Stuart relishing his return as Charlton chase the dream

Midfielder eager to keep Valley club top of their 'realistic league' after winning lengthy struggle with injury
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The Independent Football

Charlton Athletic are top of the league. Fourth place in the Premiership represents the summit, according to their influential midfielder Graham Stuart. The three teams above them are simply now operating on a different level.

"An awful lot of people, many Premiership managers, would look at it like that," Stuart says. "We haven't got the financial clout to be competing with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. There are not many people who can. At this moment in time we are probably sitting on top of our realistic league."

Reality has always bitten at Charlton, a club which, laudably, tells its players and staff exactly what state it is in - both on and off the field. And so Stuart and his team-mates know exactly why it is imperative that plans to increase the capacity of The Valley by 15,000 to 40,000 go ahead.

"The board has been very clever over the last few years, they haven't spent beyond their means but are open to the reality that if you want to progress you need to get more bums on seats. A lot of clubs have chased the dream to their cost. Charlton have been patient and done it in the correct manner."

Not the words of, perhaps, your average footballer. But then again Stuart, articulate and thoughtful, has always shown a deeper appreciation of the profession he is in. That depth was given greater intensity by a year lost to a rupture of the cruciate ligament in his left knee at the start of last season - just two games after he was given the captain's armband. Nevertheless, Charlton are, in their own way, chasing the dream. That fourth place, to be protected today away to Leicester City, represents a Champions' League spot after all.

But steady on. There is only a third of the season gone and despite their fantastic run of form - five wins and a draw - Charlton have a habit of, well, falling away. Not quite choking but running out of gas at a club still, understandably, looking a little too much over its shoulder. Witness last season's collapse which saw a tilt towards European football blown by a run-in of relegation form.

"I totally go along with that," says Stuart candidly. "It's a very valid point. We're so intent on getting to the 40-odd point barrier to make sure we are safe that we subconsciously take our foot off the pedal with seven or eight games to go. If you keep telling people 'safety, safety, safety' and then you get there, in some way or other you shut off a little bit. I think that this year, without being complacent, we have to decide that we need to push on a lot further than that and have a change of mentality."

Mental toughness. It's something that Stuart showed in spades in his fight to overcome his cruciate injury - the most serious setback he has ever suffered in a career which has taken in Chelsea, Everton, where he won the FA Cup, and Sheffield United as well as Charlton, the club he joined in 1999 for £1m. But when the injury happened he was 32 - a dangerous age to recover from despite advances in medical science.

Indeed, Stuart paints a vivid picture of what rehabilitation was like following an operation in Vancouver in which part of his hamstring was used to repair the damage. There is a clear view from the gym across the pitches at Charlton's training ground in south-east London. It rolls up to the smartly maintained hedgerows that ring the complex. For Stuart the windows revealing this vista may as well have had prison bars across them. Month after month he would sit on an exercise bike grinding away monotonously. 10.30am was the worst time.

"The good thing was I was still going into the training ground each day and seeing the lads and being involved in the banter," he says. "But it was difficult when they are running out playing football and I'm sat watching them on a bike inside the building. It's a long time to sit and watch. The days were quite long, you know.

"I'm not a good patient and to know that I was to be out for a minimum of six months and probably a good time after that was an absolute dagger through the heart. But you have to try and get your head around it and realise it is no good moping. To get back from an injury like that you have to put your heart and soul into working hard."

Matchdays were worse. "I tried to keep involved as much as possible but it's a weird sensation when the lads come off the pitch and they have won. There's the euphoria which is great but when you know you have not been in any way physically part of it, then it is quite a difficult emotion to deal with."

Stuart's salvation was his belief in his surgeon - Brian Day, "he was sensational" - and a will that never allowed him to accept his career may be over. "I think I'm quite a strong-minded person and that helped me. You have to be determined to accept that you will be in a single area [the gym] for a certain amount of time, hour after hour. But I didn't have any doubts as to whether I would get back. If anything, it certainly made me understand exactly what I was missing. That was the biggest thing for me - sitting in the stands watching it as a supporter rather than being a player. That's when it hits home to you how good a life you have got."

And so now there is the joy of just playing again - admirably forcing his way back into a midfield which is Charlton's strongest, most competitive asset. The first-choice four - Scott Parker, Claus Jensen (both missing today), Matt Holland and Stuart - have been rightly described by Arsène Wenger as one of the most formidable in the Premiership. Stuart, despite his England Under-21 caps, is the only non-full international.

"If you want to change the mentality you have to have a back-up. Create more competition," he says of the fight to stay in the team. "When we first came into the Premiership and, say, lost two or three players for a game it would hurt us really badly. When that scenario happens this year it's not the same."

Lots of things feel different now. Resolve has been hardened, belief strengthened. "People realise that we are not just a hard-working side," Stuart says. "We have the quality to go along with that, and the desire. We're no longer seen as favourites for relegation."

A top 10 finish is still the aim - although yesterday the manager, Alan Curbishley, said top six was possible. "The last few weeks have opened everybody's eyes to the reality that we can push on," says Stuart. It is a big season for him for another, crucial reason as well. His contract - as with many other players at Charlton - expires at the end of it.

"I've spoken to Curbs about it and he's very clear how I feel about the situation and I know what he's saying as well. We've discussed it and, as far as I'm concerned, we should let nature take its course. If Charlton are doing well and I'm doing well then I'm sure I'll still be here next season." The reality is that both are thriving - this season and, in all probability, the next also.