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Home Is Where The Heart Is (Charlton Athletic FC, England)

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

This is a story of love and loss, of being homeless and coming back home. It's the story of Charlton Athletic fans and their beloved stadium, the Valley.
 
Our story begins in 1919, when Charlton Athletic, a moderately successful professional team from South East London, began to look for a site for a new stadium.
 
They found a site in the heart of Charlton Village - a large, disused sand and chalk pit. It looked nothing like a football stadium.
 
And yet today you can see highly-paid stars such as David Beckham and Dennis Bergkamp strutting their stuff when Charlton Athletic play at their home ground, the Valley.
 
The relationship between the fans of Charlton and that former chalk pit is one of the most remarkable stories in modern sport.
 
Digging for victory
 
How do you turn a chalk pit into a stadium? Easy, ask your fans to come and dig the stadium for you. This is exactly what happened in Charlton in 1919.
 
The fans formed an army of volunteers and, using picks and shovels, created one of the biggest grounds in Britain.
 
A pit was dug out of the sand and chalk and then used to build great banks on either side, creating a valley shape.
 
For the opening game there was no fencing or seating, simply a roped off pitch flanked on both sides by huge banks. The Valley was born - dug by hand, sweated over by fans.
 
And for some years, Charlton actually had the highest capacity club ground in Britain - achieving a record attendance of 75,031 when they played Aston Villa in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1938.
 
Valley of Tears
 
Despite their huge ground, Charlton were never really able to match the big London clubs.
 
They became a "yo-yo" club - relegation following promotion following relegation.
 
Their fan base and the income it brought in started to dwindle in the 1950's, as bigger London clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham began to attract more fans.
 
The continuing downward trend was briefly reversed in 1982 when Charlton made a shock signing - Danish International Striker and twice European Footballer of the Year, Allan Simonsen came from Barcelona.
 
However, the massive wage promises made to the superstar player, who only played 16 games for the club, only added to their financial woes.
 
The club was in a downward spiral of debt, low attendances and court cases. The plain truth was, they could no longer afford to stay in the Valley.
 
The fans tried to rescue the situation by forming a consortium to take over the club, which they successfully did.
 
However, they did not manage to take over the Valley, which remained under the separate ownership of the previous chairman. Things were becoming increasingly desperate.
 
The final straw came in 1985. A major review of safety at football grounds meant that all clubs in Britain would have to undertake expensive renovation work. The cost of this at the massive Valley stadium was simply too high. Charlton would have to leave the Valley, their home of 66 years.
 
Supporters received the news on 8 September 1985. A slip of paper containing the news was given to each of them as they entered the Valley for the game against Crystal Palace.
 
The news hit home like a bereavement.
 
Like the news of a bereavement the initial reaction of the fans was simply not to believe it, as lifelong fan Richard Prescod recalls, "Charlton leaving the Valley ... No way ...!!! Groundsharing with Crystal Palace ... No Way !!! We won't go .... we just won't go ...!!!"
 
But go they did
 
For seven years the team played in exile, ground-sharing at Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace) and Upton Park (West Ham) while the supporters fought to bring them back home to the Valley.
 
Three years into the exile, the hopes of the fans were raised - only to be dashed again.
 
In 1988 the ownership of the club was reunited with ownership of the Valley. It looked as if Charlton might move back to the Valley after all.
 
In a gesture reminiscent of 1919, an army of fans turned up to clean the derelict stadium - pulling out weeds, clearing debris.
 
The vast terraces and the pitch were severely overgrown after over three years of neglect. Fans, board members and even some local councillors turned up with their shears and spades to tidy the ground. A massive bonfire was lit on the pitch to burn the debris.
 
But football had changed. The old, huge stands of the Valley were no longer seen as safe - or economically viable.
 
Despite the joy of the homecoming, it was clear that Charlton would have to move out again - for good. It was like getting back home again after a long trip away - only to be told that your house is about to be demolished.
 
Political FC
 
But they didn't give up. Undaunted, they proposed a new stadium on the same site. Appropriately enough, the name was to be the "New Valley." A modern stadium that met the demands of a new, more commercial and safety-conscious era. And again, things stood in their way.
 
This was the late 1980's. Football had reached its low point in Britain. No-one, least of all local government, wanted a football ground on their doorstep. Greenwich Council (under whose authority the area of Charlton lies) refused permission for the new ground to be built.
 
How did the fans react? Twice in the history of the club, the fans had taken up tools to save the Valley. What could they do now? They took to the streets.
 
They formed the Valley Party. The Valley Party stood in the local elections for Greenwich Borough Council. They fielded candidates in 60 out of the 62 seats, opposing all but two councillors (and these were the two who had supported the bid for the new stadium!).
 
The manifesto of the Valley Party was solely based on the single issue of promising to bring Charlton back to the Valley - "Give us back our home!" became the party slogan.
 
Campaign posters adorned every street in Charlton. Perhaps for the first time ever a group of football fans were campaigning as an organised political movement. And they did well. They gained 10.9% of the popular vote. Just as important, they were constantly in the local news and on the streets.
 
Valley of Joy
 
The persistent pressure on the Council paid off when, on 2 April 1991, Greenwich Council met again to decide the fate of the Valley. One hundred tickets were allocated to the club to attend the meeting at Woolwich Town Hall. Hundreds waited outside.
 
The decision was overwhelming. The plans were approved. Woolwich Town Hall erupted. Charlton were coming home.
 
The Promised Land
 
December 5, 1992. Charlton played their first game at the Valley after 2,632 days of exile.
 
It took seven long years and people power to finally get the Addicks back home, where the heart is. The team, the club, and the fans had got their identity and community back.
 
Where next?
 
From that day Charlton Athletic have grown as a club. They've won two promotions to the English Premier League, an appearance at Wembley Stadium, in what some see as one of the best matches to ever be played there, and the Football League Division 1 Championship.
 
Charlton have come home, and boy have they made all of their fans proud again. No-one knows what will be next for Charlton. What we do know is, that come hell or high water, they'll be playing at their beloved Valley and they'll know the fans will never leave them.

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