BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Charlton Athletic’s players will be heading for the beaches after Sunday’s League One play-off final – either basking in a famous win over Sunderland or wallowing in defeat.
But none of Lee Bowyer’s side are likely to have planned their breaks quite as badly as Steve Brown did in 1998 when the two clubs met at the old Wembley for a place in the top flight.
The centre-back was one of the Charlton heroes on the day. He successfully converted their second penalty as Alan Curbishley’s side went on to win 7-6 on penalties.
But Brown had booked to go to Spain on the week of the play-off final.
“We were mid-table at the time and we’d arranged to go away with Stuart Balmer because our two families got on so well,” said the 46-year-old. “We started climbing up the league as the months went by.
“We made the final and I went to Amanda, my missus, and said: ‘What do you want to do?’. She said: ‘I’m not missing my holiday, I’ve got a young kid’. I had 32 friends and family at the game who I had to pay for. The only two people not there were my wife and son! She ended up watching it in a bar in Spain full of Sunderland supporters.
“Alison Balmer had a son the same age, two, and they flew out on holiday too. When you’re married to a footballer that is the only time you can get away.
“We won the game and then had probably the best celebratory three days. It’s not like we all went missing, we just celebrated every day. My missus flew in at the end of that week and had missed the lot – one of the single greatest games I’ve ever been involved in.
“The season we won the First Division title (1999-2000) was a better achievement from my point of view – we had a very good year, I played a lot of times and captained the team at various stages.
“But in terms of that one day at Wembley, it was outstanding.”
Brown is brutally honest when recalling the lead-up to his penalty.
Charlton assistant manager Les Reed called the team into a huddle to draw up a list of takers.
“Clive Mendonca was having the best day ever and he said he would take the first one. It came to me and we only had four – can you take one? I said: ‘I don’t want to take one but if everyone else is backing off then I’ll volunteer’. Les said: ‘You’re number five’. I said: ‘No chance. I won’t be able to cope if I’m on that penalty – get me out of the way’.
“Mark Bowen hears all that and tells Les to swap me with him.
“I’ve looked around and Richard Rufus has his pads and boots off – he isn’t taking one.
“The ball gets kicked to me about 30 yards out and I just tried to be real cool, I flicked it up and did a couple of keep-ups.
“I remember thinking with penalties that you need to pick a spot in your head – that’s where it is going. It is indecision that causes you to miss.
“Low to the keeper’s right, low to the keeper’s right – I’m not religious but I said: ‘If anyone is looking down, please let me score this’.
“As I was spotting the ball my hands were shaking. I had quite a long run-up. The ball went a lot higher than it was meant to but went above [Lionel] Perez’s right hand. It didn’t go where I wanted it to go but had enough pace to beat him.
“You’re not the one who has missed. It is a very selfish thought. At that point you aren’t even thinking about winning. I’ve never felt relief like it.
“What I’d say is that if we rewound to that time now, I’m not sure I’d take a penalty again.
“I’d come on in extra-time and made a crunching tackle which had been part of the move which saw us make it 4-4. You have got that adrenaline flowing.
“When you put the ball down 12 yards from goal you should score really, most of the time. But the pressure – it’s enormous.
“I didn’t like Lyle Taylor’s run-up [on Friday], but what a cool penalty. Right in the bottom corner, right in the slot he aimed for.
“I knew Chris Solly would be a cool head, he has experienced a lot in his career.
“Doncaster played really well but thankfully Charlton managed to get that equaliser [on aggregate], it was a great finish by [Darren] Pratley. But you don’t wish a penalty shootout on either team on Sunday. I wish there just had to be a winner in extra-time, because penalties are horrible.”
Brown will be back at Wembley on Sunday, as a radio pundit. He works for BBC London and has covered their play-off matches this season and both in the last campaign, a 2-0 loss over two legs to Shrewsbury Town.
Lee Bowyer roomed with Brown, shortly before his multi-million pound move to Leeds United.
“I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I have parked my career in the distance,” said Brown. “I don’t really relate to it any more. I don’t get nervous for Charlton.
“But I’m pleased for Lee Bowyer and the supporters – because they have been put through the wringer. It’s been a horrible time to be a Charlton fan. They’ve had an owner who has caused a horrendous split.
“They’ve had some bad luck with owners in the last 10 years. I look in from the outside and I’m sad about it.
“It’s going well now but it can’t be easy working under the circumstances there. It is a really good thing that the players and staff have done this season.
“What an achievement this is by Lee Bowyer. He has had no backing, absolutely zero backing .
“The support base when he replaced Karl Robinson was fractured, there were those who would do anything to get the owner out and others who just wanted to support the team. They just need Roland Duchatelet to sell now. I believe there is a special covenant on the ground, so you are never going to sell it for residential purposes. You can’t put a price tag on the club that is so unrealistic.
“And that price can’t go up if no-one is buying it now. In four years time is he going to be asking for £100m, because he has lost another £30m? There are investors out there who would buy the club and put money into the team but who are not willing to pay the price he wants.
“I roomed with Bows. He was a very young kid who came into the squad and we sold him pretty quickly for what was a record fee for a teenager at the time.
“He was a good player. Wow, was he a good player.
“But unfortunately at that time, similar to now, if you did well then ‘boom’ you were gone. It was what the club needed to do to survive.
“It was the same with Robert Lee as well a couple of years before that
“Anyone worth money was sold because Charlton needed the money to stay afloat.
“Ideally you want that player to give you three or four years before a bigger club can come calling.
“You’d have to ask the people in power at the time about how much money went back into the squad, but it wouldn’t have been a lot.”