Charlton Athletic is a club that people often overlook when they talk about London football. Forever in the shadow of the big four and frequently struggling to stay ahead of South London neighbours, Millwall and Crystal Palace, they have been remarkable durable over the past 40 years.
It had been 37 years since I last visited the Valley, a ground that I never thought I would return to again after the club’s uncertain and nomadic existence in the 1980s. I recall the huge open terrace, arguably the biggest in England, and the very iconic main stand with its multi-vaulted roof. It was one of football’s more heart-warming stories when Charlton returned to their spiritual home and rebuilt the Valley. My last trip there ended with an early exit with Chelsea 4-0 down and their fans attempting to set the place ablaze. Oh, the 1970s!
I have to admit, however, that very few contemporary Charlton players spring to mind. The folklore of the game will remind you of the likes of Sam Bartram (Football Monthly pictures of the legendary goalkeeper with his knitted jersey – must have itched when wet!), the bearded and over-rated Derek Hales, Mick Flanagan and steady old Keith Peacock, as well as managers like Eddie Firmani and Lennie Lawrence. I also remember the flawed decision to take Danish striker Allan Simonson to the Valley – if ever there was a deal that wasn’t going to work it was that one.
The Valley today, while no architectural jewel, is a neat, functional ground that suits the club’s requirements quite well. They returned in 1993-94, and averaged just over 8,000 per game. Last season, in the Championship, Charlton averaged 16,000-plus. At their worst, crowds at the Valley slumped to 5,104 in 1984-85. But since then, the club has even enjoyed a spell in the top flight – eight seasons in the Premier, the last being 2006-07, when crowds averaged 26,000. It’s a good, reassuring, comeback story.
What’s also nice to know is that Charlton seem to have a grounded, realistic attitude to life. The club offers the cheapest season ticket in England at £ 150, which when you consider you can buy a season ticket for Southern League football for £ 180, represents fantastic value (and suggests the non-league game needs to look at its pricing model).
There’s another big plus in visiting Charlton and that is its accessibility to central London. It takes barely a quarter of an hour from London Bridge, and it’s a short walk from Charlton station. Like all London grounds, the stadium towers above local houses – apart from the tower blocks that bear a slight resemblance to Nelson Mandela House from BBC TV’s Only Fools & Horses. Charlton is Derek Trotter country, after all.
Amid the urban sprawl that is South London, Charlton have managed to cultivate the finest turf. Their manager, Bob Peeters, claims that the good quality pitch at the Valley has contributed to their fine start to the 2014-15 campaign.
Peeters, a Belgian, is one of the tallest coaches you will see in football, standing 6ft 5in on the touchline. He was appointed in the summer after his compatriot, Jose Riga, was given a short-term contract after Chris Powell was sacked with Charlton floundering.
Both Peeters and Riga were selected by Belgian billionaire Roland Duchatelet, an interesting character who founded Vivant, a progressive political movement. He has a stake in several football clubs, of which Charlton is one. The portfolio also includes Standard Liege, Carl Zeiss Jena and AD Alcorcon of Spain.
The Belgian connection undoubtedly explains why two Standard Liege players, Tal Ben Haim and George Tucudean arrived at the Valley in the close season and another player familiar to Peeters, Igor Vetokele, joined from FC Copenhagen. Another summer acquisition from Coventry City, Franck Moussa, is a native of Brussels.
Igor Vetokele, a striker, has been capturing the headlines this season. He is Belgian-Angolan and started out with Gent and Cercle Brugge before moving to Denmark. He’s only 22, so he’s not reached his peak yet, but he’s made a splash in the Championship this season, scoring half a dozen times.
I was looking forward to seeing Igor in action against Bolton Wanderers, but he was injured a few days earlier against Bournemouth, a game that ended Charlton’s unbeaten start to the season. That blunted Charlton’s attack to some extent, but the visitors were hardly lethal in front of goal.
Bolton had been struggling before arriving in Floyd Road, but the appointment of Neil Lennon as manager, replacing Dougie Freedman, boosted the Trotters (there, Only Fools again…) and they picked up their first win, a 1-0 success at Birmingham City. Controversy follows Lennon around and he was sent-off [to the stand] in his first game in charge.
Lennon’s shock of ginger hair is like a beacon for opposition fans, and the Charlton faithful were quick to offer their views on the former Celtic man. You could have made a CD of the songs coming from the North Stand about Lennon, most of which would be granted an X-certificate. More amusing was their tribute to Lawrie Wilson, the former Stevenage midfielder who joined Charlton in 2012:
“There’s only one Lawrie Wilson, one Lawrie Wilson,
He used to be shite, but now he’s alright,
Walking in a Wilson wonderland”.
The game itself wasn’t a classic. Charlton survived a couple of early Bolton efforts from Lee Chung-Yong and Jermaine Beckford, but went ahead with the first genuine chance of the evening fater 28 minutes. Yoni Buyens lofted to the ball to the far side towards the onrushing George Tucudean. The Romanian dashed behind the Bolton defence and shot past Andy Lonergan.
Tucudean was instrumental in the second Charlton goal six minutes into the second half, passing across to skipper Johnnie Jackson to score. Bolton pulled one back after 54 minutes through Dean Moxey.
The visitors pressured late on and ex-Charlton defender Dorian Dervite went close to leveling, but the home defence held firm. I felt Bolton were a shade unlucky not to go home with a point.
And so, the second leg of my South London trilogy (Millwall to come, but not in midweek – too dark round those New Cross streets) was completed. I will watch Charlton’s progress with interest.