South of the River
For a spell in the eighties, Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Millwall and Wimbledon challenged the elite
South London, to fans who came to the game with the advent of the Premier League in 1992, probably seems rather similar in football terms to, say, East Anglia — not exactly a hotbed, but with one or two clubs who occasionally spend a season or two among the elite before sinking back to their natural level.
You can see why. Crystal Palace seem to have a new board, manager and kit every season and have been as likely to file for administration as challenge for promotion. Charlton Athletic's tenure in the top flight is beginning to fade from memory although Chris Powell's rebuilt team is promising an upturn in fortunes. Millwall look relatively stable without threatening to bring their, er, unique following to a Premier League stadium near you. And AFC Wimbledon are widely admired but may soon hit the ceiling of what a fan-owned club can achieve after winning promotion to League Two last season.
It was not always thus. In 1989, Palace's promotion to the old first division under Steve Coppell meant that all four of the capital's league clubs based south of the Thames were looking forward to spending the 1989-90 season in the top flight together. This state of glory lasted a single campaign — Charlton and Millwall were relegated at the end of the season — but for all four clubs, achieving their exalted status was a considerable achievement.
Millwall had been promoted to the top echelon for the first time in their 103-year history a year earlier under the Glaswegian John Docherty, enabling them to welcome, if that is the word, the aristocrats of English football to the bear-pit that was the old Den. With Teddy Sheringham and Tony Cascarino a potent spearhead, they had even topped the first division table after beating QPR 3-2 on 1 October 1988, eventually finishing a very respectable tenth, even if it was their lowest position of the season.
Wimbledon were relatively old hands, having gone up in 1986, but their elevation had taken far less time. They had been in the Football League for only eight seasons when they reached the top, and Plough Lane was still more or less a non-league ground. Charlton had come up alongside Millwall, which was a staggering feat bearing in mind that they were effectively homeless, groundsharing with newly-promoted Palace, who were on one of the upswings of their yo-yo existence.
If it all seems hard to imagine, remember that this was not today's glitzy Premier League of full, all-seated stadiums and player wages funded by television deals and wealthy benefactors. Facilities were extremely basic, with more fans standing than sitting, and corporate facilities unknown. Even in densely-populated south London, Palace in that 1988-89 season attracted an average gate of only 17,105. Millwall drew 12,454, Charlton's 10,978 was the highest of their four seasons at Selhurst and Wimbledon, despite the highest league placing of the four, had the lowest crowds, an average of 7,651.
On such gates, managers often had to hunt for bargain signings or raid the non-league ranks where now top-flight clubs would simply look abroad. But in a year in which Arsenal, the champions, did not have a single foreign player and Sergei Baltacha of Ipswich Town counted as an exotic import, it could be done. "It was a golden era for South London clubs," the Palace assistant manager Lenny Lawrence, then the manager of Charlton, said. "I think it was the management. Steve Coppell did a great job at Palace, Johnny Doc at Millwall, Dave Bassett at Wimbledon and then Bobby Gould and eventually Joe Kinnear.
"When you are a club of the size that Charlton or Millwall were then, everything has got to come right, on and off the pitch. Palace were more of a top-flight club than any of the rest of us, and even then Steve Coppell had to get them up through the playoffs. But it came right for us too, and even though we were playing at Selhurst and it was difficult, we spent more years in the top flight in the late eighties than Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough put together."
Docherty is the least well-remembered of the managers. Cascarino, whom he signed from Gillingham, recalls a man with the eccentricity of a Brian Clough: "Sometimes he'd call you up at home, tell you to come into his office and you'd think he'd want to discuss something, but then he'd just want to have a drink with you. Sometimes he'd say, 'Tell me your best team,' and when you did he'd say, 'So you'd drop him, would you?' and tell the other bloke, 'He said he wouldn't play you.'
"He was a real wind-up merchant, he loved playing games. But John was very sure of himself and what he wanted, and he got a kick out of being disliked, in a strange, dark way. But I liked him, he was very good for me. I think he found it very hard to leave Millwall when the time came because he loved being around the club."
