Adventures in Football #32: The Valley (Charlton Athletic)
October 30, 2021
CHARLTON ATHLETIC vs. DONCASTER ROVERS (League One)
Charlton are a team with a rich history. Since joining the football league in 1921 (oh, hey, it’s their football league centenary season!) they’ve enjoyed substantial success. Especially in and around WWII where they were a top flight side for 21 consecutive seasons. When I was a kid they were a good team, enjoying runs in the Premier League up until 2007 when they were relegated. This was after their awkward exile from the Valley between 1985-1992, where they played at Selhurst Park.
Bubbling under in the Championship, and occasionally League One, Charlton have gone through the wringer in recent times. Taken over by Belgian businessman Roland Duchatelet in 2013 the club saw a churn in managers, who blamed the club for not allowing them input into transfers. Duchatelet proved unpopular and was replaced by East Street Investments (another middle east group) in 2019. However it was not smooth sailing and the Valley was still owned by Duchatelet and the saga rolled on until September 2000 when Thomas Sandgaard finally bought out Duchatelet but the drama was not over. Lee Bowyer, one of the main reasons Charlton hadn’t imploded during this difficult time, was poached by Birmingham City. Nigel Adkins came in to replace him and had a terrible time of it, being sacked just last week. His replacement in the dugout is Johnnie Jackson.
The Valley is an old stadium, built in 1919, but heavily renovated and rebuilt in the 90s. Back in the day, when Charlton were successful, the Valley was one of the biggest grounds in the country and the record attendance is 75,000 for a cup tie with Aston Villa in 1938. Just after WWII they were averaging over 40,000 a game. The rebuilt all-seater stadium has room for 27,111. Since dropping into League One in 2016 attendances have dropped off but they still get over 11,000 for games. However, this is less than half what they were getting in the Premier League.
Charlton remain one of the bigger clubs in League One, in terms of stature. They’ve a level below the likes of Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich but on that second tier with Bolton and Portsmouth. You would think a club of this size would be competing for promotion to the Championship. Instead, they currently lie in the relegation zone.
As with a few games this season we kick things off with torrential rain. It’s been so heavy that a raft of fixtures across Scotland have been cancelled due to flooding. While it’s not that bad ‘down south’ it’s still wet. As a result, I’ve decided to take a proper bag to a game with me so I can carry an umbrella and stuff, which could result in said bag getting confiscated. Let’s hope for the best.
Hoping for the best results in this zombie apocalypse, which suits the dismal weather outside. It’s pissing it down. The last thing I wanted was to walk through a crime scene with Eddie, Iron Maiden’s famous mascot, digging his way out of hell. My original aim was to get into London early so I could explore a bit, which didn’t happen because I didn’t book the train early enough so I ended up on the 10.37am out of Moor Street. My preference for Moor Street is based on a love of relaxation, quality travel and the beautiful old timey station over the hustle and bustle of New Street to Euston. What I forgot was the convenience of Euston. That will come into play later.
Hopping on at Moor Street I’m thrilled that my carriage, the infamous “Quiet Zone” is empty and I’m sat watching football highlights when another punter gets on and I chide myself for having the volume a quarter up. It’s the Quiet Zone, you know the rules! Instead I spend much of my trip to London reading Matt Walker’s “Europe United”, which is a cracking book about football travels. I could relate. He went to a top flight game in all 55 UEFA countries in one season. For those planning this Birmingham to London route be aware the train is basically empty until Leamington Spa and then people pile on for three stops running until you can’t move. This included two screaming Chinese kids. This is the Quiet Zone!
On arriving in London I head into the tube station at Marylebone, which I’ve never been into before. I usually walk from Marylebone when I travel there and I know that part of London quite well. However, it’s almost 1pm and kick off is at 3pm. It’s 9.7 miles away. I need the tube. The platform is rammed at Marylebone and I’m instantly reminded why I choose the more scenic walking option. Saturday’s in London are tourist central. The tube is so full I end up face first into the wall with someone standing on my foot.
