Last Saturday of April and the end of the football season is nigh and Blackburn-born Mark (who has been to Charlton before in the dim and distant) and fellow and rival groundhopper Sal (who is about to cross another one off her list) and fellow traveler me are heading for the deeper London SE postcodes. Pretty much unknown territory for SW19 born Lillabullero. The last time I’d stood on the platform at London Bridge Station I was trainspotting and not that profitably either amid all the old green British Railways Southern Region electric trains – there had still been the chance of an odd obscure (for me) Southern steam loco, and those weird electro-diesels, but I digress. As our modern multicoloured train made its way south eastwards we were struck by the sheer density of the housing as we passed out of the inner city.
So … the sun is out and the prospect of two teams with something to play for. Blackburn Rovers (the football club with the finest motto in the land – see the picture) with still the slimmest of chances of getting into the promotion play-offs and Charlton Athletic, with a fatter chance of going the other way out of the Championship. Friendly people pointed us in the right direction and we (or two-thirds of us) feasted on a fine round cheese and onion puff, our free – thanks lads – Blackburn scarves (label displayed to the left) – hung about our necks, emblazoned with the words “Allez allez,allez oh” (why? how did that chant come to be?) before entering the good-looking rebuilt Valley Stadium, in which, it must be reported, the seats and leg room were not exactly generous.
Now, I don’t feel entirely a fraud to wear the scarf because as it happens Blackburn Rovers were the first professional team I favoured when football first leapt into my consciousness, and Bryan Douglas, who replaced Stanley Matthews on the right-wing in the England team, was my first footballing hero. So it goes, even back then, in deepest (actually not so deep) Surrey.
Quite why Charlton‘s goalkeeper of the ’40s and ’50s, Sam Bartram – one of the goalies from that era when all of ’em wore a green knitted polo-necked jumper – why Sam has stuck in vague legendary fashion in my mind from that early time I can’t really say, but it was good to see his 600+ appearances for the club honoured with one of the best statues I’ve seen outside a football ground, with the metal treated so as to feature that classic jumper.
Good to see, then, two teams with a bit of history behind them turning out in pretty much traditional colours, with none of your flashy away kit for the sake of an away kit nonsense for Rovers with their distinctive blue and white halved shirts, and Charlton in the red deserving of a team nicknamed ‘The Robins’ (of which more soon). With 15,715 other souls we shared a nice pre-match music build-up with The Clash‘s London’s burning followed by The Skids‘ rousing Into the valley (you remember: the name of the ground is The Valley). Somewhat undermined by – was that Dean Martin? and – When the red, red robin (goes bob, bob, bobbin’ along), which rather called to mind Martin Amis‘s talking about tennis and suggesting no-one named Tim ever won anything. Come on! Come on! The crowd, home and away, were good natured, the Rovers end even applauding the Charlton Academy teams when they paraded round the pitch at half time. And in as much as one beachball and a large sausage shaped balloon can constitute a carnival atmosphere then there was a bit of that in the away end too.
It was a decent game, well contested in a decent spirit, though it seemed fairly obvious to us after 5 minutes that Blackburn were the better organised team and so it played out, not helped by a bad Charlton penalty miss. Memo to free scoring Everton loanee: you’re meant to wait for the ‘keeper to commit himself before hitting it straight down the middle. Veteran Blackburn keeper Paul Robinson acknowledged the “England, England’s Number One” chant with a thumbs up and a grin you probably could have seen from the half-way line if he hadn’t been facing us. As it happens the final score – 3-1 to Blackburn – was a reversal of the beard count. Have you watched The Football League Show lately? It’s almost as if every team must have a statutory beard wearer on the pitch during the game. Rovers had skipper Grant Hanley taking one for the club, but metropolitan Charlton had three, with ‘keeper Ben Hamer (as pictured) sporting the fashionista folk model (out of Becks and Tim Howard on the football field) while, also bearded, the best player on the park, with cavalier good looks, was Diego Poyet, son of Gus, his musketeer beard aided and abetted by the long dark tresses flowing in his wake as he elegantly bestrode the midfield. The young Poyet had class, insight and commitment and should do well.
Satisfying to see Charlton secure championship football for next season with a mid-week win.