How green is Curbishley's Valley?

The Charlton manager is facing unaccustomed unrest from supporters as the club struggles after last season's seventh place in the Premiership. But Jason Burt finds he is coping well with higher levels of expectation
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The Independent Football

Alan Curbishley is 47 on Monday and although it may not be one of those landmark birthdays, the Charlton Athletic manager is certainly taking stock right now. For the last two matches, both at home, something unusual has happened. His team has been booed off. And it has hurt.

It has hurt so much that Curbishley's brother, Bill, who works in the music industry, and is the manager of The Who, has revealed that he urged him to walk away in the summer. "I'm trying to contain my anger," Bill Curbishley said.

Alan Curbishley, 16 years Bill's junior, isn't quite so direct, partly, as he explains, because he believes in the need for "a clear head when there's a bit of mayhem". But there is irritation that intermingles with the emotion of it all. Today there's an added ingredient. Charlton are away to Tottenham Hotspur, the club Curbishley was constantly linked with last season and would, probably, have joined if the right offer had been made. He even publicly pondered about the fact that he lives just two miles from the Spurs training ground.

That journey would be somewhat shorter than the one he has been undertaking since 1991 - from his home in Essex to south-east London.

On the other hand, Curbishley does much of his thinking in his car. Of late, his mood has not been a happy one. "When we got booed off [against Crystal Palace] I was driving home and I was thinking, 'Well in the last seven years they've had two promotions and five years in the Premiership,'" Curbishley says, "and we've had some real good times. We need them [the fans] to support the team and get behind everybody. We all know where we have come from and what we have achieved. Perhaps we've brought one or two fans in who've only been there a couple of years. I'm not saying they can't have a go, but when you are a club like us then when it's not going so well they need to be behind us."

When Curbishley says "a club like us" he reaches into the heart of the dilemma. If size and scale were all that counted then Charlton should barely be in the Premiership (fourth from bottom for attendances; bottom six for wages), never mind its top half. Last Saturday they played Middlesbrough whom they finished five points and four places ahead of last season. Charlton lost. Curbishley, however, makes the point of comparing the resources. His favourite refrain - a joke he says - is to call his club "little old Charlton". But there's an edge. "Perhaps to let people know that we can't compete with Middlesbrough when it comes to Viduka and Hasselbaink," he says. "People say go and sign this one or that one but they don't realise that we've got no chance."

Is that frustrating? "Yes, but when you know what market you are in you just get on with it," Curbishley says. "Leeds beat us 6-1 a couple of years ago and we had a meeting the next day and the only consolation I could take is that perhaps the next time we played Leeds half that team would not be there. And that's exactly what happened because we all knew they were living beyond their means."

Last season Leeds went down. But no one talks of Charlton going down. It's a mark of how far they have come, and how much he has achieved, even if Curbishley is cautious, stating "you can easily drop into it".

He goes on: "Most people, when they do their predictions go on the year before." Charlton finished a magnificent seventh. The achievement is, Curbishley says starkly, "irrelevant". "That was then," he says, "and as much as I can I'm trying to get away [from it]."

But the "realism" of just surviving has perhaps given way to greater "expectation levels". Curbishley knows he has fuelled them. "For the first three years [in the Premiership] all we spoke about was 40 points," he says. "Last year was the first time I'd talked about top 10 because I felt that I had a squad that was strong enough."

The spine of that squad has, however, been ripped out. First Scott Parker went, then Gary Rowett and Richard Rufus - "the best player never to play for England" - were forced to retire through injury. But, Curbishley says, it has been the more recent departures of Claus Jensen, Paolo Di Canio and Carlton Cole which have really hurt as they came so close to the season's start.

"I had to throw mine in," he says of his new signings such as Dennis Rommedahl, Francis Jeffers and Danny Murphy. "I thought for the first six or seven games it was like pre-season. People were playing together for the first time and getting used to each other."

Unfortunately, his team is scarcely any better three months into the season. He agrees that lack of "consistency" is a concern. "You don't know what we're going to do and we don't know what our best team is," he says. "We've not got six or seven [players] where you say 'I'm in there' and the players who come out are saying that the players who go in are no better. Whereas you look at most sides and they've got that [consistency]."

It's not just the new arrivals who have disappointed - "there's players who've been here a long while who are not playing as well as they should be. They're not clicking," Curbishley says.

He goes on: "We've tried to change. I've brought in players who'll make a difference for us at The Valley because, over the years, we've done well away and found it hard to win at home. But we've had five away games and we've only turned up for one of them. At Bolton, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool we were an embarrassment. It's not what we're used to."

He gives his team a C minus for their efforts so far but insists it does not amount to a "panic situation". Indeed Charlton are 13th, five points clear of the relegation zone. "Possibly, because of last season there is more pressure," he says, "but the thing for me is that this is not the first time we've had slow starts. I think last year we were in the bottom three and we've been there before." However, he adds: "It's a long season and I'm not going overboard but we've got to play better." More signings will arrive in January.

The Premiership, however, does go overboard and Curbishley has trenchant views. "The biggest problem is that it has been hyped so much. You cannot escape it," he says. "Perhaps we're in danger of flooding it. Any given weekend you have two live games on Saturday, a Spanish one, an Italian one, or a French one on a Sunday and two more live games. More on Monday and then on Tuesday, Wednesday there's Champions' League or internationals or Football League and it's coming at you. It's difficult to see so much. You ask any manager and they will say that in the end they will not go out [to a match] because they are watching football for the sake of watching it."

