Football: FA Cup Sixth Round: Charlton's grounds for hope as nostalgia rules: Norman Fox hears plaudits paid to supporters for the Valley of new life

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST winter, site workers at Charlton Athletic's reclaimed ground in south London often got the feeling they were being watched. They were. Groups of fans just stood there with their memories and hopes. The story goes that some even arrived before three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and left at twenty to five, just daydreaming about being back home at the Valley, chasing a place in the Premiership, playing Manchester United in the Cup, getting to Wembley and . . .

Charlton fans have never been short on hope but, more than anything, the club's survival has depended on nostalgia for a ground that was once the biggest in England. After all, this is a club with precious little else in the way of tradition: one FA Cup win back in 1947 and seasons of struggle. Yet their return to the Valley the December before last was so overflowing with relief from seven years' homesickness that the tears might have caused a landslip on what was left of the great East Terrace that made the old chalk pit so dramatic.

Generations of hard-working teams had rubbed shoulders with the best but you would never have called Charlton ambitious. Yet for those of us whose first impressions of professional football were formed at a Valley packed with more than 60,000, the reason why people who never saw Bartram, Firmani and Leary, let alone Welsh, Duffy and 'Sailor' Brown in 1947, campaigned for so long to restore a wilderness to a home is easily understood.

The Valley was once said to be a national stadium waiting to be developed. Charlton were a big club waiting for more investment than the Gliksten family was capable of providing. Hope always prevailed, but Charlton remained a small fish in a big pool. Success was not something you expected when you went to the Valley; the attraction was atmosphere. The ground might have been compared with Stamford Bridge, with its similar vast open terraces, but somehow the Bridge was never as captivating, probably due to the fact that Charlton were always the underdogs.

Go to the Valley today and it has more to do with hard hats than cloth caps, but the spirits of the past seem happier. Portakabins are everywhere but never has one of football's more prosaic chants contained such a truth: Charlton are back. Roger Alwen, the chairman, gives the fans a large share of the credit. At times he had his own doubts, especially over the long struggle with Greenwich councillors who put obstacles in the way of development, officially on the basis that Charlton's return would cause too much local disturbance but possibly because they were sceptical about Alwen and one or two other investors who they suspected of being speculators.

Alwen worried that when permission was granted to redevelop the Valley it came at the very moment interest rates were high and people had little money to spare. He still has to worry: Charlton's FA Cup run and the pounds 150,000 they should clear from the visit to Old Trafford this Saturday is not something a sensible chairman banks onat the start of a season. Money has usually been scarce at Charlton. When they first looked for a permanent ground in 1919, the bank balance stood at two shillings and three pence, and even in the Thirties when they were sometimes higher in the First Division even than Arsenal, their profits never seemed to go into improving what could have become London's premier stadium.

As well as being chairman, Alwen is clearly a dedicated spectator. He has watched Charlton since his mother used to take him to the Valley on a bus from Sevenoaks. He is obviously one of those fans who would have paid gate money merely to watch the grass grow. He admits: 'We would never have come back to the Valley after seven years, let alone be playing Manchester United, if it hadn't been for the fans.' One said it was like a peasants' revolt, 'only this time the peasants won'.

They were typical of the 4,000 or so die-hards who regularly suffered with Charlton in their last days before leaving the Valley. The sort who formed the Valley Party and got 15,000 votes (ironically Greenwich Council had delayed making a decision about the Valley until after the local elections because they thought giving permission would cost them votes). They raised more than pounds 1m towards the cost of development, which has already topped pounds 4m. They have just snapped up the first batch of shares and they have paid pretty high prices to see a modest team achieve things to boast about.

When Charlton were sharing grounds with Crystal Palace and the old pitch and terraces were covered in weeds, the fans still dreamed of the day in December 1992 when an incomplete and smaller Valley reopened. Famous patrons such as Michael Grade likened the return to some religious experience, a little over the top perhaps but you had to have been in a 1950s crowd (a warm crush and a love affair) to know what he meant.

So what does Charlton mean today? Alan Curbishley, the joint manager (with Steve Gritt) and a convert from West Ham and Millwall, said that playing permanently on somebody else's patch was always strange, a sort of spirit life. 'When we came back to the Valley it was suddenly as if we were a club again.'

Beating Blackburn confirmed the ability of a hard-working Charlton team, built when most of their available cash was going into rebuilding the Valley. Wednesday's 2-0 fifth-round defeat of Bristol City took just as much graft but in Darren Pitcher, who put out Blackburn and scored a penalty against City, and Carl Leaburn Charlton have players who seem to respond as if playing in days when nearly 10 times as many people might have watched such a tie.

Ray Harford, now assistant manager at Blackburn, who Charlton knocked out in the fourth round, was a junior at the Valley, though he only played one game there. Nevertheless, as a kid he had been among crowds of nearly 70,000. 'Breathtaking,' he said. 'I just loved the place in the early Sixties when Eddie Firmani and Stuart Leary were there; they taught me so much. But memories of the big terrace? I got a knee injury and the coach, Jock Basford, got me running to the top of the ground; it was so high you could see all over London. The knee got better but I got nose bleeds.'

(Photograph omitted)