Remembering the 1997/98 promotion campaign


It’s the summer of 1997. Alan Curbishley has been told by Roger Alwen that, following a disappointing season, “the natives are getting a little bit restless.” 

Curbishley is sitting down with Les Reed to plan for the upcoming season, when by chance he checks his phone. He has multiple missed calls from Richard Murray, and one message stands out: “if you f**king want to sign Clive Mendonca, phone me back!” Luckily, Curbishley phoned him back.

With Mendonca and his teammates going on to do what they did in the play-off final a year later, some often forget the season that brought them to that point.

Given Mendonca’s impressive performances for Grimsby Town against the Addicks, Steve Brown felt that the striker’s arrival at The Valley had a significant effect on the rest of the squad. “It was the turning point,” he said. “It elevates the entire building, there’s a freshness when you walk in.”

The additions of Mark Bright and Mark Bowen helped to add the kind of knowhow that got the likes of Brown dreaming about promotion. 

“Mark Bowen and Brighty were the two very, very experienced players,” he said. “Bow was around 33, 34 and Brighty was about 36. Completely different characters, both vastly experienced. 

“One very quiet, methodical, would talk to you on your shoulder. The other one would shout at you from 60 yards away, telling you how rubbish you were. But once he’d bashed you into the ground, he’d come and pick you up. He just wanted the best, that was Mark’s mentality: ‘I want the best, so I’m going to drag you along to be the best with me.’”

After a difficult start to the season - two wins in the first five games - Charlton steadied the ship and claimed 12 points from the next available 15, including impressive 4-0, 4-2 and 3-0 wins at Norwich City, QPR and Huddersfield Town respectively.

Curbishley now felt the squad was building up a head of steam. 

“We had a really settled team I think,” he said. “Because of the position we were in, someone could come and nick a player. You’re also thinking about injuries and whatever. But as momentum was building, so was the belief in the boardroom, with the directors. There was a feeling that if we do get a proper setback, we could do something about it.”

That momentum looked like it might be cut short in November and December when the team lost three in five, but they would follow it up with four successive victories.

Curbishley said: “When you’re having a bad time, you’ve got to arrest it somehow. I’m glad it was only three games, because it can go on. You can go six, seven, eight games without getting a result.”

His team quickly put the bad spell behind them, and were bolstered by two arrivals - both of which came in peculiar fashion.

Danny Mills joined in March 1998 having been managed by Curbishley in a one-off exhibition match.

“There was an English Football League XI vs an Italian Football League XI, and the FA asked me and Les [Reed] to run the game, which was here at The Valley,” said Curbishley.

“I picked the squad, so I actually had a chance to be right up close to them and see them. Millsy wasn’t playing for Norwich at the time. So I phoned the manager up while we were training and said, ‘what’s the situation with Millsy?’ and because it was £300,000 or something like that, I went and said, ‘look, we can do this.’”

Even more remarkable was the arrival of goalkeeper Saša Ilić. “He just walked up to the training ground one day with a carrier bag with his boots in it, and said to the boy at the door: ‘I want a trial. Who have I got to talk to?,’” recalled Curbishley. “Like Charlton, they went, ‘oh, just walk round there.’ So I get a phone call from downstairs saying, ‘there’s this guy here and he wants a trial.’ So I thought, ‘I better go down there,’ and I did and it was Saša.

“He’s come in and he’s trained for a couple days. We decided to do it, and the rest is history. He got put in, and then suddenly the clean sheets happened.”

Suddenly Charlton were flying, winning eight games in a row in March and April. “We had so many different areas to attack,” said Curbishley. “Newts [Shaun Newton] one side, Robbo [John Robinson] the other. Midfield was solid. We had Clive up top who we knew would nick a goal.”

“We were athletic as well,” added Brown. “Keithy Jones and Mark Kinsella in midfield. Newts on the right, Robbo on the left. You will not get, in my opinion, a harder-working midfield. You just won’t. That midfield four there could cover serious ground.”

It was a run which propelled the Addicks into the play-offs, and it gave Curbishley cause for optimism. 

“I remember going to Ipswich for the semi-final really feeling confident,” he said. “During the run in you’re thinking, ‘are we going to do it?’. But in the play-offs I was really confident of the Ipswich one.”

He had every reason to be, even if there might have been moments during the final when the manager might have begun to doubt whether it would happen.

But happen it did, and the 1997/98 Charlton squad established themselves as heroes in the history of the football club.

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