Bugle Call – the start of a love affair

Wednesday night 17th October sees the Supporters’ Trust AGM return to familiar ground in The Bugle Horn in Charlton Village. Paul Breen, author of The Charlton Men, reflects on the first time he came to Charlton, went to The Bugle to watch football and ended up embarking on a journey to supporting the Addicks.

ONE wintry night in November 2007 I set out for a pint in the place that I’d moved to, not knowing where the road would lead. That season, that winter was the one in which I moved to Charlton. One in which I was also following the fortunes of Liverpool in the Champions League, seeking out a local pub to watch their matches, cheering on Fernando Torres, Stevie Gerrard and the remnants of that infamous team of 2005 who won the trophy with a glorious comeback against Milan.

Things change quickly in football though. By the autumn of 2007 Liverpool fans had entered into a series of protests against club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Maybe in an omen that’s good for Charlton, against all odds and when all hope seemed lost, they won that in the end and have seen happier days since.

Those protests must seem long ago for Liverpool fans now, riding high under the management of Jurgen Klopp. Long ago too for Charlton fans, freshly starting out in the Championship after relegation just a few months before in May 2007. Then they’d managed a 2-2 draw with Liverpool in one of the closing games of the season in a match that was Robbie Fowler’s last in a red shirt. Strangely, looking back now, if I was following that game I’d have been more interested in Liverpool. Coming from Ireland, we don’t tend to look too far down the league table when picking teams. Everybody seems to support England’s top half dozen sides.

Of course I knew about Charlton Athletic long before I walked into The Bugle Horn that night. I just hadn’t thought much about following the local team when I moved to Charlton the place. I mean, I’d lived in Shepherd’s Bush for a while and hadn’t followed the fortunes of QPR. But that night something changed in The Bugle Horn, nothing too dramatic – just enough to spark an interest in the team based further down the hill, in a Valley.

It’d be another three months before I’d go to my first match so I can’t claim it was love at first sight, but I’d entered into a date with destiny when I stepped through the Bugle’s smoky doorway. The first thing to catch my eye was all the football memorabilia on display at that time. I remember going to the bar, getting a drink and taking a seat by the fire. The place was warm. There was a dartboard on the wall, football on the TV, wooden beams on the ceiling and Charlton-red colours all around me.

On the wall opposite there was a picture of the Charlton team that won the 1946 FA Cup. Beside this, league tables and images of games from the past, with the most distinctive being a two nil win over Manchester United just before the war. Beyond this I noticed a programme for a game against Arsenal in February 1937, Charlton top of the league, the Gunners second and Manchester United bottom. Then more images of that solitary FA Cup win.

As the flames roared in a fireplace decorated in the image of a bugle, I could imagine the full house at Wembley. Then the lifting of the FA Cup that seemed to shine in a bright shade of silver even though the faded newspaper cuttings were all in black and white. They’d scenes of celebration too – a captain lifting the trophy and then a big goalkeeper hoisted up on his team mates’ shoulders with the Cup in his hands.

I’d no idea then that his name was Sam Bartram and that he was as important in Charlton’s history as Gordon Banks to England. I’d very little idea about any of the history that was dipping in and out of focus as the evening progressed. By the second or third pint, I’d even grown more interested in the story of Charlton than whatever was happening in the other football game on the TV. I’d started to peruse the pictures of modern teams and players that were scattered around the bar. On the way to the men’s toilets – ironically on the left side and at the back of the pub- there was an old England jersey on display.

Leaning closer I saw that the jersey belonged to a man called Chris Powell. I didn’t know so much about him then, though had seen the story of ‘Chris Who?’ in The Evening Standard from a few years before. A headline that wasn’t even as much of a put-down to Chris Powell as it was to Sven-Göran Eriksson, the first foreign coach to manage the English national side. It offended many in the press that this man from overseas had been picked ahead of their self-declared ‘great white hope’ candidates from the English domestic game. It seemed to offend them too that a little-known but very talented and very consistent defender from one of England’s smaller clubs should get selected in Eriksson’s very first squad. It seemed Chris Powell had earned something of a legendary status not just for his achievement of being capped five times for England but his achievements for Charlton too. They even had a picture of him above the counter. He was there beaming down from the front page of an old match day programme every time you walked into the bar. Leaping into the air with a broad smile and fist raised, in a pose that would become very familiar to me in the years that followed.

There seemed no escaping Chris Powell in The Bugle that first night and many more in the nights of drinking there over that winter, following Liverpool’s fortunes in The Champions’ League. He was there when you went to the toilet, there when you went to the bar, and even there when you went to sit down again because he also featured in several pictures of bygone teams upon the wall. Most of those were far younger and more colourful than the team of 1946 but didn’t have the same air of mystery.

As time passed, I began to do my research to unlock that mystery and learned the names of those heroes who brought the Cup back to Charlton two years after the war that had decimated parts of South East London. I discovered that the goalie was called Sam Bartram and the captain a man called Don Welsh who’d go on to manage Liverpool a few years later – rather unsuccessfully. I learned too about Chris Powell and thought of The Bugle whenever I’d hear reports of his fortunes on the football field. I’d learn so much that I’d begin to wonder about the strangeness of following a team from hundreds of miles away when I had one just down the road from me. A few months later I’d go there to see my first ever Charlton match against Preston North End on an afternoon that started out with dreams of seeing The Addicks put in a late surge for promotion so that I might get the chance to see Torres, Gerrard and company in action at The Valley next season.

That Addicks lost that day after a brief glimpse of hope but I’d seen enough, felt enough, suffered enough even to want to come back for more. I was on way to becoming Addick-ted, even if I was still following Liverpool with great eagerness at this stage. As time passed I’d find myself becoming more and more addicted to the Saturday experience at The Valley, experiencing more highs than lows in the last days of the Pardew reign. I’d keep going back like the guy in the Neil Young song about The Needle and the Damage Done, and sooner or later before I knew it I was checking out Charlton’s forums, Charlton’s results before Liverpool’s.

And I was now going into The Bugle Horn and Charlton’s other pubs not during Liverpool games but before and after matches at The Valley. Even if over time they plastered the timber beams and changed the paint, it’ll always be the place that introduced me to a new shade of red on football’s limited spectrum of club colours, a warm shade of Charlton red on a cold winter’s night.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @CharltonMen and contact him if you want to get one of his books on the night of the AGM.