When Heather met Heather: Back 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 14,383 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.

Should I stay or should I go?

March 2016 saw Charlton fans’ protests against owner Roland Duchatelet reach a peak before, during and after the Sky Sports-televised match at The Valley v Middlesbrough. The game was preceded by a fans’ march behind a coffin in which the soul of Charlton was laid to rest. Supporters launched a barrage of beach balls onto the pitch, interrupting play. And organisers CARD had called for a walkout in the 74th minute ahead of a post-match demonstration.

The TV camera zoomed in on the North Upper to show supporters straggling their way to the exits just after the 74th minute. It then lingered for a moment on what, for me, has become the abiding image on a day of so many: the Grim Reaper, still sat in his seat, furtively glancing around. You could clearly sense the dilemma – was it the moment to up and follow fellow fans or stay put and cheer on the team to an unlikely victory?

From my sofa – no, not that bizarre one by the corner flag, an incongruous example of the regime’s ‘matchday experience’ – far away in Scotland I felt total empathy with this sinister black and white figure. If I’d managed the trip to London for this game, instead of the Reading humdinger a couple of weeks earlier, I’d be there now, near the front of the North Upper too. Would I get up and walk out with Charlton leading 1-0? Was joining the overall protest about the way my beloved club was being run into the ground worth more than cheering on the team in today’s remaining twenty minutes of need?

I’ve never ever left a match early – Dad ingrained that in me when he regaled the tale of how he nearly headed off once when Charlton were a man down and 1-5 down with half an hour to go. That was against Huddersfield, back in the Fifties and every Addick knows the outcome: a 7-6 victory that still defies the history books with its improbability. In our days together attending The Valley (and Selhurst and Upton Park and various away grounds), even if there were some pressing post-match engagement, at worst we might make our way to the top of the stairs in injury time, ready to make a sharp exit on the full-time whistle. Watching the football to the bitter or occasionally sweet end is the reason we go, isn’t it?

Yet Dad was also an energetic shop steward in his prime, organising and rallying the troops against any perceived injustice. He fought for the right to strike, the right to protest, the right to challenge bad management. Don’t get me wrong – he was not a revolutionary – his union was on the more moderate side of the movement and he much preferred negotiation and communication to direct action. Dad passed away a few years ago but I know he’d have been behind the current CARD-led protests in general. I don’t know for definite if he would have supported the walkout but he would have seriously considered it. If you have to make a personal sacrifice to join in – foregoing the pre-match pint on the concourse, breaking the habit of a football lifetime by not buying a programme or even turning your back and exiting when the team is winning – does that not hammer home your point all the more strongly? Sometimes gain only comes with pain.

Regardless of the decision I didn’t have to make, on Sunday I felt extremely proud to be an Addick, albeit a distant one. With no need to prompt, Chris Powell turned up suitably attired for a funeral. The procession with the coffin was dignified and impactful. The minute’s silence, viewed via a jumpy online feed, sent shivers down my spine. I was almost crying with a mix of joy and sadness as beach-balls rained down and stopped play before it had barely started. The creativity and general good humour of the fans, whilst still getting across a powerful message, was positively embraced by the watching world. In the aftermath, we should be more united as a group of fans than ever. Let’s not detract from that by bickering about whether it was right to walk out or not. That was a difficult choice. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to ask the Grim Reaper.

Why I hate Luton

An away trip that has stuck long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

I wanted the world to know that I was a fan of the mighty Addicks (though back in those days we rarely used that nickname). I zipped up my bright red cotton jumpsuit, the height of fashion with its flared trousers and wide collar, over a skin-tight white polo shirt. I knotted the matching white and red silk Charlton scarf firmly round my wrist. Beautifully co-ordinated, I climbed aboard the away fans’ coach. It was early September 1977. I was thirteen, skinny, flat-chested and goofy-toothed, so there was little risk of me turning any heads. Just as well, as Dad would have made sure they were turned straight back whence they came.

Lewis’s was the coach company and Eddie was the driver. With his dark hair slicked back over a balding pate, crumpled white shirt and none too neatly-tied tie, he was also our guide, our organiser, and in the end our sympathiser on this dark day in the history of our football club. Dad quickly grabbed two seats near the front, letting me in by the window, well away from the lively youths with their cans of beer, congregated toward the back. We were all in high spirits as we weaved our way across London.

The mood sobered a little upon arrival in Luton. Eddie dropped us off, and we stepped out onto the pavement in a narrow backstreet. Bewildered, I could see no sign of a football ground, no towering floodlights.

Kenilworth Road snuggled in the midst of rows of terraced houses. Yet the houses were positively smart in comparison with the dingy terraces inside the ground – the ones we would be standing on. No wide open spaces, no cavernous arena as at The Valley. I already began to fear that this might cramp Charlton’s expansive style.

