Letters from London: One Night in The Valley


LONDON – “I think I’d be happy with mid-table,” an Addicks supporter says when asked about Charlton’s chances this season. After racing away from League One last year, the London-based club is within one step of a Premier League return, though that’s far from fans’ minds. Opening their season with Birmingham City and Leicester City (two sides among the favorites to earn promotion), fans need results to fuel new dreams.

“We haven’t added anybody, have we,” the same supporter (a mid-20s professional) tells me, having come to the stadium straight from work. “It’s pretty much the same team that came up. We still need a bit more depth.”

They may be thin, Chris Powell’s side has made a strong impression. On Saturday, they earned a 1-1 draw at Birmingham City, with only a late Nikola Zigic goal keeping the Valiants from a surprise three points. Nonetheless, fans were happy with a result at one of the Championships’ bigger clubs. Brum won the League Cup just over one year ago.

Charlton, who spent nine seasons in the Premier League between 1998-99 and 2006-07, is now five years removed from England’s top division. Three seasons ago, they finished last in the Championship, earning their second relegation in three years. It was their first trip to the third division in 27 years.

In their first League One campaign, Charlton missed automatic promotion by two points before losing in the playoffs to Swindon Town. Although they collapsed to 13th a year later, Charlton bounced back in Powell’s first full season to win the league by eight points.

Considering the occasion, Charlton’s first home game could have had a celebratory atmosphere. Instead, their return was scheduled for a weeknight. It’s a perfect evening following a day that gave Londoners a reprieve from three days of blanketing humidity, but there’s still no change of selling out. On a weekend, however, the place would have been full, just as it did on the final day last season. For a 7:45 p.m. kickoff on Tuesday, 16,658 showed up at The Valley, Charlton’s 93-year-old, 27,111-capacity ground located in a working class Southeast London.

A retiree and his wife, season pass holders in the upper west stand, point to seats that will likely be empty, usually occupied by regulars who will be unable to return for this kickoff. I’m mistakenly sitting in another pass holders’ seat.

“No, it’s alright,” the husband says, a vague exoneration. “They might not be able to get back in time.” The couple would arrive just after kickoff.

LONDON – The National Maritime Museum Gardens in Greenwich, where banners for the 2012 London Summer Olympics still hang. Greenwich Park hosted the equestrian and pentathlon events at the games. August 22, 2012. (Photo: Richard Farley)

Two miles west of Charlton is Greenwich, an affluent, historic town on one of the Thames River’s southern bends, five and a half miles from London’s center. The district has one of the city’s larger parks, gave its name to 0 degrees longitute (Greenwich Meridian) and GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), and is considered somewhat posh. After all, it’s official name is Royal Greenwich.

Walk east along Trefalgar Road as it becomes Woolwich and you’ll hit Charlton in 40 minutes. Along the way, you’ll see a cross section of London, albeit a simplified one. Near river’s edge, where you’ll find Greenwich’s historic Old Royal Naval Museum and the National Martime Museum, the streets are dotted with Fiats and Mercedes Benz. Tourists step off river ferries to snap pictures of the Cutty Sark before ambling south toward the market. A few blocks to the west, rows of ivory temporary tents still welcome Olympic athletes who departed last week, with isolated people stopping to snap photos of the area cordoned off by cast iron gates. With the scene lacking the amusement park urgency you’d see from other tourist spots, like the London Eye, even Greenwich’s tourists seem upmarket.

LONDON – A bridge crossing Woolwich Road along the walk from Greenwich to Charlton in southeast London. August 22, 2012. (Photo: Richard Farley)

Along Trefalgar Road the scene becomes a New England fishing town. Small shops occupying old brick buildings line the main road, with sheets in windows above the business’s signs hiding apartments that beg you to guess their rent. The blocks closest to Greenwich have supermarkets like Tesco’s and other big businesses, like Blockbuster Video, but soon there’s only one convenience store per block. After you pass the midway point – the A102 – it’s only fast food and pubs, with the white paint on one row of houses having faded to a shade between grey and neglect.

At the edge of Charlton, large industrial buildings start to appear on the north side of the road. The pubs and restaurants are to the south. Two hours before game time, blue shirts speckle the sidewalk, Leicester City fans who made the journey from the East Midlands arriving early to enjoy an evening in London. Outside the Rose of Denmark, a few blocks east of The Valley, Foxes’ fans have taken over a pub which hangs a Charlton Athletic supporters’ group tapestry from the patio’s fencing. Aside from a few red Addicks scattered amongst the blue, it’s still too early (and too far from the stadium) for the local support.

