Charlton Athletic. To pretty much every other club in the land, they are just about as inoffensive as Reading, but with the benefit of having had some entertaining/mad players over the years, and Alan Curbishley for about four decades. But to Sunderland, just saying the words “Charlton Athletic” sends us into a PTSD spiral normally reserved for films about Vietnam veterans. Whether it’s entirely too many goals by Clive Mendonca, insane penalty shoot outs, three own goals in one game, or 94th minute winners by enormous Germans, the Addicks have had us marked for some undisclosed reason since football was invented.
So to tie in nicely with a somewhat excessive study into returning players who score against Sunderland, could there be a more apt team to look at when it comes to shared players than Charlton? For a start, the match this weekend is littered with links on both sides; Charlton have Adam Matthews and George Dobson in their ranks at present, while in our ranks we’ve got Aiden McGeady and his Parky-inspired loan spell at The Valley, and Jermain Defoe’s youth career kicked off in south east London. Before we succumb to the inevitable Dobson screamer (set up by Matthews), let’s remember some daft lads from the past.
Many years ago, I was asked by a prominent Sunderland fanzine editor who I thought was the worst Sunderland player of all time. This was roughly 12 years before lovely Callum McFadzean graced the Stadium of Light, and apparently the age-old answer of Gareth Hall was incorrect. Instead, the right answer on this occasion was two-time Scotland international striker (absolutely no goals) and £1.1m signing for newly-promoted Sunderland, Andy Gray.
Sunderland had just battled their way out of the Championship under Mick McCarthy and needed to invest for the coming Premier League campaign, but, as came to light very quickly, we either didn’t have the sufficient funds, or those funds weren’t going to be made available as our entire transfer spend of the summer of 2005 amounted to £4.25m. Almost a quarter of that total went on Andy Gray, fresh out of a decent season at Sheff Utd, where he hit 15 goals in 43 league games.
Initially, things looked all rosy for Gray, as he scored on his debut, fittingly against future employers Charlton Athletic. But as was the story for Sunderland in 05/06, things quickly deflated, as we lost that game 3-1 and Gray wouldn’t score again for the club in any of his further 20 appearances as we broke our own record points low total. Perhaps circumstances didn’t help Gray, as the squad simply was not Premier League level, but he stood out a mile as being notably below top tier level, and you’d probably get the same level of performance from a burning skip up front.
Sunderland cut their losses and moved Gray on to Burnley the following season, where he scored on his return to the Stadium of Light in that game, where he presumably had a lovely view of Carlos Edwards’ legendary strike. Then in 2009, Gray moved south and joined Charlton, for a truly incredible £1.5m. It’s hard to work out how things went for Gray at The Valley, but his record was 45 appearances, 9 goals, which would usually be a little disappointing for a striker, but from a Sunderland view, 9 goals from him is nothing short of miraculous.
After two seasons in London, the Harrogate-born Scot then embarked on a tour of Yorkshire with Barnsley, old club Leeds and finally Bradford City, where he retired in 2014 at the age of 36. The worst player in Sunderland’s history? Probably not, but there cannot be many strikers lower than him on the list.
Talal El Karkouri
One of the great Pointless answers in the history of Sunderland, Moroccan defender El Karkouri arrived on Wearside on loan from Paris Saint-Germain in January 2003, in a desperate and massively unsuccessful effort by the club to shore up a defence that was well on the way to setting our first record points low total.
A tidy player with a little touch of class about him, El Karkouri’s Sunderland career could not have gone much worse, as in his injury-ravaged spell in red and white he only managed eight appearances, and Sunderland lost every single one of them, conceding 18 in the process. As a bonus, we also lost in his one appearance in the FA Cup for us to boot.
Sunderland were relegated spectacularly and El Karkouri went back to Paris, probably in a state of Howard Wilkinson-related shellshock. But that wasn’t to be the end of the Moroccan in English football, as one year later he returned to the Premier League with Charlton, signing for £1m. The Addicks had a decent if unspectacular season in 04/05, finishing 11th in the table with a squad filled with the likes of Kiely, Young, Holland, Euell, Murphy and Konchesky and El Karkouri had himself a productive time scoring in wins against Blackburn, Fulham and Birmingham.
The overall feel of Charlton fan’s feelings towards El Karkouri is that he’s something of an understated cult figure from their Premier League days, having not really done anything truly spectacular other than hit a belter against Arsenal and to get himself embroiled in a diving controversy when he supposedly had the nut stuck on him by Reading’s Leroy Lita.
El Karkouri’s second stint in England ended in summer 2007, as he endured relegation a second time with Charlton’s demise, and he left the capital to head to Qatar with the imaginably named Qatar Sports Club. I can only presume Qatar SC were never (and probably will never be) in any danger of being relegated, so I hope Talal had a lovely time. The Moroccan international retired in 2012, and appears to have vanished from football after a two-year stint as manager of Qatari team Umm Salal between 2016-18, who may or may not have been relegated in that time.