Of Magpies and Robins: Charlton v Sunderland 2019

My personal write-up of Charlton v Sunderland EFL Playoff Final on Sunday 26th May 2019, written for Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust while still in the bubble of watching the winning goal in the dying seconds on endless loop. Charlton won 2-1, coming back after conceding an horrific own goal in the first five minutes. Photo by Kyle Andrews.


Sunday mid-morning and we’d just arrived at the swanky riverside hotel in North Greenwich, our Charlton v Sunderland Playoff Final treat. Not much sign of a football crowd here, though. The previous-night’s trendy concert-goers straggled along the pavement outside, mainly younger females eager for a parting glimpse of The Vamps. Fortunately we were able to check-in early, enabling a quick change before we’d fall in with the ranks of Addicks aboard the Jubilee Line all the way to Wembley.

Keen to reveal the view from our eighth floor room, I pulled apart the voile curtains to gaze at the murky Thames, tracing its silver ribbon from the gleaming, crane-embraced towers of Canary Wharf all the way to the distant domes, towers and ship’s rigging of old Greenwich. Then a large black and white bird swooped past. A magpie. One for sorrow. I reminded myself that today was not a day for superstition. Bowyer is a winner. He wouldn’t have any truck with such nonsense. I watched the solitary bird hopping around on a low roof below. Suddenly in flew a second. Two for joy.

I quickly pulled the flimsy curtains back together, preserving the tableau of the pair of birds. I donned my 1998 souvenir t-shirt – red, with a square green diagram on the front illustrating the build-up to Mendonca’s hat-trick goal, counter-balanced with a table on the back showing the times and names of the goal- and penalty-scorers on that momentous day. By coincidence we’d been through the highs, lows and ultimate peak of another four-all-with-added-penalties-victory over Doncaster in this year’s semi-final.

The box marked “Play-off drama props for Charlton Athletic” tucked away in the corner of the attic of the football gods must surely be pretty empty by now, I mused. Then instantly cautioned myself that such football gods would have no place in Bow’s brave new Charlton world either.

I pulled on my old red MESH replica shirt, as worn by Clive Mendonca, Mark Kinsella and co back in 1998, this one quickly washed and ironed since the Doncaster home leg. The style had been big and baggy back in those days, so even with an extra t-shirt layer underneath, it just about covered the rather tangible and flabby sins of the 21 years that had since elapsed.

My mind drifted back to last August, to the very first match of this League One season and more Magpies, that time of the Geordie kind. We’d stayed over in Newcastle with our good friends who had tagged along as a family of four to take their place with us in the upper echelons of the Stadium of Light. The teenage son had even worn his Newcastle United shirt under his hoodie, covertly infiltrating enemy territory. They had been just as gutted as surrounding Addicks when Sunderland stole the three points in the final seconds. Jason Pearce had hobbled off, leaving us exposed in the penalty area right down below us. Already mourning the loss to injury of Forster-Caskey, we thought a torrid season stretched ahead for our threadbare squad.

But with Bowyer at the helm, obstacles are mere challenges to overcome. Naby stepped up to form a solid pairing with Bauer. Youth burst onto the scene in the shapes of Dijksteel, Morgan, Lapslie and Stevenson. Ben Reeves, Jamie Ward, Mark Marshall, Tarique Fosu all played their bit parts. Aston Villa abruptly hoicking loanee custodian Jed Steer away only resulted in Dillon’s coming of goalkeeping age. The left back hole was eventually properly filled by steady Ben Purrington. Once-maligned loan signings turned golden in Cullen and Bielik. Even the tremor of top-scoring Grant’s January departure did not deliver an earthquake, with Taylor manfully holding the striking line together, supported by flashes of the old Igor and the endeavours of Josh Parker. Solly puffed out his chest. Pratley provided the steel so that Jonny Williams could dance and torment. Aribo delighted with a silky combination of power and grace. After a shaky turn of the year, the Addicks’ momentum built as others started to toil.

Our group gathered at the same Wembley Park curry-house three out of the eight of us had frequented in 1998. No, no, not superstition – merely a relaxing and enjoyable way to calm nerves. We couldn’t quite get the band back together – my dad and our football friend, Michael, had passed on, my brother could not be lured back from the Scottish Highlands while others had returned to their first-love teams. In the intervening years we’d made new Charlton buddies, who enthusiastically tucked in to the Spice-of-India fare. I doled out the match tickets. No-one passed comment on the fact that we were in row 13.