The match started brightly enough, with the teams alternating attacks. It certainly had the makings of a high-scoring game – I just hadn’t worked out yet that the score would be quite so high and quite so one-sided. Luton edged into the lead and doubled it by half-time. This didn’t worry me too much. It was not uncommon for Charlton to come back from two behind to draw or even win – our defence liked to give the flamboyant forwards a challenge to meet. Charlton started the second half with a surge. Then Luton’s Ricky Hill, all afro, swerve and verve, hit a ludicrous lob from nearer the centre circle than the penalty area. I watched disbelievingly as it looped its way over the midfield, over the defence and over Jeff Wood’s flailing arm. It bounced gently into the back of the net. My childish optimism faded. With only about 25 minutes of the match to go, there wasn’t enough time to score four goals.

Wrong. Luton only needed fifteen minutes to add that many more. Things were so bad that even the referee took pity on us. Roger Kirkpatrick was his real name, but he was more commonly known as Mr Pickwick – his bald head, chubby cheeks and rotund physique giving him a remarkable resemblance to the Dickens character. If he had indeed worn glasses, as fans often suggested, he could have passed as an exact double. I had no complaints about his eyesight at Luton, as he spotted an offence few others saw, resulting in a Charlton penalty, rather little and very much too late. We celebrated Flanagan’s consolation goal with falsely wild enthusiasm.

Luton 7 (seven) Charlton 1 as I knew the Grandstand tele-printer would tap out to the watching world. I just hoped that not too many from my immediate world would be watching. The demoralised and humiliated players trudged off the pitch while we huddled together in embarrassment, reluctant to leave the ground and face the close-up taunts of the victorious opposition. I now regretted wearing my Charlton heart quite so boldly on the sleeve of my bright red jumpsuit.

We slunk back to the Lewis’s coach, ignoring the taunts of, “Seven, seven” from the Luton passers-by.

“That was a bad one,” commiserated Eddie.

He tried his best to find a quiet way back to the motorway. Whichever back street he took, however, seemed to be lined with jubilant Luton supporters giving us a two-handed, seven-fingered salute and mouthing it again, “Seven, seven!” And it didn’t stop there. In North London we passed the coaches of Nottingham Forest fans, making for the M1. They should have been deflated by a 3-0 thumping at Highbury, but nothing cheers up one set of supporters more than the chance to gloat at the greater misfortune of another. Once again we were on the receiving end of the same two-handed, seven-fingered gesture and mouthing of the score. And so it continued – any group of lads, either post their own match or pre their Saturday night drinking session, who happened to spot us and recognise Charlton, immediately started grinning, leering and waving seven fingers at us.

Since that day, seven has never been my lucky number.

The Gaffer Returns

I had recently joined the board of Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust and we were discussing potential interview subjects for the forthcoming issue of Trust News. I suggested we try approaching Chris Powell, former manager about to return to The Valley with his new club. Powell agreed so I headed to the Huddersfield training ground to meet him. Little did I realise, he was in the mood to spill the beans.

First published in CASTrust News 9 in February 2015.

Kids everywhere; little boys in blue and white home shirts or yellow away shirts animatedly waving 2012 play-off final flags, little girls in pretty dresses, smart for the occasion or perhaps on their way to another party. A hubbub of half-term excitement. This was the scene that greeted me as I entered reception at the Huddersfield training ground.  And there in the midst was the pied piper – scribbling autographs, crouching for photographs, shouting at passing players to join in, laughing and joking, turning this way and that: Chris Powell, resplendent in a bright blue training top, and very much at ease in his new-found Northern home. 

I’d requested this interview to mark the occasion of the first fixture between his new team and his old team, expecting to spend an hour or so reminiscing with Powell about his playing days, the famous tunnel jump, his managerial exploits and how he was getting on in his new job. I started by asking how he felt about returning to the Valley on 28th February.  “It’s the first game I looked out for to be honest.  It’s my wife’s birthday which is a bit bizarre – there’s something about birthdays and me!” It was, of course, his mother’s birthday on the day Charlton secured promotion at Carlisle in 2012, prompting a very emotional post-match interview.  “Both teams are in and around one another and needing the points, but it’s still going to be a great occasion. The crowd will be boosted by Football for a Fiver, and we travel well.  It’s a special day for me, of course – it’s never good the way you leave a football club – very rare that you leave in great circumstances. I know it came as a shock to people, especially on the back of the Sheffield United game, but I had known for a couple of months – since the takeover.” And before I know it, I am hearing Chris Powell’s first full on the record explanation of the goings on at Charlton last season.

Read More

Looby Loo’s Little Trip: Charlton v Chelsea 1977

Heather McKinlay writes about a match she vividly remembers missing, back when football was not generally considered to be the beautiful game. First published in Voice of The Valley.

Saturday afternoon, late March 1977 in our little council house in Belvedere; Charlton hadn’t had a home match for ages. I picked up a recent programme to check the next fixtures.  Two big games at The Valley – Good Friday v Millwall and Easter Monday v Chelsea. Those were going to be fun –sure to be loads of goals. Then I shuddered.  What were those dates again? 

