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, 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. So in the spirit of give and take, I gave in and he took me away from my home city, the only home I thought I would ever know, and the home, of course, of my home town team. (Well, technically that should have been Erith and Belvedere, seeing as I was born and bred in the latter, but forgive me a few miles of glory-hunting to my nearest league team.)

Scotland was our compromise – I have Scottish blood, Robert went to Edinburgh University. I was over the moon when Charlton quickly followed me – even if it was only on a pre-season tour to Falkirk, East Fife and Saint Mirren, at the aptly named Love Street.

On this Tuesday night, Robert was working. He was Mr Tennents – as in the lager made by Tennent Caledonian Breweries, title sponsor of the Tennent’s Scottish Cup. No way was he going to Blackburn, as he had to choose and present the Man of the Match award. I chose to be dutiful wife, availing of the hospitality of the kind directors of Dunfermline Athletic. Arriving straight from the office, I was appropriately clad in a smart skirt suit, by no means my normal football attire. Our hosts were very welcoming, all smiles and expectation, the gathering of a large crowd recalling their European heyday nights of the 60s and 70s. We had the best seats in the house, nice padded ones in the Directors’ Box, high above the halfway line.

The match got going, but Dunfermline did not. Airdrie took an early lead. I surreptitiously pulled my black transistor radio out of my handbag. It was about the size of a paperback book, so not that surreptitious really. I pressed it to my ear to follow the news from Ewood, kicking off fifteen minutes later. In front of me, Airdrie scored again and a hush fell over the stadium, as though the swirling grey mist was gripping everyone’s throat
“Yes!!” cried a lone female voice in the posh seats. Instinctively, I had jumped to my feet in my high heels, punching the air in delight at the news of Darren Pitcher’s unexpected strike. Robert tugged me back down, shushing his embarrassment of a wife.

Half-time came and went, as did Dunfermline’s chance of progressing in the competition. The final whistle cemented a 3-1 victory for Airdrie. Down in the North of England, our match still had a long way to go – understandable when I heard that Kim Grant had been booked for time-wasting on 53 minutes. Charlton were clinging on to 0-1. Robert was preparing to present the Man of the Match award to the Airdrie striker, a fair but somewhat unpopular decision. I was being offered gin and tonic or lager or a nice hot cup of tea, cakes, scones…our hosts remained gracious in defeat.

I felt ungracious that my thoughts were firmly elsewhere, so retreated to a cubicle in the ladies toilets, where I had peace and quiet to listen. The match went on and on and on. Other ladies came and went, my cubicle remained firmly locked, the formica door inadequately muffling strangely sibilant hissing noises. I re-emerged many minutes later, beaming at our unexpected Cup progression. “Where have you been? I had to say you weren’t feeling well,” Robert muttered at me. “We won – we beat Blackburn!” I said rather loudly, then remembering where I was, quickly looked downcast in sympathy with the nice people of Dunfermline.

Now it was payback time. Mr Tennents would be delegating his Scottish Cup role and reverting to dutiful husband. We were off on an FA Cup tour to Ashton Gate for the fifth round, then the Valley for the replay, then finally to discover that things don’t always get better at the Old Trafford Quarter Final. That day, Charlton would be on the receiving end of a 3-1 defeat.

Some nice people in Dunfermline might smile at that.

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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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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