When Charlton don't have a game, I somtimes go to watch Rushden and Diamonds at their neat modern stadium in the Northamptonshire countryside. With big footwear money behind it, the club was formed from a merger between Rushden and Irthlingborough Diamonds. This is traditional footwear country and the advertising signs around the ground include leather agents and the like. In the 1970s ATV ran a police series called Hunter's Walk which was in part shot in Rushden and I was amused to see a tourist sign referring to the fictional location when I drove through the town.
I never expected to see Charlton play Rushden, but the FA Youth Cup brought the two teams together. Rushden youth had not been beaten this season, but talk at the ground was that this would be a real test for the young hopefuls. Accredited as a press representative with the help of Rick, I made my way to Rushden's well equipped press box where I was able to help the announcers to identify Charlton players.
The 'Russians' started with verve and determination, crowding round the colts and making it difficult for them to play their passing game. It was thus no surprise when Rushden went 1-0 up on the half hour, although the impressive Kevin James pulled one back for Charlton eight minutes later.
The second half saw a new determination from Charlton, reinforced by Toms and Neufville coming on in place of Hockley and Beale. The impressive Konchesky had his shot saved, but the rebound was put in the net by MacDonald. The constantly involved Neufville set up the third goal for Hales, and a James cross gave him a chance to score again. An Allman cross presented MacDonald with his second scoring opportunity, and a Konchesky penalty made it 6-1. An impressive display of skill by the colts, even if it did become something of an exhibition match towards the end.
It seems to me that what may come from our 3-0 victory over Swindon is a recognition in the football world that Charlton are promotion contenders, not promotion pretenders. Charlton went 1-0 up in the eight minute with a good strike from the increasingly impressive Keith Jones (I have to admit I am his kit sponsor). The ref was that well known banker from Billericay, Andy d'Urso, who is an expert at being both inconsistent and wrong. On this occasion, he acted in Charlton's favour by giving us a very dubious penalty five minutes before the break which was converted by Clive Mendonca.
As I was sitting in the press box, I was wearing a tie and I had left my Charlton scarf behind for a neutral green. It was difficult to maintain an apparent neutrality and not to get drawn into the atmosphere of the match. When Mendonca scored his second goal to make it 3-0 with a crisp strike, I could not refrain from appluading. After that, Swindon looked increasingly ragged while Charlton continued to play as an effective unit displaying good ball control and fluent passing.
For an ordinary fan like me, being able to go to the press conference after the game was a real privilege. Swindon's McMahon came in first and was understandably sick as a parrot. He made no excuses and, as he eyeballed me through much of the discussion (at least I think he did), I found myself nodding sympathetically although I am no fan of his. A young journo remarked after he left, 'he frightens me. I always think he's going to lean across and hit me.' When Curbs arrived, he was sober, almost sombre, but in a sense that showed his real quality. He admitted that the squad was lopsided with considerable strength in the forward line but a shortage of defenders, particularly after Steve Brown (who had a great game) picked up an avoidable injury. Interestingly, Curbs did nor rule out an Allen/Mendonca partnership. I used the train journey back to Cov to draft my reports and by 1.40 I was back in the Spa, tired but happy.
So off I set for Witney, having no idea where the ground was. Stopping in the town centre, I asked a native who said 'Do you really want to find out where it is?' But he gave me clear directions and after driving for another three miles I arrived in the industrial estate where the ground is located. And a nice modern ground it is with a grandstand leading into a bar and cover round three sides.
Although I had missed the first quarter of an hour of the match, I hadn't missed any of the action and a period of sustained Charlton pressure saw Mark Bright put them ahead from a Lisbie cross. But Oxford came into the game and for much of the second half Charlton were under the cosh and were only saved by some splendid goalkeeping by Mike Salmon.
Reserve coach Keith Peacock became increasingly frustrated, shouting 'We're not working hard enough in there' and 'we've got to defend it now - attack the ball'. Eventually he became so concerned that he ventured out of his dugout down the touchline to shout extra instructions, pursued by an officious linesman shouting 'Manager!'
But it wasn't Oxford's night and they failed to convert a number of chances. On a treacherous surface, it was difficult to play good football. This was not a classic performance by the reserves, but they battled away to hold on to their lead and three points.
For the first time I can recall in a Charlton game, the referee was a woman, the pioneering Wendy Toms. And a good job she made up of it too. Players who gave away free kicks could be heard to say 'I'm sorry referee'!