Alan Pardew, now the manager of Newcastle United but then a midfield player with Palace, remembers 1989-90 as "probably my best year in football". The season began unpromisingly with a 9-0 defeat by Liverpool, but ended with an FA Cup final appearance against Manchester United, Pardew's winning goal against Liverpool in the semi-final extracting maximum revenge for that earlier thrashing. But he also recalls the less glamorous side of those days. "Although there were great venues like Highbury and Anfield, Plough Lane and the Den had very different atmospheres, even for the players — aggressive, with the fans close to the pitch and the teams in your face. The sort of things that went on in the tunnel couldn't happen now with all the TV cameras around. Plough Lane was a unique environment. It was amazing that Wimbledon played at that level with the facilities they had. Their success was more sustained than ours and you have to admire that. Charlton were sharing Selhurst with us, although apart from a couple of Portakabins you wouldn't have noticed they were there. I know from managing them later that it was a time that they don't look back on with much pleasure." Lawrie Sanchez, who had scored Wimbledon's winning goal in the FA Cup final a year earlier, believes that his team's basic facilities worked in their favour. "We used to train on Wimbledon Common, share breakfast in the transport café with lorry drivers, and anyone could walk across our pitches with the dog. But if going to places like Highbury was a culture shock for us after that, then coming to us was more of a culture shock for the other teams. The changing rooms and surroundings weren't the best, and the ground was very intimate and intimidating.
"We used to kick off, roll the ball back to Dave Beasant and he would launch it to the edge of the opponents' penalty area and that's what they could expect for the next 90 minutes. It was ironic that Plough Lane had a superb playing surface, which the ball hardly ever touched. But eventually we had to leave. An all-seater stadium with a minimum capacity was a requirement for the Premier League."
As anyone who has to negotiate south London traffic will tell you, the number of derbies was not so much of a convenience as the neutral might expect. "It took us less time to get to Watford than round the South Circular to Millwall," Sanchez recalled.
"And the derbies were intense," Pardew said. "With so many foreign players nowadays, a little bit has gone out of many derbies. You knew so many of the other players then, and because you were probably local, your friends and family would emphasise how important the games were. My cousin was a massive Millwall fan, and he couldn't wait for derbies so that he could laugh at me. We're supposed to be professional but these things have an impact."
But many of those behind that success feel that the depressed and relatively disorganised state of football at the time helped the south London sides to compete. "We actually nicked boys from the Arsenal and Tottenham areas," Terry Burton, the former Wimbledon assistant manager, said. "We had a centre in the Tottenham area, and it was fair game. Our selling point was that we would give youngsters the chance to play."
As the financial stakes were raised, though, rival clubs north of the river and beyond got their acts together, and the clubs face stiffer competition for local talent than before. When Harry Redknapp became manager of West Ham United, one of his most important early signings was Jimmy Hampson, a West Ham fan who had been scouting for Charlton. As a result, Rio Ferdinand, from the Friary Estate in Peckham, less than a mile from Millwall's old ground in Cold Blow Lane, ended up at Upton Park rather than the Den or the Valley.
"I'll always remember watching Charlton beat our Under-12s 5-1," Redknapp said. "I asked, 'How can Charlton be beating us 5-1?' Someone said it was a fella called Jimmy Hampson. I went and talked to him and asked if he would be interested in coming to us. He pulled up his sleeve and there was a Hammers tattoo. Alan Curbishley, who was a former West Ham player, had known him and taken him to Charlton. So I brought Jimmy in, it all turned round and we got Rio and Frank Lampard and Joe Cole."
Even when players start their careers south of the river, they don't necessarily stay there. "Millwall were based on a lot of local talent, Teddy Sheringham and Alan McCleary, Palace likewise," Cascarino said. "They're not keeping those players nowadays. Big clubs can grab the talent south of the river, they're losing them at 17 and in some cases even earlier. And then they don't even get in the first teams at those bigger clubs."
The case of Jermain Defoe springs to mind. The Tottenham Hotspur and England striker began his career with Charlton, who accused West Ham of "poaching" the then-England under-16 forward in 1999 and were eventually awarded compensation totalling £1.65m; they would have preferred to keep a player who eventually changed hands for much more. The defection of John Bostock from Palace to Tottenham Hotspur provoked Simon Jordan, the Palace chairman, to look to end his involvement in football. A tribunal ordered Tottenham to pay an initial £700,000, rising to a maximum of £1.25 million, for a player he valued at £5 million. "It is a killer when you produce raw talent and someone can come and poach them at 16, 17," Burton said. "And that was not addressed by the authorities. Clubs were not properly compensated."
