When Heather met Heather: Back to The Valley

An interview with Heather Alwen, wife of Charlton chairman Roger, at the time of the return to The Valley.

A chance encounter one evening led to this in-depth interview with Heather Alwen, wife of Chairman Roger, recalling the build-up to Charlton’s eventual return to The Valley after seven year’s in exile. First published in Blizzard, the football quarterly.

“Heather, red or white?” called out Charlton’s Keith Peacock, looking straight at me as he turned from the bar in the plush Millennium Lounge at The Valley. The occasion was not a matchday but a Q&A session, part of the 2017-18 season-long celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Charlton Athletic Community Trust and the return of football to the stadium in South East London.

As dapper now as he was assured on the wing, Keith Peacock is my Charlton thread of continuity, the link between the muddy pitches of the 1970s and the bespoke-carpeted, club-crested hospitality lounges of today. I was too young to witness his history-making first ever football league substitute appearance. Yet when I first started attending The Valley as a kid he still regularly trotted out in trademark fashion: juggling the ball from foot to foot into the penalty box in front of the Covered End then blasting it into the back of the net. But how on earth would he know my name?

An assertive female voice answered over my shoulder, “Red, please, Keith.” I looked around to see an elegant, smartly-dressed woman, a couple of decades older than me. Another Heather? We’re usually thin on the ground in London, let alone in a male-dominated football environment. It dawned on me that the wife of erstwhile chairman, Roger Alwen, one of the night’s speakers, was indeed called Heather. Thanks to an oblivious Keith Peacock, we got chatting.

Charlton remain the only English football club to leave their traditional ground and then return many years later. Roger Alwen’s beaming image is seared on my mind from the frequently replayed video of 5 December 1992, the day Charlton came home for the match against Portsmouth. With a mop of unruly hair, square wireframed glasses, club tie and double-breasted blazer, he pushes open the sparkling red metal gates and confidently leads the Addick faithful back onto the hallowed, yet still steaming, tarmac of The Valley.

Where was Heather at that point, I wondered? Subsumed amid the throng of over-excited, exuberant fans, perhaps? “I was arranging flowers in the Portakabin,” she reveals. At the time of the return – and for some while after – the offices, boardroom and even the dressing room of this phoenix stadium were humble temporary blocks on the car park behind the equally temporary West Stand. This was The Valley, but not quite as we used to know it.

Heather and Roger both grew up in Sevenoaks, Kent, and met as teenagers. Heather was just 20 when they married, Roger three years older. Roger’s father had died when he was very young. His mother didn’t drive so she took him on the bus that ran from Sevenoaks to home games at The Valley: “It was the one thing she felt she could do with him that his father probably would have done…so that’s how his love of Charlton grew.”

The Alwens had three children and Heather’s previous passion for horse-riding was replaced by outings to football: “The children simply loved it and I did too. Charlton in those days was very much family-oriented. It was always fun, lovely people around you who’d entertain the children. We stood on the East Terrace. The children would be passed down to the front so they could see. It was relaxing, you never felt threatened.” This would have been in the early to mid-70s. I, too, was becoming Addickted at around this time and Heather’s memories chime with my own. I stood with my dad further back on that vast bank, where space was not at a premium. The Valley boasted a capacity of 66,000 yet was rarely graced by more than 5-10,000 turning up to witness second- or third-tier contests.

The financial consequences of underachievement, overspending and tax debts caught up with the club. In February 1984, it very nearly disappeared altogether, saved in dramatic fashion not on the pitch but at the High Court. The new owner was Sunley Holdings, ominously a building company. In September 1985 Charlton played their last match at The Valley – supposedly. Abruptly displaced to share a stadium with Crystal Palace, eight miles away around London’s South Circular, fans found the physical journey in the capital’s Saturday-afternoon traffic tortuous enough. The emotional wrench, however, was greater than many could bear.

Around this time Roger Alwen, a wealthy city man, was gradually becoming more involved with the business side of the club, thanks to his friendship with Derek Ufton, a former Charlton player turned director. Alwen joined the board in summer 1987, seriously concerned about what the future might – or indeed might not – hold. “Selhurst virtually crippled the club,” affirms Heather. “The fans stayed away. They didn’t like it, they had no home. That was Roger’s main worry – not what division they were in or going to be in – but surviving. They weren’t going to.”

As a first step to re-establishing Charlton in its heartland, Roger and his fellow director Mike Norris bought a training ground in New Eltham, still used to this day. “We built a home there,” explains Heather. “It wasn’t in great shape but it got better and better. At Selhurst there was nothing.”

Heather made her mark. “My other love is gardening. The players used to laugh at me in the flower beds. The wind used to whistle right across. I planted – to my shame – leylandii as they grow so fast, to provide a screen. It was all hand-planted – daffodils too to make it a welcoming place. We also got a pool table and I made a cloth with a big Charlton logo on it – something to identify with.”

Mrs Alwen’s support of her husband extended to taking a maternal interest in the players’ welfare. At the time nutrition had a much more basic meaning than today’s carefully-balanced scientific-led dietary approach. “We put in a kitchen and canteen. Particularly the young ones from very poor backgrounds were not getting fed properly at all. We’d get them weighed and measured, give them meat and two veg every day. Then we had different ethnic groups – curries on the menu etc. It was a learning curve but I think we succeeded.” On the evening when I first met Heather, former Charlton striker Carl Leaburn was present. I witnessed first-hand the genuine affection between the two of them as they reminisced that a once spindly and under-nourished Leaburn was Alwen’s inspiration for setting up such facilities. I smiled wryly as now he is a mountain of a man.

With the training ground up and running, Alwen and Norris set about acquiring the freehold of The Valley once more. “That was not easy,” recounts Heather. “John Sunley, of Sunley the builders, was still under the impression that one day he’d get planning permission. It was the only reason he’d bought it, the reason to move to Selhurst Park. He let The Valley fall into disrepair… it was absolutely disgusting, revolting in every sense. He felt the worse it got, the more clout he’d have with the council to build houses as it would ‘improve’ the site.” With this candid explanation, the chairman’s wife confirms the worst fears of fans at the time.

A wave of optimism swept over the Addicks as news broke in early 1989 that The Valley freehold was back in friendly arms. But, after years of abject neglect, it was a site to make the eyes sore. “Roger had this idea. He wanted to get the fans back. So we had an open day at The Valley on a Sunday morning – everyone was invited to come and clear the site. It was mega, extraordinary. People turned up in droves, there was a big bonfire in the middle. If fans wanted to take old seats with them, they were welcome. What they didn’t know of course was that the next day the bulldozers and JCBs turned up and actually cleared the site. The fact they’d pulled up a buddleia wasn’t going to make a lot of difference but it was a tremendous atmosphere, a lovely idea.” Despite the insider knowledge that the day was essentially a PR exercise, Heather found herself in the thick of it: “I was on the East Terrace pulling up nettles and things and there was a darling old lady next to me with a dustpan and brush. And as I pulled things up, she came along and swept up after me. It was so sweet. She said, ‘I live in a flat, dear, and I don’t have any gardening things so I thought if I brought my dustpan, at least I could clean up after everyone.’ I mean wow – fantastic. So that was really the start of going back.”

But it was by no means the finish. The saga leading up to the fairy-tale return is one of wheeling and dealing, differing agendas, finances stretched to breaking point, planning battles and – most famously of all – the fans forming a political party. Rick Everitt’s book Battle for The Valley provides the definitive story from an activist fan’s perspective. At times the author is critical of the naivety of Roger Alwen and his fellow directors.

While staunchly defending her husband’s good intentions, Heather answers honestly when I enquire if they had any previous experience in such planning matters: “Absolutely not. Not on this scale. Putting a conservatory onto a house or something but nothing like this.” She goes on to describe the frustration of the public planning meetings.  “You are not allowed to say anything – you sit and you listen. A couple of councillors couldn’t even speak any English. One of them always called us the Athletic – didn’t even know we were Charlton Athletic.”  Heather goes on to recount how she attempted to engage one of the female councillors empathetically after a late-night finish to a fractious meeting: “I said, ‘You really have to go through awful times – why did you ever become a councillor?’ And she said, ‘My dear, the sandwiches are very good.’” Such a patronising reply clearly still rankles in the memory despite the lapse of time.

