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.

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.