I’ve often imagined what surviving in a relegation threatened season feels like. Of course, there would be relief, and an element of jubilation, but I’ve never been able to create an artificial response to the idea of staying up.
What I do know, however, is the pain of relegation. I’ve known both the feeling of a bid to stay up fail at the penultimate stage, my stomach sinking as Berbatov rounded El Karkouri and my tears flowing as Defoe smashed in, and a season of humiliation resulting in relegation long before May, a campaign in which supporting Charlton was something to hide.
I also know, thanks to this season, that ‘Chris Powell’s Charlton’, or at least what’s left of it, are beatable in those moments where you expect their spirit and determination to see them over the line. Doncaster, Wigan, Sheffield United, Brighton, Barnsley, Blackburn; only so much fight and hard work will stop you from falling to defeat, and a lack of quality, diminished further throughout the season, has shown regularly at crucial moments.
And so, with the Addicks knowing a win over Watford in their final home game of the season would secure their Championship status for another season, there wasn’t much confidence emanating from myself. In the past few months, Charlton supporters have been subjected to the gut-wrenching pain of seeing their talismanic forward depart, their heroic manager following and anxious worries about the club’s short and long-term future. It seemed only right that there would be one more day of punishment; defeat against the Hornets would set up a must win final day scenario at Blackpool, or I’d almost certainly be experiencing that relegation pain once again.
Of course, I hoped for one of those famous nights at The Valley under the floodlights, a night that would see this gruelling season reach a memorable conclusion, but I kept those thoughts to myself. Hope had not produced much reward throughout the campaign.
But, with stomachs churning, prayers still being made and The Valley rocking to rival any other atmosphere in SE7 of late, the players responded to the task. In what will surely be the last time a great deal of the players who previously made us feel proud to support our club again took to The Valley turf, they produced one last performance fitting of the tag ‘Chris Powell’s Charlton’.
In turn, Jose Riga organised his players so successfully. Although a little belatedly, the Belgian finally reverted back to 4-5-1, and brought Lawrie Wilson into the side on the right of midfield.
It was the man on the other wing, the much criticised Callum Harriott, who turned Charlton’s positive start, so often meaningless this season, into a lead. A stunning individual goal was only topped by Watford’s somewhat undeserved equaliser just after half-time; Troy Deeney’s dipping half-volley lobbing a previously unbeatable Hamer.
But The Valley crowd were unfazed by Watford’s goal, and their commendable support was rewarded when Morgan Fox crossed to, who else but, Jackson to regain Charlton’s lead at the second attempt. The trademark knee slide followed, as did a Harriott volleyed goal, assisted by Wilson, and an Albert Riera red card, also assisted by Wilson, to seal both the victory and Championship football at The Valley for the 2014/15 season.
So perfectly set up by Riga, so proudly embodying the spirit of ‘Chris Powell’s Charlton’ and so thoroughly deserving of their victory; the win felt good, it’s reward felt like, if only successful in numbing it, a medicine to cure the pain of the previous few months. I now know what it feels like to avoid relegation, and it’s certainly as joyful as it is a relief. The Reds are staying up.
The emotional release of full-time was a distant dream in the nervy infancy of the game; the case in the stands and on The Valley’s somewhat recovered playing surface.
In fact, despite the Addicks starting the game in a composed fashion, with Diego Poyet extraordinary in midfield, a piece of defending that embodied that nervousness almost allowed Watford in. With Michael Morrison failing to attack a long ball, the dangerous Deeney took advantage, only to be stopped in his path to goal by an alert Hamer, rushing off his line to block the ball away. It would be the first of several times Charlton’s number one and Watford’s top scorer would do battle.
It proved to be the catalyst for a previously tense affair to somewhat open up, as both sides exchanged efforts on goal. Jordan Cousins, finally back in his favoured central position, saw his pull back met by Harriott, but Lloyd Doyley’s crucial intervention blocked the ball’s path to goal.
And the Addicks, firmly in their stride with 15 minutes played, had another chance to take the lead when Harriott’s quick feet were too good for Doyley and Charlton were awarded a dangerous-looking free-kick. Jackson’s effort wasn’t particularly threatening, but that old adage of always testing the ‘keeper from set-pieces almost paid dividends as Watford stopper Jonathan Bond fumbled and, with former Hornet Marvin Sordell lurking, just about gathered at the second attempted.
