Alan Curbishley: How green was my Valley

For the last 15 years Alan Curbishley has lived and breathed Charlton Athletic but will walk away tomorrow with head held high after his final game in charge against Manchester United. He leaves with no regrets but tells Glenn Moore he will be back in football once his batteries are recharged

"But it's not about that," he said an hour later as he sat in a sweltering Portakabin. It is about, he went on to explain, having a summer when he will not wake up each morning thinking about who to sign, who to sell, what formation to play. When he does not spend every day on the phone. He added, of his decision to stand down after 15 years managing Charlton: "I've cleared my desk already but it's not really sunk in. I expect it will when I drive home on Tuesday from the League Managers' Association dinner. Normally I'd be taking calls from agents, talking to the chairman, trying to sign players, having people sniffing round yours. Now that isn't going to happen. I'll have to see how it affects me."

To judge from a midweek exchange with Mrs Curbishley, which ended with her saying "you've only been home four days", he will not be the only one needing time to adjust, welcome though it may be to have one's husband around after so long in one of the most time-hungry professions there is.

Fittingly, his 729th and last game in charge of the Addicks is at Old Trafford tomorrow, home of the only Premiership manager to pre-date his arrival in the dug-out. Sir Alex Ferguson can be expected to roll out, if not the red carpet, a very good red.

Such a finale seemed improbable when Curbishley, in tandem with Steve Gritt, took over in 1991. Curbishley had signed for the club, then playing in the old Second Division (now Championship) in a near derelict ground, at Christmas 1984. Lennie Lawrence, their predecessor, had refused to meet him at The Valley because, said Curbishley, "he knew if I saw the place I wouldn't sign". Seven years on, Charlton had just finished 16th in the Second Division. They had just moved out of Selhurst Park, where they had been tenants of Crystal Palace, to Upton Park, where West Ham were the landlords. "I think the pundits gave me and Steve three months," said Curbishley. "We were only given the job because they couldn't afford anyone else. The first thing we did was sell Andy Peake to Middlesbrough for £150,000. The wage bill was £47,500 and that gave us three months. I'll never forget one afternoon the coach was stuck on the Canning Town flyover and John Bumstead ran two miles to Upton Park to hand in the teamsheet - we couldn't afford the fine for being late."

In their first match as joint-managers they beat Newcastle United 2-1. Rob Lee and Carl Leaburn scored, the attendance was 9,320, nearly 3,000 up on the previous season's average but still not enough to pay the rent. Although Lee (after being sold to Newcastle for £700,000 to pay overdue rent) went on to play for England, the nearest connection they had to international sport at the time was Steve Gatting, brother of former cricket captain Mike. Ten of the team were English, the 11th, Colin Walsh, was Scottish. Four of the team were home-grown.

The 14 that lost at home to Blackburn on Saturday also had four home-grown players but Osdei Sankofa was the only starter. The first XI featured seven internationals from six countries. In all, the club now boasts 11 different nationalities and 14 capped players, including England internationals Chris Powell, Luke Young and Darren Bent. When Curbishley took over, the club had not produced an England international since Mike Bailey in 1965 and only six in history. Under him, five players (the others are Paul Konchesky and Scott Parker) have been capped. In 1991, the club's transfer record stood at £600,000, paid to Chelsea for Joe McLaughlin. It now stands at £4.75m, though it was back in July 2001 Curbishley paid that for Wimbledon's Jason Euell. Charlton moved back to The Valley in December 1992, to an initial capacity of 8,337. The capacity now stands at 27,111 with an average gate above 26,000.

"Moving back to The Valley was one of the critical points," Curbishley said. "The club became a club again, we had no chance playing on other people's grounds. Another was that first season. We were favourites for relegation, we should have gone back to The Valley but hadn't. Steve and I were called Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or Pinky and Perky, but we had a fantastic season just missing out on the play-offs. That encouraged Richard Murray and Martin Simons [respectively the current and preceding chairmen] to get involved. They had been on the fringes and I think if we had had a disaster season they may never have got involved. We've gone from strength to strength ever since."

In 1995, with the joint-managers experiment faltering, the board chose Curbishley and Gritt moved on. He is back at the club as reserve team coach having managed Brighton in the interim. The next turning point was the incredible 1998 promotion play-off victory over Sunderland, by 6-5 on penalties after a 4-4 draw. "We couldn't afford to lose that, Sunderland could. They were a stronger club but if we had lost, the team might have been broken up and who knows what would have happened."

Curbishley's other fond memory is of Saturday's send-off, and especially the ovation he received from the fans for the final five minutes of the game. "It sums up the club. They wanted to make it a celebration. The last five minutes, the way I was treated, will be a massive highlight. I don't think the club realises the goodwill they got from that. Up and down the country people know this is a proper club."

