BY BENJY NURICK
More than eight months have passed since the day Charlton were relegated from the Championship and Josh Cullen now plays his football in Belgium. But you can still feel the hurt in his voice when the topic comes up.
“It was probably, or definitely, one of the worst feelings I’ve had in football,” Cullen told the South London Press after taking a deep breath. “It was an absolutely horrible experience and something that I feel the club, over the course of the season, with everything we had to deal with, didn’t deserve.
“Everyone was absolutely gutted. Because you work so hard and everyone put their bodies on the line for the club the whole season…to not get over the line as we wished…So yeah it was a horrible feeling and everyone was upset and disappointed with how it finished because everyone put a lot of effort in.”
Heading into the final day of the season Charlton travelled to Leeds with their Championship survival still up for grabs. Regardless of their fate, however, it would be Cullen’s final Charlton appearance after an emotional and dramatic two-year loan spell.
Cullen was one of 10 players in the matchday squad who didn’t return for the current campaign. But that didn’t make it any less painful when a 4-0 defeat coupled with Barnsley’s last-gasp winner at Brentford meant it was a return to League One for Lee Bowyer’s side.
“There were players leaving, and as a group of players we all got on really well,” Cullen recalls. “There was nothing we would have loved to do more on that last day than secure Championship status for Charlton…even though we were leaving. I mean, I can only speak for myself but while I was at the club I treated the club as if it was my own. I wanted to do my job best for the team to keep the club in the Championship. And I’m sure everyone else did also whether they were leaving or had contracts still running for this season and beyond. It hurt everyone just the same and obviously we were really disappointed we couldn’t achieve that in the end.”
Cullen was never a permanent Charlton player – and at no point in his time at the club was that ever likely to change. But for two years, it was as if the Irish international had grown through Charlton’s own academy – as opposed to West Ham’s – such was the way he endeared himself to the supporters of his temporary club.
Then again, no one, players or fans, will have found those two years actually felt particularly short, with chaos cropping up at every turn.
Unfortunately, in the build-up to Charlton’s coronavirus-delayed demise in Yorkshire, much of that chaos came off the pitch as the cloud of ESI, version one and two, hung over a supremely challenging year.
“It was quite a dramatic season,” Cullen says. “There was a lot of stuff going on off the pitch, which the manager and the staff and people at the club dealt with fantastically to allow us to focus on football. And then obviously we had the break in the season with covid which was difficult as well. It was a tough season for the club and at the end of it, although it didn’t end how we wanted it to, I think a lot of people within that squad who know what was going on behind the scenes can look back and be quite proud of the effort that we made to keep the club in the league. But it wasn’t to be.
“On a personal note, I loved every minute of it and it’s just a shame that after the covid break we couldn’t have the fans in the stadium because they really helped us last season, home and away, when they were in the ground.
“Obviously everyone knows there’s stuff going behind the scenes with the ownership of the club. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It was difficult for the lads and the staff around the club. Which was probably more important to us as players, making sure the people around the club, that helped the club run daily, were going to get paid.
“Of course it’s not ideal when things like that are going on at a club. You want everything to be settled, but like I said, the professionalism from the players and the management at the club was different class…we just focused on the football. That’s all we could control. We couldn’t control anything going on at the club above us or any outside influences. All we could do was make sure we prepared right for every game, and that’s what we did.”
The ownership situation wasn’t the only challenge as an injury crisis of unforeseen proportions destroyed Bowyer’s already slender squad. Then, in January, Conor Gallagher was recalled from his loan and sent to Swansea. The hits kept coming with Lyle Taylor and Chris Solly (and David Davis), deciding not to return for the extended end to the campaign.
Cullen’s loan deal was set to expire early as well, but it was never a question for him whether he would be finishing Charlton’s Championship run.
“They (Taylor and Solly) were two big players within the squad. And yeah, obviously anyone would probably struggle with losing their top scorer and club captain. But every individual has a different situation and there was no blame or hard feelings from the squad towards the players who didn’t play. We supported their decision and that was it. Once the decision was made all we could do was focus on our job on the pitch with the squad we had, and that’s what we tried to do.
“It was always a given for me. I missed the games massively while the coronavirus break was on, the period where we couldn’t play. So it was always as soon as we could get back to playing football I was going to be back playing for Charlton and finishing the season. It was never a doubt in my head, nothing needed to be negotiated or spoken of. It was just a straight-forward decision that whenever the season finished or however long it took I would finish it with Charlton. As I’d agreed to go there for the season on loan it was only right that I finish the season and give everything for the club while I was there.
“The club had shown trust in me and been brilliant with me. And the fans and the management and everyone at the club had been great with me so it was only fair that I repaid that with the effort and loyalty I tried to show to see out the season and give everything for the club while I was there. I only see that as it works two ways. The club was great for me, so I just tried to repay that on the pitch and give everything I could.”
Looking back on his Charlton career, it’s clear this unwavering commitment is what helped supporters so overwhelmingly take to the 25-year-old. And truthfully, for Cullen himself, it was never something he had to give much thought to.
