First Team Coach Sam Naden described this defeat as disappointing but preferred to emphasise the positives in what was undoubtedly a game Park should have won against one of the league’s promotion candidates. Praise should also go to their visitors, Sutton and Epsom, however, whose last-ditch defence when under siege in the second half was worthy of a side who knew it is important to win, however you do it. Two years ago Charlton lost the play-off to the same side by an agonising margin and this was deja-vu.
As another cliché goes, it was a game of two halves. Three tries each at half-time and a pulsating to-and-fro of attack and counter-attack, followed by a single penalty goal to Sutton and Epsom after the break. Despite taking an early lead, Charlton were playing catch-up throughout the first 40 minutes while Sutton’s dangerous backs were continuously threatening.
Neil Collins’ try gave Park the lead, finishing off a series of forward drives, but the conversion was missed (more of this later). Sutton had a try disallowed for a foot in touch before a penalty reduced the arrears and then a try gave them the lead. Park were finding it difficult to handle the visiting centres, but their forwards were asserting themselves despite the loss of flanker Sam Baker to a yellow card and scrum-half Alan Knuckey sneaked over from a driving maul and then converted to put them back in the lead.
Then followed another of those familiar turning-points to home supporters when Charlton turned down a relatively simple penalty for a scrum at which they were penalised for an early push, then conceded the lead to a try at the other end. When Terry Read was yellow-carded for pulling down a driving maul, the subsequent penalty try put Sutton 20-12 ahead, but Park came roaring back and Knuckey scrambled over and then converted with the last kick of the half.
The second half took place almost entirely in Sutton & Epsom’s half as Charlton hammered away. All they needed, we thought, was one chance, and they were given three – all kicks, all kickable, all missed. Maybe there should have been a penalty try in there somewhere, but to be honest Sutton never quite succumbed, although the scrum pressure was intense. Joint men-of-the-match Mark Harlow-Singh and Ross McManus kept making the hard yards, Mark English and the irrepressible Knuckey nearly broke through but the thin black and white line held firm and then broke away to earn the penalty that sealed the win.
Amongst much shaking of heads and mutterings about kicking, home supporters knew this was undoubtedly one that got away, but there was sympathy rather than blame for the kickers who, on other days, have kept us in games; Sutton had, after all, missed two straightforward conversions of their own in the first half. More serious, perhaps, was the occasional lack of clear headedness in the heat of the battle, but after a couple of pints in the bar it was clear that we had demonstrated that Park can live with and even dominate the top teams – congratulations go to Sutton, a team we just don’t seem to be able to beat.