Football: Cautiously, carefully, Curbishley

`If we were going to Grimsby, I'd know all of their side. All I know about Newcastle is that Shearer will play'; Andrew Longmore meets the Charlton manager hoping for a happy Valley return
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ALAN Curbishley will take a curious interest in his visit to Wembley for the Charity Shield today. Partly, he will enjoy a happy stroll down the avenue where, on 26 May, Charlton Athletic enjoyed their finest hour in a penalty shoot-out with Sunderland; partly, he will be exploring this strange new world of fancy foreign names and fancy foreign salaries, a land of milk and honey not much considered by the bread-and-butter brigade of the Nationwide League.

"What's the point of watching the Premiership," Curbishley said. "I can't buy any of their players, can I? The only time I had to ring up a Premiership manager, he knew all I wanted was a player on loan. I know it's only a friendly today, but, well, I just want to have a look at 'em."

In a week dominated by the covert operations of the European Super League, Curbishley has been operating an open- door policy down at the Valley and the spruce little training ground at Sparrows Lane. Loyalty has not been a quality much displayed by the likes of United, Arsenal and Liverpool, clubs seemingly quite willing to shop their fellows for a glimpse of untold treasure.

In the midst of preparing his side for the most important season in their history, Curbishley has been organising his testimonial match, against Hearts yesterday, a reward for 11 years of unbroken service as player, joint manager and manager which has fostered an unfashionably strong relationship with one of London's Cinderellas.

Only those who had survived the gypsy years, had watched the happy Valley disintegrate before their eyes, could understand the extent of the emotions on view at the end of a compelling play-off final at Wembley last May. When you ask Curbs about the low moments, there is enough material for a book.

"Well," he says, squinting into the bright sunshine of a belated summer, the sound of drills signalling an upgrade of the training facilities. "When I first took over with Steve Gritt, we were like lambs to the slaughter really. We were only given the job because they couldn't afford anyone else. We'd just moved to Upton Park and had lost all our pre-season games and I went to the chairman to beg for some money. He gave me pounds 50,000 and I bought Garry Nelson and Steve Gatting from Brighton. We stayed up that season and that was a turning point."

Then there was the time he had to sell Robert Lee and Anthony Barness to raise pounds 1m to finance a return to the Valley or the day they went to Old Trafford for the fourth round of the Cup, gave a good account of themselves, lost and suffered a two-month hangover in the League. It was the season acutely chronicled by Nelson in his diary, Left Foot Forward.

On the way back from Old Trafford, the team stopped for their traditional away-day supper of fish and chips, a reflection, the players thought, of a club suffering from a chronic lack of ambition.

Curbishley can recall the culture shock of his first game for Charlton as if it was yesterday. "Lennie [Lawrence, the manager] refused to meet me at the Valley because he knew if I saw the place I wouldn't sign. He was right too. He wined and dined me in a fancy restaurant in town and I signed because I wanted to get back to London and I thought that I could move on to a bigger club quite quickly."

On the Saturday, a crowd of 38,000 watched him play for Aston Villa in a 0-0 draw against Liverpool in the old First Division, the following week he was performing for Charlton in a derelict Second Division stadium against Grimsby in front of 4,000 loyalists. "We stayed up by a point that season, otherwise I would have gone from first to third division in six months."

The experience has lent this past week a particular poignancy, unearthed a sentimentality quite out of keeping with the get-rich-quick mentality of modern football. As the back pages were dominated by news of Internazionale v Barcelona for a tenner a throw, Curbishley's triumph was to persuade Clive Mendonca, once of Grimsby Town, to sign a new three- year deal. His close-season spending spree brought Neil Redfearn from Barnsley for pounds 900,000, a certified case of swapping the frying pan for the fire.

"I've been doing quite a lot of interviews this past week, because of my testimonial, and it's given me a buzz sitting in one of those executive boxes looking out of the Valley now," he says. "For someone who's been through the lot, it's an incredible achievement, not just for me, but for the whole club. There are people still working here who formed the Return to the Valley party and pushed to get us a voice on the council. If I never do another thing in the game, at least I've achieved something." By the first home game, one tier of the new stand at the Valley will be open, by the second, capacity will be up to 20,000 all-seated, all bar a few already occupied for the season. Like Barnsley last year, Charlton will be the nation's favoured second team this season - besides hot favourites for relegation - a romantic role not necessarily welcomed by the man in charge.

"If we came away from Old Trafford with a 6-0 beating, I wouldn't be very happy with that," he says. "I got the feeling that some clubs last year were just happy to be there for a good day out. Our fans ain't like that. I'd start hearing a few rumours. We're not going to spend the season saying what a great achievement it's been to be here, there's a great incentive for us to do well, for me, the players and the club.

"We can't disguise the fact that the three teams who went up last year came straight back down again. It's not an even playing field, we know that and if we manage to survive, it will be a fantastic achievement. But the way we've structured the club, if we do go down, we won't have to sell anyone."

Charlton start their campaign at Newcastle, but Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal appear uncomfortably early in the fixtures list. "A different mentality," says Curbishley. "If we were going to Grimsby, I'd know all of their side, I'd know how they would play and we would go there expecting to dominate the game. Newcastle played two different sides last weekend. All I know is that Shearer will be playing. We've got to be realistic. Whereas last season, we won 26 games to go up, this season we might only have to win 12 to survive."