“I suppose I don’t really know how it happened,” Cullen says of the relationship he built with the Charlton fanbase. “From the moment I arrived the fans were brilliant with me and backed me and I hope they saw on the pitch that I tried to give everything for the club every minute I had a Charlton shirt on. So yeah, I think it’s just that mutual respect we had for one another. Home and away they backed us fantastically wherever we was in League One and the Championship. And I tried to give everything I could for the club and I think it’s just a relationship that grew. And a relationship that worked both ways. We both just had massive respect for each other.
“I think it’s important. If you ask any set of fans in the world, as long as they see that someone is giving 100 per cent every time they pull the shirt on, and giving everything for the club, then they’ll back you. And that’s what the Charlton fans did for me. Of course, it’s important, you want to have good relationships with the supporters of the club you’re playing for, and I’m lucky and fortunate that I feel like I had that with the fans throughout my time at Charlton.”
The bond between Cullen and the Charlton supporters was always there in the frustrating and ultimately devastating second season. But it was forged initially through an equally memorable, and far happier, first year. Cullen played almost every moment he was fit and Charlton lost just one of their final 15 games of the season to finish third and set-up a playoff semi-final against Doncaster. After the two legs ended level at 4-4, the tie was decided on penalties, Cullen cooly rolling home his side’s second en route to victory.
Much of the sell-out Valley crowd invaded the pitch in celebration of an unforgettable night and the final at Wembley proved no less dramatic as Naby Sarr’s fifth-minute own goal gave Charlton the worst possible start. Rattled, but unbroken, they hit back, Ben Purrington equalising 30 minutes later.
Deep into stoppage time the score still hadn’t changed. Then Cullen picked the ball up on the left side of the pitch, a few yards outside the box. He drove forward before cutting back and chipping a ball to the far post. Patrick Bauer met it with his head, and after his first effort was blocked, he stabbed in his second to give Charlton the lead with virtually the last kick of the game.
🗣️ "PATRICK BAUER, YOU ABSOLUTE GERMAN BEAUTY!"
Charlton, Sunderland and legendary moments go hand-in-hand 🤝
— Charlton Athletic FC (@CAFCofficial) October 3, 2020
Cullen takes a few seconds to compose himself before even attempting to describe his reaction to that epic piece of Charlton history.
“That moment…when that goal went in at Wembley…was an unbelievable feeling. I think it’s what the club deserved with the squad we had and how well we approached the season. I think we deserved to get promoted. And yeah, it was obviously one of the best moments I’ve had on a football pitch when that goal went in. It was an absolutely unbelievable feeling.
“It was crazy. With six seconds to go or whatever it was, you know there’s a very slim chance the other team can come back so yeah that sheer emotion of working so hard over the season, coming down to that one moment where we realised we achieved our goal as a team…it was fantastic.
“Throughout the season we probably experienced every emotion that there possibly is, and probably through that play-off campaign we did as well. From maybe in extra-time against Doncaster people thinking we were dead and buried when we went behind, and then obviously Prats going and getting an equaliser straight away. And then winning on penalties…and the final and how that ended speaks for itself. So yeah, it was a crazy season, a whirlwind couple of weeks in the playoffs, but certainly one that I don’t think anyone involved with Charlton will ever forget.
“That moment when everyone flooded onto the pitch (after Doncaster) is something I’ll never forget. A crazy moment, a crazy night, and thankfully we came out on the right side of it, which I think in the long run we deserved.”
When Cullen’s second loan spell at Charlton ended in relegation he went back to West Ham intent on fighting for a first-team role. But when a move to Anderlecht and a chance to work under Manchester City legend Vincent Kompany became a possibility, Cullen felt it was the right step in his career. After a slow start to life in Brussels, Cullen has developed into one of Anderlecht’s leaders, even captaining the side in January. His rapid rise is unlikely to shock many Charlton fans – it’s exactly what happened at The Valley.
“I try to be a leader on the pitch and just do my job as best I can,” Cullen explains. “I suppose it just comes a little bit natural to me, it’s not something I consciously set about doing. It’s just I believe the type of player and person I am, that’s part of my role within any team I’m in. And like I said I just try to give 100 per cent and perform as well as I could for the club while I was there and I hope everyone appreciated that.”
Cullen did have one final Charlton experience before departing for Belgium, coming up against them in the second round of the EFL Cup in September. West Ham’s 3-0 win that night was played out in front of an empty London Stadium, denying Cullen the Charlton send-off he deserved. But it’s unlikely that will be his final Charlton moment, although supporters will have to settle for the next one coming from the stands.
“I’m sure one day I’ll be back to watch a game. It would be nice. I have fond memories and I built up some really good relationships with people at the club. So yeah, if I ever got the chance to go to a Charlton game and watch and support the club of course I would. With the playing side of things my full focus is on Anderlecht at the minute. I’m really enjoying my time here and that’s all I’m focusing on.”
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