Can’t Live Without You: Charlton Athletic’s Unique Bond with the Community

While all clubs are different, few are truly unique. Louis Jacques explores the poetic and heartfelt relationship between Charlton Athletic FC and their local community in South-East London.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Charlton is neither the most glamorous nor well-run club in the land. Plagued by ownership issues for the better part of the last decade, the club has faced almost constant turmoil off the pitch — From fans boycotting games and protesting in dramatic fashion to a revolving door of managers and a lengthy stay in the third division.

All that aside, if there’s one thing the fans certainly are grateful for it is their home. The Valley, cemented to the base of an old chalk pit in South-East London, is an ode to its surroundings. A brutal yet magnificent mountain of steel supports and concrete blocks, dyed in red, white and black, rising out from a sea of red brick houses and flanked by a soaring cinderblock-brown residential tower, it doesn’t just match the reserved-but-proud and modest-yet-brave postcode that surrounds it, it embodies it.

Much as the community is like no other, nor is the club. Ben, the museum trustee showing me around the Charlton Athletic museum, proudly pointed out that unlike most other English clubs, Charlton was founded a boy’s team before becoming a professional outfit. Bringing weekly entertainment to the foundry workers and shipyard labourers at one of Britain’s largest grounds, the club’s roots stood firm for decades until a tide of change swept Charlton along with it. All of a sudden, in 1985, after bankruptcy, new ownership and an inability to meet financial requirements, Charlton were forced to leave their home before its platinum jubilee.

Seven years later, after the turmoil and despair came the harmonious and hopeful rebirth of the club. Reunited with the Valley after a political movement in the 1990 local elections won the “Valley Party” nearly 15.000 votes, the people of SE7 now had their club, and part of their identity, back. The appointment of manager Alan Curbishley shortly after in 1995, followed by promotion to the top flight in 1998 heralded change for Charlton Athletic, just as it heralded change for Charlton.

The country had changed while the community had fought to get their club back. This rugged corner of London was now plagued with unemployment and closures, needing to reinvent itself. Though the club alone couldn’t lift thousands out of joblessness, they knew it was time to give back. To lend what helping hand they could to a community that had literally built a ground with their bare hands and brought it back to life from the brink of extinction; A community that was quickly losing hope, losing the war on crime and layoffs and losing its identity.

Armed with modern football money and a duty to the locals, the Charlton Athletic Community Trust has spent the last seventeen years serving the area dutifully and painstakingly. From working with the NHS on healthy living initiatives, to launching the Street Violence Ruins Lives campaign, appointing a Crime Reduction Team, running the Borough’s youth service and starting successful Down’s Syndrome and LGBTQ+ teams, the Community Trust has won countless prizes for the wide-reaching and inspirational role it plays for thousands in the club’s surroundings. The club’s academy, aside from becoming one of London’s most successful breeding grounds for young talent, has also played a vital role in lending a helping hand to young boys and girls across the borough, opening its doors to hundreds each year.

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This symbiotic relationship between club and community, one supporting the other, a facet of each other to the world, is what truly sets them apart from anything else. There is no right answer to when someone asks “what’s Charlton like?” because it’s historic and innovative, tough but generous, rooted yet diverse. Standing under the covered end the mass around you goes, with the same raucous yet joyful fervour, from catchy, amusing, modern chants to spine-tingling renditions Valley Floyd Road, shaking the steel walls with lyrics of the proud, proud history of this area, as you lose yourself ever so slightly in the absurdity of love for one’s community and neighbours.

Special thanks go to the Charlton Athletic museum for helping me with this piece.