“We’re bringing 1,200,” replies Steve to a curious Charlton fan, his name written in gold across the shoulders of his Fox blue shirt. Outside Seabay Fish Bar on Valley Grove, he talks to what appear to be a grandfather, father and his son, three generations waiting for their pregame meal. The surrounding blocks are lined with fans sitting on rock walls and crouching on sidewalks, all hovering over paper boats filled with fish and chips. At one point, the line neared 25 people long.

LONDON – Outside Seabay Fish Bar in Charlton, just outside The Valley, home to Charlton Athletic F.C. August 21, 2012. (Photo: Richard Farley)

It’s a strong traveling party for Leicester, who will fill up three-quarters of the Jimmy Seed Stand – The Valley’s south end, allocated to the visiting support. Two buses of supporters arrive an hour before the match and are funneled into the venue’s east entrance. They’re joined by the majority who drove or (more likely) took the two-hour train from the East Midlands.

Nick and his wife, two retirees from Leicester, are amongst the traveling support. They always are. Life-long Foxes fans, they travel to every away game.

“Even Cardiff,” I ask, failing my British geography. The Welch capital won’t be their longest trip.

“Sure,” replies the wife, kindly.

“And Blackpool?” I’m getting slightly better. Blackpool’s over 260 kilometers (165 miles) from Leicester.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “We’ll go a few days ahead of time. If the game’s on a Tuesday, we’ll go up Sunday.”

“And Middlesbrough?” The North Yorkshire city is actually slightly closer than Blackpool.

“Yes,” she says before conceding, “that’s the tough one.” Teeside must offer few of Blackpool’s charms.

“And you’re expecting to go up this year, right?” I’m cutting to the chase.

“Well,” Nick starts, remembering last year’s expectations. Reluctantly, he concedes, “We’re hoping to be there, yeah.”

Like Charlton’s fans, he doesn’t want to invest false hope, though for different reasons. A year ago, former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson brought in a series of expensive signings only to be dismissed mid-season. This year, although some of Eriksson’s signings remain, it’s Nigel Pearson who’ll try to end Leicester’s eight-year spell outside the top division.

Pearson, in his second go at Leicester, is part of one of the night’s two major on-field subplots. While with the Foxes from 2008-2010, Pearson gave Chris Powell his first coaching job, transitioning the defender from his final spot as a player. In his pre-match notes, Powell acknowledged Pearson’s contributions to his career, his tone helping to defuse the Pearson versus Powell angle.

The start is furious, the sides racing end to end, and although Leicester has held more of the ball, only one team’s executing in their final third. In the 18th minute, that execution pays off when Bradley Wright-Phillips, younger brother of Shaun, let loose from the edge of the area, drilling a ball past Kaspar Schmeichel into the lower left hand corner of goal.

Within seconds, the crowd is paying tribute to last year’s leading scorer:

“Better than Shaun
Better than Sha-aa-auun
Bradley Wright-Phillips
He’s better than Shaun.”

LONDON – Leicester City supporters stand in silence after Yann Kermorgant’s goal for Charlton on August 21, 2012. Charlton would go on to win 2-1 at The Valley. (Photo: Richard Farley)

Fourteen minutes later, the night’s second major subplot reached it’s climax when former Leicester forward Yann Kermorgant scored Charlton’s match-winning goal.

When lineups were announced, the former Fox garnered the largest (and most contentious) reception. Kermorgant’s history with Leicester City meant he was destined to be the match’s focal point. Having scored, he was the match’s hero, stealing Wednesday morning headlines with the goal that sank his former club. Had he failed to get on the scoresheet, he would have been the goat. Such is the 30-year-old Frenchman’s place in Leicester City history.

That history dates back to 2010, when Leicester’s Championship playoff semifinal against Cardiff City went to penalties, each side converting the first three. With the fourth, Kermorgant attempted a Penanka – a chip into the middle of goal designed to take advantage of `keepers’ tendencies to guess and dive for either corner. Bluebirds’ goalkeeper David Marshall did guess, leaping to his right, but stabbing his right arm into the ground, he was able to stop his drive. Reaching back with his left hand, Marshall saved Kermorgant’s Penanka. When Cardiff went on to win the shootout 4-3, Kermorgant’s irreverence became unforgivable.

It was the final touch Kermorgant would take for the Foxes. He spent the next season on loan in Ligue 1 ahead of last year’s move to Charlton.

