Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game experience bad tea and gallows humour at The Valley.

Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks

“It’s not getting any better” says Tom, as packed train after packed train passes us at London Bridge, leaving us behind on the platform. We decide to split up, a pincer movement if you will, both chancing our arm at different doors. I’m on, just, but I’m not sure if Tom made it, through the crowd though, I can just about make out the back of his head.

At this time of night, you expect the Tube to be busy, however on our way to North Greenwich, instead of men in suits and people carrying laptop bags, it’s blokes in skinny jeans showing a lot of ankle and girls in sparkly tops. “Who’s on?” asks Tom, he’s trying to decipher from the multitude of branded hoodies, who’s playing at the O2.

P1000314 - USEWe made the mistake of chatting instead of concentrating on the queue at the bus stop at North Greenwich not so long ago, which resulted in a missed bus, so we won’t be making that mistake again. We hover around the stop, towards the front of a kind of queue. Only fate deals us a bum card, a bus pulls up, but it’s not ours, ours has just pulled up behind it. We join the stampede or “scrum” as Tom puts, as all good manners are chucked out of the window.

The new build houses around this part of South East London almost feel like they’re from a toy town, curious shaped dwellings, with funny little slanty roofs. Not that I can really see much, or where the bus is actually going, just fleeting glimpses through the crammed commuters.

Our bus ride allows me to fill Tom in on a few details of tonight’s visit to Charlton Athletic FC (CA), a visit we considered not making, taking into account the club and its fans current relationship, all due to loathed owner Roland Duchâtelet. It was suggested to me a way we could stick it to the Belgium, just as a lot of the fans who still go and aren’t boycotting, is not to purchase any food, merchandise, drinks etc at the club. “I’ve gotta eat” replies Tom, horrified at the idea he might not being able to consume something for a whole two hours.

Past the police, who are just kind of hanging around outside Charlton station, not really with a huge amount of people to police and around the corner, Tom’s morale is lifted when he spots a fish and chip shop at the end of the street, “there’s dinner” he says, but unlike the couple sitting on a nearby wall, eating something fried out of white paper, we just carry on.

“Voice of the valley” shouts the fanzine seller, holding up the “March issue”. Considering the state of CA at the moment, you would think each edition would come in multiple volumes, a many paged tome full of supporters wrath, that would be far too heavy to hold with one hand, each issue requiring a wheelbarrow to cart it off.

When we pass a flag and club crest covered food truck, Tom just walks on by, not even batting an eyelid, is he ok?

There are few obvious signs of a football ground and no unmistakable glow of floodlights, that we end up almost stumbling across The Valley, secluded among the surrounding houses. Reminders of a happier time cover the walls, Alan Curbishley and Sasa Ilic, whose name while at school used to have me in stitches, celebrate their 1998 promotion to the Premier League.

The draw of a new pin in the club shop is too strong, Tom chucks a few quid in the pocket of Roland. Thankfully he doesn’t splash the cash on anything else, there was a gnome I saw him admiring, and he was particularly drawn to the CA away kit, “I like a fade”, its unorthodox design, quite the change from block colours or horizontal stripes.

Our tickets are collected from a half partitioned room, from a man in a white shirt and club tie, with the sound of people playing ping pong coming from beyond the make shift wall.

Admittedly we are a bit early, aren’t we always, but you would expect a bit more going on, at the moment it’s verging on a ghost town, a couple of fans wander among the statuesque programme sellers and passing cars pulling into the club car park. With little keeping us outside, the chance of being handed another poster of Lee Novak is not quite enough, we scan our tickets on the unmanned turnstiles, and enter the ground.

DSC_0042Half ripped ‘Roland Out’ stickers cover the walls and red banisters of the stairwell to the upper tier of the North Stand. The concrete concourse, is equally eerie, so we make a beeline for our seats.

We hear there is going to be a fifteen minute delay to kick off, because of a bomb scare at London Bridge earlier in the day, which might explain the low turn out so far, but when you can hear the instructions of the coaches taking the teams through the warm up on the pitch, from the second tier of a 27,000 seater stadium, that I fondly remember being rammed to the rafters, the last time I visited maybe 16-17 years ago, it’s a shock. Maybe it explains the overly loud music being played, an attempt to drown out the silence.

The stadium announcer does his best to liven the place up, when he reads out the “home side”, but it falls on deaf ears, despite all his best efforts, there is not even a glimmer of a response from the sparse crowd. Maybe like Tom, they are preoccupied with trying to figure out how their girlfriend has just ordered a burger using his credit card, having just received an email notification of it being placed.

