Protests On Hold: Charlton Athletic’s Unlikely Revival Continues

It’s been a long, tense week, even for us neutrals. Last weekend, Mansfield Town were beaten on penalty kicks by Newport County, whilst on Monday night Forest Green Rovers could only draw at home against Tranmere Rovers, meaning that Tranmere go to Wembley to play Newport for a place in League One next season. The Championship, meanwhile, seemed to take its script cues from the Champions League. On Tuesday night, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa had to be seperated by a penalty shoot-out. There followed Leeds United, for whom fifteen minutes cost them three goals, a winning position, and another season of Championship football. Derby County were efficient and took their chances.

Last night, the play-offs for League One began. Portsmouth played host to Sunderland last night, a knockabout night on the south coast which featured Sunderland’s Lee Catermole falling into the home crowd, where followed a tense few seconds during which he seemed to be kicked by a Portsmouth supporter (and may have come close to being put on trial as a French spy), players chucking the ball at each other, fouls a-plenty, but no goals and the very Soviet-sounding result of a 1-0 aggregate win for Sunderland. It wasn’t Portsmouth’s finest evening, in all honesty. Sunderland were the best of two teams that both seemed to be running out of steam.

But then there was Charlton Athletic. Run-down, neglected Charlton Athletic. Protests against the owner are on hold for now (though a few are still boycotting), but the animosity against Roland Duchâtlet at The Valley continues to simmer. The company’s last set of accounts showed that they had taken a £1.2m profit for the year to the end of June 2017 and turned that healthy-looking figure into a loss of £10.1m for the year to the end of June 2018, mostly attributed to a lack of player sales, although one might ask whether it could be considered healthy for a club to need to shift £10m worth of players to break even.

In February Duchâtelet demanded that the Football League buy the club, and when the fans’ protest group CARD visited the Belgian embassy in London to discuss their concerns over his stewardship of the club (Charlton supporters are nothing if not inventive in their forms of protest – this is, after all, the club whose supporters fought local elections in the early 1990s to get their club back to The Valley after several years in exile at Selhurst Park) last month, Duchâtelet, channelling the spirit of an age of “alternative facts” peerlessly, reportedly described their actions as “soft terrorism.”

One man, however, has brought Charlton Athletic together again, and it’s an unlikely figure in this Lazarus-like role. To describe Lee Bowyer as a “divisive” figure as a player would be to imply that there was much division of opinion amongst supporters other than, at best, most of those at whichever club he was playing for at any given time. But he’s a former Charlton player and has somehow breathed life back into a club that has been riven with a mixture of anger and apathy for the last few seasons. It’s been a surprise, but it’s impossible to begrudge him when his management has brought such happiness to supporters who’ve felt as though they’ve been supporting a cadaver of a football club for the last few years.

But they go into this match unbeaten at home since October and off the back of an extraordinary run of form in the latter stages of the season, which culminated in ten wins and five draws from their final sixteen games of the season. They finished the season in third place in the table, ahead of both of the divisions apparent “juggernauts”, Sunderland and Portsmouth, and their total of eighty-eight points would have got them promoted in two of the last three seasons.

The run fell agonisingly short of automatic promotion, though, so their play-off opponents were Doncaster Rovers, whose season hadn’t really yet come together. After a reasonable enough opening, a poor month of October saw them lose five out of seven matches and they spent much of the rest of the season on the footballing equivalent of a rollercoaster. This run was followed by six games unbeaten, and the pattern repeated itself over the course of the season, but their better runs of form – most notably four straight wins from the end of March – were enough to lift them into the final play-off place, a point clear of Peterborough United.

Charlton’s imperious recent form continued into the first leg at The Keepmoat Stadium. Lyle Taylor, the Montserrat striker signed on a free transfer from Wimbledon, gave them a first half lead after thirty-two minutes, then two minutes provided the pass for Joe Aribo to double their advantage. Having run the clock down reasonably successfully for more than fifty minutes, though, a goalmouth scramble with three minutes to play resulted in Matty Blair bundling the ball over the line and somewhat changing the complexion of the second leg, even though Charlton, with home advantage, a one goal lead, and having finished fifteen points above Doncasterin the league, remain the heavy favourites to get through to get through. That goal offered a glimmer of light to Doncaster, though.

Barely ninety seconds have been counted on the clock when Krystian Bielik heads in Josh Cullen’s cross. The Valley erupts. 1-0 on the night. 3-1 on aggregate. This optimism-bordering-on-triumphalism lasts for about eight minutes, though, before Tommy Rowe lashes a low shot into the bottom corner to bring Doncaster level. Four minutes later, John Marquis breaks through and forces a decent block from the Charlton goalkeeper Dillon Phillips. But the atomsphere inside The Valley has changed. The crowd, at more than 25,500 people the club’s highest in four years, undulates between quiet and febrile. Charlton have lost the cocksure nature with which they started the match.

