How the battle was won – Charlton Athletic FC, 25 years back at The Valley

General view of the ground before the game

Rick Everitt covered Charlton for The Mercury for nine years and was the paper’s sports editor from 1993-98. He is the author of the book Battle for The Valley  and continues to edit Voice of The Valley, which celebrates its own 30th anniversary in the new year.

Once upon a time, Charlton Athletic decided to leave The Valley. With monumental insensitivity, they announced this by handing out flyers at the turnstiles before a Second Division match against Crystal Palace, their new landlords.

It was a story that made national news that evening, because in 1985 football clubs didn’t change grounds. And they certainly didn’t move in with rivals, as the Addicks did, at Palace’s Selhurst Park. Inevitably, it was a story that also made big headlines in that week’s Mercury.

What no one could have envisaged, especially the paper’s then long-serving editor Roger Norman and new sports editor Peter Cordwell, was that it would still be filling back pages – and sometimes the front page too – seven years later. But it was a story with the happiest of endings. This week Charlton fans celebrate the 25th anniversary of the club’s return home on December 5, 1992. The Valley was rebuilt and the team went on to enjoy eight seasons in the Premier League between 1998 and 2007.

The Mercury’s campaign to get the Addicks back to The Valley

It was a huge achievement by fans and directors just to get the club back to SE7. And the Mercury documented every twist and turn of the struggle, as you would expect. But this newspaper did much, much more than that.

For all those seven years, it stood shoulder to shoulder with Charlton fans in one of the most remarkable campaigns a local paper has ever taken on, certainly with regard to a professional football club.

Initially, the battle pitched the paper against the Addicks directors. Later it brought it into conflict with Greenwich council, the area’s MP and also some local residents who opposed the club’s plans for the stadium. The Mercury presented both sides of the story. But there was never any doubt that its heart was with the fans.

That was epitomised by Cordwell’s very first reports on the club’s departure, focusing on how the decision impacted on supporters, young and old. A former Finnish professional footballer, despite being as Catford as they come, Cordwell cut through the obscure arguments about the ownership of pieces of land and the cost of meeting safety requirements with human stories that addressed people’s sense of loss.

The national media, on the other hand, registered its regret and mostly moved on. It noted that football’s finances were in a mess.

There were too many clubs and Charlton had been in decline for 30 years. For them, Selhurst was just a staging post en route to the knacker’s yard. Obituary to follow. Back in 1985, too, twitter was just the noise birds made as they nested in the abandoned stands. A message board was something that hung on the wall of the Valley Club, the only part of the site that remained in use. Even the football fanzine movement was yet to find its feet.

Every Thursday, though, in Greenwich and Lewisham, and from 1989 in Bexley, too, there was the Mercury, with an eventual door-to-door distribution of more than 200,000 copies. Its voice was far louder than the protest songs of the small band of unhappy fans who trekked over to Selhurst could ever be.

Yet for the first year, Cordwell’s rebuke was a largely solitary beat. He ran a series of caustic back pages exposing the treatment of long-serving Valley groundsman Maurice Banham, and revealing the view of Greater London Council safety officials that the club had never really wanted to remain.

The Mercury reported the shocking way the ground was left, unlocked and open, for vandals and arsonists to move in; how Greenwich council’s man on the board had been sidelined in the decision-making, along with other directors; and got ratepayers’ £50,000 annual grant to the club suspended by exposing the now very limited community benefit.

It criticised director and TV personality Jimmy Hill’s failure to stand up against the switch under the headline “Jimmy riddle” and then, when the latter left for his first love Fulham, Cordwell memorably concluded: “He came, he saw, he concurred.”

Charlton, meanwhile, managed to get promoted to football’s top flight for the first time in 29 years, despite playing home matches in front of tiny crowds at Palace’s ground.

Manager Lennie Lawrence would be a huge hero of the battle for The Valley, keeping the team in the then First Division for four seasons, even though he would eventually be worn down by the focus on getting home.

Chairman John Fryer marked the elevation with an insistence that Charlton would “never, never return” home. But the fans – and the Mercury – had other ideas.

In the autumn of 1986, a League Cup crowd of just 2,319 at Selhurst against Lincoln City, tipped Cordwell into running a petition on the back page the following Thursday. Two of Charlton’s opening four First Division matches – in the equivalent of today’s Premier League – had been seen by little more than 5,000 people.

“Who cares and how much?” he asked. The answer was extraordinary. Within a fortnight, forms containing 15,000 signatures had arrived at the offices in Deptford High Street.

I well remember gratefully picking up the petition edition of the Mercury on my way to work that Thursday. There is no doubt that it was a defining moment in the saga. Cordwell then announced, unilaterally, that he would present the petition to directors at the supporters’ club’s impending AGM, to be held at the Valley Club. So many fans turned out that police had to disperse those who couldn’t safely be admitted.

