Charlton’s ‘Football For A Fiver’ scheme had me travelling to The Valley for their home game against Bury.
In the morning, I squeezed in a gym session. I’d been closing in on dad’s deadlift PB and sure enough, the day of this glamour game, I beat it. My feet carried me home as swiftly as they could where I breathlessly passed on the news to him. Silence swamped the house, so I showered up and got ready to head out. As I left, dad was crouched in the garden, barefoot, mumbling even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
Aboard the Charlton bound train from London Bridge a group of Bury fans, or the cast of Coronation Street, were communicating with each other exclusively through the medium of chants. A local man was sat beside them, holding his infant daughter, smiling through gritted teeth.
Please let it be known that I don’t watch Coronation Street. Much, much too mainstream. Nowhere near enough underground value. I’m usually curled up in a hovel reading a book about Hygge when it’s on.
The father inquired how the cast of Coronation Street were getting to the ground. One of them, presumably Kevin Webster, said they were alighting at Charlton.
There’s no such station as Charlton, the father replied.
Eyes rolled questioningly around the carriage. Could this be? Had I stumbled on a glitch in the matrix? I knew full well of Charlton’s past struggles, their enforced nomadic years, but that was all resolved, wasn’t it? Where was I going? Had I broken dad’s deadlift PB or not?
The signs at the station did read Charlton. I walked along streets that lead to a stadium. It seemed to be The Valley what with the red cladding, large badges and the word Charlton everywhere.
I made my way to Old Cottage Coffee Shop Café sitting on the perimeter of Charlton Park. Coffee would correct this existential crisis. Flat white.
This particular establishment was the very definition of quaint. When more than ten people are present, however, it’s also the definition of cramped. My coffee was handed over in a handleless mug.
The waitress noted my growing concern.
Everything ok?, she asked.
I can’t quite seem to get a handle on things today, I replied.
The coffee was good, if a little too big. It’s a worrying sign that even independent cafés are following the trend of selling bucket sized coffees under the illusion of better value.
I made my way back to The Valley. At the turnstiles for the East Stand, there were no stewards carrying out security checks. I passed through carrying an empty water bottle. At what level of football do they give up the pretence of security? As anyone who watches Premier League or Championship football knows, an empty water bottle with a plastic lid, no less, is as a danger not just to the fans, but the players, too.
But not at Charlton. There never was a Charlton.
My view from the East Stand was fantastic. Three sides of the stadium are well developed, forming a large horseshoe around the pitch which falls away into retro chic with the Jimmy Seed Stand to the south where the away fans are housed.
Charlton kicked off and duly booted the second pass straight into touch. An already grizzled twelve year old (estimate) boy groaned, we’ve started where we left off on Tuesday.
As the game progressed, it wasn’t just the home team’s woeful decision making that left me ill at ease, but rather the sheer well mannered nature of the Charlton fans. No one was swearing, there were no songs about Bury’s fans, no baseless aggression; just a drum beating a rhythm in support of the team. As if to further compound things, the vocal home fans and the drummer were in the upper tier behind the goal.
There’s no such thing as Charlton.
Some normality was resumed when Bury took the lead. A handful of fans ran to the outer edge of the Jimmy Seed stand to spit some bile at the approximately four people sitting in block one of the west stand. Even from a distance, they seemed calm, looking at each other as if to say why is Ken Barlow calling us fucking wankers?
Confident in my corporeality once more, I retreated to the concourse at half time. Soccer Saturday drew gathered crowds around the TVs.
Chelsea are only drawing, noted one. Say fucking Chelsea!
Come on Oldham (playing Millwall), piped up another. Call them c*nts, please!
Newcastles are losing at home, added a third. Say they’re shit, for the love of god!
Reality was slipping away.
A man came and stood immediately behind me. His phlegm laden coughs were being caught in a handkerchief held across his mouth. Was he the one sent to see me off? Had I seen too much?
The second half played out much like the first, and my malaise deepened. Charlton were wasteful at best, diabolical at worst. The fans’ anger did rise, but in the week that saw Claudio Ranieri sacked from Leicester City, the football on display here, not to mention the shambles being endured off the field, could have justified riots. But no – the fans were nice. They were respectful and impeccably mannered.
There’s no such thing as Charlton.
Drizzle was floating down on the walk back to the train. Police were everywhere, on foot, on horseback, in vans. But why? They’re so nice.
I messaged dad: is this reality? Did I beat your deadlift PB today?
The instant reply came through: as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realise there’s nothing left.
I’ll take that as a yes. Relief shuddered through me. Charlton, then, did exist, and it was a very pleasant day out.