The noise from the Covered End was only enhanced by these chances, and there was a feeling the Addicks were well on top. But, as has happened so regularly this season, an opposition goal can so quickly change that, and Deeney would have been disappointed to fire straight at Hamer with the goal at his mercy after creating space for himself.
Despite Watford’s gruesome away record, one that made the passionate, flag waving Watford fans even more barmy, Deeney’s effort was a stark reminder that Watford still packed a punch. Charlton’s early pressure needed to be capitalised upon, and quickly. Another opportunity went begging as Jackson’s header at the far post was superbly saved by Bond, but it wouldn’t be long before the ‘oooo’s turned to cheers.
And it was those sort of cheers that follow a special, special goal. There didn’t appear to be much on as Harriott drove forward, but Watford’s shaky defence didn’t appear too keen on closing the academy graduate down. He took advantage, unleashing a fierce strike that gave Bond no chance whatsoever. The manner of the goal, along with its importance, sent The Valley into a frenzy of celebration; SE7 hadn’t been this loud since Jackson scored against QPR.
But the hosts couldn’t afford to be complacent, especially with Watford, despite having nothing to play for, seemingly intent on ruining Charlton’s evening. Deeney, who was forcing Morrison and Dervite to constantly raise their performance, flashed an effort towards goal that was tipped behind by Hamer, before Charlton’s bearded stopper added a late contender for save of the season.
The resulting corner was met by Essaid Belkalem, and his powerful header looked for all the world to be drawing level. But Hamer, diving to his right, pulled off a remarkable save that earned him a standing ovation. A wonder goal and a wonder save; you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a wonderful night.
The Hornets, however, kept coming forward, with Sean Murray drilling an effort with such force that it broke an advertising hoarding after flashing past the post, and Daniel Tozser’s free-kick, despite what seemed like enough preparation to take us into the 2014/15 season, sailing over the crossbar. With less than ten minutes to go until half-time, some serious digging in was occurring.
But, in this competitive game, with intense battles all over the pitch, Ikechi Anya finally got the better of Fox has the half drew to a close, and his cross picked out Mathias Ranegie, who only had to divert his header goalwards to convert. Thankfully, the Swede only succeeded in nodding the ball back from whence it came and Charlton were reprieved.
The greater reprieve game when Referee Bond (no relation of the Watford ‘keeper, or James) blew his whistle for half-time. It was a lead that was far from secure, but one the Addicks more than deserved.
And the interval appeared to be exactly what Riga’s side needed, with Charlton starting the second half in a confident fashion. There was a roar of anticipation whenever the Addicks moved forward, not least with Harriott on the ball, who forced Doyley to be substituted such was the torrid time he was giving him, but, for the 45th time this season, the final ball was lacking somewhat.
Meanwhile, those subplots continued to develop. As former Liverpool midfielder, playing at full-back, Riera won a cheap free-kick, Wilson was quick to tell the Spaniard that he wasn’t best pleased with the way in which he went down. Soon after, Riera decided trip up the ‘alright’ winger, incensing The Valley faithful and forcing referee Bond to pull them over. Tension defused, for now.
It didn’t take long for a tension to return, but this was an anxious tension, the sort of tension felt after your side concedes an equaliser in a must win game.
Gabriele Angella’s free-kick pumped long pick out Deeney, who took a touch, made space for himself once again and struck an unbelievable dipping volley that finally saw his nemesis in the Charlton goal beaten. There have been several sensational goals at The Valley this season, and Deeney’s was arguably the pick of the bunch.
I’ve been critical of The Valley crowd after we’ve conceded in recent weeks, but it took a matter of seconds before they found their voices again. The Red and White Army were not going to give up those three points so easily.
Nor were they going to stop informing Riera they didn’t approve of him as human being, with the Spaniard receiving a long overdue booking for tripping up Poyet as the outstanding teenage broke down the right. The resulting free-kick was met be a half-hearted overhead kick from Sordell; his final effort on goal in a Charlton shirt at The Valley as he was replaced by Jonathan Obika moments later.
There were groans that Riga had not gone to 4-4-2, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to persist with 4-5-1 with the Addicks playing so well. However, when Deeney got past Fox and crept into the area, it looked as if a second striker would be needed in search of an equaliser. Thankfully, Deeney’s lash towards goal sailed harmlessly over Hamer’s bar.
