Football: Charlton must return to reality

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The Independent Online
IF A Hollywood scriptwriter had dreamed up the Charlton story, it would have been laughed at as being ludicrously implausible.

Picture the scene: a small, unfashionable south London club are on the verge of bankruptcy before a last-minute deal saves them from extinction. The gates to their stadium are locked by the receivers and years are spent sharing grounds with Crystal Palace and West Ham.

Then, after a remarkable turnaround in fortunes, they secure a place in the Premiership after a see-saw eight-goal thriller at Wembley. It may sound far-fetched, but that is what has happened to Charlton in the space of just 14 years

Their tale is full of unlikely heroes. The chairman, Martin Simons, is one such example. The 49-year-old season ticket holder joined the board after retiring at the start of the decade and was plunged straight into the complicated world of Charlton's finances.

Seven years had passed since the last-gasp rescue by a property group at the High Court had saved Charlton from going out of business, but Simons discovered the club's financial affairs had hardly improved - to his cost. "We walked into a club which was nearly bankrupt, with no ground," said Simons, who joined the board at the same time as another Charlton saviour, the plc chairman Richard Murray.

"Beazer Homes hadn't been paid for work done at the Valley and I naively paid an interim cheque thinking the club would soon stump up the balance. But they didn't and when Beazer pulled out we had to do a quick deal with West Ham."

Upton Park therefore replaced Selhurst Park as the nomadic club's new temporary home until the historic day on 5 December, 1992, when, for Charlton, football finally came home to The Valley.

Even that was not simple however, requiring the help of the Valley Party fighting local elections to persuade the council to be more sympathetic to the cause - and the sale of Rob Lee to Newcastle.

"Actually trying to buy the freehold to the ground and getting it back to a state to return to was very time-consuming and very costly," Simons added. "At one point I don't think there was anyone who was involved that thought we would actually do it. But when we pulled it off and walked back through those gates - fantastic.

"The unique thing about all this is that it has been a collective effort by the fans, by the directors and the players." That effort has proved so successful that, even without Monday's extraordinary win over Sunderland, the future of the club has never looked so secure.

The capacity has gradually risen from just 8,337 in 1992 to almost 16,000 last season, and the extension of the west stand this summer will bring crowds up to the 20,000 mark. They are not finished yet. The managing director, Peter Varney, has ambitious plans for the rest of the ground and developments are moving at quite a pace.

"People might think that the club is growing too quickly, but it's all being done in a controlled way," Varney said. "We will move at a fast rate and the reason is that a lot of the grants we can get are related to the millennium and are only available for a two-year period. We've got a great opportunity."

The missing piece in the jigsaw is continued success on the field and the necessity of avoiding the fate of the three clubs promoted from the First Division last season. That daunting task belongs to Alan Curbishley but, despite the loss of first-team coach Les Reed to a Football Association job a day after promotion was assured, the Charlton manager has been promised an pounds 8m windfall of television money to help strengthen his squad.