Play-Off Weekend, Part 2: Hold My Beer
Charlton Athletic and Sunderland made the trip to Wembley in different types of gloom. For Charlton supporters, detente is in the air. No love remains lost between them and the club’s owner Roland Duchatetlet, but the sudden explosion of form which propelled the team up the League One table into third place in the table meant that the protests against the owner were been put on ice, and remained so as the team took to the Wembley pitch this afternoon. Can the owner of a football club be described as “bad” if his team gets promoted at the end of the season? (Yes.) Should a bad owner get a chance to rehabilitate their reputation over time, and to what extent is this even possible? (Yes, but it’ll be a big ask and he’ll likely now never be loved at The Valley.) Duchatelet may be just about to find the answer to those questions, after today’s dramatic events.
After years or stagnancy and slow decomposition, though, this largely unexpected bout of good form is a more than welcome break for Charlton supporters. Having breezed through the latter stages of the season without a care in the world, they were made to work for their semi-final win against Doncaster Rovers, winning on a penalty shoot-out after they very nearly threw away a two goal aggregate lead. And this excitement is all the greater for it coming on the watch of a former player, manager Lee Bowyer. There are plenty of historical reasons to object to Lee Bowyer, but the success of his first spell as the manager of the club is undeniable. Add in players of the capability of Lyle Taylor, who has scored more than twenty goals in the league this season after arriving on a free transfer from Wimbledon, and it becomes easy to see why Charlton supporters are surely relieved for the brak from the grind of protesting against the owners and bad football.
Sunderland’s season has been happier than previous seasons had been, but that’s setting a near-subterranean bar, in terms of standards. They’ve won more matches than they’ve lost this season, the first time they’ve managed that in twelve years, and their total of twenty-three league and play-off wins going into the match at Wembley is only two short of the number of league wins that they’d managed over the previous three seasons. They’ve already been to Wembley once, in the Football League Trophy, although they lost that on penalty kicks to Portsmouth. Revenge, a two-legged win their play-off semi-final, turned out to be best served lukewam. The positive spin on all of this is that promotion straight back to the Championship after one season away was the aim at the start of this season and, as their team took to the pitch for this match, they remained on target to achieve exactly that.
There is, however, also a negative spin. The first leg of that semi-final attracted a crowd of just 26,000 people, Sunderland’s lowest of the season. What on earth was keeping people away from such a big match? Were they putting their money aside for a trip to Wembley? Has the stock of new owner Stewart Donald already dropped to the point at which fans can’t be bothered with a play-off semi-final? The news which emerged last week that his group’s purchase of the club was funded by a leveraged buyout against the club’s Premier League parachute payments didn’t seem to go down too well on social media, whilst one win in the last seven league matches of the season seem to have cast something of an unhealthy pallour over the team. Indeed, it has even been suggested that Jack Ross, heralded as a manager of considerable potential upon his arrival from St Mirren last summer, could find his job to be in danger should they fail to win this match.
Within five minutes of kick-off, however, all the beard-stroking and meditating upon the whys and wherefores of the season were sent packing by a good old-fashioned double dose of rank stupidity. The Charlton defender Naby Sarr, barely even looking up, hit a backpass rather too firmly back in the general direction of goalkeeper Dillon Phillips, whose miscontrol of the ball might be better described as “nonexistentcontrol”, allowed the ball to roll past him and into an empty goal. It was, in all honesty, a terrible backpass, made without sufficient checks to receive it, too strongly played and right the way across the middle of the goal, but Sarr can retain an iota of dignity for the misadventures of the goalkeeper, for whom the remaining eighty-five minutes would be very, very long indeed, if his team couldn’t find an equaliser.
For the next ten minutes or so, Charlton looked shot to pieces. They lost their shape, their composure, and within a couple of minutes almost conceded a penalty kick when a shot from Patrick Bauer struck Wyke on the arm. Slowly but surely, though, they struggled their way back into the match, and with ten minutes of the first half left to play a delicious low cross from Lyle Taylor was pushed over the line at the far post by Ben Purrington, his first league goal in his one hundred and twentieth league match. The closing stages of the first half saw greater Sunderland pressure after a period during which they looked as though they’d completely run out of energy, but nothing incisive to take advantage of their greater possession. Half-time, all level. Forty-five minutes to define the season for each club.
On Saturday afternoon, Tranmere Rovers scored a late, late goal to win promotion at the expense of Newport County in the League Two play-off final. Beer was held. It had been a largely uneventful first half, as though the players had all received stern reminders of how important this all was at half-time. With none of the players wanting to make the mistake that might cost the match, the pattern settled into slow yet frantic, two sets of players showing definite signs of wear and tear at their forty-ninth league match of the season, any of them capable of plucking a rabbit from the hat, but any of them also capable of making the sort of mistake that had cost Charlton so dearly, early in the match.
The goal was timed at three minutes and fifty-six seconds into stoppage-time, four minutes of which had been indicated. The margins, the margins. The goal itself was as scruffy as they come. A long, deep cross was flicked on towards goal by Bauer, only to bounce of Flanagan, back into Bauer’s path again, who fired the ball low into the goal to send Charlton Athletic into the Championship. At times like this, one can only lapse into cliche. The tragedy, the heartbreak. The joy, the elation. But these late goals are worth reflecting upon? Are they coming about because of tiredness? Nerves? What we’ve learned this weekend so far has been that it only takes a momentary lapse in concentration for an entire season to come crashing down round one’s ears.
Sunderland, then, lose at Wembley again. What this means for Jack Ross is anybody’s guess, but what we can say for certain is that there can be little debating that the deserving team won promotion. Charlton finished the season on a hot streak and ended in third place in the table. Sunderland, though, didn’t really look ready for the Championship. Next season might have proved extremely difficult for the club, had they been promoted this time around. The financial investment sitting next to Stewart Donald in the expensive seats at Wembley this afternoon would have had to dip his hand into his pocket to strengthen the team regardless of which division they were starting in next season. It might be a bit cheaper for them, if they’re in League One rather than the Championship.
What happens next for Charlton Athletic, though? The majority of their squad falls out of contract this summer (even the manager’s situation remains in limbo for now), and their recent hot streak may well invite attention from elsewhere. The club’s finances have been tight enough over the last few years that the idea of Roland Duchatelet spending much money seems somewhat fanciful, and Lee Bowyer is likely to find that keeping the club in the Championship next season is a significant challenge. Not that the supporters will care very much about this tonight, of course. This is a most unexpected promotion for a club whose name has been one of the bywords for bad management within the Football League over the last few seasons or so. What happens next at The Valley, though, is just about anybody’s guess.