BY PAUL BREEN
Rememer The Rocky Horror Picture Show from the 1970s? For me, as a teenager, watching it for the first time in the 80s, the whole story seemed madcap, crazy, and missing any kind of plot. Characters led one another on a hysterical dance through a storyline that was senseless and far-fetched. Shady figures lurked in the background too, with wild hairstyles reminiscent of cartoons where the character gets a severe electrical shock. Wasn’t there a dirty old man in the plot too, with a penchant for good looking, slightly dumb, young people? This was long before the days when southern teams headed north singing ‘Jimmy Savile, he’s one o’ yer own’ at anything that moves.
Maybe the most abiding memory of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the song that’s become its accepted theme tune – The Timewarp. That’s an appropriate tune because often today’s football supporters get accused of living in a past that’s rose tinted and nostalgic. But the modern game does leave many of us wishing that we had a time machine. Imagine the joys that could be had with the benefit of past knowledge, and the small, simple acts that could be used to change history. Would you, for example, go to the hotel where Sam Allardyce’s sting took place and shop in the reporters, or sit close by, listen, record, and break the story first? Or would you be far too damned busy from spending the fortune you’d amassed from betting your mortgage on Leicester City to win the league in 2016?
Or you could type one particular date into the satnav system and send your machine spinning towards that point in time. I’ve chosen two dates, one past and one future. The first of those features a battle between two sides managed by a couple of guys who have been more successful than Big Sam in the past year – Alan Pardew and Chris Coleman. At first glance, you might imagine this as a 2018 World Cup game in Russia between Wales and England. Coleman’s Wales building on the momentum of Euro 2016, and Pardew finally getting his national job, with a proviso that he doesn’t dance on the sidelines. But no, this game’s not an international derby in the future.
The time machine has landed a decade before President Trump’s United States army team win the 2018 World Cup, with help from his good friend Mr. Putin. The satnav has been set for The Valley in Charlton on Sunday 4th May, 2008. Alan Pardew is manager of the home side, Charlton Athletic, and Chris Coleman is fighting to avoid last-day relegation with Coventry City. Unusually too, both men are in charge of teams from which Iain Dowie was sacked just before they took the reins, though in Pardew’s case the short-lived tenure of Les Reed separates them in the club’s history books.
On that day, 4th May, 2008, Coventry need a win to be certain of avoiding relegation, sitting two points above Leicester City who have a better goal difference but are away to promotion chasing Stoke City. For Charlton, sitting in mid-table, the game means very little, though it will be the final appearance of their English international left back Chris Powell if he comes off the bench. Four minutes into the game, with the time machine’s engine barely cold, Charlton take the lead with a goal by Luke Varney, and fifteen minutes later it’s 2-0, with Andy Gray striking past keeper Kasper Schmeichel, on loan from Manchester City. But the Sky Blues, winners of the FA Cup 21 years before, pull a goal back 21 minutes into the game, with Stoke and Leicester scoreless. Southampton too are in the relegation battle, but it’s the Leicester match that holds the key to Coventry City staying in the Championship for another year.
Charlton, though, show all the mercilessness you’d expect of a team relegated from the Premier League just the season before. They strike a third after the break, and then late on Chris Powell replaces 16-year-old Jonjo Shelvey. But there’s no fear of the Charlton legend going gently into the good night as he makes his way into the box in the 86th minute and scores a fourth. And that’s remarkable because in his whole career, he has only ever scored twice and both goals came against Tottenham Hotspur, the club he supported as a boy. Now, at the end of the game, as Coventry wait nervously to hear news of Leicester City, he’s held aloft by his team mates and his little daughter comes onto the pitch doing cartwheels as her daddy basks in the applause.
At that point I get back in my time machine, rising up above the stadium in a Valley, leaving Chris Coleman to breathe a sigh of relief as news comes through that Leicester have drawn 0-0 at Stoke City, and are relegated to League One. Leicester, never exactly a giant club, just doesn’t seem right at that level but this is football – unpredictable, unforgiving, and unrelenting. As the time machine rises up hurtling towards the future, images pass by like fragments of cloud, strange scenes of great change and even confusion.
Claudio Ranieri back at Chelsea? – celebrating a league title with a team in blue. Gary Lineker in his underpants live on TV – a fall from grace and appearance on Celebrity Big Brother perhaps? Chris Coleman leading out a team against Cristiano Ronaldo, with young Gareth Bale from Tottenham now deemed to be one of the finest and most expensive players in the world. Then I see another man with a Spurs connection – Chris Powell standing on a podium with Charlton lifting the League One title, and crowds cheering one season, then baying the next as strangers stand on the sidelines in Powell’s place. Charlton’s home suddenly looks foreign in the haze.
