Thursday 25 May 2023

A great day remembered

My recollections of the Greatest Game as published in Addick's Diary 25 years ago.

Like many Addicks we were in a nervous mood on Monday morning.  Was the fact that we were going direct from Leamington station to the game a good omen? No, it was too late to think of omens, although my wife's intuition was that we would do it thanks to Sasa Ilic. On the train down, we looked out for fellow Addicks, but what we mostly saw were Sunderland supporters who are apparently concentrated in great numbers in 'beechy Bucks' with Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross ringing to the accents of Wearside.

We met up at Wembley with former Warwickshire addick Steve Loveday who now lives in Canada. The stadium itself was showing its age, although it looked smaller than I anticipated. Our seat up high up behind the goal gave us a good view of the pitch and of the sea of red in front of us, as well as the Charlton drummers.

Charlton started impressively and it was 23 mins. when Mendonca put in a stunning strike. I thought that we took our foot off the pedal a little as half time approached. The striking of 'To the Londoners 1-0' also worried me a bit, as it seems to me that that chant is invariably followed by an opposition equaliser. Half time saw some strange representations of birds on stilts manipulated by people with muslin over their faces coming round the track. A nearby Addick shouted 'what are you?' and for me this was the strangest piece of postmodernism I had seen since the outbreak of south coast surrealism at Pompey just before Christmas.

Peter Reid is well known for his forceful but restrained use of a wide range of English vocabulary and he had clearly been at his Biblical best during the interval as Sunderland came out as a renewed and revitalised team. One thing that had been worrying me in the first half was that wide spaces had been opening up in our defence. I was also concerned about Sasa's ability to handle crosses. It was a header from a needlessly conceded Summerbee corner that did indeed produce the equaliser from Quinn. Eight minutes later Phillips scored impressively for Sunderland. 

The Sunderland supporters were now in full song as they anticipated their elevation to the Premiership. Trouble broke out with quite a few Sunderland supporters in the Addicks area, while down on the track a bare chested Wearsider was brought to the ground and handcuffed. The unimpressive Heaney had in the mean time been replaced by Steve Jones who many Addicks would like to have seen on the pitch from the start.

However, Sunderland supporter Mendonca had other ideas when he scored his second and probably his best goal of the game after he split the Sunderland defence with a run. Alan Curbishley later noted the 2-2 situation as a crucial point in the game and Sunderland replied almost immediately with another strike from Quinn. For me the 2-3 deficit was the most worrying point of the game, not least because a lister had dreamed before the semi-finals that we had lost 3-2 at Wembley to Sunderland. In the 76th minute Robinson came on in place of Danny Mills and in my view immediately added a new threat to the Charlton attack.

 It was a Robinson corner that gave Richard Rufus his first ever Charlton goal to make it 3-3. Extra time saw the tiredness showing in the players, with Brown brought on very quickly after the re-start to replace Bright. Summerbee scored for Sunderland in the 99th minute, but Mendonca then had another brilliant finish four minutes later to score the first hat-trick in a play off final. Charlton had replicated their 4-4 score against Norwich the previous season, but in much more crucial circumstances.

So it came to the penalty shoot-out. No worries when Mendonca stepped up to score calmly. I had complete confidence in courageous Steve Brown, as I did in dependable Keith Jones and captain Mark Kinsella. Mark Bowen's experience showed, as did Robinson's skill and Newton's shot was accurate even if not as forceful as usual. The tension was by now unbearable, but what must it have been like for the players making the long walk up to the Sunderland end, or for Sasa waiting for each turn. And it was Sasa who saved Michael Gray's effort at the historic score of 7-6. This was one of the most incredible matches ever seen at Wembley, ranked alongside the Matthews final and the England-Germany world cup final by commentators.

 As we returned to Leamington, our Coventry City supporting neighbour rushed out to share our joy. The calm of a Leamington evening was spolit as a large bottle of champagne was opened in the garden.

That evening I just watched the extra time and the shoot out, but later in the week I watched the whole video of the match. On reflection, I felt that I had been a little unfair to Heaney who did put in some good crosses (was the presence of his girl friend on the celebration bus an indication that he is to be signed?) The player who came across as outstanding on the video was Youds who was strong and determined and made some key interventions. He and Rufus are a Premiership pairing.


The champagne was drunk, but on Tuesday afternoon it was off to London for the third time in less than a week to join the celebrations at Charlton. Along with several hundred other fans we waited in Floyd Road for the departure of the open top bus that was to take the team to Woolwich Town Hall. Past it came at a fair old lick, but with Clive Mendonca clearly visible at the front holding the trophy. Then after younger fans had tried to run after the bus and get several weeks' dose of PM10 emissions, we all went down to Charlton Station where we had a long wait for a train greeted by shouts of 'Are you a Sunderland supporter?' The driver gave a few blasts on his horn, but there was then a long wait before we eventually headed off for Woolwich.

We rarely go to Woolwich and my wife vainly tried to identify the branch of Lloyds Bank where she worked as we headed for a very crowded Wellington Street. The bus was parked in front of the town hall and the crowd was being told by an unknown person that they had been great supporters. I found myself next to the legendary 'scarfman', but gradually found my way to the front behind a bloke even taller than me (the legendary Jeff Prior?) 

Some of the team including Rufus came down to our end of the street, as did Curbs and a very happy Keith Peacock. But it was an overjoyed Sasa Ilic who really worked the crowd, finally coming down to our end to greet a handicapped person. Then it was all over. On the way back to the Arsenal station I saw the tower of the now closed Co-op store in the distance which when I was very young looked like a skyscraper to me (it came to my mind when I first went to Chicago), while the store itself seemed the height of sophistication. A lot has happened since then, but few things as good as these events as we started to speculate on who our first Premiership opponents would be. At London Bridge I and a young woman supporter nearly accidentally hit each other with our furled banners, and we exchanged a few words before heading off to our respective destinations and the Premiership.

What It All Means

It can't be easily put into words. But when I started supporting Charlton in the 1950s we were a leading top flight club. I recently got hold of a programme for a Charlton v.Portsmouth match which marked Sam Bartram's 500th apperance and I noticed that in the table we were the leading London club. Charlton are now back where they deserve to belong. We have been under estimated all season, and now the same people are saying that this 'tiny' (no longer small) club will go straight down again. Well, they underestimate the genius of Curbs; the management skills of Peter Varney; the spirit of the team; and the loyalty of a great bunch of fans. Charlton will show that a well run club rooted in the community can compete with the top Premiership sides.

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