History Boys | Charlie MacDonald

Neal Maupay may be grabbing the majority of the headlines at Griffin Park this season, but before him, few strikers had captured the hearts of Brentford fans in the manner that Charlie MacDonald did.

The 5ft 7 frontman, 38, arrived in TW8 in July 2008, with a magnificent non-league goalscoring record, a point to prove in the Football League and a Premier League strike for Charlton to boot.

Released after four years with the Addicks in 2002, he dropped out of the professional football pyramid, but found a route back after scoring 39 goals in just 61 games for Gravesend & Northfleet in the Conference. It was this scintillating form that saw him sign for Southend, but not before a certain west London club had taken a closer look.

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“I had three clubs that were interested in taking me from Gravesend,” Charlie explains to BEES. “One of them was Scunthorpe, who had just been promoted to the Championship under Nigel Adkins, another was Southend and the other one was Brentford.

“I had a meeting with Terry Butcher and Andy Scott at the Osterley training ground, but if I’d have signed for Brentford before Southend, it would have been purely down to Andy. Terry made it quite clear he didn’t know who I was and didn’t try to dress it up, but he said he’d never seen me play, that he was going a lot off of what Andy had recommended.

“In the end I opted to go to Southend, who had just been relegated from the Championship. They kept most of their squad together and I just thought it would be a better opportunity for me to go and try and do well in a team that was challenging. I didn’t quite work out how I wanted it to and I didn’t really play a lot of games.

“At the end of the 2007/08 season, though, I heard Brentford were going to be making a bid to take me. I just made it quite clear to Steve Tilson, who was the Southend manager at the time, that I was at a stage in my career where I really need to be playing more regularly, so if any offers came in for me in the summer, could he please take them seriously.

“In the end, the Brentford thing came around quite quickly, the clubs agreed the deal and it was great. I managed to get across and settle in quite quickly, which was helped by the constant pursuit of Andy Scott trying to sign me. When a manager really wants you, it makes the player feel a lot more positive coming in and his pursuit was down to me signing for Brentford.”

For both parties, it was a move worth waiting for. Having missed the opening day defeat to Bury, as well as the League Cup first round exit to Swansea, with a groin strain, Charlie lined up for his debut against Grimsby on 16 August 2008, playing alongside another former non-league striker in Nathan Elder. It took just 27 minutes for him to get off the mark, scoring the first of two goals in a 4-0 rout of the Mariners, which he still classes as “probably one of the best I scored for the club”.

From there, the goals followed almost like clockwork, and though weeks went by where he’d draw blank, Charlie finished the season with 18 goals from 41 games for the bees. His tally of 16 league strikes was four short of eventual Golden Boot winner Simeon Jackson’s haul, yet it marked a milestone as he scored the most goals of any Bees player since Lloyd Owusu netted 22 in the 2001/02 Second Division campaign.

Despite having played for 20 individual clubs and scored over 180 league goals alone, Charlie possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge and can somehow recall many of his strikes, the result in those games and often even the method of scoring. His memory of another of his favourites for the club is testament to that enviable talent.

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He says: “When we played Shrewsbury at home and we drew the game 1-1 in the end. I managed to score a decent goal; I think Marvin Williams got down the right, cut inside, pinged the ball over and I’ve managed to take it on the swivel. It was like a left-foot shot on a 360-degree turn, which nestled into the far corner. That was a really, really big goal because, at the time, Shrewsbury were one of our nearest rivals and they had Grant Holt up front, so they had a decent side.”

Throughout the course of this season, we’ve extensively discovered how the squad coped with the ‘striker’s curse’ that struck the likes of Nathan Elder, Damian Spencer and Jordan Rhodes during that title-winning campaign, but March hit Brentford like a ton of bricks.

As the gruelling League Two season reached its business end, they won just two of their six league fixtures and cruelly lost both Charlie and Nathan to what proved to be season-ending injuries within three weeks of one another. It’s the innocuousness of the challenge that caused his shoulder injury that Charlie emphasises when revisiting the incident against Gillingham at Griffin Park.

“I remember it wasn’t a bad tackle, it was just more of a sweep of the legs over in the far corner, probably just going into the last 10 minutes of the game. I’ve managed to run down into the channel and as I’ve got the ball – I think it was Barry Fuller – I’ve got over his foot and he’s swept my legs away.