“I think its a knight” Tom says, Burgergate now resolved, his girlfriend’s order having failed, he didn’t half enjoy that phone call, pointing to the corner of the pitch below us, where there is indeed a knight, with helmet, shield and sword, climbing the stairs of the lower tier, accompanied by a robin.

When choosing a person to stick it out to the end with, a person you want next to you in a foxhole, battling it out to the last, until all your ammunition is gone, refusing to surrender, don’t pick Tom, because his attempt to make a stand on not getting any food tonight, lasts all of about about five minutes, however he’s in for a shock.

“It’s like £7.00” he says appalled after comparing the prices at the two food stands, what ‘it’ is I don’t know, but it’s too rich for his blood.

Perhaps not one for the barricades, you can’t however say he is not resourceful. His visit to the counter, goes on a little longer than expected, much pointing and head shaking ensues, he finally returns, clearly disappointed. ”Knew I should of got fish and chips” he tells me, admitting defeat as far as food is concerned, but he has lined the owners pockets once more, having got us both a cup of tea. It would be rude not to accept it, wouldn’t it? I was determined to try and show some defiance this evening, but I think I’ve also fallen at the first.

I ask him what was the debate he was having with the server about, he goes on to recount one of the oddest stories I’ve ever heard.

Having spotted a tray of sausages rolls with his beady eye, at the back of the kitchen, he asked if they were for sale. “No” he was told, the server then showed him the hotdogs that are, not satisfied with them, he enquires for a second time about the sausage rolls, but is again told they are not for sale. The commotion catches the attention of the manger, who joins the deliberation, who goes on to explain that they are “our food” that being the staff, but he can have hers if he wants. Finally realising his request for a pastry wrapped sausage has taken a funny turn, he backs off, but she is quite insistent, claiming she is watching her weight and if he wants it, it’s his, but he declines.

I so badly wanted to be the stoic ‘Against Modern Football’ type, not buying a £7 burger or a red hatted gnome, but when I see the hi viz wearing, has a woolly hat on that makes him look like a character out of ‘ The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ , selling ‘Jack Pot’ tickets for a half time draw, a first for us outside of non league, I hand over my money without hesitation, I’m a bad person!

“Oh that’s horrible” says a grimacing Tom, having just sipped his tea for the first time, serves us right I guess.

Normally I have to remind Tom where we are, the name of the ground, and whose playing, a pre match briefing, however the tables have turned tonight. “16th Vs 3rd” he tells me, adding that CA’s opponents today Scunthorpe United FC (SU) lost their last game “2 – 0”. I let him enjoy the moment, he thinks I’m falling for his attempt to pass off what just popped up on the big screen as his own research, but don’t ruin the moment for him.

“He’s in the wrong end” says Tom under his breath, pointing to the man who’s just sat down wearing a black and white scarf. I explain he’s far from a lost supporter, but a CA fan wearing his protest, which is his and many others way of showing their displeasure at the regime, much like what Manchester Utd fans did in response to the Glazers. The relevance of black and white among other things, a nod to the 1947 CA FA Cup winning team, who did so in a black and white kit.

DSC_0183I never heard it at a Premier League ground, however in the lower leagues, is there some kind of contractual obligation for London teams to play ‘London’s Calling’ by the Clash, at least once on a match day?

The light tapping of the drum, the chatting of nearby fans, “disaster after disaster” says one to another nearby, I imagine discussing just a normal week at The Valley, and the stadium announcer “South East London, the Valley, it’s your teams” he yells, soon replace Mr Strummer, kick off is moments away.

Cue the drum, which is expertly played, its clear very quickly this guy knows what he’s doing, no out of time thwacking here. Soon comes the clubs anthem “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)”, which explains the knights partner in crime from earlier. When the teams are read out for the second time, there are now at least a few people to applaud the players names, however no one could possibly be as excited as the roaming portly, microphone carrying announcer, “RED ARMY” he roars.

“Come on ref, I wanna get home” shouts a fan behind us, after the man in charge requires a second attempt at the kick off, something went wrong the first time. The start, is another cue for the drum, this time it really kicks into action, “Oh South London, is wonderful” they sing, Tom is very impressed with the person keeping the rhythm, “great drummer” he turns and says to me, as they share their opinion of a neighboring part of London, “Bermondsey is full of shit”.

CA a fair few places bellow SU in the league, are straight on to the front foot, based on league position, part of me expected a cautious start, but they’ve hit the bar within the first couple of minutes. “We’ve had a shot” says someone, who by the sounds of it is happy enough with seeing that tonight, and will be off home soon, satisfied.

The Valley is not even half full, the vacant red seats, outnumbering the people. “It’s so quiet in here” comments someone nearby, “you can shout at the ref and he will hear you” they add.

