Paul Breen writes a tribute piece to Leeds and Charlton protests, thinking of David Peace, and wondering where this story’s going to end.
Once again Charlton Athletic and Leeds United find themselves united in acts of protest. By pure coincidence both clubs have decided to stage mock funerals this month for the past that once existed. Legendary Leeds, good old dirty Leeds, as written about by David Peace. And then Charlton, on the edge of London, source of a dozen lesser known, maybe even less offensive, less contentious works. After all, Charlton’s known as that kind of club, inoffensive, non-contentious. If everybody hates Leeds, almost as much as Millwall, and they don’t care, nobody really hates Charlton, not even their dear neighbours from Bermondsey.
Nobody’s ever driven towards the Valley, I’d guess, in the manner of Brian Clough’s fictional approach to Elland Road in The Damned United, and despised the place, and all those within it from the names on the players’ backs to the spittle on the ground at their feet. Charlton’s just not that kind of club. Even their heroes are nice guys, not hard bastards. Compare Sam Bartram, Jimmy Seed, Chris Powell, Clive Mendonca, and Mark Kinsella to Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, and the Gray brothers. They were hard and dirty and won things once upon a time. Charlton has the 1947 FA Cup and the memory of Clive Mendonca’s goals in a play-off victory over Sunderland.
Nice guys don’t win much they say. But they win in other ways, and Charlton as a football club has won the hearts and minds of its community down through the years. That community took a stand back in the 1980s and early 90s when the club was forced out of the Valley and sent into exile at Selhurst Park. When roused, even the quietest of supporters can put up a good fight. Political activism, forming a party and standing for elections, forced Greenwich Council to allow Charlton Athletic Football Club to return to the Valley back then. Ever since, there’s been pride in that achievement, written about in one seminal work by club stalwart Rick Everitt, and referenced in many more. Up in the North Stand, the loudest and arguably proudest part of the ground, a banner marks the very minute of the first goal scored on Charlton’s return to the Valley – Colin Walsh 3.07 pm 5/12/92.
Leeds United too are proud of their heritage for different reasons. Their fans appear to take delight in having more clubs that call them rivals than they can count on the fingers of both hands. They are one of English football’s giants, and with proper management could be in the Premier League. If the dreaded future of franchise football ever lurks on the horizon, they would be one of the first names on the list (https://footballpink.net/2015/06/21/the-spectre-of-franchise-future/).
Under the present ownership, Leeds are unlikely to return to the Premier League any time soon, in an era when Brian Clough’s 44 days seems like a nostalgic glimpse into a far more stable past. Charlton fans know too the inconstancy and uncertainty of a managerial merry ground or in Charlton’s case, what has become known as a Meire-go-round in reference to the club’s Chief Executive Officer who has so alienated fans that she has earned as many nicknames as the club has had managers in recent times. Just as Leeds fans have been singing ‘Time To Go Massimo’ with ever more gusto in recent months, so too have Charlton supporters been voicing their rage, with far less of a reaction and response from those against whom the rage is directed.
The message coming out of both clubs is quite simple. Forget the teams of the past – these business entities now belong to the owners. Everything from the badge and the brand to the rights to sit in the stadium are controlled by the person with the purse strings. This is an era when the owners of clubs have become the unwanted Cloughs of their day. They are the ones speaking through their actions or words and making the same mistake as that referred to in The Damned United. That’s the famous scene where Brian Clough tells the Leeds United team of the day to cast aside their medals and everything they’ve ever won because they don’t matter anymore. They’re the past and they count for nothing. It’s a new era and what’s gone before is best put in the dustbin.
According to the legends that some dispute, the Leeds players went into open revolt after that incident. They drove out the man who’d come to manage them, who was never one of their own, coming from Middlesbrough, and speaking, playing, acting in a whole different way to his predecessor Don Revie. These days, such rage as was felt at Elland Road in the 1970s, is reserved for owners rather than managers. It’s the owners, largely wealthy businessmen from overseas, who are seen to be tearing the heart and soul out of the football clubs they’ve hijacked. I say hijacked because they’ve come in with a particular set of promises, as people might do in a job interview, and then ripped up the script once they’re through the door and have taken over the office.
