As Bad As Things Got: Charlton Athletic, 7th September 1985

by | May 14, 2021

It seems to have been a common theme amongst professional football clubs forming in London at the start of the 20th century that finding an identity was not necessarily easy. As the game grew in popularity throughout the second half of the 19th century, the city was expanding at a rapid rate and land was increasing in value and scarcity. In addition to this, London was slower than the Midlands or the North to fully embrace the professional game, in no small part because of the intransigence of the strictly amateur London Football Association.

So it was for Charlton Athletic. Founded in June 1905, the club’s first permanent pitch was at Siemens Meadow, a patch of rough ground by the River Thames, near to the present day site of the Thames Barrier. The club played here for two years before spending a season on Woolwich Common and five years at Pound Park between 1908 in 1913. The club’s early growth had been hampered by the near presence of Woolwich Arsenal, the only Football League club in London until 1905, but that club’s move north of the River Thames in 1913 offered Charlton an opportunity to expand and that year they joined senior football, moving to the 4,000 capacity Angerstein Athletic ground as a ground share with Deptford Invicta FC, which they used until 1915.

After the end of the First World War, Charlton started looking for a home of their own, and a site was located at a chalk quarry known as The Swamps. In the summer of 1919, beginning with a huge bonfire, work began to create a level playing area and remove debris from the site. In September of that year, Charlton Athletic played its first match in its new home, The Valley. Two years later, the club was elected into the Football League.

The club’s directors had hoped for a 200,000 capacity for their new stadium, which would have made it the largest football stadium in the world, and election into the Football League in 1921 encouraged the club to spend then-astronomical £21,314 – £991,000, adjusted for inflation – on improvements, including its distinctive multispan roofed grandstand. The final capacity was 80,000, and the results were impressive enough for Athletic News to describe it as “a prospective venue for FA Cup finals.”

The Cup finals, however, never came. Work on Wembley Stadium started on the other side of London shortly after The Valley originally opened, and opened itself in 1923. And despite their new own new stadium, Charlton’s wanderlust remained and in 1923 they moved again, this time to share The Mount with the ambitious non-league club Catford South End, who proposed the merger of the two clubs under their name.

This merger however, failed to materialise and delays in getting The Mount ready for League football meant that Charlton had to stay at The Valley for the first half of the 1923/24 season. Supporters however, didn’t move en masse with the club when they did leave, with only 1,000 people attending their last league game of the season, and at the end of the season Charlton Athletic returned to The Valley. The club had spent a further £17,330 on The Mount, only to use it for just half a season.

The 1930s, however, saw a sudden upturn in the team’s fortunes, and in 1935, the club won the first of two successive promotions into the First Division of the Football League under the managership of Jimmy Seed. And Charlton Athletic did continue their good work in the First Division – for a while, at least. They finished their first season as runners-up behind Manchester City and finished in fourth place the following year. When a crowd of 75,038 people for an FA Cup fifth round match against Aston Villa, set a club record and seem to demonstrate that the potential of Charlton Athletic was finally being tapped.

Charlton finished in third place in the last season before the war, and we can only guess at what might have happened had hostilities not broken out in September 1939. When the game restarted after the war, the club reached two successive FA Cup finals, losing to Derby County in 1946 and beating Burnley the following year.

They stayed in the top flight ended in 1957, by which time the lack of investment in The Valley in previous years were starting to become apparent. Indeed, Charlton didn’t even install floodlights there until 1961. They became a mainstay of the Second Division throughout the 1960s, but the terraces at The Valley were starting to look a little forlorn by the end of the decade.

The 1970s saw little improvement in the team’s fortunes on the pitch, with spells in the Third Division in the middle of the decade and again in 1980. By the end of decade the sense of decline about Charlton Athletic was obvious. The Valley itself became a victim of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, which have been introduced in 1975 as a result of the inquiry into the 1971 Ibrox stadium disaster. The vast open East terrace, which ran along one side of the pitch, was cracking under the strain of its age and the land upon which it was built.

