Booted by Brighton

December 2021 is being celebrated as women’s football month. It marks the centenary of females being banned by the FA from playing the beautiful game, a ban which lasted 50 years. Here I reminisce about my nascent playing days as a student – quite pioneering back in the 1980s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I want football ones.”

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

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

I hastily tried them on – they would do fine. 

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

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

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

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

The Song in my Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.