Property owners in the vicinity of The Valley lobbied the council hard, fearing the fortnightly invasion of hooligans and louts – such was the image of supporters of the beautiful game in this era. For Charlton fans, such nimbyism was astonishing, given that the football ground had loomed large in the backyard of South East London since the excavation by volunteers of the old chalk and sand quarry in 1919.

Like a team that’s 2-0 down at the break, the Addicks regrouped to think again and a new tactic emerged. The Valley Party burst onto the scene. Resolute door-knocking and leafletting supported by an emotive billboard advertising campaign resulted in 14,838 single-issue votes, almost 10% of those cast, in the Greenwich local elections of May 1990. While no seats were won, the usually stable Labour vote was sufficiently rocked to unseat the fans’ nemesis, the Chair of the Planning Committee, Simon Oelman. “That was an amazing evening,” recalls Heather, “I’m looking at the picture here, the election results. What the Valley Party did was just fabulous. Without them we wouldn’t have got here.” The council had to concede. The previously blocked permission was granted.

Charlton were heading home. Or were they? For the Alwens what happened next turned out to be “a very rocky road, a dreadful road, financially a real nightmare – people don’t realise – huge pressure for both of us. Roger had put just about everything into it. Then we had a huge setback and Roger was left holding the proverbial baby.” Normally quite assured, Heather’s voice trembles slightly as she recounts the difficulties. “Roger had always said to Mike Norris that whatever money you put into Charlton it must not be borrowed money – this is a bottomless bucket – you’ve got to be able to afford to lose. Unfortunately, Mike was a property man and he gambled on the fact that the property market was very buoyant then all at once it collapsed. A nightmare. Mike, bless his heart, had to pull out. Roger suddenly found himself owning Charlton with the banker.”

To compound matters, Charlton had given notice to end their increasingly disharmonious tenancy at Selhurst Park. Without the funds to complete the redevelopment of The Valley, the club was once again on the brink. A detour north of the Thames to Upton Park meant the club could fulfil its fixtures while Roger scrimped and scraped enough money together, including from player sales and fan appeals, to secure the long-awaited return on 5 December 1992. “Everyone rallied round,” explains Heather. “People wrote in and offered help. The ground staff were superb. Our youngest son never wanted to see a pot of red paint again.” To add to the sense of celebration, the date coincided with the Alwens’ wedding anniversary.

After the return, Heather took on a day-to-day role at the club. “Roger asked if I would come and help out in the office. He didn’t have to pay me – free labour! I sat on reception, I helped with Valley Gold [fundraising scheme], I was literally doing the secretarial work.” Heather is a capable and intelligent woman, yet at the time she willingly accepted her place: “In those days it was very, very much a man’s world. I was quite unusual in that I was so involved. The players accepted me. I would never voice an opinion on anything other than what they would assume a woman would know about – gardening, cooking, arranging flowers, and I was happy to stick to that.”

Surely there must have been an element of frustration? “Oh lord, yes, I could run the club! Absolutely, don’t know why they had a manager!” While this reply is tongue-in-cheek, the former chairman’s wife is certainly pleased that the world of football is gradually changing. and highlights Karren Brady as a role model. “I met her in the very early days at Birmingham – just had her first child – clamped to her hip in boardroom and I thought wow. She was amazing even then. Quite forthright – said things I wouldn’t have dared. She has done brilliantly. She is tough – she got a lot of flak for speaking out. She has always stuck to her guns and I do admire her.”

Now in her early seventies, Heather Alwen would not profess to being at the vanguard of women’s liberation in football, though she certainly saw the funny side of the old traditions. “We had some hilarious times,” she recalls, describing away matches where the directors of opposing teams didn’t know what to make of her and fellow director’s spouse, Judy Ufton, let alone where to put them. “We were never allowed in any board room – we were usually ushered into some little cubbyhole under the stairs. One time at Stoke there was a TV in the corner on a shelf so I said to one of the director’s wives – they were always very sweet and charming – ‘Does the television work?’ and she said, ‘Of course, dear, is there something you want to watch?’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe the results!’”

A significant legacy of Mrs Alwen’s contribution to Charlton can be found in the south-east corner of the home stadium. “We had a slight problem. When people died, the family wanted their ashes scattered at The Valley. But that’s not very practical in the goalmouth as bone ash – bone meal – burns grass.” So Heather created a memorial garden in the corner between two stands. “I put some ground cover plants there. The chaplain would come and do a service then the family would go back to one of the bars for a drink.” The garden continues to bloom today and act as a place of remembrance, one of the few in the country sited overlooking the pitch.

With new investment coming into the club, Roger was replaced as chairman of Charlton Athletic by Richard Murray in mid-season 1994-95. “Roger felt he had done everything he’d set out to do,” confirms Heather. “Whoever holds the purse strings really should be in charge. I went back to my career with the British Red Cross. It was difficult to take a backward step having been so involved but we were fine; you knew it was right; it couldn’t go on forever.”

Aside from beating Portsmouth 1-0 on the Valley return, Heather’s other abiding memory is no surprise. “Wembley 98 – it was a surreal time – I’ve never been quite so tense at any football match, not even the first one back at The Valley.” Having drawn 4-4 after extra time, Charlton beat Sunderland 7-6 on penalties to secure a place in the Premiership. “When he [Michael Gray of Sunderland] missed that penalty – wow – an extraordinary feeling – I don’t know how to describe it. We had a massive party after with the entire family and friends but everyone oddly enough was quite quiet – it hadn’t sunk in. The next day we realised, reading it in the press and things. Great times.”

I ask if Heather still follows Charlton. “Of course. When you’re involved you have a very different relationship with the club. Now we’re back to being fans.” She regularly attends at home but admits to no longer travelling away: being just a random supporter among what can sometimes be a lairy crowd is too much of a contrast from the days of being hosted – even if only as a segregated director’s wife. “I was spoilt for years – that sounds a bit awful, doesn’t it?”

I reflect that I still keenly sing and shout in the thick of it at away games. Not only such behaviour separates me from this other Heather. We are a generation apart and outlook and a class or two apart in upbringing and wealth. Mrs Alwen defers to any football club patron who pays the bills whereas I rail insubordinately against absentee and uninterested ownership. I am no fan of Karren Brady. I suspect that we hold differing opinions on many other matters beyond football. Regardless, I feel a bond that goes beyond our first name and penchant for red wine. Charlton Athletic made it back home, thanks to the famous contributions of the Valley Party and Roger Alwen. Myself and Heather Alwen, along with countless others, experienced the extremes of despair and jubilation of that tale from the shadows, simply faces in the football crowd. Such acute emotions and common memories nevertheless create a powerful link. And help explain why we both remain Addickted to this day.

So long, Johnnie, and thanks for all the memories.

Reflecting on the sacking of Johnnie Jackson after 12 years at Charlton but just 40 games as manager. Written for www.castrust.org.

In truth it’s a long time since Johnnie, oh Johnnie Jackson ran down the wing for us. The closest he came in recent years was that ebullient celebration at Wembley 2019. He charged along the touchline to act as the climbing frame for a bunch of highly-excited red-shirted footballers, the elation that Charlton were seconds from a place in the Championship overwhelming us all.

Yet that rather quaint ditty in Jackson’s honour still rang around the Covered End as we clinched a last home victory of the season versus Shrewsbury. While some had been muttering about whether Jackson had the experience or tactical nous to build a squad for a promotion push next year, the general sentiment was to give him the time, the opportunity and the backing to do so, even after the 4-0 trouncing at Ipswich. As such, news of his sacking was the unexpected yin to the well-trailed yang of George Dobson’s coronation as Player of the Year.

Jackson was the Q&A guest at CAST’s AGM last November. He spoke warmly of his connection with Charlton – how he always felt he would end up here. His only top-flight goal was scored for Spurs at The Valley. He may not have come through the Academy ranks at Sparrows Lane but he is certainly ‘one of our own’. He arrived initially on loan from Notts County in February 2010, an emergency replacement for injured Grant Basey. Then he himself succumbed to the treatment table and was packed back to his parent club. Phil Parkinson signed him on for the following season. When novice manager Chris Powell undertook a major squad overhaul in summer 2011, Jackson was the only first team regular to survive. Indeed he thrived, taking on the captaincy and leading us through a record-breaking season. We got a real insight into his character and never-say-die attitude with his free-kick double securing maximum points in consecutive weeks versus Sheffield promotion rivals United and Wednesday.