Tom is of course paying attention to the game, every completed pass or won header gets a sarcastic cheer, he does though have one eye firmly on the Arsenal, Bayern Munich game, “the comeback is on” he says, after they go a goal ahead, now it’s only 5 – 2 on aggregate, which I simply roll my eyes at. He gets his own back on me for not agreeing with his suggestion of the comeback of all comebacks, for his beloved Gooners, when I tell him I’m cold, and he smugly puts his snood on.

All through my Arsenal mocking and snood jealously, the drum was ever present, deh, deh, deh it sounds “Charlton” reply the fans. “Forward, forward” shouts one supporter with nineteen minutes gone, without any action or chance of note since hitting the bar, the fans urge their team to attack.

Appalled by the tea, and happy with the fact Mr Duchâtelet has had enough money from him, Tom tells me he “can’t wait” for his “hot dog or fish and chips”, which he confirms he’ll be getting “outside”.

Staring at the away stand, enough of the white chairs are empty you can clearly make out CAFC spelt out by them, I can’t get the image of Robin van Persie’s, fence topping, arms stretched out celebration, after his wonder goal here in 2006. SU haven’t come in huge numbers, those who have travelled have strung out two flags across the unoccupied chairs but it’s not bad turn out for a Tuesday night and four hundred mile round trip.

“Johnny give us a wave” sing a few after an announcement over the tannoy asking for “Johnny Power” who sounds like a Marvel character, “to make himself known” to a steward. When a chap in a flat cap not long after approaches the men in the hi viz, Tom has an inkling that is “Mr Power”.

The fans around us don’t have much love for anyone else except for their own team of course, “we hate Millwall” they sing, “we hate Palace” they add, making sure to dish out hostility for their local rivals equally. However their harshest abuse is saved for overlord “hey Roland, you’re such a cunt”

DSC_0251Moments of quality on the pitch are few and far between, a big shout for a penalty is turned down “are you fucking blind” asks one person to the referee, who probably heard them. When the fans urge one player to “shoot” as the ball drops to the edge of the box, he does, but it’s skewed well wide, “that’s why we’re going down” suggest someone.

Thoughts of the owner are understandably never far from people’s minds, what happens on the pitch taking their minds off it, until a lull, and then painful memory comes shooting back, “Roland out” they sing, as the game becomes a bit of a dirge. A line from one song is a poignant plea to the owner, almost begging him to move on, “just sell the club, our famous football club”.

SU have a chance, but the volley is wide. CA have their own effort not long after, a long range shot which is close, “that’s better” says a fan, excited by the mere notion of getting close to a goal.

When in need of a lift, who better to stand up and be counted, than the club captain Johnnie Jackson who on about thirty minutes, conjures up a quite wonderful goal, a volley direct from a corner, which really feels like it’s come from nothing. Post his celebration, I’m struggling to decide which was better, the goal or the knee slide, that looked like it would never end.

“Red army, red army” chant the fans, to the beat hammered out by the excellent drummer. Again they sing with a kind of heart felt passion that’s not always common at football, a simple line from one song in the context of their dilemma, sums up their unwavering support “CAFC the team for me”. The goal also highlights the fickle nature of your average football fan, who have now decided that “we are staying up”.

Leaving what is maybe one of Britain’s most disliked clubs, MK Dons, to take up the job of manager at a club in such turmoil, could be considered jumping from the chip fan, into the fire, however in the short time he’s been here, Karl Robinson has already got the fans singing his name “Robinson’s red army”.

It gets a little tense in the final five minutes of the half. CA get a free kick, one fan is adamant they “need a second” that all important buffer, that allows for any momentary meltdown or lapse in concentration. Another opportunity comes and goes, again a fan reiterates the urgency for them to double their lead, “2 – 0 for half time” he prays. SU almost spoil things when they make a late break, “oh shit” says a supporter with the air of someone who’s seen it all before, their attack results in a corner, which only ramps up the doom and gloom, “can’t lose it now”.

The CA fans can relax for at least fifteen minutes, they go into the break ahead, “well done boys” says someone close by, as the teams make their way off. Talking of making their way off, Tom is already long gone, I think he might be hungry, but I’m not sure “might have to get a pie, I’m starving” he said just before he bolted.

Both teams now gone, the announcer is back, first doing a “couple of announcements” he reads out a few birthdays, “lots of love from mum and dad” is one message, another he signs off with “up the Addicks”. He then confirms that at whatever level of the vast football pyramid we are at, I’m still a loser, no Jack Pot win for me.

