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.