I thankfully escape the underground at Charing Cross and hop on a train to Charlton. For some reason it won’t do it on my phone so I end up buying the same ticket twice, which is annoying. In London that’s basically the cost of a pint though so who’s counting? As we get closer Charlton fans get on at each stop. London Bridge sees a gaggle of them enter the fray.
On arriving in Charlton I’m greeted by huge crowds and the largest police presence I’ve seen at a game all season. There are four riot vans parked outside the station and I see three sets of mounted police. The ones above between the Sainsbury’s, which I imagine is hell on match day, and the Valley Café. It’s on this spot I meet Lewis, aka “Welshie” (guess where he’s from?), who’s watching the game with me today. Both of our groundhopping adventures took a break in October. My last game was in Scotland some four weeks earlier and before a visit to West Ham in the Carabao Cup mid week, he’d not been to a game since late September.
The flow of people to the ground snakes through residential areas. Lewis had been here before, supporting Cardiff, so I followed him and we went down Floyd Road and ran into the usual ‘outside the ground’ business. A burger van, a souvenir stand, programme sellers, lads enjoying cans before the game and the packed out Charlton Athletic Superstore. One day I’ll get to a ground early enough to have a proper look around one of these things!
Charlton has a good community feel to it. They posted a message on Twitter detailing the places where families could go and get photos taken with the clubs mascots; Floyd and Harvey. I thought it was Harley as the cat is clearly a lady with that lovely bow. I also love a giant badge adorning a wall. I like Charlton’s badge in general. It’s a simple one with a bloke holding a sword but it works. It looks great on the club jackets that seem to be more popular than replica shirts around the Valley.
Here comes the moment of truth. Will I get in with a bag? I’ve purposely brought a bag that’s not in great condition in case I have to stow it somewhere. The turnstiles at the Alan Curbishley stand are not manned and the printed tickets scan first time, which is a winner. You can see a chap holding one to the right there. The bag check is after that where a friendly steward asks to see inside and pops a pink “bag checked” label on it. I ask what happens if I don’t have a pink label. “I get in trouble” he replies.
The Valley is an old enough ground that it has a pleasing number of quirks. One of which is the random slopes around the outside. The staircase on the left leads to the executive boxes. We headed under that into the outdoor concourse. There are people enjoying food and beverages in the open air. I imagine this is a less thrilling experience if it’s raining but the concourse is partially covered. The vendors stalls are built into the wall. We are right next to the family stand so there are kids everywhere.
The ticketing system is a little confusing. We’re in block ESE. There is no block ESE. I ask another helpful steward (they’re really good at Charlton, big thumbs up) and he helpfully directs me into a nearby entrance. We were in the right place first time! The Alan Curbishley Stand is a beast; but all the stands are at Charlton, barring the away end, pictured above, the “Jimmy Seed Stand”. It’s tiny compared to the rest of the ground and allows a decent view of the pitch if you happen to live in the block of flats behind it. I noticed at least two punters watching for free up there.
The West Stand is opposite us and bears the Charlton Athletic Football Club name across the top, complete with central badge. It’s a monster! I love when stands have the corners filled in with seats. Although the corners are only filled in at the home end leaving the away fans on an island of seating, in the oldest part of the ground. It’s a proper “get away from us, you visiting scum” motif.
“My desire is always to be found at Valley Floyd Road”. This is the corner between the Alan Curbishley Stand and the Covered End where all the ultras go. It’s a nice touch and I was impressed in general with the performance from the fans. They were loud throughout (although the scoreline helped) and sang a lot of original songs. In my notes it says “fans very spread out” until they came pouring in from the concourses. Attendance today was a healthy 16,449 including nearly 600 from Doncaster.
The pre-match warm up includes a bunch of kids waving flags on the sidelines. I’ve managed to not only capture the flag perfectly here but also a local photog getting his action in as well. Sports photographer mate. There’s a lot of rock music in the lead up to kick-off. I would say it’s the most angry soundtrack I’ve heard at a stadium this season. Not that I’m complaining. It was mostly bangers. Before the game was even underway the noise level from the Covered End was noticeable. That top tier was rocking all game.
