If you haven’t already, the release of the Football League fixtures on Wednesday for the 2016/17 season will force you to come to terms with the fact Charlton Athletic will be playing in the third tier of English football.
While Charlton’s opponents from previous seasons will be planning trips to Newcastle United and Aston Villa, Bristol Rovers and Northampton Town will be on the agenda for the Addicks. It’s not exactly easy to get excited about a new season while Roland Duchatelet remains in control, and the perceived status of opposition isn’t going to help the cause.
But, if you clutch enough straws, there are at least a handful of fixtures which are appealing to some degree. Interesting opposition, new grounds and the occasional clash that offers a reasonable chance of victory.
So too, however, are there a number of games that appear particularly unpleasant. Far too many opportunities to play a Lancashire side in midweek, grim locations, and opposition we simply never beat.
Either way, it’s time to stop putting off accepting that Charlton are a League One club, and acclimatise to the unpleasant reality of the division that Duchatelet’s failings have placed the Addicks in. A reality that involves even the more noteworthy fixtures not actually being that exciting.
Games to look forward to (once straws have been clutched at)
AFC Wimbledon (h)
Given that we so regularly host promoted sides on the opening day of the season, it would not surprise if our first opponents are the Dons. A fixture which would prove ideal.
For it is unquestionable that there will be a considerable effort to make it clear to Duchatelet, Katrien Meire and Richard Murray that the damage caused and insults inflicted have not been forgotten over the summer months. Though some will want to view the start of the new campaign as a fresh start, a sizeable protest on the opening day of the campaign remains likely.
Having an understanding opposition, therefore, is useful. AFC Wimbledon supporters, possibly more than those of any other Football League club, appreciative of the importance of the bond between fans and club.
The Dons likely to sympathise with our situation, as we might with theirs as they continue to attempt to force a return to Plough Lane. Those in the away end when their club travel to SE7 only need look around them for inspiration and motivation.
And even without considering any potential protests, these are two sets of supporters, in a tribal sport, who should share a relatively strong bond. In one way or another, there will be a strong and enjoyable atmosphere.
The umpteen unvisited grounds
Many of them may be unpleasant, in hard to reach locations, and will host Charlton defeats, but the opportunity to visit new grounds a small upside to the return to League One.
Totting off league grounds a grown-up alternative to collecting Panini stickers, and while AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow and Fleetwood Town’s Highbury Stadium are the only two venues the Addicks have not played a competitive game at before, there will be many that supporters have not previously visited.
I started last season with just three, Hull City’s KC Stadium, Bristol City’s Ashton Gate and Leeds United’s Elland Road, unvisited Championship arenas, but will go into this campaign in League One with ten new grounds to tick off.
The fixture list presenting us with trips to Boundary Park, Gigg Lane and Valley Parade on Saturdays in the first few months of the season, before the weather turns nasty and heading up north becomes a survival adventure, would be welcome.
Fleetwood Town on a Tuesday night (a)
Right, hear me out on this one.
Though there are slightly less midweek league fixtures in League One, something that’s often defeated by games postponed due to unplayable pitches and international call-ups, we’ll undoubtedly be sent to an uncomfortable ground in a difficult to reach location on a winter Tuesday.
Quite often, these are grim. The game at Huddersfield last season immediately springs to mind, with Johnnie Jackson arranging for supporters who were in the away end at the John Smith’s Stadium to be refunded after Karel Fraeye’s side suffered an embarrassing 5-0 defeat.
But so too can these games, with a few hundred committed Addicks in a horrible away end, make for unforgettable nights. Evening trips to Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan Athletic in recent seasons particularly enjoyable, while I remain gutted that I missed the trip to Elland Road in the 2013/14 season that saw Ben Hamer make a stoppage-time penalty save.
Spending a Tuesday evening in Fleetwood’s horrible-looking away terrace, therefore, could go one of two ways. A horrendous night, where one of the division’s smallest clubs inflict misery upon us, or marvellous, with a hundred Charlton supporters wildly celebrating a hard-fought victory.
Either way, there’s something about making a horrible journey to the second smallest ground in the division that excites a regular away traveller.
Peterborough United (a)
Though a much less exciting proposition since the fantastic terrace behind the goal was replaced by a bog-standard seated stand, with away supporters shoved into an uncomfortable corner of one of the side stands, recent trips to London Road have been great.
The 5-1 win, with Paul Benson and Lee Martin particularly impressive, a rare memorable day from the 2010/11 season, the Johnnie Jackson-admiring atmosphere in the aforementioned terrace during the 2-2 draw in 2013 was unforgettable, and even last season’s League Cup visit to Posh featured that special Ahmed Kashi goal.
I’ll settle for anything half as good as any of those.
Swindon Town without Charlie Austin (h)
Our last spell in League One, prior to Chris Powell’s side making it rather enjoyable, was marred by a Charlie Austin-inspired Swindon Town.
A scorer in the first-leg of the play-off semi-final defeat, involved in the game-changing moment which saw Miguel Llera dismissed and latterly converting a penalty in the second, and notching three times in the defeat which saw Phil Parkinson sacked during the following season. Austin, as he was for many teams, a nemesis of the Addicks.
Playing an Austin-less Swindon, therefore, will be a much more pleasant experience. A fixture that was one we simply couldn’t win for a couple of seasons suddenly becomes rather attractive.
Even the threat of Jon Obika, who possesses a decent record at this level and will undoubtedly find a way to join the long list of former players who have scored on their return to The Valley, will be nullified by Nicky Ajose potentially lining up in Charlton colours against his old club.
