As the Addicks prepare to face Norwich City yet again, CAS Trust Member Paul Breen reflects on the last time we faced the Canaries in League One, rather than the Cup or Championship, and hopes that this time around our quest for promotion will have a much happier ending.
TUESDAY night 22nd August, Charlton face Norwich less than a month after the East Anglian Canaries travelled down to The Valley for a pre season friendly. With the Addicks in such fine early season form, this Cup game probably offers more of a chance for fringe players to stake their claim for a first team place than for the core members of the squad to be used in such a match. Like many, after the recent Northampton match, I am excited about what lies ahead this season, whilst at the same time remembering that the opening couple of League games count for relatively little in the long haul. If anyone knows that in this division, it’s probably our opponents on Tuesday night. They began the 2009-10 season in disastrous fashion and still ended up getting promoted, as we started well and then faded. Both Charlton and Norwich had been freshly relegated from the championship just the season before, with both hoping for an immediate return to the division above. However, as Charlton opened their account with a 3-2 victory over newly promoted Wycombe Wanderers, Norwich crashed to a shocking 7-1 defeat at the hands of visitors and east coast mainline rivals Colchester United.
Incidentally, that same month Huddersfield had a 7-1 home win over Brighton, so maybe there’s something about heavy losses that have a transformative impact on teams. Norwich City soon found themselves transformed by the appointment of Paul Lambert as manager, and started to climb the table steadily; drawing 2-2 with the Addicks up at Carrow Road along the way, in late September. By the middle of December Norwich had stormed into the play off places on that same memorable weekend as we faced Millwall in our first south east London derby in over twenty years.
That ended in a topsy turvey 4-4 draw, which at least redeemed some pride for our side that had been humbled a few weeks earlier in an FA Cup match against a club that sounds not too far from Norwich in alphabetical terms but geographically is on the opposite side of the country. Few of us want to remember the televised defeat at the hands of Northwich Victoria, from the Blue Square North but it does remind us of a time when we were at a point as low as any, on the field, in recent times.
But the general mood of that time was one of craving promotion more than a Cup run. Going into the start of 2010, the Addicks were second in the table, comfortably clear of Millwall. Leeds, as leaders by a distance of eight points, and Norwich, under the astute management of Paul Lambert, seemed to our main rivals for the top two positions in the division. January brought a mixed bag of results including a live TV defeat at home to Leyton Orient; the second match in a row when the Addicks seemed camera shy. Though not quite as bad as the Northwich performance, this was another opportunity missed. A couple of weeks later we suffered another embarrassing Monday night defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. Though remaining in third place, the gap between Charlton and our rivals was narrowing on one side and widening on the other, and unfortunately not in the direction we wanted to go. Norwich, who’d long forgotten their opening day embarrassment, had now stormed clear whilst Leeds ploughed a consistently inconsistent furrow in second place.
A couple of derbies in the middle of the month were suddenly crucial. The first was against Millwall at the New Den. This time, things were far frostier for Charlton. Steve Morrison once again featured on the scoresheet, striking twice as Millwall ran out 4-0 winners, to move within a point of the Addicks. Then came Gillingham at home, which was a match we had to win for any hope of automatic promotion. Though struggling at the wrong end of the table, our Kentish neighbours gave a good performance on the day, leading at one stage and glimpsing a hope of recording their first away win of the season, before conceding an equaliser on the hour mark to leave the game finishing in a 2-2 draw. Now, as the division was hotting up, we were slipping up.
Millwall continued to roar into form at the right time and Swindon also emerged as a force to be reckoned with; the Robins knocking Leeds off their perch, in second place, at the start of April. Charlton needed to start winning to stay in the hunt and we did so with a couple of victories over Carlisle and MK Dons, alongside a valuable draw up in Huddersfield. The crucial games though were still to come, against Norwich and Leeds at home in the season’s closing weeks. Norwich turned up at the Valley in mid-April with the sun shining down on their canary-yellow strips. Those Canaries were clear favourites, needing only a win for promotion and another three points in the quest for a title win that had seemed so unlikely a short time ago against Colchester United.