Time for Wembley. The symmetry was there but no-one dared predict. The last match of the League One season in front of the Sky cameras would provide the mirror finish to the televised first. We’d enjoy the odd throwback to 1998 for fate’s sake as Ben Purrington stepped into Richard Rufus’ debut senior goal boots. And this time round Jason Pearce would be there to make his presence felt in the penalty box in those final seconds. The Big Frigging German chose his moment.

Cometh the hour (or the 94th minute), cometh Patrick Bauer.

As we cheered the final whistle, my phone buzzed with congratulatory messages from absent, thrilled Magpies. It reminded me of the feathered ones I’d seen outside the hotel window. Coincidence or otherwise, they did predict the script: first, the deep despair of that harrowing own-goal-moment after five minutes when all Addicks thought sorrow was descending. Then the equally sudden jubilation as Bauer’s prodded rebound deflected into the side-netting below us unleashing an eruption of frantic emotions – five years of pent-up agonising replaced with yells, hugs, bounces and bruises as we realised it was game over.

Now my focus switched to Red, Red, Robins as our Addicks clambered their weary but elated way up the Wembley steps. Cheer up, the sun is red. Whether thanks to fate, history repeating itself, magpies, football gods, Addicks in the heavens or quite simply superb management by Lee Bowyer and all of his team, we’d done it.

We’re Charlton Athletic. We’re on our way up.

Lee Bowyer: Born to Win

Charlton beat Rochdale 4-0 on the final day of the scheduled 2018/19 season to grab third spot in League One. As the squad was about to embark on their play-off campaign which would culminate in last-minute promotion drama at Wembley, I had the opportunity to interview the manager on behalf of CAST. Photo by Kyle Andrews.

Lee Bowyer stepped out of Karl Robinson’s shadow to take over as caretaker manager ten games from the end of the last regular season when the Addicks were in very poor form. “We were not in a good place as a football club – there was a lot of negativity, we’d only won one in eight or nine.” Yet now he has just won League One Manager of the Month, beaten that curse with a 4-0 win to guide the team to third place and holds the accolade as our most successful ever manager judged on win ratio – at 57% after 56 games. This makes him proud, very proud. “Everyone had written us off for the play-offs [last season] but we turned it round. Since then it’s got better and better. We brought in our own squad – players who would get us promotion. It was slow in the beginning but the football has been good all season. The home form is really good – you can see why we got those points.”

He is quick to rationalise the only two losing blots on the 2018/19 home record – a late and unjust penalty versus Peterborough and a final-ten-minute turnaround by Coventry after 80 minutes of unrewarded Addicks’ dominance. “The players’ work-rate has been exceptional and the fans home and away have driven us across the line. At Portsmouth – constant singing. At Burton on a Tuesday night the fans helped us through – Burton are a good team – we scored in injury time.”

Bowyer demonstrates a clear grasp of how he brought about such a quick turnaround in form after taking charge. “The professionalism wasn’t there – small details – like coming out to the training pitch late – you can’t let things like that creep in. And they needed to play as a team, not for themselves. Those were things I had to correct.” He is also quick to point out the different atmosphere around the club. “The players and fans have come together. When I left as a kid, the fans and players were together – it was a good club, a nice family club, with mutual respect. When I came back that wasn’t there no more. Yet it’s so big. Fans help the players more than they realise.”

His first game sticks out as the most memorable of his tenure so far: “We had been on a bad run, my first time in charge, at home against a Plymouth side who had lost 1 in 19 or something crazy. We won 2-0 with a formation no-one expected us to play. Seeing The Valley bouncing the way it was that day, that was memorable”

It has surprised many that Lee Bowyer has such natural talent as a manager. He slipped without fanfare into the Charlton hotseat more by circumstance than design.

Continue reading “Lee Bowyer: Born to Win”

My Part in Celtic’s Hampden Year

A tale of my brief encounter with Celtic’s Fergus McCann with passing mention of Dion Dublin. First appeared in Issue 4 of Nutmeg Magazine.

A quiet Friday afternoon in April. The square, grey BT-issue phone on the corner of my desk suddenly chirped into life. I was manning – or rather womanning – the fort in our little rented office on the top floor of an elegant Edinburgh townhouse. My boss and his wife had taken the afternoon off. The two creatives were still in the pub – this was 1994, so what else would you expect from a marketing agency? We were a fledgling business, carrying out direct mail and insert campaigns for a couple of large financial organisations. Part of a UK network, we relied on sister agencies in London for media buying and Leeds for production services. I was diligently checking over the media schedule for my main client, ruler sat on top of paper, pencil comments scribbled in the margin.

