Rain and English football go hand-in-hand. A soaking wet pitch is as integral to the British game as the intoxicating scent of fried onions, barely appropriate chants, or, well, complaining. It either equals a long trudge home in defeat or raucous scenes of singing in the rain.
For 88 minutes at the Chigwell Construction Stadium, it appeared it would be the dreaded trudge for the Charlton U18s and their vocal band of supporters after braving the conditions in East London.
Then in the blink of an eye, Jeremy Santos twisted, turned, twisted and turned some more and got a firm toe to the ball, sending it careening past the West Ham goalkeeper. An equaliser summed up by the celebratory scenes at the corner flag akin to Jose Mourinho’s memorable jaunt down the touchline at Old Trafford.
As with everything positive in the Charlton academy, the celebrations reflected much more than a late late equaliser. It was a sign of the Charlton model paying dividends on the pitch yet again.
“We put a big emphasis on hard-work, on being positive when things go against you. There’s a really good spirit, really good togetherness in this group of players, but it’s something across the board at Charlton we try to instill. And tonight they exemplified that. When the chips were down, we didn’t lie down and to have not only the resilience, but also the quality.” U18s manager Anthony Hayes said after the match.
Of course, there was still extra-time to be played.
Thirty minutes later and an agonising touch off the post meant it would be penalties to decide this Youth Cup third round tie. It wouldn't be Charlton if it was easy, eh?
Yet again, even a scoreless extra-time elicits a strong sense of pride attached to the constantly and perpetually over-performing Charlton academy.
“We had players in extra-time going above and beyond. We’re delighted. It speaks volumes about what this club and academy is all about in terms of what type of players we want to produce. Not only in terms of talent, but also character and personality to go with it.” Hayes continued.
The young Addicks kept their cool as the rain teemed down, ensuring that the finest of margins would determine the fate of the trudge.
It took sudden death and a captain’s strike from Billy French coupled with West Ham’s final doomed “Panenka” attempt to eventually confirm Charlton as winners and show the true glory of rain in England.
Now I know I’ve been bandying on about rain as if trying to make excuses for the often appalling English winter, but here is the true magic of particularly wet, blustery, nights in the British footballing calendar.
As soon as the chipped effort by the Hammers’ number 6, Sam Caiger, rose agonizingly over the bar, the entire Charlton side, arm in arm on the half-way line, split into sprints of delirium and dove head first, feet first, knees first, whatever suited the occasion, along the wet surface and into each other’s arms with the childish joy that should be attached to this sport.
So that right there, is the power of a rainy pitch. Sure, if you’re West Ham, then the rain was just insult to injury after slipping to defeat. But for the youthful Addicks side, happy tears melted into drops from the heavens as unbridled joy shone through on the wet surface.
Joyous. Raucous. Euphoric. Yet it all comes back to the crest on the chest of each emotionally exuberant young Charlton player on nights like this. The Addicks defying the odds is not a new concept—in reality it’s a defining concept.
“It was emotional, for myself the manager as well. You just see how much they put into the game and the sheer relief of ‘we’ve won’. It’s a reward for how much they’ve put into the game.
“We’ve had to come from behind three times against a Category 1 Premier League academy, away from home, against a football club that’s renowned for producing players. That’s no mean feat. Charlton are a club that punches above it’s weight and the celebrations at the end are of sheer relief, joy, but again it’s another example of the spirit and togetherness of this group of players.
“It’s a wonderful night, one that some of them may never forget."