After Kermorgant’s shot beat Kasper Schmeichel, Addicks fans erupted, shocked their team had run out to a 2-0 lead over one of the league’s favorites. And after collecting themselves and realizing who’d scored, a small number of Charlton fans turned their applause toward the south end, sarcastically reminding Leicester supporters of their pre-match derision.

LONDON – Charlton Athletic manager Chris Powell (lower right) responds to fans in the north end of The Valley. Charlton had just defeated Leicester City 2-1. August 21, 2012. (Photo: Richard Farley)

An hour later, Powell was the last man off the field, at one point looking toward the supporters’ end from the center line, hands folded behind his head as he led the scene wash over him. Just under two years into his managerial career, he’d taken the club he spent seven years at as a player to a third division title, following that promotion with a victory in The Valley’s first match of the season. His stride slowed, his shoulders straighten as he took in the moment, having knocked off a division favorite to cap a four-point start.

As Powell approached the tunnel in the field’s northwest corner, the supporters, few of whom had left, started chanting: “Chris Powell! Chriiiis Poooowell!” They were begging for a sign, acknowledgement the 42-year-old was eager to give. The former Addicks’ left back, a member of division-winning teams for both Charlton and Leicester, extended his hands, the crowd’s appreciation ringing like thunder against the section’s metal roof.

“He’s extremely popular,” a Charlton supporter explained midway through the second half, after the Addicks had their lead reduced to one. “When he [was hired], I think he won his first four games, but then the team struggled after that. If he wasn’t so popular, I don’t think he would have survived. But then last year, it was brilliant. It’s nice that the manager has time.”

Powell’s hands don’t come down until he hits the retractable tunnel, but that doesn’t stop the chants. Within seconds, he’s back on the field, giving a final curtain call. When he leaves, the fans have permission to go home.

LONDON – Fans leave The Valley on August 21, 2012 after Charlton Athletic defeated Leicester City, 2-1. (Photo: Richard Farley)

Leicester fans are already gone, most flocking to Charlton’s train station near the top of Floyd Road. The Southeastern Line will take them back to London Bridge, Waterloo Station, or Channing Cross. It’s a two-hour ride back to the East Midlands, riders left to stew in their team’s first loss of the season.

“Beckford was terrible tonight,” one supporter tells another, referring to striker Jermaine Beckford. Eriksson’s £2.5 million buy from Everton was substituted at halftime, playing more to the price David Moyes paid when he moved to Goodison Park from Leeds United (on a free transfer).

“He turns it off in the second minute,” the supporter bemoans at the suggestion that Beckford, when he’s on, is among the best players in the league. “He never turns it on.

“It’d be a mistake if Pearson plays him again.”

Coming off a weekend win over Peterborough United (a favorite to get relegated), Leicester has a respectable three points after two matches. That’s not enough for this train. Fans stand in clusters, reviewing what went wrong: Andy King, who scored the Foxes’ only goal, should have started ahead of Matty James in midfield; The tactics were wrong; The team needs defender Sean St. Ledger back; Jermaine Beckford is useless. Nothing like a tough road loss to bring out supporters’ high expectations.

Just as before the match, nobody’s willing to make predictions about where Leicester will finish. And although the win had made a few Charlton supporters regret not picking up full points at St. Andrews on Saturday, Addicks’ fans remain cautious. The season is 46 matches long, and each team has only passed its second hurdle. There are still plenty of mid-week matches left in this Championship season.

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.

Europa League roundup: Spurs, Liverpool advance to KO stage

FC Girondins de Bordeaux
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A roundup of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League group stage action:

Qarabag 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham traveled 2,500 miles to Baku, where they knocked off the reigning Azerbaijani champions to remain top of Group J with one game left to play. Harry Kane scored the game’s only goal (10th of the season – all competitions), a close-range finish from Christian Eriksen‘s corner kick in the 78th minute. As things stand, Spurs need just a point in their group stage finale, a home date with Monaco, to finish top of the group and grab a seeded place in the draw for the round of 32.

Liverpool 2-1 Bordeaux

Liverpool went top of Group B with a 2-1 victory over last-place Bordeaux at Anfield, meaning a win in their final group game, away to Swiss side Sion in two weeks’ time, will clinch a seeded place in the draw for the knockout stage. Liverpool went down a goal just after the half-hour mark, but James Milner and Christian Benteke brought the Reds back with a goal each either side of halftime.

