Down in the Valley they keep their eye on the ball

Charlton have all to play for today, on and off the pitch. By Matthew Rowan
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST thing the managing director shows visitors is the toilet. It's the last word in convenience, offering a clean floor, sparkling wash basins with oval mirrors above each one, and automatic taps that run water when you place your hands underneath them.

After you've washed your hands, you can visit a bar and diner, a lounge that will soon be converted into a massive gym, and a conference centre which has played host to big corporate players like Marks and Spencer and British Telecom. Step outside and you'll see a "superstore" where you can spend some money on clothes. You'll also notice a construction crew doing the preparatory work for a new Homework Club, one of a number of government-sponsored initiatives to provide study areas for local schoolchildren.

But what have these activities got to do with football? Not much, says Peter Varney, the managing director of First Division club Charlton Athletic, and that's the whole point: "If you're a local business and you want to arrange a seminar, Charlton losing, say, 5-0 on Saturday wouldn't affect you coming into a lovely facility like this."

This afternoon Charlton play their last league game, and it's a massive one. Win away at Birmingham and they could be promoted to the Premiership as long as neither of the two clubs above them in the table also pick up three points.

If they don't make it today Charlton will have another chance in the play-offs, and a whole season's work could boil down to one match at Wembley where the winner will take all - a Premiership place and millions of pounds in TV revenues, sponsorship deals and merchandising spin-offs. But even if Charlton fail they won't think it's all over because on-pitch fortunes are only part of the story.

It's a joyless journey down to the club's ground in Greenwich: through the Blackwall Tunnel and then on to a ring road disfigured by engineering works and contra-flows in an area waiting for the main event. All signposts point to the New Millennium Experience, which has turned swathes of south- east London into a construction site, but opposite Peter Mandelson's dome the New Charlton Experience is coming along nicely.

In the mid-1980s, Charlton were forced out of The Valley, their home ground and for some years were lodgers at Crystal Palace. In 1991, when the club came home, the ground was derelict. In 1992, says Mr Varney, "it was portacabin city." In 1998, "it is one of the most modern stadiums in the country". Part of the impetus for this has come from the club's flotation on the Alternative Investment Market in March last year. This raised pounds 5.5m and a large chunk of this has been spent on redeveloping the west stand, where most of Charlton's business and leisure facilities are housed.

If the team end up in the play-offs, some of the fans could get wet, because this week the roof comes off the west stand and the builders move in to construct a new tier that will take capacity up from 15,000 to 20,000. Just as important, the facilities inside the stand are being upgraded. Soon the conference and banqueting suites will hold 700 people, and there'll be a training room for seminars, a restaurant and lounges. As more people and businesses descend on the area for the millennium celebrations, Charlton will be ready to cash in on the boom. Meanwhile, the gym will be rented out to Greenwich Council for pounds 70,000 a year and the club will pocket the proceeds as visitors spend money at the bar.

In theory, however, a small business like Charlton still shouldn't stand a chance. Even with activities that seem to be independent of football, it is now held that the industry is all about branding: corporations and fans alike are supposed to be drawn to glamorous clubs.

But Charlton have tackled this problem in three ways. First, costs are strictly controlled. For instance, just pounds 1.7m has been spent on new players in the past season, roughly half the amount that Middlesbrough splashed out on Paul Gascoigne. Second, Mr Varney has contacted all companies in the area, and many beyond, to demonstrate to them that The Valley is not a football backwater but a venue that means business.

Third, the club have announced plans to take both their shop and their sports bar and diner, Floyd's, out on to the high street. These outlets will be concentrated in areas where many Charlton fans live, but you won't see the club name plastered all over the walls because a football brand can be a liability if you want to attract customers who aren't supporters. Floyd's was designed by Michael Grade, now chairman of First Leisure as well as a Charlton director, and the club expect it to be strong enough to succeed on its own merits. The retail outlets, meanwhile, will be "one- stop shops" where you can buy Joe Bloggs clothes and match tickets as well as Charlton replica shirts.

The club have also invested heavily in the future, spending pounds 250,000 a year on their youth development scheme and pounds 90,000 on the Homework Club. Meanwhile, kids have been let in for a pound at some of the less glamorous games. The financial benefits of these initiatives are hard to quantify - you can't put a price on the goodwill of the local community or the potential of schoolboy apprentices - so it's debatable whether Charlton could have taken such a long-term outlook if they'd been a high-profile business. Mr Varney says that at many clubs "the directors want results tomorrow so they go for a quick-fix player". And if City inst- itutions own a big chunk there's more pressure to deliver.

None of which is to say that Charlton's board won't eventually sell some of their 69 per cent stake to the City and become a fully fledged plc. Once the subsidiary operations are running at full tilt the club will be confident of paying their way, and if Charlton do win promotion a 20,000 capacity probably won't be enough. There's plenty of room for expansion at The Valley and fresh City funds would be one way of realising the ground's potential. But the clear message from Charlton is that football clubs, while exploring every avenue to make money, must move at their own pace. You go to the City to build on strength, not to acquire it.

Nevertheless, football is what Charlton do and football clubs have stakeholders: their fans. Mr Varney has been able to pacify supporters who want more money spent on players because the team are successful at the moment. But Charlton's directors are fans as well so they'll know that in football the difference between success and failure can sometimes be measured by the coat of paint on a crossbar. And they'll know that history cares nothing for such fine distinctions; if Charlton don't go up, they'll get the blame.