AND SO TO LONDON
Charlton Athletic December 2007

     It’s become the annual event; BFC Supporters’ Club weekend trip to London and what better time than December and the promise of a bit of Christmas shopping. “Bugger the game, we don’t have to go,” I said to Mrs T hopefully, “Let’s go round the toy shops and see Santa.”
     “You are joking,” she said to my chagrin. Her Burnley resolve is much stronger than mine. “We’re going to the game what’s up with you.”
     Images of last year’s game at QPR immediately sprang to mind. No performance could be as bad as that… or could it?
     “Don’t care,” she said. “This is a football weekend and we just showed Watford how to play the game. Tell you what you can have pie and peas.”
     Lucky people those who went to Watford. Play like that again, surely not?
     “Can I wear my Ade mask again,” I asked sardonically. What a wizard wheeze that was last week. A bit of fun and a laugh, although in truth I didn’t see many people wearing them. I liked the story of the fan who went home, knocked on the door, and put his mask on. “Wow,” said his Mrs. “Come in Ade while my husband is still out.”
     Did Barry and Brendan wear theirs? Phone me and let me know.
     Is there a place for Ade masks in the modern game? Do they point to the future? Reaction fell into two camps. In the traditional corner were the blokes who still wear cloth caps, wellies and breed whippets, smoke woodbines and want stand-up terracing.
     “That’s you,” said Mrs T with a humph.
     “Listen,” I said. “Saturday afternoon is for football, a pint and a pie. We go for the football so you can keep your Chico and fancy stuff.”
     In the pro mask corner however is Mr Commercial Modern Man, who recognises that this is indeed the way football must go, along with music down Harry Potts Way.
     “Anyway,” I said. “How dare you? I am in favour of progress. I love the goal music and always join in - that brass band we had in 1957 was brill.”
     But, not to miss out on a business coup myself, (I could teach Brendan a thing or two), I harvested a couple of hundred of the Ade masks off the floor after the Stoke game. Well – Ebay in a few years of course. I suppose though it could have been worse. They could have been Julian Clary faces.

  
     Anyway I brightened up at the promise of a Valley plate of pie and peas. I’m a simple chap and the prospect clinched the argument. I guess at heart I too am a traditionalist, and in fact have just bought a new pair of wellies for the allotment where I breed pigeons and grow giant leeks.


     Charlton then; just down from the Premier and awash with parachute payments and the £16m they got for Bent. If memory serves they once had a centre back pairing of a bloke called Costa and one called Fortune. There was once a player called Fish and another called Chippo but they never played together mores the pity. You can get quite wound up in this name game. In the long history of BFC we have had playing for us a Baker, a Bishop, a Chippendale, a Cook, Dyer, Fletcher, Gardner, Miller, Abbot and not just one Knight but two. What a good job our new manager’s surname isn’t Money like that bloke at Walsall.


     And so to the coach: Me and the Mrs went on the Austria trip. Now that was gruelling, we spent so many hours on it that I couldn’t walk for a week when I got home and my knees and ankles were the size of balloons. But just down the road to London is OK and there is the regulation pit stop at Banbury for liquid refreshment. Actually it’s to give the driver his break but by some good fortune it’s always outside a pub. Funny that. Journey down dreadful though, long motorway delays. 12.30 and after midnight when we checked in.

  
     Anyway the game… Is Charlton’s ground the only one in the League where you will find human bones under the stands? The tale is that in the very early days of construction decades ago the banks were built up with spoil from a demolished hospital - spooky or what?


     The Valley itself is today a testimony to the human spirit and bloody mindedness of the football supporter. Charlton were once a fine club but then suffered relegations and went into poverty and sorry decline. For years the huge old ground and stands lay derelict, collapsed, rotting, overgrown and weed-filled and the club rented playing space elsewhere. But the community and the fans wanted The Valley back. They would not let their club die or move elsewhere. So what you see there now is a reward for effort, the never-say-die spirit of football fans and the will to reclaim their true home. And then on top of all that, they climbed back and reached the Premiership, holding their own for several seasons. Last season they lost that place and hence our visit. They are a club that nobody dislikes; they don’t upset anyone, don’t court controversy, and don’t make big noises. But £16million for Darren Bent… somebody there must be a bloody good salesman.


     Ramblings over: The Game. When I booked the tickets I thought I’d be part of the travelling Stevie Cotterill’s Claret and Blue Army. But since then we have appointed Owen Coyle so here is my opportunity to welcome him.


     We were on pins of course waiting to hear who the new man would be. A raft of names was floated out, Jewell, Grayson, Adams, Kinnear, Royle, Pearce and Hutchings. Then there were fantasy names like Shearer, Souness and Gullit. (If Gullit is pronounced Hullit why is a seagull not a seahull?) Some names distanced themselves, Ince, Ferguson (Darren) and Owen Coyle. Next up was Simpson from PNE conveniently sacked. But the real wave of fun began on November 20th. The smart money was on Peter Reid, even his own money I believe. At one point the job did seem to be his. Then no, it was Owen Coyle’s and so Reid was telephoned by the club to say no yer not ‘avin it. The local Press headlined with Reid but websites said Coyle. Then everybody said Coyle (except for a chap called CheshireExile who urged caution). And then St Johnstone urinated on things by saying you can’t have Coyle anyway. Embarrassment all round and back to square one… well Peter Reid actually. Er no, up pops Radio Lancs to say Reid has now ruled himself out of the job… eh… I thought Burnley had already told him he couldn’t have it.


