Friday 5 November 2021

Why Curbs can't watch a game with the fans

 The Athletic profiles Alan Curbishley.

It’s quite a strange experience, watching a football match with God.

Because, in a small corner of south-east London, that’s what Alan Curbishley is to many fans of Charlton Athletic.

It was 15 and a half years ago that Curbishley left his job as Charlton manager, but pretty much everything he watches over from our perch high in the Alan Curbishley Stand at The Valley, both physical and ephemeral, was built by him. Other than Jimmy Seed, who took them from the Third Division to runners-up in the top flight in the mid-1930s and then won the FA Cup in 1947, he’s the most significant single figure in the club’s history.

In a bijou television studio at the top of “his’” stand, The Athletic joins Curbishley to watch the third game in caretaker charge for another club legend, Johnnie Jackson.

Charlton, on the back of two massive wins under Jackson away to Sunderland and 4-0 at home to Doncaster Rovers, come from behind to draw 1-1 with Rotherham United, who could have gone top of League One with a win.

When Curbishley took over in 1991, for the first four years as co-manager with Steve Gritt, Charlton weren’t so much a football club as a loose concept, a homeless group of players who had been relegated from the top flight a year earlier and had spent the previous six playing as tenants at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, after The Valley was deemed unsafe for habitation in the fallout of the deadly fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade.

When he left, at the end of 2005-06, they were an established Premier League club having spent seven of the previous eight years in the top division, consistently punching above their weight and not finishing below 14th in six of those seasons among the elite. The Valley was a buzzing, functional home, rebuilt from a barely habitable wreck into something of which to be proud.

Curbishley in front of the stand named after him at The Valley (Picture: Charlton Athletic)

But they were relegated the season after his departure, finishing second-bottom after playing under three managers before the turn of the year. Two seasons later, they dropped again, back into the third tier for the first time since 1980-81. They haven’t been back to the top flight since. In fact, they haven’t been close: a ninth-place finish in the Championship under Chris Powell in 2013 is the nearest they have come.

The House That Curbs Built has, for much of the time since he left, been reduced to rubble by bad or indifferent owners.

There is a new optimism around the club now though, after Thomas Sandgaard arrived just over a year ago and started to rebuild. Things are undoubtedly much more positive than they have been for years, but they remain in the lower reaches of League One, having just sacked Nigel Adkins, the 13th permanent manager (14, if you count Jose Riga’s two spells separately) since Curbishley’s departure.

“When I was there and what we did to get the club where it was, it was a massive combined effort from everybody,” Curbishley tells The Athletic. “The fans ended up forming a political party that helped persuade the council to get back to The Valley. We were all fighting for one thing. And then to watch it sort of disappear…”

Curbishley tails off. He thought he had left things in the sort of state that would protect their future. “When I left,” he says, after one of the biggest sighs you will ever hear, “it was (announced) before the season ended, which was to give the new manager time to get his feet under the table, and pre-season to decide which way he wanted to go and get his philosophy across, et cetera.

“Looking from afar, I thought that they’d be bouncing straight back (from that 2006-07 relegation), because it was a well-run club and they would have prepared for the worst.”

Curbishley slightly avoids the question when asked if he was ever angry that all of his great work was wasted so quickly. He seems more disappointed than angry, which somehow seems so much worse. “It was fairly difficult to get enthused about what was going on at the club,” he says, mainly referring to the five years of Roland Duchatelet’s controversial ownership in the previous decade, but really it could have been any period from 2006.

That disappointment is part of the reason Curbishley largely stayed away from The Valley, even as a fan, for the best part of a decade after his departure. He went back a few times during Powell’s tenure (2011-14), then took more of an interest when Lee Bowyer was manager (2018 until this past March), but otherwise, the most important man in Charlton’s modern history had little or nothing to do with the club until last year.

That decision was also motivated by the 63-year-old’s colossal status at Charlton, where he also had two spells as a player, making almost 100 appearances. “I didn’t want to be someone who would look like a little busybody. You know, ‘Look at me, look at what’s happened since I left’ and all that sort of stuff.” Essentially, he didn’t want to loom over the club and whoever was in charge at the time. “But I was obviously taking note of what was going on, and the disappointments,” he says, trailing off again.

Even with all of this in mind, it’s baffling that Curbishley has had no formal — or even informal — involvement with Charlton from when he left until last year. He hasn’t been involved with any of the various takeover bids that have hovered around the club in recent years (something that, again, he has not invited) and there has been no formal advisory role or ambassadorial position.

It took a disappointing experience with iFollow, the streaming service that many Football League clubs use to allow their fans to watch games from afar, to get Curbishley involved with Charlton again at all.

It was in the middle of the pandemic, in September last year, when Sandgaard bought Charlton and, given that the Dane lives in Colorado, USA, he had to rely on remote viewing to follow the club he had just bought.

