Letters from London: One Night in The Valley

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.


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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.


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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.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.

Alaves eyes upset of Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) The final of the Copa del Rey pits Barcelona’s star power against a tiny Basque Country club whose biggest weapons are its grit and gnawing hunger for a taste of glory.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Win or lose, Alaves is savoring the cup final on Saturday as the perfect finish to its first season back in Spain’s topflight in an decade.

[ MORE: Three key battles ahead of Chelsea-Arsenal FA Cup final ]

But to have a chance of winning the first major trophy in its 96-year history, Alaves’ ragtag collection of journeymen has to be squeezed of every ounce of effort by coach Mauricio Pellegrino to upset the cup-holders led by Lionel Messi.

One statistic illustrates how daunting their task will be: Messi, all by himself, has scored exactly as many goals as the entire Alaves squad this season, with 53 across all competitions.

“We will need to play a very complete match to have a chance, but we are a team that always competes to the maximum,” said Pellegrino, who is completing a noteworthy first season with the club.

The final will be the last competitive match at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon Stadium. An exhibition match the next day will be its farewell before demolition.

The final will also be the last match for departing Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who could bow out with a third straight Copa del Rey.

Here are some reasons Alaves can believe in an upset for the ages:

DONE IT BEFORE

Alaves has already toppled Barcelona this season.

A shocking 2-1 victory at Camp Nou on Sept. 10 was Alaves’ first win since its return to the first division following 10 years in the second and third tiers.

That surprise victory set it on its way to overachieving all campaign. It reached the Copa del Rey final by defeating the more talented Celta Vigo in the semifinals, and finished the league in a meritorious ninth place.

The bad news is that Barcelona showed no mercy back in Vitoria, where Luis Suarez scored twice in a 6-0 rout.

NO SUAREZ

But Suarez won’t be available for Barcelona on Saturday, when he serves a one-game suspension after being sent off during the semifinals against Atletico Madrid.

Luis Enrique could start Paco Alcacer in his place up front alongside Messi and Neymar.

OLD AND YOUNG

Alaves is not devoid of talent.

The 19-year-old right back Theo Hernandez, who is playing on loan from Atletico, is drawing rave reviews and interest from European powerhouses, including Real Madrid.

Marcos Llorente, a 22-year-old Madrid reserve player also on loan, has impressed as a defensive midfielder.

Captain Manu Garcia, at 31, is the only player who has been with the team through its rise from the third tier in 2013.

“Our coaches are telling us that by working as a team just like we have all year, we have a chance to win,” Garcia said.

OH SO CLOSE

Alaves came ever so close to winning the 2001 UEFA Cup when it defied expectations in its first European campaign by reaching the final against Liverpool.

Jordi Cruyff, son of Dutch great Johann Cruyff, scored late to level the thriller at 4-4 and force extra time, only for Alaves to succumb on an own goal by Delfi Geli.

“I want our fans to enjoy the day,” Garcia said. “I remember (the final in) Dortmund from when I was young. I have many memories of that day and that’s why I ask our fans to be proud of Alaves, and that they make the Calderon into our stadium because that is what we will need it to be.”

MLS at Week 13: Rivalries all around, TFC goes for eight games unbeaten

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Week 13 is here and we’ve got ourselves some pretty tasty matchups, after the weekend got off to a fast start on Thursday night when the Chicago Fire downed FC Dallas.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 13 ]

Meanwhile, the match of the weekend likely comes in the form of Toronto FC taking on the Columbus Crew, as Greg Vanney’s side puts their seven-match unbeaten run on the line at BMO Field.

Several other intriguing fixtures, including multiple rivalries, will take place as well, particularly in the Pacific Northwest as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers do battle.

Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew — 7 p.m. EDT on Friday

It’s been seven straight matches for the Eastern Conference leaders since they last lost and Toronto FC has become the clear favorite to hoist MLS Cup through the opening two months-plus. Of course that can change in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen that with the Crew as of late, who started out hot before losing four out of their last six and falling to fifth in the East.

Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers — 2:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday

There’s nothing like a Cascadia Cup match. Although both clubs aren’t exactly up to par at the moment, it’s still a rivalry match. That has to mean something, right?

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Whitecaps have picked up some steam lately, winning three of their last four, and unfortunately for D.C. they haven’t had any similar fortunes. Ben Olsen’s group are at the bottom of the East, and had it not been for the Rapids there would probably be more attention on how poorly they are playing.

New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Jesse Marsch’s club picked up an important tie against a red-hot Toronto last time out, but now they’ll meet a familiar rival on Saturday as they try to get back to winning ways. Meanwhile, the Revs have played significantly better as of late, scoring six goals in their two most recent outings.

Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Simply put, they only good thing the Rapids have on their side is that the match is at home, where the team has captured both of their wins this season. Sporting KC, meanwhile, continues to tear it up at the top of the West.

Minnesota United vs Orlando City — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

Orlando has come back down to earth recently, so it’s time for Jason Kreis and co. to reset. Adrian Heath and the Loons continue to suffer through the growing pains of being a new side, something Kreis can relate to from his time in New York, but Minnesota has shown positive signs during the young season.

Real Salt Lake vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Union are looking really good as of late, and the winners of four straight could very well keep it up on the road against RSL, who have struggled to pick up results for much of the season.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. EDT on Saturday

The Cali Clasico takes shape at Avaya Stadium as both west coast sides look for bragging rights out west.

Atlanta United vs. New York City FC — 5 p.m. EDT on Sunday

It was Patrick Vieira’s side that got the best of Atlanta when the two clubs met a few weeks back, and it’s bad news for Tata Martino’s men as NYCFC has caught more steam as they continue to rack up positive results in the Eastern Conference.

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo — 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday

We’ve got ourselves a Texas Derby down in Dallas, and this could be quite the interesting matchup as both sides enter Sunday on a bit of a downturn. It’s evident both clubs have exciting offensive firepower but which side will come out on top?

Emre Can’s insane bicycle kick wins 16/17 PL Goal of the Season

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It was about as good a finish as you’ll see in any season, and Emre Can was properly rewarded by the Premier League for his efforts.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

The Liverpool midfielder won PL Goal of the Season on Friday for his audacious and seemingly impossible bicycle kick against Watford.

The goal came off a routine cross from Lucas Leiva into the Hornets penalty area, but what Can did next was simply astonishing as contorted his body and acrobatically finished an overhead kick that was the talk of the PL for the rest of the season.

Can, 23, finished the 2016/17 PL season with five goals in 31 matches for Jurgen Klopp‘s side but none can compare to what he achieved at Vicarage Road.