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Feb 23, 2012

Sam Bartram: Eternal showman

Following his death in 1981, The Observer labelled Sam Bartram "an outstanding goalkeeper, certainly the best never to have been capped by England".

He became a legendary figure in a professional career spent entirely with Charlton, with his name frequently finding its way to the top of match reports. He had a knack for finding himself in bizarre situations, and his innate sense of showmanship would see him make regular forays outside his goal, taking his cap off to head clear, and sometimes dribbling the ball as far as the opposition penalty area.

A man of incredible agility, and an incorrigible attention-seeker, he could, as the Daily Mirror wrote ahead of his final appearance, "always make an easy save look good, a good save look great and a great save look miraculous".

Unsurprisingly, he had been an outfield player when, working as a miner, he was taking his first steps in the game with Durham colliery side Boldon Villa. In 1934, though, he was spotted by a Charlton scout - the brother of manager Jimmy Seed - when making an appearance as a makeshift goalkeeper in a local cup final. Charlton, then in Division Three (South), signed up the 20-year-old Bartram and gave him a trial. He conceded six goals in his first reserve game and the club lost their next three, but Seed was persuaded to give him another month. He was kept on and, though Charlton lost 2-0 at Watford on his senior debut, he swiftly established himself as the club's No. 1 goalkeeper, spending the remaining 22 years of his playing career at The Valley.

Charlton were promoted as champions in Bartram's first season, and the next campaign saw them promoted from Division Two as runners-up to Manchester United. After a 4-2 win over Newcastle United in February 1936, the Daily Express wrote: "You have to hand it to red-headed Sam Bartram. Many of his saves would make classic Harry Hibbs shudder. Yet he gets there. He invents saves ... Bartram is a keeper with a style of his own. You expect mistakes but get thrills instead."

In 1936-37, the Addicks' first ever top-flight campaign, they finished second, three points behind Manchester City, and Bartram was attracting more and more attention.

The following season, he hit the headlines when he opted to hold his wedding on the morning of a home game against Middlesbrough. Bartram left the ceremony to play in the match and, having only just recovered from blood poisoning, he helped Charlton to a 1-0 victory - or, in the words of the Daily Mirror, "successfully banned, times without number, the joining of the ball and the net in bonds of matrimony". Afterwards, he returned to his wife for the wedding reception.

On Christmas Day 1937, Bartram was in the papers once more after a bizarre incident in a match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. With the score at 1-1, the game had to be called off on 61 minutes due to thick fog. Unfortunately for Bartram, he was the last to be made aware. "Soon after the kick-off, [fog] began to thicken rapidly at the far end, travelling past Vic Woodley in the Chelsea goal and rolling steadily towards me," he wrote in his autobiography. "The referee stopped the game, and then, as visibility became clearer, restarted it. We were on top at this time, and I saw fewer and fewer figures as we attacked steadily.

"I paced up and down my goal-line, happy in the knowledge that Chelsea were being pinned in their own half. 'The boys must be giving the Pensioners the hammer,' I thought smugly, as I stamped my feet for warmth. Quite obviously, however, we were not getting the ball into the net. For no players were coming back to line up, as they would have done following a goal. Time passed, and I made several advances towards the edge of the penalty area, peering through the murk, which was getting thicker every minute. Still I could see nothing. The Chelsea defence was clearly being run off its feet.

"After a long time a figure loomed out of the curtain of fog in front of me. It was a policeman, and he gaped at me incredulously. 'What on earth are you doing here?' he gasped. 'The game was stopped a quarter of an hour ago. The field's completely empty'. And when I groped my way to the dressing-room, the rest of the Charlton team, already out of the bath and in their civvies, were convulsed with laughter."

Charlton eventually finished fourth that year, and in 1938-39 - the last season before the interruption of the war - they finished third. Bartram remained the team's most prominent figure, and he became a target for the opposing fans in a game at Portsmouth in October 1938. During the match, Bartram had saved a Fred Worrall penalty, and not long afterwards a frustrated Worrall was brawling with Charlton's Jimmy Oakes, leading to the dismissal of both players. The crowd had been riled - Worrall was cheered as he left the field, but the home fans, the Mirror said, "roared like a lynching party" at Oakes. Bartram bore the brunt of the anger, with the Pompey fans setting fire to his goal netting before throwing half a brick at his head and knocking him to the floor as he prepared to take a goal-kick. Charlton won the game 2-0.

World War II robbed many players of the best years of their careers, but Bartram - who would serve his country by joining the War Reserve Police and then the RAF as a physical training instructor - made four unofficial appearances for England during that time and had his fair share of success in the Football League War Cup. In 1942-43, he played for York City in the competition's Northern semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, though they were unable to progress (Bartram had a lucky escape in that encounter, dribbling the ball to the opposition area before losing possession, only for Wednesday outside right Tony Massarella to fire wide. He did not learn his lesson). The following year, he represented Charlton and helped the team to a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in the South final at Wembley, and in 1945 he faced Chelsea at Wembley in the South final once more, this time losing 2-0 in the colours of Millwall.

Football was getting back to normal by the 1945-46 season, with the FA Cup resuming alongside the North and South Leagues. In the South League, Charlton missed out on the title by one point to Birmingham City, and Bartram had to take his share of responsibility: installed as the club's new penalty taker, he struck the bar with a late spot-kick in a 1-0 defeat to Blues in February. In the FA Cup, Bartram was back at Wembley for the third year in succession as Charlton met Derby County in the final but, while The Guardian felt the goalkeeper's performance showed him "at the very peak of his brilliant best", he was unable to avert a 4-1 extra-time defeat.

When the Football League resumed in earnest in 1946-47, Charlton had a highly disappointing campaign - finishing 19th - but they once more reached the FA Cup final, this time against Burnley, with Bartram joking in the press that he now considered Wembley his second home. The goalkeeper was one of the few players to emerge with credit from a lacklustre final, and Charlton won out 1-0 after extra-time to win the first and only major trophy in the club's history.

It was downhill from there for the Addicks, who maintained their top-flight status for another decade but found themselves more accustomed to life in the lower reaches of the table. Bartram, though, remained a star, and in April 1954 - at the age of 40 - he was named the runner-up to the legendary Tom Finney for the FWA Footballer of the Year award.

He played his last game in March 1956, a 2-0 victory over Arsenal, after deciding to move into management with Third Division side York, leaving long-serving manager Jimmy Seed to search for a successor. "I shall feel a big wrench when I pin up the team for next week's match without Sam's name at the top," Seed said. "You don't find another Sam Bartram without a long, long search." The following season, Charlton finished bottom of the table, and they would not return to the top-flight for another 30 years.

Bartram - linked with the Charlton job after Seed's retirement in September 1956 - spent only six years in management before becoming a reporter with the Sunday People. In 1981, while making his way home from the office, he died at the age of 67.

He remains a hero at Charlton, and is still the club's record appearance maker despite a career spanning the war. A nine-foot statue was erected in his honour to celebrate the club's centenary in 2005 and, though it arrived almost half a century after his retirement, he remains a sizeable figure at The Valley. As then-Charlton boss Alan Curbishley said at the time: "When you talk about Charlton, one of the first things anyone mentions is Sam Bartram."

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