Dropping the pencil on the second chirp, I grabbed the chunky phone receiver and clutched it to my ear. “Thank you for calling WWAV Scotland. Heather speaking. How may I help?” My polite introduction was met with a brusque response: “You’re a direct marketing agency, aren’t you?” I confirmed that indeed we were, as my mind whirred, struggling to identify the vaguely familiar transatlantic twang.

“This is Fergus McCann. I’ve bought Celtic Football Club. We need some direct marketing. Can you come in and see me next week?”

I replied somewhat hesitantly that of course we could, I’d just need to check with my Managing Director as he would always attend a new business meeting. “What was your name again? Are you an Account Director?” I barely had a moment to confirm before the demanding Scots-born Canadian continued: “We’ll say 2pm Tuesday at Celtic Park. You just come along on your own if necessary.”

With that he hung up.

Continue reading “My Part in Celtic’s Hampden Year”

The Reluctant East Ender

So here I was one cold February evening in 1994 watching the wrong Athletic at the wrong Park in the wrong Cup. Instead of cheering on Charlton Athletic at Ewood Park in the FA Cup (fourth round replay), I was at East End Park, watching Dunfermline Athletic take on Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup (third round replay).

And all because of my love for an Irishman called Robert – a sort-of Spurs fan. I say sort-of because he was not fanatical: I think he’d adopted them at a young age in Belfast out of hero-worship for his big brother. I had found it surprisingly easy to get him along to watch Charlton regularly instead. Our first date had been the FA Cup fourth round match in January 89 at Selhurst Park, when I clung on to him in panic during the nail-biting last ten minutes versus non-league Kettering (until then a name I associated more with Wicksteed and the wrought iron steps of the slide in the local playground).

I tested his romantic resolve further that evening by making him watch my video of “Charlton winning something” – the Masters Soccer Sixes, with Leaburn imperious. Even that didn’t put him off.

We were a perfect match in so many ways: Robert seemed to find my football addiction, or should that be affliction, quite endearing. He agreed without a flinch to my chosen wedding colours of burgundy (red) and ivory (white). He led the discussion with the organist about turning the Wedding March into the Match of the Day theme tune as we walked down the aisle. He arranged our honeymoon in Tuscany so we could take in a few World Cup matches at Italia 90.

But there was one big problem. He hated London.

Continue reading “The Reluctant East Ender”

Why I hate Luton: Part One

I wanted the world to know that I was a fan of the mighty Addicks (though back in those days we rarely used that nickname). I zipped up my bright red cotton jumpsuit, the height of fashion with its flared trousers and wide collar, over a skin-tight white polo shirt. I knotted the matching white and red silk scarf firmly round my wrist. Beautifully co-ordinated, I climbed aboard the Charlton Athletic away fans’ coach.

It was early September 1977. I was thirteen, skinny, flat-chested and goofy-toothed. There was little risk of me turning any heads. Just as well, as Dad would have made sure they were turned straight back whence they came.

Lewis’s was the coach company and Eddie was the driver. With his dark hair slicked back over a balding pate, crumpled white shirt and none too neatly-tied tie, he was also our guide, our organiser, and in the end our sympathiser on this dark day in the history of our football club. Dad quickly grabbed two seats near the front, letting me in by the window, well away from the lively youths with their cans of beer, congregated toward the back. We were all in high spirits as we weaved our way across London.

The mood sobered a little upon arrival in Luton. Eddie dropped us off, and we stepped out onto the pavement in a narrow backstreet. Bewildered, I could see no sign of a football ground, no towering floodlights. Continue reading “Why I hate Luton: Part One”

When Heather met Heather

Here’s an interview with Heather Alwen published in Issue 30 of The Blizzard magazine:


The subject is another Charlton-supporting Heather, but one with a very different perspective from me: Heather Alwen, wife of erstwhile chairman Roger. Among other things, it covers the behind-the-scenes story of the return to The Valley, tips on football gardening, the treatment of directors’ wives by Stoke City and the importance of proper nutrition for youth team players.

Brighton v Charlton 1983: Putting the Boot in

The boys in Belvedere were always playing football in the road just outside our house, but I never joined in. I had managed a kickabout on the beach with a few friends over the summer holidays, and I wasn’t too bad – lots of chasing around rather than skill, it has to be said, so perhaps more like Steve Gritt than Carl Harris. I also had no idea which my best position would be, so just like Steve Gritt, then: the utility player who defined the term – he had not only played for Charlton in every outfield position – but also in goal.