Fixtures at Reading are always a little strange for me as the ground is in walking distance of the home of one of our daughters. In the morning I was in Reading town centre being fitted out for my monkey suit for her forthcoming wedding. I had not read the morning papers so it was only when I got back that I learnt the bad news that Jamie Stuart had been the fourth Charlton player to fail a drugs test.
On getting to the ground, I found that no press pass had been arranged for me so I joined the Addicks faithful in the ramshackle stand. Two odd events: Stuart Balmer appeared on the field wearing a strange woollen hat and a supporter with a Welsh accent put up a Welsh dragon bearing the legend 'CAFC: Rhondda Vale'!
Reading are a very ordinary side, but they made Charlton look mediocre. They went 1-0 up after nine minutes, always a bad time to fall behind in an away fixture. A penalty conceded just before the break made it 2-0 and effectively put the game beyond reach. Charlton were much more impressive in the second half, but the Reading defence stood firm and we were unable to find the net. This is the last game we shall play at Elm Park which has never been a lucky ground for us. For me, it always shouts 'Third Division South' and I particularly resent getting beaten by Reading.
After the game the estimable Tom Morris helped me to get into the press area: as Reading doesn't run to a press room, this means hanging about at the top of the tunnel. Seeing a couple of reporters talking to Keith Jones, I ambled over, but was told to buzz off as 'we're doing this for Monday.' Curbs gave a long press conference, the last fifteen minutes talking to me and one another reporter (I got the impression he thought I was some kind of tabloid news hound digging for dirt on Charlton). I have always thought that Curbs was a totally genuine and authentic person and it was clear that he was particularly upset that Jamie Stuart should have behaved like this as he had helped him more than any other player. As for Charlton's performance, he commented, 'they might as well have been on sleepers in the first half.' To round off a poor day, I got caught by a speed camera leaving Reading.
Torrential rain in SE7 as I made my way to the press cabin to cover my last match during Rick's absence. The Evening Standard (oh for the days when we had three London evenings) carried a big story on Charlton's 'drug problem'. Truth is it is a South London drug problem. E mail Addicks on line (!) have been divided generationally on this question. The younger ones have been arguing that all young people are doing it, the older ones that people like Jamie Stuart are in a privileged position and should act as role models. Somehow or other the damage to the club has to be offset otherwise it will discourage parents from allowing their children to join the youth scheme.
So it was good to focus on football. As is so often the case, Charlton started rather hesitantly with too many long balls. But their play improved as the half went on. After a dearth of penalties, Charlton have now had rather lucky penalties in two successive home matches. But Mendonca converted to make it 1-0, and in the second half he deflected a shot from Bowen to make it 2-0. Sheffield United got a late consolation goal. It was an impressive performance against a good side. One just yearns for more consistency and better form away from home. The Sheffield journos, facing a long drive up the motorway, were less than happy. I was held up by the closure of one of the Blackwall tunnels and didn't get home until 1 a.m. Radio 5 were reporting that Sheffield 'had slipped up', rather than that Charlton had restored their promotion challenge.
Friday night saw our Christmas party at home with three Manchester United fans present: but at least they all came from Manchester, and one had a season ticket so they were more authentic than the pseuds who often pose as United fans. The expected jokes about Charlton in the wake of the Stuart affair.
Saturday lunchtime saw me at the Rose of Denmark in Charlton to meet E mail addick David May from Australia. The Rose is a quieter pub on a Saturday than some of the others nearer the ground (how many people remember it had to be rebuilt after the war following its demolition by a V2?) I had difficulty in recognising David at first as he looked much younger than his sixty years. But it was nice to meet up with another E mail regular.
Port Vale had clearly come to the Valley with the hope of getting away with a point and possibly getting a winning goal on the break. Their No.7, Ainsworth, looked dangerous enough to do that, particularly in the light of poor defending by Barness. Charlton seemed lethargic after their mid-week triumph and their finishing was poor. As the match ground on, I felt it was one of the most frustrating home games I had seen all season. The Super Whinger behind me was in full flow, complaining about Curbishley. The goal came from an unlikely source, substitute Shaun Newton, whose pace is not often matched by his finishing. We had ground out a result, which we might not have done last year, and got three valuable points which put us fifth in the table. I was less than pleased to read in the Sunday Mercury the next day that West Brom were after Curbs.
