My Part in Celtic’s Hampden Year

A tale of my brief encounter with Celtic’s Fergus McCann with passing mention of Dion Dublin. First appeared in Issue 4 of Nutmeg Magazine.

A quiet Friday afternoon in April. The square, grey BT-issue phone on the corner of my desk suddenly chirped into life. I was manning – or rather womanning – the fort in our little rented office on the top floor of an elegant Edinburgh townhouse. My boss and his wife had taken the afternoon off. The two creatives were still in the pub – this was 1994, so what else would you expect from a marketing agency? We were a fledgling business, carrying out direct mail and insert campaigns for a couple of large financial organisations. Part of a UK network, we relied on sister agencies in London for media buying and Leeds for production services. I was diligently checking over the media schedule for my main client, ruler sat on top of paper, pencil comments scribbled in the margin.

Dropping the pencil on the second chirp, I grabbed the chunky phone receiver and clutched it to my ear. “Thank you for calling WWAV Scotland. Heather speaking. How may I help?” My polite introduction was met with a brusque response: “You’re a direct marketing agency, aren’t you?” I confirmed that indeed we were, as my mind whirred, struggling to identify the vaguely familiar transatlantic twang.

“This is Fergus McCann. I’ve bought Celtic Football Club. We need some direct marketing. Can you come in and see me next week?”

I replied somewhat hesitantly that of course we could, I’d just need to check with my Managing Director as he would always attend a new business meeting. “What was your name again? Are you an Account Director?” I barely had a moment to confirm before the demanding Scots-born Canadian continued: “We’ll say 2pm Tuesday at Celtic Park. You just come along on your own if necessary.”

With that he hung up.

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The Reluctant East Ender

So here I was one cold February evening in 1994 watching the wrong Athletic at the wrong Park in the wrong Cup. Instead of cheering on Charlton Athletic at Ewood Park in the FA Cup (fourth round replay), I was at East End Park, watching Dunfermline Athletic take on Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup (third round replay).

And all because of my love for an Irishman called Robert – a sort-of Spurs fan. I say sort-of because he was not fanatical: I think he’d adopted them at a young age in Belfast out of hero-worship for his big brother. I had found it surprisingly easy to get him along to watch Charlton regularly instead. Our first date had been the FA Cup fourth round match in January 89 at Selhurst Park, when I clung on to him in panic during the nail-biting last ten minutes versus non-league Kettering (until then a name I associated more with Wicksteed and the wrought iron steps of the slide in the local playground).

I tested his romantic resolve further that evening by making him watch my video of “Charlton winning something” – the Masters Soccer Sixes, with Leaburn imperious. Even that didn’t put him off.

We were a perfect match in so many ways: Robert seemed to find my football addiction, or should that be affliction, quite endearing. He agreed without a flinch to my chosen wedding colours of burgundy (red) and ivory (white). He led the discussion with the organist about turning the Wedding March into the Match of the Day theme tune as we walked down the aisle. He arranged our honeymoon in Tuscany so we could take in a few World Cup matches at Italia 90.

But there was one big problem. He hated London.

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Why I hate Luton: Part One

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 scarf firmly round my wrist. Beautifully co-ordinated, I climbed aboard the Charlton Athletic away fans’ coach.

It was early September 1977. I was thirteen, skinny, flat-chested and goofy-toothed. 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. Continue reading “Why I hate Luton: Part One”

When Heather met Heather

Here’s an interview with Heather Alwen published in Issue 30 of The Blizzard magazine:

https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/article/chairmans-wife

The subject is another Charlton-supporting Heather, but one with a very different perspective from me: Heather Alwen, wife of erstwhile chairman Roger. Among other things, it covers the behind-the-scenes story of the return to The Valley, tips on football gardening, the treatment of directors’ wives by Stoke City and the importance of proper nutrition for youth team players.

Brighton v Charlton 1983: Putting the Boot in

The boys in Belvedere were always playing football in the road just outside our house, but I never joined in. I had managed a kickabout on the beach with a few friends over the summer holidays, and I wasn’t too bad – lots of chasing around rather than skill, it has to be said, so perhaps more like Steve Gritt than Carl Harris. I also had no idea which my best position would be, so just like Steve Gritt, then: the utility player who defined the term – he had not only played for Charlton in every outfield position – but also in goal.