That, he says, makes criticism easy. "If you are seeing so much of it [football] then you take it for granted." The other week, his son switched on the television to watch Juventus against Roma. "I thought 'I don't want to watch this'," Curbishley says. "Perhaps we're getting blasé. If you keep going to the chocolate factory then maybe you won't like the next bar of chocolate. We've got so much of it that it's easy to say 'that's crap'."

Curbishley makes another observation. "We had people over and the husband said, 'there's a game on, shall we watch it?' and his wife said, 'why do you want to watch that?' He said, 'because it's my team' and she said, 'well you know who's going to win. I'd rather watch a First Division game because you don't know what is going on there' and I looked at her and thought 'you're right'. And the next First Division game I saw was end to end. We're in danger of being like snooker. It was fantastic and Steve Davis this and that, but then it was 'oh no, not snooker again'."

Before it starts to sound like Curbishley has lost his enthusiasm, he turns to the topic of "mental strength". After all, this is his 14th season as manager, or joint-manager, of Charlton. And that's a lot of team-talks in one dressing-room. "I'm not one of those who rants and raves and perhaps people see that as a weakness," he says. "But I can go when I want to go. You have to mix it up. If I have to make a decision and someone has to be spoken to then it happens. But only if I'm absolutely sure. I don't see the sense in having a row and then apologising afterwards."

Curbishley suggests being a football manager is like being a doctor or a lawyer in terms of the need to stay calm. "If I want to go in at half-time and smash things around then maybe I'm not going to get my point across. It's just going to get lost in the mêlée. So when you look at professional people, someone has to take charge.

"Perhaps I'm one of those people where it's all going on inside. Perhaps people look at me and think 'oh, he's handled it quite well, there are not too many grey hairs' but maybe it's inside. We're all different. And people attack the game differently. Look at Alan Shearer, who I admire. You cannot tell whether he has won or lost most weeks."

One thing Curbishley has noticed about himself is that losing is becoming harder to take. "I must admit that as you get more into it the pleasure of winning is soon numbed by the fact that there is another game coming up. And it never matches the despair of defeat. When you win it is great, when you lose it is worse. You can't equate the two things. We flew home from Liverpool [after last month's 2-0 defeat] and it was only an hour's flight. But it was a long hour. There was a lot of thinking time. We beat Portsmouth on a Saturday and Villa on a Wednesday, took six points, but already when I hit the Blackwall Tunnel [near The Valley] I was thinking of Man City. The pleasure of the win passes."

It's the same for most managers, he feels. "You wake up on a Saturday morning hoping that if it goes fantastically well you will get a win. There's a handful who wake up expecting to win because they've got the squad, they've got this, they got that. Someone once said to a big manager 'how many bad Sundays have you had?' And it was a handful. Most of us have more."

Nevertheless, he believes he shares much in common with the biggest two - Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal's Arsène Wenger. "There are four managers who have had longevity," Curbishley says, "and three of us are very similar. You take Dario Gradi [at Crewe Alexandra] out of it because he's got a different brief. But there's Alex, over the years, who has produced a youth policy, built a better stadium, been successful. Winning leagues, winning cups. Arsène Wenger has built a youth policy, albeit foreign, built a training ground, is building a stadium and has been successful. Very similar. I've come here. We had no ground, nothing else. Now we own everything. Where we are sitting now [the training ground], The Valley, the players. What Graham Taylor said a couple of years ago was that we were the most successful team in our own way. The only way that me and Alex and Arsène have lasted so long is that results have gone our way, whatever they may be."

It grates that he is, however, still regarded as the "up-and-coming" manager with the implication that he has much to prove. Curbishley knows why. "It must be because I'm at Charlton," he says. Which leads on to the perennial question of why hasn't he left. "There's going to be a time," he says. "But I can truthfully say that I've only been offered one job in the last three years [West Ham in 2001]."

Why's that?

"Don't know."

But there are reasons to stay. At Charlton he "runs the club as I see fit and not many people can say that. So I'm happy with that. They've looked after me and I'm trying to do my best." Not that it will make it any harder to go when the time comes. "But no one's ever told me to leave," he says, "we've never gone that far."

One departure he does enjoy is walking out of The Valley when it is empty. "If you catch it in the right light it is a fantastic stadium," he says with pride. "I get great pleasure in that. More than I used to." It leads into a discussion of what ambitions he has left for Charlton - and his eventual legacy. "I'd like The Valley turned into a 30,000 all-seater. If we could do that and wrap the stadium round and get 35,000 then that would be Charlton. Sold out every week. And in the Premiership. If I got that far then I think I could live with that."

It would reinforce how far they have come. "When I first started we sold Andy Peake, our captain, to pay the wages for three months to keep us going and I was showing our players how to get to Upton Park to play in front of 3,000. When it's full The Valley has a fantastic atmosphere. That's for me. I'm not talking about getting into Europe or winning this or winning that. Let's keep us a Premiership club and improve the facilities. People can now walk into this club and say 'this is a football club'. Fourteen years ago they could not. We were not a club then. We are now."

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