by MATT WRIGHT
He was Charlton’s captain, the club’s best player and biggest asset as the Addicks had fallen just short of reaching the League One play-off final.
So it was no surprise when goalscoring midfielder Nicky Bailey was the subject of interest from rival clubs in the summer of 2010 – even though it was his wild missed penalty that was a key reason Charlton hadn’t reached Wembley.
What might shock Addicks supporters, though, is that Bailey’s decisive missed play-off semi-final spot-kick was virtually his last interaction with the club before his £1.4m move to Middlesbrough.
“From when I missed the penalty [and left the ground that night] I did not speak to anyone at Charlton,” recalled Nicky, now 34, who agreed a three-year contract with the Championship side five weeks after the demoralising defeat to Swindon Town. “Obviously everyone was hurting, whatever. But whether that was Parky [manager Phil Parkinson], whether that was anybody at the club, Charlton never ever spoke to me.”
Bailey made the revelation after being asked who had been the driving force behind the transfer, indicating that he was unsure. With the midfielder having been named in the Professional Footballers’ Association team of the season (alongside teammate Frazer Richardson), it was clear Charlton would receive approaches for the player, and Championship side Boro represented a return to the level Bailey thought he would be playing at when he joined the Addicks two years earlier. But cash-strapped Charlton were equally keen to strengthen the club’s finances, with Bailey a prime source of income.
“I did not speak to one person and I just thought that was a bit weird, a bit strange,” said Nicky, who is now playing for Sutton United in the National League.
Bailey could actually have joined Boro a year earlier, after top scoring during Charlton’s relegation from the second tier in 2008/09: “I got a call [from then manager
Gareth Southgate] and he said he was going to come in for me, but it didn’t work out,” added Bailey, who was unsure now whether he would have made the move at that time.
“It was a bit odd when someone else rang my agent a year later, and it was the same club with a different manager. It was a bit strange for me, but that was it. It was all done quickly, and I was off.”
So ended the Charlton career of Bailey after two eventful seasons, 95 appearances, and an impressive 26 goals – better than one every four games. That’s exactly how things started for him in SE7 too, with the £750,000 capture from Southend United scoring in his fourth match, against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Bailey had been named player of the year by the Shrimpers fans, just one year after earning the same accolade from the supporters of previous club Barnet. But a third award in a row after his first season at Charlton would prove to be bitter-sweet as it coincided with relegation from the Championship.
“When I was released from Fulham when I was 15, I had to come up the hard way, through non-league,” said Bailey, who was born in Hammersmith. “I didn’t really know which way my career was going to go, and I never could have imagined I would do half the stuff I did.
“Going to Charlton in the first place – with such a big stadium – was all new to me, and a big deal. I didn’t know how I was going to take it, but I hit the ground running.”
The same couldn’t be said for Charlton, alas, in their second season in the second tier since relegation from the Premier League in 2007. After a series of dispiriting results and performances, culminating in a 5-2 home defeat to Sheffield United in late November, manager Alan Pardew departed and was replaced by Parkinson, initially in a caretaker capacity.
Results failed to improve as Charlton fell into a downward spiral that saw the Addicks relegated with three matches of the campaign still remaining. But it wasn’t for the want of trying on the part of the whole-hearted Bailey who, switched to an inverted left midfield role by Parkinson, found the freedom to get forward and regularly threaten the opposition goal.
“When Parky took over he could see me playing out on the left,” he said. “I just wanted to be involved in the matchday squad; I would have played wherever. We had some good central midfielders at the club at that time – José Semedo, Matt Holland and Therry Racon, while Jonjo Shelvey was coming through. I suppose Parky wanted to get as many of his best players out on the pitch at the same time, and putting me out there freed up centre midfield a bit more.”
Despite Charlton’s general travails in the league, that one strategy did pay off, with Bailey ending the season as top scorer with 13 goals, and a shoo-in for player of the year with 61 per cent of the vote (ahead of Rob Elliot and Mark Hudson). Indeed, as the Addicks’ plight grew ever more desperate, Bailey responded with no fewer than eight goals from midfield in the final 17 games. But it was to no avail.
“I would rather have played crap every week and we got three points. It’s always nice to score goals, but if the team is losing it doesn’t count for much,” said Bailey, who also netted twice against Queens Park Rangers in a 2-2 draw on Boxing Day. “We were playing quite well in some of the games, but we just weren’t getting the results. It felt like everything went against us. Once you’re down there, and down to the last five or six games and you need to win them all, then it’s basically impossible.”
Suddenly, Charlton represented a very different club to the one Bailey had joined. From a team looking to return to the Premier League, the Addicks were now a division lower and, with significant financial problems, trying to balance the books and restricted to free signings.
“I’d played in League One before and knew what the league was all about,” said Nicky. “When you sign for a club like Charlton you do want to push as high as you can but, at the end of the day, I was part of the squad that had got relegated, so it was in my mind to do the best I could to get back into the Championship. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we knew we had a good squad that could compete to try to go straight back up. And in the end we were a bit unlucky.”