Tom is back much sooner than normal, he is generally that guy returning five minutes into the second half, who makes people get up, and gets tutted at. Tonight though he is back in plenty of time, not clutching a pie, but a sausage roll, that he can enjoy while we watch a poor middle aged woman attempt the cross bar challenge for £7,000, but she misses, hits the post and gets a signed football instead, which gets a Vaudeville “ohhhhh” from the crowd, one person even suggesting she should “give it fucking back”.

(Some of you may be asking yourself, ‘hang on, how did Tom get the sausage roll you mentioned in the previous paragraph, you already told us they weren’t for sale?’, well let me tell you. On his foray for something overpriced to eat, the manager for the kiosk was waiting for him, sausage roll in hand, and gave it to him, how lovely of her!)

DSC_0349“Welcome back your home side, Charlton ATHLETIC” booms the announcer once again, “get behind the boys for the second half, come on you Reds” he adds, in his unique and excitable way.

With the return of the teams, comes a long line of mini casuals, maybe no older than sixteen, streaming past us to the back of the stand. Tom sipping from a bottle of drink from his bag, which I question how we got it in, he tells me he wasn’t searched, also offers up a further example of the lax bag checking and an explanation as to why the Adidas attired youth were in such a rush, “they’ve all got cans of beer back there”.

The fuchsia clad SU keeper gets an ear full from his first goal kick, his run up is accompanied by an “ahhhhhhhh” and when he strikes the ball, it’s followed by a “your shit”, which the fans squawk like a mob of crows.

What a tackle, what an excellent example of a last ditch, well timed tackle that stopped an almost certain SU goal. It’s been all the away side since the restart, their fans are certain they’ve scored at one point, celebrating a fraction prematurely, assuming the unmarked player taking the back post header is bound to score, only it hits the post. “Ahhhhhhh” shout the CA fans mockingly towards the away end, “sit down, shut up” they insist.

What the home fans lack in numbers, they certainly make up for it with their almost non stop singing, one rendition of “ally, ally o, ally ally o, CAFC, red and white army” seems to go on forever, the supporters caught in a trance of the drum. “We are the pride of all London, the kings of the south” they announce, with almost everyone is on their feet, when the songs starts to die out, a single female voice, the loudest of them all screams “COME ON CHARLTON”.

“We forgot that you were here” is the sarcastic and angry response to SU scoring with fifteen minutes to go, drawing the game level. SU then almost take the lead not long after the restart and in doing so the mood turns on a sixpence. Where as before they had been singing the managers name, now they stand angrily gesturing towards the bench, “sort this out” one man demands.

Tom with one eye still on events north of the river, suggests it “could be worse”, Arsenal just lost 5 – 1, again.

Having been almost silent until equalising, there is at least now a faint noise coming from the away end, who had been very subdued up until now, a low rumbling “Irons, Irons, Irons” wafts over the pitch from.

The drum attempts to stir the home supporters, and what better than a mass hum along to the theme to the Dam Busters.

A life line, a lifebuoy from the football gods, a pull in the box following a free kick, and CA have been awarded a ninetieth minute penalty. One nearby fan explains what the player stepping up to take it has to do, just in case he wasn’t totally sure, “hit the back of the net with this”.

Jumping like giddy school boys, grown men who just before were sullen sacks of sadness slumped in their seats, are now bounding around like Tigger, as their beloved CA take the lead again. The scorer “Tony Watt, Watt, Watt” leaps the barrier, not going full van Persie and perching on top of it, but vaulting it completely, towards the celebrating fans, his chest puffed out, looking like he feels like a million dollars. The yellow card he receives from referee for his exuberance, will go in the ‘ I don’t care about that’ pile.

DSC_0429Highlighting the fine margins between happiness and sadness, the fans once more do a 180 on the scoring of the goal, “we are staying up” they sing, with all the confidence in the world.

Extra time is played out to the constant loop of “Robinson’s red army, Robinson’s red army”, one elderly fan, on his feet, singing along, holds his red and white scarf high above his head. On the final
whistle there is the expected outpouring of glee and palpable relief. The mood has improved so much, the fans and an exiting player perform a little skit, where he disappears down the tunnel, but like a panto they know he’s coming back, “ohhhhhhh” the anticipation of his return builds, getting louder and louder, until with perfect timing he reappears, running backwards, smiling up at the crowd.

The good spirits and singing continues in the streets outside the Valley, but it’s fleeting, such is the attendance, it’s not long before they are empty, and the passing trains again become the loudest thing around.

If you want a heavy dose of gallows humour with your football, a very nice ground with no one in it, an ardent and devoted fan base, an excellent drummer, bad tea, but there is a slim chance you might get a free sausage roll, then Charlton Athletic is the place for you.


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