Regrets? There are a few, most notably "the Parker deal" in January 2004. "I just wish it could have happened at the end of the season. We were fourth in the league and we had a bit about us, we had Paolo Di Canio, Claus Jensen, Parker. We'd beaten Chelsea 4-2, won 1-0 at Spurs. Scott Parker didn't make the team but he had a big influence on it and the way it happened wasn't the best."

The way Parker forced the move grated on a man who said he had three times rejected lucrative offers to move - "I'm not motivated by money". A sense of disenchantment at the nature of the modern player was also evident when he said: "When I think about the players at this club I think about the early ones, the players who didn't get the rewards you see in that car park now [all Humvees, Mercedes, Land Rovers and BMWs]. They did it when we were struggling. I'll go back to that era more than anything. The group that played at Upton Park and who took us back to The Valley. Charlton fans recognise a Charlton player and in the early days we had a lot."

There was a waspishness, too, when he said of his future: "Who knows, there may be a Champions' League club in Spain, or somewhere, who are not afraid to take an Englishman. Certainly Champions' League clubs in England are."

As that indicated, Curbishley is not retiring, he could be available as early as August after a mere two months recharging his batteries but does not want a job below Premiership level. He has done his time on the salvage beat. Nor does he envisage being part of the new England set-up under Steve McClaren, to whom he sends his best wishes.

What is certain is he will be back at The Valley, either as a spectator or an opponent. If it is the latter, he said: "I will hope they haven't moved the dug-outs. I've always felt the away dug-out had an advantage because they are next to the linesman."

If the former? "I want to come back here for a big game, one with a bit of atmosphere, but where I'll be nice and relaxed. I'll look down at that dug-out and say, 'ooh he ain't jumping around much, why doesn't he make some substitutions?' I'll just enjoy it, for a change."

Drama, horror Curbishley's highs and lows

* BEST MATCH

'For sheer drama, the play-off final with Sunderland. There may never be a match like it.'

* BEST PERFORMANCE

'Beating Chelsea 4-2 at The Valley in 2003. It was a fantastic performance, but it cost us Scott Parker. I think that was the day they decided to sign him.'

* WORST GAME

'Being beat 4-0 here last year by Man U. The game was over after 60 minutes and people were leaving. It was damage limitation and it was horrible. It hurt me more than going down.'

'He oversaw the rebirth of the club and I hope he feels proud'

By Kristina Ferris, Lifelong Charlton fan

"It's the end of an era," the guy on the PA said as he invited Alan Curbishley to address the crowd last Saturday. It was. When the era began, 15 years ago, the club was homeless and pretty much broke. Asking Curbishley and Steve Gritt to take over when Lennie Lawrence left was prudent. Both were popular and, as they already had players' contracts, cheap. Two managers? Why not? They were inexperienced, so maybe two heads would be better than one.

They brought Charlton back to the Valley a year later. The once imposing ground - built in a natural quarry, holding 70,000-plus in its heyday - was reduced to a mess of scaffolding and portable huts, with one terrace closed completely. But it was home and we were back and after seven years of exile it felt amazing.

That Curbishley remained as manager so long is a huge achievement in itself. That he oversaw Charlton's rebirth and growth from a club that had to sell players to pay the wages to a financially strong Premiership outfit with a grand stadium and international players is something of which I hope he feels immensely proud.

Do I wish he had achieved more? After years of mediocrity followed by the uncertainty of Charlton's survival, being a mid-table Premiership team is the kind of success I never dreamed of. I still need to pinch myself sometimes! Thanks, Curbs. You'll be a tough act to follow.

That was then: The football world in 1991, when Curbishley took over at Charlton

* SOME THINGS CHANGE... Graham Taylor was England manager ... Sven Goran Eriksson was coaching Benfica ... Steve McClaren (right) was coaching Oxford United's youth team, and making occasional appearances for the first XI ... Wayne Rooney (middle) was at infants school in Liverpool ... Roman Abramovich was a 25-year-old wheeler-dealer in Moscow, about to take advantage of the Soviet Union's collapse and move from selling toys and perfumes to oil ... Jose Mourinho was out of work having been dismissed as fitness coach at Portuguese club Estrela.

* ... BUT SOME STAY THE SAME

Alex Ferguson (right) managed Manchester United ... Dario Gradi managed Crewe ... Sunderland, West Brom and Crewe had just been relegated ... and Southend promoted ... and a Neil Warnock-managed team featuring Craig Short at centre-half had just made it into the top flight. But that was Notts County.

Comments