Monday 31 May 2010

My World Cup Memories - Part One, Spain 82

By the time the ‘Soccer City’ of Johannesburg hosts the 19th World Cup Final, I will be just 3 days in to my 37th year. Nine World Cup Finals have passed me by in that time, and it’s the memories of the eight I can remember that I would like to share with you in a series of posts leading up to this years finals. This is not intended to be the definitive summery of World Cup Finals since Spain 1982: I am neither that good a wordsmith, but nor do I want to stray too far from what each World Cup meant to me personally. I have made no attempt to research what I can’t remember. It may seem like a sad attempt to justify a life-long obsession with football, but I believe my early experiences of sports greatest spectacle helped in no small measure to shape the person I am today. Amongst other things, an interest in geography and world music might very well be traced back to those early World Cup experiences.

Spain ‘82

I was far too young to remember the glorious ticker-tape scenes of Buenos Aires when Kempes fired the Argentines to glory against the Dutch in 1978. But four years on from that, and at the age of 8, I was facing up to my first World Cup Finals in the sun-soaked surrounds of Spain. Already a football mad kid, my awareness for the tournament began around the Easter beforehand when I got an ‘Espana 82’ book detailing everything you wanted to know about the forthcoming festival of football. I never put it down. Whether or not that publication really gave me a sense of the magnitude of the forthcoming World Cup tournament I would doubt, but within its pages endless curiosities were released in to my impressionable mind. This was something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams, and there it was, months away. The colourful details of participating countries I’d never even heard of like Honduras, Cameroon and El Salvador captivated and intrigued me. I needed to know more about them. I had only heard of Peru thanks to Paddington Bear, and yet all of a sudden ‘Darkest Peru’ became a reality: a place that actually existed beyond Children’s TV. I imagined those dark-skinned chaps with huge afro hair wandering out of the Peruvian Jungle to take on my heroes, Shilton, Wilkins, Butcher, Robson, Francis and co. It just didn’t seem real! Then there was the Panini sticker book that made these world cup superstars recognizable: Rossi, Rummenigge, Platini, Socrates, Falcao, Zico and Maradona, to name but a few.

And so it began: football played in such bright sunshine that relentlessly beat down upon parched looking pitches inside stadiums of the like I’d never seen before. Enormous venues like the Camp Nou, Barcelona and Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu towered vertically in seemingly endless layers above the pitches, casting odd-looking shadows in the balmy-hot sunshine.

I ran home from school to watch England’s first game v’s France and ended up watching it on my own on a portable TV in my Mum & Dad’s bedroom (no doubt my sister had pulled rank on the TV downstairs). I waited just 27 seconds to see the talismanic Robson score for England. I can only imagine what must have been going through my mind with my eyes far wider than the TV screen I was watching! I can recall the muffled commentary that sounded more like a phone conversation (of course, in reality, that’s exactly what it was). I'm certain it was the first time I would have shown any form of patriotic affection towards the St. Georges cross.

England’s participation in the tournament was cut short in the 2nd Round despite the fact we never lost a game throughout the World Cup. Three initial 1st Round wins followed by two 2nd Round draws was not enough and my heroes were sent home. I think I was too mesmerised by the whole colourful spectacle to really feel a sense of disappointment and given our final game v’s Spain was an evening kick-off on a school night, I doubt I would have actually watched it live.

The game I remember most clearly in Spain 82 was Brazil v’s Italy in the 2nd Round. It was an absolute World Cup classic played out in a packed opened-topped stadium somewhere in Barcelona. Even at that age it was impossible not to admire the free-flowing, free-spirited Brazilians with their ever present samba drum accompaniment. I was totally captivated. The game swung back and forth but Brazil lost the game 3-2 (and left the World Cup) following a hatrick by the player of the tournament, Paolo Rossi (who hadn’t scored in the tournament beforehand).

It was my first introduction to world football, and how I value those memories: the Sun’s headlines of yet more hooliganism, Maradona’s red card against the Brazilians, the German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher’s ‘assault’ on the Frenchman Battiston in the Semi Finals (my goalkeeping friend still claims it was not a foul)!

But the one defining memory from that tournament that still lifts the hairs on the back of my neck to this day was Tardelli’s goal for the Italians in the World Cup Final v’s West Germany. Not the goal itself, but the celebration that followed (image above). Following his goal, Centre-back Tardelli sprinted towards the Italian bench screaming his own name, clenched-fisted, open armed and reduced instantly to tears at the magnitude and importance of his goal.

