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.”

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.

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.

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