Football: Back to the sweetest of homes: Jasper Rees sees Charlton Athletic's winning return to the Valley after seven years' absence

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The Independent Online
A SLEEK white coach cruised through the throng outside the club shop. Jubilant roars of welcome hurriedly petered out when the legend 'Portsmouth FC' was spotted on the back window. Another coach crept up behind, and this time people kept their counsel: unfamiliar faces peered out from behind the tinted panes, and then another more durable roar went up as the back window revealed the unmistakable zapata of Derek Hales.

Allan Simonsen, the only European footballer of the year to have played for Charlton Athletic, was not on it, but the vehicle contained just about every other famous name in the club's post-war history. There were representatives from the cup-winning side of 1947, from the days when footballers were not called Kevin and Lee and Warren: Charlie Revell, Tommy Dawson, Peter Croker - they do not mean much to you and me, but they are part of the spiritual furniture of this unassuming new and old ground.

Hales had brought along his two sons, possibly to prove to them that everything he had told them about his feats at the Valley, feats that they are too young to remember, really did happen. Or maybe they had been sent by their mother as moral minders, to steer dad clear of Mike Flanagan. Hales and Flanagan never did get on, and despite their presence on the same guest list they kept a more emphatic distance from each other than is usual in lethal striking partnerships.

Flanagan looked well groomed and respectable and got a respectable ovation but the loudest hails were for the leather-jacketed Hales, who punched the air with right arm uppercuts. Everyone else was smiling, but this was the spirit. 'We could do with you in the team,' someone cracked, but nobody is laughing at Charlton's recent form. Before yesterday they had won only once since September.

As yesteryear's alumni ambled and stumbled on to the pristine turf, the past also looked on from the side in the lowering shape of the East Terrace, a steep slab of concrete that once held 40,000, but was open now to only a few yellow-coated coppers charged with barring trespassers. The steps might have met rigorous standards of safety when the Romans governed Londinium - which is when it looks like they were constructed - but long before the Taylor Report the whole place was deemed perilous and uninhabitable.

Local pubs, deprived of their Saturday lunch-time rush hour while Charlton played home matches away at the parks of Selhurst and Upton, were doing less frenetic business than the club shop. The queue was the sort usually seen outside West End musicals. Shirts, scarves, even boxer shorts suggestively emblazoned with upright swords, the club emblem, shifted in their hundreds to people who wanted a piece of this red-and-white day.

Most were making the short journey from within the locality for the first time in seven years. For others, coming from other parts of town, there was a final act of cruelty by British Rail, moving all London Bridge departures to Cannon Street: one last diversion.

From the train, the sight of Canary Wharf served as a reminder that since Charlton left the Valley, money has been thrown from a great height at all sorts of exorbitant building projects that have much less meaning to the communities they have been dumped on.

As for the football, well, that arch sentimentalist Jim Smith, the Portsmouth manager, opined afterwards, 'Today was their day, but they'll have to play better than that to beat some of the other teams.'

Charlton's joint player-manager Steve Gritt recalled himself for a first start of the season, perhaps mindful that with Paul Walsh on the visitors' bench there would be no one on the pitch who had previously turned out for Charlton at the Valley.

As the script dictated, Charlton were all over their bit-part visitors from the start. They went ahead after seven minutes when Colin Walsh rounded off a neat move by shooting past Alan Knight. If it was good to be back home, now it was even better, and the 8,337 prodigal sons (and daughters) could be forgiven for assuming that a rout was waiting to happen. Portsmouth stole back into the match without getting their shots in, so that Charlton could afford to miss a shower of chances that came their way in the last quarter.

'It's all very well coming home,' Alan Curbishley, Gritt's partner, said afterwards, 'but the three points were most important to us.'

Managers - what can you do with them? He redeemed himself a moment later when he paid tribute to the club's astonishingly loyal supporters. 'We've not heard that noise for seven years. Today we've become a club again.'

Charlton Athletic: B Bolder; D Pitcher, S Minto, S Gritt, S Webster, S Palmer, J Robinson, L Power (K Grant, 90 min), C Leaburn, G Nelson, C Walsh, Sub not used: A Pardew. Joint player- managers: A Curbishley and S Gritt.

Portsmouth: A Knight; A Awford, R Daniel (C Burns, 67 min), A McLoughlin, K Symons, S Agnew (P Walsh, 62 min), W Neill, M Chamberlain, C Clark, G Whittingham, G Maguire. Manager: J Smith.

Referee: A Gunn (Sussex).

Goal: C Walsh (1-0, 7 min).

(Photograph omitted)

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