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Pride in Pope and Fellow Premier League Addicks

We are constantly reminded of our status as peasants, but it impossible not to take some sort of pleasure from the suffering of the wealthy in their mansion. Charlton Athletic may be trapped in League One, but Crystal Palace currently find themselves without a point or a goal seven games into the Premier League season. Football rivalry has little logic, and so we are obliged to take joy in the suffering of our rivals, regardless if we do so from the sewers.

Of those seven winless, pointless, and goalless games for Palace, it was their 1-0 defeat at Burnley’s Turf Moor ground that proved particularly pleasing. Not simply because the Clarets had the lead after three minutes and the Eagles spent 87 dominant minutes displaying very few moments of meaningful quality in the final third. Not simply because the sacking of Frank de Boer followed rather hilariously after just four league games in charge.

For contributing to Palace’s problems was a former Addick, thrusted unexpectedly into a top-flight debut. Nick Pope called upon after Tom Heaton, vital to Sean Dyche’s always overachieving Burnley side, dislocated a shoulder with a little over 35 minutes played. A 65-minute spell to assist in the defending of his team’s slender advantage.

But Pope, largely composed and in control, dealt with the pressure of the situation. In particular, saving superbly from Christian Benteke when one-on-one. A relatively prolific Premier League scorer denied by the former Charlton stopper.

And it not only when handed a Premier League debut, against a goal-shy forward line, that Pope has impressed Premier League audiences. The 25-year-old frustrating Liverpool at Anfield as his saves allowed the Clarets to come away with a 1-1 draw, confident and comfortable in a goalless draw of lesser intensity against Huddersfield, and defiant when called upon in a marvellous Burnley defensive performance as they beat Everton 1-0. Just a single goal conceded in four Premier League appearances.

In fact, he has the best save success rate in the Premier League this season. The best save success rate of any goalkeeper in Europe’s ‘top five’ leagues this season. Pope rewarded with a new three-year contract at Turf Moor on Monday, and several months more to impress as guaranteed first choice before Heaton returns from injury.

There is delight and joy in seeing Pope’s sudden rise from unknown bench warmer to impressive Premier League newcomer. A rise that mirrors the one he had while an Addick, from flappy accident waiting to happen to confident shot-stopper behind a defence that featured Roger Johnson, Rod Fanni, Marco Motta, and many other Charlton greats of the “shit, we’re about to get relegated, look like we’re interested” era. And one that mirrors his career in general.

For Pope is, of course, not ‘ours’. Not in the same way than an academy graduate would be. Non-league Bury Town have the rights to that claim, and there must be immense pride among those connected to the Bury St Edmunds club to see their former goalkeeper playing in the top flight.

But I sense, and I certainly feel it myself, an element of pride and delight felt among Addicks for the success Pope is enjoying in the Premier League. A young goalkeeper plucked from non-league, one who struggled when first given a chance in the Championship, but gradually grew and displayed the quality that earned him a move to a top-flight club. There’s something about being a supporter that makes you feel part of that development, and you ultimately feel incredibly pleased for him.

Pope one of a number of players who find themselves impressing in the Premier League having, in one way or another, displayed their talents previously at Charlton. Their names, their routes to the top, provide different emotions. Some not as pure, warm and untainted as Pope’s story.

Though in the case of another goalkeeper, and this one an academy graduate, there is certainly the same level of untainted pride and delight. Rob Elliot not just a homegrown player, not just representing the Addicks, but doing so as a supporter. And now, after having to wait a long time for a chance and a horrendous period with injury, finds himself as Newcastle United’s first choice.

He has, unsurprisingly given the character of the man, a very strong bond with supporters of the Magpies, and made himself something of a cult hero despite appearances being relatively few between his arrival in 2011 and an injury to Tim Krul in 2015. Consistently, he’s proven his worth at Premier League level. Darren Randolph, another former Addick who came through the academy at a similar time, is currently the Republic of Ireland’s number one, but you wonder if that will change if Elliot remains first choice for a Premier League club while his former Charlton teammate represents Championship Middlesbrough.

Another former Charlton teammate of Elliot’s, and also an academy graduate, joins the goalkeeper as a current teammate at St James’ Park. Charlton’s youngest ever player, and youngest ever goalscorer, in fact. I will defend the notion that Jonjo Shelvey can pass a ball as well as most other Englishmen with a passion.

The aggression and brainlessness that mares his game frustrates me as much as it does anyone else, purely because he’s unquestionably a player of so much talent and quality, and would be displaying it on a much more consistent basis if he were not so senseless on occasions. It must be said that I’ve only seen three seasons of Premier League football as a Charlton supporter, and so missed out on seeing many of the greats of the modern era, but I’ve seen few Addicks display the quality that Shelvey did. Even at such a young age.

And there will always be attachment to an academy graduate who finds himself performing at a higher level. There will always be a sense of pride, as if supporting and seeing a young player first makes him your son. You celebrate their successes, and feel genuine delight when they display their talents to a wider audience.

Shelvey and Elliot came up against another product of the Charlton academy in Joe Gomez during their previous Premier League game. The exciting young defender now a relative regular for both Liverpool and England U21s, and that coming to the surprise of no one who saw him play for the Addicks as just a 17-year-old. Playing largely at right-back, Gomez even has some Champions League appearances under his belt, though was disappointingly sent-off against Sevilla earlier on this season.