In future seasons Jackson continued to throw heart and soul and knee slides into leading the Addicks to victory – that last gasp clincher v QPR is seared in our collective memory. He went above and beyond in his dedication – even acting as unpopular CEO Katrien Meire’s human shield at a feisty fans’ meeting, turning up a little late with his cup of tea to lighten the atmosphere.

Personally I’ll always remember the match versus Fulham at home in October 2015. We were 2-0 down but had just won a corner with about 80 minutes gone. Jacko emerged from the bench, running animatedly towards the area, pointing, shouting and screaming at the kick-taker to find his head. In an almost carbon copy of the QPR goal, he planted the ball right in the net. Jordan Cousins followed the skipper’s example with an injury-time addition. One of those draws that felt much more like a win – and a very clear example that when Jacko sets out to achieve, he gets the result.

On the Zoom AGM meeting he also claimed to be a better guitar player than Charlton supremo and would-be rock star Thomas Sandgaard. Maybe the latter didn’t get the joke. The past couple of weeks have been replete with quotes and interviews with both Jackson and Sandgaard on plans for the summer. Reading or listening back now, with the benefit of that wonderful thing called hindsight, it is obvious that the owner was not being whole-hearted in his backing for the manager, speaking of his own ideas regarding training methods and playing style.

I spoke to Jackson at the sponsors’ dinner briefly last week and the future of club captain Jason Pearce was clearly weighing on his mind. He compared it to the end of his own playing career and talked about the important role his then manager Karl Robinson took on in helping him understand that his legs had gone – OK, he didn’t quite put it like that but I got the gist. We now know that Jacko had to confirm to Pearce that he was not going to be offered another playing contract at CAFC. That was probably one of the last actions he undertook as manager of The Addicks. I don’t know the circumstances of how he conducted that discussion but I imagine there was empathy and gratitude for Pearce’s contribution.

Sandgaard flew back to the States after the Player of the Year do so did not break the news in person to Jackson that he was no longer wanted. That must leave a sour taste for a man who gave the best years of his playing career to this club and set out on the coaching and managerial ladder here. The owner has to make the hard decisions but I’d like to think that Charlton’s values mean we treat loyal club employees with respect, especially when they are being shown the door. Johnnie Jackson has graced our club for more than 12 years. He played over 250 games and scored 50 goals in the Addicks shirt. As manager he was in charge for 40 games, overseeing 19 wins.

I’m a bit of a one for football omens. As soon as the fixture list came out for season 2011/12, I spotted Carlisle away in late April. I had us odds-on for promotion – in my Charlton world, lightning does strike thrice. And it did. After the final match of this season, I was clinging to 13th as a springboard to promotion or at least the play-offs. I also had in mind that Charlton playing legends had the knack of leading us out of the third tier – Lee Bowyer in 2019 and Chris Powell in 2012. For those long in the tooth, we can even follow the lineage back to Mike Bailey in 1980. I liked to think it was written in the stars for JJ too. The owner has decided it’s not to be.

The football is now very firmly at Thomas Sandgaard’s feet. Will he make a third time lucky appointment after Adkins and Jackson? Meanwhile the out of contract senior pros are left in limbo and our summer recruitment plans rely first and foremost on the data analysis skills of the owner’s son. Right now the stability we have long been seeking at this football club feels about as distant as the Premier League.

Desperately seeking a cup semi-final

With a ticket secured for the Papa John’s quarter final away at Hartlepool on Tuesday 25th January, I take a look back at a rather troubling history when following Charlton at this stage in cup competitions.

In my all-time list of Addick crowd choruses, first place goes to the Allez, Allez, Allez chant of the 2019 play-off final (and the Doncaster home semi-final when the Covered End was rocked to its foundations). In second has to be the chorus of “Super Clive Mendonca” that repeatedly resounded across Wembley in 1998.   And in third, the ebullient and spontaneous half-time singalong to D-ream’s “Things can only get better.” 10,000 Addicks packed into the away end at Old Trafford. We bawled along to the tannoy tune in unison if not always in harmony. We believed. We really did.

Our brave second-tier underdogs had held their own against mighty Manchester United throughout the first half. Then suddenly Kim Grant was through on goal, spearing his way towards us, just Schmeichel to beat (Peter, not Kasper, this was 1994.) The Dane rushed from his area and pole-axed Grant. Only a free kick (which came to nothing) but marching orders for the keeper. The home side down to ten. The second half would be ours. The FA Cup semi-final beckoned.

Mark Hughes scored down below us from a corner within a minute of the restart. The D-ream dream of cup glory was over for another year and another and another…

There is no logical reason for me to embark on a near seven-hour drive from home on the West Coast of Scotland to the north-east of England next Tuesday but when has supporting your club ever been a rational decision? It seems the label “quarter final” has a certain magnetism.

In February 2000 the FA Cup drew us back to the north-west. Charlton were flying high, on an unbeaten roll since Christmas and on the way to the first division title (really the second division title but we did get our hands on that beautiful old Football League trophy) and promotion back to the top flight. We’d do the double over Bolton Wanderers in the league. But there was no way through in this knockout tie at the Reebok. In a slightly displaced echo of Old Trafford, Gudjohnsen put the Trotters ahead just after the restart only for the home side to be reduced to ten men a minute later. We huffed and puffed but it was never going to be our day. A certain Claus Jensen orchestrated Bolton’s every move.

We’ve journeyed to the north-east before on the cup trail too. Middlesbrough one Tuesday evening in 2006. A 0-0 draw at The Valley paved the way for this all Premiership encounter. “Someone’s got to win the FA Cup, why can’t it be us?” was the oft-repeated refrain of Alan Curbishley. Frequent exits in the third or fourth round, though, suggested a stronger behind-the-scenes focus on the magic of gaining 40 league points. Despite the match being live on TV, many Addicks still made the effort in person. On paper it looks like a humdinger of a game, as we fell 4-2. In reality we were always on the back foot, a glaring early miss by the normally-reliable Darren Bent aside. Every time we celebrated, Boro quickly responded.

The quarter final tag drew me and thousands more to Bramall Lane for a Sunday lunchtime kick-off on what turned out to be the nadir of Chris Powell’s reign in 2014. Like Bent before him, if only Callum Harriott had shown more composure early-on, it might have turned out differently. The die was cast the day before when other Championship results conspired to plunge Charlton to the foot of the table. The games in hand brought no comfort to Duchatelet, who first tried to interfere in team selection, then seized the opportunity to dispense with the services of an incumbent manager prepared to stand up for our club. I now look back on that trip as one of my most ill-fated following Charlton as we slumped 2-0 to a team a division below.

I’ve saved even worse till last: Wycombe Wanderers at home, midweek in mid-December 2006, in the Carling (League) Cup. We were nominally still in the Premier League but in our hearts we already feared that journey was nearing the buffers. With Curbishley gone, and Dowie more recently despatched, Les Reed proved incapable of galvanizing a squad of players much changed since the previous season. A shot at cup glory could ease the darkness of potential relegation, we hoped. But those present will recall it turning into a vitriolic evening. It is the only time I’ve felt moved to join in with the chant “You’re not fit to the wear the shirt.” Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank entering the fray with 15 minutes left summed up why we were heading for a knockout by the Chair Boys of League Two. I’ve flown down from Scotland for this, I muttered to myself.

So as I look back over my experiences following Charlton in quarter finals since 1994, it is a tale much more of despair than hope. The half-time singalong at Old Trafford only led to things getting much, much worse – not just in that particular match but in every Addicks’ quarter final since. (I have no recollection personally of the last eight encounter with Brentford in 2010 in the EFL Trophy then sponsored by Johnstone’s Paint. Even those present may struggle – the history websites show a 0-0 draw and 1-3 defeat on penalties.)

Come Tuesday morning we’ll set off bright and early on the long and winding road to Victoria Park. Will we be heading for nearly thirty years of quarter final hurt or can the much-maligned “Pizza Cup” restore some magic?

Battle of The Bridge

An unusual girl’s eye view of a Christmas-time match in the 1970s. The atmosphere was less than festive at football back then. Article published in issue four of the new Charlton Athletic fanzine, Mod Mag.

