Charlton plot route from valley of death

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In recent seasons, it was easy to patronise Charlton Athletic as a nice, safe family club playing nice, safe family football in a nice, safe family stadium, the perfect role model for any small-to-middling club looking to establish themselves in the Premier League. If they could only sort out their post-Christmas form they might even qualify for Europe, and wouldn’t that be splendid for the choirboys of the Premiership?

Not any more. In past seasons, Charlton were practically on holiday by now, safe from relegation and yawning their way through another springtime slump.

After a desperate start to the season, they face Wigan Athletic on Saturday and Manchester City on Friday, knowing this is a week that will all but decide whether they retain their Premiership status next season.

Since Alan Curbishley, with uncharacteristic drama, announced his resignation 10 minutes before the kick-off of last season’s final home game, Charlton have lost their innocence. Iain Dowie’s reign was turbulent and brief; Les Reed’s boring and briefer.

There were strings of defeats, players getting lost on cross-country runs, rumours of dressing-room discontent, emergency late-night meetings, and then, on December 24, Reed was sacked to be replaced by Alan Pardew, who had been sacked by West Ham and replaced by Curbishley 13 days earlier.

Admittedly, by the recent standards of London football, Charlton’s dysfunction has been relatively minor. With manager and owner at loggerheads at Chelsea, gambling and cliques at West Ham, takeover talk at Arsenal, and Tottenham being Tottenham, the capital’s most stable club, by barely comprehensible default, is Fulham, the one run by Mohammed Fayed.

And that fact, alarming as it may be, is Charlton’s good fortune. However destabilising their present position, there are others worse off.

The relegation of a Watford promoted beyond their abilities was always likely, but West Ham’s meltdown was unexpected. With both teams looking doomed, that leaves four sides battling to avoid the one remaining relegation place.

Charlton trail Sheffield United by four points, with Wigan and Manchester City two points further clear. City have a game in hand, but given that it is against Arsenal away, that perhaps is best regarded as an academic issue only. A win on Saturday and on Friday and Charlton might suddenly found themselves out of the drop zone.

That is still some task, but recent form suggests it is possible. Since losing 3-1 to Middlesbrough, Charlton have lost only two of seven games, and those against Manchester United and Chelsea. They came from two down to force a draw against Watford, and though disappointing from the point of view that it was a game earmarked as a possible victory, that result has done wonders for morale.

Most significantly, they beat West Ham 4-0. “Thank you very much for Alan Pardew,” Charlton fans gloated, and, given Curbishley has won just two Premiership games since taking over, they are probably entitled to feel that they got the better of London’s Celebrity Alan Swap.

What is significant is the relentless nature of Charlton’s confidence. A certain amount is to be expected when a new manager takes over, but for Curbishley at West Ham it lasted one game – a win over Manchester United – and no more.

At Charlton, barely a day goes by without another player talking of a sense of renewed purpose, of greater discipline and fitness in the squad. On Saturday, though, Charlton could be without Alexandre Song, the 19-year-old Arsenal midfielder who arrived on loan at the end of January. He has been a huge figure in stabilising a flimsy midfield, but is struggling with a hamstring injury.

Yet they should have their leading scorer, Darren Bent, back after he missed England’s two European Championship qualifiers through injury.

They will also have Zheng Zhi, the China captain, who made his first start against Newcastle a fortnight ago, scoring the first and winning the penalty that set up a 2-0 win. Cult heroes have been made of less.

A manager appointed on Christmas Eve who prompts the arrival of a wise man from the east and seeks salvation on Good Friday? Perhaps it wouldn’t be too surprising if they were to resurrect themselves from the relegation zone against Reading on Easter Monday.

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