While it only European appearances for another academy graduate so far during this campaign, but Ademola Lookman continues to feature in Everton’s Premier League matchday squads. And with the Toffees struggling, you do wonder how long it will be before the winger will be giving a chance. A chance I have full faith in him to make the most of.

The bonus joy that Gomez and Lookman provide is, in addition to how quickly they’ve gone from teens at Charlton to featuring for huge clubs, that they offer the sense of identity that homegrown talents do in a time when supporters have felt frequently detached. It the case for all academy graduates that make it into the first team, particularly given the continued success of the marvellous academy in SE7, but particularly so when two of such outstanding quality are produced. It factors like these that feel at the core of what Charlton is, and you do feel proud to see the results of that displayed at the highest level.

But with Shelvey, Gomez and Lookman there is another emotion that appears each time you see them perform to a high standard for their Premier League clubs. Your desire for them to do well is not at all marred, but with each moment of success you are reminded that more should have been made of their sales. There no way that their sales could have been prevented – all earning and deserving their moves – but it almost feels like pride is the main reward.

Shelvey, in a time when the Addicks were in a dire financial state, hurriedly sold for less than £2m, Gomez moving for £3.5m, and the £10-11m made from Lookman’s sale has frustrated supporters with its lack of reinvestment. Whether more could have been made of Lookman’s sale is one that brings about debate – an excellent price for a player representing a League One club, but not enough of it immediately used to appease. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Shelvey and Gomez, without even factoring what they now contribute to the Premier League and only considering the potential they displayed while in Charlton colours, were undersold.

Disregarding the financial aspects of the sales, I think a willingness to feel both pride in a player’s development, and the club’s involvement in it, is increased if the transfer feels like an appropriate one. If the move is an excellent one for the player involved, and Charlton aren’t in a position to deny them in it. Whether that be because of league status, or because a young player is worthy of reward.

Another that falls into the category of accepted transfer, though isn’t an academy graduate, is Johann Berg Gudmundsson. There an acceptance that one of the few players signed by the Roland Duchatelet regime who performed to a consistently high standard would be sold upon relegation to League One, and a move to Premier League Burnley helped to soften the blow. Not only excellent for the Addicks in a struggling side, but seemed to acknowledge the ethos of Charlton very quickly, and as such develop a good connection with supporters.

And so his success is celebrated, and five starts in seven Premier League games after really struggling to hold down a place last season is encouraging. While you would hope that his exploits for Iceland this week, scoring twice as his county qualified for the World Cup for the first time, will help his cause. I’m not sure if being highly supportive of him and Hermann Hreidarsson counts, but if it does, I’m gaining Icelandic nationality and following Iceland this summer.

By contrast, you can find a player performing consistently in the Premier League whose sale brings about anger. It wasn’t just Yann Kermorgant who waved goodbye during that horrendous night at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium in January 2014, signalling the overt beginning of Duchatelet dragging the club into crisis. Dale Stephens also played his final game for the Addicks.

The creative midfielder sold cheaply to Brighton and Hove Albion, when he was the sort of player a side should have been built around if an owner with sound ambitions for the club had purchased it. Sometimes he frustrated as an Addick, but frequently he showed class, and always you saw the potential. That he now has a Premier League opportunity with the Seagulls, having been one of the best midfielders in the Championship for several seasons, is well deserved, and any member of the 2011/12 and 12/13 sides still playing have my intense following and support.

He’s an outstanding footballer, and there’s a real beauty in the way he combines his ability to break up play with creative, defence-splitting passes. But as you watch, watch him doing this in the Premier League while you occupy the division he helped to get you out of six years ago, there is a sense of anger. That such quality should have been displayed in Charlton colours for longer.

You can dig deeper, and find some very dubious examples that probably just make you shrug your shoulders, particularly on the south coast. People telling you that Simon Francis wasn’t actually horrendous while at The Valley got a bit boring after the first time it was said, Rhoys Wiggins’ career post-Charlton has been blighted by injury and he’s currently making use of Bournemouth’s facilities, while releasing Harry Arter as a youngster probably wasn’t a mistake as such, more a case of him managing to turn his career around after a set-back.

Then there’s Francis Coquelin at Arsenal, who I’m fairly sure we’re entirely responsible for, and Kasey Palmer at Huddersfield Town, who Chelsea plucked from our academy while he was already being spoken about very highly. Even Ben Hamer, who appears to spend more time drinking with cricketers of the county I support – Northamptonshire – than playing games of football, but he was part of a side that won a Premier League. Sort of.

A variety of very different former Addicks representing Premier League clubs in quite different ways, summoning up different emotions.

There is, however, a common theme throughout. When Pope or Elliot make a save, Gomez makes a superbly-timed tackle, Shelvey and Stephens play an inch-perfect through ball, or Lookman and Gudmundsson deliver a dangerous cross. If not going as far as pride on some occasions, then there is always joy to be had in seeing former Addicks who served the club well performing at the highest level.

But I would be hiding from the truth if I didn’t admit that Pope’s Premier League performances, rising from the uncomfortable Charlton goalkeeper to composed top-flight stopper, have certainly provided a warm sense of pride.

 

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