Football: Curbishley aims to raise the spirits

Charlton Athletic's shoestring squad are hoping they can emerge from a bad spell of form. Glenn Moore talked to their manager
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The Independent Online
A TELETUBBY? A home computer? A Manchester United away kit? No, none of the usual Christmas stand-bys would do for Alan Curbishley this Yuletide. A new player or two would certainly come in handy but, more than anything, the Charlton manager says he wants `a result'.

After eight matches without a win, and five defeats on the spin, goodwill appears to be the only thing going Charlton's way and they badly need at least a point at Wimbledon this lunchtime. The same applies to the home game against resurgent Arsenal on Monday.

Their current position, two points off the relegation zone and very much among the stragglers, seems a long way away from the heady days of autumn when, as newly-promoted tyros, they put five past Southampton and gained draws at Highbury and Anfield. Curbishley's manager of the month award for August is gathering dust and, he admitted when we met at the club's spruce south-east London training ground, "it is hard to relax at the moment".

Llewellyn Charles Curbishley is the Premiership's third longest-serving manager having taken charge at Charlton, initially in tandem with Steve Gritt, in 1991. The present run is the worst in that period.

"When you go into the Premiership as a newly promoted side a bad run is on the cards somewhere," he said. "This, I hope, is ours and the sooner we get out of it the better."

On the positive side, though, this only makes the defeats more frustrating. Charlton are not "getting annihilated, we're not far away from what we did in the early part of the season. But we didn't give away such howlers then."

Sloppy mistakes and lapses at set-pieces are at the heart of Charlton's drift down the table. As so often for newly-promoted sides they can match others from box-to-box, the difference is in the two areas.

Monday's home defeat to Aston Villa was a typical example. At half-time Charlton had had seven goal attempts, none were on target. Villa had had four, three of which required saving. The match also reflected another truism for struggling sides - bad luck. The game opened with a bizarre Villa goal deflected in off Richard Rufus, it ended with Charlton hitting the bar twice.

The late rally suggested team spirit was as good as Curbishley claimed following two `clear-the-air' team meetings the previous week. It needs to be as Charlton are neither willing, nor able, to buy themselves out of trouble. After the financial crises of the eighties, and the years in exile at Selhurst Park and Upton Park, this is a club which takes the long-term view.

"We've been there," said Curbishley, "with no ground and everything else, and we'll not live beyond our means. I've been there when directors have written their own cheques out to keep things going. We've all worked so hard to get where we are we aren't going to jeopardise our future though a lot of clubs will and a lot of clubs have.

"Only five years ago we couldn't pay our way and were selling players to pay the wages, we never want to get back in that position. The last thing I want if we are unsuccessful is for them to come to me and say I've got to sell half the side. I don't think that is a lack of ambition, I think that is being sensible, perhaps not too many clubs now are being sensible."

The upshot of this is that Charlton (spending since promotion: pounds 2.5m) are competing with the likes of Villa (pounds 21m in that time). But Wimbledon have done it. "What they have done is incredible and I think people take what Joe Kinnear does for granted now," said Curbishley. "It's something we'll always look up to. But I do think it was easier to establish yourself then - and we came up with them [in 1986] - than it is now. The financial gap is so big between the divisions."

Neil Redfearn appears after his post-training shower to confirm this analysis. Last year he was at the heart of Barnsley's unsuccessful attempt to survive their first season in the Premiership. Now he hopes for better fortune at Charlton having become their first - and only - pounds 1m player in the summer.

"In this division it is vital you get the first goal," he said, "sides don't give you a chance, they are ruthless. If anything the standard is higher than last year, but we've not been getting drubbed. We're frustrated rather than despondent, we've let ourselves down at important times."

Redfearn's own form has been patchy. He and Curbishley agree the change to a more defensive system, brought about by injuries to Shaun Newton and John Robinson and a desire to stem the goals-against, have affected his opportunities to get forward in the way he did for Barnsley. With the wide players returning Charlton were back to 4-4-2 on Monday and Redfearn responded with several shot.

Having been on the wrong end of six-and seven-goal defeats with Barnsley, Redfearn admitted: "Away from home you are better off playing it tight but at home you've got to open up and try to break teams down. You are bound to lose some games, there are good teams in this division, but at Barnsley after Christmas we decided we might as well try to stay up getting at people and giving them something to worry about, especially at home. For a while we beat everyone and teams did not want to come to Oakwell."

A return to form by Redfearn would be a valuable asset to Curbishley, who also has to contend with the dips in performance by promotion heroes Sasa Ilic and Clive Mendonca. Mendonca, another casualty of the defensive emphasis, has been rested but Ilic, despite some recent errors, remains in the side. The goalkeeper was in Israel playing for Yugoslavia on Wednesday but, if fit, will play today with Curbishley pledging: "I feel he deserves a little more loyalty after all he's done and I've not thought about dropping him. But I have said if he is unable to pick his head up we will have to move on."

In the wings wait the produce of one of the country's best youth systems. Charlton top the reserve league but it is a big step up to the Premiership. As the teenagers clattered past after finishing training, Curbishley said: "One or two have been stifled this year because we came up. Paul Konchesky became our youngest ever player last year [at 16] but we brought Chris Powell in. They realise... if they're good enough they'll get in."

Curbishley's own youngsters were resigned, like all football folk, to the usual truncated Christmas. "A lot of their friends have gone on holiday. I've told them the only time we will be able to do that is if I get the sack. Maybe they're sitting there at home with fingers crossed."

That is the black humour of the struggling manager. But there is still optimism at The Valley. It is not so long ago a player, John Bumstead, had to run from the Canning flyover to Upton Park to hand in the team sheet for a match as the team coach was stuck in traffic and the club could not afford the fine. Incidents like that have taught Curbishley, 41, a sense of perspective, as did a spell as a roadie in the United States with his brother Bill, a manager of rock acts like the Who and Led Zeppelin. "You see how hard they work," said Curbishley. "It's not all a bed of roses, no-one gives you anything."

That is much like the Premiership. It is important for the game that newly-promoted, well-run clubs like Charlton, with a feel for their community, youth and the future, prosper. Their fans will not be the only ones hoping the Robins have a merry Christmas, followed by a happy New Year.