I’ve confessed elsewhere that my first memory of – and enchantment with – the so-called beautiful game was the Chelsea v Leeds 1970 FA Cup Final replay – notorious in football history as one of the dirtiest ever matches. This tiny tot watching it on our spindly black and white TV was captivated. But it was a school night so Dad sent me to bed long before the end. My revenge the next morning was to choose winners Chelsea as my team. It took Dad several years to recover from this mistake. Repeated trips to The Valley, a shiny new gold Cortina and natural aversion to being a glory-hunter finally did the trick: I proclaimed myself an Addick.

After that, I barely kept an eye on the fortunes of the Chelsea boys in blue. The mighty had fallen – clearly missing my support – and been relegated. This meant my ex was about to confront the new love of my life in the second division. At Stamford Bridge. On the day after Boxing Day 1975.

My big sister’s partner, Charles, a tall, dark, handsome Aberdonian and Met detective, offered to accompany us to the match, claiming his own allegiance to the home team. Dad and I meekly followed as he led us to the stadium, through the turnstiles and straight into The Shed, the heart of Chelsea fanaticism.

Whether out of mischief at wanting to test whether I still harboured feelings for my original choice of club, or simply because he didn’t know any better (he was not a regular football go-er) Charles found us a place right in the thick of the Chelsea hooligan mob. This was exciting stuff. After all, I was in the company of two big, strong Scotsmen in Charles and my Dad. One of them probably had handcuffs and a truncheon hidden about his person, while the other would defend every tiny, wavy hair on his daughter’s head.

“I guess we’d better keep very quiet when we score, Dad,” I whispered into his ear, stretching up on tiptoe. “Chance will be a fine thing,” he muttered under his breath, as he pulled me round to position me safely right in front of him, tightly gripping my shoulders. I prized up his fingers and shrugged off his hands. “I can’t jump up to see if you do that, Dad.”

“Well, what do we think,” said Charles loudly to all around, “3-0 to Chelsea?”

Dad and I exchanged a complicit glance and glowered back at him. Strangers of motley shapes and sizes, but mainly wearing leather jackets, denims and Doc Marten boots, nodded back at this imposing character. “Yeah, no bother against this lot,” seemed to be the general opinion. Then the chanting, shouting and swearing started along with the match.

When you are interloping at football you always worry about revealing yourself by the natural reaction of cheering when your own team scores. But that is not the real giveaway. The big clue for opposing fans is your lack of reaction when their side hits the net. Except they probably won’t notice, carried away with the elation of the moment, too busy jumping up and down, whirling round on the packed terracing, hugging their mates and starting up the next chant, oblivious to their statuesque neighbour. That’s the only explanation I can find for how Dad and I got away unscathed that day in The Shed as the goals flew in.

Chelsea relentlessly attacked right in front of us in the second half. We were clinging on for a 2-2 draw, a very respectable result, some nice symmetry between my original choice and my current passion and probably a point more than Charlton rightfully deserved. But football is not always a fair game. A long punt from the Charlton goalie away from The Shed. Finally the ball was in the Chelsea half. I craned to follow as one lone Charlton striker ambled after it. Two towering Chelsea players, goalie Peter Bonetti and centre half Eddie McCreadie, zoomed in, pincer-like. And collided. The ball ran free, leaving Derek Hales with the Chelsea goal at his mercy. Killer struck. Silence enveloped The Shed. Dad grabbed my hand and shook it for joy, without raising it above my elbow, so nothing would be seen. I bit my tongue, dug my nails into my other hand and trod one foot on top of the other to prevent any louder outburst or physical expression of support for the wrong team. My heart thumped in my chest aa I gulped in the stale smoke and cold air of the enemy’s Shed, only uttering a muffled gurgle.

Charlton had defied all logic and quietly triumphed over Chelsea once again in my early footballing life. And somehow I lived to tell the tale.

Booted by Brighton

Here I reminisce about my nascent playing days as a student – quite pioneering back in the 1980s. I didn’t realise at the time that women’s football had been banned for 50 years until 1971. I now know that the Lionesses of England aren’t so much as building a legacy but righting the wrongs of all those years.

The boys from the village were always playing football in the road just outside our little council house, but I never joined in.  In the school summer holidays I managed a kickabout on the beach with a few friends. I wasn’t too bad – lots of chasing around rather than skill, it has to be said, so perhaps more like versatile Charlton stalwart Steve Gritt than tricky winger Carl Harris.  I also had no idea which my best position would be. Just like Steve Gritt, then.

University loomed on the horizon.  “Student life – it’s whatever you make it,” warbled the blurb in the prospectus.   “It’s not just about lectures and seminars, it’s your chance to get involved in all sorts of other sports or past-times.  If the society doesn’t already exist, all you have to do is start it – after all, there are thousands of other young people just waiting to have fun.” 

The thought crossed my mind that I could finally have a go at playing my favourite sport properly, albeit as a rather late starter.  That first evening in the college bar, I casually mentioned the idea to my new student friends. Immediately one of the boys offered to coach us, and most of the girls who played hockey decided they would give it a go for a laugh.  The prospectus was right – I wasn’t just going to be playing football, somehow I was founder and captain of the team.  Now I just needed to learn how to kick the thing, never mind head it.  After all these years watching Charlton – and Steve Gritt – I must have picked up a trick or two…

On Saturday, I settled down in my room with a 19th century French literary classic. I was already behind on the pre-course reading list and lectures started that week. 

But my mind soon started drifting. Our first ladies football training session was set for Sunday afternoon. This was 1983 – we were still ladies then, though once we started kicking the ball, and later lumps out of each other, we soon became women.  Before the end of the day I would need to take a trip into town to buy my first ever pair of football boots. First I’d catch up on the Charlton team news on Radio Two, as it was nearly three o’clock. With less frequent visits to The Valley, I’d be relying on Sports Report, phone calls home and newspaper cuttings sent by Dad to keep in touch with snippets of news about my team.  Allan Simonsen, former European Footballer of the Year, had surprisingly been and less surprisingly gone the previous season. No-one seemed quite sure where the money was coming from at the second division London club –or if, indeed, there was any money at all.  Nevertheless, under the careful stewardship of Lennie Lawrence, we’d made an excellent start in the league, unbeaten after seven games, just three goals conceded. 

“We’ll be reporting live from the Goldstone Ground.” What a surprise, the featured match was Brighton v Charlton!  Both the tragedy of French heroine Madame Bovary and my football boot purchase would have to wait.  I could always wear hockey boots for that first session, I mused – surely most of the other girls would.  I associated the dulcet tones of commentator Peter Jones with Steve Heighway marauding down the wing on a Liverpool glory night in the European Cup.  Now I would be listening to the BBC describing Bobby Curtis and Les Berry keeping close tabs on the Brighton forwards, Steve Gritt commanding the midfield – it sounded like that was his position this time – and Carl Harris skillfully tee-ing up Derek Hales or Ronnie Moore.  Wouldn’t I? 

Brighton scored after 12 minutes, and then again after 17.  Charlton had barely touched the ball.  I decided to get on my bike after all –maybe I was the jinx.  I headed into my new home town, did a bit of shopping for basic student supplies – A4 paper, milk, bread and gin. Then I plucked up the courage to enter the sports shop. 

Rack after rack of football boots, all of them black.  A male assistant, about my age, asked if he could help. 

“Yes, I’d like a pair of size five boots.”

“Hockey ones are over there,” he gestured with his head.

“No, I want football ones.”

“Oh, shopping for your little brother, are you?”

“No, I’d like to try them on.”   Smirking, he turned and reached down a pair from the boys’ section.  “These ones are only a fiver – there’s no VAT on the kids’ sizes.”

I hastily tried them on – they would do fine. 

At the cash desk, the same boy who was reluctantly selling me the boots turned to his mate,

“What about Sunderland beating your Liverpool at Anfield, then?”  

I realised it was a bit after five o’clock.  Feeling brave – I was the captain of my own team now, and the proud owner of a pair of kids’ plastic football boots – I casually asked if they happened to know the Brighton score. 

“Brighton, oh yeah, they won 7-0.  That old Liverpool player Jimmy Case got a hat-trick. Do you support them, then?”

