by RICK EVERITT
Take a pause on Friday evening to savour the scene.
It is nearly seven years since Charlton fans last spilled into the Jimmy Seed Stand for a Championship Football for a Fiver clash aganst Barnsley, and far longer since they did so for a full-price match. Win or lose, these are the occasions for which we fought to return to The Valley. This is fresh testimony of the club that we became in the decade that followed, and it is a huge statement of hope from a rising generation of Addicks.
Twelve years after relegation from the Premier League, five after the club’s sale by disconnected property speculators to a perennially absent madman, and three after relegation to League One for the second time in a decade, the extraordinary resilience of Charlton’s support is set to manifest itself again.
On Friday night there will be nigh-on 25,000 Addicks in The Valley as Lee Bowyer’s team takes on Doncaster Rovers for a place in the League One play-off final at Wembley. That’s almost double the number who turned out to see the team take on Shrewsbury Town in the first leg of the same stage last season. The difference is more than the sequencing of the matches.
There are no prizes for turning out capacity crowds and Charlton wouldn’t win them if there were. But still. The two full seasons of Chris Powell’s managership apart, the last 12 years have been a miserable period in the club’s history. Now a season which began with a fresh call for a boycott is ending, on home turf, with a full house - and the reason is a mass suspension of disbelief.
Bowyer’s achievement has been to fashion a squad that couldn’t provide a full substitutes’ bench on opening day at Sunderland into a side that can make supporters’ hearts sing.
Of course, it helps to have Joe Aribo’s magical dancing feet and in Lyle Taylor a prolific striker of big personality in his entertaining pomp.
It helps that in midfielders Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen the Addicks have classy Premier League loanees who are ready to play above League One wherever they hang their headphones next term. And that defender Naby Sarr has slowly and implausibly transformed himself from fall-guy to folk hero. But that’s the sort of thing which happens in winning teams. There have been obstacles and injuries aplenty too.
And the reason Charlton are winning is Bowyer, confounding the sceptics by showing the managerial stature to match his never-doubted pedigree on the field. However open-minded they were at the outset, few fans remained persuaded by the efforts of Bob Peeters, Guy Luzon, Karel Fraeye, Jose Riga, Russell Slade or Karl Robinson. Their tenures were a series of accidents waiting to happen. Their accidental successor - appointed in instalments to avoid committing to him, still without a contract for next season - has shown it did not have to be that way.
In 21 League one matches since the turn of the year, Bowyer’s team conceded just 11 goals, scoring 33 times – and that despite losing 14-goal Karlan Grant to Huddersfield Town at the end of January and first-choice keeper Jed Steer back to parent club Aston Villa. Neglected deputy Dillon Phillips seized the opportunity Steer’s departure provided as tightly as he does the ball.
Charlton peaked at just the right moment, almost impossibly finishing third by scoring ten times without reply in the final three matches, while their potential Wembley opponents, Sunderland and Portsmouth, floundered. Ex-midfielder Bowyer, whose trademark was arriving late in the box to apply a vital touch, always did have the gift of timing.
The wholesale turnover in personnel from 12 months ago marks this as his team, but so too does its spirit and flair. Charlton may not win promotion, but many of these players stepped up weeks ago.
You can't avoid the irony that it was Robinson, who could not get it right on the pitch, that assembled the current management team of Bowyer, his assistant Johnnie Jackson and head of recruitment Steve Gallen. If that legacy leads to promotion he can take some credit too.
There was even the omen of ending up with exactly the same league record of wins (26), draws (10) and losses (10) as in second tier in 1998, when Alan Curbishley’s team went on to beat the Black Cats in the greatest game ever played at Wembley – well, the greatest involving Charlton or any other SE London club anyway.
The statistics of the season are just pointers, however. The fans, regular or otherwise, have the scent of something special in their nostrils and it has rekindled dormant appetites. Some still stay away on principle. Others cannot resist the call of home.
Football fans tend to live in the moment, which is why Friday night can and will be enjoyed in splendid isolation by those who attend. Wembley too, if we get there. There is nothing here particularly likely to solve the club’s bigger problem but no reason either to sour such a rare experience by dwelling too heavily on its inevitable transience.
More than half a lifetime ago, Tottenham Hotspur came to The Valley for an FA Cup third-round replay on a frozen January evening in a dismal season. The tie had several times been postponed and the already dated programme included a special insert with a message from director Jimmy Hill that claimed big things could lay ahead.
Charlton lost that night in 1985. But I remember gazing around The Valley in wonder at the crowd, officially 21,000, which by then was more than was allowed in on safety grounds. It was four times the average and heavily swollen by Spurs fans, but after the travails of the 1984 winding-up order I already had a sense of foreboding that I wouldn’t see its like again. Eight months later Charlton moved to Selhurst Park.
The point, however, is that I was wrong and Hill, in a way, was right. Fifteen months on from the cup-tie Lennie Lawrence led the team back into the top flight after an absence of 29 years. The struggle to get home would be long and painful, but once we did the pace of restoration was remarkable. In the early years of this century, 25,000 crowds became the norm at The Valley, not the exception. Nobody had predicted that, just as no one expected that number on Friday.
What matters most of course is the result, not the crowd. There is much reason to fear what may happen next if the team fails to win promotion. Or even if it does go up. But this is no glamour game. The fact the club can still sell out The Valley after all it has been through in the intervening decades shows how much stronger its roots are than any us realise.
Take heart then that Charlton still have a future, as well as a past. Have a good look around The Valley on Friday night and be proud, because we don’t know when we’ll see it so full of Addicks again. But draw one lesson from the past with confidence. We certainly will.