I am now in my seventh decade of supporting Charlton. Unlike many people, I cannot remember the first game I went to. The one that stands out most clearly in my mind is the 6-0 defeat of Liverpool on 26th September, even more than the 8-1 win over Middlesbrough in the previous home game. However, probably the first game I went to was the home game against Burnley on 22nd August which Charlton won 3-1.
Getting to the game in those days involved walking from our house down to Plumstead Common Road, catching the 53 bus and then walking through Maryon Park amongst a large crowd. My mother usually came as well as my father which could be a slight embarrassment as she was convinced that some referees had it in for Charlton and would shout ‘Dirty ref!’ in a loud voice long after the incident that had offended her.
Until I was seven years old, I went through the turnstile with my father and I was quite daunted the first time I went through on my own clutching a few old pennies to hand to the gateman. We would then walk on to the East Terrace, standing some way back from the pitch, not far from where I sit in the East Stand today.
Some players were real attractions for a small boy and first and foremost among those was Sam Bartram who was known for his flamboyant style of keeping goal. I particularly remember the match on 6th March 1954 when Sam was presented with a special cake by Pompey skipper Jimmy Dickinson to mark his 500th league match for the club (actually it was 497th as the three matches played in 1939/40 didn’t really count).
It was a real shock when Bartram was not in goal and was replaced by his loyal understudy Eddie Marsh as happened on March 20th 1954. I asked my father why this was and he said that Bartram had been injured in training, although quite how that had happened is unclear as training usually involved running around the pitch and up and down the East Terrace. The idea was that keeping players away from the ball made them hungry for it when the match came, but I think that the keeper did practice saving shots.
In any event I could see that Marsh was under real pressure in the Charlton goal and in a match full of fouls they scraped home 3-2. However, Bartram was still out the following Saturday when they lost 4-1 at Huddersfield. Perhaps he had strained his back lifting a heavy package in his shop round the corner. My father was rather sceptical of this business venture, noting that people would go in there hoping to see Bartram and instead would meet a manager he had installed.
I have a rather worn version of the programme for the match against Wolves on 21st November 1953. Much was made of ‘Personality No.1’ in the Wolves team, Billy Wright. It was noted that Wolves, like Charlton, had never won the title, but they won 2-0 on that day and went on to be champions, Charlton finishing 9th.
‘Echoes Across The Valley’ noted that Moscow Radio had thanked Charlton for the splendid hospitality offered to three members of the Central Committee of Physical Culture. However, ‘Our guests from the Soviet politely declined alcoholic refreshment and drank mineral waters.’ It was noted that a Finnish football coach who had been studying Charlton’s training methods and tactics had now been replaced by a Norwegian football administrator.
However, a suggestion that Charlton would fly out to South Africa to play one match in May was dismissed as very unlikely to happen. It was explained that ‘Even in these days of the Comet [jet passenger aircraft which turned out to be liable to crash in midair] such a journey would be too big a strain on our players.’ Should they require entertainment closer home they could go to Leicester Square to see ‘From Here to Eternity’, the picture in the programme advert showing the famous clinch between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Fans were assured by Beverley Baxter MP that the film had been ‘produced with passionate sincerity’. Such an endorsement from a politician would go down less well today.
Once we got home, my father would check his football pools coupon. He never won a big prize, although he did win small prizes with the ‘Easy Six’ made up of matches that were difficult to forecast. Sunday morning would see us make the long walk down to my uncle’s newsagent shop in Lakedale Road to collect the Sunday papers, but also to discuss the previous day’s match. As the gas lamps hissed, customers would give their opinion on the game and the result. One of the perennial subjects of discussion was perceived tensions between manager Jimmy Seed and trainer Jimmy Totter. Eventually, of course, Trotter replaced Seed as manager.
It was, of course, a different game in those days. Players were paid the same as a skilled worker which is how they were seen. They would often walk to the ground or come on the bus and on Christmas Day might rely on a lift from fans. The pace was slower, with no substitutes players had to play on if they could when injured, and the leather ball was heavy, particularly when much of the pitch was a sea of mud, as it often was. With no floodlights, matches in winter were often played in gloomy conditions towards the end of the game, even with a 2.15 start. What I did get was a taste for was supporting Charlton which has remained with me until today.