The Song in my Heart

Charlton’s anthem Valley Floyd Road has special personal meaning for me, given family links to the Mull of Kintyre.

Since the late 1980s, Charlton fans have chosen an adapted version of Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre as their football anthem, Valley Floyd Road. This has special personal meaning for me, as my Dad originally hailed from Campbeltown, the nearest main settlement to the wild headland of the Mull of Kintyre. I was born in South East London with the football gene but it was Dad that ensured I became an Addick. I originally wrote this tale of his 80th birthday celebration for Voice of The Valley fanzine. I am now publishing it here in response to new owner Thomas Sandgaard’s request to share our Charlton family stories.

Many miles did we travel to the West Coast of Scotland on New Year’s Day 2001.  Many hours would we spend in family celebration at Saddell Castle, just a few miles from Dad’s Campbeltown birthplace. Boasting thick stone walls, ghostly legends and roof-top battlements, the 16th century keep towered over the southern end of a sweeping beach; the very beach where Paul McCartney and Wings, superbly accompanied by the Campbeltown Pipe Band, had serenaded the nation in the video of Mull of Kintyre

Now this was Charlton’s tune too, of course.  Dad and I often recalled that night at Highbury in March 1989 when we first heard of the mist rolling in from the Thames.  Not only a portent of the club’s eventual return home to SE7, but a reminder for Dad of his own home – it was as though the faithful Addicks were lauding his personal loyalty.  Surely his only desire would be to celebrate his 80th birthday in a Kintyre castle?

After a tough upbringing in an overcrowded tenement, Dad had headed off to Europe at the age of 18 as a gunner in the 51st Highland Division. Captured in northern France, he completed four and a half years’ hardship at Hitler’s pleasure.  He then washed up in Woolwich in 1945, met a local lass at a local dance and settled for a new life in the South East of England.  Of course he chose Charlton Athletic as his team – after all, they were not only the nearest, but also one of the best in the land.  Consequently he hated the Gunners of Arsenal, considering them Charlton’s real rivals, traitors for abandoning the area he’d now adopted. 

In Dad’s first two Addickted seasons, Charlton reached the FA Cup Final. He failed to get a ticket for either: none to spare for recent incomers.

Also failing to pass on his football passion to his first two offspring, he had all but given up when another girl arrived as a late surprise.  Even I didn’t make it easy for him, initially latching on to the 1970 FA Cup winners, Chelsea, on TV. So as soon as I was old enough, Dad whisked me off to The Valley and confronted me with Charlton Athletic.  Please don’t misconstrue this as a bullying tactic: Dad did also promise to take me to Chelsea, just it was a bit easier to get to Charlton, and he was going anyway.  By now Charlton had dipped into the third division, but Dad was a determined character, who believed that you got the luck that you deserved, so had stuck with his team through thin and thin unflinchingly. 

Forsaking the glamour of the boys in blue, I quickly fell for the more down-to-earth charms of suave Bobby Curtis penalties, crunching Phil Warman tackles and aggressive Derek Hales strikes, whether they resulted in the ball hitting the back of the net or opponents hitting the floor…Dad and I became inseparable in our devotion, with Mum frequently having to referee our tussles over the sports pages of the morning newspaper.

When I booked the castle and lined up this family gathering, Charlton were a mid table Championship side.  By the time the time came, we’d been up to the Premiership, back down and back up again.  When I’d broken the news that we were spiriting Dad away to Scotland for his birthday, he’d glanced at the fixtures: old enemy, but rare opponents, Arsenal at home on New Year’s Day.  “Oh well, there’s more to life than football.” He’d invoked that same phrase on many occasions to try and cheer me up after a defeat.  It sounded just as hollow this time. 

I’d dragged Dad away from the Covered End choir (well, a bit of shouting in the East Stand, actually), so this had to be the perfect event.  I’d gone ahead to make a head start on the catering, only to find that the salmon was too big for the fish kettle, the kitchen tiny, and the castle as bitter cold inside as it was out. Nothing was going to plan. Late December snowfall had frozen hard in treacherous swathes across the twisty country roads and paths.  We’d nearly blown up the old car trying to jump start it.  The delivery of the birthday cake in such conditions was in doubt.  What more could go wrong? 

Then I heard the panicking cry from my husband, “Heather, help, I’ve dropped your Dad!”  Dad was just a month on from a knee replacement operation, still walking with a stick and diligently carrying out physio with a bag of frozen peas several times a day to get his joint back as good as new.  But now, despite holding his son-in-law’s arm, he’d slipped on the icy approach to the castle and gone down with a heavy thud onto his fragile new knee.  This was far from the grand and stylish arrival I’d been hoping for. “Where’s that magic sponge when you need it?” Dad quipped, gingerly raising himself back up again.  He was made of tough stuff, and, fortunately as it turned out, so was his artificial knee.

Siblings, in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews were all arriving, commenting on the cold as they shivered their way inside, bemused by Heather’s daft idea.  Suddenly I realised the time, grabbed the radio and escaped to the battlements, braving the frost to find some crackling reception outside the thick stone walls. With the way the day was going and the recent crushing defeat at West Ham, I feared nothing but the worst.  Curbs and co had different ideas.  I rushed back down the spiral stairs, “Dad, we beat Arsenal! We won! 1-0! Kiely saved a penalty too!” 

Dad beamed at the taming of the Gunners and settled into the wingback armchair, lording it over his temporary manor, whisky in hand.  His eyes sparkled as he reminisced to his children and grandchildren about his barefoot childhood just down the road. With the gloomy mood lifted, the fire blazing and Dad’s clan gathering, so the castle became cosy. 

I got things organised in the little kitchen.  My brother-in-law hacked the head off the salmon and it fitted perfectly in its pan.  The beautifully-iced cake survived its icy journey.  Everyone dressed magnificently for dinner. Dad opened his birthday card, large, home-made and lovingly signed by all present and many more beyond.  How he chuckled at his outsize 80 year old head perched atop the wiry, athletic (or rather Athletic) body of captain Mark Kinsella. 

A young piper turned up as a surprise treat.  As he played, Dad and I loudly and proudly sang the wrong words to the local anthem, physically at the Mull of Kintyre, but spiritually at Valley Floyd Road. Many games had we seen (though today’s would only be TV highlights), following Charlton our favourite team: little old Charlton who had just derailed the mighty Arsenal’s title journey. We were ready to party. 

In memory of John McKinlay, 1/1/1921 – 23/12/2005.

Last Impressions Count

My personal view on Lyle Taylor’s controversial decision to cut his Charlton career short. First published in June 2020 by Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust.

My AFC Wimbledon mates tried to warn me. “He’s a bit big-headed,” they said. “I quite like his hair-style with all those curls piled up on top,” I replied at a tangent, “especially when he dyes it pink to raise money for breast cancer charities.”

“He’s not that good in the air,” they said. I laughed and pointed to his fantastic headed goals for us. “He’s not a team player,” they continued. “Oh rubbish – he’s our talisman and the other players clearly love him!” I boasted. “He got the best out of Karlan Grant. He’s really supported loads of our young players.”

“He’s overly fond of back-heels, mostly unsuccessful,” one of them retorted, starting to sound a little bitter and desperate.

I Tweeted that remark after penning an article called “The Meaning of Lyle” for the away guest page in the Dons’ programme last season. Taylor himself picked up on it and responded via the social medium, indignant at the “mostly unsuccessful” description. I challenged him to prove my mate wrong and score a back-heel goal. He publicly accepted.

It was approaching the end of last season. I’d booked the trip back to Floyd Road from my home in Scotland for the last game v Rochdale. “Why are we going to all this expense and effort for a meaningless match?” enquired my husband. I had no answer, other than the 45-year-old habit of always attending the final fixture. “But it’s not going to be the last match of the season, now, is it?” He said. “We’re already in the play-offs.” Hmmm. Fair point.

Lyle Taylor – I assume in vicarious response to my challenge – came to the rescue and lifted that match out of the ordinary. I watched on incredulously from the front row of the North Upper as Charlton player after Charlton player attempted a back-heel pass, a back-heel flick, a back-heel shot. I swear I counted eight or ten. None by Taylor and most of them unsuccessful. I felt my cheeks reddening as the minutes went past. Never had I expected to influence on-pitch shenanigans in such a way. Thank heavens we won 4-0 and grabbed third place or Bowyer would be after me.