To borrow Winston Churchill’s famous words, it wasn’t the end of the story, or even the beginning of the end. But it was the end of the beginning.

The club agreed to meet the council and afterwards both affirmed their willingness to look to build a new ground somewhere else in the borough. But a promised follow-up meeting never took place. The Mercury started a trust fund to help pay for building work, but without The Valley, or a convincing alternative, it struggled to take off.

My own patience sitting in the South Circular traffic jams on Saturdays had long since run out. At the start of 1988, I put that frustration into print in the form of the first independent Charlton fanzine, Voice of The Valley. Cordwell gave the launch the back page.

And soon afterwards came a breakthrough, with news that club vice-chairman Mike Norris had bought the freehold of The Valley from former chairman Michael Gliksten, with the financial support of Laing Homes. It was quickly clear, however, that their preference was to build houses on the whole of the Floyd Road ground and use some of the proceeds to build a new stadium elsewhere.

Fortunately, as it turned out, no such site was available. The saga dragged on for another year until, in March 1989, the Mercury was able to break the news that Charlton had finally decided to return to The Valley.
It was a huge scoop, but a big risk because it was based on a flimsy source and circumstantial evidence. Call it gambler’s instinct or journalistic nous, as you prefer, but it was also a great triumph for the paper, because it was spot on.

Not for the last time on this story, the Mercury had its local rivals, as well as the national media, scrambling to catch up. A week later the club announced the news itself. It planned to return in the spring of 1990. Crucially, the council declared itself supportive.

Soon, hundreds of fans were clambering over the weed-strewn terraces to clear the way for building workers and building a bonfire of debris in the centre circle.

I started writing about Charlton for the paper myself in the summer of 1989 and one of the first pieces I did was about the club’s surprisingly ambitious scheme to redevelop The Valley to include office accommodation and banqueting suites.

It was a long way from the limited refurbishment it had outlined in March. And it eventually became clear that Greenwich had also shifted its position. Our sports pages were soon carrying details of council planning meetings alongside Kevin Nolan’s colourful and irreverent match reports.

The Mercury expressed its own view on the Valley plans by filling the back page with a large red “YES”, which readers were invited to display in their windows.

Charlton Athletic FC – 25 years back at The Valley

The council soon said “NO” at a chaotic planning committee meeting, attended by hundreds of Charlton fans, at Woolwich Town Hall.

The next back page carried the huge headline “Vote Valley” and brought news of fans’ plans to field candidates in May’s local elections.

That proved controversial even within the paper, but to the credit of editor Norman the sports pages were allowed to continue unabashed, even while the rest of the paper carried contrary views and letters from residents and politicians of various hues.

It was, after all, a lively and passionate debate about something which mattered deeply to the community – an ideal formula for any local paper.

That weekly coverage, together with a professional poster campaign that startled the mainstream political parties, was absolutely central to the Valley Party’s credibility and a huge contributor to the jaw-dropping 14,838 votes it collected on May 3rd, 1990, even as the team slipped back into the Second Division. The council blinked. A new, more modest proposal for The Valley was put together – and promptly delayed for six months by a strike in Greenwich’s planning department.

In April 1991, a scheme was at last approved and fans – and the Mercury – celebrated again. We counted down the final matches at Selhurst, only to have to report, mid-summer, that the new venue would not be The Valley but Upton Park.

The club had run out of time to get the ground ready for the start of the 1991/92 season. Weeks later it became clear it had also run out of money. The Mercury, again, was the first to report that contractors had pulled off site because they had not been paid.

The financially stricken Norris quit the board. New directors Martin Simons and Richard Murray took up the slack, along with Roger Alwen, who had become chairman in 1989.

Yet another season rolled by until the club and fans came up with the Valley Investment Plan to contribute towards the necessary finance. It was launched in June 1992 on the front page of the Mercury (where else?), with a special wraparound broadsheet cover.

The scheme, which offered fans ten years of free or discounted tickets in return for an upfront payment, pulled in £1m, towards an eventual £4.5m bill. Another £1m was contributed as a grant by the Football Trust. Directors bravely stumped up the rest.

So finally, in December 1992, seven years, two months and two weeks after the “last” match at The Valley, the Addicks returned home, amid many tears and cheers, beating Portsmouth – also this Saturday’s opponents – 1-0.

“You’re welcome!” trumpeted the Mercury’s front page. It was Charlton’s greatest victory, won by an army of activists and, eventually, directors who put their money where other people’s mouths had been. But the fans had had no stauncher ally than this newspaper. And it – and Cordwell – deserve a place of honour at this latest Valley party too.

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