Midweek saw me going down with a heavy cold, but thanks to some well known powders (not of the Jamie Stuart type), I was restored to something approaching health by the weekend. In the meantime, I read David Bennie's A Season in Hell which I found in the excellent Sportspages in Charing Cross Road. This is about a season spent groundhopping in the Scottish League. It's a bit bizarre, and like all football literati since Hornby, we get more than our share of male angst, mixed in with quotes from Camus to show us that the writer is an intellectual as well as a fan. But I found it to be a curiously enjoyable book.
Friday afternoon found us heading down to the home of daugher Milly and her husband near Southampton's training ground at Marchwood. A good meal at the excellent Italian restaurant at Hythe Marina put me in a good frame of mind for the morning. And there were some good omens. Milly's Saints supporting neighbour wished us the best on 'the one day of the year he would be supporting Charlton.' I had smooth run into Portsmouth and found a parking space with no trouble. And just after I arrived, a red car swept past loaded down with members of the legendary Charlton supporting Target family. All pretty thin stuff, I know, but you have to clutch at straws sometimes.
Pompey's away end is exposed to the elements, but it was a mild if grey December afternoon. We had the Sally Army band beforehand which inspired a bit of formation dancing from the Addicks. On the sloping pitch (it slopes to both sides rather than to one end), Charlton got off to a tepid and hesitant start. It was evident that Pompey were as poor a side as we had played all season and as is often the case this brought out the worst in Charlton. But after Pompey's Hall had missed an open goal, we managed to grab a goal just before half time. Up to then, fans had been remarking that it was Reading all over again.
Come half time wooden boards were put across the bottom halves of the goals. This turned out not to be an ingenious ploy to save Pompey's bacon, but rather bizarrely we saw Father Christmas then trying to score from the centre spot. To me, this attempt at Yuletide fun seemed to be a failed south coast attempt at surrealism. From the Charlton faithful it drew a chorus of 'you're ***** and you know you are.' Anyway, the Addicks came back on and Leaburn put a second one home. After that, the main event was Lisbie coming on in place of the injured Robinson and showing some really nice touches. The Pompey faithful, who had managed a ragged chorus of 'We Hate Southampton' earlier in the afternoon, now switched to 'What a Load of Rubbish' and 'We Want Fenwick Out'. Was Fenwick to be the latest manager to fall to the curse of Charlton and resign after a poor performance against the Addicks? In any event, Charlton had managed to get three points against a poor side which, paradoxically, they might well have failed to do last season.
It was an early start on Boxing Day, but relatively clear roads saw our arrival at Canberra Road just two hours after leaving the Spa. The Addicks dominated the first half of the game against the Canaries, but failed to score with Mendonca below his best. Matters were put to rights in the second half with a great strike by Kinsella, followed a couple of minutes later by a Robinson goal. Charlton then seemed to take the foot off the pedal a bit, and Norwich were able to pull one back from a penalty. Once O'Neill came on for Norwich they became increasingly dirty and of eleven players booked, nine were from Norwich. A particularly odd incident was when Bellamy and Salmon had a punch up in the goal when the ball was being retrieved after the penalty. With cookery expert Delia Smith acquiring a controlling interest in Norwich, it was stuffed canaries for Boxing Day with Charlton going third in the table.
Unfortunately Charlton came a cropper against the Blades at Bramall Lane two days later. With the match on Sky we went down to Soph and Pete's to watch. Erith born Sophia is the only one of our children who can claim to be a true transpontine. As has happened before against strong teams away from home this season, our defensive weaknesses were exposed and we went down 4-1. One good feature of the game was the excellent performance by young Scott Parker (of MacDonalds advert fame) who came on as a sub. His corner was converted by Mark Bright to give Charlton a consolation goal. Somehow I think we will be seeing the Blades again in the play offs.
Saturday 4 January 1998 saw Britain hit by severe storms. When we got to the Dartford crossing, we found that the Queen Elizabeth bridge had been closed because of high winds. Fortunately, we were at the ground in good time, but torrential rain and howling winds marked the start of the match. We got throughly drenched in Row Q which is not something I can remember happening before.
