Charlton Athletic Football Club has come a long way since relegations from the Premier League and Championship within three years from 2006 onward. Sunday’s F.A. Cup exit, despite being at the hands of a side a league below, deflects any distraction from a monumental season finale, in which avoiding relegation is a must.
On a glorious spring afternoon at Bramall Lane, optimism was in the air. Charlton were bidding for a place in the semi-final. It would be their first visit to Wembley since 1998 when Clive Mendonca wrote his name in the history books with the last hat-trick ever at the old stadium in a 4-4 draw against Sunderland in the then Division One playoff final, which ended 7-6 to the Addicks on penalties.
However, two goals in two second half minutes left Charlton’s F.A. Cup run over, with the second courtesy of an untimely deflection off centre-back Richard Wood from Sheffield United fullback John Brayford’s speculative effort.
Yet the end of the cup run saw a new, young looking Charlton side, taking their first steps towards a bright future. It was evident maturation was taking place and the experience some players had from playing in front of a 30,000 raucous crowd, and in a game of such small margins, will have taught the upcoming talent a lot.
It comes this morning also as a reminder to those players of the realities of the modern game, with manager Chris Powell relieved of his duties as Charlton manager. On young shoulders now rests responsibilities, and in homage to their now former coach, a platform awaits, to help keep the club he worshipped in the league.
With the idea of Wembley a distant reality, the spotlight is set and the focus refined with next weekend’s 6 pointer against fellow South London side Millwall. It will be for much more than just bragging rights, with the two sides both in the relegation zone.
Off the field changes at the Valley this season have seen interesting developments on the pitch. New owner Roland Duchatelet, who is also owner of several clubs around Europe yet most notably Standard Liege, top of the Belgium league, has immediately made changes to the playing staff and set out to make money on his most prized assets. These changes saw top goal scorer Yann Kermongant sold to Bournemouth in January, and also central midfielder Dale Stephens to Brighton.
With departures brought arrivals and many on loan from Liege. These players included Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad, creative midfielder Astrit Ajdarevic and goalkeeper Thuram-Ulien, cousin of French great Lillian; all were transfers made in hope of getting more first-team football.
And with one door closing another opened, with youngster Diego Poyet, son of former Chelsea player and now Sunderland manager Gus Poyet, getting his chance with Dale Stephens sold to the Seagulls.
Goal scorer of the opening goal of the 2-1 win against Sheffield Wednesday in the sixth-round of the F.A. Cup, Callum Harriott has also burst onto the scene, alongside fellow academy graduate Jordan Cousins.
These players will have learnt a lot very quickly courtesy of Powell giving them a chance, and this can only be a plus in the run-in. With new management can also bring a different outlook, and new ideas may revitalize the team.
In reality Charlton winning the F.A. Cup would have been a long shot, and despite Manchester City going down, again, to Wigan Athletic 2-1 at the Etihad, the remaining sides in the competition would all be from the Premier League. Expending energy on a big pitch at Wembley could possibly have hampered a youthful squad’s ambitions of staying in the league, with fatigue bound to set in with the fixtures piling up. So although for the fans the immediate reaction will be hard to take, in the long run, Charlton’s end of an admirable F.A. Cup run may keep them afloat in the Championship.
Of course it’s easy to talk in terms of possibility; however, Wigan Athletic of last year and Birmingham City in the Capital One Cup three years ago support the theory of glory met with a fine line of relegation. Charlton can seek to now shun that from happening.
Non-executive chairman Richard Murray a few weeks ago spoke to BBC London, buoyantly stating, “It’s just a matter of staying up this year, and then we will reap the benefits.”
A long-trip home for the Charlton fans on Sunday, yet they can be proud of a valiant effort from a side at the bottom of the Championship. With the spirit of a team learning and unafraid, conceivably the South Londoners can climb the table, and as a tribute to their former manager, avoid relegation.
What can the young Charlton and English players take from this experience?