Shaun Bartlett played for four different clubs in three separate continents in the early part of his career – but he knew he had found a place to call home the moment he walked through the doors at Charlton.
Bartlett began his career with Cape Town Spurs in his native South Africa, but helping Bafana Bafana win the 1996 African Cup of Nations in the first tournament after the end of apartheid announced the young striker to a wider audience and led to a move to Colorado Rapids, one of 10 teams involved in the launch of Major League Soccer, a watershed moment for football in the USA.
“As a young player, firstly I was surprised that I made the squad,” Bartlett says of the AFCON success. “I was one of two young players, myself and Mark Fish. To get the opportunity to play in the tournament was the stepping stone I needed.
“It was quite challenging, going to a new league where the sport itself was very unfamiliar to the people of the country. You’re obviously trying to assist as much as you can to get the game out there and inform the public what the sport is all about. But it was a great experience for me and it prepared me for life outside of South Africa.”
Two years on from winning the African Cup of Nations, Bartlett was involved in another major breakthrough that catapulted his career to the next level. South Africa qualified for their first World Cup, and, although they were knocked out at the group stage, the striker’s brace in a 2-2 draw with Saudi Arabia didn’t go unnoticed.
He moved to Switzerland to join FC Zurich and would spend two years there, scoring eight goals in eight games in the UEFA Cup in his first season in Europe as they reached the last 16.
Finding a home
Like millions of youngsters around the world, Bartlett had grown up watching English football. It was his dream to play in the Premier League, and in 2000 it came to fruition.
Charlton Athletic had been doing well since their return to the top flight but suddenly found themselves in urgent need of another striker – and having just signed Fish, the Addicks were pointed in the direction of his international team-mate.
“There was a problem at Charlton at the time, with a striker called Andy Hunt,” Bartlett says. “He did pre-season and was fine, but in the first couple of weeks of the season he developed an illness where he couldn’t train or run for a long time. That’s when Charlton started looking to bring in a striker on loan.
“Mark Fish and myself shared the same sports lawyer, and obviously he recommended me. Keith Peacock, who was the assistant manager at the time, came across to Switzerland to watch me a few times and within a few weeks I found myself at Sparrows Lane being taken around the facilities.
“I loved the club and I loved the facilities from the minute I got there. The more I got into it, in terms of meeting the players and everybody involved with the club, I knew it was a good fit for me. As far as the values of the club were concerned, I knew it was somewhere I could fit in well.”
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After a brief substitute appearance in a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, Bartlett made his home debut against Manchester United, the team he’d long followed from afar. Suddenly he was sharing the same pitch with their star players – David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs.
Bartlett eclipsed them all that day, announcing his arrival in the Premier League with a brace against the reigning champions, who would go on to win the title again that season.
“I remember my wife asking me a few times, leading up to the game, was I going to celebrate if I scored. I was quite adamant that there was no way I was going to score. I was playing against the team that had won the treble the year before so I thought there was no way I was going to get a sniff at goal,” he says.
“When you watch the game again, and see my celebration for the first goal, I just ran with excitement. Fortunately, the gates were closed, otherwise I probably would have ran out the stadium. It was one of those things that will last a very long time in the memory. Not just for myself, but also Charlton fans.”
Those two headers past Raimond van der Gouw were the perfect start for Bartlett, who was still adjusting to the frenetic pace of English football.
“The speed of the game was unbelievably quick,” he says. “The first couple of weeks it took me some time to get used to. It was always going 100 miles an hour and you had to be in top physical condition in order to compete against the best in the league. I think that was the biggest eye-opener.”
Key to the success
Charlton would go on to finish ninth that season and established themselves as part of the Premier League furniture over the next few years. With a shrewd manager in Alan Curbishley, a group of committed players and sensible stewardship from above, they consistently overperformed on a limited budget.
“I think it’s got to come down to the club itself, the management and the technical team,” Bartlett says. “The way they select players to come and join the team, and get results against the big clubs.
“Maybe we weren’t always the favourites, but we always managed to get the best out of each other, and then surprise opponents with the performances that we put in.
“We finished seventh in the league one year. It was one of those seasons where nothing could go wrong for Charlton, and the support at The Valley was always unbelievable as far as getting behind the team was concerned.”
Bartlett unsurprisingly reserves praise for Curbishley, adding: “I think he’s a manager who can not only motivate players but always give you every detail possible in order to compete against the opponent.
“He also had a good number two in Mervyn Day. They always say, as a manager you’re only as good as your number two.
“Mervyn was that buffer between the players and Curbishley. We probably had more contact with Mervyn on a regular basis, but without a doubt Curbishley always knew how to get the best out of his players.”
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Across the course of six enjoyable seasons, Bartlett made 139 appearances for Charlton, scoring 26 goals. That total included a thumping volley against Leicester that won Match of the Day’s goal of the season award for 2000-01.
His departure coincided with that of the club’s long-standing manager and much of the squad, marking the end of an era. A downward spiral set in.
“For me it was just the right time. Not just with my contract coming to an end, but Curbishley obviously left the club as well, along with 12 other players.
“I think the vision of the club changed slightly. They felt they needed to push on for Europe and see how they could take the club to the next level.
“I think, in hindsight, you might say that was a big mistake because everything pretty much went backwards from there, with getting relegated to the Championship and then League One. I think it damaged the club in a big way when they should have just sustained Premier League status and competed for mid-table every year.”
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The decline was difficult to watch for Bartlett, but back in the second tier at least, it finally seems like Charlton are back on solid ground.
“Even over the past decade I’ve regularly kept in contact with players and people from the club,” Bartlett says. “I’ve always supported the club from a distance and it’s good to see them back in the Championship.
“Now, with the takeover as well, hopefully things will improve again and the club can get players in who can get them back to the Premier League. I think it’s a club that belongs in the Premier League. Not just for the support, but for that part of the region as well.”
Life as a coach
After leaving Charlton, Bartlett returned to South Africa and finished playing in 2009. He began his coaching career three years later, helping Golden Arrows into the top division, and is now assistant manager at Kaizer Chiefs.
“We’re doing well at the moment,” he says. “We’re top of the league and we haven’t won it for five years so that’s something we definitely want to do this season and bring some glory to the club. It’s also the club’s 50th anniversary so it’s a massive year for us.
“Coaching is a lot more stressful. As a player, you just take care of yourself. You don’t have to be too concerned about everybody else. As an assistant manager or a head coach you’ve got probably 30 to 50 people you’ve got to work with and make sure that the club is steered in the right direction.
“It’s very, very different, but I’m enjoying every day. Every day is a challenge, but that’s what football is all about and I’m trying to make sure I can get the best out of myself and the players.”
Bartlett’s early experiences in life and football saw him develop a strong mentality and a relentless work ethic, which he has carried with him ever since. These attributes served him well as a player, and continue to influence his work as a coach too.
“You have to work had in order to achieve anything,” he says. “That’s pretty much the same philosophy that I had throughout my career. I’m always trying to be better than the day before. When I got opportunities, I had to make sure I took them with both hands.”
And, on the pitch, both of his feet too.
By Sean Cole