Football: Charlton's red night in Woolwich

Rupert Cornwell joins the rain-soaked supporters celebrating an unfashionable club's dramatic ascent to the Premiership
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The Independent Online
AS civic receptions go, it was a bit of an anticlimax. For one thing Charlton Athletic can't even do them in Charlton, because the place, tucked between Westcombe Park and Woolwich Dockyard on Connex South Eastern's north Kent lines, doesn't even have a proper town hall. And while a rainy evening amid the urban vistas of SE7 and SE18 has its charms, it can't hold a candle to Wembley on a sunsplashed Bank holiday afternoon just 24 hours earlier, when your team has just won one of the greatest matches the old stadium will ever see.

Still, maybe 10,000 fans turned out for the return of the unlikely lads of south London. The route up from The Valley, up Charlton Church Lane, through Charlton village along Little Heath and down to Woolwich Town Hall where they did the honours, was decked in red and white bunting, and the leader of Greenwich Council was not lost for hyperbole. "I'm a bit overdressed," he confessed, groaning under the weight of red robe, chains and mace, "but at least I'm wearing the right colours. Yesterday was the greatest day in the history of Charlton Athletic, and this is the greatest night in Woolwich since the end of World War One."

Er, well, there was Charlton's FA Cup win in 1947, not to mention the conclusion of another world war two years before that. But with Sasa Ilic dedicating that penalty save to the assembled multitude, and Clive Mendonca spraying champagne like he had won the south-east London grand prix, who cared about historical exactitude?

"The greatest hat-trick ever seen at Wembley," someone enthused, oblivious to Geoff Hurst's achievement in the admittedly lesser matter of England's 1966 World Cup win. And anyway, he only came from West Ham.

Yes, Charlton's horizons are not boundless. This was a very local evening. "We are Premier League," they tried to chant, without quite believing that the dear old Valley, ground capacity 16,000 (admittedly about to become 20,000) would be welcoming the Bergkamps and Beckhams of this world.

Warming things up before the team arrived on their open bus, the MC asked: "So, who's the biggest club in south London? CHARL-TON." Along with a reminder about Millwall's lowly status, that line got the biggest cheer of the night.

So Charlton have it all to do. Even with their wit and grit, and Alan Curbishley's knack of fashioning silk purses from leathery old lower division hides, 150-1 for the Addicks capturing the Premiership in 1999 looks a mite on the stingy side. "You kept fighting for this club," the fans were told, "and this club is not going to die. This club is in the Premier League and it's going to stay."

But can they ? There's pounds 5.1m of Sky TV money, maybe as much new revenue again from increased gates and ticket prices, while Charlton Athletic PLC shares rocketed 20 per cent or so yesterday. But any fan hoping the promised "surprise announcement" from Greenwich Council might be a few million quid of ratepayers' money was in for a disappointment. All the club got was the freedom of the borough. Which won't be bringing Roberto Baggio to SE7.

Still, who cares ? Certainly not the driver of the 380 bus, taking us to the celebrations. "This is magic," said the supporter, "this is better than winning the Cup." The driver was unimpressed. "Well I dunno, mate, do I? I support Millwall."

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