When We Were Good: Charlton Athletic, Christmas 2003

Over half way through the 2003/2004 season a Scott Parker-inspired Charlton were casually occupying the last Champions League spot. At their peak came a true Christmas cracker before the bubble burst...
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Boxing Day football is bloody fantastic. And it’s particularly bloody fantastic when it takes your club to its modern-day zenith; as was the case with Charlton Athletic in 2003. ‘Playing teams off the park’ is a timeless favourite in the anecdotal punditry of football fans, liberally applied to all manner of victories regardless of how close the contest really was. But on the 26th December 2003 we absolutely, unequivocally played Chelsea off the park in our 4-2 win in front of the Sky cameras and a packed Valley. 1-0 up inside 42 seconds before romping away with a 4-1 lead within 53 minutes. And it was no fluke, as back then, we were good.

It has taken the footballing world an inexplicable amount of time to fully recognise the brilliance of Scott Parker, as we knew exactly what we had on our hands eight years ago. The fact that he has had to reach the age of 31 before receiving the plaudits and establishing himself on the international scene is, frankly, a travesty. Back then, the 23-year-old Parker was even more indefatigable than now and his quick feet and quality at both ends of the pitch made him the heartbeat of a Charlton side that sat 4th place after 22 games when he departed. His man-of-the-match display, that rendered Frank Lampard anonymous for an hour until Claudio Ranieri mercifully replaced him with Geremi, was paradoxically the worst thing that could have happened to both Parker and Charlton.

Because the free-spending Tinkerman responded to the defeat and the Addicks’ climb to within one place of his side by shelling out £10 million for the star of the Boxing Day show. Parker found himself either on the bench or out of position at the Bridge and his stock fell. Cue moves to big, yet woefully underachieving clubs in Newcastle and West Ham who never provided worthy platforms for the diminutive maestro. Robbed of their talisman, Charlton’s Champions League challenge eroded into familiar mid-table obscurity, even if a win on the final day ensured a record 7th place finish. It was a pattern that repeated itself before Alan Curbishley’s departure and the ensuing catastrophic slide that sees us battling through our third consecutive season down in League One. The Parker sale was unquestionably the beginning of the end of ‘when we were good’.

But you’d be wrong to attribute the yuletide trashing of Chelsea and prior success solely to Parker. Dean Kiely was proving himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Jason Euell was a goal-scoring midfield force to be reckoned with and Paolo Di Canio was taking to his swansong in English football with vivacity and surprising consistency. The obscenely gifted Claus Jensen, forever adding the sparkle to Curbishley’s well-drilled units, wasn’t even needed for the massacre that day.

It has taken the footballing world an inexplicable amount of time to recognise the brilliance of Scott Parker as we knew exactly what we had on our hands eight years ago.

In their first season of the Abramovich era when spending £110 million in the close season was utterly unprecedented, Chelsea were a scalp like no other. Curbishley had spent the same amount of money on us in 13 years that Ranieri had spent on Damien Duff. So it felt pretty damn excellent when Icelandic swashbuckler Hermann Hreidarsson rose to put the Blues on the back-foot inside a minute. A glancing header from a corner bulged the net right in front of a glum away end. John Terry replied soon after but it was the home side that had the momentum and the zip in their play. After the half hour, a vintage Di Canio dummy set Jonatan Johansson free on the left and his looping cross was met flush on the forehead by Captain Clean-Shorts, Matt Holland. With an ailing Marcel Desailly rooted to the ground, the header flew into the roof of the net and the Valley erupted once more.

2-1 and joy swiftly became 3-1 and delirium after the break. The cameras and the occasion had Di Canio purring, and Fascist out-foxed racist as the Italian delighted in twisting John Terry one way and then the other before squaring for Johansson to tap home. Paolo rightfully celebrated like the goal was his. Chelsea were reeling as the increasing decibels propelled wave after wave of Charlton attacks. Wayne Bridge was the next to buckle, spooning a clearance into the path of Euell who slotted under Carlo Cudicini for 4-1.

It was dreamland. And wonderfully, for the first time in our Premier League stay, it wasn’t feeling like ‘plucky little Charlton causing an upset’ as we were worth every bit of the scoreline and more. Every man in Red had flattened his opposite number and the title-chasing West Londoners knew they were leaving with nothing despite over half an hour remaining on the clock. Eidur Gudjohnsen showed his class with a late consolation but us Addicks had already ripped open our presents and were running around like infants high on E-numbers.

With each year on from 2003, the tidings under our Charlton tree have steadily diminished. That year it was Tracy Island, ten Furbies and a Game Boy. Last year it was half a clementine and a pair of (odd) socks. Though Father Chris-tmas Powell (just works) looks like he’ll have our stockings bulging a touch more again this year, we are still a long, long way from returning to the glory period of 2003/2004, when we were the 4th best team in the country and dreaming of Champions League football.

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