The concrete terracing of The Valley was literally rotting away, while there also weren’t enough entrances or exits for large crowds. In one fell swoop in 1979, the capacity of The Valley was cut from 66,000 to 20,000 people. In January 1981 it was cut again, this time to 13,000, and all of this at a club that had already been in decline for some years, and during a period when footballs finances were in a tailspin that wouldn’t fully bottom out for several years to come.

The club raised the money to finally renovate some areas of the ground, but in 1982, Charlton Athletic were sold. Charlton been owned by the Gliksten family since the 1930s. But now it was owned by a company called Marman Ltd and their new chairman was a 28 year old called Mark Hulyer. Hulyer talked a good game and The Valley was soon buzzing again, no more so than when, in October 1982, the club announced the signing of former European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen.

When Barcelona signed Diego Maradona in 1982, Spanish league restrictions meant that Simonsen was to compete with Maradona and Bernd Schuster for only two places allowed for foreign players in each starting lineup. Simonsen took this as something of a personal slight and asked Barcelona for his contract to be annulled.

Rejecting offers from Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, he signed for Charlton Athletic for £300,000, a figure that has also been variously reported between £250,000 and £350,000. He signed for Charlton in order to play for a club where there would be less stress and attention, but to say that Charlton couldn’t afford Simonsen’s wages is really something of an understatement. Simonsen left the club in 1983 after having played just 16 games for them, and the following year Charlton collapsed into receivership after a winding up order raised by Leeds United over the non-payment of a transfer fee. Charlton were rescued 25 minutes before the close of a Football League deadline by a company called Sunley Holdings.

As had happened when Marman bought the club two years earlier though, former chairman Michael Gliksten retained ownership of both The Valley and the club’s new Welton training ground. The new owners did attempt to buy the ground from him, but an offer of £1.25m for the ground and the training ground, and to pay off a loan made to the club by Gliksten several years earlier, was rejected, which left Charlton having to sign a 30 year lease paying £110,000 per season.

It was assumed that the Gliksten family’s half-century long association with Charlton would at least offer them some security, even as tenants, and after the insolvency event the rent was reduced to £70,000 pounds per year for 10 years. Prior events, however, were starting to catch up with the club. When The Valley had been designated in 1979, the Greater London Council had wanted to reduce the capacity of the East Terrace to 3,000.It was eventually agreed that the capacity could stay at 10,000 providing that Gliksten, who then still owned the club, carried out substantial repairs on the terrace. This didn’t happen, though, and the capacity was cut to 3,000 in May 1985.

Amidst the panic that swept across the country at the realisation there was a good chance the majority of Football League grounds were death traps, the GLC closed the East Terrace altogether. The positioning of a sewer under the terrace meant that even the smallest amount of repair work would require excavation of the entire terrace. Sunley, who’d already put in substantial money to keep the club afloat a year earlier, baulked at the £2m cost quoted to carry out the repairs. Crowds were still so low that a reduced capacity of 10,000 likely would have been fine for the club at the time. But having one side of the ground closed altogether would bring with it all sorts of headaches above and beyond mere numbers games.

With dispute already in the air over who would pay for the East Terrace repairs, a second big shock hit the club when Gliksten sealed off the area of land behind the West Stand, which had been used for car parking, toilets and turnstiles. Claim and counterclaim have been made over the years over who was doing what and for what reason. Charlton certainly already knew that Gliksten could do this if he wished to. This part of the site had been specifically left out of the lease previously signed by the club, so Glikstein certainly wasn’t operating outside of the law.

The effect, however, was the same no matter what. Without this piece of land The Valley wasn’t far off unusable and Charlton needed to find somewhere else to play. It was reported that they had approached Millwall, four miles away, which was probably the best option for supporters, but Millwall claimed that no offer was ever made. West Ham United turned them down. And then on Saturday 7th September 1985, the bombshell dropped from out of nowhere. Charlton Athletic were leaving their home to ground share at Selhurst Park with Crystal Palace. And as if this wasn’t bad enough for supporters, the announcement was only made prior to a home league game against… Crystal Palace.

