Football: Wealthy not so wise after a visit to Valley

COMMENTARY; Charlton Athletic 3 Middlesbrough 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough were each without a cult hero when they ran out at The Valley on Saturday. Absent from the home team was Carl Leaburn, famous for not scoring goals and sold to Wimbledon on Thursday for pounds 150,000. Missing from the visitors was Emerson, famous for not turning up and seemingly soon to be sold to Tenerife for pounds 4m.

The disparity in deals typified the gap between the clubs. Charlton: shoestring budget; average gate 12,000; squad cost pounds 2m; two international players (both with Wales). Middlesbrough: bankrolled by millionaire Steve Gibson; average gate 30,000; squad cost pounds 16m; nine internationals.

Yet on Saturday Charlton deservedly and comfortably defeated their wealthy guests to move into third place in the Nationwide League First Division. Middlesbrough, leaders in the morning, are now second to Nottingham Forest.

A glance at the other promotion contenders shows Charlton to be the odd ones out. Sunderland, Sheffield United, Wolves, West Brom and Birmingham are, like Forest and Boro, relatively well supported clubs with the concomitant resources. With the notable exception of Manchester City, money is talking in the First Division: how do Charlton compete?

"It is a matter of building it up," said Alan Curbishley, their manager for seven years, initially in tandem with Steve Gritt. "We've had a bit of a game plan and though we've had to introduce kids, and we've had to sell people like Robert Lee when we've been in great positions, overall we've maintained it."

The need to get into the Premiership becomes more urgent every year as the wealth gap increases. "I feel everything that has happened in recent years is geared towards clubs with money," Curbishley said. "It started with keeping home gate receipts, then freedom of contract, now Bosman and academies. It's very short-sighted. Whoever is running the Premiership should take a serious look at what is happening underneath and share the money about a bit more evenly.

"The financial gap is about pounds 1m to pounds 7m a year. It is an incredible amount of money. It is only when clubs come down and don't go straight back that they realise what is happening.

"They've already got things loaded in their favour. Relegated clubs still get the money from Sky [worth pounds 2m-plus over two seasons]. That is why Sunderland, Forest and Middlesbrough have not have to sell too many people. The Premiership may release more funds to us, but they will want something in return like two-up, two-down."

This move, which is being persuasively argued for in some Premiership boardrooms, strikes at the heart of the game. Fear and self-interest is behind it but the proposal's supporters never seem to consider that it also makes it harder to return if relegated.

Then there is Bosman and the plan for players to be entitled to a free transfer at 24. This is a particular blow to clubs such as Charlton with an acclaimed youth system (with nine current England age-group internationals) and a need to survive on its proceeds. In recent years the sales of former trainees such as Lee Bowyer, Scott Minto, Darren Pitcher and Lee have realised more than pounds 5m.

"We are concerned about Bosman," Curbishley said. "We don't know what the main impact will be but we know it will be better for the bigger clubs and those not in Premiership will find it tough."

Not that Curbishley is moaning all the time. He was pretty pleased with his team on Saturday and he knows the club are in a healthier state than for decades. In 1991 they had no ground and little hope. They are now a model community club with growing support. Saturday's gate was the highest since returning to The Valley and another 4,000 seats are planned to take capacity to 20,000.

Then there is the youth system with two 16-year-olds given debuts this season. "The big clubs have all the aces," Curbishley said, "but we can say `don't sit in Premiership reserve and youth teams for five years. Come to us and if you're any good you'll get a game'."

This progress enabled Curbishley to reject Queen's Park Rangers' recent interest and on Saturday he must have felt vindicated. Charlton's neat passing and eager pressing overwhelmed a tired Middlesbrough side.

Had Mikkel Beck, who looks as hapless as he did in the Premiership, converted a wonderful second-minute opportunity things might have been different but Mark Kinsella, Keith Jones and John Robinson took control in midfield and Shaun Newton gave Vladimir Kinder a fearful chasing on the right flank. Ahead of them the clever Clive Mendonca, who would not look out of place in the Premiership, dragged Boro's big central pair all over.

Newton's first, a fierce 20-yard shot, followed a one-two with Mendonca. His second, an opportunist strike at a corner, came after Paul Merson had failed to clear. In between Mark Bright, Leaburn's replacement, capitalised on Mark Schwarzer's poor handling of a Newton cross.

Bryan Robson made three personnel and 11 positional changes during two reshuffles but to no avail, Charlton could easily have had five goals; Boro could easily have ended with 10 players, Merson, his frustration boiling over at Boro's inability to use his still evident quality, should have received a second yellow card for his part in a late melee. Given Arsenal's recent forward problems his Highbury departure seems such a waste.

Charlton were in rapture but their supporters' joy was tempered by a cold note of reality at the final whistle when the public address announced "West Ham 6, Barnsley 0".

"There's all sorts of problems if we go up but I'd like to encounter them," added Curbishley. "I would attack it the way Leicester have and look to bring in the better First Division players. The trick is to survive for a couple of years and then you're on a bit of an even keel."

Goals: Newton (20) 1-0; Bright (36), Newton (58).

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Salmon; Brown, Rufus, Chapple, Bowen; Newton (Holmes, 82), Kinsella, Jones, Robinson; Bright (Allen, 85), Mendonca. Substitute not used: Barness.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Maddison, Pearson, Vickers, Kinder; Hignett, Mustoe, Townsend (Liddle, h/t), Moreno (Harrison, 66); Merson, Beck (Ormerod, 66).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Bookings: Charlton: Bright, Allen. Middlesbrough: Merson.

Attendance: 15,742.

Man of the Match: Newton.