Football: Charlton's yearning experience

Norman Fox talks to Alan Curbishley about a dream stop on an incredible journey
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The Independent Online
WHEN Alan Curbishley leads Charlton Athletic out at Wembley for tomorrow's First Division play-off final against Sunderland his mind will go back a few seasons to when luxury at The Valley was a carpet in a Portakabin. But he would not have been without the experience. "I sometimes wonder whether we would have got this far without the days when we seemed to be living on a building site in hope and with memories," he said.

The early days of Charlton's return to the famous old ground in south London seven years ago were ones in which Curbishley realised why managers abroad were lucky enough to be called "coaches" and had little to do with administration. He had to be the master of everything, but with the one ambition, to master the art of coaching. "But when you've been involved in everything at a club, it prepares you for most of what you meet. Without those days the club wouldn't have hardened itself. It was a unique experience. In the future managers will just be managers of players ... that will happen here but I've had to be involved in everything that happened to Charlton."

He would not have missed a minute of the struggle but now, though he is generous in his praise for the work the two other coaches, Les Reed and Keith Peacock, are already doing, he looks forward to a time when he can spread the responsibilities. Either that or, at a time when football in Britain at the top level is not flush with comparatively young managers of outstanding ability, he will be enticed away to a much bigger club.

Failure by a single game to be promoted would damage Charlton, who need the money to continue improving the ground and the squad, more than Curbishley. A lot of richer clubs have been watching his progress and, come autumn, there could well be attractive offers. It would be difficult to find anyone better qualified to take an overview of any interested club. "Over the last six or seven years I've seen every side of the club but I can see a time when other people run it and I just take control of the first team." That first team he has prepared for a match he calls "more important than the Cup final because it decides your future" is defensively strong (as Ipswich found out in the semi-finals), has a powerful inspiration in Mark Kinsella and, back from injury, a fruitful goalscorer, Clive Mendonca.

Charlton's escape from near bankruptcy in 1984,their survival of a winding- up order and several seasons sharing the grounds of West Ham and Crystal Palace is an ordeal Curbishley believes the staff and supporters should be proud to have endured. Now, though, he says: "We have a secure future and a new generation of fans who are talking about this team and this season, not so much about the days of 70,000 gates, Jimmy Seed and Sam Bartram and the old days. We've been hearing that for years, but now it's different."

Although he acknowledges the danger of Sunderland's Kevin Phillips breaking down what has been an effective defence and denying Charlton the chance of finding out whether they are good enough, well organised enough and rich enough to stay in the Premiership, Curbishley has long been planning what could happen next. The record of clubs suffering the "yo-yo" experience of promotion followed by instant relegation plays on his mind. "But you can't ignore the challenge and the dangers. I know that whatever happens I'll try to strengthen the team, but if we do make it, the most important thing of all will be to stay in the Premier division for that first season. You have to go in positively."

He has not been afraid to seek advice both from those who have been promoted and survived in the Premiership, notably Martin O'Neill at Leicester City and Derby County's Jim Smith, but he has also talked at length to Danny Wilson of relegated Barnsley. "He told me that he wished the season could have started all over again because he learned so much early on. I know that if we get up people will think about us as the way they did about Barnsley - we're one of the smaller clubs while Sunderland would be one of the bigger ones. But it's not all about money otherwise Manchester City and Wolves would be up there. We know we've just got to get in there and start scrapping."

He accepts that when it comes to the transfer market Charlton will not be in the same division as the bigger clubs. "This season the commercial department has done wonders and we've been able to spend pounds 1.7m which is phenomenal for us. I'm told all the extra money that would come in from being promoted would be available to me.

"But we've got good reserve strength - they've won their league - and we've had a strong squad all through. I've never met a bunch of players so focused. We're strong enough to give it a go in the Premier division and not have to sell players. This is a fantastic turnaround for us. Whatever happens we're not 'Little Old Charlton' any more."