Letters from London: One Night in The Valley
LONDON - “I think I’d be happy with mid-table,” an Addicks supporter says when asked about Charlton’s chances this season. After racing away from League One last year, the London-based club is within one step of a Premier League return, though that’s far from fans’ minds. Opening their season with Birmingham City and Leicester City (two sides among the favorites to earn promotion), fans need results to fuel new dreams.
“We haven’t added anybody, have we,” the same supporter (a mid-20s professional) tells me, having come to the stadium straight from work. “It’s pretty much the same team that came up. We still need a bit more depth.”
They may be thin, Chris Powell’s side has made a strong impression. On Saturday, they earned a 1-1 draw at Birmingham City, with only a late Nikola Zigic goal keeping the Valiants from a surprise three points. Nonetheless, fans were happy with a result at one of the Championships’ bigger clubs. Brum won the League Cup just over one year ago.
Charlton, who spent nine seasons in the Premier League between 1998-99 and 2006-07, is now five years removed from England’s top division. Three seasons ago, they finished last in the Championship, earning their second relegation in three years. It was their first trip to the third division in 27 years.
In their first League One campaign, Charlton missed automatic promotion by two points before losing in the playoffs to Swindon Town. Although they collapsed to 13th a year later, Charlton bounced back in Powell’s first full season to win the league by eight points.
Considering the occasion, Charlton’s first home game could have had a celebratory atmosphere. Instead, their return was scheduled for a weeknight. It’s a perfect evening following a day that gave Londoners a reprieve from three days of blanketing humidity, but there’s still no change of selling out. On a weekend, however, the place would have been full, just as it did on the final day last season. For a 7:45 p.m. kickoff on Tuesday, 16,658 showed up at The Valley, Charlton’s 93-year-old, 27,111-capacity ground located in a working class Southeast London.
A retiree and his wife, season pass holders in the upper west stand, point to seats that will likely be empty, usually occupied by regulars who will be unable to return for this kickoff. I’m mistakenly sitting in another pass holders’ seat.
“No, it’s alright,” the husband says, a vague exoneration. “They might not be able to get back in time.” The couple would arrive just after kickoff.
Two miles west of Charlton is Greenwich, an affluent, historic town on one of the Thames River’s southern bends, five and a half miles from London’s center. The district has one of the city’s larger parks, gave its name to 0 degrees longitute (Greenwich Meridian) and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), and is considered somewhat posh. After all, it’s official name is Royal Greenwich.
Walk east along Trefalgar Road as it becomes Woolwich and you’ll hit Charlton in 40 minutes. Along the way, you’ll see a cross section of London, albeit a simplified one. Near river’s edge, where you’ll find Greenwich’s historic Old Royal Naval Museum and the National Martime Museum, the streets are dotted with Fiats and Mercedes Benz. Tourists step off river ferries to snap pictures of the Cutty Sark before ambling south toward the market. A few blocks to the west, rows of ivory temporary tents still welcome Olympic athletes who departed last week, with isolated people stopping to snap photos of the area cordoned off by cast iron gates. With the scene lacking the amusement park urgency you’d see from other tourist spots, like the London Eye, even Greenwich’s tourists seem upmarket.
Along Trefalgar Road the scene becomes a New England fishing town. Small shops occupying old brick buildings line the main road, with sheets in windows above the business’s signs hiding apartments that beg you to guess their rent. The blocks closest to Greenwich have supermarkets like Tesco’s and other big businesses, like Blockbuster Video, but soon there’s only one convenience store per block. After you pass the midway point - the A102 - it’s only fast food and pubs, with the white paint on one row of houses having faded to a shade between grey and neglect.
At the edge of Charlton, large industrial buildings start to appear on the north side of the road. The pubs and restaurants are to the south. Two hours before game time, blue shirts speckle the sidewalk, Leicester City fans who made the journey from the East Midlands arriving early to enjoy an evening in London. Outside the Rose of Denmark, a few blocks east of The Valley, Foxes’ fans have taken over a pub which hangs a Charlton Athletic supporters’ group tapestry from the patio’s fencing. Aside from a few red Addicks scattered amongst the blue, it’s still too early (and too far from the stadium) for the local support.
“We’re bringing 1,200,” replies Steve to a curious Charlton fan, his name written in gold across the shoulders of his Fox blue shirt. Outside Seabay Fish Bar on Valley Grove, he talks to what appear to be a grandfather, father and his son, three generations waiting for their pregame meal. The surrounding blocks are lined with fans sitting on rock walls and crouching on sidewalks, all hovering over paper boats filled with fish and chips. At one point, the line neared 25 people long.
It’s a strong traveling party for Leicester, who will fill up three-quarters of the Jimmy Seed Stand - The Valley’s south end, allocated to the visiting support. Two buses of supporters arrive an hour before the match and are funneled into the venue’s east entrance. They’re joined by the majority who drove or (more likely) took the two-hour train from the East Midlands.
Nick and his wife, two retirees from Leicester, are amongst the traveling support. They always are. Life-long Foxes fans, they travel to every away game.
“Even Cardiff,” I ask, failing my British geography. The Welch capital won’t be their longest trip.
“Sure,” replies the wife, kindly.
“And Blackpool?” I’m getting slightly better. Blackpool’s over 260 kilometers (165 miles) from Leicester.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “We’ll go a few days ahead of time. If the game’s on a Tuesday, we’ll go up Sunday.”
“And Middlesbrough?” The North Yorkshire city is actually slightly closer than Blackpool.
“Yes,” she says before conceding, “that’s the tough one.” Teeside must offer few of Blackpool’s charms.
