Nottingham Forest fan Ian Nelson shares his recollections of a visit to The Valley in its abandoned state.
On a winter morning towards the end of the 1980s, I was a reluctant passenger in a cigarette-smoke-filled mini-van heading south bound on the M1. With legs tightly squeezed together for warmth and bare hands pressed into shallow pockets, the destination was Anchor & Hope Lane, London SE7.
At the time I was in my late twenties and employed as a shop-fitter for a company based in the East Midlands. Several hours later, and with only the briefest of motorway service station pit stops, I was deposited on a damp and very draughty loading bay of the Macro Charlton wholesale superstore, tasked with unloading several container lorries full of metal storage equipment from West Germany. As the second juggernaut of the morning snorted and hissed its way into position against the unloading ramps, and with lunch-break fast approaching, I asked one of the locals sheltering from the gusts behind a heavy plastic strip-curtain if he had any idea where the football ground of Charlton Athletic was located.
Without a word or step, he raised his arm and pointed across a blurred industrial and suburban landscape to a rather obvious football floodlight silhouetted against the grey sky.
As the 1990s approached, I was already something of a veteran of the beautiful game. A supporter of my local club, Nottingham Forest, I had recently completed a “42” by attending all home and away league games in a season, and had notched up some 64 British Football League grounds since 1972. Although the Brian Clough era with seasonal trips to Wembley and European forays to Koln, Munichand such like were beginning to recede into a less flamboyant period, there was still plenty to be grateful for and witness – a UEFA cup semi-final with Anderlecht and a win in Parkhead against Glasgow Celtic come to mind. As a native of Nottingham, I am still something of a rarity among football supporters in the city in that I was raised on a regular diet of both local teams, Notts County and Forest, with occasional outings to Mansfield Town. I suspect this infused me with a relatively open mind towards other teams and supporters.
Like so many of my generation, my addiction to football was instilled by my father. But as the seasons of the 1970s, the rain-soaked kops, overflowing toilets, lukewarm tea, wooden seats and stands gave way to the “loads a money”, ‘Wham’ and Live Aid era of the 1980s, so came soaring property prices on the back of a housing boom; and in the wake, the land-grab culture of developers firmly took hold; the value and desirability of virtually any potential building plots were at an all-time premium. Almost all clubs, notably in London and those struggling financially, were especially vulnerable - even Stamford Bridge had the property magnets circling. Anyone with a remote interest in football could not have failed to notice the menace of developers to clubs. I was no exception. I was already aware that Bristol Rovers had left Eastville in 1986. Bolton Wanderers in the same year had sold-off one section of their goal-end terracing to accommodate a new supermarket. A growing number of cash- and crowd-strapped clubs attempted to stave off insolvency and possible extinction. In a similar vein, I also knew that Charlton Athletic had vacated The Valley a year earlier with an unpopular move to Selhurst Park in a ground-sharing scheme. It was against this unsettling, turbulent backdrop that I wanted to see what remained of The Valley before it was physically erased forever.
As I made my way across the A206 Woolwich Road and along the back streets that lead to the famous old club, the superstructure of the stadium with its pastel peach red and soiled lead white tones gradually loomed larger and larger in indignant grace above the low-level housing and strings of small factory units. Surprisingly, despite the all too evident neglect and vandalism, the edifice still possessed a seamless presence, a silent dignity. What I had not quite anticipated, however, was its effortless ability to generate an unmistakable pit-in-the-stomach sensation more typically associated with a job interviews or dental waiting rooms.
Meandering among the wreckage with the bramble thorns tugging at my denim trousers, the mood felt decidedly subdued, far removed from the glib words of modernisers favouring change without a thought for the emotional sensitivities of uprooting, or for the unforgiving character of the practical consequences standing before me. Witnessing the scene through the lens of an outsider, the demise and the erasing of history felt like a senseless, needless crime. The most unnerving aspect came from the minuscule act of transposing this picture of wanton disregard onto my own sacred ground and shrines; to do so, crossed the gulf from sympathy to empathy in seconds.