And thank god it did, as Charlton’s next attack resulted in one of the best moments at The Valley this season. There was composed passing play, a wicked final delivery from Fox and a sensational skipper, after slipping at the first attempt, on the end of it to prod home with 69 minutes gone. YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES is a better descriptor than any exaggerated sentence.
Anya responded quickly, but his effort from range was greeted with sarcastic cheers as it failed to test Hamer, as was Obika’s strike down the other end, that, erm, went out for a throw. Nonetheless, there was a real desire to celebrate in SE7, and that was only enhanced when safety was secured with 13 minutes to play.
If Fox’s delivery was wicked, Wilson’s was plain cruel, to Watford at least. His cross picked out an unmarked Harriott perfectly, and the youngster volleyed home with panache; a goal fitting of keeping the Addicks in the division.
The first two goals I’d gone completely crazy, but this was firstly more of a relief, and secondly the chance to soak up the atmosphere around me. In the past few months, what with what has gone on off and on the field, The Valley hasn’t been a place I’ve particularly enjoyed going to. To see it like this meant so much to me.
Riera clearly wasn’t too keen on soaking up the atmosphere, however, as the visibly disgruntled Spaniard led with his foot high into the chest of Poyet, and received his second yellow card, much to the delight of the already delirious Addicks. Wilson 1-0 Riera.
Events on the field in the game’s final few minutes were a little irrelevant, but for Fox’s glorious turn and less than glorious finish, and what will surely be a final career appearance for the heroic chap, and bigger Charlton than Leeds fan, that is Andy Hughes. It was all just getting in the way of the final whistle.
It seemed as if Watford had got one back at the start of five minutes of stoppage time, but the assistant’s flag denied Anya, and a brief break in those celebrations was averted.
Then came the final whistle. Of course, I’d known for almost 20 minutes that we were safe, but to see the players celebrating with such passion, and love for each other, really brought home that we’d done it.
The customary end of season lap of honour was, once again, one where the players deserved the applause they received. They’re certainly not the best, but they’ve got a will to win, plenty of fight and an incredible amount of determination to do well for this club.
There were probably some goodbyes in those waves, but what a way to go out. The final team Chris Powell’s Charlton will play together on that glorious, in its own way, Valley pitch, and they reward us with one final performance; fitting of a bunch of players who many of us will always adore. They certainly didn’t deserve three years of hard work to be spoiled by a relegation that would have tainted previous success.
And can you blame at least one of those players for wanting to depart? Ever since Powell handed a league debut to Poyet in the testing times of Wigan away, he’s been unreal. Tonight might well be his best game, which is saying something. He was utterly magnificent, breaking up play and starting new attacks. I’d love him to stay, but I think I’d love it more if he reached his full potential. Another season with us might be good for him but, either way, I hope his next career choice is a wise one. It’s been a pleasure to watch him play, nonetheless.
Then of course there’s the out of contract club. Hopefully Hughes, thrown in the air by his teammates come full-time, will remain at the club in some capacity, whilst Hamer, Morrison, Dervite and Bradley Pritchard (okay, he wasn’t there and okay, I’m his only fan, but come on, please?) will be signing new deals to stay in a playing capacity. The three who did feature, despite Deeney’s constant threat, were superb, and Hamer’s saves kept Charlton on top.
You can add Sordell to that list too, and whilst he was quiet tonight, his hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday, you could argue, is going to be the difference between safety and relegation.
Finally, there’s those who will hopefully be here next season, and were outstanding tonight. Wilson was excellent, Cousins dogged, Solly back to his usual self after a poor performance on Saturday and Fox also recovering from a nightmare display against Blackburn.
And, of course, there was Harriott and Jackson. What a joy it was to see Harriott finally play with confidence again, and what a captain’s performance it was from the skipper.
And whilst the players deserve the bulk of the credit for the entirety of the campaign as well as tonight, Riga can hold his head high. He got it spot on, arguably for the first time in a while, and I can’t even criticise his substitutions. I don’t wish for Riga to be our manager/coach next season, for a number of reasons, but I wish him well and I think he can be proud of the job he’s done, at least to maintain the fight and spirit amongst the players.
But it isn’t really time for assessments; it’s a time for celebration and relief. At no point did survival seem too far away, but at no point was it anything like secure. Sorry Tranmere, maybe we’ll see you in the cup.
THE REDS ARE STAYING UP.