As a business decision, there was some degree of sense to it. Selhurst Park was a good facility by the standards of the mid 1980s. And such was the nature of South London football during that decade that Ron Noades managed to be the chairman of Wimbledon, Crystal Palace and Brentford within the space of not much over a decade. In Noades, then, they knew exactly who they were dealing with. It was also, some whispered, considerably closer to the offices of Sunley Holdings.

It was a terrible deal for supporters. Charlton and Palace were rivals, no matter how much some wished to portray them as friends, and while the journey across South London might only have been seven miles as the crow flies, this was at a time when this part of London was something of a public transport black hole. For supporters travelling up from the club’s heartlands in South East London and Kent, it made for a substantially more difficult journey for home matches.

And regardless, this wasn’t Charlton Athletic. Charlton were a club raised in the shadow of Woolwich car ferry and the Greenwich peninsula. Football clubs have a character, a personality, and part of that is shaped by their surroundings. Uprooting Charlton Athletic and decamping the club to Croydon was moving it considerably further than seven miles, emotionally speaking. Two weeks later, Charlton played their last match at The Valley amid a fog of protest, a 2-0 win against Stoke City.

By the start of the following year, the media was even starting to treat it as it would do an “and finally” piece. The ground-share didn’t take long to become normalised. In a turn up for the books, though, Charlton Athletic were promoted to the First Division at the end of the 1985/86 season, their first period at this level since 1957. Charlton lasted four years in the First Division, struggling for a reasonable amount of the time and achieving their highest league position of 14th in 1989 before being relegated back to the Second Division the following season.

By the time that relegation came again though, Charlton Athletic’s world had changed a considerable amount. The move to Selhurst Park have been a disaster for the club. Despite winning promotion at the end of their first season at Selhurst Park, there was a widely held belief, later confirmed by the wife of one of those who ended up buying the club, that Sunley Holdings were deliberately running The Valley into the ground, hoping for leverage in getting permission to sell the land for housing. The football side of things certainly wasn’t profitable for them, on meagre crowds and with the feeling growing that the club was running headfirst down a cul de sac.

There was space for somebody who could actually, well, direct the club. Roger Alwyn made himself wealthy in the City of London, and first became involved with Charlton in 1987 as a result of his friendship with another director, former Charlton player, Derek Ufton, who himself had joined the Charlton board in 1984. By 1988, it was clear that Sunley weren’t going to get planning permission for housing on the site of The Valley, while the football club was losing money hand over fist.

Alwyn’s company bought Gliksten’s in March 1988. Sunley held out for as long as they could, but ultimately it benefited them to sell back to Alwyn – first the training ground, and then the stadium itself. Charlton Athletic and The Valley were reunited, under Alwyn and vice chairman Mike Norris, and in 1989 the club formally announced their intention to return to The Valley by holding a bonfire on the pitch, exactly as had happened at the start of the construction of the original stadium exactly 80 years earlier.

The Valley would have to be significantly renovated if it was to be usable again, though. It had after all been left effectively derelict since September 1985 by the previous owners, and it had been barely usable when they left. Yet again though, Charlton’s timing was extremely unfortunate. The Taylor Report, which followed the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989, became the basis for a radical overhaul of football ground safety, and the adoption of the all-seater model meant that the original plans for renovating The Valley needed to be completely redrawn.

Concerns over the size of the redesigned stadium and an argument over non-football activities were said to be behind Greenwich Council’s decision to reject planning permission for redevelopment. The council, however, almost certainly didn’t know at that time what it was letting itself in for with this rejection.

There were council elections in May 1990, and Charlton supporters led by Rick Everett, the editor of the Voice of The Valley fanzine, hastily arranged themselves into The Valley Party, a political party which described itself as being of “with political ideology, no personal ambition, and very little substance”.