If I needed to understand the importance of a World Cup victory, I had just understood completely.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

I Wish You Hadn’t Given Me Hope!

If the journey home from the Valley wasn’t hard enough last night, then, unsurprisingly, this morning I woke up feeling like I’d just been hit by a train. It hurts so much more as they gave us all hope. Perhaps in some way, I wish they hadn’t. A friend commented to me this morning that “there was only one team in it until you gifted them a goal”. I know. Swindon will know. We all know. How very typically Charlton! I’ve felt this way before…and I’ll experience it again.

I have to remind myself that promotion would not have been won last night, and at least we’ve been spared the agony of falling short at Wembley (most probably against Millwall). Not that either of those points are any great consolation.

In the end, the shortcomings that have hindered us throughout the entire season let us down once again. The moment when Bailey gave the ball away so cheaply in midfield - which led to their goal – will live with me for a long, long time. Perhaps until such time as we’re back on the up. As I say, it will live with me for a long, long time. I don’t blame Bailey for the overall defeat; I accept he and his fellow players gave everything on the night. But once again, no consolation in defeat, especially when you consider few of the players on show will be Charlton players next season.

In the cold light of day, it is hard to imagine any news coming out of the club this summer that could not be viewed as yet more steps backwards. Unless a knight in shinning armor is riding in to SE7 at this very moment, I know in my heart there are still dark days ahead. That harsh reality alone is far, far harder to accept than last nights defeat.

I’ve already purchased my season ticket for next season, so I can ‘enjoy’ a few months before it all starts up again (when I'll be stupid enough to dream once again). But, despite the immense disappointment, above all else I’m proud to be an Addick. That will never change. Never.

As Phil Parkinson mused in a post match interview, "It's been very difficult over the past couple of years to be a Charlton fan…”.

I know. We know.

Saturday 15 May 2010

A View From The Stratton Bank End

I had two and a bit hours drive home from Swindon yesterday to muse over what I had just seen. In some respects, rather than find myself growing more and more anxious, I think I’m becoming more relaxed as the last remaining minutes of football are played out this season. As the required and desired outcome of this Play-Off Semi-Final becomes ever-more clear and obvious, so I become more focused on it without the nervous tension surrounding a multitude of probabilities and what if’s. That last sentence may not appear to make any sense, but it does to me! I don’t believe this is an indication, however, that I’m subconsciously preparing myself for impending failure. My conclusion following last nights game should be the same as Addicks all over; this tie is a long way from dead.

In fact, it was a far easier ride home than the outward journey to Wiltshire. For me, we have overcome a hugely difficult hurdle in getting this tricky away leg out of the way without the unthinkable scenario that the game Monday night could well have been academic. Those who saw the game would have realised that Swindon posed far more threat in front of goal, and other than a bit of good fortune mixed in with some quality goalkeeping from Randolph, this tie could very well be over. Thankfully, it is not, and although a 2-1 reverse is not ideal, it is far from a mountain to climb. That last statement will not be lost on the Swindon management, either. Swindon will go in to Monday’s game as favorites with the all the added pressure that brings and it will be interesting to see how they cope with that.

In reality, I doubt there were many Addicks who would have been brave enough to have predicted a victory yesterday. I would have settled for a score draw. Swindon is a decent footballing side who has shown steady form all season. They have some bright young stars - of which Charlie Austin stands out - who are managed by one of the more underrated, knowledgeable and experienced managers around. I think it fair to say that they have had an excellent season and will arguably be very disappointed not to make the Play-Off Final and compete for the remaining promotion place. Our season may have been less consistent or convincing in places, but over the 46 games we have earned the right to compete in this end of season, winner-takes-all mini-tournament and we remain capable of out-scoring Swindon over these two legs. Of that I remain convinced.

I won’t offer general player analysis from last night. Others will do a far better job of summerising the performance than me, not least of all as I have always found it difficult to really get a feel of the general pattern of games from behind the goal (I sit overlooking the half way line at the Valley). All I would say is I felt the gamble to play Sam Sodje clearly never worked. He looked like a man conscious of the limitations of whatever injury he has, and his performance suffered because of it. I don’t think it was coincidence that we looked a little vulnerable at the back at times. For me, Sam Sodje is an ‘all or nothing’ player, and Parky has a very tough choice to make for the second leg.

