A day to remember

CAS Trust board member Heather McKinlay celebrates the Legends match at The Valley last Sunday:

The man mountain that is Carl Leaburn, his considered voice and unselfish nature belying his physical stature; dapper Mickey Bennett, somehow looking younger now than in his first-team days; Robert (definitely not Rob) Lee’s distinguished grey hair and square jawline begging comparisons with George Clooney; the blustering arrival of Eddie Youds, late-tackling his way into the thick of it all. Scott Minto, another who seems to have cheated the passing of the years, maintained a calm and professional presence as he hosted the pre-match Legends Q&A, fittingly taking place in the Keith Peacock Suite. By all accounts, said elder statesman of the club was largely responsible for past players travelling from near and far to support the Community Trust in celebration of 25 years of their existence and 25 years (almost) since football returned to Floyd Road.

Like us, the Q&A men would be spectators at the main event while their former team mates would once more take to the Valley turf. Already the day was shaping into one of gentle relaxation and informality. The billed 1pm start did not herald the match kick-off, but the emergence of the joyful Charlton Upbeats, who skipped their way around a lap of honour before settling down as ball-boys, an exuberant and tangible reminder of the excellent work undertaken by CACT. Finally, the two teams filed out to the familiar strain of the Red, Red Robin – led by managers Keith Peacock and Dave Berry and captains Alan Curbishley and Steve Gritt respectively, the former team in all red, the latter all white. The shorts looked suitably baggy, but the shirts clung rather unflatteringly to some of the more rotund waistlines.

The crowd’s interest focussed initially on how well the players had survived the ravages of time or otherwise. John Humphrey, Simon Webster and Mark Kinsella were noticeably tinged with grey. Saša Ilić, Radostin Kishishev, Colin Walsh and Alex Dyer were among the more portly on display, though not quite approaching the girth of either Grant Basey or Peter Garland. The latter revelled in the terrace humour, later lifting his shirt to show off his belly in response to the chants of “Big Fat Pete”. For all the excess baggage, he could still glide around the pitch and effortlessly control the ball. A wide grin never far from his face, I imagined him thinking, “Laugh at me all you like – this fatso made it as a professional.”

Other shared memories floated to the fore – Jason Euell elegantly beating his man, Mark Kinsella making determined, if somewhat slower, bursts into the box, a very fit Alan Curbishley orchestrating the midfield, Matt Holland darting here, there and everywhere yet keeping his shorts clean, Luke Young tackling aggressively and crisply. The not-so-young Kevin Lisbie replayed that wonderful victory over Liverpool as he calmly rounded the keeper to score the first for the Reds, then popped up again with a second. Garry Nelson put his left foot forward. Chris Powell hammed it up for the crowd before blasting a penalty high over the bar and into Row Z of the Covered End, reminding us why he was first and foremost a full back.

Many of the players still looked remarkably trim and fit for men of a certain age, and the suspicion was muttered that some had been competitively training and preparing. Steve Gritt, just weeks away from turning 60, played the whole match at centre half, looking lithe and energetic, so much so that he scored with the strike of the game. Making a supreme sliding effort, he connected with a lovely floating cross around the penalty spot and blasted the ball into the top corner. Unfortunately, it was past the outstretched arm of team-mate Dean Kiely, the spectacular own goal making it 3-1 to Keith Peacock’s Reds with only a few minutes to play.

Serious matters were generally far from our thoughts on this afternoon, and sporting ethics – if not a prearranged script - determined that the Whites should get back into the match. Their earlier goal, making it 2-1, had been scored by one Kevin James. Who? A quick Wikipedia search revealed that he was indeed on Charlton’s books but never made a first team start. Now he plies his trade as player coach at Dulwich Hamlet. At just 37, he proved to be a useful ringer, also sending in the corner which Kim Grant converted to peg it back to 3-2 shortly after Gritty’s slice. It was time for the ref to play his part. He’d blown up promptly on 40 minutes for half-time. Now the clock on the big screen ticked on – 80, 81, 82 minutes. Kins surged into the area and crumpled in a heap at the feet of Kish. Penalty! Scott McGleish, another of the less-vaunted younger players on show, stepped up to equalise.

As the Red men and the White men slowly hauled their aching bodies back towards the centre circle, the ref whistled for full-time. “Don’t leave your seats,” bellowed the announcer. “There will now be a penalty shootout.” The second of the day at The Valley – we’d already enjoyed a half-time special, Clive Mendonca arriving just in time after a delayed train journey to trade spot-kicks with Mark Kinsella and a couple of lucky fans against Saša Ilić. That had ended 6-6, despite calls in vain for Shaun Newton to appear from nowhere and convert a winning seventh.

In the end-of-match version, Kiely and Ilić displayed their acrobatic sharpness in saving several attempts. With the shootout tally poised at 2-2, normal football rules were bent as Super(sub) Clive Mendonca skipped his way back into the area in front of the Covered End. He’d admitted at half-time that he hadn’t kicked a ball since retiring and asked the crowd not to be hard on him. Of course we weren’t. Instead his song echoed around the stadium. The earlier practice had paid off. Red-clad Clive deftly placed his kick past the flailing Kiely, then re-enacted his famous Wembley finger-shooting pose, before disappearing under a deluge of excited Upbeats. For the record, Keith Peacock’s X1 – with a little help from an old friend – were victorious.

The crowd stood and cheered and clapped. The players bowed, waved and grinned, then came over for selfies and signings.

For one day only, we had our Charlton back. Players mingled happily with fans, no airs and graces in sight. Old team-mates were reunited. This was a reminder of those good old days, but the empty seats were a poignant sign of Charlton’s current state. Many stalwart fans feel alienated, even from such a celebration of our heyday. Katrien Meire had sat stoically throughout and now waltzed off, acting the confident queen of her domain, yet deep-down she must have felt very out of place at an occasion that was all about history. Karl Robinson chummed up to Chris Powell when the prodigal left back was taking a break on the side-lines. Later on, the current manager had a little chat with Curbishley in the lounge. You can’t fault his thirst for knowledge about Charlton. But really all he needed to do was soak up the special atmosphere of the day, and think about the team spirit and affection for the club which had encouraged Kim Grant to fly over over from Bangladesh, Hermann Hreiðarsson from Iceland, Kishishev to travel from Bulgaria and Saša Ilić from Montenegro. And that’s without mentioning that Mendonca squeezed the match and trip to London in between his shift work at the Nissan car factory in Sunderland.

As the afternoon was drawing to a close with the shout of “last orders” in the lounge, Jon Fortune walked past. A spontaneous chorus rang out from the remaining, mildly intoxicated fans. “Sha la la la la la la la, we sent the Palace down!” We expected Fortune to smile, perhaps even join in. Instead he looked downcast. “What’s wrong, don’t you like us singing that?” I asked. “The song’s great,” he replied, pausing and grimacing. “It’s just what came after…We got Dowie…”

For all the joy of seeing so many old faces, for all the great memories rekindled, I left The Valley with watery eyes and an undeniable taste of bittersweet, thoughts swirling of what might have been. It seems I wasn’t the only one.