Dissatisfied with this coverage, he decided to launch Charlton TV, a standalone service that provides coverage of every league game, to allow supporters to watch games at a time when COVID-19 restrictions meant when they weren’t allowed to attend.

Curbishley was brought in by Wayne Mumford — a former Birmingham City team-mate and now Charlton’s commercial director — to host the coverage, alongside former Charlton and Chelsea defender turned TV presenter Scott Minto, which has proved extremely popular even after restrictions were lifted and turnstiles started clacking again.

The anecdotes fly as The Athletic watches on, from tales of the old days at Charlton to stories involving British racing driver Nigel Mansell, Frank Lampard Snr’s pub and The Who, who were managed by Curbishley’s older brother Bill and played a couple of gigs at The Valley in the 1970s. He and Minto discuss former team-mates — Rob Lee, whose son Elliot is currently on loan at Charlton from Luton Town; Kevin Lisbie, whose twins are apparently both promising young wing-backs.

There is often another former club great as the third Charlton TV panellist (on this occasion, it’s EFL expert and Athletic contributor Ali Maxwell), which is when the nostalgia really flows.

“That’s what spurs the chairman on, because he can see the potential,” says Curbishley. “When you see the old footage of the Premier League years and the stadium sold out and the team beating the Liverpools and the Arsenals and the Chelseas, you can see that the potential is there.”

But the most striking thing is Curbishley’s enthusiasm for all things Charlton. You would have forgiven him for viewing The Valley as almost a mausoleum for his life’s work, a place that once symbolised his greatest achievements but has so often served as a reminder that what he built crumbled so quickly.

Not so. As the game goes on, he becomes more and more animated, graduating from frustration at some impotent attacking in the first half to slapping the studio window and bellowing “NOOOOO!” when Charlton miss a chance in the second, to a guttural roar when they equalise through Conor Washington with seven minutes to go.

It’s heart-warming to see a man who went from being defined by this club, to becoming so disillusioned he barely set foot in the place for a decade, come back around to caring deeply again. “Since I’ve been going back, I’ve been getting a little bit more enthusiastic. If I was sitting in the stands, I’d probably be a little bit more reserved.”

The Athletic asks if he ever goes into the stands to watch with the fans, but is greeted with a look as if we’ve suggested he strips off and goes for a swim in the nearby River Thames. “He’d never be left alone,” says Minto.

Curbishley has been out of management since 2008 (more on that later) and says he doesn’t watch games like a manager anymore, thinking about what he would do in certain situations. He’s a fan now, referring to “we” rather than “Charlton” in the show, but also a fine pundit: he has the quality that all good analysts have — the ability to spot things us laymen wouldn’t see, or at least point them out much more quickly than we would.

A few times, he brings up that Charlton are one of several massive clubs now in the third tier, thus a scalp for most opponents, but modestly sidesteps the assertion that he is the reason they have that status.

He references his predecessor Lennie Lawrence, the only other manager to take Charlton into the top flight since Seed, but it was Curbishley who not only guided success on the pitch and comfortably their highest league finishes since the 1950s, but raised the funds to make The Valley home again.

The sales of midfielder Lee and defender Anthony Barness in 1992 paid to make the ground habitable again. “This stand was condemned,” he says, “and the one opposite was temporary. It would be here in the winter, then be shipped off to St Andrews, or wherever, for the (Open Championship) golf in the summer.”

It was the proceeds from their promotions in 1998 (via that play-off final penalty shootout against Sunderland) and as champions in 2000 that meant they could turn it into a 27,000-capacity stadium.

It’s an apt metaphor that the stand on the side of the ground we’re watching the Rotherham game from had been deemed unfit for purpose when Charlton returned to The Valley in 1992, but the structure that’s there now bears Curbishley’s name.

His legacy is physical, but also cultural. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the two most popular and probably most successful managers they have had since his departure, Powell and Bowyer, played for the club under him.

For a generation, Curbishley was Charlton.

After leaving in 2006, Curbishley took over at West Ham and kept them up, with a significant assist from Carlos Tevez, from relegation in the same year that Charlton dropped. He resigned early in the 2008-09 season following a disagreement about player sales, the legal aftermath from that took a year to resolve and he was pretty picky about the job offers that came his way after that. By his own admission, he was perhaps a little too picky.

He started doing more TV work, the enthusiasm for management dimmed slightly and eventually, the phone stopped ringing.

Aside from a couple of spells helping out in the background at Fulham, Curbishley hasn’t been directly involved with the game for nearly 13 years. This makes it all the more baffling that he hasn’t had any involvement with Charlton previously, but at least Charlton TV and the naming of this stand, announced in August, has gone a little way to fix that.

“Every time I walk in there and I see it, I can’t quite believe it,” he says. “I still think it’s strange. I thought that’s the sort of honour you get when you’re long gone.”

Curbishley is very much still around. And happily, he’s back around at Charlton Athletic.

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