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Football: Prodigal Powell defends the Charlton faith

South London club's full back hopes to help his side back to the Premiership. By Steve Tongue
AS CHARLTON Athletic's training headquarters lie at the end of Sparrows Lane, it is appropriate that it should ring to the sound of much Cockney chirping. There is an occasional northern accent to be heard, one Scot and an Irishman, too, but not a foreigner in the first-team; this is no place for fancy Dans, or Stans - it is not Fulham, let alone Chelsea.

Rather, the list of players' birthplaces reads like the London A-Z: Sidcup, Lewisham, Whitechapel, Islington, Southwark, Hackney, Camberwell. Two of the current regulars, Chris Powell (Lambeth) and Graham Stuart (Tooting) even went to school together before going their separate ways, then returning home to south London by equally circuitous routes. In the case of Powell, an admirably composed full-back and personable member of Christians in Sport, it was via Southend United and Derby County, after an initial three years with Crystal Palace, who he is preparing to face on Sunday in the first of two important holiday fixtures.

Charlton, in this corporate age, are still a club rooted in their community, which is one of the reasons why there was much sympathy from neutrals when they slipped out of the Premiership last May, and why they would be a popular choice to return at the first attempt. A generally impressive first five months has left them fourth in the First Division, with a game in hand on the top three, yet feeling that it might have been even better.

As Powell says: "We're thinking we've given away some points and let ourselves down in some games, otherwise we could have had at least the same number of points as Huddersfield. But you have to earn the right to be there and at the moment we've earned the right to be fourth."

Tuesday's game away to Huddersfield, the leaders, will therefore be a good test for players and fans alike, the midday kick-off giving a departure time for one of the more far-flung supporters' coaches of 4.15am. Before that there is the more considerate piece of fixture-planning bringing Palace to The Valley for a local derby in which visiting supporters - not to say the manager, Steve Coppell - will feel particularly discomfited by the sight of an opposing player they gave away for nothing after three appearances in as many years, who has subsequently been transferred twice for sums in excess of pounds 750,000.

Derby's Jim Smith paid that amount to take Powell from Southend during the 1995-96 season, when he helped them achieve Premier League status. He enjoyed his time at Derby, in a cosmopolitan dressing room far removed from the one in which he now hangs his hat: "We had a smattering of foreign players who never spoke any English, but who had such individual talent that they were allowed to do their bit, and then British players who knew what was needed when we were winning 1-0 in a really tough away game."

He was slightly surprised to be made Alan Curbishley's first signing once Charlton had secured promotion in their astonishing play-off final against Sunderland at Wembley two seasons ago. "The speed of it took me back a bit. Jim Smith, who's one of the best managers I've played under, just felt he could make a change or two and earn the club some money at the time, when he sold several other players as well. I felt I was going to a good club, staying in the Premiership and it was a move back to London, so it made sense and I'm still happy I made the move."

It looked an even better one a few months later when, after 10 matches, Charlton were in the top half of the table and only Manchester United had scored more goals. By Christmas, however, comfort and joy were thin on the ground: "We had an extremely poor time in December and January, where we lost eight in a row and that, I would say, put us down. If we'd taken just a few points from those eight games, that would have kept us up."

Settled back in London - he has just become a father for the first time - there was no thought of moving on again, only of regaining the status that he believes the club and the supporters deserve. "Given the adversity they went through, with their nomadic lifestyle at Selhurst and Upton Park and the players earning Premiership status, it's been one massive effort. People were thinking this club could be another Aldershot. So to go from crowds of 6,000 to 20,000 in such a short time is a great achievement."

Fatherhood has meant a proposed degree course in sports science being postponed until next September, when Brunel University might just find they have a Premiership footballer on their books. If neither the course nor promotion materialises, Powell will be disappointed but not distraught; one of his legacies at Palace was to be introduced to Christians in Sport by a team-mate, Dennis Bailey, and even amid all the chirruping of the changing room he is not one to litter conversations about sport with words like "tragedy" and "disaster".

His fellow defender Richard Rufus has this week come out as a committed Christian, and extracted a promise from another team-mate, Eddie Youds to attend a church service - where it may be necessary to get in a supply of yellow cards. Palace and Huddersfield must wonder exactly who they might be up against in trying to breach the Charlton back four next week but would probably be unwise to expect too much turning of the other cheek as the festive football hots up.