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.
We then drove right up to the compact ground, snuggled away on the edge of a park. We turned into one of the adjacent narrow streets, terraced in the way Lowry painted, before swinging the car into a space and strolling back about 100 yards to the main entrance. It felt a bit like parking on Ransom Walk. However, unlike the approach to The Valley, we weren’t greeted by protesters or fanzine sellers yelling their wares, nor by massed ranks of unofficial t-shirts and scarves fluttering in the breeze, not even by the evocative smell of burgers and onions sizzling to the tune of the humming generator of the outside catering van.
Less than two hours to kick-off yet barely another fan in sight. I managed to buy a programme for the princely sum of one pound. In dribs and drabs the Fleetwood Town players were walking in, smart in their red tracksuits, skinny and lithe like all modern-day footballers. I thought again of Lowry and his portrayal of matchstalk men. Now headphones had taken the place of flat caps.
As we navigated our way along an alleyway and the edge of the park to find the much-vaunted Jim’s Sports Bar, we briefly watched a group of lads in the same red kit with black and white trim having a kickabout on a tiny patch of tarmac squeezed between the ground’s high perimeter fence and a row of large wheelie bins. Surely not the players warming up? No, just some older ball-boys, I realised.
From the peace and quiet outside, we entered the hubbub of Jim’s, replete with big screens blasting out both the Manchester and Old Firm derbies. Suddenly football was properly on the agenda. Not at all sure who Jim is or was, I wondered why the bar wasn’t named Jamie’s, after Vardy. He’s Fleetwood’s most famous export, unless you include Fisherman’s Friends. However, he has rather blotted his reputation in these parts. While many fans of smaller clubs celebrated the Leicester striker’s decision to reject Arsenal’s overtones in the summer, Fleetwood lost out on a multi-million pound sell-on windfall. The local lads we chatted with just shrugged it off as one of those things.
This Highbury Stadium will never rival the original London namesake, but it is slowly emerging into a decent, compact ground. We took our seats in the new Parkside stand, climbing all of thirteen rows to be right near the back. As I surveyed the scene, memories of past visits to non-league football sprang to mind: teenage trips to watch Erith and Belvedere when they still played in their latter hometown, pre-season friendlies at Welling United, FA Cup jaunts to the likes of Harlow Town.
The shallow terrace under a shed roof at the away end does not even span the full width. Neither does the little stand on the far-side. This led to the comic sight of the blue-headed cod mascot filling in as ball-boy in the gap between the end of the stand and an out-of-place brick-built bungalow. I’m not sure if anyone lives there or if it is indeed a double-glazing showroom as the bloke behind me suggested.
The 2-2 final result left Fleetwood sitting comfortably near the top of the early-season table. In contrast, the Addicks are still finding their feet and their panache in this lower division. Fleetwood’s scorers on Saturday may have been Long and Ball but those in the purple away strip were more inclined to adopt such a style of play, the home side preferring swift and crisp passing football. A little over ten years ago we would have wildly celebrated a draw at the other Highbury. Novak’s late equaliser on Saturday was greeted with relieved applause.
Charlton owner Duchâtelet was, of course, absent. CEO Meire also avoided this particular journey. Those who returned post-match to Jim’s Bar were greeted by the Fleetwood owner/chairman Andy Pilley buying drinks all round, happily mixing and chatting with both sets of fans. He’s a self-made entrepreneur, dynamic, community-focussed and a real football man.
Contrast was the word of the day. “Aren’t you just a little bit jealous?” asked my husband on our short walk back to the car. “Yes,” I whispered, with more than a tinge of sadness, poignantly remembering the optimistic days when fans, directors and players worked together to put the heart and soul back into our club and rebuild The Valley in all its glory.
Apart from a CEO on the FA Council and fishy nicknames, the Addicks and the Cod Army certainly have little in common. This was a reminder of football as it used to be – a reminder of a club on the up.