At the start of 2009/10 Bailey resumed where he had left off, scoring three times as the Addicks won their first six league games to top the early-season table. And while Norwich City ultimately finished first comfortably, Charlton were one of four clubs who could have earned the second automatic promotion spot going into the final game of the season, against Oldham Athletic.
Parkinson’s men needed to win, and for other results to go their way, and briefly in the second half that was indeed the case with Bailey netting his 13th of the campaign to match his tally from the previous season.
“That was a really memorable game,” said Nicky, who also featured in the incredible 4-4 draw against promotion rivals Milwall in December (scoring a sensational volley) and the 2-2 Valley draw with Swindon on Boxing Day when nine-man Charlton scored a stoppage-time equaliser. “In the second half you could hear people cheering that Leeds weren’t winning, and then the atmosphere suddenly went a bit dead, so you could tell that someone had nicked a goal, and we knew that we weren’t going up automatically. We had to dust ourselves off and go again in the play-offs.”
Charlton lost the first leg 2-1 to opponents Swindon Town, but seemed firmly in control in the second leg at The Valley when they led 2-0 against 10 men, with the Robins also fortunate to have been saved by the woodwork on several occasions. Then Town grabbed a goal back, and Miguel Llera was sent off for hauling back Charlie Austin to make it 10 versus 10.
“Extra-time was really tough with both teams down to 10,” said Bailey. “And then we came to the penalty shootout…” His voice tails off.
“I will always have good memories of being at Charlton,” he continued. “It was probably the best part of my career, if you think about how well I did. The penalty puts a downer on everything of course, and the way it was left. But I really enjoyed my time there.
“Obviously I’ve been back a couple of times since, and you get a few fans that shout out or whatever, but there was a quite a lot of them that were clapping! It was good to go back and see a few people that I hadn’t seen for a while.”
Having transferred to Teesside the following summer, Bailey experienced déjà vu when Gordon Strachan, the manager who had signed him, was quickly replaced, just as Pardew had been in SE7.
“Strachan brought a lot of Scottish lads in, but it didn’t really work and then he was gone almost straight away,” said Nicky. “Tony Mowbray took over and told me that he didn’t see me as an attacking player. I told him that my goalscoring record suggested something different to what he was telling me, but he just wasn’t having it.
“I mentioned to him that I had played on the left at Charlton quite a bit as well, but he wasn’t having that either. I just had to get on with it really. He tried me in a holding midfield role and we went from there.”
The episode highlights Bailey’s determination. Frozen out as an attacking option under Mowbray, he re-emerged as a midfield enforcer, sitting in front of the back four, snapping at the heels of rival attackers and breaking up wave after wave of opposition attacks.
More or less “banned from going over the halfway line”, as he told one interviewer at the time, Bailey recorded just four goals in his 111 games for Boro. But in his second season in 2011/12, the reinvented and reinvigorated Bailey 2.0 excelled in providing a platform on which Boro’s more creative players could perform.
The defensive linchpin helped Boro to their best start in over a century, and by Christmas the club was top of the table and strong favourites for automatic promotion. However, Bailey limped out of a New Year’s Eve match with a knee injury that would sideline him for two months, and Boro’s promotion push gradually faded away.
The same was true for Bailey, who featured in 35 games the following campaign (including a 4-1 thumping of Charlton at The Valley) and even captained the team. But Boro again blew hot and cold, and he was told in January that he could leave when his contract expired in the summer.
Charlton’s rivals Millwall were next for Bailey. He helped the Lions to a 1-0 away win at The Valley in September 2013, and then came up against Guy Luzon’s Addicks in April 2015 and played a part in creating the decisive late goal for Jos Hooiveld in a 2-1 win that also saw Chris Solly sent off. Bailey also brought The Den to its feet with a crunching tackle on Jordan Cousins, his successor in the Charlton midfield general role.
The latter game marked his return from a back injury, and Bailey’s two seasons with the Lions were heavily affected by injury: “I tore my left calf three times and my right calf three times as well,” he recalled. “My calf trouble started at Middlesbrough. I was training and suddenly my back seized up and I couldn’t move.
“I went for lots of tests and tried lots of things, but nothing was working, so in the end I had an epidural to straighten me out again. Then a similar thing happened at Millwall, and I had to have another epidural to make me pain free. It kept taking me longer and longer to come back, and I kept getting tears. It was strange because I wasn’t a player who had ever had a lot of injuries.”
Still struggling with injury, Bailey was released as his second season with Millwall ended in relegation, and he spent several months out of the game before signing a short-term contract with former club Barnet in October 2015. It was with the Bees that he had first tasted success in the game, scoring 31 goals across two seasons and gaining promotion to the Football League in 2005 after Barnet won the Conference National. Bailey was an instrumental member of that Bees side, also representing the England C national team four times, but found things had changed at the club while he had been plying his trade elsewhere.