Little wonder then that there are mock wakes and funerals at Leeds and Charlton. Leeds had theirs last weekend, which ironically would have coincided directly with Charlton’s were it not for the change in time and the opportunities presented by the Sky TV cameras at this Sunday’s Middlesbrough game. On Sunday 13th March at 2.45pm the funeral of Charlton Athletic’s soul is going to take place, in advance of the match against the team from Brian Clough’s birthplace. Fans will stage a procession from the local Liberal Club down to the stadium that remains as the shell, the soulless body of a club that once stood for something.
Now supporters feel that their allegiance, their love for the club, is being mocked by every statement and every action that comes from the regime in charge. Protests have been taking place for months going back to a game against Leeds United in which Massimo Cellino ironically spoke to the Charlton fans outside the boardroom on a cigarette break. Strange that the owner of another club, deep in protest, would communicate with people that the owners of Charlton have dismissed as a mere two per cent. That 2%, if it ever existed at such a low level, is growing and the rage of the fan base growing, in a way that it simmered and then boiled over at Blackpool, where the fury culminated in a pitch invasion.
There have been calls on social media from some quarters within Charlton to invade the Valley in front of the Sky TV cameras. Though there’s no evidence that anyone would actually do that at this stage, it is concerning, not just for Charlton, but at a whole national level. People who have poured their hearts and souls into football clubs for a lifetime, almost as a surrogate religion, are seeing the thing they love being slowly taken away from them, by owners who are indifferent and aloof.
We see this in the Middle East every day, and we have seen this far closer to home in Northern Ireland, but once you leave a man with nothing left to lose, his actions become extreme. I am not comparing the loss of a football club to the loss of a home, a loved one, or a country, but some of the same principles apply. It’s very personal, more so than the loss of a job for example. When foreign owners take over a club and say to the fan base ‘it’s mine, not yours’, they are striking people right in the heart, in the face, in the guts. It’s leaving them powerless, without dignity.
When somebody in a suit, backed by lawyers and authority and all the rest, does that it becomes a class issue too. England’s working classes have been beaten down so often in the past that nowadays they mostly just turn their heads away and give up the fight. If the miners and the steel workers couldn’t win, what hope for any other struggle? Well, football might just be one bastion too far, on which to smash the pride of ordinary people. There is an anger in this country that goes across a class divide that doesn’t exist anymore because any man who’s lucky enough to have to get out of bed to go to work in the morning is working class. And football has always been a working class game, or was until TV money changed it. Even then, when some people were forced off the terraces and into pubs or living rooms to watch their heroes, supporters have retained a sense of the clubs actually belonging to them. If you take that away, there really is nothing left for a great many people.
And that is going to cause problems somewhere down the line. Somebody is going to get hurt, whether it’s a steward at a pitch invasion or supporters who try and take direct action against the owners of these clubs. The police need to see this. MPs need to see this – the MPs that we vote for and who dictate the terms on which the police operate. Right now, every week at Charlton, police video the protestors. What purpose does that serve? Whose interests are they protecting?
This is all getting very dirty. Funeral processions are more than appropriate, while at the same time recognising that the image of a coffin is a powerful one that can cause pain and grief for some people. These protests and the choice of images are deeply considered, carefully considered by those who feel that they’ve got nothing left but the fight. Anyone who pours scorn on such protests as these of Charlton and Leeds is pouring scorn on a whole way of life, and on an England that’s fast going down a chute into a crematorium, and not just a grave.
It’s the England of Brian Clough and Don Revie together, a post-war generation that shaped a decent welfare state, took pride in its communities, and believed in people standing together not apart. That country, that spirit, that welfare state is on its way to being dismantled. Break football supporters and their resistance, you help break every last trace of refusal to accept the road we’re travelling down, where everything’s corporate and privatised, and the corporations are untouchable, protected by the law and the police.
Those coffin bearers at Charlton and Leeds, and the many football clubs who’ve done something similar down through the years, shoulder more weight and more responsibility than at first glance. They carry the hopes of all football fans in their wake and the whole country should get behind them. This after all, at Charlton, is a funeral for the soul of the club. The body’s still there for now. Lose this fight, and we’re on the way to losing that – and not just the soul of our football clubs, but a whole set of local and national values. Still, WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER – as some great social and sporting philosopher once said. Aren’t we?
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.