I feared the conditions might not allow good football, but in fact the game turned out to be a great cup tie with Charlton displaying their passing skills despite the conditions. Indeed, they played as effectively as a team as I have seen them do my season and my wife thought that it was the best all round performance she had seen from the squad. Robinson and Brown made it 2-0 by the interval. Forest then came out determined to get back in the game, having brought on their super striker (whose name I can never spell correctly) who spent the interval prancing up and down in front of the Forest fans. Forest pressure brought it back to 2-1, but then Leaburn made it 3-1 and Mendonca earned an uncertain spell by making it 4-1. By this time, Forest fans who had had to fork out £20 for the match were streaming from the ground. I wonder what the guy who was denouncing Curbishley before the game made of it all?
If it was a great performance against Forest, it was just brilliant against Middlesborough. Started the day with a drink with Joe and Robin down the Rose of Denmark. Apart from the first few minutes, Charlton were completely in command of the game. Newton demonstrated his mastery of the laws of motion and scored two goals with Mark Bright (replacing Leaburn) adding the other one. The crowd was the biggest since we returned to The Valley and the atmosphere was just fantastic with the East Stand getting really involved. One of the best chants all day came from the Covered End to 'Boro: 'You should have bought Leaburn!' If Charlton can keep up this form, a play off place must be secure and even an automatic promotion place is possible.
On Friday morning, I was woken by a dream that the Mercury was published a new Midlands edition with the sports pages completely blanked out! But it arrived safely on Friday morning with Rick's commentary and Tom's photos. Intrigued by a comment in the Linesman column, I watched five minutes of a BBC2 gardening programe on Friday evening (not my usual viewing fare). Mercury reporter Neil Lebbell has bought a house with an overgrown garden and is being filmed by the Beeb being advised on its restoration. His usual beat is Millwall, so here was this apparently normal guy in his garden in Bexley engaged in a serious discussion about growing organic vegetables. I bet you get a lot of that down at the Den.
Oxford is my nearest ground, about fifty minutes by car. Driving down the M40, I passed two red London buses: a 14 and a 22 with destination blinds showing 'Piccadilly Circus' and 'South Kensington Station'. Right, I thought, that means two goals for Charlton. Oxford is the most incongruous ground you visit. You park your car in Old Headington which is an oldie worldie village with Costwold stone cottages, lighting from fake gas lamps and even cobbled pavements. The ground still bears the signs of its origins as the home of non-league Headington United. It is dotted with little meccano stands that look as if they have been put together by the fans. And are Oxford in financial trouble: the players have to wash their own kit and car pool to away games. The match was preceded by a competition for kids: every time an open goal was missed the shout 'Leaburn' went up from the Charlton faithful (around two thousand of them).
Charlton started poorly as they often do away from home. Unlike the 'Boro game they didn't seem to be playing as a team. They nearly went behind in the first couple of minutes and Oxford were given a lot of space to score their first (and only) goal in the sixth minute. We need to play a tighter game in the first fifteen minutes away from home - we are conceding too many goals then.
Oxford were fouling as often as they could get away with it (which was most of the time) and also falling over to get free kicks. One player who revived the moment the ref gave the desired award was greeted with the following comment by a Charlton wag: 'It's a miracle. He can revive the dead. Get over to the hospital there and revive some more.' The linesmen were poor, giving offside decisions which disadvantaged both sides and spoilt the flow of the game.
In the last half hour, Charlton seemed to step up their game, especially after Holmes and Allen came on. The stand picked up the mood and started stamping on the wooden floor. Charlton equalised with a crisp Mendonca strike and then the energetic Robinson (my Man of the Match) made it 2-1. As I heard someone say afterwards, 'The mark of a good team is when you play poorly away and win.' To which someone responded, 'Or a ******* lucky team.' I'll settle for either.
Out into Headington's softy lit lanes. An Oxfordd fan: 'Tristam, I've told you before, don't step into the road.' Home before 6, an almost unique event for me after a match. Listened to Curbs on Club Call who commented that the Charlton fans now had to really show their mettle and get behind the team all the time. One thing that certainly heartened me was the real joy and enthusiasm that our players showed at the end. It was a day that almost qualified for one of Paul Lefford's postmodernist sighs and its classification as a 'perfect day'.
A party of four set out from the Midlands on a bright but cold day to see Charlton play Wolves in the fourth round of the FA Cup. We have met Wolves in the Cup more than any other team and our record against them has been a rather indifferent one. Somewhat surprisingly, the Wolves mascot was allowed to cavort on the pitch before the game and during the interval. However, this allowed the Charlton announcer to comment that it looked more like a fox than a wolf. We also heard an announcement for a 'Mr Akin Head' to report to reception.