“Where I was a little bit more fatigued and tired at the end of the game, I went down a little bit heavier and I just remember landing with full force on my elbow and I just felt it pop. I’d dislocated my shoulder but it didn’t dislocated normally, it dislocated out the back. I remember reaching up and trying to find my shoulder and it was just really soft.

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“I was stretchered off to the physio room, where, for about 15 minutes, the doctors were just trying to get my shoulder back in its socket. What happened was where the shoulder came out of the back, I had something called a Hill-Sachs lesion which is where, in the ball and socket joint, there was a chip out of the bone, so instead of just having keyhole surgery which would have kept me out for about four to six weeks, I needed to have my shoulder tightened up to a certain degree where I never got that sort of range where that could slip back out again. In the end, I had to have open surgery, which had a timescale of six months.”

Needless to say, it was September before Charlie was back in the reckoning for first team action, meaning Billy Clarke was the focal point of Andy Scott’s frontline in the final seven fixtures.

 “I’m not the greatest watcher of the game, to be honest with you,” he continues. “Not when I feel I should be out there helping the team. It was really, really frustrating sitting there watching the boys and being so close and trying to get over the line. It was quite frustrating and there wasn’t a lot I could be doing either because I was in a sling for about 12 weeks and couldn’t do much with that on.

“It was nice to watch the boys picking up results still and making sure they kept their noses in front of everybody else. The last day of the season was absolutely brilliant against Luton, to put on a show like that, for Newts to get his goal as well and then the celebrations on the pitch were probably the best I’ve experienced in my career.

“I just remember sitting watching the game with my kids and my partner at the time and it was nice because we knew the season was already won – the boys had already done the business up at Darlington. It was just a case of: Can we put the icing on the cake? Can we give the fans something to cheer? It’s always nice to get a win when you are lifting a trophy, sometimes it dampens the occasion if you don’t, but it was a great performance from the boys.

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“One thing I do remember is that when we were doing the lap around the pitch, one fan came and jumped on my back. I’d just had my shoulder injury and was in a sling so I was like: “Is this a joke?!” A couple of the stewards and medical staff intervened but I could understand the euphoria behind the supporters and there was no harm done in the end.”

Having been given a two-year deal upon signing, Charlie was one of the players kept at the club as they descended on League One and he proved he could handle the step up with a return of 17 goals from 43 games in all competitions. In 2010/11, he plundered 10 in 39 before a broken ankle ruled him out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in April. Change was around the corner, though.

Prior to that showpiece, Andy Scott had been shown the door after a disastrous 4-1 defeat away at Dagenham & Redbridge, with Nicky Forster stepping to the other side of the touchline to take the reins on a temporary basis for the remainder of the season. The cult hero failed to secure the job permanently, though, with ex-Manchester City striker Uwe Rosler favoured after spells with Lillestrom, Viking and Molde in Norway.

Four games into the 2011/12 season – of which he’d started just one – Charlie was suddenly sold to MK Dons for a reported fee of £35,000, having scored 45 goals in 127 games for the club.

“I was really disappointed, if I’m honest,” he says. “Nicky Forster took over, then Uwe came in in the summer and when I got introduced to him I thought it could be good because he was a striker and might be able to pass on knowledge having played for Man City.

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“I did a lot of fitness work over the summer, came back in good shape and had a good pre-season, but this was the disappointing thing for me: I ended up with about six or seven goals in pre-season, but I didn’t really play that many minutes. Uwe brought in Clayton Donaldson from Crewe and Gary Alexander was still there too, so he was pairing those two up a lot, but I ended up being top goalscorer in pre-season and Clayton was yet to open his account for the club.

“So when we went into the first game of the season, we played Yeovil at home and I was sub and I was fuming. I was thinking: “I’ve scored against Stoke in pre-season, I’ve scored four against someone else, I’ve done what I need to be doing.” I knocked on his door the next week and he told me I was a big part of the club, but his reason for not playing me was that he was playing the two bigger strikers for defensive set-pieces.

“Being a striker himself as a player, I couldn’t get my head round the fact I wasn’t playing in the team and he was playing two big lads up front, but purely for defensive reasons. I left that for a little while and we played Orient at home and I was sub again, Sheffield United away I was sub again and then we ended up playing Exeter away and I wasn’t even included in the matchday squad, so straight away I spoke to my agent and he said he’d see what was out there for me. Uwe stated in the local press that he didn’t want me to go, but I didn’t feel like I was part of his plans, which was disappointing because I didn’t really want to leave the club – it felt like home to me because of the supporters and what I’d done at the football club.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, Brentford, for me, was the best years. From the first game I played the fans were great and it was a great little setup. You feel at home at some clubs and I felt really at home there. I think I became a bit of a fans favourite as well, obviously it helps when you are scoring goals because that’s what you’ve been brought in to do.

