Blast from the past No.6: Shaun Bartlett
Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
Anyone who turned up early to watch Charlton Athletic in the early part of this century would have been rewarded with a unique Premier League sight. About 20 minutes before kick-off, Addicks players would form two conga-style trains and chug around the perimeter of the pitch, clapping, high-kicking and chanting as if partaking in some kind of tribal dance. In fact, that’s exactly what they were doing. The ritual was South African and had been instigated by the club’s resident Bafana Bafana players. Leading one conga was defender Mark Fish, and at the helm of the other was Shaun Bartlett.
It illustrated how the Cape Town-born striker had emerged as the team’s unlikely talisman. Unknown in English football when he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Swiss league in November 2000, Bartlett was now leading his team-mates through a bizarre warm-up that came to epitomise the fighting spirit of Alan Curbishley’s side.
Charlton fans took Bartlett to their hearts from the first moment they saw him: a debut against Manchester United during which he was forced to change his shirt because it was covered in so much mud from all the diving headers he had attempted that the sponsor was no longer visible. Bartlett soon found the net with one of those headers, before nodding home another goal late in the game to help secure a dramatic 3-3 draw that went straight into Addicks folklore. “What a guy,“ would have been the response of most onlookers as Bartlett strolled off the pitch that day, grinning and muddy. It’s the same thing they still say about him at The Valley now.
"He was a credit to his profession, a terrific competitor, a great player in the air and he always seemed to be smiling,” was how one fan on the Charlton Life website remembers Bartlett. Others variously describe him as “a great ambassador for the club” a “lovely chap”, a “team player who worked his socks off” and, simply, a “Charlton legend”.
Bartlett is similarly revered in South Africa, where he is the national team’s second highest goalscorer of all-time and could count Nelson Mandela among the guests at his wedding.
It’s not difficult to see why Addicks fans get misty-eyed about that special era under Curbishley, who crafted a well-drilled side that frequently exceeded the sum of its parts to eclipse many of its wealthier rivals. Bartlett’s tenure coincided with Charlton’s most successful period of modern times, when they rarely flirted with relegation and achieved their best Premier League finishes of 7th and 9th.
One Addicks fan remarked that Bartlett flourished despite “his head always looking too small for his body”. And without knowing the precise measurements of Bartlett’s bonce, we can say with certainty that it was his most lethal appendage on the football field.
“He was the best header of the ball I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have to use his arms and elbows to get leverage, which meant he very rarely gave a foul away,” explained one fan, while another credited Bartlett’s “incredible hang time” for his aerial prowess.
Almost half of Bartlett’s 24 Premier League goals were scored with his head, often while he was flying through mid-air. In addition to his debut goal against United, a spectacular diving header at Tottenham after a mesmerising one-touch build-up lives long in the memory.
But there is another goal for which Bartlett is best known. Racing on to a long pass from Graham Stuart in a home match against Leicester in 2001, Bartlett watched the ball dropping all the way onto his left foot, which he then used to lash it into the bottom corner on the volley.
“That goal was so good that the BBC had to break with tradition and give us some proper recognition on Match of the Day for once, awarding him Goal of the Season,” recalled one fan.
Bartlett played six seasons at the Valley, all of them in the Premier League, but just as his arrival coincided with a golden period for the club, his departure preceded its demise. Bartlett was released in May 2006 after a disappointing campaign – the same summer that Curbishley left – and the following year Charlton were relegated. Nine seasons later, they are still striving for a return to the top flight. Perhaps they need someone to spice up their pre-match routine.
Blast from the Past no.1: Hassan Kachloul
Blast from the Past no.2: Joe-Max Moore
Blast from the Past no.3: Titi Camara
Blast from the Past no.4: Regi Blinker
Blast from the Past no.5: Hamilton Ricard