Football: Premier passion stirs Charlton's happy family

Rupert Cornwell on the community club aiming to rejoin the upper class in Monday's play-off
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The Independent Online
FOR Peter Varney, Charlton Athletic season ticket holder since 1960, the darkest hour came one snowy midweek night in 1974. Rochdale were the visitors, Charlton were in what was then the Third Division, and 3,000 wretched souls were scattered around the crumbling, desolate expanses of The Valley. Back in 1938, a record 75,031 had filled the old place for a game, but spiritually and physically, the club that grew from the bowels of south-east London to be home to footballing gods like Sam Bartram, Jimmy Seed and Eddie Firmani, was dying.

A decade later Charlton went bankrupt, and almost out of existence. In 1985 they left the Valley. The ground turned into an archeological site, a sporting Pompeii a stone's throw from the Woolwich Ferry, lost beneath a jungle of weeds. Long years of exile followed, first at Selhurst Park and then at Upton Park. A generation of supporters were lost, without even the guarantee the club would ever return to SE7, as Greenwich Council rejected the redevelopment plan put forward by the club's new owners.

Today Varney is Charlton's managing director. And if his club defeat Sunderland in the First Division play-off final on Monday, the Addicks - a nickname said to derive from a local fishmonger's habit of giving the players free haddock and chips when they won - could be in the Premiership. One of the true fairy-tales of modern football would be complete.

For the fairy-tale's origins, look to the improbable setting of the Greenwich borough elections of 1990 when, as surely never before or since in the history of this island, football became politics. Exasperated and despairing, the fans formed the Valley party with the sole platform of bringing Charlton home. It won 15,000 votes, twice as many as the Liberal Democrats. Labour Party HQ over at Walworth Road SE1 said enough was enough, planning permission was granted, and a cosy new Valley was built where the old one had stood. On 5 December, 1992, the Addicks were back and 8,000 watched as they beat Portsmouth 1-0. It was not the greatest game, but old men wept like children. The club had walked through the valley of death, and had been saved by its supporters. It owed them, and it knew it.

"This club is for the fans..." The phrase trips off the average football director's tongue with the same ease that he jacks up season ticket prices. In Charlton's case, it happens to be true. What other club has a board member chosen by, and representing, the fans? At what other club would you find the chairman - Martin Simon, a retired oil executive who lives a couple of miles away in Blackheath - dropping by to hand out leaflets about Wembley to supporters queuing for play-off final tickets?

The quarrels with Greenwich are not even a memory. Club and borough jointly operate initiatives against racism. Few local schools are without their branch of the "Junior Reds" - entitling members, among other things, to attend home games for pounds 1. If they can play a bit as well, they join Charlton's youth scheme and "schools of excellence" from which more than one first- teamer has graduated.

Much of the finance comes from the "Valley Gold" scheme, where the supporters contribute pounds 10 a month, in return for priority in booking tickets and discounts at the club shop. 2,000 fans have signed up: meaning pounds 250,000 a year for the search for homegrown stars. The one blemish on the happy families image has been drugs - five players have tested positive in four years, the last of them Jamie Stuart, the former England Under-21 player, was sacked in December after admitting using cocaine.

Otherwise, careful husbandry rules. There are some biggish names: goalpoacher Clive Mendonca, the nimble Mark Kinsella and, most lately, the Yugoslav- Australian goalkeeper Sasa Ilic, once of Partizan Belgrade, but who a year ago was playing for the Sussex side St Leonards while completing a law degree at university. Now, with nine successive clean sheets, Ilic is putting even Bartram in the shade. But Charlton's true pedigree remains south London - gritty, matey and street-smart, a team where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Small wonder that in Alan Curbishley, the club has a manager half the Premiership would kill for.

Financially too, Charlton is in prudent hands. "At Christmas the fans were screaming for us to buy another striker," Varney recalls, "but we said, only when there's money to cover it. We did spend pounds 1m on players just before the transfer deadline, but we covered it through the issue of new stock." And these days, there's no shortage of buyers. A fortnight ago Charlton shares stood at 50p; this week they were bid at 73p. The proximity of the Premiership and pounds 5.1m of guaranteed TV revenues is one reason. But, Varney believes, not the only one. "Something strange has happened over the last 12 months. What we are seeing is the regeneration of a massive club."

Massive? Not quite the adjective that springs to mind when you survey today's tidy little ground holding barely 15,000, tucked into what was once a chalk pit cut from the hillside running down to the Thames, invisible almost until you reach the very turnstiles. But the club has a vast catchment area, stretching from London across Kent and Sussex: the Hastings supporters club alone are sending eight busloads to Wembley on Monday. A Charlton established in the Premiership could command huge support. There are plans for that too: whatever happens on Monday, an upper deck is going on the West stand, lifting capacity to 20,000. Filling in the corners would take it up to 28,000, and Varney talks seriously of a 40,000-seat Valley.

But can Charlton succeed where Bolton, Barnsley and Palace failed in 1997, and put down Premiership roots? "It's not going to be easy and we'll have to strengthen the team," Varney admits. "We're going to be careful. We'll follow the route of Leicester and Derby and you won't see 'Carlos- kick-a-ball' types coming to Charlton. But the funds will be there."

But this 21st century Charlton, is on the other side of the rainbow. In between comes the small matter of 90 minutes against Sunderland. For Curbishley, a former player for the club, whose blood runs Charlton red, "this is the biggest game of my career. I was brought up on legends - Bartram, Seed, 70,000 gates and the FA Cup win of 1947. But now people are talking of the new Charlton in its own right. In terms of money and in terms of the future, this game is bigger than the Cup final."

For the fans, whatever the result, Wembley will be a celebration, attended by the biggest gathering of Addicks addicts since the 44,094 at the FA Cup fourth-round tie with Everton at the Valley in 1959.

"The goodwill of the country is on our side," Curbishley believes. On Wearside they may beg to differ. But in the harsh, business-driven culture of contemporary football, Charlton right now are the good guys.

Win or lose, a civic reception will be held at Woolwich Town Hall on Tuesday. At most other places, they wouild be downing smoked salmon. Knowing Charlton, it will be haddock and chips.