As the half progresses, though, they manage to regain a little composure. A header from Patrick Bauer brings a splendid save from the Doncaster goalkeeper Marko Marosi. The drums continue, relentlessly but distantly in the background, as The Valley finds its voice again. Twice in the final five minutes of the half they have claims for a penalty kick waved away by the referee, first for a tackle on Taylor and then for handball, when Lovett’s shot smacks down onto Andy Butler’s hand from his chest. Half-time comes with the pressure still rising but little having been decided on the pitch.

The first twenty moniutes of the second half are notable mostly for a slight fraying of tempers on the part of the players. Niggly fouls break up play at both ends of the pitch, and the set-piece delivery of neither team is strong enough to fully take advantage of the free-kicks being strewn around the pitch by careless defenders. Indeed, the best chance that either side creates for much of the second half comes from Lyle Taylor’s low cross, which is touched inches wide of the near post by Josh Parker. It’s a rare moment of quality in a poor second half. Doncaster have only won one of their previous ten away matches, and it’s not difficult to see why. As the second half progresses, Charlton seem in control, keeping possession without difficulty and stifling a muted-looking Doncaster attack.

There’s always one more chance, isn’t there, though? It’s increasingly become a mantra in recent years, that feeling that a losing team can very often find something from somwhere when they absolutely need to. With three minutes to play, Doncaster’s arrives. A corner kick is swung over to the far post and Andy Butler, against who both of the calls for a penalty kick towards the end of the first half were not given, clambers above his marker to head the ball down, and into the corner of the goal. Lee Bowyer, of course, spent seven years of his playing career with Leeds United.

Perked up by the goal, Doncaster now have a spring in their step whilst Charlton, who’ve been ahead by a two goal margin twice in this tie but now find themselves pegged back, now loo leaden-footed. Two minutes into a stoppage time, a low cross from the right narrowly avoids the toe of Doncaster’s top scorer, John Marquis. Seconds later, a low shot fizzes into Phillips’ hands but, whilst, Doncaster have understandably ended the ninety minutes as the stronger of the two sides and have shown enormous character in coming back from this position in the first place, they run out of time. Extra-time, then.

The break for extra-time certainly seems to benefit Charlton, who press Doncaster back effectively for the first five minutes before introducing Jonny Williams, whose best known in the wider football world as the subject of a not-unsympathetic portrayal as he witnessed the wreckage at The Stadium of Light during the documentary series “Sunderland Til I Die.” The volume rises again with another handball shout, against Marquis, and this time it looks considerably more like a convincing shot for one than their first one was. But the whistle doesn’t blow, and barely two minutes later Doncaster are ahead for the first time in the entire tie, with the Charlton defence apparnetly having started its summer vacation early, Marquis taps in from close range.

Doncaster’s celebrations, however, have the lifetime of a fruit-fly. Barely a minute has passed when a low diagonal ball across the penalty area which should be a comfortable take for Marosi, but the goalkeeper slips at the vital moment and Darren Pratley taps the ball into an open goal to bring Charlton back level on aggregate. The momentum has shifted again, but extra-time fizzles out rather than building to any sort of climax, and by the end of two hours of football, played a few days after the end of forty-six league matches and other domestic cup matches, it all comes down to penalty shoot-outs.

It’s a heartbreaking way to lose, it really is. And the question of who ultimately makes the mistake shouldn’t really be part of the discussion. The two teams are tied, and they have to be seperated. Penalty shoot-outs are still considered the best way to do this, and it’s probably true to say that nothing better has come along. The first seven kicks are all converted before Doncaster’s John Marquis sees his saved by Phillips. Naby Sarr then steps up win the game for Charlton and… his shot is saved by Marosi. A crack of daylight for Doncaster Rovers, for a few seconds, at least, before Tommy Rowe steps up and places the ball wide of the post, sending Charlton to Wembley.

The Doncaster Rovers players slump to the ground, but this was probably the right outcome after 210 minutes of football which were unable to seperate the teams by any other means. There’s a joyful pitch invasion at the end of the match, of course. They’re strange beasts in this respect, are play-offs. Teams celebrate getting into them as though they’ve just got promoted, even though they only have a one in four chance of promotion. Having managed this, the semi-finals are so tense that winning those are celebrated in the same way. It’s a wonder that anyone has any celebration left in them by the end of the final. But no-one should be sniffy about this. Charlton Athletic’s supporters have earned this. Their club has been mismanaged for a long time, but tonight was for them and for their team.

The owner can, of course, go fuck himself.