The cult hero. Every club has one. For Charlton Athletic during the early to mid nineties, it was a striker by the name of Carl Leaburn.
Your normal run of the mill cult hero tends to be a goal scorer, maybe an enigmatic winger or perhaps even a heart on the sleeve midfield man. ‘Big Carl’ was none of these things. His goalscoring record was poor at best, so poor that there were t-shirts available on match-day outside the ground reading ‘I SAW LEABURN SCORE!’ His record reads 344 games, 53 goals! But this doesn’t tell the whole story of his career.
Carl who? I hear the non-Charlton fans saying. Who is he? Well I’ll tell you, he’s only the player Peter Crouch wishes he was! He blazed a trail hand in hand with ‘bambi on ice’ Kevin Francis for the clumsy gangly target-man. Standing well over 6 feet tall and with as the commentators would say ‘a good touch for a big man’, Carl was the ultimate unselfish striker. ‘Super’ Clive Mendonca rated him as his favourite ever strike partner! Flick ons, lay-offs, you name it, he could do it (as long as it was one of these two things of course). When he was in front of goal with the ball at his feet, the outcome was often less successful. The ball could quite literally go anywhere, anywhere but in the net that is. Put the ball on his head however and it was a different story! The back post bullet header into the far corner was one of his trademarks. If only the ball was crossed to him at the back post more!
Aside from these qualities, Leaburn’s other trademark was his legendary ‘long throw’. The crowd would will the ball out of play for a throw so we could summon big Carl to launch one in. In fact we would actually be disappointed if the ball went out for a corner. The slow monotonous call of ‘Leeeaaabbbuuuurrrrnnnn Leeeeaaabbbuuurrrnnn’ would follow the award of any throw that was remotely near the box. And huge cheers would follow when he trotted over and got ready to wind one up. Now you would expect that this throw would be a monster, a heat seeking missile onto a team mates head. Why else would you pull your target man out of the penalty area to take a throw in? Carl for his part made all the right noises. He dried every inch of moisture off the ball with his shirt, he had a run up which started in row G of the family enclosure. And then came the delivery…….a limp loopy number which struggled to reach the edge of the penalty area invariably launching a dangerous counter attack for the opposition.
We, of course knew he couldn’t throw it very far, I’m sure his team mates and the management knew it too. But what an atmosphere it created. For Charlton at that time, we needed whatever atmosphere we could muster and comedy was often an integral part of that. The way I saw it, if your not supporting a team challenging for honours, your team needed a comedy element to keep match days entertaining. During the years either side of our move back to The Valley, finances were very tight. All our good players were sold as soon as they reached optimum value and we had to survive on a diet of free transfers, youth team graduates and veterans nearing the end of their careers. We needed something to cling to, to get us through. Leaburn and his long throw was just one of those things.
I loved the big man, he was my favourite player by a mile. So much so, that I once queued outside the changing rooms of Bognor Regis Town FC to get his brothers autograph who was playing for Dulwich Hamlet. No he wasn’t the best, but he did have qualities. I’m sure he’d have scored more with better service into the right areas.
Leaburn moved to Wimbledon in 1998 where he made his Charlton record look prolific scoring just 4 times in 58 appearances. A one game spell at QPR followed before he disappeared into non league obscurity. I’ve seen rumours of an appearance as a night club bouncer in an episode of Eastenders which would only enhance his standing in my eyes, but I cannot confirm this.
All I know is that, good or bad, he was always entertaining. And the history books of Charlton Athletic would be far emptier without him. Thanks for the memories Carl.