There are protests and even a North Korean flag flying over the directors’ boxes. What the hell’s that all about? But at least they have a home. Coventry, gone from the Ricoh Arena, are sharing with Northampton Town, falling through the Championship trapdoor, struggling with finance. Charlton are following behind, tumbling through the clouds as I land in the future. Then I am here, Saturday October 15th 2016. I’m in the midst of protests against owners and both sets of fans united in disapproval of what’s happening with their clubs. Coventry’s former manager Tony Mowbray got fired a few weeks before with the team bottom of the table, and no win from ten games. Charlton are in the news too, apparently allowing an unknown analyst to ‘help’ managers find and select the players that have taken them from being a championship club with prospects to being a parody of its former self caught up in the wrong half of the third division table.
Attendances are falling, with only a quarter of the 27,000 capacity stadium full at some matches. Echoes of the Ricoh Arena scenario are maybe not that far from the southern edge of London, even if Charlton are the ‘owners’ of their ground and Coventry rent and share theirs. The Sky Blues have 5,000 more seats to fill than Charlton though, and are in a far worse position, despite having plans to build their own stadium at some point between now and 2018, even though the common belief in both business and football is that they have not got the funds to do so. Even if they did, local press and supporters both argue that a new stadium at this level is pointless. To make it work, Coventry City needs to be in the Championship and thus promotion rather than construction of a stadium ought to be the priority. But just as at Charlton, the focus seems to be upon producing academy players and using these as the core of the team before selling them on a for a profit.
The problem with this idea is that academy players usually struggle in the blood and thunder physical hoofball of League One. Even Gareth Bale and Joe Allen as teenagers would have found it hard to develop at this level. At least Charlton’s owners have invested some money this season, and they look as if they’ll survive this division that is a whole lot tougher than analysts estimate. But for Coventry, if money isn’t spent, they get relegated, and they stay in the Ricoh, will 32,000 supporters really turn up to watch them playing Cheltenham Town or Hartlepool United? How many of Charlton’s fans would do the same? If about 6,000 fans turn up in the flesh to see the likes of Oldham Athletic at The Valley, then it would be a lot less for whoever comes up from this season’s National League. It could get even worse if the league divides the 3 divisions of 24 teams into 4 divisions of 20 teams, as it has suggested doing within the next few years.
On that first day of time travel in May 2008, 26,000 fans turned up to watch Coventry City and Chris Powell’s last game in a Charlton shirt, even though he returned as manager between 2011 and 2014. Things have gone badly out of place for both these clubs in the past eight seasons, despite a few interludes of light shining through. One beacon of hope for both clubs is that they have very strong and dedicated Supporters’ Trusts who advocate greater partnership between fans and owners.
Both clubs also have growing protest movements that are seeking to force the owners to sell, namely @CovFans2gether and CARD (Campaign Against Roland Duchatelet). The Charlton protests have got greater publicity in recent times, particularly during televised games such as those against promotion chasing Middlesbrough and Burnley earlier this year. But the common ground between both protest groups is likely to result in some form of shared action when the two sides meet on Saturday 15th October at The Valley. In fact, it’s almost certain, and most likely to pass off once again with two sets of intransigent owners claiming it’s just a minority of troublemakers and refusing to accept any blame for poor performance and falling attendances. Statistics though don’t lie and not even Mister Trump could say they did. Facts speak for themselves in the situation of these two formerly strong clubs.
In the heart, this whole story feels like a bad dream from one of those Doctor Who episodes where you know the timewarp’s going to be reversed and everything gets fixed in the end. But in the head this is reality and this is now. The state of these two clubs, right now, has left their supporters as sick as Sam Allardyce must have felt after his entrapment by The Daily Telegraph. And what comes next when the time machine moves past this fixture? Could we see, within another couple of seasons, these two clubs in the old Division Four looking back on the glory days of 2008 which, at the time, probably seemed a failure for each club, nothing much to celebrate, since each then expected a return to the Premier League. But as Leicester’s experience shows, it is possible to bounce back from disaster, and maybe bring an end to this Rocky Horror Picture Show for these two clubs. May 2008 feels far away at this moment in time. Still, since these two clubs are presently run as a fantasy, maybe their academies will unearth the next Gareth Bale, sell him for £50million, and everybody will live happily ever after on some other planet!
Follow Paul on Twitter @CharltonMen
Paul’s latest work of fiction is now available on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bones-Season-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B01LW7PY2F