On the day the Charlton players lined out as Randolph, Richardson, Sam Sodje, Dailly, Borrowdale, Bailey, Semedo, Racon, Sam, Akpo Sodje, and Forster. Such a lineout is hardly one that will thrill the mind like the memory of a good party, and seems poor in comparison to the side that Chris Powell built and, arguably, the one that Karl Robinson is building now. Mind you, considering how Darren Randolph has got on in the years since, both those teams (2011/12 & now) would have welcomed a goalkeeper of that quality into their squad. I’d take Semedo too, but wouldn’t guarantee him a starting place in either side. Of course a back up striker of any kind would be nice as well!
The fact of having two brothers in the same team gave the home fans the chance of a song as the players warmed up. ‘We’ve got two Sodjes,’ some of us shouted out as we settled into our seats in the North West stand. ‘We want more Sodjes,’ someone else retorted. The ground, bathed in such glorious sunshine it would have made an ideal August day, rocked to the rhythm of over 20,000 supporters. Those were the days when we seemed able to attract decent crowds even if our performances didn’t always deserve it, and we weren’t a hundred per cent happy with owners, but for a different set of reasons that weren’t so personal.
One of them was the fact that the board didn’t always seem to make wise financial judgements in those days either. Down on the pitch, for example, Jonjo Shelvey knocked the ball back and forwards, bobbing and weaving among his team mates. There were rumours that he would be sold in the summer, and that was likely to be a certainity if we didn’t get promoted. ‘One thing I can never understand,’ I often pointed out on social media, ‘is why we don’t use him more.’ Despite starting the season in the first team, his end of season opportunities seemed limited to substitute appearances. When he did come on, he showed flashes of the talent that had attracted the attentions of Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, and even Newcastle according to the papers. ‘Maybe I don’t understand that much about football management,’ I admitted, ‘but you’ve got this guy who’s possibly good enough to play for England one day, or Ireland as his ancestry allows, and he’s sitting on the bench while third division journeymen hoof the ball from one end of the pitch to the next.’
Of course the sad truth probably was that the last thing the board wanted was for Jonjo to get clattered by some third division lifer with a grudge. They had a winning bingo book in their hands and were determined to hit the jackpot. The best we could hope for then was half an hour of the Jonjo show, at some stage, because Norwich weren’t the usual third division lifers let out on parole at the Valley on alternating Saturdays. Gary Doherty had played 34 times for the Republic of Ireland and starred in the Premiership for Tottenham Hotspur. Fraser Forster, the goalkeeper, was a twenty two year old from the North East on loan from Newcastle United. Darel Russell, born across the river in Mile End, had been impressive all season at the centre of the Canaries midfield diamond alongside Irishman Wes Hoolahan who wasn’t playing today. Nor was captain Grant Holt who’d been prolific in his goal scoring all season. Another young man on their books didn’t appear on the team sheet either. This was left back Rhoys Wiggins who’d spent a large chunk of the season on loan at Bournemouth.
Almost as soon as the game kicked off in bright sunshine, it was clear that this was going to be a real battle, a defining moment in the season for Charlton. A win was essential if we weren’t to surrender realistic hopes of automatic promotion at the first time of asking. We made the better start as well, against a Norwich team showing nerves as they approached the final hurdle. A few days before, across the river at Leyton Orient, they’d missed the chance to claim an easier looking set of points on paper at least, though Charlton’s showing, earlier in the season, in front of the TV cameras, proved that the team, cast in the shadows of the Olympic stadium, could never be taken for granted. Again, across the Thames, the side from Norfolk showed signs of nerves in the opening exchanges. Charlton had the look of a side determined to show they were worthy of second place and attacked Fraser Forster’s goal almost immediately. The big stopper from the North East though was in the form of his life; as if possessed by the spirit of another shot stopper from the same part of the world – a certain Sam Bartram whose statue stands guard over our home ground.
