Football: Charlton's Mills and boom time

A breath of Norfolk fresh air is pervading a happy Valley.
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NEVER MIND the fact that his Charlton team had drawn with the double-winners Arsenal at Highbury, also with Liverpool at Anfield and at Newcastle or that they actually led the Premiership for a short time, Alan Curbishley would not judge their progress until they met his old club West Ham, who they beat 4-2 last weekend. That, for him, proved their worth, but it would have been a darn sight harder had it not been for young Danny Mills.

Curbishley's logic was that West Ham represented a solid, long-established Premiership team with whom he could make proper comparisons. To Mills, though, he gave a large portion of the praise, which the 20-year-old gratefully accepted since this time last year he was going nowhere with his home town club, Norwich City. Tomorrow he plays against Spurs as an automatic choice as right wing-back. In the not too distant future he could be doing the same for England.

He was already an under-21 international, but it was not until last weekend's 4-2 win over West Ham that he went from "that promising youngster at Charlton" to headline material, scoring the equalising goal at 2-2 by storming down the right side in the way he had throughout. The original idea was that he would stop Julian Dicks going forward. In the end Dicks was in permanent reverse, which resulted in his being dropped yesterday.

Curbishley said he was not a bit surprised. "I've watched him doing that since I saw him play for a Football League representative team I managed. I knew straight away I wanted him." Mills says the opportunity could not have come at a better time. "If you come from Norfolk as I do, there's not a lot of big club atmosphere. There's not a lot of Norfolk people who have come through. It's a different lifestyle up there. People don't move out of the area. There are lots of kids who are good, but there isn't the drive and the competition there is in the London area".

On arriving at Charlton he immediately felt excited by the confidence of a team and a club that had overcome all manner of problems and were aiming high. "I enjoy my football now. The manager makes you feel confident but before I'd got into a rut of low confidence. Once that happens you just keep sliding down that slope."

He points out that a player who comes through a club's system from apprentice level as he did at Norwich "never quite knows what value they place on you or whether they appreciate you as much as they should. But when another club buys you, you know you are truly wanted".

Martin O'Neill offered him his first chance to play at full-back in the Norwich first team. Until then he had preferred centre-half but realised that most of the best players in that position were much more experienced. Even so he has a hankering to play regularly as a sweeper, and since he is two-footed, quick to go forward or intercept and already has midfield experience he could well become that rarity in British football, one who goes forward with confidence - that is once he takes Curbishley's advice and polishes up his distribution.

He claims not to have been all that surprised by Charlton's fine start to the season but admitted "we looked at the fixtures and yes we said 'blimey what a start'. But we've got such a great team spirit we were confident, so we thought it was better to play those big clubs at the start rather than the end when perhaps we might need four or five points to stay up. So we turned it round and thought positively - they might not be fully prepared, a bit lackadaisical because of having players in the World Cup, so it gave us an opportunity to give it a go right from the start. We worked hard and were well organised."

He was especially pleased with his own and the team's performance against Arsenal at Highbury. "I knew Marc Overmars would be very difficult, but the team played well tactically, just as we did against all of Chelsea's stars." No one so far has really surprised him. "These days what with videos and TV you know about the capabilities of your opponents, so you adjust accordingly."

As an emerging under-21 international he has played in the centre of Hoddle's five at the back system which, he says, "is even a bit different from our own because I play almost as an out-and-out sweeper, not getting forward a lot, doing the easy things and reading the game." He is learning fast.