The plaque on the wall of Charlton Athletic's North Stand lists the name of the manager and directors at the time of its completion, in April 2002. Having at that time just completed a double over both Chelsea and Tottenham, Alan Curbishley's side had gone into spring with an outside chance of a Uefa Cup place, then begun to fall away before finishing a respectable 14th.
Four years later, a candidate for the England job but worn out by ploughing uphill on the sloping pitch that is the Premier League, he was gone, and nobody could have foreseen how dramatic the effect would be. Last Wednesday he found himself reflecting disbelievingly on how a club universally admired for its ethic and organisation had just been condemned to a second relegation in three seasons, brought about by four different managers.
"If you'd sat down at the start of the season and said the bottom three in the Championship would be Charlton, Southampton and Norwich, no one would have believed it," he said. "As you can see by the scramble among clubs like Newcastle, pulling all the stops out and desperate not to go down, it shows the importance of staying in that Premier League."
That is a phrase he repeats more than once, yet not, he insists, as a rebuke to those Charlton fans who were growing impatient with having dreams of European football nurtured most seasons, then disappearing with the Easter bunny. "I don't think it was to do with the fans wanting more," he says of his departure from the club. "It was to do with the fact that I'd done the 15 or 16 years and [chairman] Richard Murray wanted me to commit, which I felt I didn't want to. It came down to what we thought was best for the club at the time. That's why the decision was made, so the new manager could go in in May and have three months before the season started. I had 15 years, Iain Dowie had 15 games. I don't know what went on but from having two managers in 25 years, myself and Lennie Lawrence, they had three or four in 18 months. That don't help."
Unwilling to blame either Dowie, the briefly employed Les Reed, Alan Pardew or the present manager Phil Parkinson for the rot, he nevertheless cannot resist pointing out that neither Dowie nor Pardew were exactly starved of funds. "It's not as if they had to sell everybody and got nothing in return. I understand they've spent quite a lot of money over the last three years. So something's gone wrong. The striking thing for me is the severity of Charlton's situation, how quickly it's happened. Not many people could have predicted that. It could have been Charlton, it could have been West Ham who went down."
Curbishley's West Ham that would have been, who appeared doomed that season when drubbed 4-0 at the Valley on an embarrassing return for him, but then saved themselves in controversial fashion thanks to Carlos Tevez's continued presence. But after little more than one full season at Upton Park, which the locals found too austere for their tastes, Curbishley the Canning Town boy walked out, following interference from above of the sort never contemplated at Charlton; an event still in the lawyers' hands and not up for discussion.
West Ham might be regarded by many as his spiritual home, yet interestingly when the word "we" is dropped into the conversation, it is still in reference to Charlton. He remains close to many people there and worries about them in the club's current footballing and financial predicament: "It's not all about me, I've got to stress that. It's a lot harder for other people. There are so many other people involved: the fans, staff at the training ground and the Valley, who I understand may come under pressure now. And the people involved in getting us where we were. It's time for them all to regroup and bounce back. I remember Man City going down there, Leeds and Leicester. You've got to jump back up."
And when will Alan Curbishley be jumping back into the madhouse? Relaxed, tanned and without a grey hair on his blond head, he looks a perfect advertisement for regular six-month breaks from management, even if the current one was not planned quite so soon. "People ask what it's like having a break but I wasn't expecting this one. I only had four games [this season]. But I've enjoyed it, done a couple of things I've never done before, like being at home over Christmas and New Year, which is a big difference. It's the way it is with football managers. It's what we've got to get on with when we're not working. The Premier League this season has probably been the most competitive yet. I've been an avid watcher, looking from the outside, and I've enjoyed it, wondering what I'd do and so on. We'll just have to see what happens, but it took Steve McClaren and Sam Allardyce a year to get back in. If I got back in you have to see where you go, but I just think the Premier League is where everybody wants to be."
Alan Curbishley was speaking at the opening of the new Hall Place sports pavilion and lecture hall in Bexley following a £1m grant from the Football Foundation
Life and times
Born Llewellyn Charles Curbishley in Canning Town, 8 November 1957.
Playing career West Ham from 1974-78 (96 games); Birmingham City from 1979-82 (155 games); Aston Villa from 1983-84 (41 games); Charlton from 1984-87 and 1990-93 (98 games); Brighton from 1987 to 1990 (132 games).
Charlton (jointly with Steve Gritt) from July 1991 to July 1995. Sole manager from July 1995 to May 2006. Record: Played 729 Won 280 Drew 183 Lost 266.
Manager of West Ham from December 2006 to September 2008. Record: Played 71 Won 29 Drew 14 Lost 28.
Education received honorary masters degree from Greenwich University in 1998.
Fascinating facts older brother Bill managed The Who when they played the Valley in 1974.Reuse content