The 39th step in our Great Teams series sees the archive approach its third anniversary – and we are delighted to welcome Al Gordon, purveyor of the eclectic God, Charlton and Punk Rock website to TTU Towers; Al having become a regular at The Football Attic in recent months. Here. Al waxes lyrical on the subject of the Addicks’ 1997-8 vintage – he can be followed on Twitter here.
From what we had seen the previous season, there was nothing to prepare us for a campaign that will live long in the memory down in SE7. A mediocre final standing of sixteenth in the Nationwide Division One, David Whyte leading the line and a loan stint for the infamous Ricky Otto will, thankfully, not be what the campaign was remembered for. Spirited cup performances at home against Liverpool and Newcastle (in the Coca-Cola Cup and FA cup respectively) and the arrival of Mark Kinsella from Colchester however, did show a small glimpse of potential and the tiniest insight into Alan Curbishley’s master plan.
How did this set the scene for the wonderful ten months that followed then? Mark Kinsella grew in stature, an experienced head in Mark Bright arrived for a cameo performance before bowing out gracefully and, the icing on the cake – we finally captured a striker that was capable of a genuine twenty goals a season.
Super Clive Mendonca had scored an average of one goal in every three appearances during a successful spell at Grimsby, but relegation saw their battle to keep the talismanic striker finally collapse. We now had a pair of strikers who both knew where the goal was, and more importantly, how to put the ball in it. We did of course still have the enigma that is Carl Leaburn though.
Another summer addition to the team was Matty Holmes from Blackburn Rovers. An exciting prospect on the wing, his signature was definitely as much of a coup as Mendonca’s, unfortunately a Kevin Muscat challenge would ruin, not only his season but his professional career.
It’s often noted that a strong spine in a side is crucial for consistently getting results, the backbone, the cornerstone, solid foundations to build on, every pundit worth their salt can write chapters on this. Alan Curbishley did foundations – he needed to if he was going to challenge Jimmy Seed’s mantle as the greatest ever manager in the clubs history.
Australian goalkeeper, and then current player of the year, Andy Petterson was between the sticks, a tall fast young centre back, Richard Rufus, installed confidence at the heart of the defence, partnered by either a feisty Scot, Stuart ‘sweaty’ Balmer or future club scout and occasional ‘Bambi on ice’ impersonator, Phil Chapple. Former Chelsea midfielder Keith Jones linked well with the so impressive Irishman, Kinsella, in the middle of the park building strongly on what they had started together the previous season. With Mendonca scoring goals for fun by September alongside Steve Jones, a young man I never failed to see smiling and enjoying his football (Bright by this time was undergoing a hernia op), this was a true spine which just needed a little flair and determination down it’s flanks.
Looking back, I remember determination and ruggedness coming in much larger portions than flair. Experience and hard work from, first Anthony Barness, and then later Mark Bowen at the left back birth with Steve Brown solid and dependable as always on the right. Brown was one of the last of those good old fashioned footballers, he could and frequently did play all eleven positions on the pitch and each with some ability. Shaun Newton would run at defenders in attacking role on one side, with the passionate and sometimes rather aggressive Welsh international John Robinson working his socks off on the other.
Others would get an outing or two, and three important new names would arrive as the season wore on - even Carl Leaburn got a little run in the side mid-season forming a good rapport with Mendonca. Leaburn, for all his faults, could certainly play the target man and hold the ball up well – his season tally of four goals in fourteen starts wasn’t a bad return for him either.
Bradley Allen and Charlton stalwart Paul Mortimer both got brief spells in the first eleven as would loanee Neil Heaney during the latter stages, but that Muscat challenge I spoke of earlier happened in January limiting Matty Holmes to a total of just eleven starts for the Addicks. A huge disappointment for both the player and the fans alike.