“I didn’t enjoy my return to Barnet at all,” said Nicky, who played just four times for the League Two club in his second spell. “They had all the facilities in the world, but I didn’t like the way it was run any more and it didn’t feel like the club I used to be at.”
Fortunately, Sutton offered a way out. And although Bailey hesitated, wary of leaving league football, his decision to rejoin his boyhood club paid dividends.
“The gaffer at Sutton had tried to contact me a few times [about signing for the club], but obviously I didn’t want to drop straight back out,” he said. “I wanted to try to carry on in the league, but it got to January time and I was still without a club. I had always watched Sutton over the years after I left, and I knew lots of people at the club. So I signed for them in the National League South.”
Bailey recalls Sutton were 17 points behind league leaders Ebbsfleet United when he arrived in January 2016. But a sensational run of form, including a run of 25 unbeaten matches, saw United pip the faltering Fleet to the title.
“Winning the league wasn’t a bad way to get back into it, especially at one of my old clubs that I had a lot of time for,” he said. Bailey is relishing his current surroundings – from the standard of football to his Sutton teammates.
“I think the gap [in quality between league and non-league football] is definitely a lot tighter now,” he said. “A lot better players are going to a lot lower clubs, because they can earn just as much down there now. When I was 26, 27, 28 I wanted to play as high as I could, but I don’t think the league itself is as big an attraction as it used to be.”
Sutton arguably proved Bailey’s point in style in 2016/17 when the U’s echoed their giantkilling heritage by embarking on a famous run to the sixth round of the FA Cup. They defeated league sides Cheltenham Town (2-1), AFC Wimbledon (3-1 in a replay, after a 0-0 draw), and Leeds United (1-0 in front of a sell-out crowd on the Gander Green Lane artificial pitch) before meeting their match in mighty Arsenal, who scored twice past former Addicks goalkeeper Ross Worner in a 2-0 win.
Bailey was an influential and experienced presence throughout (albeit he was an unused sub in the Wimbledon replay), and against the Gunners he made more tackles (eight) and interceptions (six) than any other player on the pitch.
But it wasn’t just Sutton’s giantkilling feats that garnered national headlines at the time.
Rotund back-up goalkeeper Wayne Shaw attracted notoriety first for his size, and then for eating a pasty live on television during the Arsenal game, breaching FA betting rules in the process. But Bailey was also the subject of an unusual story focusing on his diet.
“Meet the million-pound star powered by Chicken McNuggets” was the headline in The Sun, and Bailey admitted there was more to the tale than mere tabloid exaggeration. “We had The Sun with the club for a week, and I know that they might not be the best people to have around you but there is a little bit of truth in it, because I’m the worst eater you’ll ever meet in your life,” he admitted. “I’m so fussy and I always have been since I was a kid. There is certain stuff that I should eat but I’ve never eaten it because I just can’t put it in my mouth – I feel sick.”
The story went on to quote Bailey saying: “I don't think I've had a salad in my life, or a vegetable. It's always worked for me. My pre-match meal is always a McDonald's – nine nuggets.”
Nicky clarified: “There have been times – not every game, but there have been times before a game – when I’ve not had anything [proper] to eat, and I have had chicken nuggets or whatever. But it was nothing like they were making it out to be.
“Actually, a lot of times I never used to eat at all before football. I couldn’t do it, and it was the same after games as well. It could take me three or four hours before I could finally eat. I’m a bit of a weird one when it comes to food.”
Returning to matters on the field, Bailey said: “It was a great run for Sutton and, importantly, the club has spent the money well. It’s invested in the stadium, so the bars and the changing rooms have all been done up, and there’s a good feeling around Sutton at the moment. I think they’ve got around 2,000 season-ticket holders now – when I used to watch they used to have 3-400.
“It’s a good little club to be at. Plus there are about five or six of my pals in football who play for the team too; it’s a changing room I’ve never really had anywhere else because there is so much banter flying about every day.”
Bailey added: “As long as I’m happy playing, I’ll play for as long as I can. A lot of people play football because they are on good money, but they don’t enjoy it. It’s never been about money for me; if I ever got to that stage I would say that’s enough.”
It was one of the worst moments in Nicky Bailey’s career when he missed the penalty that meant Charlton were knocked out of the League One play-off semi-finals. But given another chance, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“Obviously it wasn’t one of my proudest moments,” he said ruefully, reflecting on his rasping strike that flashed too high, and well wide, of the Swindon goal. “But I always try to pick that corner. I always go with power and try to go to the right-hand side hard as I can.
“That was what I was taught when I was younger, and I’ve scored more pens than I’ve missed. I still don’t change to this day.
On that day it just wasn’t meant to be for me.”
Bailey, who took the second of Charlton’s kicks in the shootout, added: “It’s only from 12 yards, so it’s so hard for a keeper to save. If you hit it with pace and you hit it within the goal frame, nine times out of 10 you’re going to score.
“Unfortunately, I hit it about five goals’ wide – so I never gave it a chance to start with!”
This interview appeared in VOTV145, which was published on September 8th, 2018.