Charlton Athletic v Watford
Championship League
Saturday, September 13th 2014, 3pm
Tim Sansom (Neutral Fan)

1. Why you were looking forward to going to the ground (or not as the case may be):

I am on a continued quest to visit as many football grounds as possible in my lifetime. It is a noble ambition. Possibly a stupid ambition and it is not an especially cheap exercise. Watching football is a very expensive business, and it is an ambition that cannot be done every week but it is fun and relaxing entering into the life of fellow football fans, without the stress of shouting at your team

Although I have ‘done’ most of the current London clubs that are currently in the Premiership, I have not really touched the league outfits. In the early noughties, Charlton Athletic had seemed to be the natural next staging post for Ipswich Town players who needed to progress into the top tier. My beloved Ipswich were in the quick sand of Premiership relegation and crippling administration. It seemed that any player, with any saleable value, was shipped away, and Charlton seemed to be the popular destination. 

Things had dramatically changed over the next decade. Charlton had fallen into League One, and came back into the Championship whilst Town had plateaued in English football’s second tier. I still viewed Charlton in the crucible of Matt Holland, Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose, as well as the quiet, folksy but world weary personality of Alan Curbishley. What had been so special about The Valley?  

I was visiting The Valley, with an old friend who I had not met for far too long. The friend possessed the positive ‘get up and go attitude’ that defines people who are active in sport. The friend had been a regular player for the university football team, and would look at the game in a much more analytical view than what I could ever offer. He is not an active traveller to games, but was willing to enjoy a late Summer Championship game. 

2. How easy was your journey/finding the ground/car parking?

When I lived away from the Greater London area, I always had this thought that the city ran a full and comprehensive public transport service throughout the weekend, and travellers could go from any ‘A’ to any ‘B,’ with minimal changes and hassle. After a year in this area, I have realised that this is just not the case. The underground is fine if you want to conduct your life in a very defined set of places. If you are travelling from North West to South East, it is a mental and physical strain, and your life is made complicated by Oyster Cards. 

As it was a nice day weather-wise, I took the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) from Bank through to Greenwich. It was at Greenwich station, when I became confused with the whole idea of ‘touching in’ and ‘touching out;’ paranoid that if I did not ‘touch’ anywhere, the full force of the Law would appear at the next station, swoop on me and my offending piece of plastic, and send me off to jail without any argument. Greenwich Station platforms swamp the small trains that travel from London Bridge towards Charlton. I touched out and touched in when I should have just continued with my journey. It was a big error. When I tried to explain my situation to the platform staff, the reaction was a mixture of frustration, embarrassment and distain. I was embarrassing his station for making such an elementary mistake. 

I was sent back to the train to Maze Hill station, where the mess was sorted out by a very friendly train person, who behaved like a travel therapist rather than a source of train information. If you don’t want the hassle, the simplest travel option is to take a train from London Bridge going towards Woolwich. 

3. What you did before the game pub/chippy.... home fans friendly?

The area around Maze Hill station is typical inner London suburbia. There is a gym at the bottom of the hill, if you fancy a work out before a game. There are various nail bars, barbers, petrol stations, the seemingly obligatory Tesco Express and pubs that look like the Queen Vic in Eastenders. I watched a young student walk out of a barber shop, gentling patting his shorn hair with the desperate hope that everything had gone alright in the chair. To kill some further time, I ate at the Trafalgar Café on Trafalgar Road, slumped over Friday’s Evening Standard and Mirror. It was a pleasant café but I really felt that I was in Albert Square, with Phil Mitchell expecting to walk through the door at any moment. 

I drank with the friend in The Trafalgar pub in more upmarket Greenwich, turning left at the bottom of Maze Hill. We sat overlooking the River Thames towards the O2 arena. It was a bustling pub, with a proud bust of Nelson near the door. The pub seemed to offer a wide range of food and drink and it is in the tourist trap of Greenwich. I am not sure that the pub would ever struggle for trade. 

We took the 177 bus towards the ground. There was no sense in the area that a former Premiership football ground in the neighbourhood; no adverts of Charlton players modelling watches or cars on the bill boards. It is possible to walk from Greenwich to Charlton although you are walking along a main arterial route out of the city towards Kent.  

4. What you thought on seeing the ground, first impressions of away end then other sides of the ground?

The Valley Stadium is definitely in a ‘valley’ and travelling from the south to the ground means that you will see a great vista of this red-clad Premiership-looking ground with the River Thames in the background. It must be an exciting sight. There is not as much excitement when you are travelling along the A206 Woolwich Road. You begin to see the top of the Main Stand jutting above random shops and 1960s flats, whose owners tolerate the stream of football fans swaggering to their match. The friend and I walked down Ransom Road, under the railway line and the ground dramatically appeared in our faces.