     At this point dear reader, and hearing another rumour that Jewell had also been offered the job but it was withdrawn when he said he wanted Stan as number 2, I lay on the sofa and watched Emmerdale for a bit of fresh air. But then when Linda Lusardi told Lexi that Lexi wasn’t her sister but her daughter, so that this meant that Carrie who thought she was her aunty was now her sister, I passed out.


     The inference from comments by Brendan Flood three weeks ago was that SC was finding it difficult to make the extra two yards that would make us serious contenders and that someone new might find them small rather than giant steps. Owen we hope you are the man. The status of legend (and a lifetime supply of Hollands Pies) awaits the manager who can take us to the Premiership.


     “Pass and move and wing play” is his philosophy. He has made his mark already with words like style, panache, and with wide men who stay wide and Gudjonnson back in from the cold. Up until today four points from six is no bad start especially with three of them at Watford.
     At a game in London of course the away support is swelled by the expats who have moved darn sarf to seek their fortune. How many hundreds were there today in the away end? Burnley away support is a phenomenon and the goosebumps stand up on the back of your neck being part of it when it is in deafening, incessant, full voice. I don’t get to many long distance away games and there is always the hope that we’ll part of a crowd that sees a win at a place like this. Lucky people those at Watford. Surely, there wouldn’t be a second win in a week?


     BUT OH YES THERE WAS and 2000 Burnley fans saw it. This was a magnificent, classy, stylish performance from start to finish. In the first half the forwards ran amok and destroyed Charlton inside 15 minutes: The first goal a delicate glancing header by Gray in off Mills from a wicked Blake free kick. The second another evil Blake free kick and the decoy run by Carlisle took defenders away leaving McCann to head home. This was a sublime goal that had training ground written all over it. Delirium in the away end, was this really us entering fantasy land again? Until Charlton scored we toyed with them, played football, took the game to them, attacked purposefully. Blake mercurial, here and there, twisting, turning, threading passes, whipping in more free kicks that went narrowly wide or tipped away. Gray magnificent, giving his marker nightmares, Mahon darting everywhere but alas his long range shots mostly over the bar but the jewel in the crown shining at last.


     But Charlton scored, somehow a cross coming over and finding Reid unmarked with room to lash in an unstoppable shot. Did one of our defenders get a head to the cross and steer it to Reid, we were too far away to tell for sure.


     Goals change games, and this one gave Charlton hope and belief where previously they had been chasing shadows. Now it was Burnley under pressure and we longed for half time to provide breathing space. But during that spell Blake controlled the ball beautifully on the 6 yard line, did the hard work, goal in front of him, the ball sat up perfectly, the shot instead of finding the top corner of the net found the top corner of the stand. 3 – 1 would have finished Charlton.


     Second half was Charlton pressure and now it was the defence that was rock solid. Kiraly made great saves at key moments. For 15 minutes we were chewing nails but Unsworth and Carlisle were immoveable giants.  They did score again… but offside was given which could only have been by the narrowest of margins. And within minutes it was game over when Gray put a penalty away for a handball by that player we all love… the one and only Danny Mills.


     We played the game out. Charlton fans drifted home as we cheered, roared, chanted, hugged, applauded and basked in another away win at the home of a much fancied team.


     These might still be Cotterill’s players, but this is now Coyle’s team with his added finesse and vision. He has brought renewed passion, spirit, commitment and enthusiasm. He has put a fresh battery in players who were described three times already this season as ‘tired’ by his predecessor. There’s a tigerishness now about the team, they run, they cover, they work, the attack weaved swift incisive passing moves, and the defence soaked up pressure like a sponge when it had to. Sure there are weaknesses still at times but there’s a camaraderie now that oozes through the players. Success breeds success, the confidence grows and flourishes. There are players there now, heroes all at the Valley, who look liberated and eager.
    Kiraly great saves at the right time, Alexander cool and calm, Unsworth the motivator, the rock, the colossus, an inspirational man mountain, Carlisle outstanding growing every game, Harley sharp, supportive, full of running, covering, tackling, Lafferty all raw power and pace, McCann firm, defiant and strong, stroking the ball around, Mahon exceptional first half till he burned himself out with the ground he covered, Elliot always dangerous when he takes a man on and gets crosses over, Blake superb in the first half, the little magician, almost unplayable and uncontrollable, Gray the best I’ve seen him play, holding, shielding, passing, winning headers, and two goals; and then Gudjonnson when he came on bringing that bite that we needed when Charlton were coming strong.


     Man of the match, its difficult to separate Gray, Blake, Unsworth or Carlisle. But Gray scored the goals. Unsworth gives so much though, leadership, defiance, inspiration, the man is immovable. If one was cynical and unkind one might throw the name of Mills into the mix as well. He nicely assisted Gray’s first goal and then needlessly handled the ball for our penalty. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke I suppose. The word nasty is not quite adequate.


      2000 gloriously happy supporters wandered away wreathed in smiles and pleasure to drink and carouse the night away. But Coyle is right. These away wins are no good if we can’t win at home. Is it five home games in December starting with Leicester? Who knows where we could be by the end of the month with this new belief and style?


     Saturday began with champers on St Pancras Station in that plush Champagne Bar they have there just round the corner from the hotel. Well you have to do these wild mad things don’t you? The night ended with brandies in Bloomsbury. And on a stall at the Ephemera Fair in the hotel on Sunday morning I picked up a Bob Kelly autograph for eight quid.  In the afternoon on the way home in the coach we heard number nine Burnley… (Loud cheers) … will play number one Arsenal… (Even louder roars).


     Charlton 1 Burnley 3; now all in all, that’s what I call a helluva weekend even though I never got my Valley pie and peas.

Dave Thomas 2007