Author and Supporters Trust member Paul Breen looks at what it was that made him fall in love with Charlton Athletic .......
Charlton has had more than its fair share of authors over the past hundred years, some writing about the place and others the football club. Down by the station and the stadium, there’s a plaque remembering Italo Svevo, who found fame in the early part of the twentieth century for both his works of fiction and his journals of London life. Indeed his most famous book is entitled 'The Confessions of Zeno' and is the story of a man who keeps promising to give up smoking and change his life - but always tomorrow rather than today. In the end, the poor chap becomes addicted to the very act of giving up and going through the ritual of smoking his very last cigarette. And maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere for our own addiction to football on a Saturday, especially in recent times when results haven’t always been great.
Moving on from Svevo, Jimmy Seed’s 1958 autobiography offers a fantastic glimpse into the life of the club from the 30s to the 50s. My father-in-law gave me a dusty old hardback copy of this a few years ago and it had me enthralled over several days of reading it on the train, going to and from work. Often on the slow crawl towards London Bridge, I’d glance up at that rusty blue stadium sitting on the edge of South Bermondsey and bet nobody’s written so many books about Millwall. Down through the years the club store has been a repository of writing about Charlton Athletic, from Charlie Connelly to Keith Peacock; David Ramzan, Rick Everitt, Paul Clayton, Richard Redden, and more besides.
When I first moved to Charlton, I never thought I’d end up adding another book to the list, my recently published novel The Charlton Men. Coming here in the summer of 2006 to work for The University of Greenwich, I first developed an interest in the local team, travelling up to the stadium one summer’s evening and finding it closed. I came back again to Greenwich the following summer, getting full-time work, and settling down in Charlton, where I’d meet the woman who would later become my wife. Though I’d followed the fortunes of the team with great interest since that first summer, I didn’t attend my first game until the spring of 2008 when I went to see Preston North End come to The Valley on a grey day, when we sat on the edge of the play-offs.
I had of course heard the shuffle of feet through the park and down the roads to the stadium on Saturdays, and the mighty groans, sighs, and roars coming back up the hill as the action got underway. I’d also known about Charlton before, and remember such moments as being a teenager and listening to the 1998 play-off final on the radio in my bedroom. But this was the first time I would attend a real match, in the flesh. There was excitement amongst the fans about the prospect of a late surge for promotion, but fourteen minutes into the game Preston took the lead. As the match chugged towards half-time, this wasn’t the way I wanted to lose my Valley virginity. Come the second half though, the sun came out and Irish centre-half Paddy McCarthy booted home a cross from Matt Holland to level the game. A mighty roar rose up and in the minutes after the whole stadium was rocking. The goal was a shot of coffee waking Alan Pardew’s team out of their stupor.
Suddenly I found myself dreaming of the Premier League, of coming here more often, maybe even getting a season ticket. I could imagine Alex Ferguson on the touchline across the way, and Fernando Torres in full flight, in those days when he was at his best for Liverpool. I’d get to see all the big names of English football, Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle, Spurs, and the rest. But then just as the fantasies were reaching a peak, Chris Brown stepped into the boots of Torres and poached his second goal of the afternoon. It was as if somebody pulled a dark curtain across the stadium roof, and the whole place fell silent in shock. Paddy McCarthy’s reel had come to a sudden halt as Charlton stared down the gun barrel of defeat. Though clinging to the play-off places, this team had lost the passion for promotion, and the closing minutes were so dreadful that Alan Pardew said afterwards he’d never watch a video of it, and felt sorry for the fans who’d paid to see it. Yet, that was my introduction to Charlton in the flesh, and the start of a downward spiral like a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop.
Some of the games over the next two seasons were truly awful, even though I kept on going, in the company of my father-in-law. The 4-0 defeat to Brighton in October 2010 stands out as one of the worst when Phil Parkinson sent out a team of headless chickens to face the high-flying seagulls. By this stage though I was becoming more of a regular, and moaning as regularly as the rest of the supporters, as nothing seemed to go right on the field or off. Then along came new owners, the appointment of Chris Powell, and the arrival of Bradley-Wright Phillips. Though I’d pretty much arrived in Charlton at a time when Chris Powell’s career was winding down and fading out with cartwheels against Coventry City, I realized that he was a legend in the club. His beaming smile, after all, used to grace the bar of the Bugle Horn, my local pub in the village, in a framed and autographed picture on the front of an old match programme above the main counter. There was a framed England jersey there too, with his autograph on it. He was clearly a man who represented the spirit of Charlton, and the cocktail of pride, history, and community that went along with following the team. Slowly, I was falling in love with this place and this team, even if it had hardly been love at first sight, and going to games on such a regular basis that I was paying more than for a season ticket. Again though, after a bright start to Chris Powell’s leadership, results took a turn for the worse, and the team spiralled down the division.
Despite this I had hope for the new season which kicked off in the summer that I got married, and which became the basis of the book that I would later write. By now I was first and foremost a Charlton fan, feeling more ownership too, being less an outsider now that more or less all of the players were new, as Chris Powell went about assembling a team in his own image. Every signing from Danny Hollands to Yann Kermorgant seemed to have their own special story, and unique contribution to the team. Chris Powell’s approach to management had echoes of what I’d read in Jimmy Seed’s book on train journeys to central London a few years before. By now, I was going to away games too, wherever possible, and relishing every moment of the promotion battle.
On the day that was done, and the celebrations completed against Hartlepool, I watched with several friends, one of whom was in his fifties had never been to a football match before – indeed he claims to have been the only little boy in England who didn’t watch the 1966 World Cup final, and was out playing on the empty streets. Over the course of a few years I had managed to convert him too, again after not such a great start in the 3-1 defeat to Exeter in spring 2011, in The Football for a Fiver disaster. He’d come to the game expecting something from John King’s Football Factory, but found instead a healthy and positive atmosphere in the North Stand, listening to the Covered End choir, wanting to join in.
There is then something special about Charlton, as a place and a club, something that’s down to earth and inspirational. I doubt that if I had moved to any other part of London I would have gone to see my local team so regularly. After all, I did once spend nine months in Shepherd’s Bush, and never ventured down the back streets to Loftus Road, the home of Queens Park Rangers.
Though Chris Powell is gone now, and many of the class of 2012, I’ve still got my season ticket, and am looking forward to the new season starting in a few days. I’m not fully convinced by the new owners as yet, but things appear to be going in the right direction, so long as the identity of the club is preserved. However, the fact is that Charlton has gone through tough times before and survived, and that’s again part of what makes the club so special. Other clubs might simply have folded and died in similarly adverse circumstances. This one struggled on and I’m very glad it did, because some of my best moments in the past few years have been spent on the terraces of Valley, Floyd Road. Even at the point when times were tough, the romance had become an addiction, one that I kept coming back to, time after time, a bit like Svevo’s smoker. And hopefully this season’s addiction will give us more highs than lows, and we’ll take a step closer to going back to Torres territory!
Paul Breen is the author of The Charlton Men which is available to purchase on Amazon and in selected bookstores, and other online sources plus at the CASTrust stall before the games against Wigan and Derby.