I suddenly lost all sense of bearings and time and wanted to visit all of the facilities all at once. We headed into the Charlton Megastore for no apparent reason, wondering whether it was worth buying a range of branded goods from rubber ducks to flame red Charlton training kits. I then drifted towards the smells of fast food outlets, till the friend reminded me that we could not enter a football ground without tickets. The whole outside ground atmosphere had a Goodison Park feeling about it. Slightly old fashioned in the sense that you were not walking up shiny walkways into a NBL basketball arena or Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, but comforting that you were heading into a comforting football community.

We were in the top of the large home stand facing to the south (in Block Q.) You could tell that Premiership football had been played at this ground and the stadium was impressive, but a big shell. The game was not a sell-out. There were large gaps around the home end. Single men looking slightly depressed that they had made the effort to come to the football on a Saturday afternoon. In contrast, the away end was full and raucous, generating considerable noise drowning out the announcer and the noughties rock music. 

5. Comment on the game itself, atmosphere, stewards, pies, toilets etc..

I had gone to the game with very low expectations. Championship football can dramatically vary in quality, and having sat through some serious football dross with the friend during previous years, I did not want to jinx the action. A penalty was slotted away after three minutes, and the home fans had some hope against Watford, who were one of the division’s pace setters. However, the home supporters became considerably fed up with the apparent lack of ambition by their team. Charlton defended well, but did not seem to totally push for the second goal. Playing the ball into the corners with an extra six minutes of injury town was coldly sensible from Charlton but not much of a spectacle. 

Championship football is meant to be deliciously unpredictable. Games regularly finish in 5-5, and 4-2. One team scores 6-0 against another, and then gets tanked 7-0 during the following Saturday. It is not quite like that in reality. With so many games in a season, it can seem to be a bit of a trail to marshal yourself through the campaign. The post-match coverage suggested that this game was not the greatest of games. I found it a lot of fun, but if I was a Charlton fan, I would desperately want a bit more cutting edge up front for my team. If my team is going to kill time at the end of games from September to May, it could be a positive but slightly unfulfilled season. 

To make yourself feel a bit more uplifted when you watch Charlton, there is a pretty impressive selection of food outlets including the chance to have a salt beef roll cut in front of you by a carvery chef. I had never seen this cuisine before for fans, and it was a pleasant change to the standard pie and cup of tea. During one moment in the game, when Charlton were being resolute in dinner, the friend suddenly presented two Whispa Gold bars to munch on throughout the game. It was a very welcome surprise, and gave me a nice mid half sugar rush, but the usual range on confectionery and fizzy drinks are available to you throughout the game, served by very cheery people in bright Charlton red t shirts. 

6. Getting Away From The Ground:

Getting away from the ground was initially easy. It was less than a five minute walk to Charlton Railway Station along Valley Grove and Floyd Road. Not wanting to brutally axe the day at the entrance of a classically dreary suburban London station, we walked back along to A206 to the next railway station along the line, Westcombe Park. The plan dramatically failed as the timetabled trains came passed rammed to the doors with angry football fans. 

Realising that a Saturday night could now be spent on a platform of a South East London railway station, I changed direction and heading to Woolwich Arsenal, taking the DLR into Central London. Passing Charlton station at 5:50pm. I could see the opposite platform still three deep with bored and frustrated Watford fans waiting for a train to take them into the city. There seemed to be a lack of additional train services for fans; another example of local failure to put on enough transport to deal with mass participation sports events. 

I was lucky. It was a mild and sunny September evening, and I did not have any time commitments. As the DLR rode above the roofs of docklands houses, I enjoyed watching the planes fly away from London City Airport. On a cold Tuesday evening, you will want more from a train service, because the car is not a serious option if you are travelling to football grounds that are close to Central London. If clubs and authorities want their people to travel to football matches by public transport, they have got to make it easy and attractive. It took an hour to travel back into London. You may want to get a bus along the A206 towards Greenwich, and there are multiple bus routes available on this route.  

7. Overall Comments on the Day Out:

I enjoyed my trip to this game. Travelling to and from a ground can be a mine field anywhere in the UK, and it did not really affect the day. Charlton may not have the same high profile as other London clubs, without the swagger of the Premiership elite, or the gritty outlook of some of the city’s league clubs such as Milwall. It was difficult to tell quite where the fan base comes from, although there were many coaches that had travelled up from Kent for the game. Travelling back into London, I lost sight of many people with Charlton shirts on, quite soon after leaving The Valley. 

The match was fun, although with some ‘classically Championship’ frustrating moments, but the atmosphere is welcoming, and The Valley does have a certain character about it. The stadium obviously yearns for the return of Premiership football. Looking at half empty standards does affect the atmosphere, and gives a bit of a slightly faded image of the club. At the time of writing, Charlton were being christened the Championship “pacemakers.” Whether they are still there at the end of next May, it is very hard to tell.