I stumbled down to what remained of the lower steps, now ankle-deep in clutter and household debris, onto what had hitherto been the pitch. A slow panorama of this vast, empty theatre seen from the weed-strewn centre circle still held the power to humble, accompanied by a distinct feeling of being observed. Despite the abundant graffiti and proof of abandonment in all directions, somehow not keeping off the grass still felt intrusive, wrong.
Entering a restricted area by crossing the forbidden yet now indiscernible line was not dissimilar to the impression one gets from walking across an unmarked grave in a churchyard. The remains of the boundary and sideline fencing presented a shifting collage of trapped fast food wrappers and captured newspapers, pressed tight against the wire by the wind like assorted museum exhibits.
Away to the east rested the high slopes of the great terrace. Reputedly, for many decades, the largest single uncovered terracing in Europe, this almost featureless expanse of layered concrete lay unused in a state of deserted disrepair, like some half beached man-made whale. Yet it kept an inexplicable magnificence which is difficult to explain or logically account for. Against a backcloth of pasty metal cloud, it was shaming and uneasy to be alone with. From the vantage point of what had once been the realm of the lawnmower and focal point at 3pm on Saturday, it was impossible to deny its loyalty or question its thunderous acquiescence to its fate. It resides along the full length of the ground, a majestic heirloom, an elongated vision of Delphi … without the Aegean sunlight. The descending lines of silver-painted crowd barriers stand to attention in row after redundant row, blotched in ginger rust.
Where clashing limbs and leather once studded through the goalmouth mud, brambles and small shrubs now vied for space and light. Where a throng of some 20,000 once stood in common, the great terrace sits empty, hushed into resignation. Hewn from the earth as a chalk quarry, little had been lost of its original dimensions, it only seemed to have changed its primary purpose for another occupation. Unlike similar examples, the hefty partially roofed terraces of Molineux’ South Bank and The Shed at Chelsea, the absence of any kind of covering added rather than distracted from its nobility and stature. The basic simplicity of its make-up produced a sense of awe. On a day such as this, the four sides combined to convey a desolate canvas - enough to trouble anyone, but for a footballing type, it was the most disturbing, penetrating sight. Marooned in front of a forlorn quadrangle dotted with clods of rough grasses interspaced by swaying clusters of competing buddleia and elderberry, the floodlight pylons locked into the corners surveyed all and nothing. Sentry-like, they challenged you not to walk away. You can throw every metaphor and adjective in the book and still fall short of grasping the reality in words.
The West Stand offered temporary respite from the wind-swept tracts above, fine drizzle playing in swirls beneath creaking ceilings. Holes in the blistering facias and loosened side panels let slithers of pale light peep in. Up against the vertical stanchions, air squeezed relentlessly through missing slats and cracks, permitting a view in irregular slithers.
During the 1970s, Charlton had been regular visitors to Nottingham, and thanks to the guide to the football grounds of England and Wales, I was fairly informed about its history and its contemporary predicament as guests of Crystal Palace since 1985. Nevertheless, whatever you may have read or imagined, it would be quite a challenge to prepare for the dull immediacy of the impact upon the senses as the scale of the lingering calamity came fully into view. The abandoned stands with their lines of faded red plastic chairs waited patiently, overseeing the weed-strewn entrances and side terrace sections that once held feet in their tens of thousands. Numbing, stunting are equally applicable adjectives - a human stain of our own making, a daunting spectre to behold.
The Charlton return campaign just goes to show what can be achieved when a few good people, in the face of seemingly insurmountable financial adversity and recurring political indifference, say “no”. In a final throwback to the 1980s, paraphrasing an exhausted yet irrepressible Irishman, Sir Bob Geldof, it may suffice to ‘remember that on that day, for once in our bloody lives, we won’.
What has been achieved at Charlton since 1992 is nothing short of a miracle. On a wasteland and the foundations of a near ruin you have created something akin to a cathedral, an entity full of life, light, hope, and centrally, belief. In the process, you have not only returned home, but resurrected a priceless legacy for future generations to inherit. More broadly, beyond South London, SE7 and Floyd Road, you have forged a template from which the wider footballing fraternity might reassert the national sport as the people’s game.
In the final reckoning and sum total of our ordinary lives, how many of us can claim that?