As the game progressed, Norwich came into it more and more, with the action swaying back and forwards like the volcanic ash cloud that had been hovering in the air above Iceland those past few months. Thankfully most of the early action erupted in the direction of Fraser Forster, finger-tipping several efforts away from the corner of his goal as the reds poured forward. But then Michael Nelson, a towering centre back, powered home a header from a corner in the 34th minute to put the visitors in front. Within sight of the championship, their fans celebrated as Charlton redoubled their efforts to halt their opponents’ promotion bid.
But everything we threw at Fraser Forster, either side of half time, he seemed able to stop. The longer the game went on and the harder Charlton fought, you got a feeling that if everybody in the flats above the Jimmy Seed Stand ripped out their kitchen sinks and let them rain down out of the windows onto the Geordie between the sticks, he’d have been able to fend them off. The Addicks were doing everything right except for scoring. The fans were on their feet urging them forward. Phil Parkinson was on the sidelines gesticulating for the momentum to continue. But it was save after save and time running out. With about twenty minutes to go Kyel Reid came on for Jose Semedo, an attacking winger replacing the solid defensive midfielder who’d been one of the players of the season. Reid, on loan from Sheffield United, was one of those players who could excite and frustrate fans at the same time. With the ball at his feet, sometimes he looked like he had John Barnes capabilities within him, and other times looked like he could be running and lose the ball and keep on running, not even aware that it had long since disappeared from under him. Despite the need to read the game better, at times, he was the kind of player that gives hope on the terraces.
Twenty minutes left and he could do something special. Maybe shoot from the edge of the box and beat Forster, in the way that even at his best Sam Bartram was sometimes beaten. But he didn’t do anything magical, and with seven minutes left on the clock, it was the turn of another young man with promise. The gallant Jonjo came on to replace Nicky Bailey, but he too could do little as the clock ticked down. Despite all their brave efforts nothing clicked perfectly into place. Time ran out, and we had to face a hard fact. As the final whistle went, the Norwich players formed a celebratory huddle in the direction of the Jimmy Seed Stand. They were back in the Championship. We’d gone down to this division together a year before. We’d scrapped our way through this division over the course of a season and swapped places along the way. Suddenly we were left with the feeling you get when you’re at school and your friend moves up a grade and you’re scared that you’re going to have to repeat the year with a bunch of losers.
The fear becomes a cold sweat building all the time at the back of your brain. It should be your team prancing and dancing around your home stadium, on top of the world, getting the applause of their fans as they stay on the pitch long after the losers have gone down the tunnel. That white tunnel that feeds into the foothills of the North West Stand on match days suddenly seemed like it had the potential to be a very dark place down beneath. You see if we’d been hammered, if we’d been thumped off the pitch, maybe we’d have mumbled and grumbled and gone up that hill past Charlton House disappointed, pissed off even, but we’d know that if only we’d given our best it might have been different. You see, maybe we had given our best. Maybe we’d given as much as we could possibly give against a team nervously trying to slide over that finishing line. This was all we had in the tank. The sum of the parts just wasn’t anywhere near good enough for promotion.
And that was a scarier prospect than anything else amidst the slime of that after-match cold sweat. Norwich were promoted. We were fifth with three games left, battling it out with Leeds United, determined not to blow it once again, Swindon Town, the surprise package of the group, and Millwall who seemed to be going full throttle since Christmas. Over the next few weeks the four of us would huff and puff our way towards the close of the season. Along the way we’d lose the gallant Jonjo, for little more than Norwich City had gained from the sale of Justin Fashanu three decades previously. Liverpool snapped him up for a mere 1.7 million and some vague promise to loan Charlton a few players in the future if they ever needed them. The deal went through at the end of April though wasn’t made official until the 10th of May, adding to the sense of absurdity about the whole thing. And a week later we lost to Swindon 5-4 on penalties in the play offs, with Nicky Bailey rocketing a ball so high into the heavens it’s still waiting to drop down onto the head of Josh Magennis as we push for a better ending to this season than that one.
Paul Breen is on Twitter @Charlton Men and is the author of The Charlton Men work of fiction – available here on Amazon