Scouting Report: Rodrigo Vilca. I’d like to try something new here. Seeing as Vilca is a bright young player, on loan from Newcastle, I thought I’d track the Peruvian winger throughout the game. Newcastle recruited Vilca last year from Deportivo Municipal for the princely sum of 200,000 Euro. He’s on loan at Doncaster to get some game time. Vilca can play across the attacking midfield positions. I believe he prefers to be a number ten but Donny have him out on the right wing. He looked exciting in the early going. Doncaster frequently going to the right in order to get him into the game. He couldn’t get much joy against a solid Charlton defence though and the highlight of his first half was getting booked for petulantly kicking out after losing the ball again. He faded badly in the second and was replaced. On this performance don’t expect to see him turning out for the billionaire Toon anytime soon.
The overall game plan from Doncaster was a confusing one. Persisting with 4-2-3-1 even when being completely overrun and exposed at the back during the first half, the second half substitutions were all like-for-like changes except for moving Man Utd midfield loanee Ethan Galbraith to right back. He’d been Donny’s best passer during the game so it made no sense and they were further punished for doing so. It’s the second time I’ve seen Galbraith this season after seeing him bully non-league Kidderminster Harriers in a pre-season friendly with Man Utd’s U23 team. He looked considerably less happy playing for Doncaster.
Charlton went 1-0 ahead through Elliot Lee, whose free-kick drifted in at the far post when no one attacked it. It was systemic of Doncaster’s inability to defend any ball delivered into the box from wide areas. Charlton doubled their lead via a soft Conor Washington penalty. Charlton should have been out of sight before half time failing to convert several good chances. The match was also getting the supporters going at both ends. While the Charlton fans were happy, the Donny ones were less so. One particularly rotund supporter found himself ejected, after spending the first half shirtless (it was confiscated after he threw it at the Charlton players), for exposing his bottom to try and put Washington off. Washington should be applauded for holding his nerve in the face of this display. The fan’s arse made it into the Sky Sports highlights package if you watch behind the goal. His ejection sadly only available for live fans. Cheerio!
A damning indictment of Doncaster’s attacking prowess was when three pigeons occupied Rodrigo Vilca’s right wing spot for several minutes. Only scared off by a George Dobson pass back. The half time entertainment consisted of “Barry” having a go at the crossbar challenge. He missed hopelessly. “Did you enjoy that?” asks the MC. “No” replies Barry to laughter from all corners of the ground. In front of us a couple of old boys almost come a cropper thanks to the steep steps at the Valley. Myself and Lewis both had a sense of vertigo on emerging at the top of them. It’s positively South American.
Into the second half and Charlton continued to push home their advantage. Doncaster look like conceding from every attack and are fortunate to still be at 2-0 when Jayden Stockley is rewarded for his tireless pressing and chasing by bundling home a free kick. Another cross comes in and Doncaster have a fourth from Ben Purrington. An absolute miracle save from Pontus Dahlberg (on loan from Watford) denies Stockley a second and if it wasn’t for his saves the scoreline could have been much worse in all honesty.
Post-match Lewis had seen enough for one day and headed home whereas I was off to meet my mate Steve in Hackney. This allowed us to soak up more ambience at the Charlton train station where opposing fans were on opposing platforms. It was a bit spiky and reminded me of scenes from the Football Factory. Only there was never a chance of a scrap. Like the bloke with his arse hanging out it was more bark than bite. I got a pint with Steve before realising that in order to actually get home I would need to immediately leave to get to Marylebone. It’s a nice journey but it usually doesn’t give you any time. Whereas Euston-New Street maximises your time out. Thanks to a train cancellation my wife had to pick me up in Solihull anyway. One of those days. Had a lovely time at Charlton though. It’s a cracking ground, unless you’re in the away end.