Why I hate Luton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was a bad one,” commiserated Eddie.

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

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

The Gaffer Returns

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

First published in CASTrust News 9 in February 2015.

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

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

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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.