I mulled things over until tea-time: Mum’s Saturday special spread of salad with boiled potatoes and corned beef.  I ladled out some Piccalilli, and waited for a quiet moment:

“You know that school trip I’m meant to be going on to Brighton…well, do I really have to go?”

“It’s all booked now, isn’t it?” said Mum, “What’s the matter? There’s nothing wrong, is there?  John – you don’t think she’s being bullied, do you?” Dad was obliviously tucking in to a salad-cream-covered boiled potato, but Mum dragged him into the conversation. “You’re not, are you, Heather?” 

“Well, no, of course not,” I said.  There was a long pause.

“It’s the football, isn’t it?” Dad joined in at last.

“Yes, Dad.  I really don’t want to miss the Chelsea match on Easter Monday.  I’ve only just realised it clashes.  So is it OK if I don’t go on the school trip?” 

Mum glowered across the table at her husband.

“Well, it’s all paid for now, Heather, I think you’ll just have to go,” Dad said quietly, staring at the potato on his fork.

Mum really didn’t understand, but she had won the day. “Football, indeed! And to think I was worried about you! It’s a Good News Society trip, isn’t it? A bit of religious education and some time by the seaside will be much better for you than going to yet another football match.”

The Good News Society was a kind of school version of the scouts and guides, run by a stalwart Christian chemistry teacher, who clearly enjoyed living up to his name of Mr Gooden.  He really should have taught RE rather than giving us instruction on how to blow things up.  The trip away would be crammed full of treasure hunts, quizzes, fancy dress and other wholesome activities that he dreamt up to keep a bunch of 12 to 14 year old boys and girls amused. 

As I stood on the East Terrace on Good Friday and watched us beat Millwall 3-2 (yes, really), I was still smarting that I would not be there for the Monday match.

We were staying on camp beds in some scout or church hall or hut somewhere a few miles outside Brighton.  We weren’t allowed to bring radios.  There was no TV.  There wasn’t even a payphone, and this was long before mobiles had been invented. So on Easter Monday evening I had no way of finding out the outcome of the very important event going on a few miles away in South East London.  I slept restlessly that night.

The next morning, we were split into fancily-dressed teams, driven by minibus into the centre of Brighton and given the freedom to roam the streets on another jolly jape. I was wearing a bright red circular skirt, red and white stripy socks, a white polyester blouse with puffy sleeves (all my own clothes) and topped off with a yellow wool wig and two sticky-out pigtails from the props box.  To complete the look, I had smothered my eyelashes in black mascara and painted two big red blobs of lipstick on my cheeks.  I was in Andy Pandy’s team and I had to be his ragdoll sidekick, Looby Loo.  I was grateful that I’d avoided being a flowerpot man, as then I would have looked really stupid.

We were on a treasure hunt, and Andy Pandy was hesitating about how to organise the team. I quickly volunteered to seek out one of the items, a pink souvenir of Brighton, and dashed off towards the first newsagent’s I could find.  The souvenir could wait – I needed to find out last night’s score. I didn’t get very far inside the door.  Screaming out at me from the rack of papers came the front page headlines:

“Chelsea set Valley ablaze after Flanagan fires Charlton to victory”

“Chelsea mob rampage after 4-0 defeat”

“Battle of the Valley”

Looby Loo gasped.  We had beaten Chelsea 4-0! Looby Loo did a little jig for joy on the spot. Mike Flanagan had scored a hat-trick! Then Looby Loo frowned. She’d missed it all because of this stupid school trip!  Oh, and Chelsea hooligans, smarting at the humiliating defeat, or just after any excuse, had built bonfires on the terraces, smashed up the turnstiles, and even tried to burn down The Valley Club, the little prefabricated social club on the corner of the ground. 

Looby Loo queued up at the till. 

“Yes dear?” said the grey-haired assistant, preoccupied with changing the till roll, as I placed a heap of newspapers on her counter. 

“I’ll take all these, please.  How much is that?”

She thumbed through the papers, still not looking up. 

“That’s 92p. It’s terrible, all this football violence, isn’t it?”

I carefully counted the change out of my purse – a week’s pocket money well-spent.   “I wish I’d been there.  I can’t believe I missed it.”

The elderly shop assistant lifted her head and gazed straight into Looby Loo’s eyes.  “Well, blow me down.  Is that how you hooligans disguise yourselves?”

Then I spotted something pink with Brighton on it.

“I’ll take this stick of rock too, please.”

“That’s another 5p. Now don’t go hitting anyone over the head with it.”

Armed with my treasure hunt booty and stack of papers, I left the shop and the bewildered assistant behind, and headed for the nearest bench to read every word of the front and back page reports. 4-0!  My prayers at bedtime, an obligatory part of the routine on this Good News Society trip, had indeed been answered, despite their rather alternative and irreverent football-focus.