Taylor eventually came good himself on the challenge – with a deft flick of the heel following a corner to secure victory in our first match of this season away at Blackburn.

Even a week ago I was still defending Lyle to my Wimbledon mates: “Yes, he’s out of contract, and Charlton have mucked him about over a new one. We know he’s off. He deserves his last chance at a big payday. He’s been brilliant for us. We wouldn’t be at the bottom of the table if he hadn’t got injured playing for Montserrat and missed a dozen or so games. And he really gets it – he’s been quite outspoken about the craziness behind the scenes and I think he genuinely feels for the fans.”

I was elated when I saw the restart photos of socially-distanced training, with Lyle in the thick of it, looking as fit and lively as ever. Then Bowyer spoke. And now we know. Lyle will not wear the Addicks shirt again. He fears an injury may thwart that lucrative move. Like Scott Parker before him, he has plunged from hero to zero in one petulant moment. Curbishley has admitted that the departure of Parker was the beginning of the end of his Charlton managerial reign. Let’s hope Bowyer does not feel quite so betrayed by his star striker – the one who was a bit disruptive in the dressing room, not very good in the air and pretty useless at back-flicks until Lee and his coaches got hold of him.

I’ve been a football fan and indeed a Charlton fan for more than long enough to realise that footballers have short careers, have to be selfish battlers and mostly think very differently from fans. They wouldn’t survive long on the pitch otherwise.

But each to their own. At the close of last season another stalwart of recent years was about to leave. He’d not been offered a contract reflective of his talents. Indeed, he had been honest that he would be moving on. Yet he strode onto the Valley pitch for the Doncaster home play-off semi-final just hours after his wife gave birth. And six seconds from the final whistle at Wembley, he cemented his legendary status. Like a true Addick fan, Patrick Bauer confesses that he must have watched that goal a thousand times. He will never forget that moment and neither will we.

Does anyone remember Lyle Taylor’s last touch?

Of Robins & Magpies

21 years after the first highly memorable Charlton Sunderland Wembley Playoff final, could the repeat live up to its billing?

Sunday mid-morning and we’d just arrived at the swanky riverside hotel in North Greenwich, a play-off final treat. Not much sign of a football crowd here, though. The previous-night’s trendy concert-goers straggled along the pavement outside, mainly younger females eager for a parting glimpse of The Vamps. Fortunately we were able to check-in early, enabling a quick change before we’d fall in with the ranks of Addicks aboard the Jubilee Line all the way to Wembley.

Keen to reveal the view from our eighth floor room, I pulled apart the voile curtains to gaze at the murky Thames, tracing its silver ribbon from the gleaming, crane-embraced towers of Canary Wharf all the way to the distant domes, spires and ship’s rigging of old Greenwich. Then a large black and white bird swooped past. A magpie. One for sorrow. I reminded myself that today was not a day for superstition. Bowyer is a winner. He wouldn’t have any truck with such nonsense. I watched the solitary bird hopping around on a low roof below. Suddenly in flew a second. Two for joy.

I quickly pulled the flimsy curtains back together, preserving the tableau of the pair of birds. I donned my 1998 souvenir t-shirt – red, with a square green diagram on the front illustrating the build-up to Mendonca’s hat-trick goal, counter-balanced with a table on the back showing the times and names of the goal- and penalty-scorers on that momentous day. By coincidence we’d been through the highs, lows and ultimate peak of another four-all-with-added-penalties-victory over Doncaster in this year’s semi-final. The box marked “Play-off drama props for Charlton Athletic” tucked away in the corner of the attic of the football gods must surely be pretty empty by now, I mused. Then quickly cautioned myself that such football gods would have no place in Bow’s brave new Charlton world either.

I pulled on my old red MESH shirt, quickly washed and ironed since the Doncaster home leg. The style had been big and baggy back in those days, so even with an extra t-shirt layer underneath, it just about covered the rather tangible and flabby sins of the 21 years that had since elapsed.

My mind drifted back to the very first match of this League One season and more Magpies, that time of the Geordie kind. We’d stayed over in Newcastle with our good friends who had tagged along as a family of four to take their place with us in the upper echelons of the Stadium of Light. The teenage son had even worn his Newcastle United shirt under his hoodie, covertly infiltrating enemy territory. They had been just as gutted as surrounding Addicks when Sunderland stole the three points in the final seconds. Jason Pearce had hobbled off, leaving us exposed in the penalty area right down below us. Already mourning the loss to injury of Forster-Caskey, we thought a torrid season stretched ahead for our threadbare squad.

But with Bowyer at the helm, obstacles are mere challenges to overcome. Naby stepped up to form a solid pairing with Bauer. Youth burst onto the scene in the shapes of Dijksteel, Morgan, Lapslie and Stevenson. Ben Reeves, Jamie Ward, Mark Marshall, Tarique Fosu all played their bit parts. Villa abruptly hoicking Jed Steer away only resulted in Dillon’s coming of goalkeeping age. The left back hole was eventually properly filled by steady Ben Purrington. Once-maligned loan signings turned golden in Cullen and Bielik. Even the tremor of top-scoring Grant’s departure did not deliver an earthquake, with Taylor manfully holding the striking line together, supported by flashes of the old Igor and the endeavours of Josh Parker. Solly puffed out his chest. Pratley provided the steel so that Jonny Williams could dance and torment. Aribo delighted with a silky combination of power and grace. After a shaky turn of the year, the Addicks’ momentum built as others started to toil.

Our group gathered at the same Wembley Park curry-house three out of the eight of us had frequented in 1998. No, no, not superstition – merely a relaxing and enjoyable way to calm nerves. We couldn’t quite get the band back together – my dad and our football friend, Michael, had passed on, my brother could not be lured back from the Scottish Highlands while others had returned to their first-love teams. In the intervening years we’d made new Charlton buddies, who enthusiastically tucked in to the Spice-of-India fare. I doled out the match tickets. No-one passed comment on the fact that we were in row 13.

Time for Wembley. The symmetry was there but no-one dared predict. The last match of the League One season in front of the Sky cameras would provide the mirror finish to the televised first. We’d enjoy the odd throwback to 1998 for fate’s sake as Ben Purrington stepped into Richard Rufus’ debut senior goal boots. And this time round Jason Pearce would be there to make his presence felt in the penalty box in those final seconds. The Big Frigging German chose his moment.

Cometh the hour (or the 94th minute), cometh Patrick Bauer.

As we cheered the final whistle, my phone buzzed with congratulatory messages from absent, thrilled Magpies. It reminded me of the feathered ones I’d seen outside the hotel window. Coincidence or otherwise, they did predict the script: first, the deep despair of that harrowing moment after five minutes when all Addicks thought sorrow was descending. Then the equally sudden jubilation as Bauer’s prodded rebound deflected into the side-netting below us unleashing an eruption of frantic emotions – five years of pent-up agonising replaced with yells, hugs, bounces and bruises as we realised it was game over.

Now my focus switched to Red, Red, Robins as our Addicks clambered their weary but elated way up the Wembley steps. Cheer up, the sun is red. Whether thanks to fate, history repeating itself, magpies, football gods, Addicks in the heavens or quite simply superb management by Lee Bowyer and all of his team, we’d done it.

We’re Charlton Athletic. We’re on our way up.

Bowyer Is Born To Win

Interview with Lee Bowyer by Heather McKinlay in May 2019 as Charlton prepared for the play-offs. Conducted on behalf of, and first published by, Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust.

Bowyer stepped out of Karl Robinson’s shadow to take over as caretaker manager ten games from the end of the last regular season when the Addicks were in very poor form. “We were not in a good place as a football club – there was a lot of negativity, we’d only won one in eight or nine.” Yet now he has just won League One Manager of the Month, beaten that curse with a 4-0 win to guide the team to third place and holds the accolade as our most successful ever manager judged on win ratio – at 57% after 56 games.

All of this makes him proud, very proud. “Everyone had written us off for the play-offs [last season] but we turned it round. Since then it’s got better and better. We brought in our own squad – players who would get us promotion. It was slow in the beginning but the football has been good all season. The home form is really good – you can see why we got those points.”

