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?”

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.

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.

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.

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.