy Hughes dominating the midfield on his long awaited return to action. The 72 minutes he played that afternoon were nearly enough to win him the 'player of the year' award on their own!

A credible draw at Brighton midweek and another very spirited win against Leeds followed, we were up to twelfth and although not mathematically safe, I felt we had done enough. The Leeds game also saw the start of  something that will go down in Charlton folklore, Jonathan Obika and his last minute winner. The Bolton game left us elated, this last minute victory over Leeds even more so. We had snatched this after an old boys club had tried to steal the points from us. Luke Varney, governed by Neil Redfearn had thought they'd done enough equalizing with less than ten minutes to play. Obika duly became a hero!

The trip to Barnsley that followed really didn't need any last minute heroics from anyone. For the first time during my years supporting the club we scored six goals in a game, and as if that wasn't enough they all came from different individuals. That will teach anyone to come to The valley and spoil the day for all those kids! We were up to ninth and some were calculating the possibilities of a top six finish. We then gatecrashed Cardiff's promotion party as we held the best side in the league to a draw before entertaining a very troubled Wolverhampton Wanderers.

If ever a side looked resigned to their fate it was Wolves. Wasteful in attack, void of ideas in midfield, the very real threat of a second successive relegation stared everyone in the face. The pitch at The Valley had looked in awful condition for a few weeks by this time, Wolves needed to grow accustomed to it as it will mirror many they'll visit next season in League One. Charlton being Charlton have never taken the obvious route and after going a goal up threw Wolves a lifeline and the opportunity to claim a vital point. The visitors finally sensing the gravity of the situation took it with both hands only for that man Obika to once again kick a visiting team in the teeth at the death. As loan signings go there have been few with that much impact.

A draw at Middlesbrough and a comfortable win over bottom club Bristol City saw the Addicks finish the season unbeaten in their last eight and top of the last 'current form' table. Chris Powell said himself that he wished there were another ten games to go. Without doubt it instills great confidence for the start of the next campaign.

Behind the scenes there had been much gossip surrounding the owners and the staff. We often saw rumours stating Powell's frustration and unhappiness at both the funds available and those not supplying them, although at least he still found himself employed. Many at the club lost their jobs, some that had been central to the Charlton cause for many years. There were also sounds being made of foreign business consortium's being in attendance at The Valley on a matchday but this has since been rubbished. Of course we have no idea how the books look, or for that matter the future intentions of those pulling the strings. We can however assume that survival has meant everything to the club, if the worst had happened and we'd gone straight back down I fear a very big nail would have entered our coffin. It's just a feeling, I could of course be wrong.

In a season of many hero's it was Chris Solly that once again picked up the accolade of 'Player Of The Year'. Johnnie Jackson must wonder what he has to do to get his name on that particular trophy, he turned his season completely around after struggling to adapt for the first few weeks, scoring twelve goals in the process, many of them priceless and game changing. As faces start to leave throughout the summer I pray the skipper's isn't one of them. I do wonder if we can continue to hold on to Chris Solly, West Ham are still keen and his signature must now be worth a pretty penny, whilst Aston Villa were as we know keen on Dale Stephens back in January. It's hard to say if that was genuine interest or more of a panic scenario due to their precarious situation at the time.

Young Callum Harriott has signed a new deal which is great news for the club, as has Dorian Dervite while Danny Haynes and Scott Wagstaff will both be leaving. Haynes has been unfortunate not only during his time with us but for most of his career with injuries while it really is a little sad to see Waggy go. A youth product who has played at all levels for Charlton and seems to have been around the club for so long already obviously isn't a part of Powell's bigger picture. With the utmost respect to Ricardo Fuller, Matt Taylor, Salim Kerkar, John Sullivan and Yado Mambo (we never got a chance to sing that song) who all also leave this summer, none of them were Charlton through and through. It's a sad day when one of your own move on to pastures new.

So we now know all of our league opponents for next season except one. I'm a tad biased, i follow more Watford fans on twitter (two) than I do Palace fans and besides I want another chance to claim bragging rights over drinkers in my local pubs. What fun would it be to see Palace lose every week in the Premier League anyway? Like I said at the beginning, I'm glad we are not involved, it would be far too early for this squad to get promoted but, fifteen years on from the greatest of days in my living memory, I don't begrudge any supporters their day out at Wembley tomorrow.


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