Trust Board Member Paul Breen shares his thoughts on what could be a crucial weekend. As we head to Stevenage on Saturday we are sixteen places below our hosts in the League One table. So are we still a big club?
The last time I set foot in Stevenage, rather than just passing through the train station, it was April 2008. That same day, Charlton were home to Southampton, clinging to a fading hope of sneaking through the cat-flap of the play-offs. But for family reasons, I had to head for the Hertfordshire town I'd only ever visited twice before, once for a funeral. I'd gone back to visit the grave of a cousin from my mother's generation and decided to take in a game as well. Partly that was because the particular cousin had a strong connection to football in the area as a player and a fan. Therefore, instead of seeing the Addicks snatch a point at home to Southampton, I watched Stevenage Borough FC lose 3-1 to Torquay United.
That match was a promotion battle in the National League and one boot-laced in a certain historical bitterness. Back in the 1990s, in the first days of non-league promotions, Stevenage Borough FC were denied entry to the league because the ground wasn't up to scratch. Torquay were thus reprieved, which in the end turned out to be nothing more than a stay of execution. It would take Stevenage almost another fifteen years to get promoted to league football, by which time they dropped the 'Borough' in their name and became simply Stevenage Football Club. Incidentally, at one point they'd been an Athletic too!
Just like us they've also been wanderers, us in terms of grounds, them in name and leagues played in. They've spent most of their history in the lower reaches of English football, which is where my cousin comes back into the story. His name was Eamon Gallagher and he played amateur football in both England and Ireland, his native country. And that wasn't a level so very far from where the present day Stevenage's predecessors were playing at the time. Yet now, a couple of decades later, they're sitting at the top of the League One table looking down at Bolton, Portsmouth, Barnsley, Derby and Charlton.
Those, like my cousin, involved in the earlier decades of Stevenage football would be quite surprised to see where they are now. Most neutrals though would be very surprised if they sustained a season-long promotion challenge, I imagine. But with the lesser lights of Stevenage, Shrewsbury, Northampton and Leyton Orient all ahead of us, even at this stage of the season, it's prompted a bit of serious reflection in the fan base. This week on Charlton Life there's been a hearty discussion about how big we are. That's been picked up on social media too and raises as many questions as answers, in the fog of our present situation.
We are a big club for this league and one with a massive mainstream history compared to Stevenage. But then again, histories aren't defined by league positions and cups alone. Look at some of the things the likes of Dulwich Hamlet have in their history. Best of all at that level, you're allowed to drink beer on the sidelines to dull the pain if things on the pitch not going well. Seriously though, what does it mean to be a big club or to have a history? You don't pick up points for past glories.
Right now we badly need points, not just to rise up the table but to kickstart Michael Appleton's time on the sidelines. We don't know how long that will be since our recent history has been one of going through managers like Covid variants. But we can get behind him and the team, hoping the myth of the old managerial bounce actually comes true for us. At the very least he must be able to do something with the defence. If he gets that right, the rest should follow. We have the players to score goals in this division if they all stay fit, but if we're going to concede like at Crawley, we're going to have to aim for rugby scores.
Even though it's early days this then is an important weekend. It could be as pivotal as that one where Chris Powell drove home from Dagenham through dark tunnels of reflection after a 2-1 defeat. He knew then that things had to change, so we bought and fought our way out of the division. Most importantly he was given time to implement his vision and bring in his own men. The greatest recurring problem of recent times is that almost every manager has ended up working with someone else's players. Hopefully Michael Appleton can make the most of what he's got and spark the start of a good run up in Stevenage.
They've come far since the days of my Irish cousin talking about them in the 1990s when they suffered that injustice and harshly denied admission to League Two. Maybe today we'd see them as a bigger club if they'd been in the league since the last century. But then Wycombe Wanderers have been around for a while with a recent history that more than matches our own in the handful of years either side of 2020. And if most of us are honest, we don't always look at the division and see Wycombe as one of the big clubs. Yet unless we get something at Stevenage, they too will be coming to The Valley on the 23rd of this month with a sizeable points gap, for this stage of the season, between us.
As for this coming Saturday, a couple of faces to watch out for on our visit. We'll all be more than familiar with a certain Jake Forster-Caskey in their midfield, if not out injured. Then up front their danger man is Jamie Reid, who again links the history and contrasting features of Stevenage and Torquay United. He was playing for the latter in the National League South just as recently as 2019 when in his mid twenties. He's gone from that to being in the headlines for scoring for Stevenage in a famous Cup win over Aston Villa last season, in the midst of a League Two promotion success that saw them come second to Leyton Orient. Their Charlton loanee Alex Gilbey made sure that was memorable for Addicks too with his end of season celebrations, if my memory serves me right.
Anyhow, the past is the past with Gilbey et al - and right now I don't know how big we are BUT .... I know we can be big again. We've got the stadium, the location, the fan base, the history. It's just going to take a lot of small steps like a win on Saturday, in the heights of League One up in Hertfordshire. It's a short journey there but could be a long way back if we lose. Ever the optimist I'm going to predict we won't and that my second ever match watching Stevenage ends up with the very same scoreline: 3-1 to the visitors. Or another Checkatrade Trophy night would be good! But for now, we'll just take any win.