Lee Bowyer has been a revelation in his first full season as Charlton Athletic boss – with long-overdue Wembley return a fitting reward

Charlton are back at Wembley – and here CHRIS THOMPSON, who collected Supporter of the Year at the club’s end-of-season awards, gives his thoughts on a season which has delivered so much and ended the wait for a return to the national stadium.

Whit Monday 1998 is a day I shall never forget. It started much like any other day – up at 6.30am, took the dog for a walk, got the paper and made the wife a cuppa.

But it turned out to be a very special day, for that afternoon was when Charlton were involved in THAT match, the epic 4-4 draw with Sunderland at Wembley. A 7-6 penalty shoot-out win propelled the Addicks into the Premier League for the first time.

Just six years after their return to The Valley, the famous old ground was to host the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United again.

What tends to be forgotten is that Charlton’s initial flirtation with the Premier League lasted just one season.

But what Alan Curbishley did was to build a side from the best Championship players, so in the event of relegation, he had a team ready-made for an assault on the Championship again.

And that is what did happen. Curbishley’s team romped to the Championship title in 1999-2000 and spent the next seven seasons in the top flight.

Now after a 21-year gap, the Addicks are going back to Wembley to contest another play-off final. Again, it is against Sunderland, but this time the prize is a place in the Championship, not a way out of it.

It is ironic that the League One season started at the Stadium of Light back in August when these two teams clashed in an early kick-off game televised by Sky.

Charlton Athletic’s Jonny Williams (centre) in action against Sunderland

And the season ends with the same two sides meeting at Wembley in a promotion shoot-out, winner-take-all match.

Back in August, hopes were high for another top-six finish, with the more optimistic even predicting a top-two placing.  Though owner Roland Duchatelet had cut the budget, Steve Gallen was a genius when it came to recruitment.

Before the close of the transfer window Gallen brought in loanees such as Josh Cullen, Krystian Bielik, and Jed Steer. And, of course, Lyle Taylor signed a permanent deal.

Taylor has developed into the complete all-round striker during the season, and broke through the 20-goals barrier.

Charlton Athletic’s Lyle Taylor

Lee Bowyer’s plans were devastated two days before the start of the season when influential midfielder Jake Forster-Caskey picked up a long-term knee injury during training.

Jake Forster-Caskey

Charlton led for a long time at the Stadium Of Light, before losing to two late goals. But their patched-up team did them proud, and there was hope that it could be a decent season.

Bowyer likes to play a diamond shape in midfield, and with a sound defence – well drilled by Johnnie Jackson – behind them, there was a solid base for success.

The cherry on the cake was the two local boys – Taylor and Karlan Grant – up front. They were banging in goals for fun. Had Grant not moved to Premier League side Huddersfield in January,  the Addicks may well have gone up automatically.

Karlan Grant scores from the penalty spot.

The Valley was the team’s fortress, they lost just twice at home all season. High-flying Peterborough nicked a win in August thanks to a controversial late penalty. And Coventry scored two late goals to grab all three points in October. After that, Bowyer’s team remained unbeaten at home in the league.

Those two defeats, coupled with the blips in form that foiled a sustained push for automatic promotion, were the low points, but there was plenty for the fans to be happy about.

Charlton Athletic manager Lee Bowyer

Scintillating performances against top teams such as Portsmouth and Luton, the emergence of homegrown talent like George Lapslie and Albie Morgan, the impact of Taylor, and of course Bowyer.

Bowyer has been a revelation in his first full season at the helm. Ably-supported by Gallen and club legend Jackson, Bowyer has produced an attractive side.

The innovative free-kicks – Cullen’s one that led to the opening goal on Friday is a good example – are something not seen at The Valley for many a long year. The team now poses a real threat from set-pieces.

But, most of all, Bowyer has healed many of the rifts in the club. The team, management and fans are all pulling in the same direction again.

Just one game left now, Sunday’s date with Sunderland at Wembley. It is a game everyone connected with the club deserves.

Charlton Athletic players celebrate on the pitch after winning the penalty shoot out against Doncaster

If Bowyer can conjure up one more win, the real work will begin. The Championship is a totally different animal to the one the club left three years ago.

Now packed with big name teams with massive spending power, being competitive will not be easy.

It will be a real challenge that will test the ability of Bowyer and his staff. Gallen will need to work his magic in the transfer market again.

It will be a challenge, but one that the fans will relish.

TOP PICTURE BY KYLE ANDREWS