In an effort to fox Charlton, Wolves played five at the back and three up front, leaving a very thin midfield. Charlton players, not least Mendonca (who was in a subdued mood again) were closely marked. No surprise, then, when it was 0-0 at half time and no surprise again when Wolves went ahead with a header from a corner just after half time. But Charlton replied with a strike from the increasingly influential Keith Jones. However, along Charlton pressed forward, they could not find the back of the net, Wolves having to clear off the line towards the end of the match. Some people have subsequently commented that they did not enjoy the match. Admittedly, Charlton got off to a hesitant start again but our group had a good day and saw what we thought was some excellent football. A draw was probably a fair result. Our record at Molineux has not been good, but undue pessimism could influence the result before the match is played.
Travelled down by train. At London Bridge a man with his young son was saying, 'Charlton are at home today. We must go and see them play football one day.' His son replied, 'They never score any goals.' 'Yes, they do,' the dad replied, 'They're doing well this year.' Soon the train passed the New Den which was pointed out. 'Will we go there?' the youngster asked. 'No, never', was the response, 'it's not a nice place.' By the time we got towards Charlton, the dad was asking fans for details about prices. It's just as well they didn't decided to get off the train because the number of Addicks present was the largest since our return and hundreds were turned away. And they would have seen a dour 0-0 draw which soon had the super whingers behind me in full flow and was greeted by some ungracious boos at the end of the game.The Shakers' plot was a familiar one: we're a big Northern side, let's close them down, and see if we can hit them on the break. Although Bury did not nick a goal, it worked. An early goal would have certainly led to a different outcome, but as time went on, Charlton's play became more frantic. Instead of their neat passing game, the ball was constantly put up in the air. Instead of starting with in form Steve Jones, Allen and Bright were partnered up front. The 35-year old Bright, undoubtedly a skilled player, looked knackered after three matches in a week, while Bradley Allen verged on the hopeless. Robbo was left on the bench and came into the game too late to make a difference. A setback but not a disaster, and not deserving boos.
I have probably been to Molineux more than any other away grounds in recent years and there is usually a bad outcome. Even when we got a 0-0 draw at the end of Graham Taylor's reign, L. got sent off. We played much better in this game than we did at Bury, keeping the ball on the ground and getting corner after corner. Against the run of play, Petterson conceded a penalty in the 31st minute, and a second goal just after the break put the match beyond reach. But we weren't helped by some substandard defending. Of the forwards, Jones came nearest to scoring, but Bright kept missing balls in the air and eventually got himself sent off for an ugly stamping incident. When Bradley Allen came on he was hopeless, haring about the pitch, but sending two shots far wide. Kinsella sometimes got into a position where he had a half chance, but seemed reluctant to shoot. Newton (the subject of interest from Wimbledon) and Robinson were the best two players in my view. What made the evening worse was what looked like a nasty injury to Matty Holmes. And we had to put up with jeers and catcalls from nearby Wolves supporters. Not a night to remember.
Some Red Army lads were puzzled to see me getting off the train at Birmingham International. I explained that I lived nearby. 'Good on you, mate', they shouted. 'Still wearing the Charlton scarf.'
After what happened at Molineux, going to see the reserves the next day at The Valley might seem a bit silly. But I had other things to do in London and I quite enjoy the different atmosphere of the reserves. Arriving just before 2, thanks to Connex, a buzz of conversation greeted me as I entered the West Stand. I joined fellow Lister Robin who commented on the standard of football that was required even at Combination level. Many of the youngsters on view would never make it into the first team. Luton proved to be a combative and often physical side, so there was no goal fest but a solid 2-0 victory. Morts was outstanding for Charlton, providing two brilliant passes, one of which Parker converted into a goal. Parker also sent in a very impressive inswinging shot from distance which just missed the target. Ilic in goal was commanding and authoritative. Chatted to Rick at half time: he had got back from Molineux at 1, spent three hours working on the web page, had two hours sleep, gone to the Mercury printers at Streatham, and then sorted out the Bexley Mercury with its Welling coverage. And he still looked perky! Although the match flagged towards the end, it was a good afternoon out. Got back to Leamington to find a very gloomy mood on the E mail list.
Volume 3 is now open at Volume 3
Volume 4 is now open at Volume 4.
Leamington, Warwickshire CV32 6DU