Fans flock to a happier Valley

Charlton Athletic pinch themselves for Premiership debut
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The Independent Online
WHEN Charlton Athletic kick off the football season in the big- money, high-stakes world of the Premier League this Saturday, the club will be fulfilling what many fans see as its destiny.

By winning an epic First Division play-off match against Sunderland in June, the team won promotion to a league which has just been adjudged the richest domestic competition in the world - a fact that has not escaped the club's management.

But not so long ago, Charlton, based in south-east London, were playing in front of just 6,000 fans at another club's ground 12 miles away from home.

Now, back at the Valley, the club's fans are determined to make the most of top-flight football and are eagerly waiting to see World Cup stars like Michael Owen and Dennis Bergkamp pitted against their own hero, Clive Mendonca, on home turf.

Even if the club's Premiership tenure lasts for only one season, it will still be a romantic return to the glory days when crowds of more than 70,000 were not uncommon.

"Premiership football means everything to the community," says Mick Everett, the club's development officer. "The local people are pleased that the club will get the recognition it deserves. People in the media think there isn't anything outside the Premier League."

Reflecting on the team's momentous victory against Sunderland after a penalty shoot-out, he added: "A lot of local people thought it was our destiny to win that game. It was the culmination of a lot of work from the fans right up to board level. All the directors are fans as well. They are all very shrewd businessmen but they are also life-long fans."

With a coveted place in the Premiership come the commercial opportunities open to Britain's top teams. In Charlton's case, substantial gate revenues from a ground which will soon have a capacity of 20,000 can be added to a minimum income of pounds 3m from BSkyB television.

The new club superstore epitomises the commercial world the club has entered into, and is clearly intended to cash in on the fans' excitement.

"We've made the store seven times the size of the original shop to get more people in there. The club has been besieged," said Mr Everett. "In the first three days' trading we were looking at pounds 60,000 just in shirt sales. We sold out of Mendonca [who scored the vital goals that put the club into the Premiership] shirts in the first two or three days.

"Most people coming up to the Valley will be wearing a replica shirt at this rate. This season we have 17,000 season ticket holders, compared with 5,500 last year." Steve Clarke, a loyal fan and former chairman of the supporters' association, said: "I think it is fantastic. It is the culmination of a plan that has been going on for 10 years and has seen us return to the Valley.

"We have taken a big jump coming into the Premier League and a lot of money is rolling in. It's going to be tough. I think Alan Curbishley [the manager] has done a bit of work to prepare for it. He is being realistic but knows there are a lot of teams that can be beaten."

According to Mr Clarke, it is not just loyal Charlton fans who will be flocking to home games. He said: "I'm sure there are people who aren't Charlton fans who have bought season tickets. Some of them will only turn up to the biggest games. There will be other people who have converted because they can get season tickets. I'm aware of a family who were half- hearted Spurs fans but have now got season tickets for the Valley."

Charlton have come a long way since 1985, when the team was forced to play at Selhurst Park, 12 miles from the Valley. The ground fell into disrepair after a dispute between the freehold owners, the Gliksten family, and the owners of the football club, Sunley Group, over who should foot the bill for improvements demanded by the former Greater London Council.

Ironically, Charlton were promoted the following year to the old First Division and survived there until until 1990, when they were relegated. But it was not a happy era.

Mr Everett said: "Most of our fans live in this area and down towards Dartford. For them it was 10 miles from Dartford and then another 10 to 12 miles. The support was dreadful. We were averaging 6,000."

Roger Alwen and Michael Norris later bought the ground and, after supporters had helped to raise pounds 1m, the Addicks returned to the Valley in 1992.

It was, says Mr Everett, "the final homecoming". The club's supporters had even formed a political party aimed at persuading the council to allow their return.

Most Charlton fans will be happy with 17th place at the end of this season - a position which will secure them another year in the Premier League. Mr Everett said: "I know that we are firm favourites for the drop, but we have to prove them wrong."

Alan Curbishley interview, Sport, Section 2, page 14

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