Jason Pearce and long-serving Chris Solly - who missed out at Wembley - raise the League One play-off final trophy

Addicks beat more than Sunderland at Wembley

Once the last celebratory glass had been drained, the last exultant song sung, and the sun - not the mist - began to rise again over the Thames, the realisation hardened that it was not Sunderland who Charlton had vanquished at Wembley on Sunday. It was despair.


For that has been the abiding emotion hanging over the Addicks in recent years. You can make a case for it starting in 2006, with the misadventure of Iain Dowie’s appointment to replace long-serving Alan Curbishley as manager; with the spivs who sold his distant successor Chris Powell short six or seven years later; or with the fool who installed the unknown Karel Fraeye as manager in 2015. 


Or you could frame that despair in the narrow context of the afternoon and the early stupefaction of 40,000 Addicks - the largest number to assemble in one place since 1959. They had watched the ball roll impossibly past keeper Dillon Phillips’ outstretched boot and into his net from Naby Sarr’s backpass just five minutes into the club’s first Wembley appearance in 21 years.


But however you defined it the mood certainly lifted. The resilience of the club and the team was epitomised by the way they clawed their way back into the contest.


How did it compare with the 1998 final, fans too young to have experienced that heart-stopping, life-changing, white-knuckle afternoon wanted to know afterwards? Inevitably, it fell short. There wasn’t a place in the Premier League on the line. There was no Clive Mendonca - at least on the pitch, although he and many other past heroes loomed over this occasion. There was not as much quality in general and there would be no penalties.


But even for those of us who had been there on that epic afternoon, this was fresh and vivid and startling and joyful. And of course there was nail-biting tension and edge-of-seat drama.
The great Charlton scriptwriter in the sky is still at work. Or, to be less sentimentally parochial for once, maybe it’s just the glorious game unfolding as it can.


Phillips and Sarr deserved better than to be etched into history for such an embarrassing faux pas. Both had stepped up valiantly during the season. But it would be left to their teammates to turn the calamity into nothing more than a scene-setter.


The equaliser took half an hour to arrive and it was one of those complicated attacking interchanges that looks even better after the event, when the detail can be coolly dissected. Charlton’s young guns Joe Aribo and Anfernee Dijksteel both played their part to enable 25-goal Lyle Taylor to deliver a precise first-time cross to the far post. Left-back Ben Purrington arrived on cue to prod it home. Relief surged around one red end of Wembley.


Lee Bowyer’s team had shown its character again, as it had in the semi-final against Doncaster Rovers. But there was a reminder of its fragile construction in that the two young men pulling the strings for most of this match were, like Purrington, loan signings, in Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen. You could take your pick which was man of the match, but you couldn’t really look any further.


This game was no classic. Shots on target were as almost as rare as matchday appearances by Charlton owner Roland Duchatelet. But the occasion demanded a twist. Six seconds from the end of added time it duly arrived.


With the extra 30 minutes apparently inevitable, Cullen checked back to deliver a cross to the far post where a Big Footballing German was waiting to stake his claim for posterity.
What may still prove to have been Patrick Bauer’s final touch of the ball in a Charlton shirt would be his most important. 


The centre-half would normally be a safer bet than Richard Rufus, whose first-ever senior goal took the 1998 game into extra-time. Like Purrington, however, Bauer had failed to score before in the season. Even now it took two attempts and a deflection, but nobody cared about that. This was no time for purists and there was no time for Sunderland to remedy the situation either.


Nobody in the suddenly delirious, dancing, hugging, fist-pumping, laughing, crying chaos that engulfed the majority of the 76,155 crowd took a pause to consider the irony that Bauer - the most enduringly successful of Duchatelet’s many European imports - had secured the victory.

They would have acknowledged, if they had, that the defender’s unyielding consistency and professionalism across four difficult seasons made him a highly appropriate redeemer. 

 

While the players engulfed assistant manager Johnnie Jackson on the touchline, boss Bowyer also briefly let the moment get to him on the halfway line, as well he might. It was his team, his day and his success. The fourth former Charlton player to lead the Addicks to promotion is also the most unlikely, but there can be little doubt that he owns the achievement.

 

In the aftermath there was a heavily crafted official message of congratulations purporting to have come from Duchatelet, but tellingly out of synch with two he had issued before the game attacking fans. Nobody was interested.


The owner had also claimed on radio that he couldn’t come to Wembley because it wasn’t safe for him, despite the national stadium being deemed secure enough to host the heir to the throne for the Championship play-off final the following day. More likely it was contrary arguments and opinions that the Belgian was too scared to face, as it always has been. In any case, his presence in the royal box would have been a stain on the occasion. Out of sight was out of mind, which suited just about everybody.


Charlton’s victory won’t be complete until he is wiped away from the club altogether, of course. Amid the jubilation, there should be recognition that three years rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rochdale, AFC Wimbledon and Accrington Stanley has been a humiliation. And a monumental failure by Duchatelet, given the money he has wasted since 2014.


That’s no disrespect to the clubs named. Indeed, the people who follow and run them are the lifeblood of the English game, every bit as much as the fans of Charlton, Sunderland and Portsmouth, who contested the play-off promotion place with Doncaster.


It’s more that the disparity in stadiums, support and resources is akin to sending out an adult team to face a junior one - and then, at least until Bowyer took over, often losing to it as well. It happens in football, but there is no excuse for it becoming a habit.


There remain many questions about the club’s immediate and long-term future, but for now this May afternoon under a leaden North London sky provided what will be a set of cherished memories for a rising generation, as well as for those of us who had seen it all before.


We don’t know yet if it will prove as transformational as the last time the team appeared at Wembley. But anyone who feared the club they knew and loved might have been extinguished by the more enduring cloud that looms over it can now breathe more easily.

 

A whole new Charlton adventure starts right here. Bring it on, I say. 

 

RICK EVERITT

Voice of The Valley is part of the Coalition Against Roland Duchatelet (click logo for more details)

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