Fan's Eye View: Eddie's alluring elegance

No.96 Charlton Athletic
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The Independent Online
"Is that him?" inquired the football-crazy 12-year-old, gazing at the elegant athlete who stood with his foot on a ball, oozing class, before a posse of photographers. "Do you really think he's coming back to Charlton?" "So I've heard," said his o lder friend. "If they can agree terms with Genoa."

That younger fan was me, spending an August morning watching my heroes during a pre-season training session. The subject of my enthusiasm was Eddie Firmani. A legend in these parts who, we hoped, was returning home to The Valley after eight years in Italy. One of the few, at that point, to move from British to Italian football with any success.

I'd spent two seasons watching and suffering football at Charlton. Two seasons of nail-biting relegation scraps. The second only won on goal average by victory in the last game of the season at Walsall, thereby sending them down instead. This magnificentvictory was helped by Walsall having two players - including the goalkeeper - injured. No substitutes in those days.

But here we were at the start of the 1963-64 season with all that behind us, and full of the optimism a new season brings. This time it was enhanced by the impending return of Eddie. I listened to older fans reminiscing about his previous days at Charlton, when he'd come over from South Africa with Stuart Leary.

They had formed a potent goalscoring partnership, with Eddie scoring 50 in 100 games. First division, of course, in those days. Although eight years older, he was also more experienced and therefore an even better player. Football fans, like politicians,always take the view that suits.

Plus, of course, he was now an Italian international to add to the mystique. He was actually half South African and half Italian, which nowadays would make him eligible to play cricket for England.

Certainly things were looking up for me as a young Charlton supporter. Until then, the celebrities in my football world had been the likes of Dennis Edwards, whose most memorable feat at The Valley was during a pre-match kick-around, when one of his cannonball shots had blasted an ice-cream seller and sent his tray of ices into a hysterical crowd. And Frank Reed, the reserve goalie, who was the recipient of the longest back-pass to result in a goal.

Eddie didn't actually sign until October, and by then Charlton had made a pretty good start. Certainly the best in my memory. Both seasons. He made his second debut at Manchester City, who had just been relegated from the first division and were fancied for a quick return.

I spent the whole of that afternoon in front of Grandstand, waiting for the result. I sat through umpteen horse races and various other sports until, at last, David Coleman gave me the news I'd been longing to hear. "Charlton have beaten Manchester City 3-1. Eddie Firmani has scored twice."

Joy of joys! Wonder of wonders! Division one here we come! Well, not quite. Charlton did, in fact, finish fourth that season without ever really threatening Leeds and Sunderland who were promoted. But it was a world away from the usual relegation battles, and how wonderful to watch Eddie strutting around The Valley, with his matador-style wave to the crowd after a goal.

Sadly, 1963-64 turned out to be an oasis in a desert of relegation fights for Charlton. For the next four seasons, we were at it again. Eddie left in 1965 for a diet of sea breezes and jellied eels at Southend United, but returned to Charlton two years later to score six vital goals in another scramble to avoid the Third division.

He then became manager, and in 1968-69 guided the club to third place. Sadly, only two clubs were promoted in those days, and to make matters worse, one of them was Crystal Palace, our south London neighbour. The next season was back to normal. A relegation battle won by two points, but the sack and a final goodbye for Eddie Firmani.

The last I heard of Eddie was that he was coaching in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion. Herein lies the truth about the success of Operation Desert Storm. Forget oil. Stormin' Norman is a closet Charlton supporter.