“And you’re expecting to go up this year, right?” I’m cutting to the chase.
“Well,” Nick starts, remembering last year’s expectations. Reluctantly, he concedes, “We’re hoping to be there, yeah.”
Like Charlton’s fans, he doesn’t want to invest false hope, though for different reasons. A year ago, former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson brought in a series of expensive signings only to be dismissed mid-season. This year, although some of Eriksson’s signings remain, it’s Nigel Pearson who’ll try to end Leicester’s eight-year spell outside the top division.
Pearson, in his second go at Leicester, is part of one of the night’s two major on-field subplots. While with the Foxes from 2008-2010, Pearson gave Chris Powell his first coaching job, transitioning the defender from his final spot as a player. In his pre-match notes, Powell acknowledged Pearson’s contributions to his career, his tone helping to defuse the Pearson versus Powell angle.
The start is furious, the sides racing end to end, and although Leicester has held more of the ball, only one team’s executing in their final third. In the 18th minute, that execution pays off when Bradley Wright-Phillips, younger brother of Shaun, let loose from the edge of the area, drilling a ball past Kaspar Schmeichel into the lower left hand corner of goal.
Within seconds, the crowd is paying tribute to last year’s leading scorer:
“Better than Shaun
Better than Sha-aa-auun
He’s better than Shaun.”
Fourteen minutes later, the night’s second major subplot reached it’s climax when former Leicester forward Yann Kermorgant scored Charlton’s match-winning goal.
When lineups were announced, the former Fox garnered the largest (and most contentious) reception. Kermorgant’s history with Leicester City meant he was destined to be the match’s focal point. Having scored, he was the match’s hero, stealing Wednesday morning headlines with the goal that sank his former club. Had he failed to get on the scoresheet, he would have been the goat. Such is the 30-year-old Frenchman’s place in Leicester City history.
That history dates back to 2010, when Leicester’s Championship playoff semifinal against Cardiff City went to penalties, each side converting the first three. With the fourth, Kermorgant attempted a Penanka - a chip into the middle of goal designed to take advantage of `keepers’ tendencies to guess and dive for either corner. Bluebirds’ goalkeeper David Marshall did guess, leaping to his right, but stabbing his right arm into the ground, he was able to stop his drive. Reaching back with his left hand, Marshall saved Kermorgant’s Penanka. When Cardiff went on to win the shootout 4-3, Kermorgant’s irreverence became unforgivable.
It was the final touch Kermorgant would take for the Foxes. He spent the next season on loan in Ligue 1 ahead of last year’s move to Charlton.
After Kermorgant’s shot beat Kasper Schmeichel, Addicks fans erupted, shocked their team had run out to a 2-0 lead over one of the league’s favorites. And after collecting themselves and realizing who’d scored, a small number of Charlton fans turned their applause toward the south end, sarcastically reminding Leicester supporters of their pre-match derision.
An hour later, Powell was the last man off the field, at one point looking toward the supporters’ end from the center line, hands folded behind his head as he led the scene wash over him. Just under two years into his managerial career, he’d taken the club he spent seven years at as a player to a third division title, following that promotion with a victory in The Valley’s first match of the season. His stride slowed, his shoulders straighten as he took in the moment, having knocked off a division favorite to cap a four-point start.
As Powell approached the tunnel in the field’s northwest corner, the supporters, few of whom had left, started chanting: “Chris Powell! Chriiiis Poooowell!” They were begging for a sign, acknowledgement the 42-year-old was eager to give. The former Addicks’ left back, a member of division-winning teams for both Charlton and Leicester, extended his hands, the crowd’s appreciation ringing like thunder against the section’s metal roof.
“He’s extremely popular,” a Charlton supporter explained midway through the second half, after the Addicks had their lead reduced to one. “When he [was hired], I think he won his first four games, but then the team struggled after that. If he wasn’t so popular, I don’t think he would have survived. But then last year, it was brilliant. It’s nice that the manager has time.”
Powell’s hands don’t come down until he hits the retractable tunnel, but that doesn’t stop the chants. Within seconds, he’s back on the field, giving a final curtain call. When he leaves, the fans have permission to go home.
Leicester fans are already gone, most flocking to Charlton’s train station near the top of Floyd Road. The Southeastern Line will take them back to London Bridge, Waterloo Station, or Channing Cross. It’s a two-hour ride back to the East Midlands, riders left to stew in their team’s first loss of the season.
“Beckford was terrible tonight,” one supporter tells another, referring to striker Jermaine Beckford. Eriksson’s £2.5 million buy from Everton was substituted at halftime, playing more to the price David Moyes paid when he moved to Goodison Park from Leeds United (on a free transfer).
“He turns it off in the second minute,” the supporter bemoans at the suggestion that Beckford, when he’s on, is among the best players in the league. “He never turns it on.
“It’d be a mistake if Pearson plays him again.”
Coming off a weekend win over Peterborough United (a favorite to get relegated), Leicester has a respectable three points after two matches. That’s not enough for this train. Fans stand in clusters, reviewing what went wrong: Andy King, who scored the Foxes’ only goal, should have started ahead of Matty James in midfield; The tactics were wrong; The team needs defender Sean St. Ledger back; Jermaine Beckford is useless. Nothing like a tough road loss to bring out supporters’ high expectations.
Just as before the match, nobody’s willing to make predictions about where Leicester will finish. And although the win had made a few Charlton supporters regret not picking up full points at St. Andrews on Saturday, Addicks’ fans remain cautious. The season is 46 matches long, and each team has only passed its second hurdle. There are still plenty of mid-week matches left in this Championship season.