Football: There's no home like an old home

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The Independent Online
THINK of a number. For years the one that always came to mind was dollars 64,000, but so too did the figure pounds 75,000. That was the big pools prize and on that amount in those days you could become seriously rich.

For anyone with more interest in football than simply where the pin happened to pierce the coupon, the same number (plus the odd 31 who ruined the symmetry of that round figure) represented the record crowd ever to cram into Charlton Athletic's ground at The Valley.

Seventy five thousand was also about as many as you wanted at Stamford Bridge without feeling uncomfortably squashed. It was Wembley on a poor day ('only' three-quarters full).

Being part of such a crowd was one of football's 'I was there' experiences and is difficult to relate to today's ground capacities (The Valley is now reduced to about a 10th of its record).

So Charlton's return to that otherwise unremarkable corner of south London was the story of 1992, or at least it was for some of us who have special but not entirely pleasant memories of that largely undistinguished club: of seeing Stanley Matthews for the first time, an elderly, unforgettable Merlin; of ducking when a rare, inaccurate Jackie Milburn header screamed over our heads, and always seeming to be enduring defeats by the odd goal in five.

In a way Charlton's homecoming was football's best news of the year. In another it must have been worrying for the several clubs who are planning to move away from their old homes into characterless, purpose-built grounds outside town and indistinguishable from a hundred Sainsbury's warehouses all over the country.

Clearly there are attractive advantages in making capital out of in-town sites that today are too big, but it all seems reminiscent of the days of the razing of the terraced houses and enforced moves to those centrally heated, comfortable but anonymous high-rise blocks where the community spirit quickly evaporated. That was the reason Charlton fans were so keen to go back to their own home, not some shared arena or new ground on an M25 industrial site.

Liverpool's three largest postbags of recent years were on the subjects of Hillsborough, Graeme Souness's collaboration with the locally loathed Sun and plans to join up with Everton and share an out-of-town stadium several miles from Anfield and Goodison.

The idea of a shared stadium was also mooted, and seriously discussed, by Tottenham and Arsenal. In both cases, the logical and economic advantages were outweighed by the volume of local opposition. It was no good suggesting that what seemed to work in Italy could operate in England. Who would move Coronation Street to some leafy suburban Acacia Avenue?

The return of Charlton to The Valley represented a victory for fans who believe that a football club is a spiritual thing with a character formed as much by its permanent surroundings as by the teams and players who pass through its gates.

Football without nostalgia and an identification with bricks and mortar (or even corrugated iron and rotting wood) is like having theatre in a car park. But living in the decrepit, back-street past is something football wants to escape and as a result of the Taylor Report has had to do something about.

Whether the Charlton experience is actually good for progress towards building new stadiums fit for people is debatable. Most clubs who occupy city sites would rather take the land price and willingly be run out of town. Charlton preferred to stay, leaner and with a better chance of survival. That is the way of things in all industries, including football.

Charlton have planted a foot in both worlds, having more or less built an up-to-date, small stadium on original foundations. That seems to have satisfied those who live with a romanticised view of the 'good old days' when so often all that stood between Charlton and terminal decline was the substantial figure of Sam Bartram.

So somehow football has to take into account the desires of the fans, who are not often as well looked after by club chairmen as Charlton's have been by Roger Alwen, while at the same time accepting that much (not all) of the Taylor Report must be carried out.

The past year has seen several clubs make further efforts to move away from their present homes, but all have been stopped by local councils, fans who want to stay where they are, and people who, with good cause, say 'not in my back yard'. So they have been condemned to live like the unfortunates with mortgages now much greater than the value of their houses.

Dozens of clubs are losing thousands each week simply because they cannot move out of stadiums that are like those decaying stately homes the previously outrageously rich families can no longer afford to maintain but which are not considered worthy of goverment funding.

Most clubs have decided that the only compromise is to reduce dramatically the capacities of their grounds and not only make them conform to Taylor but to go further and offer facilities that only rich individuals and companies can afford.

Some compromise. Such plans immediately alienate the traditional core of support that has always come from the less well-off and will make it all but impossible for the uncommitted football follower to attend matches by paying at the gate.

Indeed, the other side to the good news story at The Valley is the fact that a lot of would-be visiting supporters have already refused to go there because they say prices reflect Charlton's need to recoup the money spent on redevelopment, not the sort of football you can expect to see.

Sometimes, you can almost feel sympathetic towards clubs who are being pulled in different directions by staunch fans, who can be pretty Bolshy, and those who are indifferent to football's future and only want to impress their clients from the comfort of executive boxes that are turning so many grounds into soulless, glass- fronted goldfish bowls.

But you know who the losers will be and sympathy for the majority of clubs lasts not a moment longer than most New Year resolutions.

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