Two weeks in May 2019 were comfortably my favourite so far as a Charlton fan. Below I relive the twists, turns and, in my eyes at least, the inevitable triumph of that famous fortnight almost two years ago.
In truth, I’d never been so confident, so expectant of success, as I was throughout that 2018/19 season. Lee Bowyer’s side won just one of their first five league games, but no matter, I thought, it’s a long season. The remainder of the campaign was a hard-fought scrap for a Play-Off place and by no means did we take the division by storm. But that run of 10 wins in the final 13 games of the regular season which rocketed The Addicks up to third felt like it was always going to happen, and we went into the Play-Offs as the team to beat.
The same confident feeling followed me to the Keepmoat Stadium along with 3,700 others from South East London for the Semi Final first leg against Doncaster Rovers. Charlton had gotten to this stage a year previously of course, after Bowyer had worked his magic with another late season surge. That felt different, though, and we never even looked like scoring over 180 minutes against Shrewsbury Town. I’ll admit I didn’t even travel for the away leg that year – but this one was unmissable.
The atmosphere in the away end that day was electric and I’ll never forget watching a group of 200 half-cut Charlton fans relentlessly singing ‘Every Saturday We Follow’ on the concourse before the game. Safe to say far more beer was being launched into the air than was being consumed by that point. The players were feeding off the fans’ confidence and Lyle Taylor and Joe Aribo had us 2-0 up at half time and cruising. Even a late Doncaster goal couldn’t dampen our spirits on the long train journey back to London.
When Krystian Bielik restored the two-goal lead 90 seconds into the second leg, it felt like it was going to be a party at The Valley for the remainder of the evening. Even when Doncaster pulled one back 10 minutes later fans didn’t seem too worried. Then the nerves set in as Charlton’s line seemed to get deeper and deeper and typically the away side scored with two minutes left to take it to extra-time.
I’ll admit, when John Marquis nodded Doncaster ahead in extra-time my confidence wavered for the first time. It was restored just 60 seconds later, however, when the ever-reliable Darren Pratley scrambled home from Taylor’s cross to send it to penalties. The tension inside The Valley was unbearable but Dillon Phillips saved Marquis’s effort to give Naby Sarr – half cult hero, half pantomime villain – the chance to send us to Wembley. I had premonitions of the big man smashing it into the roof of the net but his tame effort was saved and on we went.
Not for long though, as Doncaster captain Tommy Rowe, who had scored a screamer in the first half to get his side back in it, blasted his penalty wide via the outside of the post to send The Valley into pandemonium. Players were bundling on the floor while fans were spilling onto the pitch from the stands and hugging anyone and everyone within sight.
While the sight of Marquis crying on the pitch was hilarious, what I’ll always remember is the way the pitch invaders behaved that night. All the celebrations took place in front of, and were directed toward, the Covered End. Many other fan bases would have gone straight down to the away end and been rubbing Doncaster fans’ noses in it – but not Charlton fans. There was no gloating, it was pure joy.
So to Wembley. It was a day unlike any other that I’ve known as a Charlton fan. I was too young to attend, or even remember, the 1998 Play-Off Final, yet I’d seen plenty of success in terms of top-flight football in the early 2000’s and there was of course the dominant League One title winning season in 2012. But never had there been one day of such importance, nor a trip to the new Wembley Stadium – at the time Charlton were one of just 11 Football League clubs never to make the famous walk down Wembley Way.
It was one of those classic spring days that are synonymous with cup finals in North London – hot and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. I arrived early at one of the many Wembley pubs which had been earmarked for Charlton supporters that day, where I met my mates for a pre-match beer or five to settle the nerves. Well, they’re my dad’s mates really, but mine too now – yet another benefit that’s come from supporting this great football club.
The walk down Wembley Way is one I’ve done countless times as an England fan, but this was an entirely different experience. A sea of red and white as far as the eye could see, as fans of both Charlton and Sunderland meandered towards the Home of Football full of hope, the famous Wembley Arch towering imperiously in the background. Inside the stadium, I’d never seen so many Charlton fans all in one place as more than 35,000 Addicks made their voices heard and then some.
I’d been confident all season and it was no different on that day, even when Naby Sarr hit that backpass a little too firmly, Dillon Phillips didn’t quite get his foot to it and the ball nestled in the back of his net. It was the worst possible start, it was typical Charlton, but it was early. Barely five minutes on the clock meant we had all the time in the world to make amends – much better for the players to get a blunder of that proportion out of their system with five minutes gone than to save it for when there was five minutes left.
I knew we would show what we could do eventually, and boy did we do that with 10 minutes to go until half-time. The link up play on the edge of Sunderland’s box between Aribo and Anfernee Dijksteel was mesmerising, and Taylor’s tantalising cross across the face of goal was begging to be turned home. Ben Purrington duly obliged, and we were back level. The noise in the stands was deafening, but it was nothing compared to what was still to come.
The second half was, understandably, a cagey affair, but Jonny Williams had started to make a difference after replacing Pratley on 71 minutes. I felt confident that we were the better side and more likely to make something happen, but as the seconds ticked on I had to admit that the game looked destined to go the distance. I’m sure I’m not alone in doubting whether I could have hacked another penalty shootout if extra-time couldn’t force a winner.
As we all know, I needn’t have worried. I’ve watched the dying seconds of that game so many times on YouTube I’m fairly certain every kick is ingrained in my mind. Aribo’s flick back inside to the exceptional Josh Cullen. Cullen’s own flick onto his right foot before floating a cross to the back post. Patrick Bauer’s salmon-like leap to win the header, only to see it blocked by Sunderland defender Tom Flanagan. Bauer’s desperate lunge to meet the rebound as he’s falling backwards to the Wembley turf. Flanagan’s helpless attempt to block it again, but not this time.
The ball hit the back of the net, and the Charlton half of Wembley erupted. Fans were falling over seats, strangers were hugging as though they were the closest of friends, and on the pitch the celebrations were just as wild. Players were bundling, Bowyer was fist-pumping to the jubilant crowd and Jacko’s sprint down the touchline to join in the celebrations showed it meant as much to him as it did even the most hardcore fan. All that with five seconds until the full-time whistle – talk about timing.
One thing that struck me when I got home that night and watched the highlights in a drunken haze, was just how long the celebrations lasted. There is a wall of noise from the Charlton fans after the goal goes in, which is not unusual, but the noise never seemed to stop. The TV cameras are showing replay after replay of the goal and in the background the roar continues as if it’s just happened a second earlier. There’s not even any singing, just continuous sounds of pure emotion from 35,000 football fans who share a collective love for their football club.
The win wasn’t going to change everything at Charlton Athletic. The club still had an owner who didn’t care, who didn’t even want to be there. There was next to no money being pumped into the club, and survival in The Championship was going to be a real challenge the following season. But on that day, none of that mattered. They were issues to be worried about another time, and this was a day for celebration.
Sky Sports commentator Gary Weaver put it perfectly that afternoon – Wembley is a place for winners, and those Charlton players did write their legend.