Most football supporters can offer two answers when asked who their favourite player is. The first is fairly obvious; the club’s best player. There will undoubtedly be no more than two or three names mentioned, and most will punt for the same man.
The second is a little bit more complex; a personally treasured player. Of course, technique helps, but the player chosen in this category isn’t done so because of his ability to tackle, pass or shoot. It can be based around legitimate sentimental reasons, or it might be completely irrational, but often football fans will appreciate a player who others would forget existed if their name wasn’t on listed on the programme every week.
The player I would list under that second category has left Charlton.
He arrived as a bit of a joke; the non-league nobody who failed to excite when League One’s best midfielders and Xabi Alonso’s brother were joining the club. One league title, 89 appearances and four goals later, he left as a bit of a joke; forgotten about for much of last season, but not before some, quite frankly, embarrassing displays.
And in between the two bookends of Bradley Pritchard’s Charlton career, there were those who refused to be won over by the Zimbabwean. Of course, there were performances that were frustrating at best, but he became something of scapegoat in SE7; it was easy to single the former Hayes and Yeading man out ahead of his teammates who had a greater pedigree.
Pritchard’s role of a scapegoat reached its peak in the heart-breaking defeat to Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium in February. Coming as a sub in the closing stages with the Addicks a goal up, the diminutive midfielder busted a gut during his time on the pitch, getting forward on Charlton’s rare breaks and covering the increasingly shaky Loic Nego when the Latics attacked. He did nothing wrong; Wigan’s turn around could not be attributed to him at all. But yet, some quarters of Charlton’s fan base chose to attach blame to Pritchard, purely for his presence on the pitch.
It was the highest point of the, not always but often, unfair criticism the 28-year-old received. For someone who was so fond of Pritchard, it was always difficult to fully appreciate why some were so quick to criticise him. For me, it was the case that Pritchard’s steady performances were eclipsed by his one in every ten shockers. He was excellent against Leicester and Watford at the start of the season, but most only remember him being bossed by Nicky Bailey and Liam Trotter at The Valley a few weeks later.
Pritchard never really recovered from that torrid performance against Millwall. There were some steady performances thereafter, but I think it’s fair to say most Charlton fans had lost patience. Those final few months at The Valley can’t have been enjoyable for him, and to see him fade away so quickly wasn’t pleasant for myself.
“Pritchard had his worst game for Charlton by far and looked a little boy competing in midfield with Bailey and Trotter; the blue shirt won the battle every single time”
There are those who have met Pritchard’s departure with the sort of sarcastic celebration that was sent his way after he was substituted against Oxford United, or controlled the ball successfully against Huddersfield Town. They’ve focused on his most recent appearances, but I’d prefer to look back at the first two and a bit seasons of his time at Charlton, where his performances, his attitude and his story made me appreciate that bloke from Hayes and Yeading as much as anyone else who has represented the club in any capacity over the past three seasons.
Pritchard’s Charlton story began behind the scenes in the 2010/11 campaign. The university graduate, whilst playing for part-timers Hayes, worked as a performance analyst for the club on a voluntary basis. At the same time, scouts from the Addicks, along with several other clubs, we’re watching the Zimbabwean impress in the Conference. Gillingham and Dagenham & Redbridge were interested, but once Charlton came in for him, ‘all other options became redundant’. He signed a one-year-deal in June 2011.
In the space of a few months, he’d gone from an unpaid member of staff, informing players how to better their game, to a Charlton player. There would have been few problems with Pritchard settling into the dressing room, most of the players were new additions as Chris Powell revamped the squad, but he was always going to have to work hard to convince the fans. It was hard to get excited by this unknown bloke when every other signing was of a higher quality. He needed a good start.
After a brief cameo in the opening day win over Bournemouth, in which he looked lively out on the right, Pritchard’s full debut in a Charlton shirt couldn’t have been much tougher; a second string XI faced Championship Reading in the League Cup. Alas, he passed the test with flying colours. Apprehension and apathy turned to excitement as the midfielder put in an outstanding shift; a stroke of genius from Powell, and not a pointless signing.
It was the first of many times Pritchard would show great character in a pressure situation. The second coming after a two month injury lay-off, bouncing back with an FA Cup goal against Halifax; a fine strike for a player who would go on to have endless struggles in front of goal.
And that great character is one of the more prominent factors in my Pritchard appreciation. He was the ultimate Chris Powell player; any faults in his ability were made up by his desire, drive and determination. Never could you accuse Pritchard of not being interested and of not trying hard enough. Whilst some will argue effort counts for a little when compared to skill, a player who gives his all for my club in every second he represents it is a player I have the utmost respect for.
In fact, that hard-working quality has seen Pritchard labelled as a trier. That couldn’t be further away from the truth; for the best part of his three seasons in SE7, he showed real quality. Big game player suggests Pritchard was only motivated by tougher and more important fixtures, which isn’t the case, but he seemed to find another level to match and better opponents who should have made him and Charlton weep.
To begin with, there was that Reading performance. It was followed by an outstanding display against Premier League Fulham, bossing a midfield that contained Danny Murphy, and two sensible, calming and arguably undervalued performances against the two Sheffield clubs. That trio of games earned Pritchard 13 appearances in Charlton’s run-in; including starts in the win over Carlisle that sealed promotion, the win over Wycombe that sealed the title and the win over Hartlepool that put the icing on top of an incredible season.