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 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 the founder and captain of my own team. Now I would just need 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…


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Charlton v Chelsea 1977: Looby Loo’s Little Trip

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 into 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.


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A Day to Remember

During season 2017/18, Charlton celebrated the 25th anniversary of the club’s return to The Valley. A reunion “Legends” match took place in September. I wrote about it for the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust. The picture shows fans meeting with Jon Fortune, who sent the Palace down.

The man mountain that is Carl Leaburn, his considered voice and unselfish nature belying his physical stature; dapper Mickey Bennett, somehow looking younger now than in his first-team days; Robert (definitely not Rob) Lee’s distinguished grey hair and square jawline begging comparisons with George Clooney; the blustering arrival of Eddie Youds, late-tackling his way into the thick of it all.

Scott Minto, another who seems to have cheated the passing of the years, maintained a calm and professional presence as he hosted the pre-match Legends Q&A, fittingly taking place in the Keith Peacock Suite. By all accounts, said elder statesman of the club was largely responsible for past players travelling from near and far to support the Community Trust in celebration of 25 years of their existence and 25 years (almost) since football returned to Floyd Road.

Like us, the Q&A men would be spectators at the main event while their former team mates would once more take to the Valley turf. Already the day was shaping into one of gentle relaxation and informality.


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The Truth about Gentleman Jerry

The achievements of Jerry Kerr are such that he deserves to be lauded as one of the pioneering Scottish managers alongside the likes of Jock Stein and Bill Shankly. But for decades he was not even welcome at Dundee United, the club he helped shape.

A poignant story based on interviews with the family.

First published in Nutmeg Issue Three, March 2017, and featured in Scotland and Sunday.

“As a manager, he never swore, never lost his temper, was never rude to anyone. He was respected as a gentleman and there aren’t many managers of the modern game you can say that about.” Rhona Haston, an elegant lady in her seventies, talks with warmth and passion about her late father, Jerry Kerr.

I am meeting Rhona and her son, Ross, to hear more about this intriguing man, who clearly meant the world to them. Rhona hands me several black and white photographs. Despite my keen interest in football, I am embarrassed to admit that I know next-to-nothing about the balding, well-dressed figure, sometimes sporting a trilby, nearly always puffing on a pipe, usually managing an affable smile. Yet this is a man whose achievements in transforming his club should be lauded in the Scottish Hall of Fame alongside Jock Stein’s Celtic triumphs and Bill Shankly’s galvanising of Liverpool.


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Fleetwood v Charlton 2016: Cod or Haddock?

Article originally written for Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust.

Approaching our final destination of Fleetwood – a town with a population about the size of the Valley capacity – I couldn’t help wondering what on earth we were doing in such a dead-end backwater. This was the first ever meeting between the two clubs, the kind of fixture you associate with the early rounds of the FA Cup, rather than a routine League One Saturday.

Charlton fans view this division as our nadir, never having been lower in our league existence. For Fleetwood, it represents dizzy heights. When we were pitting ourselves against the best teams in the land in the early years of the millennium, Fleetwood were kicking the ball about in the North West Counties League. Although their timeline extends back to 1908, the Lancashire club’s present incarnation is less than twenty years old. They only turned fully professional in 2010/11 and got promoted for the first-time ever to the Football League a year later. Then a trip to Wembley catapulted them into the third tier of the hierarchy, their sixth promotion in ten years: an English football record.

Having initially mistaken a floodlight tower at the docks for a sign of the stadium, we doubled back across the Blackpool-bound tram tracks.


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Charlton v Middlesbrough 2016: Stay or Go?

Article originally written for Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust.

The TV camera zoomed in on the North Upper at the Valley 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 walk out in pre-planned protest with fellow fans or stay put and cheer on the team to an unlikely victory?

From my sofa – no, not that incongruous one by the corner flag – 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 before, I’d be there now, near the front of the North Upper too. Would I get up and depart?


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