So on to the Valley. If the reports are correct, we are likely to get close to a sell-out. There are few things better than big games played out under floodlight in SE7. I fully expect the Charlton players to raise their game and play with the sort of confidence you’d expect from a home side (as Swindon showed last night) and an early goal for the Addicks would set things up nicely. There will always be debates about whether it is better to be at home or away first in these two-legged affairs. I think last night’s scoreline highlights to me the importance of home advantage in the second leg. If I was waking up as a Swindon fan this morning, I would be rightly pleased with the victory (and performance), but nervous that those missed opportunities may well prove critical with a daunting trip to the Valley to come. A first leg victory is most welcome, of course, but they are difficult to celebrate to any great degree with so much left to play for. The ‘Wembley’ chants from the Swindon fans seemed a tad premature to me (although, understandable to some degree by the nature of football fans)

So, in short, our entire season has come down to 90 mins of football in which we start the game with a goal disadvantage.

I remain hopeful…

Monday 10 May 2010

Going, Going…Gone!

So, after another eventful weekend of League One football, things seem a whole lot clearer this morning. No longer are we distracted by the faint hopes and dreams of automatic promotion, and whilst the path back to the Championship may still twist and turn considerably, it is at least clearly defined now. If the Addicks are to be promoted, we must out-score Swindon over the next two games and win the resulting final! As simple as it reads in a sentence, the task is a hugely difficult one, but on current form, I’m confident. In fact, dare I say it, I even feel a little excited rather than anxious! If the Addicks are to go up, then I will have a day out at Wembley.

I have just returned from The Valley to purchase my ticket for the semi-final away game at Swindon. Thankfully, I was in a position to get down to the ground, but even so, there were some very concerned faces in the long queues leading to the commercial centre. It’s likely the tickets won’t last the day, in my opinion. With an away allocation of just 2,042, and with tickets on sale to all Season Ticket and Valley Gold members regardless of an away purchasing history this season, there will inevitably be some very frustrated and angry people unable to get a ticket for the away match that arguably will deserve one. It is not an ideal situation and I suspect the club will get some strong criticism in the next couple of days. My guess is the club felt the relatively short time period before Friday left them with little option but to limit the restrictions to take in to account purchasing history – and that may be a fair point – but that will be no comfort for those hardy soles who have followed the team away from home regularly this season.

As for me, I have been away from home 7 times this season. Not a huge amount maybe, but if family and working circumstances allowed, I would go to them all. None the less, I take my away ticket for this game without shame, but made the choice to purchase only one of the two tickets I could have (despite a West Ham supporting friend of mine offering to come along with me for some support and to spread the cost of travel). I would urge fellow Addicks to show the same respect. In the hour or so I was in the queue I got speaking to a lovely elderly lady who has been following the Addicks since the hugely significant year 1947 and attends every match – home and away – with her son. Surely it can’t be right this lady should be sweating on getting a ticket? Even today she has had to endure a lengthy public transport run to get to the Valley to get her tickets for Friday. She got the two she required – I swear I’d have given her mine if she hadn’t. I joked with her that if I had my way I’d let her give the teamtalk before the game on Friday to explain to the players what it is to be an Addick. It did make me laugh when I overheard her telling another lady that she’s had to postpone ‘having her hair done Friday’. Probably for the best given the lack of a roof in the away end at Swindon.

At least she’s there…

Friday 7 May 2010

Knowing your Boundary’s…

After much debate in my own mind I made the potentially painful 'gamble' not to go to Boundary Park. Weighing up the financial cost of the day out (as a solitary traveller), whilst accepting the improbability of the run of results required to go up automatically, I decided to priorities my limited resources with a view to the more likely Play-Off games ahead.

It is a huge gamble and a choice that leaves me – and many other Addicks, I don't doubt - in one of those awful juxtapositions where on the one hand I will forever hate myself for not going should fate go our way, but, if given a choice, I would instantly settle for the indeterminate agony of missing out on the Boundary Park celebration if it meant the Addicks went straight up.

Of course, the challenge for the all-important 4th place means that even with a quick and early indication that results are not going our way there will still be so much to play for. For that reason, I take my hat off to those Addicks who will make the journey up the M6. I hope and pray your efforts are rewarded with one of those magic moments; perhaps one of those days that will be instantly etched in Charlton history forever.

As for me, I plan to head out for a run to escape civilization for the first half at least. Beyond that, I will be stuck to my iPhone for updates. Fingers crossed!

As difficult a day as Saturday may prove to be, I’ll be glad when it’s over.