University loomed on the horizon. “Student life – it’s whatever you make it”, warbled the blurb in the prospectus. “It’s not just about lectures and seminars, it’s your chance to get involved in all sorts of other sports or pastimes. If the society doesn’t already exist, all you have to do is start it – after all, there are thousands of other young people just waiting to have fun.” The thought crossed my mind that I could finally have a go at playing my favourite sport properly, albeit as a rather late starter.

That first evening in the college bar, I casually mentioned the idea to my new friends. Immediately one of the boys offered to coach us, and most of the girls who played hockey decided they would give it a go for a laugh.

The prospectus was right – I wasn’t just going to be playing football, somehow I was the founder and captain of my own team. Now I would just need to learn how to kick the thing, never mind head it. After all these years watching Charlton – and Steve Gritt – I must have picked up a trick or two…

Continue reading “Brighton v Charlton 1983: Putting the Boot in”

Charlton v Chelsea 1977: Looby Loo’s Little Trip

Saturday afternoon, late March 1977 in our little council house in Belvedere; Charlton hadn’t had a home match for ages. I picked up a recent programme to check the next fixtures. Two big games at The Valley – Good Friday v Millwall and Easter Monday v Chelsea. Those were going to be fun –sure to be loads of goals. Then I shuddered. What were those dates again?

I mulled things over until tea-time: Mum’s Saturday special spread of salad with boiled potatoes and corned beef. I ladled out some Piccalilli, and waited for a quiet moment. “You know that school trip I’m meant to be going on to Brighton…well, do I really have to go?”

“It’s all booked now, isn’t it?” said Mum, “What’s the matter? There’s nothing wrong, is there? John – you don’t think she’s being bullied, do you?”

Dad was obliviously tucking into a salad-cream-covered boiled potato, but Mum dragged him into the conversation. “You’re not, are you, Heather?”
“Well, no, of course not,” I said. There was a long pause.
“It’s the football, isn’t it?” Dad joined in at last.
“Yes, Dad. I really don’t want to miss the Chelsea match on Easter Monday. I’ve only just realised it clashes. So is it OK if I don’t go on the school trip?”

Mum glowered across the table at her husband.

“Well, it’s all paid for now, Heather, I think you’ll just have to go,” Dad said quietly, staring at the potato on his fork.

Continue reading “Charlton v Chelsea 1977: Looby Loo’s Little Trip”

A Day to Remember

During season 2017/18, Charlton celebrated the 25th anniversary of the club’s return to The Valley. A reunion “Legends” match took place in September. I wrote about it for the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust. The picture shows fans meeting with Jon Fortune, who sent the Palace down.

The man mountain that is Carl Leaburn, his considered voice and unselfish nature belying his physical stature; dapper Mickey Bennett, somehow looking younger now than in his first-team days; Robert (definitely not Rob) Lee’s distinguished grey hair and square jawline begging comparisons with George Clooney; the blustering arrival of Eddie Youds, late-tackling his way into the thick of it all.

Scott Minto, another who seems to have cheated the passing of the years, maintained a calm and professional presence as he hosted the pre-match Legends Q&A, fittingly taking place in the Keith Peacock Suite. By all accounts, said elder statesman of the club was largely responsible for past players travelling from near and far to support the Community Trust in celebration of 25 years of their existence and 25 years (almost) since football returned to Floyd Road.

Like us, the Q&A men would be spectators at the main event while their former team mates would once more take to the Valley turf. Already the day was shaping into one of gentle relaxation and informality.

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The Truth about Gentleman Jerry

The achievements of Jerry Kerr are such that he deserves to be lauded as one of the pioneering Scottish managers alongside the likes of Jock Stein and Bill Shankly. But for decades he was not even welcome at Dundee United, the club he helped shape.

A poignant story based on interviews with the family.

First published in Nutmeg Issue Three, March 2017, and featured in Scotland and Sunday.

“As a manager, he never swore, never lost his temper, was never rude to anyone. He was respected as a gentleman and there aren’t many managers of the modern game you can say that about.” Rhona Haston, an elegant lady in her seventies, talks with warmth and passion about her late father, Jerry Kerr.

I am meeting Rhona and her son, Ross, to hear more about this intriguing man, who clearly meant the world to them. Rhona hands me several black and white photographs. Despite my keen interest in football, I am embarrassed to admit that I know next-to-nothing about the balding, well-dressed figure, sometimes sporting a trilby, nearly always puffing on a pipe, usually managing an affable smile. Yet this is a man whose achievements in transforming his club should be lauded in the Scottish Hall of Fame alongside Jock Stein’s Celtic triumphs and Bill Shankly’s galvanising of Liverpool.

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