Thursday, August 07, 2008

1997/98 - Can history repeat itself?

The 1997/98 season brings back wonderfully fond memories for all those Charlton fans fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

Interestingly, it was also the last time that Charlton began a season in the second-tier, having also played there the previous season.

If my memory serves me correctly, Charlton began the 1997/98 season as 50/1 outsiders for the First Division title, ranked alongside other unfancied and (at that time) equally unglamorous rivals including Crewe, Stockport and Bury.

We had finished the prior season in 15th place, in what history subsequently suggests was arguably Alan Curbishley's most disappointing season as Charlton manager. Indeed after a dire 4-0 defeat at Barnsley in April 1997, I had written to Richard Murray insisting Curbs had taken us as far as he could. Luckily Murray (politely) confirmed he had a different view.

Therefore, when I joined a few hundred other hardy souls up at the Riverside Stadium on 9th Aug 1997, it was fair to say that much like today, few dared to predict anything more than another midtable finish, and potentially much worse. Nine months, 26 League wins, and a remarkable 88 points later, we celebrated promotion at Wembley.

Ever the romantic, I had treated my then girlfriend (and remarkably now wife) to a weekend in historic York, which just so happened to be a comfortable 48 mile drive from 'Boro. The highlight of the afternoon was when Steve Jones opened the scoring in the 8th minute, and in her excitement she spilt her Diet Coke all over the fans in front of her. We still laugh about it now.

Our team that afternoon was: Petterson, Brown, Barness, Jones, Rufus, Balmer, Newton, Kinsella, Robinson, Mendonca, Jones. Subs: Nicholls, Bright, Kerslake.

It would be easy to take a look at that team and argue it is comfortably stronger on paper than any team Pards can put out on Saturday. However we did not know on that warm afternoon that the likes of Brown, Kinsella, Newton, Jones, Robinson and Mendonca would go onto have such outstanding seasons. Indeed with the possible exception of new signing Mendonca, the remaining quintet had been little more than adequate First Division players until then.

A quick look at the full squad that began the 1997/98 offers considerable hope for 2008/9, particularly if one assesses it based only upon what was known then, and without the considerable benefit of hindsight:

Goalkeepers: Petterson, Salmon
Defenders: Brown, Rufus, Barness, Balmer, Chapple, Stuart, Kerslake, Konchesky
Midfielders: Holmes, Jones, Kinsella, Parker, Nicholls, Emblen, Mortimer, Newton, Robinson
Forwards: Mendonca, Jones, Allen, Bright, Leaburn, Lisbie, Whyte

So how did a decidedly average squad end up accumulating a points total that would have secured automatic promotion in almost any other season? And what are the potential lessons and omens for 2008/9?

Firstly and most obviously, Curbs added to the above squad with some outstanding signings at various points throughout the season. Admittedly, this was before the advent of the transfer window of course, but each of Messrs. Mills, Youds, Bowen, Ilic, and Heaney made material positive contributions throughout the season. Could some combination of last-minute loans and signings make a similar impact this time around?

Secondly, although we didn't know it at the time, Curbs had uncovered a goalscoring gem in the shape of Clive Mendonca. He would go on to become surely the single most outstanding Charlton striker of the past two decades, scoring 28 goals in 1997/98 alone. Could Andy Gray be similarly poised to prosper? They are different types of players of course, but then you could have said the same about namesake Hunt.

Thirdly and interestingly, none of the promising youngsters in that squad above made any impact, even to the extent they started matches at all (eg. Parker, Konchesky, Lisbie, Nicholls). They would each go on to build successful careers to varying degrees, but little was known about them at the time. The lesson for 2008/9? We may be making a mistake to assume we can rely on so many home-grown kids performing all at once. If we rush them, we may not see the best of them longer-term; it was not until a loan spell at Norwich in late-2000, that we began to see the best of Scott Parker for example.

Fourthly, as our season gained momentum, the fans sensed something special was occurring and generated a terrific atmosphere at The Valley, which resulted in just one home defeat all season (to Stockport of all teams). The 4-2 win over Forest, or the play-off victory over Ipswich must rank as some of the most memorable times when the players and fans lifted each other in unison. The stadium is now larger, and the expectations very much higher, but that season proved that fans really can make a difference.

Finally, we learned during 1997/98 that what the likes of Robinson, Brown, Chapple and Keith Jones lacked in natural talent, they made up for with their heart. Do we have enough of those types in today's squad? It's difficult to suggest that we do.

Notably Curbs swiftly got rid of two talented but questionable characters (Jamie Stuart and David Whyte) very early in the campaign. Little was heard of either thereafter. With the exception of perhaps Hudson, Holland and Varney, how many of the present squad truly play with their hearts on their sleeves? It is essential that any new signings address this obvious problem.

Fast forward to today, and what do we find again? Painful memories of the previous season, abject pessimism, concerns about lack of signings, and question marks over the manager. So maybe the omens are quite good after all, so long as lessons are learned and actions repeated.

And then, if you're still not convinced, then remind yourself which date the current season again begins on...... oh yes, it's the 9th of August. Scary yet exciting isn't it?


At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NYA- I started reading this and thought "blimey - tenous link or what!"

Then I smiled a lot and then got all emotional.

The Forest and Ipswich games were epic.

So many of that squad had bottle and heart. Whether the current crop have remains to be seen. But if they haven't lets make a bleedin row to cheer em on.

Come on you Addicks!

Pembury Addick

At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since Ipswich are destined to be champions in 2008/09 history isn't about to repeat itself. Sorry about that. Good to see that the addicks obsession persists, and, indeed, that you still list economics as an interest.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger bristol addick said...

Your piece, Pembury's comments - and some recent ones from Pards - resonate with me! Commitment is all. Was lucky to witness it at a few of our good outings last year - ie the Bristol City, Soton and Plymouth games, tho' saw little of it at home. Can't wait to shout myself hoarse tomorrow!


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