The season began with a trip to newly relegated Middlesbrough with Charlton holding their own and losing narrowly to one of the promotion favourites. Balmer and Fabrizio Ravanelli were at each other’s throats all afternoon; the Charlton defender finishing the game doing a rather good Terry Butcher impression with his white (and purple and green) shirt stained red and a huge bandage wrapped around his head – Charlton were certainly going to do battle this season but this was followed by the first home game - a League cup match against Ipswich. The Valiants lost this damp squib of a match to concentrate on the league. Two weeks later they capitulated terribly in the return leg just to confirm this.
Oxford United came to The Valley for the first home league fixture, notable for the debut of a very young Paul Konchesky. Aged 16 years and 93 days, he became the youngest lad to ever play for the club (a record since broken by Jonjo Shelvey) and not only looked competent but walked away with the man of the match accolade. His time was yet to come though, and he soon found himself back down to earth and in the youth set up once again.
By mid-October, after good wins against Manchester City and Bradford at home and Queen’s Park Rangers away, Charlton were sitting third in the table with high flying Nottingham Forest and Pierre van Hooijdonk leading the way. December came and Mendonca was halfway to his target twenty goals already, our home form was superb with only Stockport taking all the points away from London and a play-off spot was looking like it could be our’s to lose.
The New Year gave us all the confirmation we needed, with the third round of the cup and league rivals Nottingham Forest coming to The Valley. They were thumped 4-1 followed quickly by the Addicks duly dispatching Middlesbrough the following Saturday in the league 3-0. The strongest two sides in the division had both come to SE7 in the space of eight days and both gone home with egos bruised and both well beaten. If we could just tighten our away form there was every possibility this side had what it took to warrant automatic promotion.
February however saw three league defeats on the road, but we ended the month not only with a couple of hard earned wins but also with a new rookie goalkeeper, Sasa Ilic. Ilic signed originally on a non-contract agreement although as the season wore this became a month by month deal. Arriving from St Leonards Stamcroft this very likable keeper had previously had some top flight experience in Yugoslavia and Australia. The impact he would make in the final three months of the season would have a great bearing on the harmony of the side during what is commonly referred to as the ‘business end’ of the season, and on club records as well!
Ilic’s arrival in the starting eleven was soon followed by two more names, two signings which really rubber stamped Curbishley’s desire and want for promotion. Bradford’s strong centre half, Eddie Youds, and Danny Mills, a full back from Norwich. Both were astute signings. Not only did Curbishley see these two men as capable of strengthening the rear guard for a promotion push, he was already assembling a defence that would adapt to Premier League life effortlessly.
Youds and Rufus were superb together at the heart of this new look back four, Bowen and Mills supplying both defensive and attacking genius either side of them. Charlton were to reach Wembley and the play-off final taking an astonishing nine consecutive clean sheets in the run up to their most financially lucrative and most anticipated game of all time.
Ipswich had been the opponents in the semi-finals but there was to be no repeat of the earlier league cup affair
Leaving The Valley laughing and signing, knowing we were on our way to the twin towers will forever stay with me and as atmospheres go, it was right up there with returning to Charlton from years of exile back in 1992. Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough had both deserved the automatic spots and there was no doubt that ourselves and Sunderland were the next best two sides in the division. And what a showcase we would finish with.
Clive Mendonca settled his season on a goals tally of 28, three of which came at Wembley in what most will say is the greatest hat trick the famous old ground ever saw. Rufus scored his first ever goal for the club and was well on his way to becoming one of the best centre backs never to get an England call up. Skipper Kinsella showed all the passion you’d expect from a little Irish whirlwind of a captain, nerves were held in the penalty shoot-out and Ilic even saved one confirming the belief in the banner which proclaimed ‘Sasa way to do it’.
Charlton had only been to Wembley once before in my lifetime (a Full Members Cup final against Blackburn) and they’ve not been back since May 98 either. Two years later Charlton would again win promotion to the Promised Land, this time as champions, but that campaign didn’t capture my imagination anywhere near to the extent of this one - there was after all no cup final day out! Fourteen years later I still have a framed photo of this team celebrating on Wembley’s hallowed turf next to my side of the bed, much to the amusement of my wife.