FC Krasnodar 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund missed their chance to finish top of Group C when they lost 1-0 away to Russian side Krasnodar. Pavel Mamaev put the hosts ahead from the penalty spot in the 2nd minute, and they held on for 88 minutes to move level on points (10) with the German giants. With one game left to play, Krasnodar have the inside track on the top spot through the fourth tiebreaker, away goals scored between the two teams.

Elsewhere in Europa League action

Augsburg 2-3 Athletic Bilbao
Villarreal 1-0 Rapid Wien
Basel 2-2 Fiorentina
Lazio 3-1 Dnipro
Club Brugge 0-1 Napoli
Rosenborg 1-1 Saint-Etienne
Monaco 0-2 Anderlecht
Marseille 2-1 Groningen
Schalke 1-0 APOEL Nicosia
Lokomotiv Moscow 2-4 Porto
Braga 2-1 Liberec
Molde 0-2 Fenerbahce
Celtic 1-2 Ajax
Besiktas 2-0 Skenderbeu
Rubin Kazan 2-0 Sion
Dinamo Minsk 1-0 Viktoria Plzen
AZ Alkmaar 1-2 Partizan Belgrade
Belenenses 0-0 Lech Poznan
Sparta Prague 1-0 Astoris Tripolis
Legia Warsaw 1-0 Midtjylland
PAOK Thessaloniki 0-0 FK Qabala

FIFA donates 48 scandalous watches to non-profit organization

Sepp Blatter, FIFA president
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GENEVA (AP) FIFA’s unethical weakness for luxury watches earned a windfall for a soccer charity working in Brazil.

A total of 48 Swiss watches given to soccer officials at the 2014 World Cup have been recovered and donated to a non-profit organization, the FIFA ethics committee said on Thursday.

The Parmigiani watches – valued at more than $26,000 each – were handed out in Sao Paulo to members of FIFA’s often-discredited executive committee, presidents of national federations whose teams played at the 32-team tournament and officials from South American federations.

Michel D’Hooghe, the longest-serving FIFA executive committee member, told The Associated Press on Thursday the watch he got had been a “poisonous gift.”

The gifts were from the Confederation of Brazilian Football, whose then-president Jose Maria Marin has been indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in a widening bribery case which has rocked FIFA and helped force President Sepp Blatter from office.

Marin, who was extradited to the U.S. from Switzerland this month and is under electronic surveillance at his Manhattan apartment, oversaw the gifts in clear breach of FIFA’s Code of Ethics. It allows only for gifts of “symbolic or trivial value.”

Still, gifting luxury watches has long been a tradition for FIFA officials and all who took the presents – or did not report them – risked sanctions under the code which was made stricter in 2012.

After ruling they were unauthorized gifts, FIFA ethics prosecutors decided against opening cases against officials who received a watch on the condition that they returned it.

“After contacting all potential recipients, 48 watches were returned to the investigatory chamber of the Ethics Committee,” the FIFA ethics committee said in a statement.

A total of nine watches could not be returned, with six officials or federations saying they never had it in their possession, committee spokesman Andreas Bantel told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

One watch is still with an official who was arrested in Zurich on May 27 by Swiss federal police acting on a request by American prosecutors.

“He wanted to give it back but before he was able to, he was arrested,” Bantel said, declining to identify the man.

The CBF initially said 65 watches were distributed but the ethics investigation traced 57.

“We were very thorough in following up on this matter,” Bantel said.

FIFA earlier said the CBF obtained watches from its sponsor Parmigiani for $8,750 each. But an appraisal found they had a market value of 25,000 Swiss francs ($26,600).

A spokesman for the CBF, Fernando Torres, declined to comment on its role on Thursday stating that “this specific decision regards only FIFA.”

The watches will be given to an organization named streetfootballworld, “who will directly invest all resources generated through the sale of the watches into initiatives across Brazil that use football to drive social change.”

“The investigatory chamber of the ethics committee considers the matter to be closed,” it said.

D’Hooghe said he had no idea about the value of the “poisonous gift” which was within a bag featuring promotional material about Brazil.

“I had absolutely no interest in that watch,” D’Hooghe told The AP. “I found it in my bag and I did not know it was expensive. I gave it to a friend who visited the World Cup. I had to ask for it back.”

D’Hooghe, who was cleared by the ethics committee this year over a painting he received from a Russian friend during the 2018 World Cup bidding contest, said he now refuses any gifts.

“I don’t need any presents,” said the Belgian doctor, who was first elected to FIFA’s ruling panel 27 years ago. “I am an honorable man.”

AP Sports Writers Rob Harris in London and Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report