Tuesday 28 May 2019

An evocative account of Sunday

'Rodster' Graham Speller and his wife recently returned to the UK after some years in Oman. Here is Graham's evocative account of Sunday, reproduced with permission.

Last Sunday was quite an extraordinary day. It began with an early morning train journey into London and despite it being a Bank Holiday Sunday the train was already quite full and many fellow travellers were wearing Charlton colours. It didn't stop there either. As the train sped towards London stopping at Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Orpington it collected more and more fellow Addicks proudly wearing colours, many were shirts from years ago, with designs and advertisements representing a history of club sponsorship down the years.

Once in London the pattern continued throughout the day and didn't stop until alighting the train at Marden at the end of a wonderful day. Apart from our opponents, Sunderland, we didn't see colours of any other side all day. No Manchester United, no Arsenal, no Spurs, no Millwall, no Palace, no one else was out and about today, we were the only show in town. It was a day too that unearthed the depth of support for our club, and it was uninterrupted by others. A wonderful sight then as 38,000 Addicks headed to the national stadium to do battle once again with our friends from Sunderland.

38,000 Addicks represents the highest gathering of Charlton fans I have ever seen in all the years I have followed the team, and represents a threefold increase in the normal home gate of about 11,000 -12,000. If nothing else it shows what potential there is for this club to grow and compete at the highest level. In our manager Lee Bowyer and his assistant Johnnie Jackson we have leaders who can provide effective leadership and drive the team forward, a rare quality. It just needs an owner who values, recognises and harnesses that support. We live in hope.

This day also had the power to unlock the factors that kept many friends away from football. Gradually our list of dedicated Addicks, united through the wonders of the internet, had shrivelled to about nine or ten regular match attenders down from the potential of about thirty. Of course we were always in touch via the internet but the habit of meeting on home and sometimes away match days had shrunk. Today was different. The lure of Wembley, the chance for promotion, the opportunity to get acquainted with old friends again, drew people together in a way that nothing else had managed in all those years of decline.

So, for me the chance to meet and greet old friends again was an opportunity not to be missed. Our chosen meeting place was the The Larrik pub in Marylebone and at the appointed hour we gathered and greeted long lost friends. News and stories were swapped, beers bought and thoughts about the forthcoming match were exchanged. The time went far too quickly.

Into the Stadium and the Charlton fans filled one half of the ground. A visual analysis of the crowd easily demonstrated this wasn't the stereotype football crowd of drunken males. What struck you was this was a family event. Groups made up of families and friends gathered around the bars on the concourse, chatting, drinking and sometimes singing. Mums and dads, girls and boys, couples, small groups of neighbours and friends, some old and entitled to pensions, some not yet old enough to take their Key Stage Two tests, grannies and granddads all anxiously waiting for the big kick off.

Once in their seats, a sea of red, filled every seat that embraced the graceful curves of the stadium. It continued around the opposite side of the ground as the Sunderland fans filled their quota of seats with the same combination of red and white. The kick off, when it came, was a disaster. No one could plan for an own goal. Possession of the ball is a key feature of our game, and over the season I have seen every trick in the book to make sure the ball stays in our possession, including passing back to the keeper. This time it all went wrong in spectacular fashion.

Naby Sarr collected the ball from his team mate, then turned back towards our goal as his options to move forward were closed down by the opposition. Goalkeeper, Dillon Philips had changed his position slightly from where Sarr judged him to be and was unable to reach the back pass as it rolled into the net. You could hear a pin drop amongst 38,000 Addicks.

So here was the challenge. Did the players panic? No. Was there blame? No. Did heads drop, yes, initially for a few moments, but then uplifted by the chorus of support emanating from the Charlton fans, the players dragged themselves back into the game. Passes started to flow, Sunderland's attacks were broken down and we started to create our own chances. It was crucial Sunderland did not score the next goal and ideally we needed a goal before half time to get back with any chance. The equaliser came just before half time and a sense of relief swept through the supporters. Back level, we had a chance.

Both sides could have scored in the second half but Charlton had the better possession and looked more likely to score. The full 90 minutes now expired and extra time and the prospect of penalties if the score was still level were looming large. Four minutes of added time were allowed by the officials and with just 6 seconds remaining the elusive all important goal came after a clever piece of wing play resulted in a deep cross and a scrambled goal when Sunderland failed to clear. The fans erupted in euphoria. Arms and legs everywhere, strangers embraced, grown men cried as we struggled to come to terms with what we had just seen.

In simple terms it means our club has a chance to survive, the manager can now be awarded a new contract and the bulk of the team can stay together for a season in the Championship. If we had lost we feared the worse. Relief then, a chance to go forward positively into the future. The next half hour is filled with celebrations, presentations, photographs, ticker tape and the lifting of a big silver cup.

We take a final look and make our way out of the ground where both sets of fans merge in their trek to the station and car parks. Some fans exchange a few words, but these are kind and respectful words, there is no tension, just respect. For Sunderland, its a long way home and another season in League One. After our last play off final in 1998 against Sunderland they gained automatic promotion the following season, perhaps they will do that again.

For Charlton the future is bright, we just need new owners to harness all that potential. To our current owner, RD, we can leave the last words to the late Jim Bowen, host of Bullseye. "Look what you could have won".

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