Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"Following Charlton, my only desire"


There aren't many words that I have at my disposal right now. It's a sad evening to be a Charlton fan, but in light of the joyous news elsewhere in my friends circle (the birth of a beautiful baby girl) it's hard to get entirely worked up over the inevitable end to what has been the worst season at Charlton Athletic for many, many years.

The above photograph hangs in our study, and it's one of my earliest memories of football. It stands out because it is taken in front of the old Wembley Stadium, with my little sister Claire on my left, my mother Jill clutching her flag and my father Jerry stood behind. All of us are wearing Charlton gear in some form or another, and to our left and behind us is a Charlton fan looking directly at the camera, and to our immediate right and behind us, a Sunderland fan is also looking at the camera.

Football matches are unique. They are the coming together of two different teams, playing the same game on one pitch, having to deal with the same factors, both internal and external, and ultimately the end result is a game of two halves, and two stories to tell.

Following the 1st Division play-off final of 1997-1998, there were two stories to tell. One was the big team from the North failing at the last hurdle to gain promotion, despite playing some exceptional football, with a big, passionate, and very much brilliant crowd behind them, and the other story was the small club from south east London, coming off the back of some of the worst years of their club's history, against all odds being promoted to the Premiership.

This match sticks out in my mind because it summed up what football has always been about for me. From start to end, it was a joyous, nerve wracking, exciting, brilliant display of football from two football teams who just wanted to play to win and were doing it for their incredible supporters.

It is the one game of football I remember where there doesn't seem to be a controversial decision, there's no diving, the fouls were minimal, but there were lots of goals, end to end action, and at the end of it, some beautiful and respectful sportsmanship from the Sunderland and Charlton faithful to each other. Either team could have gone on and won that match: but for the hand of Saca Ilic, it could have been Sunderland.

History records this as one of the greatest matches played at the old Wembley Stadium. Ending 4-4 after extra time, it was 7-6 to Charlton on penalties, with club legend Clive Mendonca becoming the last English player to score a hat trick in a cup final at Wembley. He was my hero of heroes, and to this day the urge to sing out "Super Clive Mendonca" remains strong.

The point of this article is that this photograph wouldn't have been possible without a number of decisions being made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For the fans to take on an election and win to get the ground back, after years in the wilderness at Selhurst and Upton Parks. For the fans to clear out the derelict Valley, with people of all ages, ethnicity and creed coming together with shovels, black bin bags and hope, to make the ground afresh and the club renewed.

Without the fans, there would have been no Wembley play-off final. No chance at glory in the Premier League. Alan Curbishley would have been unlikely to remain in charge if Charlton had not returned to the Valley and we wouldn't have had 13 amazing years with him at the helm.

The fans saved the club, and they supported it through the good times and bad. The fans even bought into the club: my father owned shares in Charlton Athletic PLC and was a non executive director at one point, with seats in the director's box (Dad if I have got these details wrong, and you're reading, please correct me!)

At every stage of Charlton's development the fans have been there to support the club and help it.

Which is why with tonight's relegation, we have to come today and fight for the club stronger than ever. Because without every single fan standing up, with one voice, and helping to remove the current regime from their stranglehold on the club, we will never have the one thing the picture above symbolises: hope.

We will never again hope for better things, we will never again sit in the stands and cheer on the team with hope and passion in our hearts, and we will never hope to reach the upper echelons of English football again.

The word "strangle" is apt: since Chris Powell's League 1 winning side and his controversial dismissal from the club, we have seen the first team starved of its star players, the manager with a passion for the team and winning, and we have seen our youngest and brightest sold at prices well below their worth, when their true value is standing on that football pitch in a bright red shirt.

So if you can, come to the Brighton match on Saturday. I am not promising that the team will win. It's about so much more than the result. It's the future of our family club, and the future of our family. I'm game to try and save it if you are. Fans have done it before, and it is time for the new generation to stand up and be counted.

I want our Charlton back.

Simon A.C. Martin

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