Football: Curbishley attacks selfish elite

The struggle for survival: Charlton and Blackburn cancel out each other while Southampton steal three points
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Charlton Athletic 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

IT WAS May Day on the calendar and Mayday on the pitch at The Valley on Saturday as Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers moved ever closer to going down with all hands.

A point apiece left both in the relegation zone as Southampton, by virtue of their home victory over Leicester and the easier looking run-in, became favourites to escape relegation to the Nationwide League.

While Blackburn would not be mourned by many neutral supporters - Jack Walker's financial muscle has provoked too much envy for that - Charlton's departure would be regretted by most. However, according to their thoughtful manager, Alan Curbishley, this sentiment would not be shared by the chairmen of other Premiership clubs.

Why? Do Charlton have a poky boardroom? Do they serve visiting directors fish-paste sandwiches with curled-up crusts? Does the drinks cabinet contain only Kestrel Lager and cheap scotch? None of the above. Their continued presence in the Premiership is regarded as undesirable, contends Curbishley, because it jeopardises the closed-shop status quo.

"If it wasn't planned to be elitist I think the Premiership has gone that way," said Curbishley after a match which must have been as much of an ordeal to play in as to watch. "Most of the established clubs hope at least two, if not three, of the newly promoted clubs go down to keep it in-house.

"It would be a major shock if an Everton went down, no one like that has gone down since Manchester City.

"Take next season. Say Sunderland, Bradford and Ipswich go up. Most chairman would hope two or three of them go back down."

The logic is obvious. If the promoted clubs go straight back the others can maintain their place and use the massive financial gap between the divisions to consolidate it even further.

Sunderland, Curbishley added, might upset this thinking because their resources give them a chance to buy their way in, just as Middlesbrough have this season. Their ability to survive means at least one established Premiership side (two if Charlton can stage an unlikely revival) will lose their place this season. This is par for the course. Of the last 10 clubs to be relegated, including Forest this season, six were newly promoted sides while only two had been in the Premiership more than two seasons (Manchester City and QPR in 1996).

This is bad for the game. Movement between the divisions (by different clubs, not the same ones yo-yoing each year) is one of the elements which sustains interest. Yet without a change in the way television money is allocated the situation will get worse.

"Next year the Premiership clubs get pounds 8m each and the Nationwide First Division get pounds 800,000," said Curbishley.

"If we go down we would also get pounds 1.7m for the first two years but that is still a loss of around 70 per cent of our income which not healthy. If you don't bounce back the gap gets even bigger. That's what clubs like QPR and Norwich have found.

"I think we could come straight back. Clubs that have kept their house in order like Palace (until this year), Sunderland, Forest, Bolton, have done so. I think we could manage it financially. We would not have to sell and we could pay our wages."

This is partly because Charlton have not spent heavily this season, a decision which has brought some criticism. Curbishley, whose spending all season is less than the pounds 4.5m Blackburn paid for Ashley Ward, is unrepentant.

"People accuse us of a lack of ambition but when you've lived in Portakabins and shared other people's stadiums you don't want to go down that route. I said to the chairman `if you give me pounds 15m I'll give you mid-table' but we can't do it. Some clubs do, they spend next year's TV money this year. There are plenty of mid-table clubs pounds 15m in debt.

"We keep thinking about where we were [in debt and homeless] but I want to think about where we can be. We've got the catchment area and fan base [Charlton could have sold 30,000 tickets for most games]. If we survive this year we will be a lot stronger next year."

"If". Most of Curbishley's comments had a valedictory ring about them - "we've enjoyed the year, enjoyed the stadiums". After one win in 10 matches and none from five at home, Charlton appear to have accepted the adventure is over. While there was no shortage of spirit against Blackburn - perhaps too much since Carl Tiler has been reported to the Football Association by the referee, Gary Willard, for striking Ward after the final whistle - they rarely looked like scoring. There were some goalmouth scrambles and John Filan had to save well from Neil Redfearn and Martin Pringle soon after the hour mark, but Charlton were desperately short of quality.

Not that Rovers, with one win in 13, were much better though they ought to have had a penalty when Andy Petterson unneccesarily clattered Ward with eight minutes left and had created the better chances beforehand. Keith Gillespie missed a good chance early on, Pringle brilliantly headed Darren Peacock's header off the line after 42 minutes, and Chris Powell blocked a goalbound effort from Jason McAteer after 58.

The rest of the time they were as paralysed with nerves as Charlton, resulting in a match littered with technical errors and poor decision- making.

Brian Kidd, who to his credit did not make a fuss about the penalty, continues to speak positively and of the long-term, but his players are so bereft of confidence only the failings of others are likely to save them.

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Royce (Petterson, h-t); Mills, Rufus, Tiler, Powell; Stuart, Redfearn, Kinsella, Robinson (Barnes, 74); Hunt (Jones, 69), Pringle. Substitutes not used: Bowen, Brown.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Filan; Croft, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson; Gillespie, McAteer, Carsley, Wilcox; Ward, Gallacher (Duff, 74). Substitutes not used: Flowers (gk), Davies, Broomes, Johnson.

Referee: G Willard (Worthing)

Booked: Charlton Athletic: Tiler, Pringle, Redfearn, Mills. Blackburn Carsley, Ward, Wilcox, Davidson.

Man of the match: Carsley.

Attendance: 20,041.