I make no apology for being among the last to offer their thoughts on the Play-Off Final. Others will have had more complicated and lengthier journeys than me, but going from Lyon to Paris early Saturday morning, getting a Eurostar to London Sunday morning, then after initial drinkies at St Pancras up to Wembley Park, followed by more drinkies afterwards, a trip to Blackheath for more drinkies, a train and tube out to Hammersmith (no Piccadilly Line) then the last replacement coach to Heathrow, a few hours kip in a chair, then a flight back to Lyon which left at 06.35 is a reasonable excuse for taking time I think. And if my current state is not yet entirely wasted I am a little jaded, albeit still warm inside from the outcome. And there will be more warmth to come as after the second Doncaster game there was enough good cognac for one large glass or two smaller; I decided to have one half then and one half after the final. Provided I stay awake long enough.
But isn’t it bloody marvellous when a plan all comes together? The exception that proves the rule here is of course the rather unfortunate incident which happened five minutes into the game. Can’t say anyone planned that one, unless there is a divine being with a nasty sense of humour. Of course with hindsight we wouldn’t have it any other way, especially as it spoke volumes for the character of Phillips that he didn’t let it affect him. We’ll just ascribe it to him starting his version of Twist and Shout a little too soon.
Thoughts on the game? Although the OG was obviously something unpredictable, it had been an edgy start by both teams I thought. Our equaliser was by a distance the best bit of football in the game, while the disappointment for me was the quality of delivery from our set pieces. That has been a strength but yesterday at the interval I’d counted three corners and two well-positioned free kicks that were wasted by overhit or hanging crosses. You did get the sense that we carried more threat than Sunderland in the final third, but that was only relevant if we could play the game in their half, which we struggled to do.
The switch of Pearce for Sarr at the break and moving forward of Bielik did I think give us a better shape and better protection for the defence. But nobody doubts that the change that made the difference to the balance of play was the bringing on of Williams with 20 minutes to go (which is no reflection on Pratley, who’d had a decent game). When he came on at The Valley against Doncaster I thought he made a poor contribution, looking rusty and perhaps trying too hard. But yesterday he caused problems from the moment he first got the ball. Given that we all but went to extra time and the nature of the winner you can’t say that his introduction won us the game, but it significantly increased the chances of us scoring again and, by giving them serious problems, reduced the risk of us conceding as they had to try to contain him – which usually meant kicking him. Rather belatedly the ref did start getting the card out, but if he’d taken action sooner in the game rather than erring on the side of trying to let things take their course Williams would probably have had better protection.
Seems most people are saying we shaded the game. But I’m not sure that counts for anything when the scores are level and extra time is just moments away. Could just as easily have been a set piece at the other end. Again, I think we had the greater goal threat over the game, but if they’d got a second in the first half, or gone ahead in the second, that might easily have been enough as they were giving little away at the back, even though Taylor and Parker worked their socks off.
When we wasted another couple of opportunities in the final minutes to get decent balls in I was resigned to extra time. We still had a third substitute and, although most on the pitch were looking pretty tired, we would I think have gone into an extra 30 minutes reasonably well-placed, especially if Williams could get a consistent supply. But we all know what happened, how Bauer more than made amends for being beaten at the far post to send the Doncaster contest to extra time, and just how long there was on the clock when the ball hit the back of the net.
While we’ll always remember the celebrations and the implications of the victory – both our club and me personally are now in positive territory when it comes to games at Wembley – I suspect a number of Charlton fans will also remember the actions of that young Sunderland fan as we filed out. He can’t have been more than 10 and had tears streaming down his face, but was standing above us and clapping the Charlton fans. A number of them went over to shake his hand. True class from one so young and I hope that enough of his compatriots are letting him know that days like yesterday are tough but they will make the successful ones – and nobody doubts he will have those – all the sweeter.
On our front all the players and Bowyer’s team take a well-deserved bow. We don’t know how many will be with us for the next campaign (if it proves to be Bauer’s last touch of the ball in a Charlton shirt what a way to sign off!) but it is essential for us that the spirit engendered in the dressing room is maintained, whatever the changes. If I was Lee Bowyer I’d get my fishing rods and head off, leaving just a note saying ‘Dear Roland, you’ve got my number’.
Of course it’s not that simple as if a sale is to go through by the end of June it has to be down to new owners on what terms Bowyer is retained. Which means he needs to be kept very much in the loop when it comes to developments on that front. I’ve no way to tell whether a deal is closer or further away as a result of yesterday – although strictly speaking if the Australian Football Consortium is still in existence and looking to buy a club it can no longer be us, as we no longer fit their criterion of “an underperforming English football team”. That we no longer do is down to Bowyer and his staff and squad.
So thoughts of preparations for the Championship should wait a while, we want the memories to stay to the fore for a little while. And let’s not forget our outgoing owner liked the idea of Addicks having a bit of a dance after a game. As per the photo, we did dance, having shouted and cheered. The fact that he couldn’t be there to share in the pleasure is entirely of his own making.