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“Purely for footballing reasons I had to go and play and in the end, so I went and had a meeting with Notts County – Martin Allen was the manager at the time. They put a bid in and that was agreed. They offered me a three-year contract and it was more or less done and dusted.

“Then at the last minute, I had MK Dons put a bid in for me, which also got accepted. I went and met Karl Robinson and he’d just sold Sam Baldock to West Ham. With the brand of football that they played at the time, there were always known for wanting to play out from the back and playing really good football. I took less money and less years on the contract to go and sign for MK Dons. For me it wasn’t about the money at all with leaving Brentford, if anybody ever thought that, because I could’ve earned more money going and signing for Notts County.”

Just 10 days after departing west London for MK1, he scored in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie against the Bees, though kept celebrations to a minimum “out of respect for the football club”, but it’s safe to say he’s not stopped scoring ever since.

He’s taken in spells at Leyton Orient, Oldham, Barnet, Boreham Wood, St Albans, Greenwich and Cray Wanderers since an 18-month stint with MK and, despite having turned 38 years-old in February, Charlie still runs opponents ragged at Bostik South East Division side VCD Athletic. He still has quite some way to go to match the longevity of ex-Reading and QPR frontman Jamie Cureton, who is approaching the 20-goal mark for Bishop’s Stortford at the ripe old age of 43, but Charlie admits he takes stock of his situation at the conclusion of each season.

“I’ve played in the Bostik South for the last three seasons and it’s comfortable – it’s not a difficult league to be playing in. You’ve got a lot of players in that league who don’t look after themselves, they just see it as a little bit of money for themselves. I could easily be playing at a higher level, but for me, it’s a case of convenience, it still keeps me playing and there’s less travelling involved.

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“If I was to go back into playing maybe Conference South or National – which I still think I’m capable of – the travelling is mad. Where I’ve got a coaching job now where I’m more or less full-time, you have got to think more about the longevity. For the last three seasons in that league I’ve hit 28, 26 and this season so far I’ve already passed 20. I’m enjoying it – who wouldn’t? Still playing 90 minutes every week and scoring goals.

“At the moment I just don’t know whether I’ll carry on playing next year. Every year I assess how my body is feeling and it’s a case of whether a club wants me or not, so if you think you are feeling alright but then you’ve got no offers, then someone is telling you something.”

He is well-equipped for life after he finally decides to call it quits, however. Having obtained a degree in Professional Sports Writing & Broadcasting from the Staffordshire University during his time at Oldham, there have been punditry opportunities with BT Sport and BBC Radio, while a coaching role with former Millwall and Crystal Palace midfielder Bobby Bowry’s Volenti Academy keeps him occupied during the week.

“My agent Bobby, who has had his own soccer school, is now part of a foundation called Volenti, which is under Crystal Palace’s umbrella. Basically, we have 65 kids who haven’t quite made it in the system, who want to do these programmes where you combine education and football. We’ve got three teams, so that’s now become the daytime job. We try and coach these kids, nurture these kids, give them opportunities against pro clubs as well, if we can, send them on trial when we feel they are ready.

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“Bobby has got a lot of contacts in the game and he’s got a lot of good players on his books still now. He recently sorted Chris Mepham’s move to Bournemouth and Alfie Mawson is another one of his boys. Once we feel boys are ready to be given a chance, we’ll speak to a few clubs, send them in on trial and it’s up to them to see what they can do.

“It’s not easy, I’ve got to be honest, some of these boys are in the system not for their footballing ability, but for other reasons in terms of attitude or application or they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Some of them have been released and mentally they are finding it difficult. There are a lot of things that you have to deal with, especially things I’ve never had to deal with. I’ve been rejected in my career, but I’ve had a different mindset to some of these boys; you never know if some of them are from single-parent families, you’ve just got to look into their background. It’s quite psychological as well. It’s tough, but it’s been good so far.

“I’d love to eventually go into a professional coaching environment, because who wouldn’t want to coach elite kids day in, day out as their work? Yes, you are going to get a few attitudes and egos, but at least you know when they turn up, they are prepared to work hard because it’s the environment that they are after. Sometimes you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and maybe that’s something for me in the future.”

Originally featured in BEES Issue #18 v QPR (2 March 2019)

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