Purrington 35 Bauer 90+4
Sarr og 5
BY RICHARD CAWLEY AT WEMBLEY
Charlton Athletic don’t do success the easy way. But, then again, is there such a thing?
Because for every successful side – whether you are ultra-wealthy Manchester City or a penny-counting Tranmere Rovers – nothing comes without graft, without a plan, without commitment, without quality, without standing up in moments of adversity.
And Charlton Athletic Football Club have had to cope with moments where their character has been questioned, their mettle put under the footballing microscope.
And they have responded.
They responded on Sunday to the kind of early setback which can break hearts.
Sickening, that’s the only way to describe the moment when Naby Sarr’s ball back to Dillon Phillips rolled all the way into the Charlton net.
It came out of nothing. None of those around me in the press box seemed to be watching events at the time, instead busy noting a save made by the keeper from Max Power just moments earlier.
I only glanced back up to see Phillips – a big personality in the dressing room and the frontman of their trademark Twist & Shout victory song – slide into the back of the net in his frantic attempts to prevent disaster.
Shaken-up, no doubt. But Charlton managed to compose themselves.
You question in moments like that, how a side can recover. But then you need to look at the whole 2018-19 season for the Addicks.
Each time, Charlton have responded. Each time they have adapted to circumstances.
It’s not just a happy coincidence.
It comes down to having a playing group who have bonded together.
It tells you everything about the lack of cohesive thinking at the top of the club that Bowyer walked up the Wembley steps – patiently waiting last in line to lift the League One play-off trophy aloft – that he is out of contract in June.
I’ll type it again, this time in capitals – HE IS OUT OF CONTRACT IN JUNE.
One of the top young managers in the game, back-to-back play-off finishes and then overseeing a first Charlton win at Wembley since 1998 – but his future treated with a complete lack of urgency.
It’s a joke. And nobody who supports this club, who bounced around Wembley when Patrick Bauer scored in the final seconds of second-half stoppage time, will be laughing if they lose him.
What we’d all like to see is a takeover happen and Bowyer get the chance to show what he can do with a bigger pot of money at his disposal and an owner who actually wants to spend time mapping things out. Not the current situation, where the infrequent midweek visits – with no danger of catching an actual game live – are the norm.
Bowyer will be the first to say that his job has been made easier by assistant Johnnie Jackson. Head of recruitment Steve Gallen has done the business too – but how much harder will that be in the Championship where quality tends to cost? Goalkeeping coach Andy Marshall has improved Phillips, who deserves more credit for his plunging save from Grant Leadbitter soon after the biggest setback of his still fledgling career.
What is beyond dispute is that the Charlton management team have made players better.
That doesn’t apply so much to someone like Lyle Taylor, who had already shown his quality at AFC Wimbledon. He still finished on 25 goals and 11 assists – his best-ever return as a player.
But there are more dramatic examples. The resurrection of Sarr as a leading light in the first-team – it wasn’t so long ago that some fans were singing derogatory songs about ex-chief executive Katrien Meire and the French centre-back. Last weekend he kept captain Jason Pearce out of the starting line-up, although his first-half booking saw Bowyer switch the pair at the break – not prepared for that disciplinary tightrope to be shuffled along for any longer.
Joe Aribo’s improvements are clear to see – but unfortunately that only entices his suitors. Jonny Williams has been given the TLC that brings the best out of him.
Youngsters like Phillips, Anfernee Dijksteel, Albie Morgan and George Lapslie will all have learned so much from their increased game time.
I’ve digressed a touch, but it tells you why it should not have been a surprise to see Charlton Athletic climbing the Wembley steps and holding the play-off trophy aloft.
The only surprise were the goalscorers, and if anyone claims they had predicted them then Pinocchio wants his nose back after appearing on Would I Lie To You?
Ben Purrington had not scored in the league in 116 matches – 118 if you added in the play-off semi-final legs – but this no-frills, dependable full-back wrote himself a chapter in Charlton’s history books.
Taylor’s cross was crying out for a touch – a lovely flick by Dijksteel opening space on the right of the box. While Darren Pratley face-planted the Wembley turf in his whole-hearted efforts to provide it, the on-loan Rotherham man was able to tap home in a more orthodox manner.
It wasn’t a Clive Mendonca hat-trick, but it would do. Boy, would it do. Bauer was now the only member of the backline not to have got a goal this season. The original BFG dealt in dreams. And the German – affectionately handed the same moniker by Addicks fans – showed that he can make dreams happen too.
Williams, far more of an influence than Aiden McGeady as both managers made what they hoped were game-changing switches, took a quick free-kick. Josh Cullen’s cross to the back post was met by the head of Bauer but it was blocked by the left leg of Tom Flanagan. Bauer instinctively side-footed the rebound back towards Jon McLaughlin’s goal, the same Sunderland defender getting a touch but only diverting it in.
The seconds after that were eruptions of joy. Charlton’s players surged in a pack to be nearer to supporters, sweeping up assistant manager Johnnie Jackson – who had torn down the touchline – in celebrations which will live long in the memory.
For a club which has had so many dark days in recent years – ridiculed by the wider football community for some of the crackpot moves made by their owner – this was good. No, this was excellent. This was bliss.
Charlton’s three-year stay in League One is over. A fourth would have been difficult for anyone – even someone as level-headed and pragmatic as Bowyer – to lift themselves for.
So much effort had been put in, to fall short would have been crushing.
For the club to be able to make an impact back in the Championship – with such a major investment needed to really be confident of fashioning a promotion push – change is needed at the top.
A club just down the road in South London went so close to the play-offs in their first season back at that level, but they had their main men all secured. That isn’t the case for Charlton.
Even if Bowyer signs back on – and he has continued to make the right noises about that – then there is uncertainty over Bauer, Aribo and Williams. Cullen, Purrington and Bielik all head back to their normal paymasters.
A big summer lies ahead. A takeover would make it a perfect one.