BY KEITH MENARY
Remember how you fell in love with the game? As we brace ourselves for another season of frustrating let-downs and broken promises, the vast majority of us might not care to remember. But London-based author Paul Breen has turned to the homelier charms of a club south of the river to give a new twist to the literary world’s love affair with the beautiful game.
‘The Charlton Men’, the first part of a trilogy set in South London, combines literary fiction with a love of football. Set in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots, the story follows two “Charlton Men” as their lives become intertwined with the fortunes of their local football club.
1) Why would someone fall in love with Charlton, rather than one of the capital’s sexier clubs?
There’s something more down to earth and romantic about following one of the capital’s smaller clubs. You’ve got to invest a lot of heart and emotions into following a team such as Charlton because you never know what to expect, and there’s a real buzz and energy in always having to scrap and punch above your weight. Traditionally the club has also been very much rooted in the local community, and this gives fans a real identification with not just the team but also the place. Added to that, the history and atmosphere of The Valley’s something special. So Charlton’s a just a different kind of sexy, more down to earth attractive – with a personality too!
2) Can you share your top tips for anyone looking to bring a date to The Valley?
I’ve tonnes of experience in this area from having a wife who doesn’t like football. The first stage of seduction is introducing the idea – possibly after lunch or dinner in one of the local restaurants, and a couple of glasses of wine. Lean across, look deep into her eyes, and suggest that since you’re so close to The Valley, it’s well worth a visit, if only to go to the club superstore. Then when you get there, act surprised that there’s a game on and suggest that out of curiosity you go inside. Or talk for weeks about the great hot chocolate they do there at night games, or try a romantic walk by the Thames, pretend to get lost and end up at the football ground. We’re not quite as close to the river as Fulham’s Craven Cottage, but it’s a straight line walk from the Thames Barrier to the ground. In the book there are several scenes where dates occur in the Valley, so further tips can be found there.
And as for my own dream date at The Valley, it would have to be an Executive Box in the East Stand with the three Corr sisters, from the Irish pop group, after their performance of Valley Floyd Road (our club anthem) in the opening Premier League game of 2015/16. Who we play doesn’t matter – but it’d be nice to claim a big scalp on the first day!
3) The book is set in the 2011-12 season. What was the most special moment?
There is a book full of special moments! Seriously though, it was probably the game against Huddersfield Town where they were going for the Football League record number of wins, having broken Nottingham Forest’s earlier record. Gunning for Arsenal’s all-time record, they turned up at The Valley and got beaten two nil. That’s when Charlton were really taken seriously as promotion contenders. Despite a blip late on in the season they never looked back after that victory, and went on to smash the 100 point barrier on the last day of the season.
4) Did any other football-based fiction inspire you?
To be honest I have probably been more inspired by factual books, biographies, and autobiographies, particularly those connected to some of the key figures in Charlton’s history. Two of the most significant would be the autobiography of Jimmy Seed, manager in the 1930s and 40s, and the biography of Sam Bartram by Mike Blake. I suppose Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ was an influence in that his work is also the story of a love affair with a football team, and because several others have tried to imitate this style in recent years, I decided to make my story fictional rather than autobiographical. I felt that the autobiographical ground has already been very well covered, even though each story is unique and there are several of these that I want to read in the near future. There seemed more opportunity to create something new through producing a work of fiction connected to football and that is what I have done.
5) Tell us about your Charlton hero…
Well aside from the fictional characters in the book, the title of Charlton hero is between three men – Chris Powell (manager in 2011/12), Johnnie Jackson (current captain), and Yann Kermorgant (talisman of the team for over two seasons). Though it’s a close call I would say that Chris Powell is the main real-life Charlton hero of my story, and the thousands of stories that supporters have regarding his three years of management. He was also a hero as a player, and some stories of that also feature in the book.
6) …and your Charlton villain:
I think it’s less about one villain and a villainous time in Charlton’s history – the slide out of the Premier League in 2006 and then the rock-bottom crash in the championship in 2009.
7) Many people felt that Chris Powell’s sacking was harsh. What did you think of it?
It was harsh in light of the lack of investment and there were a whole range of circumstances going against Chris, such as a backlog of league fixtures due to bad weather and a pitch in extremely poor condition. It also didn’t help that two of his best players were sold in the January transfer window, and poorer players brought in to replace them. I feel that he would have kept Charlton up if he had stayed, but probably has a different take on management control to the new owners so there was always going to be tension. One thing I will say about Chris is that he brings a really positive energy to his job and everyone connected to Charlton had great admiration for the character and the professionalism he showed throughout his time in charge. I’ve no doubt he’ll go on to great things.
8) Roland Duchâtelet owns a number of other clubs, including Standard Liège, so are you worried about Charlton becoming a feeder club?
At the beginning fans were very worried about the prospect of being at the bottom of a pyramid where Standard were at the top, but I think the influx of loan players has shown that Belgian and British football are two very different beasts. Feeder clubs wouldn’t survive in the championship for long, and it’s no coincidence that the players who kept Charlton up were the ones brought in by Chris Powell and the existing Academy.
9) What do you expect for this season?
So much depended on the transfer window and we have been lucky in the players we have managed to attract, and the fact that we have got a very passionate young-ish manager named Bob Peeters who believes in attacking football, lots of passing movement, and the development of youth. A lot of people were sceptical at the start of the Roland Duchatelet era (http://footballpink.net/2014/06/28/chocolate-and-chip-butties-how-the-duchatelet-model-could-work-for-england/) – myself included, but we have been impressed with what has been happening in the close season, and the very positive start to the new season. Igor Vetokele looks like an excellent acquisition, and we are solid in all areas of the pitch, though may need some backup brought in if we get a few injuries. However, I would expect that we will finish the season comfortably mid-table, and maybe push for the play-offs. I also look forward to the return of Chris Powell to the Valley, now that he has become manager of Huddersfield, and hope it might attract a few Huddersfield readers to my book as well because both Chris and Huddersfield feature quite heavily in the story. Above all though I am really happy to see Chris get a challenging new position in a lovely town, and happy to see our new manager Bob Peeters creating such a positive vibe as the start of a new and exciting era. I dream of following Bob into the Premier League – no wonder we call him Bob the Builder! We used to be Chrissie’s Red Army and now we’re Bob’s but Chrissie Powell will forever be a Charlton legend and I hope my book helps cement his place in history, even if he doesn’t need this done in print, because he’s already in 50,000+ Charlton hearts.
10) Finally, what other football-related reads do you recommend?
Another Charlton book ‘The Battle for the Valley’ by Rick Everitt, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time ‘The Bromley Boys by Dave Roberts. There’s also one out there about Burton Albion, which I am keen to read, and I have an ambition to stock an entire shelf of my bookcase with the works of Charlie Connolly, weather forecaster, Charlton legend, and honorary Irishman. One of these days I’m also going to get around to reading the works of The Secret Footballer, and seeing if there are any clues as to his identity. Aside from being a teacher and a writer, I’ve also fancied myself as a bit of a detective!
YOU CAN GET HOLD OF PAUL’S BOOK HERE
Keith Menary is a teacher and freelance journalist with Irish roots, and a lifetime’s love of Nottingham Forest FC. Paul Breen is an Irishman who fell in love with Charlton and wrote about the experience.