But in the 1980s, it was possible to hang onto local kids and add in some canny bargain buys, even from non-league. The Wimbledon-born Pardew worked his way up to Palace via Whyteleafe, Epsom & Ewell and Dulwich Hamlet; Vinnie Jones went from Wealdstone to Wimbledon and Hollywood; Ian Wright from Greenwich Borough to Palace and England; and Cascarino from Crockenhill to Millwall via Gillingham — although it could just as easily have been Charlton. "Cascarino was going to go to Charlton but Keith Peacock at Gillingham offered them a set of shirts and that was it," Lawrence said. "That's true, that is. Ian Wright was the classic example of course. And Vinny Jones.
"The non-league player I got was Paul Williams from Woodford Town for £15,000 in about 1987 and he played a lot of games for us. In fact in the second year his goals were largely responsible for keeping us up. Eventually he was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for £800,000 in that summer of 1990."
But in the end, the financial muscle of the powerhouses north of the river and beyond won out, while their poorer southern relations fell away. "Things didn't go quite as planned in our second season," Cascarino said. "There were some ambitious signings made to get us promoted but that eased off once we were there. As Stoke have shown today, you have to keep investing. We bought Paul Goddard, who was a club record signing at £800,000, but he didn't really settle and there was no other money to spend."
On modest gates, no club could afford a major investment to fail. The only alternative was to persevere with a mixture of local kids and signings from non-league. Difficult enough in those days, it would be virtually impossible now, Lawrence believes. "A lot of things combined at the same time, but what was very difficult was to sustain it. Charlton couldn't, although we lasted four years. Eventually we had to sell players, and that, in the end, cost us. Millwall went down as well. Wimbledon sustained it longest.
"To do it now? I don't know. Every rule change, everything that's done in football, makes the big clubs richer and the small clubs poorer. Go back 30 years: if you were the away club you got a percentage of the gate money. We would come away from a game against Manchester United with a share, which was worth a lot when we were getting 6-7,000 through the gate at Selhurst Park and they were getting 30-40,000. They stopped that 20-odd years ago [in 1983], and it made a big difference. The Premier League, with all the TV and prize money — everything has been designed to maintain the status quo. So for those clubs who drop out of the top flight or who have never been in it, it is much more difficult than it used to be.
"Those four were always confronted by bigger clubs north of the river with greater resources, but now the difference between the resources is greater than it has ever been. It is disappointing what has happened." Perhaps one club needs to come to the fore to attract all the talent and the support? "There's too much tradition and rivalry, I think. But for a brief time in the mid-1980s when I was at Charlton I thought that the game plan was to amalgamate with Palace. That was something that I thought was mooted at the highest level, although it never came to anything."
Lawrence, of course, is now at Palace, providing the experience for Dougie Freedman, the manager. "There's no reason why Charlton and Palace can't get back to the Premier League," Lawrence said. "Palace have been a yo-yo club and they are still big enough to challenge for promotion. But their problem has always been staying there, as has everyone else's. We have had real joy from the youth system and still have all sorts of good young players. I would think that how well many of them do will have a large bearing on what Palace do over the next year or two."
"There weren't the massive amounts of TV money pre-Premier League and going down wasn't such a financial disaster," Sanchez said. "It is a skewed field now with teams coming down having parachute payments. But Palace and Charlton have both been there recently and Millwall have potential in a decent stadium. AFC are furthest away, but having said that, their fans are probably the most dedicated of the lot."
Pardew is marginally less pessimistic. "You look at Wigan, and there's no reason why it couldn't happen. Wigan are not about a fantastic following, they are about an entrepreneur and clever management. All four of those clubs — although AFC Wimbledon are farther down the levels at present — are potentially as big as Wigan. The bottom line is that we are looking for a bit of a resurgence, which would be something a lot of us ex-players would love to see happen. I had a go at Charlton but fell short. But all the clubs have the ambition, and let's hope one day they all get back to the highest level."
This article appeared on Episode Twenty Four of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.