Three weeks ago Charlton Athletic’s season was still completely wide open. In one of the tightest divisions we have ever seen they could still be relegated, yet were only a few wins off the Play Offs. The Addicks fans aren’t known for their optimistic outlook on life, yet even they were finding it hard to keep their emotions in check. There was even a swear word used on one forum, and a suggestion that Chris Powell “may” be out of his depth. But recent form saw them rocket up the table, and coming into the final game of the season a top eight finish was almost a certainty.
The visitors, Bristol City, on the other hand had nothing but pride to play for having already been relegated. In a day of twists and turns to decide everyone’s final fate, this was one of the very few games where nothing rode on the result. So it wasn’t a surprise when I rang up Active Matt and asked if any of his six season tickets were going spare. “Take your pick from 5…everyone seems to have better things to do today”. On a day when football options in the South East were at a premium, this would fill the gap.
It is hard not to admire what Charlton have, and continue to achieve. I know that Palace and Millwall fans would disagree, but it is a nicer club to visit, without the need to look over your shoulder, or constantly cover the ears of any children you bring. And this is a family club. Season tickets for youngsters are just £49 next season – just over £2 a game. When I rule the world of football I will set maximum prices for all clubs, ranging from free admission at all non league ground, to a maximum of £5 in the Premier League. Children are our future (or is it garlic bread?) but so many clubs have simply priced them out of the game already, meaning at some point a whole generation will be missing from our Premier League palaces.
My first experience of football was here at the Valley, back in April 1974. It was a very different place in those days, with the biggest terrace in English football a crumbling, weed polluted backdrop to a game being played on a pitch of sand and dust. I remember the programme shop in the corner, the crawl space under the main stand (where my brother told me the devil lived) and the noise when Charlton took the lead thanks to Derek Hales. And here I was, taking my seat in the East Stand just as young Derek (now a sprightly 72 years old) was being introduced to the crowd on the pitch. Derek was a legend in these parts, scoring goals for fun and even getting himself sent off for having a fight with team-mate Mike Flanagan in a FA Cup game once.
Today it is all so civilised. Parking in Makro, a short walk across the Woolwich Road, a quick burger at Come Dine With Me (alas no comedy voice over from Dave Lamb) and into the ground. Because the ground is in a valley (wonder how they got the name of the ground?), views from the stands are excellent. Our timing was perfect, arriving just as the heavy rain begun to fall. The away fans seemed not to have got the message sent around by a few fans that it was “fancy dress away day” and apart from a Zippy, a rubbish looking superhero and what appeared to be a cross between a Smurf and David Hasselhoff, they looked a sorry bunch, already resigned to trips to Port Vale and Crawley Town next season. The pitch certainly seemed to have seen better days but what the heck. It was the last day of the season and this was sure to be a dramatic final ninety minutes, albeit not in Floyd Road, South East London.
Charlton Athletic 4 Bristol City 1 – The Valley – Saturday 4th May 2013
It is fair to say that the highlight from 3pm to 4pm was the half-time goal of the season candidates on the big screen. The game itself was torrid. Neither team seemed to want to attack, preferring to keep possession – “It’s like watching a Ray Wilkins porno” said one chap behind me. Whilst that put a horrible thought in all of our minds, he was right. It seemed our excitement for the second half would come from good old Twitter, and the BBC website that was running red-hot was the promotion, play off and relegation places changed hands on fewer than twenty one times in the first half.
Just as the crowd got all excited at the possibility of Palace missing out on the play offs AND Millwall being relegated crowd favourite Yann Kermorgant smashed home a half volley just two minutes into the second half. Put that goal of the season DVD back in its case, as Partridge would say, we have a new winner. The Frenchman was back in the thick of things four minutes later, heading home from close range from a wonderful cross from the left. Bristol City were broken. “On the pitch in a minute, we’ll be on the pitch in a minute” sang the away fans, but so sterile seemed this threat that the stewards didn’t even break off from their tea drinking in the corner.
But they did have something to cheer when Bobby Reid’s shot looped over the Charlton keeper to reduce the arrears, and Reid then went very close a few minutes later to an equaliser, exposing the Athletic keeper’s injury that necessitated his replacement a few minutes later. But it didn’t matter to the home side who scored a third with ten minutes to go when Jonathan Obika headed home and then captain Johnnie Jackson smashed the ball home from close range.
But by now the vast majority of the 18,981 were deeply involved in events at Vicarage Road and the KC Stadium. The last day of the season had never seen such drama in the Championship, and whilst a very small number of City fans decided to try to “offer out” some Charlton fans, despite there being two metal fences in the way, it was a good-natured end to the game, with the home fans giving the relegated Bristol City fans a big round of applause to wish them well next season.
Eighth place was probably above start of season expectations for Charlton, and they will look at the play off achievements this season of Brighton & Hove Albion and Watford (or even Cardiff City) and perhaps set that as the benchmark for next season.
At this stage of the season we take all the games we can and this wasn’t a bad stop-gap before heading up to Wembley tomorrow for the Blue Square Bet Play Off final.