My own local derbies
Northern teams aplenty in this division, but so too are there a decent number of teams who are closer to my home in Milton Keynes than The Valley is.
MK Dons and Coventry City among them, but it’s the games against Northampton Town I’m looking forward to the most among these close encounters. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will be aware that my support of Northamptonshire CCC is almost as committed as my following of Charlton, and that will make for an interesting personal derby.
For the sake of the state of my Twitter mentions, two wins are desperately needed against the Cobblers.
The FA Cup first round
A fixture that won’t be announced on Wednesday, but another benefit to being in the third tier is that the Addicks will enter The FA Cup at the first round. A stage where the ‘romance’ of the competition is arguably at its peak.
Unquestionably, we’ll be drawn at home to Oldham Athletic and the beauty of the first round will immediately be lost, but there is always the possibility of a trip to club who play below National League level. Who operate with as a ‘proper’ non-league club with a real community spirit, and will view a club like Charlton visiting as one of the most important days in their history.
Embarrassment will unquestionably follow, or the Northwich Victoria defeat will be replayed before hand at the very least, but there’s something special about those sort of fixtures.
Games to dread (or at least dread more than normal)
Sheffield United (a)
Two and a half years on, and I’m still waking up in cold sweats after Callum Harriott’s miss has appeared in mind.
I’m still not over Charlton’s FA Cup fifth round defeat to Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in 2014, which denied me the opportunity to see the Addicks at Wembley, and proved to be Chris Powell’s final game in charge.
Consequently, I’m not sure I’m mentally prepared to return to the scene. Particularly not with the Blades led by Chris Wilder, who will undoubtedly be motivated to prove his decision to pick Sheffield over South East London was the correct one.
Bolton Wanderers (both)
Comparing ourselves to other teams is a dangerous game, but I imagine outsiders will see a story in which of last season’s crisis club is able to recover from their relegation more effectively. The financially bankrupt Bolton, or the morally bankrupt Charlton.
It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that the Addicks finish above the Trotters, and reasonable to demand victory in the games played against them. At the very least, finishing below a club that they finished ten points ahead of last season wouldn’t exactly be a mark of success for Duchatelet and co.
But fixtures against Bolton last season weren’t pleasant. Throwing away a two-goal lead at The Valley in December under the stewardship of Karel Fraeye grim, and the goalless draw at The Macron Stadium in April condemning Charlton to relegation.
If expectations and last season’s horrendous efforts don’t make this a fixture to dread, then Bolton’s new boss confirms games against the Trotters next season aren’t going to be much fun. Phil Parkinson, reasonably well respected by Addicks for his efforts at the club in difficult times, has built a decent reputation for himself while at Bradford, and will be looking to turn Bolton into promotion contenders despite the club still being a poor overall state.
Few were willing to admit it, but a healthy number of Charlton supporters were secretly hoping that Millwall won their play-off final against Barnsley in May.
For though their success would have been unbearable, as would having both of our South East London rivals in divisions above us, it would least save the embarrassment of winless fixtures against the Lions during this campaign.
Not since Matthew Spring gave the Addicks a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in 2009 has a rival been beaten, and the Lions are unbeaten against Charlton since 1995.
It’s probably best to simply accept we’re not beating Millwall again this season, and save additional disappointment.
The Northern away trip the week before Christmas
- 22/12/12 – Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Charlton Athletic
- 21/12/13 – Bolton Wanderers 1-1 Charlton Athletic
- 20/12/14 – Blackburn Rovers 2-0 Charlton Athletic
- 19/12/15 – Burnley 4-0 Charlton Athletic
For the previous four seasons, the Addicks have been sent up north on the weekend prior to Christmas. An unwelcome proposition, made an unbearable event by the embarrassing performances on three of those occasions.
And with so many opponents based above the Watford Gap in League One – Bury, Rochdale, and Oldham among them – it’s predictable that Charlton will once again be embarrassing themselves in a grim northern location prior to Christmas 2016.
The proposition alone is making me feel deeply, deeply upset.
A winter visit to Walsall (a)
Now, it must be known that I have absolutely nothing against Walsall. Their achievements last season, to reach the play-offs with minimal expenditure and constant changes in the dugout, were particularly commendable, and they’ve managed to earn a reputation for being clever recruiters and successfully developing players.
But the last time Charlton travelled to the Bescot Stadium in December 2011 was the coldest I have ever been inside a football ground. An absolutely horrible afternoon, that means I get a shiver each time I pass the ground on the way to northern away games.
The grim experience probably made worse by the Addicks being held to a 1-1 draw, with a late penalty shout for handball outrageously waved away by the referee.
I’ll be going to the Bescot Stadium this season with a hat, scarf, coat and gloves, even if we play there in August.
Southampton U21s (a)
While our fixtures in the competition that replaces the much loathed JPT won’t be announced on Wednesday, it doesn’t stop me dreading the day that Charlton’s first team play a competitive match against another club’s U21 side.
For, quite impressively, the Football League have managed to replace a loathed competition with something much, much worse. Introducing 16 U21 teams, at best an undermining of Football League sides and at worst the first steps towards ‘B’ teams in the league pyramid, and a group stage, providing further distraction from league campaigns, to the Football League Trophy is rather grim.
And though I’d like to promise I’ll boycott any game that Charlton play against an U21 side, my life is so uneventful that boredom will undoubtedly see me appear as Roger Johnson is embarrassed by a 19-year-old Southampton striker at St Mary’s.