He is quick to rationalise the only two losing blots on the 2018/19 home record – a late and unjust penalty versus Peterborough and a final-ten-minute turnaround by Coventry after 80 minutes of unrewarded Addicks’ dominance. “The players’ work-rate has been exceptional and the fans home and away have driven us across the line. At Portsmouth – constant singing. At Burton on a Tuesday night the fans helped us through – Burton are a good team – we scored in injury time.”

He has a clear grasp of how he brought about such a quick turnaround in form after taking charge. “The professionalism wasn’t there – small details – like coming out to the training pitch late – you can’t let things like that creep in. And they needed to play as a team, not for themselves. Those were things I had to correct.” He also wishes to stress the different atmosphere around the club.

“The players and fans have come together. When I left as a kid, the fans and players were together – it was a good club, a nice family club, with mutual respect. When I came back that wasn’t there no more. Yet it’s so big. Fans help the players more than they realise.”

Lee Bowyer

He cites his first game as the most memorable of his tenure so far: “We had been on a bad run, my first time in charge, at home against a Plymouth side who had lost 1 in 19 or something crazy. We won 2-0 with a formation no-one expected us to play. Seeing The Valley bouncing the way it was that day, that was memorable”

It has surprised many that Bowyer has such natural talent as a manager. He slipped without fanfare into the Charlton hotseat more by circumstance than design. He has no hesitation in explaining why the role suits: “I was very fortunate as player – I had a long career and played under five or six international managers and the level of player I played with – I learnt a lot of things. I’ve taken bits and pieces from all of them and try to pass on that knowledge to improve the players as individuals and to improve our team.” For me it is telling that Bowyer can coach across all positions – yes, our midfield is especially strong, but so is the Charlton defence, pipped only by Barnsley by one goal to the title of the best in the whole of the EFL. Then in Lyle Taylor we have a 29 year old centre-forward who looks more and more accomplished every time he steps on the turf, a far cry from the journeyman who toured from Falkirk to AFC Wimbledon.

It is obvious to anyone watching Charlton over the last couple of seasons that Bowyer has a knack for bringing out the best in players. He is a coach beyond the footballing sense, not only able to hone the ball skills of his squad but also to instil the right mentality. How does he do this?  

“It is going to sound crazy. I said to the players, ‘You play as a team or you don’t play – it’s that simple. You can be the best player but if you aren’t going to run around for the team and make the right decisions then you’re not playing for the team.’”

Lee Bowyer

The example he gives is of a player not squaring the ball to a team-mate for a tap-in but taking a difficult shot on themselves. “It’s quite simple. If you don’t play for the team and work hard for the team, then you won’t play.” No need for the manager to name names, but fans reading this may jump to their own conclusions about Fosu’s conspicuous absence from the squad.  

“Man management is the most important thing in football,” he continues. Bowyer strives to ensure the players know he believes in them not just as individuals but as a whole team. He sees it as the manager’s role to comfort or cajole. “Off field stuff can affect them. They are not invincible – they’re human beings. You want to make them feel good – put your arm round them and keep telling them. All of a sudden they become different people and confident.” He is not adverse to a metaphoric “kick up the backside” if they are slacking off at all, though.

I enquire specifically about our latest cult hero, the initially much-maligned number 23. “We put our arms round him and told him he’s good but it’s the fans that have changed Naby Sarr – that’s what I meant earlier. We can only do so much. The first time the fans started singing his name, his confidence grew from 1 to 10. He was a young player when he first came, change of scenery, country, culture. It was difficult for him in the beginning.”

Having broken into the Charlton first team as a youth player himself, Bowyer is particularly sensitive to the needs of the Academy graduates. “You need to put your arm round them and blend them in. Young players like Albie [Morgan] and George [Lapslie]. You can’t just chuck them in to play ten in a row. They need to get used to it and their confidence grows.” This is another perfect example of him drawing on his own learning, in this case from Alan Curbishley: “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” he happily quotes the cliché, the pride ringing through in his voice. “Albie Morgan was fantastic on Saturday. He deserved a goal. I’m learning what Alan Curbishley did with me – play you a few then bring you out. You can get through a few on adrenalin but physically it can catch up with you – Albie is an 18-year-old kid, playing against men. Curbishley gave me my chance. I’m grateful for that. Then later in my career he had me at West Ham – I was still the same, just a bit older!”

He’s still in touch with his first gaffer: “Yeah, I’m playing golf with him on Thursday – it’s his charity golf day. He drops me the odd text here and there – he brought me through as a kid – it must be strange for him…” Bowyer trails off, not needing to complete the sentence. There is almost twenty years in age between the original mentor and his protégé.  I wonder if Bowyer is picturing a track-suited George Lapslie commanding the troops at Sparrows Lane a couple of decades in the future.

He reflects on the change in football since his own playing days. “It’s more and more a non-contact sport. It’s difficult, especially for players who are competitive like Josh Cullen running around tackling.” In the calm environment of an interview, he expresses genuine sympathy for the officials. “I’m disappointed by the way the players all dive and win fouls. The ref has the hardest job. I don’t understand why anyone would be a ref – the way the players just fall over now and cheat, it disappoints me.” I ask if he’s had to pull any of our squad up for simulation. “Our players? Yes, Jonny Williams at Peterborough away – not the right thing to do. He told me he was running at 100 miles an hour and thought the fella was going to take him out. Jonny, he’s the nicest man in football, so…” Again, there’s no need for him to complete the sentence. Williams now understands in no uncertain terms that behaviour which might have been acceptable at Palace most certainly is not at Bowyer’s Charlton. The boss sticks up for Taylor, though: “Lyle makes them aware he’s been fouled but he’s constantly being pushed and tugged etc.”

With a fairer wind behind us, Charlton might have made the top two. Bowyer knows this better than anyone but is not going to dwell on it. He explains that it was a calculated decision to hold out for Josh Cullen which is why we started the season a bit slowly, even with only five on the bench at Sunderland away. “We decided we’d rather take that chance that he wouldn’t go and play in the Championship than bring someone in who wasn’t as good. We had to accept being not so strong in the first couple of games but it would be better for the season.” He accepts injuries as part and parcel of the sport. “The long-term injuries – you can’t control that. Two dislocated shoulders in one game is unheard of, but with the squad we’d put together, when one goes out, the one coming in is just as good. My hardest job is when they are all fit, deciding who to pick.”

Bowyer pinpoints the dip in form at the turn of the year as the reason for missing out on automatic promotion. “We had Karlan going, Igor injured, Taylor suspended. We went a couple of games with no forwards. Josh Parker was learning the way we play – not right to chuck him straight in. Karlan going that was hard to take. Knew if we’d kept hold of him we’d have finished top two – we drew games after he left that we would have won…but I also understand that’s how football works. He’s a young player who has done well, scored goals, went and played in the Premier League and the club got good money for him. Unfortunately, it’s the way the cookie crumbles as they say.” The manager moves swiftly on, “But I think since then we’ve been strong. Managed to get Igor firing again, got his fitness up, been on a good run.” As an aside, I enquire after Igor’s current injury concerning the play-offs. Bowyer reports that he had a tight thigh a couple of weeks ago and then felt it again in training last Thursday. The boss is “hopeful he is going to be OK”.

Midway through this interview I thought I’d try a different angle. I ask the gaffer if he could share a funny moment from his time as Charlton manager. “Umm, no, not really – I’m a serious person,” is the initial response. Then he goes on: “The only thing I can think of – and it’s not funny – we made a sub at half-time, but then he didn’t get ready in time – Ben Reeves. He was out warming up, then by the time he’d put his shin pads on, we had to start the second half with ten men. These players nowadays they get mollycoddled, wrapped up in cotton wool, they can’t do anything for themselves. Me and Jacko were wondering what the hell happened there – why wasn’t he ready? Not funny, but it’s one of the strangest!” Fortunately for Ben Reeves, Charlton won said match v Portsmouth in style, batting away the hoodoo of rarely winning on TV. It is certainly not the kind of anecdote to have fans laughing out loud but is nevertheless an insight into the kind of detail that sticks in Bowyer’s mind. While he makes light of it now, I am certain we will not see a repeat under his dugout watch.