They sought nothing but to embarrass the council. With the support of the local newspaper The Mercury, they fielded candidates across the 60 seat election. An open top bus toured the borough bedecked in “Vote Valley” banners. A robin – the club’s nickname – canvassed shoppers in Greenwich and three different election leaflets were posted throughout the door of every single house. Billboard posters were put up across the borough with striking images, such as a picture of a young child alongside the caption, “If you don’t support us, who is he going to support” or a picture of an open top bus celebration alongside the caption, “If the council has its way, we’ll never see this sort of traffic problem again”.

And it worked. The Valley Party ate into the Labour Party vote and hampered the re-election bids of several prominent councillors. One of the councillors who lost his seat was the chair of the council’s Planning Committee, the body which had rejected the redevelopment plans for The Valley in the first place.

The Valley Party couldn’t manage to nab a council seat on the night of the 3rd May 1990, but their performance that evening was remarkable. They picked up 14,838 votes – 10.9% of the total electorate. It was a vote of confidence in the club from its local community, especially bearing in mind that, like many London clubs, a sizable portion of the club’s support now came from outside the borough itself.

The council had little alternative but to sit up and take notice. The following year, planning permission was given for The Valley to be redeveloped. Planning permission may have been achieved, but money was still tight. In the summer of 1991, the club did move to a new home, but it was another temporary one – The Boleyn Ground, home of West Ham United. It still wasn’t Charlton, but it was marginally better than Selhurst Park.

In the summer of 1992, the club launched the Valley Investment plan, which offered 10 years worth of reduced or free season tickets in return for upfront payment to the club. The supporters responded positively to this, raising £1.1m towards the total renovation costs of £4.5m. A grant from the Football Trust covered a further £1m, and the club’s directors put in the rest.

Football’s Brave New World kicked off in August 1992 with Charlton still in the second tier and still playing away from home. Before the end of the year, however, The Valley was ready for use, even if parts of it remained a mess of temporary cabins. On the 5th December 1992, the club marked its return with a 1-0 win against Portsmouth in front of a crowd of 8,337 people and the cameras of London Weekend Television, who afforded the match extended highlights on their show that weekend. Colin Walsh scored the only goal of the game.

Over the course of the previous seven years, it had often felt as though there was no way that Charlton Athletic could return to The Valley. To a great extent the move to Selhurst Park had felt like an extended death sentence. But Charlton made it, a club which had left in 1985 under ownership too cowardly to even let supporters know that it was moving seven miles away from home until the very last minute.

This time, it was reborn by adversity. By the time of the 1990 local council elections, Charlton supporters were indistinguishable from the club itself. And what they achieved that year was little short of miraculous. When the great and the good were found, yet again, to be wanting, the supporters came through. Protest has become part of the background noise of football in recent years, but supporters of this club provided a template for how lawful direct action can rescue a club. Other battles to be fought at other clubs would lean heavily on Charlton’s uprising as a template for how to engage with a local community. How to mobilise, publicise and get your message across effectively.

It’s also worth remembering that the repackaging of football fans as a commodity had only just begun in 1990. At that time, the public perception of the football supporters still portrayed us as little more than troglodytes. Charlton supporters had an uphill battle to fight, not only in terms of the logistical obstacles in the way of getting the club back to The Valley against the backdrop of the dire financial state of the game in this country at the time, but also in terms of defying the negative received wisdom of what football supporters actually were.

Charlton Athletic didn’t stride off into some form of utopian sunset. The club made it into the Premier League in 1998 and stayed there for eight of the next nine years. But the period after this saw decline again, thanks in no small part to the largely malign effects of another owner, Roland Duchatelet, which saw protest return to The Valley. The temporary cabins left in The Valley long ago. It holds 27,000 people these days, although plans to increase this to 40,000 were scrapped when the club was relegated from the Premier League in 2007.

But Charlton Athletic got through Roland Duchatelet and those who followed him, and are now set on an even keel again. But if there is one lesson to be learned about the club’s experiences from the 1980s in the early 1990s, it must surely be that this is a club that cannot lightly be written off. And in saving their own club, the supporters of Charlton Athletic created a template for protest which continues to influence the supporters of other clubs to this day.