BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Lee Bowyer reckons that playing at a rammed Valley last Friday night will help his Charlton Athletic players deal with the white-hot intensity of Wembley on Sunday.
The 42-year-old could make it a dream first full season as Addicks boss by winning promotion to the Championship at the national stadium.
A crowd of 25,428 – the biggest at The Valley since 2012 – saw Charlton reach the League One play-off final with a 4-3 penalty shootout win over Doncaster Rovers last weekend.
The Addicks trailed at the end of normal times and the additional 30 minutes – their first loss in League One since October 6.
The scenes of relief and joy after winning on penalties were in stark contrast to Sunderland’s low-key celebrations after beating Portsmouth 1-0 over their two legs.
Bowyer went to that tie at Fratton Park along with assistant Johnnie Jackson and Steve Gallen, head of recruitment.
“That game was pretty straight forward – the two teams just matched each other up,” he said. “Sunderland got through, it was a professional job from them.
“But ours wasn’t straight forward, it was never going to be that!
“To see everybody come together was a special night for me. The atmosphere was unreal and the effort the players put in.
“I think that will probably put us in better stead for the final. I thought the occasion got to some of the players.
“That’s probably the worst we have played in a long time. I said that to them on Sunday. I had to be honest with them. I said: ‘Well done, great we’re in the final and we’ve done amazing – but we can’t play like that again’.
“I don’t think we will. I think that occasion will help us with the final, we will be ready for it more now. I’m glad it happened then and not on Sunday.”
When Charlton last played Sunderland at Wembley in the 1998 Division One final it went to penalties – the two sides locked at 4-4 after extra-time.
The Addicks converted all seven of their penalties before Sasa Ilic saved Michael Gray’s attempt to send the Addicks into the top-flight.
Charlton had a spot-kick shootout again last weekend.
“We did practise last Wednesday and Thursday,” said Bowyer. “But it wasn’t for long.
“When players are practising they are just coming off from training. Yeah, they might be a little tired – but nowhere near as tired as they would’ve been the other night. A lot were cramping up.
“You just can’t recreate that situation – it’s impossible.
“But they came through it. The ones who took penalties, they were all men and brave enough to take one.
“This week we will hopefully practise on Friday and Saturday. But again, just so they feel confident hitting it where they want to hit it. That’s all you can get from it.”
Back in 1998, manager Alan Curbishley had his face buried in his hands as the penalties took place.
Bowyer won’t be doing the same if that is the scenario on Sunday.
He said: “I’ll be watching every penalty, every situation.
“With the penalties on Friday I was fine. I was a bit gutted Naby [Sarr] missed because it would’ve taken us through. But I watched it.
“I’m out of control then. You’ve just got to hope that they are good penalties and that Dillon makes a save.
“It is a lottery when it is a penalty shootout.”
Bowyer won the League Cup with Birmingham City at Wembley in 2011. It is his only playing appearance at the national stadium.
“I was a ball-boy at the old Wembley as a kid,” he said. “I think it was Arsenal who sorted it out, I must’ve been training there.
“When I played for Birmingham it was after the ground had been rebuilt. When I played for England the match was at Villa Park, because they were building the new Wembley.
“So that was my only time. It was some occasion, a great day. I’m looking forward to going back.”
Sunderland have already played at Wembley this season, losing on penalties to Portsmouth in the EFL Trophy final.
Bowyer feels that gives the Black Cats a slight edge.
“They have got an advantage because they have been in this situation there,” he said.
“That was a cup final but this is a cup final really, the only difference is you go up or you don’t.
“There is a reward at the end of it. They have been there, seen it and done it. But they will still be nervous, for sure. Any player on that pitch – even if they are playing there for the 10th time – there is going to be a bit of nerves.”
Sunderland suffered back-to-back relegations. This is only their second ever season in the third tier of English football.
“It’s a massive match for both clubs but I’d say even more so for them because they have just come down,” said Bowyer.
“And they have spent a lot of money trying to get back up.
“The other night at Portsmouth they had Will Grigg on the bench and they paid £4million for him.
“I’d love that scenario for myself!
“If you need a goal you’ve got a top striker like him sitting on the bench.
“They probably have a bit more pressure because they have spent a lot. Charlie Wyke cost £1m [from Bradford City], at least.”
Bowyer has not spent a penny on fees since replacing Karl Robinson as Charlton chief.
It’s been a combination of working the free agent market – Lyle Taylor was an outstanding capture from AFC Wimbledon – and quality loan additions.
“I said the other night after the Doncaster game that what we’ve achieved has been exceptional,” said Bowyer.
“Near enough all the clubs in our division have spent money, one way or another.
“Even Southend – we sold Harry Lennon to them for £50,000. It’s still £50,000. Nearly all the clubs at our level have spent a little bit here and there.
“We haven’t spent a penny. It just shows how good our recruitment was at the start of the season.
“We hardly had anyone on the bench at Sunderland [on the opening day] and everyone was panicking. But our recruitment in the end was exceptional.
“We need to keep pushing for this one last game. We’ve done well, don’t get me wrong, but we need to finish it off now. If we can finish it off it will be some achievement.”