In fact, Pritchard played a vital role in the 3-2 victory on the final day of the season. Even if some wish to forget him quickly, he’ll be forever captured in one of the most iconic moments at The Valley in recent years. His deep cross picked out Yann Kermorgant for the Frenchman to finish with a scissor kick from the tightest of angles. It ended an incredible season for Pritchard personally; he couldn’t have dreamt of playing in the Football League, let alone playing an important part in Charlton’s promotion to the second tier.
A new two-year-deal was signed shortly after the season came to a close, something of a formality and something he was more than deserving of, giving Pritchard the chance to test himself in the Championship.
He started off with a steady display against Birmingham, out on the right wing that he would occupy for much of the campaign, before following it up with an excellent performance against Leicester, which included an assist for Bradley Wright-Phillips’ opener; his first of 11 that season. It appeared he’d taken to the Championship like he’d taken to League One; with minimal fuss.
In fact, Pritchard rarely, if at all, looked out of his depth. It was an insult that was sent his way in some of his less than pleasing performances, but it was one that lacked substance. Even if it did, he was always quick to bounce back in the following game; you don’t make 44 appearances in a season if you’re out of your depth.
With that in mind, and his exceptional character, it comes as no surprise that one of Pritchard’s best performances came after an indifferent run of displays, both for Charlton and on a personal level. The 5-4 win over Cardiff was a special, special night at The Valley, one that will be retold again and again in years to come, and Pritchard’s performance was marginally second to the heroic effort by Johnnie Jackson. I’d happily sit and watch his work for Danny Haynes’ goal on a loop until my eyes burn out.
“Pritchard didn’t stop running all night, and his movement and control at the back post after collecting a Solly cross allowed him to set up Haynes, who headed home past a desperate Marshall”
It was certainly the case that I was fond of the Zimbabwean before the moment that made me fall in love with him, but one show of emotion upped me from a Pritchard admirer to a full blown Pritchard fanatic. He wasn’t having the best of games against Brighton in December 2012, in fact I vividly remember bemoaning Powell’s decision to keep him on the pitch, but his scrappy prod past Tomasz Kuszczak began my obsession with a man who so obviously wanted to give every ounce of effort he had. He claims he wasn’t crying, but it was clear scoring his first goal in the Football League, and in front of the Covered End, had made him emotional. I was emotional too, and so were several other Addicks; it really was a wonderful moment for someone, despite his performance in that game, so deserving.
With Pritchard often struggling in front of goal, the theory was that the goal would kick start a scoring spree. But it was followed up by a dreadful, and game changing, miss against Derby County. His goal scoring record in non-league was respectable, so it remains a mystery why he struggled to take the simplest of chances in the Football League. The one part of the pitch where Pritchard was out of his depth was the penalty box.
But the games following dreadful misses saw Pritchard respond in fine fashion. An assist an outstanding display against Watford followed the Derby miss, and an equally laughable missed chance against Hull City came before an unbelievable performance against Leicester, with the Zimbabwean providing the assist for Kermorgant to silence the boo boys. Iain Dowie had a word for bouncing back so quickly and so consistently.
And Pritchard ended the season in fine fashion. In Charlton’s eight game unbeaten run, he found the form of his life, which included two goals and arguably his best performance for the Addicks in the win over Barnsley. His display Oakwell showed all of Pritchard’s strengths that were sometimes hiding, or occasionally ignored. His composure on the ball, his eye for the simple but effective pass, his delicious crosses and his excellent work when tracking back. He even looked like a conventional winger, bombing down the right and beating his man time and time again.
“In the 23 games in which the Zimbabwean played on the right side of midfield last season, the Addicks won 12, drew seven and lost four; in the 23 games someone else played on the right, only five games were won, with seven draws and eleven defeats. His eleven assists, only Ince, Eagles and Brady could boast more, also makes for attractive reading for those fighting Pritchard’s corner”
Following his excellent end to the season, there was hope he would improve further in Charlton’s following campaign. But the season got off to the worst possible start for the Addicks and Pritchard; missing two sitters and receiving a red card in the defeat to Bournemouth.
In true Pritchard fashion, he responded after his ban with a number of excellent performances, including two dominant displays against Leicester and Watford in Powell’s 3-5-2 formation. The Pritchard I adored was back, and I couldn’t have been happier for it.
But then came that Millwall display. I’d rather not dwell on it, but that was the end; it was one fight back too many. There were glimpses of Pritchard’s best in a handful of steady performances, but he was never the same again. It hurt to see him forgotten, but it was clear to see why he wasn’t getting a game. When he returned to the side in Jose Riga’s first two games, he looked incredibly uncomfortable, and his normally sound decision making was all over the place in the 0-0 draw with Millwall.
It was always going to be the case that he would leave, and it’s the right time for him to do so.
But I will remember the little Zimbabwean in years to come; synonymously linking him with the great spirit, determination and success of Chris Powell’s Charlton. He was a player and a person you could believe in and treasure in a team you could believe in and treasure.
I desperately hope Pritchard finds his feet in football again. It would be his biggest comeback after his biggest setback. If he does, I shall no doubt be making an appearance at his new club next season.
(GIFs by @plentyofshots)