The burning question for supporters, of course, remains Bowyer’s contract situation. I share with him that we had fans queuing at the CAST stall behind the Covered End on Saturday to write messages to the owner on the subject. Can he offer us any hope that this will soon be resolved? “Yeah, it seems to bother everyone else more than me – I’m a laid back person – I don’t get flustered too much. I’m not really fussed about it – I’m focussed on getting promotion, in that zone. I understand everyone wants me to sign and I have no doubt, none, that it will get sorted – we’re not far apart. It’s not just mine, there are others as well. For me, it’s not a worry – I’m 99.9% sure it will happen. My focus is on the playoffs and getting up.”

There are no plans for contract talks this week and the ball is in Duchâtelet’s court. Bowyer is not keen to chase, even quipping that he might get disappointed, though asserts that would not change anything. He has one focus right now and that is the play-offs. “It will happen – there are three weeks left – it might as well just wait. Hopefully we’ll get to Wembley, then it might be announced before that – that would be good.”

I enquire whether he has had discussions yet about next season’s budget. “No,” he replies, “it’s difficult for us trying to plan for both leagues. Depending on what league we are in and what players are at our club next season from our remaining ones, we have players that are our targets for League One or the Championship. We are planning already for this.” Bowyer keenly wishes to reassure fans. “The owner has spoken to Steve Gallen and we’re on this. Everything is positive. For me there is no negative – that’s the truth. We have had discussions about recruitment for next season. The owner has been good. To be fair to him he has backed us this season on the ones we wanted to bring in. I have no doubt that whatever league we are in, we will bring in the right players to suit the way we want to play.”

Equally the lack of senior management at the club on the non-footballing side is not an issue, he says: “I’m OK. Richard Murray is always around – he pops in most Thursdays – and Keith Peacock most Thursdays and Fridays. I have a chat with them most weeks – just general chit chat. I don’t get phased – I’ve been in the game so long. Steve Gallen deals with the owner regarding players etc. Apart from that – I’m on the training pitch each day. It’s all good, there’s nothing to worry about. We all know our roles and jobs and we just get on with it. Anything that’s going on that we can’t control – there’s no point worrying about. We know what our jobs are and we keep working hard on it every day.”

Bowyer, quite rightly, refuses to be side-tracked from the immediate challenge of the play-offs. His desire to win and to succeed is blatantly obvious.

“From a kid I’ve always been like that. You have to win. No-one remembers second. There’s never a quiz question, ‘Who came second?’ It is always, ‘Who won?’ It’s the way I am – I’ll do anything to win. I just want to win – at tennis, at golf, it’s the way I am.

I like to think I have that effect on players. Winning is everything. We’re in that mentality now. The players are in a good place – they’ve got a bad habit of winning games. It’s the best habit to get – you think you are invincible and never going to lose. We had that at Leeds.

Any game against anybody, when you have that, losing doesn’t even become an option.”

Lee Bowyer

I do not get any inkling that Lee is looking beyond Doncaster, with all efforts focussed on those two legs right now. But he mentioned Wembley earlier, so I have to ask how he would feel being the first Charlton manager to lead the team out there since Curbs. Suddenly he is brimming with childish enthusiasm. “That would be amazing! This is where I started as a kid, playing football, to then be leading them out at Wembley would be some achievement – quite emotional. I’m not really an emotional person – but that occasion would probably get me. Let’s just hope I get to experience it. If we get there I honestly believe we could beat anyone on the day. For the club as a whole – because there has been negativity – there were some tough times before I came – now we have this good feeling around the place again.” He admits he’s not had the squad practising penalties yet. “I don’t think it’ll come down to that if I’m honest. But what a job Curbs done back then!”

Bowyer’s winning mentality has passed on to the next generation. He has ten-year-old twins, Amelie and Charlie. Does he think either of them might make it in professional sport? “Not football!” he quickly asserts. “My girl is the competitive one. She’s a machine, same as me – she has to win everything.” He describes how a very young Amelie would race to eat her dinner so she could be the winner and earn Dad’s approval. “She will go on and do something – she’s in the swimming team at moment – a very good swimmer.” In contrast, maybe it is Bowyer’s son who has helped his dad handle the contract uncertainty: “He is just so laid back, he’s not really fussed about anything.”

In every interview I’ve ever heard or read with Lee Bowyer, he emphasises the positive. As a Charlton fan, I’m as concerned as many others about the future of our club under an absentee owner who claims to be desperate to sell yet seems unable to progress a deal. And it seems I’m much more worried about the contract situation than the gaffer himself. Being directly on the receiving end of Bowyer’s straight-talking, even with his naturally deadpan delivery, is highly motivating. For the next two – hopefully three – weeks, I’m just going to let myself get swept up in the Bowyer bubble.

I ask him for a few parting words for the fans: “Come and support us like they have all season. Bring a friend, family, get the numbers up, make it louder and more intimidating for the last home game –experience something special. I want to thank everyone – they have been so kind with their words and their support. I’m loving every second and hopefully we can deliver.”

The Meaning of Lyle

Thanks to an introduction from my good friend, Nick, I have written the away fans’ page, The Other View, three times in recent years when Charlton played at AFC Wimbledon. This one from February 2019 focussed on Lyle Taylor. The Addicks won 2-1 courtesy of a Naby Sarr free-kick and Igor Vetokele injury-time winner.

Lyle Taylor’s arrival at Charlton in the summer from AFC Wimbledon was quite an understated affair: a free transfer of a well-travelled footballer who had shown flashes of prowess in the lower leagues and in Scotland. It’s been twelve long years since Charlton fell from the Premier League but fans still cling nostalgically to memories of the likes of Darren Bent and Paulo di Canio leading the front-line. We were not overly-excited.

My Dons mates were more agitated about the move. “He’s quite a character, but some say he can be disruptive,” was the report from one. “He scores goals which is what any club wants. A few caveats: He really cannot head a ball. He also tends to do backheels (often unnecessary and only occasionally successful). But we’d rather have kept him and he will be an asset to the Addicks,” reported my friend Nick, clearly a wannabe scout.

What none of us foresaw was the creation of the G&T partnership. Loaned to Crawley from January 2018, Academy prospect Karlan Ahearne-Grant was finding his confidence and his professional shooting boots with nine goals in 15 appearances. He returned to the Addicks for pre-season, dropping the shackles of his double-barrelled name.

Love at first strike between Grant and Taylor delivered four goals in the first three matches as Bowyer’s Charlton started this season brightly. They brought out the best in each other, with Taylor’s physical presence, close control and trickery cleverly creating space for Grant’s bursts of pace. They vied for the leading scorer spot, trading assists and running defences ragged.

We started to discover there was much more to Lyle than his on-pitch persona. In October he died his curly mop of hair pink and wore matching boots to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. He spoke eloquently about the cause. Within a very short time, Addicks fans had taken him to heart, even mentioning him in the same sentence as our last striking talisman, Yann Kermorgant. What’s more, he was proving to be very good in the air and I can’t remember a single backheel – sorry, Nick! Scoring at The Valley against AFC Wimbledon, ever respectful, he barely celebrated. Most magnanimously of all, with Charlton winning 2-0 away at Shrewsbury and his partner having missed three one-on-ones, he held out the ball for Grant to take a late penalty kick. The youngster scored and social media lit-up with praise for Taylor’s selfless act.

But all good things come to an early end at Duchâtelet’s Charlton. With January transfer rumours swirling around the front duo, we took on Accrington in a feisty affair at The Valley. Late on, Taylor backed into the keeper at a corner, both men landing on the floor. As Taylor struggled to get up, he flicked a leg – not unlike Beckham at Simeone. Despite kicks and stamps raining in from Accrington, Taylor saw red. The drama wasn’t over, though, as an injury-time penalty coolly converted by a confident Grant led to raucous scenes.

That moment of high emotion was the end of G&T. Grant, sold for £1.5M, departed for bright lights and late sub appearances at Premier League (for now) Huddersfield. The lack of an adequate replacement led Taylor to speak out in the local press about the “dark cloud” of an owner who doesn’t care hanging over The Valley.

On return from suspension last week, the Montserrat international cut a frustrated and rather petulant lone figure, picking up his ninth league booking. Charlton are struggling with just one goal and three points from the last four matches. The going has got tough for both the Addicks and our number nine. He’s after his thirteenth league goal today. I hope it’s his lucky number.