Looking back upon 25 years of the Premier League, Charlton Athletic 4-4 West Ham is quite possibly the greatest Premier League thriller you’ve never heard of, or at the very least forgotten about.
Under the floodlights on a particularly cold November night at The Valley during the opening stages of the 2001/02 season, those who attended witnessed eight goals ranging from the ridiculously erroneous to the purely sublime, the lead change hands four times, a last-minute lead-grabber and an even later equaliser, one of the sweeping attacks from the season from West Ham, one of the finishes of the season from Charlton and some of the countless connections between the two London clubs come to life, clash and collide in front of their very eyes.
My Charlton-adoring father was one of those in attendance; myself, meanwhile, too young for the company of beer-belching, urinal-missing hardcores cursing themselves hoarse and corroding the cartilage in their wrists with relentless insinuations of self-onanism from opposing sides of a largely forgotten about London derby, had to settle for keeping up with the match on Ceefax.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, watching a page of white text and numbers on a black background constantly reload for 90 minutes would be an incredibly boring exercise – even back in 2001 when Ceefax was the closest thing the world had to Google.
But on this one occasion, the score updates on page 316 made grippingly fascinating viewing; even via the format of occasionally changing numbers and letters on a vast space-like canvas, the drama, unpredictability and sheer audacity of an eight-goal thriller in south east London truly shone through. Fortuitously, my father returned home later that evening to fill me in on all the details.
As already alluded to, as two London clubs of relatively near proximity but little in the way of rivalry, Charlton and West Ham’s histories overflow with connections.
If one were to draw a Venn diagram, the overlap would be bursting at the seams with former players and managers, not least including the Addicks’ man in the dugout that night – ex-West Ham midfielder and future manager Alan Curbishley – and the Hammers’ first goalscorer of the evening, Paul Kitson.
A journeyman striker of limited quality, Kitson joined Charlton on loan from West Ham two years previous, adding one goal to their title-winning finish in what was once known as the new First Division.
But the Premier League is a much crueller place than what is now known as the Championship and the 5 foot 11 striker quickly reminded the Addicks of that, netting his first goal for his parent club that season in the third minute.
A delicate, curled pass from the outside of Paolo Di Canio’s boot dropped onto Kitson’s chest as he marched into the box. One cumbersome touch later, the one-time Charlton man drilled the ball onto the foot of Dean Kiely’s post, who stood helpless as it recoiled into the net.
But at this point, Charlton were quickly establishing themselves as the Premier League’s ever-plucky underdogs and everybody’s second-favourite team.
The fixture previous, the Addicks had shocked the Premier League to fight from a goal down at Highbury to beat Arsenal 4-2 and they had a similar comeback in store for the Hammers, albeit instigated by some frankly pathetic defending.
Captain Mark Kinsella flung a speculative free kick into the box from the halfway line; it skimmed off a West Ham head as two Irons defenders jumped into each other and amid all the confusion of Jason Euell and Shaka Hislop both closing down the loose ball, it somehow bobbled away from the flailing latter, leaving the former to poke home his easiest goal of the season.
Charlton’s second wasn’t much of a stunner either. Tomas Repka uncharacteristically attempted to impersonate Lionel Messi – I suppose back in 2001, attempting to impersonate Zinedine Zidane would be more applicable – by taking on two Addicks defenders in his own penalty box. Jonathan Johanss0n successfully challenged and trickled the ball to Euell, who grabbed his second goal of the evening by once again slotting past a largely helpless Hislop.
Charlton’s lead, however, would be cut out just eight minutes later with a flowing move that showed the ‘West Ham Way’ of the 1960s was well and truly still alive. Di Canio wrested for the ball in midfield before flinging another outside-of-the-boot curler in the path of Scott Minto, galloping on down the wing.
The one-time Benfica man surged forward down the left channel and slotted a pass around centre-back Mark Fish. Rushing onto it inside the area was that man again – Paul Kitson – who finished the sweeping attack with a side-footer into the Charlton net.
Back home in front of Ceefax, I stocked up on snacks, mainly crisps, anticipating an equally enthralling second half. As I poured what can only be described as my weight in Ready Salted into my soon-to-be heart-diseased body, I wasn’t left disappointed.
After the interval, it was Charlton’s turn to bring the sexy football, future three-time Hammer of the Year Scott Parker laying on a terrific through ball from midfield into the path of Johansson, curling it around a defender to leave the Finn free in the penalty box, who rolled a shot past Hislop to make it 3-2.
It was the second time Charlton had taken the lead and the third time it had changed hands in the space of an hour.
But whereas Curblishley’s side had showed stunning resolve to hold off a late Arsenal onslaught at Highbury, the Addicks could only keep firm for a handful of minutes this time around, Kitson once again the benefactor to grab just the second and last hat-trick of his career at the detriment of a club he’d once helped win their way to the promised land of Premier League football. And yes, unlike footballers today, Kitson celebrated every single goal with passion and conviction.
He wasn’t the only ex-Addick to come good against his former club that day. After Kitson’s equalising hat-trick, the consequence of a misguided header from Mark Fish and some poor work from future FA Cup final scorer for West Ham Paul Konchesky at the far post, there was the not so small matter of Jermain Defoe’s 84th-minute strike.
A Christian Dally cross from the flank, leaving Di Canio predictably disgusted that the Scot had attempted to set someone up himself rather than pass the ball a few yards to him, bobbled off a Charlton head and into the path of the then 19-year-old striker, who fired an unstoppable half-volley from the penalty spot with all the quality you’d expect of a player who has gone on to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever goalscorers, still going strong today at the age of 34.
But Defoe’s success has always been a sore spot for Charlton fans; it’s little known that he actually began his career at The Valley but controversially rejected a professional contract to sign for West Ham. It later became one of English football’s earliest compensation cases for players under the age of 24, but the £1.4million awarded felt little consolation as Defoe belted past his boyhood club to make it 4-3.
With six minutes remaining and West Ham digging in, the free-scoring goal-fest appeared to be over. But then came the moment in stoppage time that transformed the game from being a vibrant London derby between two mid-table sides into an under-appreciated classic. A long throw launched by Luke Young. A flick-on by centre-back Steve Brown. Another flick-on by centre-back partner Mark Fish.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, an acrobatic bicycle kick by Johansson. The Finland striker leapt and twisted in the air, made perfect contact with the ball with his laces and drilled it into the floor, the bounce leaving Hislop for dead as the ball trickled in for a last-second equaliser.
That was practically the last kick of the game, the icing on the cake and the glimmer of quality that may not have been the difference between the two sides but at least proved them to be equal on a frosty night in south east London.
It was also what had my Dad return home with a smile beaming from one ear to the other, not to mention me screaming, crisp crumbs around my mouth and all, at four words and two numbers floating on a sea of Ceefax black: Charlton Athletic 4-4 West Ham.
Filled with intoxicating attacking action, gorgeous goals and a few very forgettable ones, full-blooded tackles that would make Roy Keane wince, and intriguing sub-plots in every area of the pitch, the eight-goal thriller at The Valley deserves its place in the Premier League’s 25-year history.