Charlton Athletic have come a long way in five years – a long way down.
On 23 August 2006 they played Manchester United, the second of seven defeats in their first eight league games. That was the beginning of the descent. On Saturday in League One Scunthorpe United reminded them how far back it is. Charlton were 2-0 up before the hour and on course to maintain their 100% league record, only for Scunthorpe to get back to 2-2. To make matters worse the second goal came in the 91st minute.
Sheffield United, with a similar record, also led then drew, allowing MK Dons to spring above both on goal difference. Chris Powell, Charlton's manager since January, was sanguine. "We haven't lost yet," he said. "We can take pride in that."
But he admitted: "We have to see games out. You want to play higher but naturally tend to defend what you've got." To prove it and maybe his inexperience he went from 4-4-2 for 80 minutes to 4-5-1 (with Jason Euell for Paul Hayes), then virtually 5-5-0 in added time (with Gary Doherty for Bradley Wright-Phillips). Scunthorpe, never outplayed, knew they were on to a good thing and Bobby Grant, scorer of their first, showed with his equaliser there was another fire in The Iron. "He's been bang on it in training," said his manager, Alan Knill. "We've tried to calm him down."
"I must applaud Scunthorpe for playing their part in a very good game," said Powell. As a left-back for nearly 25 years, including three spells at Charlton which yielded five caps under Sven-Goran Eriksson, he earned a reputation that led to chairmanship of the Professional Footballers' Association. As he prepared last year to move from pitch to dugout he lamented the game's loss of "humility and integrity". Back at The Valley he is unlikely to see the riches that have taken players "out of touch with the common man".
Charlton, who owe their existence and home to the common man after a seven-year exile from 1985, take pains to keep in touch. "In signing 16 players this summer we've had to take wage capping into account," explains the chief executive, Stephen Kavanagh, to fans. At this level none cost anything worth disclosing. Fewer left on the same basis, though Carl Jenkinson went to Arsenal for £1m.
Danny Hollands, from Bournemouth, stood out in a bright midfield until collective legs went. His crisp cross laid the second goal on Wright-Phillips's head, his third of the season. The first followed a free-kick, Johnnie Jackson heading in.
Charlton have known false dawns before. Two seasons ago, in their first attempt to get back to the Championship with Phil Parkinson, they kicked off with six wins but finished fourth. They were fifth last January when Powell succeeded him, starting with four wins before four defeats and only two more wins in the last 19 games, but Powell can take heart from Parkinson's experience: he was engaged in 2008 after eight matches as caretaker without a win. Charlton recognise false dusks, too, as well as good men when they have them. They have learned the lesson of snap appointments that followed the Curbishley years. Powell starts in credit.
He and they value community and communication and should see a 15,505 crowd as due reward, matching last season's average. So was a letter Powell received from a lady in Coventry, who was "horrified" to find Charlton on a summer training camp in Spain sharing the hotel where she customarily spends quiet family holidays. "I am writing to congratulate your team on their behaviour and general politeness – so totally opposite to the reports generally applied in the tabloids," she wrote.
Powell had his own words about the riots which forced postponement of Charlton's Carling Cup match against Reading. "We shouldn't underestimate the role we can play in our community. I want all our fans and everyone connected with Charlton to do their bit," he said. The match is now being played on Tuesday. Charlton will have no fear of penalties and every hope of a marriage made in heaven with Powell.
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