Charlton Athletic have only had nine players score at either incarnation of Wembley – excluding penalty shootouts – and Ben Purrington is one of them. It means the 26-year-old might be sizing up his next challenge, away from SE7, but his place in the club’s history books is assured.
The Devon-born defender picked the perfect moment to open his goal account for the Addicks, converting Lyle Taylor’s cross in the 2019 League One play-off final victory over Sunderland.
It crucially drew Charlton level before half-time, wiping out the jawdropping defensive rick that saw Naby Sarr’s backpass rolled agonisingly past Dillon Phillips and into the net. Patrick Bauer’s injury-time winner ensured delirious pandemonium.
It’s no surprise that Charlton’s greatest comebacks – including the nerve-shredding semi-final penalty shootout win over Doncaster Rovers at The Valley to clinch a trip to the national stadium – are the moments that Purrington looks back on so fondly, rather than the club’s inability to bounce back from Championship relegation.
Purrington’s Wembley shirt, along with pictures from the day, is framed in the converted gym in his garage.
“Going 1-0 down in that fashion – Naby and Dill – it was more of a relief just to get that equaliser,” he told the South London Press. “I never celebrated too much until the final whistle because I just wanted to get that game done, get it won and then enjoy it afterwards.
“I’ve been part of three promotions in my career – with Plymouth, Rotherham and Charlton. I played the biggest part in that season. It sticks out by far.
“I wasn’t nervous before the final. I do tend to get a bit nervous before every game, I think the majority of players would be lying if they said they didn’t. But that one game, for some reason, I wasn’t. Maybe it was the occasion and the thrill of getting to play at Wembley.
“The team I had around me, I was so confident going into that game. I’d played 19 or 20 games and only lost one that I played in. You’re going into matches on a high and thinking you’re going to win even if you’re 1-0 down.
“I had passed it back to Naby and I’d turned around expecting us to have a bit of possession, I walked forward, looked over my shoulder and the ball was in the back of the net! I was a little bit confused because I didn’t really see what went on.
“You’re half-thinking: ‘Bloody hell, it can’t get much worse – it’s not going to be our day’. But, like we said before, when you’ve got players like Lyle [Taylor], [Joe] Aribo and [Josh] Cullen in the team – you’re looking around and thinking you’re not quite so bothered. We’d done it so many times in the second half of that season that I didn’t panic when we went 1-0 down.”
Darren Pratley, who scored a vital second in extra-time to take the Doncaster tie to penalties, almost faceplanted in his attempts to get a touch on Taylor’s low delivery.
“Prats just fell over in front of the ball,” recalls Purrington. “It was similar to what he did against Donny, but then he scored.
“At that time we were playing five at the back in the first half at Wembley, before we changed at half-time when Pearcey [Jason Pearce] came on. But being a wing-back I was drifting in at the far post.
“It’s harder when you’re a full-back because if your winger is cheating [not tracking] then you can’t get up there because you can be stuffed on the counter attack. I’d played under managers before who say they want you to attack but then they can say: ‘Oh, you’re getting countered – you need to stay back’. It’s cat and mouse between you and attacker. Thankfully [Chris] Maguire just switched off at the back post.
“I’ve got five goals for Charlton and I didn’t score many not doing that [run]. It’s quite an easy way to notch up a few goals, if you get in the right position. It wasn’t like an instruction or a tactic, it’s something I like to do.”
There were 25,428 in attendance for the second leg of the Doncaster tie. Goals from Taylor and Aribo had Lee Bowyer’s team firmly in the ascendency after a 2-1 victory in Yorkshire. And it felt even more like their place in the final was assured after Krystian Bielik made it 3-1 on aggregate, heading in Cullen’s free-kick, to make it a dream start back in South London.
Instead Doncaster fought back to make it 3-3 and even led through former Millwall forward John Marquis’ goal 10 minutes into extra time.
“When The Valley is full it is the best atmosphere I’ve every played in – that play-off semi-final,” said Purrington. “It was better than Wembley and the Championship atmospheres when we were there. That’s the biggest compliment you can pay.
“There was going behind and the pitch invasion. I’m going to have to watch it back at some point, because when I was out there it was so surreal. It felt like the ground was shaking. It will be tough to get The Valley like that again – I hope it does happen and they get to the play-offs again.
“But to top that, in the fashion it happened, will be very tough.”
Purrington, a free agent at the start of next month, is back in Exeter weighing up his next move.
He claims he was never offered a new contract by Charlton, even if initially there sounded like one would be forthcoming before owner Thomas Sandgaard decided to dispense with the services of Johnnie Jackson, who had replaced Nigel Adkins in September.
“I was called in originally [when Jackson was still in charge] and told they had made a joint decision there would be a contract for me,” said Purrington. “I thought it would be pretty straightforward to get it done, but then I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks.
“I tried to chase things up and didn’t hear anything, I couldn’t get hold of anyone – that’s sort of when you get a hint! Then they explained about the new manager coming in and they didn’t know who it was yet, which is totally understandable [for the delay]. I got the call finally from Steve Gallen basically saying there was nothing there for me anymore.
“I’ve just got to look to move on now. It’s a little bit disappointing.
“I’ve had four good years at the club, ups and downs, but overall I’ve loved my time there. I’ve had a few offers but nothing I’ve jumped into too early. It was still half in the back of my mind that I could have been staying at Charlton, so I wasn’t fully focused on changing club.
“Charlton fans were always brilliant with me. No player has ever got a full 100 per cent bag where everyone loves them. I’m sure I’ll have a fair few who didn’t rate me as a player. But I always gave 100 per cent for the club.
“I’d like to think even if someone didn’t rate me as a player they would rate my commitment. That’s the bare minimum you should give as a pro. People can fault your ability – but not your attitude.”
Purrington was one of the big beneficiaries when Jackson took control of first-team affairs. He had not been in the squad for 11 of the first 13 matches last season but started Jackson’s first game in caretaker charge – a 1-0 win at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.
Purrington scored in three of the next four fixtures, victories over Doncaster (4-0), Burton (1-0) and Plymouth (2-0).
He said: “I unfortunately got a hamstring injury in pre-season. It meant I wasn’t in the team and had to try to get back into it. The one who is in the side has always got the leg up on you.
“Nigel preferred [Pape] Souare in that position. It was a frustrating time for me because I felt I deserved to be back in the team. I came in for one game and then came back out. In reality the team were in a really bad spell. I was one of two or three people to come out of it.
“When the new manager came in we went on a good run – I came in, Dobbo [George Dobson] came in and it makes you feel better when you feel you can change things for the team. You feel you should be in the team, so it’s nice to help them get some results.
“Being a wing-back under Jacko it was about getting your head down and working hard – up and back. You’ve got to be quite fit in that role.
“I know for a fact I probably didn’t bring as much as a Corey Blackett-Taylor in one-v-ones but statistically I got a few assists and goals last season. I brought a lot of other aspects to the game that other people didn’t necessarily bring.
“I felt like I helped us shore up the defence, we conceded fewer goals. When Jacko took over everyone was buzzing and wanted to do well for him. It was a shame at the end, how that played out.
“It was so disappointing to go out on just a sub-par mid-table finish. It wasn’t good enough. We had some really good spells and we had some terrible spells.
“I’m not saying this because I wasn’t playing, but at the start of the season when I was watching from the stands I was thinking: ‘What is going on?’ There were games at home, especially, when the crowd were getting on the old manager’s back and on players’ backs. You feel like you’re not helping, because you’re injured.
“The players know that Charlton deserve better than a mid-table finish, especially in League One. There is not much to say about the last year.”
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